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.
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  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.
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  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.

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  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!

The Intrigue of Iceland: The Hottest Cold Destination

Overlooking Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja.
Overlooking Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja.

I’ve been saying this since it flew to the top of my bucket list earlier this year, “Iceland is the hottest cold destination right now!” And it’s so true. In the last year, I’ve seen deal after deal on Iceland travel. Seven of my friends have visited recently. And never have I gotten as many likes, comments, and personal messages via social media as I did during my three days in Iceland. For some reason, this country that seems a world away is attracting serious attention. And as well it should—it’s freakin’ gorgeous!

There are merits to visiting Iceland any time of year, but I wanted to try my luck searching for Northern Lights in the winter. While we didn’t see them, I’d go back to Iceland in the winter again in a heartbeat—and in the summer, spring, and fall, too! All, separate trips, of course!

Looking out over Reykjavik after the first snowfall.

Looking out over Reykjavik after the first snowfall.

So, why did I pick Iceland for a quick holiday getaway?

Because it really is perfect for a long weekend. While there’s enough to consume weeks if not months of travel, you really can scratch the surface in a couple of days.

Everyone who has asked me about my trip has been shocked to hear that my drive to Newark airport took longer than the flight from there to Iceland (only about 4 hours). And airfare is stupid cheap. Earlier this year, Iceland-based Wow Airlines began offering flights from Boston and Washington D.C. for as low as $99 one way. $99 to get to Europe is completely unheard of.

We booked a deal through IcelandAir, which specializes in packages. This particular deal was $670 per person, including flight, hotel, and two activities (the Blue Lagoon and a Northern Lights boat tour). It was cheaper for Kyle and I to spend four days in Iceland than it was for one of us to fly to Rome earlier this year. I felt like I would lose money by not booking that deal! If you don’t have it already, I highly recommend downloading the TravelZoo app, which shares 20 top travel deals every Wednesday afternoon. That’s how I found this deal, and I’ve seen many more for Iceland.

If you’re interested in continuing on to mainland Europe, you can stop in Iceland for up to a week at no extra cost, which is pretty amazing! I love IcelandAir’s saying: “Some airlines give you miles; we give you time.”

Ah, Iceland!

Ah, Iceland!

So what do you do with a long weekend in Iceland?

The winter is a stunningly beautiful time of year to visit Iceland, but it also means you have very limited daylight during which to appreciate it. In November-January, the sun rises very late (a little before 11 a.m.) and starts to set around 3:30 p.m. It really is kind of bizarre to have such a short amount of light during the day—but the summer makes up for it with nearly 24 hours of daylight.

We maximized every moment the sun was up to take in the full beauty of the landscape.

Pristine after the first snowfall.

Pristine after the first snowfall.

First of all, if you’re going in the winter, try to see the Northern Lights. Book your tour the first night of your visit, and if you don’t see anything, you can keep going each night for free. Unfortunately for us, we went the first night of our trip and didn’t see anything, and tours for the next two nights were canceled because of weather. But try your luck! The best months for viewing are November through early-March.

The Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon.

The first day of our trip, we stayed close to Reykjavik since we had just flown overnight. If you can, book your Blue Lagoon experience for as early in the morning as possible. Flights get in very early, and most hotels won’t let you check in until 2 p.m. The Blue Lagoon is minutes from Keflavik Airport (and about 50 minutes from Reykjavik), so it’s the perfect place to spend the day relaxing after a long flight. They have on-site luggage storage, as well. And the very convenient FlyBus will take you directly there, the pick you up later to take you to your hotel.

Just outside the Blue Lagoon.

Walking through lava fields just outside the Blue Lagoon.

Just outside the Blue Lagoon.

Just outside the Blue Lagoon.

Just outside the Blue Lagoon.

Just outside the Blue Lagoon.

Just outside the Blue Lagoon.

Wow, pretty!

So, let’s talk about the Blue Lagoon.

It’s a geothermal spa, and one of the largest tourist attractions in Iceland. Some say it’s too touristy, but I say it’s perfection. The water temperature is 99-102°, and many claim that the high concentrations of silica and sulfur make the water have healing powers. I won’t speculate on that, but I can say—quite enthusiastically—that it has a revitalizing energy to it. I am not one to sit in a hot tub very long, but I stayed in the Blue Lagoon all afternoon, and felt the jetlag melt away.

Stay until it gets dark and feel like you’re completely alone in this steam-filled world where you can’t even see a foot in front of your face. It’s such a weird and wonderful experience! Plus, there’s a swim-up bar, so there’s that.

The Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon.

And let’s not forget Reykjavik itself!

You really don’t need more than a day to explore Iceland’s capital city. We completely lucked out and got to experience the city during its first snowfall of the season. Seeing everything coated in pristine snow was magical.

Sun Voyager Sculpture along the Reykjavik harbor.

Sun Voyager Sculpture along the Reykjavik harbor.

Loved this couple taking wedding photos there.

Loved this couple taking wedding photos there.

A little snow doesn't keep Reykjavik bikers down!

A little snow doesn’t keep Reykjavik bikers down!

Black Friday shopping, Reykjavik style!

Black Friday shopping, Reykjavik style!

If there’s one thing you should do in Reykjavik, it’s taking in the views of the city from the spire of Hallgrímskirkja, a gorgeous church in the center of town.

Overlooking Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja.

Overlooking Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja.

Hallgrímskirkja.

Hallgrímskirkja.

Hallgrímskirkja and a statue of Leifur Eiriksson, the first European to discover America.

Hallgrímskirkja and a statue of Leifur Eiriksson, the first European to discover America.

Check back soon for details on great day tours to take, including the Golden Circle Tour, a MUST when in Iceland!

 

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