The Travel Goals Master Checklist: Part I – North America & the Caribbean

The full Travel Goals Master Checklist in all its glory

Whether you’re a marker, checker, crosser or scratcher, there’s no satisfaction quite like the feeling you get when eliminating an item from your ‘to do’ list. That same sense of accomplishment transfers nicely to the field of travel, where having a well-defined list of destinations to see and the joy of checking them off after visiting them is all part of the fun.

With the recent release of my new poster: The Travel Goals Master Checklist, I thought it fitting to review how I came up with the 72 world-class destinations featured in the design, and why they deserve a spot on this list. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or have yet to venture beyond the borders of your own country, I invite you to compare your list with mine, and if you should feel so inclined, encourage you to cross off as many as you can.

North America & The Caribbean

So as not to overwhelm you with all 72 destinations at once, I’ve decided to discuss the destinations by region. For the record, the destinations on the list are not necessarily places I’ve visited myself, but rather locations that have strong natural, cultural or historical appeal. To date I’ve visited just 44 out of 72, so I’ve got some pending travel goals myself.

New York City, USA

New York, New York, USA

Even if I wasn’t born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, the Big Apple is for all intents and purposes the ‘Capital of the World’. Thanks to innumerable appearances in popular films and TV programs, it is also one of the most recognizable. The iconic Empire State Building was a natural choice when it came to creating an image that encapsulates one of the most impressive city skylines. Chances are a good number of you reading this can check off this must-see metropolis.

Niagara Falls, USA/Canada

Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned…

Straddling the US/Canadian border, Niagara Falls is rightly considered to be one of the world’s most famous cascades. It has massive size and unique accessibility from aboard a Maid of the Mist watercraft, and is usually only ranked behind Victoria and Iguazu Falls in terms of sheer impressiveness. Add to that its renown as a world-class tourist site and I felt I had no choice but to include it in my top 72 travel destinations.

Quebec City, Canada

Le bonne vie in Quebec City, Canada

Quebec City is the closest thing to visiting a European destination on the North American continent. With charming Old World architecture and a skyline dominated by the imposing Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City earns its place on the checklist for both its cultural and historic pedigree.

Banff National Park, Canada

Banff National Park, Canada

While I’ve yet to have the privilege of visiting the Canadian Rockies myself, the milky-blue hues of Lake Louise in Canada’s Banff National Park are universally considered to be a world-class draw. As one of the best examples of gorgeous alpine scenery on the continent, Banff earned its spot on my checklist with little internal debate.

Denali National Park, USA

Bear sighting, Denali National Park, USA

Though part of the United States, Alaska is its own region with its own appeal. Of all the potential scenes I could have used to represent this remote and unspoiled wilderness in the extreme northwest of the continent, a grizzly bear against the backdrop of Denali (the Great One) seemed a most fitting tribute to the dominance of nature that people the world over come to see.

Yosemite National Park, USA

Yosemite National Park, USA

The American West has more than its fair share of world-class level wonders, so picking those to include on the list was not an easy thing to do. Fortunately, Yosemite National Park is so superlative that not including it on the master checklist would be a travesty, so I really didn’t have a choice but to include it. When choosing the imagery I wanted to use, I knew that the iconic peaks of Half-dome and El Capitan would have to make an appearance.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone NP, USA

Even if it wasn’t the first ever national park, or an alpine region brimming with natural beauty, Yellowstone is home to some of the most intriguing geological wonders on the planet, and is therefore an shoo-in for a place on this list. When it comes to natural attractions, Yellowstone and its geothermal oddities are hard to beat.

Grand Canyon, USA

Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

Despite what I just said in my description of Yellowstone National Park, there is at least one place that trumps it in terms of the raw impressiveness showcased in the natural world. The Grand Canyon is just one of those places you have to see for yourself to fully appreciate its grandeur. Even then, wrapping one’s brain around the burnt-tones of this dramatic open space is not easy to pull off.

Hawaii, USA

Tropical Wonder in the Hawaiian Islands, USA

Much like Alaska, Hawaii has its own unique geology and culture that separates it from mainland USA. Long synonymous with tropical paradise, the Hawaiian islands continue to beckon world travelers with their gorgeous tropical scenery and vibrant South Seas culture.

Los Cabos, Mexico

Los Cabos, Mexico

Despite all the attention that goes to its neighbors to the north, Mexico is home to a treasure trove of natural attractions. Though a late entry, and one I haven’t personally visited yet, Los Cabos, at the tip of Baja California, draw steady streams of tourist looking to experience the beautiful juxtaposition of clear waters lapping against an arid desert landscape.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Besides having abundant natural wonders to draw visitors from around the world, Mexico is also the cradle of the mighty Aztec and Mayan civilizations that once held sway in this region. The latter are responsible for the marvelous ruins of Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site smack dab in the middle of a jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula. This ‘lost city’ has all the earmarks of a cultural jewel, and therefore was an early entry onto the master checklist.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Vulcan Arenal, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s paradise. The tricky part was figuring out which of the many attractions to feature as the specific ‘destination’ on my list. Recalling the tantalizingly-disturbing rumbles of the ever-active Arenal Volcano, and the verdant paradise that surrounds it, I knew I had found my muse.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica

Visit the Ocho, featuring Dunn’s River Falls

Sure, Ocho Rios has all the trappings of your run-of-the-mill Caribbean cruise port. But it also boasts something most other ports can’t: access to a world-class natural attraction like Dunn’s River Falls. This iconic series of cascades sees plenty of tourists, but that’s not without good reason as I learned on my own visit there. Sometimes you just have to put aside your inner travel snob and see what all the fuss is about. In the case of Ocho Rios, it was a pleasant surprise to see my assumptions overturned.

St. John, US Virgin Islands

Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

With so many dazzling and bejeweled Caribbean Islands to choose from, I finally landed on St. John in the US Virgin Islands for the simple reason that the majority of it is dedicated parkland, preserving its natural and historic charms from the pervasive encroachment of commercialism so rampant in the region. With beautiful beaches, dense greenery and colonial-era ruins, in my mind St. John encapsulates all the best qualities of a Caribbean island, landing it a well-earned spot on the master checklist.

How Many Have You Visited?

Order your own Travel Goals Master Checklist today!

So far I’ve covered 14 out of the 72 destinations on the master checklist. How many can you check off? Even if that number is zero, the beauty of the checklist is that it inspires a person to new adventures and specific travel goals. If you’ve enjoyed the artwork and want a Travel Goals Master Checklist to display in your home or office, please visit my Custom Travel Art store, or my Etsy store to order a copy for yourself or the traveler in your life.

In the meantime, I’ll start preparing Part II . . .


Have you been to any of these destinations? Or do you have a favorite in North America and the Caribbean that you feel should have made the list? Share it with your fellow travel lovers by leaving a comment!

The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Interior Alaska

Far away from the cruise ships and gluttonous masses, the expansive ‘interior’ of Alaska beckons with the promise of natural vistas and wildlife viewing. For many this means boarding a motor coach or luxury train to be led by the hand through the wilderness. Yet for those who prefer their nature a little less prepackaged and own a valid driver’s license, the interior of Alaska is quite a playground to romp around in.

Anchorage is the gateway to the region and a convenient base should you want to take in the coastal scenery of the nearby Kenai Peninsula. One really nice thing about interior Alaska is that there aren’t many roads other than a few highways, gravel routes and the odd driveway. If you find yourself on the wrong road all you have to do is take the other one. Just be sure to gas up when possible, as distances between habitations can be great. Brace yourself for higher gas prices than what you’re probably used to paying (unless you’re from Europe), as even though oil is one of the state’s major exports along with salmon, souvenir fleece jackets and vice presidential candidates, there is no real bargain here. Considering the distances involved, it just might be time to take out that second mortgage.

Heading east out of Anchorage you will soon enter the Matanuska Valley where the scenery becomes increasingly picturesque. At about the two-hour mark I highly recommend taking the opportunity to visit the Matanuska Glacier up close.

Stopping to reflect on the Matanuska Glacier
Stopping to reflect on the Matanuska Glacier

You’ll have to pay to drive up to the glacier, as it is only accessible via private land owned by a strong believer in capitalism. There will be a marked trail across the rocky moraine terminating at a sign emphatically warning of the dangers of going past that point, such as the risk of death, injury, and a curse upon seven generations of those that do. So once you get past there it will be an amazing experience trying to sure-footedly navigate the undulating ridges of ice intersected by squiggly rivers of intensely blue melt-water. There are guided excursions that provide the proper equipment and direction, but we’re trying to stay away from ‘packaged’ aren’t we? So what if you sprain your ankle, slip to your death or summon cosmic backlash on your great, great, grandchildren?

At the terminus of the Glenn Highway is the enormous Wrangell/St. Elias National Park. At the tiny visitor’s center there’s a really great movie about all the places in the park that are completely inaccessible to travelers without their own private helicopter, which is approximately 97%. While the mountain views are impressive, you’ll either have to take a long, harrowing drive to the offbeat town of McCarthy or a flight-seeing tour in a small aircraft to really appreciate the scope of this national park the size of Switzerland boasting the majority of Alaska’s highest peaks.

From the Wrangell/St. Elias area, follow the Richardson Highway north along the fabled Alaska Pipeline toward Fairbanks. In Fairbanks you will once again be reacquainted with the trappings of civilization, such as fast food restaurants and traffic lights. It is also here that anyone planning to take the lonely ride up the infamous Dalton Highway to the shores of the Arctic Ocean would make a right turn and head north.

Heading back south toward Anchorage on the Parks Highway, you will pass a cluster of grandiose lodges, quirky restaurants, and kitschy souvenir shops that look like they’ve followed the cruise passengers from the coast. This is the sure-fire indication that you’ve reached one of America’s finest natural treasures—Denali National Park. This unspoiled alpine gem is accessible by only one unpaved road, which itself is only open to park buses and those belonging to the many tour operators in the region.

Once again there will be the temptation to hop aboard that shiny, comfy-looking motor coach. Don’t give in! You didn’t risk life and limb on the Matanuska Glacier just to watch nature from a bus full of septuagenarians. Rather, arrange passage on one of the park service buses.

Taking a Break-Denali Style
Taking a Break-Denali Style

Not only is it less expensive, but you will also have the option get on or off as you please. So if there is a particular mountain view, clump of trees, or Arctic squirrel that catches your interest, feel free to ask the driver to pull over. Tickets are priced according to where you intend to turn around with Wonder Lake and Eielson Visitors Center the preferred destinations.

Of course, most people come to Denali hoping to see the park’s namesake mountain. Most people also leave somewhat disappointed, as ‘The Great One’ generally prefers to sulk behind its own private mass of clouds. Regardless, wildlife abounds with excellent chances to see foxes, caribou, Dall Sheep, and plenty of bears. Park bus drivers generally double as tour guides, and the long journey back and forth, while exhausting even if you don’t get out to tramp about, will likely be very informative.

Young Grizzly, Denali National Park, Alaska, USA
Young Grizzly, Denali National Park, Alaska, USA

So what should you know about interior Alaska if you’re planning just such a trip? First, it is worthwhile remembering that for wildlife viewing, long hours of sunlight, and temperatures that won’t result in frostbite, it would be best to visit in the narrow summer season. While prices are lower in the shoulder months of May and September, the weather can be iffy, the foliage not yet in bloom, and the animals either just emerging from hibernation or just getting ready to.

It is also worth noting that generally speaking, accommodations—along with food, activities, and the aforementioned gas—tend to be quite pricey. Considering the quarter-year window they actually get visitors, it’s hard to begrudge the Alaskans for trying to make a living, though it may be hard to explain this to your accountant. Tell him to deduct your glacier-related health expenses to make up the difference.

A ramble through the playground of Alaska’s interior will no doubt be a memorable experience for nature lovers, adrenaline junkies, and warning sign defying people everywhere. Just be sure to gas up, pad your bank account and bring your camera. Your great, great, grandchildren are going to want to see this—that is, if they aren’t already cursed.

The Witty Traveler’s Guide To Cruising Alaska

It seems that everybody and their grandmother has either cruised, or wants to cruise the scenic coastline of Alaska. Each summer a growing armada of cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of passengers—many of which are in fact people’s grandmothers—into various ports of call along the southeastern arm of the 49th state. That fact alone may scare off potential travelers who come to Alaska to commune with nature and escape the crowds. Well, fear not. With a landmass greater than California, Texas, and Montana combined, getting away from the crowds—grandmothers and all—is not so hard if you know what to expect going in.

 

The vast majority of Alaska’s northbound visitors begin their journey from either Seattle or Vancouver, where they are herded onboard their waiting ships. After a muster drill and the first buffet, most ships start by winding their way through the Inside Passage, making their first port of call on the town of Ketchikan. Creek Street, KetchikanThe proud residents of this hillside settlement have dubbed themselves “Alaska’s First City” a reference to the fact that this is usually the first piece of Alaskan soil that visitors set foot on. Personally, I think this is just because there’s no one else around to contest it. Nearby is the Misty Fjords National Monument—a dramatic inlet of pristine wilderness. Getting there involves either a boat or a seaplane, and the high price tag of such an excursion ensures that you won’t be contending with the masses for this up-close view of nature untouched.

 

For those who don’t mind the aforementioned masses, guests will have fun browsing through historic Creek Street—a collection of vintage buildings propped up on stilts where souvenir shops have replaced brothels as the primary source of income. Shopping for souvenirs here is both easy and reasonably priced, and if you miss out on doing it in one port, don’t be alarmed. I’m convinced that all the stores pack up their goods and move to the next port overnight. Which now brings us to Juneau, the state capital. You could meander about town, but one of the star attractions is just a short bus ride away at the Mendenhall Glacier, situated at the source of the Mendenhall River, which is nestled in the—you guessed it—Mendenhall Valley.

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau

 

The glacier, valley, river, et al are the essence of what people come to Alaska to see. You can hike, tromp, stroll, and mosey until your heart’s content, all while taking in the gorgeous alpine scenery made famous in movies, documentaries, and cruise brochures everywhere. By the time your stay here is over, you will have some great additions to your photo album to go along with the burning sensation in your calves.

 

The next stop on the itinerary for most is the frontier-style town of Skagway. Once again the charms of villainy and prostitution are softened and packaged for the masses, and you could spend the whole day revisiting the shops you missed back in Ketchikan. For those wanting more of a natural connection, I highly recommend a trip into the nearby Yukon, easily accessible via an overpriced train ride brimming with grandmothers or a cheap rental car.

The Yukon sign

Getting to the Yukon in a rental car is remarkably simple with some stunning scenery along the way. Entry into Canada requires a passport and a drive through the aptly named White Pass. From there it is a short ride through British Columbia to the majestic scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities lingering just behind the giant Yukon sign, welcoming you to an even more northwestern territory than the adjacent Northwest Territories.

 

Once you’ve got your land-based activities done, most ships pull into Glacier Bay National Park for scenic cruising of its namesake glaciers. Again, the natural splendor is sure to delight even the most jaded traveler, and it’s great to get a sense of the tremendous scale when other ships pass these cascading mountains of ice looking like sleek, white rubber duckies in comparison.

 

Col Fjord
College Fjord

While some ships turn around at this point, a sizeable fleet will make the crossing of the Gulf of Alaska and file their way into Prince William Sound and stunning College Fjord.  This waterway of ice floes and the telltale ripples of otters is home to an amazing array of glaciers, some nineteen in all, each bearing the name of an Ivy League school. Whether this has drawn the ire of less-prestigiously named glaciers in the area remains to be seen, but the overall effect is quite impressive. At the very least the whales, bears and bald eagles seem to like it.

 

It is at this point that guests must disembark at either Seward or Whittier for the trip to Anchorage or an excursion into the larger interior playground of Alaska. I’ll cover that in another article but for those considering a cruise, the following is some practical information you’ll find helpful, amusing or both.

 

Many people have accused Alaskan residents of being a bit quirky, to which I reply, “A bit?” Alaska has the distinction of being the only state where men outnumber women, leading to a clever saying devised by Alaskan women to describe their prospects: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” If you have trouble remembering it, don’t worry—you can always pick up a t-shirt emblazoned with the saying at one of the souvenir shops that follow you around. If at some point it feels like you’ve strayed into a lost episode of Northern Exposure, just embrace it as part of the cultural experience.

 

Another factor to consider are the costs involved. Prices are definitely higher than you’ll find in the lower 48. Put it this way: At one point I saw signs touting a $1.50 store—a near 50% increase over the 99 cents stores back home. Food and transportation costs too are higher than average. If it makes you feel any better, you can revel in the fact that by the time you pay off your credit card bill those same merchants will either be buried under snow, enveloped in darkness, and/or withstanding a 5000 below wind-chill.

 

Armed with this precursory information, should you venture to the northernmost, westernmost, and easternmost state in the union, you should be able to keep the crowds at bay and enjoy your time taking in the majesty of what is otherwise a very un-crowded place. And if there are still a little too many other people around as you heed the call of nature, at least you can shop your disappointment away in a souvenir shop—there’s sure to be one right around the corner. Just be sure and say hello to my grandmother while you’re there.