Reflection in life is important, it’s an opportunity to learn from the past and draw lessons as we move forward. This is also true within the travel context, and this act of pondering on past trips and, more importantly, experiences, is important I think in being a better and more well-rounded traveler. With all of this in mind, I want to take a few moments to think back on the travel experiences that have meant the most to me this year. There’s still five months left in 2016 and I have plenty of travel adventures planned, but I think now is as good a time as any to share those meaningful experiences from the first half 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.
Seeing the Great Migration in Tanzania
Last year I created a project called the 40 Before 40 list. It was my attempt to try to do as many of my bucket list items before I turned 4-0 in January of this year. Some of the items were basic skillsets I wanted to learn (sewing on a button) but others were more lofty and aspirational. One such aspirational entry was to see the Great Migration in Tanzania, an experience I enjoyed just a couple of months after turning 40 years old. Traveling on safari with the luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent, I not only had the opportunity to witness firsthand one of the world’s great natural events, but also experience a whole host of amazing adventures in the process. The Great Migration really is an ongoing event, with millions of zebra and wildebeest migrating around Tanzania and Kenya throughout the year. I saw these massive herds many times in Tanzania, but perhaps best understood the incredible size of the event only while driving through the Serengeti. Almost immediately upon entering the massive region our truck was forced to stop as hundreds, if not thousands, of animals ran across the road in front of us, on a primal need to move and eat. It was amazing to witness this ancient movement of animals in person, to see the basic instinct that has propelled them around the grasslands for millennia. I sort of “got” the Great Migration at that moment, but it wasn’t until later on when I saw it from a hot air balloon that it all started to sink in.
Meeting Santa Claus in Finland
For whatever reason, remote destinations fascinate me and I love visiting them perhaps more than even the largest cities in the world. I usually tend to visit though when it’s cold outside, but cold doesn’t even begin to describe the Arctic temperatures I found in Rovaniemi, deep in Finnish Lapland. This huge region is mostly woods, lakes and streams, but it’s also home of Santa Claus. In what can only be described as a brilliant marketing move, years ago Rovaniemi lauded itself as the official home to Santa Claus, a moniker that stuck. But it wasn’t meeting Santa that was the real joy of my time in Lapland, it was heading out into the wilderness and enjoying a night in the forest just as the Finns do. The Finnish people have a powerful connection to the land and their country and after chatting with many, spending some time in a remote cabin with no electricity or running water is a travel aspiration most of them covet. So that’s what I did, along with some friends we spent a night in a forest cabin located just a few miles from The Middle of Nowhere, enjoying great food and each other’s company. It was also there where I learned the true art of the sauna, enjoying this ritual with some locals in the cabin’s old-fashioned smoke sauna. Totally unlike American versions, the traditional Finnish sauna is a special experience, almost religious, and being taught the intricacies of this art by Finns themselves is something I know I’ll never forget.
Hugging a Panda in China
For years, whenever someone asked me about my bucket list I would jokingly say, “Hug a panda.” It seemed so outrageously unlikely that I thought it a good #1 for the list. It would never be ticked off because I’d never actually be able to hug a panda. Well, I was wrong. I traveled to China earlier this year for the first time and one of the cities I wanted to visit more than any other was Chengdu. The capital of the Sichuan province is known for its spicy food and kind-hearted people, but it’s also famous for its pandas. An easy drive from the city is a series of panda reserves, and it was at one of those where I finally had the chance to hug a panda. Known locally as the Panda Ark, Dujiangyan is just one of many reserves found in the region and here they focus on rescue, rehabilitation and disease control. Covering about 126 acres, walking into the facility it looked just like a panda rescue center should look. Set in amongst mountains and natural bamboo forests, it has an ethereal look to it, a place where you’d expect to find pandas. But it’s also a very modern facility, with large private enclosures for the pandas, a hospital, research area and an educational center. The goal of Dujiangyan from the beginning was to create a new kind of eco-tourism in the province. A way to study and preserve the species while at the same time allowing the public access so that they can learn more about the beautiful Giant Panda. And that’s why I was allowed to hug a panda.
While brief, the moment sitting next to the young panda as he ravenously devoured a stick of bamboo was a personal thrill, the culmination of decades of pining. While a little expensive, the cost didn’t bother me because I realized just how unique and extraordinary an opportunity it was to give a Giant Panda a giant bear hug. The fact that the money goes back to help further panda research was even better and I hope to return and spend the day volunteering with these beautiful animals. The only problem is that now I need to find another highly unlikely item to replace this one on my bucket list.
Adopted By An Island in Canada
I knew that my time spent in Fogo Island in Newfoundland would be a relaxing and luxurious experience, thanks to the fact that this small island is also home to one of the world’s top hotels. But I never expected that it would be the island and the warm people who call this cold place home that ultimately would mean the most to me. Fogo Island is a strange little place, but maybe that’s why its residents are so fiercely proud of it. Most of them can trace their roots on Fogo back for centuries, and this fishing outpost probably would still be largely forgotten today if it weren’t for the Fogo Island Inn. Built just a few years ago by a former island resident who did well in life, she returned to not only give back to her community, but to both transform and preserve it at the same time. The luxury hotel is just part of her master plan to use the arts and creative pursuits to regenerate the island’s economy. And it’s working. A major aspect of this are the residents themselves, proud individuals that the luxury hotel uses to augment the experience for their guests. Dozens are hired to serve as community hosts, to share with visitors what they love most about Fogo Island, to drive them around as amateur tour guides and to just be there in case they need anything. That’s how I came to be adopted by the island, wherever I went there was someone ready and willing to help me but it was more than that. It’s a small island and everyone talks to everyone else and by the end of the second day, I learned that locals were out there keeping an eye out to make sure I was in fact having an experience I’d never forget. They all cared and they all wanted me, and every visitor, to leave a little bit better than when they arrived. I felt as if I was part of the community, which is strange given the fact I was only there for two days, and it’s this rare and unusual phenomenon that not only makes the Fogo Island Inn one of the best hotels in the world, but makes Fogo Island one of those unique travel experiences everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives.
Doing Nothing In & Around DC
For as much as I travel and stay connected with the world around me, lately I’ve been coveting time away from my phone and social media – a time to relax and enjoy myself. I’ve had the opportunity to do just that a couple of times this year, and I’m hoping for more. My first attempt was during a luxury staycation at the beautiful Four Seasons Washington, DC in Georgetown. While certainly not far away, I was able to cocoon myself in this luxury retreat, enjoy the food and services onsite and even play DC tourist a little bit. It was a relaxing and wonderful weekend to reconnect with myself and disconnect with the world, something I rarely get to do. Then, more recently, my partner and I made the short drive to the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia, my first real attempt at total electronic celibacy. Locking up the phone and leaving the laptop at home, it was a chance for me to live in the moment and not worry about photos or posting things to Instagram. It was relaxing, it was spiritually nourishing and it was sorely needed. We all work a lot but that means we also need to balance that with relaxation and decompression. Each and every one of us needs a few moments to collect our thoughts and re-energize so we can tackle everything else that needs to be done in our lives. That’s what these two experiences were for me and that’s why they’re ultimately on this list.
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.