Since we switched over to the new site (and started the blog) I haven’t spent much time discussing travel. Obviously, my favorite subjects are wild animals and the vast majority of my travel these days is centered around photography and especially destinations that sport an abundance of wildlife. When someone asks me, “Oh, are you going there on vacation?” my canned response is, “What’s vacation?” Ultimately, most of my trips are centered around work, after all.
But before I became more heavily invested in nature photography, I was traveling abroad for fun quite a bit. Perhaps the adventures weren’t quite as exotic and wild as my more recent trips, but I did get around. Europe was a popular destination for me. Though I had traveled to the Eastern Bloc several times as a youngster to visit family, I didn’t acquire a taste for western Europe until college. My first time in France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany was part of a classic Backpacking/Rick Steves-style adventure. Lots of hostels and cheap lodging, and we even saved on airfare by working with a courier service (something that no longer exists thanks to 9/11). The trip was fantastic. I fell in love with the ease of rail travel, which made me much more confident about planning my own return trips in the future. Since then I’ve had opportunities to visit the UK (multiple times), Sweden, Spain, Greece, Belgium and Holland, among other locales.
This isn’t an article specifically about Europe, but I do feel fortunate to have some general (a.k.a., “touristy”) travel experiences under my belt at this point in my life. Every place is different and everyone’s experience when visiting these destinations varies. Many are positive (others not so much… a subject for future articles), but for many of us, how we rate a destination or travel experience depends in part on our expectations. And we almost always visit a place with some sort of preconceived notions. Perhaps they’re based on guide books we read, suggestions from friends, or something we saw on TV. There’s typically a major reason we pick our vacation spots the first time: the buzz and hype surrounding them.
There’s no way every place can live up to that hype. Heck, I can’t fault visitors for leaving my favorite place, Yellowstone, disappointed because of the immense summer crowds (or perhaps it’s just the lack of well-trained bears). But every so often a popular tourist destination matches or even exceeds the hype, proving that its reputation is well-deserved.
Let’s get to the list. Here are three spots that surpassed my expectations and are a worth a visit (a.k.a, Three Popular Places That Are Not Overrated):
Oia (ee-yah) is a small, picturesque town on the edge of the Greek island of Santorini. Trust me, you’ve seen this place.
White-washed walls, blue domes, winding stairways and jumbled block houses, all stacked like a losing game of Tetris on the side of the caldera that makes up one of Greece’s most popular island destinations. Santorini appears in post cards, on travel programs and brochures and in movies (even pants travel there!). And Oia is the island’s showcase town. The iconic windmill features prominently in most travel imagery, and the edge of town is the perfect place to gather for those famous Santorini sunsets.
The sunsets, I think, may be a bit overrated. But for what might be considered a tourist trap, Oia itself is not. There’s a charm to the place that overrides the high prices and crowded alleyways (which thin out when the daily cruise ships leave port). Oia is the definition of “postcard perfect,” one of those places that looks–and feels–exactly like what we’ve all seen in the travel literature.
You will inevitably run into some of the infamous locals. I’m not referring to the people, rather the stray cats and dogs (a national epidemic in Greece). Still, these furry residents can present some nice photo ops…
If you do have a chance to visit Santorini, it’s important to stay a few nights. It’s not difficult to find a hotel with an incredible view of the intense blue Aegean waters far below. Once the midday tourist crowds do leave, it almost feels like the town is yours to explore (though, admittedly, it’s probably a lot less crowded if you visit in the shoulder or off season like we did). The weather is consistently lovely, and yeah, those sunsets are okay I suppose. It’s a fantastic way to relax in an idyllic setting, something I’d never expected from such a well-known and well-frequented tourist stop.
You can read more about my Oia experience in the Travel section.
I guess I couldn’t fully avoid mentioning a nature/wildlife destination, could I? But you have to believe me when I say a Galapagos trip is different from nearly any other wildlife experience you’ll have. It’s the type of trip that can be fun for hardcore wildlife enthusiasts and more casual visitors. Plus, it’s one of the few nature destinations that has exceeded what I’ve seen on TV in terms of the volume and proximity of the animal encounters one can enjoy.
Okay, so why is a Galapagos trip fun for everyone? Well, maybe not the seasick-prone. Nearly everyone in that case. First, let’s get the wildlife talk out of the way. It’s incredibly unique. It’s everywhere. It’s in your face. It’s not afraid of you. And that goes for both land and water.
Speaking of the ocean, the typical setup of an organized Galapagos trip is part of what makes the experience so much fun. If you book a cruise–I recommend at least eight days, on a smaller boat–you’ll not only go ashore, you’ll be snorkeling nearly every day. It’s really the perfect blend of a wildlife adventure and a relaxing beach style vacation.
Due to the fragile ecosystem of the archipelago and its priceless natural resources (namely, the endemic animals that call the Galapagos home), the Ecuadorian government heavily regulates the tourist industry on the islands. Cruise ship itineraries are strictly enforced. You’ll often find only one or two boats in a particular port or point of disembarkation at a time, and even shore excursions are timed so groups from different boats rarely run into each other on land. “Leave No Trace” principles are also prioritized. Naturally, visitors are expected to avoid touching the animals which are often right underfoot, but they’re also expected to avoiding picking up or pocketing shells, feathers or other potential souvenirs. If you’re caught taking something with you, you’ll be expected to return it to the exact spot where you found it.
Some people worry that the government will loosen its restrictions on the islands to allow for more development and tourism. But for now, the Galapagos remains an ecological haven and a unique travel experience.
Beautiful and rugged wilderness, plenty of fun activities and friendly people. That’s what I always thought of when I first considered a trip to New Zealand. And I was right. But back then a trip to New Zealand never seemed all that realistic. It was so far away and wasn’t exactly a premier wildlife destination. Honestly, Australia had been much higher on my wish list for most of my adult life.
While I have yet to make it to the Land Down Under, I can now look back on not one but two New Zealand trips. Oh, and I happened to get married there the second time, so I must really like the place.
Much of this country’s natural beauty was exposed to the wider world thanks to the renewed popularity of Hobbits nearly fifteen years ago. Peter Jackson’s cinematic masterpiece cherry-picked some of the most stunning and awe-inspiring landscapes New Zealand had to offer, but in reality there’s beauty to be found nearly everywhere. Even the rolling farmlands, the sprawling vineyards and the icy blue waters that didn’t make it into the films are awfully pretty in their own right.
My favorite travel destinations usually involve a variety of wildlife. In New Zealand’s case, the geographic, geological and environmental variety is what sets it apart. From the mysteriously round Moeraki Boulders to the peaceful fjords and sounds of the southwest coast, to the haunting glow worm caves and massive glaciers, there’s a lot to explore on these islands. By the way, I’m only mentioning stuff I’ve seen on the South Island. I haven’t even had a chance to visit the North Island–home of most of the country’s thermal features–yet.
New Zealand is considered by many to be the adventure capital of the world. Trekking, climbing, bungee jumping, Zorbing, speed boating, kayaking… heck, we even raced the luge course above Queenstown during our wedding trip. There’s plenty for the outdoorsy types.
One of the main reasons we chose New Zealand for our wedding trip was that we knew it would be a place all of our guests would be excited about and would enjoy. And that proved to be the case. We went from riding the luge track to getting married, followed by a helicopter ride to a glacier, inner tubing in glow worm caves, carving jewelry from bone and jade, and finishing it all off by swimming with an estimated 800 wild dolphins!
Cap off such a varied range of experiences and adventures with good food and a lot of friendly Kiwis, and New Zealand certainly lives up to the hype.