In 2013, David and I were blessed with another year of amazing travel firsts - first time to Alaska, first time to San Francisco, first time to the Grand Canyon, first time in a tiny 6-seater plane, and other notable moments of first glimpses. New and different sights and opportunities always produce an abundance of fresh stories and photos to share. Here, in no particular order, are our top 10 most memorable travel experiences of 2013, followed by photos I took:
Flightseeing in Ketchikan, Alaska. While aboard the Grand Princess on an Alaska cruise, we spent a large stack of bills on this privately-booked floatplane flight to see bears in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, the bears did not come out to play with us, but the ride was exciting nevertheless, landing and takeoff smooth as silk, and the view from the sky was beautiful. My initial fear of taking off in a tiny plane was replaced by sheer excitement, and the ride was worth every precious penny we paid.
The Grand Canyon, Arizona. The thought of cold and snow at the South Rim made me really hesitant about visiting the Grand Canyon in February. However, I was so glad we did. Thankfully, the forecasted major snowstorm, which threatened to create a traveling mess, never materialized. Instead, we were left with a fine layer of fresh powder and sun. The effects of natural light and snow-layered rims of the canyon enhanced the beauty and splendor of this natural wonder. As we drove and stopped for photos at several points along the rim trail, I lost count of the number of “Ahhhh” moments where words could never describe what lay before my eyes. The quiet solitude of the canyon in winter was a gift, making me wonder why anyone would want to fight the heat and crowds in summer.
Cathedral Rock Hike in Sedona, Arizona. On our drive back from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix for our flight home, we stopped for a night in Sedona. The drive through the winding, mountainous roads blessed us with some of the most beautiful snow-covered vistas we’d ever seen, and as we drove closer to Sedona and caught our first glimpse of grand red rocks, the scene took our breath away. As with the Grand Canyon, the light layer of snow against backdrop of red proved to enhance the beauty of these majestic rock formations. We are not the adventurous or active sort, but we managed to hike our old, tired legs a short way up the trail in the lightly falling snow toward the grandest of the red rocks, Cathedral Rock. Our hiking shoes were caked with red mud, but it was well worth the experience.
Glacier Bay, Alaska. This is what we came to Alaska for and why we chose a cruise with Glacier Bay as part of the itinerary. We were blessed with a gorgeous, sunny day when we sailed in, and as she ship slowly guided past the great ice, we marveled at the majestic splendor of the glaciers and mountains reflected in the calm, blue water of the Bay.
Muir Woods, California. A visit to the stately redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument was part of a post-cruise day tour of Sausalito and Marin County. Although the sections of the park were crowded with noisy tourists, there was plenty of opportunity for quiet tranquility on the walk through this forest of old, beautiful redwoods. The towering, majestic trees were simply stunning and I couldn’t help but feel small and inconsequential next to such natural beauty.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. We had several opportunities to see the bridge, both on a pre-cruise city tour when we stopped for the obligatory photo ops and again on a post-cruise tour when we traveled over the bridge to explore the Marin County area and Muir Woods. It seemed that the bridge appeared different each time we gazed at it. At times the bridge was barely visible in the foggy mist, other times it was shrouded in clouds. On our final day in San Francisco, the fog lifted and a blue, sunny sky revealed the bridge in all its glory. But perhaps the most dramatic Golden Gate Bridge moment was gliding beneath the bridge aboard the Grand Princess on our way out of the Bay to Alaska. You could almost hear a collective sigh as the bridge approached then disappeared above us, and the applause that followed by all the cruisers on deck said it all.
Dim Sum in Chinatown, San Francisco. Chinatown in this amazing city is a huge area of kitschy souvenir shops mixed in with authentic Chinese art, sculptures, crafts and other unique wares. There is a never-ending feeling of hustle and bustle here, and it was nice to stop at a small restaurant along the way for dim sum – good, inexpensive appetizers and tea to hold us over until dinner time while resting our weary feet.
Alcatraz, San Francisco. I’d always been curious about this old prison since seeing Burt Lancaster as the Birdman of Alcatraz, and I wasn’t disappointed. A steep hike up to the prison from the pier was well worth the informative self-audio tour. Listening to the voices of former inmates tell of their time behind bars, stories of attempted escapes, the famous criminals imprisoned here, and what life was like at the prison made for a very interesting – and a little bit haunting - experience.
Whale Watching & Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari, Juneau Alaska. This was a 5-hour ship-sponsored excursion while aboard the Grand Princess on an inside passage cruise from San Francisco. Unlike many large group shore excursions, this one was refreshingly different. We were part of a small group of 12 other shutterbugs, both experienced and point-and-shoot type of travelers, and were led on a nature hike at Mendenall Glacier followed by an amazing small boat ride to search for whales. This tour did not disappoint. We saw amazing whale activity, enjoyed breathtaking views of Mendenhall Glacier, experienced beautiful plant and animal life, and learned some helpful photo tips along the way.
Japanese Hot Rock at Izumi, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. My daughter, with whom I traveled on a cruise to Canada aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, is an avid fan of Japanese food. So it was only natural we had to try Izumi, the newly-added Japanese restaurant to the ship’s roster of onboard eateries. I decided to be adventurous and try grilling my own dinner right at our table, all by myself, with just a 550-degree blazing hot rock, some steak, vegetables and a spatula. Like the waiter said, if it came out bad, I had only myself to blame. Not much of a griller at home, and steak not being my specialty, I was a little intimidated. However, it turned out to be lots of fun and the highlight of my onboard dining experience.