1) 2018 Winter Olympics, Pyeongchang, S. Korea
2) The Korean DMZ
3) Sentosa Island, Singapore
4) Maho Beach, St Maarten
5) Super Tree Grove, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
6) Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, Nagano, Japan
7) Sydney Harbor, Australia
8) Top of the Rock, NYC
9) Chureito Pagoda, Mt Fuji, Japan
10) Colón, Panama (Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal)
2018 was a very busy travel year for me. While in 2017 I spent a lot of time in Europe, in 2018 I went west several times, and visited some places in Asia I never thought were possible. Here are the top ten coolest places I visited in 2018:
- 2018 Winter Olympics, Pyeongchang, S. Korea
This was my first Olympics, and hopefully will be the first of many. We had planned our trip to Japan and Korea specifically to be there during the Olympics in February, and although we only got to actually attend one event, the Women’s Alpine Combined skiing event, it was an amazing few days around the Olympic venues.
- The Korean Demilitarized Zone (North/South Korea Border)
As part of our Japan and Korea trip, we couldn’t miss a chance to go to the Korean border. This is something I have wanted to do for a very long time, and we almost missed it! The only way to visit the DMZ is on an authorized tour, and when we waited too long to book the one we wanted, it was all full. After a little bit of panicking, the tour operator was able to open up 3 additional seats for us the night before the tour, and we were set.
We visited several places on the tour including Dorasan Station, Freedom Bridge and the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, which were all very cool, but by far the most tense and surreal stop was at the JSA (Joint Security Area), where the famous blue buildings are located and the negotiations between the two Koreas took place.
As it turns out, we were at the border just 2 months before the historic meeting between the North and South Korean leaders in April of this year, and as of October 2018 all landmines, weapons, guard posts, and personnel have been removed from the JSA. It will now only be a tourist attraction.
- Sentosa Island, Singapore (November 2018)
Number 3 on my list of coolest places has a relation to number 2 on the list. Just a short bus ride from the major attractions and hotels in Singapore, Sentosa Island is a peaceful getaway with a very colorful history. During World War II, the island was occupied by the Japanese and became a prisoner of war camp. More recently, and related to number 2, just steps from Palawan Beach, President Trump and Kim Jong-un met at the Capella Hotel in June 2018 for the North Korea – United States summit.
- Maho Beach, St. Maarten (December 2018)
We visited this little beach on a small Caribbean island in December, just before Christmas, on a Royal Caribbean cruise. On our stop in Philipsburg we booked a tour that took us all the way around the island. We stopped a few times along the way, but by far the best stop was at Maho Beach.
Chances are pretty good that you have seen pictures of planes landing at the airport next to this beach. The best sights are the bigger planes, because since the runway is fairly short, they have to approach at a much lower altitude. Unfortunately we only had about 40 minutes for our tour stop, so missed the Air France A340 that was scheduled to land at 2:50pm, but it was still fun watching a few smaller planes land, including this American Airlines 737.
- Super Tree Grove, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
In November, myself and a friend flew the world’s longest flight from Newark to Singapore. Part of the reason was the novelty of the flight, and part of the reason was to see Singapore for the first time…and it did not disappoint! Although many of the iconic landmarks in Singapore are over-Instagrammed and over-Facebooked, it is still a surreal feeling to be there, and should be experienced by everybody. The Super Tree Grove was amazing to see in person, and being up on the platform between the trees at night during the lightshow was a highlight of the trip. I can’t recommend Singapore enough. If it is one of your travel dreams, do yourself a favor and make it happen!
- Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, Nagano, Japan
On our trip in February to the Olympics, we spent a week in Japan before heading over to South Korea. We bought the 5 day JR Pass, which allowed us to take the trains, including the high speed Shinkansen, all over Japan for 5 days. We made good use of it as we traveled around Japan. My friend Ana planned a day for us to go to the Snow Monkey Park outside of Nagano, and it ended up being an amazing experience. We took the Shinkansen to Nagano Station, and then hopped a tour bus that took us to the entrance to the park. It was very cold and snowy, and the hike to the park was long, but once you arrive to the area where the monkeys live, it all becomes worth it. It is believed that the monkeys in Jigokudani are the only monkeys in the world to bathe in hot springs, and that they learned it from watching humans.
- Sydney Harbor, Australia
In April I used 70,000 Alaska Mileageplan miles to fly in Qantas First Class from Dallas to Sydney. That, in and of itself, was an amazing experience, but being in Sydney again after 3 years was a dream come true. I had first been there in 2015, and I didn’t think I’d ever get back. The Sydney Harbor area is one of my favorite places in the world. You can walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge, or climb to the top, you can take a cruise around the harbor for a cool view of the Sydney Opera House, or you can just sit and eat lunch and watch people from all over the world. Australia is an amazing country (and is cheaper than ever to visit), and Sydney is an amazing city!
- Top of the Rock, New York City, New York
Although I grew up in upstate New York, and have visited New York City many many times, I had actually never been to the top of 30 Rock until I visited NY with my friend Monica in November, before we left for Singapore. I’m a sucker for great architecture and a view, and the view from the Top of the Rock was just mesmerizing. Looking south toward the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Lower Manhattan was just breathtaking, and even though this wasn’t a crazy half-way-around-the-world adventure, I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait to go back!
- Chureito Pagoda, Mt. Fuji, Japan
Chureito Pagoda is the location of the iconic pictures of Japan that you see all over Instagram. It’s widely considered one of the best views of Mt. Fuji, especially in the spring during cherry blossom season. This was another stop (also Ana’s idea) on our awesome Japan trip, and even though it was in the winter before the cherry blossoms were out, it was an amazing experience! We took the train from Tokyo to the Shimo-Yoshida Station, and walked from there up to the shrine and the pagoda. The actual pagoda is a 5 story peace memorial built in 1963 on a mountainside overlooking Fujiyoshida City and Mt. Fuji, and since it’s on a mountainside we climbed up a long stairway to get to the pagoda. Once at the top, the views are exactly as advertised! The day we were there, there were very few other people, which made the experience even more special.
- Colón, Panama (Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal)
On one of my work trips to Costa Rica, I decided to go with a friend for the weekend to Panama, with a Panama Canal visit at the top of the list of things to do. Rather than go to the much more touristy Miraflores Locks near Panama City, we decided to drive about an hour north to the other end of the canal. What a cool experience! We took a car ferry from the east side of the canal to the west side, just a ship was exiting the canal, and then we drove back across at Gatun Locks, which is the only place along the canal where you are actually allowed to drive your car across one of the locks. As we drove across there was a ship in the lock, which was a very cool sight. If you are interested in visiting the Panama Canal, this is the way to go!
Those are the 10 coolest places I visited in 2018! Some of these places, it’s still hard for me to believe I experienced, but affordable travel, mostly due to collecting miles and points, made it all possible. Hopefully, 2019 will hold some new and great adventures!