Looking back on 2015, a year of travel hits

The only thing better than telling friends you’re going to ‘the south of France’ on a Viking River cruise is actually being on that cruise. Sitting on the deck of the Viking Heimdal, sipping champagne as the ship slipped past the colorful churches, museums and chateaux of Lyon, ranks as one of my 2015 travel highlights.

Equally memorable was a long weekend in Paris after our September cruise, soaking up the café atmosphere and famed attractions, including the Musee d’Orsay, the “Love Locks” weighing down  bridges over the Seine, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower.

On the Hemingway trail in Pamplona, Spain. (Terri Colby)

On the Hemingway trail in Pamplona, Spain. (Rob Hard)

And what could be better than a spring trip to northern Spain? I enjoyed five glorious days exploring Pamplona beyond the bulls, following in the footsteps of bullfight enthusiast Ernest Hemingway and touring the historic city and surrounding countryside.  After sampling the region’s popular Basque-style appetizers known as pinxtos (peen-chos), I would happily return for the 2016 Navarra Pinxto Week scheduled April 8-17; check it out at

Coincidentally, I got another, unexpected taste of Basque culture in, of all places, Idaho, during a July visit to attend a wedding. Just as Dearborn is home to the most Middle Easterners outside the Middle East, Idaho is the center for Basques in the United States, many of them historically drawn there for sheep-herding. Every five years, Boise welcomes Basques from all over the world for a weeklong homecoming-style reunion. The streets come alive with Basque music and dancers fueled by hearty food and drink.

These Basques came to Boise all the way from Australia. (Susan R. Pollack)

These Basques came to the Basque festival in Boise, Idaho, all the way from Australia. (Susan R. Pollack)

Also on the domestic front, I visited two of America’s national parks on the eve of the 100th anniversary the U.S. National Park Service in 2016. I’ll never forget the sheer beauty of the sun glowing on the cliffs of Zion National Park in Utah and the thrill of bison running past our tour bus — as if on cue, but totally random — as we entered Yellowstone National Park near Cody, Wyoming.

We encountered more wildlife in Florida last January when fellow passengers on a guided snorkel tour donned wetsuits and swam with manatees in the early morning mists of the Crystal River and Kings Bay. Our small boat left from the Plantation on Crystal River’s Adventure & Dive Shop, 80 miles north of Tampa, to view the gentle giants. Hundreds of the endangered animals seek winter refuge in the warm springs that maintain a 72-degree temperature year-round.

Also in Florida, we had a fine time playing golf and exploring the pirate histories of Amelia Island and St. Augustine on the eve of its 450th anniversary celebration as the oldest permanent European settlement in North America – 55 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.

In Ponte Vedra Beach, near St. Augustine, I was thrilled to get a birdie golfing on the 16th hole of the famed TPC Sawgrass course, one hole before the legendary 17th island hole. Even for non-golfers, the historic TPC Sawgrass clubhouse is worth a stop for lunch and a tour.

I got another birdie nine months later at Angel Park Golf Club, overlooking the Las Vegas skyline and the Red Rock Mountains. But two days before, I was challenged by the 100-degree heat during a weekend golfing binge on the beautiful Bear’s Best and TPC Las Vegas golf courses.

Back in town, within view of the Strip, I learned to operate a huge excavator while my friend maneuvered a bulldozer on an adult sandlot called Dig This! As the motto says, it’s ‘a new way to get dirty’ in Las Vegas. And, despite my initial jitters, it was a blast!

I traded my Caterpillar joystick for a paint brush while trying another first-time activity, plein air painting, in New York’s scenic Finger Lakes region. I found no better way to chill out this year than sitting on a dock on Canandaigua Lake and painting the colorful boathouses and birds. That is, until I settled into a glider plane at the National Soaring Museum in Elmira, N.Y., and soared up and away (with a volunteer pilot in the seat behind me) over Harris Hill. Talk about serene.

Camies Lies tries her hand at Plein Air painting on Canandaigua Lake in New York's Finger Lakes.

Camies Lies tries her hand at Plein Air painting on Canandaigua Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes. (Susan R. Pollack)

We hit the water in a packet boat named for a daredevil, Sam Patch, in Pittsford, near Rochester, NY, to cruise a portion of the Erie Canal. At Lock 32, we passed through massive, 40-ton gates and entered the lock chamber from the low water side. The chamber eventually filled with three million gallons of water and raised our vessel 25 feet.

In Corning, the southern gateway to the Finger Lakes, I loved the stunning new addition and gleaming glass installations at the Corning Museum of Glass. Another favorite museum was the Cleveland Museum of Art, where the lovely “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse” wraps up its only U.S. stop on Jan. 5. In California, we admired the gorgeous setting and engineering marvel that’s The Getty Museum in Los Angeles and spent hours admiring the collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Palm Springs Art Museum and its satellites.

 "The Grand Rapid Tape Drawing"

A winning entry from ArtPrize 2015 in Grand Rapids. (Susan R. Pollack)

The entire city of Grand Rapids was transformed into an open-air museum showcasing more than 1,500 works for the city’s annual ArtPrize event in the fall. Mark your calendar to catch the next one, Sept. 21-Oct. 9, 2016. It’s a wonderful free festival.

I experienced other travel highlights all across Michigan, from the Traverse City Film Festival and Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at the Detroit Institute of Arts to De Zwaan, the authentic Dutch windmill in Holland, minutes from Lake Michigan. We also visited several new Michigan wineries including Chateau Aeronautique near Jackson, and enjoyed a blind tasting at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula.

It just goes to show that you don’t have to travel far for memorable travel experiences – you just have to get off the couch.

Here’s to many happy trails in 2016!