A lazy day sailing through the Thousand Islands located along the St. Lawrence Seaway, onboard the M/V Yorktown, was a travel highlight for online editor Monica Poling // (c) 2012 Monica Poling
When taking a look back at my favorite trips of 2012, it proved to be a little harder than expected to limit my choices to just five experiences.
Trips that did not make the cut included a weekend of exploring San Francisco's cultural and foodie scene, a rollicking Acapulco nightclub crawl - with travel agents from around Latin America - and two senior-level travel agent events, including Virtuoso in Las Vegas and Karisma Hotel's Gastronomy Inclusive Vacation Consultants (GIVC) awards in the Riviera Maya.
When kicking back in the Riviera Maya and exploring my favorite city by the bay don't make the cut, it's evident that I've had a great year, which was highlighted by many fabulous new experiences.
Seeing the Northern Lights, Norway
As soon as the new year rolled around, I found myself searching through LA's apparel shops for clothing - and footwear - that would stand up to the rigors of traveling to Norway, above the Arctic Circle.
The main purpose of this trip was to embark on the hybrid Huritgruten cruise/ferry line and travel along the gorgeous Norwegian Fjords, while of course hoping the weather would prove to be favorable enough to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
The real memories, however, came from the one-of-a-kind shore excursions.
Munching on crab caught just minutes before through a hole dug directly into the frozen fjord is a meal that will remain a favorite experience for a very long time.
The overall highlight, for me, was motoring across a frozen glacier, near Mehamn, Norway, in near-blizzard conditions - at 2:00 in the morning. At one time, the guides had us halt the skidoos and power off our headlights - plunging our group into a breathtaking, anticipatory darkness, as we scanned the night sky, which had miraculously cleared up in time for our stop.
Though the lights proved to be somewhat reluctant that evening - shining a pale white, rather than a vibrant green - the hospitality and good cheer of the Mehamn locals, who didn't seem any worse for wear as they worked through the night to regale us with stories about life above the Arctic Circle, made this a particularly special experience.
Mt. Fuji, Japan
In mid-March, just in time for the earliest days of the cherry blossom season, I returned to one of my favorite destinations in the world, Japan.
Shizuoka Prefecture, with its proximity to Tokyo and its stunning waterfront vistas of Mt. Fuji, should be better known to Americans.
Although the trip had numerous highlights, including sampling Mishima City's succulent grilled eel offerings, and watching the changing faces of Mt. Fuji from a ferry ride over Tsuruga Bay, what really seemed to stand out was sampling Shizuoka's microbrewed beers along the way.
Although Japan certainly has its share of famous beers - Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo, to name a few - the country is experiencing a rapid advancement in the kurafuto bia (craft beer) movement. The same super-clean water that makes Shizuoka famous as a grilled eel destination also makes it an ideal location for brewing beer.
A sudsy highlight was dinner at the Gotemba Kogen resort, an all-you-can eat affair with foods from around the world. The beer - the eponymous Gotemba Kogen beer - is crafted on site and is served in all-you-can-consume quantities, which gave me plenty of opportunity to sample the resort's numerous beer varietals.
ExecConnect, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Getting asked to be a presenter at TravelAge West's annual ExecConnect event was definitely a highlight for me.
The event, held at the beautiful Melia Cabo Real, brought together elite travel agents from around the country with leading travel industry suppliers.
While the trip didn't allow for much sightseeing - with the exception of sampling some of Los Cabos' vibrant nightlife scene - it did give me a great opportunity to catch up with some old industry friends, as well as develop many brand new friendships.
More importantly, the event let me tap into the massive travel agent collective. The travel agents in attendance were all a-buzz with energy and passion for their work, which helped to remind me what a great industry I work for.
Great Lakes Cruise, Detroit, Michigan
Another first came this summer, as my mom and I embarked upon a cruise of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, onboard the M/V Yorktown.
Although I spent my formative years growing up in the Great Lakes region, I always forget how massive these bodies of water really are. We would spend hours at a time sailing with no land, or other vessels, in sight.
Owned and operated by Travel Dynamics International, the 69-cabin M/V Yorktown is small enough to sail along most of America's waterways, but sturdy enough to take on coastal, ocean cruising.
Last summer was the vessel's first season sailing through the Great Lakes, with itineraries heading as far west as Duluth, Minnesota. Eastbound voyages, like the one mom and I took, sailed between Detroit and Quebec City, and included stops in Cleveland, Niagara Falls, Montreal and Quebec City, as well as two weather-perfect days "at lake," floating through the Welland Canal and the Thousand Islands.
While we enjoyed the in-port excursions as much as the lazy sailing days - taking in the scenery and eavesdropping on Yorktown sailors catching up on gossip with the workers along the Welland Canal - what really made this cruise extraordinary was the top-notch service. The crew, proudly an all-American one, went out of its way to make sure the passengers were taken care of.
The year rolled to a close with a second trip to Asia, this time to explore the culinary offerings of Malaysia. While not my first time in Malaysia, this trip provided me with a far-more in-depth look at "real" life in Malaysia.
The purpose of the visit was to attend the opening of the Malaysia International Gourmet Food Festival (MGIF), but the remainder of the trip provided plenty of other culinary offerings, including a super-giant, five-star international buffet at Le Meridien Hotel; a visit to Restoran Rebung, an authentically Malaysian restaurant owned by celebrity Chef Ismail; as well as the opportunity to sample satay and other street food to my heart's content in one of Penang's open-air food markets.
When not exploring Malaysia's mighty culinary scene we spent time visiting the country's top attractions, including the Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest twin towers and Batu Caves, with its impressive gold statue of Lord Murugan. Just 10 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty, this is the one of the largest statues in the world.
Personally, I was delighted to see that Border Books, a brand now deceased in the U.S., lives on in Malaysia. I spent some of my precious free time trolling its shelves, and although I was troubled to see that E.L. James'
Fifty Shades of Grey is apparently a top seller in Malaysia, visiting the store was like reconnecting with a long lost friend.