This is the fourth installment of the top 70 travel experiences of my life that begins with this post.
40. Old San Juan
This will be the first of several appearances from Puerto Rico on this list. I didn't know what to expect from my first visit to the island, one of the early trips I took with Mei Ling before we were married. We spent three days in the historic barrio of Old San Juan and I can only describe it as an epiphany. It was a pleasure just to walk the immaculate streets of this colorful, colonial neighborhood but we were also amazed by the expanse and majesty of the grassy fort on the western promontory. We were blown away by the variety of top level restaurants in the heart of downtown and the quality and character of the boutique hotels we stayed at. The one we enjoyed the most had a half-ruined aesthetic with ubiquitous greenery and artwork and a subterranean swimming pool. It was the beginning of a love affair with Puerto Rico that led us to take my parents back there the following year.
39. Weekly market in Sète, France
Since leaving Vaucluse we hadn't been overwhelmed by the markets on the Mediterranean coast of France. The large cities of Nice and Marseille had been especially disappointing. We weren't expecting to come across the largest and most diverse market of our trip in the relatively small port city of Sète in Languedoc. However we were fortunate enough to be there on a Wednesday, the day in which the streets around the municipal market sprung to life with vendors selling every imaginable variety of seafood, fresh produce, and local delicacies. Enormous vats bubbled with seafood stews, huge wheels of nougat threatened to crowd each other off narrow tables, and opportunities to eat freshly prepared food were everywhere. We strolled, perused, and ate to our hearts' content. Unlike the markets of Provence it was clear that this weekly market existed primarily to fill the bellies of the locals rather than the Instagram pages of tourists.
38. Linderhof Palace, Germany
The Bavarian castle on everyone's bucket list is Neuschwanstein but we enjoyed our visit to Linderhof Palace more. Neuschwanstein was crowded and couldn't be appreciated up close. The only vantage point to get a view of the entire castle, Queen Mary's Bridge, was closed when we visited. At Linderhof the relative lack of visitors made it easy to focus on the beautiful features of the palace and the surrounding landscape. The magnificent architecture, gold-plated fountains, and lush gardens made it at least the equal of Neuschwanstein or even Versailles for that matter. It was the perfect place to spend a cool summer afternoon in Bavaria.
37. Xingshun night market in Shenyang, China
Night markets are one of the features that make East Asia so incredibly fun to visit. Instead of being focused on food staples like the daily markets, they will usually offer a wide variety of prepared food and sometimes entertainment. Many of the night markets in mainland China have disappeared as the government has aggressively modernized the country, but fortunately Xingshun night market in the northeastern city of Shenyang has been preserved. There is a certain degree of artificiality about the market as it seems highly organized with licensed vendors, and some of the offerings like insects on skewers are clearly geared towards tourists. Nevertheless there is an enormous array of exotic food and a very energetic scene, and Mei Ling and I weren't above sampling a smorgasbord of deep-fried bugs and lizards. The locals circled us and looked on with horrified expressions as we wolfed down our arthropodic repast. There was plenty of delicious meat and seafood to sate what remained of our appetite. The tourist factor wasn't as annoying because virtually all the tourism was domestic Chinese.
36. Tobago crab races
Mei Ling was seven months pregnant with Cleo when we decided to take a short trip to Tobago over Easter weekend. We weren't sure how much traveling we would do with a baby so we wanted to get as many trips as we could in before Cleo arrived. We were completely unaware that Easter weekend was a major festival in Tobago with goat and crab races and a huge feast. We spent Sunday morning strolling around Buccoo watching people preparing crab and conch for their feasts and getting ourselves invited to several, then we went to the fairgrounds to watch the goat and crab races. Mei Ling was given her own crab to race with although hers didn't seem very competitive. We spent an amazing evening feast-hopping with the friendly and hospitable Tobagonians and then headed to the airport in the morning. As we walked through the terminal I saw something oddly familiar on the front page of the Trinidad Guardian, the country's main daily newspaper. It was a huge picture of Mei Ling holding her crab in the air by its leash. We've been all over the world together but that was the first and last time we made the front page of a newspaper.
35. Houses of Parliament, London
London is my favorite city in Europe and the locale of three of my forty greatest travel experiences. It's hard to list all the reasons I love London but I do believe it has the greatest historical architecture of any city in the world. There's no building that exemplifies London's magnificent architecture more than the Palace of Westminster, commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. I'll never forget walking down Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square and being absolutely stunned by the sheer size and majesty of the building. Once I got past its enormity I was captivated by the complexity of the facade and the intricate detail in the stonework. I felt as though I was looking an illustration from a fantasy novel rather than a real building that humans had created. My attempts to capture the memory in a photograph were defeated by the sheer immensity of the edifice. To this day one of the things I look forward to most when I return to London is the opportunity to stand outside the Houses of Parliament and appreciate it in the only way that does it justice, with my own two eyes.
34. Muslim wedding in Delhi, India
In retrospect we were crazy to make a stop in Delhi on our round-the-world trip in 2015. We had two toddlers with us and Mei Ling was six months pregnant with Spenser. Mei Ling has always tolerated her pregnancies well, at least in the second trimester, and I had become convinced that if we didn't go to India before Spenser was born we might have to wait fifteen years. We chose a small business hotel in the old city, close to the markets and the Jama Masjid mosque. We had expected the crowds, the heat, and the crushing poverty but it was still brutal to experience in person. On our second night we ate near the mosque and walked back towards the hotel on a busy street packed with motorcycles, scooters, and pedestriand of every size and description. On a side street we pressed ourselves against a building as a line of cars slowly moved past us. One car was covered in garlands and we realized we were witnessing a wedding procession. We allowed the crowd following the cars to carry us forward down the street to a reception hall. We thought that would be the end of it but people beckoned us to come inside. Mei Ling was ushered to a special area for women, stroller and all, while I was allowed into the groom's tent to witness a religious ceremony in progress. I felt a little self-conscious in my sweaty tourist clothing and Cleo conked out on my back but no one objected as I took video of the ceremony. It was a captivating and magical experience, and very typical of the extraordinary hospitality we received everywhere we went in India. We made it through our six day stay without the slightest disturbance to our well-being, gastrointestinal or otherwise.
33. Dune of Pilat in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France
In 2018 we detoured west from Bordeaux to visit the Dune du Pilat on the Atlantic coast of France. I knew the long drive would be worth the trouble since I could still remember visiting the gigantic dune from my own early childhood. I'd been looking forward to surprising the kids with the enormous mountain of sand for the whole trip and I wasn't disappointed. As soon as we reached the end of the short trail through the woods and they looked up at the dune, their jaws dropped. Once we'd clambered to the top the views around us were breathtaking. Inland was a forest canopy that extended to the horizon, and from the other side we could see across the bay all the way to Cap Ferret where we'd spent the morning. It was a great reminder that the natural world has as much to offer the intrepid traveler as the urbanized one.
32. Napa Valley wineries, Northern California
Napa Valley is a wine region that's acquired an almost mystical status among travelers. The opulence of the wine estates has surpassed anything one might see in Bordeaux and now approaches the historical chateaux of the Loire Valley. With the proliferation of Michelin-starred restaurants, concerts, and art galleries the Cabernet Sauvignon that the region became famous for is now almost an afterthought. The greatest challenge for us was to find the seven or eight best estates to visit during the three days we spent in Napa and Sonoma. I think we did well overall, but the ones I remember as being the most visually stunning were Castello di Amorosa and Darioush. The exhilaration of exploring estate after magnificent estate in the invigorating and clean spring air was a sensation that I will never forget.
31. Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
At the conclusion of a week long trip to Costa Rica in 1995, my travel companion flew back home two days before me. I was in a hostel in San José and impetuously decided to drive to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, despite our car rental agent having explicitly advised us that our two-wheel drive Toyota Tercel was sufficient to get around the entire country except for Monteverde. That was the kind of decision I made back in the days when I was traveling alone. It was a beautiful drive and I ascended the gravel road to the top of the mountain without much difficulty. The forest was beautiful and it was incredible to look out through breaks in the trees on the trail and see clouds floating underneath me. At the end of the afternoon it was still light and I decided to descend on the opposite side and try to spend the night near Arenal Volcano. This proved to be a much more challenging endeavor than the drive up the mountain. It was before the days of internet and GPS so all I had was the map from the car rental company, meaning I got lost frequently. I found a small village with an open convenience store where they told me that Arenal was just ten kilometers further. After this point the road conditions deteriorated dramatically but I still drove nine kilometers over a rocky and uneven dirt track before reaching a dry creek bed that seem impassable. I figured I had taken a wrong turn and spent another half hour driving the nine kilometers back to the convenience store. There I was told that I just needed to suck it up and drive through the creek bed and I would have reached my goal. Back I went all the way to the creek bed and slowly forced the Tercel across it, expecting any moment to hear my undercarriage being torn to pieces by the huge rocks underneath me. Somehow I managed to get to the other side unscathed and soon afterward I was driving on asphalt road again. All the buildings were closed and dark so I eventually drove up a hillside, rolled down the car windows, and got into the back seat to sleep. In the morning I was awakened by the sensation of a rough, damp cloth being wiped all over my face. When I was able to open my eyes all I could see was some pink material blocking my field of vision. Once I was able to arouse myself and sit up I realized a cow had stuck her head through the window and was licking the salty sweat off my face. She retreated and I found my way back to town where they told me I had parked on the side of the volcano. Apparently there had been a lava flow on the other side the previous day so I had risked being incinerated. Were they exaggerating? I'll never know. Those last two days in Costa Rica are one of my few experiences with traveling rough in the third world before the internet came along to make everything safer and easier. Unfortunately whatever photographs I might once of had from that trip are long gone but I have every intention of returning to the Cloud Forest and Arenal once my kids are old enough to participate in all the wild activities Costa Rica is famous for.
To be continued with the best travel experiences 30-21