I find it slightly ironic that I’m writing a post on my top travel experiences of 2015 while smack dab in the middle of one of my worst travel moments of the year.
A moment that currently finds me anxious to return home to New York City after 2 months on the road.
Viciously preying on this anxiety is fate – who decided to up her comedic routine by sticking me in the middle seat of a delayed plane that’s playing sitting duck on the runway while waiting for a thunderstorm to pass over so the airport can reopen.
It’s hard to stay optimistic about making it back to the city at a reasonable hour (or at all) with my mother texting me screenshots and exclamationed captions along the lines of “Damn look at the radar!” …“Storm is pretty massive!”… “Oh this is a pic from the future – look at the time. That things gonna hover for at least two hours!”
So to keep my mind off cramping legs and elbow war games over the armrest, I’m reflecting back on the incredible highs I’ve had this year and marveling at the fact that 2015 trumped 2014 – which previously had been the best year of my life.
2015 was the year of the re-return.
Most of my travels this year took me back to places I had already been. Thus giving me the opportunity for a deeper and more personal cultural exploration of cities such as London and Venice.
I also explored new regions in familiar countries. Places like Scotland in the United Kingdom – an area which I fell so madly in love with that I visited twice this year. The beautiful region even extracted a rarely made promise from me – a promise to return at least once a year for the rest of my life.
There were a couple of new countries thrown in the mix as well. In May I spent some time in Portugal which quickly climbed into the top 4 on my list of favorite countries. Then there was Hungary earlier this month which marked my transition out of the teens as it became the 20th country I’ve visited.
With so many exceptional travel experiences, it was hard to narrow them down to just 15. Maybe I’ll write about the ones that didn’t make the cut in the New Year but for now (and in no particular order) here’s my list of top 15 travel experiences in 2015.
1. Unintentionally Crashing A 20 Year Father/Son Reunion in Edinburgh, Scotland
What happens in Scotland at 3pm when your 27 year old pride kicks in and you feel the irrational urge to keep pace with the 70 year old local man sipping whiskey beside you at the bar?
You basically wind up hammered and half-stumble your way out of the bar before being blinded by the sun where the only coherent thought you have is holy s*** how is it still daytime so you’re forced to duck into the nearest pub causing you to run into a 50-something year old man who invites you to join him and his son for a pint which then turns into five and somehow you’re in a taxi heading to a whiskey bar before having dinner at a trendy restaurant where you find out that night was the first time father and son had seen each other in 20 years.
You then wake up believing it was all a dream until you check your email and up pops a message from said son (aptly titled Hangovers) with a message along the lines (or actually an exact quote) of “How did you feel on Sunday? I felt as if I could have been starring in the Hangover Part 4. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed Edinburgh.” Yes. I did indeed enjoy Edinburgh.
2. Canyoning at Peneda-Geres National Park in Portugal
I suffer from travelers’ arrogance – the condition where traveling causes a false sense of invincibility and the word ‘no’ inexplicably becomes eradicated from your vocabulary. It’s akin to the whole when in Rome thing.
So I guess it should have come as no surprise to me that back in May I found myself being flung off cliffs, sliding through waterfalls, scrambling over rocks, swimming through lagoons, and flying down homemade zip-lines in my first ever canyoning experience at Portugal’s only national park. Peneda-Geres National Park is a true hidden jewel with gorgeous mountain views that were uninterrupted by any other humans and our only visitor was the occasional cow. It was hands down my all-time favorite experience in 2015 and I cannot recommend it enough. You can read more about the where, when, why, and how here.
3. Discovering the Path from Hammersmith to Chiswick in London
Away from the crowds and tourists typically found in Central London, there’s a quiet walking path perched on the northern end of the River Thames. This little known waterfront stretch between the districts of Hammersmith and Chiswick flaunts everything from iconic bridges to impeccably cultivated gardens, competitive watersports to haunted taverns, deep-rooted parish churches to moored houseboats, and domestic breweries to cheap museums.
I spent a day traversing this path in the middle of January and came away with a fresh perspective on London – as well as several photos you would never believe were taken in this bustling capital city. Sometimes it’s good to step away from the city center and explore lesser-known neighborhoods for a glimpse into the everyday life of local residents.
For more in depth information on things to do and see along this unrivaled urban walk click here.
4. Having 3 Articles Published in a Magazine
Every writer’s dream is having their work published in print and no one was more surprised than I was when I reached this milestone within a year of starting my travel blogging career.
Not only was I published in a print magazine for the very first time in 2015, but I was published a second time…and then a third time. I mean holy s*** SOMEONE PINCH ME because this cannot be real life.
What made it even more unbelievable is that I wasn’t even seeking out this opportunity. Someone out there was actually reading my newbie blog and contacted me for a travel feature. So once again, thank you Coastal Lifestyle Magazine for supporting and believing in me.
5. Experiencing Boston During Its Worst Winter Ever
I have no excuse for why I had never been to Boston before this year. I’ve lived a quick train ride away for 5 years now and the bus only costs about $50 round trip; furthermore, it’s where 2 of my closest friends call home.
Yet it wasn’t until this past March that my roommate and I finally ventured out to Beantown. We figured St Patrick’s Day was as good a reason as any to visit so we boarded the Amtrak train with visions of pub crawls, historic outdoor walks, and seafood feasts along the riverbank dancing in our heads.
One problem – it just so happened to be Boston’s worst winter on record. The cold was so unbearable that it may as well have been the middle of February. Snow came down in droves, being outside for any length of time proved impossible, and I completely lost my desire to carry out my Disney fantasies in a real-life version of Frozen.
There were no walking tours; a pub crawl never materialized; my Uber bills were through the car roof; I almost lost a finger to hypothermia while trudging through the snowy park; and our Harvard campus visit lasted all of 20 minutes and was mainly spent within the warm confines of the bookstore.
So why is this trip on my ‘Top 15’ list? Simple – experiencing these winter travel woes with good friends made for lots of laughs. Misery loves company and somehow misery amongst the best company makes for a most fun adventure.
Plus, being relegated to the indoors meant all we did was eat. And lord knows there’s nothing I love more than eating.
6. Overindulging in Port Wine in Portugal’s Douro Valley
Tucked away in northern Portugal lies the Douro Valley – a historic and lesser-known wine region that rests upon a landscape wrought with sloping valleys, slanting hills and pared by the Douro River that drifts between them.
With a history of wine production spanning 2000 years, discovering the traditions of the sleepy hilltop towns of the Douro Valley was an unforgettable experience for me. I visited this past May and found the weather sublime and the tourists nil. I took possibly the world’s most scenic train ride up the river from Porto to the quaint, vineyard-laden village of Pinhao.
I stayed at a classically converted 18th century estate – The Vintage House. Private verandas adorn each suite and I was able to face the stepped-peaks looming on either side of the Douro River.
With only one main street, there’s little to do in Pinhao but meander along uninhabited lanes and revel in the sun-kissed greenery before stopping in one of the quintas. The Quinta do Bomfim is celebrated as one of the finest vineyards in the Douro Valley – a reputation garnered from the wealth of knowledge accumulated over five generations of family ownership. After hosting the Prime Minister of Portugal this past May (while I was there!!), this renowned quinta released its doors to visitors for the first time. Tours now permit guests to trek through vineyards where grapes are still exquisitely selected by hand and where the disciplined treading process is still used in the making of their special blends. The Douro Valley is one of the last places in the world where this customary ‘stomping’ method still exists.
For more, here’s an article I wrote on it for Coastal Lifestyle Magazine: The Port Wine Tradition of Portugal’s Douro Valley,
7. Taking a Girl’s Getaway in Surry, Maine
A bold statement to be sure but Maine is the most beautiful state in the USA. I’m partial to the outdoors and Maine beautifully combines both mountainous and coastal landscapes. One of my close girlfriends has a house in Surry so we decided to have a girl’s getaway to commemorate the end of summer.
A group of 10 of us spent the weekend hiking in Acadia National Park, strolling the typical Northeastern town of Bar Harbor, boating around the coast to watch the seals, enjoying fresh-off-the-boat lobster, indulging on the state’s best Whoopie pies, and enjoying the views from my friend’s backyard (which is where the pic above was taken).
8. Partying Until Sunrise in Lisbon, Portugal
My hard partying lifestyle left me somewhere around the age of 26. I’ve become quite the pumpkin when darkness rolls around and I constantly have to remind myself that I’m still too young to be asleep by 9pm.
I’ve grown into someone who prefers casual day drinking to jamming into overcrowded dance clubs where you can’t even hear the person next you despite the fact that they’re whispering directly into your ear. Yet there was something about Lisbon that brought back my 22 year old self. And you know what? I loved every minute of it.
The Portuguese culture is a late night one and I got sucked into the whole atmosphere and found myself hopping from bar to bar, roaming with open containers through the streets, taking drunk selfies with strangers, dancing in clubs, drunk eating next to commuters heading to work, and walking back while framed by the morning sun (which is when the above pic was taken).
I chronicled this night in the post I Don’t Know About You But I’m Feeling 22…In Lisbon or to learn more about Lisbon’s culture check out 8 Unforgettable Ways To Experience Lisbon.
9. Having An Intimate Tour of the Deanston Distillery in Scotland
It’s no secret that I love alcohol and whiskey takes centerstage on my taste palate. I’ve toured many whiskey distilleries as well as my fair share of beer breweries and I’ve found that a lot of them feel more like a museum than an actual functioning factory.
That was not the case with the Deanston Distillery in the Stirling Region of Scotland. I’m sure it was helped by the fact that I went in the middle of November and there were only 3 of us on the tour. It was an intimate experience and I loved the fact that workers were coming in and out while on the tour. They’d brusquely yell out move and then turn a nob so that the whole room was filled with steam. We actually saw them making the whiskey and it was incredible.
Due to the congenial and talkative nature of the Scottish, our guide sat with us for an extra 45 minutes in the tasting room and gave us way more samples than we paid for.
10. Hiking The Lowlands of Scotland
In November, I escaped to the Stirling Region of Scotland for a much needed break. It’s a place where small villages are encapsulated by bracken-covered hills and every scene lives up to your imaginings of what wild Scottish countryside should look like – an atmospheric mist shrouded around me, moody clouds hovered above, wet and muddy bogs covered the terrain, and wild sheep roved free.
I was looking for solitude and peace and I found it roaming up the Scottish Craigs that make up the Lowlands. I hiked to the peak of Dumyat (one of the local’s favorite treks) and let the quiet settle around me. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t think about the blog or social media. I didn’t think about issues that had been recently plaguing me. I didn’t really think about anything. I just reveled in the stillness and contentedness that so rarely comes around.
For more details on hiking in the Scottish Lowlands, click here.
11. Watching the Gondola Awards Ceremony in Burano, Italy
One of my philosophies in life is when in doubt, do what Anthony Bourdain does. So when I arrived in Venice, Italy – the most touristy city of them all – I made a vow to uncover the increasingly vanishing Venetian culture.
Knowing this was a massive undertaking, I decided to start off easy and go to one of Anthony’s favorite restaurants. I took a water taxi with some friends to the island of Burano to Da Romano. What happened next made this meal one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in my 9 years of travel – and it had nothing to do with the food.
Da Romano is a truly local establishment that’s famous for their seafood risotto. I’ve never seen a staff with more pride in their work than the Venetians who worked here. From the waiter who kept bringing us local dishes to try, to the owner who stopped to converse in Italian with all the regulars, and to the chef who invited us into the kitchen to watch him toss our risotto.
Just when we thought the experience couldn’t get any better, one of the customers a few tables over randomly burst into a beautiful rendition of an Italian song. This went on throughout most of our meal and our waiter explained their whole table was made up of gondoliers. Soon he wheeled out speakers and told us he was setting up for the annual Burano gondola race awards ceremony.
We lingered over dessert to watch as the emcee handed out flags to the winners of this year’s race. The winner will display this flag as a badge of honor on the back of their gondola until next year’s race. It was a truly special moment and you can read the full story here.
12. Finding The Best Local Seafood in Venice
A lot of people go to Italy for the endless amounts of pizza and pasta – but in Venice, it’s all about the seafood. Well, if you skip the touristy restaurants lining the canals.
The interior lanes and alleyways hide all the best local secrets and most of the time they’re only a stone’s throw away from the main public areas. How do you know if you’re in a local spot? Fresh seafood lays beneath glass domes and the waiter will most likely tell you what you should order. He’ll display a whole fish to the table and then one by one he’ll bring out fresh prawns and scallops and squid. It’s an unforgettable dining experience and the food is delizioso.
A full guide to the non-touristy side of Venice is in the works for early January.
13. Shopping the Christmas Markets of Budapest
Western European countries get all the credit when it comes to Christmas markets. Sure they’re beautiful and have mulled wine, crafty gifts, and delicious street food. But they’re also insanely crowded.
Enter Budapest. Market stalls and festive lights are found around every corner in the city center making it seem like the Christmas market goes on forever. Vats of mulled wine sit steaming in front of food stalls, the Hungarian langos (fried dough topped with sour cream and grated cheese) is in fast demand, and handcrafted items are being traded for Hungerian forints. The only thing that’s lacking is the hordes of people which makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable.
Plus, with the American dollar, it’s pretty cheap. I did the majority of Christmas shopping for friends and family while here.
14. Getting To Know Brookyln’s Isolated Neighborhood of Red Hook
One of the benefits of spending two consecutive months home in New York earlier this fall was that I was able get out of Manhattan and discover neighborhoods in the less-explored boroughs.
My favorite of them all?
This tiny, hard to get to peninsula at the western tip of Brooklyn has somehow managed to escape the increasing modernity found in so many of New York’s gentrified regions. Instead, an old town urban atmosphere lingers amongst local wine tasting rooms, artisanal shops, waterfront views, a burgeoning foodie scene, and bars that have been around since the 1800’s.
Visitors only come from as far as the outer boroughs making Red Hook a genuine, time-honored place in New York City – one that doesn’t even have a Starbucks. Places like this are few and far between and I’m glad I was able to spend time there before the secret comes out and this special neighborhood starts attracting the masses.
For tips and advice on visiting Red Hook click here.
15. Traveling With Friends
I’m used to traveling on my own. To be honest, I prefer it that way. So I was a bit apprehensive about my last two trips of 2015 since it would be the first time in a long time that I was heading overseas with friends.
But man did we have a blast. While there were definitely things that I would have done differently and places I would have left off or added on to our itinerary, I realized the trip wasn’t about the sites we saw or what restaurants we ate at. It was about spending quality time with those closest to me. The people I rarely get to see. It was a special trip and I’m hoping to throw in some more ‘friend trips’ in 2016.
What was your biggest highlight of 2015? Let me know in the comments below!
Why Suffer From FOMO When You Don’t Have To?
Taking on the classic “round-the-world” route, the next Travel Dispatch journey kicks off Nov 15 as I travel east to west, looping the globe over a period of 12 months with $25,000. Now’s your chance to get in on it from the very beginning!