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So the year is quickly coming to a close. Where did the time all go?! One of my favourite things about moving to Brisbane is that I now get 5 weeks of annual leave instead of 4. It doesn’t seem like much, but that 1 week has made a world of difference. That, and being on the east coast, which means it’s now very easy to make quick weekend trips to the Gold Coast, and other east coast cities. The tally for the year is roughly 26 flights, 31 check-ins to various types of accommodation, and thousands of calories. I never seem to have enough time to update you as the year progresses. Trust me, I’m working on it – I’ve started trying to plant the seeds of letting me work half time with the boss. In the meantime, I thought I’d wrap up this travel year by sharing some of my most memorable moments and anecdotes. Hopefully, this will give you some travel inspiration for next year. But more so than that, I just wanted to share with you some of the zany things I’ve been getting up to over the year.
17. Most memorable rescue
We all know I’m organised to the extreme, but every now and then, I do get bitten by the bug of spontaneity. Sometimes this has paid huge dividends in pleasant surprises. At other times, I end up biting off more than I can chew. This is what happened at Lake Toya in Hokkaido, Japan when I found out there was an abandoned hospital and decided I just had to go and see it. Yup, I have a strange fascination with cemeteries and ruins.
As its name suggests, the 1977 Volcano Remnants Park is a result of volcanic activity from Mt Usu between 1977 to 1982. Tectonic activity caused the hospital to collapse. The hospital facility has since been relocated to a safer location, while the remains have been left behind as a reminder.
The Lake Toya Volcanic Course really didn’t look that far on the map, but after walking solo for about an hour (because A had wisely decided she would rather sit in an onsen than go on a hike), I started wandering if I should cut my losses and return to our hotel, or whether I had gone too far to give up. There I was standing in a field by the lake, when a Japanese lady with a slight American twang pulled up asking me, “Where are you going?” At my response, she asked me, “Why do you want to go there?” “Err…I just like ruins, I think they’re kinda interesting…” I must admit it sounded rather lame as I said it.
As it turns out, the lady was a vulcanologist heading in the same direction to get a function centre ready for some sort of seminar or event she was going to be a part of. Not only did she give me a lift to the site of the ruins and right back to my hotel, I got a history and geology lesson as well about volcanoes, specifically those in the area.
As for the ruins, were they worth the trouble? Sure, there was a strange haunting beauty given the tranquil surroundings. But to be honest, if I’d walked all the way there on my own, I would have been disappointed. However, in the context of what had happened, I ended up with a great story demonstrating that there still is kindness out there in the world.
16. Most memorable shopaholic experience
I knew I was in trouble when my snow shoeing guide looked me up and down at the news that I was already wearing my warmest clothes in Snowmass, Colorado and would soon be heading north to Alaska for the Northern Lights. Luckily, the ears of the bargain-loving Asian in me pricked up when she told me about the very well-priced designer gear I could pick up from the Thrift Shop of Aspen, left behind by the rich and famous after each season of skiing. I picked up a pair of Columbia ski pants for USD6 and a 3-in-1 pink Goretex jacket for USD12.50, and both stood me in good stead for the rest of my trip, as you can see below. Anyone heading to Aspen or Snowmass for a skiing trip, I highly recommend not going to town if you need to shop for appropriate clothing, as you’ll probably find what you’ll need at the thrift shop for a fraction of the cost that you would pay back home! You can find the Thrift Shop of Aspen at 422 East Hopkins Avenue, Aspen; open 10am-3pm Mon-Sat.
15. Most memorable detour
I’m proud to report that this year, I learned to relinquish control. Well, a little. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was not the main itinerary planner and bookings person for my trip to Japan. And instead of having every single day of our Denmark trip planned to a T, I had daily options with our agenda each day being that we simply needed to get from A to B, but how we got to B was up to whenever we felt like getting up and whatever we felt like seeing and doing that day. To a certain extent anyway. We generally started each day when I was starting to feel restless, and let’s just say that my idea of a sleep in wasn’t quite what L had in mind! But I digress…
One day we threw all possible options out the window and decided to drive to just about the westernmost point of Denmark in order to see a group of giant seamen that we’d read about in one of the local brochures. To be honest, I still have no idea why I enjoyed that detour to the seaport town of Esbjerg so much. Perhaps it was the feeling of freedom that came from road tripping with my buddy and knowing that we didn’t have any other plans that day other than to get to Ribe before it got dark. Maybe it was the fresh sea air. Or maybe abandoning all previously laid plans gave me a bit of a thrill and sense of adventure. Perhaps I need a bit more flexibility in my future trips…
14. Most memorable hotel
Checking into the Tokyo Station Hotel, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped back to a time where impeccable service and decor are paramount. Japanese service is already renowned for possibly being the best in the world. The Tokyo Station Hotel takes it up a notch by collecting information about which train you’ll be arriving on and meeting you right outside your carriage so they can take your bags and walk you straight to the lobby for a breezy fuss-free check-in. Cleanliness and order are also up there in terms of what the Japanese do best, and you’ll find the interiors of this hotel to be no exception. The proximity to major train lines and other tourist attractions like the Imperial Palace and Ginza shopping street, and the impressive spread of both Japanese and western style treats in a bright and airy breakfast room all combine to make this one of the most memorable hotels I’ve ever checked into.
13. Most memorable surprise
So I took a day trip to Haarlem from Amsterdam on a bit of a whim. I know, right – what is happening to me with all this spontaneity?! I think it’s because I’ve been travelling more than ever and even I’m finding it hard to keep up with myself. Anyhow, there I was trying to locate a main street so that I could find one of Haarlem’s hidden courtards or hofjes. Feeling lost and more than a little tired after having walked around town all day, I decided to ask a little old lady for help. She was just about to walk to the main street I’d asked about, when she suddenly changed her mind and asked me to follow her through the door she’d been sweeping outside. What I saw as the door closed behind me literally took my breath away. It was as though I’d found the secret garden. We walked past the perfectly manicured lawns quickly, my hands itching to take a few photos yet not daring to intrude upon the residents. At the other end was another unassuming door, and beyond that the main street I’d been looking for. It wasn’t until that door shut behind me that I saw the sign indicating that the grounds I’d just walked through was in fact the very courtyard I’d been looking for! What to do? Dare I knock and hope the lady would let me back in? After taking a moment to gather my resolve, I did knock. She did let me in. I did snap a couple of pictures. But in the end, I decided that no amount of photos would ever capture the beauty of not only the space I was in, but the manner in which I had stumbled upon it. For once, I put away my camera (and my phone), and just sat. Tell me, when was the last time you enjoyed something simply with your own eyes?
Find out more about Haarlem’s hofjes here. The one I visited was the Hofje van Bakenes.
12. Most memorable meal
In my opinion, the local cuisine is part and parcel of the whole travel experience, and sampling particular food items is often an integral part of my itinerary. This year, as with any other, I’ve enjoyed a vast array of food, from western to Asian, sweet to savoury, street food to 3 Michelin star. However, the one dish that I can still taste from the fluffiness of the bed of rice to the crispy fried shell enveloping the tender juicy morsel inside all smothered in a rich and creamy sauce that still warms the cockles of my heart as I think back on the pure satisfaction as I ate it – is the scallop katsu curry from Sendoan in Lake Toya. Read more about it here.
11. Most memorable event
These days I don’t just travel for the destination, the hotel or even the food. It’s the whole package that makes for a full experience, and that includes travelling for specific events and festivals. In fact, I built my entire Alaskan adventure around the fact that I would be in the USA at exactly the right time to attend the Running of the Reindeer. No kidding! A bunch of crazy Alaskans in various states of dress and undress running down the main strip with a herd of reindeer chasing them? You bet I’m in!
Now, the Running of the Reindeer is one of the events that occurs as part of Fur Rendezvous or Fur Rondy, traditionally a swap meet during which fur trappers would sell their wares. These days, I think it’s just an excuse to party and to stage fun and often wacky events like the World Ice Bowling Championships, the Frostbite Footrace, and a rather impressive Snow Sculpture Competition.
The end of Fur Rondy roughly coincides with the start of Iditarod, a sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome which has been touted as The Last Great Race. We all know I’m all about efficiency, so getting to kill 2 birds with 1 stone by heading to Anchorage in early March was a no brainer for me.
10. Most memorable market
I love markets of any kind whether they’re selling handicrafts, antiques, or (of course) food and produce. I think it’s the combination of interacting with the locals, and the potential of getting something unique at a good price. In the case of food markets, I love being able to sample a range of local delicacies. And nowhere else have I eaten as much fantastic food under 1 roof as at the Hakodate morning market (asaichi). In fact, many of my favourite food items from my last trip to Japan were from this very location. This is where you’ll find Uni Murakami (22-1 Otemachi, Hakodate; open 9am-2.30pm and 5-10pm daily except Wednesdays) for a sea urchin banquet to remember; Ramen Kamome (8-8 Wakamatsucho, Hakodate; open 6.30am-3pm daily) for seafood ramen in a light but extremely flavoursome broth; as well as other delicious snacks like king crab steamed buns, Hokkaido sweet corn, fresh Hokkaido milk (trust me on this one), and super sweet strawberries and rockmelon. You’ll probably also come across an adorable little old Japanese man who’ll make you put on fluffy crab claws and a matching beanie for some photos – do it. He’s perfectly harmless, won’t force you to buy them if you don’t want them, and both of you will get a big kick out of it.
In order to fit all that food in, you’ll likely need to make several trips to the market like we did. Four Points by Sheraton Hakodate, 14-10 Wakamatsucho, Hakodate is very comfortable, and is situated literally next door to the market, across the road from the main train station, down the block from the nearest tram station, and about 4 blocks away from Daimon Yokocho, an alleyway lined with small Japanese food stalls, making it the perfect base for your explorations.
You can read all about some of the best foods to try in Japan here.
9. Most memorable castle
We all know I love a fairy tale castle, so you bet I’d planned to see all the big ticket castles in Denmark. In the end though, it was little Vallo Slot (Castle) that stole my heart. Despite its compact size and not being able to visit the interior, I loved how there were no other tourists when we arrived, and only a handful the entire time we were there setting up our tripod to take shots of ourselves. Being situated on what seemed like a fairly deserted road, at least at the time of our arrival, we plonked the tripod at the best spot to snap both the castle and the gorgeous village of bright yellow cottages facing it, which just happened to be right in the middle of a cross junction. Just as we were getting ready to snap, a steady stream of cars started driving by. Wouldn’t you know it? We just so happened to be there at what must be the local peak hour traffic. A few rolled down windows as they drove by. Were they mad at us for blocking their path and slowing them down? Not at all. They just wanted to wave and say hello! And this is why Vallo Slot will forevermore be ensconced in my heart as a memorable pitstop on an epic road trip. This was where we experienced Danish friendliness and joviality at its best.
8. Most memorable hike
The moment I first saw the steep stairs of the Manitou Incline on Pinterest, I knew I had to include it in my Colorado itinerary. I won’t lie, there were many times during my hike up the stairs that I thought I was mad for making the slight detour to Manitou Springs just so I could tackle this ascent, which begins at an altitude of 6530 feet and climbs to 8550 feet with a vertical elevation gain of about 2000 feet over 1 mile. In simple terms, that’s 2744 steps at an average grade of 41% and maximum of 68%. In other words, it’s hard work!
What made it so memorable was not just the incredible sense of achievement once I got to the top, or even the marvelous views down. Instead, it was the sense of camaraderie that developed as an au pair and I urged each other up the slope. Close to the summit, we heard a voice encouraging us, “Come on, you’re nearly here!” He was a young army man on leave. At least that’s what he told us. Nevertheless, we were bonded by adversity, and the walk down the more gently sloping Barr Trail was all the more enjoyable for the company. At the base, we parted ways with the army man, but the au pair offered to drive me back into town. Whilst there, we decided to enjoy dinner together at a local tavern before saying our goodbyes. Had I not already booked to stay a couple of nights, she would have given me a lift back to Denver.
I don’t even remember their names, but it’s serendipitous moments like these that I will look back on fondly in the years to come.
7. Most memorable museum
Over the years, I’ve come to realise I’d rather be outside enjoying and taking lots of photos of cobblestone streets, crooked houses, colourful doors and windows, and beautiful scenery rather than being stuck indoors. Not so at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum at Aros Alle 2, Aarhus; open 10am-5pm Tues-Sun, to 10pm Wednesdays. Here at the oldest public art museum in Denmark outside of Copenhagen, you’ll find Ron Mueck‘s hyper-real sculpture of a Boy side by side with a meticulously curated array of artworks that engage all the senses. When you think you’re done, head on up to the Rainbow Panorama at the rooftop, where you’ll be treated to sweeping views of town through rainbow coloured glass. To finish, you’re sure to find a unique souvenir in the fabulous giftshop back on ground level. Read more about ARoS and other fun things to do in Denmark here.
6. Most memorable wake up call
They say there are 4 seasons in 1 day in Melbourne. Well, this really happened during my visit to Manitou Springs, Colorado. One day I was hiking in the Garden of the Gods in a short sleeve shirt with clear blue skies overhead. The next morning I woke up to a snow storm. I love snow at the best of times, but the sheer unexpectedness of it really brought out the child in me. I don’t remember if I even washed my face. Quick change of clothes and I was outside taking photos of the town now covered by a blanket of soft white snow. Then it hit me! I had to head back to the Garden of the Gods to contrast it with how it had looked less than 24 hours previously. The snag? I was meant to check out that day and catch a bus back to Denver. After considering several options, I contacted an Uber driver, who agreed to take me to the bus station with a pitstop at the Garden of the Gods. Unfortunately, there wasn’t as much snow out in the national park as in town. Nevertheless, the almost hour long trip cost me just under USD24 and I got door-to-door service instead of having to walk and take the local bus. Money well spent, if you ask me.
What a difference a day makes…
5. Most memorable horticultural experience
Seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan has long been on my bucket list. The last time I was there, it was too early and I only saw a few of the earliest buds. This year, with not 1 but 2 obsessive compulsive heads planning our trip to Japan together, not being able to see them was simply not an option. A and I monitored estimated and actual bloom dates, and planned our entire itinerary in such a way as to maximise our chances of seeing these iconic Japanese flowers. Our efforts were rewarded when we rocked up to Hirosaki Castle at virtually full bloom and while the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival was in full swing. A sea of pink and oodles of delicious street food options before us meant we were in heaven that day!
4. Most memorable town
You know you’re onto a good thing when even the ferry that takes you to the town you’re headed to is adorable as heck. Once you get to Aeroskobing, it’s like you’ve been dropped straight into a fairy tale. Think cobblestone streets, colourful houses with eyecatching doors and windows, and surrounding peaceful countryside and beautiful coastline. As if that’s not enough, you’ll find the cutest beach huts you’ve ever seen, a delightful range of street art right down to the creative letterboxes and painted skip bins, one of the most delightful B&Bs I’ve ever stayed in, and delicious homemade ice-cream right by the ferry terminal showcasing fresh local produce like gooseberries.
I recommend you:
Stay at Pa Torvet, Torvet 7, Aeroskobing
Dine at Restaurant Mumm, Sondergade 12, Aeroskobing
Ice-cream at Cafe Aroma, Gilleballetofte 2A, Aeroskobing
3. Most memorable domestic trip
I love going back to my home of almost 20 years, Perth. My trip back in March was a little bittersweet. Seeing all my closest friends together in the one room reminded me of that first day we all stood as bright eyed medical students full of ambition on day 1 outside Hackett Hall all those years ago. I was glad for the reunion; but sad that it would be shortlived, and sadder still for one person’s absence. Grateful that it doesn’t matter how much distance or time separates us, we just pick up from where we last left off every time we meet; yet wistful for the times in which I could just drive down the road any time I needed a pick-me-up or simply someone to share a meal with. Despite the mixed feelings, I had the best time helping one of my best friends on her big day. It was not only a privilege but also an absolute joy as I basically got to hang out all day with some of my best friends in the whole world. There really aren’t too many people I would sing a speech for. Yes, really – to the tune of Taylor Swift’s Love Story. I kinda wish I’d had the foresight to prepare someone to take a video…
2. Most memorable roomie
Wow, already it seems like an age since my whole family checked into the sub-penthouse suite of Peppers Broadbeach at the Gold Coast. The views were great, I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Ten Japanese Restaurant courtesy of my brother, but nothing was as memorable as sharing a room for the first time ever with my small niece M. Not only is she cute as a button and boy, does she know it! I’m also constantly surprised at what a little adult she is in her thought processes and the way in which she articulates them. She’s also surprisingly fearless in some ways. For instance, after her nightcap of milk on the first night, she remained sitting straight up in bed staring at the empty bottle by her bedside locker. After some time, she told me it didn’t look right there. I told her not to worry about it, we’d take it to the kitchen in the morning. Nope. Without a word, Miss Barely 5 all of a sudden picked up her bottle, walked past the closed door of her parents’ room, the laundry, bathroom and the grandparents’ room entirely in the dark in an unfamiliar space, popped the bottle into the kitchen sink, and then walked back again, looking very much like the cat’s whiskers. Yet still she sat bolt upright and alert. In the end, I climbed into her bed in the hopes that cuddles would help her sleep in the unfamiliar bed. You can guess what happened next… Before long, I was being shaken awake and told, “I’m OK now, you can go back to your own bed and sleep.” Turns out she was the adult putting me to bed during our trip!
1. Most memorable bucket list experience
Without a doubt, the single most memorable moment for me was when I finally got the privilege of watching the Northern Lights dancing brightly across the Alaskan sky. This is an experience I’ve dreamed about since I first read about them in 2005, shortly after arranging a trip to Iceland in the dead of winter in the hopes of seeing them. Apparently, it wasn’t cold enough, we were told. In retrospect, perhaps I hadn’t tried hard enough due to a lack of research.
This time around, I scoured the internet to find out as much as I could about the Northern Lights and how best to see them in Alaska. My research led me to Fairbanks. In fact, it is said that if you’re there towards the end of February and into March for at least 3 nights, you’ll have about an 80% chance of seeing the aurora. It just so happened I was going to be in the USA from mid Feb to mid March. Never mind that I had to start my trip in Colorado and finish in Texas – by hook or by crook, I was going to see the aurora this year!
I’m stubbornly resolute once I have my heart set on something, which turned out for the best in this instance, because despite my determination, I nearly gave up the idea of this particular portion of the trip several times, wondering if perhaps I should head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, or anywhere else warmer and closer to both Colorado and Texas, for instance Mexico or even Cuba. It was just as well I have a friend I dearly wanted to catch up with in Seattle, the headquarters of Alaska Airlines. In the end, the lure of the aurora coupled with the prospect of visiting this friend en route proved to be too much to ignore.
So just why did planning this particular trip prove so daunting? I guess I can partly blame it on my own greed for wanting to fit in as much as possible. Not only did I want to be in Fairbanks at the best time to view the Northern Lights, I also had to be there at the right time in order to enjoy the magnificent works of art that would emerge at the World Ice Art Championships, the largest ice sculpting competition in the world.
As if that and the aurora aren’t enough, I also had to make it to Anchorage on time for Iditarod and Fur Rondy, specifically the Running of the Reindeer event. On top of that, I needed to be in Colorado and Texas at specific dates for the 2 conferences that bookended this trip. On top of that, there were the logistics of planning a trip during low season when public transport options are limited, while at the same time being a solo traveller, I wasn’t game enough to drive all alone on the right hand side of the road in what I knew would be dark and icy conditions.
I must have looked through at least 50 tour options, including some I’m convinced were bogus tour companies. In the end, I took a punt on First Alaska Tours, booking my accommodation and 3 day tours through them, and then hoping for the best.
As it turns out, what the folks say about staying for at least 3 nights must be true. I spent my first night at a Northern Lights Photo Workshop with Aurora Bear‘s Frank and Miriam Stelges, and was a little disappointed at the lack of activity in the sky. However, the tips and tricks I learned from Frank and Tony, my fantastic driver and tour guide for the 3 nights I was there, more than made up for Lady Aurora’s bashfulness. The 2nd night seemed promising in that the previous night’s fog was clearing up, but after driving all the way to the Arctic Circle and back, we still only saw a faint green streak in the sky.
By the 3rd night, I was well versed at switching my camera settings while rugged up in a balaclava, beanie and thick gloves. In other words, after an already unforgettable night of drinks from a martini glass made entirely of ice at the Aurora Ice Museum, followed by a relaxing soak in the Chena Hot Springs, and then a snack of homemade cider and sausages by Tony, I was pumped and ready when the aurora finally decided to make an appearance at about 1am. For all those aspiring aurora hunters amongst you out there, this is important to note because truly, when it comes to the Northern Lights, you snooze, you lose! Certainly, that first time I tried to see them in Iceland, I was sound asleep in bed by midnight, if not earlier.
The moral of the story? I think there are more than 1, actually. Firstly, sometimes research and preparation are key in holiday planning. Secondly, count on things not going as planned and allow yourself more time if there’s something you can’t miss. If I hadn’t stayed in Fairbanks for 5 nights, I wouldn’t have been able to see the aurora and attend the World Ice Art Championships. Finally, fortune favours the brave. I had a lot of misgivings about this portion of the trip, but decided in the end if I didn’t take the plunge, it would be years before another opportunity to see the Northern Lights would come up again, as apparently solar activity is on a down trend, which means your best bet to see them won’t be until roughly 2025 now. Also, I didn’t know this at the time, but the usually annually held World Ice Art Championships is actually on a hiatus in 2018. Meaning that all those moments of anxiety leading up to my trip to Alaska were absolutely worth it.
What have been your highlights of 2017? Or would you like to know more about any of the places I went to? If so, please don’t hesitate to ask!
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