A Travellerspoint blog

May 2020

The best travel experiences of my life: 50-41

This is the third installment of the top 70 travel experiences of my life that begins here.

50. Hatikva market, Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv offers a good example of how easy it is to miss a city's best market by doing limited research. Search online or peruse any travel guide for Tel Aviv markets and the names that will come up over and over again are Carmel Market in the city center and the Jaffa Flea Market. We went to both of these and they were pleasant enough but clearly geared towards tourists. Mei Ling and I know that we're going to see the best stuff where the locals shop. The way we found Hatikva market was to ask a cabdriver where the Israelis bought their food and we weren't disappointed. The large market in a nondescript blue collar neighborhood had all the frenzied activity and gore we'd missed at the tidy tourist markets with their falafel and hummus. Much to my consternation Mei Ling started buying all sorts of awkward foodstuffs like calf brains and rooster testicles but I've learned to just let her run with it. Surely enough we came across a guy with a small outdoor kitchen who willingly agreed to stir fry her collection of offal. As I watched I suddenly felt a searing pain in my right eye and instantly realized that a rooster testicle had exploded and ejected boiling juice into my eye. As I struggled to open my eye I was certain my contact lens had melted to my scalded eyeball and our vacation was over. Someone guided me to a tap and I held my eye under cool running water for a few minutes until he pain had subsided. Much to my surprise there was no lasting damage and for good measure the offal fricassee was delicious.

49. Rooftop breakfast in Sulmona, Italy
The central province of L'Aquila isn't on many people's short list of places to visit in Italy, but it was the site of two of my greatest travel experiences. There weren't any Airbnb's available on short notice in Sulmona but I was fortunate to find a room in a B&B in the heart of the town that was one of the best I've ever stayed at. In the morning we went upstairs for our breakfast and found ourselves on a beautiful terrace with unobstructed views of the town rooftops. Beyond the neat rows of clay shingles and the church bell towers was the Maiella massif, part of the Apennine range. The view was breathtaking in every direction. Breakfast was colorful and delicious and included a tapenade that our host had made from olives she had picked herself. I could not imagine a better way for us to have kicked off our last day of an amazing month-long Adriatic road trip. Little did I know that we still had one of our top ten all time travel experiences still ahead of us that day.

48. Seafood restaurant in Hangzhou, China
One of my favorite things to do in Chinese coastal cities is to go to a seafood restaurant that looks more like an aquarium than a place to eat. Chinese people love to eat food that was alive just minutes ago, which is why you'll sometimes see a well-dressed office worker going home on the bus with a live chicken in a cage. Many seafood restaurants have a huge variety of live fish and shellfish on display and I've never seen a selection like I did in Hangzhou, a close neighbor of Shanghai. Having Mei Ling with me meant nothing was off limits, not even the silkworms or horseshoe crab. The crab was particularly fascinating, with delicious glutinous roe filling the crevasses in the shell. As with all my best experiences in China, it would have been impossible if unaccompanied by someone familiar with the culture and fluent in Chinese.

47. Atwater Market in Montréal, Canada
Yes, it's another market and it's far from the last. Markets are one of the first things I research when I decide to put a city on our itinerary. There's no better way for travelers to integrate themselves into the natural daily life of a city. There's always new and unusual things to see and taste, people to talk with, and energy to absorb. The main produce market in Montréal is Jean-Talon in Little Italy but by far our favorite was the much smaller gourmet Atwater Market near the Lachine Canal. Not only was there excellent produce and a very appealing food court, but the indoor delis had the most appetizing selection of prepared food one could imagine. The self-catered lunch we put together in the market was one of the best meals we had on that entire road trip.

46. La Rocca di Cefalù, Sicily
This massive rocky outcropping looms over the small coastal town of Cefalù as if to challenge visitors to scale it. After debating anxiously with myself if we should attempt it with three kids under five, I decided we would go for it and as usual I was rewarded for taking the bolder path. The climb was grueling but never hazardous and the ruined fort and views at the summit were magical. Possibly the best part was the feeling of accomplishment from overcoming such a strenuous physical challenge.

45. Michelin three star restaurants, New York City
In 2013 we decided to reward ourselves for becoming a family by eating in four of New York City's most renowned Michelin three star restaurants on consecutive nights. We got off to a bad start with a heavy and uneven meal at Per Se, followed by much better outings at Jean-Georges and Daniel, and finally a spectacular dinner at Le Bernardin. It's impossible for the food itself to justify the the exaltation these restaurants are held in and their exorbitant prices, but it was a unique experience to eat at so many of these venerable institutions in one of the great culinary cities of the world. Ironically enough, on our last night in the city we ate at a relatively unheralded Italian restaurant that we both agreed was at least the equal if not superior to anything we had had the previous four nights.

44. Old Town Square in Prague
It probably won't come as a shock that Prague's Old Town is quite beautiful. Those millions of tourists show up every year for a reason. At the center of it all, Old Town Square is on another level from the main squares of other renowned European cities. The sheer number of glorious and historic edifices in a variety of architectural styles is overwhelming. The gothic Tyn Church immediately catches the eye with its wicked-looking black spires, but there is also the fascinating Astronomical Clock and the imposing baroque St. Nicholas Church. Somehow all of these diverse structures come together harmoniously to create a space that might better be suited to a fairy tale than our modern Western society. It took us ten minutes standing in the center of the square just to soak in the immaculateness of what we were seeing.

43. Mt. Ulriken in Bergen, Norway
Despite being Norway's second-largest city, Bergen has less than 300,000 inhabitants. It didn't take us long to walk through the interesting parts of the town, leaving time to explore one of the famous mountains that surround the city. Of the two that are accessible by public transportation we chose Mt. Ulriken, which has continuously-running cable car. We were amazed by the expansive panorama of town and sea once we disembarked. On the other side we saw people picking their way through the rocky hillsides and decided to see how far we could get. We made some pretty good headway along the choppy trail and eventually summited a hillock with far-reaching views over the otherworldly landscape. For a few minutes there were no other humans in sight and it felt as if our little family had landed alone on an uninhabited planet.

42. French language immersion in Nice
The summer after I finished medical school I spent a month in Nice doing a French immersion course. It was a final blast of freedom before embarking on a grueling surgical residency. Although I made my decision impetuously and blundered into my chosen school and location without much consideration, virtually everything went right. Nice was a fascinating city, the beach was a hive of energy, and the director of a Brazilian modeling academy had chosen my school for the French education of his charges that summer. The month went by so fast that my head spun once I realized I would be returning home the next day. It was six years before I had the chance to try something similar, this time with Spanish in Barcelona. There weren't any Brazilian models this time around but I did have another of my top travel experiences of a completely different nature.

41. Iguana roti in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
One of the many great things about Mei Ling is that once she puts her mind to something she will pursue it with fierce determination. Before our first visit to Trinidad she had read about the locals hunting and cooking iguanas and she decided she wanted to try it. She started out asking our cab driver at the airport and when he acknowledged having family who hunted iguana she convinced him to give us his phone number. She bugged him a couple of times over the next few days while we were doing Carnival activities and he seemed to be putting her off. I told her to leave the poor guy alone because I couldn't imagine any reason he would want to inconvenience himself for a couple of pushy American tourists. However on our last night he gave us a call and told us his sister-in-law had a freshly killed iguana if we wanted to come over for dinner. Mei Ling answered that not only were we coming over for dinner, we were going to help cook. Soon we were in their kitchen doing our part to butcher the iguana and roll roti pancakes. I can't claim that the iguana was delicious - it wasn't unlike other small animals that are hardly worth the effort of separating them from their bones, but the experience was incomparable. I'd rather spend an evening with a local family when I travel than see all the tourist attractions put together.

To be continued with the best travel experiences numbers 40-31.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:25 Comments (0)

The best travel experiences of my life: 60-51

This is the continuation of the list of the top 70 travel experiences of my life that begins here.

60. Easter weekend arts festival in Montevideo
One spring break a couple of years ago we found ourselves in Montevideo on Easter weekend, not out of any overwhelming desire to see Montevideo but as a byproduct of a trip to Buenos Aires and a gaucho ranch in Uruguay. Strangely enough, Montevideo turned out to have as much if not more to offer us than Buenos Aires. The highlight of our busy weekend was an arts festival I stumbled across on a Spanish language website while searching online for local events. The festival turned out to be a huge affair with areas for artwork, crafts, a rodeo, and an enormous parrillada that was feeding hundreds of patrons. We had a great time browsing the artwork and listening to spontaneous musical performances and we felt fortunate to have randomly stumbled across this opportunity to immerse ourselves in authentic Uruguayan culture.

59. Jet Ski tour of Biscayne Bay, Miami
I tend to be judgmental about cities and my home city of Miami is no exception. It's the perfect place for me to live but I can't recommend it strongly as a travel destination unless you have an affinity for nightclubbing. I didn't discover some of Miami's best features until Mei Ling began coming to visit in 2008 and I needed to find activities to entertain her. One of the most fun things we've done in Miami was take a Jet Ski tour of the north section of Biscayne Bay, the body of water between Miami Beach and the mainland where one can see many of the spectacular waterfront mansions the city is known for. The most impressive was the enormous neoclassical palace of Philip Frost, the inventor of Viagra, on Star Island. The best part was the thrilling sense of freedom from driving the powerful watercraft along the choppy water surface and feeling the fresh sea breeze in our faces. The omnipresent water and sunny weather are my favorite thing about Miami, along with the Latin culture.

58. Municipal market of Ocho Rios, Jamaica
For most tourists Ocho Rios is a cruise ship stop where you can climb Dunn's River Falls or go ziplining in a forest canopy. In 2009 Mei Ling and I were circumnavigating Jamaica by route bus so we got to see a different side of the city. One odd thing I remember was crossing from the town of Ocho Rios into the cruise ship port. It was almost like crossing a border between countries. Suddenly everything around us was gaudy and Americanized and prices were three times higher than in town. Back in the real Ocho Rios the municipal produce market was humming. Vendors had parked pickups laden with fruits and vegetables in front of the market and were selling their goods right out of the trucks. Inside the market were freshly-cooked food, a bar, and a DJ cueing up the latest reggae tracks. A sign on the wall requested that patrons remain from smoking ganja inside. There were no other tourists to be seen. Mei Ling and I circled around the market for hours eating, drinking, and dancing much to the amusement of the locals. It was the best market we found in Jamaica and an unusual chance to mingle with locals in a country where tourists normally move in a bubble.

57. Saturday Market, Portland, Oregon
Our best travel year to date is still 2014. We kicked it off with our first European road trip to Iberia when Ian was just six months old and closed it out in central Mexico. In between we hit NYC, Israel, the Pacific Northwest, England, and the Adriatic coast. The genesis of the Pacific Northwest road trip was a desire to visit Seattle that got expanded to include Portland and Vancouver. As occasionally happens, we found our primary focus of Seattle to be a big disappointment but Portland proved to be an epiphany. Despite being a relatively small city, Portland had a range of fun things to do that rivaled or exceeded some of the largest metropolises in the United States. There was also an amazing food culture that included an impressive array of farmers markets and multiple delicious brunch options every day of the week. It's hard to select a single activity that we enjoyed most but the Portland Saturday Market is probably at the top of the list. This high energy outdoor market on the bank of the Willamette River was a showplace for a great collection of local artists and craftspeople and also had a live band and plenty of food. As usual, Cleo didn't mind at all being the only one dancing and the band made it clear how much they appreciated her.

56. Yakitori Alley in Tokyo
This is another experience from our first round-the-world trip in 2013 when Cleo was almost a year old and Mei Ling was pregnant with Ian. It's difficult to pick a top experience from the nine amazing days we spent in Tokyo but I'll never forget the night we were out walking near our hotel in Shinjuku ward and stumbled across Yakitori Alley, a hive of tiny restaurants mainly offering grilled snacks on skewers. While yakitori specifically refers to grilled chicken, the restaurants offered a variety of meats from whelks to pork rectum. Typically the food was served from behind a U-shaped bar with stools packed around the circumference, and no room for any tables. Cleo was asleep when we sat down to eat but woke up halfway through dinner and suddenly popped her head out of my backpack, much to the surprise and delight of our fellow diners. Few tourists are comfortable enough to navigate this type of restaurant, so we were mostly surrounded by locals with a smattering of expats and backpackers. I've always been glad we chose to spend the whole nine days of our Japan stop in Tokyo rather than spreading ourselves over different cities. We spent every one of those days in a different ward and it felt like we were visiting nine different cities.

55. Grand Central Market in Los Angeles
Anyone who reads my travel blog knows that I've loved food halls since we visited one of the originals, Mercado de San Miguel, in Madrid in 2014. The best are the ones that offer authentic dishes from a wide variety of different cuisines, and the best of the best was Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. The sheer number and variety of miniature restaurants was overwhelming and the quality of food was almost universally outstanding. If I could teleport just one of Los Angeles's great attributes home to Miami, it would be Grand Central Market.

54. Callejoneada in Guanajuato, Mexico
One of the best things in traveling is feeling like you're being welcomed into the culture of your host country. Sometimes those experiences can be artificial, but the callejoneada we joined in the beautiful colonial city of Guanajuato felt very warm and authentic. In this local musical tradition, groups of university students sing and play instruments in front of the cathedral and then take their audience on a tour of the callejons, a charming network of narrow staircases and alleys in the old town. Along the way the students tell jokes and stories and pour drinks. Fortunately I was trying my best to follow along with my rudimentary Spanish because at one point the speaker suddenly stopped in the middle of his joke to ask me what I thought the most important thing was to know about women. I can't remember my answer but it was comprehensible and pithy enough to elicit guffaws from the students and the rest of the audience. I remember that Cleo could tell something special and exciting was going on despite being only two years old, and she was very intently scurrying along keeping up with the leader of the group. This was one of many wonderful experiences I've had in Mexico, a country that I'm proud to have as a neighbor but is poorly understood by my fellow Americans.

53. Ometepe, Nicaragua
The barbell-shaped island of Ometepe is what first caught my eye on Google Maps and drew me to arrange our guided journey to Nicaragua in 2016. At the end of our trip we spent a magical two days on the peaceful island taking nature walks, observing troops of howler monkeys in the trees, and eating delicious meals in our beautiful lodge. Through it all we remained under the silent authority of Ometepe's two majestic volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas.

52. Summer Palace, Beijing
Over the years I've become more and more averse to historical tourist attractions and I'm proud of the large number of them that I've avoided during my travels. Two of my least favorite experiences in Beijing were the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and I feel compassion for anyone who believes they've experienced that amazing city after visiting those two places. On the other hand, just because a place is a tourist attraction doesn't automatically make it unworthy of a visit. I was on my own for the day when I went to the Summer Palace during my first visit to Beijing in 2008. At that time there was a public boat that went all the way to the palace from central Beijing via the canals. On the boat were some girls who were visiting from rural towns and hadn't seen many Caucasians before. Once we reached the palace they all took turns getting their pictures taken with me. The 18th century site is a beautiful complex of Qing Dynasty buildings and gardens at the edge of a large lake that is full of islands and bridges. I spent much more time walking the paths around and over the lake than I did in the buildings, but I was astounded by the beautiful Marble Boat which is actually made of wood painted to look like marble. Beijing became much less interesting for a traveler between my two visits in 2008 and 2020 so I will always treasure the memories of that first visit.

51. Walking central Copenhagen
Copenhagen is even more of a water city than Miami, although the latitude makes it less amenable to sunbathing and watersports. Strolling around the city center is an amazing journey through lush gardens, ornate palaces, and canals whose banks are filled with vitality. The list of interesting sights that can be reached in just a few hours of walking is almost endless. We dedicated an entire day just to walking around Copenhagen and it was one of our most enjoyable experiences in Scandinavia.

To be continued with the best travel experiences of my life numbers 50-41

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:15 Comments (0)

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