As hard as it is to believe, 2016 is quickly winding down. For me, it’ll seem even more extreme as I’m traveling for two weeks in December, which means these last couple weeks of November are almost the last ones I’ll spend at home this year. While it’s flown by, 2016 has been another good year, albeit with some ups and downs. Unlike other years, I haven’t had any personal tragedies, rather maintenance of the status quo, something I needed after a tumultuous couple of years. 2017 I intend to be more transformative, with some exciting personal and professional changes. Before I get started on all that though, I thought I’d take some time to share those special experiences I’m most thankful for this year. Most are travel related, but not all, and when looked at as a whole really do point a bright light on me as a person. Some things in life we can affect, others we can’t, but what is important is to be thankful for the lives we lead, no matter where our paths may take us.
40th Birthday in Finland
In January I celebrated the milestone birthday of 40. It wasn’t something I dreaded, but I did want to enter into a new decade mindfully and with purpose. That’s how I found myself in Finland, celebrating in as fun a way as I can imagine, by visiting a new country. I was there to attend a conference, but decided to extend my stay for my birthday. What resulted was a couple of weeks exploring Finland, Estonia and Stockholm, enjoying these amazing destinations in the heart of winter. While I loved every moment of my time in this chilly part of the world, my favorite experiences occurred in Rovaniemi, deep in Finnish Lapland. This huge region is mostly woods, lakes and streams, but it’s also the home of Santa Claus. In what can only be described as a brilliant marketing move, years ago Rovaniemi lauded itself as the official home of 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.
Safari 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.
More US Travel
For years I had lamented the fact that I may travel the world, but I don’t spend nearly enough time exploring my own country. That all changed in 2016 and I had the great opportunity to visit many fun and exciting cities and regions around the U.S. From eating my way around Louisiana to whirlwind visits to some of America’s best cities, it was a fun year of expanding my own US-focused travel experiences. One of my favorite trips though was in Nevada, driving the Extraterrestrial Highway. Otherwise known as Nevada State Route 375, this is a 98-mile stretch of road that starts at the intersection of U.S. 93 and the Extraterrestrial Highway and continues west to the intersection of the Highway and U.S. 6. Thanks to the fact that Area 51 rests along the highway, this area has long been known for alien sightings and a fierce belief in life from other worlds visiting the remote Nevada desert. Embracing the idea, in 1996 the state, in conjunction with the release of the movie Independence Day, renamed Nevada State Route 375 to the Extraterrestrial Highway, hoping to spark interest from tourists. Over the years the road has developed into what it is today, one of the quirkiest but also one of the loneliest stretches of road in the country. And from my experience, it’s also one of the most fun drives anywhere in the world.
Freedom to travel and pursue my passions
I live in a bubble within a bubble and it’s been something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. I’m definitely one of those much reviled East Coast elites; overeducated, comfortable financially and I tend to love anything pumpkin spice flavored. Even within that bubble though, I live in a much smaller bubble – that of professional traveler. It’s a strange world that I’ve created over the years, but it’s one I love dearly. If you’ve followed this site over time, then you’ve watched as I made the at-times uncomfortable transition from a 9-5 professional, to whatever it is I do today. I made the difficult leap of faith from a job with a salary, benefits and stability to one that has none of those things. In the four years that have elapsed though, I’ve become a better person in every possible way and today, in 2016, I couldn’t imagine living life in any other way than I do now. I also recognize though that it’s a luxury to be able to follow one’s dreams and passions. While I work extremely hard and do everything I can in order to earn money and to provide, I know it’s a job that not many people have, although they would like to. So I am thankful for the ability to follow those dreams I’ve had since I was a little kid and to be able to turn a lifetime of passion into a new profession.
Hugging a Panda
Who doesn’t love pandas? Well, I’m sure there are some horrible people out there but I, like millions of others, have always loved pandas. In fact, I love them so much that I made it my mission while in China to visit the world capital of all things panda, Chengdu. There I visited the Dujiangyan research center; just one of many in the region devoted to protecting and preserving this oddly fragile species. I didn’t just get to watch the pandas though, this is also where I had the very unique opportunity to hug one of these teddy bears come to life. For a donation to the center, visitors can either spend an entire day volunteering at the center, or just a few moments hugging a panda. I was short on time, so I opted for the panda hug but even this brief encounter was an extraordinary moment. A small group of us excitedly waited for the panda to be brought out, a younger one who immediately hopped up on a nearby bench, clearly used to the activity. The hug itself only lasted about 30-seconds, but it was a special moment and for all of us there truly was the culmination of a lifetime of waiting.
Journey to Fogo Island
I knew that my time spent on 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 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.
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, 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.
Tahiti has been on my own personal travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. Those crystal-clear waters and verdant green mountains called to me in the same way as the fictional Bali Hai called out in “South Pacific.” I braced myself for disappointment, to have my dreams dashed but that never happened. No, if anything Tahiti surpassed even my own lofty expectations. But Tahiti is Tahiti for a reason, and I realized that almost immediately upon arriving into Papeete. Over the course of a week my appreciation of how just idyllic and perfect the islands are grew, and the experiences I enjoyed there really were a dream come true. That is rare in the travel experience, so many times our vacations are nice, but they don’t always overwhelm us. I wasn’t alone either. Chatting with my fellow passengers on the Windstar Cruises ship, they too felt the same way. They felt the same magic and they too felt like pinching themselves every few minutes just to make sure it was all true. That’s remarkable, that’s special and that is probably why Tahiti has captured imaginations around the world for generations.
Like-minded friends and family
The past couple of weeks have been fairly tumultuous here in the US, and that’s why I’m so thankful for friends and family who are likeminded and who are there to support each other even in light of an uncertain future. No matter your political leanings though, it’s clear that not just the US, but the entire world is going through something right now. To be honest, I’m frightened by the dramatic increase in far right-wing politics in many Western nations, not only because I disagree with the intellectual policy positions they take, but because of the emotional basis of these policies. They are taking advantage of the fear and misunderstanding of huge swathes of the public, preying on us for their own personal gain. The way to combat this isn’t by arguing or yelling, but through education. By taking someone we’re related to or know and sharing with them our life experiences and what we’ve learned from people in other countries. Unless we address the core underpinnings of where our fears are coming from, then nothing will improve. Unless we as a civilization understand that more connects us than separates us, then nothing will improve. Regardless of our own politics or stances, this is all of our collective fault. We have failed each other but luckily there’s still time to correct that mistake. To take our fellow citizens and not try to change their mind about any one thing, but to open it to a world that’s not nearly as small and scary as they may think.