My Top 20 Travel Experiences of 2013

Written by on December 30, 2013 in General with 4 Comments

Since returning from my round the world (“RTW”) adventure, most people’s first question is something along the lines of “where was your favorite place”?  There is no way to narrow such a trip down to just one favorite place or experience as it’s impossible to compare one to another.  I tried to narrow down the list to a top 10, and still couldn’t do it.  I did manage to come up with my top 20 travel experiences of 2013, shown below in chronological order.

1. Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples had been on my wish list since my last RTW 10 years ago.  I had high expectations, but had no idea how vast the 60-square-mile complex of over 1,000 temples that was home to the remains of an ancient royal Khmer city deep in the jungle of Cambodia would be.  My friends Deborah and Liz had flown in from the US to join me in Vietnam and Cambodia, and we had a blast touring the temples of Angkor by tuk tuk.  I am astounded that the temples of Angkor are not one of the wonders of the world.  They definitely should be!

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2. I hadn’t seen my friends Ton and Elaine or Suz and Ante since their weddings nearly 10 years ago, and was happy to get to see them both in Melbourne and Sydney.  Throw in a week’s worth of amazing seats (thank you Alys) to the Australian Open, and I was a very happy camper last January.

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3.  In the northeast corner of Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea holds one of Vietnam’s magical treasures. Roughly 100 miles from Hanoi, the landscape of Halong Bay portrays a mystical dream world that Lonely Planet calls “a vision of breathtaking beauty.” Emerald waters lap against limestone pillars in a divine place along the Vietnamese coast.  I was ecstatic when the rain clouds dissipated for my 3 day/2 night boat and kayaking cruise through this UNESCO heritage site.

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4. I arrived in Luang Prabang with some extra days to spare and started hearing whispers from travelers about an elephant festival that was taking place in a couple days a several hours away.  A few travelers I’d met plus Mike & Anne, the honeytrekkers, banded together to hop on a bus to check out the Xayaboury Elephant Festival.  We had no idea what to expect, but knew that it was being implemented by an organization called ElefantAsia, which works to permanently protect the Asian elephant and puts on the festival to raise awareness that there are less than 1,000 elephants left in Laos.  It was awesome!  One of the only places on my entire trip where I felt like I was off the grid and at something truly local.  I even rode and helped bathe an elephant in the river, and we all took part in a beautiful lantern festival – amazing!!

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5. Diving with manta rays was high on my list of things I wanted to do this trip and I was not disappointed!  Diving with them in Tofo, Mozambique late last year was only a warm up as I was lucky enough to have several more encounters with the graceful giants in 2013.  First at Koh Bon in the Similan Islands off the Andaman Sea coast of Thailand, and then again in Raja Ampat, Nusa Lembongan and Komodo National Park in Indonesia.  I will never get tired of diving with manta rays.  I might even be adding one permanently to my foot one day soon if I can find the right tattoo artist!

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6. I have been chasing the elusive whale shark for over 12 years…since when I first started scuba diving in 2001.  One of my absolute favorite moments of 2013 was when we spotted this baby whale shark at Barracuda Point off a tiny oceanic island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo called Sipadan.  Magnificent!

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7. I didn’t even know what a thresher shark was before I left on my RTW, but by the time I started planning my Philippines itinerary, I knew I had to see one!  And so I traveled to the far north of Cebu province, hopped on a ferry and arrived at the lovely Malapascua Island.  Every dive shop was offering pre-dawn dive trips out to Monad Shoal, a famous cleaning station for these rare sharks.  I set my alarm for 345am and barely made it to the dive shop in time to get kitted up, but am so glad I did.  I saw not one but four of these magnificent creatures come up from the depths to glide through the cleaning station.  They have the most amazing super-long tail fins, which sometimes are as long as the shark itself and seem to slice through the water like a curved knife.  Spectacular!

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8. Raja Ampat, Indonesia was my biggest splurge of the entire trip and worth every penny to be in such an untouched paradise, above and below the sea.  I have never been to a place with such consistently fantastic diving at every single dive site.  Simply stunning!

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9. The diving in Komodo was also unbelievable.  Getting to experience how beautiful Komodo National Park was with Mike & Anne (www.honeytrek.com) on board my liveaboard made the experience even better!  The Cauldron was definitely the most memorable dive site, with tons of fish and super-fast currents where we all learned why it’s better to dive in Komodo with a reef hook.

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10. Partying with one of my closest friends Kelly and her family at San Fermin (running of the bulls) in Pamplona, Spain.

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11. Learning how to kite-surf and practicing Spanish with my new friends/roommates in Tarifa, Spain.

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12. After 8 vacations in Ibiza, we finally made it to Formentera, Spain and I’m kicking myself for not going sooner.

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13. 18 days of partying my ass off with friends in Ibiza, bookended by seeing Marco Carola at Music On on the first and last Friday I was on the island…hands down the best parties of the entire trip.

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14. Returning home to San Francisco, one of the greatest cities on the planet.  That first night sleeping in my own bed for the first time in 15 months was HEAVEN!

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15. Road trip down Pacific Coast Highway 1 to remind myself how gorgeous it is right in my backyard. Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, Santa Barbara and Newport Beach…all just as beautiful as I remembered.

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16. My cousin Garrett’s gorgeous wedding in La Jolla, the reason I came home when I did.  Welcome to the family Carlina!

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17. Family reunion in Newport Beach, La Jolla and Scottsdale as the road trip continued.  Great to see everyone after being away for so long.

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Of course, let’s not forget how everyone, including my niece and nephew, chipped in to help me on my campaign to become Chief World Explorer – thanks again for voting!

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18. After a few catching up with old friends and family, my road trip continued north, where I stopped in to check out Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park before stopping over in Vegas and heading home to finally move back into my apartment.

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19. When my friend Lyenne from Amsterdam wrote to say she’d booked  a ticket to come visit for 3 weeks, I wasn’t sure how I was going to fill that much time.   3 weeks?!? But, since I still wasn’t working yet and with Thanksgiving and my birthday trip to Vegas on the horizon, I figured it was time for another road trip.  We managed to hit Napa, Sonoma and Point Reyes before Thanksgiving.  Then drove overnight after turkey to arrive in Vegas at 5am.  After a few days of great food, company, gambling and clubbing, we were off to Newport Beach – Venice Beach – West Hollywood – Santa Monica – Malibu – St Luis Obispo – Big Sur – Monterey – San Francisco in 8 days.  SO MUCH FUN!  I haven’t laughed that much in one week since meeting her at our crazy hostel in Beirut last September.  Only Lyenne would climb up on a palm tree on the side of Mulholland Drive for a photo shoot! 

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20. Am I really 40?  Luckily, some of my closest friends and family flew into Vegas to help me usher in a new decade in style at the Wynn.

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What a year!  Hoping 2014 brings even a couple moments as amazing as these.  And best wishes to you and your family for a fun, happy & healthy new year!

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  1. What a list! We couldn’t agree more on the Angkor, whale sharks, Halong bay, elephant festival (love that you & mike jumped right in and gave those elephants a bath–I’m still kicking myself!), and Kimodo–we can’t thank you enough for bringing us out there, epic diving and great times on the boat! Glad the States made so much of the list, it’s a great place to come home to 🙂 Welcome back!

  2. Aunt Susie says:

    WOW – what an adventurous young (???at 40???) you are! Many wonderful trips in the future, and land a great job! LOL!!!!

  3. Herb Glatter says:

    Seven billion people on the planet and only one Deb Gersten!

  4. Kellie says:

    I’m so glad I came across your site as a result of you visiting mine Debbie, I definitely need to pour myself a coffee and have a good read based on this post. “What is your favourite place” is impossible to answer but I love that your Top 20 includes both locations and experiences!

    Happy travels in 2014 🙂

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