My Top Ten Travel Destinations

My travels have shaped my values, dreams, and goals. Not a day goes by when I do not fondly recall a travel experience or long for adventure. Some journeys have taken me across oceans and vast continents; most have simply been a weekend excursion down the road. I would like to share thoughts on my favorite destinations. Some may surprise you; others, may inspire you to go. Either way, I hope to paint a picture that captures the essence of these special places. The list is in no particular order.

 

The San Francisco Bay Area is now home. I can hardly cover the numerous attractions that spread across the Bay. In fact, the Bay Area must be broken down into different geographic regions – Peninsula (includes city of San Francisco itself), North, East, and South Bay – if one has any chance of digesting all there is to offer. Each corner of the Bay is a window into a whole other world. Just beyond the Bay Area, there are amazing sites as well. These include the Monterey Peninsula to the South (imagine walking along ocean cliffs as you gaze at the marine life below) and Sonoma/Napa to the North (take a hike, eat cheese, drink from world-class vineyards).

In the interest of brevity, I will focus on the Peninsula and East Bay. The East Bay includes the small cities of Oakland (where I live) and Berkeley. In Berkeley, focus on two things: the university and food. Start by grabbing picnic items at the Berkeley Bowl. The Berkeley Bowl has a splendid selection of prepared foods and fresh produce. It is fun to shop there! Then, take your picnic to the UC-Berkeley campus. The UC campus is rich with history, beauty, and diversity. You will feel a part of something larger, a global community of scholars. A trip to Berkeley is not complete without setting foot in one of its used bookstores. It may feel like you are back in the 60’s or 70’s, but why not enjoy a treasure hunt? Be sure to finish off the day with a meal at one of Berkeley’s ethnic eateries.

Oakland has many of Berkeley’s attributes, but is accompanied by a distinct edge. An honest accounting of the city resists simplistic caricature. One day in Oakland feels like a journey to Detroit, Italy, Mexico, Vietnam, and Woodstock. The people are warm and the food is INCREDIBLE. You have to see Oakland for yourself.

San Francisco is a glorious city. It is beautiful, cosmopolitan, welcoming, and accessible to nature. Guidebooks and web research on the city abound. One doesn’t need a list of things to do. There are too many. However, I recommend a hike along the ridges of the peninsula, just south of the city. On one side you will see the airport (SFO); on the other, rolling hills and peaceful ocean. Muir Woods is right across the Golden Gate Bridge and is full of grand, old redwoods. The park gets crowded at times, but I will never forget the visit with my grandparents, when turning eighteen. The trees had an energy to them…filled with wisdom, healing, strength. The air is pure, cool, and crisp.

If you have one day to spend in San Francisco, it should be spent at Golden Gate Park. You will not fit everything in one day, week or month. There is so much to do, with something for everyone. The energy – from the park entrance to ocean – is magnificent. Golden Gate Park represents a synthesis of urban life, culture and nature. Highlights include but are not limited to art galleries, science museums, spectacular architecture, gardens, fields, a golf course, and herds of bison. The 360 view from atop the de Young museum is spectacular.

Northern Michigan – Having grown up in Ann Arbor, I have taken many summer trips “Up North.” These include visits to cottages on Lake Bellaire, Mackinac Island, and Mullett Lake. Each location has its similarities. Summer in Northern Michigan is not complicated; it is unique, something to be appreciated. You do not know how special it is until you leave it. The lakes are fresh and cool with sandy bottoms. For two months of the year, they are a swimmer’s nirvana. Pines, birch trees, and small boulders line the shore. Most cottages have a thin dock that protrudes into the shallow waters. If you are lucky, the property will also have a small “beach” lining the shore. The best way to experience Northern Michigan is by staying at a cottage.

In addition to swimming, boating, lounging, and playing games whose existence you forgot – croquet and horseshoes, for example – there are opportunities for day trips. I recommend wading along the shores of Lake Michigan or Huron. Mackinac Island and Traverse City are also interesting attractions. Traverse City has a compelling food scene, with smells of cherry pie and fudge. My time at Mackinac Island was equally fulfilling. As a young child, I rode my bike around the island, dodging horses and pedestrians along the car-free roads. Cannon fire from Ft. Mackinac and sweeping views of the straits from the Grand Hotel only added to the allure. Being transported by ferry to the island and horse taxi to the hotel were memorable experiences.

Rome, Italy represents the historic heart of Western Civilization. I have been to Italy numerous times but to Rome, only once. It was years ago, when I was in sixth grade. Still, I recall the city fondly and long to go back. If you can go to one place in Italy, pick Rome. I have been blessed to learn some Italian and strongly identify with the country. I feel deeply connected to the music, wine, coffee, food, people, history, and aesthetics of the society. You can learn a lot about a city by its smells. Rome has a distinct conglomeration of smells – sewer, coffee, tobacco, leather, exhaust, and dessert. The smells are accompanied by a cacophony of sounds…mopeds, fountains, horns, and of course, arguments.

There is a lot to see in Rome, but take it easy and enjoy the way of life. Cherish the food, wine, coffee, shopping, and slow pace. Sit by a fountain and sip. There are only three things you must see in Rome: The Sistine Chapel, Pantheon, and Forum. In the Forum, you will retrace Roman history as you walk among the ruins. At the Pantheon, you will marvel at the architectural integrity and strength of a building that is thousands of years old. The Sistine Chapel has been delicately restored. Michelangelo considered himself to be a sculptor, not a painter. Painting the walls and ceilings of the Sistine Chapel was an act of incredible human endurance.

Malaga, Spain sits near the Southern tip of Spain, in the Province of Andalusia. I explored Andalusia and Morocco with Lauren. We were joined by friends when in Seville and my parents came along for stops in Cordoba and Granada. Malaga stood above the rest. It is hard to give an exact reason – only that the small city has a wonderful energy. Mountains, olive groves, and citrus farms ring the coastal city. The cuisine features delicious seafood. As you walk the coastal promenade, you will smell salted fish baking in the hot sun.

Great food is highly accessible in Andalusia. The formula for success is relatively simple. First, stay at a hotel that includes breakfast. Second, buy your picnic lunch at the local market and/or grocer. You can have a delicious, quality picnic lunch for two for well under ten euros. Sit in the sun and enjoy fresh ingredients with your friends. Finally, enjoy tapas for dinner and savor the chance to enjoy small plates at multiple locales. A tapas dinner is unique social activity to share with friends. If you do not enjoy a particular dish, no worries, it will be over soon. Be sure to enjoy the quality, affordable Spanish wine and take in a flamenco performance or concert.

Malaga also has plenty of history, including a grand cathedral and Roman ruins. One can hike above the city and take in the scenery below. The panorama of the sea, architecture, and mountains is worth the tired legs. As you walk through the streets, you will hear the sounds of street musicians and old men selling lottery tickets. The smell of roasting chestnuts tickles the senses. If you enjoy shopping, Malaga is a wonderful destination. Fine fashion can be found at an affordable price. There is a beautiful quality of life.

Chefchaouen, Morocco sits in Northern Morocco at the foothills of the Rif Mountains. Lauren and I met a friend, Hasna, and her uncle at the border crossing at Cueta, a Spanish colony attached to the mainland of North Africa. As darkness feel, we walked across the fenced border into Morocco. We were surrounded by the sounds of street vendors and cars. Young men rolled tires along the road. I always wanted to go to Morocco, but at that moment, I was hesitant. We did not have phones and could only pray that Hasna would be there, that we would not have to rely on the whims of a late night cab driver. As we crossed the border, Hasna and her uncle waived their arms, welcoming us with big smiles and a warm embrace.

We spent our first night in Tetouan, but did not stay long. I was amazed by the confluence of pedestrians and traffic. Cars and people shared the road; it seemed like chaos. I thought for sure that our car would hit someone, but everything was okay. One man’s chaos is another man’s order. Our hotel had intricate Moroccan tiling and design. I have always appreciated the Moroccan aesthetic. After checking in, we gathered for sweet, mint tea served from an elaborate teapot. The tea was poured from several feet above the cup. It was a show.

The drive to Chefchaouen was an eye opener. Our small car climbed up curvy mountain roads, speeding past pedestrians, bicyclists, and oncoming traffic. The view of the valley below was daunting. On the one hand, I saw Morocco joining the modern world – there was construction of dams, cell towers, and power lines. However, those amenities were not shared by all villagers. Older women walked along the roads, carrying piles of sticks on their backs for the fire. I saw donkeys carrying fuel into the villages for the heating of homes and women washing clothes in a mountain stream. The cleaning detergent was created by oranges soaking in a bucket of water. Time moved at a different pace and the essentials of life were clear.

Bottoms of walls in Chefchaouen are painted blue, to remind residents of the sea. The town has a mystical quality; residents quietly tend to their shops, families, and faith. Occasionally, you will hear the call to prayer or audio from a televised soccer game. The food was delicious, subtle, and rich with flavor. Moroccan cuisine is highly underrated and represents a unique melting of the savory and sweet. On December 23rd, 2012, I woke up in Chefchaouen to celebrate my 30th birthday. We gathered atop the hotel roof for a celebration. Lauren had arranged a magnificent breakfast, including an authentic Moroccan cake from the village. I was surrounded by mountains, a beautiful village, and good company. It was a day I will never forget.

If there is still one place where East meets West, it is Istanbul, Turkey. The city is bisected by the might Bosphorus with one side in Asia, the other in Europe. Istanbul represents a compelling synthesis of cultures, histories, faiths, and influences. It is a vast city whose surface I barely scratched over the course of a long weekend. Flying over the city, I witnessed its vast expanse. Orange tiled roofs covered the landscape; neighborhoods were dotted with the minarets of mosques. The beautiful call to prayer reverberates throughout Istanbul, five times a day. Although Hagia Sophia is glorious and receives the most attention, the Blue Mosque deserves a visit. The mosque gets its name for the blue tiles.

Other must see attractions include the Spice and Grand Bazaars. If you have to see one, explore the Spice Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is expansive but littered with pushy salesmen and cheap commercial goods. The Spice Bazaar, on the other hand, is a sensory paradise. Spices, teas, dried fruits, and colorful displays decorate the hundreds of stalls. Salesmen offer free smells and stories of the spices. The merchants of Istanbul come to you with their business, building a relationship before going in for the final sale. I will never forget the carpet salesman who lured me into his shop for apple tea, stating that he just wanted to get to know me, not sell. After a round of pleasantries, he laid out the carpets and began negotiating. It was a performance. I had to recover with a Turkish massage.

I met Lauren in Istanbul. She had flown up from Beirut, Lebanon where she was studying over the summer of 2011. Although I enjoy traveling alone, Istanbul is a wonderful city to share with someone you love. It is romantic, historic, and full of life. We especially enjoyed the neighborhoods around the Galata Tower. They were rich with culture and activity. We also floated down the Bosphorus on a cruise ship, briefly stopping at a port on the Asian side. From the boat, you could clearly see a city that glistened in the sunshine.

Turkish food is subtle, intriguing, and rich in its diversity of ingredients. Still, it may take your stomach a day or two to get used to the different oils and water. My favorite meal was the Turkish breakfast, enjoyed atop the hotel terrace. Each morning, we would gaze out across the city as the sun kissed our faces. The romance was often interrupted by gulls trying to steal our breakfast. Although the lamb and other meats were a treat, I greatly appreciated the fresh seafood. If there is a crop, it is likely grown somewhere in Turkey. The food is not too expensive, but you may want to splurge on a meal with a view. It is worth it.

I visited Copenhagen with my father in November of 1998, my sophomore year of high school. In November, Denmark is cold, dark, and rainy. It is hardly the best time of year to arrive. However, my father was collaborating with a Danish film crew that was premiering a documentary on Goethe. He went to celebrate and share the world class city of Copenhagen with his son. Despite the cold, dark environment, Copenhagen gleamed with points of light.

As you walk the streets, you will see rich, amber stones glistening in the shop windows. Inside the golden stones lay the remains of tiny insects. The shops are warm, inviting, and filled with goods of quality. Danish design, furniture, and craftsmanship are among the best on earth. There is life in the streets. The restaurants serve not only comfort food; recently, world class cuisine has found its way to Copenhagen. I remember celebrating the documentary at a French restaurant, with courses of fine food being delivered late into the evening.

We took a train to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, located approximately 35 km north of Copenhagen. The museum is along the misty, grey Danish coast. Inside, the environs were warm and colorful as we explored an exhibition by the Spanish painter, Miro. Another first-rate museum is the Glyptotek in the heart of Copenhagen. To round out the holiday, we took in a day of Sweden, visiting the historic university city of Lund.

Copenhagen is cosmopolitan, but small and inviting. You will want to go back. It was in Copenhagen that my father and I heard of his mother’s passing, just as we were about to leave. At that moment, it was time to go home.

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is where my wife and I honeymooned. To save time and money, we reluctantly chose this destination. In the end, we were glad that we did! The warmth of the people and deliciousness of the food were what made the trip so special. I figured that Mexican food would be better in Mexico, but was surprised by the difference. Foods were prepared slowly with heartfelt care and the ingredients were fresh.

From Mayan ruins and cool cenotes (underground pools) to plush resorts and snorkeling, this region has something for everyone. We flew into Cancun before travelling down the coast to Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel. Cozumel was a wonderful snorkeling island with the charming town of San Miguel at its center. San Miguel was an authentic village with delicious food and welcoming residents. As for Playa Del Carmen, it was a miss. I felt like I was still in the United States at a tacky tourist destination such as Virginia Beach.

The trip was rounded out with visits to the coastal Mayan village at Tulum, the colonial city of Vallaidolid, and the ruins at Chichen Itza. It was a wonderful synthesis of resort living, culture, and natural beauty. At the conclusion of this trip, I was eager to visit other regions of this fascinatingly diverse, troubled, and unique country.

The list is hardly exhaustive. Other favorite travel locations include the San Juan/Vancouver Islands – a beautiful collection of fragrant islands, surrounded by distant mountains, clear waters, and salmon chasing Orcas. One should bike the islands and take in the farms, forests, and jagged coastlines. Maui – from one end to the other – has glorious coastlines, hiking trails, mountains, rock formations, beaches, and valleys. The seafood is simply prepared, but fresh and flavorful, with hints of Asian influence. A laid back spirit permeates the island; people are happy, relaxed, in the moment. Time moves at a very different pace. I seldom had worry or knew what time it was; each day felt like three. Favorite activities included humpback whale spotting and snorkeling with giant sea turtles as well as the tropical fish. I plan to return frequently, learning ever more about the history of this fascinating land.

Travel may be shared through writing, story, photography, gifts, and renewed perspective; it is felt by all who cross paths with the traveler. Travel is a gift that keeps on giving, long after you have returned home.

Enjoy the journey.

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