Highlights from a travel year out of the comfort zone

From flying in a vintage bomber over Ypsilanti to golfing in Spain and soaking in thermal baths in Budapest, 2018 was a stellar travel year

Susan R. Pollack
Special to The Detroit News
Taking a break above Salzburg, Austria. (photo credit: S. R. Pollack)

Overcoming darkness, language confusion and near-panic as we scrambled to catch the overnight train from Prague to Krakow ranks among my top travel memories of 2018.

In a year that took me to eight European countries and seven American states, not missing that train epitomizes the sometimes-frustrating challenges – and much-appreciated rewards – of getting out of my comfort zone to see the world.

(NOTE: This post was originally published on our previous blogging platform on Dec. 25, 2018. It is being republished here to re-launch our Travel Blog.)

And this year the highlights were many, from spending our April wedding anniversary admiring scads of blooming tulips, hyacinths and daffodils at Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam to river-cruising past dozens of castles along Germany’s Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, aboard the Scenic Ruby.

Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam in full bloom.

After our eight-day cruise from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, we used the Eurailpass to visit several cities by train, including Salzburg, Austria, with its charming Old Town, “Sound of Music” sites and Mozart’s birthplace museum, and Prague in the Czech Republic, where we took a spontaneous break from sightseeing to attend an afternoon string quartet concert in Lichtenstein Palace.

In Budapest we explored my family’s Hungarian roots, enjoyed free afternoon piano concerts with other guests at Aria Hotel Budapest, relaxed in thermal baths at Hotel Gellert, and admired the sights on a Danube River night-cruise.

Krakow, Poland, was a delight, from historic Wawel Castle to the lively and well-preserved Main Market Square with horse-drawn carriages and the traditional hourly bugle call emanating from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica.  And a tour of Oskar Schindler’s Factory-turned-museum was both sobering and enlightening.

While researching a food story in Badem-Wurttemberg, Germany, I sampled white asparagus in myriad dishes and even got to cut a few stalks after digging into dirt mounds that shield them from the sun on a farm in Schwetzingen, the birthplace of Germany’s favorite springtime vegetable.

I also learned how to make ravioli-like pasta pockets called Maultaschen in a cooking class at the 850-year-old Maulbronn Monastery northwest of Stuttgart and watched schnapps being made at the Distillery Franz Fies in Oberkirch in the Black Forest near Strasbourg. 

Heidelberg was another 2018 stand-out. We toured Heidelberg Castle and Old Town, sampled beer at Vetter’s Alt-Heidelberger Brauhaus, took a Saturday night dinner-cruise on the Neckar River and enjoyed the atmosphere and amenities at the five-star hotel, Europaischer Hof.

This fall, while on a golf tour in the Alicante region of Spain, we golfed within view of the Mediterranean at Parador El Saler, one of the country’s scenic, government-run hotels. We also visited the vibrant city of Valencia with its stunning Santiago Calatrava-designed City of Arts and Sciences Museum.

Spanish food highlights included fresh Valencia orange juice at Villa Gadea, a luxury resort in Altea; paella at nearby Altea Golf Club, and, arguably, the world’s best brownie at Golf & Country Club La Marquesa in Rojales.

Invented in Valencia, the rice-based dish called paella is the Spanish national dish, served here on the terrace at Altea Golf Club.

Domestic trips also served up memorable moments, from Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum and night-views of the city from the famed Duquesne Incline to sampling frozen custards and beers on tasting tours in Milwaukee. I was impressed by Milwaukee’s many museums, including the Grohmann, Pabst, Harley-Davidson and another Calatrava design, the Milwaukee Art Museum.

With historic and contemporary skyscrapers looming on both banks, a  Chicago River architecture cruise aboard the First Lady was a Windy City highlight, along with a stop at the American Writers Museum and dinner at one of the city’s new restaurants, TAO. (Try the Chilean sea bass appetizer and the giant, mousse-filled fortune cookie that’s big enough for five).

In-between visiting Civil War sites and museums in Gettysburg, we followed a special “PourTour” map and sampled craft beverages — wines, beers, ciders and spirits — around Adams County, a noted apple-growing region.

When our couples’ Book Club met in Austin in October, we enjoyed live music at practically every meal, including Sunday breakfast at the Hippie Church at Maria’s Taco Xpress and Sunday dinner at El Gaucho, an Argentinian winery in the Texas Hill Country west of town.

Atlanta offers a year-round smorgasbord of attractions – there’s something for all ages and interests. Among my favorites were the Georgia Aquarium with its whale sharks, beluga whales, big-bellied seahorses, manta rays and sea otters; the recently-refreshed High Museum of Art; and the Center for Civil and Human Rights, whose thought-provoking exhibits pack an emotional wallop.

Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, including King’s boyhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, is another must-see, while the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum offers a fascinating look at the life and times of the nation’s 39th president.

After all that sightseeing, the smoked salmon chips appetizer and the creamy macaroni and cheese at Two Urban Licks, overlooking the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine, rank among the year’s tastiest treats.

Outside Atlanta in Conyers, Georgia, I got a glimpse into the spiritual life of  Trappist monks while touring Monastery of the Holy Spirit, where prayer services are held seven times daily.  After admiring the Abbey Church, bonsai garden and monk-made stained glass, a stop in the gift shop was in order. The flaky biscotti and moist, Southern-style fruitcake from the monks’ bakery make great gifts. Check

The Abbey Church at Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, GA.

Back in Michigan, watching surfers ride Lake Michigan waves on a windy August day in St. Joseph was exhilarating, as was strolling among pine trees towering above Midland’s new Whiting Forest Canopy Walk at Dow Gardens.

And, while it was not in my comfort zone, I joined travel-writer friends on a flight aboard the Yankee Warrior, a World War II B-25 bomber, out of the Yankee Air Museum at Ypsilanti’s Willow Run Airport. Soaring above Michigan Stadium and other familiar local landmarks was a rush. Check for details on vintage plane flights May to October.

A final highlight: being honored at a conference in DeKalb County, GA, with a Mark Twain Award from the Midwest Travel Journalists Association for my 2017 posts in this Detroit News travel blog– woohoo!

Here’s to getting out of your personal comfort zone and enjoying many enriching travel experiences in 2019.

Cheers to happy travels in 2019 from a dinner  cruise in Heidelberg.

Globetrotting journalist and former Detroit News staff writer Susan R. Pollack has covered travel since 1985, visiting scores of countries on five continents, 49 states, six Canadian provinces and hundreds of cities, islands and outposts along the way. From Alaska, the Galapagos and New Zealand to South Africa, Thailand and Wales, she has suffered the occasional lost luggage, jetlag and Montezuma’s revenge but still delights in sharing travel adventures with readers. In addition to The Detroit News, her award-winning stories and photos have appeared in major newspapers including the Dallas News, Toronto Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Chicago Sun Times; and magazines including Delta Sky, Midwest Living, Long Weekends, Experience Michigan, Jetsetter, Home & Away, Lakeland Boating, Hour Detroit, Prevue Meetings and Group Tour. She has contributed to several books including "Rand McNally 2008 Ultimate NASCAR Road Trip Guide." She also writes for websites including, and