Although it seems like millennials are continually posting from all corners of the world, for most of us, traveling comes after much planning, saving, and researching. I know I'm fortunate to have traveled the around the world. While I've had my share of luxurious, over-the-top vacations, I've also had incredible experiences backpacking through Europe on $40 a day (yes, that included room and food).
Not surprising, though, is that most of my favorite spots have been the least touristy. While I think it's important to see the popular landmarks: Sistine Chapel, Eiffle Tower, Vietnam Memorial...I also think it's important to step off the main avenue to find the real heart of the city...and its people.
So, if you're looking for an adventure semi-off the beaten path...add these 5 spots to your travel list.
1. Aeolian Islands, Sicily. What happens when you're backpacking through Europe and an error in translation leaves you on the wrong train? You end up in Sicily...where you didn't plan on going, but now dream daily of one day returning. Once arriving, a local suggested we ferry to the Aeolian Islands. We were 18 and had no agenda (truly a lifetime ago!), so of course we said yes. Of the seven islands, we visited three: Lipari, Stromboli, and Volcano- each completely different.
If you imagine a quaint, quiet, hanging with the locals Italian experience...Lipari is it. Drinks and strolling by the water? All. Day. Long.
Vulcano was our next island stop: natural mudbaths and hot springs? Yes, please! Note- your clothes/swimsuit will smell like sulfur forever. Either pack a seal-tight bag to keep them separate from other clothes, or plan on leaving them behind.
Stromboli was by far one of the most unique experiences...we hiked a freakin' volcano. A real, spurting lava, erupting volcano. Of course, you can choose to see the volcano from a greater distance, but if you're up to the physical challenge, take the guided hike. Though the hike up the volcano isn't overly difficult, coming down in the pitch dark (note to self, get new flashlight batteries before the excursion even if you think you won't need them) and stumbling over rough terrain isn't easy. I may have lost my composure a time or two, swearing under my breath that "We'd have to sign 50 waivers for this in the States!"
2. Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave, Austria. Most visitors to Salzburg are familiar with the salt mines (which are also cool), but venture about an hour out of the city to the unique mountainside ice cave. Before making the trek, however, be sure to check out the website's guidelines on physical exertion. Thinking back, I'm not certain how my grandmother and great-aunt (in their late 70's at the time) scaled the narrow steps over 400 feet up!
Obviously it's a bit chilly in the cave (below 32 F), even in the summer time, so plan accordingly. But, it's breathtakingly beautiful. And though the stairs look daunting at the beginning of the tour, you're quickly lost in the scenery and don't realize the sense of accomplishment until the end.
3. Vieques Bioluminescent Bay, Puerto Rico. You may want to add this spot to your bucket list sooner than later. The bay was environmentally in jeopardy years ago and Hurricane Maria didn't help, but it seems to have recovered and eco-tourism restored to the area. While other bioluminescent bays exist, Vieques is the brightest.
There are a couple tour options, we chose the tandem kayak, and it's important to choose a reputable guide to preserve the fragile ecosystem. It's not necessarily a difficult journey, but it is dark. Even though you can't see much of the canopied trees, you'll likely get a glimpse of the countless huge iguanas. The highlight, of course, is entering the actual bay. No, the water isn't magically glowing, it's actually millions of microscopic organisms that "glow" as a defense mechanism...not to ward-off the predators that feed on them, but rather to draw the predators up the food chain that feed on their attackers. It's an amazing opportunity to witness to the ecosystem at work.
4. Prague Jewish Museum / Kutna Hora Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic. I wholeheartedly believe that we learn more about culture, history, and communication by traveling than through any book. Reading about the Vietnam Memorial will never have the same impact as seeing it; there's no lecture that compares with meeting a Holocaust survivor while touring Dachau. And though I was only 10, I will never forget the visual impact of thousands of crosses honoring our soldiers in Normandy.
When visiting the Czech Republic, you'll likely visit The Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle, and the Old Town Square. But, a short walk from the tourist landmarks is the Jewish Quarters: the Jewish Cemetery and Jewish Museum are historic opportunities not to miss. You'll also find the Pinkas Synagogue: inside, what looks like ornate walls, is actually the names of the 80,000 victims Holocaust from the area.
If you have the time, venture an hour from Prague to Kutna Hora. Though there's no shortage of cathedrals, the Sedlec Ossuary has the most unique decor...bones. Over 40,000 bones to be exact. Slightly eerie, oddly serene, completely astounding.
5. Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. A little closer to home, this one was on my husband's "must see" list for years and I had ZERO interest. When a baseball tournament road trip was essentially along the route, I knew there'd be no escaping a stop. My preconceived notions were totally wrong. This place was amazing. We had some time before our tour to wander the national park area: we were there in the summer and it was pretty, but I'm sure it's gorgeous in the fall. You'll need a ticket for a guided tour of the caves, though you don't have to have a reservation, you'll likely be waiting for hours if you don't. There are several tours to choose from based on duration and level of difficulty. Keep in mind, some areas are extremely narrow, wheelchair accessibility is not available on all tours, and I don't believe strollers or kid carriers/backpacks are allowed at all.
There's over four hundred miles of caves and the 3/4 miles of it we saw on the Domes & Dripstones tour were stunningly beautiful. If you're able, try to choose a tour that includes the Frozen Niagra.
There's an awfully big world out there to see. If you, like me, plan to see as much of it as absolutely possible, take the side trips. Meet the locals, eat unusual foods, get lost, and discover your connection to the world beyond home.
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