My Best Travel Moments of 2016
2016 was rough for lots of us, and I’m no exception. Between global events and personal setbacks, it was a very tough year for me. More than I’ve let on here. I have my health and security, which are the most important things, and I didn’t go through any significant personal losses, but this year was a lot rougher than I thought it would be.
That said, there were many wonderful moments, even in a significantly scaled down travel year. And just like in 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012, I’m reminiscing as I go through the best travel moments of the past year.
This year, I’m doing the list a bit differently. I’m thinking of the moments that weren’t the craziest experiences or most unique activities — instead, I’m trying to narrow it down to the moments where I felt the strongest joy.
The Most Mysterious Wine in a Cape Town Hotel Bar
After a night out in Cape Town, Beth and I decided to get a glass of wine at the hotel bar before heading up to bed. Before long, the bartender introduced us to a guy down the bar around our age who happened to be seriously into wine.
We started chatting. Wine Guy shared his bottle of “The Very Sexy Shiraz” — his immensely drinkable go-to wine that I gladly would have sipped anytime, anywhere. He called his friend and invited him to join us. We were all in our early thirties, two of us single, two of us taken, all with a similar sense of humor. It’s a minor miracle when you achieve a perfect vibe with strangers!
Then he brought out the big kahuna — Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, 2009. This was a very fine wine, Wine Guy told us. Expensive and unusual.
And we could not figure it out to save our lives.
I have never had a wine like that — ever. For more than an hour, the four of us sipped it slowly and tried to deduce its flavor profile.
“It’s almost like…pickles?” I guessed.
“No, no, that’s the alcohol you’re tasting!” said Wine Guy.
“What about…a cheese that hits the back of your throat?”
“Hmmm. I’m not sure.”
“Hmmm,” we all murmured in unison, taking more sips of the wine.
As time went on, we talked, we laughed, we ordered more wine. Wine Guy was going to a wedding in New Hampshire soon, near where Beth and I grew up, and I offered to go as his date!
Alas, all good things come to an end. Wine Guy invited another friend to join us, a young girl barely out of her teens, and though she was nice, her arrival kind of killed the vibe the four of us had going. We said our goodbyes and I took careful notes on what we had consumed that night.
And when I was at the duty free wine shop at the airport, I found a very similar bottle — Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009. I’m saving it for a special occasion when Beth and I can sip it and keep trying to figure it out.
Lunch at Bottega in Napa Valley
Of all the outstanding meals I enjoyed in 2016, nothing came close to Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega in Yountville, California. Everything we ate was immaculately prepared and tantalizing.
The only bad part? The outdoor tables are underneath bright red awnings. This gave a bright red tint to everything and the resulting garish photos were a nightmare to edit (and still turned out fairly bad), to be honest.
It was worth it. That meal was SO good. I am still dreaming about those shaved brussels sprouts with marcona almonds in a meyer lemon vinaigrette, topped with a sieved egg. And the wines? Stupendous.
The French Laundry may still be the #1 restaurant on my bucket list, but if you can’t get a table, go down the road to Bottega instead. I promise you’ll be pleased.
Classic Videos on the Minibus from Guatapé
My day trip from Medellín to Guatapé with Black Sheep Hostel was one of the best things I did in Colombia. I loved everything, from climbing the giant rock to chilling on the riverbank to exploring the colonial towns. And trying my first granadilla fruit, of course.
But as we squished ourselves into the minibus for the ride home, I grimaced. This was about to be a nauseating two-hour drive through the mountains, pressed up against strangers.
“Would you like to watch some classic videos?” our driver asked.
My tour mates and I looked at each other. “Yes?”
He put a videotape in. Suddenly Rick James filled the screen. “She’s a very kinky giiiiiiirl…” Yes. By classic videos, he meant “Superfreak.”
Next up? Eddie Murphy, “Party All the Time.” Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive.”
It was so weird and so random and we couldn’t stop laughing! That definitely made the two-hour drive more entertaining.
Oysters for Breakfast in Paris
It was Sunday morning in Paris and Jiyang and I met up with Edna and Joe for a stroll through the market by the Bastille. We were going for oysters for breakfast.
Experiences are so much better when you know people who know people. In this case, Edna was a regular at this oyster stall. That got us attention — and a few freebies.
Oysters are one of my favorite things to eat, especially Katama Bay oysters from Martha’s Vineyard. Jiyang, for his part, once ate 225 dollar oysters on a friend’s dare (he succeeded). But to me, this was the best oyster experience yet.
Nine oysters each — not the usual six or twelve you’d get in America. Slices of delicate raw scallop (or coquille, the lovely French word), as soft and tender as a baby’s ear.
And as we finished our oysters, the oyster man reached for a bottle and filled our leftover shells with cold white wine.
We toasted our oyster shells on that chilly October morning. And that was the only moment since moving to New York that I thought to myself, God, I need to live here.
Good, Fulfilling Work as a Travel Blogger
Since becoming a full-time travel blogger, it’s been a constant struggle to get brands to understand the value we provide. And while it’s been getting better every year, I feel like the biggest strides for me personally came this past year.
In 2016 I did a lot of fulfilling work with brands I love. I even pitched a lot of the work myself. This led to me designing campaigns where I set the terms, thus building them around my personal travel style, which led to better content for both me and the brands.
And I began selling my photography. My first big sale was a shot of Little Corn Island to Saveur magazine, which was the lead photo of a feature (!), taking up half a page in the print magazine (!!!). After that, photo sales were like dominos. I ultimately sold a few dozen photos to brands and companies this year, including the photo above.
I don’t think photography will ever be my primary focus, but it’s nice to know it’s becoming more of an option. Especially considering how much I’ve improved as a photographer over the years.
The Rainbow in Karijini National Park
By this point in our Western Australia road trip, Scotty had left us and it was back to just me and my travel soul mate Freedi again. We had arrived in Karijini National Park, a place where I had heard nothing less than absolutely stellar reviews.
We checked into tents on the same block and decided to each go off on our own, arranging to meet at 6:20 PM in time for dinner.
Girl Code. You never violate Girl Code. When you say you’re going to meet someone at a certain time, you will be there. (Freedi’s being German only added to this.)
That is, unless the photography conditions are extraordinary. Which is exactly what happened when a giant, bold rainbow streaked across the gray sky.
Photographer Code beats Girl Code every time. And for the next 20 minutes, we both ran around the retreat with the understanding that the other was doing the same thing. You do not fuck around when something as magical as a rainbow appears.
And when we finally met up, we were ecstatic, and tired, and covered in bright red dirt, bearing beautiful rainbow photos. We each knew the other one was doing the same thing.
Flying Business Class to South Africa with KLM
Believe it or not, until this year, I had never flown business class long-haul. I had done so on four two-hour intra-European flights, which were nice, but you don’t get the full experience on a short flight.
A few months ago, I had done some work for KLM and they compensated me in tickets rather than money. I very rarely do that, because you can’t pay your bills in comps, but in this case the value of two round-trip business class tickets from New York to Johannesburg dwarfed what I would have charged them for the same work.
You guys. Business class is AMAZING. The flight attendants give you so much attention! The wine and cheese flow nonstop! I never sleep on planes and I slept for eight hours while lying flat! At one point we actually ordered port while watching crappy romantic comedies! And it was even better that I got to share it with Beth, who was also experiencing business class long-haul for the first time.
On our second flight, from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, we were seated toward the back of business class and Beth turned to me and said, “I like these seats better because we can look at the peasants!”
I burst out laughing. “You are getting used to this a little too fast!”
Seeing Hamilton on Broadway
Yes, I only traveled 100 blocks or so, which might be cheating, but seeing Hamilton was unlike any theatrical (or performance) experience I have ever had. I was so excited, I spent most of the show shaking and on the verge of tears until the curtain call. Everyone in the audience had just as much energy as I did!
How did I get a ticket? I bought one on StubHub for an inflated price. I actually timed my purchase wisely as it was just when rumors were beginning to swirl that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be leaving the production in July, but before the Tony Awards. Prices shot way up once he confirmed his exit and Hamilton won most of the Tony’s.
Splurging that much on a theater ticket is not going to be a regular activity for me, but there has never been a show like Hamilton before and I was eager to see the original cast before they departed. I would have loved to have seen the original cast of RENT in 1996. For that reason, getting to experience Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. and Renee Elise Goldberry and, well, everyone else, made it so worth it. I feel very lucky.
Even better? Seeing Hamilton brought me into the community of Hamilton superfans and brought me closer to my friends who love it. It’s also led me to more exploration of Hamilton’s New York. I’m so proud to be living in Hamilton Heights, the neighborhood named after Hamilton himself!
Getting to Be a Normal Person at Adult Summer Camp
One of the best things I did this year was go to Club Getaway, a.k.a. Adult Summer Camp, over Labor Day weekend.
Before I went, I made a decision — I wouldn’t tell anyone what I did for a living. I couldn’t handle having The Conversation nonstop all weekend. I tried out different iterations of what I do and settled on, “I develop travel resources for women.” Technically true and it got no follow-up questions!
Three people found out. One because my sister told him; he was cool about it. I told one guy because he was from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where I’ve done a lot of work and travel, and he knew people in the local tourism board; he actually knew who I was when I told him. I told a third guy because we live in the same neighborhood and I figured I’d run into him at some point.
But the third guy told some people. And one girl came up to me and said, “So can you tell me how to get a lot of followers on Instagram?” My heart sank. Not this again. Not here, not today. That right there was validation that being private was the right choice.
Aside from that moment, camp was amazing. I danced in a silent disco. I jumped on a bungee trampoline. I took a golf lesson and painted. I dressed up as a raccoon for an animal party. I sat by the lake with a Corona. It was insanely fun and more of a vacation than I’ve had anywhere in years.
I made friends. I even dated a guy I met there. And everyone liked me for me, not my travels or my blog.
That was weird. And it shouldn’t have been weird.
Being the Tallest Girl in the Club in Bogotá
I was always the shortest girl in my class growing up. You can look back at my class photos and see me in the exact same seat — front row on the right — almost every year. I hated being short. It wasn’t until middle school that I caught up; today I’m the very average American female height of 5’4″.
So it was weird and trippy and awesome to have the completely opposite experience in Bogotá this year! My friend Amelia offered to connect me with her boyfriend’s cousin, Mario, who lived in Bogotá; when he told me we were going dancing, I panicked. (I have to dance? In public?! In LATIN AMERICA?!)
Turns out there was nothing to be afraid of. The atmosphere was casual. The music was rocking. People were just chilling and drinking aguardiente and grooving on their own terms.
And then I looked around and marveled at the fact that I was the tallest woman there!
IT. WAS. AWESOME. I haven’t felt like that much of an Amazon since 2011, when I went out with local friends in Bali! I wanted to grab things on high shelves just because I could!
Taking Quokka Selfies on Rottnest Island
It was even better than I imagined — but at first I worried we wouldn’t get that far. The hours slipped away on Rottnest Island and I nearly panicked, worrying that Freedi and I wouldn’t have enough time to take good selfies with the quokkas.
We needn’t have worried. It took some time and exploration, but we met the most adorable new quokka friend. He was hanging out between the settlement and an area called the Basin. He was friendly and sweet and loved giving us kisses (unsolicited!) and posing for photos. LOOK HOW CUTE HE IS!
My quokka time was everything I had dreamed of and more. I’m pretty sure quokkas are my favorite animals now!
Even though I only hosted one formal reader meet-up this year — a mini gathering in Savannah — I had a lot of great meetings with readers. Some of them were one-on-ones. Some were Snapchat followers and weren’t even familiar with the blog. Most started with a social media message of, “Hey, I live here! Want to hang out?”
I have the best readers in the world. You guys are seriously amazing. I am still blown away that one of my readers went and donated blood for the first time after I was turned away from donating due to my travels in Colombia. She donated blood because I couldn’t. I still marvel at that.
If you see me, say hi! People often email me to say, “I saw you at [destination], but was too shy to say hi.” There’s nothing wrong with saying hi to me! I’ll be happy under almost any circumstance. (The exception would be if it looks like I’m upset or having a serious conversation with someone — use your best judgment.)
I hope to see you sometime next year!
The Tooth Loss Celebration of Cartagena
I’ve written about this so many times that I hate to be repetitive, but it was the moment that reminded me of how much I love travel.
I was on a food tour in Cartagena with a Dutch family and a guy from New York, and the Dutch couple’s five-year-old daughter lost her first tooth in the middle of the tour.
Right away, I reached into my back pocket and found a dollar to give to her. “In my country, when you lose a tooth, you get a dollar!” I told her.
“She’s five years old and already earning her first dollar!” her mother said.
“Beers for everyone!” shouted her father. “My daughter lost her first tooth!” He ran into a convenience store and bought beers for all the adults. We toasted the little girl’s lost tooth on a bright yellow plaza in Getsemaní, watching her brother play soccer with local boys.
That moment was as close to perfection as I have ever found on my travels.