2018 is now officially over, thank goodness, and since this is the start of the New Year I thought I would share some of my top travel picks for 2019. Some are obvious choices, others a little more unexpected but all are amazing places to discover for one reason or another. Also, these are in NO PARTICULAR ORDER. I don’t want to see anyone complaining that one destination is ranked higher or lower than another one; they all have my love and admiration.
I explored a lot of my own country in 2018, travel experiences that I didn’t know I needed. These trips though were perhaps my most important of the year as they brought into focus the realities of the US in 2018. As it turns out, things aren’t nearly as bad as those of us who live along the coasts think and driving across America was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. While I had the opportunity to visit many different parts of the country, the most memorable adventure was driving the entirety of Route 66. More than enjoying the kitschy appeal of decades long past, the most important aspect of the drive was meeting new people along the way. Turns out the country isn’t the seething cauldron of anger that the news media would have us believe, far from it. No, instead I found people living their lives just like anyone else, and also taking pride in the communities they call home. It’s important I think for everyone, American or not, to leave behind them the glittering cities along the coastal edges and instead delve deeper into the US, to learn what really makes us tick and to have a lot of fun along the way. Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque and many other cities are all fantastic places to spend some time exploring, and they’ll teach you more about what it means to be American along the way.
I’ve been to Iceland several times now, each trip focusing on a different region of the country. It has very quickly become one of my favorite places to visit for any number of reasons, including how much fun it is to explore. For the best experience though in Iceland, I firmly believe that visitors need to leave the capital city and venture out into the countryside, especially the somewhat-remote northern areas. 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.
A year ago I would never have imagined that I’d be adding India to this list, but my first experience there earlier this year convinced me that everyone needs to visit at least once in their lives. Like many other would-be tourists, I was nervous about the experience. I’d heard such mixed opinions from friends that I didn’t know what to expect. Traveling with luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent though, not only did I enjoy the trip of a lifetime, but I did so in style and comfort. Based on the many accounts of traveling to India I’d read over the years, I was prepared for a level of chaos akin to a dystopian novel. So, imagine my surprise when I instead discovered a country like many others around the world. Is it chaotic? Yes. Is it loud? Yes, and if I never hear another car horn again I’m ok with that. But it’s no different from many other countries I’ve visited around the world in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia. It’s not as fearsome as I thought it would be. India is a developing nation of 1.3 billion people. There is a stark divide between the rich and the poor, although the middle class is growing like gangbusters at the moment. There are issues, I’m not disputing that and I’m not trying to portray a Pollyannaish image that’s inaccurate. No, instead I do believe that some accounts of India have been grossly off the mark and I think I know at least one reason for that. Many people visit India only briefly, there to see top sights like the Taj Mahal. If your only experience visiting India are the cities of Agra (where the Taj is located) and the capital city of Delhi then no, you won’t have positive impressions of the country. However, if you veer off into other areas of the country like I did with Abercrombie & Kent, then a more complete and robust image of the country will start to form. As a result, I enjoyed nearly everything I did during my 9 days in India and firmly believe it’s a destination everyone should try to experience.
Aran Islands, Ireland
Ireland will probably be on this list every year that I write it, but this time I want to add a specific destination within the Emerald Isle, the Aran Islands. 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.
Swabia and Bavaria, Germany
I’ve been fortunate enough to have explored many different regions of Germany, enjoying every new adventure. I’ve spent the most time though in Southwest Germany, and it’s a part of the country I have come to know and truly love over the years. Starting in Frankfurt there are many large cities and small hamlets that are perfect for visitors, from Stuttgart and Munich to Augsburg and Freiburg. The history and architecture always interests me, but so does the food and in Swabia you’ll find something a little different, but also comforting and delicious. 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.
One of my first vacations as a very young professional was a cruise and since then I’ve been on scores of sailings in nearly every part of the world. It’s not how I always travel, but I do enjoy taking at least one a year. Cruises can at times have a bad reputation, mostly from people who have never been on one which is unfortunate, but I understand their concerns. As an independent traveler I shared their worries, but cruise after cruise has shown me that the experiences can be both fun and immersive. That’s because there are so many different types of cruises that, yes, there really is one for every type of traveler. Not every ship is a 4,000-person megaship – far from it. Some of my favorite travel experiences have been on small and medium sized ships as we explored different corners of the world. From rough and tumble expedition cruising in the polar regions to Christmas market river cruises to a luxury cruise in warm, languid waters, cruises take many different forms but, I think, they’re a great travel option and I would encourage you all to consider taking one in the not-so-distant future.
Honestly, I never expected to enjoy Macao as much as I did. I wanted to visit because I hadn’t been there, but that’s about it. As I learned though, there’s a lot to love about the city as long as you leave behind those gaming tables and massive casinos. I think it’s a great addition to this list because of the incredible history waiting to be discovered, as well as some of the best meals you’ll ever enjoy. I’m a history buff and I especially love visiting new-to-me UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is probably why I enjoyed my time exploring the historic center of Macao so very much. The entire old town is designated as a UNESCO site for a variety of reasons. Once a Portuguese territory, the foreign presence has thankfully been preserved throughout the centuries, presenting visitors with a city that feels more like Europe than Asia. Macao was also a strategically important city for a very long time and a center of trade between Europe and Asia. This history and the traditions that accompany it are thankfully all very much alive in Macao, and easy for the casual visitor to experience.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
I enjoyed my time in Northern Ireland more than I thought I would and a lot of that is thanks to the fascinating city of Belfast. Twenty years ago, Belfast was as far away from being a tourist destination as any place could be, but today it’s enjoying a revival as more and more visitors discover what makes it truly special. The Titanic experience is fascinating and an entire day could be spent exploring the museum on the site of where the doomed ship was originally built. But there’s a lot more to the city than the Titanic, and taking a walk through Belfast’s many neighborhoods is a fun way to learn more about the city. Visitors should take a Black Cab Tour to learn about the history of The Troubles, visit the Titanic Museum and try some of the new restaurants that keep popping up featuring some of the best food anywhere in the British Isles.
I know, I know, I’ve been talking about my two experiences at Disneyland this year a lot, but there’s a reason for that. My first time at any Disney property, I enjoyed myself far more than I would have expected and while I recognize visiting may not be for everyone, I would encourage you all to consider one of the many different Disney experiences around the world. Because, although I haven’t tried them all yet, I am positive that they too are able to capture something that is rare in the travel experience – true joy. 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.
This is the one place on the list that I haven’t personally visited yet, but I hope to in 2019 for many reasons, not the least of which is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The Normandy landings were the landing operations on Tuesday, 6 June 1944 of the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. Codenamed Operation Neptune and often referred to as D-Day, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history and since this is an anniversary year, the region is doing a lot to celebrate. In addition to D-Day though, I’ve always wanted to visit Normandy for its quiet towns, incredible history, gorgeous landscapes and sites like Rouen and Mont-Saint-Michel, which look stunning. If Normandy has also been on your travel to-do list, then this just might be the year to visit.
Most people think that Iceland is the only place to experience the Northern Lights, but in Norway’s Arctic Circle is the real Northern Lights Capital of the world. The small town of Alta is like visiting a real world Northern Exposure, and the beautiful landscapes and active adventures draw thousands to this town every year. If you visit in the winter, then be sure to book at least one night in the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, where everything is made of ice.
Ever since my first trip to Thailand many years ago, I have truly loved this part of the world. Also traveling around Laos and Myanmar, that love has only grown over the years and was expanded upon this year when I visited the Chinese side of the Golden Triangle in Xishuangbanna or just Banna. Thanks to its spot in extreme Southeastern China, Banna is completely unlike any other spot in the country. Located adjacent to the Golden Triangle, neighboring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are very close and, other the years, that’s meant a fluid border with a lot of cross-cultural sharing. Exploring more of the region, the buildings all look Thai, the smells are Thai – everything about the place screamed Chiang Mai instead of China. It was an odd sensation, one that I never expected but one that I dearly enjoyed.
I love Australia, a lot. So much that more than once I’ve seriously looked into relocating to the Land Down Under. Until I can figure out the immigration rules I’ll just have to manage with visits to this remarkable continent, including one of my favorite states – Queensland. Queensland is what I usually call Australia in a nutshell. The state has everything a visitor could want from the dusty outback and rural ranches to stunning coastlines and even rainforests. There are also some fun cities and towns to visit including Brisbane, Cairns and Port Douglas. Visitors should go to Queensland to swim along the Great Barrier Reef, enjoy some fun in the sun on the Gold Coast, trek into the Daintree Rainforest and be amazed by the stunning surprises around every bend in the road.
No, Colombia probably isn’t what you think it is; it’s so much more. I’m not entirely sure what I expected before first visiting, but I was pleasantly surprised at almost every turn. Delicious food (and coffee), gorgeous landscapes, vibrant cities, there’s a lot to love about Colombia, but when you visit you have to visit more than one place. Spend time in Bogota and Cartagena, but also in the rural coffee growing regions with small but colorful villages dotting the hills. You’ll leave just as enamored by this South American country as I was and also vowing that your first visit won’t be your last.
The South Pacific 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. Visitors should go to enjoy a cruise around the islands, spend the night (or 7) in an overwater bungalow on Bora Bora and take the time to look past the beach chairs and learn more about real Polynesian culture.
I vacillated on whether or not to include Egypt, but I think that it’s such an important country to visit it simply has to be on this list. The first modern tourist destination, the wonders of Egypt have called to travelers around the world for generations. And with good reason, the monuments and sites so well preserved aren’t just nice to behold, they are world wonders in every sense of the term. Traveling through Egypt, the entire experience from Cairo to Aswan was much better than I had expected, but the real highlight of course was visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza. Located close to modern day Cairo, these massive monuments to power have been amazing visitors since the moment they were first built, popping up even in Ancient Greek and Roman travel guides of the day. Standing there immediately in front of them it was hard to mentally reconcile the fact that I was actually there. Having seen them in books, magazines and movies all of my life, it was hard to consider the fact that I was there at that moment in time. Since tourism is so low right now, there weren’t many other tourists around me, creating a special and rare moment of privacy, allowing for some introspection and time to fully grasp the importance of the moment.
The state doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves and now ranks as one of my favorite destinations on the planet. It has everything I love: it’s a little remote, it’s incredibly gorgeous and interesting in a way that is very unique. While I’d love to visit and do a land-based journey, cruising is the perfect way to experience as much as possible in a short time frame. Alaska is immense and seeing it from a ship enables visitors to experience a variety of different towns and remote outposts. 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 and admiring the views. All together, that makes cruising around Alaska the ideal first introduction to the state.
To be fair, there’s just such an incredible diversity of places to visit in Northern England that a trip could be enjoyed assembling any number of different cities and towns. I just happened to visit Manchester and York, which is what I want to share today. Although they’re separated by a short and easy 1.5-hour train ride, the two cities could not be more different, offering a great balance for would-be travelers. York I always knew I’d love but Manchester won me over when, frankly, I wasn’t so sure. Together they’re a fun way to explore Northern England as a stand-alone trip, or added to a longer adventure.
I was fortunate early on in my blogging career that I had the opportunity to visit South Africa on several occasions, creating a deep love for the country in the process. It’s been several years since my last visit but that love certainly hasn’t diminished; if anything absence has only made it grow stronger. While I’ve enjoyed every area of the country I’ve visited, there’s one city that has an extra special place in my heart – Cape Town. 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.
What is on your 2019 travel wish list?