Wanderlust: All I Know So Far

I have the COVID. I am in hell. Not the physical pain/vomiting kind of hell… but that bottomless pit of boredom, guilt and nausea that keeps you isolated from your family and depressed in your own thoughts.

Wow – ok, maybe I’m going a little too far. I’m on Day 11 and despite what the internet told me (‘by Day 7, you should be feeling better!’) I still can’t be up and moving around for more than a few minutes without feeling a whoosh of heat in my face and that feeling that something might come up at any minute, or without having a coughing fit so bad it literally takes me a few minutes to find solid breath again.

So here I am, back in bed, surrounded by pill bottles and my two canine nurses. (As far as they’re concerned, this is THE BEST. THING. EVER.) More than once, I’ve thought ‘if I were just near the ocean. If I could just breathe in that air and feel that sun – that’s all the medicine I’d need.’

Brian and I will retire by the water someday… but we still want to see more. We love to travel. As much as I have loved returning to some of our favorite destinations, there’s always a desire to venture somewhere new, where we haven’t yet explored. Belize – Fiji – Greece – Ireland. Maine – Montana – Alaska – Utah. So for a little while here… I hope you’ll indulge me in closing my eyes and remembering the beauty in my favorite, most memorable spots in our world… so far. Maybe you’ll be inspired to head to one of these, and maybe (hopefully!) you’ll leave me a note about where I can dream of heading next.

Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic has some of the warmest, natural water I have ever felt. The ocean is like bath water. We spent a lot of time in the Atlantic there and learned of it’s many personalities… the powerful beach waves that pulled literal tons of seaweed to the shore. The serene, waist deep pools that hosted our catamaran party, along with hundreds of others. And the angry Atlantic that violently rocked our deep sea fishing boat… and my near-overboard body as I retched up my breakfast over the side. On this trip the men golfed, the women shopped, we did all the excursions.. and by our final full day I was exhausted. Brian begged me to come with him to a spot down the beach from our rental.. our friends and travel companions Shea and Sandy Connolly said we HAD to visit this place after they happened upon it while exploring our area.

If we weren’t looking for it, we might’ve missed it. Hidden away from the obvious destination of the beach, and past the creepy ass ghost resort, abandoned by investors decimated during the 2008 Recession. The only indication we were in the right place was a small shedlike hut that served as the ‘welcome center’. From the tiny gravel parking lot, you walked into this little jungle, much like Fontenelle Forest for my O-Town readers, just with different types of trees. Dirt worn path, random branches you had to duck around or under.. I mean, yeah, it was quiet and neat.. but what was the big deal? Then… the trees opened up to one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen… this hidden, turquoise pool in the middle of nowhere. The pictures here just don’t do it justice – it was magical. It was so quiet… so still. How did no one know about this hidden Eden? Benches and a little overlook had been built randomly at spots along the trail.. with both a board or rope swing to propel yourself into the pool. The most amazing was still to come… we jumped in, and the water was absolutely crystal clear. That pool was easily 20-feet deep.. but you could see EVERYTHING. Absolutely everything, all the way to the bottom. It was truly an unforgettable moment.. one of those, ‘is this real life?’ memories for both us.

The beaches of Kona, Hawaii at sunset

Hilton Waikoloa Village

Brian had always wanted to go to Hawaii – he’d been talking about it since we first met. So when our good friends Scott and Megan Phillips decided to renew their wedding vows, we jumped at the chance to join them (side note for guilt-ridden moms: we were parents of one 20-month old at the time, who stayed with his adored Nana and Papa. He ate brisket, went to the toy store, spent his days at the park. I missed him terribly – he didn’t give two toots I was gone!)

Of the eight islands of Hawaii, we visited the Big Island, the largest and most southeastern of the state. Our resort was the SPRAWLING Hilton Waikoloa Village on the northwest side, where Megan had stayed with her family as a child. When I say sprawling… I mean you took a tram to get from one part of the 62-acre complex to the other. I loved the pools. I loved the Lava Flows. I loved our company. I loved the shopping, the turtles, the volcano, the convertible drive past waterfalls and farms and ocean. But nothing compared to our breathtaking nighttime tradition.. watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, while a man ran up the length of our entire coastline, lighting beach-set torches along the way. It was sheer perfection for every part of our being; the colors of the setting sun like brush strokes against the water and palm trees, the sound of the ocean lapping against the shore, the smell of nothing but purity, the feeling of being there to witness it with my own eyes, alongside my husband. Megan and Scott chose one of those Kona sunsets to renew their love for one another after 10 years of marriage, with Brian and I watching a few yards away.

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The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand Canyon, Arizona, circa June 1999

I’ve never questioned there is a God. I’ve prayed to God since I was a little girl. But the first time I remember truly being blown away by the awesomeness of what our God has created was when I saw the Grand Canyon in person. I remember specifically thinking.. ‘how can anyone who sees this ever doubt we have a God?’

No descriptive memories here.. I visited the Grand Canyon while attending High School Speech Nationals in Phoenix the year I graduated from Papillion-La Vista. That day it was just me, my incredible speech coach (and PLCS Hall of Fame Inductee) Bev Ruff, Assistant Coach Mary Birky, and a fellow competitor from Bellevue East, my roommate for the trip. I remember sitting on the beautiful red rocks and staring… just staring.. awestruck by the sheer vastness, the enormity, the beauty that seemed to go on forever in every direction.

Anna Maria Island, Florida

Gulf of Mexico, Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, Florida

This picture is imprinted in my heart. This was the first time our boys saw and felt the ocean; Brian captured this moment as Easton and Evan stood together in the warm Gulf waters, silent, just staring.

Take your children to the ocean. Take them to Anna Maria Island.

Brian’s cousins, Nick and Vicki Zec, own a beautiful vacation property, Alecassandra Vacation Villas, in Bradenton Beach. This tiny island off the coast of Sarasota is only 7 miles long and a few blocks wide, surrounded by bay and ocean. ABSOLUTELY PERFECT for families; we stay in a beautiful 2-bedroom where the boys have their own space and we have ours, with a kitchen, living room and pool. You hit the one island grocery store to stock up for the week, walk to the beach every day, and zoom around on your golf cart for putt putt, ice cream and the unique Mom & Pop shops. It is truly magical. It’s where Brian and I plan to take our boys every year as a family for the foreseeable future, and where we hope to invest in ourselves and retire someday.

There is nothing more beautiful than watching your children experience something glorious for the first time. The look on Evan’s face as he jumped over his first wave. Hearing the laughter of my children and husband together, as they sat in the surf and felt the waves crash against their backs. The joy and excitement in Easton’s voice as he begged his Dad to take him fishing off the pier. The gratitude in my heart when Evan reached over to hold my hand in our lawn chairs and just talked to me. When we are here, I have everything I could ever want or need and feel 100% at peace and happy.

Isla Mujeres, Atlantic Ocean near Cancun, Mexico

Punta Sar on Isla Mujeres, the Caribbean Sea west towards Cancun, Mexico

When Brian and I travel to international resorts, we typically stay ON the resort. We drink, we nap, we read, WE RELAX. We LOVE the all inclusive option, and we love getting our money’s worth and taking our time – NOT watching the time – without a care in the world.

Still, when we took our first trip to Cancun, Mexico with friends we heard about a day trip to a little island of the coast.. Isla Mujeres. I believe it is Mexico’s easternmost point in the Atlantic. IT WAS BREATHTAKING. It’s a tiny little tourist island with shops, restaurants, (and some VERY tiny swimsuits, as demonstrated by a very hairy, elderly gentleman).. but our favorite spot by far was Punta Sar at the southern tip. The bluest, turquoise waters. Trails that allow you to travel right up to the precipice before a 100-meter drop to the sea. The remains of a Mayan temple and markers throughout, explaining the history that happened in the very places you are walking. Brian just stood there at the top, stared, and breathed it all in. We would walk for a little bit and just stop to stare more. How are there places like this in the world that we had never heard about? That people haven’t seen? If you travel to Cancun – YES, enjoy the fruity drinks and the sunshine and the Michael Jackson tribute shows on the resort… but buy your ferry tickets to Isla Mujeres. 100% worth it.

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

H. Toad’s Bar & Grill, Lake Ozark, Missouri

My Dad purchased his dream home in 2013 – a perfect spot on an eastern cove near Bagnell Dam at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. I’ve written about it here before – if I haven’t already demonstrated with my previous ‘most beautiful spots’ – I am constantly drawn to the water. I get it from my Dad – he says it’s the Dane in us, part of our souls. I didn’t want to crash his new getaway just as he bought the place.. but we had just welcomed Evan, Easton was just 2, Brian had just worked a 120-hour week running the College World Series, and we desperately wanted a vacation that could accommodate all of our family’s needs with adding MORE stress. After a 6-hour car drive with a 2-month old and 2-year old… we arrived to sheer peace. This water is a different type of beauty than the ocean that I so love… it is serenely calm. No constant tide, no swells that rise and fall night and day.. just peace. ‘Papa’s Cabin’ as we call it sits in a private cove away from 20-something parties and racing speedboats. Often, my Dad and Mom catch their biggest fish right off their pier, just down the steps from their home.

This beauty is simplicity. You make time stop. Nowhere to be, nowhere to rush to, nothing to tune out, nothing to worry about. Just you, quiet, and the beauty of nature in every form all around you. The water goes on forever, unparalleled sunrises and sunsets, and just EASE of life. Simplicity.

We took a family trip to Papa’s cabin every year since. I will always remember Easton’s sheer delight in throwing rocks into the lake to ‘hit the fishies!’ Or Evan, blissfully asleep at 2-months old in the shade of a summer afternoon while I did a crossword right next to him. Later on.. Easton would outfish all of us (Papa disputes this statement), and find a new passion – creating new and exciting jumps off the dock. Everyone had a great belly laugh when Mom decided to go tubing… it was not pleasant. I am 40. Evan, though he never seems to stop moving, even found his calm and center while at Papa’s cabin… that’s him in the picture above, unprompted, just off by himself at dinner watching the sunset.

My Mom and Dad put the cabin up for sale this past fall when they moved into their new dream home – right on the edge of Prairie Queen in Papillion. Without the 6-hour drive, Papa can walk right down the path to fish every, single day… and Easton loves nothing more than to join him early on summer Saturday mornings. Still, it was so hard telling our boys that Nana and Papa were selling the cabin. I hope, even though they were so little when we had such treasured memories there, that they remember.

Montego Bay, Jamaica

Excellence Oyster Bay, Montego Bay, Jamaica

The Bahamas.. Cancun.. Los Cabos.. the Dominican Republic… Jamaica has been our favorite of them all. Click here for a recap of my personal promotion of this island paradise with all of my tips and tricks of travel! There was a moment during our last trip in November where I just stopped and tried to soak in the moment, because it was glorious.

This trip we stayed where we have been hoping to visit for years: Excellence Oyster Bay. We ADORE the Excellence properties in the Caribbean; this was our third of five and it absolutely lived up to our hopes (Brian’s favorite of our visits so far!) Located on the northern part of the island on it’s own little peninsula, you are cut off from the rest of the world for a few blissful days. Brian and I wandered the beach one day and found a magical spot… sandy, white beach, hidden behind a line of trees. In front of you, the serenity of the ocean, and to your left, the majesty of the mountains. Just us – just this tropical Eden. It was like a hidden little paradise no one had ever visited before except us.. and I wanted to stay forever.

90,000 Happy People

Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Nebraska * August 14, 2021

Sometimes.. God’s beauty manifests in a place even when that beauty isn’t within the place itself.

That was deep. I think.

I visited my final Most Beautiful Place In the World on August 14, 2021.. Garth Brooks at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. 90,000 people packed the stadium for the sold out show, the music legend’s largest EVER by the time the night was over. There is something so reaffirming about concerts – how often do we see tens of thousands of people together – happy – at the same time? No bickering, no divisive rhetoric or hate. Just people united as one to enjoy life for a few hours.

THERE IS NO BETTER PERFORMER THAN GARTH BROOKS.

Even if you don’t like country, it was hard to argue that this night was something almost medicinal. It had been 19 months since we’d been amid so many other human beings. At that point, we had once again begun a vicious debate cycle of masks and COVID-19 protocols in school, but on this night – only smiling faces, laughter and pure joy in the memories these songs reminded us of. We were surrounded by our good friends Brian, Lisa, Toni and Greg.. and across the stadium we knew countless other friends were in their own seats, enjoying the same thing we were at that exact same moment. It was almost a mythical reality – beauty that would disappear from that place as soon as Garth stepped off stage – but captured in our memories all the same.

***

Logic would indicate I would call this blog post ‘The Most Beautiful Places in the World’… but what the heck do I know? I just read a biography in which the author, only a few years older than me, had visited something like 130 countries. I’ve only been as far west as Hawaii, as far east as the Dominican Republic. But what I’ve realized every time I’ve experienced a magical moment.. and now, as I’ve relieved those moments reflecting on such great memories.. there is so much beauty in the world. The tough times, the chatter, the chaos… it’s all just background noise. Find the good – find the beauty.

That’s all I know so far.

4 thoughts on “Wanderlust: All I Know So Far

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