My Solo Travels of 2011: The Word is “Relax”

by Gray Cargill on December 30, 2011

Crystal Palace, Madrid

Crystal Palace, Madrid

The trouble with setting travel goals at the beginning of the year is that you have to then review your progress at the end of the year to see how you did. Thankfully, I didn’t do so bad this year. Of the six destination goals I set for myself in 2011, I achieved five of them. Hawaii during the holidays was just too expensive to be attainable, especially after a hefty car repair bill and some unavoidable home renovation expenses came up. I’ll still make it to Hawaii; just not in 2011.

Since my only international travel was to Spain it was a fairly easy travel year. I think I must have been psychic when plotting out my 2011 travels, because “easy” was exactly what I needed this year. Thanks to a frantically busy and emotionally turbulent year at work, my real life was plenty challenging enough. Having to navigate new cultures and languages and landscapes too might have sent me over the edge. There’s something to be said for going on vacation to just, you know, “relax.”

Here are the highlights of of my 2011 travels, in words, photos and videos:


It was noisy, loud, and dirty. And it was right outside my hotel room window. I didn’t sleep well here. But it was fascinating to be in Spain during the youth protests (the “Spanish revolution“) that swept the continent last spring. It’s always nice to see young people showing passion about something larger than themselves. Say what you will about the youth protests that have now spread around the world, they’re historic.

While I found Madrid to be a bit formal compared to Barcelona, it still has much to recommend it–including some beautiful public spaces and architecture. Where else can you get a great view of the city from an authentic Egyptian temple and also visit a crystal palace?

Templo de Debod

Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple in Madrid


I immediately fell in love with Barcelona. This city has it all–weather, beaches, architecture, history, a wildly popular football (soccer) team, and incredible vistas. From here, I saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time.

View of the Mediterranean and port of Barcelona

View of the Mediterranean and port of Barcelona

In Barcelona, I saw my greatest success speaking a foreign language. It was a small triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. It made me eager to try more.

I became a huge fan of Antoni Gaudi during my 3 days in Barcelona. Gaudi’s architecture, beautifully demonstrated in Parc Guell, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, and the spectacular La Sagrada Familia, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed people-watching on La Rambla, the rich history of the Barri Gotic neighborhood (the oldest part of the city), and the beautiful views from Montjuic. There is no doubt in my mind, I’m going back to Barcelona.

Sagrada Familia

Interior of Antoni Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, the most unique cathedral I've ever seen

San Diego

Over drinks at the Top of the Hyatt, San Diegan Kristen Elise said to me “San Diego doesn’t have weather.” I was aghast at this statement. I had just been gushing about how the weather in San Diego was perfect–sunny and in the 70s all the time. I am told that when every day looks like that, it gets boring. I’d be willing to find out in person some day. I’m scouting out potential winter retreats for my snowbird years, and San Diego is right at the top of the list.

Botanical Building, Balboa Park

Botanical Building, Balboa Park

Palm trees and sunny days and mild ocean breezes are my version of meditation. Wandering the waterfront of San Diego, I drank in the views of the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 27 years. I explored Balboa Park and the USS Midway, and was transported to the past in my imagination watching the classic sailing ships in the harbor. It was soothing.

Sailing ships in San Diego Harbor

Sailing ships in San Diego Harbor

Las Vegas

I’ve been to Las Vegas many times, and I know a fair number of people there now. So when I go to Las Vegas, I get to be social–without having to try so hard. I met up with friends I’ve made on previous trips, and hosted the first ever Vegas Solo Meetup at the Cosmopolitan, where I met two readers of my Vegas Solo blog, Nate and Janice.

Vegas Solo Meetup

Janice, Nate and me - photo by Janice Miller

During this trip, I stayed in the nicest hotel room–make that suite–I’ve ever had (at the Palazzo), sat outside by the pool and read, had a blast pretending to be a mob initiate at the Las Vegas Mob Experience (which has since closed–boo hoo!), ate my way through a slew of restaurants I’d never tried before, indulged my passion for photography, and grooved with my animal friends at the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat and the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay.

White Tiger

White Tiger

Disney World

My primary reason for this trip was to enjoy the Food & Wine Festival, which I’d never done before. Here, you can sample foods, wines and beers from around the world, while walking around World Showcase at Epcot. The food and beverages were hit and miss, as you would expect, but fun to try. My favorite was the escargots in little brioche bread pockets in France. Yum! The Festival was a bit too overpriced and crowded for my tastes, but I’m glad I tried it once.

The crowd in World Showcase for Disney's Food & Wine Festival

The crowd in World Showcase for Disney's Food & Wine Festival

While I didn’t get to check parasailing off my bucket list here as intended (they cancelled my appointment twice), I made up for it by trying all sorts of other things for the first time, such as Space Mountain, Mission Space, the refurbished Star Tours–and my very first Dole Whip. This time around, I toured the parks slowly instead of taking them by storm like I usually do. I felt no urgency to go on rides I’d been on before. I strolled through the parks and took lots of photos. I spent some time with my friend Sha and her mom. I got to see the parks decked out in their holiday best and saw one of my favorite 80s bands, Night Ranger, in concert.

This is the perk of revisiting a place you’ve been before: Being able to slow down instead of feeling the need to cram in as much as possible in a short period of time. I liked it.

Me at Animal Kingdom

A very relaxed me at Animal Kingdom

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

My brother and sister-in-law go to Universal Orlando several times a year. I’ve never been. This is a park that is primarily for thrill-seekers–with tens of roller coasters and rides that drench you before you reach the end–and that’s not really me. But when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened here, I knew I had to go! Mission accomplished. Universal will never replace Disney in my heart, but the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is definitely worth going to see. It was like walking through a movie screen and into the world of the movies and books.

Hogwarts at Universal

Hogwarts at Universal's Islands of Adventure

At the beginning of 2011, I was a stressed out mess, desperately unhappy with my life and seriously considering running away from home. Now? I’m happy. I don’t dread going to work any more. I just refinanced my home from a 30 year mortgage to a 15 year mortgage, which means yes, I’ll be staying in Vermont for awhile longer. I can’t give travel all the credit for this change in my attitude, but I do think going on relaxing trips for most of the year contributed greatly to my current mellow mood. I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist, and that carried over to every aspect of my life–work, blogging, relationships, travel. This year, I learned to relax and stop worrying about “keeping up with the traveling Joneses”. What a difference a year makes.


Gray January 4, 2012 at 7:45 pm

You’d better, Kent. If I don’t get to meet you and Caanan in real life one of these days, I’m going to be very disappointed. 🙂

Kent @ No Vacation Required January 4, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Wow, glad to hear that – after a rough start – 2011 was so transformational for you. We love to keep up with your travels and WILL one day see you in Vegas.

Gray January 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Happy New Year, Andrea! Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed Madrid, and I’m glad I visited, I just didn’t love it quite as much as Barcelona. Like everything else in life, it’s personal taste. I hope you get a chance to go back this year!

Andrea January 3, 2012 at 7:59 am

Happy New Year Gray! And this looks like it was a great 2011 indeed!

I was in Madrid in 2011 also but while it’s a long, long time since I was in Barcelona, I had the opposite reaction to you – falling in love with Madrid immediately. I am so dying to go back to the city, so maybe will squeeze in a short break in 2012.

Gray January 2, 2012 at 10:35 am

Happy New Year to you too, JoAnn! Oooh, New Orleans is one of my favorite cities. Yeah, the budget; that’s always an issue, isn’t it? For me, too. I hope you get to go somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit.

JoAnn January 2, 2012 at 10:28 am

Happy New Year Gray. I can’t wait to see your travel plans for this year. So far the only thing I have planned is a trip to New Orleans in May for my brother’s 50th birthday. I haven’t been since before Katrina hit so I’m looking forward to seeing it. I will probably go back to Disney in November. I’d like to go somewhere in between. I just need to figure out what will fit in to the budget.

Gray December 31, 2011 at 11:38 am

LOL, Lisa. Just unlucky, I guess. I wish I’d had time to make it out to Coronado Island, I’ve heard it’s beautiful. La Jolla too. Next time. 🙂

Lisa @chickybus December 31, 2011 at 11:00 am

Sounds like you had an awesome year–love that you got to relax. I need to do more of that. And cool that you went to Spain, too!

I’ve never really been to the city of San Diego (only to Coronado Island for a business trip many years ago and to La Jolla for a couple nights), but would like to check it out. I think I could get used to that sort of weather, too. How did nice girls like us end up in the cold places we’re in? 🙂

Gray December 31, 2011 at 9:46 am

Hi, Juno! Thank you for the kind words. I was so happy to have you guys stay with me. You brought South Korea to me! I still have that good luck charm you gave me; I think it’s working. 🙂

Juno December 31, 2011 at 4:23 am

It was good to follow your journey this year Gray, and especially I’m really happy to meet you in person. It was a short meetup but I enjoyed our time! Thanks for letting us stay with you. Your home is beautiful 🙂
Looking forward to see many more great trips next year. Happy New Year!

Gray December 30, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Hey, we went to 2 of the same places, Jeff! I agree, Spain is a great country. I’m not sure I’d choose “travel to a wedding” as my idea of a vacation, either, but I think you’ve got the right idea about them. If I’ve got to attend a wedding, I want it to be someplace awesome, like on a beach in Jamaica or in Las Vegas. Sadly, that has not yet been the case for me.

Jeff B December 30, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Having travel goals is an interesting concept. My travel goal is to travel all the time but I have not figured out how to make that happen yet. I did not have as many trips as you Gray but I did pretty good with trips to Spain, Las Vegas, Jamaica and a weekend in Flagstaff. The Jamaica trip would not be my first choice for a relaxing vacation. It was for a wedding and as far as I am concerned everyone should have wedding at a resort on the beach now.

I am not sure what next year brings but I am considering another Spain trip. I do not know what it is about Spain but it is one of the few places that I have traveled too that I can not get enough of.

I guess I better get working on my travel plan for 2012 since I only have 24 hours left until it starts.

Gray December 30, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Thanks, Alouise! Yeah it’s nice to “get away from it all” a few times a year.

Alouise December 30, 2011 at 7:28 pm

For a relaxing year of travel you still seemed to go to quite a few places. Glad 2011 turned around to be a great year for you. I’m sure 2012 will be another amazing year.

Gray December 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm

@Jeremy – Believe it or not, I know someone who didn’t like Disney World. I know, crazy, right? 😉 I could have used some more days in San Diego myself. There was only so much I could do and still find time to relax.

@Tracy – I’ll be writing soon about my travel plans for 2012, don’t you worry. I think you’ll love Barcelona.

Tracy Antonioli December 30, 2011 at 12:41 pm

What a great diversity of destination! Sounds like you had a great year!!!

I’m still sold on San Diego–thanks to you–and you will find Barcelona on my must-visit-in-2012 list. Looking forward to hearing about your must-visits for the upcoming year.

Happy New Year!

Jeremy Branham December 30, 2011 at 11:29 am

I felt the exact same way about Madrid and Barcelona. I loved Barcelona and while there were things I liked in Madrid, it wasn’t my favorite city.

And who doesn’t love Disney World?! I liked San Diego as well but really need to spend more time exploring the area.

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