One aspect of the travel experience that continuously amazes me is how much of an education it really is. I learn so much both about the destinations, and of course myself, whenever I leave home and am thankful for the continuing lessons through a global lens. But I’m also surprised by how little I ultimately know and there are always places, people, and experiences that I enjoy when visiting a new destination that were completely unexpected, experiences I didn’t even know about until I visited. The same is probably true for many other people so today I thought I’d help provide a leg up and share some of those amazing travel experiences that some people may know about but, in general, I think fly under the radar.
Playing with Wolfdogs in Alberta, Canada
The Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary is an easy 45-minute drive from Calgary, not too far from Canmore, and is on the way to Banff if you’re heading into the mountains. I was excited to visit because, before even meeting my first wolfdog, I knew that my morning spent at this remarkable facility would be a highlight of my time in Alberta. As the owner of three dogs, including two slightly wolfish Siberian Huskies, I’m always drawn to dog-related activities when I travel, but of course Yamnuska is a lot more than that. The mission of the remarkable Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary is fairly straightforward: to rescue and rehabilitate wolfdogs and to educate the general public about these beautiful pups. For whatever reason, some people see status in buying a wolfdog, but as the dog gets older they realize that there’s no way they can take care of them. So they end up at shelters or worse, euthanized because no one knows what to do with them. That’s where the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary comes in and spending the morning on one of their interactive tours was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. The Sanctuary is about more than playing with the dogs though, education is at the heart of the experience. Convincing people that the dogs aren’t a great house pet but also letting people know that the wolfdogs aren’t dangerous, both goals are incredibly important to make sure these dogs don’t suffer needlessly and enjoy happy lives.
Going Inside a Pyramid
Located close to modern day Cairo, the massive pyramids of Egypt have been amazing visitors since the moment they were first built, popping up even in Ancient Greek and Roman travel guides of the day. Standing immediately in front of them it was hard to mentally reconcile the fact that I was actually there. Even better though was the opportunity to go inside one of the massive monuments. Crouched down, gingerly navigating the steep ramp taking me down into the bowels of the ancient tomb I couldn’t help but again appreciate what early archeologists must have felt when they first entered these tombs. The anticipation, the fear, the excitement and the uncertainty, I felt all of those things and I knew exactly what was waiting for me inside – nothing at all. No, these tombs were looted millennia ago, the preserved body of the pharaoh and his treasures stolen before even the emergence of true Western civilization. After descending one shaft and climbing up another I was there, in the middle of the pyramid with millions of tons of stone blocks hanging over me. Inside the pyramid. Those words hung with me for a moment and a smile slowly crept onto my face. I’d done it. I’d fulfilled a lifelong dream and the best thing is, I realized it.
River-boating in Tahiti
The islands of the South Pacific, each home to their own versions of paradise, tend to blur into one another upon reflection, but one stands out for a few different reasons. On Raiatea I joined a local tour along the only navigable river in French Polynesia on a small riverboat, led by an older gentleman who has called Raiatea home his entire life. What the excursion description didn’t include was the hours of commentary by the most interesting person I met during my week exploring the South Pacific. I’m pretty sure most of what he said was embellishment, at least I hope it was, but his stories were without a doubt entertaining. Within those fanciful tales though were nuggets of truth, laughter masking some difficult times in his life. Sure, the river was beautiful and the tour interesting, but it was getting to know him and just listening to his stories that was the true highlight of that adventure.
Learning How To Make Welsh Cakes
If you don’t live in the British Isles, then there’s an excellent chance you don’t know what a Welsh Cake is. I normally think of myself of an Anglophile and yet the first time hearing about them was only on a recent trip to Cardiff. For the uninitiated, Welsh cakes are simple, scone-like flatbread cakes made with flour, butter, eggs, milk and usually dried fruit like raisins. They’re typically eaten alone, at tea or as a snack and I found them everywhere while in Cardiff and southern Wales. When served hot, they’re good but if they’re even a few minutes old, I found myself looking for jam or butter to cut through the dryness. While I discovered many great places to buy them, my best experience with Welsh Cakes was learning how to make them myself. Located in Abergavenny, the Culinary Cottage is a cooking school run by an enterprising local who has made food her new career. We made an entire meal that day, but for me the Welsh Cakes were the most fun. Rolling out the dough and cooking them on the hot bakestone was fun and even relaxing and I can’t wait to make them for friends at home.
One the oldest forms of life on the planet in Western Australia
3.5 billion years ago, the Earth was a fairly inhospitable place. But a slow process was quietly going on in the planet’s seas. A rock-like organism was doing something the Earth had never seen before. Stromatolites were gradually filling the atmosphere with oxygen, paving the way for more complex creatures to arise. These unique organisms weren’t just the important first step in life on Earth, but their fossils now provide valuable data for scientists trying to learn about early life on the planet. Scientists assumed they vanished into the ether of time long ago, until 1956 when living examples of these amazing organisms were actually found. Where else would something this bizarre and extraordinary happen, except for Australia? Hamelin Pool, located in the Shark Bay World Heritage Site of Western Australia, is home to these amazing creatures, one of the rarest sights in the world. Visiting the rock-like creatures was important to me, and instead of boring blobs (which they are) I was struck by the incredible beauty of the pools, dotted with the creatures still working hard to create life. It’s a humbling moment and one I encourage everyone to seek out when they’re in Western Australia.
Puffin Watching on the Westman Islands
I’m thankful I made the decision to spend a day visiting the Westman Islands, because it counts amongst my all-time favorite experiences in Iceland. Easy to reach from the south coast, the ferry ride is a short 30-minutes, but it feels like a world away. The Westman Islands are small and the only inhabited island, Haimaey, is just 7 square miles in size. 4,000 people call this rock home, but as I discovered on a tour around the island, it’s one of the most beautiful places not only in Iceland, but arguably the world. A combination of the gorgeous landscapes and the hospitality of the people who call it home, I fell in love thanks to the total experience and I know it’s an island I will return to many times in the future.
Spending the Night in a German Fairy Tale
Even if you don’t travel along Germany’s Fairy Tale Route, there are a number of opportunities to spend the night in castles that look as if they was plucked out of one of those famous legends. One though impressed me above all the others, the Sleeping Beauty Castle – Sababurg. My first experience sleeping in a real German castle happened at this pastoral retreat not far from the city of Kassel along the German Fairy Tale Route. Recently celebrating its 682nd birthday, Sababurg was in a state of ruin for centuries, overrun by plants and trees and, most importantly, a high thorn bush. This bush would become important in the life of Sababurg, defining it into the 21st century. The famous Brothers Grimm lived not far away from Sababurg in the city of Kassel, and it was well known that they used the surrounding forests, countryside and castles as a physical basis for many of the stories they chronicled. So it was locals in the 19th century, along with early tourists, who started scouting out the rolling hills of the region trying to match stories with their real-life counterparts. When they chanced upon Sababurg, practically enclosed by thick brush and that famous thorn bush it seemed too perfect – this had to be the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Today it’s been thoughtfully and painstakingly remodeled into a beautiful 16-room luxury hotel, all paying homage to the story of Sleeping Beauty. I loved my evening spent sleeping in one of the turret rooms, imagining myself in an era long gone amongst luxury amenities and comfort. With pastoral calm and beauty and an amazing staff, this is a not to miss hotel along the German Fairy Tale Route.
Carrick-a-Rede Bridge in Northern Ireland
I technically didn’t have enough time to properly enjoy this fun, adventurous spot, but I’m glad I ignored my more prudent self and decided to throw myself into this experience without looking at the clock. Part of the National Trust, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in County Antrim links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede, just as fishermen used to employ them when checking their salmon nets. This narrow rope bridge spans high above the rocky waters below, providing a slightly scary but incredibly fun experience. While the bridge crossing was fun, walking down to the bridge and back is where the real magic happened. Throughout my week driving around Ireland and Northern Ireland, I was lucky enough to enjoy plenty of picturesque coastal scenes, but the coastline at Carrick-a-Rede was unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Gorgeous beyond words and the ability for any camera to accurately portray, this is a must-stop attraction I think for anyone driving the Causeway Coastal Route.
Street Food in Chengdu, China
China loves to eat, a lot. Life revolves around your next meal and is a major aspect of hospitality throughout this massive country. So when a city in China is well known above all others for its epicurean delights, you know you’ve found a place that takes its cuisine very seriously indeed. The capital of the Sichuan Province, it seems that Chengdu has always enjoyed this reputation, combining locally sourced ingredients and infusing them with its powerful spicy heat that is now loved around the world. That heat comes from the Sichuan pepper, which has an intense fragrant flavor that produces what the books call a “tingly-numbing” sensation. My first introduction to this famous food was along Jinli Street, which is known as Snack Street for a reason. Hundreds of vendors fill the stalls selling everything imaginable and visiting around lunchtime was the perfect opportunity to see the best of what the city has to offer. This long and narrow street today is full of vendors, shops and important for me, food stalls. Walking around was heaven, smelling the strange and unusual scents and asking my interpreter countless times what everything was. From pork buns to pineapple sticky rice to roasted rabbit head, I was mesmerized by the options and wished I could somehow taste it all.
Hot Air Balloon Safari in Tanzania
One of my favorite travel experiences of all time, this floating safari should be on everyone’s bucket lists. Getting up before dawn is never easy, but I knew it would be well worth the momentary pain, I just didn’t expect it to be as remarkable an experience as it was. An option offered by Abercrombie & Kent, as soon as I saw it listed I knew we had to do it and almost as soon as the balloon left the ground I knew it was the right decision. Floating high above the mighty Serengeti, we saw a different side to the African bush impossible to otherwise replicate. Mere feet from the road, yet invisible thanks to the tall grasses, was another world hidden in plain sight. Lions devouring breakfast, hippos sleeping in the water and more zebra and wildebeest than I ever thought possible to exist were all right there, unknowingly providing a show to the people flying over their heads. The hour flew by, but in those 60-minutes we enjoyed a collection of memories so powerful and so vivid, I know I’ll never forget them.
Meeting Santa Claus in Finland
It’s impossible to visit Rovaniemi, the de facto capital of Finnish Lapland, and not realize immediately that it is the hometown of Santa Claus. From the airport when you first arrive to even hotels bearing his name, this town is all about Santa. Literally straddling the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus Village is a 365-day Christmas extravaganza; a place where the holiday spirit is alive every day of the year. It all started with an unlikely visit by Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Rovaniemi to see the progress of Marshall Plan projects. For her arrival a small cabin was built, a cabin that soon became the center of this tourist hotspot. And it is definitely touristy, no doubt there, but it’s also unexpectedly fun. Walking into the middle of the village, it was only 3:30pm but the winter sun had already begun to set and soon I found myself in the middle of the village, night having fallen and the sound of carols in the air. Christmas had already been over for a couple of weeks and while the rest of the world was dealing with the January doldrums, Santa Claus Village really did feel cheerful. I felt as if Christmas was just around the corner and that yuletide excitement came rushing back. Of course the focal point of any visit is meeting Santa Claus, who is always ready to greet new visitors. The visit with Santa is free of charge, but the photos taken come with a small fee. After chatting with Santa – everyone gets some alone time – head to one of the most popular post offices in the world, Santa Claus’ Main Post Office. This real post office on the Arctic Circle handles all of Santa’s worldwide mail traffic and since 1985, more than 17 million letters have been sent to the post office all addressed to Santa from nearly every corner of the world. It’s not everyday you can send a Santa Claus postmarked letter, so I sent a few postcards and thought about my experience in the Santa Claus Village. I’m not normally a fan of hokey tourist experiences, but this one was fun – a lot of fun actually and I quickly understood why hundreds of thousands of people make the trek to the Village every year. The Christmas spirit is a special feeling, and this is the only place in the world where it never ends.
Coasteering in Wales
At first the adventure sport of coasteering seems like the bad result of a drunken wager gone wild. But it’s not and even more surprising, it’s insanely popular and a lot of fun. Coasteering is defined as “a physical activity that includes movement along the intertidal zone of a rocky coastline on foot or by swimming, without the aid of boats, surfboards or other craft. It can include swimming, climbing, scrambling, jumping and diving.” It sounds great in the middle of a hot summer, but I was there in March when the water temperatures were anything but encouraging. Located along the Irish Sea, the beauty of Anglesey can’t be denied though and I soon found myself lost in the beauty of the craggy landscapes surrounding me. The extreme experience was just as advertised and not even my two wet suits could fully keep the freezing waters at bay. In spite of the conditions though it was fun, a lot of fun and diving along the coast, swimming across the white-capped waves and pushing myself in ways I didn’t know I could was as personally gratifying as anything I have ever done. Ultimately, that’s the real thrill of adventure travel; pushing one’s comfort zones in ways you didn’t know possible.