My Top WOW Destinations From Around The World (Part I)
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
Every now and again, someone asks me what my favorite travel destination has been, out of all the 50 countries I've visited. To be quite honest, I never really have one single answer because I find beauty to be subjective, personal and present in so many different aspects of any given location. I genuinely love cold, continental and mountainous landscapes as much as hot, tropical aquamarine beaches and therefore, I can appreciate many different climates and geographical situations. Generally speaking, natural landscapes and fauna always seem to have a great effect on me, more than anything else, but I'm also intrigued and aroused when I meet people with customs and cultures that notably differ from all that I have seen before. In my opinion, these specific aspects tend to top everything else, such as food, architecture and religion - but that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge such details of a country either.
Overall, while I don't have one single place that exceeds all others, I can very clearly remember the few places and moments that have left me in an intense yet quiet contemplation during my travels. I don't usually go back to see a country twice out of pure curiosity, and if I do, it's definitely because of that WOW sensation, as well as the global experience of physically being there. Without further ado, here are the unique destinations that have captured my heart so far, and to which I would gladly return without a moment’s hesitation.
Tahiti, French Polynesia
To my utmost regret, Tahiti is the only island I was able to visit while in French Polynesia. I wasn't able to go to Bora Bora, Moorea nor any other of the well-known islands. That said, I did have the opportunity to visit Tahiti several times in a row and I was fully capable of exploring that one island in complete depth. The first thing that really surprised me is that French Polynesia has a matriarchal society, meaning women are dominant. They usually lead in society, lead at home, are proud, assertive and very respected; which makes the overall vibe in Tahiti very different from anything I've ever known before. Life in general is really joyful, there’s vibrant music everywhere, people sing, dance and laugh out loud in public places or restaurants, there are Tiaré flowers and black pearl jewels at every street corner, people wear their tattoos proudly, it smells good all around - as if living in a women-led society made everything look and feel more feminine, light and fun. This cultural uniqueness, combined with the delicious fresh and raw fish-based cuisine, the beautiful beaches and tropical jungle landscapes makes it an overall experience I just couldn't get enough of. The green and blue scenery, the mountains shaped like giant hats popping out of the crystal clear sea water, and the breathtaking waterfalls hidden deep inside the island's thick and luxurious coconut tree and bamboo jungles. The cherry on the cake, for me, were the Tahitian dances. I had the chance to see firsthand the Heiva i Tahiti annual festival on one of my trips and it was one of the most transcending shows I have ever witnessed. The hypnotizing beats of tribal percussions, the endless count of dancers on stage all precisely synchronized, the extraordinary costumes, the choreographies in which both men and women have very specific dance moves, the legends told through the movements, the beauty, exotism and feminity of it all... I can very clearly remember every second spent there, and how in that moment, I could only think of how unique and extraordinary it was for me to actually be living and breathing such an experience.
Blue Mountains, Australia
While in Sydney for the New Year, my husband and I decided to drive out to the Blue Mountains as recommended by our hotel clerk. We headed out on our way without any expectations, but upon our arrival, we were stunned by the dramatic views and how nature spread out infinitely throughout a sort of giant endless canyon at our feet. Steep cliffs, eucalyptus forests, and huge waterfalls is what met our eyes and what we spent our days exploring. We walked from the Echo Point all the way to the impressive Three Sisters sandstone rock formation before reaching the Katoomba falls. It was a breath of fresh air and we felt like tiny creatures surrounded by jurassic-like bushes and trails.
Ambrym Volcano, Vanuatu
This was probably one of the most intense experiences of my life. While living in Port Vila, Vanuatu, hubby and I decided to gather a group of friends and visit the Ambrym volcano. Lesser known and accessible than it's rival the explosive Tanna island volcano which we had already seen, we climbed aboard a small Cessna plane and took off to the island of Ambrym. We slept 1 or 2 nights at the island’s base before mentally and physically preparing ourselves to climb up to the top of the island where the volcano's craters are situated, because we were told by our guides that it would be a difficult climb and lengthy journey. We spent about 7 hours climbing the steep ridges and ledges with only a few breaks and pauses on the way. It was a crazy adventure through wild and untouched nature, a few local guides and assistants helped us by cutting down vegetation with their machetes, tracing a path all while giving us a hand by carrying the load of our backpacks and camping gear. The problem is that on Vanuatu islands, many Ni-Van people have a very different notion of time. At the beginning, we were told it would take about 5 hours to get to the crater, but in reality, it took us nearly 7 hours just to reach the top of the mountain. At that point, once situated at the top and with only 3 hours left until sunset, it was recommended that we install our campsite and take a small break before walking to the crater and coming back. We were told the craters weren't too far and that we should reach the first one in approximately half-an-hour. Already pretty tired, dirty and worn out by the climb, we gathered our courage and headed out - more lightly equipped, now that we had left all our stuff at the campsite.
2 hours later, as dusk began to fall, we began to see an orange-reddish halo of light in the distance, over the vast, dimmed, flat moon-like and ashy desert landscape we were dragging ourselves through. We were all exhausted and annoyed by the guides repeatedly telling us we were "almost there" for the past hour and a half. Should we have known, we would've chosen to stay at camp and take the rest of the evening off, heading to the craters the next morning instead. I remember breaking down in tears and not being able to walk anymore about 15 minutes before reaching the crater. I was exhausted, the land beneath our feet had switched from ashy sands to very sharp rocks and as the rest of the group finally approached the first crater known as "Marum", shouting that we were very close, I managed to reach it with the help of both my husband and a guide partially carrying, pushing and pulling me through. I just couldn't feel my ankles and my feet anymore, I had reached my personal limit.
When I DID get there though, I couldn't help but notice everyone was suddenly completely silenced. We were told to approach the crater’s ledge very slowly - preferably crawling - and to lay over the edge with just our heads out above the crater. I could feel the heat, and when I looked down into the crater for the first time, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. The crater was very wide and deep, at least 300 meters down, and at the bottom was a very large, round lake of thick fire-coloured lava boiling in huge and constant rhythmic waves. It was absolutely magical. In that very moment, it was as if I were contemplating the Earth’s bowels, and I remember feeling totally insignificant. We all stayed there, laying over the edge in contemplation for about half an hour. It was well past nightfall and we had to head back, but we didn't care. This is what we had come for and nothing else mattered anymore. It was beautiful, and truly intense.
Old Bagan, Myanmar
While living in Burma, now called Myanmar, a friend joined my husband and I from abroad and we all decided to take a tour around the Yangon and Mandalay regions. There were several amazing moments on that trip, such as visiting the giant and peaceful Shwedagon Pagoda in the middle of chaotic Yangon city, meeting the Pa-O people at the Taunggyi site in Shan State comprised of 1600 incredible stupas, finding a humongous sitting buddha sculpture on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, or waking up at 4 in the morning to have a photoshoot with the birds and fishermen on peaceful Inle lake. Despite all that, what topped everything else in Myanmar was reaching the archeological site of Old Bagan. After days of dangerous driving, food intoxications, being covered with dust from head to toe and from dusk till dawn, we reached the ancient city and visited several of the 3822 temples, pagodas and monasteries which were built in the Bagan plains between the 11th and 13th century, still surviving in present day. It was an amazing experience to get lost during several days in the vast maze of buddhist buildings of all shapes and sizes, each temple, pagoda or monastery carved with uniqueness and a story. Climbing on the rooftop of a high Pagoda and overlooking the plain at sunset as many air balloons rose to the sky has been one of those unforgettable WOW moments for me.
Picture a small Indonesian island where luxurious tropical nature, strong culture, traditional customs, delicious and healthy exotic foods, exquisite lifestyle, refined architecture and design, rich arts crafts, and bohemian vibes all cohabit in one. Thinking it’s too good to be true? Well, it does exist and that place is called Bali, situated in Indonesia. Never before had traveling and discovering a new place been so easy and natural as it was for me in Bali. Everything about my vacation there was simply perfect. My husband and I landed in a one of those posh boutique hotels in Seminyak and after indulging in fine dining, the best spa experiences, chilling out in extravagant beach lounges, watching surfers ride the waves at sunset and hopping in and out of hyppie-like parties, we were literally offered a ride and tour to Ubud Village by a random driver in the streets one morning. Of course, the guy was used to spontaneously picking up tourists around town once in a while and he didn't ask for any money, but told us we could offer him whatever we'd like at the end of the day.
It was hands down one of the best tours ever. He took us to a Luwak Coffee and Spice tasting farm, then to see traditional fire-dances with utmost extraordinary costumes as well as a string and percussion orchestra, and finally to have lunch and visit the rice fields, temples and the Monkey Forest in Ubud Village. Matter of fact, this was the first time I witnessed rice fields firsthand, tasting so many rice-based and tapioca sweets. I’ve never drank as much fresh coconut water as I did in Bali either, and the temples were something straight out of another world. The walk though Monkey Forest was enchanting and I felt as though I was a part of the Jungle Book for several hours. I had Monkeys eating bananas on my head while the mystical dragon bridges and temples left me speechless. What I loved most about Bali is that everything just happened spontaneously and naturally, just as I like things to take place. The driver wasn't hovering nor over-doing it, he simply asked us if we would be interested in seeing this or that during the car ride, and as we made our choices, he brought us to such locations, letting us roam freely and just asking us to call him when we decided we want to go to the next spot. We got lost in Ubud and everywhere we went seemed to harbor something amazing waiting to be discovered. Everything was quite accessible and cheap, taking in account the amount of quality services, foods, restaurants, hotels, lounges and boutiques. I was used to seeing a clear separation in the types of people hanging out at normal and luxury venues, but in Bali, I was stunned to see so much luxury accessible and open to anyone, really. It resonates a unique blend of bohemian and posh lifestyle that I've never really felt anywhere else before.
Sarah The Digital GypSea
Romania, September 2021