A Year in Review: The 9 Most Beautiful Places My Feet Went in 2015

DSC_4874It’s been a weird year, to say the least. My family has this ongoing mantra that 2016 better be our year of calm, as 2015 was unusually unlucky in some ways and unusually wonderful in others. We had the usual suspects so typical of difficulties in a family life: my mom’s unexpected bronchitis that landed her in the hospital for a week and resulted in her missing my graduation…and then her persistent cancer coming back for the fourth time in eight years just a month after we returned from Russia. My husband Ryan’s uncle’s unexpected death. My sister’s toxic job environment that nearly and almost literally unraveled her. My 92-year-old grandma’s quickening dementia. Car accidents, hospital visits, decisions that became missteps. Things like that. We’ve survived them all, but I have to say, health and wellness can be damn tiring.

We had beautiful moments, too, of course. For one thing, I just returned from 10 days in Atlanta for the holidays, where my family and I crammed our week full of get-togethers, long walks, good restaurants, day trips, and late-night conversations–all the accoutrements connected with quality family moments. I reconnected with the stark beauty of the Appalachian forests. I breathed in the crisp, cool air in the early mornings and looked for abandoned birds’ nests in the trees that had lost their leaves. These are beautiful moments.

The year also marked a lot of changes for me. For one thing, my life went into upheaval in May when I finally finished the dissertation on feminist approaches to digital travel writing that I’d been writing for the past two years. Though it was one of the proudest moments of my life–nearly 300 pages of well-researched, painstakingly revised discourse on my favorite topic–it also meant that a huge stage, a transformative, difficult, and beautiful stage, of my life was over. That stage where, although I was poor as dirt and living off $15,000 a year as a graduate student, I finally had to face the hard reality that the degree I’d been working on for five years didn’t have a resulting job for me in our sweet desert home in Tucson. That if I wanted to put my degree into practice, it meant moving away. It meant that Ryan would have to leave his student job as a writer for the President’s Office and bring his dissertation along with him, wherever we went. It meant I’d take a job that would hopefully lead to professional fulfillment and spiritual growth and that would also still afford me the time to travel and to pepper my year with the occasional press trip or international voyage. It meant facing the reality that I had to do things like sign up for health insurance and a retirement plan for the first time in my adult life.

As I sit here today, in front of my computer screen, just three blocks from the beach (something I thought would bring me a permanent sense of happiness but which, in fact, has been a mere backdrop to the difficulties we’ve had here so far), I can’t help but feel a little bit cynical. I miss our desert home more than I ever thought I possibly could: the striking sunsets, the walks Ryan and I would take around our neighborhood as we learned to identify the strange plants of the Sonoran Desert, the mountainous hikes we took so often and their surprising streams and unusual flowering cacti, the community of writers I’d come to see as family (and still do!), the dear friends we had to leave behind, the students who worked diligently with our nonprofit community partners and the difference I felt I was making by bridging writing and advocacy work. By August, when we’d packed up our house on the dreams of a good life in California, I still felt unsure that moving was what I wanted. Today, on December 29th, five months after we left, I still feel that way.

But that’s for another story for another time.

New writing topics, too, entered into my life: I wrote about Rasputin’s man parts, which are supposedly preserved in an itty-bitty erotica museum in the middle of downtown St. Petersburg (verdict’s still out on whether or not it’s a horse organ or the poor man’s 11-inch member, but still.) The piece was picked up by Jezebel Magazine, which still strikes me as unbelievable but amazingly awesome. I also wrote about a museum of still-functional Soviet-Era arcade games and the whole thing went viral–I learned what it meant to have a piece of writing truly go public, and I had more emails and comments from readers than I could have ever imagined. I covered the story of a child behavioral therapist-turned-chef in a tiny hummus kiosk in Tel Aviv, and I wrote about impromptu New Orleans street music. I wrote about my usual suspects, too–odd and quirky objects, feminist approaches to travel writing, and I took a lot of pictures. In fact, at last count, I’ve taken over 10,000 this year alone (I know, I know, where am I going to put all those photos?!). I started doing more on social media, reaching out and commenting on other people’s work, and I went from 0 followers on Instagram at the beginning of the year to 3,000. My column in En Voyage magazine all the way over in Taiwan is still going strong, and I’m moving away from more advice-heavy pieces and branching out into more narrative memoir-driven pieces. I’m still writing creatively in those few spare moments.

And, I just had a birthday, one that seems particularly odd because it doesn’t really mean anything except that I definitely can’t claim I’m still in my 20s and I can’t claim that I just turned 30. What happens, really, when someone turns 32? Or 33? Or onward from there? I don’t know what life has in store for me (I mean, who does?!), but I know that I’m going to be facing some big decisions in the next year or two as I grace through the early part of this new decade: where (and if I want) to set roots, whether or not to have a family, how to finish my book, where to place my professional energies, my time, and my emotions, how to keep myself in balance mentally, spiritually, and physically, how to fit travel into my life in a way that doesn’t zap me of my passion but that keeps the little wanderlust who sits on my shoulder, like a tiny angel and devil wrapped into one, happy and playful.

Though those questions are certainly for another time, here’s a metaphorical celebratory toast to the incredible people and places I met in nine very awesome places in 2015. In and amongst everything, I still found time to set my feet aloft, and here are just a few of the places they landed.

Victoria, B.C., Canada

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My first trip of the year this year was to Vancouver, Canada, and let me tell you: What a gorgeous place to be in the wintertime. I had the wonderful pleasure of working with Tourism Victoria while I was there, and they kept me–and my writing fingers–very busy! I hopped a sea plane at dawn from Vancouver to Victoria (on Vancouver Island), and spent the day visiting the Royal B.C. Museum, where I arranged a private tour with a docent there so I could see two incredible artifacts: enormous Chinese freemason masks and one of the world’s only remaining tapa cloth books compiled by Captain Cook on his last voyage to the Pacific. From there, we walked over to the Grand Pacific Hotel and had a three-hour long West Coast high tea session. Before the sea plane took off for our sunset ride back to Vancouver, we took a quick jaunt to Victoria’s Chinatown and a lovely walk around some of the pretty tree-lined, European-style neighborhoods. I could absolutely see myself falling in love with Victoria and living here, very, very happily.

Boston, Massachusetts

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In March, I held my first creative workshop for professional travel bloggers at the 2nd annual Women in Travel Summit in Boston. It was the perfect city for a get-to-know-you networking event, as it was small enough to walk around with new friends and full of things to do. I’d never been to Boston before, and though I only had a little less than a week to explore it, what I found–quirky cafes, cobblestone alleys, tons of amazing Chinese dumpling shops, a million universities, and more Italian restaurants than I could count–filled my heart and spirit with joy.

I even stayed with 5 women I’d never met before in one room filled with bunk beds at the super cool Hostelling International Boston. It was delightfully throwback to my years as a hostel-goer but trendy (and clean) enough to feel like a funky loft apartment. Totally a do-again.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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In May, I visited another American city that I’d never been to before: gritty, spunky, sweaty New Orleans. Two of our friends had decided on New Orleans for their destination wedding, so, as you can imagine, their entire day was completely destination-driven. From their sweet ceremony at the Irish Cultural Center to the mile-long second line parade down the streets of the French Quarter (led by, of course, a three-piece brass band and over 100 guests waving white handkerchiefs) to the shrimp and grits on the wedding menu and the reception in a loft-style warehouse, I felt completely and utterly taken by the city. As part of my ongoing work with the New Orleans CVB, Ryan and I stayed in a garret room–aka, a room with no windows–in the famous Degas House, where generations of artists and writers have come to find solitude and inspiration from the city.

I loved it. The trees with huge swaths of moss hanging from them, as if suspended in time, the white wraparound porches, the humid, thick air, the delectable gumbo, the rebuilding and resistance of the city and its people in the wake of Katrina, the fact that so much of the city still needs care, the kind people with their particular New Orleans lilt, the musicians with their dreadlocks, mismatched clothes, coin buckets, and joyful faces….it all felt, so, surreal and yet entirely natural, like the whole history of one place was wrapped up in one moment, existing unilaterally.

St. Petersburg, Russia

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May held the magic of Russia. This trip was truly the trip of a lifetime, because 1) I was lucky enough to travel with Viking River Cruises on their Waterways of the Tsars outreach and 2) I got to take my mom, who, before May had never had a passport, with me. You really have to see St. Petersburg to understand its undeniable magic and its complicated history, and you’ll never meet prouder people. It’s a city of canals, of world-renowned art, of cafes and restaurants featuring global cuisine, of winding streets, of onion-domed cathedrals painted in brilliant candy colors, of street markets, a mishmash of Renaissance architecture, Communist-Era blocs, and modern Western-style apartments. It’s also a weirdly quiet city by day, making it perfect for leisurely strolls and long conversations over cappuccinos. Our three days here were three of the most unforgettable days I’ve ever had, as so much of what I thought about Russia got flipped upside-down, turned on its head, and refined. St. Petersburg reminded me why travel is so critical to our lives.

Chandler, Arizona

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In late spring of this year, I was invited to attend the Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa’s grand re-opening of its restaurant, Ko’Sin. In the Pima language, which is the native language of the people who historically lived on the river here, ko’sin simply means kitchen. At the Ko’Sin restaurant inside the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa just outside Phoenix, Arizona, where veh pug means beginning, hai chu hugimeans main course, and wamichtha means fry bread, food takes on whole new meanings here. As homage to the magnificent Sonoran desert landscape and the decadent restaurant menu, the Wild Horse resort is committed to local culture and preservation. Not only was the entire resort designed to be a place of honor and respect for the Gila River Indian heritage and culture, the architecture, design, art, and stories of the Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh tribes were celebrated in every detail imaginable, indoors and out.

A small group of bloggers, writers, and PR people joined the culinary team and the rest of the Wild Horse Pass staff for a lovely night of sample dishes, marshmallows and singing by the fire, and a hauntingly stunning sunset over the Sierra Estrella Mountain Range. As we sat and talked to the flute player, a many-generations old member of the Pima tribe and a man who makes all his own instruments, I realized that in my seven years in Tucson, I’d never really given Phoenix a chance. I’m so glad I did.

Puerto Penasco, Mexico

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When people think of going to Mexico for holiday, most people don’t think of this tiny border town on the coast of the Sea of Cortez, just three hours from Tucson, but I’ll tell you something: I absolutely adore this dusty, abrasive, desert town. It’s sandy, relatively poor, and looks like it’s been sitting still since the 1990s when problems with the border halted nearly all construction, and yet, I love it. It’s unbelievably quiet, its beaches are long, wide, and flat, its water is clean and clear, and its downtown bustles with locals buying fruits and fish and tourists buying trinkets and souvenirs. There are some delicious restaurants, too, serving up all kinds of tamales, quesadillas, and, of course, Sonoran burros (our word for the burrito out here).

Though we’ve been to this Arizona-dweller’s seaside paradise many times before, this summer’s trip was extra-special, because it would be the last time my friends and I would all drive down together before Ryan and I moved to California. The weekend held a kind of joyful magic in the air–we drank a ton of margaritas, we talked about our lives, our friendships, our writing, and our futures, we danced on the rooftop of our two-story Airbnb rental, overlooking the sea, and we cried. Against the sandy desert backdrop of modest Puerto Penasco, it was the most perfect weekend I could have imagined.

The tequila-induced late-night dancing on the beach to 1990s hip hop music didn’t hurt, either.

Long Beach, California

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The one place I didn’t really travel to, so to speak. I’ve been living here since mid-August, after having taken a job just up the hill at a small college in Palos Verdes. Long Beach itself is equal parts the funkiness of Tucson with the elegance of L.A., so I’m still trying to figure out how I fit in here. I always dreamed of living the beach life, of waking up to sea smells and blustery breezes, of coming home with sandy feet and sun-kissed shoulders after a long day of paddleboarding, of hosting the many guests and friends who would come and stay with us.

Things are, of course, a little bit different than that. I’m still getting used to the fact that houses are crammed together and that rent for a two-bedroom apartment is prohibitively expensive, that people don’t really ever say hello to me on the street and look at me in terror when I wave at them, and that our two cats Giuseppe and Luigi no longer have a yard to go out in during the long, lazy mornings. Of course, it’s stunningly beautiful here–the weather is magnificent, the beach is beautiful, the sunsets are lovely, and the restaurants, bars, and shops all walking distance from me are fantastic and represent all walks of life and cuisine from all over the world. We’ve hosted some dear friends and look forward to hosting more, and we take daily jogs on the beach. So far, Long Beach has been both kind and overwhelming, a study in contrasts.

Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem

2015 was the year I went to two of the most fascinating and complicated countries in the entire world. In October, I had the rare and incredible opportunity to visit Israel, the tiny sliver in the Middle East that seems to hold the history of the world in its small, oblong shape, along with tourism marketing organization Geoffrey Weill, the Israel Ministry of Tourism, and four other amazing bloggers and writers. We happened to go at a particularly difficult time: in the days leading up to our visit, headlines like “Is This the Third Intifada?” and “Tensions Mount in Jerusalem” captured the public’s attention and were the first hits on Google searches about Israel. The violence was real, and I went to this country in the thick of murders and heightened disagreements between the Israelis and Palestinians. And yet, in Jerusalem, I only felt a sense of serenity, a calmness that I can’t quite replicate, yet, in words, even knowing that just around the corner were violent acts, stabbings, and people afraid for what would come. Luckily, in December, we still aren’t facing another intifada yet, and one can only hope that the tensions don’t ever escalate that far again.

One thing that’s particularly worth noting about this trip, more than the memories I have that will last me my lifetime, is that it was the first trip I’ve been on in which I completely filled up my notebook–every. single. page. Exploring ancient cities, unearthed cobblestone streets dating thousands of years, boats brought up out of the Sea of Galilee from Jesus’ time….Israel will upend you, make you question everything, make you understand the depth of the world’s monotheistic religions, make you fall in love, over and over again, with hummus. It’s all there.

Dahlonega, Georgia

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My hometown of Atlanta is definitely worth visiting, but what a lot of people don’t do when they come to my home state is drive up north to some of the adorable little towns near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Dahlonega, a town of only 5,000 people with one of the cutest downtowns I’ve seen in small-town America and some of the best wineries in the Southeast, is one of these places. While my dear friend Magda, who I met in Malta nearly 11 years ago, was visiting me last week from Amsterdam, I decided to take her up there for the day to show her a bit of the south she hadn’t seen before. We ate a buffet of chicken-fried steak and collard greens at the Smith House, a historic house near downtown, shopped the cute little boutiques, stopped at The Crimson Moon and struck up a two-hour conversation with the two bartenders there, and tried a new recipe from Sweetwater, a local Atlanta brewery. We didn’t leave quietly, either: People were even waving to us as we pulled away in our quirky little rental car, an itty-bitty bright-red Chevrolet Spark.

I’d say, all in all, I had a pretty lucky year. As always, life is complicated, full of the good, the bad, and either the things we don’t want to face or the things we’ve long ignored. Travel doesn’t relieve us of our troubles, cure our demons, or make our lives easier, but it has always helped me find perspective, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

May 2016 be your year of light, with promises fulfilled, strength and patience to get through the difficult times, and lots of joy and beautiful travels!

Yours in travel,

Kristin