Another year is behind us. 2016 was a difficult year in many ways. But as I looked over the year's photos and relived the memories, I realized how very lucky I have been. Despite the challenges, both in my personal life and in international events, I personally experienced some amazing, once-in-a-lifetime moments in 2016. I had some wow moments both around the world and across the street that had me realizing how much I love finding those unique connections when I travel. Come along with me as I reflect back on some of the best wow moments of 2016.
1—Codorníu in Spain in April
I spent the month of April in Europe and had many wow moments. I started off the month exploring the sparkling wines, or cavas, of Spain. One of my favorite cava experiences was visiting Codorníu. This is where cava began in Spain and the winery is now a National Historical Artistic Monument. The cellars are open to the public for tours and you can view the magnificent gardens, the underground cellars, and learn about the history of cavas.
2—Sunrise on the Costa Brava in April
I visited Spain's Costa Brava the first time in April 1985. It had been exactly 31 years and the beauty was just as breathtaking. I walked out early the morning I was there and watched the little village come alive. So much history here. I smelled fresh bread baking and listened as people began their morning walks, greeting each other and the morning. Oh if these rocky shores could talk.
3—Girona, Spain in April
Girona is a medieval city in Spain's Catalonia region. It has remains of an old Roman fortress overlooking the winding cobblestone streets. The Old Quarter is something out of a movie set. Restaurants don't serve tapas because they're trendy, but because it's a way of life. I loved sitting down to the traditional meals that included bread and tomatoes and garlic—with plenty of great wine, of course.
4—Castillon-du-Gard in France in April
I met up with my husband in Barcelona and we left Spain by train and made our way to Castillon-du-Gard, a small commune in southern France. It's a tiny walled village high on a hillside overlooking vineyards and rolling fields. The medieval village is filled with 13th century houses, narrow passageways, and cobblestone streets. There is only parking along the outside perimeter. There is one hotel, a couple of B&Bs, and three tiny restaurants that take turns opening. My husband and I spent five nights at Le Vieux Castillon and it was more fairy tale than I ever imagined.
The Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is almost walking distance—and clearly visible—from the town of Castillon-du-Gard in Southern France. The Pont du Gard was built to allow the aqueduct to cross the Gard River. Considering that this was built around the first century AD, it is extremely impressive. We spent a day hiking the trails and exploring the museum at the base of the Pont du Gard.
5—Roman Amphitheatre in Nîmes, France in April
During our stay in Castillon-du-Gard, we were able to explore the nearby towns of both Nîmes (about 32 km or 20 miles away) and Avignon (about 26 km or 16 miles away). I really enjoyed Nîmes, which was originally built as a Roman city. There are many things to see in the city, including the amphitheatre, with its many passageways under the spectator seating. The arena was built about 70 AD and is open for tours every day. We enjoyed the self-guided tour and actually walking the back passageways, much as people would have done in the Roman times. The views of the city from the top are breathtaking.
6—Avignon, France in April
There was a certain fascination to walk in the footsteps of the popes. The Papal Palace in Avignon was home to seven different popes between 1309 and 1377. I enjoyed touring the building and getting a sense of history. I also loved sitting outside afterwards, in a tiny sidewalk café, sipping a glass of French rosé, happy that the world is a more progressive place than it was in the 1300s.
7—Antibes, Frances in April
My favorite place in the world—Antibes, France. I love the coast of France and I was able to spend two days there with my husband after we left our fairy tale world of Castillon-du-Gard. I was there a decade ago but this year was my husband's first visit. It was as special as I remembered it. The meandering walks along the sea will be with me forever. The best moment was when a little girl, maybe four years old, walked up to my husband and greeted him in French in the market. She was thrilled that he had on a shirt the same bright red as her dress. She didn't speak a word of English and he didn't speak a word of French, but she was such a joy and beamed up at my tall husband and was adorable flirting with the foreign stranger in the market.
Another wow moment in Antibes was coming upon The Nomad, a beautiful sculpture in the port at Antibes. This is by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. It was added in 2007, so it wasn't there last time I visited. You can get inside the sculpture or sit on it and stare out at sea. The Nomad is a little more than 26 feet tall and made of painted stainless steel. As my husband returned to the U.S., this nomad continued trekking around Europe another couple of weeks and I thought often of The Nomad, gazing out across the Mediterranean.
8—Milan Cathedral, Italy in April
I love to visit cathedrals. There is a sense of awe in knowing that they were constructed by hand. The artistry involved in each one usually leaves me wide-eyed. It was no different when I visited the Milan Cathedral with my sister. Perhaps the most beautiful of all the many cathedrals I've been fortunate enough to see, I was inspired by the intricate detail. Getting around Milan is easy with the subway system, making it ideal for women travelers.
9—Lake Como in April
Lake Como is breathtakingly beautiful. It was early spring, so I didn't have many days of sunshine to take photos of bright blue skies, but I still seemed to take hundreds and hundreds of photos. I couldn't help myself. The tiny enclaves along the banks of the lake are something from the movies. The pace of life slows down. I stayed with my sister in Bellagio and each day we took the ferry across the lake to a different little town to explore. Great food, amazing Italian wines…there wasn't just one wow moment during my stay in Lake Como—it was a series of amazing wow moments.
10—Monaco in April
My sister and I spent a few days back down on the Mediterranean in Monaco. For this girl who always dreamed of visiting Monaco, it really was a dream come true, as corny as that might sound. This was the view of the Mediterranean from the restaurant at the Fairmont Monte Carlo where we stayed our second night in Monaco. You can read more about our stay here.
11—Montestigliano, Italy in April
I spent the last week of April in Tuscany and Le Marche, Italy. Another bucket list trip I could check off. The amazing Donati family as my host made me feel so welcome and I could go back to the family's estate of Montestigliano at any time. Read more about my stay here.
12—Siena Cathedral, Italy in April
During our stay at Montestigliano, we spent one day exploring nearby Siena. The cathedral, though much smaller than the one in Milan, for example, is beautiful. I loved the way the front window reflected the clouds and I was intrigued by the black and white marble stripes of the tower.
13—Exploring Le Marche in April
We left the farmhouse estate in Tuscany and drove over the winding mountain rode to Le Marche, one of the lesser known Italian regions. It is between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea and filled with tiny villages and some of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. I loved exploring the town of Urbino. It was quaint and filled with artisans.
The food of Le Marche was the highlight for me. We learned to make pasta—no Mario Batali has nothing to fear from me—and we had the owner's nephew then prepare it for us for dinner. Another night, we had a pizza party at a nearby farm and I gave up counting when we got to pizza number 16. It was amazing food and hospitality. The wow moments just kept coming.
14—The Viking Aegir on the Danube in June
I took off on my first Viking river cruise in June, another trip I was lucky enough to be able to share with my husband. We flew into Bucharest and set sail on the Viking Aegir on the beautiful Danube River for the Passage to Eastern Europe. He we are heading off on our first night as the sun sets. That moment when we headed out, the water gently lulling us into a sense of relaxation was definitely a wow moment.
There were some amazing sunsets during the week we spent on the Danube. I've seen the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and now the Danube. It was simply breathtaking.
15—Vidin, Bulgaria on the Danube River in June
One of our earlier stops was in Vidin, Bulgaria. This 2,000 year old town is close to Romania and Serbia and I found the architecture in the small city to be quite interesting. It was established in the 3rd century BC and has been conquered by the Romans and the Turks. I loved the tree-lined park that stretched along the Danube. It was a hot day when we visited, and the little ice cream stands were great for a treat as we explored.
The Baba Vida Fortress—officially the Babini Vidini Kuli Fortress—is a medieval fortification in Vidin. The fortification was built on the remains of the ancient town of Budin in the latter half of the 10th century and is surrounded by a moat that sometimes fills up with water from the Danube. During excavations in the early 1960s, they uncovered artifacts from the Roman, Byzantine, early Bulgarian, late Bulgarian and Ottoman ages.
16—Vukovar, Croatia in June
I think the most moving day for me on the entire Viking River Cruise was the day we spent in Vukovar, Croatia. The town is at the confluence of the Vuka and Danube rivers and was the sight of the 87-day siege from late August through mid-November 1991 when the former Yugoslavia broke up. Before the Croatian War of Independence, Vukovar had been a prosperous, mixed-ethnicity town. Walking through the streets, with buildings still pock-marked from the shells and rockets fired into the town—the fiercest and most protracted battle seen in Europe since 1945—I sat down and cried on the banks of the Danube. I heard about the 200 people who were massacred on one night in November 1991 because one man decided that ethnic cleansing made sense. This was only 25 years ago. It is a fresh wound in Europe. Little by little, the town is healing. Sometimes wow moments come in forms we least expect when we travel.
17—Budapest, Hungary in June
One of my favorite stops on the Danube, and the final stop during my Viking River Cruise, was Budapest. Budapest is Hungary's capital city and made up of two distinct parts—Buda on the hill and Pest on the flat side, separated by the Danube, connected by the Chain Bridge.
18—Matthias Church in Budapest in June
Matthias Church is a Catholic church at the heart of the Buda side of Budapest. It is at the top of the Budapest funicular and is equally gorgeous by day or night. It's another building that I took far too many photos of, but just couldn't help myself. We were in Budapest for several days and I saw it on a clear day, during a massive rainstorm, and at night. It had a haunting beauty.
The interior was equally beautiful. While not as ornate as some larger cathedrals, I think it shows some of the unique blend of east and west that defines Budapest.
19—Niagara Falls in July
Back home in the U.S., I headed to one of the national treasures that I hadn't had a chance to experience—Niagara Falls. I really enjoyed my time exploring the U.S. side of the falls and I realized this isn't just something for tourists. There is much to discover in Niagara, the surrounding small towns and in nearby Buffalo.
20—Onboard the Ruby Princess in September
My husband and I took off for our first ocean cruise in September. This time, we headed to the Port of Los Angeles and a culinary-themed cruise onboard the Ruby Princess. We spent a few days off the coast of California and Mexico. I enjoyed exploring the ship, enjoying the spa, eating some great food, and discovering that they even have a champagne bar onboard the Princess cruise ships. Now how much more of a wow moment can you get than that?
Well, there were those sunsets. If you mix sunsets and champagne, that is pretty much perfection in my book. During the Princess Cruise, we had some spectacular sunsets. This one was on our last night as we left Ensenada, Mexico. We were sipping champagne on our own balcony, watching the sun dip beyond the waters of the Pacific. I don't think it gets much more magical than this. Read more about my cruise experience here.
21—Lunch at Buttonwood Farm in September
During the Princess cruise, we took an excursion to explore the California wine country. After taking the tender into the port at Santa Barbara, we climbed onboard the shuttle into nearby Solvang, one of my favorite towns on California's Central Coast, and had lunch in the vineyard at Buttonwood Farm, Winery and Vineyard. For a great wine, I would suggest the 2015 Grenache Blend, the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2012 Cabernet Franc.
22—Cumbres & Toltec Railroad in October
Just as the leaves were at their peak colors in Northern New Mexico, I flew into Albuquerque, picked up a rental car, and drove myself to the tiny mountain town of Chama. After a night in one of the cutest little motels—the Vista Del Rio Lodge—I jumped on board the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad for a day on a train to see the changing foliage. I felt like a child again. Seriously. I stood out on the vestibule and let the wind from 11,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies blow across my face. I didn't care that it was cold. It was fresh and clean and I could take deep breaths of air. The sky was blue as the train chugged along. I saw rainbows in the steam and there is something of a child-like fascination with watching the world go slowly by and knowing that there is no reason to hurry and no reason to check your phone for messages.
The leaves were gorgeous as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad took me higher into the New Mexico Rockies. We passed into Colorado and it was a clear day. I could see forever. Or at least it felt that way. I was alone, but everyone was friendly. I sat at a long table for lunch and everyone wanted to know about my writing and my travels. I was sad to leave, but it had been a day filled with beauty.
23—Sunrise Springs Spa Resort, New Mexico in October
Sunrise Springs Spa Resort was perhaps the most peaceful of all my trips this year. It was a tranquil oasis in the midst of a busy travel season. I am usually ready to go home after a trip, but I didn't want to leave Sunrise Springs. There are so many great spaces to relax and rejuvenate at Sunrise Springs. It was a time for me to transform and think. And the food definitely had me saying “wow” a few times. Especially the chocolate cake. Read more about my experience at Sunrise Springs here.
24—High Roller in Las Vegas in October
I spent a few days in Las Vegas in October and had a chance to do things I've never experienced before. Dinner at Guy Savoy was one amazing wow moment. The meal was unforgettable. But the High Roller at The LINQ was really a thrill for me. I am not especially keen on heights, but this didn't bother me at all, despite being the world's tallest observation wheel. It goes slowly around, so you don't even feel the height. It's more like being in a tall building. And the views from the top are spectacular. You can see all over Las Vegas! I took advantage of the Happy Hour offer, so it was an open bar during the 30-minute ride in the High Roller. I dare say it's the highest happy hour in all of Las Vegas. Read more about my luxury Las Vegas escape here.
25—Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun in November
I finished out the 2016 travels with a trip to Cancun. The beaches in Cancun are amazing. The white sand beaches just stretch on forever. The view from the rooms at Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun is a huge wow moment, but for me the bigger wow moment was the day I spent at the Gem Spa there. It is a 40,000 square-foot spa with a guided circuit that includes steam room, ice crystals, dry heat, sauna, rain shower, Whirlpool, pebbled walkway maze, and a massive pool of sensations. I'm thinking a return there may be warranted in 2017.
Those are my highlights of 2016. It was a year of ups and downs, but filled with moments that help create a stronger ‘me'. I am looking forward with eagerness to 2017. I hope that wherever your travels take you this year, that you find many moments of inspiration. As you venture forth this year, whether it be around the world or across the street, look for those connections. I hope you find many wow moments on your journeys of 2017.