My Favorite Places To Visit & Lessons I’ve Learned
I’ve been a lot of places, and seen a lot of things, but it’s no secret that no matter what kind of great adventure you have in one place, there are favorites, and lessons, that stick with you through the rain and the snow and the missed flight connections and the hostel room bunk bed meet-cutes. It doesn’t matter that you’ve enjoyed all of the trips you’ve been on because it’s just human nature, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s perfectly acceptable to have personal picks that beat all the rest.
So while I haven’t visited the whole world (not quite yet anyway, even though it’s mission #1) the travels that have stuck in my mind come down to eight so in no particular order, here’s the top ten favorites that are more than pictures on my wall but memories that live in the forefront of my mind.
My favorite travel buddy and I made our way to France after many different outings around Europe. Spain, Portugal, Germany, you name it, we went. But when we got to Paris, even the Eiffel Tower and the glittering Seine couldn’t take the limelight away from the little town of Kings not far from the City of Lights.
After taking the 45 minute train ride into the city, Versailles was at the end of a tree-lined avenue, and surrounded by a car park that would never end. The gates were full of tourists, selfie sticks, and group tour guides with their aloft umbrellas; it wasn’t hard to see the splendor of the castle past the long line waiting to enter, but it was hard to imagine just waiting for ages to enter.
So instead of standing like cattle, we made our way to the palace gardens, where we spent the entire day. Renting bikes, having lunch in a secluded garden, and taking our cameras into fields of tall, wild flowers, was supplemented by naps in the grass, moments feeding the ducks in the ponds, and checking out the koi in the gardens adjoining the Petit Trianon; it wasn’t the guided tour of the Hall of Mirrors, but it was a daydream out of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and no afternoon in living memory shines with more gentle, easy happiness than that beautiful June day in Versailles.
I visited the little island–half Dutch, half French–before finishing my high school years; a sixteen year let loose in paradise with her best friend for two weeks. It was before I had ever seen clear water, long before I knew what the inside of a club looked like, far earlier than I understood the price of taking a spring break vacation to the home of coconut cocktails, matching bikinis and sarongs, and private drivers.
My best friend was the mastermind of this trip; I tagged along on her family vacation out into the Caribbean Sun for lounging on the Baie Rouge, wandering through the branches of a butterfly garden under the watch of a beautiful 18 year old French boy with piercing blue eyes, and flying high e pods of dolphins, colorful fish, and old forts resting out to sea.
I went to my first night club here, dancing under undying stars on a white marble floor with pink neon lights by the beach, a Hpnotiq cocktail in my hands (another first), feeling the warm, heavy breeze and smelling the sharp salty ocean in the air. It was the first time I saw a wild sea turtle, the first time I crawled along sharp rocky crags to discover anemones living between barnacles and clever crabs; the first time I realized that all the pictures in National Geographic could be the answer to where I saw myself moving forward.
It was a beach, a touristy one, full of the typical traveller experience that many people look to avoid, but for me it was a first taste of freedom; one that I still get whenever I step on a plane bound for a new destination.
Prague was the beginning a new adventure; the first time I realized I would probably spend my life living in countries other than my home, always searching after another new experience, something else fresh and clean.
My adventures in Prague were predicated by a work-stay program where I spent three months working in a hostel and sleeping there as well. It was a guide to the hospitality business, a hidden explanation for a medieval city that has a penchant for great techno music, and more than that, a couple of great friends to come share my world with.
I stayed in Equity Point Hostel, a stone’s throw from the main city center but just far away enough never to lose sleep over the noisy city streets, spent my mornings making beds and checking guests in at the hostel, afternoons writing in Kampa Park and sipping perfect cappuccinos at Cafe Slavia, and evenings that turned into mornings in the basements of Chapeau Rouge, Cross Club, and Blue Light dancing, drinking, and smoking the occasional cigarette.
I can’t say I formed the best habits; I would come back in the early hours of the morning, sleeping little, partying too much, and having a slice of hot pizza before bed, but I came to know the streets of the Heart of Europe, the David Cerny statues, and the other interns, one French and one Finnish, better than the back of my hand. It reminded me that travelling, for good or for bad, teaches us the power of our own decisions, and that mine had led me to a place of beauty once again.
My mom was always fond of these mountains, coming here as a child with her family every year to camp and to wade in streams looking after rocks and arrowheads. I guess I get the love of these mountains straight from her; something I picked up in the womb. We always stay in Cherokee, where you can see that in the 1950’s this place was where everyone travelled, and now in the modern age, few people do. There’s old lodges lining the river, retro motels, in the shadow of a big, shiny casino, but the Native American Gallery still makes handmade dreams to catch all my sleepful hopes, Peter’s still has the best cup of coffee this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the mountains still light on fire every autumn.
With North Carolina, or Tennessee, or Western Virginia, or Georgia, or wherever I find myself picking up the sweet smell of leaves and wood burning fires, these mountains feel like home. It’s not a travel destination that I come back to out of anything other than pure necessity; if I didn’t visit often, I think my soul would suffer, lose a little bit of feeling everyday. Here, among the old woods, I find peace unlike in any place I’ve known before.
Whether I’m wandering through the homesteads on the Trail, taking a hike through Cades Cove, or stopping for one of their hotdogs and tall, vanilla and chocolate swirled ice cream cones, or sliding down a hill on the way to Newfound Gap after a fresh layer of snow, it’s not like the first time, but like every time I’ve ever done it, but instead of being boring, it reminds me that some happiness doesn’t grow tired with use.
Marrakesh was an adventure for work, that turned into a trek of bright colors, sandy streets, and pictures that fit perfectly in a quarterly one of my friends from high school put together back home. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote—probably something about discovering spices and how to buy souvenirs in a place that liked to haggle—but it was a break from the Western world that I had mostly travelled in up to that point, a distinct difference in the very air that you could taste in the food, breathe in from the streets, feel in the satin slippers I had bought off a trader near my guesthouse.
This was another trek alone, something that me and my camera and my pen experienced together, and between eating on mats on floors, and sipping tea in hidden courtyards with glittering, marbled pools, and getting lost not once but five times in the markets trying to get back to that one place that sold woven bracelets with tiny silver bells, it was a place that cemented my okayness with taking trips alone. It was where I finally got the hang of eating alone, sleeping alone, walking alone, and taking in the beautiful world alone.
It was far from lonely.
New York City
Every girl dreams of New York City; before I knew that I was going to be a writer, a photographer, a recorder of stories, I knew I wanted to be in New York City. It didn’t matter how I got there, or what I did there, or anything that happens after I arrived on the island shores, all that mattered was that I found my place in the busy streets.
It didn’t let me down, but the Hollywood New York can only live that way for a tourist; it’s hard to live in the city without a trust fund, or a wealthy great aunt, or a position as a stockbroker on Wall Street. I felt this in the hurried air that swept through Central Park and down into the Subway, and stuffed itself into the elevator at Conde Nast or next to me in the backseat of the taxi.
The beautiful people walked by in their designer shoes, and the cupcakes sparkled in the store windows, and F.A.O Schwartz (the place of childhood dreams) were all picturesque, hurried, and just far enough away for me to feel like I would never belong here. I sound bitter, but it wasn’t that way; it was a lesson learned that all the perfect places I dreamed up from my bedroom did exist, in exactly the way they were meant to, but that I wasn’t meant for all of them, no matter how hard I dreamed of them.
I ice skated in Rockefeller Center, watched models walk out of Bryant Park into the snow after shows, stuffed my backpack full of gummies at Dylan’s Candy Bar, and ate a slice in Brooklyn on the way to a new rendition of the Nutcracker, and it was more than a dream. But for the first time, I realized that this dream, as beautiful and sparkling and covered with snow as it was, was better left to my imagination and that my future lied elsewhere in the world, in many different places of the world, and not in the City of Dreams.
The things that gets you about Salzburg is that the city is so very much like a fairytale–and the Disney kind, perfect, pristine, sparkling white–just the way it is. The fortress on the mountain, the small theatres offering Mozart, Bach, Beethoven every night of the week, the cobblestone alleys with statued squares, cathedrals and their ringing bells, and drindls and lederhosen in the shop windows and on the locals in the streets. It’s almost too good to be true, even despite it’s dark past, that it seems like even the colorful postcards are the only thing that could do it real justice, and never my words.
Another adventure with a friend, one from elementary school who happened to be studying in Vienna while I was in the area, where we just wandered, with no agenda, taking in the river, the Sacher Torte, and the delights of a Greek restaurant that seemed so very far away from home.
It was a weekend adventure while I was working in Prague that meant 24 hours was all I really got to spend in the valley of the Alps. And even though you could get on a tour where all the background music was The Sound of Music, it didn’t need it, because it wasn’t so much of a stretch to imagine Maria singing in the palace gardens, or in the cafe, or under the leaf-lined colonnade with a hassle of children close behind. It was just that kind of town.
You read in books about Cambridge, and Eton, and Oxford, of students in billowing robes that flow behind them on the way to dinner, of professors shouting final class scores from towers for the whole population to hear, of small gardens where young geniuses are pretending to go over the material before class but are actually building braid crowns out of field daisies. When I went to Cambridge, I found out it was all real.
When a friend of mine went to get her doctorate in math at a women’s college in Cambridge, it was the perfect opportunity for me to bunk up with her, pretend to have gotten my acceptance letter to one of the greatest colleges in the world, and to wander around, pushing along a bicycle, like I belonged.
I was 18 when I went on this adventure, it was one of the first that I took alone, and while my friend was in class I spent my time in bookstores, staring through pub windows, and just being a surveyor of university life. I didn’t spend my younger years in the classroom, I forewent the traditional education for the one that I was getting on the road, but it didn’t mean there wasn’t a part of me that longed for the scholastic atmosphere of a university 4 times older than America and Australia, the countries of my parents.
There were canals and boat racing, fish and chips on the street, and rainy days—so many rainy days—in the week that I spent there, but I wandered nonetheless, and dreamed of what it would be like to study in the halls that had produced some of the greatest mind the world has ever known. It was as much a destination in my mind as it was under my feet.
And these places, whether they are far or near, are never forgotten lessons or loves; they’re all just shaping me into the traveller, the writer, and the person I’ve yet to become.