I realize I’m jumping the gun on this; it is, after all, still September. But with the majority of the year behind me, I thought I’d take a few minutes to reflect back on the travel experiences that have meant the most to be this year. I do this acknowledging the fact that I still have several more trips planned for this year and by December 31, I will undoubtedly and hopefully be able to add to this list. More than anything, it’s a good mental exercise for me to look back and reflect and try to further digest the most important experiences of the year. They may not always be fancy or noteworthy to anyone else but me, but that’s one of the great aspects of travel. Travel is a deeply personal experience, no matter what we do or where we go we are always changed for the better and these experiences did that and more.
Pyramids in Egypt
The first modern tourist destination, the wonders of Egypt have called to travelers around the world for generations. And with good reason, the monuments and sites so well preserved aren’t just nice to behold, they are world wonders in every sense of the term. Traveling through Egypt with Insight Vacations, the entire experience from Cairo to Aswan was much better than I had expected, but the real highlight of course were the Great Pyramids of Giza. Located close to modern day Cairo, these massive monuments to power 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 there immediately in front of them it was hard to mentally reconcile the fact that I was actually there. Having seen them in books, magazines and movies all of my life, it was hard to consider the fact that I was there at that moment in time. Since tourism is so low right now, there weren’t many other tourists around me, creating a special and rare moment of privacy, allowing for some introspection and time to fully grasp the importance of the moment.
Northern Lights in Norway
Earlier this year I created a list of 40 things I want to accomplish before I turn 40 and high up on that list was seeing the Northern Lights. While they can be seen in many different spots around the world, I was fortunate enough to see a particularly amazing display of these natural fireworks while standing all alone on a frozen river in Northern Norway. Known as the Northern Lights Capital of the World, Alta Norway has a long tradition of welcoming those in search of this odd phenomenon, but it wasn’t until my last night that I saw them in their full glory. I was alone on a frozen river, as one does, and quickly found myself surrounded by the giant streaks of light. I had no idea that the Northern Lights could be like that, they seemed to surround me, dancing across the skies and hiding behind the mountains. I stayed there for as long as my frozen hands could stand the elements, not wanting to leave for fear of missing part of the show. Everyone talks about the Northern Lights and we’ve all seen photos of them, but it doesn’t at all prepare you for the actual experience. Magical is a horrible word to use in travel posts, but it’s more than appropriate in this one instance.
Afternoon Alone on Whitehaven Beach, Queensland Australia
Routinely named one of the best beaches in the world, it didn’t take me long to understand why. Part of the experience is in the getting there; Whitehaven is reached only by boat, seaplane or helicopter. I opted for the latter and admiring the views of not only the perfectly white beach, but the swirling sands of nearby Hill Inlet is a travel moment I know I’ll remember for a long time. The best part wasn’t an activity, not really, it was just being there. Grabbing a picnic lunch I had packed just for this occasion, I left the helicopter far behind me and found my own private spot on the massive beach almost completely devoid of human life. I felt like the last person in the world as I took a dip in the warm waters and relaxed on the beach, enjoying the cheese and crackers and basking in the hot sun. It was a rare moment of downtime, of being alone and I loved every second of it. I tend to be an active traveler, usually too active, and these moments of quiet and calm are something I cherish greatly.
Trekking to Machu Picchu
Apparently this was the year of iconic travel experiences as I found myself in the Andes Mountains of Peru, finally reaching one of the most famous sites in the world – Machu Picchu. Let me just say straight up that no, I didn’t do the four-day Inca Trail hike. I have massive problems with both my knees and spending four days in pain and suffering was not high on my to-do list. No, instead I visited the famous ancient city like thousands of others, by taking the luxury train to the weird mountain town of Aguas Calientes and then a short bus ride up to Machu Picchu itself. This new world wonder surprised me in a lot of ways, most notably how beautiful almost every part of it is in person. All we tend to see is that ONE iconic photo overlooking the long forgotten mountain outpost of the Inca, but there’s so much more to it than that one angle. Spending a few hours exploring it I developed an appreciation not only of how it looked, but the skill it took to design and build. There are many fantastic Inca sites to explore in Peru, but it’s really only at Machu Picchu that you begin to understand the true genius of this sadly long lost civilization.
Hiking Through the Valley of the Five Lakes, Alberta
A few short weeks ago I would never have guessed that I’d be adding a hike to this list, but it was just that remarkable of an experience. The 75-year old Icefields Parkway that runs through both Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada, is one of the most scenic drives you’ll find anywhere in the world. Along this scenic drive through the Rockies are any number of stop-offs for great day hikes, but what must be the best of these walks through the woods is the Valley of the Five Lakes. To really do it justice takes about 2-3 hours, but tight on time I managed to essentially run the trail in just an hour and a half, marveling at the sights along the way. There are indeed five different lakes featured, each as brilliant a shade of greenish-blue as you’ll ever find in nature. These emerald colored lakes, while all slightly different from each other, get their unique coloring from the rock dust fed by the nearby glaciers. The total effect is a hike through wonderland and a private, solitary experience that I know I’ll treasure for years to come.
These were just a few of the many wonderful experiences I’ve been lucky enough to experience this year. More than high-end luxury or a nice flight, these were experiences that touched me on a personal level. They were meaningful in every sense of the word and changed me, just as all truly great travel experiences do to us all.