Top 15 Travel Moments of 2015

Gullfoss in Iceland
Gullfoss in Iceland

Each year, I like to reflect on the very best travel moments of the year. 2015 was a very well-traveled year for me. In November alone, I went on three trips. Throughout the year, I spent 45 nights in hotels and traveled on 27 planes. I visited five foreign countries, three continents, 18 cities, and nine UNESCO World Heritage sites.

How incredibly lucky am I?!

With only two weeks of vacation, I’ve somehow managed to spend a good chunk of my life living out of a suitcase. I can still have all the comforts of home—a nice apartment and a great job I love—but I have the ability to go out and experience the world. I’m happiest when I’m planning trips, gazing dreamily at maps, taking photos of a beautiful landscapes, and ultimately, setting foot on a plane to a new destination. It’s what I live for; it’s the part of my life that fulfills me the most.

So, let’s take a look at my top 15 travel moments of 2015:

Abroad:

  1. Revisiting Florence. It’s the place that opened my eyes to a larger world, and made me fall in love with travel. Florence and I will always have this strange, love/hate relationship, but I’ll never stop being grateful to it. It was beyond incredible to go back five years after I studied abroad there, and retrace my footsteps (sans map!) with a little time, perspective, and travel under my belt.
    Il Duomo
  2. Falling in love with Rome. I never saw that one coming, which made it one of the sweetest surprises of the year. When I visited Rome back in 2010, I was completely unenthused. It was loud, dirty, and busy—all the things I hated about Florence, only amplified. I reluctantly agreed to go back to Rome because Kyle wanted to see it, and because our Mediterranean cruise was leaving from a nearby port. Imagine my shock when I found myself eating spaghetti and sipping an Aperol spritz while staring in complete awe at the Pantheon. We spent hours walking around the city that evening, marveling at the glow of the ancient sites at night. That evening, Rome quickly became one of my favorite cities on earth.
    DSC00863
  3. Crossing Santorini off my bucket list. Greece had long held a top spot on my bucket list—and no place more so than Santorini. It’s the subject of every Pinterest travel board: the white-washed, blue-domed buildings of the glittering, volcanic island in the Mediterranean. The jewel in the Greek crown. The afternoon we spent there only left me wanting more. I know there’s a wall somewhere in Oia with my name on it, just waiting for me to come back and sit there to watch one of those famed sunsets.
  4. Setting foot on my third continent. I’ll admit I hadn’t done much research about our cruise port Kusadasi in Turkey. I was too excited about our two-day stay in Istanbul, which ended up being canceled. I felt like a typical uniformed tourist when three hours into our stop in port, someone welcomed us to Asia. How could I not know that 97% of Turkey is in Asia? (Istanbul is part of Europe). Although it still feels a bit like I’m cheating, saying I’ve been to Asia, I couldn’t have been more surprised by the sites I saw there. The ancient city of Ephesus was absolutely incredible, and I highly, highly recommend a visit there.
    Visiting Ephesus
  5. Spending an entire evening staring at the Eiffel Tower. Yes, it’s true—I spent hours of my brief time in Paris simply staring at the emblem of the city. It was the final day of three weeks in Europe. Kyle had gone home, and I’d moved on to France for a quick work trip. I had ten hours to spend in Paris before catching my flight home. I loved Paris during my first visit five years ago, and was even more enthralled this time. I went on a driving tour of the city, had dinner on the Seine, and visited the Eiffel Tower three separate times. Watching it sparkle in the night sky will never get old.
    DSC05211
  6. Witnessing the power of nature in Iceland. Untouched. Mighty. Pristine. Those are a few words I kept saying while in Iceland. Whether it was standing in the presence of a geyser, watching water careen over jagged cliffs, or soaking in the Blue Lagoon, the power of Mother Nature constantly surrounded and astounded me.

    This slideshow requires JavaScript.

     

  7. Standing on a beach on Thanksgiving Day. Who would have thought that I’d take my typical beach feet picture at the end of November on a black-sand beach during the middle of a graupel storm, while wearing three layers of thick socks and heavy boots? Certainly not me.

     

  8. Enjoying the first snowfall in Reykjavik. We didn’t know it at the time, but on our last day in Reykjavik, the city experienced its first significant snowfall of the year. Pristine doesn’t even begin to describe the beauty of the fresh snow by the harbor. We took a long walk that morning, marveling at the snow globe we seemed to be in.
    Looking out over Reykjavik after the first snowfall.

In the U.S.

  1. Gazing in wonder at the Red Rocks in Sedona. I just couldn’t seem to stare long enough to take it all in. The drive into the valley was one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever taken, the rocks getting higher and higher, redder and redder, around us. We spent three amazing days in Sedona at the beginning of our Arizona road trip, and we loved it so much, we went back for another night at the end. I think it’s true what people in Sedona say: “God created the Grand Canyon, but he lives in Sedona.”
    Enjoying the view from Chicken Point.
  2. Feeling small at the Grand Canyon. Catching my first glimpse of the monstrous expanse over the edge of the South Rim, I’d never felt so small in my life. Miles of painted nothingness—all carved by the seemingly meandering river at the bottom. Talk about the raw power of nature slapping you in the face! You realize what an insignificant place you occupy in the world, and yet somehow, you can’t help but feel grateful for the sheer privilege of just being there to take it all in.
    Taking it all in.
  3. Standing atop Horseshoe Bend. After a long hike from the parking lot, you’re rewarded with the most wondrous of sights. I’d seen pictures, but nothing could have prepared me for the inedible beauty of Horseshoe Bend, the 270-degree bend in the mighty Colorado River. It’s this kind of mystical place, hidden away in the middle of nature. Photographers and fellow travelers sat quietly in awe as the early evening light painted the walls of the canyon.
    Admiring the view.
  4. Watching the light shift in Antelope Canyon. I’ve wanted to go there since I saw the famed National Geographic cover. Two photogenic slot canyons (Upper and Lower) in the middle of Navajo land represent the quintessential American Southwest I longed to see. We visited the Upper canyon—the most popular and easiest to access. Spiral rock formations rise up around you as you make your way through the canyon. At high noon, light beams shoot down to the floor of the canyon, showcasing the fleeting beauty of moments in Antelope Canyon.

     

  5. Being wonderfully captivated by Chicago. I love nothing more than being completely surprised by a destination. I went on a work trip to Chicago in November, and while I was excited to go, I wasn’t expecting much out of the city. I knew about the giant, mirrored “bean” in a park, but that was about it. My first day there, I quickly became entranced with the architecture, attractions, and overall vibe of the Windy City, and I used every spare moment to soak it all in.
    Chicago
  6. Visiting the 9/11 Museum and Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. I’d been there before—this hallowed ground that holds such a significant place in all of our histories. It’s always sobering to visit there, watching the water fall into the seemingly bottomless reflecting pools demarking the exact footprints of the towers. This time, I visited the 9/11 Museum, a tasteful snapshot of the events of that day. My favorite part was seeing the massive installation by visual artist, Spencer Finch, called Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on that September Morning. It’s a massive work, compete with 2,983 individual squares of Fabriano Italian paper hand painted different shades of blue, representing every person killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. The museum was incredible, as was the view from the recently opened One World Observatory, where you really can “See Forever,” as their motto goes.

     

  7. Getting my first foray into travel photography. I’ve always loved taking phots of my travels, and have been wanting to gain a deeper understanding of photography for a long time. A week before my solo trip to NYC, I bought my first quasi-professional camera, the Sony a6000, and my new BFF. I’d always admired the HDR travel photography of Trey Ratcliff with Stuck in Customs, so I purchased one of his recommended cameras, and headed off to NYC where I’d join his photo walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d never been to that part of the city before, and after quite the struggle to figure out how to get out of Manhattan, I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets I’d ever seen. It was a great first introduction to a new part of the city—and my new camera—and since, I’ve really started to dive headfirst into the world of travel photography. And I love it!

     

    Here’s to more wonderful adventures in 2016!

Sparkling Santorini: To Cruise or Not To Cruise?

Santorini Blue.
Santorini Blue.

The gleaming Greek Island known for its white churches with blue domes and out-of-this-world sunsets has topped my bucket list for quite some time. It’s an endlessly romantic place. Oh, to bask in the Santorini sunshine while longing in an infinity pool overlooking the caldera and tiny sailboats dotted across the sprawling Mediterranean. It’s the picture of perfection. And it’s an ever-popular spot to flock to for your European holiday.

But there are so many ways to go about it! Once we set our sights on the sundrenched island for summer 2015, I started researching all possible ways to visit. Did we want to stay on the island for a few days, renting one of the classic cave hotels—which, by the way, can easily cost up to $800 per night. Did we want to opt for something a little less expensive? Oh, but this is Santorini! Shouldn’t we do it right the first time? And how long should we stay? If we were going to go all the way to Greece, shouldn’t we see more islands? And since we’re that close to Italy, I really want to go back to Florence. Well, since we’re nearby anyway, I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey. And…

You see my dilemma.

Oblivious of the incredible view.

Believe me, I spent hours researching every possible way to maximize that two-week vacation. In the end, we opted for the Greek sampler—a cruise with one day spent on each of several islands. That way, we could visit many places in a short amount of time, and could see where we’d like to spend more time someday. Big surprise—I want to go back to Santorini already!

Our cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection was an 11-night journey, round-trip from Rome. Our original itinerary included Santorini, Mykonos and Athens, but after canceling a call on Istanbul, the islands of Crete and Rhodes were added to fill the extra days. So we got to see a surprising amount of Greece—but still, I wish we’d had more time in Santorini.

Here’s what I recommend for cruisers—and what I would do differently if I were staying there.

Shore Excursion = Extra time on Santorini?

To call on Santorini, cruise ships need to tender (put the anchor down away from a dock, and bring people to shore aboard smaller boats). We were not planning to buy a shore excursion for Santorini, but on our particular cruise, we found out that the ship would make a stop at a dock so people who purchased excursions could board buses, and those without excursions would have to remain aboard until the ship moved on to its resting spot for the day. In the interest of having as much time on the island as possible, we purchased an excursion that included a stop at a winery, some time in the town I desperately wanted to see—Oia—and dinner in Fira. Ask the shore excursion desk if that’s the case if you want to cruise to Santorini.

I am certainly glad we booked the excursion, since I’m not sure how we would have managed to cover so much ground in such a short amount of time. We arrived at 2 p.m., and our ship was to sail away at 10 p.m. We heard from people who rented cars and had a great time, but for us, it was just easier to hop on the bus.

Santo Winery: Good wine, great view!

Santo Wines: Good wine, great view!

I was less than enthused about visiting Santo Wines at first, but once I saw the view, I was completely and utterly in love! And the wines were pretty darn good, too!

Go to Oia and Just Stay Forever!

From there, we drove to Oia (pronounced ee-ya), the most charming of the towns on Santorini. This drive took about half an hour, which really surprised me. You don’t necessarily think of Greek islands as having lots of ground to cover—or at least I didn’t—but that was another reason I was glad we booked the bus tour.

Oia, Santorini

In Santorini, all towns on the island are high above sea level, but Oia faces west and is known around the world for its spectacular sunsets. People gather by the droves to sit on any available wall to watch the sun sink into the water as the sky comes alive in vibrant shades of oranges and reds. Naturally, though, our visit was late-afternoon, and we only had a little over an hour to spend there.

I was on a mission—find those famous blue-domed churches of Oia that I’d seen in countless Pinterest pictures. It was about a 15-minute walk down a narrow pathway from where the bus dropped us off. Knowing I was working with a tight time frame, and still wanted to do some serious shopping in the dozens of galleries in Oia, I grabbed Kyle by the hand, and we forced our way down the path. We passed by all those gorgeous hotels I’d seen online—Andronis was particularly hard to race by without going in. It’s completely gorgeous! Someday…

Oh, Santorini.

Oh, Santorini.

We managed to snap a few pictures of the churches and walk up to the ruins of a Byzantine castle—which I imagine would by an idyllic place to watch one of those famed sunsets. Then it was time to power-shop and head back to the bus. If I were camping out on Santorini for a few days, though, this is where I’d pitch my tent—or rent my luxury resort. If you’re planning a trip to Santorini, trust me, stay here. You won’t be disappointed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fantastic Baklava, but Holy Cable Car Line!

Our last stop was in Fira, what is known as the “main” town of Santorini, presumably because its cable car takes literally thousands of cruise ship passengers to and from the island each day. Kyle and I enjoyed a piece of Baklava here, looking out over the caldera and our cruise ship.

Sunshine and Baklava

Sunshine and Baklava

We figured if we waited around, we might be able to catch a glimpse of the sunset from here. We took a lovely stroll, and continued to shop before we realized that the line for the cable car was absolutely enormous!

It was about 8 p.m., and we knew that if we waited any longer to get in line, we might not make it back to the ship in time. (Don’t listen to the guide who tells you to jump in line around 9:30, and you should be fine. We so would have been trying to figure out how to catch the next ferry to Mykonos!) When we checked the line around 7-7:30 p.m., it was almost non-existent, so we walked around a bit more. And all of a sudden, it grew out of nowhere. If you have to get off the island at night, go down earlier rather than later, and try to watch the sunset from the top deck of the ship.

So, there we stood for the last 90 minutes of our time on the island—and I imagine people stand there longer most nights. There was only one other ship in port with us that day. I can’t imagine how long that line would be with 4-5 ships’ worth of passengers. Let’s just say, it’s not exactly the way I’d like to cap off a beautiful day in one of the most romantic places on earth. Just do yourself a favor and don’t be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of your new closest friends as the sun sets on the other side of the island.

View from Fira

View from Fira

Start Planning Your Return Trip Before You Even Leave

Standing in line, missing our Santorini sunset, Kyle and I started plotting our return, and how differently we’d do things next time. Santorini was the only stop on our cruise that left me wanting so much more. I am glad we did the Greek island “sampler,” if for no other reason than to know that Santorini is pure magic, and that it can’t be appreciated in a few hours, let alone a few days.

Santorini by night

Santorini by night

I mean, just look at this place! And so, Santorini remains at the top of my bucket list.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Going Back to Europe Five Years Later

Florence as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Florence as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the journey I embarked upon five years ago today would change my life forever. After hugging my family goodbye, and waiting anxiously to board a plane for the very first time, I settled into my seat and gazed out over the ocean—wondering what the heck I had just done.

Two days before my 21st birthday, two friends and I left for our study abroad in Florence, Italy. It was my first true travel experience. Sure, I’d taken a road trip or two back in the states, but no one in my family was much of a traveler, so it was never a big part of my life. I was so hesitant to go. It was my last semester of college, and I either needed a 12-credit internship stateside to graduate, or a study abroad. My roommates were going to Italy, and talked me into it, as well. I owe them both one enormous debt of gratitude.

I won’t pretend like it was the easiest four months of my life—it certainly wasn’t. It was filled with a lot of homesickness, drama between friends, and anxiety that comes with being 4,000 miles away from your mom for the first time. But it was a time filled with great adventure. It’s the single period in my life that I look back on with the fondest of memories. It was a time marked by courage and self-discovery—and it set something in motion that can never be undone. It was during this trip that I became hopelessly—eternally—addicted to travel.

And I’m SOOO excited to be going back!

I was thinking the other day that with as much traveling as I’ve done throughout Europe, I’ve technically only been there once. Let’s be real, I know I haven’t even scratched the surface yet, but 10 countries in 16 weeks was still a lot of ground to cover.

So, where are we going for this epic 3rd-anniversary trip?

The first stop will be Rome. It’s a city that I didn’t particularly like the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place, but sometimes it’s hard to look beyond the hordes of tourists. I am desperately going to try this time. Kyle hasn’t been there yet, so I’m curious to see if I end up liking Rome through his eyes. I have a few very distinct memories I want to relive—the awesome gelato near the Trevi Fountain, standing in front of the Colosseum at night, and dining near a large building with a hole in the roof—and we wondered how they kept the floor dry when it rains. Naturally we later found out it was the Pantheon. College students at their very finest, folks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Next, we board the Celebrity Reflection bound for Greece and Turkey. I have been dreaming about the white-washed cityscape of Santorini for the last year. We debated spending most of our vacation on Santorini alone, but we knew we wanted to see more places—and a cruise seemed like the only realistic way to do that with limited vacation time. We’ll also get to explore Mykonos and Athens.

Photo: Maggie Meng

I am so excited to be heading to Istanbul on this cruise, too! It’s a city Kyle has wanted to see for a long time. It was never that high on my lengthy bucket list, but now that we’re headed there, I’m thrilled! Hopefully Kyle will be able to pry me away from Christmas shopping at the Grand Bazaar long enough to appreciate the beauty of the ancient sites.

Photo: Moyan Brenn

We are also stopping in Ephesus, Turkey, and Naples, Italy, before heading back to Rome. Kyle is so excited to see Pompeii (although I desperately wanted to return to Capri, but I’m letting him have this one!) He convinced me to go there by saying that studying these ancient ruins was what made him first want to be an archaeologist. That worked out well for him.

Vesuvius seen from Pomepii.

Vesuvius seen from Pomepii.

Once the ship docks back near Rome, we immediately hop a train bound for Firenze. It’ll be a whirlwind as we only have one night to spend there, but I didn’t want to be that close and not go to the city that changed my life. I look back and realize how little I appreciated it. Hate is a strong word, but I really didn’t like Florence. It was the place I had to go back to every Sunday. It was the place where I did homework and boiled pasta. It was the place I got stuck in tourist groups and was harassed by gypsies and vendors on the way to school. It was dirty. It was loud. It was home. And you never truly appreciate where you live. Nothing has taught me that more than working in tourism for my home region these last five years. I am excited to return to this city with a fresh perspective. I’m more than ready to begin my love affair with what is often called the greatest city in the world.

Florence after four months.

Florence after four months.

After Florence, it’s back to Rome for one night before saying goodbye to Kyle for a couple of days while I head to France for work. Each year, we take a hot glass stage over to Domaine de Boisbuchet, a design workshop in southern France, and I’m so excited to see this in action. I’ve heard so much about the laid-back vibe and inspiring collaborations. I won’t even be there for 48 hours, but it will be a great experience. Then it’s on to Paris for one night of some whirlwind exploration before hopping on a plane to Rome early the next morning to catch another flight back to New York.

Paris circa 2010.

Paris circa 2010.

It’ll be an amazing couple of weeks. Make sure to follow along on social media! I’ll be sharing lots of beautiful pictures on Instagram @bytesizetravel.

%d bloggers like this: