My Top 17 Travel Moments of 2017

Vatican City
Vatican City

I always love looking back on my favorite travel moments of the year. And wow, wow, WOW! By 12/31, I will have visited 13 countries this year—and France twice! Eight of these were new for me. That’s a pretty impressive amount of travel on three weeks of vacation, if I do say so myself!

As luck would have it, we still have more adventures to enjoy this year, as we’re off on a Viking River Cruise next week, but here are my top 17 highlights from this year so far. I’ve listed them in the order that they happened, since it’s simply too hard to rank them in order of awesomeness!

1. Giving the World for Christmas
One of my very favorite travel moments of 2017 happened right at the end of 2016, when we surprised Kyle’s parents with a trip to Paris and Rome for Christmas—and to celebrate their 30th anniversary. I’d always imagined how incredible it would be to literally “give someone the world” for Christmas, and we actually got to do it, thanks to an incredible TravelZoo deal. Kyle and I hadn’t really traveled with another couple before, but we had a blast exploring with his parents for a week. I was so excited to show them my two favorite cities on earth. We made memories to last a lifetime—or at least until our next trip together!

2. Capturing Memories with Flytographer in Paris
Speaking of memories, another part of the gift we gave to Kyle’s parents was a photo session with Flytographer in Paris. I love having professional pictures taken, since you otherwise have to rely on kind strangers who, let’s face it, often have lackluster photography skills. 2017 was their 30th anniversary and our 5th, so we decided to celebrate with a romantic photo shoot in the city of love. The photography session was lots of fun, and we got a variety of pictures in several locations. I’d do another Flytographer session again in a heartbeat!

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3. Digging a Little Deeper in Paris
I ticked a few more sites off my Paris bucket list this year: Sainte Chapelle and its phenomenal stained-glass windows, and Palais Garnier and its gold-drenched interior. What spectacular places! I could have stayed in the main hallway of Palais Garnier for an entire day, marveling at every intricate detail. Another goal for this year was to make it to the top of one of my favorite buildings in Paris: Notre Dame. I wanted to get a gargoyle’s-eye-view of the city, and it certainly didn’t disappoint!

4. Finally Kissing My Husband in the City of Love
On my third trip to the greatest city on earth, I finally got to take my husband!!! Cliched though it may be, I’ve always wanted to kiss him by the Eiffel Tower and walk hand-in-hand under its sparkle by night.

Flytographer

Flytographer

5. Third Time’s a Charm in Rome
What can I say? Rome, I was so very wrong about you the first time I visited. It keeps getting better and better. My third visit solidified Rome as one of my favorite cities in the world. It certainly helped that this time, we saw the sights the right way! I booked a private tour of Vatican City through Roman Candle Tours, and our guide, Elisa, met us an hour before the museum opened. Standing in the Sistine Chapel with a handful of people instead of hoards, and actually having each painting’s significance explained to us made a world of difference. I had also requested to visit the Mosaic Workshop, typically off-limits to the public, but because of my glass connections, I was desperate to see it. Elisa set it up, and it was phenomenal. We enjoyed her company so much that we booked a Colosseum and Roman Forum tour with her the next day—made all the more special because she had earned her Ph.D. in archaeology working at the Roman Forum. The stories she told brought everything to life.

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6. Our First European Road Trip
I’ve been to Europe a number of times, visiting 20+ countries, but until this year, I’d never taken a European road trip. I was pretty terrified to drive in Europe, but come to find out, it’s super easy—if not altogether better—than in the U.S. Let me clarify: We were driving from Amsterdam to Zurich, passing through Belgium, France, and Luxembourg along the way. There are still places I probably wouldn’t drive in Europe (cities in Italy, much of Eastern Europe, etc.), but our journey through Western Europe was incredible. And everything is SO close! When we mapped out the trip, we kept tacking on cities, as the next place we wanted to go happened to only be an hour or two from the last. Such a vast difference from road tripping in America.

Road Trip!

Road Trip!

7. I Adore Amsterdam!
I’d always heard one thing about Amsterdam: You either love it or you hate it. The Venice of the North had been on my bucket list for quite a while, and a springtime $400 flight made it a possibility. I kept my expectations at bay, but as we Ubered to our Airbnb in Jordaan, I quickly found myself falling for the place. The whole city seemed to be bicycling along the houseboat-lined canals that lazily twisted their way through the heart of Amsterdam. Add in all the cheese and windmills at Zaanse Schans, and I became thoroughly entranced. Until next time, stay beautiful, Amsterdam!

8. Easter + Tulips in Amsterdam = Perfection
I’ve dreamed about visiting the tulip fields in the Netherlands for a very long time. This was the year! Spending five hours at Keukenhof Tulip Gardens was the most picture-perfect way to spend Easter—about 700 pictures, actually! I had so much fun photographing the colorful flowers and basking in the beauty of nature that day.

Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

9. Tracing WWII History through Belgium and Luxembourg
A history buff I am not, but my dear husband has a particular passion for WWII history. When planning our European road trip, we realized how close we could be to some points of interest that Kyle never thought he’d be able to visit—like Ghent where the giant altarpiece taken by the Nazis and recovered in a mine is now on display. It was the subject of the movie “Monuments Men.” He also never envisioned he’d be able to make it to Bastogne, the site of a key WWII battle and now home to the Bastogne War Museum, which I must say was a surprisingly extensive place. Our last stop on this journey through history was the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial where Kyle found General Patton’s grave, and those of so many others who had died in the Bastogne region and beyond. Standing in that quiet cemetery offered a moment of tranquility after several days of somber learning.

Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial

Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial

10. Quelle Surprise! Discovering the Alsace Region of France
Little town, it’s a quiet village… While most people went to theaters to watch Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast this year, I road tripped through some of the quaint French towns that inspired the movie in the first place. (And yes, I went to the theater, too). We were at a crossroads: To spend a day in the Black Forest of Germany, or drive through tiny towns in Alsace, France? On a recommendation from a coworker (merci, Ellen!), we decided to visit Riquewihr—and Obernai and Eguisheim courtesy of our concierge in Strasbourg. Wow, are we glad we did. It was the most idyllic day! I had been longing to see Colmar—our overnight destination—thanks to Pinterest, but we would have missed out on so much beauty had we not gone to these other towns. We’re already planning a return trip—and we’ll be adding Kaysersberg next time—voted 2017’s favorite French village.

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11. Parlez vous anglais?
I consider myself to be fairly well-traveled, but 2017 was the first time I’d ever been to a place where truly no one spoke English. It was in Obernai, Alsace, France, and we were ordering breakfast. I had to rely on pointing and smiling to order my Black Forest Cake—oh yes, for breakfast. Later that day, I used Google translate to ask a question in a Christmas shop. I loved it. I think everyone needs to feel slightly uncomfortable once in a while; to be the minority in a particular place. I think it gives you a newfound appreciation for the universal language of the smile and basic human decency—something the world seems to be severely lacking in this year. Strip language away and try to understand each other—you’ll realize we’re not all that different.

Why yes, this is real life!

Amazing Alsace!

12. Switzerland: Is this real life?!
It’s a definite possibility that the Jungfrau Region is the most stunning place on earth. Seven years ago when I studied abroad, one of my roommates planned a weekend trip to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland—one town up the mountain from Interlaken. I did absolutely zero research before getting on the train. I remember we arrived well after dark, and went straight to the hostel. In the morning, we walked outside and there was a freaking waterfall in front of us! And thus began my great love affair with Switzerland. I had no idea how or when I’d ever get back to this magical spot, but I knew it needed to happen—none of this “once-in-a-lifetime stuff.” I just never imagined it would be a mere seven years later. Next time: paragliding!

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13. Long Weekend in Lake George
As eager as I am to explore new places, 2017 saw us returning to a lot of old favorites. Lake George, NY, was the very first place we ever vacationed together as broke college kids who would scrape together $600 to take advantage of an amazing deal at a luxury timeshare property in the Adirondacks at the end of each school year. (I still think the “Call Off” is a great travel bargain!) We won a weekend getaway package to Lake George at the New York Times Travel Show this year, and took advantage of it in the fall when the foliage was spectacular.

Lake George, NY

Lake George, NY

14. Have Pups, Will Travel
We don’t travel as light as we once did. This year, we picked up a little extra baggage in the form of the most adorable 2.5lb pup named Trevi. We got him around the beginning of July, just in time to start thinking seriously about whether we were going to book an anniversary trip over Labor Day. Our other sheltie, Sedona, had stayed at doggie daycare during several of our previous trips—and she LOVES it!—but teeny, tiny Trevi was too small to board. We decided to look for a vacation spot for all four of us. Beaufort, N.C., had been on my list since it tied with Hammondsport, N.Y., in Budget Travel’s “Coolest Small Town” contest that I was heavily engaged in when I worked at the tourism office. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to check it out. We rented a beach house on Emerald Isle, just south of the tiny town. It was idyllic—and the first time we’d stayed in one location for the duration of a trip! Our traveling pups had a blast!

The pups at the beach.

The pups at the beach.

15. Beach Bumming on the Crystal Coast
I like my trips to be jam packed—and I never refer to them as “vacations.” But this could only be described as a low-key vacation. We read books, played games, cooked our own meals, and took long walks on the beach. I joked that Kyle gets one of these every five years!

Trevi at the beach

Trevi at the beach. How cute is he!?

16. Hedges and Giants in Northern Ireland
I planned most of my 2017 travel at the very beginning of the year. Naturally, as soon as all my trips were booked, gorgeous pictures of Ireland started popping up all over my favorite travel sites and blogs. I was desperate to go back! As luck would have it, I was able to go to the Emerald Isle for a work trip to attend TBEX Killarney. The conference itself was incredible—and thoroughly intimidating, as we’re hosting next year—but I got to do as the bloggers do and make use of my extra days before and after the conference. I visited a couple of those places that had unrelentingly flashed across my radar in 2017: Dark Hedges and Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Talk about out-of-this-world beauty! What’s more, Belfast and the Causeway Coast were just named Lonely Planet’s #1 picks for top 2018 destinations. Apparently, I was just slightly ahead of the curve!

Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland

Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland

17. A Delightful Day in Dingle
I’m an obsessive travel planner. I need to work out all the details to ensure we maximize every precious moment during a trip. But I’m also the first one to admit that I’m always delighted by the experiences I seem to have when I just let things happen. Such was the case with the Dingle Peninsula. I knew we had one extra day to spend near Killarney, Ireland, following the TBEX conference, and I figured we’d do an excursion around the Ring of Kerry. But we happened to meet the lovely Caroline with Dingle Tourism who offered to show us around her beautiful corner of the world. From dramatic coastal views to Star Wars filming locations, and pottery throwing to whiskey tasting, it was the most unexpectedly delightful day, and made me SO grateful I’d left a little room in the trip for spontaneity.

Northern Ireland: Likely to Cause Wanderlust

Giant's Causeway
Giant's Causeway

There’s nothing like an amazing trip to spur motivation. Ireland is that for me right now. Although my visit was short, it was all I needed to convince me it was time to start up my blog again.

Last month, I attended TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) in Killarney, Ireland. I’ve attended this awesome conference three times in the past, and am especially excited about it now, since we’re hosting it in the Finger Lakes next year. Yay!  Years ago, it was TBEX and the incredible people that I met there that made me want to start Byte-Size Travel in the first place. And now, it’s this trip that has me inspired all over again.

Ireland was a work trip for me, but like any travel lover, I took advantage of an extra weekend to do some exploring. I first visited Ireland during my study abroad, but in true college-student fashion, I pretty much just showed up and figured out what I was doing on the fly. In Ireland, that meant landing in Dublin, staying in a hostel, and taking a bus to the Cliffs of Moher. My love of glass did take me to Waterford the first time, which was a lovely side jaunt.

Over the last seven years, I’ve developed my lengthy bucket list, and was fully prepared to tick off a few of the items. My main objective was actually not in Ireland at all, but Northern Ireland: the Giant’s Causeway. I’d seen plenty of pictures, but nothing could have prepared me for the stunning beauty that I found along the coast. Some 40,000 interlocking hexagon-shaped basalt columns rise out of the sea, a product of a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. I’d seen the towering basalt columns at the beach in Vik, Iceland, so I expected to be just as impressed as I was by those. But the epic scenery found in Northern Ireland literally had me pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

I read an article about the Giant’s Causeway that described it as a “portal to Earth’s most ancient past.” I just love that. The columns fit together a like jigsaw puzzle, piecing together one incredible story full of both history and legend. Sure, it could be the result of lava cooling and contracting, but it could also be the handiwork of Irish giant Finn MacCool who built the causeway to go fight a Scottish giant who was threatening Ireland. (Check out the article for the tale).

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Legend or lava, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is breathtaking. We visited through a bus trip with Paddywaggon Tours. Years ago, it was the company I booked for my visit to the Cliffs of Moher, and I still remember our bus driver Shawny singing Backstreet Boy classics as we drove along, field after rolling green field. This tour included a few other points of interest that were high on my bucket list, like the Dark Hedges, a group of 18th-century trees that have grown to create an eerie and crazy dramatic landscape today—which is why Game of Thrones has used it as a filming location. Coincidentally, I also saw more GoT filming locations in Iceland—and I’ve never seen an episode!

Dark Hedges

Dark Hedges

Also on the tour was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which links the mainland to a tiny island that was used by salmon fisherman. Visitors can pay a small fee to cross it, but it was closed when we visited since the wind was too strong. There’s nothing like plummeting into the ocean to ruin a lovely holiday! The hike is about .6 miles to get to the bridge, and it’s absolutely stunning. Totally worth the walk, even if the bridge is closed. The journey is the destination, right?

Rope Bridge

Rope Bridge

We stopped in Belfast for a hot minute before ending the night, back in Dublin where we went to an incredible little pub called Merchants Arch right at the end of the Ha’penny Bridge. We certainly lucked out—there was phenomenal music, seemingly free-flowing hard cider, and an atmosphere I just wanted to bottle up and bring back home with me.

Belfast

Belfast

All of this was just the beginning of my adventures in Ireland. Next week, I’ll share stories from the unparalleled Dingle Peninsula, which is about to be famous as the backdrop for the upcoming Star Wars movie.

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