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Travel Writers And Influencers Tell Us Their Absolute Favorite Travel Experiences From 2021

2021 was all about expanding comfort zones, maintaining healthy lifestyles, and getting the f*ck back outside. For many of us, that meant traveling to new places both far and near. After a year spent in quarantine due to the seemingly never-ending hell that is COVID-19, how can you blame anyone for choosing to work from an oceanside balcony in Mexico instead of their makeshift work-from-home offices?

With travel restrictions around the world partially lifting, 2021 offered new opportunities to explore, learn, adventure, and simply have a good time. While we don’t know exactly what 2022 will bring as Omicron cases continue to rise and travel restrictions click back into place, we’re taking a moment to reflect on the many epic adventures that we did manage to have this year.

Below, 22 travel writers and influencers share their all-time favorite travel experiences of 2021. From a #VanLife road trip across California and a month-long Italian getaway to a Portuguese wine tour and U.S. national park adventures, the experiences below are sure to fuel your wanderlust.

EDITOR’S PICK: STEVE BRAMUCCI (@steve_bramucci) — FORAGING FOR MUSHROOMS IN OREGON

foraging mushrooms oregon
Steve Bramucci

Our Uproxx Fall Experience Guide featured a piece by Indy Officinalis that urged people to forage for their own food, at least once, in 2021. And while I grow a lot of my own food and cook over an open flame a fair bit, as I edited the entry I realized that I haven’t foraged much over the past few years. I set out to change that in the fall and was helped by Karl Holl — founder of Forager Goods & Co.

Holl is a widely renowned chef-of-all-trades who found his lane over the past half-decade and has absolutely bloomed. He’s currently the Culinary Director for Smith Tea and is known for mushroom-centric collaborations with some of the biggest names in the culinary world. His merch site features tie-dyed shirts and hoodies made with Top Chef’s Shota Nakajima and he’s dropped products with beloved brands like Woodblock Chocolate and Earthwell camping gear. Everything he touches reflects his deep expertise and love of the natural world.

Which is all to say… he was the right person to take a walk in the woods with.

The day actually started out pretty mellow. Holl had heard that my next novel includes some foraging near the Oregon coast and wanted to take me to the region where my book takes place. But fall rains had been light there and we were skunked. As someone who definitely tunes in for the mushroom thirst traps that Holl and other foragers post to IG, I got a little worried. My guide didn’t trouble over it at all, though. He took me to a fire pit beside a river and cooked up some oysters. (Always a good remedy for angst.)

As we ate, Holl explained that Oregon has such a bounty finding mushrooms was simply a matter of driving east, back toward Portland into the Oregon Coast Range, until we spotted areas that had gotten some rain a week or two prior.

“Do you have spots you know in that direction?” I asked.

Holl looked at me like I was dense: “You wanted to go foraging, right? We’ll have to forage.”

Forage we did, driving 40 miles, pulling off of Highway 26, and scrambling up a logging road until Holl spotted a gully he liked. We could hear the trucks out on the road through the forest as we began plucking lobster mushrooms the size of my face and creamy-looking chanterelles — scouring the duff for the spots where their caps made a rise in the leaf litter.

In 20 minutes, we had full baskets.

As I marveled over this, Holl explained how this was, for him, a mediocre day. He reiterated that Oregon is teeming with mushrooms and finding them is both an art and a craft, but also not terribly difficult. Listening to him made me fall in love all over again with the state where I was born. He gave me his take from the afternoon and a jar of pickled chanterelles as a parting gift.

That night, I made lobster mushroom carbonara. The chanterelles were an appetizer, cooked in butter with onions. The next day, I cooked an ultra-dense mushroom broth which I jarred and stored. The broth lasted for about a week — I drank a cup with my coffee each morning — but the experience has stuck with me much longer. It’s everything I always hope travel can be: an education, an exhilarating experience, and a reminder of beauty and magic in the world.

Oysters Open Fire
Steve Bramucci

LOLA MENDEZ (@lolaannamendez) — RWANDA SAFARI

My favorite travel experience of 2021 was visiting Rwanda. I had made a vision board in August for what I wanted out of travel for the rest of the year. I was living in Mexico, so the majority of the images and words that I cut out were related to Mexico, because realistically I didn’t think I’d be visiting many other countries in the second half of the year due to the ongoing pandemic. But I came across a photo of a zebra and I had to put it on my vision board, as it’s been a life-long dream to go on a safari. Two weeks later I was invited to go to Rwanda.

So within a month of creating the vision board, I was actually seeing wild zebras in Rwanda in Akagera National Park. It was absolutely phenomenal. During my first safari game drive — which was at dusk, we only had an hour, and everyone told me not to have the expectations — we saw several male and female elephants, we saw two female lions, countless zebra, countless giraffes. It was absolutely phenomenal, but the highlight of the trip was getting to trek to see gorillas. The family I saw had three silverback gorillas and a baby that was only three months old.

It was absolutely breathtaking to be just feet from these kings of the jungle.

KRISTIN CORPUZ (@kristincorpuz_) — CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP

My favorite travel experience of 2021 was ringing in the new year in a made-over camper van via Cabana Vans. They let me take a van for a week for a road trip around California, and it was so magical. It was the best way to spend New Year’s since we weren’t throwing parties and we weren’t really around anybody.

It was just a really beautiful way to see more of the state that I live in. I went to a lot of national parks and got to do it with my boyfriend and my dog, and it was just a beautiful time. I got to see so much of the diverse California landscape.

MELANIE FULLER (@traveling.auntie) — SAMANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

My favorite travel memory of 2021 was definitely visiting Samaná, Dominican Republic. It’s truly a hidden gem that is not mentioned nearly enough in mainstream travel outlets! When you think of Dominican Republic, most people automatically think of Punta Cana (myself included). Samaná is a beautiful remote area full of beautiful zen beaches and lots of locals. Needless to say, it’s a breath of fresh air from the more touristy areas in DR.

Samana was the peace and uninterrupted relaxation I had been yearning for during my month in the Dominican Republic. It was a different type of paradise. You know when you see something so beautiful, you immediately have this jaw-dropping moment of “wow, God is soooo amazing!!!!”? LOL, it’s that type of serene beauty.

My vacation rental had a huge balcony that overlooked the most captivating, tropical scenery/ocean views and had two private beaches! It legit felt like I owned the beach. The only other person there was security, who helped me find a coconut on the beach to enjoy while I relaxed. The entire resort is essentially built on a mountain which ensures that no matter where you are on the resort, you literally have beautiful panoramic views of the ocean at all times…a dream.

Accommodation details — Xëliter Vista Mare Samaná (booked on Airbnb). One to three-bedroom apartment-style accommodations, private beaches, two large pools, and an onsite restaurant and bar. There’s also a cute swing overlooking the best 360 views. I give it a 4-star rating. There was no fancy furniture or decor, but it was clean, comfortable, and overall an extremely enjoyable stay.

JOE SILLS (@joesills) — HADRIAN’S WALL, UK

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Vaccination reopened international travel to me in 2021. After spending the previous year relegated to domestic road trips, I was eager to get outside of the U.S. again—this time, carrying a newfound appreciation for the opportunity to travel abroad. For me, the experience of travel is entirely different than it was pre-pandemic. I now seek a deeper meaning to destinations. I seek experiences beyond beautiful photos and learning where to find the best meals and drinks. Nowhere did that manifest more than at Hadrian’s Wall.

Following the death of my father, who passed away from COVID-19, I decided to hike the full 73-mile length of the ancient Roman ruin near the English and Scottish border. Comparatively few people make this trek each year, and even fewer choose to camp along the way. Canadian archaeologist Raven Todd DaSilva joined me on the journey, and together we spent about a week backpacking into, over, and alongside the ancient ruins of the Roman frontier. By taking a week to absorb a part of the U.K. that travelers in a car can blow by in less than a day, we truly immersed ourselves in ancient history and found new meaning in the briefness of human lives and the unstoppable march of time.

MAHNA GHAFORI (@maza.travel) — ISLAND HOPPING IN HAWAII

My fiancé and I lived in Oahu, Hawaii. So we were based off that island, and we spent eight months of 2021 island-hopping and exploring all the other Hawaiian islands — getting to know the culture, the land, the food. I just absolutely loved that travel experience, and we definitely feel very, very grateful for that opportunity.

Kauai was our favorite island, specifically because of a boat ride we did on the Na Pali coast. If you’re looking for the best experience in Kauai, Hawaii, for sure check out Go Blue Adventures! Our guides Makona & Nessie were the absolute best.

DANE RIVERA (@littlepapercone) — OCEANSIDE, CA

If you’re looking for a coastal city that delivers on everything that makes California, well, California, look no further than the So-Cal town of Oceanside. Oceanside offers great surf, year-round sunshine, undisturbed ocean views, and a booming food scene all nestled within a walkable (better yet, bikeable) 42.16 square miles.

Hit the culture by cruising the California Surf Museum or the Oceanside Museum of Art, or stumble through one (or all) of the great bars and coffee shops that dot the city before ending your night by witnessing the most beautiful California sunset you’ve ever seen from the Oceanside Pier. This town offers all the beachside beauty of places like Malibu and Santa Monica, without the heavy crowds, foot traffic, and tourists.

I’ve spent significant time up and down the coast of California, and I’ve never felt more relaxed and in love with the state than when I was chilling in Oceanside with a spiced margarita in hand.

ALISHA MCDARRIS (@terradrift) — ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK, MI

This year my husband and I returned to Michigan after not getting a chance to explore Isle Royale National Park during a low-key, outdoor-centric road trip we took around the state in 2020. That summer, none of the ferries to the island were operating, so the only way to get there was by seaplane or private boat. So it was super exciting to finally make it to the island this summer for a week of true wilderness, totally off-the-grid backpacking.

It was as stunning as we anticipated and a magical break from the endless negative news cycle. And those views! 10/10 would recommend!

CHLOE CALDWELL (@chloeicaldwell) — WAIMEA CANYON, KAUAI

My favorite travel experience of the year was driving through Waimea Canyon in Kauai, Hawaii. It was one of my last big trips of the year, and also one of my first big solo adventures. Waimea Canyon is on the western side of the island where you’ll find mountainous views and waterfalls.

I drove my rental car up to the top of the canyon, making several stops along the way to check out the scenery (by the way, upgrading to a convertible is totally worth it in Kauai). There were unique red dirt patches, cliffs, waterfalls, and streams running through the canyon. However, by the time I reached the top, it was downpouring and foggy. So I missed out on the view at the main lookout point, but it was still an experience to remember.

Luckily, when I drove back down the mountain the sun came out again — the weather in Kauai is insanely unpredictable — so I made one more stop where I found a hiking trail. The short trail led me to a cliff that overlooked a vast canyon that was absolutely stunning. The best part, though, was the giant double rainbow that was tucked within the canyon. I literally was somewhere over the rainbow…It was truly magical!

NICOLETTA DARITA DE LA BROWN (@vida.magica.love) — SONORA DESERT, AZ

By far, my favorite travel moment from 2021 is the Sonora Desert in Tucson, Arizona. Horseback riding at sunset golden hour, monsoons, rainbows, purple mountains majesty. Yes, the mountains were purple. Yes, there were rainbows during the monsoon season in Tucson. Amazing. When I was thinking about where I wanted to go after a year locked down, I wanted to go somewhere new, somewhere I’d never been, and somewhere that I could practice mindfulness fluidly and easily. Somewhere I could breathe for what felt like the first time in a year and a half because of COVID and the pandemic and everything that’s come with that for everyone on the planet.

Mindfulness was easily embedded into this trip was because I grew up on the east coast. I grew up in humid summers. I had never experienced dry heat in the summer before. Being there made it super easy for me to be present. I couldn’t think about anything else except the summer heat of Tucson, Arizona, and the dryness of the desert. I couldn’t think about anything except the beautiful cacti and the succulents and the animals, like the horse that I was riding at sunset. I couldn’t think about anything else except that because it was so different from anything that I had experienced before. By default, my brain was rewired to be present in that moment, which was exactly what I needed.

SHARITA JENNINGS (@itssharitasworld) — DOURO VALLEY IN PORTO, PORTUGAL

Porto, Portugal was probably the most magical place I’ve seen in the world. It was just really beautiful. It inspired J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. There were actually students walking around in cloaks just like in Harry Potter, so that was really cool.

Then, my friend and I took a day trip to Douro Valley, which is the wine region where Port wine is made. It was just beautiful. It was super green, super gorgeous, and the wine was amazing. It was just non-stop beautiful scenery. I didn’t do this, but you can take an old fashion train to really see all of the valley.

GRAHAM BERRY (@festivalwriter) — SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK, CO

This year I traveled to 20 of America’s National Parks and hands down my top moment was a short hike to Zapata Falls at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s fed by a stream that carves into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains before winding out through the adjacent forest to the base of the Dunes. It’s a short easy hike, but it’s packed with adventure. I actually had to travel about fifty yards into the belly of the mountain to get there!

MICKELA MALLOZZI (@travelbarefeet) — NEW YORK CITY, NY

My favorite travel experience of 2021 was actually being present and seeing New York City open up again this summer – it was a magical time when vaccines were rolling out and the variants hadn’t come yet – New York in the summer is always amazing, but it hit a little differently this year. We were actually filming our brand, new Season 5 of my PBS series, Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi, where I traveled the world within the 5 boroughs of New York City [official trailer here], so you’ll be able to see those magical moments come to life on screen starting this spring!

NASTASIA YAKOUB (@nastasiaspassport) — A MONTH IN ITALY

My favorite travel experience from 2021 would have to be my month-long trip to Italy. I’ve been going to Italy for the past eight years every year around the autumn season in October. 2020 was the first year that I didn’t get to go, so I spent the whole year dreaming of Italy, watching films, and reading books about Italy until the day I could reunite again.

After I got vaccinated, I went there at the end of August/beginning of September instead of October because there were rumors that Europe may prevent Americans to go. August isn’t my favorite month because it’s too hot and too crowded, but I figured I’d take what I can get. So I went there for a month and got to reunite with a bunch of my friends in Italy. I started off in Milano, went to Lake Cuomo, explored towns I had never been to before, then made my way down to Rome and the Amalfi Coast.

I wanted to go to Apulia, but I missed my cat. So I came back to New York, but just being in Italy after not traveling there in so long was just so special. I felt so grateful. That was my biggest trip of the year.

JULES POMPHRETT (@bejulesed) — TULUM, MEXICO

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My favorite travel experience of 2021 definitely would be Tulum, Mexico. Tulum is one of my favorite places to visit. It is a bohemian paradise and the Mayan culture shines through all of Tulum. The Mayan way of life is fascinating and immersing yourself in these ways while in Tulum is essential. Explore the ancient Tulum Mayan Ruins, swim through the Cenotes, and shop outdoor markets and boutiques.

Although Tulum gets praised for its parties and nightlife the culture is what keeps bringing me back. There’s something about Tulum that makes you want to recharge and meditate your way through your vacation. My favorite part about Tulum is the many luxury hotels made of wood, vines, and jungle-like structures designed to relate to the curvature of the earth. It’s truly amazing and each property is a sight to see. My personal favorites are Azulik and Nomade. Although expensive to stay, you can go to both of these properties for lunch or dinner or even just to walk through and explore!

The shopping in Tulum is like no other. Tulum fashion is similar to how they construct their hotels, on par with the earth. Natural colors, crochet, and linen pieces make up most of the styles. When shopping the streets of Tulum, one-of-a-kind handmade pieces can be found at the boutiques. I have gotten some of my favorite pieces, including a linen top with beautifully embroidered stars and an amazing handmade hat, at these shops. Lastly, everything you eat in Tulum is amazing. From a $2 street taco or quesadillas to a fancy meal at Rosa Negra, you won’t be disappointed.

Tulum is all-around great vibes and a must-visit in everyone’s lifetime!

SOJOURNER WHITE (@thesojournies) — AMTRAK 52-HOUR ZEPHYR

I would say my favorite travel experience of 2021 was definitely taking Amtrak’s 52-Hour California Zephyr from Chicago to California. I took it solo. It was an impulse buy that may have had a little wine involved. That was definitely the highlight of my summer. It was very unexpected. I never thought I would be taking that long of a train ride, but it was super scenic and beautiful. I really enjoyed myself, so it was definitely my highlight of the year.

MIKE SCHIBEL (@travelwithmeaning) — LOS CABOS, MEXICO

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My favorite travel moment of 2021 was my trip to Los Cabos, Mexico. This was my first plane trip in 18 months and first time to Los Cabos in 25 years. I forgot how easy Los Cabos was to get to from LA, just 2 1/2 hours. Los Cabos has everything you need from incredible experiences, amazing accommodations for all price points, fantastic culinary options, and plenty of sunshine to relax.

I loved my time there and already have a trip booked for March to explore the Sea of Cortez as part of a bucket list trip to dive with Whale-sharks with the small boat adventure company UnCruise.

GABRIELLE PHARMS BARR (@gabbynikki) — DISCO RANCH

My favorite travel experience from this year has been rediscovering my love of Texas. The Lone Star State is full of natural wonders and delicious eats — one of the best places I know to visit or engage in a staycation.

This summer, I had the opportunity to hit the Disco Ranch in Wimberley (in the Texas Hill Country outside of Austin). I didn’t realize how much I missed dancing to the sounds of a DJ. It was spaced out and outside, which made it safe. Moreover, the view was incredible. The Texas Hill Country is underrated in the States, but it has some of the best wineries, scenic lookouts, and mind-blowing BBQ that rivals any place else.

I foresee this location becoming a destination point in 2022 because of its expansive landscape and offerings.

ESTHER SUSAG (@esthersusag) — A MONTH IN GREECE

One of my favorite travel experiences in 2021 was that I spent most of the month of July in Greece. Although I’ve been there before, it was so different this time because there weren’t as many tourists due to COVID. It was just such a unique experience to be able to see all of the iconic places without being surrounded by so many people.

It was so fun being able to be more with the locals rather than with tourists. It was a whole different experience in itself. I also had some pretty amazing hotel collaborations during this time that really made my whole experience just amazing. I think that always when I think of Greece I’ll think about my time this year.

ZACH JOHNSTON (@ztpwhiskey) — SOUTH DAKOTA ROAD TRIP

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I was lucky enough to get to travel around the U.S. a fair amount in 2021. Though traveling from Europe meant that I spent literally thousands of dollars on PCR tests for the privilege to do so. Never before has international travel felt more like a first-world privilege than in 2021, as people are simply priced out of getting to do so (even more so). Still, a simple road trip across South Dakota was the highlight of the year.

I’ve been to South Dakota several times before but this year it was just that little bit better. Hitting the Crazy Horse Memorial, Wounded Knee, the Needles Highway — the trip was like visiting old friends who I needed to see again to get my sea legs back under me.

The trip through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, still considered a prisoner of war camp by the U.S. government, was the real highlight. While sitting and reflecting at the Wounded Knee Massacre site, I struck up a conversation with an old auntie who’d spent the morning collecting chokecherries and wild sage down by Wounded Knee Creek — crucial to her daily meals since food is massively scarce on Pine Ridge. We reminisced like old pals about rez life, what the pandemic has been like in one of the world’s poorest communities, and where to find the best sage and berries by the creek. The whole interaction was simple and easy. But those are the moments that make travel what they are — simple interactions with someone you know in your bones who you’ve also never met before. It’s going home while also experiencing something wholly unique.

Right after that, I drove off the rez and into Badlands National Park. I sat by a huge window at the Cedar Pass Lodge and watched day-trippers ready to go into the park with their thousand-dollar bicycles and all the REI gear you could imagine and bags of expensive groceries while I ate an Indian Taco and sipped a root beer. Weirdly, I had crossed an imaginary line and entered a different world, one of excessive wealth — another sign that travel is less about setting foot somewhere “new” and should be more about taking the time to see how different life is on the respective side of our various made-up lines.

LAUREN YAKIWCHUK (@justinpluslauren) — UNITED KINGDOM

My favorite travel experience from 2021 was visiting London and Glasgow on my first trip outside of Canada since the beginning of the pandemic. I loved wandering around different neighborhoods, markets, and parks in London. In Glasgow, I discovered street art, dined at amazing restaurants, and went on a couple of interesting walking tours. While I have loved exploring more of my own backyard in the Toronto area this past couple of years, it felt so good to fly internationally to visit one of my favorite destinations, the UK.

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