Every year since 2017, we have taken the time to write a year-end review. Not only does it help document our travels, but it also forces us to reflect on our experiences, what we accomplished, what we missed out on, and our thoughts along the way. What started as a great year of slow travel around the United States, finished with us adopting a “it’s now or never” mantra, ending the year with checking off a huge bucket list item internationally.
Let’s take a look at where 2023 took us this past year.
It’s Now or Never
Following 2020, the geopolitical climate continues to intensify. In late 2024 the EU will implement facial recognition scans and fingerprint checks under the new EU Entry/Exit System (EES). Additionally, ETIAS will require travelers to get preauthorization before permitted entry into European member states.
In this system, documented travelers will be forced to comply with pre-determined rules by the EU. These implementations will put a stop to free and open movement around the majority of Europe. Pay attention to the wording surrounding this digital system.
According to the official ETIAS website, “Vaccines will remain a key factor in navigating international travel and fostering global connectivity in a post-pandemic world.” Fearful of the coming ultra-restrictive government measures, we knew that it was time to cross off any remaining bucket list destinations within EU member countries—just in case.
For us, 2023 was a great year of slow travel—with views out our windows ever-changing. Driving the length of the country, we traveled from historic Virginia to sunny California with long layover stops in between. However, after two years of being stateside, it finally was time to travel internationally.
Historic East Coast
Not many people would consider February a good month to set off on a road trip. However, winter is a great time to explore America’s East Coast. Quiet roads and fewer tourists make for a more pleasurable experience. Planning an epic historic tour, we visited Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
En route, we realized we’d be near Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day. A spontaneous diversion, we found great joy in visiting the town on February 1 (one day before Groundhog Day) which inspired one of our all-time favorite movies, “Groundhog Day.”
Additionally, Gettysburg was a destination that we had wanted to see for a long time. During our visit, the city was still beautifully decorated for the filming of “A Gettysburg Christmas.” Everything felt quaint, historic, and extra charming.
Always fans of pop-culture travel, it was also fun to see the “A Christmas Story” neighborhood and drive along the “Shawshank Redemption” filming trail, both located in Ohio.
From West Virginia, we made a quick stop in Kentucky to visit family. Traveling onward we arrived at our first multi-month destination—Branson Missouri. Our days were spent hiking around Table Rock Lake and walking the Branson Landing. We even took a dinner cruise aboard the Branson Belle.
In our opinion, Branson is also home to the very best family theme park in the country. It was great fun returning to Silver Dollar City and Big Cedar Lodge. This was where we first escaped together on a secret rendevous when we were 21 or 22 years old.
In our opinion, Missouri is probably the best state in the Midwest. If we had to settle somewhere close to Illinois, the rolling hills of the Lake of the Ozarks would probably be our first choice.
No matter how often we visit, we always have an amazing time in Las Vegas. After a gloomy spring in Missouri, we were excited to spend some days in the desert sunshine. During this visit, we checked out a new property called the Desert Rose Resort.
When we first left for our round-the-world backpacking trip in 2014, we planned to travel for two years and then move to Idaho. Nine years later, we finally experienced what life would be like living in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, just outside Yellowstone National Park.
For a few months, we lived in St. Anthony, Idaho—a small town of about 4,000. It was such a blessing to have our own cozy house! We look back on this part of 2023 with great fondness because everything surrounding us felt…nice. Afterward, we wrote about our time in the Greater Yellowstone area and shared our thoughts on calling Idaho home.
Venturing on, we made a point to stop to spend a few days in St. George. The city is safe, topographically gorgeous, and has a more mild climate than most of the cities in Utah. Therefore, it has attracted a lot of folks looking to relocate to the state. Chalking up a few days hiking, shopping, and exploring the community as research for our future, our time in St. George was time well spent.
Needing to kill time before our rental was ready in Arizona, we decided to spend a few more days in Las Vegas. Each time we visit, we try to check out a new resort, attraction, or experience to showcase on our website. We returned to our favorite Las Vegas resort and tried a family-friendly vacation club!
Unfortunately, we had just missed the grand reveal of the Vegas Sphere. This new global landmark made its debut on the 4th of July, a few weeks after our visit.
Our last stop on our road trip was in America’s Southwest to Lake Havasu—the hottest municipality in the USA. We spent almost three months here, renting from folks who we previously connected with through Airbnb. During this time we worked on health and wellness, swimming, and just soaking in all that scorching Arizona heat!
This was our third time to Lake Havasu and it probably won’t be our last. While we feel a little “America’d out,” if we had to choose a destination to set roots for a bit, it would likely be here. We love living lake life, and the patriotic community, and our bodies seem to appreciate the extreme desert heat.
Slowly heading back to Chicago, we made a stop in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Known to be one of the most relaxing spots to vacation in the U.S., we used this time to mentally prepare to transition back to the Midwest. We stayed at the ultra-nice Club Wyndham Pagosa Springs.
It was such a great property! It had a backyard patio with mountain views and fun perks like complimentary happy hours and free miniature golf. Of course, we made sure to hit up the natural hot springs that draw so many visitors to the quaint city.
As budget-savvy nomads, it is not often we get to enjoy our own single-family home. Through the grace of God, we had the opportunity to stay in two lovely houses this year.
Honestly, having privacy, extra living space, and not hearing neighbors makes transitioning back to backpacking kind of hard sometimes. It also makes staying with family members a little harder—we like being in our own space!
Back in the Midwest, we made another visit to Kentucky to visit family before heading back to Chicago to spend a few more weeks with our loved ones. Naturally, we always try to spend as much time with our nieces and nephews as possible.
Finally! Country 70
After leaving Albania in October 2021, we returned to the US and bought our getaway car. After two years of floating around the US, unfortunately, there were no longer any destinations that we felt drawn to explore. Realizing that we were starting to retrace our steps, even in the most obscure cities, we knew it was finally time to travel abroad.
Behind the scenes, we started earning airline miles and planning where we’d like to go next. Harry and I tossed around the idea of returning to our favorite countries. Unfortunately, if the last few years taught us anything, it is that normalcy and free movement is no longer a guarantee.
Determining the Destinations
Just as we did in 2014, to determine our next destination, we broke out the old “RTW” travel map. Spain was one of the few remaining countries still on our bucket list, so it was an easy decision. It was onward to Spain!
Living in Spain is a reminder of how much we love, love, love the Mediterranean. It is truly our favorite region in the world. In an attempt to savor the very last bit of warm weather for the year, our tour of Spain started along its Mediterranean coast. Landing in Barcelona, we traveled to Tarragona, Salou, Peñiscola, Alicante, and València.
Taking advantage of month-long rental rates, we booked a seaside apartment for 30 days in Calpe. With so many great beach towns to choose from, it took some research to make sure we landed in a good spot for an extended stay.
Overall, we were pleased with Calpe. It’s a big enough city where you can find everything you need but small enough where it’s still walkable and feels uncongested. The main attractions are its clean, soft sandy beaches and hiking trails. Miraculously, we didn’t have one day of rain. The highlight was climbing up the massive rock formation: Peñon d’Ifach.
After a quick stop in rainy Madrid, we headed to Basque country. With red and green as its nationalistic colors, it was a great place to get excited for the Christmas season. San Sebastian was a memorable stop with our first glimpse of holiday decorations and a gorgeous stay at an affordable boutique hotel.
It never fails to amaze us how quickly everything changes just by simply crossing a border from one country to another. Stepping off the train into France almost felt surreal. Coming from Spain, everything French felt increasingly more charming, sophisticated, and refined.
In France, we mainly explored three cities; Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Bayonne, and Lourdes.
As a quaint, coastal village, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is the quintessential French escape. Our days were spent eating macaroons, strolling the cobblestone streets, and taking photos of all the fun Christmas displays.
A city fit for royalty, Saint-Jean-de-Luz hosted the marriage of King Louis XIV to María Teresa, Infanta of Spain in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church. After so many churches were closed in Spain, we were surprised that the church doors were open so late at night. Each evening we would spend time reflecting in front of the gorgeous wooden altarpiece—the same one that King Louis XIV had married in front of back in 1660.
We took a long day trip to Bayonne where we enjoyed our first French Christmas market and later, enjoyed glasses of wine under a sparkling Christmas tree next to the Nive River. It would be one of the most magical evenings we had in Europe this year.
Afterward, we took the train toward the Pyrenees Mountains to visit the sacred city of Lourdes. With both religious and familial significance, it was the perfect city to kick off our pilgrimage.
While we both secretly didn’t want to leave France, it was time for the last blast of 2023. Back in Spain, it was time to finally check Audrey’s last big bucket list adventure, hiking a route of el Camino de Santiago.
El Camino de Santiago
Walking el Camino de Santiago has been on my bucket list for a long time. What’s funny is that before we left Chicago for Spain, I looked at Harry and said, “We aren’t planning on doing any long-distance hikes, right?”
“No,” he said, and we left our hiking gear in storage.
At the time, little did we know that in a few weeks, we’d walk el Camino Inglés.
El Camino Inglés
One of the reasons we did el Camino de Santiago this year is because this is one of the last remaining bucket list items that I would regret not completing in my lifetime. Fearful of what lies ahead for 2024, we have taken a no-holds-barred approach to try to check off all of the things we want to do and see while we still can. This is why we keep advocating for travelers to do what they want to do while travel is currently accessible.
Shorter, yet still officially accredited, el Camino Inglés perfectly aligned with us as travelers. We loved the coastal route, and Celtic history, and barely saw another soul as we walked The Way. After hiking through Galicia, we were blessed to arrive in Santiago de Compostela injury-free, and with clear blue skies nearly the entire time—unheard of for this time of year.
Like the millions of peregrinos before us know, the rhythm you find along The Way is addictive. For this reason, we’ve already begun planning our next long walk.
Santiago de Compostela
As the brilliant travel planner that he is, Harry’s itinerary took us into Santiago de Compostela right before Christmas. We attended a Peregrino Mass and midnight mass on Christmas Eve at The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
We set up a festive holiday table in our attic apartment with spectacular views of the Cathedral of Santiago and el Camino de Santiago finish point. It felt like a special Christmas this year in Spain.
Last Blast 2023
As we close out 2023, we are exploring our last region of Spain—Andalusia, visiting the cities of Córboda, Seville, and Málaga. We’re excited to see Málaga as it is recently experiencing an expatriate boom and we want to see what the fuss is all about for ourselves.
It feels good to be untethered again, traveling with only backpacks and our own two feet. As we approach the new year, we are truly happy to be international again. Yet, who knows what 2024 holds for us all?
Currently, we are holding our breath, grateful for each day that we are out in the world. However, do we think this pseudo-freedom is going to last much longer? Honestly? No.
We are bracing for impact as we get closer to the 2024 US Presidential election.
In the past we were planners, but with the current global instability these days we take life month-by-month. After our 90-day Schengen visa expires, we are headed to Serbia to check off another bucket list adventure. Following a few days in Belgrade, we are driving to Kikinda which is the Owl Capital of the World.
Afterward, we hope to experience Orthodox Epiphany someplace special on January 19th.
Normally, we’d resume our previous travel routine by heading to Croatia, especially with the Camino Krk now on our radar. Unfortunately, now that Croatia is a fully integrated Schengen Zone member, instead, we’ll hit up another country along the Adriatic Sea to enjoy life and get caught up with all of the writing we’d like to do. We’ll lie low someplace mild for the rest of winter, see where the world is, and take life from there.
Countries Visited in 2021: USA, Spain, and France
New Passport Stamps: Spain
Current Country Count: 70
Previous Year-End Reviews
2017: Our 2017 Year In Review and 2018 Travel Plans
2018: How to Write a Year-End Review and 2019 Travel Plans
2019: Our 2019 Year-End Review and 2020 Travel Plans
2020: Year-End Review | Kicking Off the Radical Twenties
2021: Year-End Review | This Is Our Country We Have to Defend It
2022: Life Update | Today We Embark on a Journey to Find a Hom