11 breathtaking travel moments that live on in my memory

Sydney Harbour - a breathtaking travel moment for the author of Coconut Lands slow travel blog

Have you ever experienced a sudden rush of emotion when you see something awe-inspiring on your travels, or reach a personal milestone?

You feel privileged to be there, in that moment, and you know you’ll always remember it. You’re filled with gratitude and a love of life. I mentioned this as one of the benefits of travel in my post Six reasons why travel is good for you.

This post is about some of those breathtaking travel moments I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy. I’d love to hear about yours too, if you’d like to share them in the comments 🙂

1. The vastness of the ocean – South Shields, England

Black and white picture of a little girl sitting on top of a cliff overlooking the sea
I made it to the top!

South Shields was the coastal town that was closest to where I grew up. Every Saturday afternoon, my parents and I would head to our favourite beach there, with thermos flasks of tea and coffee – whatever the season or the weather. Dad and I would go off for a walk on the beach, leaving my mother some cherished me-time to immerse herself in whatever historical novel she happened to be reading at the time. How she loved her books!

The time came when Dad thought I was old enough to make the short, relatively easy climb up the cliffs. I can still remember my utter incredulity, on reaching the top. The ocean was HUGE! It was no longer just a broad blue frothy stripe in my line of vision, dotted with tankers and ferries. It was a vast expanse, stretching out for miles and miles into infinity.

I think this was my first moment of realisation that there was a big world out there, waiting to be explored. How exciting it would be to board one of those ships, sail out there, and see what the ocean looked like at the other side! Thus, a traveller was born.

2. Mountains of the world – the Alps and the Andes

Although I had previously enjoyed a language holiday in Annecy in the French Alps and thought that I had appreciated the scenery, it was a flight to Geneva that helped me realise the full dramatic magnificence of these mountains. Descending among the jagged snow-laden peaks was an amazing, heart-in-the-mouth experience, and more than a little scary. I reassured myself with the thought that I was travelling with Swissair and that our pilot must know the route by heart! Sure enough, we landed safely.

The Alps near Geneva and the Andes. Flying among mountains can be one of those breathtaking travel moments.
Lake Geneva (left), the Andes mountains (right)

Flying across the Andes from Buenos Aires to Santiago was one of the most jaw-dropping journeys I have ever undertaken. Fortunately I travelled on a beautiful clear day, which showed the mountains in all their glory.

I remember thinking that they reminded me of a particular kind of toffee I used to enjoy as a child. It was brown with streaks of cream through it, broken into misshapen and jagged pieces. The Andes could have been a bag of this toffee, tipped out in a heap. The streaks of cream were snow and glaciers drifting down into impassable valleys.

Looking on the wonders of nature like this always makes me feel so privileged to have seen them. This is especially true when I’m travelling a long way from home, because there’s that feeling that I might never pass this way again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime precious moment to enjoy.

3. Manhattan by night – from the Beekman Tower, New York

View from The Beekman Tower, New York

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to New York for both business and pleasure. The skyscrapers, the rivers and bridges, the ferries, the landmarks and – of course – the shopping, were memorable.

I loved the views from the top of the Empire State Building during the day. But the sight of Manhattan at night, from the top of the Beekman Tower (I’m sure any tower would do!) was truly breathtaking.

I’ve seen wonderful views of other cities, such as London, at night. But there is nothing quite like the sight of the endless vertical rows of twinkling lights in Manhattan. It’s totally unique. I shall never forget my first glimpse of it, as I walked out of the lift. Whooooaaah!

4. Niagara Falls, Canada

A work trip to Toronto gave me the chance to see the incredible tumbling torrent that is Horseshoe Falls. I have seen some impressive waterfalls during my travels, but nothing to surpass these. The loud roaring sound that accompanies the spectacle underlines the fact that you are witnessing the sheer force of nature. It’s a humbling experience.

Niagara Falls Canada - a place to give you a breathtaking travel moment

5. Pauline Bonaparte’s house, Paris

Thanks to another work trip, I had the privilege of visiting this stunning residence that was once the home of Pauline, Princess Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was a journey of time travel into the home of someone rich and famous from history – a tantalising glimpse of another world that people like me aren’t usually allowed to enter. I could picture the glamorous Pauline stepping elegantly down the sweeping staircase, dressed in her finery and heading out on the town.

Pauline sold her home to the Duke of Wellington in 1814, including its furniture, ornaments and art works – many of which remain there today. Since that time, the house has been the official residence of the British Ambassador to France.

British Ambassador's residence Paris
Me following in Pauline’s footsteps

The house is not generally open to the public except on one-off occasions such as heritage days. However, there is a beautifully-illustrated book by Tim Knox which is a good alternative if you can’t visit in person.

6. The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

When I first saw this incredible building in 1982, a hundred years after its construction first began, the idea of finishing it seemed to be a fanciful one. I revisited Gaudí’s masterpiece in December 2016, and was amazed. Although it’s still unfinished, the Sagrada Familia is in its final stage and is expected to be completed in 2026. It’s the most awe-inspiring basilica I have ever seen.

The exterior decoration is enchanting enough and very much in the spirit of Gaudí. But it was the interior that struck me most. Huge columns, way-up-high ceiling, stained glass windows that catch the light so perfectly that it scatters in a changing kaleidoscope of colour, add up to a mesmerising spiritual experience. I shall never forget the moment I first stepped inside to see it.

Sagrada Familia Barcelona - definitely one of those breathtaking travel moments

7. Circular Quay at night, Sydney

This was another moment similar to my Manhattan one – an unexpected vista of dazzling lights and reflections, but this time with the added benefit of the warm breeze of an Australian summer.

This was my first visit to Sydney, in 1999, and I soon fell in love with the city. It remains my favourite city in the whole world, but I will write a separate post about that! Suffice to say that this was the first of many magical moments there.

Circular Quay at night, Sydney

I was at the Opera House to see a fantastic flamenco show. In fact I nearly didn’t make it, because I’d become ill on the flight over from London and ended up having to call a doctor when I first arrived. Two bedridden days later I was still groggy and not really fit enough for a night out, but I dragged myself up anyway. When would I next get the chance to go to the Opera House, particularly to see one of my favourite flamenco companies?

By the first interval, I was thoroughly enjoying the show but struggling a little. So I bought a strong coffee from the bar and headed out onto the terrace for some air. That’s when it hit me. The lights, the reflections in the harbour, the ferries, the blast of warm air. I was completely spellbound. It gave me such a lift that all thoughts of returning to my hotel bed and my medicines went right out of my head, and I went back to watch the rest of the show feeling so much better.

8. Hagley Park, Christchurch, New Zealand

There are many beautiful parks around the world and in many ways, Hagley Park is just another of them. There are things I love about it, like the tall mature trees, riverside walks and the fact that it gets autumn colours (unlike my home city, Wellington, which is mostly evergreen).

It just so happened that when I had been struggling for a few years with some personal stuff in my life during the first decade of the millennium, I decided to take myself off for a short mental health break to Christchurch and Banks Peninsula. Saturday turned out to be warm and sunny, and a stroll through the park seemed like the perfect way to spend the afternoon.

I don’t know why, but as I walked through the trees with the sun peeping through, I suddenly experienced a feeling of bliss. I realised that there was nowhere else I would rather be, at that moment, than exactly where I was. The present felt so good that I wanted to leave the past behind – and I was ready to do just that. It was a true turning point, yet even today I can’t explain why it happened. But I often think of that moment, and the memory still gives me goose-bumps!

A tree-lined path in Hagley Park, Christchurch, New Zealand

9. The Ribblehead Viaduct, North Yorkshire, England

This is another early memory, like my South Shields marine vista, which left a lifelong impression. It probably kick-started my love of trains and industrial architecture.

A trip on the Settle to Carlisle railway line with my parents gave me my first view of this incredible structure. It was built between 1869 and 1874 by a workforce of nearly 2,300 men. The epic vastness of it, against a backdrop of wild and romantic countryside, is overwhelming. The line has been threatened with closure on a number of occasions over the years, but thankfully, it has survived.

Ribblehead Viaduct, North Yorkshire

10. The Milky Way

I had seen some beautiful skies in my time, especially during my years at St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. But my first sight of the Milky Way was on another level altogether!

It happened many years after Scotland. I had moved to New Zealand and was enjoying an early date with my now husband – fish and chips on the beach. As darkness fell, he motioned me to look up. I could not believe what I was seeing! It was so spectacularly beautiful.

I have seen it many times since, but that first sighting was very special indeed. As was my date, of course! You can’t get more romantic than fish and chips, wine, the beach and the Milky Way. No wonder I ended up marrying him.

Milky Way - a breathtaking travel moment

11. Gardens of the world

Of the many beautiful gardens I have visited, three stand out as ultra-special: Monet’s garden at his house in Giverny, France; the Generalife in Granada, Spain and the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. It certainly helped that all of them were bathed in hot sunshine on the days I visited, but they are utterly magical places.

Monet’s garden features in many of his paintings such as the water lily series and the Japanese bridge. You can stroll around and see the lily ponds for yourself, and walk across the bridge. The Generalife garden outside the Alhambra palace in Granada is a heavenly place. Flowers, aromas, trickling streams and fountains give a sense of peace and well-being. No wonder the Moorish kings felt closer to their God by spending time there.

The Japanese tea garden also uses water and landscape to create an oasis of peace and calm, in the bustling city of San Francisco. I’ve always loved the serenity of Japanese art and design, and it’s that oriental influence that makes this garden so special. The tea house itself is located by the water. You can take tea there and admire the gorgeous landscape around you as you enjoy some Japanese snacks.

Beautiful gardens - Monet's garden at Giverny, the Generalife at Granada and the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco
Monet’s garden, the Generalife and the Japanese tea garden

Don’t forget to share your own special travel moments in the comments below. And thanks for reading!

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  1. wow you have seen some incredible places but your photo os the milky way blew me away. What an incredible date that must have been. La Sagrada Familia is my favourite church in the world. Gaudi had incredible talent.
    Your reference to that toffee has brought back amazing memories and my mouth is watering. I loved that toffee!

    1. Gaudi is fantastic isn’t he, definitely one of my creative heroes. So glad that you remember that toffee! Honestly, it was the first thing I thought of when I flew over the Andes. They really were that amazing brown toffee colour. You must get some amazing skies in WA I would imagine 🙂

    1. I’m with you there, Jenisha – so many places to see and not enough time to see them. Let’s hope we can all get moving soon 🙂

  2. What amazing experiences you have shared in this post. I love your title. Traveling really does make you happy to be alive. Can’t wait to be free to experience new places again.

    1. Thanks Brooke, glad you enjoyed my post. I agree – can’t wait to get moving again, so many wonderful places out there waiting for us to get to them 🙂

  3. Oh wow, you have such lovely photos! I really enjoyed this read, particularly your mention of walking through Manhattan at night – this is something that has been so high on my bucket list for a long time and reading this makes me want to go even more! thank you for sharing x

    1. Thanks for reading! Yes, everyone should see New York at least once – it’s crazy but beautiful. Especially at night time. Walking around is lovely but to get the full force of the experience, you need to go up high – and see the city from the top of a tower. It’s spellbinding. Hope you get to go soon 🙂

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