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A Look In The Rearview: My Top 16 Experiences Of 2016

This post was born 13 Jan, 2017 No comments
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I know I know I know – my annual New Year’s Eve post is 2 weeks late!

I’m as bummed as you are. Actually, I’m probably more bummed as I’m the one who has been laid up in bed with a nasty flu for over 2 weeks; unable to muster enough energy to move from my bed to the couch.

I can hear you whisper, at least that gives you plenty of writing time.

But the thing is – it doesn’t.

I liken writing with a 102.3 fever to driving with a blood alcohol level of .23. Sure it’s a little less dangerous but it’s just as sloppy. So I’ve been letting this post rot in my drafts folder while waiting for my body to mend. Now that I’m finally feeling human again, it’s time to resuscitate it (which is something I totally know how to do thanks to endless hours spent binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy while restricted to bedrest. Safe to say I’m now a cardio god!).

My yearly recaps are my favorite posts to write (see 2014’s here and 2015’s here). Reminiscing on the prior year helps me put things into perspective and makes me grateful for what I’ve been able to accomplish. And man, was 2016 a doozy. 28 planes rides, 7 train journeys, and numerous rental cars brought me to 2 never-before-visited regions, 3 new countries, 3 old favorites, and to many new towns in my own country of the United States.

I pushed my limits both culturally and physically this year; experiencing the conservative Middle East with a fellow female, journeying solo through my first third world country, ascending to the top of a 13,000 foot volcano, seeing London through the eyes of a local Brit I dated, and many more.

Destinations Visited in 2016:

It was a crazy year and I found it hard to narrow down my top travel experiences. But alas, here – in no particular order – are my top 16 experiences of 2016.

1. Ascending to the Summit of a 13,000ft Volcano in Guatemala

Climbing the Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala - view from the summit just after sunrise

I have an ongoing debate with friends and family over whether or not I’m adventurous. They think I am. I think I’m not.

You see, if I’m adventurous for adventure’s sake does that necessarily make me adventurous? I don’t sit around my cushy New York City apartment and dream about climbing mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes. No. Def not. Instead, I sit in my catface-covered pajamas dreaming of the thousands of food options my Seamless app allows me to have delivered straight to my door so I can continue my Grey’s Anatomy binge-watching marathon without interruption.

Yet when I look back on past travels, I find that I have in fact climbed mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes. How does this happen? Easy – I arrive in a new country (out of shape and pudgy) and think what’s something cool and adventurous I can do so I can tell people I did something cool and adventurous. Next thing you know I’m halfway up a 13,000 foot volcano I never wanted to climb in the first place; slowly dying as the volcanic ash has me slipping backward every time I think I’m progressing forward.

Why do I keep doing this to myself? Because without fail, these adventures always turnout being the Best.Travel.Memories.Ever. Climbing the Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala was an unforgettable experience. I learned valuable lessons on teamwork and friendship, discovered how far I could push myself both mentally and physical, watched a nearby volcano erupt every 20 minutes through the flaps of my tent at basecamp, and captured the most beautiful sunrise (pictured above) at its summit.

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2. Whitewater Rafting Down the River Tummel in Scotland

Whitewater Rafting down the River Tummel in Scotland

Ok so this adventure was one I actually wanted to do. Mainly because it didn’t involve tortuously climbing up a steep incline. Plus it’s like a universal rule that whitewater rafting guides be sexy as hell.

Longtime readers know I have an affinity for Scotland; in particular, the lesser-known villages dotting its picturesque countryside. My affinity runs so deep that I made a promise to you (and to myself) to visit at least once per year. In mid-September, I hopped a plane and two trains to the Perthshire region in order to keep this promise.

Winding though the lush hills of this Central Scottish county is the River Tummel whose 58 mile long course provides an array of outdoor activities. Locals enjoy salmon fishing and families can be spotted picnicking along its banks. Camping is permitted in certain areas and the sweeping countryside views are unparalleled.

As parts of the river carry Level II, III and IV rapids, I chose to experience the mighty Tummel by way of whitewater rafting. It was my first time and I’ll admit, I’m now hooked and am looking into some more challenging watercourses for 2017!

Practical Information

  • The small town of Pitlochry (2 hour train ride from Edinburgh) is a great base for watersports in Perthshire and is where I disembarked for my whitewater rafting trip
  • Splash was the tour company I used. The guides were great and super helpful. I highly recommend them. They also provide canyoning excursions, river bugging, and a host of other activities in the region.

3. Sleeping on the Desert Floor Beneath the Arabian Sky in Oman

Things to do in Oman - Visit Wahiba Sands

The above shot isn’t scripted; not some expertly crafted illusion of isolation. Tourists aren’t huddled behind the photographer awaiting their turn to strike a pose on a catwalk fashioned from shifting desert sands. It’s a snapshot I took on impulse. One of my best friend catching her breath after our running match up and over the dunes of Wahiba Sands in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. A place where sand drifts in continual movement over large portions of Oman’s circumference, leaving a desolate playground of knolls and dunes in its wake.

Apart from our Omani guide – and the occasional goat or camel – my friend and I were the only ones there. Just the three of us and miles upon miles of desert floor. We had driven our 4-WD Toyota for hours, bringing ourselves deeper and deeper into the heart of Wahiba Sands with every slope we scaled. Camping is an integral part of Omani culture. Wanting to immerse ourselves in it, we cooked chicken and rice over the open fire, smoked Oman’s version of marijuana, drank ounces of red tea and coffee, learned our new friend’s favorite Arabic dances, and slept without a tent beneath the twinkling of 1,001 Arabian stars. Traveling to a place with so few tourists has its advantages and left me with memories never to be forgotten.

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4. Having High Tea at the Extravagant Burj Al Arab in Dubai, UAE

Tea at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai

Confession – I did NOT love Dubai.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t hate or dislike it. I just didn’t feel that spark. You know? That looooooving feeling. It’s ok. It happens. It doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy myself. I did. Immensely. I appreciated the city for what it was – an extravagant man-made playground.

My favorite experience in Dubai? Being treated to High Tea at the world’s only 7-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. Designed to resemble an Arabian dhow sailing through the Persian Gulf, the Burj Al Arab was built exactly there – in the open waters of the Persian Gulf. The only way to get in is to be a guest or to book a reservation for tea, which is what my bestie since the 8th grade did for me for my belated birthday present (thanks Bets!).

Once inside, you’re free to roam the ground floor. Luminescent chandeliers swing overhead, diamonds glisten in the windows of high-end jewelry boutiques, sounds of plopping water emanate from dancing fountains, and aquariums run the length of the lobby escalators. A scenic, glassed-walled elevator facing out into the gulf takes you up to the 27th floor restaurant where you enjoy those same views over delicious sandwiches, crisp champagne, and the tea of your choice.

5. Being Amazed at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, California

magic castle los angeles california

The Academy of Magical Arts is a private, members-only club in Hollywood, California. Headquartered in an early 1900’s chateau, aptly christened The Magic Castle, it’s a place where preeminent magicians and illusionists the world over, as well as those who love them, come together in a celebration of all things magic. I visited this past summer as a guest, courtesy of my friends Christy and Eric, both members of the exclusive club.

The castle is a multi-story maze of rooms and staircases, secret doors and panels, parlors and lounges. A never-ending labyrinth of surprises, each area possessing its own unique mystical element. It was an evening of the most unconventional sort with intimate displays of magic around every corner. It was hands down one of the coolest experiences of my life.

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6. Sucking Down Oysters in the Seaside Town of Whitstable, United Kingdom

Oyster shells in Whitstable, UK

A whim brought me to Whitstable, a coastal town two hours outside of London, during a Bank Holiday weekend in 2016. After spending a few weeks in London, I headed to King’s Cross station intent on boarding a train to Rye but somehow wound up on a train to Whitstable instead, a town I knew little about. I had only heard the name once before from my dad’s girlfriend – well over two years ago.

But whims seem to have a way of working out. It took all of one hour of being there for me to move this coastal haven to the top of my favorite British towns list. Whitstable has the charm and character of the more famous Brighton – but without the massive tourist crowds. It’s chock-full of boutique shops, colorful beach huts, independent art galleries, pebbled beaches, lively pubs, waterside activities, and more.

But my favorite thing about Whitstable? Their tasty oysters. I grew up in a small coastal town in the panhandle of Florida – a place where oysters are a staple – so believe me when I say I’m damn picky about my oysters. And Whitstable? Well, theirs are among the best I’ve ever had. Considering oysters have been collected in this area since Roman times, they should be this delicious. Plus, their discarded shells decorate Whitstable’s walkable coastline in an unusually beautiful way.

7. Zorbing at the Indoor Ski Resort in Dubai, UAE

Zorbing at Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates

Ok so I’m officially obsessed with zorbing. It’s basically like crawling into a giant ball of bubblewrap and spinning yourself within its walls as fast as you can while said ball rolls downhill. In my case that hill happened to be snow-covered.

And indoors.

And at a mall in the Arabian Desert.

I know right? The practically man-made Dubai is the WEIRDEST PLACE ON EARTH.

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8. Brewery Hopping With Old Friends in Washington D.C.

Washington DC

In another life I had friends in New York City; back in the day when my travel stints were shorter and less frequent. A time when I had a 23 year old’s energy and was always up for chasing drink specials and boys along with a fellow group of female comrades. It was all very Sex and the City: The Early Years.

Until it became The Later Years and one by one those closest to me starting leaving the city for new job opportunities, international living, and for husband-hunting in a place with a less competitive pool of douchebags (though many have come to find this doesn’t change no matter where you live). As a result, my once crazy and fun-filled social life is now defined by Blue Apron cooking nights when my ex-roommate’s boyfriend is out of town.

I know, I’m SUPER lame when I’m in New York.

But there is a silver lining – my friends all moved to fun and interesting places which means a few times a year we get to bring the squad back together in a new town to rehash old stories and create new ones. Most recently, we met up at my friend Laura’s place in Washington DC for a long weekend.

It felt great to just relax and catch-up while Laura showed us around some of her favorite places. It was a low-key weekend and I loved hanging out at the local breweries drinking beer and playing board games. My faves were:

  • Atlas Brew Works: 100% solar-powered, Atlas Brew Works offers tours of their facility on Saturdays while their tap room is open seven days a week. Locals refill their growlers, visitors stop in for a flight or two, and hungry patrons trade their coins for pasta salads and sandwiches from a first-class vending machine.
  • DC Brau: I’ve been to a lot of breweries in my day and I can say without a doubt, DC Brau is my favorite. Chalk it up to a friendly staff, gratifying craft beers, and a chill atmosphere. It doesn’t look like much from the outset – the entrance is tucked away behind a gravel lot framed by a barbed wire fence while the inside is casual and cozy. A table stockpiled with board games lies in the corner and e wiled away the hours with a classic game of Clue.

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9. Being Asked to Write the Foreword to a Travel Book for Charity

Top 16 Experiences of 2016

Earlier in 2016, I was asked by a regular reader (and now great friend) Hung, to be part of Project Alpha, a global book project pulling together travelers from all over the world to write about the one trip that changed their life. The intent was to show how transformative travel can be while simultaneously giving back to the communities that have changed travelers’ lives for the better.

Over 60 travelers came together to submit their stories. Not only was I asked to include my own personal story, but I served as an editor on the project and was even asked to provide the foreword. It was a truly humbling experience and one I was so proud to be a part. It was surreal seeing my name printed in a book!

In just a few weeks, we raised $3500 in direct profit which was donated to Unbound, an organization that provides support to communities by helping mothers and families to build a healthy environment; which, in turn, will improve the lives of children in those communities. Furthermore, Unbound spends 92.5% of all donations towards programs and NOT overhead costs.

2015 saw my work published in a printed magazine and 2016 saw my work published in a book. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2017!

10. Heading Up a Penis Watergun Invasion in Key West, FL

Bachelorette fun in Key West

“Hey, it’s you!”

I blinked over my Bloody Mary at the woman shouting at me from opposite the dance floor. A woman I’d never seen before in my life. I looked to my friends for help. They were useless; only half-paying attention to us while swaying to the tune Blue Heaven’s live brunch band was playing.

“You guys totally made my night,” she continued on. “You just kept shooting tequila into my mouth from a penis.”

Ah. Yep. Makes sense now. There was a good chance that was me.

You see I was the first to arrive in Key West, Florida for my friend’s bachelorette party which by default put me in charge of readying our condo for the bride-to-be. And trust me – you don’t want me to be in charge of anything. Ever. One trip to the sex shop later and I had the place decked out in penises, my crown jewels being 3 penis-shaped waterguns.

A normal human being would have filled them with water (or rather a normal human never would have spent $75 on penis waterguns in the first place) but I took it one step further by filling one with tequila, another with vodka, and the third with whiskey. I then made sure they made it out to the bars lining Duval Street with us.

Let’s just say it was a sloppy evening and well, we were quite popular.

Funny the things that make you famous.

11. Attending the Monaco Superyacht Show

Ok so sometimes having an inside hook-up pays big. I’m talking megayacht big. 

I won’t go into detail (mainly because I can’t) but a marketing job I was offered led me to attending the most prestigious superyacht show in the world last September – the Monaco Yacht Show. I shot live Instagram footage for a company specializing in the sale of luxury yachts and got to experience these beauties first hand.

I loved walking the docks, touring yachts, meeting captains and crew, and riding a tender around the yachts anchored outside the main port. It was the experience of a lifetime; especially the part where I rode 200 feet up the mast of a large sailing yacht to shoot the above video from its crow’s nest. My legs couldn’t stop shaking from the vertigo but man, was it worth it!

Practical Information

  • The Monaco Yacht Show takes places every September. 2017 dates are Sept 27 – 30.
  • Day passes cost EUR 150.If you plan on attending, you should book your hotel early as they sell out quick. Hotel rates are also extremely expensive throughout the show.
  • Please note: having an entrance ticket does NOT mean you will be able to board these super yachts. Many companies have an extensive vetting process to make sure you are qualified and seriously interested in purchase. Trust me – I used to work in yacht sales and have turned many people away at these type of shows.

12. Flying Over My Hometown of Pensacola Beach, FL

Flying over Pensacola Beach Florida

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I grew up on one of the most underrated beaches in Northern Florida. It’s probably why I’m not much of a beach person. When you spend 23 years of your life living among blinding-white sand dunes and blue-green waters, it’s hard not to compare sub-par beaches to the perfection that is Pensacola Beach.

I thought I’d seen my beautiful hometown in every way imaginable until this past November when my mom’s boyfriend asked if we wanted to go to the nearby town of Destin for lunch – by way of airplane.

SOLD!

Despite my nerves (fun fact – I’M A TRAVEL WRITER WHO IS TERRIFIED OF FLYING) I climbed into the tiny, four-seat Cessna and marveled at the bird-eye view as we hugged the coastline I’d grown-up on all the way over to Destin.

The champagne and strawberries my mom packed along for the ride definitely enhanced the experience. #WeSoFancy.

13.Having a Brief Affair in the Brixton Neighborhood of London

16 experiences in 2016

Regular readers know I consider London my second home, choosing to spend 9 to 12 weeks here every year. I usually rent an apartment through AirBnB and stay in different neighborhoods each time. Over the years, these prolonged visits allowed me to form a solid friend base in London. A friend base which opened doors to a romantic connection via a combination of mutual friends and interests.

I met Him at the beginning of the year, only a few days before my flight back to New York. We had time for just one date. A date that ended in the melodramatic fashion of a bad romantic comedy – with an American girl in the backseat of a cab, watching her new lover grow smaller in the distance as it pulls away from the curb, and wondering if they’ll ever meet again.

Well, luckily we live in the Era of Social Media and Texting. All it took was a friend request and a few messages to pass the time and BAM! – my next scheduled trip to London had already arrived. I met up with Him for our second date that same week. He has a flat in London’s Brixton neighborhood and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the artsy, dynamic, and diverse area. I loved seeing this section of the city through his eyes – eyes that grew up in London and knows the place well.

We went to dinners at Brixton’s marketplace and watched live reggae (led by a Scotsman if you can believe it!) upstairs at The Ritzy which also doubles as a movie theater. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had in London and if you find yourself making a connection with someone on the road, I encourage you to lean into it. Dating locals is one of the best ways to get to know the ins and outs of any city you visit. I promise you won’t regret it.

14. Wine Tasting in Calistoga, Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley

Napa Valley isn’t exactly known as a backpacker’s paradise. It can be expensive, fellow solo travelers are practically nonexistent, and communal hostels are nowhere in sight. In all my reading, I never once came across an article about traveling alone through this famed wine region. What I did read drew me to the assumption that it’s a place for visiting octogenarians, mother and daughter sets, scores of gooey-eyed couples, girlfriends on long weekend getaways, and the occasional much-too-classy-and-tame-for-my-taste bachelorette party.

But the one constant when it comes to assumptions is their unreliability. As it would turnout, traveling alone through Napa Valley was nothing like I imagined. I based myself in the northern town of Calistoga whose thoroughfare is flanked with homey wine tasting rooms, art galleries, boutique shops, and vintage spas – all adorned with charming storefronts. While the tourist scene matched my expectations, it was the local side, with their social exuberance and open nature, that far exceeded them.

My favorite thing in Calistoga? The wine. Duh, have you met me? Also, #BecauseNapaValley.

The tasting rooms are off of the main Napa Tourist Trail which makes for an intimate and relaxed wine tasting experience. My favorite wineries were Tank Garage (a tasting room set inside a converted 1930’s gas station), Brian Arden (a newer winery with incredible floor-to-ceiling vineyard views and a friendly, hands-on staff), and Lava Vine (a homey place where impromptu jam sessions may spring up).

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15. Becoming an Adopted Local in Perth, Scotland

The town of Perth in Perthshire Scotland

I’ve been adopted in Scotland more times than I can count. It’s one of the reasons I freaking love this place. 

My recent adoption came along this past September when staying in the small town of Perth along the River Tay. A town whose population remains under 50,000; though it honestly felt closer to 1,000. I practically had the place to myself. That is until I escaped the cold and ducked into Giraffe for an innocent cup of coffee and spotted a flyer for their Scottish Tapas night that same evening. There was one seat left and I snapped it up as the waitress gave me a curious look.

I turned up that night not realizing it was an intimate, local charity event. Giraffe is part of a large community social project that hires people with disabilities and other barriers that may prevent them from finding jobs. Everyone knew everyone yet without blinking the hostess introduced me to every sole there; as if it was completely normal for a foreigner to be attending.

I spent the rest of the night with Giraffe’s founder and his partner. They shared their bottle of wine with me and we laughed over how there was no such thing as Scottish tapas, swapped stories about any and everything, and I tried to come up with a good answer to their “What the hell made you decide to come to Perth?” question. I was on a first name basis with everyone by the time dinner was over and it felt perfectly natural for me to help clean up the cafe and roll silverware in preparation for the next day. Afterwards they took me to their favorite pub for drinks and dancing. I was adopted as one of their own.

This is why I travel. It’s all about experiences with other people and cultures.

This night in Perth was one of the best nights of my life and I plan on writing down the full story in the near future.

16. Exploring the Small, Charming Town of Hudson, New York

Things to do in Hudson New York

Yes, I know – another small town made it to the list. I can’t help it. I’m obsessed with small towns. Though cut me some slack; there are worse things in the world to be obsessed with.

My mom spent the holidays with me in New York City and we took the two hour train ride up to Hudson for a bit of a city break. The town is one of the cutest places I’ve ever been – especially during a snowfall. It was the perfect winterland wonderland getaway (though I blame making snow angels for my ensuing flu) and is rife with amazing restaurants such as Food Studio and Baba Louies, retro vintage furniture shops like Magic Hill, and cozy bars like Spotty Dog (which doubles as a pub and a bookstore!).

I’ll be going into more detail on my favorite things to do in Hudson in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

Well that wraps up 2016! I hope your year was just as amazing. What cool things did you experience? Let me know in the comments below!

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