Top 5 Places to Travel: Stories from a World Traveler

Work and wanderlust have kept me on the road 200 days or more every year for the past three decades, until this year. I’m still, however, wandering somewhere in my mind everyday while waiting for the world to get healthy again. I’ve gotten nostalgic during these stay at home days, too, especially after a friend asked me to think of five places I’ve been to that I need to see again.

To pare down the possibilities, I limited this to places I have been to only once before and need to see again.

Genoa, Italy

Genoa, Italy.
Genoa, Italy.

Genoa, Italy came to mind first. Back in ‘92, a friend and I drove all day and when darkness and hunger conspired, we found ourselves in Genoa. Typical guys, we went for food before finding a room. Bad choice. Genoa was celebrating the 500th anniversary native son Cristofo Columbus’ trip to the New World. After pizza and beer all we heard was: nessun post vacante (no vacancy) until a kind gentleman used his hardscrabble English to help us: “I have a friend who works at a hospital, he’ll get you a room: how about 40,000 lira (about 30 bucks)?” We agreed. 

The sympathetic proprietor made a call and we followed him a few blocks into a discolored stone building. Up three flights of stairs, down a dimly lit hallway and there was a windowless, but spotless room with two beds and a washbasin. Good enough we thought. That was until the blood-curdling primal scream therapy sessions started a few hours later and we realized weren’t staying just staying in a hospital, we were inside a mental hospital. 

That kind of freaked us out, and without seeing Genoa’s medieval town center, or any of its Renaissance or Baroque palaces, or its beautiful port – we took off. And, 28 years later, 11 trips to Italy later, I still haven’t made it back to Genoa – but it’s calling now!

Vietnam

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Photo credit: John DeLeva.

When I was seven the neighbor who babysat my brother and I went to Vietnam, and never came back. Thus began a dark fascination with the war, the people and the land. My desire to visit was always tempered by how they might accept Americans. It turned out to be one of the most welcoming places I have ever traveled. After all, I heard several times, “we won the American war.” 

My rough plan was to take a month to journey from Hanoi to Saigon, but I didn’t even get halfway there. Detoured by the dreamlike formations in Ha Long Bay, The Imperial City in the former capital of Hue, the melting pot history in the port of Hoi An and other fascinating historical sites, caves, beaches and pagodas, I just gave in to going back to Hanoi and seeing the rest on the next trip. That was a decade ago – it’s time to go back.

Patagonia

Patagonia.
Patagonia.

On a 93-day odyssey around South America in ’95 I had no itinerary, just a plan to make no plans and leave a place when we were ready to see something else. The trade off for loafing that way was when we reached the northern fringes of Patagonia it was too late to venture south. Early May means winter is coming in the southern hemisphere and so a few days on the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, Argentina became our Patagonian appetizer, and a chance to research everything we could do on a return trip.  

Patagonia is massive, roughly the size of Texas and California combined. It’s a place to swim with sea lions, dance with penguins and watch whales. The trekking is legendary, especially inside Torres Del Paine National Park, and when your own two feet are tired there are llamas to ride, or a seat calling aboard the narrow gauge Old Patagonian Express. The list is long on reasons to go back, but so is my count – now 9,177 days since we agreed to return. 

Sapporo, Japan 

Sapporo, Japan.
Sapporo, Japan. Photo credit: David Yttervik Seetiangtham.

An old college roommate encouraged me to visit him in Sapporo on the way home from a China / Hong Kong trip in ’89. I was fascinated with his life there, Japanese culture, tea ceremonies, all the hot springs and national parks on the island of Hokkaido. I also wanted to see the venue that hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, especially Miyanomori Ski Jump Stadium. 

Back in another lifetime when I had “checklists” I would say we saw all we had hoped to see in Sapporo. Little did we know when planning that trip one of the world’s best winter festivals – the Sapporo Snow Festival – would start days after we left. That was when I had a normal job, and a real boss, and there was no chance to extend the trip and see the most amazing ice sculptures created anywhere. Six thousand five-ton trucks haul snow to artists who may take up to a month to put scaffolding as much as four stories high, and use machetes, chainsaws and every size chisel imaginable to create snow white masterpieces. I must return!

Molokai, Hawaiʻi 

Molokai, Hawaiʻi.
Molokai, Hawaiʻi. Photo credit: James Brennan.

This one stares me in the face every day – literally. I can see it out my window. It’s just eight miles across the water from our apartment. I went in ’96, for a strange reason, too. I had just won a bet to visit every county, borough and parish in America but someone said: I bet you missed one. Indeed, a part of Molokai was once a separate county, called Kalawao, and it was created to quarantine and isolate people with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). But after antibiotics made it curable the area became part of Maui County.

Our small group of friends hiked 1,600’ up and down to visit what is today known as Kalaupapa National Historic Park. It was truly a heaven and hell experience. In an absolutely beautiful setting, people with the disease were sent there to die. Thankfully, after the cure, the place has become a refuge for those who survived and still make it home today.  The Park is closed now due to the high-risk Covid poses to its residents, however it is expected to reopen soon with hike-in, fly-in or ride-a-mule in options. I long to return and once again see Father Damian’s grave – the Belgian missionary who spent 16 years helping those there until he, too, fell victim to the disease – plus some of Hawaii’s highest sea cliffs, whitest sand beaches and longest continuous reef. Alright, that’s enough, time to stop writing and start booking a trip. 

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