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.
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.
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.
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.