My Plan for 2017: A Commitment to Fitness

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For years, I lived my life with one solid focus: to travel the world as much as possible and build my career as a travel blogger. And it was good. Lord, was it good.

But over time, I learned that being singularly focused means that everything else in your life suffers to a degree. Relationships. Other interests. And most importantly, health. Case in point: almost every travel blogger who has given up full-time travel has cited health as a reason.

When I finally felt the travel desire waning, it was a blessing. For the first time, I felt the freedom to create a fixed life in New York. Now that I’ve been managing that for a year, it’s time to turn my efforts toward improving my health.

The Background

I grew up very thin, put on weight throughout my twenties, then lost 20+ pounds in 2010, just in time for me to start my travels in Southeast Asia. How? I basically starved myself. It wasn’t healthy.

You can see in the pics from back then that I was super thin but had no muscle tone. I was the epitome of skinny fat.

After Southeast Asia, the weight packed back on. And while I would lose a few pounds here and there, I was never able to commit to anything. Yoga? BORED. YouTube workouts? MAYBE FOR A FEW WEEKS. Paid video workouts? DIDN’T LAST. Running? HURT MYSELF AND STOPPED. Walking a ton? NOT ENOUGH CARDIO.

And so I found nothing that worked. As a result, my weight stayed the same. And I am so fucking sick and tired.

I’m tired of contorting myself into the skinniest position possible while posing for photos.

I’m tired of traveling with gorgeous friends with hot bodies and feeling like the resident lump.

I’m tired of hiding on beaches behind sarongs and caftans.

I’m tired of traveling with brilliant photographer friends and ending up photos of a fat girl I don’t recognize.

For five and a half years I’ve been looking at photos of myself and thinking, “That’s not me.”

So I’m finally taking action. In a big way. Here is how I am going to change my life with fitness.

Exercise Goals:

Join Equinox.

Yes, I drank the #committosomething Kool-Aid. There was a promotion in December where there was no initiation fee for joining Equinox (usually $300-500), so that was the incentive that brought me in.

(Note: this January you can still join Equinox with no initiation fee if you work out 12 times in your first 30 days! Tell them Kate McCulley recommended you.)

I held off because I wanted to join a gym like Healthworks Back Bay, where I went in Boston. Healthworks is a luxurious all-female gym and I went all the time because I loved the atmosphere. And there actually isn’t an equivalent in New York. I went back and forth — did I really want to work out with boys who used all the heavy weights and made me feel inadequate?

Turns out a coed gym wasn’t the problem. My core issue was that I didn’t want to feel intimidated. And I lucked out — I go to the Equinox on West 92nd St., which is in a residential zone and thus reflects the locals: there are a lot of older people. Classes tend to be young and nearly all female, but usually at least two thirds of the floor is filled with people in their fifties and older. The kind of people who say, “Why, thank you, young lady!” when I hold a door for them (so sweet). And because of that, I don’t feel intimidated at all!

For what it’s worth, not every Equinox is like that. I’ve heard the downtown locations have a hotter crowd and the SoHo location in particular is popular with models.

And to acknowledge the elephant in the room — yes, it’s an expensive gym. I wish it weren’t. But for someone like me who has tried and failed so many different fitness plans over the years and has only succeeded staying in shape when she has a fancy gym to go to? GIVE ME THE FANCY PLACE WITH THE COOL CLASSES. All day. I need that as motivation. And their app. God, Equinox has an awesome app.

Honestly, if I joined Planet Fitness or even NYSC, I wouldn’t be motivated to go. Equinox is super nice and fancy and I love going there. Spending that money is worth it because it’s keeping me in shape.

Get a personal trainer.

I didn’t see this on the horizon, but surprise — I have a trainer now! Equinox matched me with Gayle, a trainer who met the criteria I asked for (female, not a drill sergeant type, wouldn’t mind my sporadic travel schedule) and I see her twice a week for strength training.

I went into the gym as a fitness newbie — I have no clue how to work out on the machines or what my form should be or how hard to push myself or how to design a circuit. Even when I went to Healthworks in Boston, I avoided the machines because I didn’t know how to use them. This way, Gayle is helping me go from an unshaped ball of clay to a very fit human being with a routine customized to all my personal strengths and weaknesses.

Try 20 classes at Equinox before the end of the year.

I am a class junkie — I love group fitness, especially fast-moving dance-y classes, and it’s one of the best ways to motivate me to go to the gym. Equinox is known for its excellent classes and instructors. I’m already impressed at what the difference can be between an average Zumba instructor and a great Zumba instructor.

I *could* take 20 different classes at my gym on 92nd St., but that would mean taking virtually every class they offer, so I may look into expanding into a global membership, letting me check out other clubs and classes.

Get up the nerve to take a spin class.

The idea of spinning, or indoor cycling, has always terrified me, especially after hearing accounts of intimidating instructors from friends. It seems like everyone yells at you, and I don’t feel strong enough to join in yet!

I will get up the nerve, and I will do it. Maybe in a month or so.

Figure out how to keep up exercise while traveling.

This is the one that stumps me the most. Everything I’ve tried while traveling has not worked long-term. I think my best solution may be trying to find Zumba classes when traveling in the US or major cities.

Lose 25 pounds by Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is the last weekend in May and the unofficial kickoff to the summer, non-American readers. And I think losing 25 pounds a week, which works out to just a little over a pound per week, is a very reasonable goal.

My body assessment calculated that my optimal goal should be to lose 33 pounds of fat and add 11 pounds of muscle. So losing 25 pounds will get me to a good, bikini-worthy weight, but I think I can lose another 5-10 pounds beyond that.

Get sexy, defined clavicles again.

I want my clavicles to be sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

Diet Goals:

Aim to eat paleo 80% of the time.

I’ve always thought the paleo diet made the most sense — lots of vegetables with meat, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds, while avoiding processed foods, sugar, dairy, and grains. It sounded so healthy — I just didn’t want to commit to it.

Then I promised my trainer I would give up sugar and carbs (not all carbs, just bread and pasta and rice). And then I dropped dairy as well and didn’t miss it. I guess this is what I’m doing now.

Doing it 80% is a smart choice because it keeps me from being miserable and it makes socializing easier. I went out for Vietnamese food at Anchoi on the Lower East Side and enjoyed pho and summer rolls with rice noodles and rice paper, and didn’t care. I had a little shaved parmesan on a kale caesar salad at Sweetgreen and loved it, too.

I’m not going to splurge aimlessly — I’m going to save them up for really good reasons. Like a Salty Pimp at Big Gay Ice Cream in the Village or the fettuccine al’amatriciana at Emilio’s Ballato in SoHo.

Commit to cooking paleo at home.

I love to cook. And there are so many great paleo recipes on the internet! I’ve been experimenting and having a great time. I made a grass-fed beef chili so good that I nearly cried. And my new favorite things are date-almond-coconut bars made with nothing but those three ingredients.

In the process, I’ve also started shopping at the Trader Joe’s on 72nd St. more often, rather than relying on the subpar markets in my neighborhood. Not only is Trader Joe’s shockingly cheap (like, cheaper than Amazon cheap), they also have a nice selection of organic options and cool store products. (The only thing? The checkout line stretches for AGES, even on a random Tuesday afternoon.)

Make smarter choices about alcohol.

I’m still doing a sober month once a year (though I didn’t write about it in 2016), which I recommend to everyone. It’s good to give your body a break and remind yourself how to socialize without booze. It made my skin clear up so much, too.

I’m not giving up alcohol entirely, but I’m making smarter choices about what I drink. I don’t drink at home to begin with, and when I go out, I choose wine (usually red or champagne) or spirits, ideally low-cal vodka sodas with (a lot of) lime.

And if I get a cocktail, I try to get a relatively clean cocktail. At Attaboy on the Lower East Side (amazing speakeasy and one of the best cocktail bars I’ve ever been to), the bartender made me a Bee Sting: gin, lemon, honey, ginger. At Red Rooster, the restaurant that literally made me want to move to Harlem, I got an Earl of Harlem: bourbon with Earl Grey tea and lemon.

Off the menu are beer, sugary cocktails, and anything involving soda or high-cal mixers like tonic.

Make smarter choices about caffeine.

I’ve become a latte-a-day girl, and as much as I love them, they’re not the smartest choice. They add a lot of calories and the dairy isn’t great for you. Plus, I don’t mind drinking (good) coffee black!

When I go out to cafes now, whether to work or for a pick-me-up, I restrict myself to either black coffee or herbal tea. No sugar, ever, but I didn’t use sugar anyway.

I’ve also been experimenting with bulletproof coffee: a cup of coffee with a tablespoon of organic unsalted grass-fed butter and a tablespoon of organic coconut oil. I only do it pre-workout, but it makes me feel like I have rocket fuel in my veins.

Make smarter choices about animal products.

This year I’m going to make a bigger commitment to cooking only with organic, free-range, antibiotic-free eggs and poultry, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught fish. These kinds of animal products are so much healthier for you than the conventional options.

Unfortunately, meat this good comes at a price — it’s very expensive. I’ll try to get what I can for cheap at Trader Joe’s, but they don’t have everything. I plan on making lots of visits to Harlem Shambles, one of the best butcher shops in the city.

Mental Health Goals:

Meditate more often.

I pay for the Headspace app but don’t use it nearly enough. It’s funny how I can while away ten minutes on Facebook without noticing but ten minutes of meditation makes me think, “Do I really have time for that?” Hell yes, Kate, you have time for that!

The truth? Meditation always helps me relax, focus, and feel more in control. Sometimes it even cures my headaches! There’s really no reason not to do it. I’d like to do it a few times a week.

Let go of the body baggage.

I grew up in a thin family. I graduated from high school at 5’4″ and 109 pounds and didn’t start putting on weight until later in college, then kept adding more and more in my twenties and thirties.

My family members are wonderful, smart, funny people. But nobody’s perfect, and looking back, I realize that when I was growing up, we were not as kind and accepting of overweight people as we should have been. It never lapsed into mocking or cruelty, but there were constant negative comments when talking about people heavier than we were.

Two examples of that? I remember when I was in a play and one 15-year-old girl had to do a move where she flung her arms outward. I noticed nothing unusual about it, but I remember my mom saying, “If I had a daughter whose arms jiggled like that, I’d have her on a workout plan so fast.” (And because I know a lot of people from home read this blog — she wasn’t talking about someone from Reading. This was at summer camp.)

And I remember once at church when a family of three came in. Both of the parents were obese and each used two canes to walk. Their son, probably around 12 at the time, was overweight. “That kid is doomed,” I remember my dad saying as soon as we were home.

It was during college when I realized that making negative comments about overweight people was neither kind nor common. I spent a few years rewiring my brain and trying to become a better person.

So, what’s it like to grow up thin in a family where thinness is prized but you end up heavy? It’s been rough. I’ve felt like an embarrassment to my family for many years now, especially after being a heavy bridesmaid in two weddings. My weight is frequently a topic whenever I’m home, but it’s more along the lines of, “So what are you doing to work out now?” They’re not mean about it, but it’s tough to know that they would hold a better opinion of me if I lost it.

I need to keep working through that.

Use the SELF Journal for fitness goals.

I supported the SELF Journal on Kickstarter and got one of my own but haven’t even started using it yet! Talk about the height of laziness.

It’s part day planner, part bullet journal. It helps you set your daily and weekly goals and lay out the steps you’ll take to get there.

I particularly like that it has sections for daily gratitudes, both in the morning and the night.

Make peace with the fact that I’m going to lose my boobs.

Because, really, they’re exceptional. And I don’t say that lightly.

Get up early — perhaps a monthly challenge of getting up early.

I got this idea from Lauren of Neverending Footsteps — she wants to spend a month waking up early, like at 4:00 or 5:00 AM.

I love getting up early, but I rarely do it — I feel like I’m wired to do my best work at night, especially when it comes to writing, and it’s not unusual for me to be putting the finishing touches on a blog post at 2:00 or 3:00 AM. Even though I don’t want to.

So perhaps I should make a concentrated effort to get up at 5:00 AM for a month and see how it goes. That would be easy to take on the road, too!

Put phone on airplane mode long before bed until long after you’re up.

C’est Christine recently posted about doing this and I’m a big fan — it’s nice to know there are no distractions when you’re trying to get to bed. And this way, my eyelids start fluttering while I’m still reading and I fall asleep immediately.

It also helps me get up in the morning and get things done before getting sucked into social media.

So, how’s it going so far?

Well, we’re 17 days into the New Year, so I’m well aware that I’m in the “This is awesome!” stage of things and keeping it up will get more challenging.

So far, though, I feel amazing. I don’t know whether it’s the workouts or the diet, but I feel so focused and aware and light and I have an easier time getting work done. My skin is soft, too.

And the big one: I’ve lost five pounds in two weeks and my jeans are loose in the butt region. Five pounds is a lot of weight to lose that fast, but it’s common to lose fast at first, and I’m certain the weight loss will soon taper down to a more-reasonable one pound per week.

I plan on doing little fitness updates in my monthly recaps and a bigger post around Memorial Day or once I hit a major milestone.

But what I really, truly hope is that this is the beginning of a major lifestyle change for me. I’ve waited long enough.

What fitness goals do you have for 2017? What has worked for you? Share away!

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How to Fall in Love with Kraków in 30 Steps

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I wondered if I was doing myself a disservice, waiting so long to visit Kraków and Poland as a whole. As much as I hate to admit it, you do lose a bit of sense of wonder when you travel constantly. Would I greet Kraków with the enthusiasm of my early twenties? Or be underwhelmed and head to cafes to work the whole time?

The good news, however, is that traveling this much teaches you what you like and don’t like. You can often tell in an instant. And that’s how Kraków was for me. It hit me all at once. It was beautiful, it was comfortable, it was interesting. This is a great place, I said to myself.

Here’s how I fell in love with Kraków. In 30 steps.

1. Start by walking a few minutes from your accommodation to the main square.

2. Admire the purple flowers that seem to be everywhere.

3. Discover a gentleman making bubbles for the kids! Play with them, take hundreds of photos, and curse the little girl in the pink shirt for jumping in front of all your photos.

4. Try to catch a moment where the bubble guy looks like God. This will do.

5. Realize that the whole Old Town is encircled by a park. Think to yourself that if you lived here, walking this park would be how you caught up on all your podcasts.

6. Pass a sidewalk cafe and debate whether to go in and get a cup of coffee — until this girl catches you taking a photo and you feel too intimidated to set foot beyond the fence.

7. Head back into the Old Town, find another coffee shop, and order a coconut latte topped with blue syrup. Giggle when you realize that you’ve only had coconut lattes in Guatemala and Poland.

8. Realize that the light is changing fast and head back to the main square to photograph the sunset. Be immediately spellbound by the exquisite, perfect light.

9. Catch the clock tower and a wisp of cotton candy clouds.

10. Nearly burst into tears at how perfect the colors are. This photo won’t need a single tweak. Marvel that it’s just the kind of photo that will do great on Instagram. (Spoiler: it does.)

11. Say goodnight to the sunset and the purest light you’ve seen since Japan.

12. Practice a little panning on your camera with the many tourist vehicles that drive by.

13. Try a few motion shots of the trams as well. Why not? The sky looks great!

14. Pick up your laundry from Frania Cafe, the cafe laundromat where you dropped it off three hours earlier. Wonder to yourself whether a laundromat cafe would work in your neighborhood in New York. It could be great. Also, rejoice at getting to wear a bra again.

15. Spend a morning hopping around Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. Hop in and out of the vintage boutiques and odd shops, then meet up with a lovely reader of yours.

16. Realize that you’re falling into the trap of imagining what your life would be like if you lived here. Even though you know it won’t be happening. Do you have a ghost life here?

17. Stroll up to the cathedral at Wawel Castle.

18. Take another pic that you know will do great on Instagram. It does.

19. Contemplate adding a knocker like this to your apartment in New York.

20. Head to one of your reader’s favorite spots, Camelot, a funky cafe in the Old Town.

21. Get up to use the bathroom…and take photos of everything inside.

22. Taste your first Polish cheesecake — it’s milder than its American counterpart, and not as smooth, but very delicious, especially with berries.

23. Take an evening stroll to confirm that yes, Kraków looks just as good by night.

24. Discover that paczki, Polish donuts, are apparently being sold right around the corner from your guesthouse! Give in to temptation, purchase one, wait until you’re in the privacy of your room, then take a bite and sigh.

25. Eat soup. Again and again. Decide that Poland is your new favorite soup country in the world.

26. See that there is a Sephora near the main square and this is all that matters right now. Realize they only stock foundations for the very pale, but get recommended an eyebrow pencil that you use till this day.

27. Follow a group of four friends around the park — then realize that they remind you of The Wizard of Oz!

28. Evaluate whether you’ve been missing out by only having two beers during your entire duration in Poland.

29. Admire the first trees turning red for fall.

30. And finally, on your final night in the city, capture the perfect sunburst after five or six tries. Vow to remember this moment forever.

Essential Info: In Kraków I stayed at Poselska Góscinne Guesthouse, one of the best budget guesthouses I’ve experienced in a long time. It was close to perfect: good-sized private room with a private bath, super comfortable, great internet, modern facilities, very nice owners, in an ideal location in the heart of the Old Town. AND they charge solo travelers less! Double rooms 150-180 zloty ($36-44) for one person, 230-260 zloty ($56-63) for two people.

Two restaurants I loved happened to be on the same street as the guesthouse: Restauracja Miód Malina has delicious local food in a building from the 1300s, while Corse is an outstanding Corsican restaurant (what a surprise to find it in Poland!). And the cafe pictured above with the cheesecake is Camelot.

If you plan to visit Auschwitz from Kraków, I urge you to book as early as possible. I didn’t go in part because the English tours were sold out. More information is here.

Don’t visit Kraków without travel insurance — it could save your life. I use World Nomads for insurance on every trip I take and I highly recommend them.

Have you been to Krakow? Or does it look like your kind of city?

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Where to Go in 2017: Kate’s Top 12 Picks

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January is a time for goal-setting and making those long-held travel dreams a reality. This is the time to start saving and making tentative plans for one of your long-held dream trips.

Now — if you have a specific, long-held travel dream, that’s what you should prioritize! I always encourage people to go after their biggest travel dreams. But if you need a little nudge from me, here are some of my top picks for 2017, one for each month of the year.

January: Shetland Islands

Why? Up Helly Aa, one of the world’s wildest festivals, takes place on the last Tuesday in January.

When people ask me about the best things I’ve done while traveling, I always mention Up Helly Aa. To this day, I consider it one of the coolest things I’ve experienced and one of my best travel memories, if not the best. Imagine a festival of fire and Vikings and costumes and performances and dancing to traditional music until 8:00 in the morning! I joined Haggis Adventures’ Up Helly Aa tour (where they hosted me in exchange for coverage). If it’s too late to sign up now, I recommend signing up for next year!

Shetland struck me with its raw, remote, jagged beauty, shaped by cold temperatures and strong winds. And “quirky” is too gentle a word for Lerwick, where the accents are barely understandable and the men threw things at me in the bar to get my attention. I loved every minute of my time there.

Where to go: The biggest celebration is in the capital of Lerwick, but smaller Up Helly Aa celebrations take place throughout the islands. Be sure to take the time to explore Shetland as well. There are lots of beautiful views around Scalloway and my favorite stop was the double beach en route to St. Ninian’s Isle.

Further Reading: Up Helly Aa: Possibly My Best Adventure Yet, The Raw Beauty of Shetland

February: Louisiana

Why? There will be a month of Mardi Gras celebrations in February 2017, and destinations beyond New Orleans need your tourist dollars.

Mardi Gras takes place on February 28 this year, and that’s when the biggest celebration takes place in New Orleans. But many New Orleans locals prefer to head to carnivals elsewhere in Louisiana. These local celebrations mostly take place earlier than Mardi Gras itself, making it a month full of celebrations. You can find a schedule here.

Louisiana was subject to severe flooding last year, which was concentrated in the regions surrounding Baton Rouge and Lafayette. While the flooding is over now, the economic impact is still taking place and the region could use your tourism dollars to help recover. (Not to mention the fact that many places outside New Orleans are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.) The best way to do this? Road trip! Louisiana is a beautiful state and it’s home to unique culinary traditions you won’t find anywhere else in the United States. Go for the parades; stay for the gumbo and boudin and beignets.

Where to go? In my time in Louisiana I only visited New Orleans and Oak Alley Plantation, both of which I highly recommend, but Baton Rouge and Lafayette are quirky cities that deserve your attention. Jean Lafitte National Park is a great place to check out the state’s beautiful swamps. And Grand Ile is the state’s only inhabited barrier island and a wonderful base to explore the outdoors.

Further reading: Mardi Gras: Music, Magic, and Mayhem in New Orleans, Oak Alley Plantation

March: Nicaragua

Why: Incredible weather in a dreary month in a destination on the verge of change.

Nicaragua is my favorite country in Central America and it’s a wonderful place to escape the doldrums of winter. March is one of my favorite months to escape to somewhere warm — spring might be around the corner, but by then you are just sick of the cold and are craving sunshine! In March, Nicaragua is hot, sunny, and very cheap.

Nicaragua is also on the precipice of transition. The Chinese have been planning on building a canal through Lake Nicaragua, though the project has been postponed many times. As soon as that happens, it’s going to destroy much of the beautiful coastline and change the country’s atmosphere. Furthermore, Little Corn Island is also changing at a rapid pace. What was once a nearly unknown island is becoming increasingly traversed and that could lead to it losing its desert island feel. In other words, go now, go now, go now before it changes too much.

Where to go: Nicaragua has so many amazing destinations and one you should skip (Managua, the capital). Granada is a beautiful colonial town and the nearby Laguna de Apoyo is the perfect escape from the city. León in the northwest is a wild, vibrant, traditional city. San Juan del Sur is a colorful party town. Ometepe, an island in the lake, is a peaceful, serene getaway. And perhaps my favorite is Little Corn Island in the Caribbean.

Further reading: Rocking Out on Little Corn Island, Ometepe: Inside Nicaragua’s Volcanic Island, The Most Colorful City of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, Alive in León, Nicaragua: The City of Revolution

April: Thailand

Why: Songkran, a three-day water fight throughout the country, takes place April 13-15.

April is the month when Thailand shifts from the cool season to the hot season — and there’s no better way to welcome that heat than with a three-day water fight. Songkran, Thai New Year, takes place in April and I’ve never seen a country drop everything to have a water fight! Thais wear flowered shirts, sit in the back of pickup trucks, and drive around shooting everyone they see with super soakers. Tuk-tuks are doused in buckets of water. Everyone from kids to adults gets involved in the celebration!

Nobody is off limits during Songkran (except monks and the elderly). Just walking down the street will get you attacked with a deluge by Thais who love to joyfully assault the visiting farangs (foreigners). I love this because everyone is in the same boat and you don’t need to speak the same language to share an experience with locals! Songkran, along with Up Helly Aa, is one of the best festivals I’ve ever experienced around the world, and I recommend you go at least once in your life.

Where to go: I highly recommend spending Songkran in Bangkok with a focus on the neighborhoods around Khao San Road and in Silom, but many of my friends swear that it’s better in Chiang Mai (where people even attack from the moat!). I suggest spending the three days in either of those two cities, then continuing your Thai travels elsewhere. If you want to add beach time, go to Krabi Province and my favorite island in the world, Koh Lanta; if you want a funky little mountain town near Chiang Mai, go to Pai.

Further reading: Songkran in Bangkok: The Greatest Festival on Earth

May: Western Australia

Why? As close as you can get to perfect weather all the way up and down the coast — with the added bonus of whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef.

If you like off the beaten path destinations and great Instagram shots, you will LOVE Western Australia. WA is one of the best photography destinations I’ve ever visited and I was struck by its desolation and beauty. The landscape is so varied and the people are so friendly.

WA is also a behemoth of a region — it’s roughly one third of Australia! So it’s hard to find one month where you have decent weather throughout the region. My October trip was pretty good for weather timing; May has similar temperatures. But May has the added bonus of being in the heart of whale shark season at Ningaloo Reef. Ningaloo Reef is much closer to shore and far less trafficked than the Great Barrier Reef and it’s home to some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced — adding whale sharks to the mix would make it even better!

Where to go: You will likely arrive in Perth, and take time to explore the city and get out to Rottnest Island for quokka selfies. A road trip to Coral Bay should be your big goal, as Ningaloo Reef is nothing short of spellbinding, and there are lots of stops along the way like the Pinnacles Desert, Kalbarri, and the Shark Bay region. But if you want something really special, head to Karijini National Park. Alternatively, Broome and the Kimberley are still in dry season during this time of year. It will be chillier on the southern coast, though.

Further reading: My Favorite Experiences in Western Australia

June: Britain

Why? It’s never been cheaper to visit, there’s truly something for everyone, and you’ll have some of the best weather of the year in June.

Following Brexit, the pound fell significantly in value, making Britain the cheapest it’s been in my lifetime. It used to hover around $1.55 to the pound; these days it’s $1.23 to the pound. This is bad news for Brits and those who earn in pounds (myself included), but it’s good news for international visitors who want to visit Britain.

Living in Britain for a few years helped me realize that this country is so nuanced and far more diverse than you think. The biggest mistake international travelers make is thinking that Britain = London. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This country is filled with plenty more funky cities, gorgeous landscapes and interesting small villages. And the food happens to be fantastic — especially when it comes to local meats and cheeses and decadent desserts! The weather is hit or miss, but in June you’ll likely have more hits than misses.

Where to go? London is wonderful, but don’t overlook other English destinations. Liverpool is a cool city; York is a magical town; the Lake District and the Cotswolds are fantastic countryside spots. In Wales I recently road tripped through the south (don’t miss the used bookstore paradise of Hay-on-Wye or the pretty seaside town of Tenby); in the north, Snowdonia National Park, Conwy, and Llangollen are wonderful.

Scotland is brimming with wonderful destinations, from Edinburgh to the Highlands to Shetland (once again!). I particularly love the Isle of Skye and hope to visit the Outer Hebrides soon. And don’t forget that Northern Ireland is on the pound too! The Causeway Coast is indescribably beautiful.

Further reading: The Most Glorious Spirit: A Week of Gin in the UKA Dreamy Trip to South Wales, My Love Affair with Scotland, What I’ve Learned From 1.5 Years in the UK

July: Coastal New England

Why? New England might be frigid for most of the year, but summer is when this region comes to life.

Coastal New England is such a large region — it extends from Connecticut’s hemmed-in coastline to Rhode Island, Massachusetts, a sliver of New Hampshire coastline, then onto Maine. I find it best to explore this region on a road trip — you could cover so much ground! But wherever you go, you’ll find beautiful small towns with excellent seafood, beautiful beaches, and people enjoying the glorious summer.

Eat lobster rolls on a bench by the beach. Catch a baseball game — Red Sox, minor league, or something local. Browse antique markets and culinary shops. Time your visit during the Fourth of July for fireworks, parades, and other small town celebrations. But anytime in July is beautiful — just know that you’re in the thick of high season and will experience a lot of traffic!

Where to go? I’m from the North Shore of Massachusetts, and I can recommend exploring the North Shore towns of Newburyport, Rockport, Salem, and Gloucester. Boston is wonderful. Cape Cod is as fabulous as people say. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is one of my favorite small cities. One of my favorite restaurants in the world is the Maine Diner in Wells, Maine (if nothing else, GET THE SEAFOOD CHOWDER), and I love the towns of Ogunquit and York, though you can’t miss Acadia National Park further north. Portland, Maine, is an up-and-coming foodie paradise. And perhaps this will finally be the year that I get to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket!

Further reading: Bachelorettes on the Run in Portland, Maine, Photo Essay: Beautiful Rockport, Massachusetts, Photo Essay: Cape Cod Houses, A Day at the Maine Diner

August: Finland

Why? Summer in the Nordics is nothing short of magical, and perhaps there’s no better place to chill out and enjoy the outdoors than Finland.

On my summer trip to Finland a few years ago, I enjoyed perfect 82-degree (28 C) days, bike rides through the woods, kayaking trips across lakes, and late nights roasting sausages by the campfire. Most memorably, I went sauna-hopping and skinny-dipping under the midnight sun. How wonderful does that sound? That’s exactly how summer should be!

Finland is an offbeat destination in the Nordics and my personal favorite country in the Nordics. Soon, you’ll realize that Finns are among the most physically active people you’ve ever met (and also happen to drink a ton of coffee — these facts may be related). ATMs are available but uncommon; people love to use plastic. And reindeer is a delicious staple on the menu. Finland is full of surprises. And because it’s such an offbeat destination, you won’t find the hordes of crowds in other European destinations in August.

Where to go? Your journey will likely begin in Helsinki, which I think is a vastly underrated city. The Lakes Region is a wonderful place to explore the outdoors; I spent time in Kuhmo. But my favorite and most surprising destination was Rauma, a small UNESCO World Heritage-listed city on the sea with a surprising amount of culture and things to do.

Further reading: A Magical Journey Through Rauma, FinlandKuhmo Chamber Music Festival: Sweet Notes in a Warm Finnish Summer

September: Balkans

Why? All of the heat and beauty of a summer trip with far fewer tourists.

September is my favorite month to travel in Europe and the Balkans are my favorite region in the world, making this a match made in heaven. The Balkans can be incredibly crowded in the summer months, especially in cruise ship ports, but once you get to September, things slow down considerably. Also, the Adriatic takes some time to warm up but is much warmer by the end of the summer!

What do I love about this region? The natural beauty, the mountains and cliffs and fjords and bright turquoise lakes. The architecture, the orthodox churches and mosques that dot the cities. The fresh seafood, cured meats and hard cheeses. And those unforgettable Croatian wines! I love the cafe culture, where everyone bursts out of their homes and walks the streets just before sunset. And in the more touristy areas, English is widely spoken. The Balkans might seem intimidating, but they are very easy to travel.

Where to go? For first-timers, I recommend Croatia’s Dalmatian coast with a side trip to Mostar, Bosnia, and a little time in Montenegro — Kotor makes a great base. You could also combine Slovenia with time in Croatia’s Istria region. If you want to get off the beaten path (and spend the least money), I highly recommend Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Urban junkies should know that the best cities in the region are Ljubljana and Belgrade, though I have a soft spot for Tirana as well!

Further reading: Don’t Let Croatia Slip Through Your Fingers, What’s it Like to Travel in Albania?A Road Trip Through Slovenia, Kosovo: A Warm Welcome from a Newborn CountryDubrovnik Survival Guide, Montenegro: The Most Beautiful Country in Europe, Macedonia: This Magnificent Country Will Surprise You, Briefly, Belgrade, Life After War: Sarajevo Today

October: South Africa

Why? Beautiful weather, cheap prices, pregnant animals on safari, and purple jacaranda trees in bloom.

I always promote South Africa as a high value destination and this year is no different! Seriously. It might be a long or pricey flight there, particularly if you’re from North America, but once you get on the ground, your money goes so far. Take this fact: I brought home six reserve wines from Stellenbosch and not one cost more than $11. How insane is that?! I pay $15 for generic wine in New York! You can go bungee jumping, paragliding, or surfing for far less than what you’d pay in the States or Australia or New Zealand. You can have a fancy meal for a fraction of the cost of other western countries.

South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited with a wide variety of landscapes, and they change quickly if you’re driving the Garden Route. I also believe that a safari is something that every traveler should do at least once, and Kruger National Park is an excellent place to go. I’ve lucked out and seen the Big Five on my two different trips to Kruger! And many of those animals will be pregnant if you go in October. But my favorite thing about October, besides the beautiful spring weather, is seeing bright purple jacaranda trees in bloom.

Where to go? At the very least, go to Cape Town and go on safari in Kruger National Park. I can’t imagine a first-time trip without either of those. Beyond that, tailor it to your interests: I absolutely loved road tripping the Garden Route, Stellenbosch is a fantastic and shockingly cheap wine region, and Johannesburg is a surprisingly fun city. Off the beaten path, I really enjoyed Cintsa and the Wild Coast, which lives up to its name.

Further reading: Adventurous Kate’s Offbeat Guide to Cape Town, The Ultimate South Africa Road Trip Itinerary, Is South Africa Safe?

November: Japan

Why? Few places are as beautiful to photograph in the fall colors as Japan — and most of Japan’s peak color hits in November.

Japan remains one of my favorite countries and the single most encompassing place I’ve ever been. Literally everything is fascinating — the vending machines. The subway maps. Even the trash cans! The food is world-class and prepared with reverence, even in fast food joints. And the Japanese will bend over backwards trying to help you in every way. Japan feels more like a different world than anywhere I’ve ever been.

I’ve been to Japan in the summer, but it was so brutally hot and humid that it made it difficult to enjoy being outside (especially in Kyoto, where locals walked around with towels on their heads). Spring is popular for the cherry blossom season, but fall is another beautiful time of year that gets far less press. The colors here are brilliant, as anyone who grew up with a Japanese maple in her front yard (yes, me again) can attest.

Where to go? So many options! Tokyo is the incomparable city where most trips will begin. The Kansai region is home to Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe — all interesting destinations in their own right. You could enjoy seaside spas in Kanazawa or the old city of Nikko. Head up north to Hokkaido (though know the leaves change much earlier here) or down south to Okinawa for something tropical.

Further reading: What’s It Really Like to Travel Japan?, Bright, Brash and Funky Osaka, Golden Gai: Tokyo’s Coolest Bar Neighborhood

December: Germany

Why? Nowhere in the world does the Christmas season better than Germany. Period.

It starts in the late weeks of November but is in full swing until December 23: Christmas markets all over the country. Now, there may be Christmas markets all over Europe, but nothing compares to traditional German Christmas markets. Each night, they swell with locals and visitors, featuring delicious sausages, gluhwein (hot mulled wine), lebkuchen (gingerbread), and a variety of local dishes and pastries. Traditional handmade crafts are sold as well, and depending where you go, you could get everything from live music performances (so nice in Nuremberg) to hunky merman tree ornaments (I see you, Pink Market in Munich!).

My German Christmas market trip last year was one of the best trips I took in 2016. It was a nice, relaxing week spent among locals and it made me realize that the Germans really have Christmas figured out. It’s all about spending time drinking warm beverages outside with loved ones, rather than racing around trying to get all your gifts in time. I’m already trying to figure out how I can go back next year.

Where to go? I really enjoyed traveling through the Bavaria region, which is an ideal trip for first-timers. I visited Munich, Nuremberg (the best Christmas market of all), Bamberg, Regensburg, and Passau. But some other exceptional Christmas markets are in Berlin (my favorite place in Germany), Dresden, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Next year I’d love to travel along the Rhine and visit the markets in Heidelberg, Dusseldorf, and Cologne.

Further reading: Christmas in Bavaria in 25 Photos

Where do you recommend going in 2017? Share away!

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AK Monthly Recap: December 2016

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Kate in Passau

And just like that, 2016 is over. It couldn’t have come soon enough. I didn’t buy into the “Fuck 2016” memes until the election in November, and then I was fully on board. Talk about an awful year.

Now that it’s 2017, even though it’s just an arbitrary difference, I feel like a lot of people will be able to let go of anger and begin welcoming more positivity into their lives. I feel inspired to get a lot of work done this year.

I already recapped a lot of this month in my best of the year posts, so let’s push on through and talk about what made this month special.

New York from the Reservoir

Destinations Visited

New York, New York

Munich, Nuremberg, Bamberg, Regensburg, and Passau, Germany

Reading and Lynn, Massachusetts

Favorite Destinations

Regensburg really jived with me — its small size, its pastel colors, its many espresso bars.

Nuremberg is fun and has the best Christmas market ever.

Kate at Bamberg

Highlights

The big travel highlight was my Christmas market trip to Bavaria. Uncharacteristically, I wrote the post before the month’s end, so you can check it out here: Christmas in Bavaria.

That was a nice trip. An easy trip. A chilled out trip. A trip that I planned and got to enjoy on my own terms, which is exactly what I needed at the time. A trip where most of the itinerary involved aimless wandering, taking trains, and drinking various warm beverages.

I also got to see lots of blogger friends, spent time with a reader in Passau, and met up with a friend I met in Colombia in Munich!

Spending Christmas at home. I still feel crazy guilty for missing Christmases in 2010, 2012 and 2013, so it’s always good to go home and spend time with my family, drink a lot of port with my dad, and do a lot of cooking with my mom.

I also sent my first Christmas cards ever! This is one of the things I looked forward to most when getting a place of my own! I definitely wanted to send a funny card that wasn’t the usual sad-single-girl-drinking-and-eating-her-sorrows-away-at-Christmas variety. So I chose to do something different…

Kate and the Rock Christmas Card

Spending New Year’s in Harlem. I haven’t done much on New Year’s over the past few years, mostly due to memories of walking through deep snow in high heels in downtown Boston to spend $75 on a cover charge (but hey, free glass of champagne!), but I wanted to go out this year. The best thing? Two bars in my neighborhood were having a New Year’s pajama party. My sister and I went and it was so nice to be comfy while drinking spiked Capri Sun packets!

Two great New York activities. I had a great time gallivanting around New York this month, but two activities stand out: first, my friend Oneika and I went to a holiday showcase of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. They were all 21 and under — and we were both blown away at how good some of the singers and musicians were! Such a cool event, and it was nice to see so many families with kids in the audience.

The other was when my friends Amy and Anubha came into town. On a whim, we decided to go to Death and Co., a popular cocktail bar in the East Village. Well, we picked the right night — it was their 10-year anniversary and all their expensive cocktails were just $5! So much fun.

Sarah and Kate at the Wallace

This month I got my hair re-keratined and left it in a long time. I left the keratin in about 88 hours before washing it (48 isn’t enough and I aim for 72) and as a result, my hair has never been this straight this long! I don’t have to do a thing — I just let it dry and it’s perfect.

Also, you really don’t realize how bad your hair looked until you get it done and it looks normal again! I look like a hobo in that top pic!

And I joined a gym! Finally. I joined Equinox, one of the nicer gym chains in New York, because I will only work out if I have somewhere fancy and nice where I enjoy going. And Equinox has tons of cool classes and Kiehl’s products in the bathrooms and it is the cleanest gym I’ve ever seen. (PS — are you interested in joining an Equinox? Give them my name, Kate McCulley, and you can get a free weeklong trial.)

Kate with Lebkuchen

Challenges

The biggest challenge was one that I’ve mentioned previously: I fell and hit my head in Germany and ended up with a concussion. It was the stupidest thing ever (I wanted to make a funny video for Snapchat, fell backwards, and greatly missed my target when I hit my head on the corner of the bed frame).

I felt okay at the time, but I suddenly started feeling nauseated and dizzy with a headache about 20 hours later. I then started wondering whether I should see a doctor and get a CT scan.

I want to reiterate to you all: please see a doctor if you have a head injury. You can die from a seemingly innocuous head injury — sadly, Natasha Richardson died after hitting her head while skiing, and thinking of her is what got me to go to the hospital.

I went to the ER in Munich and it was a relatively quick and easy experience, though it cost me 300 EUR ($316) for not being an EU resident and having EU health insurance. That money will be refunded to me through my World Nomads travel insurance — yet another reason why to use travel insurance! The good news is that there were no abnormalities on my scan, though I definitely had a concussion.

The doctors cleared me to fly home the next day, but that flight ranks among the worst I’ve ever taken. There’s nothing like having a pounding headache and being unable to focus on your Kindle or the screen in front of you and even though you turned up your headphones, your plane is full of American college students returning from a semester abroad and discussing everything they did in Great. Loud. Slow. Detail. (Yes, I realize this is karma for how annoying I was during my own semester abroad.)

Also, someone burst into my hotel room in Nuremberg. The front desk gave a man a key to my room by mistake. It was scary to have a stranger burst in after midnight when you’re hanging out in your underwear. Lesson learn — always double-lock your door or use a doorstop, even in the hotels in the developed world that seem nice.

Parmigiano Reggiano at Eataly

Most Popular Post

My Worst Travel Moments of 2016 — everyone always loves this annual post!

Other Posts

My Best Travel Moments of 2016 — all my favorite memories.

My Favorite New Destinations of 2016 — did your favorites make the cut?

My Favorite Reads of 2016 — the top 12 books from a year of hardcore reading.

Christmas in Bavaria in 25 Photos — an overview of my Christmas market trip before I write a big guide later this year.

Win a Trip to Chile (including Easter Island!) — one of the better contests I’ve featured lately. Contest now closed.

Nuremberg at night

Most Popular Instagram Photo

Far and away, this photo of Nuremberg at night was my most popular shot. But the professional shot I edited in Lightroom afterward came out even better.

For real-time coverage of my travels, follow me at @adventurouskate on Instagram and Snapchat. I’m getting close to 100k on Instagram!

At the Wallace

What I Read This Month

I took a break from reading to recover from my concussion this month, so I didn’t read as much as usual.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith — I named this book one of my favorite reads of 2016 in my earlier post. Two girls grow up in a rough neighborhood in northwest London. Both are poor. Both are biracial. Both love and live to dance — but only one of them has the talent. The book follows their intersecting lives and the twists and turns of their friendship over decades. If you enjoyed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, you need to read this book next.

The book asks a lot of questions at the end. Just how much are we a product of our upbringing? What do we owe to the people who raised us? If we hide a key aspect of our personality, is it going to come out at some point? I loved this book and can’t wait to dive into Zadie Smith’s other works.

I also tried to read Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild, but honestly, I couldn’t get past 25%. The book was a lot harder to get into than I expected, and it was so frustrating to see Louisianans vote against their own interests again and again. People in coastal communities destroyed by environmental disasters caused by lack of environmental regulation, where everyone was getting cancer and you could no longer eat the fish because they would kill you, would say, “No, the real problem is environmental regulation.”

I get that it’s an important book; perhaps I’ll finish it when I cool down a bit.

I also read two self-help books this month.

What I Listened To This Month

CHANCE THE MOTHERFUCKING RAPPER! I’ve been hearing great things about Chance the Rapper’s new album Coloring Book for months, but it took me this long to actually give it a listen. And I fell in love with it immediately.

This isn’t an ordinary hip-hop album. It’s a gospel hip-hop album — far less audacious than Kanye West’s attempt with The Life of Pablo and with far better, down-to-Earth results. This album is the warmest, happiest, most inspirational hip-hop album I’ve heard in quite some time. And I think it might be a good “gateway album” for people who claim to hate rap.

I adore this album. It’s my favorite album of the year. And the song above, “Finish Line/Drown,” is the perfect introduction.

New York View from the Gansevoort

Coming Up in January 2017

I’ve got a grand total of zero travel plans for this month, and I’m happy about it. Even as dark and dreary as January is, I don’t mind staying put in New York. September through December were very busy travel months for me (especially when you include three home visits) and January will be a good time to catch my breath and get work done.

I will be speaking at the New York Times Travel Show on Friday, January 27, at 10:15 AM. The info is here. This is a Friday morning, and as such it’s more a talk for the travel industry, but if you happen to not be working and want to come by, I’d love to see you. I’ll be floating around the travel show on the other days as well. You can get a $5 discount off industry tickets and $3 discount off consumer tickets with the code SPEAK007.

What are your plans for January? Share away!

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My Favorite Reads of 2016

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Used Bookstore Hay-on-Wye

2016 was the year that my reading habits changed significantly. Casual reading no longer satisfies me. These days, a book either needs to feature excellent writing or teach me something new, or it won’t hold my interest. I used to need to alternate between heavier books and lighter reads; now I enjoy going from heavy to heavy.

This year, I read a lot about race, class, and privilege in America. This is some of the deepest and most meaningful reading I have ever done, and I feel like a completely different person from who I was at the beginning of the year.

As usual, interesting themes began to appear as the year went on.

On slavery, its horrors and escaping: The Underground Railroad, Homegoing, Grace, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass.

On social mobility and entering a new world through attending university: Between the World and MeThe Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Make Your Home Among Strangers, Hillbilly Elegy.

On 1970s Bay Area counterculture: The Girls, American Heiress.

When I wrote about my favorite reads of 2015 last year, I was struck by how few of the books were published that year. It seemed a bit ridiculous to publish a “best of the year” list from primarily older books.

And this year I made a bigger effort to read new releases. This year I’ll be sharing my favorite novel and nonfiction book published in 2016, as well as all of the other books that were my favorites of the year, listed in no particular order.

The Underground Railroad

My Favorite Novel Published in 2016: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Easily one of the most lauded novels of 2016, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, an escaped slave who traverses the Underground Railroad — which in this book is reimagined as an actual underground railroad. At each stop, it seems like Cora has finally found safety and peace, or as much as safety and peace as she can hope for, until her life is shattered once again.

What affected me the most about this book was thinking about how the people with power control the narrative. Could there have been an actual underground railroad? There very well could have because white people have always held the power and if they didn’t know about it, it wasn’t the dominant narrative. It makes me sad for how much has been lost to history because the people with the least power were the only ones who witnessed it. (This is a very good book to read in the age of Trump.)

This book is hallucinatory and creative and the edges between fantasy and reality are deeply blurred. But the book has several overarching themes, just like Homegoing (which you’ll read about below). The biggest? Escaping slavery was only the beginning. Whether the horrors were experienced during Cora’s solitary journey or spread out along multiple generations like in Homegoing, they were there, they are still there, and they are one of the most shameful chapters of our country’s history.

American Heiress

My Favorite Nonfiction Book Published in 2016: American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

I went into reading this book knowing nothing about Patty Hearst except that she was kidnapped and forced to rob banks in the 1970s. That couldn’t have been a better way to go into reading American Heiress. Knowing so little about the story made it all the more exciting — and this story was absolutely bonkers.

Patty Hearst, a 19-year-old heir to the Hearst publishing fortune, was kidnapped by a group of young radicals called the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. After a period of time, she began to believe in their cause and decided to join the group as they robbed banks and planned bombings. It took years before the police were able to track her down. Also, a shootout with the SLA was the first live news event ever to air on TV. How crazy is that?

I’ve read Jeffrey Toobin’s work before, but I have not enjoyed a single book this much since The Martian. It was a wild, insane, dense, satisfying ride and I’ve been discussing Patty Hearst with everyone I talk to since then.

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

This is one of the powerhouse novels of 2016, but I couldn’t believe that Homegoing is Ghanaian-American author Gyasi’s first novel. She’s in her twenties. You would expect a book this intricately and emotively written to be the crowning lifetime achievement of a much older author.

Homegoing tells the story of two half-sisters in what is now Ghana. One is sold into slavery; the other is married to a slaver and stays in Africa. The book goes on in vignettes, telling stories of a family member on each side over the course of seven generations, lasting into the present day. In Africa, the characters wrestle with war, kidnappings, mental illness, the long-term effects of colonialism. In America, the characters struggle with slavery, imprisonment, Jim Crow, the heroin epidemic.

There is a belief held amongst some Americans that injustices against black Americans ended with the abolition of slavery. This book is the single best example I’ve ever seen of showing different forms of black bondage being replaced, one after the other, with the same goal of keeping them second-class citizens. (Today, it’s most clearly manifested in our criminal justice system.) Illustrating injustice through the empathetic form of fiction is, in my opinion, the most noble thing a novel can do. Everyone needs to read this book, but the people who need to read it most will not do so.

Read Homegoing in tandem with The Underground Railroad. They share a lot of the same themes.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)

When I moved to Harlem, I made an effort to read more books by Harlem authors, and I discovered a masterpiece. It blows my mind how much Malcolm X was overlooked in school when I was growing up — I knew so little about him when I started the book — and The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the most powerful self-told stories I have ever read.

So many things touched me that I didn’t expect. His discovery of dance (which he found in Boston!) and his love for Harlem. His days in prison, following an arrest for robbery, which he spent reading books every hour of every day. Finding religion in the Nation of Islam and just how intense that organization was. And how he was widely, erroneously reported to be a terrorist until he was gunned down.

This is also one of the best travel memoirs because of how much it changed his point of view. Malcolm X believed that the races were off segregated and gave speeches to this effect — until he went to Mecca, joyfully worshipped with Muslims of every color and background, and declared that he had been wrong all along.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs (2015)

No book ripped me open to my soul as much as The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Robert Peace grew up in a rough area of Newark, surrounded by drugs and violence, but he was incredibly intelligent. Between the hard work he and his mother did, he got himself into a private prep school and, eventually, Yale. A few years after graduation, however, he was murdered in a drug dealing dispute. This book, written by his college roommate, seeks to answer, “Why?”

And for me, that “Why?” was filled with agony. Even knowing that Rob ends up dead, I felt sick seeing it unfold slowly. And I’m still trying to figure out how it happened. Rob was anything but a burnout; even after college, he kept his life at home and built himself communities in Rio and Croatia. He dealt drugs for the money; he worked as a baggage handler for the travel privileges. He always had an end plan, but it was just out of his grasp.

Did Yale fail him? Could his death have been avoided if he had a mentor? Would he have moved on if he hadn’t been fiercely loyal to his family and friends? Who can be blamed for this?! We’ll never know. And that hurts. But perhaps this book will give us the steps to prevent other kids in Rob’s extraordinary position from going down the same path.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007)

I discovered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last year and two of her books, Americanah and Purple Hibiscus, were on my list of favorites last year. This year, she cemented her status as one of my favorite writers as I read Half of a Yellow Sun, a tale of war and the short-lived republic of Biafra in what is now Nigeria.

What I love most about Adichie’s books are her characters. With the possible exception of Ifemelu, the protagonist in Americanah, Adichie writes characters that I love so much that I want to hug them and listen to them tell their life stories. Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of an extended family and the important people in their lives as they go from a comfortable middle-class existence to living through war, kidnappings, and starvation. By the time I finished, I was still thinking about those characters and how much I loved them.

I think it’s good to read a book about a period in time that you know nothing about. I never had a clue about Biafra and I’m so glad I know about it now.

Shrill

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (2016)

I’ve been a big fan of Lindy West’s writing since her horrific and pants-shittingly hilarious viral review of Sex and the City 2. Shrill was an easy purchase, and it’s one of the best collections of essays I’ve ever read. The funny, truthful stories touch on everything from feminism and the media to body image and life as a plus-size woman to cyberbullying.

This year I read a lot of memoirs and essay collections by celebrities (Shonda Rimes, Amy Schumer) and internet celebrities (Luvvie Ajayi, Mark Manson). In nearly every case, the books were disappointingly uneven with some stronger essays and some weak ones. Not this book. West was the only exception. Every story in this book is razor-sharp and meaningful, whether funny or serious. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch.

I wanted to cheer when I finished this book because I feel like West and I want to see the same kind of world emerge in our lifetimes someday.

Dear Mr. You

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (2015)

It’s always a nice surprise when an actor you enjoy turns out to be a fantastic writer, and not of the fun-time-memoir variety. Mary-Louise Parker is my latest example, and Dear Mr. You is a phenomenal collection of stories that blur between poetry and prose.

Each letter in the book is addressed to an important man in her life. To former lovers. To family members. I absolutely love how she writes each story — it’s ambiguous enough that you can’t quite figure out who is who, so if you’re looking for juicy Billy Crudup gossip, you won’t find it here. In fact, this writing style inspired me when I wrote my 10 Love Stories post.

And this is a book with a great ending. The final letter to a final Mr. You is perfect.

The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante (2008)

Last year, I discovered Elena Ferrante and Neapolitan Novels, which are now some of my favorite books of all time. This year, I delved in deeper to her other works. The Lost Daughter was my favorite. This wisp of a novella has everything that I love about Ferrante’s work: deeply uncomfortable introspection (but not on the level of some of her other books), keen observations of family dynamics, and the ferocity of Naples.

Leda is a divorced, new empty nester in her late 40s and she takes a trip to the seaside near Naples. While there, she observes a young mother with her daughter and ruminates on motherhood, including what some would consider an unforgivable act she committed while her daughters were young. That same impulse drives her to commit another act on the beach at night.

I love short, tight books that don’t waste a single word. (Movies, too. That’s why the 87-minute Dodgeball is one of my favorite comedies.) This book is perfect.

Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016)

Two girls grow up in the housing projects of northwest London. Both from underprivileged backgrounds. Both biracial. And both with an insatiable love for dance — but only one is talented enough to make it professionally. While I’ve been wanting to read Zadie Smith’s books for quite some time, Swing Time was the first one I picked up, and it won’t be the last.

I’ve been reading a lot about female friendship — the deep love and furtive hate, the competition and sabotage and loyalty and cruelty. The best novels about female friendship are undoubtedly Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. But Swing Time covers female friendship in a different direction — still with lots of highs and lows, but with the difference of raw talent vs. perseverance and nature vs. nurture. The book goes to places I did not remotely expect.

Another thing that I really loved about this book was its depiction of London. Cold, sophisticated and rough, yet familiar and welcoming, like the soft gray blanket you should probably get rid of but sits at the foot of your bed anyway.

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (2016)

It’s the book that everyone is talking about: “Read Hillbilly Elegy to understand why Trump won the election.” I wouldn’t go that far, as the book is much more a personal memoir and hardly dives into politics at all. I will say this: this book highlights a population that is underrepresented and misunderstood in American culture.

The “hillbilly” culture, a term Vance uses with pride and ownership, is only one segment of white working class voters that were power players in the 2016 election. But what a culture. I knew very little about the people who grew up in Appalachia and left for factory jobs in places like Ohio. I had no idea that violence was pervasive throughout the families, generation after generation, that education was so poor, and that so many of them had fallen to opioid addiction.

Don’t expect this book to give you a eureka moment or give you further insight into the election. But do use this book to learn about and empathize with a segment of the population who has had it very rough in the last few decades.

Without You There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim (2015)

No other country on the planet is more closed off to outsiders than North Korea. Most of the North Koreans that outsiders meet have escaped after imprisonment. But what about the ruling elites? They are perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

Suki Kim went undercover and got to see North Korea’s most privileged class close-up. In Without You, There Is No Us, she tells her account as a teacher at a university. She could trust no one. Her every move was monitored. Her students were earnest and childlike, yet lied with cheer and alacrity. Throughout this book I had the unsettling feeling that I was being watched — not unlike what I’m sure Kim felt 24/7 during her time teaching in Pyongyang.

Anyone who has a passing interest in North Korea should read this extraordinary book. For me, it confirmed my decision to not visit North Korea. At this point in time, I believe there is no ethical way to do so.

What’s Next for 2017?

I’ve decided to throw myself back in and take on Popsugar’s 2017 Reading Challenge! The challenge looks more difficult than 2015’s.

I’ve also given myself additional parameters: every month I will read at least one novel, at least one work of nonfiction, at least one book published in 2017, and at least one book by a person of color. I’ve also identified the twelve toughest categories (like “a book with more than 800 pages” — eek!) and will conquer one tough category per month so I won’t be overwhelmed.

Unlike last time on the challenge, I’m going to make an effort to read books I want to read first and seeing where they fit in rather than picking them out based on the category.

Some books I’ve got my eye on for 2016: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond; Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher; Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton; White Teeth by Zadie Smith; Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah; and perhaps Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow or David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (gotta get that 800-page book somehow!).

What was your favorite book of 2016? How do you choose what to read? Share away!

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My Worst Travel Moments of 2016

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Kate in Bushwick

It’s time for everyone’s favorite post of the year — my worst travel moments! And I love writing this post every year. I think it’s important to reflect the not-so-pleasant times along with the happier moments, and I think that reflects in my coverage here.

In 2012, I drove my car into a ditch in the Faroe Islands.

In 2013, I was extorted for my phone in Cambodia.

In 2014, I got head lice at the age of 29 in New Orleans.

In 2015, I locked myself in a vestibule with a cockroach in Sicily.

Now, what’s up for 2016? Let’s take a look!

Newbury Street, Boston

Starving on the Greyhound Bus to Boston

My sister and I were traveling home to Boston for the Fourth of July. She had already booked a Greyhound bus; I vastly prefer the Megabus, but decided to book the same Greyhound so we could go together.

I don’t like Greyhound because 1) they overbook buses all the time 2) Port Authority, from where the buses leave, is one of my least favorite places on the planet. It’s like a bizarre 90s time warp where technology doesn’t exist, down to the lack of both wifi and phone service. I avoid it whenever possible.

It was the morning and we stopped at a cafe in our neighborhood for some coffee and scones. We sipped the coffee but saved the scones, even though I was ravenous. I have this thing where I can’t eat until I’m perfectly settled and comfortable. I knew I wouldn’t touch it until the bus left the station.

Sarah had booked her bus long before I had, so she had an earlier boarding number. She got on the bus with all the food and held a seat for me.

You can see where this is going.

Sarah’s bus was overbooked, because it was Greyhound. They filled it and it took off. And because Port Authority has neither wifi nor phone service, she couldn’t alert me. She left with all the food.

I felt like crying as I got on my own bus, nothing to eat but gum for the next five hours. The good thing was that after an hour or so, my hunger went into the next level and disappeared entirely.

Passau Christmas in Bavaria

My First Concussion in Germany

This is one of the more serious injuries I’ve experienced while traveling. One night my friend Cailin and I were snapping each other back and forth, playing with the new feature that allows you to create a sticker out of anything.

I snapped myself falling backward onto the bed, but I miscalculated — I hit my head hard on the corner of the bed frame.

(Yes, it was caught on video. Yes, I deliberated sharing it publicly, but sent it to Cailin and Cailin alone. Her comment: “That was a loud thud!”)

I felt fine over the next 20 hours or so. But after that, on the train back to Munich, I started feeling nauseous and a bit dizzy, and a strong headache came on. I couldn’t help but think of Natasha Richardson, who died after hitting her head while skiing (and who felt fine immediately afterwards but took a turn for the worse later). After weighing the pros and cons, I decided to go to the hospital.

The hospital experience was surprisingly decent. I was seen fairly promptly, was given a CT scan (which had zero abnormalities), and though it costs 300 EUR ($311) for people without EU health insurance to visit the ER, I’ll be refunded it from World Nomads, my travel insurance provider. This is one of the millions of reasons why you need travel insurance!

Recovery has taken longer than I expected, but I’ve started to have full days without any headaches, dizziness, or nausea. That’s a big step!

Inverness

Lost Luggage in Scotland

It was a simple nonstop flight from JFK to London Gatwick, but my bag (and lots of other passengers’ bags) didn’t make it. I’ve had lost luggage before, but it was always delivered within 24 hours. Not this time.

This time, Norwegian had no clue where it was.

That’s what made it awful. I hated being at a conference in no makeup and subpar clothing (I supplemented my meager wardrobe with a few M&S finds) but the worst thing was the uncertainty. Would they even find it in time for my trip to Wales? What about Slovakia after that?! It was a simple nonstop flight!

Finally, after two and a half days, I got word that not only had they found it, but it was already in Inverness! I hightailed it to the airport and picked it up with glee.

Between being on the phone constantly with Norwegian, having to buy clothes and toiletries before the shops closed (5:30 PM in Inverness) and having to pick it up at the airport, 30 minutes away, I missed a ton of the conference. But at least everything arrived before I had to go to Wales. And I was dressed to the nines for the final evening.

Kruger National Park

Dropping My Phone in the Toilet in South Africa

All this time, I’ve gotten through life without dropping my phone in the toilet. Until South Africa this summer.

I totally forgot I had put my phone in my back pocket…until I heard the telltale plop.

BUT IT SURVIVED. And you know why? Because I use a LifeProof case. Even though the bottom tabs were open, my phone survived the dip in the toilet without incident. That’s incredible.

AND THE TOILET WAS CLEAN. I feel like I need to add that.

French Laundry Gardens

The Worst Press Trip Companion Ever

I’ve met a lot of people in the travel blogging industry. I’ve gone on press trips with well over 100 people. Most people are decent. Perhaps the top 20% are awesome. And you get a few unpleasant people every now and then. But one woman I met this year was the absolute worst.

It started with, “Well, I hope he at least bought you a drink after,” when I talked about a really nice date I had gone on that happened to not cost anything. It escalated to wanting to pose for selfies with an immigrant worker as a prop in the background. And then came, “We don’t like black guys.”

Looking back, it’s not surprising that this happened in 2016. If anything, the 2016 presidential election emphasized that many reasonable-appearing people will secretly engage in racist behavior. This woman was yet another example.

Mangrove Hotel Broome WA Sunset Roebuck Bay

Getting My Bank Account Depleted for Fraud Reasons

I won’t say where this took place or who it involved, but it started when a company paid me a good-sized check for a campaign. I don’t like getting paid by check, but sometimes it’s necessary.

The check arrived the day before I was to leave on a big trip. I deposited it with my phone. A few hours later, I got the notification that my bank had accepted it. Lovely. I then did my usual routine: shifted funds to different accounts and left enough money in my account to cover the trip. I then got on my plane and flew to another continent.

Several days into that trip, my debit card wasn’t working. I opened my email and realized that the client had voided all of their outgoing checks for fraud reasons — several days after it had been deposited in my account with no issues. “Just go back to the bank with the same check and they should be able to do it again,” I was told.

I immediately got on the phone with the client and got them to issue a transfer through their bank, which I was grateful for.

But I learned my lesson. And this is one that I hope you learn too. Even several days after a check is deposited and accepted by your bank, it can still be removed from your account if the sending bank issues a fraud alert. I’m going to be much more cautious with my checks in the future.

Coral Bay Sunset

Spilling My Diva Cup in Australia

Yeah, this definitely falls into TMI territory. While in Coral Bay, I dropped a full Diva Cup for the first time ever in my six years of using one — and it spilled all over my clothes. Blood was everywhere.

Savannah Bonaventure Cemetery

Getting Haunted by Little Gracie in Savannah

It was my second visit to the very haunted city of Savannah, but my first trip to Bonaventure Cemetery. While there, I came across the grave of Little Gracie.

Little Gracie died of pneumonia at the age of six. Her father owned a hotel and she was a local celebrity, charming every guest who came in.

After she died, her parents buried her at Bonaventure and left town. People say that Little Gracie’s ghost can be seen wandering through town, looking for her parents.

I stood at the gate and made eye contact with the statue. And then something hit me in the chest and went all the way to my back. It was almost like a massive gust of wind whooshing into me. I felt so much fear in that moment and was desperate to find my friend so I wouldn’t be alone.

Something happened that day. I think Little Gracie’s ghost made an attempt to communicate with me. And I didn’t like it.

Bo-Kaap Cape Town

The Worst Uber Ride in Cape Town

I love Cape Town, and South Africa in general, but you need to be on your guard there constantly. One issue is driving at night. Carjacking is still a risk in parts of South African cities. Locals know which areas to avoid; when you’re a visitor, you have no idea. I had no idea.

After doing trivia at Oblivion, Beth and I summoned an Uber to take us home. And as soon as we got in, it was clear that the driver had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t know how to navigate with the Uber system. He almost went into the wrong lane and had to back up. He suddenly hit the breaks, his manual car jerking wildly, then he stayed in place. One minute passed. Then another.

I was scared to death. Not only that, I was trying to hide my fear so Beth wouldn’t be scared.

“You need to get us out of here now,” I told him.

“Yes! Yes! Just one minute, please!”

“No. You need to go NOW. Take us back to the bar.”

He couldn’t even figure out how to get back to the bar. I had to navigate him.

After that, we switched to only summoning from UberX, which sources from professional drivers. It cost twice as much as regular Uber but was still very economical in South Africa.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Accidentally Drinking Undiluted Rum in Puerto Rico

And there was the time I went to the Don Q distillery in Puerto Rico, tasted lots of rums, and I made the grievous mistake of reaching for the wrong glass and drinking undiluted rum.

Undiluted rum.

I’m surprised I still have my teeth enamel.

What was your worst travel moment of the year? Share away!

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Christmas in Bavaria in 25 Photos

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Kate in Passau Christmas in Bavaria

This year I achieved a long-held travel dream: visiting Christmas markets in Germany. It’s crazy that I haven’t done this until now!

I remember visiting my first German Christmas market, albeit in another country — it was during my semester in Florence in 2004. The market was set up a two-minute walk from my apartment on Piazza Santa Croce. I was flabbergasted that a market this wonderful would set up. My eight roommates and I went for sausages for dinner; we bought chocolate-covered fruit on a stick; we bought crafts for gifts. I pretended to be as excited about chocolate-covered bananas as they were. (Still not a fan of banana and chocolate together today.) Strangely, I don’t think we ever consumed gluhwein.

And I continued to visit markets elsewhere — the UK’s largest market in Birmingham; all the markets in Paris. But Germany remained elusive until this year. I knew I wanted to come to Germany for Christmas and soon I got the opportunity to come to Bavaria and do some content creation work for the German National Tourism Board.

Bavaria is a large southeastern region of Germany that includes Munich. This is a very traditional and beautiful part of Germany with gingerbread-like small towns, beer gardens, lederhosen, dirndls, cuckoo clocks and Oktoberfest. However, Bavaria is like Texas in that what many people think are German stereotypes are actually Bavarian stereotypes.

(Case in point: A friend texted me “Conan’s in Bavaria too!” while I was there. “No, he’s in Berlin and doing Bavarian things,” I told him. “That’s like traveling to New York and learning how to rope cattle.”)

So, how was it? I absolutely loved it. It was such a relaxed and chilled out trip. Though I was working the whole time, most of the trip was built around browsing markets, eating delicious food and drinking gluhwein (German mulled wine). It was also a reminder that Christmas doesn’t have to be as kid-oriented as it is in America — in Europe, these markets are for the adults!

I won’t be publishing a full guide to planning a Bavarian Christmas market trip just yet — it’s not practical to do that a few days before Christmas. I’m saving that guide for next September or so, when you guys are actually planning Christmas trips. But for now, enjoy a taste of this beautiful region of Germany at its most festive time of year.

Family Christmas in Bavaria

I started off exploring the markets at Marienplatz in Munich. I love how they brought families together!

Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen (gingerbread)! Don’t make an amateur error and eat these ones, however — they are mainly for giving and receiving as gifts.

Christmas in Bavaria

Handmade ornaments can be found wherever you go. I love how it looks like the snowman is clapping for him!

Gluhwein Man Christmas in Bavaria

This gluhwein-serving man has discovered the secret to happiness: find what you love and do it for the rest of your life. For him, it’s serving various Christmas beverages to foreigners at the market.

Nuremberg Christmas in Bavaria

If there’s any city in Bavaria you must visit during Christmas, it’s Nuremberg (Nürnberg), the grandaddy of all Christmas markets. It’s the oldest, the largest, and the wares are all handcrafted.

Fig People Christmas in Bavaria

These fig people were surprisingly omnipresent throughout Bavaria.

Nuremberg Christmas in Bavaria

There are winding streets in Nuremberg that are decked out like they’re from a past century.

Nuremberg Mother and Child Christmas in Bavaria

I love this shot of a mother and daughter!

Nuremberg Christmas in Bavaria

My favorite shot is of Nuremberg at night…

Nuremberg Christmas in Bavaria

And it’s just as beautiful by day as well!

Bamberg Christmas in Bavaria

Bamberg is a lovely town 30 minutes from Nuremberg. This is the most famous vantage point in the city!

dscf2714

Heidelbeer gluhwein and käsespätzle — blueberry mulled wine and cheesy noodles topped with fried onions.

Christmas in Bavaria

I wouldn’t be able to sleep with these in my room.

Nuremberg from Above Christmas in Bavaria

You can see how big the Nuremberg Christmas market is here! I happened to love it, but lots of locals told me they preferred smaller, less congested markets.

Regensburg Christmas in Bavaria

Regensburg was my next stop. This small city felt very Italian to me, and not just because it was full of espresso bars!

Regensburg Christmas in Bavaria

Regensburg is on the Danube, making it a popular stop on river cruises.

Romantic Market Regensburg Christmas in Bavaria

Regensburg also had the only market where I had to pay to get in — the Romantic Market, which cost 6.50 EUR ($7). It was absolutely lovely inside, but I’m not sure I’d pay for any other market!

Passau Christmas in Bavaria

Next up was Passau, another city on the Danube. It definitely won for the quirkiest and most interesting history!

Plague Door Passau Christmas in Bavaria

This is a plague door dating back to 1693. Back in the day, people with the plague were quarantined behind doors like these and fed through the slits in the window. (Amusingly, a handwritten sign in the window reads “NO PLAGUE HOUSE!”)

Passau Fire Christmas in Bavaria

Passau is defined by fire and water. A fire in 1662 burned the entire town to the ground — and yet they rebuilt. Today, at the confluence of two rivers, they’re vulnerable to flooding. The second-highest flood of all time took place in 2013.

“The insurance down by the river must be expensive,” I told my guide, Martina. “Oh, no — they can’t get insurance at all,” she replied. How crazy is that? Even people living on an active volcano in Hawaii can get insurance, albeit extremely expensive insurance!

Candles Christmas in Bavaria

If you’ve ever traveled with me through a Catholic country, you know that I stop and light a candle whenever there’s an opportunity to do so.

Passau Christmas in Bavaria

I love the look of Passau markets against the bright blue sky!

Little Red Riding Hood Christmas in Bavaria

Little Red Riding Hood was on display in Munich.

Statue of Liberty Christmas in Bavaria

I was very surprised to see Lady Liberty in Munich. (And how much do you love the bokeh on that shot?)

Pink Market Christmas in Bavaria

Also in Munich is the Pink Market — the largest LGBT market in the region.

Sexy Mermen Ornaments Christmas in Bavaria

Finally Pink Market definitely had some unique handicrafts for sale — including sexy merman ornaments! How awesome are these?

Essential Info: I flew in and out of Munich and traveled by train throughout Bavaria. My tickets were  purchased a la carte, but you might save money with a Eurail (non-EU resident) or Interrail (EU resident) pass or the German Rail Pass, which is strictly for Germany. I recommend pricing out your legs and comparing the total cost. Don’t forget day trips! Germany is one of the best countries to use rail passes because you almost never have to pay additional reservation fees for the fast trains, unlike France, Italy, and Spain. Plus, if you’re over 26, you’re automatically in first class.

For a Christmas market trip or a trip where you’re doing lots of day trips, I find it best to stay in a hotel within a short walk of the train station (especially in small towns) because it will make your life a million times easier.

In Munich I stayed at the Hotel Präsident, a good, central three-star close to the main train station and in walking distance of a lot of Munich attractions. Rates from 192 EUR ($199). I also stayed at the Westin Grand Munich Hotel, an excellent five-star business hotel, but it’s not in the center of town; it’s well connected by U-bahn though. Rates from 438 EUR ($454).

In Nuremberg I stayed at the Congress Hotel Mercure Nürnberg, which I do not recommend because it’s isolated and far from everything (11-minute walk to U-bahn or 14 EUR ($14.50) taxi to the train station), and one night the front desk gave my key out to a stranger who barged into my room. (Always double-lock your door!!!) The manager was good about making things right, but I wouldn’t stay there again because of the location. Rates from 94 EUR ($97).

In Regensburg I stayed at the Hotel Central Regensburg City Centre, which was spacious, comfortable, close to the train station and a short walk from the old town. Rates from 84 EUR ($87).

In Passau I stayed at the IBB Hotel Passau City Centre, a good mid-range hotel, which was right across from the train station and a short walk from the old town. Rates from 75 EUR ($78).

Don’t visit Germany without travel insurance. I use and recommend World Nomads. I had to visit the hospital after hitting my head and sustaining a concussion. The ER I visited in Munich, Klinikum der Universität München, charges non-EU insurance-holding residents 300 EUR ($311), but because I use World Nomads, I’m getting that money refunded!

I visited Bavaria on a content creation assignment for the German National Tourist Board. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Christmas markets in Europe? Share away!

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My Best Travel Moments of 2016

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Kate in Bushwick

2016 was rough for lots of us, and I’m no exception. Between global events and personal setbacks, it was a very tough year for me. More than I’ve let on here. I have my health and security, which are the most important things, and I didn’t go through any significant personal losses, but this year was a lot rougher than I thought it would be.

That said, there were many wonderful moments, even in a significantly scaled down travel year. And just like in 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012, I’m reminiscing as I go through the best travel moments of the past year.

This year, I’m doing the list a bit differently. I’m thinking of the moments that weren’t the craziest experiences or most unique activities — instead, I’m trying to narrow it down to the moments where I felt the strongest joy.

Oakland Wine Tating

The Most Mysterious Wine in a Cape Town Hotel Bar

After a night out in Cape Town, Beth and I decided to get a glass of wine at the hotel bar before heading up to bed. Before long, the bartender introduced us to a guy down the bar around our age who happened to be seriously into wine.

We started chatting. Wine Guy shared his bottle of “The Very Sexy Shiraz” — his immensely drinkable go-to wine that I gladly would have sipped anytime, anywhere. He called his friend and invited him to join us. We were all in our early thirties, two of us single, two of us taken, all with a similar sense of humor. It’s a minor miracle when you achieve a perfect vibe with strangers!

Then he brought out the big kahuna — Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, 2009. This was a very fine wine, Wine Guy told us. Expensive and unusual.

And we could not figure it out to save our lives.

I have never had a wine like that — ever. For more than an hour, the four of us sipped it slowly and tried to deduce its flavor profile.

“It’s almost like…pickles?” I guessed.

“No, no, that’s the alcohol you’re tasting!” said Wine Guy.

“What about…a cheese that hits the back of your throat?”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure.”

“Hmmm,” we all murmured in unison, taking more sips of the wine.

As time went on, we talked, we laughed, we ordered more wine. Wine Guy was going to a wedding in New Hampshire soon, near where Beth and I grew up, and I offered to go as his date!

Alas, all good things come to an end. Wine Guy invited another friend to join us, a young girl barely out of her teens, and though she was nice, her arrival kind of killed the vibe the four of us had going. We said our goodbyes and I took careful notes on what we had consumed that night.

And when I was at the duty free wine shop at the airport, I found a very similar bottle — Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009. I’m saving it for a special occasion when Beth and I can sip it and keep trying to figure it out.

Brussels Sprouts at Bottega

Lunch at Bottega in Napa Valley

Of all the outstanding meals I enjoyed in 2016, nothing came close to Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega in Yountville, California. Everything we ate was immaculately prepared and tantalizing.

The only bad part? The outdoor tables are underneath bright red awnings. This gave a bright red tint to everything and the resulting garish photos were a nightmare to edit (and still turned out fairly bad), to be honest.

It was worth it. That meal was SO good. I am still dreaming about those shaved brussels sprouts with marcona almonds in a meyer lemon vinaigrette, topped with a sieved egg. And the wines? Stupendous.

The French Laundry may still be the #1 restaurant on my bucket list, but if you can’t get a table, go down the road to Bottega instead. I promise you’ll be pleased.

Guatape

Classic Videos on the Minibus from Guatapé

My day trip from Medellín to Guatapé with Black Sheep Hostel was one of the best things I did in Colombia. I loved everything, from climbing the giant rock to chilling on the riverbank to exploring the colonial towns. And trying my first granadilla fruit, of course.

But as we squished ourselves into the minibus for the ride home, I grimaced. This was about to be a nauseating two-hour drive through the mountains, pressed up against strangers.

“Would you like to watch some classic videos?” our driver asked.

My tour mates and I looked at each other. “Yes?”

He put a videotape in. Suddenly Rick James filled the screen. “She’s a very kinky giiiiiiirl…” Yes. By classic videos, he meant “Superfreak.”

Next up? Eddie Murphy, “Party All the Time.” Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive.”

It was so weird and so random and we couldn’t stop laughing! That definitely made the two-hour drive more entertaining.

Jiyang, Kate, Edna and Joe in Paris

Oysters for Breakfast in Paris

It was Sunday morning in Paris and Jiyang and I met up with Edna and Joe for a stroll through the market by the Bastille. We were going for oysters for breakfast.

Experiences are so much better when you know people who know people. In this case, Edna was a regular at this oyster stall. That got us attention — and a few freebies.

Oysters are one of my favorite things to eat, especially Katama Bay oysters from Martha’s Vineyard. Jiyang, for his part, once ate 225 dollar oysters on a friend’s dare (he succeeded). But to me, this was the best oyster experience yet.

Nine oysters each — not the usual six or twelve you’d get in America. Slices of delicate raw scallop (or coquille, the lovely French word), as soft and tender as a baby’s ear.

And as we finished our oysters, the oyster man reached for a bottle and filled our leftover shells with cold white wine.

We toasted our oyster shells on that chilly October morning. And that was the only moment since moving to New York that I thought to myself, God, I need to live here.

Savannah

Good, Fulfilling Work as a Travel Blogger

Since becoming a full-time travel blogger, it’s been a constant struggle to get brands to understand the value we provide. And while it’s been getting better every year, I feel like the biggest strides for me personally came this past year.

In 2016 I did a lot of fulfilling work with brands I love. I even pitched a lot of the work myself. This led to me designing campaigns where I set the terms, thus building them around my personal travel style, which led to better content for both me and the brands.

And I began selling my photography. My first big sale was a shot of Little Corn Island to Saveur magazine, which was the lead photo of a feature (!), taking up half a page in the print magazine (!!!). After that, photo sales were like dominos. I ultimately sold a few dozen photos to brands and companies this year, including the photo above.

I don’t think photography will ever be my primary focus, but it’s nice to know it’s becoming more of an option. Especially considering how much I’ve improved as a photographer over the years.

Rainbow at Karijini NP

The Rainbow in Karijini National Park

By this point in our Western Australia road trip, Scotty had left us and it was back to just me and my travel soul mate Freedi again. We had arrived in Karijini National Park, a place where I had heard nothing less than absolutely stellar reviews.

We checked into tents on the same block and decided to each go off on our own, arranging to meet at 6:20 PM in time for dinner.

Girl Code. You never violate Girl Code. When you say you’re going to meet someone at a certain time, you will be there. (Freedi’s being German only added to this.)

That is, unless the photography conditions are extraordinary. Which is exactly what happened when a giant, bold rainbow streaked across the gray sky.

Photographer Code beats Girl Code every time. And for the next 20 minutes, we both ran around the retreat with the understanding that the other was doing the same thing. You do not fuck around when something as magical as a rainbow appears.

And when we finally met up, we were ecstatic, and tired, and covered in bright red dirt, bearing beautiful rainbow photos. We each knew the other one was doing the same thing.

Kate and Beth Business Class on KLM

Flying Business Class to South Africa with KLM

Believe it or not, until this year, I had never flown business class long-haul. I had done so on four two-hour intra-European flights, which were nice, but you don’t get the full experience on a short flight.

A few months ago, I had done some work for KLM and they compensated me in tickets rather than money. I very rarely do that, because you can’t pay your bills in comps, but in this case the value of two round-trip business class tickets from New York to Johannesburg dwarfed what I would have charged them for the same work.

You guys. Business class is AMAZING. The flight attendants give you so much attention! The wine and cheese flow nonstop! I never sleep on planes and I slept for eight hours while lying flat! At one point we actually ordered port while watching crappy romantic comedies! And it was even better that I got to share it with Beth, who was also experiencing business class long-haul for the first time.

On our second flight, from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, we were seated toward the back of business class and Beth turned to me and said, “I like these seats better because we can look at the peasants!

I burst out laughing. “You are getting used to this a little too fast!”

Kate at Hamilton

Seeing Hamilton on Broadway

Yes, I only traveled 100 blocks or so, which might be cheating, but seeing Hamilton was unlike any theatrical (or performance) experience I have ever had. I was so excited, I spent most of the show shaking and on the verge of tears until the curtain call. Everyone in the audience had just as much energy as I did!

How did I get a ticket? I bought one on StubHub for an inflated price. I actually timed my purchase wisely as it was just when rumors were beginning to swirl that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be leaving the production in July, but before the Tony Awards. Prices shot way up once he confirmed his exit and Hamilton won most of the Tony’s.

Splurging that much on a theater ticket is not going to be a regular activity for me, but there has never been a show like Hamilton before and I was eager to see the original cast before they departed. I would have loved to have seen the original cast of RENT in 1996. For that reason, getting to experience Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. and Renee Elise Goldberry and, well, everyone else, made it so worth it. I feel very lucky.

Even better? Seeing Hamilton brought me into the community of Hamilton superfans and brought me closer to my friends who love it. It’s also led me to more exploration of Hamilton’s New York. I’m so proud to be living in Hamilton Heights, the neighborhood named after Hamilton himself!

Kate at Club Getaway

Getting to Be a Normal Person at Adult Summer Camp

One of the best things I did this year was go to Club Getaway, a.k.a. Adult Summer Camp, over Labor Day weekend.

Before I went, I made a decision — I wouldn’t tell anyone what I did for a living. I couldn’t handle having The Conversation nonstop all weekend. I tried out different iterations of what I do and settled on, “I develop travel resources for women.” Technically true and it got no follow-up questions!

Three people found out. One because my sister told him; he was cool about it. I told one guy because he was from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where I’ve done a lot of work and travel, and he knew people in the local tourism board; he actually knew who I was when I told him. I told a third guy because we live in the same neighborhood and I figured I’d run into him at some point.

But the third guy told some people. And one girl came up to me and said, “So can you tell me how to get a lot of followers on Instagram?” My heart sank. Not this again. Not here, not today. That right there was validation that being private was the right choice.

Aside from that moment, camp was amazing. I danced in a silent disco. I jumped on a bungee trampoline. I took a golf lesson and painted. I dressed up as a raccoon for an animal party. I sat by the lake with a Corona. It was insanely fun and more of a vacation than I’ve had anywhere in years.

I made friends. I even dated a guy I met there. And everyone liked me for me, not my travels or my blog.

That was weird. And it shouldn’t have been weird.

Kate and Mario in Bogota

Being the Tallest Girl in the Club in Bogotá

I was always the shortest girl in my class growing up. You can look back at my class photos and see me in the exact same seat — front row on the right — almost every year. I hated being short. It wasn’t until middle school that I caught up; today I’m the very average American female height of 5’4″.

So it was weird and trippy and awesome to have the completely opposite experience in Bogotá this year! My friend Amelia offered to connect me with her boyfriend’s cousin, Mario, who lived in Bogotá; when he told me we were going dancing, I panicked. (I have to dance? In public?! In LATIN AMERICA?!)

Turns out there was nothing to be afraid of. The atmosphere was casual. The music was rocking. People were just chilling and drinking aguardiente and grooving on their own terms.

And then I looked around and marveled at the fact that I was the tallest woman there!

IT. WAS. AWESOME. I haven’t felt like that much of an Amazon since 2011, when I went out with local friends in Bali! I wanted to grab things on high shelves just because I could!

Kate and Quokka

Taking Quokka Selfies on Rottnest Island

It was even better than I imagined — but at first I worried we wouldn’t get that far. The hours slipped away on Rottnest Island and I nearly panicked, worrying that Freedi and I wouldn’t have enough time to take good selfies with the quokkas.

We needn’t have worried. It took some time and exploration, but we met the most adorable new quokka friend. He was hanging out between the settlement and an area called the Basin. He was friendly and sweet and loved giving us kisses (unsolicited!) and posing for photos. LOOK HOW CUTE HE IS!

My quokka time was everything I had dreamed of and more. I’m pretty sure quokkas are my favorite animals now!

Kate and Readers in Savannah

Reader Meet-Ups

Even though I only hosted one formal reader meet-up this year — a mini gathering in Savannah — I had a lot of great meetings with readers. Some of them were one-on-ones. Some were Snapchat followers and weren’t even familiar with the blog. Most started with a social media message of, “Hey, I live here! Want to hang out?”

I have the best readers in the world. You guys are seriously amazing. I am still blown away that one of my readers went and donated blood for the first time after I was turned away from donating due to my travels in Colombia. She donated blood because I couldn’t. I still marvel at that.

If you see me, say hi! People often email me to say, “I saw you at [destination], but was too shy to say hi.” There’s nothing wrong with saying hi to me! I’ll be happy under almost any circumstance. (The exception would be if it looks like I’m upset or having a serious conversation with someone — use your best judgment.)

I hope to see you sometime next year!

Cartagena

The Tooth Loss Celebration of Cartagena

I’ve written about this so many times that I hate to be repetitive, but it was the moment that reminded me of how much I love travel.

I was on a food tour in Cartagena with a Dutch family and a guy from New York, and the Dutch couple’s five-year-old daughter lost her first tooth in the middle of the tour.

Right away, I reached into my back pocket and found a dollar to give to her. “In my country, when you lose a tooth, you get a dollar!” I told her.

“She’s five years old and already earning her first dollar!” her mother said.

“Beers for everyone!” shouted her father. “My daughter lost her first tooth!” He ran into a convenience store and bought beers for all the adults. We toasted the little girl’s lost tooth on a bright yellow plaza in Getsemaní, watching her brother play soccer with local boys.

That moment was as close to perfection as I have ever found on my travels.

What were your favorite travel moments of 2016? Share away!

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My Favorite New Destinations of 2016

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Kate and Javier Ziplining

Every December, I put together a list of my favorite destinations of the year. I love picking out the places that made my heart beat the fastest!

Last year, the big winner was Nicaragua. In 2014, Finland was a memorable standout. In 2013, Japan hit the hardest. In 2012, I loved the Faroe Islands.

This year was far lighter on travel than the past. I only visited four new countries (Colombia, Slovakia, Poland, and Luxembourg) and much more of my time was spent closer to home — something that I think will continue to be a trend.

Furthermore, I don’t think any one destination stands above the others. As a result, this list is in a completely random, unranked order. It may seem a bit weird to include both giant regions and small towns on the same list, but this feels right to me!

One thing: keep in mind that these are destinations I hadn’t visited prior to 2016. So places like Paris, Savannah, and Cape Town are not eligible.

Here we go!

Krakow

Kraków, Poland

Kraków was one of my biggest travel oversights coming into 2016, and I’m so glad I finally made it happen. It’s no big surprise; it has so many qualities that I love in a destination.

A medium-sized city. Absolutely beautiful architecture. Low prices and very good value for money. Delicious food — both Polish and international (I actually ate at a Corsican restaurant one night!). Out-of-this-world ice cream, served in tiny Kate-sized portions. And a beautiful park that runs in a ring around the town that you can circle for hours and hours if you’d like.

Krakow at NightKrakowKrakow FlowersKrakowKrakow Treats

I did luck out in Kraków. I had perfect early fall weather. I met up with a great local-reader-turned-new-friend, Dominika, who took me out to cool places (including the cafe with the dessert above) and showed me her favorite spots. But what I remember most was the light. Just look at that top photo. It’s barely retouched.

The evening light in Kraków was so beautiful, it nearly brought me to tears.

Read More: AK Monthly Recap: September 2016 (full post coming soon!)

Flamenco Beach, Culebra, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

Visiting Puerto Rico was one of my goals for 2016 and I was so delighted when an opportunity presented itself — especially since it came during the doldrums of winter!

What struck me the most was how perfect an all-around destination Puerto Rico is for Americans. You don’t need your passport, there are nonstop flights from lots of cities, English is widely spoken in the tourism industry, and your US phone plan will work. You can lie on a beach, zip-line through the mountains, or explore art and history. Puerto Rico has it all.

Orocovis, Puerto RicoSan Juan, Puerto RicoOld San Juan, Puerto RicoKate in San Juan, Puerto RicoHilton Caribe, San Juan, Puerto Rico

My favorite highlight of Puerto Rico: a day trip to Culebra Island. I was initially skeptical, but Flamenco Beach lived up to the hype — it’s one of the most incredible beaches I’ve ever visited. A wide expanse of soft pinky-white sand, neon turquoise water, and even a few tanks for good measure.

I need to go back for more — Vieques is calling my name and I hear the beach on nearby Culebrita is even better!

Read More: Puerto Rico Seriously Has It All

Colmar

Alsace, France

It was actually a struggle for me to choose between Alsace (the region) and Strasbourg (the city) for this round-up. I loved Strasbourg, but did the smaller city of Colmar deserve equal recognition? Or was I being unnecessarily contrarian just again, because SO many bloggers love Colmar and I wanted to be different?

Eventually, Alsace won out. Because the things I loved most were universal to the region. Fresh flowers bursting out of every free inch of pavement. Brightly colored shutters and doors on half-timbered houses. Delicious white wines and fabulous tartes flambées. Decent prices and friendly locals. Obviously French, but also very German, with an interesting history of being volleyed back and forth between the countries.

dscf9862Tarte Flambee in Colmardscf9870dscf9946 Strasbourg Street Sign

As soon as I left Alsace, I knew my time there had been criminally short. Right away, my readers started telling me that I had missed the best place of all — the village of Riquewihr. Apparently lots of people like to go on road trips through Alsace, tasting ciders and wines along the way. You wouldn’t have to twist my arm!

Read More: A Taste of Alsace in Strasbourg and Colmar

Hudson New York

Hudson, New York

“You have to get away from the city at least once a month,” New Yorker after New Yorker told me, and after spending April without leaving the city, I knew I had to be better. I started researching local getaways and the town of Hudson kept appearing.

A small town in the Hudson Valley two hours north of New York on the train. Despite its small size, a town leading a foodie Renaissance in the region, with tons of chefs opening acclaimed restaurants. Filled with boutiques and cozy little shops and cafes. It sounded a lot like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a town that I love, only with even better restaurants.

My friend Tess had visited recently and echoed all these things. “Plus it’s so cheap!” she exclaimed. Sold.

Hudson New YorkCrimson Sparrow Hudson New YorkCrimson Sparrow Hudson New YorkHudson OctopusMoto Coffee Hudson New York

Even though I thought I had my finger on the pulse of what made Hudson tick, there were surprises. How so many people had given up city life to move there. How massively LGBT-friendly it was.

The only thing is that I feel like I’ve seen all there is to see in Hudson. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing, though. Small can be good.

Read More: Hudson, New York: The Coolest Small Town in America

Salento Colombia

Salento, Colombia

When I planned my trip to Colombia, I assumed that the whole country would end up on this list at the end of the year. Truthfully, while almost everyone I know who has been to Colombia considers it one of their favorite countries, it just didn’t quite gel for me overall.

Timing was one reason — I was exhausted and it wasn’t a good time for any trip, much less a lengthy trip in a developing country. And I was traveling in my old-school backpacker style (albeit with private rooms) that I now think is becoming part of my past.

But while I didn’t fall madly in love with Colombia, I did swoon for the town of Salento. Small, beautiful, and brightly painted. So many delicious places to eat. A plaza that came to life on Sunday nights. A mirador overlooking the town. And so many coffee plantations.

SalentoCoffee Bean SalentoSalentoBeer in SalentoSalento

Salento was so chilled out, which was exactly what I needed after Cartagena and Medellín. And my day trip to the Valle de Cocora was a major highlight as well. If you’re planning a trip to Colombia, I couldn’t recommend Salento more!

Read More: Traveling in Colombia: The Best Moments

Shinn Estate Vineyards Long Island

The North Fork of Long Island

I had an image of Long Island held from my university days: isolated suburbia, rich privileged kids who flunked out of school and got their parents to buy their way back in, and not the prettiest accents of all time. Not a fair assessment, I know. It never was and I never should have let it cloud my judgment. I was an idiot in college. We all were.

That all ended when my friends and I took a day trip to the North Fork to explore the wine scene. I found a beautiful country escape with vineyard after vineyard, some truly outstanding cabernet francs, great restaurants, and the best strawberry rhubarb pie of my life.

Sparkling Pointe Long IslandLieb Cellars Long IslandKate at Sparkling Pointe North Fork Long IslandBriermere Farm Long IslandLieb Cellars Long Island

There was only one place where the Long Island stereotype reared its head — Sparkling Pointe, where the jewelry was large, the crowd was tipsy, the Yankees hats were omnipresent, and the accents were loud. But it wasn’t that bad.

Long Island is a killer destination. I’m blown away that such a good wine region is just a few hours from where I live. And that’s not all — one of my next goals is to make it to the Hamptons in 2017!

Read More: A Day Trip to the North Fork of Long Island

Coral Bay Sunset

Western Australia

How can WA not go on this list? It was the craziest, most exciting destination of the year by far. Not to mention one that I’ve yearned to visit for more or less forever.

What did it for me? It was the sparse, remote landscape, how you would almost never see other people and would then say hi to them out of disbelief that they were there, too. It was the crazy wildlife — the quokkas on Rottnest Island, of course, but also the manta rays and sharks in Ningaloo Reef. And dolphins and kangaroos. The crazy landscapes: bright yellow pinnacles in the desert, pink lakes throughout the region. Perth’s hip factor. The gorges in Karijini. Man. I could go on forever about Western Australia.

Dolphins Monkey MiaKate at Mount NamelessPinnacles DesertKalbarri NP WA Shark Bay Scenic Flight

Part of me feels in disbelief that this trip even happened. But the memories here are ones that I will cherish forever.

If you want to go somewhere not as many tourists visit, or somewhere that feels off the beaten path, WA will be a very satisfying destination for you.

Read More: My Favorite Experiences in Western Australia

Stellenbosch Vineyard

Stellenbosch, South Africa

It took three trips to South Africa to get me to visit Stellenbosch, the lauded wine region just one hour from Cape Town. What took me so long, seriously? Stellenbosch is amazing!

Beth and I decided to come here after a long, busy trip through Johannesburg, Kruger, and Cape Town, and we basically spent four days in a row doing little more than going from winery to winery, tasting wine with chocolate, tasting wine with cheese, tasting wine with meat, tasting wine with salt, buying reserve bottles to take home (none of which cost more than $11!!!!!), and reminiscing about the rest of our trip.

Wine Tasting StellenboschStellenboschKate in StellenboschStellenbosch Flowers in WinterStellenbosch Wine and Chocolate

I thought visiting Stellenbosch in July, their winter, would be hit-or-miss, but turns out it was a fantastic time to visit. The wineries were far less crowded than they would have been in high season. We had a few sunny days that resulted in beautiful photos. And there’s nothing like cozying up next to a fireplace with a glass of red on a cold day!

Read More: AK Monthly Recap: July 2016 (full recap coming soon!)

Haye-on-Wye

Hay-on-Wye, Wales

I had never heard of Hay-on-Wye before it popped up in my South Wales itinerary; uncharacteristically, I hadn’t even Googled it before arriving. But perhaps it was for the best, because I was stunned at how hard and fast I fell for this tiny Welsh town.

In short, Hay-on-Wye is the used bookstore capital of the world. They even have a world-famous literary festival that Bill Clinton called “The Woodstock of the Mind.” Between the bookstores, the cafes, and the many quirky shops (including an antique map shop, where I bought a 150-year-old map of northern Italy!), I could have stayed a week in introverted bliss.

Hay-on-WyeUsed Bookstore Hay-on-WyeHaye-on-WyeChandelier Store, Haye-on-WyeHaye-on-Wye

South Wales was a beautiful place, filled with gorgeous scenery and surprisingly delicious food, but no place stole my heart as quickly or as firmly as Hay-on-Wye.

Read More: A Dreamy Trip to South Wales

Old San Juan Cat, Puerto Rico

And that’s a wrap, folks!

At this point, I have zero trips planned for 2017. Which is fabulous!

I have some vague ideas — I think somewhere in the former Soviet Union could be a possibility for the summer months (Central Asia? Caucasus? Russia and the Baltics?), Putin-Trump situation notwithstanding. My dream destinations of Corsica and Sardinia are very likely for September or so.

I should visit friends in Austin, Las Vegas, and Seattle. There have been a ton of cheap direct flights to Cuba from New York on JetBlue — I’ll be keeping my eye on those. I’m enjoying Christmas markets in Germany so much that I want to come back next year. And of course, there’s this crazy travel blogging business, which could take me to any number of locales.

Anything is possible. This time last year, I had no clue that Western Australia or Colombia were even possibilities!

Now, I want to hear from you!

What was your favorite new destination of 2016? Share away!

My trips to Kraków, Alsace, Hudson, Salento, the North Fork, and Stellenbosch were entirely at my own expense. My trips to Puerto Rico, Western Australia, and Hay-on-Wye were sponsored. All opinions, as always, are my own.

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AK Monthly Recap: November 2016

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TURKEY CARVES KATE

This is a hard recap to write. This was a hard month in a hard year. I finally feel like joining everyone in declaring that 2016 was THE WORST, THE WORST, THE ABSOLUTE WORST.

That and I took almost no photographs this month. Oh, and the fact that this is a week late, when I am usually ON IT with the monthly recaps.

But as bad as this month was, there was a lot of good, too. Perhaps even some life-changing good. We shall see how it all pans out.

I’m going to be brief this month so we can put this nightmare behind us.

Iced Coffee Broome

Destinations Visited

Broome and Perth, Australia

Reading and Lynn, Massachusetts

New York, New York

Allentown, Pennsylvania

Stamford, Connecticut

Favorite Destinations

Perth is a really cool city — and getting time to wander on my own made it better.

Kate and Beth Canvasing in Allentown

Highlights

Honestly, I had a hard time finding joy this month. But there were a few moments that I really enjoyed: going to Parks and Rec trivia at Videology in Williamsburg (my team came in fourth, no thanks to me who was THE WOOOOOOOOOOORST), going out in Chinatown with my buds Jessie and Anna, and experiencing early voting in Massachusetts (where I’m still registered but won’t be for much longer) for the first time ever.

From a travel perspective, I enjoyed my last days in Broome and Perth before embarking on a very long economy class journey home (Broome-Perth-Singapore-London-Boston — and I do not recommend flying for that long!). And I had three seats in a row free from London to Boston, so I actually got to lie flat and slept FIVE AND A HALF HOURS on a flight!

I was home for my first Thanksgiving since 2009! I spent 2010 in Koh Lanta, 2011 in Istanbul, 2012 in Glasgow and London, 2013 in Chiang Mai, 2014 in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, and 2015 in Koh Lanta again. Turns out I actually do like Thanksgiving food after all.

Pretty much every conversation I had at home this month somehow came back to the topic of newly legalized marijuana in my home state of Massachusetts, which goes into effect December 15. I’m about to know a LOT of newbie pot farmers.

I Voted

Challenges

The election. I went into it with such high hopes. I worked so hard for Hillary — donating and calling and volunteering, even more than I did for Obama in 2008. My friend Beth and I went canvassing in Allentown on the day of the election and we ended up working with the local community mostly in Spanish (a huge thrill and one I’m happy to say we pulled off!).

Jet lag from Australia hit me on a severe delay, so I had slept from 5:30-11:30 PM the night before the election and just stayed up all night into morning, then went out to canvas. We had tickets to Hillary’s event at the Javits Center, but the crowds were so crazy we left and went to a bar decked out in Hillary signs in Hell’s Kitchen.

And Hell’s Kitchen quickly turned into Hell on Earth.

I couldn’t take it. Feeling like a zombie, I went home and fell into bed at 11, missing the worst of it. Then woke up at 4:30. I didn’t leave my bed for the next ten hours. Later that day, my heart raced for several minutes and I panicked, gulping air as hard as I could and feeling like I was drowning. I’m fairly certain this was the first panic attack I’ve ever experienced. Another followed a day later.

I didn’t eat anything for three days. Then spent the next three days eating nothing but junk: Easy Mac topped with crushed tortilla chips and Frank’s Red Hot. Triple chocolate donuts from Dunkin Donuts. Those so-bad-for-you soft sugar cookies with pink frosting and sprinkles from C-Town.

Then the recovery began. I wrote this post. I donated money to the ACLU and NAACP (I donate monthly to Planned Parenthood). I joined an anti-racism group in my neighborhood. I started following my local politicians, made call after call to Congress, and planned for political action privately.

For the record — my reaction was not just because my candidate lost. My reaction was borne out of genuine fear for our country’s most vulnerable: for blacks, for Muslims, for Latinos, for LGBT individuals, for women, for immigrants. For the wave of hate crimes that has hit our country. For our environment. For having a reckless president who doesn’t understand the job requirements and has already put our safety and security at risk.

I watched Bush get reelected in 2004 while studying in Florence, a pit in my stomach. Four more years of frustration and anger. But I didn’t feel a fraction of the fear I feel today.

This election was not normal.

Kate Wardrobe Text

Most Popular Post

The Best Gifts for Travelers (Awesome AND Affordable!) — My first-ever gift guide and I am DELIGHTED at how much you guys enjoyed it!

Other Posts

Leaving is Easy. Fighting is Harder. — On choosing to stay and fight for my country.

On the Shores of a Pink Lake in Australia — SO PINK!

The Conversation We Would Be Having — All the burning questions people have for me, answered, so I can just send them this and not have to have this conversation a million times a week.

My Favorite Experiences in Western Australia — The best of WA, distilled into one monster post.

Rottnest Island

Most Popular Photo on Instagram

Look at that amazing beach on Rottnest Island in Western Australia! Even more amazing? That was taken through a window. (Don’t take the bus tour on Rottnest Island like I did. It killed me that we had to take almost all of our photos through glass.)

Reading in the Fall

What I Read This Month

Narrative of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass — I haven’t read about Frederick Douglass since I was a kid, and today I live in a neighborhood where one of the main streets bears his name. It was time to dive into this memoir. To my surprise, this memoir is solely about his years in slavery; he didn’t write about his post-freedom life until much later.

And the accounts are heartbreaking. This is probably the single best account of enslavement, not least because Douglass lived slavery in so many different forms and different environments, all of them evil. From the mistress who taught him how to read then disowned him to him getting caught building a plan for escape as an adult, I found this to be one of the most difficult to read yet important accounts of this year.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson — I love Mark Manson’s writing (my favorite essay of his: Love is Not Enough), so I was looking forward to his book. This collection of essays is like an anti-self-help book, going against much conventional advice. The contrarian in me enjoyed that and much of the book had me thinking differently.

That said, like a lot of books I’ve read by celebrities and internet personalities this year, I found the book to be quite uneven. (As an internet personality myself, this is something that scares me about my own writing.) Some chapters were very good, especially the one about accepting death; others fell flat and the book took a long time to find its rhythm. I loved the vivid stories about actual people that illustrated some chapters; I wish there were more of them. Overall? Not life-changing, but thought-provoking and definitely worth the read.

Palm Trees in Broome

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance — This was my first book from the “trying to understand Trump voters” collection. Vance grew up a self-described hillbilly (a term he uses with pride) in Ohio with family roots in Kentucky. This memoir is a searing account of growing up in poverty amid substance abuse, physical abuse, and a rotating series of father figures, set in a mostly white working class town in decline. Vance escaped and went on to the Marines, Ohio State, and Yale Law, an anomaly to his peers.

I knew nothing about this segment of Americans, who are too often ignored, and reading about them gave me so much empathy for their struggles. That alone made it worth a read, and I’m grateful I understand more. It’s not a hardcore political read, so don’t go in expecting to read what explicitly drove people to vote for Trump.

Vance himself is a Republican. His conclusion is that the government can’t do much of anything to help people like his family because so much of their problems originate in the family structure. I don’t completely agree with him. I’ve heard of Family Intervention Projects in the UK where case workers regularly visit a family on a long-term basis, teaching everything from from how to cook simple meals to getting kids bathed, to bed, and to school on time. Years later, kids in this program had lower rates of anti-social behavior, truancy and substance abuse. There aren’t enough resources to provide this to every needy family in America, but I think a program like this would be worth exploring.

Hillbilly Elegy is a good companion to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, which also tells the story of growing up poor in America. It’s becoming a movie soon.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi — Even though this book got so much buzz, I admit I had subdued expectations for another slavery read, thinking it couldn’t compare to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Was I ever wrong. Homegoing is one of the most epic novels I’ve read in quite some time, and I can’t believe something this rich was written by a first-time author in her twenties.

Two half-sisters in what is now Ghana are torn apart: one is captured and sold into slavery, and the other is married to a British slaver, remaining in Africa. Seven generations on each side of the family have their stories told in vignettes, one side in Africa and one side in America, bringing in topics from British colonialism and mental illness to living as an escaped slave and heroin addiction. The stories end in the present day.

More than any other novel I’ve read, Homegoing encapsulates how slavery may have technically ended but whites have found different ways to keep African-Americans enslaved in various horrifying forms ever since. Sadly, the people who need to realize this are the ones who won’t pick this book up in the first place.

What I Listened To This Month

Back in 2008, I went on my first solo trip ever — to Buenos Aires. While there, I hung out with an American guy named Louis. And while I always knew he was into music, Louis now is Kind Of A Big Deal in the music world — he’s part of the band Autograf. (Oh, and fun fact, loyal readers, he’s in one of those ten stories you loved so much…)

I hadn’t checked out his music until this month, but I watched the above video and fell in love with that song “Dream.” I kept listening — and now I seriously love all of their music. What a find!

Nuremberg Christmas Markets

Image: charley1965

Coming Up in December 2016

German Christmas markets, here I come! I’ve visited Germany around ten times or so, but I’ve actually never been during the Christmas season!

I’ll be spending just over a week in the Bavaria region, visiting Munich, Nuremberg, Regensburg, and Passau. (I’m now in Munich as this is being published.)

That’s it for travel this month. I still feel exhausted from my six-week adventure this fall and I need to seriously stick to my goal of cutting travel down to 25% of the time! I’ll be spending Christmas with my family in Massachusetts and I hope to spend New Year’s in New York.

What are your plans for December? Share away!

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