As I’m sure is true for many of you, the last few weeks of sheltering in place because of the coronavirus has given me lots of time to think about and reflect on life: where I’ve been, where I am right now, and where I’m going….
Since my traveling shoes are off for the time being, and my retirement is only weeks away now, I’ve been musing about my past travels and giving thought to where I want to go in the coming years. I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the biggest disappointments or low points of my past travel experiences, as well as some of the places that have moved me in one way or another and continue to tempt me to return.
The Lowest of the Low: Travel Disappointments
So first, here is my countdown of the five places I’m sort of glad I’ve seen but would not care to return to. Perhaps my list will save you from some future travel disappointments.
5. Stonehenge, England
Visiting Stonehenge was one of my earliest disappointing travel experiences. It was my first trip to Europe in 1986, and Stonehenge was at the top of my list of things to see. I rented a car and drove out across the Salisbury Plain to reach this mysterious 4,000 year- old site, the exact purpose of which archeologists and historians have debated for centuries. I expected to be caught up in the mystery of the place, pondering the riddle of who built it, why they built it, and how they managed such a feat.
Unfortunately, my questions would take a back seat to finding a parking space in the crowded lot and it was difficult to focus on them over the whine of cars on the nearby highway and the loud conversations of dozens of fellow tourists. To my disappointment the site was roped off so that I could only take pictures from a distance and from a few awkard angles, while trying not to get the fencing or other people in the photo. I have visited other, smaller groupings of standing stones throughout Britain and Ireland that date to the same time as Stonehenge and found them to be a more exciting and intimate place to visit. But unfortunately, what should have been the most awesome of them all turned out to be a rather forgettable experience.
4. Bora Bora, Tahiti
Could there be a travel destination that sounds more exotic? Tahiti conjures up images of pristine beaches and a place far removed from the civilized world. Bora Bora, one of the most famous of the islands of Tahiti evokes mystery, intrigue, and luxury. I love Hawaii with all my heart, and I had been told that pristine, remote Tahiti would make me forget all about Hawaii. Aafter all, Tahiti is the birthplace of the culture that eventually migrated to Hawaii. I was very excited to visit this island paradise. As the photo below shows, flying into Bora Bora was like a scene from the old TV show Fantasy Island, and I will never forget it. But had I known what my experiences would be once we touched down, I would have instructed the pilot to abort the landing and head for Maui.
I spent more money for my accommodations on Bora Bora than I have spent anywhere else in the world, and I chose one of the least expensive properties I could find. For a mere $350 a night I had what amounted to a comfortable grass hut on a remote motu across the lagoon from the main island. It was a stunning location, but there was nothing, and I mean nothing to do but stare at the view. The lagoon, though beautiful, was not swimmable. I waded a mile or so out and the water barely covered my knees. Even taking a kayak out, I found it hard to maneuver in the shallow water. There was a “shuttle” boat to the main island a couple of times a day, but I soon learned that there was little point in taking it, because there was nothing happening over there either. I felt a lot like Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway, but I didn’t have a friendly volleyball named Wilson to talk to! Iver on the island of Tahiti itself, a meal of undercooked rice and a piece of fish cost about $40 and I think the contestants on Survivor eat better.
I do always try to find something positive about even my most disappointing travel experiences. Sitting on the beach in Bora Bora at night to watch an amazing thunderstorm over the lagoon that lasted for hours and having a chance to be in the waters and feed gentle manta rays that actd like affectionate puppies over on Tahiti were amazing experiences, but other than that, my south seas island of choice will always be Maui. And now I think I understand why some of the early Polynesians left Tahiti for Hawaii!
3. Dublin, Ireland
Let me preface this by saying I adore both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The people are funny and friendly, the scenery is unspeakably beautiful, and the food and music in the pubs is first rate. I would go back to Ireland in a heartbeat, but the city of Dublin would be glaringly absent from my itinerary.
Don’t get me wrong, the city has some great attractions and wonderful restaurants, but it seems to be a magnet for groups of young people from all over Europe who come to the city with one goal in mind: to drink themselves into oblivion. Evenings were the worst, when I would be taking what I’d hoped would be a peaceful evening stroll, only to be unnerved by roving bands of 20-somethings screaming, shouting curse words, and vomiting all over the sidewalks in front of me. I would cross the street or turn around and go a different route a dozen times to avoid such groups. Once safely back at my lodgings, I was awakened at all hours of the night by rowdy groups beneath the window and the sounds of retching and subsequent laughing. Give me Galway or the Aran Islands, give me Belfast or the Antrim Coast, but Dublin does not call me back, and if it ever tries dialing my number, I’m simply not answering!
2. Bangkok, Thailand
I spent about three days in Bangkok back in 2003 before traveling to other parts of Thailand. I’m glad that I had a chance to see this sprawling, chaotic city once in my life, but once was definitely enough. The heat and humidity throughout Thailand was like nothing else I have ever experienced, but it was ten times worse in the concrete environment of such a large city. I would shower and dress and walk out of the hotel and instantly be soaked in sweat.
The city’s shrines and temples were fantastic to visit, though after an hour I barely had the strength to lift my camera as I was dying of heat stroke. I was advised to cover my nose and mouth when riding in the motorboats that ply the river because aerosolized particles of the water could get into my mouth and make me ill. I contemplated this as I watched dozens of children happily diving from the banks and swimming in the brown water and said a little prayer for their safety.
Walking the streets was overwhelming; the sheer number of people made it impossible to maintain any sort of pace, and strange vats of unidentifiable foods bubbled and boiled over onto the crowded sidewalks, adding to the heat and humidity. Even an adventurous eater like me was not willing to gamble on sampling this stuff. Most distressing, however – and so out of character among the gentle and sweet spirited Thai people that I encountered everywhere else – were the numerous men who approached me and boldly asked if I might like to buy a little girl or little boy for the evening. That is unfortunately an image of Bangkok that I simply won’t be able to shake, no matter how hard I try.
I think Egypt is a destination that lots of people dream about. Who hasn’t wanted to see the famous pyramids and the majestic Nile River and explore a place that spawned one of the most amazing ancient civilizations in the world? I was no exception and I traveled to Egypt with a university group back in 2010. I can truthfully say that you could not pay me to return; it is the only place I have ever been that I never even consider revisiting.
Where to begin? Drivers in Cairo make those in Naples, Italy seem civilized by comparison, and many Egyptians drive at night without their lights on as they believe it wastes gas. Crossing a busy street, particularly at night is a trek only Indiana Jones could master.
About half of our group contracted food poisoning, even though we ate at boring hotel buffets that featured food so salty as to be inedible. We witnessed a hopelessly corny sound and laser light show at Giza, during which “The Sphinx” spoke to us over a booming microphone, complaining about how its nose was blown off with an errant cannonball launched by some of Napoleon’s troops.
My heart quickened when we stepped out of our tour bus at the pyramids, but before I could take a deep breath and raise my camera, I was surrounded by rude, aggressive hawkers demanding to know what I wanted to buy. I was seriously injured trying to dismount from a camel (you can get all the details in my Egypt blog), I had sellers in the market place pat their bellies and ask me if I was pregnant (which made me really want to visit their stalls), and everywhere we traveled we had armed police protecting us. To sum it up, the last entry I made in my travel journal during that trip was, “Now I understand the motive for the Exodus!”
The Best of the Best: Travel Highlights
Lest we focus too much on the negative, let me now share a count down of those places I have found to be the most rewarding – places that when I am old and gray (OK, older and grayer) I will always remember with a combination of fondness and awe.
In 2010, following my disturbing visit to Egypt, I spent a week in Israel, traveling on my own, renting a car and roaming the entire country. Tel Aviv, my first stop, was an exciting and cosmopolitan place with some of the best food I have encountered anywhere, from succulent sushi to crispy falafel to comfort foods like pumpkin pancakes. Tel Aviv has it all.
Driving around the country gave me the opportunity to experience so many things. There were chances to bob like a cork in the salty Dead Sea and enjoy a first class seaside resort. I also swam in the Mediterranean, visited an ancient Roman aqueduct, and became addicted to freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the place where Jesus met his first disciples and strolled through the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. I also got to climb to the hilltop stronghold of Masada where ancient Hebrews chose to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman troops below. While I think most people would find these experiences exciting, if you are Christian or Jewish or have even a hint of Judeo-Christian background, you would treasure visiting these places.
Israel is a unique and exciting travel destination. It has a chaotic past, is experiencing a very complicated present, and has a somewhat uncertain future, and maybe that it why it is one of the places that I have been most grateful to have seen in all of my travels.
My first visit to the Hawaiian Islands was in 1994 when I spent 10 days exploring the volcanically active “Big Island”. It was love at first sight, and since then I have revisited Hawaii over 25 times and explored each of the six main islands of the chain. Each has its own unique gifts and personality, and yet shares things in common with the others, like a proud history and culture, beautiful art, dance and music, and an overwhelming feeling of being a kind of sanctuary, far from the stresses of “civilization.”
Maui is my favorite and features some of the most placid and accessible swimming beaches to be found anywhere in the world. You can also hike through bamboo forests to remote waterfalls, take countless snorkel and sailing trips, go whale-watching, dine on gourmet food and experience some of the most beautiful sunsets on earth. Oahu allows you to learn about the history of the islands, from ancient times to Pearl Harbor and offers not only the exciting city of Honolulu, but only a half hour from the crowds of Waikiki, you can find a stretch of white sand to call your own at the aptly named LaniKai beach, which is Hawaiian for “heavenly sea”. Kauai offers its own version of the Grand Canyon, while the Big Island is the place to see new land being created as the Kilauea Volcano continues to churn. No matter which island you choose, you really cannot go wrong and there will be something to appeal to anyone’s tastes and interests. But beware: Hawaii has a way of creeping into your soul and demanding that you return, and its power is irresistible.
3. Santorini, Greece
Greece is home to some of the world’s most dazzling islands, and like those in Hawaii, each has unique characteristics that draw visitors. Get out a map and randomly pick any of the Greek islands and you will probably not regret the choice, but in my opinion, the most unique, the crown jewel of all of islands and of the entire Mediterranean has to be Santorini.
Composed of the last vestiges of a volcano that erupted 4,000 years ago, fueling the Atlantis legend, Santorini is a narrow sliver of cliffs surrounded by a glimmering bay. Off shore, in the middle of the bay sits a steaming new volcanic island. On Santorini itself there are only two major villages, Fira and Oia, and both cling to the top of steep, barren cliffs like shimmering white-washed barnacles fastened to a rock in the sea.
Santorini is a place to slow down, relax, and just soak it all in. Recline on your hotel balcony or by the poolside with a refreshing glass of local wine or Greek beer and simply survey the scene below you. The view is one you will never tire of. Gleaming white cruise ships come and go, smaller ferries bring people to and from other islands, and even smaller craft explore the active volcano and its hot springs in the bay. By day the scene is as vividly blue and white as the country’s flag, but as evening approaches, every color of the rainbow manages to find its way into the spectacle that is the sunset here. As lights flicker on, stars appear and the towns’ nightlife starts. The sound of plates and cutlery, laughter and conversation, and traditional Greek music wafts across the island and off into the bay. While Santorini may lack the jaw-dropping beaches that some of its sister islands boast, it is a place that I consider a “must see” for anyone who wants to see the very best that the world has to offer in terms of travel.
I visited Iceland in June, 2008 and spent most of my visit driving across the southern half of the island over a period of several days. Like Hawaii and Santorini, Iceland is also a volcanic land and it offers other-worldly scenery, punctuated by hot springs and geysers, fields of wildflowers, powerful and dramatic waterfalls, and the chance to truly be alone with one’s thoughts. Driving the island’s Ring Road I often went without seeing another car for an hour or so.
As I drove, a sunny afternoon could change in an instant when a huge storm would gather at the foot of a glacier, bringing darkness, wind, rain, hail and even swirling snow, flashes of lightning and deafening thunder. But another five minutes down the road, I’d emerge from the tempest to be greeted with rainbows and seemingly even greener meadows. The days in June were long, and after having dinner at 8PM, I would go out to take sunset pictures, with sunset lasting from about 9:00 PM till almost 1:00 AM. If I didn’t get the perfect photos I could wait for sunrise, which happened at about 3:00 AM.
Perhaps my fondest and most lingering memory of Iceland was a visit to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon on the eastern edge of the island. Here giant icebergs that have broken off a nearby glacier float majestically through the lagoon, gradually being carried toward the ocean. The evening I was there, I was totally alone, except for the presence of about a million seabirds that circled overhead, dived into the lagoon, and rode atop the slowly moving icebergs like celebrities riding on floats in the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. As the icebergs passed close to me, I could hear the eerie crackling of the melting ice, with the birdsongs and the sound of the current in the lagoon performing background vocals. I remember having to tear myself away after a mesmerizing few hours, and it is one travel experience that I sincerely hope I can repeat someday.
1. Venice, Italy
I prefer to call her by her Italian name, Venezia or by her nickname, La Serenissima (the most serene), but I have a “relationship” with her that I have never experienced with any other city. Venezia is an enigma; it is a place that probably ends up on some people’s lists of their favorite travel destinations and on other people’s lists of the most disappointing destinations. I believe that you either love or hate this city, and I am glad to be one of her lovers.
The city is a victim of her own fame and beauty, which has brought mass tourism to such a degree that her very existence seems to be at risk. Many people come here on a day trip or for a mere afternoon, rushing to see the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco in an hour or two on a hot summer afternoon when the city is swamped by a veritable tsunami of cruise ship day trippers. They may wonder why someone like me considers this his favorite city in the world. To truly see Venezia, come for a few days, stay in the city for at least one overnight, and try to avoid the major tourist draws during the heat of the day.
Take a walk at dawn or midnight and watch the city coming to life or going to sleep. Ride up and down the Grand Canal on the back of the slow-moving vaporetti or water buses in the late evening. Explore far flung neighborhoods where laundry hangs from windows like colorful flags, or visit the islands of the lagoon, like the fishing village of Burano with its storybook-like bridges and houses painted in every color you’d find in a box of crayons.
Listen to Venice’s voice in the sound of waves gently lapping on the walls of her ancient buildings or in the sound of your own footsteps echoing on the brick. What you will hear is the tale of a magical city, built 1500 years ago on wood pilings driven into the bottom of a muddy lagoon. A city that rose to a level of wealth and splendor virtually unparalelled in Europe, and was then threatened by invaders, a stormy sea, and a new army of tourists. Yet she is still there, against all odds, and quietly waiting to be discovered by those who are able to appreciate her beautiful soul.
What have been some of your most disappointmenting travel destinations, and what are your very favorites? Feel free to share them with us by leaving your comments!