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 2019.
I’m not normally the type of person who enjoys long days spent on the beach, but in 2019 I found myself enjoying a variety of island escapes that were perfect in nearly every way, but one was just a little more special than the others. I was on the Caribbean island of Nevis to spend some time at the incredible Four Seasons Nevis – as idyllic a retreat as one could hope for. I discovered a lot more than a luxurious resort though, I very quickly became entranced by the island itself. Although Nevis is not a large island, the landscapes do vary widely and no matter where I ventured I was constantly amazed by the island’s inherent beauty. There are plenty of spots throughout the US, Mexico and Caribbean if all you want is a sunny beach. If you’re like me though and want an experience that feels unique, personalized and even adventurous, then Nevis is one of the best options. Thanks to the small size of both the island and the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, nothing feels prepackaged or formulaic because, well, it’s not. This is not your massive industrial-style resort experience, this is a calming and restorative travel experience that is unlike many others in the Caribbean.
Sailing the North Atlantic
Usually my trips are carefully selected and well-planned out, but that was certainly not the case with what is the most unusual cruise I’ve ever been on. Inspired by a documentary on the Discovery Channel, as soon as I learned about the cruise-ferry that sails from Denmark to the Faroe Islands and Iceland every week I knew I had to book it. A cruise-ferry is not your normal cruise, or your normal ferry for that matter. It combines aspects of both in what is admittedly a very strange marriage of convenience. Ferrying hundreds of tourists, aspects of the ship are very much like a traditional cruise ship, although a more spartan version of it. The ship also very much fulfills an important role for the Faroe Islands though in providing an all-too important trade link with the outside world. For me, it was the best possible way to first visit the Faroe Islands, as well as revisit one of my favorite countries – Iceland. The week was just as much fun as I had hoped it would be and while it’s probably not a style of travel I would repeat, it was an exciting way to experience the North Atlantic.
I feel as if I’m running the risk of talking about the National Parks too much, but I can’t believe that would ever be possible. Very accurately called America’s Best Idea, the 419 sites included in the National Park Service system aren’t only unparalleled in the country, but the world. I was fortunate to visit a number of them in 2019, but one of my favorite experiences was exploring Arches National Park in Utah. Arches was first designated a National Monument in 1929 and then a Park in 1971; the massive 76,000 acre site recognized for the more than 2,000 sandstone arches that grace its lands. The most famous, Delicate Arch, even adorns the Utah license plate and driving to the park itself it’s hard not to be enthralled by the natural beauty of the region. Arches National Park though is about so much more than its namesake geology, there also exists around the park enormous formations that look like the handiwork of the gods. Spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and eroded monoliths are all strewn about the landscape, creating a red rock diorama that looks more like Mars than anywhere on Earth.
Budapest Retro Tour
I sailed with river cruise company Avalon Waterways in 2019, enjoying an active adventure along the Danube. One of my first experiences happened though before I even joined the ship, a unique adventure in Budapest. The idea of exploring Budapest’s Communist past all while driving around in a vintage Trabant sounded like the perfect mix of active and historical immersion. Picked up in a 80s-era Trabant, our guide spent the afternoon taking us to a variety of different spots around Budapest, all the while sharing not just the history of the Communist era, but his own personal experiences as well. Whether it was touring a ruin bar, enjoying a spritz at the Trabant bar or walking through a grove of Communist-era statues, the afternoon was as educational as it was fun.
Most people don’t associate Germany with islands but as I learned this year there are some fairly incredible islands just off the coast of Germany, including Juist. To be clear, Americans may be surprised to learn about Germany’s islands, but they’ve been well known to European tourists for a long time, and with good reason. Juist in particular is a remarkably special place thanks in large part to the absence of any motorized vehicles That’s right, motorized transportation is not allowed on Juist, which means that the only way to get around is by bike, foot or horse-drawn carriage. Rather than an annoyance, it’s a wonderful way to slow down and truly connect with the destination in a way that’s normally impossible to do. Add to that great food and beautiful beaches and this is one vacation spot for your travel to-do list.
For me, Disney is about so much more than just enjoying a theme park, it’s a type of travel immersion that’s hard to replicate. Spending time in the parks – any of them – is one of the few times I feel as if everything is truly ok in the world. I leave my adult worries at the front gate and in return I enjoy a type of pure and innocent joy that is nearly impossible to find anywhere else. This year I’ve visited three of the parks around the world, including Disneyland Paris. In a departure from my normal way of traveling, I did very little research before visiting, which made those wonderful Disney surprises even more special. The two parks that comprise Disneyland Paris aren’t huge and everything can be done in a day or two, but visiting it is absolutely worth it, even if you have just a passing interest in Disney.
There are strange and curious omissions in my travel list and the Florida Keys were high up there until a few months ago when I thankfully had the opportunity to visit. All of the keys were naturally amazing, but Key West is very much at the heart of the experience. Long regarded to be one of the most remote and strangest spots in the country, generations of acceptance and weird individuals has come together to create a fantastically wonderful place. If you love history, there’s no shortage of it from railroad tycoons to Presidential homes. Natural beauty is of course everywhere and getting on the water as often as possible is strongly recommended. Regardless of the reason you visit, just make sure you do.
Harry Potter in London
I’ve enjoyed the Harry Potter books and movies since they were first published, but I would never consider myself fanatical about the series. I like them, but I don’t own a wand and I have never played Quidditch; in other words, I’m a normal person. So I wasn’t exactly sure what I would think of the Harry Potter experience in London but I certainly didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did. Prescient individuals thankfully saved everything from the production of the movies, most of which is preserved in the remarkable Making of Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio tour experience just outside of London. This could easily take a full day to properly enjoy and instantly became one of my favorite experiences in London.
My only regret with visiting Portugal is that it took me so long to first visit what is an extraordinary destination. It’s not that I avoided Portugal, far from it, but the stars just never aligned until I joined a river cruise on the Douro River just a few weeks ago. To be clear, Portugal is a very unique and distinct destination that is thankfully unlike any other spot in Europe. I think I thought it would be like Spain, but that’s certainly not true. The people are the nicest I’ve met in Europe, the food is incredible, the cities vibrant and alive and the natural beauty incomparable. Whether you decide to take a river cruise or explore on your own, just make sure to explore sooner rather than later.