My Top 18 Moments of 2018

This is the first time I’ve done a year-end round-up at the start of the next year, but with the bulk of our travel coming in December, I needed to hold out to tell you about the absolute best experiences of 2018. From road tripping Portugal and New Zealand to hiking through a river in a national park and flying over the Great Barrier Reef, 2018 was filled with some magical, memorable moments!

Waking up in Prague on New Year’s Day. Even though we were flying home that day, there’s nothing like ringing in a new year in a foreign country. We were lucky enough to start and end 2018 in far-flung destinations.

Charles Bridge in Prague.

Walking down to the breathtakingly beautiful beaches of the Algarve. Confession? I wanted to visit the Algarve Region of Portugal for one very specific reason: to take a boat ride inside Benagil Cave—a dreamy place that has adorned my desktop wallpaper and Instagram feed for years. Being the planner that I am, I researched nearby towns and things to do. I knew it was all about beaches, beaches, beaches. But gazing down at the beach outside our Airbnb—Praia da Dona Ana—I realized that no amount of time spent on Google Images could have prepared me for the jawdropping views this part of Portugal serves up.  

Climbing up to the storybook castles of Sintra, Portugal. And climb, you must—seemingly into the clouds. But being out of breath seems fitting for a place of such beauty. We visited the famed Pena Palace and the neighboring Castelo dos Mouros. Sintra is located an easily-accessible 30 minutes outside of Lisbon, but feels a world away.

Pena Palace

Discovering a hidden gem: São Miguel, the Azores. If there’s one word I’d use to describe Portugal, it’s “underrated.” And nowhere is that truer than in the Azores, a collection of nine islands some two hours west of Portugal, often called the Hawaii of the Atlantic. We visited SãoMiguel, the largest of the islands, again for one explicit reason: to glimpse the view from Miradouro da Boca do Inferno, an absolutely otherworldly spot you have to see to believe. But there was SO much more to this magical place.

Indiana Jonesing at a hidden waterfall. The moments of pure awe on this island were numerous, but one of our favorites was a trek through a lush, jungle-like setting, toward what, we weren’t exactly sure. Just when we were about to turn around, Kyle convinced me to walk a little further, and this beauty came into view.   

Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeiroes.

Airbnb for the win in the Azores! I love Airbnb, and I’ve stayed in some pretty awesome ones around the world, but the place we stayed in Vila Franca do Campo was over-the-top in every way. The accommodations were lovely, but the hospitality was unbelievable. Our incredible host stocked our kitchen with all kinds of treats from homemade dessert bread and rolls for sandwiches to sweet pineapple that grows on the island. And check out this view! Their chapel is modeled after the blue-domed churches of Santorini, a nod to their Greek heritage, and they hold weddings and events on site.

Seeing the Chihuly ceiling at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Vegas. I’ll admit it: I’ve always had a morbid curiosity when it comes to Sin City. When Kyle had to go to a conference there for the third year in a row, I cashed in some of my miles to go with him. While he was busy learning about computers—or something like that—I enjoyed a delightful spa day at the Bellagio. I have given many tours at The Corning Museum of Glass where I work, often noting the installations of Dale Chihuly’s art in crazy places around the globe—including the ceiling of the Bellagio. It was fun to finally see it in person. And yes—it was about the only thing I enjoyed in Vegas!

Getting wet on what has to be one of the most unique hiking trails in the U.S.: The Narrows. Walking through knee-deep water in a river only 20 to 30 feet wide in spots with thousand-foot cliff faces towering overhead is a surreal experience –but it’s the reason that countless people visit Zion National Park each year. It’s harder than it looks: dodging underwater rocks, trying not to faceplant, all the while remembering to look up and take in the enormity of it all.

Returning to Red Rock Country. It’s no secret we love Sedona, Arizona. We named our first puppy after this place, after all! And it was an absolute joy to visit a second time, spending a few days taking in the colors of the awe-inspiring red rocks. Here’s our complete guide from our first trip.

Seeing the Hollywood sign. I’m a big movie buff, and while I’ve never had a particular yearning to visit L.A., I didn’t turn down the opportunity to spend 24 hours there on the way to New Zealand. It was fun to see the Hollywood sign, Walk of Fame, and catch glimpses of some of the studios where movie magic is made during a whirlwind city tour.

Crossing the International Date Line and landing in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time. It was beyond exciting to see the International Date Line getting closer and closer on the in-flight map—and I purposely stayed awake to watch us cross it. I was beyond thrilled to bid adieu to snowy New York and say hello to warm late-spring temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere!

Nerding out in New Zealand. One of our first stops in New Zealand was Hobbiton, the fantastical village built for the filming of Lord of the Rings. Kyle loves the books and movies, and while I don’t see the appeal, I adored this colorful land built into a lush New Zealand hillside. Further explorations into Nerdom sent us to Gollum’s Pool, a gorgeous waterfall in Tongariro National Park, and WETA Workshop, the movie studio behind LOTR, Avatar, and many other movies.

Loving the Lupins in Lake Tekapo. Come for the stargazing, stay for the weeds. Yes, these gorgeous flowers that beckon tourists from their cars and into the fields are considered weeds in New Zealand! They only bloom in December and January, so I was thrilled that we chose the right time of year to venture to the shores of Lake Tekapo on the South Island. Many people flock here to gaze at the sky instead of the ground, as it’s one of the only International Dark Sky Reserves in the Southern Hemisphere. Although clouds prevented me from trying out my newly acquired star trail photography skills, we still did a few photoshoots in the lupins.

Flightseeing over Milford Sound and the Great Barrier Reef. I firmly believe one of the best ways to experience a new place is from the sky. Milford sound is quite a long drive from Queenstown, NZ, but a mere 35 minutes by plane—flying over lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains. With Air Milford’s “Fly/Cruise/Fly” package, we enjoyed two incredible flights and a nature cruise in between! A week later, we took a seaplane ride over Whitehaven Beach and the Great Barrier Reef on Christmas Day! Magic.

Christmas in the Whitsunday Islands. After a 14-day road trip through New Zealand, we knew we were going to want a low-key Christmas. Well, as low-key as being 10,000 miles away from home can get! The silica sands of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands had long been calling to me, so we booked a lovely stay at Coral Sea Resort in Airlie Beach—complete with sweeping sea views from a balcony boasting a hammock and hot tub. It was absolute perfection, and I can’t wait to go back.

Saying “g’day” to our exotic friends of Australia. Kangaroos, koalas, and cassowaries—oh, my! We spent an entire day at Taronga Zoo in Sydney and had the best time! It’s absolutely massive and so well done. I wanted to take home a koala friend.

Soaking in Sydney. This amazing city quickly jumped to the top of my “I have to live here someday” list. We were only in Sydney for three days—along with literally millions of other tourists for New Year’s—but I noticed the vibe immediately. There may be a ton of people around, but everyone is content to leisurely sip a drink or sit to take in the Opera House. Life is slower-paced, but you can tell that this place is happening. And the surrounding areas are gorgeous! We spent a day at Manly Beach with our globetrotter friends and could see why they choose to return here each year after months of travel.

Seeing fireworks explode over Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve. Need I say more? OMG, serious bucket-list material.

Bonus: Flying to Hawaii on January 1! If New Year’s Eve in Sydney isn’t good enough, New Year’s Day on O‘ahu (plus five more) is the icing on a very delicious cake.

Waikiki vibes.

Raw Beauty: Grand Canyon National Park

The beautiful Grand Canyon.
The beautiful Grand Canyon.

It’s at the top of every bucket list. The sheer vastness of it is incomprehensible. And, it’s been said that standing in its presence will make you believe in God.

I have to be honest. The Grand Canyon was always one of those places I knew I’d see one day, but it was never going to be the sole purpose of a trip for me. Arizona started calling to me the moment I saw pictures of the red rocks of Sedona, and it only made sense to venture a few hours north to the Grand Canyon.

The beautiful Grand Canyon.

The beautiful Grand Canyon.

It’s all true what they say. The Grand Canyon has to be one of the most remarkable places on earth. It has the power to change you. There are very few words to describe the way you feel standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, staring out for eternity. On a clear day, you can see for 50+ miles. It’s incomprehensible, truly. The way the light plays off the rocks, the clouds creating magical colors as they pass beneath the sun—it’s indescribably beautiful. And you can’t help but feel incredibly, unfathomably small.

You’d be insane not to appreciate the sheer power that the Grand Canyon holds. The fact that a river wended its way to form the deep canyon walls is extraordinary, to say the least. It’s almost like visiting Pompeii and seeing Vesuvius looming in the background. Only here, the Colorado River meanders along the canyon floor—seemingly miles away from your perch high above.

But for me, it was almost too much to take in.

The vastness of the Grand Canyon is mind blowing!

The vastness of the Grand Canyon is mind blowing!

What I’ll Do Differently Next Time

I’ve always been one who needs to taste, touch, and experience in order to appreciate something. I need to be completely immersed in it. And for me, standing at the top of the Grand Canyon, looking over, I felt removed. I felt as though I was looking at some insanely beautiful painting, in which the artist keenly understood how to capture the essence of light. You’ve seen those paintings—they’re vibrant and alive. That’s how this felt. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredible to witness, but it left me wanting more.

I need to stand at the bottom and gaze up. I should know this about myself. It happened in Switzerland when I took the most phenomenal train ride through the Alps. It happened again when I found myself on a boat in Alaska gazing up at the rock-solid wall of a glacier. Still once more in Hawaii when I sailed past the towering cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. And, of course, my heart absolutely sang when I stood at the foot of Sedona’s red rocks.

I naively thought it would be easy to walk down a trail into the Grand Canyon. I knew I wasn’t going far in an afternoon, but I wanted to go just far enough to be able to look back up and marvel at the canyon walls. There are plenty of tours that will take you into the Grand Canyon—probably most famously on a mule. I’m not a huge fan of horseback riding, so I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be for me either, but it’s definitely an option if you want to go beneath the surface of the canyon. Book well in advance, though!

I went white water rafting for the first time last December in Costa Rica and had an absolute blast! There are one-day rafting opportunities in the Grand Canyon—and, in fact, there’s basically any kind of rafting experience you want to have, up to 18 days! And if you’re really adventurous (which I am not at this point in my life), you can hike into the Grand Canyon with a guide, and stay a while—really digging into all the beauty that lies beyond what the eye can see from above.

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo by Mark Lellouch.

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo by Mark Lellouch.

Photo: Grand Canyon National Park’s photostream

Do Everything Within Your Power to Avoid Frustration

There’s nothing worse than setting yourself up for a miserable day. We arrived at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park around noon on a late-May day. Mistake No. 1. The line just to pay to get in the park ($30) was teeming with cars, and took the better part of an hour. Once in the park, I was beyond frustrated to discover how incredibly few parking spots there are for the general, non-camping, public. We drove around and around for over an hour, and finally had to move further down the rim, away from the Visitor’s Center, to find parking.

If you don’t arrive first thing in the morning, just bypass the craziness that is the main parking lot and move on to a secondary lot. Trust me, it will be OK. There is a free shuttle bus that has pick-ups at each parking lot along the rim, and stops every 15 minutes or so. We were able to get up to the Visitor’s Center with no problem. We could have saved ourselves plenty of frustration, tears (yes, tears!) and about a zillion curse words if we’d just moved along in the first place. There is very poor signage for the lots, which doesn’t help.

There are few things that make me as crazy as knowing how near I am to something incredibly beautiful and not being able to find a parking spot so I can get out of the car to go see it!

Make sure to bring lots of sunscreen and water. And I’d suggest packing a picnic instead of trying to buy food. You are in a park, after all.

You can see for miles.

You can see for miles.

Luckily All That Fades Away

There aren’t many places with the kind of profound, all-encompassing beauty that can make all those little frustrations disappear completely. As soon as we walked up to the rim at Mather Point—the first glimpse of the canyon for so many—everything that had been bothering us no longer seemed so important.

There, you are merely a fraction of a part of a much larger whole. And I’d venture to say there are few other places on earth were you are as keenly aware of that fact. It’s scary. It’s humbling. And it’s insanely powerful.

Taking it all in.

Taking it all in.

“True beauty cannot be expressed in words – something man created. True and utter beauty surpasses what’s tangible – it goes straight to the heart.”

Look for my next post where I’ll give you a glimpse at the best Grand Canyon lookouts!

Places

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon South Rim, Grand Canyon Village, AZ, United States

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon South Rim, Grand Canyon Village, AZ, United States
http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm
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