People often ask me, “Hey Jenny, what are your favorite places around the world?” And I definitely do have a short list of favorites. But to me, travel is about so much more than just places on the map. It’s about experiences. Extraordinary travel experiences. It’s about people and cultures; animals and nature. And getting a unique view of the world whether on land, underwater or in the air. I’ve never had a “Bucket List,” per se, but after 8 trips around the world I’ve been fortunate enough to experience dozens of brilliant moments in faraway places (and even a few close to home), many that I didn’t even realize were on my wish list until after the fact.
Since this website is all about carving 30 days out of your life to take the trip of your dreams, I decided to share 30 of my most personally memorable travel experiences from around the world. I adored them all, so I couldn’t possibly rank them in order of favorites. Instead, I’ve presented them (for your convenience) just like my RTW trips – beginning in the US and traveling in an eastward direction around the world.
Simple Disclaimer: “Extraordinary” obviously means different things to different people so I will stress that this is simply a list of destinations and travel moments that have been personally meaningful to me. It is, of course, by no means intended as the top 30 places to go or things to do. But I do hope that you’ll find at least one new travel adventure on my list to add to your own.
So grab your passport, here we go…
1. Driving the Pacific Coast Highway – California, U.S.A
A few years ago, after wrapping up football season for ESPN with a New Year’s Eve bowl game in San Francisco, I decided to take a few days and make one of the world’s most iconic drives down the legendary Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles. The PCH hugs the California coastline from San Francisco to Los Angeles passing such scenic spots as Monterey, Big Sur and Santa Barbara, to name just a few. It was a trip I’d always wanted to do and there was simply no good reason why I hadn’t done it yet! So after spending a day enjoying San Francisco, I headed out along the PCH to Big Sur, a 90-mile stretch of untouched, ruggedly-beautiful coastline known for gravity-defying bridges and inaccessible stretches of golden sand.
I stopped for the night in Monterrey rising before dawn to make the “17-Mile Drive” through the exclusive coastal resort of Pebble Beach, home to the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links, five-time site of the U.S. Open. The next night I booked a beachfront hotel in Santa Barbara before continuing on to Malibu for a morning hike. When I finally reached LA, I spent my final afternoon at the Santa Monica Pier before flying home. While it certainly wasn’t my most exotic destination, this one holds a special place in my heart because it’s a classic slice of Americana.
2. Dolphin Trainer-for-a-Day – Roatan, Honduras
I’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins. Who doesn’t? They’re adorable! But I craved more than the basic group swim, “dolphin kiss” experience. And I always worried about whether the dolphins were well-treated at some of the places I’d seen in my travels. But while planning my trip to Central America last summer, a friend told me about the Dolphin-Trainer-for-a-Day experience offered by Anthony’s Key Resort in Roatan and I knew this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for.
One of the world’s premier dolphin research facilities, more than two dozen Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins make their home at the 2-acre Bailey’s Key natural lagoon facility that is part of the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS) within Anthony’s Key Resort. The dolphins at RIMS are not captive in a man-made pool but free to roam the expansive lagoon. Some even leave the facility regularly to participate in the resort’s dolphin show or accompany dive groups but they always return of their own free will. I spent the day working with Trainer, Christine, and more than a dozen fun-loving dolphins, all eager to interact and practice behaviors with us. I helped prepare their meals, assisted in their healthcare checks and spent plenty of time just goofing around with them.
At RIMS, if the dolphins don’t want to interact, they don’t and no one makes them. All of the dolphins are free to do as they please which makes it all the more special when they want to interact with you. It was truly a remarkable day that I will always remember.
3. Island-hopping with the Kuna Indians – San Blas, Panama
It’s not easy to get to the San Blas Islands…but it’s well worth the effort. Made up of 365 perfectly palm-fringed dots of white sand in a turquoise sea, chartering a sailboat is the best way to explore this remote island group. But it’s not just the islands that will wow you, meeting the indigenous Kuna people is an experience unlike any other. When my friend Shannon and I visited last summer, we charted a sailboat owned by Denny & Becky, an American couple who’d been sailing the islands for months. On our last night, we went ashore to one of the Kuna family islands to grill out with another family of cruisers. In the San Blas, indigenous Kuna families live on many of the islands and the family living on this one was known to be friendly to cruisers. As Denny, Shannon and I took a walk around the tiny island to see the huts where the family lived, one of the women motioned eagerly to my camera. Due to the language barrier, we didn’t understand what she wanted until she ran into one of the huts and returned with an old, worn family photograph that was clearly a cherished possession. We managed to decipher that she wanted me to take their pictures so they could see the image on my camera’s digital display. Obviously, the Kuna don’t get the opportunity to see images of themselves very often so this was a big deal.
When I eagerly nodded my agreement, the women sprinted into the huts to put on their Sunday best for photos. It was unbelievable; they came out pulling traditional tops on over their heads as they ran. They gathered the family in various groups for photos: mother and daughter, younger kids, older kids, sisters, daughter with her doll, etc. Then we did individual shots of each person. Each time I took 3-4 photos and then they rushed over to me to view them on my camera. The smiles of wonder that lit up their faces as I scrolled through the photos made my heart soar. Especially the youngest children who I suspect had never seen an image of themselves. There were multiple wardrobe changes and it was a whirlwind of excited activity. I was so thrilled to have made them so happy but I would have given a million dollars for access to a printer to print them all out on the spot. Denny promised to try to get some of them printed to bring back but I worried that he wouldn’t be able to, photo printers aren’t exactly common in the San Blas.
But I’m happy to report that Denny was indeed able to print the photos and take them back to the island! He said that the family was absolutely overjoyed and it warms my heart to know my photos are probably displayed prominently around those huts as we speak. It’s the kind of feeling that makes travel immensely meaningful to me and just another reason why I never tire of the journey.
4 . Swimming with Sea Turtles, Sea Lions & Sharks – Galapagos
Visiting the Galapagos is one of those “Bucket List” experiences that’s on almost everyone’s wish list. Exploring by cruise ship is the most popular way to see these rugged islands but I discovered that less expensive, land-based trips can be equally rewarding. Though some islands can only be reached by cruise ship, a land-based trip allows you to spend as much time as you like on the larger islands. On my trip I spent time on three islands: the main island of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. While staying on San Cristobal, I took a full day snorkeling and wildlife spotting trip off the coast.
Anytime you get in the water in the Galapagos you’re immediately joined by sea turtles, sea lions and often sharks (whether you see them or not) and on this day we saw all three. Swimming among sea turtles and sea lions is an awesome experience, they truly have no fear of humans and their natural curiosity often brings them in very close to check you out. Though, I admit I could have done without the curiosity of the circling hammerhead and black tip sharks easily visible 20ft or so down below when we stopped at Kicker Rock…but it’s all just part of the Galapagos adventure!
5. Hiking Machu Picchu Mountain – Machu Picchu, Peru
Located on a mountain ridge soaring almost 8,000 feet above sea level, the “Lost City of the Incas” is considered one of the world’s most enigmatic ancient sites. Its cascading terraces of perfectly-cut stones stand as a legacy to the architectural genius of the Incas. A completely self-contained city, invisible from below, the cloud-shrouded ruins managed to remain undiscovered for hundreds of years. Whether you make the arduous, 4-day hike up the Inca Trail or simply take the train from Cuzco, your first glimpse of Machu Picchu is likely to be a magical experience.
Though my tightly-scheduled itinerary on RTW #2 didn’t allow time for the Inca Trail, I did manage to get in a great hike when I arrived at the site early on my second morning. People line up at dawn for the 400 daily spots to hike the often-photographed Huayana Picchu, (pictured) but I decided to take a different path (okay, I admit, it was kind of an accident). After a rainy afternoon visit the day before I was hopeful for a break in the clouds on day two to get some better photos. While looking around for a higher vantage point for photos should the sun decide to make an appearance, I stumbled upon a trail that turned out to be the lesser known Machu Picchu Mountain. It was a challenging hike and I was on the trail all by myself (which concerned me a little) but just when I reached a clearing at the top, the sun rewarded my efforts by breaking through the clouds revealing a perfect bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu way below. From that vantage point, I felt like I had it all to myself and it was a moment to remember.
6. A Luxurious Stay in Torres del Paine – Patagonia, Chile
The vast majority of visitors to South America’s picturesque Patagonia region spend their days hiking through pristine mountains and glaciers and their nights roughing it in makeshift camp sites. But as I learned on my visit to the region, there is another way to experience the wonders of Patagonia with no camping required. I kept the hiking but traded in the tent idea for a few nights at explora Patagonia’s plush Hotel Salto Chico. Set on the shores of Pehoé Lake with a show-stopping view of the famed Cuernos del Paine, this über-green property enjoys an unsurpassed natural backdrop that boasts dramatic views from every window. And it’s one of only two hotels located within the confines of Torres del Paine National Park.
Expert local guides led explorations within the park each day for hiking, horseback riding and wildlife spotting. It was a glorious four days in arguably the world’s most incredible national park. The only down side? Long summer days of daylight made it almost impossible to sleep; I mean how do you draw the window shades on a view like that?
7. Whale Watching in the Iceberg Graveyard – Antarctica
On Day 6 of my Antarctic Expedition, a zodiac cruise through the “Iceberg Graveyard” at Pleneau Bay turned out to be my favorite afternoon of a wildly incredible trip. We took to the zodiacs and glided silently among iceberg sculptures the size of city blocks, each a stunning work of art more impressive than the last. Adding to the adventure, the risk of a potential calving at any moment without warning. And as if skyscraper, iridescent-blue, death-defying icebergs weren’t visually dynamic enough, the humpback whales came out to play. We’d watch as a humpback whale teased us above the surface before diving for up to 7 minutes and emerging on the other side of an iceberg. It was humpback-hide-and-seek at its finest and I could’ve played all day.
But the most dramatic moment came near the end of our cruise as a whale glided right next to our zodiac and just as he was about to show his flume (the money shot in whale photography) the iceberg next to us calved! The deafening sound of splintering ice breaking off and crashing into the water diverted everyone’s attention as we audibly gasped, hardly knowing where to look it was all so exciting! Whales diving, icebergs calving, it’s an Antarctic wonderland! This, I realized, was exactly what the Antarctic was all about. This is why people brave the elements to come here. This is why it’s worth the significant expense. I was utterly spellbound.
8. A Soak in the Blue Lagoon – Iceland
Located 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik, Iceland’s most famous attraction, the Blue Lagoon, is a steamy combination of mineral-rich freshwater and seawater from deep within the earth, naturally heated to between 98-102 degrees Fahrenheit. The milky-blue waters flow over vast black lava fields giving the whole place an other-worldly feel. The futuristic-looking Svartsengi geothermal plant in the distance serves as the R&D center for the spa skin care line and adds to the cosmic effect. You really do feel like you could be on another planet.
When I visited Iceland in late summer, a chill in the air signaled the fall weather just around the corner making the hot-tub-like waters even more difficult to leave. The mineral-rich mud is said to have a healing effect and many bathers slathered it on their face and arms as they relaxed in the steaming lagoon. A soak in the Blue Lagoon was one of the many highlights of my 30-day trip around Europe and my first visit to Iceland.
9. Touring Auschwitz & Birkenau – Poland
It was perhaps the most moving travel experience I’ve ever had. During a visit to nearby Krakow, Poland, I spent an afternoon touring the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. The gas chambers and crematoriums of the two camps could accommodate thousands per day and operated at full capacity from 1942 up until its liberation in January, 1945. After several hours touring the grounds of both camps, I was stunned into a reverential silence by the horrors of this hallowed ground.
It is a place that everyone should have to see once in their lifetime. It’s the only way to really appreciate the magnitude of the cruel brutality perpetrated on the millions who died here and the few who survived. There are no words. The emotional impact of visiting a place like Auschwitz-Birkenau is indescribable. You can read the history and know the terrifying story but standing inside a gas chamber and walking in the footsteps of those who perished there transcends anything that can be gleaned from a book or a movie. I will forever see those dead end train tracks in my mind. It was an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
10. Driving the Amalfi Coast – Positano, Italy
It was late January, 2009, and I was three stops in to my 4th annual trip around the world. For my Europe stop that year, I chose a region of Italy that I had always dreamed of visiting, the Amalfi Coast. There are few stretches of coastline more spectacular than Italy’s Amalfi Coast and the striking village of Positano is perhaps the region’s shining star. Since it was the middle of winter and many of the hotels were closed, I stayed in nearby Sorrento and took advantage of the local bus (which doubles as a school bus that time of year!) to visit Amalfi and Positano.
While Amalfi was lovely, it was the beauty of Positano that really captured my heart. I wandered the twisting, narrow, staircase-like streets that day discovering new wonders around every corner. I spent a lazy afternoon soaking in the gravity-defying architecture from a hillside cafe and gazing out at the sea from the beach of Spiaggia Grande. Perhaps the best part was that the entire town was completely absent of tourists offering me a rare opportunity to enjoy Positano as the locals do. Perhaps John Steinbeck said it best in his 1953 essay for Harper’s Bazaar when he wrote, “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”
11. Floating in the Dead Sea – Ein Bokek, Israel
At more than 1,300 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest elevation on the surface of the earth. The quantity of water that evaporates from the sea is greater than that which flows into it, resulting in its excessive salinity (8 times that of the ocean). The great irony of the Dead Sea? While its salinity cannot support the existence of life, the mineral-rich black mud and bromide-laden air make it a major destination for those seeking its healing properties earning it the nickname, “the lowest health spa in the world.” But for those not in need of healing, it’s the perfect place to test out the famously effortless “Dead Sea float.”
When I visited the Israeli resort town of Ein Bokek on RTW #3, I finally had my chance to try it out. Hysterically, I wasn’t alone. There were a dozen or so other tourists wading into the water with cameras in hand to capture their floating moment. We all took turns taking the obligatory floating photo op (above). And it’s true, you really do float. When I stepped into the mineral-rich water up to my shoulders and lifted my feet off the sea floor…I bobbed to the surface like a cork. A strange sensation, to be sure, but definitely an experience that’s Bucket-List-worthy.
12. Hiking to the Monastery – Petra, Jordan
Inhabited since prehistoric times, the ancient Nabataean city of Petra has been described as “a rose-red city half as old as time.” Situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, the vast city was quite literally carved into the sheer, dusky-pink rock face by its industrious Arab inhabitants more than 2,000 years ago. After entering through the Siq – a narrow gorge almost a mile long with dazzling colors and rock formations – you catch your first glimpse of the magnificent Treasury.
But to get to the real prize, you’ll have to earn it. Wind your way through the rest of the city in the morning hours but save the shade of the afternoon for attempting the afternoon hour-long hike up 800 steps to the Monastery. The beautifully-carved, massive building is stunning; the doorway alone is the size of a house. It’s a grueling hike in the desert heat but worth every single step. I visited during RTW #5 on a day trip from Amman and made friends with several other passengers from around the world while on the bus. We decided to tour Petra together and after making the climb up to the Monastery, we sat on the edge of a cliff gazing at it in awe while we took a break for lunch before heading inside. It was a spectacular day with new friends I’ll always remember.
13. A Camel Ride Around the Pyramids – Giza, Egypt
Egypt’s largest pyramid, the Pyramid of Khufu, is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence. An estimated 30,000 workers built the pyramids at Giza over the course of 80 years. A visit to the pyramids lives up to all the hype and definitely deserves a spot on any “Round the World” itinerary. It was perhaps the place I was most looking forward to seeing on my very first trip around the world. I skipped the group tour, hoping to really delve into Egyptian history by hiring my own personal Egyptologist for the day. It was an incredible day visiting the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, the Khan el Khalili market and the magnificent Cairo Museum but the highlight was definitely the Pyramids.
And it’s the best place in the world to satisfy your camel riding curiosity (if you have any). Yes, it’s total tourist kitsch…but a “Lawrence of Arabia-style” camel ride through the sandy dunes of the Giza Plateau with the awe-inspiring golden pyramids in the distance is an experience not to be missed. Though, fair warning, camels are MUCH taller than horses and not nearly as friendly. Despite my particular camel’s generally grumpy attitude and limited interest in taking direction for photography, it was one of my most memorable travel moments.
14. A Night at the Burj Al Arab – Dubai, U.A.E.
Situated on its own man-made island in the Arabian Gulf, the decadent Burj Al Arab is often referred to as the “World’s Only 7-Star Hotel.” Designed to resemble a billowing sail, the Burj dominates the Dubai skyline with its distinct architectural style. With just 202 multi-story suites and a brigade of highly trained butlers tending to your every whim, a stay at the Burj Al Arab is the ultimate indulgence. It was a place I’d always seen in glossy travel magazines and I just knew it had to be part of my first (and at the time, only) RTW trip. Of course, since the rooms come with a price tag as extravagant as the service, one night was all I could afford…but what a night it was!
From the Rolls-Royce airport pick-up to the full-size Hermes bath products, it is perhaps the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending the night and it was well worth the budget-busting splurge. My two-story suite was enormously opulent and my butler was so eager to help I had to purposely try to think of something he could do for me (I finally asked him to confirm my outgoing flight…it was all I could think of, what are you supposed to do with a butler?) Every time I left my suite, I would return to a new gift placed on my dining room table – a bottle of wine or a box of dates – so, of course, I kept leaving my room to see what would be waiting for me upon my return! The Burj Al Arab is a mecca for the rich and royal and it’s the best place I know to feel like a princess…even if it’s just for one night.
15. A Day at Victoria Falls – Zambia/Zimbabwe
They call it the “Smoke that Thunders” and if you’re lucky enough to catch your first glimpse of it from the air you’ll understand why. Thanks to a major flight delay in Madrid, I almost didn’t make it to Victoria Falls at all on RTW #8. But the travel Gods were on my side that day and after a hurried connection in Doha, I stepped off a plane the next morning in Livingstone, Zambia on a beautifully sunny African day.
Victoria Falls straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and though I elected to stay on the Zambian side, I chose to visit the falls from the more scenic Zimbabwean side. I only had one day to see the falls and what a magnificent day it turned out to be! After an easy crossing over the Zimbabwe border, I wandered the trails of Victoria Falls National Park from the Devil’s Cataract to Horseshoe Falls. The combination of sunshine and smokey mist from the falls created more rainbows than I’ve ever seen in one place…perhaps even in one year. So close it seemed you could reach out and touch them. It was a stunning display of nature’s power and I’m so thankful that I was able to see it.
16. Sunset from Table Mountain – Cape Town, South Africa
The most recognizable landmark in Cape Town, Table Mountain towers over the city offering spectacular panoramic views. Unfortunately, it is often covered by a line of clouds known as the “tablecloth.” But on a clear day, there are two ways to the top: the aerial cable car (complete with rotating floor) or, for the more adventurous, a 3 hour strenuous hike up a challenging, rocky trail.
While visiting Cape Town on RTW #1, I landed on the first day to clear skies over the mountain and I knew this was my chance to make the hike (and I was glad I did, because the next day the tablecloth was firmly entrenched and didn’t retreat for the remainder of my stay). Though at times along the hike I questioned my decision to forgo the cable car – especially when I reached the top and saw all of the other sunset enthusiasts enjoying picnic baskets of wine and cheese brought up on the cable car- in the end it was the best way to the top. Because when you spend hours hiking to enjoy a perfect (and my first) African sunset, it is all that much more rewarding. But now that I’ve checked the hike off my list, next time I’ll take the cable car…and bring wine.
17. Lion Encounter – Mauritius
Mauritius is a beautifully diverse, culturally rich island nation sporting a variety of luxury resorts and sandy beaches. You could easily spend your entire stay there relaxing on a lounge chair next to the sparkling emerald sea…or you can take a walk on the wild side and visit Casela Nature Park. One of only three locations in the world (the others are Zambia and Zimbabwe) where you can get up close and personal with lions in their natural habitat, Casela offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience to “Walk with Lions.” While the lion walk activity was completely booked up while I was there on RTW #7, I still had the opportunity to experience the lion encounter alternative.
Without a doubt, this was one of the most exhilaratingly-terrifying experiences of my life. Just me, a trainer, a photographer and more lions than I could comfortably keep track of, alone in the enclosure. All of us unarmed except for that stick you see in my hand. Talk about living on the edge! The minute I entered the enclosure, I froze in fear. I thought – this is how my Dateline episode starts, ”…she was on an island in the middle of nowhere in a lion enclosure.” But obviously, I got out alive and with a great photo op. It was an incredible adventure and sometimes I still wonder…was anyone really keeping a close eye on those lions in the picture behind me?
18. Seaplane Flight over the Maldives
Made up of hundreds of tiny, idyllic atolls scattered across an endless expanse of Indian Ocean, the Maldives are a tropical paradise right out of central casting. Though the double chain of 26 atolls is spread over 35,000 square miles, the Maldives are actually the smallest Asian nation both in population and land area. No matter where you’re heading when you touch down at the Malé airport, you’ll need a boat or a seaplane to get there because even the airport is on its own tiny island. By far, the best and most popular way to travel through the Maldives is by seaplane. In fact, it’s your only option to reach many of the top resorts. But this is one pricey airport transfer that’s worth every last penny.
As the propellers whir drowning out any attempt at conversation, the views below of vibrant reefs encircled by halos of turquoise sea (with a palm-shaded spit of sand thrown in sporadically for good measure) will make you forget that your island-attired pilot isn’t wearing shoes. It’s all just part of the paradise experience in this tiny island nation. Because when you visit the Maldives, getting to your hotel is half the fun.
19. A Scenic Flight over Mount Everest – Nepal
My second day in Kathmandu started out pretty much the same as the first. I woke up at the break of dawn and headed to the domestic airport in the hopes that the weather would be clear enough for a scheduled scenic flight to Mount Everest. The day before, I’d waited hours only to be told the low visibility conditions would mean just seeing the tips of the mountain range. To their credit, the airline presented three options: take the flight, get a full refund or come back the next day and hope for better luck.
I elected to come back and try again and was so glad I did! Immediately upon arrival the next day we were ushered directly to a waiting aircraft – there was a break in the clouds and it was now or never. As we flew over the spectacular snow-capped Himalayan mountain range, our flight attendant carefully pointed out each peak that came into view and we even took turns visiting the cockpit for the pilot’s panoramic view. When Mount Everest finally came into view I was speechless. I cannot believe people actually climb this mountain and it’s not something that’s ever been on my wish list. But I had always dreamed of catching a glimpse of this legendary peak and on this one perfect day in Nepal I got to do just that. It was the flight of a lifetime.
20. Tiger’s Nest Hike – Kingdom of Bhutan
The 8th century Taktsang, or “Tiger’s Nest” is a highly revered Buddhist monastery built into a sheer cliff face at a dizzying height of 9,678ft. It’s the landmark of Bhutan and likely the only photo you’ve ever seen of this tiny Himalayan kingdom. For years I’d seen photos of that stunning monastery in the clouds and always dreamed of seeing it for myself. So, on my recent trip around the Himalayas, Bhutan was near the top of my list.
On the morning of the hike, we arrived at our starting point at the base of the mountain in Paro Valley around 8:30am. Over the next 2-3 hours we ascended more than 2,000ft from our starting altitude of 7,500ft on steep but well-trodden trails. Navigating from one mountain to the next (where the monastery is located) involves a significant descent, a bridge crossing and then a final ascent back up the stairs leading to the monastery. It was beautiful, but challenging. Colorful prayer flags were strung all along the trail and they increased in number as we neared the monastery.
When we finally arrived at the entrance to the monastery, aching legs and ailing lungs were all but forgotten, it was absolutely magnificent. Just as I had always imaged it would be. The next day it was time to move on to Thailand but the soul-cleansing spirit of Bhutan, a nation that measures life by Gross National Happiness, will likely stay with me forever.
21. Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
For many years, tourism to Myanmar was roundly discouraged since tourism dollars primarily supported the corrupt government. But in May 2011, popular Burmese opposition politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed the opinion that responsible tourism to Burma should be encouraged in order to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment.
Today, Myanmar’s doors are finally open and many travelers are getting their first glimpse into the beauty of this long-suffering nation. I couldn’t wait to see what Myanmar had in store and planned three stops in the country including the temple-laden city of Bagan. In the mid-9th century Bagan was a central powerhouse under King Anawratha and as many as 13,000 temples and stupas may have once stood on this windy plain stretching 26 square miles.
Bagan’s reign of power ended in 1287 and today just 2,200 temples remain in various states of preservation. Some are large and still retain much of their grandeur from long ago, while others are tiny and crumbling in overgrown grass. I spent the day visiting dozens of temples and saved Bagan’s top attraction – sunset from the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda – for last. Foreign and Burmese tourists alike make the steep climb up Shwe-san-daw to gather at the small landing atop the “sunset temple” each night. The climb was worth the vertigo-inducing effort for a panoramic view of thousands of temples as they blazed orange with the sun’s setting rays. It was a sunset view that hadn’t changed in centuries and one of the most unique I’ve ever seen.
22. Morning Alms – Luang Prabang, Laos
Situated at the juncture of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers, the colorfully-serene city of Luang Prabang has emerged as the most prominent showpiece in a country only open to tourism since 1989. This former Royal capital remains the main center for Buddhist learning in Laos and though tourists have discovered this Asian gem, they are still greatly outnumbered by orange-robed monks.
There’s a spiritual charm to this small town and I was instantly taken with it when I arrived on RTW #6. But to experience the real heart of the local culture in Laos, you’ve got to get up pretty early. Just before dawn, the streets are lined with local residents awaiting the daily procession of monks for morning alms. As the sun rises, hundreds of monks emerge – seemingly out of nowhere – to fill their alms bowls. In less than an hour, they disappear as quickly as they appeared. Witnessing the beauty of this tradition in Laos was one of my most awe-inspiring travel moments.
23. Sunrise at Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
RTW #4 – Cambodia: It’s just before 5:00am as I sit in total darkness in an auto-rickshaw bouncing along a jungle road toward the ancient temple of Angkor Wat. Our lone headlight is the only light to be seen for miles on a road that didn’t exist only a few years ago. The air is thick with humidity, even at this ungodly early hour.
Finally, the rickshaw stops. Though I can hear people talking, I can see nothing in the inky darkness. Completely disoriented, I have to ask my driver which direction to walk. He aims me to the right and I spot bouncing beams of light coming from smarter tourists who thought to bring flashlights. I choose a bouncing light and follow it.
I reach for my phone and the bluish glow lights the area directly around my feet as I follow the beam of light ahead. My makeshift light is insufficient for navigation but enough to keep me out of the moat that I know from pictures surrounds Angkor Wat. I walk hesitantly down the endless stone path hopeful that the owner of the bouncing light in front of me knows where he is going.
Suddenly, the flashlight I’m following veers off down stone steps to the left. Other lights mill about in confusion, some continue straight while others follow stairs to the right. I have no idea which direction is best but decide to follow my original leader, he has gotten me this far. We continue through grass, eventually coming to a spot where other bouncing lights blend with voices in the dark. My phone’s glow illuminates a stone wall next to a body of water where others are already sitting and I grab a spot and settle in for the show. In the darkness, we wait. With nothing else to do, I look up and am rewarded by a night sky blanketed with stars.
With the painstaking anticipation of a child waiting for Christmas, the ebony sky lightens just enough that I can make out the outline of the enormous stone towers of Angkor Wat. Over the next 30 minutes the sky develops into an increasingly vibrant swirl of brilliant pinks and blazing orange as the sheer Khmer genius of Angkor Wat is revealed to the patient crowd assembled. I smile at the realization that the viewing spot I selected in the darkness couldn’t be more perfect. It is a sunrise of epic proportions over a temple that has mastered the art of making an entrance.
24. The Great Wall all to Myself – Beijing, China
Like a giant dragon, the Great Wall winds its way more than 5,000 miles across China’s northern border. Constructed primarily during the Ming Dynasty, the Wall was originally built to protect the empire against intrusions. Today it is one of the world’s most famous historic attractions and one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” Several of the most-visited sections of the Great Wall are within an hour’s drive of Beijing. Though tours are readily available, the best way to see the Wall is to hire your own cab for the day. But if you want to beat the tourist throngs at this popular world monument, you have to get up pretty early in the morning.
On my visit during RTW #1, I arrived from Beijing by 8am and had the Wall entirely to myself for almost an hour. It was a cold winter morning and I soaked in the incredible vistas around me marveling at my good fortune to enjoy it in peaceful solitude. I felt so small and so gloriously far from home. But, as it turned out, this was more than an extraordinary travel moment, it was a life moment. Because as I stood there – taking it all in – I realized that this is what I was meant to be doing. Traveling. Seeing the world. My month-long adventure was coming to a close but I knew that I would plan another RTW trip and try to inspire others to do the same. To seek out their own extraordinary moments. And eight RTW trips later that’s exactly what I’m doing.
25. Swimming with Millions of Jellyfish – Jellyfish Lake, Palau
Located in the western extremities of the Pacific Ocean, the Micronesian archipelago of Palau is a geological wonder. Made up of more than 350 islands and atolls, Palau is internationally renowned for its marine bio-diversity. During my brief stay on the island, I hired a boat to explore the Rock Islands and visit the legendary Jellyfish Lake, where I’d read it was possible to swim with millions of iridescent (and harmless) prehistoric jellyfish.
After a steep hike to reach the lake, my guide and I slipped on our fins and masks and jumped in. Underwater camera in hand, we slowly moved toward the center of the lake. At first, I was disappointed; I couldn’t see much of anything in the murky green water. And then as we neared the center of the lake, suddenly, they began to appear. In minutes they were everywhere – pink blobs undulating all around you. Their size was startling at first, ranging from the size of your fist to the size of a basketball. As I floated in the center of the lake, they innocently bumped into my arms and legs. It was impossible to move without touching one. It was a surreal experience that can only be found in Palau.
26. A Scenic Flight over the Great Barrier Reef – Australia
Stretching more than 1,600 miles along the eastern coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. Just off the central coast of Queensland, Australia, the collection of islands known as the Whitsundays are a popular home base for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef. During my stay in the Whitsundays on RTW #8, I wanted to see as much of the massive reef as I possibly could.
On my second day I went diving and snorkeling at the Hardy Reef Pontoon but on my last day I decided it was time for a splurge. I booked a 1-hour scenic helicopter flight to get an aerial view of this world wonder. It’s impossible to appreciate the massive size of the reef system until you see it from above. As my helicopter flew low across the reef – sharks, turtles and rays were easily visible from the air. The highlight of the flight was a pass over the aptly-named Heart Reef – so perfectly formed it seemed almost man-made. The reef and the Whitsunday Islands (especially the swirls of Whitehaven Beach) are a stunning sight from the air and the flight was an awe-inspiring experience.
27. Bridge Climb – Sydney, Australia
Opened in 1932 and soaring high over magnificent Sydney Harbour, it’s one of Australia’s most recognizable symbols. But the world’s largest steel-arch bridge is more than just a beautiful backdrop. A climb to the top of Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge has been named one of the “Top 10 Biggest Adrenaline Rushes” in the world by Lonely Planet and is on the Must-Do list for most visitors to Australia.
In 1998, the opening of BridgeClimb made it possible for anyone to experience the thrill of a three-hour roundtrip climb to the bridge’s summit and the most spectacular view in Sydney. Climbs take place every day of the year except New Year’s Eve (when the bridge serves as the base for a massive fireworks display) and in all weather except electrical storms or extremely high winds. On my first trip to Sydney, I made the mistake of not booking in advance and it was totally sold out during my stay. But on my summer trip around Oceania a few years later, it was the first thing I booked after the flight to Sydney. Despite the July winter weather, I was lucky enough to get a mostly sunny and warm day for my climb and it was a truly exciting way to spend an afternoon.
27. A Day Trip to Aitutaki – Cook Islands
With a vast lagoon rivaling Bora Bora’s – but with a fraction of the visitors – Aitutaki just might be the world’s most beautifully-remote island. While staying on the main island of Rarotonga on RTW #6, I flew over to Aitutaki to get a look at this mythical Bali Hai for myself. After a quick 45-minute flight followed by a Jeep land-tour of the tiny island, we boarded a traditional sailing craft and headed out into the seemingly endless turquoise lagoon. As the boat sliced through the crystal clear waters and glided past palm-fringed atolls I was completely in awe of the beauty surrounding me and wondered how I would ever fittingly describe this tropical paradise. It didn’t even seem real.
My favorite stop of the day was the dreamily-exotic and nearly deserted atoll known as One Foot Island. It was the perfect place to laze on a powder-white beach or float in the knee-high lagoon. But despite its castaway appearance, it was home to one top attraction – a small hut containing one of the world’s most remote post offices. Luckily, a local on Rarotonga had told me to bring my passport when I visited Aitutaki so I was fortunate to depart paradise with a footprint-shaped passport stamp to remember it by.
29. Sleeping in an Overwater Bungalow – Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Perhaps the most iconic of all the Pacific islands, Bora Bora’s sparkling turquoise lagoon and soaring emerald peak seem plucked from an old Polynesian travel poster. Palm-covered motu encircle the lagoon providing a base for the luxury resorts that pepper the island. Overwater bungalows reign supreme and offer a oneness with Bora Bora’s spectacular natural environment.
Shallow lagoons teeming with colorful coral and tropical fish are the main attraction and there’s no better way to enjoy them than with a room built right over the action. The ability to step out of your bedroom and jump directly into the lagoon is a unique luxury and I was thrilled to be able to experience it while in Bora Bora and Moorea. Most bungalows also feature a lighted glass viewing panel in the floor – known locally as “Tahitian Television” – which allows you to view the underwater entertainment long after the sun goes down.
30. Sunset from Ahu Tahai – Easter Island, Chile
Just when I thought South Pacific sunsets couldn’t get any better, I arrived on Easter Island. A short stroll from the main town of Hanga Roa, sits a vast field where the ancient site of giant stone monoliths known as Ahu Tahai stands framed by the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean. During my stay on RTW #7, I claimed a spot on the grassy hillside and settled in for the nightly show just as the sun began its dramatic descent. It’s amazing what a few moai can add to an already mind-blowing sunset. As the sky transitioned from brilliant blue to flaming orange before finally settling into the inky, star-studded purple of night, my mind wandered to the mysteries of this ancient Polynesian culture. How did they transport the moai here…and why? It’s a mystery that remains to this day but there’s one thing that’s certain, the sunsets are pure moai magic.
So, there you have it! That’s my current list of most extraordinary travel experiences. I hope that in a few more years I’ll have 30 more amazing moments to write about. That’s the beauty of travel, it’s impossible to see and experience it all…but, hey, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, right?
But enough about me…how many of these 30 have you done? Which ones are still on your list?
And let’s hear about your extraordinary travel experiences! What was your all-time favorite place or travel moment? And what do you think I should add to my list? I’m always looking for new and exciting places to go and people to meet, so please, sound off in the comments!
And speaking of new places to go…gotta get back to planning Round the World #9. January is just around the corner! Ready to start planning your trip? Get the ultimate planning guide, “The Grown-Up’s Guide to Globetrotting.”