Instagram is one of my favorite social media platforms and it’s one I always use when I travel. It enables me to share stories and images in a way I don’t do anywhere else, so today I thought I’d highlight a few of my favorites from 2017 so far. I’ve also included the narrative that accompanied each one, so please pardon me if the comments may be dated in some cases. Also, all photos are iPhone only since I shared them during the trip. Enjoy!
Believe it or not but it’s not everyday I’m completely surprised by a new place I visit, but that’s exactly what happened to me while exploring Colombia’s coffee growing region. Massive coffee plantations abound along with mountains and cloud forests that seem as if they were plucked from the pages of a fantasy novel. It’s a beautiful part of Colombia, but this national park is definitely in a class all of its own. The Cocora Valley comes from the indigenous word for “star of water” and it’s certainly a cloudy, wet part of the country. It’s also home to Colombia’s national tree, the gigantic wax palm. It was this tree more than anything that transformed a simple hike into something extraordinary. The last place I’d ever expect to see these massive palms is high up in the Colombian Andes, a world of impossibly diverse shades of green and clouds that envelop you as you walk along. It’s a surreal almost magical place, which in large part defines Colombia. Arguably Colombia’s greatest author, Gabriel García Márquez is famous for his use of magical realism, which is a realistic view of the world that adds in magical elements. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe my morning tramping through the grasses and damp fields of the valley. It was real, but there was something else there too, something I could almost grasp but it kept eluding me. No doubt there’s magic in these hills, a special kind of effect that surely makes this one of the most extraordinary spots on the planet.
Monaco, Azamara Cruise
I can’t imagine a better port of call than the south of France and Monte Carlo was the perfect backdrop for the Azamara ship as we anchored just offshore. Since I’d never been to the French Riviera before I spent the day touring around visiting villages, Nice and of course Monte Carlo. It’s easy to see why this part of the world is called the Côte d’Azur, the Blue Coast. The sky and seas seem to meld into each other creating a landscape that can only be called perfect. And that was my day – perfection in every way and once again I was reminded of the magic that only travel can provide.
The Alhambra, Spain
Moorish poets once described this massive palace and fortress complex as a “pearl set in emeralds,” and during the Middle Ages it was the center of power for the Emirate of Granada. The Moors controlled southern Spain for centuries and this incredible bastion was one of the last great palaces constructed in Europe. Walking around with my @aktravel_usa group for several hours, there were dozens upon dozens of moments that deeply impressed me, but perhaps none more so than this, the Court of the Lions. Walking in it’s hard not to be immediately awed by the 124 white marble columns, each adorned with stunning Islamic art. At the center though is the famous fountain with 12 white marble lions that would each spout water at different times of the day. Sure it’s an aesthetically beautiful place but it’s also a powerful one, meant to impress then as it surely does today.
Many people have asked me what it’s like to drive in Ireland so I thought I’d share this photo to show some of the amazing views I enjoyed along the way. One reason why I think Ireland is such a popular place to visit is that it lives up to and then exceeds our expectations. We all have certain images in mind of what we think Ireland should look like and for the most part, it does. Rolling green hills dotted with sheep, kind and warm hearted people and surprises around every corner – that really is Ireland. Practically speaking driving on the other side of the road has never been a problem for me, although a few traffic cones I’m sure would disagree. But I couldn’t imagine exploring the verdant green Emerald Isle in any other way. If any country begs for personal exploration and wandering, it’s Ireland.
I couldn’t imagine a better final stop on my road trip not only along the Alsatian Wine Route but also around the Upper Rhine Valley region than in the storybook town of Colmar. To be fair, Colmar is fairly well known for scenes like this one, an extremely well preserved old town that clearly reflects its ties to nearby Germany. Colorful half-timbered houses, canals where you least expect them and a history that goes back for centuries – these are all reasons enough to enjoy spending time in this remarkable city. The last time I was here was in the middle of winter and to see the colors come alive in the bright summer’s sun immediately seemed like to best way to experience Colmar. Parking my car, I spent hours visiting museums, enjoying the views and taking my time to get a better sense of the town. As usual though, my favorite moment was a simple one. Stopping at an outdoor cafe for a Nutella crepe and coffee, sitting there along the canal and watching everyone walk by to me seemed like the best way to understand Colmar. Regardless of what you do there though, if you’re in the region this is another one of those must-stop highlights in a part of Europe full of them.
Wartburg Castle, Germany
All week everyone I met told me how much I would love my final stop on the Martin Luther trail and you know what? They were right. Eisenach has certainly played an important role throughout history, whether as Bach’s birthplace or where a Saint got her start. But at the heart of the story is Martin Luther, not only because he studied here, but because later in life it was here, in Wartburg Castle where he hid away from danger and translated the Bible into German. Today the castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a variety of reasons, including Luther, but it’s just an inherently fun place to visit in its own right. I was very impressed by the quality of museums in Eisenach and the castle is no exception. With expertly curated exhibits about both Luther, his influence and the history of the castle, I spent hours here, learning, exploring and just having a great time.
I’m not a camper by nature and roughing it for me usually entails a hotel without AC, but I think it’s practically criminal for any traveler to visit Kyrgyzstan and NOT spend at least one night in a yurt. The people in this part of the world were nomadic for most of their history and at the center of that existence was their home, the yurt. Even Kyrgyzstan’s flag pays homage to this history with the design at the center of the yurt featured prominently on the national standard. For me though, spending the night along the pristine waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, listening to the waves lap up on shore as I slept in my yurt was just something I needed to do. I’d spent the week prior learning everything I could about this amazing country, but I needed that time getting closer to it in this very unique way so that I could walk away not just knowing, but understanding.
Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia
I spent a full day driving along Nova Scotia’s scenic Lighthouse Route, meandering from one small fishing village to the next. There were a lot of highlights along the way, but one of my favorites was the first stop of the day in Peggy’s Cove. Folks have lived in this region of Canada for a long time, most of them traveling a long and arduous route from Europe all for the promise of a new and better life. We owe these intrepid souls an incredible debt of gratitude. The many towns and communities they founded not only in Nova Scotia but all along the Atlantic seaboard served as the base for future generations to move here and thrive. It’s a way of life that still persists to this day and the least we can do is visit and learn more about it.
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai Thailand
While in Chiang Mai, I visited a place I’d long wanted to experience, the Elephant Nature Park. The sanctuary was started in order to rescue elephants horribly mistreated in the tourism and logging industries. It’s a place where they can be slowly rehabilitated and given the life that all elephants deserve. Sadly, many tourists don’t understand that riding elephants, watching them in circuses, painting or so on involves significant abuse to the elephant. When talking about responsible tourism, it’s important to know that if you see an animal doing something that isn’t natural for them, then it took severe treatment to get them to that point. In the case of elephants, they undergo a horrible ritual known as the Crush which destroys their resolve and will to live through slow torture. Add to that the pain endured during the activities themselves, and you hopefully begin to understand why elephant tourism is so incredibly harmful to these beautiful animals. At the ENP, these elephants are rescued and a team of professionals and volunteers start the long process of helping them enjoy life again. I visited as a day guest, one of many, there to learn more about the sanctuary as well as interact with the rescued elephants through feedings, bathings and more. It was the first activity I booked when planning my trip and it was everything I had hoped it would be. I’m more determined now than ever to help spread the word and convince as many people as possible that elephant tourism is something everyone has to avoid entirely.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Standing at an incredible 325 feet, the pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline and its history is inextricably tied to the city itself. According to legend, the pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago and contains 8 strands of hair from the head of the Buddha. It gradually fell into disrepair until the 14th century and since then successful rulers have made subtle changes to the temple complex creating the massive site we see today. The gold seen is made of genuine gold plates and the crown is tipped with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies. Throughout the centuries Shwedagon has also played a central role in the both the lives of the city and country, making it not only one of the most recognizable sites in Myanmar, but also one of the most important.
One of the coolest things I’ve done in a long time happened on my last day in Innsbruck, when I went on a very unconventional helicopter ride. While I’ve been in helicopters before, they all had something the one in Innsbruck did not – doors. The first of its kind in Europe, the folks over at My Snap Air offer guests the very unique opportunity to hang out of a helicopter as they fly over the Austrian Alps. While swinging my legs around mid-air was definitely a rush, the real highlight were those incredible views. Nestled in a valley, the city of Innsbruck quickly looked like a model playset against the massive mountains. Flying a lot closer than I would have ever guessed, it’s a unique way to experience the beauty of the Alps in as close and personal a way as you can get without undertaking a massive trek.
When in Rome… My second day was all about food as I did what I normally do when I travel, join a food tour. I’m thankful that an optional activity on my Monograms Travel trip was a food tour with Eating Europe, a company I have come to love using whenever I travel. But this photo isn’t from that tour, no, it’s from a special moment revisiting the magnificent Piazza Navona. The only other time I’ve been in Rome was 7 years ago and it was literally for 36 hours. Not a lot of experience, so one goal of mine this time is to revisit the city’s most iconic and famous sights, to remind myself what makes the Eternal City so amazing. Visiting the Piazza Navona was especially fun because before walking around the plaza, I went underneath it. An archeological site open to the public shows what used to be on this very spot, a massive Roman stadium. In fact, the horseshoe shape of the Piazza is the exact outline of the stadium, a fact lost to history literally for centuries. That’s one thing I love most about Rome, it tells the history of Western civilization in a way no other city can, all in a setting that is undeniably gorgeous. Plus the gelato is pretty good too.