Last year was a great one for me, in terms of travel, because it was filled with a number of “firsts” — my first time on both Jamaican and Asian soil for starters. And as I write this now, I’m also experiencing another corner of the world for the first time, French Polynesia, consequently getting an early start on my 2010 best-of-the-best list. As for my favorite travel excursions of last year, they were plentiful but, I’ve narrowed it down to the top five. Here they are in no particular order.
Kicking It in Seoul
Taekwondo practitioners from Seoul's Kukkiwon
I had a breakthrough, so to speak, during a visit to Gyeongheegung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, last year. On the palace grounds, I watched Kukkiwon taekwondo practitioners launch into back flips, break multiple planks of wood in midair and, with utmost precision, kick an apple off the tip of a sword while blindfolded. At the end of the show, the host asked for volunteers. One of my colleagues was the first to jump at the opportunity, and he insisted that I join him on stage — I reluctantly obliged. The next thing I knew, the host was holding a wooden plank in front of my face, asking me if I’d rather kick or punch it. I practically started hyperventilating as my face turned beet red from anxiety.
“Um, kick?” I squeaked back at him.
With the audience looking on and the host encouraging me, I didn’t have much of a choice but to give that piece of wood a whooping — to my eternal amazement, I broke the plank in two.
The Berlin Underground
Art on display at Tacheles, a multi-level underground art gallery in Berlin
I only had one night in Berlin, so I knew I had to make the most of it. Hailing a cab from Maritim Hotel Berlin in Tiergarten park, I asked the driver to drop me off wherever the funky, artsy kids hang out on Friday nights. I soon found myself wandering along Oranienburger Strasse in the Mitte borough until coming across a dilapidated building called Kunsthaus Tacheles. I later found out that the structure had a quite the intriguing past from its incarnation as a shopping mall in 1907 to serving as a base for Nazi Party administration departments in World War II. Tacheles, at present day, thrives as a multi-level underground art gallery, every inch of its walls covered in graffiti. On my serendipitous visit, some of the artists — including Dutch, mixed media artist, Tim Roelof — were on hand to discuss and sell their work. DJs played house music, and a room temperature Becks beer (gotta drink it like the locals) was just a couple of euros. The night was off to a promising start.
A Wake-Up Call in Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo
The night owl that I am, I wasn’t exactly thrilled that my group wanted to leave our Tokyo hotel at 6 a.m. to tour the Tsukiji Fish Market. But, it was my first morning in Japan and, like Bill Murray’s character in “Lost in Translation,” I wasn’t able to get much sleep anyway. After arriving at the market, the zipping and zigzagging of carts piloted by unforgiving workers and the amalgam of aromas shook me wide awake. Vendors had everything on display from fresh wasabi root by the bundle to diakon radishes tall enough to tower over a 2-year-old child — not to mention the most impressive selection of sea creatures that I’ve ever seen. It goes without saying that the fresh seafood available at the Tsukiji Fish Market is world renowned. Therefore, we couldn’t possibly leave without filling our bellies with the good stuff. We took a seat at Sushi-Zanmai for what would be my very first sushi breakfast. Granted, I admit that I’m no morning person, but it’s never too early for freshly caught toro.
A Chilling Experience in China
The snow-covered Great Wall of China
I’ve been to Alaska in the dead of winter, but nothing prepared me for the bone-chilling weather I would experience in the greater Beijing area in November during an 11-day tour with Uniworld and Victoria Cruises. Awaking one morning, I peered through my frosty window only to find that the ground was covered with snow. This meant, if we were lucky, that our group would get a rare glimpse of the Great Wall of China blanketed in fresh powder. To our delight, hardly any other tour groups were there when we arrived at the site, and we had the first crack at creating tracks in the newly fallen snow. My friend and I decided to trek up to the tallest vantage point which, with my flimsy pair of Reeboks, was no easy task. Getting down, however, was the fun part. We gripped the rails and slid down the side, then started to race each other downhill. Neither of us fell, but we watched a couple of others as they tumbled in good humor — I think they knew they would never have an experience quite like this one again.
Albuquerque Sound Off
Hot air ballooning in Albuquerque
Most people think I’m a bit out of my mind when I admit this, but I absolutely love heights. To prove to you that I’m not bluffing, I went bungee jumping for the first time at age 12 and have been skydiving on about five occasions. Yet until last year, I had never had a bird’s-eye view from the basket of a hot-air balloon. While touring Albuquerque, N.M., I had just that opportunity with city’s most popular balloon operator, Rainbow Ryders. We floated over the Rio Grande, downtown Albuquerque and the “Big I” where the I-40 and I-25 highways converge. But what I found most fascinating was the reaction we got from perturbed pets in the residential neighborhoods we passed. Literally every dog in a backyard ran back and forth in a frenzy, barking upward at us in response to the high-pitch sound emanating from the balloon burners, one that only their ears were sensitive enough to pick up. Even at an elevation of 2,000 feet above the ground, we could hear their howls and yaps. It prompted me to ask the pilot, “Do you think we can go just a bit higher?”