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.

Shifting Light: Antelope Canyon

The subject of many photographers’ images of the West, Antelope Canyon is a unique natural wonder in northeast Arizona. It’s a fairly new place—to the public, that is—only accessible since 1997. It is on Navajo land, and an only be reached by purchasing a ticket to a tour.

During our trip to Arizona, we made the trek to Upper Antelope Canyon, the most visited of the two canyons found on this land. Called Tsé bighánílíní by the Navajo, this canyon is “the place where water runs through rocks.

Summer is the perfect time to visit the canyon. Photographers love this “slot canyon” because of the way it manipulates light. From May 20–October 7, light beams peek down on the walls, hitting the floor of the canyon at high noon.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from our trip to Upper Antelope Canyon.

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Do not let the masses taking pictures distract you from the beauty of this place. Best part is, most of what you’re taking picture of is above everyone’s heads!

Corkscrew.

Corkscrew.

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What to know if you go

We booked our tour Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours ($40 per person, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. daily). Make sure you arrive 50-60 minutes prior to your ticket time. You do not pay in advance, and they WILL give away your reservation. I did not read this part of the confirmation e-mail and when we arrived 40 minutes early, they had already given away our seats on the jeep. Luckily, they made room for us, but you may not be so lucky. Also note that you need to be with a tour guide at all times during your trip to the canyon. Reading reviews on Trip Advisor will show you that your experience is basically a luck-of-the-draw. Your tour guide may rush you, herding you though the canyon. Luckily our was very pleasant.

Places

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ, United States

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ, United States
http://navajotours.com/

Photo Byte Friday: Roads

Highway 1 along the California coast.
Highway 1 along the California coast.

Roads symbolize journeys. They take you to new places, and often allow you to see beauty along the way. Here are a few of my favorite roads from my travels:

Approaching a vineyard in Napa Valley.

Approaching a vineyard in Napa Valley.

Hawaii by Road

Hawaii by Road

Hula-hoopin' along the Road to Hana in Maui.

Hula-hoopin’ along the Road to Hana in Maui.

Wormsloe Drive

The drive up to Wormsloe Historic Site, near Savannah, Georgia.

Road winding through the red rocks of Sedona.

Road winding through the red rocks of Sedona.

Hammondsport, NY

The Finger Lakes of Upstate NY.

Photo Byte Friday: Black and White

My favorite black and white friends!
My favorite black and white friends!

I’ve been posting “Photo Bytes” for a while now—giving you a glimpse of a destination. Each week, there is a themed photo sharing event called FriFotos, which is just plain fun, so I’m going to start sharing my favorite photos each week based on that particular theme. I hope you enjoy Photo Byte Fridays!

This week’s theme is Black and White. I love photos that are completely devoid of color. There’s something magical about them. They have a timeless quality. They’re a perfectly preserved memory—a captured moment from journeys gone by.

Timeless tranquility in Charleston, South Carolina.

Unwavering oaks of the South.

The journey ahead in Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.

A fleeting sunset kiss in St. Lucia.

I love creating black and white photos of places that hold a lot of history. They’re recognizable. Everyone knows the stories they have to tell. But it’s as if the life has been removed from them, and they stand silent, frozen in a moment.

Alcatraz sits in the San Francisco Bay. This was during the 2013 government shutdown when National Park land was closed, and thus, no one was able to visit the island—which made it all the more eerie. I was able to visit the following year.

The USS Arizona Memorial is anchored over the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” -Virgil

Photo Byte: Soaking Up Cinque Terre

A seagull looks out over Italy’s beautiful Cinque Terre coastline.
A seagull looks out over Italy’s beautiful Cinque Terre coastline.

It was a swelteringly hot late-August day—one of my very first in Italy—and actually, one of my first travel adventures ever. My study abroad in Italy marked a lot of firsts for me. My first time out of the U.S. (aside from a few visits to Niagara Falls), my first time on a plane, and my first long-term travel stint.

Everything was new and exciting! There was a lot to take in in 16 weeks, and I was determined to make the most of it. And I did it all at lightning speed.

I see this lone seagull sitting here, soaking in his surroundings, and I find myself wishing I’d taken the time to do the same. When you find yourself in a truly enchanting place—such as Cinque Terre—take a few moments to just “be.” Those are the memories you’ll hold onto. Those are the moments that find their way to your heart and make you fall in love with a new place.

Places

Cinque Terre, Italy

Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, La Spezia, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy

Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, La Spezia, Italy
https://www.ricksteves.com/europe/italy/cinque-terre
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