2018 Favorite Photos of the Year

2018 started with freedom and without a doubt was a year defined by exploration and growth.

I did a slow and steady trip around the globe and stepped foot in 22 countries and a several islands making for a very full year.  I took over 23,000 photos and whittled it down to these top 100+ of my favorites. Some of them for the composition, some for the feeling of the moment, and some pinch me moments that I was lucky to have these experiences.

Enjoy and get inspired for travel in 2019!

22
Countries

296,689
Miles

39
Flights

121
Beds

15
Rental Cars

2
Trains

13
Ferries

2
Cruises

48
Unesco Sites

Highlight Reel

(Click play)

Country /Region List

Bali Indonesia

No better place than to start the year in Bali. The Balinese people exemplify a simpler way of life that shows in their ever present happy smiles.  There is an honesty, kindness and peacefulness I found here that was not present in my surroundings or the people of 2017. 

To start the year here was the BEST decision I made this year leaving 2017 and everything associated with it in the past where it belongs.  It was a start of much healthier, peaceful and prosperous year.

Jatiluwih Rice Terraces in Bali

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Tirta Gangga Royal Water Garden

Danau Batur: This was actually the most beautiful temple that I have seen in Bali –  there were so many layers to this temple, the statues were brightly painted, and there were people actually worshipping there adding context to the location.

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Gates of Heaven at Pura Lempuyang

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Pura Ulun Danu Bratan

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Ritz Carlton Nusa Dua

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Next up was a month long adventure in New Zealand road-tripping through both the North and South Islands.


New Zealand is one of the most stunning countries highlighting breathtaking landscapes, stunningly blue lakes, glaciers, forest, farmland and beaches. 

New Zealand is undoubtedly spectacular.  Every memory during this trip includes nature and some big adventure.

Bastion Point with views of Auckland

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Hobbiton – It’s just magical!  You can’t help but smile and be charmed touring the shire.  The attention to details is spectacular reminding me of other great imagined lands like the Harry Potter Studios.

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The Maori culture is very strong and prevalent in both tourism for the country and also in everyday life. As I traveled through North and South Island, it seemed every area had a Maori story that was proudly told, there are several Maori TV stations, Maori elders interact with government and of course the Haka is a national chant at the rugby games.

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Ogo – Take a superman fly jump into a plastic gerbal ball with a little water in it and then ROLL down a hill.

Hands down my favorite activity in 2018 topping some other great adventures including sailing, hot air ballooning, helicopter and flights over glaciers.

You can’t go inside this thing without giggling all the way down and watching everyone else laugh too.

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Rocky Mountain Lookout near Wanaka: A great short hike around Diamond Lake leads to this gorgeous lookout

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Glacier Ice Flow: It took me several attempts to get up in a plane due to weather conditions. Finally made it and encountered this glacial ice field on the way to Mt. Cook.

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Queenstown

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Dark Skies over Tekapo

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Back to Australia to explore some regions I had not been to including Uluru, Sydney, and a road trip from Byron Bay up to Cairns and out to the Great Barrier Reef. Yep – everything in Australia wants to kill you!

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

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Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – Field of Light

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Koala in the wild

I have encountered a few koalas in Australia and even a few in the wild. But this little guy was the healthiest, youngest and most active that I have seen AND in the wild. He was just hanging out on this tree which was on a remote hiking path on Magnetic Island. He looked like an Australian version of the Cheshire cat ready to dole out some wisdom.

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Spearfishing in the mangroves of Cooya Beach – This day was one of those “I can’t believe I am doing this” moments. I went out with a local aboriginal man to do some crab-hunting for dinner. We tromped through the mudflats and mangroves barefoot experiencing aboriginal way of life. I asked my guide, “Ummmm what about the crocodiles you keep telling stories about?” He said, “Don’t worry, I know where they all are!”

Byron Bay – My favorite area of Australia. Surfing, great weather, beautiful beaches, fresh organic food.

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Sydney Bridge – I finally was able to explore Sydney properly visiting many of the local neighborhoods, restaurants, taking the ferry and enjoying this iconic Australian view.

Singapore – I certainly did not expect this very modern metropolis. Big buildings, wide streets, green areas, a polite culture, CLEAN, and historic neighborhoods.  

The history behind this nation founded in 1965 and the historical events in this region really captivated me as I thought about what influences nations in building their culture and policies.

The Merlion and Marina Bay Sands Hotel – The Merlion is the official mascot of Singapore, depicted as a mythical creature with a lion’s head and the body of a fish.

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Cloud Forest Dome at Garden by the Bay

Skyway in the Supertree Grove at Garden by the Bay

House of Tan Teng Niah in the Little India neighborhood

After the first four months of 2018 in Oceania and Asia, I was yearning for Europe which I had not been back to since March of 2017.

London was calling.  It’s one of my favorite cities. I have been 17 times to London and still find new things to do because there seems to both and long list and new things to do every year.  I split my time between London town and the Trafalgar Square areas.

Cocktails at St. James over Trafalgar Square

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View from the National Gallery over Trafalgar Square: I visited a wonderful exhibition on the works of Monet and how his travels and architecture influenced his masterpieces. I tend to think of Monet and his nature scenes.. like those water lilies, but there really are many wonderful building and city scenes in his art.

St. Pauls Cathedral Staircase: The second area I explored was London Town which has so many great exhibitions especially highlighting its Roman roots. I also had a chance to take a docent tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I have wandered this amazing building before, but loved the history and in-depth stories of my guide who brought the cathedral to life and showed off its history.

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Florence Italy

Room with a View: Florence is another favorite and I settled into this town to soak up some Italian love under the Tuscan sun.

Along with the birth of the Renaissance, I have also found rebirth on several trips to Florence. How can you not with the gorgeous light, wonderful food and wine? I spent a month here in 2014 which kicked off my international adventures and another month here in this year. 

At the beginning of the year I had taken the path less traveled – the hard one of honesty, ethics, morals.  This month I had a chance to get a glimpse of what my life would have been if I had stayed on that other path which I will call Dante’s road to hell in Florentine style. 

When you are 1000’s of miles away both physically and mentally, you gain perspective. I could now see that path I left was filled with people who steal, don’t repay their debts, cheat, lie, and full of greed and wrath and they way they treated their loved ones – parents, children, significant others and friends was in a word – deplorable.  The truth always comes out.  No wonder I was struggling being around these people and felt my energy was drained in 2017. 

So with perspective and Italian goodness, I could revel and feel proud of my decision to move forward on my new path without one regret.

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Malta was another surprising country to explore. I did not have a lot of preconceived notions and found it very interesting with its layered history: Megalithic temples dating back 5000 years, Catholic history (this is where St. Paul was shipwrecked), the Knights of St. John building the ramparts of Valletta, and gorgeous coastlines with blue swimming holes.

It was a very easy place to explore as English is rather prevalent from their time as part of the British commonwealth as long as you know how to drive no the “wrong” side of the road.

City and fortifications of Valletta

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St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta – a stunning jewel box

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Marsaxlokk fishing village

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Salt Ponds in Gozo

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Rabat – aka city in Games of Thrones

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St. Peter’s Pool

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Sicily Italy

Sicily was up next. This is an area of Italy I have not explored and I was eager to see many of the Greek and Roman ruins, Norman sites and a unique Italian culture.  This trip was a bit of highs and lows. Sicily is gritty and I was scowled at at least 100 times which seemed to be the norm watching the interactions on the locals, but also encountered very kind people on the trip. Sicily driving conditions are scary at best and I got food poisoning, but the sites were amazing.  Highs and lows.

Greek Theatre in Taormina

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Cappella Palatina in the Palazzo dei Normanni – Palermo

Built by 1132 by the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II, every inch of this chapel is covered in craftsmanship from across the world: Roman basilica layout, Corinthian capitals, Norman architecture, Arabic arches, Islamic designs comprised of complicated and somewhat mind-blowing geometries called “muqarnas”, Byzantine mosaics, Christian crosses and more.

You could spend all day looking at the gold mosaics which is a storyboard of the bible. If this was not enough, a second chapel was built by King William II, Roger’s grandson, called Monreale Abbey with a similar intricacy and design.

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Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele – Palermo 

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Medieval hilltop town of Erice

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Saline della laguna – Sicilian Salt Fields

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Selinunte – Greek temple built in the 6th century BC. It’s survived being wrecked by the Carthaginians, conquered by Rome, and devastated by an earthquake in the Middle Ages.

Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina

I have seen a lot of Roman mosaics, but this Roman villa in the middle of Sicily stunned me both due to the size of the Roman mosaic floors and the quality. The villa dates from between the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.. A landslide in the 12th century preserved until its 1929 excavation.

The villa is home to the world’s largest collection of ancient Roman mosaics – ready for it – over 40,000 square feet of mosaics have been discovered.

The have erected a walkway taking you through the villa to walk over all the floors without touching them.

The most interesting room is the “Chamber of the Ten Maidens” (Sala delle Dieci Ragazze). The women appear in a mosaic artwork named Coronation of the Winner. The bikini clad sporty girls all show off their sports including weight-lifting, discus throwing, running, and ball-games.

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Greece – Why have I not come here before?  Greece was wonderful. The weather and landscape reminded me a lot of Southern California. I visited many of the main sights including Delphi, Meteora and sights on the Peloponnese peninsula before arriving in Athens. Then it was off cruising the Cyclades islands.  Opa Greece – I’ll be back!

Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens

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Delphi

Meteora – I have wanted to come here ever since watching the young Indiana Jones. Luckily (or unluckily), there are now stairs up to all the monasteries instead of having to wait in the basket.

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Monemvasia

Santorini

Santorini at night

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Mykonos

Mykonos

The lions of Delos

Turkey was a quick day trip off of a cruise to visit the ancient site of Ephesus. It was way to quick, however I am glad I was able to visit and hopefully the America/Turkey relations will resolve.  My cruise was the only one that was in port for the week and the locals said there were usually 5-7 per day before the conflict. 

Romania was another country of highs and lows.  The landscapes are stunning, the history complex, castles abundant and medieval towns that are very picturesque.  The poverty and corruption however are very apparent.  Much of the youth and middle aged folks (some estimate 35% of the population) have moved to other countries and send money back home. On my last two days in Romania, protests broke out in the major cities. Change is needed.  There are still many parts of Romania I would like to come back to – it’s a beautiful country with beautiful people.

Peles Castle

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Sarmizegetusa Regia

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Hărman – fortified churches in Transylvania

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Sighișoara in Transylvania

Local transportation in the medieval town of Biertan

Hunedoara Castle –  Gothic-Renaissance castle

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Timișoara known for Secessionist architecture, start of the 1989 revolution, fast internet, and now for me… medical tourism.

I cracked a tooth while exploring one of the remote towns in Transylvania. After whining to my parents on the phone that I looked like Dracula with my pointy broken tooth, I discovered that Romania is known for its medical tourism and I found a great place in Timișoara to get it fixed. Another high/low and good to know experience.

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Decebalus carving near the Iron Gates on the Danube River

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In my first trip to Serbia, I only visited Belgrade. I knew I wanted to go back and explore the rest of the country with its rich Roman history and several Unesco sites.

Uvac River – It’s just a little hike up from the river they said.  Ha!  It was straight up, but what a view the top of this serpentine river.

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In order to  make visit the Uvac River, I stayed in an ethno-lodge in a remote area of Serbia.  It will go down as one of my top 5 interesting stays.  The property had several wooden style huts as pictured scattered on the green rolling hills. There was one center home built by the owners grandparents with a living room style area. The property was full with locals and city-folk from Belgrade who enjoyed an evening of tradition with local food and great conversation. Many were excited to talk to an American and I was definitely excited to talk to them.  I learned so much about their upbringing and views on everything from culture, history and especially politics.  It was a true learning exchange and in the most unexpected place.

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Drina River House

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Petrova Crkva

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Bulgaria was my third leg of the a month long road trip through Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria. What’s amazing is how different all three are in terms of people and culture that immediately hits you at each border.Bulgaria was another deep dive into history with several Unesco sites. I felt really lucky to be traveling in these countries that were not accessible in the near past and also have not been over-touristed yet.

Rila Monastery – This site is cherished among Bulgarians. It’s easy to see why with the beauty of the place.  But it’s deeper than that as this monastery has preserved Bulgarian language and culture for centuries despite different occupations.  The songs/chanting of mass echoing through the entire complex reverberated the sound of prayer putting everyone into a reflective if not meditative state. 

BlueSkyTraveler Bulgaria Rila Monastery

Rila Seven Lakes – It started with a crazy 4-wheel drive up a portion of the mountain. You climb the rest. I knew I was out of my league when everyone had walking sticks and boots. My Nikes got me through, met some great Bulgarian-Americans on the hike and had gorgeous views.

Buzludzha Monument in the Shipka Pass – Driving up to this saucer-shaped monument felt like a scene from a James Bond Movie. The monument was built in 1974 to celebrate the Bulgarian Communist Party.  It is now abandoned.

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Kuyumdzhioglu House in the town of Plovdiv

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Oxford England • United Kingdom

I could go back to Oxford again and again. There is something about this literary town that inspires me and also feels like home. I did not do a lot of touristing in Oxford, but caught up on work, took in a few concerts and afternoon strolls through this ancient city exploring nooks and crannies… and eating crumpets.
Christ Church and strolling through the Meadow

The Bodleian Library

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This country was the most unlike what I thought it would be.

First of all, it’s clean… on par with Singapore which seems impossible. Unlike Singapore, there are no laws on littering, it’s just part of the culture.

Minsk has a reputation of being clean, green and spacey (meaning lots of space). The capital has a population of almost 2 million (Belarus in total is 9.5 million) and the city has relatively no traffic problems with huge boulevards and lots of parks. After getting past some stern faced border patrol reminiscent of other former communist countries I had visited, the mood shifted quickly to friendly, open people who were very happy to see and talk to Americans.

When I planned the four-day trip, the Visa free regulation for flying in/out was five days which on my trip was expanded to 30 days, so a return visit is definitely on my list as there is definitely more to see than what I was able to on my four day trip to Belarus.

Mir Castle – Another part of history I was unaware of was that Belarus was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. My tour guide to Mir castle, quickly informed me we were sisters when I told her of my Lithuanian heritage.

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Minsk – The city has a small medieval core that has been reconstructed after the devastation of World War II, but for the most part, this city is futuristic… and big.

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Independence Square and the Supreme Soviet of Belarus. During the period of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic it was called Lenin Square and still has his statute in the center. It is currently one of the biggest squares in Europe.
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Azgur Museum – Home & studio-turned-museum of the Soviet sculptor Zair Azgur, featuring his works & events. It was very interesting to see how his sculptures of the leaders of the time defined their images and created both real and perceived power over people.

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I have wanted to visit Lithuania for quite some time as this is the origin of two of my great, great-grandparents who immigrated to America in the early 1900’s and the origin of my surname – Didjurgis. 

I made a plan to visit the major cities, Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda as well as several other top spots including the Curonion Spit, Hill of Crosses, Druskininkai, and Trakai Castle. Along with the history, I had the highlight of the year connecting with distant relatives.

Back in 2008 when I joined Facebook, I looked up my last name and found a Didjurgis in Lithuania. Dovydas thankfully spoke English and we figured out we had the same great-grandfather. As I planned this trip, I sent him a message and fortunately my trip coincided with his daughters christening, so I was lucky to join his family celebration and see first hand my heritage in their traditions.  Dovydas and his family also connected with me with other distant cousins, Romanas and Kotryna, and the story revealed itself as I was able to explore my ancestry and hear their stories not only of my Didjurgis ancestors but of the Lithuanian heritage and perseverance through Nazi occupation, Soviet occupation and the Lithuanian re-emergence in 1991 as a free country.

This trip was the high for me of the year. The history was amazing, the culture is something I deeply related to with the connection to the land and tradition, but most of all, I saw my people.  Though my American blood is quite mixed now (I am 25% Lithuanian), I saw my cousins and uncles not only in the faces of these different relatives, but also in the faces of people I saw on the streets especially in the Kaunas and Klaipeda regions where my ancestors are from.  It was also quite a reflective moment to think of my great grandparents journey, which they took individually as they met in America, leaving this land for the life they gave us.  A quote I saw constantly ran through my head as I traveled this land, “Your ancestors are rooting for you.”

Trakai Castle – 14th century castle and one of the homes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

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Witches Hill on the Curonian Spit

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Girkalnis region with the Didjurgis cross – My grandfather’s family notes had several mentions of the villages in the Girkalnis region. My distant cousin, Dovydas, whom I met in Klaipeda, told me of another cousin, Romanas, he had just met a few years back who had done quite a bit of research on the Didjurgis family. Romanas had also erected a traditional Lithuanian wooden cross in the village celebrating the Didjurgis family.

Thanks to technology, I was able to fire up my hotspot, call my parents on WhatsApp back in Arizona and have them come along with me for this family adventure. It was a moment to see our family name on that cross celebrating our families origin.

Didjurgis Farm – Dovydas also gave me the address of his grandfather Didjurgis’ farm (my grandfather’s first cousin, but they never met.)  My parents and I continued on this trip (them on the phone) to the farm in the Girkalnis area to be greeted by an adorable puppy who showed me around the place.  It was a sliding doors moment as I thought about what life might have been like if my great-grandparents had not immigrated to America. This land sure is beautiful.

As I explored this area visiting the two villages where my great-grandparents were born, I was often approached by locals who wondered what was I doing there in very unpopulated farmland. I used my Google Translate and as soon as they understood I was a Didjurgis, they could not have been more helpful helping me find the farmhouses and sites.  I even got a few hugs!

Hill of Crosses – This is the site of the Lithuanians peaceful resistance to Soviet occupation between 1944–1990. Crosses were erected demonstrating their allegiance to their original identity, religion and heritage. The Soviets bulldozed it three times, but the crosses reappeared. It is still a site of pilgrimage today where families pay tribute to their lost ones and heroes.

Hot Air Ballooning over Vilnius – I arrived in Vilnius at the end of my trip to Lithuania where I met two more 3rd cousins, Romanas and Kotryna, and learned more about my heritage.  I also took a trip over this European capital city in a hot air balloon, my 4th hot air balloon and my second one over a capital city.  The sunset flight was cancelled the night before, so it was an early morning ride for a bird’s eye view of city development from the medieval castle on the hill in the upper left, the tightly wound medieval town just to the right of that, to the wider streets developed in the 19th century.  It was foggy and hazy… but still a view!

Latvia and specifically Riga was a quick detour from my main focus of the ancestry trip to Lithuania.  I was pleasantly surprised at this wonderful city and definitely want to return.  I spent just 3.5 days here and explored Riga, Cesis (the oldest town in Latvia), Sigulda, Birini Palace, Tarzan adventure park and barely scratched the surface in this country.  

Riga has both a well preserved old town center and also a gorgeous Art Nouveau district – one of my personal favorite styles of architecture.

BlueSkyTraveler Riga Latvia

Rundale Palace – the Versailles of Curland.  This palace was the summer residence for Tsar of Russia, built by the same architect as Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

BlueSkyTraveler Latvia Rundale Palace
Iceland has long been on my bucket list. I decided to visit in September so I was in the shoulder season to avoid some of the well deserved crowds in this outdoor adventure country.  I felt I was too late in the season to do the ring road (next time) and instead explored the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Golden Circle, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Rekyavik.

My favorite spot – Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. It lived up to its name. It’s mesmerizing to watch the ice chunks move through the lagoon and slowly melt on Diamond Beach. The scale is unbelievable until you see it.

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Skógafoss Waterfall – The waterfalls are big…. really big.

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Black Sand Beachs near Vik

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Icelandic Horses – These beautiful horses seemed to be posing at several stops along the way.

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Reykjavik Skyline

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Sint Maarten

The Caribbean was calling. I had visited Antigua on a work trip in 2002 and Bahamas on a quick trip in 2014, but other than that, I had not really explore the Caribbean. Sint Maarten was slotted in first as I took a week of R&R.

Mulletbay – I walked into this bay and my jaw dropped. Those blues…

The ocean was so calm, my friend and I bobbed in the bay just soaking up the sun for about three hours with almost no current. It was just stunning and relaxing. We came back the next day and the waves were almost too strong to go in thanks to a hurricane several hundred miles away. But I will always remember that first trip to Mulletbay of perfect blues.

Fort Louis – My friend and I climbed up this fort after a day exploring the French side (Saint Marten) and the Dutch side (Sint Maarten) and had a wonderful afternoon enjoying the breeze and these views. Sint Maarten was hit pretty hard with the hurricanes of 2017, but they are rebuilding and one look at these rusty cannons from the 1700’s and you know this island is resilient.

The plane! Maho Beach – that beach where the planes fly in right over your head.

We grabbed a seat, drink and lunch at Sunset Bar and Grill and settled in for the show. The landing times are marked on a chalkboard surfboard. As the indicated landing time draws near, everyone pulls out the cameras and phones and there is a wave of excitement as everyone rushes to the rails to watch the planes land.

BlueSkyTraveler St Maarten Malo Beach

St. Lucia was week 2 of R&R and I spent many of these days just hanging in the lagoon of our resort in the water hammocks.   I did explore with a big drive around the island, met some new friends to explore Hotel Chocolat and met some locals to enjoy a traditional Fish Fry.

Windjammer Resort

Anse La Raye

Hotel Chocolat with views of one of the St. Lucia Pitons – The chocolate lava cake dessert was divine!

Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic was my 3rd Caribbean destination on this trip.  I spent a few days exploring Santo Domingo and then on to Punta Cana for the last few days of R&R.

Santo Domingo

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Punta Cana Sunrise

Drone fun in Punta Cana – that ocean color!

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Florida • USA

Sunrise, Key Lime Pie, Sunset – Repeat. That was pretty much the mantra exploring Southern Florida and the Florida Keys.

Sunrise – West Palm Beach

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Helicopter Flight over Key West – Flying out past Key West, the reef has amazing channels of deep blue water. It was an amazing ride and interesting to see sharks and stingrays swimming below.

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Islamorada – Florida Keys

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Miami Art Deco District

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I was very excited to be invited on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, the largest ship on the ocean for a quick 2 night press trip to the Bahamas.


This ship was amazing. Royal Caribbean has implemented a neighborhood approach to their ships. So even thought they are large, they don’t feel overwhelming as you find parts of the boat that feel all yours.  I was not a huge fan of big cruises until this trip – the ship was state-of-art, the shows fantastic with innovative technology, food delicious and imaginative (Hello Wonderland), and I could go on and on. 

The biggest perk for me about cruises are that you can visit several places without moving your luggage, but trip smashed many of my pre-conceived negatives about cruise ships (specifically crowded and food) and I will now be looking at cruises more.

Sailing into Nassau, Bahamas

Symphony of the Seas – The water shows were phenomenal – Dancing, Lights, Aerial performers, Divers. Can you imagine a diver jumping off the high dive into that little pool of water on a MOVING ship. The ship has technology to signal the diver with lights if it is safe to dive.

View of Miami from Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas

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Arizona • USA

Tucson Arizona – Annual trip to Arizona to visit the parents. 

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.... To be continued in 2019