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 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!

How to Drive to Europe in 3 Easy Steps

Skyline, Quebec City, Canada
Skyline, Quebec City, Canada

How to Drive to Europe In 3 Easy Steps:

1) Enter your vehicle and turn on the engine.
2) Drive Northeast until you pass the Canadian Border. Note: People and signs will begin communicating in French.
3) Locate either Montreal or Quebec City and look for a parking space.

Who says you have to cross an ocean just to experience the charms of Europe? All those boats and planes are so unnecessary when North America has its own version of it without all that pesky transatlantic nonsense. Sure, you’ll still need a passport, but at least you won’t have that unfavorable exchange rate to deal with (assuming of course you are from the US and using US dollars, otherwise none of this will make much sense).

Yes, only a few hours from the US/Canadian border are two of Canada’s showcase cities: Montreal and Quebec City – bastions of European heritage in the fiercely-proud French-speaking province of Quebec. From the New York City area they are a mere 7 to 49 hour drive, depending on traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Though both are nestled against the mighty St. Lawrence River, neither would look out of place on the Loire or the Seine, and such is their draw. The fact that they can be reached by car is just a bonus.

If the two cities were siblings, Quebec City would be the classy, reserved older sister who listens to her parents, while Montreal would be the younger, hipper, wilder little sister who gets the most attention. But despite their differences and the two and a half hours (again, by car) that lies between them, there’s no doubt they’re related as they share a common resemblance – the aforementioned European charm.

Quebec City – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is about as Old World as you can get, and has the distinction of being the only walled city in North America north of Mexico. This is a fact that was apparently overlooked by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War who unsuccessfully tried to capture it. I suppose military theory hadn’t yet stumbled upon the principle of: less walls equals more chance at success. But the threat of an American attack during the War of 1812 prompted the construction of many of the stone fortifications still found on Cap Diamant – a bluff perched along the St. Lawrence River –  that is now regularly invaded by American tourists. So maybe the tactic worked after all . . .

Walking the streets of Haute-Ville, Quebec City
Walking the streets of Haute-Ville, Quebec City

The Old Town can be fittingly divided into two sections; Haute-Ville (Upper Town) which is larger and more functional, and Basse-Ville (Lower Town), which is smaller and more geared toward tourists. Most visitors begin their itinerary at Quebec’s most famous landmark and icon, the Chateau Frontenac—an imposing castle-like hotel built in 1893 for the express purpose of attracting tourists and promoting the Trans-Canadian railway. This magnificent edifice dominates the city’s profile, looming benevolently like a stately, elegant giant. In the shadow of the giant is Place d’Armes, a lovely square teeming with quaint architecture and bustling cafes in a scene right out of Paris. Nearby is tiny Rue de Tresor, an alleyway packed with local artists offering etchings and watercolors primarily depicting city scenes like the one you’re standing in.

After meandering your way through the rest of Haute-Ville with its array of restaurants, shops, and authentic residences, a stop at the city’s former defenses, such as the Citadelle, makes for an interesting diversion. So does a stroll along Terrasse Dufferin—a broad wooden boardwalk that offers expansive vistas of the river. Visitors can then either descend a series of stairways, or for about $3 take a funicular ride down to Basse-Ville. Since you came by car I’d normally suggest you stretch your legs and just take the stairs, but since funiculars are hard to come by in the US, and even harder to pronounce, I recommend you take it in at least one direction.

Nestled between the banks of the St. Lawrence and the Chateau Frontenac, Basse-Ville is a collection of refurbished stone and mortar buildings with more of that distinctive European flair. Nowadays, these buildings house an assortment of souvenir and clothing shops along with several eateries in this pedestrian-friendly part of town (See step #3). All in all, it is a great place to sate your inner Francophile, and perhaps even serve to whet your appetite for the real thing. But now that you’re in the neighborhood, it’s time to hop back in the car and follow the St. Lawrence to lively Montreal.

Situated on an island, Montreal is far more cosmopolitan than its relative to the northeast. This metropolis boasts great ethnic neighborhoods, a lively arts scene, and great views—especially from Mont Royal, the oversized hill from where the city draws its name.

Most of the action and tourists can be found on the waterfront that encompasses the historic district of Vieux-Port—or Old Port. As the name would suggest, this area retains much of its colonial charm and architecture as seen in bustling Place Jacques-Cartier – a spacious pedestrian avenue crowded with restaurants and street performers. Throughout the adjacent streets there are also plenty of shops and boutiques in French Colonial flavor. For those who can’t get to Quebec City, the Old Port is a worthy stand-in.

For those looking for more than just atmosphere, there are some impressive attractions just a few miles to the east. After a comfortable ride on the convenient and easily-navigated Metro, one will find themselves faced with the options of visiting the Biodome, Botanical Gardens, Olympic Stadium, or some combination thereof.

Gateway to the Chinese Garden, Botanical Gardens, Montreal
Gateway to the Chinese Garden, Botanical Gardens, Montreal

The gardens are among North America’s best, with particularly elaborate versions of both Japanese and Chinese gardens. The Chinese boasts a gushing waterfall, reflective lake and oriental pavilions. The Japanese has its own variation on the theme while both have impressive collections of bonsai trees—some of which date back over 100 years. On the garden grounds is another attraction—the Insectarium, where as you’ve probably guessed, there are many opportunities to get up close and personal with all sorts of creepy crawlies. You might want to save that one until after lunch.

Hopping on one of the frequent shuttle buses across busy Rue Sherbrooke, is Olympic Stadium, formerly the home of the Montreal Expos (which sadly, was never quite as busy) and now a municipal arena. The attraction here is its soaring inclined tower which offers amazing views. Nearby is the third of the aforementioned attractions—the Biodome. Not surprisingly, this is a biological showcase featuring flora and fauna from four different ecosystems, ranging from tropical rain forests to polar zones.

Since this is Canada, one must take the seasons into account when choosing a time to visit. If you plan on spending time outdoors, the summer is high season for good reason – fall and winter can get downright frigid (though the cities have lots of winter activities for those who don’t mind losing a finger or two to frostbite). While it is convenient to arrive at either city by car, you’re probably best off not using it much upon arrival. Most of Quebec City is geared to pedestrians, and Montreal’s traffic make the Metro a far more appealing mode of travel. You’ve already skipped an ocean crossing – a little time out of the car won’t kill you (though a little time under it will).

Of course, like any cities, they boast a downtown with tall buildings, museums and the like. But what differentiates Montreal and Quebec City from any other cities in North America, is the inescapable sensation of walking through Europe that only ends when you realize that you’ll be driving home in your own car. So hang your air freshener on the rear view mirror and leave your Euros at home. The road to North America’s Europe lies north, not east.

French Colonial Charm in Basse-Ville, Quebec City
French Colonial Charm in Basse-Ville, Quebec City

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