How to describe travel? It is an adventure, an education, and a gift all at the same time. I’ve been so fortunate to have visited the places I have, and I can’t wait to get back on the road again.
The things in between the spaces are what stick with me long after I’ve left a destination. It’s not just the sights, the cities, or the landmarks that matter, but what happens while I’m there. Connecting to a childhood memory, getting a glimpse of greatness, and even being blown away by a single sound -- these are the nuances that turn a travel moment from good to great.
Here are nine of my most moving travel experiences (so far!) and the reasons they keep resonating with me.
1. Exploring The Taj Mahal
When my son was born, I bought a colorful travel poster for his nursery that listed places to see from A to Z. So often I looked up at that poster -- during midnight feedings, diaper changes, and playtime -- and zeroed in on the A for Agra square. I imagined how difficult it would be to get there, but how incredible the Taj Mahal must be… maybe someday, anyhow.
More than a dozen years later, I was assigned to travel to New Delhi for work, and I got to tag along on an excursion to -- you guessed it -- the Taj Mahal. I couldn’t believe my luck, nor could I believe my eyes (which absolutely welled up) when I first glimpsed the gorgeous marble monument -- I truly never thought I’d get to see it in person. As I touched the Taj’s latticework, saw its artistry up close, wandered through its lush gardens, and took photos with a few locals, I realized how special this pinch-me moment truly was. It’s not every day an exhausted new mom’s pipe dream becomes reality!
2. Seeing King Tut’s Sarcophagus At The Egyptian Museum
I remember the mystique associated with the Treasures of Tutankhamun tour in the late 1970s. When the Boy King and his burial treasure made the rounds, Americans went nuts, snapping up exhibition tickets and memorabilia. That memorabilia included posters -- posters that eventually made their way to the classrooms where I studied history and geography. When I was bored in class, I’d stare at that golden, beautiful face on the posters and wonder what life must have been like for this king who was just a little younger than I was during his reign.
Perhaps that’s why, when I visited Cairo with my husband, I was awestruck by the Pyramids, but I got goosebumps looking at Tut’s sarcophagus at the Egyptian Museum. When we entered the dimly lit chamber and peered into the glass at the gold, lapis, and onyx treasure, it was like greeting an old friend.
3. Witnessing The Call To Prayer
On our first night in Istanbul, we were fighting jet lag big time. We were exhausted, but we knew we needed to push through so that the rest of our trip wouldn’t be a sleep-deprived mess.
As we made our way to the city’s historic center of Sultanahmet, fueled by a touch of strong Turkish coffee and baklava, we heard a single note float in the air above the crowd. As the singing continued, hauntingly beautiful above the city din, we noticed much of the crowd pulled off and away. We realized it was the evening call to prayer, issued simultaneously by the city’s imams at some 2,500 mosques located throughout the city. While it was a sound we heard repeatedly during our stay, that first evening’s call will stick with me always.
4. Snorkeling With Manta Rays
Big Island, Hawaii
Hawaii’s Big Island is well known for its natural splendor. From its black-rock landscape and smoldering volcano to its lush rainforests and snow-capped Mauna Kea, we explored it all! But it was our underwater experience that really stuck with me.
On a whim, we booked an evening excursion to snorkel in a manta ray feeding area. We were ferried out to a bay south of Kona and swam from the boat to a raft lit from underneath. When we reached it, we peered down at the ocean floor and waited for the raft’s light to attract the manta’s favorite food, krill.
Nothing could prepare us for the beauty of these creatures, which appeared suddenly from the dark, swooping and flipping just inches from where we lay still. I will never forget their graceful and awe-inspiring acrobatics.
5. Stopping In Innsbruck, Austria
The Orient Express
Taking the Orient Express from Venice to London was the journey of a lifetime. The food and service were impeccable, the mountain views inspiring, and the accommodations over-the-top luxe. However, it was a brief moment just outside the mountain town of Innsbruck, Austria, that I remember best.
The train had halted, and our car was stopped right in front of an adorable alpine chalet, complete with red geraniums in the window boxes. As if on cue, a charming white-haired couple appeared on the chalet’s deck and waved at the train. We jumped out of our compartment, opened the side window facing the home, and enthusiastically returned the greeting.
6. Waltzing The Night Away At The Hofburg
I can’t quite recall how I realized late January was waltz ball season in Vienna; it was likely while doing research about our upcoming trip to Austria’s capital. When I discovered that the general public could purchase admission to some of these exclusive fetes, I immediately sprang for an all-night event at the Hofburg Palace. It was dazzling and felt like a fairy tale, with the main ballroom festooned in flowers from floor to ceiling. Although we knew hardly any German, we looked the part in our ball gown and tux.
I suppose this is where I should inform you that I cannot dance -- not even a bit.
But when the orchestra struck up Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” my dear husband was able to spin me around the expert Viennese dancers with no collisions, even as I was stepping on his feet. I laughed the entire time.
7. Spotting A Flock Of Scarlet Macaws
Playa Herradura, Costa Rica
Costa Rica was everything we’d imagined. When we visited, we stayed at the edge of a rainforest on the Pacific coast, and to call it stunning would be a terrible understatement. We visited Manuel Antonio National Park to see the sloths and monkeys, explored the sugar sand beaches, and even took a rainforest canopy tour.
But the thing I will never forget occurred in a quiet morning moment while we were sipping coffee on the veranda. I heard them before I saw them: a flock of scarlet macaws noisily calling just over our heads. They were the most elegant and gorgeous things I’d ever seen -- so bright they looked like flying strands of rubies or other precious jewels. That moment is etched like a postcard in my mind -- a brilliant moment of beauty in a land chock-full of it.
8. Volunteering In The Crescent City After Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans was my home for several years after college, and I carry enduring memories of it. I’d always been drawn to the city -- perhaps because it feels more European than American with its old-world architecture, fantastic food, and general joie de vivre. I loved everything about living there, from our historic shotgun apartment to catching beads during Mardi Gras and meeting dear friends in the Quarter for afternoon cocktails, noshes, and decadent beignets.
Eventually, my husband and I moved away, but we stayed in touch with our friends who were still lucky enough to live in the city we loved so much. That’s why in 2006, when Hurricane Katrina hit, we knew we had to return. Overnight, the magical place we adored had become a heartbreaking disaster zone, so this wasn’t a vacation. Instead, we volunteered with a nonprofit that cooked donated food for first responders. They were long, hard, and gritty days and nights without fun or music, since most of the pubs and restaurants were shuttered. That said, of all the time I’ve spent there before and since, it was the time that’s etched into my memory the deepest. There was something incredibly moving about being able to give back to New Orleans just a fraction of what it had given to us.
9. Discovering A Piece Of Family History At The Tower Of London
London, United Kingdom
We’ve been to London several times, and I love it for all the reasons one does: It’s a big, bustling city with loads of history, art, and culture -- and you don’t even have to learn a new language to experience it! However, our most recent trip stuck with me more than the others.
I’d always been told that my paternal grandfather was born at the Tower of London, at a military infirmary in the complex. I always shrugged it off as a tall tale. When we took our son on a tour of the Tower, I corralled our Beefeater guide afterward, sheepishly told him the family story, and asked if such a building even existed on the historic grounds. To our amazement, he walked us straight to the site, explained that it had been in use for military officers, and said that if my great-grandmother had gone into labor while her husband was stationed here, then yes, this was the building where my grandfather would have been born.
It was a full-circle, unforgettable moment when family lore became irrefutable fact. It’s one of my most cherished travel experiences to date!