Traveling has its challenges—canceled flights, lost passports, maxed-out credit cards, security scares, you name it. But more often than not, at the end of the day, the thrill of becoming acquainted with a new place—and the people who call it home—outweighs the risks of leaving home. It can even be transformative.

When I was growing up, flipping through the pages of a travel magazine took me out of my life and into a world I desperately wanted to experience for myself.

Now, as a travel writer myself, I get to explore new destinations all the time. But there are some trips that stand out more than others—the ones that changed my life in some meaningful way.

Here are five transformative experiences I’d recommend to everyone:

> Ireland

Given my last name, it’s no surprise that I adore Ireland. The Irish have a special ability of making you feel welcome and poking fun in a way that, somehow, makes you feel great.

At this point, I’ve visited the Emerald Isle ten times, including a few trips with my family. I’ve biked the Aran Islands, driven the cragged edges of the Dingle Peninsula, and luxuriated in the history and warmth of Ashford Castle.

For me, Frank and Joan Maher, the owners of Petra House B&B in Galway, represent the ultimate in Irish charm. I wonder how Irish people learn it, and if it really is in their blood. In any case, it doesn’t get much better than being served warm scones and jam after a day of rainy exploration.

> The Mekong River

(Photograph by Vadim, flickr)
A small boat navigates the Mekong in Vietnam. (Photograph by Vadim, flickr)

This is the trip that I can’t stop thinking about, even six months after returning home. I sailed the Mekong River for four nights, from Saigon in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on the Aqua Mekong with just 40 fellow passengers.

In the sultry Southeast Asian heat, we took skiff boats to explore islands that few tourists have seen and biked for miles through chili fields and past temples. The intimacy of the ship—and sharing such special and enriching experiences—turned strangers into lifelong friends.

It is rare to meet people who have as much contagious passion for what they do as Francesco Galli Zugaro, the founder of Aqua Expeditions, and his wife, Birgit. The proprietors of the family-owned company moved their kids to Singapore for two years while they built the boat—whose contemporary, understated decor reflects their own home’s design—and continue to pay personal attention to every last detail of the guest experience.

Galápagos Islands

Last year, when I boarded the National Geographic Endeavour for an expedition to the Galápagos, I mistakenly brought two boxes of daily contact lenses for my right eye, leaving my left eye virtually blind. How was I going to experience the life-changing beauty of the islands if I could only see out of one eye?

I was boiling mad at myself. I happened to be going through one of the worst times of my life, which only amplified the crisis.

Luckily, I found an extra daily lens that I could wear for a few days. And as time went on, the islands, in their hypnotic way, showed me how small my problems were—how solvable everything could be.

My therapy became early-morning hikes, swimming with fearless creatures in pristine water, and relaxing with a glass of white wine on the upper deck in the glorious, equatorial sunshine. Plus, my mind was constantly engaged by lectures from on-ship experts and interactions with like-minded travelers. I disembarked feeling like a new person.

> Switzerland

I read Heidi when I was a little girl and always dreamed of visiting an Alpine village one day. As I grew older, visions of bubbling fondue and sweet chocolate danced in my head.

When I finally was able to travel to Switzerland, it was exactly what I hoped it would be. Even now, after nearly a dozen visits, Switzerland continues to deliver—and surprise. (Where else can you stumble upon a cow auction in Gstaad, then zip back to the urban powerhouse Zurich on the most pleasant train system in the world?)

This year, I was blown away by the hospitality I experienced at jaw-dropping hotels like The Carlton in St. Moritz and The Chedi in Andermatt. But despite all the global grandeur to be found in Switzerland, it’s the simple things—hiking in the hills above Zermatt, sipping coffee in Lucernewith a view of the Chapel Bridge—that I cherish most.

> Cusco, Peru

Like many travelers, I went to Peru to see Machu Picchu. But it was Cusco, the red-roofed city bursting with history, that captured the joy and beauty of modern Peru for me—even though it took me a couple of days to adjust to being more than 11,000 feet above sea level.

My visit coincided with the grand opening of the Belmond’s Palacio Nazarenas, a hotel housed in a former convent that has claimed a spot on the list of my favorite places in the world.

I spent much of my time on my own in Cusco, exploring the tiny shops in the San Blas neighborhood, strolling the Museo de Plantas del Cusco, people-watching in the Plaza de Armas, and hiking up to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, an Inca citadel on the outskirts of town.

It was on this trip that I discovered that I actually enjoy my own company—and it was here that I fell head-over-heels in love with South America.

Annie Fitzsimmons 

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