It was damn near impossible to choose my top 10 exhilarating YOLO travel experiences. I had to leave off quite a few gems, and from this idea spawned post ideas about the craziest things I’ve done while travelling, the worst things that have happened to me, my favourite cities/islands/hotels/beaches…and many more.
Since initially writing this, I’ve been tempted to add new experiences (like snorkeling with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico), but I’ve decided to keep it at this and start collecting experiences for a new post.
So here are 10 of the best of the best…
1. Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The magnificent purple, pink and orange hues of the sun rising over awe-inspiring Angkor Wat in Cambodia are enough to take your breath away. Continue to be blown away as your day progresses by each temple in the 400+ acre area of the Angkor Temples complex – the largest religious monument in the world. It’s impossible to envision the blood, sweat, and tears that went into building these astonishing temples nearly 1000 years ago.
The Angkor temples are a bucket list destination for any traveller. Tourism is booming in Siem Reap, where luxury resorts and fine restaurants have overtaken the simple b&bs and hole-in-the-wall pizza joints with magic mushrooms that were present when I was there in 2002.
After sunrise at Angkor Wat, I discovered The Bayon – my favourite and the most intricate of the temples I saw. Ta Prohm was another stunner and even at the tender age of 21, I really, really appreciated where I was at that very moment. The vastly different details of each temple and the religious significance were not lost on me. So when I opened up my new Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel 1st Ed.: The 500 Best Experiences on the Planet – Ranked book the other day, I wasn’t surprised to the see the Angkor Temples in Cambodia to be listed as #1.
2. Skydiving over Lake Taupo, New Zealand
Let’s be honest – skydiving is highly exhilarating no matter where you do it. Mine featured a 45-second free fall from 12,000 feet over Lake Taupo, on the North Island of New Zealand. It was a tandem jump, and the fact that I was strapped to a strapping Maori lad made the experience that much more… New Zealand-ish.
Up we went in the tiny plane, my bestie and I buzzing with adrenalin. I was pretty fearless at the time, but even skydiving gets the best of us. There wasn’t much time to ponder my nervousness though, and at 12,000 feet they popped open the flap and all of a sudden Maori lad and I were sitting on the edge of the plane, legs dangling into the abyss. “Three, two, one!” he shouted and BAM, out we went.
My stomach did one HUGE flip and then…WIND. All I could feel was wind, and the insanely awesome, incomprehensible feeling of free-falling through the sky! I had never felt anything of the sort and my brain wasn’t quite capable of sending anything out of my mouth other than a scream. I didn’t believe much in natural highs, but I did after that. Would I do it again? Under the right circumstances, abso-freakin’-lutely.
3. Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
My third YOLO travel highlight starts with getting PADI certified in Thailand in 2002, knowing I’d soon visit Australia and dive the Great Barrier Reef. Learning to dive was scarier than I thought it would be. HONEST DISCLAIMER: I actually enjoyed diving Julian Rocks Marine Reserve off the coast of Byron Bay, Australia, south of the reef (think big creatures: leopard sharks, wobbiegong sharks, rays, turtles and huge fish) and the night dive I did on the reef more than the daytime dives I did on the reef. But “diving Julian Rocks” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
But the reef… I mean, just getting there from Cairns made me feel like I was going to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The water at the dive sites was fairly shallow, SO clear, turquoise and warm. That and the brightly coloured sponges, coral, and fish under the surface were the epitome of the word tropical.
Our night dive in the Whitsunday Islands on the Reef was very cool – different creatures to see and an eery, yet calm feel in the dark with a head torch. When we surfaced, we experienced phosphorescence – planktonic forms emitting bright light like stars in the ocean (remember like in the movie The Beach?). Magical. Diving is like being in another world, and that combined with the fact I had always dreamed of seeing the Great Barrier Reef, was the definition of surreal.
4. Sailing the Galapagos Islands + abundant wildlife encounters – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands are probably the most memorable place I’ve ever travelled. Exploring this cluster of 13 larger and 7 smaller islands nearly 1000 kilometres West of Ecuador in 2010 was a YOLO travel experience at its finest. We spent three nights on Santa Cruz island before setting sail for five nights with G Adventures on a 16-passenger boat, which I would recommend for an affordable yet comfortable option. When we saw iguanas, sea lions, pelicans and crabs all hanging out by our hotel pool in our first few hours (including a bold sea lion that popped out of the ocean for a quick swim in said pool), we knew this place was going to be a wildlife lover’s dream.
We visited six different islands (I could write multiple blogs) and amazingly, each island is quite different. The topography, vegetation, and even the wildlife changes between the islands. When I say abundant wildlife, I’m talking heaps of iguanas, beaches full of sea lions, and blue-footed booby colonies a plenty – none of them the least bit bothered by the presence of humans.
Olive sand beaches, turquoise waters, pink flamingoes, blue-footed boobies, red-throated frigate birds, black and white suit-clad Galapagos penguins, green sea turtles, smooth gray manta rays, shiny silver bait balls, huge brown waved albatrosses, and various colours, shapes and sizes of iguanas filled our days as we sailed, hiked, and snorkelled our way through the islands. But don’t go if you hate sea lions – they are everywhere.
5. Helicopter over and into the Grand Canyon, U.S.A
Head out on an excursion from Las Vegas to get away from the madness of “the strip” and take in the breathtaking views of the magnificent Grand Canyon from a helicopter.
We went with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters and after asking really nicely, got the front two seats of the helicopter beside the pilot who was apparently also a comedian. Nervous flyers may have been put off by his jokes that it was his first time flying people into the Canyon. Being in a helicopter is very exciting to start with, and the lead up to the Canyon was flying over the impressive Hoover Dam. As we approached the Canyon, it was as breathtaking as you would imagine. No wonder more than five million people visit it each year.
The orange, pink, sand, and brown shades of the canyon were in mesmerizing patterns, while a perfect river wound its way through the bottom. The sheer size of it alone is enough to make your jaw drop. Our helicopter landed and now we were INSIDE THE GRAND CANYON! It was hot, desert-y, and utterly gorgeous. I hardly wanted to eat lunch and drink my champagne for fear of not having enough time to marvel in its beauty.
We only scratched the surface of the Grand Canyon. If you really want to explore the area, consider a Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks week-long road trip.
6. Snowboarding the best of the Rocky Mountains, Canada
This YOLO travel highlight starts with a dirty secret: I’ve never snowboarded at Whistler. You may be thinking, “you’re Canadian and you’ve never skied the “best” ski resort in Canada?” Although it’s something I’m not proud of (but have been there in the off season), I’ll make it there one day. Instead I’ve filled my nearly 20 year snowboarding career riding many other legendary Canadian mountains.
The feeling of snowboarding through deep, Canadian champagne powder with fast tunes on the ear buds can hardly be beat. From the mountains around Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise in Alberta, into Golden, Revelstoke, Fernie, Panorama and the Okanagan valley of B.C., I’ve had many, many epic days on the slopes.
My heart belongs to Big White Ski Resort though, my home mountain, less than an hour from my doorstep. It’s one of Canada’s (and I’ll be bold enough to say, the world’s) best ski resorts for families. I frequent Big White most weekends in the winter to ride the deep powder, teach our kids to ski, and surround myself with Aussies. My five-year-old Cohen is nearly faster than me, and my three-year-old Vayla is now confidently riding the chairlifts and turning down gentle green runs. If you are a skier or snowboarder, add the ski resorts of Alberta or B.C., Canada to your list.
7. ATVing the island of Santorini, Greece
Back in 2007 when there was no way in hell we were paying to rent a car, an ATV rental was an affordable way to explore Santorini. We took it to every corner of this stunning, picturesque, and diverse island.
Santorini is a “must-see” destination on any Greek Island hopping itinerary. The clifftop views, whitewashed villages perched on said cliffs, sunsets from Oia, and diverse beaches are nothing short of spectacular. Our little ATV chugged its way up to some of the most scenic viewpoints I’ve ever seen, overlooking the caldera, blue and white classic Greek churches, and down into Red Sand Beach and Black Sand Beach. We explored tucked away wineries, delicious restaurants with octopuses hanging out front, and bars with Ouzo shots a-plenty.
You don’t want to lay on your ass on the beach for a week in this place guys. There are multiple breathtaking spots around the island, waiting to be discovered. Rent an ATV, find your view-point, and savour it.
8. Road tripping and wine tasting my way through Tuscany, Italy
The word Tuscany evokes visions of peaceful rolling hills, cypress trees, and olive groves. Nick and I had the pleasure of road tripping with his sister Ashley and her husband Dale for this one. Checking out medieval hill towns and drinking full-bodied reds were the primary goals, but it became much more than that (especially since it was truffle season, but don’t even get me started…)
We visited Orvieto, Montepulciano (where we stayed), Montalcino, Siena, Chianti, and Montefioralle. We hit up six wineries, with the highlight being the Tuscan super reds, especially the infamous “Brunello di Montalcino” reds. On a wicked stroke of luck, we COINCIDENTALLY drove past Casanova di Neri winery, which has one of the best red wines I had ever tasted in my life a few years back (their 2008 Brunello di Montalcino). We couldn’t believe it. Rounding out the second and third spots would be Avignonesi and Castello di Verrazano for wine, scenery, and overall experience.
Orvieto and Montepulciano were highlights for us, especially Montepulciano – simply a cool town to hang out in. Try to get a spot on the terrace of Antico Caffe Poliziano for breakfast; you won’t be disappointed. The best part? These towns lacked the hordes of tourists you’ll encounter in Rome, Florence, Venice and other hyper-touristy spots. If you’re brave enough to drive in Italy (it wasn’t bad, and hubs did a fabulous job) and love wine and beautiful scenery, I’d highly recommend a road trip through Tuscany. Besides, everything is better with a wine buzz.
9. Experiencing the cultural and culinary delights of Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo downright amazed me. How can one of the world’s biggest cities be so clean, efficient AND have no homeless people (well, that we saw)? Japan is doing something right. It was easy there – most locals spoke English and the to-the-second subway took us to see the highlights of this massive, diverse city with people everywhere and some of the world’s best food.
From the happening izakayas of Golden Gai (best sake I’ve ever had) and Harajuku people-watching, to the commanding temples, manicured Japanese gardens, and phenomenal food tours, exploring Tokyo did NOT disappoint. On the first day we rose at 6 a.m. and finally crashed at 1 a.m. the next morning. We were on a see things, eat things, drink things high. But travellers who like calm, beware! Some areas have swarms of people. Shinjuku Station on a Saturday night was like nothing I’ve ever seen and Shibuya Crossing (the busiest intersection in the world) is almost laughable.
To say the people of Japan are friendly and genuine is an understatement. Most would give you the shirt off their back, and they’re never too forward. I never once felt unsafe. Want more on Tokyo? Check out this article from The Bamboo Traveler on the Perfect 4 days in Tokyo.
10. Your first adventure trip with your kids, ANYWHERE!
My last exhilarating YOLO travel experience is our 2017 trip to Panama, when our kids were only two and four. We had taken Cohen to Maui, and both of them to the U.S. and all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, but this was different. If the thought of travelling with kids brings questions like, “What if they’re miserable on the eight different flights? What if they don’t eat any of the food? What if they don’t want to do the things we want to do?” you’re not alone. We asked ourselves the same questions, but were willing to take the risk because we craved the adventure travel we did before kids.
And you know what? It went better than I thought it would. Our kids rarely complained. The trick is staying positive and finding fun things to do no matter where you are. You can’t go at the same pace you did pre-kids, but your kids might surprise you with the courage of an adventurous spirit (like their parents, right)? We had our four-year-old snorkelling with jellyfish, rays, and sea urchins, and our two-year-old kayaking and hiking in search of red frogs.
Let them sleep with you if they want to. Bring some healthy protein bars and dry snacks for the inevitable times they’ll eat NOTHING on the menu (and there’s always fruit)! Who cares if they watch movies the whole flight and you bribe them with the odd glass bottle of Orange Crush? What they’ll be exposed to in new countries is SO worth it. See my full post called Bocas del Toro, Panama with Kids for all the details!
These are my top 10 YOLO travel experiences and one day I’ll write about my top 10 favourite countries (when I’ve been to more). Until then, check out this post on the Most Amazing Countries by Category from 197travelstamps.com, who is well on his way to visiting every country in the world.