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The best travel experiences of my life: 70-61

Considering that our spring break trip to Belize and Guatemala has been canceled and our summer trip to Eastern Europe appears to be out of the question as well, I've decided to fill this unexpected hole in my travel history with a project I've been thinking about for some time. What have been my best travel experiences ever? Of course, that really means just the last twenty-five years because childhood memories are too hazy and I have very few pictures from back then. Most of the best experiences have come since I met my wife twelve years ago and we began traveling voraciously. I planned to make a list of fifty experiences which quickly spilled over sixty, and then I managed to extend it to seventy. Rather than struggle to stretch the list to a round hundred, I decided that seventy would be perfectly adequate for eight blog posts. Some of the experiences, like the Taj Mahal and Prague's Old Town Square, are obvious. Some like Rocca Calascio and Vestmannaeyjar are practically unknown. And others, like the times people brought us home to cook and meet their families, are unique. Of course the rank order is rough, life experiences are very hard to compare. However, there's no question that the ones at the top are some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments of my life.

70. No Name Pub in Big Pine Key, Florida
Before Mei Ling and I were married we lived in different cities and would travel together when we could arrange free time. Once we decided to just stay local and drove down to Key West on the Overseas Highway. Most people are familiar with Key West but not many know that there is a whole chain of little islands between the mainland and Key West, some of which aren't much wider than the highway that crosses them. The Keys are home to an assortment of iconoclastic folk and have many hidden secrets. One of those secrets is the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. Not many people stop in Big Pine, but if you make a hard right north from the highway you'll soon find yourself in a quiet residential neighborhood with plenty of tiny Key deer. Decades of protection have made them fearless and they will come up to cars looking for handouts, although people aren't supposed to feed them. We happened to have lychees in the car and we couldn't resist, I'm sorry to say. At the end of the road in Big Pine before the bridge that crosses over to sparsely-populated No Name Key is the No Name Pub. Despite its out-of-the-way location the gravel parking lot always seems to be full. Inside the walls are completely blanketed with layers of dollar bills stapled to the walls. No Name isn't the only bar to have that tradition in the US, but I think it's the only one that doesn't have a single inch of the original wall or ceiling left uncovered. Mei Ling had never seen anything like it before and she thought it was hilarious. We made sure to staple our own bill to the wall before we left, with my message in English and hers in Chinese. No Name Pub doesn't get its traffic just from the decor. They have some of the best conch fritters I've ever tasted with plenty of pieces of tender conch inside them. Key West is a great place to spend a weekend, but if you just drive there nonstop from Miami you'll miss a lot.
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69. New World Mall Food Court

Yes, I'm the kind of guy who can have one of his best travel experiences at a mall food court. Of course, the version at New World Mall in Flushing, Queens is no ordinary food court. The expansive basement contains dozens of stalls serving up Asian food from different regions of China as well as Korea and Southeast Asia. For any lover of spicy food and Asian food it is the closest thing to Nirvana in the Americas, although it would be positively ordinary in East Asia.
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68. Savannah Historic District
I love to visit other countries and experience a foreign ambiance, but I also love American regional culture. In terms of historic American Southern charm, it doesn't get any better than Savannah, Georgia. The Historic District is a geometrically-pleasing grid of narrow streets lined with 18th century mansions and stately trees draped in Spanish moss. If there's a more beautiful residential neighborhood in the United States, I have yet to see it. The neighborhood has plenty of atmospheric restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques which make it easy to spend an entire day walking the area. Our third kid had just arrived two months earlier and this was a perfect way for us to spend a relaxed morning on a sunny late summer day.
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67. Spongebob Musical on Broadway

This moment makes the list because it was the first Broadway musical for Mei Ling and the kids. The show was beautifully done with vividly colorful costumes and sets, and the kids loved it. Outside the theater the neon billboards illuminated us as if it was daylight while thousands of people and cars packed Times Square. It was a regular Tuesday night but it felt like a raucous festival that would never end. Broadway and Midtown might not be for everyone but it is probably the most iconic spot in New York City.
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66. Flying Soul chocolate cake in Martinique
About a year before Mei Ling finally came to live with me for good we went to a friend's wedding in St. Lucia and then took a few extra days to visit Barbados and take a road trip around Martinique. It was our first time renting a car together and it was very eye-opening to see the variety of experiences we could have with the freedom of our own wheels. Our last stop in Martinique was the resort town of Trois-Îlets where we had one of the worst restaurant dinners in memory. The food looked and tasted as though it had been dumped out of cans onto the plates. We attempted to salvage our night by driving to another restaurant down the coast that was highly recommended by our guidebook. This was before we had unlocked phones and local SIM cards so we were driving along the coastal road in the darkness with only a map to guide us. The drive was much longer than expected and we were on the verge of giving up and returning when we spotted the restaurant. Fortunately our second dinner was good enough to make up for the failings of the first as well as the long drive. The evening was capped by the best chocolate lava cake that either of us had ever tasted, which went by the name of Flying Soul on the menu. The restaurant was right on the beach and after dinner we strolled onto the sand and listened to the waves gently lapping against the shoreline. I threw in one of the pictures from our trip that shows a typically verdant Martinique landscape.
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65. Noche Mexicana in Merida, Mexico
Most Anglos who could even think of a city in the Yucatan Peninsula will instantly name Cancun but the capital of Yucatán State, Merida, is larger and much more cosmopolitan. We enjoyed the sprawling community market of Merida as well as top echelon restaurants and an excellent food hall called Mercado 60. The most memorable part of our stay came on a Saturday night when we went out to experience Noche Mexicana, a weekly street festival with vendors, rides, and a walk through avant garde art installations. There were thousands of people walking in the center of town which had been pedestrianized for the occasion. There was a wonderful feeling of energy and we had the feeling we had stumbled onto a local secret few people outside of the area are familiar with.

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64. Chao Phraya
It's hard to pick out a single peak experience from my three visits to Bangkok, but the one thing I would certainly do on every visit would be to take a water taxi on the Chao Phraya. This wide river is still a major conduit for transport and commerce in the city and is the source of the canals that have given Bangkok the nickname "Venice of the East". A leisurely ride down the Chao Phraya provides the best view of the amazing juxtaposition of ancient temples and ultramodern skyscrapers for which Bangkok is famous. Some of the city's best street markets are just steps away from the ferry stops.
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63. Venice gondola ride
When it comes to tourist traps, the Venice gondolas have to be near the top of the list. It's an extravagantly-priced phenomenon that would be non-existent if not for the hordes of tourists willing to fork out cash for an obligatory experience. I've learned to run like a deer from any travel experience that seems to be obligatory. From the Mona Lisa in Paris to the Forbidden City in Beijing they've turned out to be disappointments. During our full day of walking in Venice I rolled my eyes and quickened my step each time we passed one of the gondolier stations but at one point I caught a flash of disappointment on Mei Ling's face. I began to have second thoughts and realized that perhaps I'd dismissed the idea too quickly. Venice itself is a ridiculously over-touristed city but there's no question that it is still worthwhile to visit for its unique watery beauty. Could I be missing something about the gondola ride? I shrugged and shelled out the standard eight Euros for a forty minute ride. As soon as we reached the main canal I realized that Venice looked and felt completely different from the water. Something about the movement of the small boat and the low angle really brought home the impression that the whole city was floating like some kind of magical conjuration. The community of small boats on the canals was a different world from the pedestrians on the walkways and bridges. At the end I was very grateful to Mei Ling for preventing me from overthinking my way out of a valuable part of the Venice experience.
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62. Spanish immersion in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
By the time I was in the final year of my emergency medicine residency, I'd wised up enough to take advantage of an elective month by using it to travel internationally. I chose an immersion course in medical Spanish in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. There are so many American expats living in the center of town that in some ways it doesn't feel like Mexico, but the beautiful architecture and artwork of the city inspired a love of that unique country which has never abated. Sadly I've lost whatever photos I took during that time but I more than made up for it with my return visit for the annual bull festival, which I'll cover in a later entry.

61. The streets of San Francisco
In 2013 when Cleo was almost a year old and Mei Ling was pregnant with Ian we set off on our first trip around the world. Our last stop before returning home was San Francisco, a city I had spent time in before but Mei Ling had never visited. During that time we walked through most of the city's famous neighborhoods, from North Beach to Golden Gate Park. After that visit I concluded that San Francisco is the best walking city in the United States. The diverse ethnic neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and immaculate Victorian houses give it the edge over New York City. Throw in the energetic but uncrowded atmosphere and the eclectic local population and I have one of my ten favorite cities in the world.
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Next up, experiences 60-51!

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:04

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Comments

Having started at the top and worked backwards I've just reached the end of my read through of your top 70. I think this is a great idea for a project (I may copy it or do something similar!) and I've very much enjoyed reading all about your many experiences and adventures :)

by ToonSarah

Hopefully I can read your version soon!

by zzlangerhans

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