I saw an article online the other day about happiness, and that started me down a rabbit hole of thought regarding the true nature of travel. Yes, travel is about education, self-discovery and impactful moments. But, it should also just be a whole lot of fun. Our time off from work is limited and vacations are our opportunities to leave home and enjoy ourselves, whether it’s at the local beach or an exotic destination halfway around the world. So today I want to share those special places around the world that never fail to put a smile on my face. The memories of past trips or the potential of return visits fill my heart with joy, which ultimately is what should be at the core of the travel experience. What are some of your happy places?
Cape Town, South Africa
Calling the tip of Africa home, the Mother City is one of the most popular cities in the world for a reason, it’s amazing. Routinely named to the Best in the World lists, Cape Town is unlike any other city you’ve visited before. In a quirky mix of European and African sensibilities, it’s easy to forget that you’re in southern Africa as you stroll around this colonial city. Days could be spent exploring the historical and cultural treasures of The Mother City, as well as admiring the natural beauty that is all encompassing. From the omnipresent Table Mountain to Chapman’s Peak Drive, your jaw will drop many times as you survey the beautiful landscapes that define this area of South Africa. Travel umami is something that is impossible to define, but rather the combination of all elements of a destination that culminates in a sort of perfection that has to be felt to be properly understood. That’s Cape Town and that is certainly South Africa. Long before my first trip to Southern Africa I was told that there is something in the air, something that latches onto your soul and refuses to let go. I naturally didn’t believe them until my first time experiencing it firsthand and then I understood, I got what they were talking about – this special travel umami. That’s simultaneously my top reason why everyone should visit but also the only one I can’t prove. So just trust me, plan a trip and go, go see and feel and taste South Africa and then I dare you to come back and say I was wrong.
Bangkok was the first city I visited in the so-called developing world, and while it was initially a culture shock, I soon came to love both the city and the entire country of Thailand. Since that initial visit, I’ve been fortunate enough to return several times, revisiting favorite spots and discovering new ones along the way. I honestly probably shouldn’t like Bangkok as much as I do; my first experience had more than a few rocky moments. I still vividly remember walking out of the airport and being inundated by, everything. The smells, the wet air and the cacophony of people was all a lot to take. I got used to the beautiful frenzy of Bangkok though fairly quickly, learning to accept the no-rules traffic and the incredible mass of people who call it home. Later during that same trip I was swindled by a fake tourist-cop, not the first time someone has been cheated in Bangkok, but I was deeply shaken. I walked back to my hotel rom that evening in tears and vowed never to return. Thankfully, that feeling was fleeting and within a day or so I was back out enjoying lunch at streets stalls and visiting temples and palaces. It’s important to not let the small stuff get us down when we travel and I’m thankful I didn’t let one person color my opinion of Thailand forever.
I’ve never seen such a well-oiled tourism machine as I have in Iceland. Everything is organized to within an inch of its life and if you want a trip that is easy and well planned, Iceland is for you. You don’t have to take part in those organized activities though, you can be like me and rent a car to explore Iceland on your own. Iceland is one of the most popular tourist spots in the world, and with good reason. The level of natural grandeur in this small country seems otherworldly, which is probably why so many movies and TV shows use it as a filming location. Luckily, these incredible landscapes are easy for anyone to visit by driving along Iceland’s Route 1 otherwise known as the Ring Road. This national road circles the island connecting most of the key sights around the country in one easy to navigate drive. I’ve only done portions of the driving route, but from my own experience it really is an amazing place to drive around, car being the best way to see the highlights of this beautiful country.
France (Paris and Beyond)
Emotions are a powerful driving force in travel and many times they dictate where we go and what we see and do. That’s one reason why France is on this list – a month living in Paris as a far too young 17-year old was a defining experience in my life. Ever since then I’ve adored Paris in a type of love reserved only for this city, but which is felt by millions like me around the world. While I like Paris, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live there, instead it’s the rest of this large country which has me so intrigued. While I’ve only spent a limited amount of time exploring France, what I’ve discovered in the process couldn’t be more different from the City of Lights. That’s to be expected I suppose, any major city will be more intense than its country cousins, but that effect seems somehow magnified in France. There seems to be two countries in one – Paris and then the rest of France. Both are great, but for my own sanity I think I would have to find a smaller, but not small, town to call home. La Rochelle, Avignon and even Lyon would be wonderful cities to live in, while still enjoying everything that makes France so very special.
One of my favorite cities in the world just after a few hours of being there – some places you just fall in love with right away and for me that was Melbourne. Still, I felt like I owed it to myself to go back and confirm whether or not this love was for real, or just a one-night stand. On one of my trips to Australia I rearranged the schedule and frankly went out of my way just to have a couple of nights in beautiful Melbourne and you know what? It was totally worth it. I don’t know if it’s the convenient downtown core or just the surprising beauty of the city, but it all clicks for me and it’s not only a place I could visit again and again, but I know I could also happily live there. I’m not alone either; Melbourne frequently makes the top list of most livable cities in the world owing to this unique combination of beautiful neighborhoods, diverse activities and just overall charm.
Fun Spots Around the US
2018 has very much been a year of American exploration, and I’ve loved every second of it. For years I had lamented the fact that while I travel the world I ignore my own country, which I’ve more than made up for this year. I’ve enjoyed many fun moments around the US, but two this year meant the most to me – driving Route 66 and my first visit to Disneyland. This epic drive was near the top of my bucket list for years, and the actual experience of tackling Route 66 was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Steinbeck once called it The Mother Road and from the Dust Bowl to the American Renaissance in the 1950s, this road has held a special place not only in the hearts of Americans, but of people around the world. It hearkens back to an era when anything seemed possible, when taking to the open road was an adventure and the fun truly was in the getting there. While Route 66 technically doesn’t exist anymore, it’s still possible of course to drive huge parts of it as you meander from Chicago to the pier in Santa Monica, California. Along the way are quirky roadside attractions, strange motels and national wonders that rank amongst the top in the world. Yes, I wanted to see and experience all of those things but I also wanted to reconnect with my own country, one I love dearly and of which I am fiercely proud. Just as people did in the 1950s and 60s, I wanted to experience a great American road trip and to discover aspects to the American experience that I never knew existed.
It seems that I can’t escape The Mother Road. I spent two weeks driving it in May, so imagine my surprise when I suddenly found myself once again walking along it in Disney California Adventure. I love the movie “Cars,” but I had somehow forgotten that it takes place on Route 66, which is strongly and very well represented in Cars Land. Sure, they have the major features of the drive through the Southwest that we all recognize, but what really impressed me was the incredible attention to detail. There were small nods to the drive that only someone who’s driven it would know, all taken from the film of course. From the allusion to the famous Jack Rabbit Trading Post, to the many different ways Route 66 is signed, it was amazing to once again see these familiar sights, just in the middle of Disney. Even better, it was great to see both kids and adults enjoying themselves along the Route, hopefully instilling in everyone a deep love for the Mother Road.