A pineapple vendor sits on her boat at a floating market in the Mekong Delta.
I love the start of the New Year, when the calendar stretches out like a blank page free from the restrictions of plans and obligations that start cluttering it up and pushing all the fun and possibility out. Right now you can still dream of taking off to Brazil for a month or kayaking to secret campgrounds or learning to scuba dive in Sinai. For the first weeks of January, anything is possible. It’s magical.
That feeling got me thinking about the places I saw and the trips I took last year. Some were the stuff of wild New Year’s dreams, others were weekend trips that wowed with unsuspected charms. All are worth your time. So here, in no particular order, are the best places I visited in 2012.
1. Mekong River Delta, Vietnam I spent last New Year’s Eve in Vietnam, visiting my parents who were spending six months in Hanoi, teaching classes and generally discovering the hilarity of living in a place where your best efforts at verbal communication are met with confused laughter. My three-week trip took me north to the Chinese border on an overnight train, to the terraced emerald hills of Sapa, where we trekked with local native women to see tribal villages, and to the glittering boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City decked in Chanel and Dior. From there, we took off on a two-day tour of the Mekong River Delta, a network of wide waterways and chugging streams where everything is overgrown and tremendously alive. We biked down winding island paths, drank fresh sugar cane juice and sputtered about a floating market filled with fruit and vegetable vendors shouting their wares from metal hulled skiffs. Life moves a little slower on the water. Wonderfully so.
2. The Narrows at Zion National Park I’m currently big toenail-less thanks to this scenic hike through Southern Utah’s breathtaking national park. I’ve been wanting to hike the Narrows since my first
visit to Zion a year and a half ago. While my friends tackled a 12-hour trip through the Subway that weekend, I spent a few hours solo, hiking the Narrows from the bottom up. Crowds pour into the watery slot canyon from Zion’s main drag, boulder hopping and wading back and forth across the Virgin River, moving upstream and thinning out as the water level and mileage rises. This year we came back with a group of friends and a backcountry permit to do the Narrows the right way: top down over two days with a night camping in the canyon in the middle. And despite the throbbing in my toes from too-small rental shoes and a backpack weighed down with crap I should’ve left home, this is one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. Every bend in the river reveals steep sloping walls, framing views far too pretty for pictures. I can’t wait to do the Narrows again—in a different pair of boots.
Dark and cloudy beachscape on Vashon Island
3. Vashon Island Tovin and I spent a weekend at a friend’s beachfront home on this large island in the Puget Sound just off the coast of Seattle, and it wasn’t nearly long enough. Yes, there’s an adorable Downtown, tons of beachy and cliffy coastline and waters begging to be kayaked, but my favorite Vashon activity was a sunny run past the island’s small family farms. Folks here operate on the honor system, leaving fresh produce and eggs roadside with a note showing the day’s price. Even though I didn’t pocket any veggies, I loved exploring this sweet, Northwest escape.
4. Boston Okay, maybe it’s cheating to put my hometown on this list, but when you haven’t been home in over a year, there is something so remarkably comforting about trampling familiar soil, hopping on the same train you’ve always taken (even if it’s the Green Line) and hitting a favorite childhood diner for lunch. Plus, Boston is really fucking cool. Whether you grew up there or not. And of course, it helps to have amazing friends who show you the new hot spots. A few highlights: Island Creek Oyster Bar (get the biscuit, trust me), The Hawthorne (get a few expertly crafted cocktails while you wait for your table at Island Creek), JM Curley (Downtown gastropub), Regal Beagle (ask the bartender for the off-menu cocktail with a full egg in it). And don’t forget to drink water before bed.
5. Portland, Oregon Despite the rain and the gray, I can’t wait to return to Portland after an all-too-quick visit for a college friend’s wedding. Breweries! Chic shops! Book stores! Food trucks! Flea markets! Epic brunches with overly enthusiastic waiters! Yeah, I think Portland is my kind town—even if it makes my hair frizz.