It’s that time of year again, when we all reflect on the previous 12 months and for me that means reflecting on the great travel experiences I was fortunate enough to enjoy. This list is more than just about far-flung locales, it’s about travel experiences that were special, many times unique and oftentimes just a whole lot of fun. Sure, we learn and grow as people when we travel, but the experience is also supposed to be fun and for me, these moments were amongst the best I enjoyed in 2018.
Iceland is one of my favorite places to visit and it’s a destination I never get tired of exploring. On my 2018 trip, I ventured deep into the north of the country in the middle of winter; a daunting experience, but also a fun one. The northern regions, particularly the Lake Mývatn area, are rich with natural wonders no matter the time of year, but in the winter months the landscapes are covered with sparkling snow and ice, very much turning it into a scene from Game of Thrones. That’s no surprise, since the show has filmed in the northern reaches of Iceland for years, the real life landscapes mimicking the fantasy world perfectly. Whether you drive yourself or take a tour with a local, there are plenty of natural sights to enjoy from waterfalls and lava fields to natural baths and mountain landscapes. Spending time in the northern tier of Iceland feels like standing on the edge of the world because, well, you are.
I had long wanted to visit India, but in all honesty I was nervous. I had heard so many mixed opinions on what it’s like to travel there that I wasn’t sure if it was for me or not. However, when luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent invited me to join one of their subcontinent adventures, I knew I couldn’t say no. The entire trip far exceeded my expectations but of course one of the highlights was visiting the Taj Mahal. Like many other visitors, I spent the night in Agra and enjoyed seeing this incredible building complex at two different times of day. For me though, my favorite time to be at the Taj Mahal was during the quiet morning hours. As it turns out, there’s a reason why my guide insisted on visiting at two very different times of day. The experiences could not have been more different from one another. While there was a short line, the crowd entering the Taj complex that early morning was nothing like the night before. With so few people there, it was an intimate and almost private experience. Don’t misunderstand, there was still a 5-minute wait to sit on the so-called “Diana bench,” and to grab that one famous selfie also required a wait. But overall, the crowds were negligible and as I waited for the perfect morning light, I walked right into the main mausoleum itself, skipping the hour-long wait that was there the night before. The tomb perhaps was the one aspect that was disappointing, a simple nod to a great love affair. But the complex isn’t about that one final resting place, it’s about a love so deep and profound that it inspired one of the most remarkable structures that the world has ever seen. And, for the most part, it looks just as perfect as it must have the day it was finished.
Another important bucket list experience for me in 2018 was driving the entirety of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. In partnership with Marriott International, I spent nearly two weeks driving the Mother Road and loved nearly every second of the trip. 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. 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.
Aran Islands, Ireland
Visiting Ireland is always a treat and I honestly have never had a bad experience wandering around the Emerald Isle. Some experiences though naturally rise to the top, and this year spending a couple of days exploring the Aran Islands was one of those special experiences. The Aran Islands are a group of three islands located in Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland. Largely isolated throughout the centuries, their remote location has defined culture on the islands even up to today. There’s a reason why thousands of tourists visit Inishmore every week during the high season – it’s amazing. Due to its location and history, Inishmore remains a destination that honors its past in a way that is almost unique in Ireland. This is experienced through language and culture, but also the preserved thatched roof homes and ancient stone walled farms dotting the island. Although my time in the Aran Islands was all too brief, it was the highlight of my most recent trip to Ireland. I love visiting small, remote islands, to enjoy both unique cultures as well as gorgeous landscapes. Inishmore is one of the most impressive I’ve seen around the world and instead of satiating my curiosity, my first visit has only fueled a strong desire to return and explore even more.
Although I’ve visited most of the 50 states, Alaska had eluded me until this year when I joined a Holland America cruise touring the coastal highlights of the 49th state. Ultimately though, I wasn’t prepared for what the reality of sailing in the waters of Alaska is really like. It’s far from being a run of the mill cruise. No, in fact it reminded me much more of those expedition style experiences I’ve enjoyed in remote parts of the planet. The ports were great, but what really impressed me was the time spent sailing. Different from most other cruises, every second onboard the Westerdam featured incredible views and stunning scenery. Unlike the Caribbean or the Mediterranean where it’s common to lose sight of land for long spans of time, throughout the sailing adventure in Alaska, getting there was as incredible as the featured stops. Once we did arrive in port, we were met by even more opportunities to get out and explore the wild expanses of the state. Whether it was taking an old train through scenic mountain passes or soaring high above the trees on a floatplane adventure, the experiences shared the enormity and beauty of the state in stunning detail. While you can easily sail around Alaska on a larger ship with all of the amenities it affords, it very much feels like an expeditionary experience and that is all too rare.
Eating Around Germany
Like Ireland, Germany is another country I never get tired of exploring and that was especially true this year when I essentially ate my way around a huge swathe of the country. One of my favorite culinary experiences was in the great city of Stuttgart, a place I have come to know and love. We’ve all heard of Bavaria, that German state best known for oompah bands, lederhosen, beer and pretzels. But it’s just one of many states and distinct historical regions around the country, most of which aren’t widely known to non-Germans. There are many reasons for this odd discrepancy, which I won’t go into today, but there is one region I want to highlight and which has been important in my German travels over the years – Swabia. Located in southwestern Germany, Swabia is no longer a distinct political unit, but instead is a cultural region. Its roots go back for centuries and even though the area is now divided between two different states, the people who call it home absolutely identify first with being Swabian. Stuttgart is one of the best places to experience Swabia, but you can also find elements of the culture throughout southwestern Germany including Freiburg and even Augsburg. Language, culture and naturally food help form the basis of this identity. Traveling in Germany always means great food experiences, but in Swabia I think it’s a little extra special thanks to these dishes and snacks.
Exploring Rural China
Cathay Pacific is one of my favorite airlines and working with them again in 2018 I was able to experience new-to-me spots in Asia, including a region in China I had never before heard of. Globalization certainly has both its advantages as well as disadvantages. One of the cons in our shrinking world is that, sometimes, travel doesn’t feel like exploration. Don’t get me wrong, the trips I take are all nice, but many are too easy. I love the sense of adventure and discovery that I get from a true exploratory travel experience, and so far China has provided those opportunities in abundance. On my most recent trip this same spirit revealed itself again, especially in Xishuangbanna. My first night in town, I visited the local night market where attendance was light due to some scattered storms. It provided me the chance though to explore without being bothered, learning more about the region in the process. I looked down at the wriggling bugs and then back up again at my guide and then back down at the bugs. Roasted corn, meat skewers and diced pineapple were all fine, but the worms I just couldn’t do. Just as I couldn’t ever manage to eat them in Thailand, where the night markets mirror the one I found in Jinghong almost completely. Set up in front of a massive, and I later learned new, temple, that religious site put into visual terms what I had been thinking all day. The overall design was Burmese, but the accents were a strange mix of both Lao and Thai elements. It was as if someone picked up the pieces from the region’s temples and smashed them all together. That’s what all of the temples in and around the city were like, a beautiful cross-cultural comingling of traditions that is actually rare to see, especially among temples in China. That night was a simple one, but the effect on me was profound. I once again felt like an adventurer, like I was learning something and it encouraged me to get out there and experience as much of this remarkable part of China as possible.
I like cruising and have been on a fair number of them over the years in nearly every corner of the world. Very recently though I enjoyed an experience that was new to me, a true luxury cruise with top-ranked line Crystal Ocean Cruises. While I have sailed on a few premium cruise lines, this was my first honest-to-goodness luxury experience and the trip was extraordinary in every way. Sailing from Puerto Vallarta to Los Angeles, we experienced the best of the Mexican Riviera – a part of the world completely new to me. Between exploring the vibrant destinations, I enjoyed unparalleled comfort and service onboard the newly refurbished Crystal Serenity. Enjoying a very spacious cabin, the accommodations were the best I’ve ever had at sea. Add in butler service, an all-inclusive experience and incredible attention to detail and you have a cruise experience that is totally unique. Now that I’ve experienced a true luxury cruise I understand the appeal and the difference between that and a more run of the mill cruise couldn’t be more extreme. Crystal creates trips that are memorable for all the right reasons and I can’t wait to sail with them again.
If you’ve been reading the site for a while then you already know that this year I became quite suddenly obsessed with Disney. I had my first Disney experience a few months ago at Disneyland and loved it so much I returned during the Christmas season. So much more than a simple theme park, Disney has come to mean a lot to me and it’s a phenomenon I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Life as an adult in the 21st century is hard. Mortgages, jobs, responsibilities and our electronic-tethers otherwise known as phones all conspire to make even our vacations more stressful than they should be. When I travel, I can’t escape anything, but in Disneyland that all changed. For a brief few days, I was able to forget almost everything challenging in life and instead just have fun. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have the real Disney experience as a kid, but I threw myself into the moment and was richly rewarded as a result. I’ve never had that much pure and innocent fun in my life. The honest and wholesome enjoyment that is Disneyland isn’t kitsch or corny; it’s fun at a base level. I’ve been to every corner of the planet and while I enjoy most trips, that level of fun is unheard of. It goes well beyond the attractions though, it’s about a feeling. For those two days I was able to be a kid again. I was able to have fun and to amuse myself without concern or fear. I think that’s what drives so many adults to visit in the first place, and most if not all are well rewarded as a result.
I’m very thankful for all of my 2018 travel experiences and can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store for me! Where do you plan to travel in the New Year?