Readers share highlights of 2013 travels

I recently shared my travel highlights from 2013, which included moments both huge (the top of Mount Kilimanjaro) and small (watching the rain fall in La Jolla, Calif.). I asked readers to share theirs, and they responded in force.

Here are highlights, which have been edited for space and clarity.

Monument Valley in northeast Arizona is out of the way, and there isn't much around it in terms of places to stay and eat. I drove through it on a Jeep tour in June and was overcome with the feeling that I felt as if I were on Mars. Amazing landscape. Breathtaking. Worth the trip.

— Laura Font, Elmhurst, Ill.

My wife and I visited Normandy, France, in September. Time spent at the D-Day beaches and reflecting on the shared sacrifices of the Allied invasion force are memories that will never leave me.

— Don Popillo,Glastonbury, Conn.

Kailua is a small town 30 minutes northeast of Honolulu with the most beautiful beach I have seen. There is no plant material in the water, which makes it a downer for fishing or snorkeling, but an absolute joy for stand-up paddle boarding. Asking my instructor how deep the water was, he offered, "Probably 20 feet." I could see the bottom clearly. That's when I noticed a "swimmer" coming toward me, head down. When he got within 5 feet, I realized it was a sea turtle. I was so surprised I fell off my paddle board!

— Deb Gulbrandson, Cary, Ill.

Our surprise highlight came from the Yarmouth Clam Festival in Yarmouth, Maine, in July. It was charming! It was relaxing! It was wonderful! The best part was seeing a full community effort hosting this festival. It reminded my husband and me of a bygone era.

— Joy Michele Katzenberg, Reisterstown, Md.

Flights to the start of our Himalaya trek to Everest Base Camp were canceled because of persistent fog and snow. We instead trekked to the aptly named Annapurna Sanctuary, an area surrounded by a visual feast of glaciers and towering snow-capped 25,000-foot mountains. Travel reminds us to be patient and open-minded. When things don't go as planned, the alternative is usually just as great and memorable.

— Mark and Mary Kay Biernacki, DeKalb, Ill.

Our trip to Oregon began with a book recommendation from a former classmate: Stephen Ambrose's telling of the Lewis and Clark expedition, "Undaunted Courage." As our plane was on its final approach into Portland, Lewis and Clark were reaching the same point in the book. What took the Corps of Discovery many months to travel, we had accomplished in less than four hours, all while viewing from 30,000 feet the same terrain the Corps had struggled through.

— Ed Leighton, Chicago

Aurland is nestled in the Norwegian fjords and just off the main tourist route. From the town, my husband and I took an overgrown hiking trail to a Mount Prest lookout above the fjord. Photos don't adequately capture the brilliant colors and scale — 4,200-foot peaks towering above ice-blue water where ferry boats seem like tiny specks. Our 12-mile round-trip hike gave us a vast view that we had to ourselves.

— Kelly Spong, St. Charles, Ill.

Pearl Harbor was exceptional. We were amazed at the museum, which taught us new facts about the event. Even our teens felt the solemn atmosphere surrounding the area.

— Pam Keseric, Hinsdale, Ill.

I went to see my grandparents in Pueblo, Colo. We worked in my grandpa's woodworking shop, and we went fishing.

— Nolan Shen (age 7), Naperville, Ill.

I have been on some of the biggest public transportation systems — London, Paris, New York — but I have never seen a transit system like Tokyo's. Your initial impression when looking at the transit map is that it's a plate of spaghetti, but spend a little time with it, and you'll realize what a thing of beauty it is. Clean, fast and efficient, you can get anywhere in a metropolitan area of 30-plus million people in less than half an hour. It's a reason in itself to visit Tokyo.

— Bob Radlowski, Chicago

On the way home from Michigan, an unexpected snowstorm descended, so we stopped to spend the night in one of our favorite towns: Saugatuck. We usually visit during the summer when the town is teeming with visitors, but on this December weeknight, the streets were quiet and deserted. We found a local bar on one of the main streets called Phil's and had what might have been one of the best dinners ever. The bar was filled with locals who chatted about their day at work and just wanted to unwind. In all of our visits, we had never eaten there. We sat in the window, looking at the street, surrounded by what almost seemed like friends.

— Jan and John Dietzen, Valparaiso, Ind.

My best trip this year was a cross-country road trip with my dog, Harley, to take her to my daughter's new home in the Seattle area. I drove four days across five states with her and saw more of my country than I have ever seen in my 50-plus years. I have traveled all over the world, and this trip stuck with me more than almost any other.

— Julie Tourville, Carmel, Ind.

Learning to swim has been on my bucket list forever, but, alas, I cannot seem to conquer it. This year my husband and I went to Australia and New Zealand, and with the help of a device called a Scuba Doo (an underwater "scooter"), I was able to "swim" in the Great Barrier Reef. My heart was pounding, but I said to myself it's now or never. I squeezed into a wetsuit and became a very ecstatic person. I've crossed swimming off the list, and what could have been better than the Great Barrier Reef?

— Belinda Silber, Chicago

I had always wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park in the winter, and I got the opportunity in February during a cross-country ski trip. Gliding through the wintry landscape with geothermal features sending up water and steam all around was magical. Even in the winter, the bison rule, as we found out when our snow coach was surrounded by a group of them one morning!

— Paula Matzek, Mount Prospect, Ill.

My husband and I drove to Glacier National Park to do some hiking and camping. At Bismarck, N.D., we decided to follow the scenic route, but little did we know that we were heading into the fractured heart of the North Dakota oil boom. Scenic no more — roads crowded with trucks, air gritty with dirt, and miles upon miles of ranch and farmland scarred with pumping and storage facilities — we stumbled into the Lewis and Clark State Park and pitched our tent 20 feet above the gentle Missouri River. When the sun went down, we counted 28 burning "torches" on the landscape, indicating oil wells, and 11 lit towers of 24-hour-a-day drilling sites. We saw many breathtaking and beautiful sights on our trip; this was the most poignant, however, and remains seared in our memories.

— Ellen Henderson Smith, Glenview, Ill.

My sister and I visited our cousins in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's a beautiful area, but the highlight was a visit to Mount Rushmore. No matter how many pictures you've seen, it is stunning in person, and we felt privileged to see it. And, not surprisingly, patriotic!

— Barbara Grady, Reisterstown, Md.

Happy travels in 2014.

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