My 15 Favorite Travel Experiences
I didn’t visit every destination on my 2015 bucket list this year, but that’s just fine. I’m more interested in quality travel than in quantity. This is perhaps why I don’t travel full-time. I grounded myself for six months (!) to work on my first documentary film. I’m glad to report I’m almost done… And I’m typing this from Bali, so don’t feel sorry for me. 🙂
I thought instead of reviewing just this year, I’d look back on the last 15 years of travel…
Most Otherworldly Landscape
This was a toss-up between Iceland and New Zealand, but having experienced the geothermal wonder you see above, New Zealand takes the win. Te Puia, a 60-hectare valley with more than 500 geothermal wonders, is absolutely mesmerizing in its beauty, power, and otherworldliness. Where else can you feel like you’re both on the Moon and a Swiss alpine lake? This landscape was begging for an impromptu photo shoot, so I hurried back to our campervan, changed, and twirled my way through the park, undeterred by the curious Chinese tour group cueing up around us. If a heavy rain had not swept in, I never would have left. Truly a magical day.
Best National Park
If you ever wanted to live inside a Maxfield Parrish painting, then book the next flight to China. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is simply one of the most ethereal places on Earth. These staggering karst spires inspired the film“Avatar” and you have to see them in person to see why.
Best Campervan Trip
I find campervans charming. Being totally free to wander a place without worrying about hotel reservations makes the campervan an ideal way to explore Iceland. The Hubs and I rented a double-decker in New Zealand, enjoying the same freedom. All the romance of having your bed on wheels doesn’t mean there’s no work. I went to Iceland for photography and while I was filming away, the Hubs was busy maintaining the vehicle, which is more demanding than your average van.
Best Cultural Experience
This was a toss-up between spending 10 days in a rural village in Zhangjiajie, China and the cultural research I did for my film about Guam, “American Soil, Chamorro Soul.” Visually and viscerally, China was stunning. I loved living with locals and seeing the daily rituals of farmers, street vendors, mothers, fathers, and cooks. On the other hand, I have learned an incredible amount about Chamorro culture and have a newfound respect for cultural preservation in a U.S. territory that has been repeatedly colonized for the last 500 years.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque is only the third largest mosque in the world, but it is rumored to be at the top of the expense chain. Swarovski crystal chandeliers, 24-carat gold plated pillars, and the largest Persian carpet in the world adorn this domed jewel of the desert.
Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Travel
The Sungai Sekonyer river is remote enough not to have a dedicated Wikipedia page. Only the least reliable regional carriers fly there…And sometimes don’t fly there even when you have a reservation. We were flying there, not just for a boat ride, but to see apes, specifically semi-wild orangutans who call Tanjung Puting National Park home. The massive 4,150 square kilometer park would allow us to get up close and personal some of the 6,000 wild orangutans living in Tanjung Puting, the single largest population in the world.
Landing on a glacier was magical. We watched other choppers descend into the wide plateau under the bright mid-morning sun and all too soon, we climbed back into ours. Our flight took in Fox Glacier and the 12,000-foot peak of Mt. Cook. We hovered above ice ‘marshmallows,’ precipitous waterfalls, and isolated pools, flanked by green sub-tropical rainforest.
Best Animal Experience
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is exactly what it sounds like — a nature reserve and temple complex with more than 340 long-tailed macaques roaming freely. These entertaining socialites do not hesitate to climb on, steal from, and perch from visitors brave enough to interact with them. We thought all our junk was bolted down, but alas a furry, klepto-maniacal macaque lifted some trash peeking from our bag.
Best Luxury Experience
You’ve never seen a Holiday Inn like this. That’s because it’s the first of its kind in the world — a 5-star version of the faithful franchise. Holiday Inn’s first 5-star hotel lives up to the rating with impressively chic everything. The 1,224 guest rooms are outfitted with all the creature comforts you need, including free WIFI, shower and soaking tub, which you’ll use liberally after pounding the cobblestone streets of Macau. You even have the choice between soft and firm pillows. The Holiday Inn staff was incredibly responsive to my every need and delivered the toiletries I requested within seconds. And did I mention the Zen glam Bodhi Spa which offers indigenous Australian stone therapy?
Best Urban Experience
Little India, Singapore is a sensory assault, from the heady aroma of floral garlands hanging from sidewalk stalls to the smell of rich, delicious curry that seems to permeate every nook and cranny. Brightly colored dresses adorn doorways of shops offering everything from sparkly bracelets to stacks of electronics. I loved all of Singapore — from the Arab Quarter to Marina Bay Sands to the fabulous Singapore Zoo.
We awoke to a stunning view of rolling green hills and the sounds of sheep and goats greeting us as we peered out the large bay window. Incredible. We took our coffee, tea, toast, and local jam in the majestic dining room along with a couple from Australia. Our hosts introduced themselves, the farm, and even let us feed the animals. Can you believe this house was transplanted from Auckland?
While the island’s western coast is lined with resorts and luxury shopping, the rest of the island is a mix of impenetrable pandanus jungles, dirt roads, and rocky cliffs with views more breathtaking than the last. The moment you shed your city skin is the most this tiny island in the middle of nowhere will seduce you completely.
I spent three days photographing my favorite bands from the pit at Japan’s largest outdoor music festival. While rock festivals in the States symbolize rebellion, in Japan they are about camping and family and nature. There was a real convivial feeling at the Fuji Rock Festival and I loved every minute of getting up close and personal with Lorde, Basement Jaxx, Outkast, Foster the People, and Bombay Bicycle Club, to name a few.
Best Media Trip
I don’t know why travel bloggers criticize media fams (familiarization tours). Even though I’d been to Cairns, I was happy to go again when United Airlines invited me. I had already gone to Hong Kong with United, so I knew it would be a harried, but exhilarating three days. What made this media trip the best was the sheer amount of adrenaline pumping activities that were planned for us. White water rafting, climbing an indoor jungle gym, and then this serene experience — soaring through the treetops in Kuranda.
Best Underwater Experience
Snorkeling is a must in Palau’s pristine and teeming waters. Prepare to be dazzled by fish every color of the rainbow, psychedelic two-foot clams as bright as a loom, and Technicolor coral. Float effortlessly and take in the sound of nothing but an ethereal crackling like a dim electric current and fish munching on coral. Scrape, scrape, scrape.