My friends are probably laughing about this post because in my normal life at home I am far from being the outdoorsy type of person. But for some reason, whenever I travel I find myself surrounded by nature more often than not and almost always I have loved the experience. Maybe travel gives me the opportunity to experience something I don’t do at home or maybe I just like the photos I capture outside, but whatever the reason being out there in the forests and wild areas around the world is a travel experience I relish. This year I’ve had some amazing natural experiences, but these outdoorsy moments were my favorite from 2015. (In no particular order)
Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia
It’s hard to mention Queensland and not talk about the Great Barrier Reef. One of the great natural wonders of the world, for many it is (rightly so) a must-do experience on their trip to Australia. As I’ve shared in other posts, visiting the Great Barrier Reef didn’t just meet expectations, it far exceeded them and a big reason for that was the amazing abundance of wildlife found around the reef itself. Actually a series of nearly 3,000 reefs spanning 1,400 miles, there are many different places to see the reef, but I opted for the beautiful Whitsundays. Joining the company Cruise Whitsundays, I set out for a 1-night, 2-day Reefsleep experience where I slept on a pontoon boat next to the reef itself. While the experience was amazing, the real advantage was the opportunity to snorkel almost alone in the quiet hours before sunset, exploring the reefs without interference. I’ve snorkeled all over the world, but nothing prepared me for the abundance of fish and other creatures I saw along the Great Barrier Reef in every size and color. Every few feet that I swam the scenery changed dramatically, ensuring a constant variety of beautiful things to observe. It’s a remarkable experience that more than lives up to its promise and is a travel goal that everyone should try to achieve at least once in their lives.
Even though the Eastern Shore of Virginia isn’t very far from where I live, I had for some reason never made the trek to this beautiful part of the state. Luckily, I was assigned a magazine article to write that required some hands on research, which is how I found myself spending the day in Chincoteague, Virginia. Best known for their wild ponies and the annual pony swim that attracts tens of thousands of people from around the world, over the course of a very short day I learned that there’s a lot more to this small coastal community than just pretty horses. Gorgeous beaches, a vast natural refuge and even a NASA rocket launch site all come together to define this quirky Virginia town. My favorite experience of the day though was joining a local resident on his boat as he showed me around the area in the way it was meant to be seen – from the water. With his expert guidance and knowledge, we cruised by marshlands, lighthouses and even saw a few of those famous ponies off in the distance. Not only was it a fun way to spend the afternoon, it was without a doubt the best way to better understand this beautiful community.
Driving Around Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland
It may seem odd to include a drive on this list of outdoorsy moments, but in Iceland it seems that everything you do leads one ultimately to appreciate the country’s natural splendor. It’s been called Iceland in miniature, land of sagas and even one of the earth’s mystical energy points, but no matter what you believe there’s no denying that driving around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland is one of the most beautiful driving experiences you’ll ever have. Snaefellsnes is located on Iceland’s West Coast, and is actually very easy to reach from Reykjavik. While I don’t recommend doing it as a day trip from the capital, it’s certainly possible and a good way of seeing more of this beautiful country if your time is limited. The highlight of this peninsular drive for many people is visiting Mt. Kirkjufell. Called the most photographed mountain in Iceland, a simple Instagram search definitely proves that’s true enough. I didn’t recognize it at first though, believe it or not. Arriving from the east, it wasn’t until I had driven through the small town of Grundarfjörður that I realized the mountain I was searching for was right in front of me. That’s because like so many famous photos, you have to catch the mountain from the perfect angle to recognize it from all of those images you’ve seen over the years. Pulling into a small park across from the mighty mountain, I thought it was pretty but frankly didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Just as beautiful, I thought, were the falls across the street from Kirkjufell, especially in the winter when everything was frozen, its beauty captured in time.
Hiking Through the Valley of the Five Lakes, Alberta
A few short months 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.
Another drive! Yes, I’m including another drive but a drive through the beautiful Highlands region of Scotland truly is a natural experience like none other. Even though the day was what the Scottish affectionately call dreich or grey and rainy, it couldn’t detract from the pure joy I had at being reacquainted with this remarkable part of the world. Rolling hills, small mountains, craggy outcroppings and of course those handsome creatures we all know and love – the Highland cows – there’s just something special about this, perhaps the most well-known area of Scotland. There’s plenty to do of course if you have the time, including exploring Cairngorms National Park. Cairngorms is the largest in the UK and is actually bigger than the whole of Luxembourg. It’s also where you’ll find four of the five highest mountains in the UK as well as Scotland’s ski centers. In the winter months folks from all around the UK visit to take advantage of the downhill slopes, enjoying a winter outing without having to travel to Europe or further afield. No matter what you do though, remember that the countryside is a big part of understanding Scotland, its history and its people. All around you’ll find centuries old battle sites and monuments left by prehistoric man. It may not be a large country, but because of that size, historical and natural significance is everywhere if you just take the time to look for it.
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.
Jungle Surfing, Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia
Yes, I am aware that I have included Queensland on this list twice, but there’s a good reason for that. When it comes to natural experiences, few other destinations can match the beauty and diversity of Queensland. I’ve done a lot of zip lines all over the world, from the highest, the fastest, the longest – you name it. They’re experiences I enjoy and usually offer great opportunities to see places you’d never get to experience otherwise. I was surprised though to learn that in the barely inhabited wilderness area of Cape Tribulation is one of the most unique zip line tours in the world. Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours take guests on a series of zip lines through the UNESCO World Heritage protected Daintree Rainforest. One of the oldest tropical forests in the world, these jungles look like scenes from Jurassic Park instead of a quiet park in Northern Queensland. So what makes this zip line so unique? The fact it exists at all is fairly phenomenal, building in UNESCO sites isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially in an area without electricity or running water. The entire trail was constructed essentially by hand and done in ways that aren’t only sustainable, but culturally sensitive to the indigenous peoples who call this jungle home. The result is a wild and fun experience that includes easier, slower lines for novice fliers to the final zip line, which is one of the fastest you’ll find anywhere. It’s a great adventure experience and a fantastic way to get into the rainforest and to enjoy its beauty close up.
I couldn’t believe it when I first heard about this luxury resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. How had one of America’s best hotels popped up near my old home town, and I hadn’t heard of it? There’s a reason for that of course, its somewhat smaller size and seclusion mean that Primland is a place that someone introduces you to, a secret that a few are let in on. Occupying more than 12,000 acres in Southwest Virginia, Primland is a getaway for nature lovers who want to disconnect and spend some time relaxing in what I think is the best part of Virginia. Primland enjoys all of the attributes that all great luxury properties enjoy; high levels of service, spacious and comfortable rooms and food and wines that are amongst the best found anywhere in the world. What separates Primland from other resorts isn’t actually found inside, it’s found high up in the heavens. Primland is home to what I believe is the only Observatory Dome at a resort in the world. The modern glass enclosed “silo” attached to the main building has a secret on the top floor. The dome opens and swivels 360 degrees to give Primland’s massive Celestron telescope a chance to observe stars and planets millions of miles away. The staff astronomer leads guests through a nightly Tour of the Universe, in which she focuses the telescope on celestial phenomena that most people have never seen before. The tour concludes with a walk outside where, again under the guidance of the astronomer, guests see the night sky in a way that’s hard to find – without any light pollution. It’s rare in this modern age to see such a full array of stars with the naked eye and is just one more reason why Primland is so very special.
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.
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