My Travel Years in Review: Archive Of My Annual Recaps

Note: This is a consolidated post of several blog posts from the years 2011-2017 that were either retrospective year-in-review posts, or looking forward to the next travel year.

My 20 Favorite Travel Moments of 2011

This year provided plenty of memorable personal travel moments. I didn’t make it outside the U.S., but I hit up a lot of great spots within the country, from Miami to L.A. to New York City to a bunch of small towns in between.

Presented in no particular order, here are some of the moments that I’ll remember from this year.

1 Meeting Jack Nicholson

wax jack nicholson

Well, his wax figure, anyway. I also met Lady Gaga, Marilyn Monroe, Brangelina, Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson, Jim Carrey and many more and Madame Tussauds in Hollywood.

2 Finding and consuming a coconut on the street in Key West

I haven’t written about this yet – it’s coming in a couple of weeks. While vacationing in Key West, we found coconuts (and avocadoes) lying on the sidewalk. During a 30-minute walk, we painstakingly cracked open one of the coconuts and enjoyed its juice. Free fruit on the street! How cool is that?

3 Going to Cedar Point in Ohio

cedar point wide

I got my fill of coasters during a two-day trip to Sandusky, Ohio to check out the best amusement park in the country. Being in the front seat of the Top Thrill Dragster as it shot off from a dead standstill to 120 miles per hour was an exhilarating feeling.

4 Participating in the World Naked Bike Ride in Chicago

Joining a thousand scantily-clad wackos on a chilly summer night for a 10-mile ride through the busy streets of Chicago was pretty sweet. These events happen all over the world, so if you’ve never taken part, put the WNBR on your bucket list.

5 Visiting the Grammy Museum

janis joplin car

I’m a Grammy Awards junkie, so it was cool to finally visit the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. and see some of the actual outfits worn by stars like Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. And they even had the infamous JLo dress from 2000. Check out my Grammy Museum review.

6 The Pittsburgh Couch Crash

Couchsurfing.org, the worldwide network of people who let strangers crash on their couches, hosted its Pittsburgh event in October, so I got to come back to town, meet cool people and get lots of good material for my 66 things I love about Pittsburgh article.

7 Riding the Staten Island Ferry

staten island ferry

I got my first close-up view of the Statue of Liberty and didn’t pay a dime. Score!

8 Singing karaoke in Koreatown

Dirt-cheap karaoke doesn’t get any better than some of the Koreatown establishments in L.A., where you can rent a private room with a few friends (Hey, Jason!) for just a few bucks per hour per person and sing as much Journey, Whitney and Britney as you can stand.

9 Picking up a hitchhiking butterfly at the Public Museum

butterfly public museum

During a weekend trip to Milwaukee’s Public Museum, a butterfly stopped on my shoulder and hitched a ride for a good 10 minutes while I walked through the butterfly wing.

10 Eating a Fat Darrell at the Rutgers grease trucks

Chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, french fries and marinara sauce piled onto a roll, courtesy of the Rutgers grease trucks. It’s a heart attack on a bun – all for just six bucks!

11 Seeing gators up close in the Everglades

everglades alligator

Story coming soon. The picture pretty much tells the tale.

12 Attending Lollapalooza, North Coast, DMB Caravan and Pitchfork

I made it to four huge music festivals over the span of two months this summer, taking in close to 100 bands along the way. Among the highlights: Lykke Li, Fitz and the Tantrums, Ratatat, Animal Collective, Emmylou Harris, Mayer Hawthorne, Girl Talk and Of Montreal. Yes, I’m a total hipster. I even wrote up a guide to attending Lollapalooza!

13 Hiking on 180 million year old boulders

sourland boulders

The Sourland Mountain Preserve in central New Jersey contains ancient boulders that were once underwater. Proof that you don’t have to go to an exotic location to find cool natural wonders!

14 Hanging out on an NYC skyscraper rooftop

My cousin lives in a swanky apartment building in the Lower East Side with a sweet rooftop lounge area, allowing me to get an Empire State Building-type view for free.

15 Meeting the Peep!

peeps mascot

During World Pillow Fight Day in Chicago, I got to fraternize with the Peep. Don’t tell anyone, but he secretly despises the Keebler elves.

16 Buying my first tent

Most of the camping I’ve done has been in the backseat of my old van. This year I finally purchased an actual tent and used it at the Indiana Sand Dunes and at a cheap campground near Chicago.

17 Visiting Marilyn Monroe’s grave

marilyn monroe grave

Even her grave site is classy and glamorous.

18 My first In N Out Burger experience

I finally made my first trip to the famous west coast fast food chain to experience the In N Out Burger secret menu. The neapolitan shake was the best milkshake I’ve ever had, but the protein style burger (wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun) was a mess.

19 Attending the zombie walk in Pittsburgh

zombie walk

Hundreds of freaks dress up like zombies and wander through the streets, for no apparent reason. It’s beautiful.

20 Hanging out on Miami Beach

miami beach

What’s better than being lazy, taking in some sun, and playing in the ocean? I want to make South Beach my permanent winter residence!

I would love to hear about where you went this year. What was your favorite travel experience of 2011?

My favorite travel experiences of 2012

Here it is, the awkwardly self-indulgent year-end retrospective! In 2012, I did not travel abroad, but I still managed to have one of the most exciting travel years of my life, spending time in 15 states, ranging from the hot sands of southern California beaches to icy glaciers in Alaska.

These were my favorite experiences of the year, presented in no particular order. I look forward to hearing your stories as well – what was your own favorite travel experience of 2012? Leave a comment at the bottom!

The White House Garden Tour

I’m still amazed I got the chance to walk within a couple feet of the rear entrance of the White House, to see Bo, the First Dog, and to examine Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden up close. The best part is that it was completely unexpected. I just intended to snap a few distant pics of the White House when I discovered they were giving away free tickets for the tour that day.

The Chinese New Year Food and Cultural Fair in San Diego

A cultural fair celebrating the Chinese New Year just a few blocks from my hostel in San Diego? Score! This was an enlightening afternoon, featuring giant human dragons, freshly made food, and older women singing traditional Chinese songs.

chinese ny vocalists

The Martin Luther King National Historic Site

To me, few people in American history are as awe-inspiring as Martin Luther King, Jr. This was true both at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which was built around the hotel where he was assassinated, and at the National Historic Site in Atlanta, which I visited about a month ago. I can’t even describe the powerful emotion as I sat in the pews of the church where he used to preach, listening to recorded sermons from the 1960s coming out of the speakers, and as I visited his tomb and his boyhood home.

martin luther king tomb

Camping and seeing wildlife in Denali National Park

Though we had a rough start to our Denali backcountry adventure, with lost luggage and frozen tents, the trip ended up giving us close-up views of grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and dall sheep. You feel very small sleeping out in the wilderness on the land that belongs to these animals.

dall sheep close

The Country Music Hall of Fame

Featuring everyone from Johnny Cash to Taylor Swift, the Country Music Hall of Fame was a ton of fun. Even though I’m only a casual country music fan, there was more than enough memorabilia to entertain, including Carl Perkins’s blue suede shoes, a huge wall of gold records, Elvis Presley’s gold piano, the set of Hee Haw, and handwritten Miranda Lambert lyrics.

Carl Perkins actual blue suede shoes

Philadelphia Magic Gardens

I was excited to discover mazes of mosaics of broken glass, old china, bicycle tires, empty bottles, children’s toys and other repurposed junk at this amazing art installation on South Street. It’s one of the coolest art sites I’ve seen in the U.S.

Driving above 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park

You don’t get to experience tundra conditions in the lower 48 everyday, and it’s even rarer that you can drive at these high elevations. Rocky National Park in the summer offers such an opportunity on Trail Ridge Road. The wind was fierce, the marmots were active, and the views were spectacular.

rockies-warning-sign

Hiking inside Matanuska Glacier

My first crampon experience came on a guided tour of Alaska’s Matanuska Glacier, where I avoided crevasses, navigated narrow channels and drank some of the cleanest water in the world from running streams. Getting to see the inside of a constantly-moving glacier and seeing its flowing rivers and melting chunks of ice is a life experience I highly recommend.

Matanuska Glacier hike

Spending 12 straight hours inside the Mall of America

I don’t know if this one was truly one of my “favorite” experiences. It’s more like one of those personal challenges where you’re really glad when it’s over, but you’re proud for having done it. Thankfully, I survived the day with my sanity intact and without getting arrested for being a suspected terrorist (which is a real concern – click the link above to read more.)

mall-of-america-swings

Beach day in San Diego

Leaving frigid Chicago in January for San Diego was awesome, and so was hanging out on the beach with Grace from Pinay on the Move and Christy and Scott from Ordinary Traveler. The evening ended with my first-ever taste of banana bread beer, which tasted as awesome as it sounds. I also go to stop by the San Diego Zoo!

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San Diego beach day

Stalking Ben Franklin in Philadelphia

In Philly I ordered some history to go with my cheesesteaks. It’s easy, when the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Old City Hall, Carpenters Hall and the National Constitution Center are all within walking distance of each other. And Ben Franklin’s likeness is all over the city, to a hilarious degree.

liberty-bell-kids

Random fun in North Carolina

Visiting my friend Keilan in Greensboro led to some unexpected fun, like camping and hiking, the Ava Gardner Museum, the birthplace of Pepsi, and the ACC Hall of Champions, where you can pose with life-size university mascots.

georgia-tech-mascot

The town of Talkeetna, Alaska

If you ever go to Alaska, absolutely do not miss the kooky little town of Talkeetna, which has a cat for a mayor, plus silly gift shops, wooden moose, restaurants that serve caribou chili, and an overall hippie atmosphere.

moose kissing

Eating spaghetti on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair

There were plenty of cheesy highlights at the Minnesota State Fair, from the beauty queen faces carved out of butter to the 1,200-pound pumpkin to the paintings made from seeds. My favorite thing was the food selection. I was tempted by the poutine, fried pickles, and deep-fried Spam curds, but ended up going with the spaghetti on a stick.

spaghetti-on-a-stick-minnes

Camping in the Indiana Dunes

Sometimes, you just need a weekend getaway to recharge the batteries. I got out of Chicago one weekend and headed to Indiana Dunes State Park, which features a campground along the shores of Lake Michigan where huge sand dunes have built up over the years.

indiana dunes

Flightseeing and glacier landing in Alaska

Saving the best for last, we had the opportunity to ride in a small plane and land on a glacier in Denali National Park in Alaska. The entire experience was unforgettable, from the amazing views to the thrill of landing in a totally white universe of mountains.

Mountains from plane

Bring on 2013!

Places I want to travel, 2013

new orleans jackson square

Active volcanoes, remote forested islands, and colorful culture are among the qualities found in the list of places I want to travel in 2013. Now that I’ve recapped 2012, it’s time to look forward to new adventures for the next 12 months.

Although I’d love to go to faraway lands like Antarctica, Iceland and Kenya, I’m sticking with places closer to home that are more realistic on my current budget.

Hawaii

Just one state remains on my quest to conquer all 50, and that’s the tropical chain of islands out in the Pacific. The only problem is that when I finally make it to Hawaii, I can’t just spend a couple days in Maui or Honululu and come home. I’d need to visit several islands over the course of a couple weeks to see all the hot spots and hidden attractions.

Of course, given my interest in quirky sights, I want to play in the snow in Hawaii. How many people can say they did that? The summit of Mauna Kea in Volcanoes National Park sometimes sees snow in the winter, so I’d do my best to plan a trip during the coldest months. Of course, when I’m not at the mountain, I would absolutely be hanging out on the beaches. I’m not crazy enough to pass that up.

Edit: I finally made it to Hawaii in 2016, visiting spots like the Koko Crater Trail, Pearl Harbor, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Central Mexico

flamenco festival tijuana

My friend has relatives in Mexico and one of them is getting married next summer, so I may end up there for a few days. I’ve only been to Cancun and Tijuana so far, so it’s exciting to possibly have an opportunity to get into the small towns in the heart of Mexico to see how the locals live. Also, I hear Mexican weddings are one giant all-day party – much more out of control than American ceremonies!

Edit: I eventually made it to Coahuila and saw lots of interesting sights, including a small-town Mexican cemetery.

Montreal

Montreal strikes me as one of the most European cities in North America, based on the heavy French influence and all the great things I’ve read about the city’s arts and music and food scenes. If I still had my travel van, I would certainly have visited by now – in fact, I’m sure I would have done a coast-to-coast Canadian road trip – so I’m way overdue in checking out this city.

Isle Royale National Park

Way up in northern Michigan out in Lake Superior sits Isle Royale National Park, a 45 mile by 9 mile island accessible only by boat. It’s one of the most remote U.S. national parks, thus making it one of the best places to find seclusion. There are 165 miles of hiking trails and lots of moose and wolves on the isle. Hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing, all in the Midwest? Sign me up.

Edit: I finally made it to this park in 2017 and published a complete guide to camping and hiking in Isle Royale National Park.

Texas

Texas capitol building

I’d like to spend a good three weeks road-tripping just around the state of Texas, since the only city there in which I’ve spent any significant time is Austin. It would be fun to do a full month of coverage, just as I did this year for Alaska. Besides finally getting to check out Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, I want to get to know some of the small towns, plus Big Bend, a largely-ignored national park that borders Mexico.

The Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia

Even before National Geographic named it one of the must-see places for 2013, I wanted to visit the Great Bear Rainforest off the western coast of Canada. The big appeal is the rare white-coated spirit bear, but many visitors there never see one. Even without the bears, this land is beautiful, remote forested terrain. Then again, this area has been seeing more visitors, perhaps too many, so I’d have to think over what the impact of a visit there would mean for the environment.

New Orleans

new orleans street

I’ve been to the Big Easy once and have been dying to go back ever since. I love the laid-back and friendly atmosphere, the craziness of Bourbon Street, the history in the old mansions, and the famous Cajun and Creole food. Plus, there are so many more quirky attractions to check out beyond just the grave of the voodoo queen that I found last time. I may just have to go all-out with the NOLA experience and drop by during Mardi Gras.

The Boston Harbor Islands

You’ve probably realized by now that I enjoy islands off the mainland of the U.S. and Canada. I was so excited to discover this group of 34 islands in Massachusetts. When I think of the stretch of land between New York City and Boston, I think of traffic and crowded neighborhoods without an inch of free space. It’s amazing that so close to Boston you can find these more remote places with beaches, forests and primitive camping. The Harbor Islands look like a great place for a getaway.

Andorra

I had to include one exotic destination on the list, even if I don’t expect to make it there in 2013. Andorra is a tiny, tiny country between France and Spain. When I start traveling overseas, I’m going to make an effort to visit places like this, since they’re not typically covered by travel bloggers and I think these sorts of weird locations are fascinating. Andorra is just 181 square miles and sees 10 million tourists annually. Hopefully next year, that will be 10 million and one…

Where do you want to travel in 2013?

The best of Quirky Travel Guy, 2013

arnold schwarzenegger statue

Before putting 2013 in the rearview mirror once and for all, I have to recap some of my favorite posts from the past 12 months. Last year was perhaps my most exciting travel year yet, with several trips throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The highlights of ’13 included visits to a recently-abandoned ghost town in Oklahoma, two small towns in Mexico, and one of the coolest little cities in one of the most unexpected places – Canada’s Yukon territory.

These were the most memorable travel moments in Quirky Travel-land.

Move Over, Picasso: Watch Elephants Paint at the Indianapolis Zoo

elephant-paints

It’s just what it sounds like – elephants creating paintings at the zoo. You can watch them paint and even take home their masterpiece once they’re finished.

What’s it like to visit a ghost town full of toxic waste? Welcome to Picher, Oklahoma…

church abandoned bw

The most eerie travel experience I had in ’13 was visiting a town that went from thriving community to abandoned ghost town in less than ten years.

Reconnecting with my Amish roots in Berlin, Ohio

berlin-buggy

I’m descended from Amish royalty. Really. A trip to Amish Country in Ohio provided an opportunity to trace my ancestry back hundreds of years and meet some long-lost Amish relatives.

Meet Sid, the man behind the quirkiest museum in Canada

sid beaver creek bike

One of the coolest characters I met this year was Sid van der Meer Sr. from Beaver Creek, Yukon, who has a massive collection of bizarre antiques, like a 77-million year old turtle fossil, old Alaska Highway milepost signs, and unopened mail from 1920.

Nationality Rooms in Pittsburgh: Experience cultures from around the world in a single building

At the tallest classroom building in North America, the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, you can visit classrooms from more than two dozen countries in the span of less than 30 minutes.

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Visiting the Westboro Baptist Church and the Rainbow House across the street

rainbow-house-topeka

This year, a group of activists bought a house across the street from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and painted it in the colors of the rainbow flag. I paid a visit to see it for myself.

The 10 least-visited national parks in America

Wherein I try to give some love to the national parks that see the least traffic year in and year out. Give it a read and consider adding Dry Tortugas, Great Basin, and Isle Royale to your bucket list.

I tried 60 different Coca Cola products from around the world at the Coke Museum

At the conclusion of the Coke factory tour in Atlanta, you can sample Coke flavors from around the world. I sat there and tried all 60. Among my favorites: Smart Apple from China, Fanta Melon Frosty from Thailand, and Bibo Candy Pine Nut from South Africa.

The Newseum blows me away

berlin-wall-newseum

The Newseum in Washington DC is my favorite museum in America. Find out why.

My 50 favorite sights at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame finally started allowing visitors to take pictures, and I put together one of the first photo essays from the place shortly thereafter. Lots of good pics here including artifacts from Michael Jackson, Little Richard, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and dozens more.

rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame

I freaking love Dawson City

There’s a town way up north in Canada’s Yukon territory that reminds me a lot of Key West, Florida due to its quirky, hippie, friendly vibe.

I’m a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club

drink sourtoe

I consumed the infamous Sour Toe Cocktail, a Dawson City drink that includes a real mummified human toe inside the glass.

Here’s what a small-town Mexican cemetery looks like

The colors and the unique remembrances are what stood out most at these small cemeteries in Villa Union, Mexico.

The character of the Yukon: A photo essay

moose-antler-truck

The best photo essay I’ve ever published on the site. Check out 60 unique images from around the Yukon territory.

Hiking in the Hollywood Hills

palm-trees

The Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles are an awesome place to hike, because in addition to the nature, you can spot wildlife, celebrities, and the Hollywood sign.

The Penn Museum of Archaeology is just awful

I had to be honest about the sad state of this Ivy League-affiliated museum.

BEST QUIRKY ATTRACTIONS OF THE YEAR
banjo-museum-red-room

American Banjo Museum, Oklahoma City, OK
Arnold Schwarzenegger statue, Columbus, OH
Toronto Shoe Museum, Toronto, ON
Pops, home of 600 crazy soda flavors, Arcadia, OK
Mill City Museum, Minneapolis, MN

My travel year in review via Instagram 2013

This year was one of my biggest travel years yet, with seven big trips across Canada, Mexico, and the United States. My Instagram feed tends to be even quirkier than this blog – see that strange photo above from Texas – so rather than re-hashing what I’ve already written over the past 12 months, I’ve decided to relive the year via Instagram pics.

I learned two things while putting together this post: I had a really amazing year, and I need a new phone with more vivid contrast and better editing apps.

Check out my adventures via this chronological recap, and don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

Los Angeles

The year began with a friend and I taking a week-long ultra-budget vacation in L.A., during which we got around town exclusively by public transportation. The cool sights of L.A. ranged from elderly faces in street art to an image of Liz Taylor composed of bits of junk mail to oranges at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market.

Missouri / Kansas

A weekend visit to KC provided enough time to enjoy some barbecue chicken (which made my list of the 10 best things I ate in 2013), enjoy some jazz music, and see an Alice Cooper-autographed baby doll at The Science of Rock & Roll exhibit at Union Station. Then I headed into Kansas, where I spotted the rainbow house across the street from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.

Chicago

Sights from my home city included the Chicago River dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day, the Leaning Tower of Niles (a mini replica of the Pisa landmark), and a giant Connect Four game at a street fair.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma was full of quirky and unusual sights, from the American Banjo Museum to bizarre soda flavors at Pops on Route 66 to the abandoned toxic ghost town of Picher.

Ohio

My week in Ohio was one of my favorite trips of 2013. Besides seeing items like Run DMC’s classic Adidas shoes at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and hanging with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Columbus, I had some awesome Amish experiences in Berlin. I met some long-lost Amish relatives, watched an Amish broommaker at work, and got to ride in a real Amish buggy.

Toronto

I loved visiting Toronto again, hanging out with other travel bloggers at the TBEX conference, cooking dinner with bloggers as part of a Top Chef-style competition, taking a ferry ride to the Toronto Islands, visiting the quirky Shoe Museum, and seeing the Stanley Cup in person.

Yukon

I spent a week in the great north of Yukon, Canada, visiting Whitehorse and the amazing town of Dawson City. My Yukon highlights included encountering black bears on the side of the road, seeing glaciers from above while flightseeing, viewing First Nations art, finding real gold while gold panning, and becoming a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.

Indiana

What is there to do in Indiana? Lots, like kissing the bricks at the Indy 500, seeing cute little stuffed Vonneguts at the Vonnegut Library, watching elephants create a painting, hanging with Orville Redenbacher, and visiting Michael Jackson’s birth house.

San Antonio

Shenanigans in Texas included feeding zebras up close at the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, seeing Darth Vader on the San Antonio riverwalk, and buying snow cones at the Alamo.

Mexico

I finally got to visit small-town Mexico in the state of Coahuila.

Chicago

I ended the year with a ride on the Chicago Christmas subway train. Hey there, Santa!

Places I want to travel, 2015

road trip roof

The title says it all. After a year in which I visited Louisville, Detroit, Puerto Vallarta, New Orleans, Houston, and Shreveport, among others, where am I hoping to find quirky adventures over the next 12 months? Here’s my 2015 bucket list.

Glacier National Park

I’ve been to numerous national parks over the years, from Denali to Death Valley to Yellowstone. One that has eluded me so far is Glacier in Montana. It has everything I want: Hiking and camping opportunities, bears, mountain goats (the one large mammal I still haven’t seen in the wild!), and of course, glaciers, which are melting fast and could be gone within another decade. This is my top priority among national parks.

Brooklyn

brooklyn street

It’s been too long since I experienced New York City. My last visit was in late 2012, and that was only a day trip. The time has come to return, and this time I want to focus on Brooklyn, Manhattan’s cooler cousin. It would be awesome to spend a few days in the B-K and explore beyond just Williamsburg, which is where I’ve limited my time in the past.

Montreal

I’ve done Toronto and Vancouver and even the Yukon, but so far Montreal (and all of Quebec, actually) has remained a mystery. Montreal seems to be one of the most culturally interesting North American cities, so I hope to get a chance to check it out soon.

Puerto Rico

Having recently discovered the thrilling news that Southwest flights to San Juan are basically the same price as flights to New York City, I am actively working out how I can travel to Puerto Rico this summer. I’m considering the logistics of a 5- to 7-day vacation with my partner that includes beach time, city exploration in San Juan, and a trip to the national parks and jungles. Maybe even a drive around the entire island, if time and finances allow.

Seattle

seattle skyline

It seems like the Pacific Northwest is on my wishlist every year. I love Seattle and can’t wait to go back, especially since it’s on the shortlist of places I may want to move to someday. The only tricky part about scheduling a Seattle trip is that if I go all the way out there, I’d want to also pop up to Vancouver and down to Portland, and doing that makes the journey expensive and time-consuming. Maybe I can force myself to be less ambitious and settle for seeing one great city instead of trying to squeeze in three.

Mexico City

I love Mexico, and I’m itching to see a new side of it. Having explored the touristy beach communities of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, as well as small towns in the Coahuila province, I’m ready to check out life in Mexico’s urban metropolis. My Spanish is slowly getting better, so maybe I can actually converse with people now.

Utah’s national parks

During my big cross-country van trip a few years back, I didn’t give Utah enough attention. A couple days in Salt Lake City was all I could spare. I imagine taking one epic trip and seeing Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Bryce Canyon over the span of several days.

Where do you want to travel in 2015?

My Favorite Travel Experiences of 2016

One of the great things about travel is that it gets you out of your own personal bubble and puts things into perspective, especially when looking back on the year. This past year was my greatest travel year yet, as my personal travels took me far beyond any place I had ever been and allowed me to experience new cultures and people that enriched my life.

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Most excitingly, in 2016 I spent quality time beyond mainland North America. My abroad experiences were highlighted by a week in Cuba, which felt like spending a week in the 1950s with its slow pace of life, old-fashioned cars, and lack of mobile internet. I spent several days in the Dominican Republic, getting to know the town of Puerto Plata and volunteering with local organizations. And I visited southeast Asia for the first time, taking in the historic cities and attractions of the Philippines, from Manila to the northern Ilocos provinces.

I can’t wait to see where 2017 takes me, and I hope your travels are just as rewarding and fulfilling. In the meantime, I must commence with the annual year-end look back on what for me was the greatest travel year ever.

A return visit to San Francisco

I hadn’t been to San Francisco in several years, and this time I finally got to visit Alcatraz. Being inside the infamous island prison was even more powerful than I had expected. While in town I also went to the top of Coit Tower and enjoyed some of the best views of the city.

Experiencing the volcanoes and beaches of Hawaii

I finally achieved my long-standing goal of visiting all 50 states when I arrived on the Big Island of Hawaii. My friend and I spent a week checking out the beaches, waterfalls, and volcanoes of the island. The black sand beaches were cool, and the up-close views from the Mauna Kea visitor center were a treat. But the best part was the helicopter ride over active volcanoes.

hawaii coast

Backstage at the Grammy Awards in L.A.

After years of writing about music for various outlets, I finally had the opportunity to attend the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Being backstage was a bit strange – the writers watched the show on monitors, since we were in a completely separate room from the ceremony itself. But we got to interact with some of the stars in the interview room, like Mark Ronson and Chris Stapleton.

selfie grammy

Volunteering in the Dominican Republic

The Fathom cruise line transported hundreds of cruise passengers from Miami to Puerto Plata for three days’ worth of volunteering in the Dominican. I participated in reforestation and paper recycling efforts, as well as teaching students English in a rural village. Side trips included visits to the Amber Museum and the 27 Waterfalls attraction in Damajagua.

dominican school

Taking in the history and culture of the Philippines

My first visit to southeast Asia took me to the Philippines, where I spent six days split between Manila and the northern Ilocos provinces. Towns like Laoag, Paoay, and Vigan opened my eyes to new sights and experiences way outside anything I had ever seen before.

Though the Philippine trip included some major challenges – the journey there took 40 (forty!) hours due to flight delays and missed connections, and a hideous case of food poisoning landed me in a Manila hospital – I still look back it at fondly and can’t wait to return to the country.

paoay sign

Embracing the old-fashioned life in Cuba

People often say Cuba is like a time warp to the 1950s, and that seemed to be the case during my week-long visit. The cars were classic, the pace of life was refreshingly slow, and mobile data was not a thing. Instead, people relaxed in town squares, socialized while drinking mojitos, and hung out on the malecon.

The beaches were the most beautiful I have ever seen. Vibrant music reminiscent of old-time jazz was played by live bands everywhere. There was so much to love about Cuba that I’m considering going back next year.

Desert hiking in Joshua Tree National Park

For years I always overlooked Joshua Tree National Park because a few oddball trees didn’t excite me. This year, I finally visited and learned just how incredible the park really is. The desert hiking is great. The best part is the section of the park called Jumbo Rocks, which is exactly that. Huge boulders piled on top of each other, allowing for an awesome afternoon of rock climbing and standing on what feels like the top of the world.

joshua tree rocks

Beach time and Little Havana in Miami

I’ve been to Miami a few times now and it’s still one of my favorite cities. Soaking in the sun on South Beach never gets old. Tasting the culture and cuisine of Little Havana never gets old.

calle ocho

Cruising the Caribbean

My first cruise! The trip from Miami to the Dominican came via the 700-person Fathom Adonia. The ship was smaller than many cruise ships, which was great since it created a more intimate atmosphere. I got to know some great new friends and enjoyed the rooftop pool, restaurants, and onboard activities. I didn’t think I would enjoy the cruise lifestyle, but I could get used to it. Maybe this will be my thing as I get older 🙂

fathom pool

Introduction to Mexico City

I was only in Mexico City long enough to see a few parks, some nifty architecture, and the Frida Kahlo Museum. That was enough to sell me on a return trip next January. So expect to read much more about La Cuidad de Mexico in 2017.

What was your favorite travel adventure of 2016?

My 2017 Travel Year in Review… and Practical Tips for 12 Destinations

cdmx featured

I began 2017 in Mexico City and ended it in Hawaii. In between, I spent 10 days in Iceland, camped on a remote island at Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park, and drove cross-country through Canada and the U.S., hitting up six national parks along the way. What a stellar travel year!

The end of the year is the time to be self-indulgent and talk about the cool and amazing places I visited over the past 12 months. This year I’m making this post a little more practical by including some tips that you can use when you’re planning trips to any of these places.

So here we go with my 2017 travel year in review.

Mexico City

mexico city

I spent nearly four months here in the winter and spring and had a blast. I got to know some cool people (locals and ex-pats), saw some historic sites, got to know several neighborhoods, and learned the coolest activities in Mexico City.

Most importantly, I settled in and made it my home. I found my go-to laundromats, grocery stores, and cheap street food places. I joined a weekly volleyball league, took the subway all over town, and felt as though I was a resident.

Mexico City tips: Things are back to normal after the devastating fall earthquake, so there’s no reason to delay your visit. For getting around, Uber is super-cheap and safe, and the subway is even cheaper (watch for pickpockets.) Mexico City has more museums than any city in the world, so check out a few.

Can’t-miss attractions: Tenochtitlan, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Frida Kahlo Museum, Zocalo

Further reading
:
Taking in the Sights at Chapultepec Castle
Palacio de Bellas Artes, Seen From Every Angle

Dry Tortugas National Park

dry tortugas

Getting to the remote islands of Dry Tortugas (70 miles west of Key West, Florida) was a long-time travel goal that I finally achieved in May. I got to stay at one of the 10 precious campsites on the main island, spending three days in a tropical setting.

Discovering the history of the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson was fascinating. Initially built as a Union fort, this place later became an infamous prison with famous inmates like Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of plotting to kill President Lincoln.

Dry Tortugas tips: Book well in advance (a few months, if possible) if you want to go camping since ferry spots are limited. Be sure to go snorkeling, even if you’ve never done it before, to see lots of tropical fish and maybe an octopus or small shark.

Can’t-miss attractions: Fort Jefferson, the snorkeling hotspots (near the beaches and piers)

Further reading:
Everything You Need to Know About Camping at Dry Tortugas
Where to Snorkel at Dry Tortugas

Iceland

iceland

There’s a reason everyone who visits Iceland can’t stop talking about it. The natural beauty is unparalleled, from the hundreds of waterfalls to the black sand beaches to the volcano craters. The kooky culture is also fun. The country has lots of troll legends and quirky museums. And of course, you might have the chance to see the Northern Lights!

Iceland tips: Bring a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, and use it everywhere. You don’t need Icelandic money anywhere in the country. Come during shoulder season (spring or fall) to save lots of money.

Can’t miss attractions: Reynisfjara Beach, Jokulsarlon Lagoon, Diamond Beach, the Northern Lights

Further reading:
The 30 Most Amazing Things I Saw in Iceland
Seven Myths About Traveling in Iceland
Icelandic Museum of Sorcery & Witchcraft
Photo Essay: The Quirky Side of Iceland

Oahu, Hawaii

oahu sharks

One year after visiting the Big Island, I made it back to Hawaii to see the island of Oahu. I can’t list all the highlights of the trip yet, because it’s still not over! I am writing this from my room in Honolulu. So far, I’ve hiked to the top of Koko Crater and taken part in a shark diving excursion, where I watched several sharks swim around me from inside a steel cage in the ocean. Amazing!

Oahu tips: Traffic and parking can be brutal in the Honolulu and Waikiki areas, so plan accordingly. The island-wide bus system is quite good. You can drive from one side of the island to the other in just over an hour, so leave the pretty beaches once in a while and explore the entire island.

Can’t-miss attractions: Pearl Harbor, Waikiki Beach

Banff & Jasper National Parks

banff jasper

Alberta’s Banff and Jasper might be the best place in North America to see glaciers up close. Not to mention bears, moose, and scenic mountain landscapes. And Peyto Lake, thanks to its glacial silt, remains a bright blue color that seems too vivid to be possible.

READ NEXT
Photo Essay: Images from Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur in the Philippines

Banff and Jasper tips: Unlike U.S. national parks, these Canadian parks have cities (and lodging options) within them. Most lodging in the area is expensive, but each city does have hostels if you need a budget bed for the night. Book as far in advance as possible!

Can’t-miss attractions: Athabasca Glacier, Jasper SkyTram, Lake Louise, Peyto Lake

The Canadian Prairies

prairie provinces

On my move from Chicago to Seattle, I decided to head up north and travel through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. It was fun seeing both the big cities and the rural areas of these “prairie provinces.” Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Calgary all had plenty of cultural and foodie offerings. Edmonton’s K-Days festival and Taste of Edmonton event were both really cool.

Canadian Prairie tips: Be prepared for long driving hours if you’re traveling between the big cities in these provinces. If hearing your GPS say “Continue straight for 387 miles” bothers you, a road trip through the prairies may not be for you!

Can’t-miss attractions: Calgary Stampede, Canadian Museum for Human Rights (Winnipeg), Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump (Fort Macleod)

Further reading:
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Road Trip Through Canadian Prairies & National Parks

Mazunte and Zipolite, Mexico

mazunte zipolite

The southern Mexican coast in the state of Oaxaca has some of the country’s least-crowded and least-touristy beaches. This is a great spot to unwind and chill out without spring break college kids running around. It’s a bit of a hassle to get here, but once you’re here, lodging is cheap, food is cheap, people are friendly, and the beach scenery is fantastic.

Mazunte and Zipolite tips: The waves here can be very strong, and multiple tourists have died. It is not advised to swim here at all. Take a taxi or colectivo over to Puerto Angel if you want to swim.

Can’t-miss attractions: Walk along the beaches and the main streets of both towns to see the local restaurants and businesses.

Further reading:
Tropical storms, cucumber guacamole, nude beaches… a week on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast

Glacier National Park

glacier national park

Two years ago, I visited Montana’s Glacier National Park for the first time and was blown away. This summer I finally had the opportunity to return. I was able to see mountain goats in the wild for the first time and take part in a couple of challenging but rewarding 10-mile hikes (Highline Trail, Grinnell Glacier.)

Glacier National Park tips: Glacier has a major problem with overcrowding. If you plan to visit Logan Pass (and you should), get there crazy early. Before 8 am if possible. If you arrive at 9 am, the parking lot may already be full for the day.

Can’t-miss attractions: Hidden Lake, Highline Trail, Swiftcurrent Lake/Many Glacier Hotel

Further reading:
Returning to Glacier NP for “Mission: Mountain Goat”
A Mile By Mile Guide to Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park

Philadelphia

philadelphia

On assignment to cover the NFL Draft for a magazine, I spent a weekend in Philly this spring. Having seen most of the famous historic sites in previous visits, my highlights this time were seeing a sporting event from the comfort of a private box for the first time ever (a Phillies game), and taking the elevator to the top of City Hall, where you can stand right underneath the 37-foot William Penn statue.

Philadelphia tips: When visiting any historic site in Philadelphia, try to go on weekday mornings if possible, since crowds and wait times will be shorter (unless there’s a school field trip.)

Can’t-miss attractions: Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Magic Gardens, Reading Terminal Market, the Rocky Statue

Further reading:
Philly Highlights: Rocky, Cheesesteaks, Street Art, and Hidden Temples
Philadelphia Loves Them Some Ben Franklin

Washington’s National Parks

washington parks

After moving to Seattle, I succeeded in checking out all three of Washington’s national parks over the next two months: Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic. I saw glaciers, massive peaks, waterfalls, whales, elk, and more outdoorsy fun stuff.

Washington parks tips: In Olympic, stop by the ocean in the Kalaloch area. Take binoculars and look for gray whales. They usually appear in fall and spring, but you can see a few strays any time of year, as I did in September. You might only see their fins popping up every now and then. You can take a Washington national parks road trip to Olympic and North Cascades.

Can’t-miss attractions: Hoh Rainforest (Olympic), Hurricane Ridge (Olympic), Sunrise Visitor Center (Rainier)

Key West, Florida

key west

On the way to Dry Tortugas, it was necessary to take a pit stop in Key West before boarding the early-morning ferry. I passed the time by renting a bike, riding around the city, and visiting the famous cats of the Ernest Hemingway Home.

Key West tips: Lodging here is super-expensive, even on Airbnb and in hostels. The cheapest hostel I found there was still $50/night, so be sure to plan your budget in advance if you’re coming here.

Can’t-miss attractions: Ernest Hemingway Home, the Southernmost Point

Further reading:
Quirky Attraction: Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum
The Southernmost Point in the Continental USA

Isle Royale National Park

isle royale

The 9- by 45-mile island in the middle of Michigan’s Lake Superior is one of the most unique U.S. parks. Only reachable by boat, the island has the longest average visit time of any American national park. Most visitors stay for at least a few days to enjoy the camping, canoeing, and solitude. I stayed for three days and got to see a mother and baby moose up close when they scurried through my campsite.

Isle Royale tips: Most campgrounds on the island have maximum stays of 1 or 2 nights, so get a map in advance and plan out your route. Campsites are reserved at the visitor center first-come, first-serve, so run to the visitor center after disembarking the ferry so you can have your desired itinerary approved.

Can’t-miss attractions: Rent a kayak or canoe on Lake Superior

Other quick trips

Portland, Sacramento, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago

sacramento capitol

I spent time in Pittsburgh and Chicago to see family and friends, while volleyball tournaments took me to Indianapolis, Portland, and Sacramento. Of those cities, only Sacramento was new to me. I spent my little bit of free time walking around the Capitol building and exploring the lively Midtown neighborhoods.

Further reading:
There’s a Volcano in the Heart of Portland, Oregon
Cool Chicago: The Green Mill, Al Capone’s Favorite Jazz Club
Things To Do in Chicago in the Winter
Seeing Indianapolis via the Cultural Trail
Three Fascinating Pittsburgh Museums: Warhol, Heinz History, Fort Pitt

Places I Want to Travel in 2018

So far, I only have one trip confirmed for 2018, but it’s a big one: two full months traveling through nine countries in Africa. I’ll be sharing much more about this trip in the coming months. In the meantime, it’s time to think about other spots around the globe that would be cool to check out over the next 12 months.

Puerto Vallarta & Guadalajara

The four months I spent living in Mexico City in 2017 were not enough. I want to go back to CDMX, but I also want to make a return trip to Puerto Vallarta, where I had a great visit in 2014. And I’m dying to check out Mexico’s second-largest metropolitan area, Guadalajara.

puerto vallarta

During my last visit, PV revealed itself to be an awesome beach city with lots of quirky surprises. I would love to spend more time living and working there, while consuming margaritas and soaking up the sun between writing shifts.

Montreal & Quebec City

It seems like I put Montreal on my wishlist every year. There aren’t a ton of places on this continent with such a large French influence, so it would be cool to visit these Quebec cities.

Amsterdam & Berlin

Now that I’ve finally branched out into visiting Europe (Iceland was incredible!), I can begin to check off the European cities on my list. Topping the list are Amsterdam and Berlin, which both strike me as youthful, fun cities full of culture. It might be fun to go old-school and do a backpacking trip through hostels across Europe.

Thailand & Vietnam

A single week in the Philippines two years ago has me eager to return to Southeast Asia. Now that I live on the west coast of the U.S. (Seattle), getting there will be much easier and cheaper.

That being the case, I’m ready for Thailand and Vietnam. Thailand has long been ground zero for English-speaking digital nomads, so it will be cool to check out Bangkok and Chiang Mai. And I’ve gotten a lot more interested in Vietnam recently, so I suspect that if I make the trip out that way, I would hang out for a few weeks and try to see both countries.

Utah national parks

utah welcome sign

I’ve visited all 50 states and roughly 30 national parks, but I have yet to take in any of Utah’s five iconic parks. Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Capitol Reef offer some of the most stunning scenery in the nation. Look how awesome the hiking at Zion National Park is! I’m ready for a steep hike that tests my fortitude.

Costa Rica

While I’d love to see all of Central and South America, Costa Rica is the most likely first stop, mainly because Southwest flies there, and I have a ton of Southwest points available to redeem.

I’ve heard so much about the rainforests, jungles, mountains, and volcanoes from friends who have visited. Maybe 2018 will be my chance to see them firsthand.

Which places are on your 2018 travel wishlist?

About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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25 Comments

  1. It was ‘AAA Amish Buggy’ in the kitchen kettle village in Lancaster. If you happen to go through them a girl named ‘Elsie’ was my driver and she was WONDERFUL!! You can do private or group rides.

    I hope you experience is as enjoyable as mine was!

    1. Ive been in contact with them since and I will be conducting a full interview with ELsie next time im in PA. What I’d really LOVE is to stay the night…or maybe even a weekend with her family!

  2. It is funny all of us “life listers” writing our 2012 year in review but they’re much more fascinating than receiving the boring annual Christmas cards from distant relatives!

    I just found your blog and it looks like a lot of fun! It looks like you’ve spent a lot of time in PA- I spent 1 month there this summer and was able to have a lot of fun new experiences but I guess my favorite ‘travel experience’ this year was taking an Amish Buggy Ride- (I’m totally jealous of your White House Garden Tour-I’ve been to D.C. a number of times and have never been so lucky!)

    http://theultimatelifelist.blogspot.com/2012/11/life-list-amish-buggy-ride.html

    1. An Amish buggy ride sounds like a great experience. I’m already trying to plan one myself for 2013. Was yours done through a tour group, or do you have personal Amish connections?

  3. What an incredible year you’ve had! I didn’t travel abroad this year either, yet it’s fascinating – and tons of fun – to discover or re-discover all these great corners closer to home that I would have otherwise ignored. Hope 2013 is at least as great as 2012 for you! 🙂

    1. Great point. I made the right call by supplementing big vacations with short weekend bus trips around the midwest. Those ended up being a big part of the year.

      I will indeed be disappointed if we do not rendezvous in ’13.

  4. Oddly, I think my favorite travel experience this year was one I didn’t even understand. I went to a marionette show in a little attic theater in Brussels and didn’t understand a word. “Hamlet” in French. It was a hoot.

  5. You had a great 2012! I love reading your posts. This was also a good year for me! My favorites:
    1. Our trip to China- climbing the great wall, touring the Forbidden City, drinking Starbucks at the Beijing Trade Center- all with my partner and our son!
    2. touring the White House during a 2 week trip to Boston and DC. I ordered the tickets thru our CA senators office 6 months in advance- and got the tickets!! The White House was magical!
    3. Taking my partners 102 year old grandmother, Margarita, to Guadalajara for 5 days! while Guadalajara was a fun city, the highlight was experiencing the kindness of both airline and airport staff in helping Margarita.

    May 2013 be the same!! Happy Traveling/Happy Experiences to everyone!!

    1. Wow, awesome memories! I didn’t do my homework on visiting the White House so I didn’t get tickets in advance. Someday I’ll have to get around to seeing the inside. Your Guadalajara trip reminds me of when I took my grandmother to New York City. She had such a great time.

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