And our Trafalgar destination is . . .

{Photo by Alain Picard}

Considering I spend most of my day at my desk, I look at its cluttered surface often. There are the snow globes on my right from New York, London, California; little things I pick up on vacations so I can daydream when I’m workin’ 9-to-5. I have my page-a-day book calendar and stack of postcards I’ve received through Postcrossing. In my drawers are stickers, contraband candy, breakfast food and stacks of job-related paperwork. Chapstick. Old notes from features I finished and pay stubs.

For better or worse, this is my natural habitat. I am a writer. I sit at a computer all day, glancing up at some of the natural light filtering in, and perch at my desk with my Diet Coke and pens. It has been this way always. And I wonder if it will always be this way.

Most of the time, I don’t mind — I mean, I am who I am. I like my job. But when winter slips off its heavy coat to reveal spring, all fresh and sparkly clean, I start thinking about getting away (on vacation, that is). Time for a change of scenery — and a change of pace. Time for something new.

And that’s just what I’ll get in May — when we’re in San Francisco.

After much discussion, Spencer and I finally decided on a vacation destination for the spring: Northern California! Though I’ve been to the Golden State a few times, it was usually to the Los Angeles/San Diego area. San Francisco is one of my dad’s favorite places on Earth, and I grew up hearing stories of his visits. My parents honeymooned there in 1980, and we went as a family a few times when I was young. But it’ll be totally different seeing it as an adult with a camera and handsome guy on her arm. I’m stoked.

Thanks to the lovely folks at Trafalgar, our tour stops include San Francisco, Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, San Juan Bautista, Carmel and Monterey. We’ll be taking walking tours, gazing at waterfalls, drinking wine, riding in a hot air balloon (scary but awesome) and generally whiling away the week or so we’ll be gone. I’m ecstatic and very thankful to have been given this opportunity, which I won through Trafalgar’s “WOW!” contest last fall. The surprise of a lifetime.

I see another awesome snow globe in my future. And many, many Wordless Wednesday posts.

Anywhere in the world: Or how I won the coolest contest ever

Just last week, Spencer and I sat chatting. A cooking show hummed in the background. I turned to him as I often do, posing Big Issue questions.

“If money weren’t an object,” I started, “and you could go anywhere in the world — anywhere — where would you go?”

He turned to me with a thoughtful expression, his bottom lip puckering slightly. “I . . . would have to think about that,” he replied carefully. “I really don’t know.”

“Think about it.”

“. . . I don’t know. How about you? Where would you go?”

Visions of sunsets in Greece or sunrises in Hawaii danced before my eyes. I thought of Scotland and delicious meals there, and of Italy’s history and rich architecture. I thought of London, my favorite city, and of Big Ben. The Thames. The Tube.

I thought of the many places I hope to see someday and the things I want to experience. The vistas that will take my breath away. The spots rich in history and culture and beauty, and all the things I want to capture with my camera.

And something incredible has happened.

In April I toured through England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Wales with Trafalgar Tours, an awesome tour company with planned excursions all over the globe. I’ve recounted many of my adventures from that trip (with more to come!) and had so much fun with my family. We saw more in 10 days than I could have imagined and made many warm memories.

Trafalgar recently put out a call for “WOW!” moments from past travelers, asking participants to send in stories and photos of their favorite times on Trafalgar vacations. Dad showed me the travel magazine with information on the contest. Thinking of our trip isn’t hard for me — and neither is writing about it.

Without much thought, I sat down and wrote up five paragraphs on my “wow” moment from Woodstown on the Irish Sea — an incredible place where I danced with a local, sipped Smithwick’s and made friends with an Irish dog. It was at the end of our trip, which had been a rollicking adventure all over the United Kingdom. I was enchanted with the Scottish, Irish and English we encountered, and felt distinctly at home everywhere we went.

It was “foreign,” yes, but in the best way possible.

I sent in my entry.

Thoughts of the contest fell by the wayside, buried under months of vigorous work and busy weekends.

On Friday, slumped over at my desk after a work pot luck, I was listlessly scanning my email and waiting for the work day to end. Useless since my big lunch hours before, I was so tired that I had awkwardly tried to stand and fell out of my rolling desk chair. In front of my coworkers.

And that almost happened again minutes later.

At 4:45 p.m., an email marked “important” landed in my inbox. It was from Trafalgar. About the contest I’d entered two months ago.

I won.

I won the grand prize. My “wow” moment was picked by the company for publication in their magazine’s fall issue, and what was my reward?

A complimentary trip for two on any Trafalgar tour.

Any tour. Up to 10 days. Anywhere in the world.

Anywhere. In the world.

As soon as I processed the message, my hands started to shake. I’d known the stakes when I entered, sure, but never thought I would actually win. I mean, who wins a free vacation? Those are reserved for Internet scammers and radio competitions, right? You have to be the tenth caller on the tenth day of the tenth month or answer 10,000 trivia questions or something.

You don’t just win a free vacation.

But I have, friends. I’ve won a free vacation to take in 2012. It’s on the website and everything.

And I’m faced with the best possible dilemma — an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel anywhere my heart desires. I’m left answering the very question I posed to Spencer:

If money weren’t an object and you could go (almost) anywhere in the world, where would you go?

My God, the possibilities.

I’ve had a week to calm down and think and plan. I’ve narrowed down my choices to two continents — yes, because that is helpful — and figure I want to go somewhere mountainous and beautiful. Somewhere I can take pictures. Somewhere I would never go on my own, because I’d be too nervous or wouldn’t bother.

France, because I need to see Paris. I just . . . do. And the French countryside? I almost feel as if I’ve already been there, having read about it so often in novels — but that’s not the real thing, of course. And there are tours that tackle both France and Switzerland, and also others that cut a large swath through France, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.

That sounds awesome, and is heavily my favorite right now.

But there are the Rocky Mountains of Canada, too. And Western Canada. I’ve never visited our neighbor to the north save one trip to Toronto years before (and Niagara Falls, too), and the scenery calls to me. I don’t much about Canada (bad neighbor!) but am certainly willing to learn.

And then there’s Greece, the original answer to the question I posed — a question I never thought I would honestly get to consider. The beautiful coast and Santorini, cite of the Traveling Pants books I love. Olympia. Delphi. Athens.

Needless to say, life has just gotten way more interesting.

I’m in no hurry to make a decision. In fact, I’d really like to milk this for all its worth! I didn’t know when I’d be able to take an international trip again after last year’s excursion, and I definitely never thought I’d go on a trip I didn’t have to pay for (aside from pesky things like airfare, of course). As planning a vacation is half the fun, I’ll be planning until my little OCD heart’s content.

I really can’t wait.

So tell me, friends: where would you go? Money is no object. You have all the time in the world. Where, where would you go?

British escape, part V: Burns supper in the Scottish Highlands, Scotland

This is my fifth post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.

Undoubtedly one of my favorite moments on our great British adventure in April was our Burns Supper, or an evening we spent in the Scottish highlands eating delicious (and sort of scary) food, enjoying Scottish music and watching a spectacular sunset with our fellow tour group members.

If you’ve never heard of Robert Burns, “Scotland’s favourite son,” let me give you a brief introduction: he’s the most famous Scottish poet to have ever lived, most argue; his “Address To a Haggis” is epic and exceedingly well-known; and he was quite the charismatic chap with a reputation for lovin’ and leavin’ the ladies, if you pick up what I’m putting down. He’s well-known for verses like “A Red, Red Rose,” and our introduction to Burns’ work was highly entertaining.

Leading up to our Burns Night, we really didn’t know what to think. My sister and I actually had a running gag that this “supper” was going to be in the living room of some poor soul’s home. When forty of us arrived with our giant “coach” and blocked their narrow Scottish street, the innkeeper and their entertainers would have to run and duck for cover.

But not so. After spending a few minutes admiring the Scottish countryside, including the photo at top and the tower above, we arrived at a cozy hotel and were immediately greeted by gentleman in honest-to-goodness kilts. If you don’t think a man can look attractive in a plaid skirt? Ladies, get on a plane to Edinburgh. (Spencer, if you’re reading this, look away — like, go get some coffee or something.) As the gentle lilt of bagpipes poured over us, we exchanged smiles with a man and his sweetly-smiling son. And could you have pushed this American chick over with a feather when Duncan, the innkeeper’s very attractive son, asked how she was enjoying Scotland? YES. Yes, you could.

I didn’t take any pictures of Duncan. I was trying not to look creepy and bring disgrace to the good name of America. But I did get photos of the gentleman playing the bagpipes. And, you know, Duncan’s dad. And the sunset, upon which I was gazing and thinking, “Wow, it’s sunset. And I’m in Scotland.”

After enjoying the fading rays of another day in the Scottish Highlands, we migrated indoors and relaxed at a table with my parents, sister and a duo of our favorite travelers, Merv and his wife from Australia. I appreciated how understanding they were of our questions about things like Australian culture, money and politics. Not to go off on too much of a tangent, but one of the greatest things about touring with an organized group like Trafalgar Tours is the opportunity to meet so many different people. Though we don’t always keep up afterward, it’s fascinating to meet families and couples from our the world during your amazing trip together. No matter what, you’re always linked in that way. And it’s really such fun.

So dinner was interesting, warm and engaging. Duncan’s father — and that’s who he is; the talented innkeeper who kept us all in stitches — began to give Robert Burns’ most famous address: the one to a haggis. After poking fun at the tourists about what a haggis really is (and if you don’t know, maybe you don’t want to), a casing was brought out to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the room. Our entertainer recited Burns’ poem, asked for volunteers and put on a very amusing show.

So how was the famous haggis, a delicacy most people on the tour were brave enough to try — even my mother? Not too bad, really. Meaty. Warm. Kind of squishy, but not gross. Sort of like sausage, really, but with a spicier kick than I’m used to eating. Not the most awesome thing in the world, but definitely not the most terrible. And since it was an absolute requirement that we do a shot of Scottish whisky (that’s whisky, friends, not whiskey) before consumption, that warm buzz might have helped me push through it.

Our evening ended with authentic highland dancing and more lovely bagpipe music, and I was filled with the bubbly enthusiasm that typically accompanies an interesting evening out, good food and good company. Though jet leg was my constant companion during this entire trip, I really didn’t want the night to end. Waving goodbye to everyone as we boarded the bus again, I couldn’t help but think about whether or not I’d ever find that little tucked-away corner of the world again.

And the answer is “probably not,” because I really have no clue where we were.

That’s the other adventure of going on an organized tour: all the legwork is done for you. You sit back, relax . . . and wind up in very random locations you’d never be able to find by yourself.

Pros and cons to everything.