A Travellerspoint blog

April 2020

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 Comments (2)

Rocky Mountain Highs: Steamboat Springs


View Colorado 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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Since it was the kids' first real winter vacation I crammed as many outdoor activities as I could on the way to Steamboat Springs, expense be damned. First up was snow tubing at Frisco Adventure Park. I had booked our time slot well in advance of the trip, which was fortunate because when we arrived we found the lodge completely packed and the day had been completely sold out. The sleds were large inflatable tubes with canvas floors that the kids could sit inside. There was a magic carpet lift up to the top of the hill where we linked up our tubes and then flew down the slope with a push from the attendant. It was the perfect speed to thrill our kids. Cleo felt a little sick from the altitude since we were now at 9000 feet, but she managed to get past it and enjoy a few runs.
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We had to hightail it back east to make our scheduled departure on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. I had hesitated to put this on our itinerary due to mixed reviews but in the end decided we had nothing to lose since there wasn't anything else to do at night in the area. Georgetown was a very cute and rustic town that was originally a mining camp. The railroad itself was kind of a bust. Our car was super crowded and the Christmas light displays outside were mediocre. The ride was far too long as well, forty-five minutes. The kids on the train were either too young to know where they were or old enough to be bored after twenty minutes. Cleo spent most of the last half of the ride asking me how much longer until we were done. The buffoonish Christmas Carol skit in the middle of the ride wasn't much better than staring out the window. When we disembarked from the train at the top of the windy hill, it was the coldest we'd been on the trip so far.
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There was no shortage of restaurants in Georgetown and we got a hearty dinner of pho before we drove to our motel in Idaho Springs and settled in for the night. Idaho Springs was another picturesque mountain town with a strip of hotels along the highway and a main street crafted for tourism. We were efficient enough getting out of the motel that we could grab a hasty but hearty breakfast before getting on the road.
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We were just 39 miles from our snowmobiling site in Fraser which seemed like it would have been an easy distance to cover in an hour and a half, but we barely made it. Soon after we exited the interstate onto Route 40, the road began a steep ascent into the mountains that was marked by sharp hairpin turns on unplowed asphalt. Fortunately it had already been two days since the snow fell and cars had left tracks that we could follow without getting into the slush. The snow-covered mountains and evergreens around us were beautiful, to the extent that I could take my gaze off the center of the road. At one point we even saw a good-sized avalanche taking place across the valley from the highway.
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We made it to the snowmobiling location in the nick of time for our reservation and quickly got suited up. We were well-prepared with three layers of clothing, fleece balaclavas that covered our necks, and polarized goggles. The departure point was a flat field surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The snowmobiling itself was fairly sedate, with the adults driving and the kids holding on behind. I was relieved that we never came close to the speeds of my first snowmobiling experience twenty tears ago in Iceland.
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After snowmobiling we ate at a surprisingly good Cajun restaurant in Fraser, then set off on what seemed like an interminable drive to Steamboat Springs. The Airbnb condo was fantastic, a spacious and beautifully-furnished two bedroom with a good kitchen and not a trace of a draft.
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I'd expected to have some hiccups getting ready for our first day of skiing, but it turned out to be more of an unholy cluster than I could have imagined. I had thought the parking at Steamboat Ski Resort would be obvious, but then I missed the closest lot which forced us to walk several hundred meters carrying all of our equipment. We had to drop the kids off for their lessons in two different locations, and once I got the little ones to the right place I couldn't get Spenser's boots on. His feet had slipped in fairly easily at the rental shop, but now they seemed to have grown two sizes. Finally a couple of employees were able to get them on and I was able to leave him at his lesson. I found Mei Ling dropping off Cleo and Ian at their lesson and then I was finally able to take all our stuff to the lockers. I tried to save a few bucks on a small locker and ended up losing a few bucks by having to rent a second locker. Then when I tried to get my own ski boots on it was a no go. I stretched them as much as I could but it was pretty clear neither foot was going to go in. I had to open up the locker again, grab my shoes, and head over to the ski rental shop at the resort. I guess my boots had frozen while I was getting Spenser ready, because the guy at the rental shop put them on a warmer and afterwards they went on just like they had the night before. Then back to the lockers to drop off my shoes and I was finally ready to hit the slopes at eleven AM, almost three hours after we'd arrived.
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For the next four hours I was on my own. I'd skied a fair number of times up until I was in my early twenties and then gone cold turkey. I decided I simply didn't enjoy it enough to justify all the logistical hassles, and I hadn't really missed it much over the last twenty-five years. I was curious to see whether my body memory would activate after so many years away from the slopes. The first lift from the main ground area was a gondola, which provided nice views over the resort and the surrounding valley.
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It felt very weird to surrender myself to gravity on the slopes, but fortunately it only took me a couple of runs before I felt that I was close to the mediocre skier I had been in my teens and twenties. One thing that helped was that the mountain was a lot less crowded than I had expected. One guy I shared a chairlift with said he thought it was because of the temperature. It actually didn't feel that cold and I was surprised to learn it was in the single digits. I guess I chose my ski clothing well. Eventually I made it to the very top of the mountain although I never got up the nerve to intentionally try one of the black diamond slopes. I did encounter a short segment of moguls after taking a wrong turn which accounted for virtually all of my falls during the day. The most embarrassing fall happened when I ducked too enthusiastically to avoid getting my head clocked by the lift as I jumped off at the summit and then fell backwards onto my butt. In the end my late start didn't matter because by three in the afternoon I was exhausted and bored. It seemed that no latent love of skiing had been born in my soul during my quarter century sabbatical. Back at the base I collected the two families and slogged all the equipment back to the car. In my exhaustion I completely forgot that it was New Year's Eve and that there would be a torch parade down the slope and then fireworks at dusk.
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The prix fixe New Year's Eve dinners in Steamboat Springs were outrageous, so we'd decided to make dinner at home. Our friends were supposed to join us at the Airbnb but fell asleep and never made it. I had a headache and no appetite whatsoever, which confused me until I realized that while we were currently under 7000 feet elevation, the mountain rose to 10500 feet at the summit. I was suffering from mild altitude sickness. Now I also knew why my stumbles on the mogul slope had been so exhausting. A couple of times it had taken me a couple of minutes to catch my breath just from getting myself back to an upright position. Fortunately everyone else was fine and by the morning I was back to normal.

The first day of skiing had been an expensive and arduous undertaking for me, but it was worth it after seeing how much fun the kids had had. Cleo had naturally done the best but it didn't seem like she had progressed enough to be able to manage even the easiest slopes at Steamboat. Personally I'd already had more than enough skiing and altitude sickness for the next twenty-five years, but the kids were very excited to keep going. Fortunately my extensive research had revealed a way for us to keep skiing without paying thousands for more lessons at Steamboat. The town of Steamboat Springs is also home to Howelsen Hill, the oldest operating ski area in North America, which has no affiliation with Steamboat Ski Resort and sells adult full day lift tickets for $50, a fraction of the cost of the resort. Howelsen Hill isn't the best choice for experienced skiers due to the small number of Alpine runs, especially on weekdays, but the bunny slope was open daily and seemed like a perfect option for us. In the morning we loaded up all our equipment and headed out for another day of skiing.

We only encountered one logistical issue this time around. I had entered "Howelsen Hill" instead of "Howelsen Hill Ski Area" into Google Maps which took us on a completely wrong route up the hill on the opposite side from the ski area. Eventually we encountered a snowy uphill slope that I valiantly attempted to summit and failed. Fortunately I never lost control of the car and was able to maneuver to the side of the road. Our friends in their 4WD were able to reach us and we realized the discrepancy in our destinations. I worked the car back around and down the hill and soon we had found the correct place. The ski area was actually quite simple to get to from the center of town and didn't require any uphill driving at all. There was a magic carpet lift to the top of the bunny slope which proved to be very slippery. The kids would slide backwards into me if they tried going up on their skis and a couple of times we fell off completely. It was all I could do to go up with my skis on if I leaned forward and dug my poles into the rubber treads. The slope was great for the kids to learn how to control their speed by turning instead of the silly "pizza" moves they insisted on teaching at the resort. We skied at Howelsen Hill for the next three days, although by the last day the boys had enough and it was just Cleo and me. I was quite proud of how skilled Cleo had become after just a few days of practice. At the end of the last day we decided to attempt the Poma lift to the long beginner trail. Of course it had been a long time since I'd ridden one of these but I remembered they were trickier than they looked. I wasn't too worried about myself but I wasn't sure Cleo would be able to handle it. Surely enough, Cleo got on but immediately got her skis caught in the snow and was tossed to the side. I tried to convince her to get back on but she wasn't having it. I really wanted to see what was at the top of the hill so I told her I'd just be a few minutes and took my turn at the front of the line. I mounted the Poma without a problem but I forgot about the strong recoil after the lift took my weight and I got unceremoniously thrown as well. The two of us slunk back to the lodge in disgrace and packed up to go home.
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It snowed about six inches on our second morning in Steamboat Springs. Once again we had lucked out by getting all the benefits of fresh snow without the hassle of having to drive long distances through it. Cleo helped me shovel out the car and later we all climbed the huge mountain that was left by the plows. On the last day when Cleo and I went skiing on our own, Spenser and his friend Bao Bao made their first snowman.

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We didn't see much of Steamboat Springs until our last full day in town. Until then we had just gone to the supermarket and a couple of the more heralded restaurants on the small town's main drag, Lincoln Avenue. The most impressive was Bésame, a two level Latin fusion bistro where we sampled most of the menu and every dish was on point. Even more impressive were the waitresses on the upper level who glided between the crowded tables like birds, never missing a beat or getting flustered no matter how hectic the scene got. It was an exceptional dining experience. Our other dinner out was at a sushi place called Tahk. Because of the kids we couldn't opt for the omakase but I got a picture of their cool set-up before we left.
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There isn't much to see in Steamboat Springs outside of the stores on Lincoln Avenue. On our last afternoon we spent a couple of hours browsing through a consignment store and an art gallery, eventually purchasing a couple of beautiful horse sculptures that were the work of a local artist.It's a pleasant town but I doubt it would be much of a draw if it wasn't for the year-round outdoor activities.
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On our last day we took the kids on the Outlaw Mountain Coaster at the ski resort which they enjoyed but probably wasn't worth the $25 a pop to share a sled. The drive back to Denver seemed excruciatingly long and was only brightened by the snow-covered landscape we passed through.
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W got back to Denver early enough to take the kids bowling for the first time. We drove out to a suburb instead of making another attempt at Lucky Strike downtown. Bowling is another activity I haven't participated in for about twenty years. The alley had rails blocking the gutters that came up when the kids bowled. Did those exist when I was a kid? Not that I recall. Anyway, they certainly made the experience a lot more fun for the kids. After bowling, we found a hot pot place that provided us with a very satisfying final meal for the trip.

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We crashed in a very basic Airbnb near the airport and got up before dawn for our flight back to Miami. It had been a very different kind of trip but I think the children will remember it more than any of the others we've taken. It's hard to underestimate the impact of a full week of winter with sledding, snowmobiling, and skiing on Florida kids who have never even seen fresh snow before. I was content with having seen how much fun the kids had and also with having crossed another major American city and state off my travel list. I'm pretty sure we're going to have to do an annual ski trip now, and I'm excited to try it in some of the states we still haven't visited like New Mexico and Michigan. The kids are also pretty close to the age where it would be fun to start hitting the national parks in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah on summer vacation. As usual, the more trips we take the longer our wish list gets.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:58 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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