2018 in Review: A Year of Stories, Photos & More
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Another year, come and gone. It seems like just yesterday I was setting out my 2018 yearly mantra, and planning to balance travel with my full-time job. Now, I’m back to freelancing, have worked on some amazing projects (more to come on those in 2019), and back to blogging in a big way.
For the first time, I’ve lumped together my year-end posts into a single one. Instead of having one post of pictures from the year and another with the top meals I enjoyed, there’s just one. I also organized it by month, so you could get a sense of all I’ve done this year. This post runs a whopping 4,000 words, so feel free to use the table of contents to skip around.
On this – the last day of 2018 – let’s look back over my interesting and unexpected year of travel, including the stories, photos, and delicious flavors that came with it.
January: New Year’s, California Redwoods & a Lunar Eclipse
Mr. V and I started the year with our annual tradition of going for a walk along the beach. As 2018 was the first year we celebrated New Years in San Francisco, we went to Ocean Beach on the Pacific coast. We walked along the beach and sat in the sand dunes to watch the sunset. (I also wore my Instagram for the first time since getting it for Christmas in 2017!)
My first trip of 2018 was north to Humboldt Redwoods State Park to work on a story about California’s Redwood Coast for Lonely Planet. You can read my story for them here, or read the long-form narrative I wrote in a writing class about “The Ghosts of the Redwood Coast,” albino redwoods (like the one pictured above), which was published in Hidden Compass later in 2018.
January ended with a first-time local experience: the lunar eclipse on January 31st. I woke early to see if the eclipse was worth photographing… and as soon as I poked my head outside in the chilly January night air, I knew it was worth bundling up! The above photo is my best by far, and I’m excited to try and photograph the next lunar eclipse on January 20, 2019.
February: Universal Studios Orlando & Volcano Bay
I only took one trip in February, to Universal Studios in Orlando with some family and family friends. We spent three days exploring the two Universal Studios parks (primarily The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, let’s be honest), and also visited the brand new water park, Volcano Bay.
I’m not normally a waterpark kind of person, but this was a great day – we had a private villa and the rapid river was loads of fun. I even considered going on the Volcano drop-slide but chickened out at the last minute (literally, I had to get back out of the tube!).
Top Non-Alcoholic Drink: Fishy Green Ale & Butterbeer at Universal Orlando
Some of the best drinks of the year (including all the delicious alcoholic ones I mention below) are the ultra-sugary and a little bit weird drinks at the Wizarding World. I tried Fishy Green Ale for the first time (above left, obviously) which was minty and weird. I also had butterbeer at least once per day, to make up for months of withdrawal since I visited Universal Hollywood for my 30th birthday!
April: Joshua Tree & El Salvador by way of Berkeley
I made only one trip in April, to Joshua Tree with my blogger friend Marissa from Postcards to Seattle. We spent the weekend shooting photos of the unusual trees and high altitude desert at Joshua Tree National Park, including the Cholla cactus below, and the night sky in the park:
On this trip, Marissa also told me she was pregnant with her first child! Marissa and her husband welcomed their new baby late in 2018. Like a good auntie, I’m already planning fun travel toys for the little guy!
Top Meal #1: Pupusas at Platano in Berkeley
Food and travel go hand in hand, and one of the powerful parts of food is its ability to transport us even without traveling. In February, I went for a team lunch in Berkeley at Platano, a Salvadoran restaurant. Delicious salad, pupusas, plantains, and a wildly delicious cup of atole de elote helped ensure this close-to-home meal would still make my list of top travel eats this year.
May: Carmel-by-the-Sea & Minnesota
In May, Mr. V and I took a trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea (note: like Joshua Tree, I haven’t shared stories from this trip, but look for both of those posts to go live in February!). We spent the weekend exploring the beach, window shopping at the art galleries, and wine tasting. Mr. V and I also took in a bit of the outdoors at some of the state parks in the area. We had great weather, which is always good luck on the Pacific Coast.
Top Meal #2: Cultura Comida y Bebida in Carmel
Our first night in Carmel, we had one of the best fancy-ish meals of the year at Cultura Comida y Bebida. Their menu features traditional Oaxacan dishes from Mexico, including tons of dishes and flavors I had never tried before. In particular, we had an astounding flaming queso fundido with mezcal and I tried a few chipulines (toasted grasshoppers).
Top Winery: Blair Wines in Carmel
Since moving to California, I’ve tried wine at several wineries… but Blair Wines in Carmel was my absolute favorite. Not only is their tasting room beautiful and comfortable, but head winemaker Jeffery Blair is full of amazing stories about his personal history and connection to the land where his vines grow and the memorabilia throughout the tasting room. We came home with two bottles of wine and still rave about the experience (and will hopefully become regulars every time we take a trip!).
May ended with a trip to northern Minnesota to see my family. My brother (the middle of us three) graduated high school and Mr. V and I spent the weekend celebrating with family – including extended family I had never met before. It was our first trip to Minnesota in the summer after our trip in Winter 2016 (one word: brrrr!) and beautiful to see the small bay my parents live on during warm weather months.
July: Tahoe & Sedona
In July, I left my full-time role at Go Overseas to step back into a part-time/remote role… and started traveling like crazy! I started with a trip to Tahoe for a friend of Mr. V’s 30th birthday. We stayed in an old Sunset house and spent the day boating on and swimming in Lake Tahoe. I can see why Bay Area folks love escaping there in the summer!
I also took a trip to Sedona, Arizona with three girlfriends from college. Unfortunately, it was monsoon season during my trip so there were no starry skies to see (though I did put together a stargazing guide to Sedona anyway!). We spent our days hiking, visited a local watering hole, and bought some crystals that we charged at one of Sedona’s famous vortexes. It was also great to spend a few days with friends I haven’t seen much (beyond one friend’s wedding in 2016).
August: San Francisco, Kent, NOLA & London
In August, when I wasn’t traveling – we had guests visiting! It started with one of Mr. V’s best friends who spent a weekend here in the Bay Area. We spent a few days exploring the top sightseeing spots and sampling local flavors as well as heading further afield to Ocean Beach and Point Lobos on the Pacific coast.
The next weekend, Mr. V’s mom and her partner visited, so we were back out sightseeing a bit more in Oakland. It turns out having guests come to visit is a great excuse to get out and see your hometown through a traveler’s eyes!
Top Meal #3: Local Eats in Oakland & SF
When Mr. V’s friend was in town, we took him to some local favorites (a nearby Ethiopian place I adore) and new spots (Humphry Slocombe in the SF Ferry Building, an ice cream cookie place in downtown Oakland, and Boudin Bakery in Fisherman’s Wharf). Honestly, despite this list of delicious meals, I don’t get out to eat in town nearly enough!
Top Meal #4: Tiki Sips & Bites at Trader Vic’s
When Mr. V’s mom visited, we went to Trader Vic’s, a Bay Area institution that claims the Mai Tai as its original, signature drink. We had a dinner of light bites including poke and shrimp, plus some insanely good tropical cocktails.
In mid-August took a short jaunt to Kent, Washington for a press trip. The whole itinerary was foodie-focused (see below) so it was a great chance to enjoy some insanely good meals I wouldn’t have otherwise had this year. We also had a chance to see a bit of the surrounding area in Kent, including this sunset shot of Mt. Rainier from a local park.
Top Meal #5: Asadero Prime in Kent, WA
So many of my best meals this year were Mexican food, but I guess that makes sense since its one of my favorite cuisines – and you can get great Mexican food up and down the West Coast. Asadero Prime has two locations, one in Kent and another in Seattle. The menu is based on Sinaloan style dishes and flavors (obviously different than the Oaxacan at Cultura in Carmel) and I enjoyed bone marrow and wagyu carne asada. Cue a protein coma!
Top Meal #6: Refugee Food at Ubuntu Street Café in Kent, WA
Some meals are great because they are luxurious and fancy (like that three-dessert dinner at Watertable in Huntington Beach last year — still dreaming about it!). Others are special because they have some dish or flavor that really stands out. The lunch we had at Ubuntu Street Café in Kent was the latter. Refugees in the Puget Sound region can learn commercial cooking skills while working at Project Feast and prepare some of their own local dishes to serve at Ubuntu Street Café. Two of my favorites were a beet salad that reminded me of my Eastern European roots, and Syrian dolmas that make me so heartbroken that it’s still unsafe to travel there.
Top Spirit: Nocino at Sidetrack Distillery in Kent, WA
I never shy away from spirit tasting after some of the delicious distilleries I’ve visited over the years… and Sidetrack Distilling proves that point. After a farm tour where we tried fresh blackberries and peaches from the tree, owners Larry and Linda and their nephew David treated our travel writer team to a tasting of their small-batch brandies and cordials. The Nocino (walnut liqueur) took me straight back to the month Mr. V and I spent on the Croatian coast near Dubrovnik in 2016 and I brought a bottle home for him to enjoy.
After Kent, I booked a last minute (and a bit disastrous) trip to New Orleans to attend a #NASASocial at Michoud Assembly Facility. Here, 20+ travel photographers had the chance to go behind the scenes where NASA assembles its rockets. The scale and design of the massive machines needed to build spacecraft are beautiful!
After NOLA, I took one last trip in August to London for my 5-year MBA reunion. Mr. V and I spent about a week exploring London together. This included a trip to Brighton and a night of great fun with classmates from around the world.
Top Meal #7: British Classics at the Lady Ottoline in London
While London is known for its world-class global cuisine options, I have a soft spot for the British classics. Mr. V and I stopped into one of my old haunts, The Lady Ottoline, for a bite one day. They’ve had a bit of an upgrade since I went to school ’round the corner five years ago, especially on their menu. The Scotch Egg and fish and chips were delightfully good, especially with a pint of my cider (my old go-to).
September: Portland, Seattle, Barbados & Dominica
September was one of my busiest travel months of the year. I traveled 18 of the 30 days, including the end of my London trip. Right after we got back from across the pond, Mr. V and I set out for a friend’s wedding in the Portland area. In addition to celebrating with her and her new husband, we took a road trip down the Columbia River Gorge and around Mt. Hood. It was a gorgeous day too, which made it picture perfect!
Top Meal #8: Georgian Bites at Kargi Gogo in Portland
On my first trip to Portland in 2014, I ate at a Georgian food truck called Kargi Gogo. Little did I know that they would be so successful that they would open a brick-and-mortar restaurant a few years later. Mr. V and I made a lunch stop here for dumplings and khachapuri, a cheese bread. I’m glad to report it was just as tasty now as it was four years ago!
A few days after we got back from Portland, I jetted off to Seattle for a press event at the Space Needle to reveal the brand new glass floor and enclosure. From that trip, I wrote about the Space Needle’s status as a Seattle icon for Lonely Planet. More stunning pics in that story, if you’re curious why this remodeling is so spectacular.
Top Meal #9: Pacific Northwestern Flavors at Rider in Seattle
On my first night in Seattle, the representative for the Space Needle took us ‘out of town’ writers out for dinner. (I’m sad to say that’s what I am when it comes to Seattle now!) We had dinner downstairs of our accommodation, the Hotel Theodore, at a new restaurant called Rider. Every part of the meal was delicious, from the heirloom tomato salad to the ultra-popular crab toast.
A few days after Seattle, I set out again. This time, I jetted to Barbados for the Society for American Travel Writers annual convention. 2018 was my first full year as a member of SATW and I wanted to try investing in the annual convention. I arrived a day early to participate in the “photo shoot-out” where I worked with a private guide to see as much of the island and photograph it. My guide turned out to also a photographer, so he knew some great spots. As such, I have some pretty fantastic photos for such a short stay.
Top Meal #10: Bajan Dishes at Oistins in Barbados
On the night of the photo shoot-out, Adrian and I went to Oistins, where you can enjoy local food cooked fresh at food stalls with open grills. Fresh fish, macaroni pie, and rum punch punctuated a great conversation with my guide – plus we saw a local tuk band come through to end the night. Yes, Oistins is a touristy spot, but it’s still a great way to experience nightlife on Barbados.
After the convention, I participated in a ‘post-trip’ to Dominica. Long-time readers might remember that soon after we started dating Mr. V and I applied for the “Discover Dominica” campaign to try and win a weeklong trip. Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica in 2017, and I jumped at the chance to apply for this trip since I wanted to see how the island is recovering. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Kirk interrupted my own plans and our three-day trip was cut down to 36 hours. As a result of my short stay, I put together a story about “Why overlooked Dominica is a must for sun-seeking adventure lovers” for The Globe & Mail in Canada – my first newspaper story!
October: Rocket City, Space Camp & Denver
Thankfully, I started October with a few days at home before my next trip. When I did set out, it was to one of the best places I visited all year: Huntsville, Alabama. Also known as Rocket City, USA. Also known as the home to Space Camp!
Along with five other space-loving travel writers, I spent five days sampling the best that Huntsville has to offer. From the aforementioned Space Camp to the Von Braun Planetarium and Observatory, and with some culture (the Huntsville Museum of Art), nature (Huntsville Botanical Gardens), and food (below)… I was only half-joking when I said I wanted to move there after my trip! (My posts about Huntsville are coming later in 2019.)
Top Meal #11: The Best Pizza of 2018 at Earth & Stone Wood Fired Pizza in Huntsville, AL
Pretty much every time I want to have a cheat food, it’s pizza. So when I say I found the best pizza of the year at Earth & Stone Wood Fired Pizza, it’s high praise. While their pepperoni and sausage were good, the real winner was “The Latham.” It was topped with white sauce, mozzarella and provolone cheese, roasted sweet potatoes, caramelized onions, and goat cheese. It was insanely good, as was the house-made ice cream owner Stan Stinson brought out for dessert.
Top Meal #12: Southern Treats at Commerce Kitchen in Huntsville, AL
On our last night in Huntsville, we ate at Commerce Kitchen in the heart of downtown. The menu was strongly inspired by Southern dishes, including the fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits pictured above. Like many foods people poo-poo as being incapable of elevation, southern food can be made fancy and delicious.
I had to take a last-minute trip to Denver with my dad in late October, which was a nice chance to spend some time together. We went out for a few good meals, visited a great brewery, and went for a nice easy hike in the foothills of the Rockies. This short trip reminded me it’s great to travel with your parents from time to time, to get to know them in a new way.
Top Beer (Tie): Launch Pad Brewery in Aurora, CA
The only “tie” on this list is for ‘top brewery’ because I visited two fun breweries this year that I want to call out. The first was Launch Pad Brewery in Aurora, and as you might expect from the name, it’s a rocket themed brewery! With rocketry swag all over the tasting room and beers named “Soyuz Stout” and “Just Read the Instructions,” I was obviously in my craft beer-loving picture of heaven.
Top Meal #13: Fish & Chips at Nick’s Cove in Marshall, CA
One day in late October, Mr. V and I took a trip up onto the Marin peninsula, toward Point Reyes. We stopped for lunch at one of my absolute favorite restaurants along the Pacific Coast Highway: Nick’s Cove. Their beer-battered fish and chips went perfectly with a Lagunitas IPA. After that, we stopped on the way home to buy pumpkins for Halloween.
November: Calaveras County
November was a wonderfully “low travel” month for me, and I spent only two days traveling – and here in northern California to boot! I made a quick trip to Calaveras County, east of San Francisco, for a press trip to promote stargazing and astrotourism in the county. My story, A Guide for Stargazing in Calaveras County, just went live on Space Tourism Guide last week.
As you can tell, it was a prime spot for stargazing! It also marked a distinct shift in the types of travel I’m doing. From mid-November onward, every work trip I have planned has been (and will be) either writing/professional development focused, or promoting astrotourism in new destinations.
Top Meal #14: Molcajete at Cascabel in Angels Camp, CA
We had some great meals in Calaveras County, but the best by far was at Cascabel, in particular because of the shared dish we enjoyed, Molcajete. It was a piping hot with chicken, steak, pork, and nopales (cactus) cooked in a molcajete (mortar). We also had fried avocado (completely undoing all the good avocado is for you!) and jamaica and horchata. I feel like I couldn’t go wrong with Mexican food this year!
December: Los Angeles, Baja California Sur & Minnesota
In early December, Mr. V had a work trip to Los Angeles, so I decided to tag along. Just before the trip, I was fortunate to snag an assignment for the San Francisco Chronicle (will be published January 6th!). I spent one of the days zipping all over town shooting photos for that. I got to visit some really cool and under-the-radar space-y spots for that story, as well as some more popular ones.
Top Beer (tie): Cosmic Brewery in Torrance, CA
Unsurprisingly, my other favorite brewery this year is also space themed! Cosmic Brewery in Torrance was on my hit list for my SF Chronicle story, and Mr. V and I stopped there for a beer flight before catching our actual flight at LAX back home. They have beers like “Cosmonaut” and “Launchpad 39A” and host “tacos and telescope nights” on clear weekends. Can I live next door?
My final work trip of the year took me to Baja California Sur, the southern state of the Baja peninsula. There, I was on a consultation project for Rancho Cacachilas, to experience and provide them suggestions on developing their astrotourism and stargazing programming. I spent five days and four nights enjoying the rural desert of Baja and stargazing my heart out.
Top Meal #15: El Minero in El Triunfo in Baja California Sur
The last fantastic meal of the year came on my last work trip, in a small town called El Triunfo. My host, Rafa, and I had lunch at a restaurant, El Minero, and the menu was delicious. In fact, it was surprisingly so for a town of a few hundred most visitors completely miss. Fresh oysters, locally made sausage, cheese, and marmalade (from Rancho Cacachilas), and locally grown salad… It was the first taste of what this region can do on a culinary scale (and the rest of my week reinforced how much flourishes in the desert here).
My last trip of the year has just ended: a holiday trip to Minnesota to spend Christmas with my family and Mr. V. It was a week of bitterly cold clear days mixed in with a few snowy ones (we got 12″ one day!). Christmas was quiet and welcoming with my parents and brothers, and just before the holiday, Mr. V proposed! (Read the full details below.) All in all, it was a wonderful holiday – and a great end to the year.
Top Travel Moment of the Year: Space Camp!
As you can tell, it’s been a very full year. It’s very hard to choose one travel moment that really capped the year. In the end, one particular experience will stand forever in my memory: my day at Space Camp in Huntsville.
Spending the day with Craig and Gemma (Two Scots Abroad), Mike (Bemused Backpacker) and Jessica (Independent Travel Cats) and Laurence (Finding the Universe) in our blue jumpsuits, testing ourselves in the multi-axis trainer and experiencing simulated moon gravity, attempting to survive a Shuttle mission and learning about how Space Camp attendees prepare to be astronauts of the future… it was easily the most exciting day of travel I’ve had in years! And given I’ve waited 31 years to go to Space Camp, I’m sure I won’t forget it anytime soon (if EVER).
Top Life Moment of the Year: Getting Engaged!
I’ve never picked a top “life moment” in one of these year-end posts before.. However, it feels remiss to fail to mention that I’ve secured a lifelong travel partner. I’ll have a post introducing Mr. V soon enough, but for now, I want to share that our engagement started off great. Mr. V gave me a book of pictures from our life and travels together. He also gave me a custom engagement ring with emeralds to represent Seattle, the Emerald City.
I’m hoping he can join me for more trips in 2019 and beyond. I also plan to share some posts about planning and executing our travel-themed wedding too!
Holy cow, what a year! I’d love to hear your top travel and life moments from 2018 in the comments! Happy New Year!
Sounds like you had the most amazing year, Val! Congrats again on your engagement. Your beautiful pictures are giving me SO much California FOMO it’s ridiculous. We need to move back… 🙂
Thanks so much!I won’t complain at all if you move back… 😉