Just a few short hours ago, when we first sat down to brainstorm this yearly review, I figured we wouldn’t have much to write about. After all, our travel pace over the past months as we’ve been getting to know our new home of Japan is about as quick as a long-legged girl in a tight kimono.
As it turns out, it seems I forgot about a trip or two … or maybe a season or two. They are memories I’m happy to reclaim.
Winter: Sweden to the Southern Alps
When our last review drew to a close, we were celebrating New Year’s Eve in Stockholm. It had been popping onto our radar for years, and we were anxious to see what the buzz was about. While this gorgeous city with impressive green spaces and waterways has high potential, it seemed to be on hiatus for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. A return visit is pending.
The Netherlands was next, to The Hague and Delft. Readers might have noticed that I wrote about one and not the other, so they will also know which Dutch city held us spellbound with its magical light.
On the occasion of a friend’s visit it was finally time to check off tourist must-dos in Southern Germany, like visiting the Ammergau Alps and Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle, and celebrating Fasching (Mardi Gras). We also paid our respects at the infamous concentration camp Dachau, a sobering must-see if you’re in the Munich area.
By the end of February, we were packing up our furniture. Our departure from Europe was still months away, but that’s how long it takes thousands of pounds of treasured souvenirs and European antiques to make their way to the opposite side of the globe.
Afterwards, I visited with another friend in Ostfriesland in the northwestern tip of Germany (one of Europe’s best-kept secrets). She was part of the namesake for our post A Russian, a German, and a Yank Visit Berlin, and the visit was long overdue. My last trip there was over 15 years ago, and in a testament to how life can alter your perspective, what once seemed a “nice place” now overwhelmed me with its beauty, history and cultural singularity. On the way home, I attended a travel conference where some of my fellow bloggers helped with market research for a post on the best places to eat and drink in Berlin.
In some places, March might signal the beginning of spring, but in the Dolomites of the Italian Alps it means fantastic skiing. And, as we discovered, fantastic farm-to-table dining, fantastic spa experiences, and absolutely out-of-this-world scenery. A picture of these peaks now rests on our homepage under the caption “Our Favorite Places.”
Spring: Goodbye Europe (from East to West and back)
Thanks to the magic of infographics, we can condense our exhaustive Goodbye Europe tour into a single image:
The route included a farewell to Tel Aviv and its fantastic restaurants, and an introduction to the wine country of Galilee, which dazzled us with the diversity of Israel; a return to my former home of Sevilla, Spain, and the Parador of Carmona, two places which have managed to stay relatively unchanged despite the passing years; a Bacchus-worthy few days in one of my favorite foodie destinations, the lovely castle-studded hills of Chianti, Italy; and a hop down to Sicily and one of our favorite hotels, The Villa Ducale, which had so delighted us during our honeymoon.
Our last stop was Crete, a Greek island that neither of us had previously visited. We were there prior to tourist season … and as it turns out, in Crete there is a very demarcated start to the season. In Lassithi, the less-transited southeastern corner of the island and even in the highly touristed Rethymno, we were one of the few (if not the only) people at our hotel. Which, as any traveler knows, is when some of the best stories are to be had, and when you have the most interaction with locals, not to mention plenty of people-free photo opps. Even so, by the time we got to Hania, we welcomed the livelier atmosphere and the many open restaurants and shops. The gorgeous Alcanea Hotel and views across the Venetian Harbor made it our favorite stop on the island, though we doubt that would have been the case in a busier summer month. In August, we probably would have stayed around the mountain villages of Crete, savoring the health-boosting Cretan diet.
On my birthday in May we were midair, flying from Germany to Japan. It was an ideal way to welcome the Pacific and Asian adventures of the year ahead (adventures such as Hawaii, where I was fortunate enough to meet the master of grrr, blogger Christine Ka’aola of Grrrl Traveler.)
Autumn: Hello, Asia-Pacific
After a summer spent moving in, getting our bearings and trying to avoid the humid heat as much as possible, it was time to break for cooler weather. Up to Korea we flew, using some Grrrl Traveler recommendations, for what turned into a perfect itinerary of what to do in Seoul in a day. The juxtaposition of the sleek, glossy skyline above and the ancient palaces and villages below was the highlight of this complex capital city.
A Stateside visit in September broke up our Asia experience, but in October we were back in Japan, celebrating Ben’s birthday at the Ritz-Carlton Okinawa. Okinawa is Japan’s top resort spot, a land of jungle interiors and crystalline beaches, and the second best-kept secret we’ve found this year. But there’s more to the islands than a pretty face. It is also home to people so sweet, grounded and happy that you can’t help but reassess your own life and culture.
Speaking of culture, we were also fortunate to enjoy one of Okinawa’s – the former Ryukyu Kingdom – most celebrated cultural traditions at the (Once) World’s Largest Tug-of-War.
Luckily (since I’m not a cold-weather person), autumn lasts through November here. Around the time of Thanksgiving back home, we were making a beeline for the changing of the leaves in Kyoto, Japan’s Imperial City. People from all over Japan – and countries abroad – journey here for a season that rivals that of the cherry blossoms. Stay tuned for our next post to see why.
Winter: A (brief) return to Ben’s homeland
As we write this we are hovering slightly south of Alaska, en route to Tokyo after a trip to Houston, Texas. (It’s still hard for me to conceptualize how northern routes make trans-oceanic flights shorter….) We were back in Ben’s boyhood home, where he lived long before he lost his accent: the place of endless summers at amusement parks, hurricanes in summer and crawfish boils in winter, and the high school basketball championships that carried him off to college far, far away.
The occasion of the visit was the 50th anniversary of Ben’s parents. (Congratulations!) By now, we’ve traveled enough to realize what most travelers eventually do: there’s no place like home, and no people like family. Being near them is what we miss most in our travels, and though they sometimes despair that we’ll never “settle down” – and in truth we hope we never (fully) do – we can never stay away for too long.