Best travel experience of your life?
February 28, 2011 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Best travel experience of your life?

I was talking to a fellow traveller on the road the other day and he said to me that the best experience he's ever had while travelling was a foam party in Phuket.

Seeing as I am planning an 8 week holiday in July-September I wondered the what the hivemind had to say about it.

So what was the most fun, most interesting, most amazing place you have been to and why?

Answers for people on a budget would be especially handy.
posted by midnightbarber to Travel & Transportation (64 answers total) 209 users marked this as a favorite
One of my top five was climbing the volcano on Stromboli, the Aeolian island off Sicily's north coast. It was a hard climb. We got to the top at nightfall and sat and looked down into the caldera just a few feet away, watching it spew its fire into the night. It was cold so we skrunched our butts down into the sand where it was warm from the volcanic activity inside the mountain. (Did this as a backpacker, definitely a budget option as long as you can get to Sicily in the first place; we took an overnight train from Florence.)

Another was night swimming in the bathtub-warm water on Koh Samui. Samui wasn't my kind of place overall, but at night the water lit up with phosphorescence and to swim in it was magic.

Can't wait to see what other people say. Definitely going to watch this thread!
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:33 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Dahab in Egypt has got to be up there. Mind you, I was last there a good fifteen years ago, so I dunno how up-to-date my info is. So keep this in mind as a mid-nineties view of the place.

Dahab is on the east edge of the Sinai, away from the overtouristed Nile Valley. The climate is exceptional, the diving (if you are into that sort of thing is great) and the place attracts legions of backpackers which give it a quite relaxed atmosphere. The day I arrived in Dahab, my watch stopped working, which was perfect: it is not like there is anything urgent to do. My travelling companions and I would stroll into town and have a nice vegetarian lasagna for dinner. Sometimes it would be ready in five minutes, sometimes in ninety, but no one was too worried: if it takes a while, you just play a few more games of backgammon while drinking cheap wine and listening to the Red Sea waves crashing on the beach.

It is (or was) fantastically cheap. When I was last there, you could go with a couple thousand dollars and live quite happily for six months.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:37 PM on February 28, 2011

My partner and I spent a week camping on the beaches of Kauai, and it was absolutely amazing. We woke up to beautiful sunrises every morning, watched gorgeous sunsets every night. We cooked out on the beach for almost all of our meals. It was just an incredibly peaceful week. Also, pretty cheap. We managed to get flights for under $500 each (including the island hopping). Camp permits were super cheap.
posted by AlliKat75 at 12:39 PM on February 28, 2011

Foam parties are gross :)

My best trip was a spur of the moment road trip from DC to Canada to go to the Labour of Love party in Toronto. Plus, Canada is lovely that time of year. (Labor Day Weekend)
posted by empath at 12:41 PM on February 28, 2011

For me, stumbling across a free open-air opera at dusk in a church courtyard in an old part of Rome -- listening to the singers while swallows zoomed overhead -- was pure European magic. I couldn't follow the plot at all, but it didn't matter.

But, then, I'm not a foam party kind of person.
posted by monkeymonkey at 12:43 PM on February 28, 2011 [7 favorites]

Mountain biking in the Swiss/French alps. I did this for hardly more money that I'd have spent at home, by going off season, and eating out of grocery stores. France has one of the most developed trail networks in the world if you're into that kind of thing.

There are tons of great touring companies that will sell you a package deal too: a guide, food and somewhere to sleep at a relatively reasonable price.

If you've got eight weeks, you could go on a ten day tour and still have six weeks left for whatever it is normal people do on holidays. But you're not me, so maybe that's not your idea of a good time, baffling as that possibility seems to me. ;)
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:48 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Accidentally coming upon a tiny outdoor fox shrine that had a mysterious door into a hill in Arashimaya, Kyoto, after visiting a small moss temple.

That same trip, the very last day before leaving Japan, I'd been looking for weaving-related Christmas presents for my mother unsuccessfully. We visited the Seimei shrine and upon leaving it discovered a small shop selling hand-woven items, with a large loom set up in it, and a friendly, talkative proprietor who invited us in, made us tea, and talked to us for a long time. As we left, he added some balls of yarn composed of silk remnants from a tie factory (he made stuff with that) to the bag of things I'd purchased from him, as a present for my mother.
posted by telophase at 12:48 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Either Costa Rica, mostly for the amazing wildlife and beautiful beaches, or sailing in Greece, which is awesome for several reasons. Sailing the Mediterranean, the history, feeling like Odysseus. Wine tasting on Santorini was also really good. That was also the least budget-friendly trip I've ever been on.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:49 PM on February 28, 2011

I went on a sailing tour of the Greek Islands that was pretty fabulous. I really enjoyed the time on the water including the night we anchored offshore and cooked dinner on the boat. It's not that cheap though ($1200 for the week, but you go together on meals and stuff).
posted by cabingirl at 12:50 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Woke up to a lovely sunrise on Rarotonga to discover that I had not died of an arterial gas embolism during the night as I'd expected; storm off on the horizon, an occasional dog barking, those goddamn roosters starting to crow. I do not believe that I will ever forget those clouds.
posted by aramaic at 12:51 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

WWOOFing in Japan. Met a bunch of fun people, got to see amazingly beautiful countryside, got to know a bunch of places that nobody's ever heard of. I helped out on a farm next to a river where you could go, put your head under water, open your eyes, and see fish right there!

I don't think my experience was unique to Japan, though. I think WWOOFing is amazing and I've never met anyone who did it and didn't enjoy themselves...
posted by johnnybeggs at 12:52 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

On a felucca trip down the Nile, from Aswan to Luxor. The little sailboats can have a bench all around the side, but ours had planking over that to create a nook for all our baggage underneath and a flat padded deck. We lounged around all day enjoying the weather, scenery, and company. We landed by a riverbank, the crew cooked dinner, we had a bonfire, and slept on the boat with the side curtains rolled down. The real magic of this was that we'd been on the go for the previous couple of days: first in Cairo, overnight train to Aswan, busy day there, up before dawn to see Abu Simbel in the right light, plenty to see and lots to do - and then miraculously we were on a boat watching the scenery, reading novels, writing postcards, gossiping, and being "on vacation", enjoying the simplicity. There were occasional giant cruise ships going past, and we just laughed at them. That little piece of the trip was totally magic to me.
posted by aimedwander at 12:53 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

2nding Japan, specifically Shikoku. There is not much to do really, except for the 88 temples pilgrimage which is a traditional meditative, maybe penitence, kind of thing. Beautiful scenery, taking local trains to get from one town to the next, staying in crumbling ryokans, and shrines and temples everywhere.
Loads of interesting people on the road too with time on their hands. They don't speak english.
Another slightly more obvious one: The rock-hewn church complex of Lalibela in Ethiopia -- go off season and hit a St George's day (there are many throughout the year). Magical.
posted by gijsvs at 12:54 PM on February 28, 2011

I took a transatlantic cruise from Miami to Rome via St. Maarten in the Caribbean, Madeira, Portugal, Malaga, Spain, Pisa, Italy, and finally Rome. It was a fantastic trip with a lot of highlights but one of the greatest moments ever had to come in Madeira, an island several hundred miles off the mainland, and terraced throughout, as it's very mountainous.

On Madeira is the Cabo Girão, one of the tallest cliffs. You can look straight down, 1900 ft, into the ocean, buffeted by terraced farm fields accessible only by boat or cable car.

Even better is that as you climb, you being to rise above the clouds. Not fog. Clouds. Tell me this isn't cool. When you look down the cliff, the clouds billow up at you and it's just unlike anything I've ever seen.

I've been a lot of places, but this was just incredible.
posted by disillusioned at 12:54 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's pretty hard to say. Some of the things I love most about travel include cultural sights (e.g. temples in Nepal or Angkor Wat by sunrise), amazing food (e.g street stalls in Delhi or decent Italian pizza), those random moments at the peak of adventures with newfound friends (e.g. breaking into rooftop hotel swimming pools, being invited into Moroccan family homes or hitting the town with couchsurfings) or just stunning vistas, beaches or nature while wildcamping.

One thing I can be sure about is that a foam party on Phuket is something I'd travel halfway around the world to get away from.
posted by turkeyphant at 12:56 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

An impromptu pony trek along the northern coast of Wales, in Snowdonia National Park.
posted by drlith at 12:57 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I sat on the shore of a Parry Sound-area lake during a moonless night and saw the Milky Way reflected on the surface of the (perfectly calm to the point of being glasslike) water.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:58 PM on February 28, 2011

I would have to say Cairo two years ago. Not only were the museum and pyramids amazing, but the people were warm and welcoming. What really set this trip apart though was the fact that we happened to be there during Eid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice) which was absolutely unreal. People were slaughtering the best of their herds and letting the blood run in to the streets. We drove past one man who was butchering a goat on the side of the road just as he was tossing the entrails on top of the awning that was providing him shade. Crossing the street meant dodging puddles and streams of red. Everyone was happy and celebrating. Even in the rural areas all the children were dressed up in their finest clothes, having the days off from school and/or work.

My second choice would be our trip to the Galapagos Islands. Diving and playing fetch underwater with sea lions was a bit surreal, even if my husband did lose a portion of his hearing from it. Arriving in Quito less than a week after a coup made it interesting as well....
posted by ValkoSipuliSuola at 1:02 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Santiago de Cuba - wandering around the backstreets at night. Talking with people on the street and stopping in to a Santeria ceremony in somebody's flat.
posted by JJ86 at 1:05 PM on February 28, 2011

I drove from London to Mongolia last summer from July to August. 10,000 miles, 15 countries, 6 weeks. Blew my mind! Do it!
posted by CCCC at 1:13 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ahhh
As much as I'd love to go to Egypt I dunno if I should risk it with the whole political situation over there at the moment, though I guess I can see how it pans out. I guess that would also make it much cheaper.

Strange, I thought Metafilter would be a foam party kind of place ;)
posted by midnightbarber at 1:20 PM on February 28, 2011

The one week massage class I took in Bangkok was incredible, although there were other travel related things going on at the time as well.

Generically - amazing experiences are often novel and usually unexpected, so going to a country / part of the world where you have little idea of what is going on is a good bet.
posted by MillMan at 1:34 PM on February 28, 2011

listening to the sounds of the jungle while sitting over the edge of a "petrified waterfall" at hierve el agua in the state of oaxaca, mexico, followed by a hike and a dip in the natural hot springs.
posted by anya32 at 1:44 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Strange, I thought Metafilter would be a foam party kind of place ;)

Oh, I have been to many, many foam parties. A club I used to promote for used to do them monthly during the summer. About the 2nd time a dirty, soap covered raver gives you a hug, it gets pretty annoying. Also, people having sex in the foam is nasty.
posted by empath at 1:47 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll second turkeyphant's comment that its the little things, or at least perhaps the not utterly spectacular moments that define the best travel experiences.

For me it just happened to be dinner on the docks in Hobart, Tasmania on the eve of the end of the (I think its called) Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Just a couple of Yanks relaxing on a six-month long vacation, meeting a really fun local couple and drinking WAY too much wine amidst an insane downpour. The whole experience was at the same time incredibly familiar and also quite exotic, which led to the reminder in my journal; "You can hang out anywhere in the world."

It was a pivotal moment for my understanding of the world, as traveler, as a tourist, as a citizen.
posted by elendil71 at 2:05 PM on February 28, 2011

"So what was the most fun, most interesting, most amazing place you have been to and why?"

About 20 years ago, I took an old pickup truck, and couple of steel tanks/regulator/BC SCUBA rig to the Florida Keys, without much planning or forethought. Pulled into a KOA, slept in my tent a couple nights, and joined the extended version of the Conch Republic, which still starts pretty much just below Big Pine Key. After a couple days at the KOA, I got an invite to camp in a local's backyard, with shower and fresh water privleges, for $2 a night. After that, I started learning what year round residents of the Florida Keys do to get by, and I started catching most of my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and getting deals on everything from gas to, well, other entertainments and necessities, that I never would have thought possible. Best 2 weeks of my life, in many ways.

Eye opening, conciousness raising, laid back, and something I've done, a few times since. Unfortunately, over 20 years, even I can see that the development of the Keys is progressing, and the surrounding ocean is the worse for it... Even people that pay a lot to be a in beautiful place, often don't care much about that place.
posted by paulsc at 2:07 PM on February 28, 2011

Iguassu Falls (both the Argentinian and Brazilian side together) was absolutely amazing. It was quite the sensory experience - the endless falls were gorgeous, the sound of the falls were thunderous, the feel of the water rushing over us on a boat trip under the falls, even the fresh smell of the water. The memory still makes me smile.
posted by purplevelvet at 2:09 PM on February 28, 2011

That peeled salted cucumber from the guy with the cucumber cart on a gorgeous April day in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Holy shit that cucumber.
posted by mckenney at 2:26 PM on February 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

My favorite travel experience wasn't just the place but the company and frame of mind.

Not I'm not that well traveled but I've been to cathedrals in Europe, swanky boutique hotels in the islands, and sailing the Caribbean. But the times that stand out to me as really magical had to do with really getting a feeling for the place and its people.

One time I can think of is driving dirt bikes through the mountains of Jamaica. We had returned a puppy to an elderly couple that had chased the bike. They invited us into their house to watch the cricket game and we sat with their whole family and had a meal. Then we hit a beach - a tiny beach we had to share with cows and the fisherman that we chatted up about their catch. We ate fresh fruit from farmers and drank red stripes from tiny little markets while passing women carrying their wash in baskets on their head. We got a recommendation from a local and hiked a water fall . (It is YS falls which now is touristy, but when I went we were the only people there and they were just really starting up). As we rode home there was a sun shower and it was steaming up the road and well- it all just felt magical.

I have maybe a dozen experience that felt like that when I traveled and they all have one thing in common... slowing way down, going way off the beaten path, being a little adventurous, and being open to meeting new people (and not just other tourists although that is a lot of fun too).

Sorry this is so long- I was enjoying recalling that day...
posted by beccaj at 2:36 PM on February 28, 2011

My best travel experieces have been:

A really well-planned trip to Paris, where I got to see what I wanted to see - it wasn't just about what I saw (the Paris basics, with a few pleasant discoveries off the beaten track), but that we had all the information we needed to really enjoy ourselves, and a plan to follow so that we didn't have to waste time deciding what we were going to do - but a plan that was flexible enough that we could change it on a whim. Also, being museum and history people, we got the Paris Museum Pass which (unlike the similar London one) is a great value -- you swan in and out of museums at a whim, and still end up paying less (especially on the 6-day rate).

And a not so well-planned (our fault) but excellently hosted trip to Budapest, where my Hungarian friend took us to the Széchenyi Baths, a whirlpool wonderland of natural hot-springs and early 20th century architechture.

Both were done on a student budget - the Baths especially are a great value - about $30 for a full day of fun.
posted by jb at 2:37 PM on February 28, 2011

Machu Picchu. Queuing for ages to get on the first busses. Laughing at the other tourists at breakfast discussing what fruit is was we were eating. (they were very very wrong. Papaya isn't Mango.) Diverting through the jungle to get around a landslide. Everyone else going to the sun gate for the sunrise, us chilling with the llamas, and then wandering around the ruin as the mists rolled around revealing and then hiding different buildings. The train trip was also something I enjoyed.
posted by titanium_geek at 2:54 PM on February 28, 2011

Songkran in Chiang Mai was a pretty great experience. I think so much of travel experiences have to deal with who you're with, and Songkran was one giant party, and I was with some interesting people. That, and it was nothing like anything I'd experienced at home.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:55 PM on February 28, 2011

I traveled around the world with no luggage last year. My vote is to travel with a theme in mind!
posted by nitsuj at 3:00 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

India. Just... India.

I leave it at two words because of what folks upthread have described as "the little things". India is a great country to have those kinds of experiences, and it's such a big and diverse place that it's hard to prescribe to someone else where or how to have them.

If I had to say one specific place, I would say getting lost in the narrow, winding streets of Varanasi, popping out on the opposite end of the old city from where I started, then strolling back along the Ganges.

Or possibly Darjeeling, where I went wandering up along the hillside paths and ran into a Tibetan Buddhist monastery where the original manuscript of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is kept.

But you could have an equally amazing time in the southern part of the country, in the major cities, in Goa or Rajasthan or Punjab.
posted by Sara C. at 3:02 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

...a toss up between driving the (very) long way from Perth to Sydney (via Broome, Darwin, Alice Springs, Townsville) over 5 months or spending pretty much dawn 'til dusk marvelling at the subtle changes in colour of the Taj Mahal throughout a day. Oh, and Fatehpur Sikri is a must if you are in Agra.
posted by nicktf at 3:04 PM on February 28, 2011

Either traveling through the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi (volcanoes, culture, beaches, jungle and highlands) or the Tamil Nadu coast and hill stations of Southern India. But I'm pretty easy: most places have something interesting and even really awful places can be pretty funny.
posted by rhymer at 3:12 PM on February 28, 2011

Driving the Beartooth Highway into Yellowstone on an off-peak day in June, while moving from the Midwest to Portland. The road goes up to 10,947ft over the Beartooth Mountains, high above the treeline, on your way into Yellowstone. It is only open from late May until October, snowed in the rest of the year. As soon as I have some time off in the summer and a car I trust to make it, I'll go back.

Leave your fear or heights behind. Also, don't smoke. I learned the hard way that smoking a cigarette at 11,000 feet is a really bad idea.

Full disclosure: I haven't left North America. Ever.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 3:32 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yellowstone National Park. Full moon above, huge lightning storm in the near distance, Old Faithful erupting. Stunningly beautiful.

In the middle of the night, on an island in Greece, in a village where they turned the generators off at 11 p.m., so there were no lights at all, my sweetie woke me to see the amazing stars in a black velvet sky. The stars seemed incredibly close, and I understood why people would believe they had magical powers.
posted by theora55 at 4:01 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seeing the Na Pali coast in Kauai via helicopter was pretty awesome
posted by jasondigitized at 4:03 PM on February 28, 2011

Bali. Just being in Bali. Going to Ulu Watu, a temple on top of a giant cliff over the ocean. The striking sunsets every single night. The warmth of the people, a general sense of kindness that honestly I haven't felt elsewhere. The food (oh, lord, the food) being so damn good I took cooking classes so as to bring some of it home with me. The various styles of Balinese dances, and the music is so radically different from anything I'd heard before. Beautiful scenery, just renting a mountain bike and going wherever. Bali is the best place I've ever been, and I can't wait to go back.

Other than that, I had the luck to teach in China for a year, and during the New Year's break, take a month long trip to Dali, Lijiang, and Yangshuo. 48 hours on a train from Wuhan to Kunming, where I'd planned to wander around for three days, but got to talking with the guy in the bunk next to me at the guest house, and we left for Dali the next day. It's a walled city set on the plains between a massive lake and a mountain range, so during the day you can cycle on the plains, go out in a boat, or hike in the mountains. There are a lot of backpackers, so a lot of the people can speak a little English. Great food, delicious beer, good company. In Lijiang, a little more of the same, exploring world heritage sites, wandering around a beautiful old city. Back to Kunming, and then a 36 hour train trip to Guilin, then a bus to Yangshuo, surrounded by the limestone hills that make the area so famous. Lots of biking, taking it easy. Granted, this was me at rest during a year of living there, so I didn't do a lot of sightseeing.

One thing I did do, and is responsible for pretty much my life as it is, was a study abroad term in Asia, two weeks in Tokyo, two weeks in Kyoto, two weeks in Taipei, a week and change in Hong Kong, and then a month in China (Guangzhou, Guilin, Wuhan, Xian, Yannan, Luoyang, Beijing). Honestly, China is a good place to go with a lot of time to spend. Definitely a fascinating country, with a lot worth seeing. One of the best moments was the weekend I spent at Wudangshan, the mountain seen at the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A wide, sprawling mountain covered in temples and training grounds. We took a hard seat train back overnight to get back to school in time, and just before my taxi dropped me off at the school gate, we went past the East Lake in Wuhan, just as the sun was rising. For whatever reason, the sun was massive, seemingly taking up the whole sky, and a perfect, beautiful red.

So yeah, China. China or Bali. Have a blast.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:19 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

We rented a skiff from a fisherman in the Philippines and paddled off into the ocean without lifejackets, managing to haul ourselves back up into the boat again when we were capsized by a giant wave. The other side of the island was completely deserted . . . only coconut trees and a breeze. The water looked like it was clear for miles. We skinny dipped with the starfish, napped in our giant spa and I got the worst burn of my entire life and didn't even care.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 4:58 PM on February 28, 2011

I don't think my experience was unique to Japan, though. I think WWOOFing is amazing and I've never met anyone who did it and didn't enjoy themselves...

My WWOOFing experience in Costa Rica definitely sucked. Getting the right farm is key.
posted by zug at 5:18 PM on February 28, 2011

A beautiful private mountain in the East Tennessee Smoky Mountains with the man I loved. Standing on the porch of a beautiful rustic cabin and seeing only trees and a horse pasture covered with snow with a light mountain mist that made everything seem surreal. It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful.
posted by srbrunson at 5:19 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hiking into the Wind River Range in Wyoming. It was a long-ass hike, about 20 miles each way, and most of it was uphill, but at the end, when we camped in Titcomb Basin I realized I was surrounded by the most beautiful display of nature I'd ever seen, and have seen to this day.

Many people skip the Wind River Range for the Grand Tetons or Yellowstone, but for my money, Wind River is much prettier, and much less crowded, which also deepens one's appreciation for it.
posted by elder18 at 5:29 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh! Wait! Another one is camping in the wilderness area of the Badlands in South Dakota. It was night out and we were sitting in camping chairs as a thunderstorm rolled in. There was lightning all around and it was beautiful. The next day we played catch with a baseball in front of a bison. Amazing.
posted by elder18 at 5:31 PM on February 28, 2011

Africa tops my list for many reasons.

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro: difficult, but hiking through all the different climates, especially once you get above the clouds, and then making it to the summit is amazing.

Bumping into the oldest member of our Kilimanjaro climb - he was climbing with his daughter, and he was lovably quirky - totally randomly a week or so later at Ngorongoro Crater.

Traveling around east Africa: exploring the late night food markets in Zanzibar, the streets of Dar es Salaam, and the many awesome parts of Nairobi, including a giraffe sanctuary, and then hiking in the Usambara mountains. Eating a soursop in a fruit market in Zanzibar is, oddly enough, an experience high on my list of favorites.
posted by jacquilinala at 8:16 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Rock Climbing in Tonsai in Southern Thailand. For nearly 2 weeks I woke up with my beau and we decided what to climb that day. That was the only decision to make that day besides where to eat lunch/dinner: the BBQ Chicken lady or walk into town.

A close second place is new years weekend spent in Joshua Tree National Park, climbing and hiking and watching the stars at night. The nights were so cold I though I was going to freeze to death, but the days were so wonderfully warm I forgot about the torture of the nighttime.

For me it is more about the company I keep than the place I am in (Although obviously spending time rock climbing makes me love a place even more, ha).
posted by ruhroh at 8:47 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and July-September in Japan can be stupidly hot, but that's the season for festivals (awesome) and fireworks displays (fantastic). Japanese city festivals can be a hell of a lot of fun, especially the Narita Festival (though that's early July).
posted by Ghidorah at 9:10 PM on February 28, 2011

In a canoe, gliding down a river in the Peruvian Amazon at midnight, for hours. The sounds of the jungle were pulsing everywhere, but we were being as quiet as we could. I felt and experienced so many different emotions and perspectives in that boat, and they all came from this wonderful mixture of myself and the raw jungle around me.
posted by milestogo at 9:11 PM on February 28, 2011

Response by poster: wow... thanks for all your answers!

So it sounds like travelling somewhere, being spontaneous, and going with a good group of friends is the way to go... I will have to remember that.
posted by midnightbarber at 1:46 AM on March 1, 2011

Seconding Africa. I live in Kenya and there's nothing quite like going into the furthest reaches of humanity that most people will ever see. You can do that in Kenya, as you can in most sub-Saharan countries, but if you really want to connect with some of the most extreme poverty in the world and see how it changes you (hopefully), I'd recommend Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, or maybe parts of northern Mozambique. This will be amazing, but not in the way most of the answers above are intoning.

My own personal "positive" amazing trip: South Africa, diving with the great white sharks and tempering it with a couple days in the wine country around Cape Town. Best place I've been on the continent.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:35 PM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Foam parties are absolutely disgusting, unless you enjoy watching people have sex in a mud puddle.

Barcelona, Spain was amazingly above expectations *awesome*. Burningman changed my life. The Appalachian Trail ain't bad, either, as long as you can put away the cellphone and email for a month or three.
posted by talldean at 1:20 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Iran, hands down. Beautiful cities, remarkable history, friendliest people in the world. Getting invited into a family's house for a couple of days to attend a wedding is something I'll never forget.

My first glimpse of the Treasury at Petra and a banya by the shore of Lake Baikal are right up there too.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 5:48 PM on March 2, 2011

A few of my favorites:

Watching 1000 or so caribou move through my camp when we were rafting in the tundra in Alaska, outside of Kotzebue. We didn't see a trace of people, aside from the sound of 1 or 2 bush planes, for 10 days. Amazingly peaceful, aside from being worried about bears (we saw 11 of them).

Going on a sea kayak trip outside of Juneau with some friends and camping within sight (and sound) of a calving glacier. We got to watch house-sized pieces of ice fall to the water from 5 or 10 stories up and crash into the ocean while drinking our coffee in the morning.

Snorkeling around a small island in Fiji by myself, and thinking that it looked like the most elaborate fish tank from the best dentist's office I'd ever been to. Also got the worst sunburn I've ever gotten.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:07 PM on March 2, 2011

Travelling through Vanuatu, as part of a uni subject where we studied development. We climbed to the top of a volcano and had rocks being thrown up over our heads. Having kids climb trees and pick us paw paw and coconuts. Seeing a friend pass out on his first Vanuatu kava experience. Having our village hosts plant banana trees in our honour.

Uzbekistan. Amazing sights, and the loveliest people. Also crazy situations - we were staying in the same hotel as Hilary Clinton and we could not get in or out of the hotel, or go near our windows or open the curtains. Seeing the Savitsky Gallery in Nukus (a collection of UZ historical pieces, and those of opressed artist during the Soviet era).

Staying in a hostel in Budapest run by a cool Irish bloke that took us out to hotspots every night and hanging with some other travellers while recovering the next day. Caving just outside Budapest.

Exploring New York and San Francisco for the first time.

New Year's in Barcelona at a very social hostel. The craziest night out I have ever had. Barcelona in general is amazing.

A night out in Vegas where we bar hopped to get free ladies drinks - a big, messy Saturday night cost us all of $7 (our 24hr bus fare).
posted by cholly at 9:01 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

My current picks are two popular locations that I had the luck to visit in the early morning, before they were officially open. One: Huayna Picchu or Wayna Picchu, the "young peak" beside the "old peak" (Machu Picchu). Get up there, and you can see all of the Machu Picchu ruins and the valley beyond (warning: if you click on that thumbnail image, you'll be opening a 46mb JPG!). It's a tough hike, and apparently limited to 400 visitors per day. If you hike in on the Inca Trail and head through the sun gate before sunrise, or stay at the kind of ridiculous Sanctuary Lodge Hotel that's located just below the Machu Picchu ruins, you'll have the area to yourself. But if you go with the first bus load of tourists from the valley, head straight for Huayna Picchu, get to the peak before the masses, and then lounge around the "lowlands" of the main ruins.

Two: Victoria Falls at sunrise. My family had to a flight early one morning, and our guide was able to get us into the Victoria Falls park before it was officially open. No one was there except us, and we just wandered through the mist in the pre-dawn dark. Then the sun rose through the mists, above the falls. It was fantastic.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:57 AM on March 3, 2011

Also, just wandering around Cuzco, Peru was pretty fantastic - layers of history, great restaurants, some touristy crap in central areas, but also some less cheesy modern sections of the city, plus a bunch of great places to visit from that central location. Having a local guide was very nice, and I don't think it was terribly expensive.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:01 AM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Possibly OT side note, but I had no problem getting to hike Huayna Picchu even though I broke all the "rules" of How To Get To Do Huayna Picchu. I did not do the Inca Trail. I rolled out of bed at the embarrassingly late hour of 5:30 and didn't get moving till after 6 (which is after the first buses from Aguas Calientes depart for the ruins). Instead of taking the bus, I decided to hike up through the jungle, which took over an hour.

So I didn't even arrive at Macchu Picchu until after 7am (hours after the site officially opens, and supposedly far too late to have a shot at climbing Huayna Picchu). I spent half an hour or an hour enjoying the site and resting my legs a bit before even approaching Huayna Picchu to see if it was still possible. And yet, it was!

It wasn't crowded, at all - very few of the traditional bus tourists who visit Machu Picchu attempt Huayna Picchu (a lot of the visitors are retirees or families with young children), and the site's policies keep the numbers under control.

Honestly, even leaving aside Huayna Picchu, I just didn't find Machu Picchu as a historical site to be particularly crowded. Certainly nothing compared to similar world class international sites, or even the less popular tourist attractions in New York. You're not going to have it all to yourself, but, well, that's life. Machu Picchu is popular for a reason.
posted by Sara C. at 8:12 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I climbed Mt. Fuji with a friend, spur-of-the-moment in the summertime (only time the paths are open btw). The tradition is to climb it at night to meet the dawn at the summit. The most memorable moments on the mountain were looking down onto the world below and seeing a little ferris wheel turning, with its light show. and being just above the clouds under the moonlight and feeling like we were floating in the sky. So yes, choose a mountain somewhere and climb it. You will never forget it.

We also went to a rollercoaster on our way home, at what used to be the 'world's fastest' and the initial drop was pretty high... but after staring 1000's of feet down a mountain, I realized nothing remained of my fear of heights. And we missed our train out that evening because we stopped at the rollercoaster, so we slept on the grass outside a monastery at the last stop of the night. What a weekend.

My favorite trips have always been whenever there was only one or two main objectives and a period of time to do it in (Drive through Montana... Go visit a friend in Edinburgh... drive to the hang-gliding nationals in Lumby BC... go pick my friend up in Tokyo...) and just make the rest up as you go, focus on having a good time and keep an upbeat attitude.
posted by lizbunny at 10:06 AM on March 3, 2011

* Running into Malachy McCourt in Dublin, having him remember when I worked on a theater project he'd been involved with six years previously, and having him then invite me to catch up with him after that night's performance of a play he was in -- and getting so swept up in his wake that I ended up being his one-person "entourage" when he then went to do a live radio chat show at midnight at the Radio 4 studios somewhere in Dublin. He told dirty jokes to the host while they set up, as the producer and I split a bottle of Merlot and discussed broadcast decency standards.

* The year that my birthday fell on Mardi Gras, and I figured that was as good an excuse to finally check the event out as I was ever going to get. ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING that happened to me that week counts -- meeting ColdChef and radioamy, finding this "Internet cafe" run by a crazy guy who always wore an orange scarf with every outfit and who talked about theater with me every time I stopped in, watching one of the parades with these really hyper Japanese girls standing in front of me and having them suddenly realize I was behind them and hadn't caught any beads yet -- and having them turn around and give me half of theirs by just shoving them around my neck, getting a ride back to my hotel from a cop after he'd given me a dinner recommendation, doing "The Time Warp" with two strangers on a bar in the French Quarter at midnight, discovering the world's best red beans and rice being served out of a hole-in-the-wall kitchen in the back of a bar in the middle of nowhere, the woman who toasted me on my birthday by saying "every day you wake up alive is your birthday", everything.

* Driving cross-country from New York to Vegas on a quest for kitsch. I saw the Precious Moments Chapel; got lost looking for the World's Biggest Ball of Twine, but ended up in a town where the banner headline that week was "Tractor Accident Sends Local Man to Witchita"; ate biscuits and gravy in a diner where I was served by a waitress who really wore a pink nylon uniform and called me "hon"; threw a tomahawk at the urging of a guy who looked exactly like Uncle Jessie from The Dukes Of Hazard; hallucinated for a split second in Arches National Park; drove on Route 66; got front-row seats to Sigfried and Roy for free because I'd met up with a reporter friend who was covering a Vegas convention, and hearing his boss later say that "I can't quite decide what's making me feel like I'm having an acid flashback"; straddled the Rockies; discovered one of the world's best driving songs by Ben Harper; and nearly took cancan lessons in Dodge City.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:43 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Discovering that Mayan ruins have interiors, that you can go into them, and that they are full of bats. I guess I never paid attention to the tv on the subject of ruins.

Going to a punk show in Shinjuku and being so obviously out of place that the band bantered something something gaijin gaijin something something and I couldn't be 100% sure they weren't just taking the piss because I speak no Japanese.

Taking a pontoon plane to a river to fish for Coho salmon on the Kenai peninsula, and the big, fresh grizzly prints on the riverbank. The bloody bones in the forest later that trip. Racing puffins along the glassy surface of Resurrection Bay in a little tin boat.

Getting lost on foot in Bed-Stuy for an hour very late at night after having taken the wrong train for Brooklyn.

Flying fish and picking up Cuban refugees on a Caribbean cruise. Absolutely nothing else about the Caribbean cruise, though. Well, okay, it was fun but never another cruise again, feh.

Many of my favorite travel stories happened rather near home, though. Yosemite's Mirror Lake and nobody there but me, my man, and a lot of animals, and Tuolumne Meadows, the very lap of god.. hundreds of dolphins playing around the boat just off the coast of Santa Barbara, Sunset at Andrew Molera State Beach in Big Sur when the wildflowers bloom, Playing on the rocks way out in Joshua Tree, my first visit to Salvation Mountain and talking to Mr. Knight, Manzanar the trace of evil, Bodie the ghost town.

Thank god for photographs!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:29 AM on March 7, 2011

"... Answers for people on a budget would be especially handy."

Forget Paris, France, as a tourist, if you're on a budget. I say that as an American who has been to Paris about 20 times, in every decade of his life, excepting his first, on his parent's well intentioned dollars, his own dime (repeatedly, reluctantly), and several generous corporate expense accounts, in every decade since the 1970s.

I never recommend Paris to anyone not already living there, simply on the theory that even if you've never been to Paris, and always thought of it as the City of Light, what it is going to cost you to get there, see it for yourself, and come home, is never worth what you pay, to say nothing of the rudeness of Parisians in general. You can get run over in Rome, ignored in Firenza (Florence), heat stroked in Athens, lost in Istanbul, mis-directed in Berlin, and left alone sick in London, sequentially, and still be better off, overall, in my estimation, than being taken for a one day paid tour in Paris.

For a good, safe time in Europe, I usually recommend Copenhagen, and specifically Tivoli Gardens. But you need to give it several days, and some understanding. Tivoli is not Disneyland, nor does it want to be, but if you think it is, after Day 1, you need to walk a lot slower, and sit a lot more, on Day 2.
posted by paulsc at 10:33 PM on March 10, 2011

I haven't been on too many big trips yet, being a poor student for the past 4 years, but I recently went on a short European trip after graduating during which we spent 5 days in London, which was my favorite. Although it's not as exotic as many of the places people are mentioning, I had a blast and can't wait to go back one day.

Simply put, it's a great place to get lost. You can never be too far from an Underground station and there is something interesting to see in every corner. Being from Los Angeles county, this was a very novel experience.
posted by Defenestrator at 6:39 PM on March 12, 2011

sitting on a sandy peninsula in Greenland at Eqip Sermia while the 3km glacier (near Ilullisat) popped and cracked and sent big chunks of ice out to sea.
posted by seawallrunner at 8:45 PM on March 16, 2011

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