Another year has gone and it's time, once again, to lay out my annual Top 10 travel experiences of the year. Since the big summer trip for my husband and I this year was a Mediterranean cruise, many of the following favorites are destinations resulting from that 11-night sailing. Here are my top 10 favorites for 2014:
#10) Flying First Class. On a selfish whim, I decided to splurge and upgrade our usual economy seats on Aer Lingus between Boston and Rome. Aer Lingus has a bidding system for first class upgrades, and since I find enormous pleasure in bidding for a good deal (Ebay, Priceline and so on), I thought, what the heck. We was paying a ridiculous amount for tiny seats with no leg room - why not pay a little more for a little luxury. Well, when all was said and done, it was an obscene amount we shelled out for a first-class upgrade. Was it worth it? In retrospect, probably not. At the time, however, when we were drinking free wine from real glasses, dining on “gourmet” airline food with real napkins, china and linen napkins, enjoying copious amounts of leg room and reclining all the way flat for sleeping, we said “Hell, yeah, this is TOTALLY worth it!”
#9) Weekend Cruise aboard Disney Magic. A 3-night Martin Luther King Weekend cruise on a Disney cruise ship proved to me why Disney is a cut above the rest in terms of family cruising. From a “welcome aboard” fit for a queen to nighttime fireworks off the deck, the experience was truly magical - for young and old alike.
#8) 9/11 Memorial: On a beautiful spring day, we rode Amtrak to New York City to spend a couple of nights seeing the sites. Though we have been to NYC numerous times before, one must-see on our list this time around was the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the newly designed World Trade Center. We paid our respects and reflected on the names etched in stone and the great human loss of that day in 2001. I commend those who created the concept and design for this solemn place with the reflecting pools and new “Freedom Tower” as a backdrop, for it was a peaceful and moving experience.
#7) Wellfleet, Mass. This quaint, picturesque town along a stretch of Outer Cape Cod has been a favorite family summer getaway over the last 30 years. This year was extra special because we introduced our 1-year-old grandson to the wonders of bayside cottage life, as well as my brother and his wife. Spread out between two twin adorable bayside cottages, we enjoyed some precious family time among the dunes. It was so much fun, we’ve booked the same for summer 2015.
#6) Amalfi Coast, Italy. We joined six other people from our cruise ship for a private excursion through the hills and winding roads along this beautiful stretch of coastline on the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula. We stopped at picturesque, artsy towns along the way - Positano, Ravello and Amalfi, and though we would have liked more time in just one town instead of only a brief time in three, we experienced some of the most amazing scenery of our port stops on the cruise. Ravello was an especially enjoyable respite from the crowds, as the big tour busses don’t include it on their itinerary. We’ve made a mental note to explore Ravello further the next time we return to Italy.
#5) Hotel Albergo Del Senato, Rome: Hotels don't usually make my top 10 list, but this charming hotel is the exception. With a killer view overlooking the Pantheon and Piazza Della Rotonda, we could simply slide open the shutters, open the big windows, and take in the beauty and character of Rome before ever leaving our room. Our own Roman Holiday!
#4) Santorini, Greece - A cruise excursion brought us by boat to an awaiting motorcoach for a ride to the beautiful village of Oia, the most beautiful and picturesque place in Santorini. Located on top of a massive cliff, visitors experience charming houses in narrow streets, blue-domed churches and a spectacular ocean view. With limited time in town, we immediately found ourselves at a seaside cafe and a table with an incredible view. Notably, Oia is also famous for the most fabulous sunsets. Timing from our cruise ship did not allow us to view the sunset from the island, but we enjoyed a gorgeous Santorini sunset from our cruise ship.
#3) Ephesus, Turkey. I won't lie ... it was as hot as the guidebooks said it would be when we visited in August. Fortunately, we hired a private guide who picked us up at the cruise port in a large minivan and delivered us to the ruins of this ancient city in air conditioned comfort. Armed with bottles of water and umbrellas for shade, we made our way through the stone covered streets and barren landscape imagining what life was like in those times. We were introduced to the magnificent Library of Celcus, an ancient brothel, some very interesting public toilets, the theatre where St. Paul preached, and other age-old structural remains.
#2) The Colosseum. To see the Hollywood version with Russell Crowe is indeed entertaining, but to see this enormous ancient amphitheater in person is simply spectacular. With a tour guide and small group, we were able to get a good history, think about the labor it took to build such a place, and close our eyes and imagine gladiator combat, wild animal fights, and the roar of the blood-thirsty crowd. In the movie, gladiator Maximus boldly shouts to the crowd, “are you not entertained?” We were indeed.
#1) Sistine Chapel/Vatican Museums: No visit to Rome is complete, of course, without a tour of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. To be in the presence of such famous frescos, tapestry and sculpture was humbling and made even more special with an early morning private tour of the Sistine Chapel before opening to the public. With a small group of 6 others and very few people in the Chapel, we could fully appreciate the magnificence of Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in this incredible place without the massive crowds that would appear later.