Ah, 2016...a year that will live in infamy for many. A year in which my country elected a megalomaniac for president, a year in which many innocent lives were lost. In most respects, I am not at all sad to see the year go, to be honest. I like to have hope for the future, and it feels easier to do that with a fresh start. Still, although sometimes the bad memories cloud the good, the truth is that I did get to do an awful lot of exciting things this past year. Things that many other people only ever dream of doing, and I want to take the time to appreciate each and every one of them, if only for myself to be able to look back in a few years and remember the positives of the year, rather than the negatives.
So before 2017 really gets going, I'd like to share with you my past year in travel.
I went to Madison, Wisconsin in January for an international festival. Madison isn't an exotic destination for me, as my sister lives there and I regularly spend time there. However, I'd never been to this international festival before, and I was very glad I went! The dancing was cool, the food was amazing, and it was really refreshing to be able to talk to other people who care about travel and the world outside the US bubble as much as I do. I felt like I was really among my people, and that was so nice. Hopefully I'll be able to go back again this coming year! I'm already craving some of that delicious tiramisu...
Just after Christmas, I got a random message from a friend of mine I met doing the auxiliar program in Galicia. She convinced me at the very last second to go on a quick jaunt with her to DC over Martin Luther King day weekend. It was a whirlwind, but I'm so glad I went! We stayed with some other ex-auxiliar friends in Alexandria, which may be my new favorite part of the Washington, DC metro area. Oh my god, those old houses are so gorgeous! And we didn't even have time to explore all of the historical nooks and crannies...I definitely have to go back there someday to do some further investigation.
While I've visited DC several times, I had also never been to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in downtown DC. I found it to be a very moving experience, especially given all the racial violence that has been happening in this country lately. King definitely got it right with the above quote!
In February, I went to the Randolph Street Market in Chicago, which is a cool vintage/antique/designer market with about a million different stalls. My oldest friend was looking for some stuff to decorate her new apartment, so I tagged along to look. There were so many things I'd buy if I had a better place to put them! Someday, someday.
Mauthe Lake Recreation Area, Kettle Moraine State Forest, WI
In March, there was a random hiking adventure I took on one of the colder weekends last winter. I remembered coming to the Kettle Moraine State Forest in elementary school, and I wanted to go back to see if it still interested me as much as it did then. The answer is yes, kettles and moraines (both geological features left by the retreating glaciers) are still super interesting. And even though the vegetation was pretty much all dead, it was still very beautiful!
Las Vegas, NV
For spring break, I took a cheap flight out to Vegas and met my family there. While Vegas isn't really my favorite destination on earth (I'm more of a grandma at heart than a partier), I do enjoy the pretty lights and the Cirque du Soleil shows. I've seen the Beatles "Love" twice!
Apache Junction, AZ
From Vegas, my family and I drove down to see more family in the Phoenix area. I've been there more times than I can count in all my life, but I always find new things to appreciate. The Arizona desert satisfies something in my soul that the Midwest just will never be able to! There is so much beauty in that state. The above picture is of some flowers on a hill near my uncle's house with Superstition Mountain looming in the background. I don't remember ever being in Arizona when there were so many flowers blooming in the desert before!
Near Phoenix, AZ
The saguaro cactus is one of my favorite plants. Every year when we would drive from the Midwest to Arizona I would wait patiently in the car for 40 hours in anticipation of the first saguaro sighting. When I finally saw one, it meant we were almost there! Any time I see one now, I cannot help but be brought back to those fond road trip memories. Plus, saguaros are super weird looking, and I love all things strange!
Montezuma Castle, AZ
I know for a fact I'd been to Montezuma Castle as a kid, but when you're seven years old, ancient Puebloan cave dweller ruins just don't interest you like they do when you're two decades older. I don't really remember coming here (maybe even more than once?) as a child, but I hope to remember it this time! How amazing is it that these kinds of things are still here in the present day? And how weird is it that scientists still don't know why these cave dwelling civilizations disappeared?
Hmm, I wonder if I've been to Sedona before too. Possibly. I have no idea. That was kind of the theme of this road trip, trying to remember if I had visited the places we were going before or not! Regardless, I was totally stoked about coming up this hill to watch the sunset paint even brighter colors on these gorgeous red-stained rocks, and then it was pretty cloudy so this was as good as it got. Still beautiful!
Grand Canyon, AZ
Our next stop was the Grand Canyon. I do remember being at the Grand Canyon as a kid several times. I also remember talking about it in Spain and my Spanish friends always being confused that the canyon isn't in the state of Colorado, given that they call it El Gran Cañon del Colorado. No no, the RIVER is the Colorado, so named because of the color given to it by the sediment it carries. These are the kinds of facts that children just don't appreciate. See, although I'd been to this national landmark many times before I was an adult, I wasn't able to understand its majesty then in the way I can now. Who knows, maybe my wonder will continue to increase with age? I'll let you know in another 20 years!
Horseshoe Bend, AZ
Horseshoe Bend was a natural place in northern Arizona that I was able to introduce my family to, due to my obsession with Instagram (follow me @alisabroad)! Of course, my fear of heights made it impossible for me to get close enough to the steep ledge to take the kinds of pictures other (
stupider less afraid) people do, but I digress. It was still cool to be able to go somewhere new in a state I've been to so many times!
Antelope Canyon, AZ
The Antelope Canyons were also new to me, thanks to Instagram! This is now one of my favorite spots in all of the southwestern United States. Slot canyons are apparently a big thing in the travel photography world. While my photos are nowhere near the quality of some professionals (plus we weren't there at the right time of day for those amazing sunbeams coming down through the slots), it was mesmerizing just walking through here, looking at the patterns water had carved on the walls of the canyon. I wish it all could have gone a little slower, as our Navajo guides herded us through a little bit like cattle. It was totally worth it and I'd do it again in a heartbeat, but just so you know--this is not a place you will be allowed to take your time to soak it all in. Still, my dad (an Arizona native) didn't even know this place existed and now he tells all his friends about it, so it was cool to be able to show him something new and exciting.
Monument Valley, AZ
Been here before several times too, never really appreciated it as a kid. Are you sensing a theme here? We took a guided Navajo tour through the reservation land this time and learned about the old Native American ways of living out in these parts and which areas are sacred to them, as well as many more things. I understand a lot more about their culture now, and I'm very glad we took the tour! Also, it's weird to think about this, but even though we were in the middle of the desert, it was still early April and it was FREEZING on our early morning tour. Keep this in mind if you visit Monument Valley during the winter months and bundle up way more than we did!
Monument Valley, AZ
This is the spot where Forrest Gump stopped his cross-country running trip. It is also one of the most iconic places to take a picture of Monument Valley off in the distance. Coincidence? No, not at all. I have loved that movie since I was little though, and it was cool for me to see the exact spot where they filmed that particular scene. Also, isn't the view from here just spectacular?
Mexican Hat, UT
Mexican Hat was just a quick pulloff we took on the side of the road as we started to head north, but it was definitely pretty with the flowers blooming! Do you see the rock formation that kind of looks like a sombrero?
Arches National Park, UT
Finally, a spot on our spring road trip that I'm fairly certain I'd never been to before! I know we've gone through Utah many times, but I don't remember stopping at Arches National Park in the past. Regardless, it is a place I would like to spend more than just an afternoon sometime in the future! Lots of lovely hikes, so little time.
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, UT
So I know that Delicate Arch is one of the most popular places to take a photo in Arches National Park, especially at sunset. It's beautiful, I get it. But, um, can you see those hordes of people up there all waiting to take the perfect photo? I think I'd rather just find a different spot for myself, to be honest. To each his own, but this does not call to me at all! I was so glad I was down on another path, away from the crowds. This introvert can NOT handle that many people all at the same time.
Near Aspen, CO
After Utah, we started to drive back east, first hitting Colorado. Western Colorado is just so gorgeous. Mountains and pine trees and snow and skiing and craft beer, what more could you ask for? This was a quick shot taken out the car window as we were driving back to the Midwest, but I would like to spend more time in Colorado as an adult (the same as with, like, practically every other place my parents took me to as a kid, I guess)!
Sadly, soon enough our spring break was over and it was back to my regular life. Although I do work a lot, I try to find mini adventures to tide myself over until the next big trip. This photo is inside one of my favorite places in this world, the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), where I went with my mom one night for a French-themed party. Why exactly they were doing that, I don't remember, but we participated in an art scavenger hunt that was super fun, made French cards, and had delicious French wine and cheese, so no complaints from me!
Another mini adventure in April was a day in Madison with my sister. This was also the day I discovered the most DELICIOUS Venezuelan restaurant in town, called La Taguara. My sister knows the owners and she let me in on the secret that is this amazing food. Oh my god so good. I wish I could eat here every day!
Finally spring arrived in May and with it lots of time spent up in farm country. I was never super fond of being dragged up to LaCrosse all the time (like, literally every weekend of my life from birth to age 18), but I try to find things to appreciate about the rural landscape now when I have to go there, like redwing blackbirds in the fields.
Starved Rock State Park, IL
In early June, to celebrate the first weekend of my summer break two old friends and I took a weekend trip over to Starved Rock State Park. This isn't too far from where I grew up and yet I had never been here before, which is kind of astounding now that I think about it. We spent two days wandering through canyons and talking about our lives and stopping to take silly pictures with waterfalls. It was super peaceful, and now I have a huge hankering to go back here and take more pictures of the waterfalls in the wintertime when they're FROZEN. So cool, right? Totally on my 2017 bucketlist.
Finally, finally, after a solid 11 months stuck in the USA, in July 2016 I made an international escape! It was my first trip on my new passport, and I was really excited to finally break it in a little. It was also my first time in the Southern Hemisphere, so I was totally interested to see if the toilets flush the other way in Australia like the Simpsons told me they did (spoiler alert: the answer is no). That was a disappointment, but there were other things to make up for it, like amazing Aussie coffee. Can we please make that a thing in the United States, like, yesterday?
While Sydney wasn't my favorite of all the places I saw in Oz, it was definitely cool to see iconic places there like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, The Rocks, and the Hyde Park Barracks.
Blue Mountains, AU
We also took a one-day guided tour to the Blue Mountains of Australia, just outside of Sydney. While this might have seemed like just another forested landmark had we gone on our own, our trip with Dingo Tours taught me a lot about the aboriginal legends surrounding this area. We had two guides, one Aboriginal and one Sydneysider (and his tween daughter on her winter holiday who was happy to share tidbits about her life in Australia). These two different perspectives on the area gave me a much fuller understanding than if I had just read about the Blue Mountains in a travel guide, so I was glad we chose the tour we did. And no, our tour was not comped, I just genuinely enjoyed the personalized experience that much!
Townsville, QLD, AU
After leaving Sydney, we flew up to Townsville, a large (ish) city in North Queensland. This was a perfect base for exploring the area and getting to the Great Barrier Reef, although due to the unseasonably terrible weather they were experiencing at the time ("The coldest it's been in 20 years!" according to our hotel manager) we did have to drive a few hours south to Airlie Beach to get a tour. Still, I was glad to be in Townsville for a few days because it was not as over-touristed as some other places in Queensland seem to be. That was definitely a nice change of pace after the hustle and bustle of Sydney!
Little Crystal Creek, QLD, AU
A few days after arriving in North Queensland, we took a road trip on a cloudy day to the rainforest. What was supposed to be a quick jaunt to see a waterfall turned into a crazy half-day adventure over winding mountain roads that quickly turned into dirt when we got back into the valley...and we never did find the platypus we were promised! This day was not at all what I had planned, but it turned out to be one of my favorite days in all of Australia. Sometimes you just can't plan good things in advance!
Great Barrier Reef, AU
Another of my favorite days in Australia was when we took a Great Barrier Reef tour from Airlie Beach. Though the weather wasn't the best and we'd been worried we wouldn't even be able to sail, once I got out there and snorkeled among the tropical fish it was instantly clear that it had been worth it. I know the reef isn't at half of the brilliance it once was, due to water temperatures rising globally, killing off the coral. Still, I was amazed at being able to swim next to a sea turtle and see even a fraction of the beauty that was once there.
Billabong Sanctuary, Townsville, QLD, AU
Another great day in Australia! Queensland was my favorite state in Oz for a reason, as most of the coolest things I did happened there. After a long, monotonous drive from Airlie Beach to Townsville (seriously, how do Aussie truckers stay awake with the sheer NOTHINGNESS between cities there?), I was glad to pull into the Billabong Sanctuary and see some Australian animals. They had all different types, including crocodiles, emus, and koalas. The kangaroos (wallabies? I have a hard time telling the difference) were allowed to hop around freely, and would lay there and let you pet them as much as you wanted. I had no idea their coats were so soft!
Adelaide, SA, AU
Our final stop in Australia was Adelaide, in the state of South Australia. This was a complete change from the tropical rainforests up north, but it was interesting to see yet another side of this vast country!
Kangaroo Island AU
On a day trip from Adelaide, we visited Kangaroo Island. The emptiness there gave me a small taste of what the Outback must be like, and I suddenly have a yearning to visit the nothingness that is Western Australia. I don't know if I would like to be the driver on whatever future excursion I take there however, as I now have a deathly fear of hitting a kangaroo on a remote Outback road at twilight (as nearly happened several times while on Kangaroo Island).
Kangaroo Island AU
Aside from all the 'roos we saw there, the other wildlife on Kangaroo Island was really amazing. So many different types of seals playing in the water, wild koalas in the trees, and many birds that I don't know the names of catching fish by the sea.
Barossa Wine Region, SA, AU
When I do a quick mental assessment of my time down under, I generally without a doubt remember New Zealand as being preferable to Australia. However, doing this look back at my trip, I realize I'm overlooking a lot of the really nice things I saw and did in Oz! From Adelaide, our cousin took us on a tour of the Barossa wine region, which was just gorgeous. Rolling hills and vines and eucalyptus trees AND delicious wine samples. Really, what more could you want?
After hearing so much hype about New Zealand from my friends who live there, I was really excited to fly over. While Auckland is pretty different from the rest of the country, it has its own unique charms, such as amazing brunch restaurants, the New Zealand International Film Festival, and the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
We rented a car in Auckland, and our epic NZ road trip began. It was slightly difficult the first few days without a digital map before I was able to get a kiwi SIM card into my phone, but it all worked out in the end. Yay for still being able to navigate back country roads with a paper map!
We made it to Waitomo with only slight stress and immediately booked ourselves a tour to see the glow worm caves with Spellbound Tours, which came highly recommended at our B&B. After a late night arrival, my first time looking up at the stars and seeing the Milky Way, a delicious sleep, and a great homecooked breakfast, we were off on our personalized tour. While we weren't allowed to take pictures of the areas of the cave with the most glow worms, I had fun with the challenge of trying to capture them at all. The above photo is about the best I got, and I'm pretty proud of it for my first try!
Another long drive (this time with GPS) took us to Rotorua, the geothermal capital of New Zealand. I mean, basically the whole country is a geothermic paradise, given that it straddles two different plates of the Earth's crust, but Rotorua is famous for its hot springs and steam coming out of the earth. Oh, and also its smell of rotten eggs. While my parents compared Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park with Yellowstone and found it lacking, I was still impressed by the bright colors found in the waters.
Near Taupo, NZ
Taupo gave us our first experience of major New Zealand highways being shut down due to winter weather. We had planned to head south to Wellington past Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom) on Highway 1, but since it was closed we had to take a detour through Napier. While this added a few hours onto our journey, the beautiful sunset we caught just outside of Taupo was kind of worth it!
Te Mata Peak, Napier, NZ
Napier isn't somewhere I would have probably chosen to visit had I not been forced to, but going there allowed me to see this view of the rolling hills near Te Mata Peak. I love the name of this place. In Maori I think it means something like "the peak," but being who I am I cannot help but think of what "Te mata" means in Spanish..."It kills you." Yes, climbing the 399 meters up here probably would kill me, but thankfully there is a sealed road leading up so all I had to do was drive.
Finally, we made it to Wellington. I had been told it was a lot like San Francisco, which I suppose may be true, but it reminded me fiercely of Vigo, Spain. Those houses on the hillsides, the stores on the waterfront...the second I set eyes on this place all the feels came rushing into me. It's so weird the way this happens, but I instantly knew that Wellington was a place I could see myself happily living, even before I was shown around town by a dear old college friend. Hmm, perhaps someday...
After a few days enjoying the coffee and Lord of the Rings nerdery of Wellington, it was time to catch a ferry to New Zealand's South Island. I spent the majority of the ferry ride devouring the latest Harry Potter book, which came out that day (I looked around and I totally wasn't the only one eating up JK Rowling's every word), but luckily I finished it before we arrived in Picton. That meant that I was able to focus completely on the scenery there, which was breathtaking. My absolute favorite moment in all of New Zealand was the quiet reflective hour or so I spent down by the water next to our hotel waiting for the sun to rise over the mountains. Consequently, the above is one of my favorite photos from the whole trip!
Heading west, we arrived in Punakaiki a few days later. Cliffs next to oceans are one of my secret delights, so this coastal road was a dream come true for me. And then! More weirdness, yay! These rocks look like pancakes stacked on top of each other, and they totally look strange but beautiful. And the waves crashing up against them sometimes shoot up like air coming out of a whale's blowhole, and that is pretty weird/cool as well.
Franz Josef, NZ
In Franz Josef, we took a random nighttime hike, saw more of the milky way, and took a helicopter tour up onto Fox Glacier. While I would have liked to have had more time up there (or more money to afford more time up there, to be precise), it was still cool to be up in the Southern Alps, falling into the snow and looking down on the majesty of one of Mother Nature's gifts to us all that we are totally taking for granted and destroying with our carbon emissions. Grr. I mean, not that I am innocent at all in my contributions to global warming, but I'm just saying...let's increase our awareness!
After Franz Josef, we hit up Wanaka, which was unexpectedly quiet and beautiful. I really liked the aspect of a lake combined with the mountains, and I totally could have spent more time here just relaxing and contemplating life.
Next on our road trip adventure was Oamaru to see the blue penguins there. While we were unable to find any on our own, we went to the Blue Penguin Colony and were able to see them coming into their little homes on the rocks at the end of a long day's fishing. Pretty cool!
These strangely round boulders are another of my Instagram finds. While there is actually a perfectly logical geological explanation for their formation that I am highly unqualified to give (something about mud being packed down on the bottom of the ocean floor), these boulders totally look like they were placed on the beach by aliens or something. More weirdness, I love it!
Finally, the last stop on our epic kiwi road trip. Christchurch is a bit of a strange city to visit. While it is completely modern and updated, it is a bit of a shock to come into the main square and see the gaping skeleton of a once-beautiful church. The 2011 earthquake devastated this city, and it is still struggling to recover over 5 years later. It is always moving for me to visit places where famous events happened that I actually remember. I don't know why, but I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the earthquake in Christchurch in 2011--sitting in my Fundamentals of Teaching Spanish class when the professor told us. I only hope not too much further damage was done after the recent November earthquake there.
Just as we were about to fly out of New Zealand, I had a sudden last-minute realization--this was my 35th country! Well, depending on how you count them, since actually the definition of "country" is kind of subjective... But since I've made a habit of recording significant numbers of countries visited in the past, I felt like I needed to at least make a token gesture towards remembering number 35 as well. So here I am outside a gift shop in the Christchurch airport that said New Zealand. Significant, right? Hah. And thus were concluded five weeks of nonstop travel down under. Phew!
I landed back in the States and was actually mad at myself for being so jet-lagged. Talk about being hard on yourself! However, that was a good motivator to actually get out and give my niece the birthday present I'd promised her--a kayaking trip down the Mississippi. It totally poured on us for most of the time, but at least the sun came out for a sunset view at the end!
The last weekend of my summer vacation, I went to a Wisconsin parade and came home with a kitten. I swear, when I was a kid they only threw candy from the floats, not live animals! Hah, no, nobody threw her literally at me, but someone my family sort of knows came to the parade with a kitten to get rid of and somehow I went home with her. So totally random, how do these things happen to me??
As September came and I headed back to work for the fall, I tried to squeeze a few last adventures out of the good weather. One of these was a hot air balloon festival in Harvard, Illinois. While the balloonmeister (possibly my new favorite word) said it was too windy to actually launch the balloons, they did something called a "glow," which meant they blew them up and we could walk around admiring them. Still pretty cool, if you ask me!
The following weekend, I went to a cheese festival in Monroe, Wisconsin. When in cheesehead country, right? The sampling tent was full of deliciousness, and every purchase made earned you a cheese necklace which I am TOTALLY using to glam up my attire during Green Bay Packer games this season.
I went on another random hiking adventure to Oregon, Illinois on a weekend in September. I don't think I'd ever seen this statue of Black Hawk before, but when I heard on NPR that they were going to be covering it for the winter soon, I suddenly had a massive urge to see it.
That same day, I also hit up a beer festival in Freeport, Illinois. So many craft brews to try, so much deliciousness! I kind of wish I could have spent more time there, but I can always go back next year. So worth it!
It had been years since I'd been to LaCrosse during Oktoberfest, and as a kid I was never old enough to enter the actual fest grounds anyway, so I thought this year would be a good time to try it out. Due to the city's large German heritage and love of beer, LaCrosse, Wisconsin has one of the Midwest's largest Oktoberfest celebrations. Having visited the actual Oktoberfest grounds in Munich, I can say that this is nowhere near that scale, but I always appreciate a place where I can bust out my amazing polka dancing moves.
As October came to a close, I was asked to help chaperone my school's field trip to the Field Museum in Chicago. As a natural history lover, there was no way I was turning down that opportunity! While going for just a few hours with a bunch of my students was a bit more stressful than wandering through on my own, it was also more rewarding in some ways.
In November I spent several different weekends going down to Chicago with my nephews. While the more touristy sites I've been to hundreds of times, I had definitely never been to a rugby game at Soldier Field before! Apparently this game was quite important and landmark, but I just had fun watching the New Zealand haka, trying to figure out what was going on as the players ran around, and yelling indiscriminately.
I already talked about my West Virginia adventure in my November recap, but just to reiterate--I would like a mountain retreat vacation once a month every month to recharge my batteries, please and thank you.
In December I was back in Chicago (can you tell I'm just a little enamored of the city?) to go to the Christkindlmarket, a German-themed Christmas market in Daley Plaza. I may just have to make this a tradition, because both last year and this I had such a good time eating potato-based foods and drinking gluhwein that I didn't even care about the snow!
Cascade Mountain, WI
One of my New Years Resolutions for 2016 was to go snowboarding more. Actually, this was the second trip I took in the year, but it is still not enough! I'm considering buying my own gear to make going snowboarding less expensive...we shall see if that happens this coming year. I just want to be snowboarding basically all the time, and this daytrip to Cascade Mountain in Wisconsin was like a teaser. I want more, more!
My final "trip" of the year was up to LaCrosse to celebrate the holidays with my family there. Mostly that time was spent gathering around the hearth with kith and kin, but we did hit up LaCrosse's Rotary Lights display for the second year running, and I had fun trying to get the perfect picture in this light tunnel (at least, until my fingers got numb with the cold and I had to give up).
And that pretty much wraps up the year!
Gosh, re-reading all that makes me feel kind of exhausted. I actually had kind of a busy year in 2016, although it was the most stable one I've had in 10 years. Weird!
Still, if I don't keep busy I get bored, so I hope to have just as many if not more adventures in the coming year.
Hasta siempre, 2016 and salut, 2017! Bring it on!
To read some of my past yearly travel recaps: