Top 10 Experiences on the Road
It’s been a while since I’ve done a top ten, but as I was plotting future adventures last night, I realized how many fantastic experiences I’ve had and thought I’d share my pick of the litter with you. I’d love to hear your favorites as well, so don’t hesitate to post a comment!
#10 – Goonies Never Say Die
If you’re a product of the eighties, you’ll almost certainly have grown up with a selection of some of the finest kids films of all time. Movies such as Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Willow, The Dark Crystal, and The Goonies defined and sometimes terrified an entire generation of children. And while kids today are generally entertained by animations or forced to make do with dreadful tripe such as G-Force or another Olson Twins abortion – we eighties kids were blessed with some of the most enduring children’s films of all time. Everybody has their favorite, and for me it will always be The Goonies. It’s a little dark and has some foul language in it, but it’s every young boy’s dream. It’s got pirates and criminals, booby traps and ancient treasure, and there’s the hot-button topics of growing up, leaving home, and young love to make it accessible. It really did define my childhood.
So, when I realized that Astoria lay just a short drive from Portland, I harried my then girlfriend into arranging a road trip out to the place where the magic happened. Not being a fan herself, she was kind enough to agree to the trip and soon enough we were winding our way through the beautiful pine forests that surround the highway leading to Astoria. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the movie in which the Goonies ride to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s Good Enough as they began their adventure, so familiar was the terrain leading into the city.
Astoria itself is a gorgeously quaint town full of beautiful old buildings, and I’ve written about it at length in another entry. My heart began to pound as we pulled up to a nondescript drive in front of which stood a hand-written sign reading ‘Goonies Welcome’. We passed another pair of starstruck Goonies on our way up the drive, and soon I was standing right in front of the house where Chunk did the Truffle Shuffle and Mouth quipped about the broken penis of the miniature statue of David. While the residence is now a private residence and we weren’t allowed to enter the yard, it was still a thrill to snap photos in front of the house. Even now I find it hard to believe I’ve been there.
From there it was down into the town proper to find the County Jail from which the Fratellis escape. It’s no longer a jail (I think it might be a laundromat), but standing out the front of it and posing for a photo still put me in mind of the daring escape that opens the movie. We also swung by the local museum (where Brand and Mikey’s Dad works in the film) for a few snaps and had hoped to drive out to Haystack Rock, but time was against us. We made do with spending a wonderfully relaxing day in Seaside – complete with clam chowder, saltwater taffy, and dipping our toes in the icy waters of the Pacific in October. Hard to believe it’s the same ocean into which Aussies were doubtless wading enthusiastically at the same time.
I read about people getting excited to visit Forks or Hobbiton, but I don’t think I could ever top having been to the home of The Goonies. It was a great experience.
#9 – Wandering Fremont Street
Movies such as The Hangover and What Happens in Vegas might have meant that The Strip is Vegas’s most iconic feature, but I can’t look past the gaudy charms of Fremont Street when I think of Las Vegas. Where The Strip is a high class escort with diamond earrings and a cocktail dress, Fremont Street is a beat up old hooker with smeared makeup and runs in her stockings. But the charm of it is that it’s cheap, it’s fun, and it just feels that little bit less intimidating. You wander The Strip and you feel like maybe you don’t have enough money to be here. You wander Fremont Street and you feel like you’re a high-roller.
Beneath the dancing lights of the world’s largest big screen television, Fremont Street is part casino strip and part outdoor carnival. Over Halloween, when I visited in 2009, various free shows were set up around the place to entertain the masses. Whether it was a cover band rocking classic Halloween tunes or a wash out from America’s Got Talent working magic – there was always something to see in between the hourly musical displays that make the Fremont Street Experience a must see in Vegas. Various stalls along the arcade offer everything from $2 Caronas to portraits to souvenirs, and a quick duck in to any of the casinos along the way offer up a variety of fatty foods and alcohol heavy drinks. My personal favorites are the deep fried twinkies and the decadently alcohol Hurricanes, and if you don’t end the night having been leid at least once – you weren’t trying.
My three nights spent on Fremont Street were more fun than I’d had in a long time. Whether we were drinking on the balcony at The Fitz, mowing down greasy food at Mermaids, or posing with pretty girls out the front of La Bayou (home of the aforementioned Hurricanes) – we were always smiling. And while we did make a trip up The Strip to see The Lion King at Mandalay Bay, the vast majority of our time was spent exploring Fremont Street or lounging by the pool (complete with a water-slide through a shark tank) at The Golden Nugget. Good times, good times.
#8 – A Private Kava Ceremony on Kuata
Kuata might have been the least glamorous of my stops when I spent two weeks in Fiji early in 2011, but in many ways it was the closest I came to actually being in Fiji. While many thousands of people visit Fiji every year, most don’t ever venture far from their resort or backpackers. Many come for the all night partying, scuba diving, and adventure activities – but very few take the time to actually meet Fijians and experience their culture outside of the confines of the tourist friendly dances and songs they are treated to upon arriving or leaving a resort.
I won’t say that I experienced true Fiji. My friends Charlotte and Patricia, both of whom volunteered during their time in Fiji, experienced more in a single day than I experienced in my two weeks there. Hopefully someday Patricia will get around to writing up her experience for you to read here.
But one drunken night on Kuata, my friend Grant and I stumbled into the usually empty dining hall to find the Fijian dancers and staff all gathered for a more solemn kava ceremony. Kava, a slightly narcotic root and the national drink of Fiji, is something most visitors will have tried within a few days of arriving. The muddy tasting water temporarily numbs your lips and drinking it from the coconut carved bowls is a traditional welcoming ceremony you’ll find on most resorts. But where most of these ceremonies are purely for the benefit of paying guests, the one Grant and I stumbled in on was a much more real affair. Laughing and conversing in their native tongue, the staff still took the time to pass the bowl to us from time to time and include us in conversation. They cheered when I asked for a tsunami (the largest of the three bowls) and continually referred to me as chief after I’d played the role in the earlier ceremony. It was a far more intimate and enlightening experience than the three other ceremonies I’d taken part in, and the only one that really sticks in my mind a few months on.
Later on, drunk on kava and the bottle of Canadian Club I’d bought duty free after leaving New Zealand, I would stumble down to the beach and act as chaperon as a few of my female friends sampled a bit of the local flavor under the moonlight. Freshly single at the time myself, I won’t lie and say it didn’t make me a tad sad to be alone and staring up at the sky while others romanced, but later that night as I fell asleep in a hammock to the gentle beat of the ocean – I couldn’t help but think that I was lucky. Broken heart or no, I was in a tropical paradise without a real care in the world. Eventually the sadness of losing my best friend would fade – but I’d never forget my time on Kuata.
#7 – The Grand Canyon
In late 2009, my ex-girlfriend and I visited Phoenix to catch up with some of her friends in preparation for her imminent move to Australia with me. With her friends working during the day and us so close to one of the United States’ most famous landmarks, we couldn’t very well pass up the opportunity to rent a car and drive up to the Grand Canyon. Leaving early in the morning, I remember how fascinating it was to watch the Old West desert scenery give way to the pines and cool air that define the area immediately surrounding beautiful Flagstaff. A half hour nap saw me transported from the OK Corral to a far more hospitable kind of terrain.
I still remember arriving at the Grand Canyon and trying to catch a peak of it as we walked across the parking lot and through the small area of scrub that borders the vast chasm. Having only ever seen it in photos or on television, I didn’t know quite what to expect until it came into full view. Nothing really prepares you for the enormity of it and the strangest thing is that, despite all of its natural beauty and its tremendous size, before too long you are numbed to that first feeling of wonder. We spent a good two hours snapping photos and exploring the lip of the canyon before the increasing chill in the air forced us to beat a hasty retreat back to Flagstaff.
We’d come with grand ambitions to wake before dawn and be at the canyon to catch the sunrise, but the warmth of our bed proved all too tempting. Will I ever go back to the Grand Canyon? I don’t think so. Am I glad I went? Most definitely. It really does need to be seen to be believed.
#6 – The Mud Festival
I’ve well and truly waxed lyrical about Korea’s most famous festival on several other occasions, so I won’t go into detail again here. Go read my entries, particularly the one about my first visit to the festival, and you’ll see why it was such a memorable experience for me. And it wasn’t just because I got to fool around with a cute cheerleader.
#5 – Milford Sound
Rudyard Kipling described it as the eighth wonder of the world, and it’s easy to see why he drew that conclusion as you take in the majesty of Milford Sound. Impossibly steep cliffs rise out of the icy blue water and innumerable waterfalls cascade down their grey faces in a wonderful advertisement for New Zealand’s immense natural beauty. As our boat cut through the water, it seemed there was no relief from that constant feeling of awe and wonder. Where the Grand Canyon seemed to lose some of its luster as time went by, I think I could spend the rest of my life in Milford Sound and never lose my appreciation for just how stunning it is.
Seals basked playfully on the imaginatively named ‘Seal Rock’ as our boat made its return journey, and my good friend Alice’s own visit earlier this year saw her boat greeted by playful dolphins. All around you, as if God was showing off, is evidence of what a remarkable world we live in. Hardy trees maintain a tenuous grasp on the sheer cliff faces while the angry Pacific surges through the headlands and sends massive waves crashing up over the bow of our boat – soaking those of us foolish enough to be out on deck attempting to snap photos of the waves surging toward us. It really does fill you with an appreciation for the way beauty and danger can be so intrinsically linked.
Even the drive to and from Milford Sound is memorable. You wind through the Lord of the Rings like scenery that surrounds Queenstown and into a land of snow capped mountains and lakes that reflect the brilliant blue of the sky as if they were mirrors. Stopping at Monkey Creek, you can cup your hands into the icy waters and drink them without fear of being ill – a rare thing in our increasingly urbanized world. There’s a lot to love about New Zealand, and it features twice more in this count down, but Milford Sound really can’t be missed.
#4 – Zorbing & Black Water Rafting
Where Milford Sound (above) was an exercise in the more serene side of New Zealand, two days following Christmas 2010 exposed me to New Zealand’s more famous side – that of a country full of adventure and adrenaline sports. Boxing Day dawned bright and sunny for our Zorbing experience. I’ve given it more detail in my entry about spending Christmas in Rotorua, but I’ll give it some time here as well. Imagine stepping into a giant hamster ball into which a small amount of warm water has been injected, and then being rolled down a hill at high speed. It is just about the most fun I’ve had in my life with my clothes on. Tumbling and sliding inside the Zorb as it bounces through a series of switchbacks is really indescrible, and you can see why the New Zealand born hobby is fast spreading to other places around the world.
You get three descents for $99 and there are three ways to do your descent: Solo wet, solo dry, and paired wet. Being a huskier lad than I’d like, I was just over the weight limit for the end over end tumble that is the dry descent – but Fallon described it as like being inside a dryer. Not for the faint of heart.
As for Black Water Rafting, which also earned an entry of its own, it was something else entirely. I agreed to do it on the advice of my good friend Brendan and spent most of my trip dreading it. I’m a tad claustrophobic, and the idea of navigating pitch black caves with a fat inner tube around me sounded like a recipe for years worth of nightmares. I was also close to petrified about hurling myself backwards from a three meter high waterfall and into the dark waters below. But doing all of that and surviving it was not only an absolute blast, but it also reminds you of just what you are capable of. My heart might have raced as we floated on our backs beneath a low roof that allowed us mere inches between roof and water, but I emerged out the other side and was rewarded with the stunning ‘starlight’ of hundreds of glow-worms on the roof as we drifted lazily towards the exit from Waitomo’s famous ‘Black Labyrinth’.
In two days I think my heart beat faster and I laughed harder than I ever have in my life. That’s an experience worth any amount of money and any short term terror.
#3 – The DMZ Tour
From a fun kind of terror to the opposite kind.
“If you look four windows in on the third story, you’ll be able to see a North Korean sniper tracking our movement. Don’t point at him or wave.”
The USO officer leading us through Korea’s infamous DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) says it so nonchalantly that it’s almost easy to forget that you’re walking in the most heavily militarized border in the world. And he’s not lying – my eyes quickly spot the slightly cracked blind and the black of a barrel pointed squarely at us. It’s a terrifying feeling to realize it would take just the slightest squeeze of a man’s finger to end my life and probably start World War III.
While the majority of the USO DMZ Tour (the only one worth doing, and don’t listen to anybody who tells you otherwise) is mostly talks about the area and less interesting fare – the twenty minutes spent on the actual border is worth the early start and the price of admission. As you stand in the meeting rooms that span the border, allowing you to stand simultaneously in North and South Korea, you realize just how serious this whole thing is. Locals and foreigners alike tend to joke about the North Korea situation or play it down – after all, it’s never quite as bad as the international media like to paint it – but standing there in front of an unmoving South Korean guard who your guide informs you “Is under orders to put anybody, even me, down who approaches too close” is a sobering experience.
#2 – Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
The wind whips through your hair as one of the world’s most beautiful cities sprawls out beneath you like a glittering tapestry. The harbour below is dotted with lights that you know are boats, but might as well be glowing insects going about their insect business. Behind you, away from the iconic Opera House, the grinning face of Luna Park is backed by thousands upon thousands of glittering lights that garishly light Sydney’s only remaining theme park. The Opera House, directly ahead as you stare out over the beautiful vista before you, is an island of light in front of the now darkened Sydney Botanical Gardens.
“Smile,” our guide cheerfully requests. I throw my arms around Fallon and Adam and grin for the camera.
The Harbour Bridge Climb might not be cheap, but it really is a must see when you’re in Sydney. Whether you do it by day or by night, seeing Sydney from such a unique perspective is well worth it. I’ve written more on it in an entry about my own climb last October, so go read that and then book your own climb.
#1 – Climbing Franz Josef Glacier
It was really hard to select just one experience as my all time favorite, and it’s ironic that the one I ended up selecting is one I had absolutely zero interest in doing. Like many things in 2010, I owe Fallon for dragging me kicking and screaming (not literally) from the warmth of my hostel bed and out into the harsh light of a stinking hot Franz Josef day. Like many of my New Zealand experiences, it’s detailed further in an entry of its own, but a word on just how surreal the entire experience is…
I was perched on my jacket with a muffin in hand and a bottle of frustratingly warm Coke in the other. Beneath me is an ancient and massive glacier that has been slowly retreating into the mountains for the last one hundred years after forcing its way out of the mountains and into a subtropical rainforest. It’s a phenomenon that only occurs in one other place in the world – and I think it will be a while before I find myself in Chile. Be sure to read my entry on the experience for a more detailed idea of what it was like and how much it set me back.
There’s a photo of me drifting around the internet with a look of delirious happiness on my face, I’ve tracked it down and posted it above. It was taken seconds after I first stepped from the rocky moraine and onto the ice. It’s something else entirely to feel something so large and powerful and ancient beneath your feet, and know that it’s moving even if you can’t feel it yourself. Touching your hands to the blue ice and feeling the way the hot sun and the icy air do battle is just an experience that needs to be had. Loved every second of it.
What About You?
So, there you have it – ten unforgettable and fantastic experiences. As I said, I would love to hear yours!