It was the year of Europe.
I finally broke into the market as a travel writer, making 8 trips that brought me through a total of 9 countries in 2013 (Portugal, Sweden, Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Belgium, Greece, and Turkey). I also did a bit of work in Mexico (Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita), Canada (Quebec City), the Caribbean (St. Maarten, Trinidad & Tobago), and approximately a dozen trips within the States.
As I mentioned last year, a “Holy Shit Moment” is not one that brings about fear – rather it is one that makes you take a step back and find yourself overwhelmed by what you are experiencing.
At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I will admit that I have enjoyed compiling this now-annual list of travel highlights (see the 2012 Holy Shit Moments). Without question, to go back over the calendar and have all the memories come rushing back, to see how busy I was and, in a way, wonder how I ever had the energy to fit it all in, is a Holy Shit Moment in itself. My only hope is that it’s not all in the past, that 2014 holds similar opportunities for exploration. With a trip to Norway already in the books (I’m writing this from Oslo) and a Southeast Asia adventure on tap for the end of January, it seems like we’re off to a good start.
As for 2013, I’ve narrowed down the year to five experiences that stuck out to me as being “Holy Shit Moments,” with explorations in Hawaii, Germany, Utah, Estonia, and Portugal leading the way. A special thanks to everyone who helped to make them possible and cheers to those who I was lucky enough to meet along the way.
Freezing My Ass Off on Hawaii Island, Hawaii, United States
It would be so easy for me to simply type the word “Hawaii” under the title of this article and call it a day. My trip back in November was loaded with moments that could have easily made this list, including hiking 10 miles to encounter hot lava, discovering red sand beaches, getting my mind blown on the Road to Hana, hunting a T-Rex from a helicopter, discovering that Hawaii has its own Grand Canyon (which was awarded Jaunted’s “Best Kept Destination Secret” of 2013) and taking the most scenic hike of my life along the Na Pali coast. Phew… does Hawaii rock or what?
Still, the “coolest” part of my trip was seeing a side of the Aloha State that most people are not aware of: The fact that there are many adventures that require a sweatshirt. And that’s probably an understatement when you’re talking about going to the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands at just under 14,000 ft.
As you can see from the photo, I needed a little more than a sweatshirt that day as temperatures were in the mid-30s. Yes, mid-30s on Hawaii! It even snows up there, at which point locals grab their sleds, or fill the back of their trucks and hurry down to the beach to make snowmen. That was all a novel aspect of being at the summit, but the main event was the stargazing.
As talked up as it is, the experience does not disappoint. Case and point: I saw another galaxy through a telescope, and there were so many stars (between three and four thousand) that I could barely pick out the usual constellations. I’ve been in the mountains of Colorado and seen the Milky Way, but that seemed like child’s play in comparison. Read the full story here, which includes a bunch of other fun facts you might not know about Mauna Kea.
Making My Peace With Germany Via Two Visits to Deutschland
I took two trips to Germany this summer, the first being a multi-city jaunt through Munich, Dusseldorf, Meissen, and Dresden. There were many incredible moments, one of which involved drinking beer until sunrise and washing down the hangover with blueberry cake. I also had a few cold ones at the world’s largest beer garden, which seats 8,000, visited one of the most impressive museums I’ve ever seen, and discovered that Dusseldorf has one hell of a beer culture that no one seems to talk about. The latter made a huge impression on me, earning my happy hour of the year award (see below). The second trip took me to Frankfurt, the German city that doesn’t drink beer (seriously!).
But to merely add up all these individual experiences and call it a successful trip would be short-sighted. There was a bigger realization happening that began the second I arrived in Germany, the fact that I was, for the first time, forming my own opinion of a country that was beat into my brain as being somewhat evil. Whether you lived through World War II or simply grew up reading about it in school, Germany has always been portrayed as the dark ying of the yang, the enemy, the country that set up concentration camps and performed all those heinous crimes. What more did I ever learn about Germany in my youth other than that they were responsible for the Holocaust? Nothing… until I went to see for myself and experienced what a fantastic place it is, how there is no reason to be afraid or hold a grudge.
Just something to think about for those of you with children…
Bobsledding at Olympic Park near Park City, Utah, United States
We’ve all been there – that sometimes egotistical, sometimes genuine conversation amongst travelers about the most unique things they’ve experienced. You know, it’s typically pretty straightforward. There’s always someone who brings up eating something in Asia, and someone who had a good time on the cheap somewhere.
I’ve never taken the discussion too seriously – I try as best I can to see things as not better or worse, but equal and different – however for the sake of contributing to the conversation, I usually have a revolving “go-to” experience to talk about. Last year, it was swimming with pigs in the Bahamas. This year, it’s bobsledding at Olympic Park outside of Salt Lake City.
I know what you’re thinking. Bobsledding? Well, I’d be willing to bet that less people in the world have ridden in a bobsled (let alone on an Olympic track) than have eaten street food in Asia, went skydiving, seen the Northern Lights, cruised to Alaska or Antarctica, etc. Riding the same track as they did in the 2002 Olympics, I reached speeds of 80 mph and experienced 4 to 5 Gs of force, and I wrote about it for the Daily Journal newspaper in Chicago. And you can try it, too, on your next visit to Park City.
Gaining Historical Perspective From the Young, Not the Old, in Estonia
Estonia was another country that left a very deep impression upon me, and it had nothing to do with drinking too much Vana Tallinn, or the fact that Old Town Tallinn looks like it should be on top of a wedding cake. The country reclaimed its independence in 1991, but before then it was controlled and operated by the Soviet Union – which means that people as young as their late twenties can remember what it was like growing up in a communist country (the Sokos Hotel Viru, from which the view is shown above, was bugged by the KGB, for example).
When it comes to history and occupations, the “back in my day” stories are typically reserved for the elderly. Not true in Estonia, and it was absolutely unbelievable to socialize with people my own age and hear these incredible tales of their childhood. For those interested, I wrote a detailed essay about how while Estonian children were sticking their chewed bubblegum on the nightstand to save it for the next morning, I was rocking Ninja Turtle pajamas.
Becoming the Very First American to Ever Visit Portugal
Okay, I’m kidding, but seriously, how can a place so “on the map” be so undiscovered? Everyone is looking under rugs across the world hoping to find something no one has come across, and yet here Portugal sits right under our noses, completely ignored by Americans.
And what a playground it is, from the surfing culture in Sagres (and the 100-ft waves in Nazare) to Lisbon, which looks a whole lot like San Francisco to me. The city by the sea won Conde Nast Jaunted’s Destination of the Year Award in 2013, an acknowledgement I would like to think had something to do with my coverage, as I teamed up with my good friend and photographer Ryan Dearth and contributed a series articles in October. I also wrote a full-length feature for AAA Colorado, and I had a rock-star, behind-the-scenes kind of night with some locals where we stayed up until dawn.
Thanks to my great experience this time around, I am planning a return trip in the spring to check out Porto and a group of islands off the coast called the Azores. Expectations are the devil when it comes to travel, but it’s hard not to have high hopes after such a pleasant first trip.
Honorable Mention: Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Hotel of the Year: Martin’s Patershof, Mechelen, Belgium
Happy Hour of the Year: Dusseldorf, Germany
Dusseldorf’s Altbier culture is rarely mentioned when discussing beer in Germany, which still surprises the hell out of me. At the breweries, they mark the number of beers you’ve ordered on your coaster, and they bring you the next one before you’ve finished the former unless you put your coaster over the top of the glass. I wrote a recap of it all for Sherman’s Travel, and you can check out the dirtier details of my experience, including the resulting hangover, here.
Image of the Year: Jumping into a Desert Oasis in Snow Canyon, Utah