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2020 was all about looking for a silver lining. In a year of turmoil, I was able to find a lot of joy — and I was grateful for that.
Sometimes that’s all that you can say.
Here are my favorite travel moments of 2020.
Crossing the Border from Serbia into Croatia
It was early July and a few days ago, we had been planning on staying in Serbia until the Czech Republic let me in. Then we were hit with bad news — the Czechs would only allow partners of Czech citizens to return, not partners of Czech residents (and Charlie is a permanent resident). We could be stuck in Serbia for months — not ideal at a time of anti-government protests and constantly changing border regulations.
But then we found out Croatia was open to Americans who could prove that their visit was in the economic interest of Croatia. What proved economic interest? A hotel reservation.
It was a no-brainer. I adore Croatia, especially in the summer. Charlie and I both have lots of work connections there. It was the EU, and perhaps that would make it easier to come back to the Czech Republic. Either way, if we had to be stuck in Croatia for months — and we were — it would be a million times better than being stuck in Serbia.
We left Novi Sad and crossed the border; ironically, it took us about 30 minutes to get checked by immigration on the way out of Serbia, but the Croatia immigration guy waved us in with hardly any questions at all.
Maybe it was my jubilance at being in Croatia — but everything looked different. The hills were greener. The roads were nicer. The sunflowers were taller and thicker and more vibrant than the sunflowers in Serbia.
Four minutes from the border, we stopped at Ilok Winery — one of the larger wineries in the country, one that we would see again and again on wine bottles over the next two months. It looked like a wedding venue in California! Modern, gorgeous, surrounded by rolling green landscapes. We could actually see across the Serbian border from there, and somehow it looked a million times better.
We toasted sparkling wine and enjoyed beef wellingtons. We had made it slightly closer to the Czech Republic — and we were going to be okay.
We were in CROATIA.
Spending a day at Los Rapidos.
My weekend in Bacalar will always be special to me because it was the last trip without worrying about COVID. COVID had already hit parts of Asia in mid-February, of course — but at the moment we had no idea how far it would expand, how it would grind the world to a halt.
Our circle of friends in Mérida had planned a weekend trip to Bacalar together, and since Nathan had been before, he insisted that we spend an afternoon at Los Rapidos, a riverside day club just outside the town. He didn’t tell us a ton about it, he just told us that we had to do it.
Los Rapidos was an absolute BLAST! A clear blue river with a rushing current that was so fun for swimming. Delicious and potent margaritas, all for super-cheap. Hammocks hanging in the water — perfect for Instagram shots. This is the kind of place that I would go to anywhere in the world.
We spent an afternoon romping around like kids. It’s the most carefree time I remember having this year!
Celebrating Biden’s win in Prague.
Was it a quintessential travel moment? Not really. But it was a moment worth remembering.
The night of the election was rough. I had planned to wake up at 3:30 AM (9:30 PM ET) when there was news — instead, I couldn’t sleep and parked myself in front of CNN, dealing with horrible stomach pain, not sure if it was cramps or nerves, eating Pepto-Bismol tablets like candy.
And though we had been cautioned that there would be a “red mirage” in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that counted mail-in votes later, that logic went out the window as soon as we found out that the polls had been way off again, perhaps even worse than 2016. I stayed up until the west coast was called and conked out.
It got better over the course of several days as Trump’s path to victory narrowed and narrowed until it was impossible for him to be reelected. We were ready.
Then on Saturday, the election got called and it was official! Charlie and I were ready to celebrate. We opened the bottle of Veuve Clicquot we had been saving, feasted on homemade chocolate chip cookies, and turned on Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.”
Because this entire election has been so crazy, I plan on celebrating with another bottle of bubbly (perhaps cava?) when the Electoral College votes on December 14 and another bottle of Veuve for Inauguration Day on January 20.
Walking every street in my hometown.
I love to take long walks. As soon as I got back to my hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, I started going for long walks each day, listening to podcasts and audiobooks. I had a go-to 10,000-step walk that I usually took, but then I started walking down seldom-visited cul-de-sacs out of curiosity.
And I wondered — what if I made a goal of walking a ton of different streets in town? Perhaps the Killam-to-Coolidge district circa 1995?
Nah. I had to up the game. I would walk all 441 streets.
I would walk for three and a half hours on some days, coming home barely able to move. And after every walk, I would get home, sit at the kitchen table, and carefully highlight each new street I had walked on the map.
Sometimes it would take me a full hour just to walk to the other side of town to get to a new street. Sometimes I would knock off more than 20 streets in a day. With everything closed due to COVID, sometimes I would duck into a porta-pottie at a construction site.
I watched the seasons change — trees flowered pink and white, then the petals came down as Black Lives Matters signs appeared on front doors.
I ran into several high school friends who had moved back to our hometown to raise their children.
I finally finished all 441 streets in Reading with two days to spare before flying to Belgrade. And that felt SO good.
I really want to write a full post about this when the time is right. So much to say.
Cenote-hopping in the Yucatán with my sister
My sister Sarah came to visit us in Mérida for a few days at the end of February. She had never been to Mexico before, and I’m glad her first trip to Mexico was all about experiencing Yucatecan culture rather than parking herself in a resort.
One day, we signed up for an Airbnb experience taking us to the Mayapan ruins and two exceptionally beautiful, very difficult to reach cenotes. She had never been to a cenote before.
After climbing down to the edge of the cenote, we stood in front of the water in our bathing suits, the enormous cave rising around us.
“Well, jump in!” I told her.
She paused. “I’m afraid!” she said, giggling.
WOW. This was not what I expected to hear. All our lives, even though I’m the older sister, Sarah has always been the daredevil and I’ve always been the cautious one. Sarah was the one riding the twisty upside-down roller coaster while having a casual conversation with the person next to her. I was the kid who was afraid to go down the curly slide. So to hear her say that SHE was scared…what a role reversal!!
“Okay, I’ll jump in first,” I told her. I cannon-balled in with a huge splash.
Once she saw it was fine, she jumped in after me!
Having a Peka among Friends in Dubrovnik
The quintessential dining experience in Croatia is experiencing a “peka” meal — also known as “dinner under the bell.” Either veal and lamb or octopus are cooked in a fire underneath a dome, and after a few hours, it turns into a gorgeously roasted meal.
But the food is only part of what makes a peka special. In Marija and Zlatko’s back garden in Dubrovnik, it feels like a big family party where you’re the honored guest. Sure, there’s delicious food, and the homemade liquor and wine are flowing. But there is something so homey and special about it. People from all over the world coming together, sharing stories from their lives, and feasting on the pršut Marija carves right off the leg for you.
Charlie’s company is fully remote but he has a ton of colleagues in Dubrovnik, and I joined them for a big gathering and peka one night. I can see why everyone who does this loves the event — and wants Marija and Zlatko to adopt them afterward! You can have an upscale meal anywhere, but it won’t give you the same kind of rosy memory.
Getting my Czech Bridge Visa
My original plan had been to return to the Czech Republic in May, get my trade license, and apply for the freelance business visa. COVID wreaked havoc on those plans. I wasn’t able to get back to Prague until late September, and from that point I had to get the ball rolling on my visa so I could stay.
We had to do it differently, though. My agency and I decided I would apply for the family reunification visa instead, as it would be faster, cheaper, and could be done without leaving Prague. (The freelance business visa would require me to make two separate trips to the Czech Embassy in Berlin, which in the time of COVID would be hairy if even possible.)
But the family reunification visa, which you can do as the unmarried partner of a Czech permanent resident, is cheaper, faster, and easier than going for the freelance visa. Best of all, it’s good for FIVE FULL YEARS.
After doing a lot of paperwork with Expat Zone in Prague, we had a meeting with immigration, discussed my personal situation in the Czech Republic, and I was approved for my bridge visa: the visa that will allow me to stay until my family reunification visa is finalized. It’s valid for four-months and can be extended if the real visa takes longer than that to process.
I cannot tell you the sheer relief I felt at getting approved for the bridge visa. It has been such a rough year, and for so much of it Charlie and I had no idea when we would be able to see each other again.
The visa process is not over yet, and while we have some more work to do, we’re in a good position. I should be getting my trade license shortly, which will allow me to operate my business here as a resident.
But I am beyond grateful to be able to stay with my partner legally, and also to live in a country where I won’t be bankrupted if I need to go to the hospital.
Getting Adopted by a Kitty in Orebić
One night in Orebić on the Pelješac peninsula in Croatia, we were sitting out on our patio and enjoying a bit of wine. And then a tiny little creature poked her head through the fence to say hello.
She was a tiny gray tabby kitten, well-fed and socialized to humans — later, the neighbors told us that she belonged to someone nearby. But that didn’t stop her from adopting us. For the next few days, she spent nearly every moment with us. Snoozing on our laptop keys, eating whatever food we brought out for her, sitting on our shoulders and kneading, even jumping through our bedroom window at 2:00 AM, just to say hi!
Having Kitty was like having a pet for the first time in forever — and I absolutely loved coming home to her. But I knew it couldn’t last. As much as we talked about sneaking her into our bags, we knew we would have to leave her soon.
I dreaded saying goodbye to Kitty, knowing that I’d burst into tears — but then it was time to leave and she was outside, happily jumping around.
“Wave goodbye to Kitty?” Charlie asked.
I waved and cried. She had an owner. She’d be fine. But I would miss her so much.
The Quiet of Venice at Night
Venice is one of the places where you WILL get lost, even if you have a phone with data and Google Maps pulled up. Modern technology hasn’t fully caught up to this city, and that is delightful.
I was walking home alone at night after my appointment with the eye doctor. Normally I’m a bit on edge when walking alone at night, keeping focused and looking out for any would-be rapist, as every woman has had drilled into her her whole life. But here it was different.
It was calm. It was protective. The air was like velvet.
Google Maps routed me the wrong way again, of course. I was somewhere deep in the Castello neighborhood and looking for the canal that led to our apartment.
The air had darkened to indigo, little bursts of gold emanating from street lamps. I climbed yet another stone bridge and paused at the top.
I heard forks clinking, like music.
Venice isn’t just a touristy destination. It’s still a city where families eat together in their apartments at night, making dinner for their loved ones, sitting down together, talking about their day.
And that one sound — forks clinking — gave me an insight into Venice I hadn’t yet experienced.
Adopting Lewis and Murray
I first noticed them on the Prague Pets Facebook group. These two gray tabby kittens with white bellies and white paws — two “little bears,” as their foster mother called them — had been left outside a vet’s office in a box in the rain.
They needed a home. And we were intrigued.
We drove up to Melnik, just north of Prague, and we fell in love the moment we met them. So sweet and friendly, one of them gregarious and goofy, one more guarded and hesitant. They were tiny with short stubby legs and super-soft fur, almost like they were genetically engineered to be the cutest animals in the world.
After playing with them for a bit, we decided that yep — they were ours! One week later, we signed the paperwork and took them home to Prague.
All of our cat moments over the past year had led to this. And I already can’t imagine life without them! Seeing two little fur tornadoes running around the house has brought so much joy to my life!!
There are lots of animals in need of homes all over the world. Who knows — you might find one on a trip!
More from the Best of the Year
Some of the above experiences can’t be replicated because they were the perfect combination of circumstances, people, and timing. But I also wanted to share some of my favorite travel activities, hotels, apartments, and restaurants that you can add onto your own trip and enjoy for yourself!
Best Travel Activities of the Year
If I had to pick one favorite activity, it would be the wine and biking tour we did in Korčula, taking in so much beauty of Lumbarda along with discovering the unique Grk wine. You can read more about that here.
Beyond that, I loved our mole and mezcal pairing event in Oaxaca, experiencing the temezcal (sweat lodge) in Oaxaca, our day taking a boat trip around the lake in Bacalar with friends, and joining the daylong boat trip around Vis, which included the Green Cave, Stiniva Beach, Biševo Island, and the Blue Cave. And the peka in Dubrovnik, of course!
Best Hotels of the Year
Maslina Resort in Hvar, Croatia, was a revelation and an inspiration in what properties can do with mindful, sustainable luxury. Check out my interview with the manager here; I bet you’ll feel inspired, too! Beyond that, it was a fabulous place to relax and enjoy being on a special island.
My other two favorites were the Grand Park Hotel in Rovinj, with its incredible rooftop pool and views of the city (not to mention great food and a private plunge pool in the bedroom), and Hotel Excelsior in Dubrovnik, with the best views in town and an upscale, exclusive atmosphere.
(All three were all comped stays from my work with the Croatian tourist board.)
Best Rentals of the Year
Far and away our favorite rental was this huge, airy, and modern apartment in Novi Sad, Serbia. It hit every note right, from the modern bathroom to the thick, cushy bedroom linens, and I could have stayed there for a month. Best of all, it only cost $30 per night!
Most of the apartments we stayed in this year were about the same in quality: simple one-bedroom apartments with a kitchen and laptop-friendly workspace. We especially enjoyed this modern place in Belgrade and our canalside Venice apartment with lightning-fast internet.
Best Restaurants of the Year
This could fill a book, but I’m just going to list my absolute favorites, roughly in the order of visiting them:
Micaela Mar y Leña is my favorite restaurant in Mérida, and so incredibly stylish. It’s the perfect special occasion spot for perfect seafood and experimental cocktails. I adore everything on the menu but the whole octopus is next level.
Hermana Republica in Mérida is the place where we were regulars. This brewery has great beers, and somehow every food item they have — Yucatecan specialties and some offbeat choices — is unbelievably delicious. The TORTILLA CHIPS are artisanal. So damn good. We always got the tuna tostada with spicy mayo; I liked the salbutes with cochinita pibil.
Origen in Oaxaca serves gorgeous, delicious plates that are far more high end than anything else I had in the country. I can’t even remember what I had but it was all sensational.
Frëims in Mexico City was the hipster brunch spot that made my heart sing — and then shut down due to COVID the next day. I’m still thinking about the lemon ricotta pancakes.
Babić Winery in Skradin, Croatia, near Krka National Park, was a beautiful place to stop for wine and nibbles on the way to the ferry in Split. It was a Bourdain favorite and just being there felt special.
Lole Wine and Tapas Bar in Korčula is one of the most fun bars in Croatia to enjoy wine and tapas, featuring a local but far more unusual menu than you get on most Croatian islands. Just eat what they bring you.
Proto is the best restaurant in Dubrovnik. Period. This is the place to go all out and enjoy every bite. Don’t miss the shrimp and truffle pasta, or the salt-encrusted fish if you’re in a group and want to share it.
Cap Aureo at the Grand Park Hotel in Rovinj hosts a tasting menu with insanely inventive and creative dishes, all with a view of Rovinj at sunset. I still can’t believe they made squid cacio e pepe and the squid was what served as pasta, cut into thin curlicues. (This meal was comped.)
Osteria Oliva Nera in Venice looked like a simple place, but the food was head and shoulders above most of what we ate in Venice. I adored the fried zucchini flowers.
Vino Vero in Venice is a trendy wine bar with fancy cicchetti — Venetian bar snacks — in the hopping Cannaregio neighborhood. My favorite was the mortadella and pistachio on a piece of bread, but you can’t go wrong with any of them!
Adelardi in Ferrara, Italy, is where you go to enjoy the best of Emilia-Romagna pastas — a place my dear friend Katie introduced me to last year and we returned to this year. Get the tris — three different Emilian pastas on a plate!
El Camino is my new favorite restaurant in Prague, with superbly crafted Spanish tapas and truly outstanding wines. The oxtail sandwich with mulled wine ice cream was mind-blowing. The cava was so good, Charlie literally ordered a few bottles of it to be delivered to our apartment before we had even finished our glasses.
Best Blog Posts of the Year
I thought I’d list a few of my favorite posts that are worth a read if you haven’t seen them yet:
45 Funny, Heartfelt, Unforgettable Travel Stories — In late March when our incomes tanked, I collected my blogger friends’ best travel stories and shared them all in this post. Well worth a read!
Turning 36 in a Year of Uncertainty — Reflexions on trying to survive the biggest crisis of all time for the travel industry.
The Biggest Mistakes Travelers Make in Italy — I’ve been wanting to write this post for YEARS! The best part was that an Italian told me that most people get posts like this wrong but he agreed with everything I said!
What were your favorite travel moments of the year?