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5 Life-Changing Vacations

Travel writers share the trips they won’t forget

Aerial view of Tokyo with Mt. Fuji in the background; woman wrapped in a sleeping bag, watching the sunrise on top of Mount Whitney; couple strolling a tropical beach in Cancun, Mexico
StockByM / Getty Images; Nick Ocean Photography / Getty Images; Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Think about your most memorable vacation. Where did you go? What made it special to you? We asked five travel writers to share their favorite vacation spots that left a lasting impression and how you can plan a similar experience.

Young man at Akihabara electric town, street view, Tokyo, Japan
Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Tokyo

The year after my wife died, I took our son, Harrison, to Japan.

For most of Harrison’s high school years, the two of us had cared for his mother, who was battling a rare brain disease. After her funeral, we had stumbled through daily life, discovering how to move forward with just the two of us.

Now once again, we were on the cusp of change — him starting college and me about to face an empty nest. Since his youngest days, I had tried to show my son how travel could open new worlds and let you see your life from a different perspective. With freshman orientation looming, the message felt urgent now, my last chance, it seemed, to shape his worldview.

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But was Japan, an unfamiliar country where neither of us knew the language or customs, going to be too much? Over the next two weeks, we would see.

At the airport train station, we paused in front of a sprawling map of Tokyo’s transit system with routes twisting and tangling through a city of 14 million people. We stood silent for a moment, trying to find a route to our downtown hotel. But as happened time and time again — during my wife’s illness and on the trip — someone pointed us in the right direction.

Quickly we began to learn the city, from the chaos of the morning fish market to the luxury offerings of its department stores. We marveled at the technology on display in the Akihabara district, with its cavernous electronics stores, sidewalk computer vendors and towering signs bathing streets with noontime glare in the middle of the night.

One evening, we feasted on ramen noodles in a tiny alley café near Tokyo’s main train station. The next day, we visited the Studio Ghibli museum, devoted to the anime films that once delighted my son and his mother.

Then we hopped on bullet trains to see more of the country. For a few days, we hiked the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail, where a guide had us lie down in a grove of pine trees to meditate, a practice she called forest bathing. That night, we soaked in the steaming waters of a traditional hot springs resort.

One day at the massive Kaiyukan aquarium in Osaka, Harrison taught me how to take selfies with penguins that peered over our shoulders, eager it seemed, to join the photo shoot. Another afternoon, he watched me successfully navigate a path between two stones at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Tradition says that those who cross with their eyes closed will find true love, something I had doubted after losing my wife of 22 years.

On our final night in Japan, I splurged for a stay at Tokyo’s fabled Park Hyatt hotel, the filming location for the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson movie, Lost in Translation. For dinner, we booked a table at the hotel’s New York Grill on the 52nd floor, where skyscrapers sparkled around us.

I knew someday my son would dine with a potential boss or meet his fiancée’s parents over a lavish meal. I wanted him to remember this evening and realize that no setting, no matter how opulent, should intimidate him.

We flew home the next day. Thirty-six hours later, I drove him to college.

As a single parent, I had worried about the lessons I neglected to impart during my wife’s illness and after her death. But in those two weeks crisscrossing Japan, I learned as much as my son: Together, we could navigate any challenge. While the world can be tragic and confusing, it also offers unimaginable wonders.

Larry Bleiberg, past president of the Society of American Travel Writers, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Chief Lake, John Muir Trail, CA
Getty Images

John Muir Trail, California

Partway up a long, steep climb to the top of a pine-covered mountain pass on the John Muir Trail in California a few years ago, I ground to a halt and flopped down on a boulder. My back ached and my toes throbbed from hauling a 28-pound backpack up and down mountains for more than a week. I hadn’t seen a flush toilet for 100 miles and wouldn’t reach a soft mattress for a long time. Two days earlier, I’d scratched the following sentence in my journal: “So exhausted I can barely think” — and my husband and I were only halfway through our 15-day trip.

As much as I love dirt and rivers and trails that unspool through meadows of golden grass and glacier-carved valleys, I felt overwhelmed. What was I doing? I was 52 years old — I wasn’t 20 or even 40 anymore. Plus, at that moment, I was hungry and thirsty. “I can’t do this,” I told my husband, feeling inexplicably defeated. “This is too hard. It’s too much.” My husband plopped down next to me, handed me my water bottle and pointed to a lake glinting like a dime far below us. “But look at that,” he said. “We started down there this morning, and here you are.”

He was right. That glinting dime looked a million miles away. I’d come a long distance in a few hours, and not a single step I’d taken had been that difficult. It was the entire trip, taken as a whole, that seemed impossible.

I could keep moving forward. And I did. Over the next 100 miles, I waded into ice-cold alpine lakes, admired a creek that flowed through a field like a blue scarf and took in the stark beauty of Bighorn Plateau, which seemed like the only flat spot on our entire 200-mile route. I ate dehydrated meals that tasted like the best food on the planet, and in the end, I reveled in the accomplishment of making it all the way to the trail’s terminus on the other side of Mount Whitney.

I learned a lot of things on that trip, including the importance of staying hydrated and eating enough food to fuel your adventure. I also learned not to wear inserts in your hiking boots, even if you have plantar fasciitis, because they tilt your feet forward and result in bashed toes.

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More importantly, I learned that if you just keep plugging along, you’ll get over any mountain pass placed in front of you. You’ll feel even better when you get there if you get dirty along the way. 

Pam LeBlanc is an Austin, Texas-based adventure writer and former newspaper journalist who loves to get dirty, scrape her shins and sleep in a tent.

View of a man sitting with his legs over an infinity pool on the ocean in Cancun. He's holing a colorful tropical frozen drink with a pineapple garnish
Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

Cancun, Mexico

Everything was perfect. The night air was cool, the wind was mild, the sea gently washing over the shore. I could hear music from the resort, but that was far enough away to make it seem as though we were alone. In fact, the beach was shockingly empty, even for a Sunday evening. The moon softly lit my girlfriend, who had no idea that, in mere moments, I was going to propose.

“Isn’t that [the constellation] Orion?” I asked, pointing out to the sea. It was not a great feint. I don’t have much game. But it did distract her long enough that when she turned back, I was on one knee, ring case open.

“What are you doing?” she said, laughing. “Stand up, silly!”

I didn’t move. The tide was back. My knees were getting soaked.

She put her hands to her face. She realized this was really happening. I asked her to marry me. We hugged. We cried. We said we loved each other. The only thing we didn’t say — by which I mean, the only thing she didn’t say — was, “Yes.”

“I need some time,” she finally told me.

Time? No problem. Time we had. We were on day two of our four-day getaway to Breathless Riviera Cancun Resort & Spa.

Cancun was our yearly vacation mainstay. We had been together six years, since my divorce, and she had prioritized travel, since we said we didn’t want kids (mine was grown) and didn’t want to marry. We’d been to Italy, New York and Tokyo, but we needed a place where we could go spur of the moment, a place where we could just sit on the beach, listen to the ocean, drink rum cocktails and catch up on our reading.

I started to worry, though, that our routine was becoming stale. Not Cancun. It was always lovely — Riviera was a high-class resort, resplendent in white buildings and blue pools, with more bars and top restaurants than we could visit on one trip. No, I was worried she really wanted commitment. Surely she wanted to see me on one knee. And she wanted to wear a big fat ring. Right?

As we walked back to the seaside bar and ordered champagne, I surreptitiously answered the text from the one friend who knew my proposal plan. “Nope,” I texted. We drank our champagne and watched the Cowboys-Giants game holding hands. We couldn’t be sad. We were in Cancun. Together.

That trip, the proposal trip, was in 2016. We came back to Cancun the next year. We still weren’t married. We came back in 2018. Still together but not married. We were back in Mexico last year, and I’m looking to book Riviera again this spring.

We’re still together but not married. She decided she liked us the way we were. I decided I loved her enough to be happy, no matter what she wanted. We decided it was OK to come back here despite it not working out as I’d planned. It was OK to not be married, because we loved Cancun and the cocktails and the sun and the beach reads and the surf & turf and each other. The other things we thought we needed — that I thought she wanted — were not needed. We kept Cancun, and the funny story we tell about the time she said no in paradise.

Oh, and the ring. She kept the ring. She’s no dummy.

Eric Celeste is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Mt. Rushmore National Memorial Park in South Dakota. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is centered on a colossal sculpture carved into the granite in the Black Hills in Keystone, South Dakota
Getty Images

Rapid City, South Dakota 

Somewhere over what I calculated to be central Nebraska, my daughter Maddy looked out the airplane window and said, “Wow, this country is so big!” 

It was the sort of statement various people can understand for two reasons: Maddy was an 11-year-old with limited travel under her belt. Her exposure to the outside world was limited to the infrequent jaunts from her Plano, Texas, neighborhood. 

The second reason is one that a majority of Americans can relate to, especially those of us who were Lady Liberty’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. 

I am a second-generation American and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, someone whose life came quite close to never happening. As such, I was determined to instill in Maddy the pride I have for a land that President Abraham Lincoln said this of: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it.”

In 2015, I took Maddy on a Maddy/Daddy getaway to Rapid City. As ours is a household of two full-time working parents, I wanted a special weekend trip for some quality one-on-one time with my oldest of two. She was given free rein to choose where she wanted to go. Since she was covering national monuments in social studies, her answer was Mount Rushmore. I’d never been to South Dakota. This was a special first for us both. 

We woke early to drive to Mount Rushmore from our hotel in Custer. I did my best to educate Maddy about each president who is commemorated in the Black Hills, and I taught her about what sort of manpower was needed to erect this monument from 1927-1941. We gazed at the presidents from several angles for hours. I could see Maddy watching the other visitors’ reactions to the striking carvings. And I could see America working its magic on her. That, in turn, was magical for me. 

From there, we drove to the Crazy Horse Memorial. Under construction since 1948, the work-in-progress commemorates the legendary Lakota warrior who was instrumental in defeating Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, only later to be stabbed in the back by a military guard. Before his death, a soldier taunted him while in custody by asking, “Where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse responded with one of the more poetic refrains I’ve ever heard: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” 

And so it was in the Black Hills, gazing at the Crazy Horse monument in the distance, where this second-generation American and his 11-year-old daughter felt a true kinship with the Native American disposition. My family made it to America in 1945, and this is where my friends and family lie buried. It’s where I’ll be buried. 

Over dinner that night, we discussed how the two monuments inspired us to spend our trips exploring more institutions of Americana in the future, and to explore them together. 

On the flight home, I responded to Maddy, “Yes, honey, this country is so big. And it’s the most beautiful country in the world.” 

Adam Pitluk is an award-winning journalist and book author. He is the group publisher of Midwest Luxury Publishing and Groom Lake Media. 

Beautiful view of Terraced rice field and mountain in the clouds. Cat Cat village, Vietnam, a popular tourist trekking destination.
Andrii Brodiahin / Alamy Stock Photo

Hanoi, Vietnam

​Because I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived and traveled all over the world, people often ask me what my favorite place is. It’s impossible to choose, but there are experiences that stand out, including a vacation my family and I took to Vietnam while we were living in Bangkok. 

​I usually booked our adventures myself, spending countless hours researching hotels, transportation and points of interest. But when a good friend described her family’s trip to Vietnam, I decided to book a similar tour with her Vietnamese-based travel agency, Paradise Travel (whose agents speak fluent English, French, Spanish and Italian). 

​We began in the capital city of Hanoi, where we were met by our English-speaking guide. As we drove from the airport toward our hotel, I said how poignant it was to be in Vietnam, having grown up under the shadow of the Vietnam War. He looked at me with a smile and replied, “You mean the American War.” His words were a reminder of how important it is to travel and view the world from different perspectives, and they have stayed with me ever since.

​The staff at our hotel in Hanoi was wonderful, and the lobby’s walls were covered with fabulous paintings by Vietnamese artists. (The hotel is no longer there, but a good alternative is Thang Long Opera Hotel.)

​We spent two days touring the city, dodging the ubiquitous motorcycles as we crossed the streets, eating pho (traditional Vietnamese soup) from street vendors, French cuisine in fine restaurants and shopping in the Old Quarter. 

​While my husband took our two children to the renowned Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, I toured art galleries. At the Apricot Gallery, I fell in love with a portrait of a woman from the northern village of Sapa, which was our next destination. 

​The overnight journey to Sapa on the luxurious Victoria Express train reminded me of an Agatha Christie novel and delighted our children. We shared a four-berth cabin, which was extremely comfortable, and had a late-night snack in the red-hued dining car. Upon our arrival at 6 a.m., we were met by our local guide and whisked off to the Victoria hotel — now the BB Sapa Resort & Spa.

​The village was charming, and we enjoyed shopping in the market, eating local cuisine and meeting the people, who greeted us with huge smiles. But the highlight of the entire trip was hiking among the hills and rice paddies and visiting Cat Cat Village, which is home to traditional Hmong households and freely roaming livestock. The people were warm, and many welcomed us into their homes. 

​Even for those who may not be able to hike, a visit to Sapa is well worth it. There’s plenty to do and see by car, and a reputable travel agency can arrange for a knowledgeable guide.

​We ended our adventure back in Hanoi, where I rushed to the Apricot Gallery to purchase the portrait of the woman in her traditional Hmong dress. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded of the unforgettable people of Sapa and our adventure in Vietnam. 

​Jaimie Seaton has lived in and reported from South Africa, the Netherlands, Singapore and Thailand. She’s written on travel for Skift, The Independent and CNN.

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