My Top 19 Travel Moments of 2019

View from Table Mountain, South Africa
View from Table Mountain, South Africa

This year has been one filled with incredible highs and some very low lows. Despite being out of commission for the first quarter of the year (Kyle recovering from surgery and me with a broken arm and head injury!), somehow we still managed to set foot on four continents this calendar year. (And I clocked more than 100 hours in the sky on 24 commercial flights!) We both celebrated our 30th birthdays this year and planned some epic trips to mark the occasions. Here are some of my favorite travel moments this year.

Ringing in the New Year in Sydney, Australia
This was serious bucket-list material: watching fireworks explode over Sydney Harbor, hours earlier than most of our friends and family would welcome 2019 on the other side of the world. It’s funny the optimism you have as the calendar changes from one year to the next. This was a tough year in our household, but we certainly managed to kick it off the right way!

SydNYE Party: Welcome 2019!

Flying to Hawaii on New Year’s Day
Even though we were leaving Oceania on January 1, the fun didn’t stop there. At the end of a month-long adventure, we spent five days in Hawaii, relaxing before it was time to go back to work. It was really interesting to experience the Sydney fireworks at midnight, go to sleep, fly to NZ then Hawaii, and arrive a mere 6 hours after Honolulu’s firework display. January 1 lasted 43 hours for us, consisting of plane rides, beach walks, and naps in the hotel lobby.

View of Diamond Head from our hotel balcony.

Discovering our favorite beach on Oʻahu
Kailua Beach is absolutely gorgeous! We spent lots of time walking in the waves, picnicking on the shore, and sleeping an afternoon away before our flight back to the mainland. We later found out that Kyle lived near here when his parents were stationed on Oʻahu.

Taking a helicopter ride over Oʻahu
I surprised Kyle with a helicopter flight over the island where he spent the first few years of his life. His dad worked on helicopters when he was in the Marines, so I thought it would be fitting to see this island from the air like he had so many times. Our private tour was filled with rainbows, scenes from Jurassic Park, and pineapples from the sky!

Celebrating my 30th birthday in my 30th country!!!
I broke my arm exactly 6 months prior to my 30th birthday. I was sure the trip I’d been dreaming about for years was not going to happen. I’d been “country collecting” to ensure I’d hit 30 countries at the perfect moment—and I knew exactly where I wanted to be: South Africa! (Fun fact: Africa was also continent #5 for us)! After months of uncertainty, we finally got the OK to book the trip. It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, and I’m so glad I got to welcome my next decade in such an incredible way. Special thanks to Lion World Travel for putting together such a spectacular experience!

Hangin’ with the African penguins at Boulders Beach
Confession: This was practically the sole reason I wanted to go to South Africa. I’d seen pictures of this penguin-filled beach for years, and I HAD to be part of it! I was so excited that our tour to the Cape of Good Hope and Boulders Beach fell on my birthday.

Tasting wine in Stellenbosch, South Africa
Living in wine country, I never have a great desire to go winery hopping on vacation, but visiting Cape Winelands in South Africa was a special experience. We even got to blend our own wine! (Finger Lakes wineries take note—this was SO cool!)   

Concocting the perfect blend. You then bottle it, label it, and take it home.

Seeing Cape Town from the sky
Sweepingly dramatic, the view from the Cape Town sky was one I had to see “in my eyeballs,” as Kyle and I often say. It was ridiculously awesome to see Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope from the air with our skillful lady pilot.

Scoring the absolute best guide for our safari
This was hands-down one of the biggest highlights of the year. I have been reading reviews and watching videos about Shamwari Private Game Reserve for years, and everyone raved about their fabulous safari experiences with their guide Headman. I knew it was highly unlikely that we’d be able to score a specific guide, but I figured there was no harm in asking. Even our agent at Lion World Travel said she didn’t think it would happen. Imagine our delight when we got to Bayethe Lodge and Headman was waiting to take us on our first game drive! Come to find out, he worked at Bayethe for many years, but was now at another property on the resort (of which there are seven), and they brought him over for the five days of our visit specifically to accommodate our request. And that was the start of an impeccable experience at Shamwari.

Spotting the Big 5—and then some!
With 19 years of guiding experience at Shamwari, Headman was the animal whisperer. When we looked for the only two cheetahs in the park, we found them. When we asked for baby elephants, poof—there they were! Kyle requested a caracal one evening, and it walked in front of our jeep not five minutes later. To say our first safari was amazing is a ridiculous understatement.

Finding lion cubs at sunset on our anniversary
By our last two game drives, we’d seen all the animals we could have hoped to see—and some multiple times. We decided to search for the elusive lion family. They’d disappeared several days before and none of the rangers had seen them. We spent three hours searching in the morning with no luck. It was our 7th wedding anniversary and we were really hoping the lion cubs would want to make an appearance that evening. After another hour or two of searching, a ranger radioed to everyone in the park that he had spotted them high on top of a hill. Headman hadn’t used that trail in five years, he said. Seeing little lion cubs play with their parents in the sunset light was such an amazing thing to witness.

Solo trip to SoCal
Each October seems to necessitate a trip somewhere in the U.S. I discovered that due to my injury earlier in the year, I hadn’t adequately planned all of my vacation time, and I had a few extra days to use. I decided to go visit my lovely friend Jes who had recently moved to Southern California. I had a few days to spend on my own before joining her for the weekend, so I rented a car and road tripped to locales around Los Angeles—and had a marvelous time soaking up the sun before embarking upon a New York State winter. I always love a good solo trip. Even though it can be scary to find yourself in a strange city completely dependent on yourself, you realize that you’re in charge of your own destiny. You can do whatever you want—go for a hike, read a book on a beach, sip an alcoholic beverage from a pineapple—your experience can be 100% what you want it to be.  

Falling in love with Malibu
I keep a mental list of all the places I want to live someday, and I quickly added this charming city to it. How I’d ever afford it is a different issue entirely, but a girl can dream.

Visiting Mount Palomar Observatory
I’ve given tours at The Corning Museum of Glass for 15 years, and I always love talking about the 200-inch disk, a telescope mirror that was cast in Corning in the 1930s—and was designed by my great-grandfather. The first casting failed and now resides at the Museum. The second made its way by train out to Mount Palomar Observatory in California where it was ground and polished into a mirror for 9 years, then was put into use and allowed people to see farther into space than ever before. Very cool to see the disk in operation on the opposite coast!

Spending a week in a cozy cabin in Finland
Kyle and I always talk about finding a cozy cabin where we can relax for a week and watch the snow fall. So that’s exactly what he picked for his 30th birthday trip—albeit about 10 months late. I mentioned this was a rough year. Kyle had surgery two days after he turned 30, so he was in no position to take the birthday trip he’d been dreaming about: a WWII road trip through France. So we tabled that idea and booked a stay at a place that had been on our radar for years: Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Lapland, Finland. It was time to see those elusive Northern Lights above the Arctic Circle!

A different kind of safari at the top of the world
But first, dog sledding! The husky farm next to Kakslauttanen is home to 200+ good, good doggos who were beyond thrilled to take a morning run through the snowy forests of Lapland. And they let us come along for the ride! Our team was filled with hilarious, long-tongued friends who got lots of pets and belly scratches for doing such a great job. Coincidentally, this was called a “husky safari” and I realized we’d completed safaris at the top and bottom of the world, in terms of longitude, in the same year!

Wandering through a snow globe
Perfectly pristine snow—I’ve never seen anything quite like it! The snow in Lapland is fluffy, and yet somehow dense, clinging to the landscape for months and months. It’s a dark time of year—no sunlight shines on this part of Finland for 6 weeks, but everything is enveloped in a deep shade of blue during “daylight.” We loved walking through this wonderland, filled with knee-deep snow and icicles on our eyelashes.

It was high time for us to see this spectacular display that had eluded us on three previous trips (Alaska, Iceland, and Norway) over the past seven years. We decided that we needed to sit somewhere for a week and plan to do nothing but look at the sky. Surely then it would happen, right? Well, as our trip neared, the forecast showed completely cloudy skies over Finnish Lapland. (Did you know it’s cloudy in Lapland about 80% of the time in November? Yea, neither did I!) There was no sign of the lights for the first four nights, despite a perfectly clear sky one night. But the “aurora alarm” in our room had us bundled up and searching for the last three nights we were there. The first time, I asked the universe to show us just one little Northern Light. Ask, and you shall receive! One faint white beam cut across the sky—too subtle for my camera to capture. But the next night—one that called for complete cloud cover—our aurora alarm rang, and we ran outside to see the most spectacular, dazzling display. I think the word “phenomenal” was created just to have a way to describe the Northern Lights.

A new adventure for Christmas: Sydney
2019 was book-ended by this incredible city we fell in love with on the other side of the world. But not in the way you might be thinking. For some crazy reason still unknown to us, we got a third dog! We spent Christmas at home this year, welcoming Sydney Kailua to our furry family. She joins our other travel pups Sedona and Trevi.

Christmas morning 2019 with my loves.
From left to right: Sedona Page, Trevi Roosevelt, and Sydney Kailua (a sweet little blue merle sheltie).

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.
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