2016 Annual Recap

2016 in review – 75 unique countries (50 new ones) on 5 continents. 126 flights, 8 trains, 20 ships/ferries, 21 self-drive car rentals, 39 car/driver arrangements. The year began with British Virgin Islands and the last remaining country in the Caribbean – beach, sun, island-hopping. A couple weeks among the skyscrapers of Manhattan and a trip to Washington DC to get African visas and I was ready to launch. Europe brought skiing in the Austrian Alps, and then it was on to the West Africa: beautiful islands of Cabo Verde with climbing Pico de Fogo volcano, Pink Lake and Atlantic coastline in Senegal, river cruising in Gambia, colorful markets in Guinea-Bissau, futuristic churches in Ivory Coast, rubber plantations in Liberia, stunning white sand beaches in Sierra-Leone, and dusty Guinea. Next – rocking the kasbah in Algeria’s capital of Algiers. Short week in NYC and off to a grand Pacific loop – Pearl Harbor and Waikiki in Hawaii, amazing beaches and lagoons of Marshall Islands, hopping through unique islands of Micronesia, driving around Guam and Northern Marianas. Next – thorough exploration of Philippines: historic Manila, underground Puerto Princessa River, Chocolate Hills and cute tarsiers in Bohol, and stunning coral reefs of Palawan. On to Taiwan for a complete circumnavigation of the island and a classic train ride to the highest point for sunrise (oh – and the night markets in Taipei are to die for). Quick hop to Okinawa, then on to Macao for the Portuguese colonial history and the world’s biggest gambling playground. Singapore was amazing with the futuristic Garden by the Bay and the world’s largest orchid collection at the Botanical Gardens. Timur Leste, a little known country in the Indian Ocean was far off the beaten path but truly spectacular with amazing coastline and high mountains in the middle. Two weeks in Papua New Guinea’s highlands were mind-boggling and eye-opening with colorful traditional culture and elusive birds of paradise. Quick stop on rather sad Nauru, and on to Kiribati with its absolutely stunning blue lagoon and complete lack of tourism. More Pacific exploration with the lost-in-time Tuvalu and the French-speaking Wallis & Futuna (both hard to get to,but absolutely amazing paradise-like unspoiled locations). Niue perhaps topped it all in the Pacific – an island of limestone pinnacles and world’s biggest land crabs (that you hunt and eat). A little bit of chilling in Auckland in New Zealand (literally – it was winter here) with world’s best sauvignon blanc and oysters. Next – back into the Pacific paradise for an in-depth exploration of the Cook Islands and finally back to NYC. Change clothes – and off to the chilly Newfoundland and the austere scenery of the Gros Morne mountains. A ferry ride to St Pierre & Miquelon, being the last country remaining for me to visit in North America. After literally one day in NYC, I launched on what would be a long 6 month-long journey across Europe, Asia, and Africa. First – a mandatory annual “pilgrimage” to Ibiza to eat, sleep, rave, and repeat – the foam party was da bomb! After Ibiza, it was on to Germany to explore the castles and sample the wines of the Reine Valley, and then for more electronic dance music at the legendary Nature One festival (clubs are located in the former Pershing nuclear missile silos). A quick tour of northern France followed with endless Moet et Chandon in Champagne, stunning gothic churches, and finally Versailles in Paris. Next – Zurich in Switzerland for the world’s biggest music gathering – Street Parade – with over one million revelers! After that it was time to go mushroom picking in Belarus and some homemade meals. Not wasting much time, it was then on to the three breakaway republics in the Caucasus mountains – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh (with an added bonus of Russian Olympic Sochi, and amazing food in both Georgia and Armenia). Next – Hello Moscow! And then a transcontinental flight to Irkutsk and the natural gem of Lake Baikal. From here – by Transsiberian Railway – to Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbator, followed by almost three weeks in Mongolia with a full exploration of this amazing country – east/west/south/north – endless landscapes of natural beauty (and fulfillment of two childhood dreams: seeing the world’s only wild Przewalski horses and trekking the Gobi desert’s sands). Quick hop to Beijing and then to Pyongyang in North Korea – the most eye-opening experience of 2016 and a trip 20 years back in time to the realities of the communist Soviet Union with endless monuments to the “dear leader” and socialist utopia. Next – Tibet with thousand-year-old Buddhist temples and palaces in Lhasa and incredible Tibetan food. Another ultimate bucketlist item got fulfilled when I hiked to the Everest Base camp for the sunrise. An in-depth exploration of Nepal followed with the ancient Hindu royal cities in the Kathmandu Valley, panoramic Himalayan landscape in Pokhara, and wild Asian elephants and rhinos in the tropical Chitwan. The reclusive bhuddist kingdom of Bhutan was next with majestic dzongs (fortress/monasteries) and a long trek to the cliffhanging Tiger’s Nest Monastery. After that it was time to crank up the risk level of my travel with trips to Kabul in Afghanistan and Irbil in Iraq – nothing like posing with an AK-47 with a panoramic view of the city behind you. A quick layover in Dubai with the night view of Burj Khalifa and an intercontinental flight took me to the southern Africa. Three weeks in Zambia was the longest I spent in a single country this year and well worth it – the biggest mammal migration in the world with 11 million bats, elephants in hundreds, hippos in thousands, lions and leopards with cubs, and (finally) the African wild dogs! Mozambique and Malawi followed with beautiful mountain highlands, a lot of traditional culture and spectacular views of Lake Malawi. Too much wildlife and game drives called for a beach break and Zanzibar came jam-packed with stunningly white sand beaches and centuries-old history of the Arabic trading post of the Stone Town. Next came Comoros Islands with some of the most stunning and jaw-dropping scenery of volcanoes, black lava, white sand, and swaying palms (and zero tourism). From there, it was off to the east Africa and using Ethiopia as a base to explore Somaliland (camel markets, ancient cave drawings, desert landscape), South Sudan (a sad picture of the newly independent country disintegrating into chaos), Sudan (amazing Nubian pyramids in Meroe and the hectic but deeply traditional culture of Khartoum). The last but not least in Africa was Eritrea – a truly amazing country where multiple religions coexist in total peace and the people are the most welcoming on the entire continent. Finally, the last country for 2016 was the holy grail of global travel, Saudi Arabia with the neck-breaking skyscrapers in Riyadh and ultra-expensive malls with flagship Victoria Secret stores where fully covered women shop for lacy underwear (talk about contrasts!). Back to USA for the New Years (my posts are lagging by about a month since my laptop died on Mount Everest and took a month to replace, so they will resume with Mozambqiue). An amazing year of travel and looking forward to 2017! Happy New Year!