2015 Top 7 Travel Surprises (+ 2016 Preview)

2015 Top 7 Travel Surprises (+ 2016 Preview)

2015 was a crazy year in terms of travel. I visited 17 countries, 9 of which new countries I had never been. I never expected to do so much travelling, but I can honestly say it was the best travel year of my life! I decided to put together a list of the top 7 travel surprises of 2015. These are all places that far exceeded my expectations and shocked me/blew me away. I have also included a list of my (tentative) travel plans for 2016. Cheers to a new year of travel!

1. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia

Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia

Never had I before experienced a capital city so charismatic as Ljubljana. I wasn’t expecting much going into the Slovenian capital, as I usually don’t care too much for most capital cities these days. I’d rather visit a smaller, more unique village on the outskirts. However, Ljubljana blew me away! Ljubljana had a small town vibe indeed. The one word that comes to mind when I think of Ljubljana is charming. It was an eclectic mix of elegant/classy and bohemian/hippy, if that makes sense. The cafe culture was alive outside and it was almost impossible not to sit down at one of the trendy cafes overlooking the river. With only 1 day there, it wasn’t enough and I hope to go back soon to enjoy it more.

2. Interlaken, Switzerland (aka “Narnia”)

 

The ultimate winter wonderland in Interlaken, Switzerland

The ultimate winter wonderland in Interlaken, Switzerland

With only a short amount of time in Switzerland, we had a lot on our lists of things to see. But when traveling, sometimes you realize that plans don’t always work out the way you would like. Me and my friend Carey planned to see Jungfrau and/or Harder Kulm, yet due to the heavy snowfall, the visibility was slim to none and these activities never happened. We were a bit disappointed, to say the least, as the only 2 things we came there to see were closed. So we decided to take a paper map and explore the city. Well, we got lost and ended up walking through a park in the middle of a snow storm. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, with nothing in sight except for white powdery snow. At one point, a man on a horse rode by covered in a robe (a sort of “black knight”)and we looked at each other like, is this real life? We played in the snow and had numerous photo shoots, just the 2 of us. Something so simple brought us so much joy and it ended up being our favorite part of the trip. You know what they say, sometimes no plans are the best plans.

3. Israel and Palestine

Culture shock in Israel

Culture shock in Israel and Palestine

It was surreal to be able to stand on the same ground where Jesus once stood and to see his birthplace. The whole visit to Israel seemed like a dream and it’s something I have wanted to do my whole life. And I can honestly say that I experienced the biggest culture shock in all of my travels to date visiting this area. To see young military personnel walking around with guns was something very new to me, yet it’s a normal way of life over there. Also, the clash of multicultural people within the city walls of Jerusalem who were all living harmoniously together was incredible to see. If only those walls could speak. It was truly an eye-opening experience and I’m so glad I was able to witness it. Another huge bucket list item was also checked off for me here-floating in the Dead Sea!

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4. Cappadocia, Turkey (aka “Mars”)

Cappadocia

Cappadocia, aka Mars

If you’ve ever been to or seen pictures of Cappadocia, I think you can agree that it is like somewhere from a different planet. The landscape is like no other place on earth and the memories made there will last forever. From eating in a local family’s house sitting on the floor, to watching the famous hot air balloons rising above the land at sunrise, these are some memories I will never forget.

5. Rovinj, Croatia

streets of Rovinj, Croatia

The picturesque streets of Rovinj, Croatia

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with Croatia, but visiting Rovinj catapulted this obsession to a whole other level. The fact that I waited so long to visit this area baffles me. The streets of Rovinj were some of the most picturesque streets I have ever seen. The mixture of Croatian, Italian, and German languages spoke in this city really surprised me, until I learned some of the history behind it. The architecture especially had a strong Italian influence and at times I forgot I was in Croatia. How could I not like a city that felt like a mixture of Croatia and Italy, my 2 favourite countries! If you haven’t been to Rovinj yet, you’re really missing out on a hidden gem of Croatia!

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6.Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt, Austria in winter

The unreal village of Hallstatt, Austria

This is a place I had been dreaming to go ever since I saw pictures that actually made me think this place was fake due to its stark beauty. Usually when I give myself high expectations I am let down, 9 out of 10 times. But this wasn’t one of those times! Hallstatt might be the most beautiful/quaint/cute small village I have ever seen. The fact that it is set on a breathtaking lake just magnifies its beauty. Visiting Hallstatt was also very special since I went on my birthday and also because I’m half Austrian. Hallstatt definitely did not disappoint.

7.Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle in winter

Feeling like a princess at the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle

If you’ve ever traveled in Europe, you come to realize that extravagant castles appear to be the norm there. Once you’ve seen a dozen, you start to become immune to their grandeur. However, Neuschwanstein Castle is the epitome of a fairytale, and in my opinion it was the most spectacular castle I’ve ever seen. This was also part of my birthday trip so it was extra special. But when I arrived, it almost didn’t happen. Due to the weather, the lookout bridge with the best view of the castle was closed. But of course that didn’t let it stop me. I jumped over the fence and decided to go anyway, as many others decided as well. As a tried to take the “easy route” against my boyfriend’s wishes, I slipped on ice ad fell hard on my left shoulder. I then grabbed the bottom of the fence with my right arm, as my feet were dangling off the mountain. My boyfriend ran to my rescue and grabbed me by my left shoulder to help me up. The rest of the trip I could barely move my arm, but it was well worth it for the amazing views! I certainly felt like princess on my birthday.

Where Am I going in 2016?
That’s a very great question! So far, I only have a short trip to Reykjavik, Iceland and Bergen, Norway booked for Winter 2016. The rest is up in the air for now! However, I have a tentative plan that I hope will get put into full effect. Here it goes:

Spring 2016 wish list:

  • Portugal
  • Croatia
  • Italy

Summer 2016 wish list:

  • Latvia
  • Estonia
  • Finland

Fall 2016 wish list:

  • Norway fjords

2016 “maybes”:

  • Morocco
  • South Africa
  • South America
  • Bulgaria

I can’t afford to go to all these place, so I will probably pick just one or 2 out of this category. It’s such a hard choice!

*As with most travelers, plans can always change and new destinations will be chosen last-minute (which is what happened with Israel and Egypt last year!)

So, here’s to not knowing exactly what my plans are and the fun part of figuring that out. Happy New Years to everyone and I’ll see you in 2016!

WHAT WERE YOUR 2015 TOP TRAVEL SURPRISES? AND WHERE WILL YOU BE HEADED IN 2016? DO TELL!

Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

Israel is not the most popular travel destination these days. Every time I told someone I was going to Israel, 9 times out of 10 their response was, “Isn’t it dangerous? Why would you go there now?”  In true “me” fashion, I answered: “Why the f*ck not?” The safety of Israel is a hot topic of discussion, and one I will not comment on here. But I will say that I did my research, weighed all my risks, and made a personal decision to go, and I am so glad I did! If I lived in fear I would never have gotten to visit this outstanding destination and so many other amazing places we are often warned not to go. It was such an eye-opening and emotional experience and one I will forever hold close to my heart.

Israel is culturally and religiously diverse, full of rich Biblical history, and unfortunately highly immersed in political conflict, often deterring visitors due to the latter. Israel is known as the Cradle of Civilization and serves as such a monumental staple in history. Who wouldn’t want to roam the same streets where Jesus walked on? I know I did!

Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

View from Masada

Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

First and foremost, I knew I wanted to visit the Dead Sea, an absolute dream of mine. When researching ways to go about doing this, a full-day tour to the Dead Sea and Masada seemed to fit perfectly with my agenda. The tour kicked off with an 8:45am pickup from the hotel in Jerusalem, where we were greeted by our lovely guide Lea. There were about 10-12 others on the tour, consisting of a few Americans (including myself), Russians, and a Spanish couple. We started with a drive by Jericho, known as the oldest city in history, where we were given a brief history of the city and surrounding area. Next, a quick stop in the Judean dessert for a photo op (and a chance to get on top of camel for a quick ride, if desired).

After a quick stop at the Ahave Dead Sea factory for an opportunity to purchase official Dead Sea products (with a 5% discount for tour members), we were on our way for the 30 minute or so journey through the Judean desert. The drive was more visually pleasing than I would imagine, as we were graced with the presence of a plethora of palm trees! Lea explained that the high tech agriculture in Israel, with underwater fresh water springs flowing from the mountains, allows for life in the desert, including palm trees, pomegranate trees, dates, vegetation, etc. This was an unexpected and pleasant surprise to the desert drive.

Judean desert

Judean desert

Next up on our route was Masada, a UNESCO fortification in the Judean desert built by King Herod in 45 B.C. for protection to escape with his family. When we arrived we watched a 5 minute introductory video on the controversial history of Masada, and then ascended to the top by cable car. The ancient city was situated on top of the mountain with a fantastic view of the Dead Sea. It really was a site to see! We toured the complex for about 1.5 hours by the voice of our knowledgeable guide. The heat was almost unbearable up there, and although I was having a blast learning about the fascinating theories about what happened here (the most fascinating and disturbing theory is that 9000+ men, women, and children committed collective suicide here), I was dying to get back into the air conditioning.

Ruins of Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea

Ruins of Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea

The last and most anticipated stop on our tour was to the Dead Sea. After a few hours in the sweltering sun, nothing sounded more refreshing than diving head first into the salty sea! We were dropped off at Ein Gedi Resort, situated along the Dead Sea. The spa has one outdoor pool and 2 sulphur spas inside, as well as facial and body treatments available upon request. Shower facilities are available, and locker rentals are free with a deposit. Getting to the Dead Sea from the resort requires a 5 minute tractor ride down to the water.

I can’t speak for others, but floating in the Dead Sea has been a dream of mine and holds a spot close to the top of my never-ending buck list! Our guide informed us that the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth at 410 meters below sea level and has a salinity of 43.5%, comparable to 2-3% of the Mediterranean Sea! Now that’s salty! This explains why its called the Dead Sea, as no living creature can survive in such high salinity.

Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

Floating in the Dead Sea

I immediately plopped my stuff onto a beach chair and headed for the water, with GoPro in hand. Within the first few steps in, I was surprised at how warm the Sea water was. As I got to about knee high in water, I slowly laid back, my feet automatically bounced to the surface, and I was floating! I know that’s what is supposed to happen there, but what a surreal feeling it was to experience this in reality. The salinity prevents one from swimming or diving, so floating is really all you can do. I floated around just relaxing for about 45 minutes, I didn’t want to move, and I didn’t want it to end! I knew this was a once-in-a- lifetime experience, and I wanted to bask in it. My one big mistake? Dipping my head under to get my hair wet. I was unsuccessful in keeping the water out of my face and the salty water ran down my forehead and into my left eye. It stung so bad and was seriously one of the worst eye pains I have ever felt. For a second, I was hoping it wouldn’t blind me. I quickly made my way over to the shower and flushed it out, where eventually the pain subsided after about 5-7 minutes. It seemed like an eternity!

GoPro action in the Dead Sea

GoPro action in the Dead Sea

I couldn’t leave the Dead Sea without covering myself in the infamous Dead Sea mud (unfortunately, I put my camera away for this part). After letting it dry for a good 15 minutes, I rinsed it off and felt my skin. I kid you not, my skin felt like a newborn baby’s bottom, I’m not even exaggerating. I told myself I will never shower again so this feeling would stay. Don’t worry, I eventually caved in. The tour ended with a 6 pm drop off at the hotel.

Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

Small group size (10-12)

Knowledgable bi-lingual tour guide (Spanish/English)

Guided history of Masada

Unique Dead Sea experience

Opportunity to purchase Dead Sea products at Ahave factory

Air conditioned van

Hotel pickup and drop off

Cons

Lunch not included and not many options to choose from

Not enough time at Dead Sea (would have liked 3 hours instead of 2)

Extreme heat with minimal shade at Masada

En Gedi Resort & Spa

Ein Gedi Resort & Spa

 

Tips

Bring lots of water and sunscreen

Do not shave within 12-24 hours before entering the Dead Sea as this can cause extreme burning

Avoid contact with eyes when entering the Dead Sea (no splashing, diving, jumping into the water)

Bring your own towel (towel rentals are available for rental fee at En Gedi Spa)

Wear an old bathing suit as the Dead Sea water and sulphur spas may damage the material

Disclaimer: A special thanks to Tinggly for hosting my experience. My opinions, however, are completely my own.

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Final Thought

If you’re concerned about the safety of this region, I highly recommend a guided tour for specific activities in Israel, Jerusalem, and Palestine, or exploring the entire area as part of an organized tour group.

Have you been to the Dead Sea or Masada? Are you concerned about the safety of Israel, Jerusalem, or Palestine? I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences!