Last year I wrote an article about my 5 worst and best travel moments of 2015 so with only a few days left in 2016 it is time to look back and reflect once again. I rang in 2016 with a traditional lantern lighting in Chiang Mai, Thailand and then spent the next six months traveling throughout Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Australia, China and Japan followed by three months in Sweden and Spain. Among those ten countries I experienced loads of wonderful moments, here are my 5 best travel moments of 2016.

#1 My Suns Aligned Moment – Spain Road Trip

Road Trip in Spain tips

One of our many amazing camping spots. The sun always greeted us with beauty in the morning and tranquility at night.

My final 21 days in Spain were spent on a legendary road trip along the coast with a very good friend from Australia. We rented a Volkswagen Polo and loaded it with a few baguettes, a whole lot of beer and a little blue tent. It is one of those significant life experiences that I’ll be telling my grandchildren about some day. Every morning we woke up to watch the sunrise and every evening we found a spot along the coast to watch the sunset. We hiked up mountains, climbed through caves, swam in blissful watering holes, drove from the upper east coast of Spain to the southwest tip of Gibraltar to see Africa and camped on every type of terrain you could imagine along the beautiful Mediterranean.

The entire 21 days were done without a plan. Literally every decision we made was minute to minute without a worry in the world. The universe always provided us with a paradisiacal place to sleep and beautiful roads along the way. We didn’t take one moment for granted and on our last night we were blessed yet again with an extraordinary spot to camp perched on a little cliff just steps away from the sea. As we pulled up to the spot we chuckled at how perfect the setting was for our final act. The sun was 20 minutes away from setting so without haste, we found two rocks to sit on just steps away from the sea and prepared for one final sunset.

We both immediately took notice at how the sun rays beamed a bright orange line across the sea until stretching to reach our feet.  It was magical. A reminder from the universe to appreciate moments like this; when all the stars are aligned or in this case, the sun. We put our complete trust in the universe by living entirely in the moment without a plan and I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Those next few moments I sat with a feeling of sheer gratitude.

road trip in Spain

Moments before the sun went down on the last night of our road trip.

#2 My Moonroof Moment – Australia Road Trip

rocky vitali

Renting a camper van and driving up the coast of Australia was filled with beautiful moments that I’ll never forget but there was one in particular that I’ll cherish forever. It happened on the very first night of our three week road trip. We picked the van up in Melbourne during rush hour and attempted to make our way out of the busy city and up into the mountains. It was the first time I drove on the opposite side of the road with right hand steering so needless to say, our adventure was put to the test from the start.

We drove for about two hours before the sun started to set and since we didn’t have a place mapped out to sleep, it was a race against time. I had read on a travel blog about an App called Campermate which displays free places to camp all throughout Australia. So we entrusted this App to be our road trip travel guide and it led us to a rest area off the highway which would suffice for the night. We pulled off, parked the van and started cooking dinner before totally losing light. I remember discussing whether we both agreed that this was a safe spot to camp or not. Our doubt came from reading about a serial killer that had slashed motorists parked on the side of the roads throughout Australia. Granted, that was ten years ago but still, I don’t believe they ever caught him or her.

Anyway, we had successfully cooked our first dinner using the mini kitchen in the van and we were ready for bed by 8 PM. I laid down on the fold out bed and after several failed attempts at trying to fall asleep. I looked up and noticed the moonroof. So I pulled back the shade cover and bam! The night sky was full of bright stars and a moon like I’d never seen before. I laid on my back gazing up at the sky for hours until I was overcome with a moment of pure admiration.

I started by envisioning myself up on the moon and slowly zoomed out all the way back down through the thin piece of glass that separated us. It was called a moonroof for a reason and I was taking advantage. It was the perfect way to start our epic road trip across Australia. A moment that laid the foundation for the next three weeks of absolute freedom. Admiring beauty in the little things will make all the difference in the world, especially before embarking on a life changing adventure.dsc05434

#3 My Tibidabo Moment of Nostalgia – Biking in Barcelona, Spain

tibidabo travel blog

On August 30th I flew into Barcelona without the slightest idea of what I was going to do for the next 90 days on my tourist visa. All I knew was that I wanted to be in Spain, my purpose for being there was secondary. The very next morning I borrowed my friends mountain bike to explore the city that I always refer to as an adult playground. I was bursting with energy so I chose the most difficult incline in Barcelona and made my way up to the top of Mount Tibidabo.

I started my adventure super early in the morning and it took me nearly three hours to make it up to the top. Once I got there I was still overcome with energy and ambition. I spotted an outdoor workout area and immediately went to town trying to test the limits of this natural high. I was further propelled into a euphoric state until I took a moment to stop and marvel at the entirety of the city. My eyes took me from the mountain top where I stood all the way to the Mediterranean sea with immeasurable beauty in-between.

It was in that moment I fell head over heels in love with Barcelona again, the same way that I did eight years ago. Since I had already lived in Barcelona for six months I thought that I would spend a few days there then live in another city like Granada or Sevilla, but I was wrong. Every bone in my body was telling me to stay in Barcelona so I didn’t fight it. I remember looking out at the Sagrada Familia, Torre Agbar, Camp Nou, Montjuic and all the things that reminded me why I loved this city so much years ago. It was in that very moment I made a definitive decision to stay. Almost as if my heart had unfinished business here. It is an indescribable feeling but when you visit a place that you love, the moment is consuming.

#4 My Underwater Moment of Clarity- Scuba Diving in Philippines

scuba diving in coron

This was the first thing that came to mind when thinking of my most memorable moments of 2016. A few weeks before visiting the Philippines I scuba dived for the first time in the Great Barrier Reef twenty two miles off the shores of Cairns, Australia. I always imagined the Great Barrier Reef being the cream of the crop when it came to the best scuba dive spots around the world but I can honestly say that diving off Palawan Island of the Philippines took my breath away. Good thing I had an oxygen tank and air mask.

Philippines was the last stop on my 230 day around the world trip so I wanted to do something extra special. I decided to treat myself to a PADI Open Water Scuba Diving certification. The whole experience was magnificent but there was one moment in particular that brought me to tears of pure happiness. It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies that mirrored the warm and inviting sea beneath our little wooden boat.

On the final day of my scuba dive training, my instructor asked if I wanted to dive down to see a sunken Japanese world war 2 ship. Of course I did! We got all of our gear on and made our descent 19 meters down until reaching the door of the massive vessel. My instructor wrote on his underwater mini white board, “Go inside?” and I am sure you can guess which hand gesture I signaled back to him. It was pitch dark inside so he took out his flashlight and we made our way in. As we breached the entrance we were welcomed by hundreds of fish that scattered in a uniquely fluid synchronization clearing a path for two little humans to pass through.

We stopped once we reached the slightly deteriorated steering wheel and he pointed down to show me a few old glass bottles that were still perfectly intact. It was in that moment, the timer on his wrist alerted him that we were running low on oxygen and needed to begin our ascent up to the surface. After all, we had already been under water for 47 minutes and only had about 10 minutes of air left. So, we kept moving forward toward the front of the ship until we found the exit. He swam gracefully out of the tiny door leaving me a few flipper strides behind in the dark.

I kicked my feet faster so I wouldn’t be engulfed by the dark depths of this sunken ship and as I attempted to swim out my tank got caught on the top of the steel door. For a split second my heart sank and I began to panic. I knew that I only had a few minutes to ascend 19 meters and that was possible if I could get unstuck and avoid any sharks that might be lingering around the corner. After the pulse of panic I remembered to decompress my air vest to lower myself down ensuring a perfect fit through the door. What happened next was beautiful. I looked up toward the surface toward the light then back inside the pitch black entrance to the ship. Then I scanned the 360 degree view I had of hundreds of fish and coral with vibrant rainbow colors like an HD scene out of Nemo. I was 100% saturated in the present moment.

For the past hour it felt like I was all alone exploring a new planet; my senses were stimulated like never before. The only sound I heard was my own breathing. My eyes saw things for the first time. I couldn’t smell or taste anything but salt water and the only thing I touched were the vibrations of the water. I can honestly say that I had a moment where I was completely present in the now. Nothing else in the future nor past mattered. All I was focused on was the beauty that surrounded me. My body was weightless and I felt like I was lucid dreaming. As I breached the surface and took a fresh breath of air I couldn’t help but smile and reflect on what had just happened.

I highly recommend visiting Coron, Philippines and going scuba diving in Palawan Island. Read my full travel guide to visiting Coron, Philippines.

#5 My Friends and Family Moment – Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia

koh rong samloem

The past 27 years I’ve celebrated my birthday surrounded by family and friends and each and every year has been filled with special moments. However this year on my 28th birthday I found myself over 8,000 miles away from home on an island in Cambodia known as Koh Rong Samloem.

My girlfriend at the time, Naomi, planned this surprise trip for my birthday because she remembered over a year ago that I mentioned wanting to visit a clear water beach since our attempt in Miami and Puerto Rico (although beautiful) didn’t quite do it justice.

Well, she hit the nail on the head with this island.  Wow, what an amazing place.  It was my first birthday abroad and I enjoyed every single minute. However there was one moment in particular that made it a birthday I’ll remember and cherish forever.  First, let me walk you through our adventure leading up to the best gift on my first birthday abroad.

While visiting Kampot, a small town in Cambodia, Naomi says to me,

“We are going somewhere special for your birthday, don’t try to guess, just trust me.”

Luckily, I love surprises so I didn’t snoop around one bit. Three days before my birthday, we took a bus to a ferry then a ferry to an island and from there we hopped on a small boat which took us to an even smaller island.

As we approached the island, I swear I saw Tom Hanks standing on the shore in a loin cloth holding a volleyball. The water was crystal clear. I could see straight to the bottom even hundreds of yards away from the fast approaching coastline. I had never seen anything like it, it was one of those beaches you only see in the movies.

The boat stopped in knee deep water and they handed us our bags so we could trek through the warm tropical water to the shore. We walked up to our private bungalow which sat in the white sand just steps away from the blue water. I thought to myself,

“Wow, this feels like a dream.”

Once settled in to our bungalow we swung the big wooden doors open to a view of that amazing sea in front of us.  After a siesta, I looked out and saw the waves crashing into the rocks outside our bungalow and again I had to pinch my arm and make sure I wasn’t still dreaming.

For the next two days we soaked up every moment on the island; from snorkeling above the coral reef, swimming in crystal clear blue water, relaxing on the soft white sand, dining on fresh seafood, waking up to see the sunrise change the color of the sky, relaxing in the hammocks in the middle of the sea and exploring the island’s jungle – everything was perfect, it was such a wonderful surprise.  However, little did I know an even greater surprise was waiting for me when I awoke the next day on my birthday.

I woke up to the sound of the waves and as my eyes adjusted I noticed there was a Happy Birthday sign written in her unique handwriting next to the front door. Then another in the bathroom when I went to brush my teeth, another behind the door and several others plastered all around the room.

Rocky Vitali

Naomi was nowhere to be found, but she had left the doors open so I would wake up to the view of the ocean.  I walked outside to find another sign on the porch of our bungalow and the sea mist came up to greet me.  For a moment it was just me and my reflection in the water. I took a few minutes to appreciate how beautiful this moment was. I felt so fortunate to be on this island celebrating my first birthday abroad in such a peaceful and magical way.

Then a moment of sadness settled in because it was my first birthday so far away from family and friends. I don’t usually feel homesick while traveling but there’s nothing like spending your birthday with loved ones.  I had a big smile on my face while walking on the beach but a part of me was wishing that everyone would pull up on a boat and we could have a traditional birthday cake and eat our classic pizza with chicken wings while enjoying each others company.

Even with a private bungalow on a remote island that I consider to be paradise, there was still something missing.

I smiled to see Naomi returning to our bungalow with our breakfast which consisted of a bacon and egg breakfast sandwich and a fruity pineapple drink. She gave me a big hug while singing, “Happy Birthday,” and then insisted I sit in a hammock, have my drink and prepare for my birthday gift.

As I sat in the hammock, Naomi disappeared for a minute and returned holding her laptop.  I had no idea what to expect.  Hmm.. a slideshow perhaps?  I pressed the play button.  The music started and then the first video message came through. I was overwhelmed with an incredible feeling of joy.

 Koh Rong Island Cambodia

Naomi anticipated the one thing that would be missing on my birthday and she brought them all the way to this remote island in the most special way possible.  She made a movie compiled of close family and friends that each made a short video sending their birtdhay wishes across the world. I felt complete happiness, it was perfect.  Truly the best of both worlds.

I laughed, cried, smiled a whole lot and laughed some more. The fact that people I love took the time and thought to send a video message for me is something I’ll treasure forever.  It made for the perfect birthday.

Family and friends truly are everything. They make up our big moments, the small in between moments and then moments like this that are experienced in the perfect place at the perfect time.

Pressing the play button and seeing all of my family and friends was without a doubt one of the best moments of 2016. If you plant to visit Koh Rong Samloem (which I highly recommend) then check out my in depth travel guide here.

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tagged in 2016, moments