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AAA members' most memorable travel moments

Beautiful view of yosemite national park at sunset in California, USA Nature exalted: “Driving from Wawona through the tunnel into Yosemite Valley. It’s like being in a cathedral, and I’ve been to some of the best in the world.” —Kathy Biggs, Valencia, California. | Photo by f11photo/

In a recent Travel Smart column, Paul Lasley and Elizabeth Harryman reminisced about some of their most remarkable travel experiences—the kinds of surprise moments that gave them goose bumps—or “chicken skin,” as they say in Hawai‘i. We asked you to share your most memorable travel moments. Here are some of our favorite responses.


Wild things

Herds of zebra graze in African grasslands.

Photo by delbars/

I’ll never forget sitting alone on a small bench in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, watching nearby zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, and giraffes, and hearing their sounds, as well as those of distant elephants—an amazing moment in time.
—Jean L. Jacques, Palm Desert, California

On the move

Africa, Kenya. Wildebeest herd moving in fog.

Photo by Bill Young/Jaynes Gallery/

My most magnificent chicken-skin moments are from the Kenyan safari my dad took me on when he turned 80. Being among millions of wildebeests on migration is unforgettable! —Katie Shiban, Pasadena

You may also like: How Kenya's diversity offers a sustainable safari vacation for everyone


Street scene

The Mekong River runs through Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a busy road parallels the riverbank. People stroll along the promenade, sit and chat, and enjoy the early-evening cool in this hot, humid place. One evening, as dust from the traffic lingered in the air, along the busy road came an elephant with a man atop, backlit by the setting sun. Noisy, buzzy, clattery cars, bikes, and motorcycles surrounded the elephant, yet it calmly lumbered along, keeping pace with the slow-moving mechanized conveyances. —Sally Fouhse, Santa Barbara, California

Confronting the past

In Cambodia, I toured the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh. Our guide’s uncle had been a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime. She took us to a location where innocent citizens had been interrogated, beaten into “confessing” their opposition to the regime, and then executed. The bodies were piled up and dumped in large graves. The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979, during which time some 2 million Cambodian lives were lost to execution, starvation, and disease. —Kevin Bond, Coronado, California

You may also like: How I learned to take better photos on a Southeast Asia photography tour


The tower’s power

The Leaning tower of Pisa

Photo by f11photo/

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I walked through the archway leading to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But when my focus blurred out the tourist crowds and souvenir stands, this was that chicken-skin moment that I will never forget. The magnificent tower. Its grandeur. That precarious lean. Truly an architectural wonder gleaming against a cyan blue Italian sky. —Roslyn Jew, West Hills, California


Love story

Taj Mahal, Agra India

Photo by Sean Hsu/

For weeks, I traveled throughout India, embracing simple, everyday events and attempting to blend in with the locals. As an interior architect, a photographer, and a woman who had lost her beloved husband, I especially longed to see the Taj Mahal, a shrine to eternal love. I arrived by horse-drawn carriage in the early morning and sat in solitude alongside the reflecting pond, taking in the purity of the white marble and the beauty of the architecture. A surreal feeling swept over me. Looking around at the smiling faces reminded me that I was in a setting filled with eternal love for the past, but, more importantly, I was in a place that was providing eternal love for the present and the future. —Mitzi Mayer, San Diego

Life (almost) imitates art

I was watching Beecham House, a British ITV production set in India. Episode 6 featured a romantic moment with the two lead characters walking next to a grove of trees. Instinctively, I felt that I had recently walked along the same dirt path. I was thrilled to the point of chicken skin as the couple arrived possibly at the same time of early evening next to the exact low wall where I had sat at dusk just a few months prior—in Agra, India, with the Taj Mahal gleaming in the background. Too bad I didn’t have a handsome costar at my side to make it double chicken skin. —Karen Dorame, Wildomar, California


Ancient gallery

the drawings from the ceiling of Altamira cave in Santillana Del Mar, Cantabria, Spain

Photo by Mirce Bezergheanu/

In the summer of 1970, my brother and I backpacked through Europe. Outside Madrid, we were offered a lift to Santillana del Mar. Our driver, an art teacher from San Diego, was headed to the Cave of Altamira, so we went along. What splendid serendipity! Scrabbling on my back into that tiny space in the cave and gazing up at those stunning Paleolithic paintings of bison and deer will forever be a highlight of my lifetime of travel. —Nancy O’Connor, Redlands, California

Spires to greatness

Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona

Photo by Wendy Rauw/Getty Images

Antoni Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona has been under construction for over 135 years and is scheduled for completion in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. It stood at the top of my list when I visited Spain 25 years ago. At that time, the basilica felt more like a construction site than a place of worship. On my recent trip, I saw the Sagrada Família in depth. The details mimic nature’s beauty, from the leaves and flowers on the nativity facade to the white and gray stone pillars in the interior that imitate an organic forest. The moment that made my breath catch came when the sun emerged from behind a cloud and shone through the stained-glass windows, bathing the temple in a rainbow of light and color. —Karen Wytmans, Encinitas, California

You may also like: Exploring world-class food and wine in Spain’s La Rioja region


Color wheel

Beautiful Moraine lake in Banff national park, Alberta, Canada

Photo by surangaw/

My husband, Michael, and I drove from Glacier National Park in Montana to Lake Louise in Canada. After making the very long trip in one day, we arrived weary. Before checking in to our hotel, we tramped through the parking lot and made a turn. The mountaintops were purple, while the deep blue of the lake shimmered. I gasped. Riveted, I stood planted as the glory of Lake Louise revealed itself. —Ina Massler Levin, Long Beach, California

A sense of belonging

Fortress of Louisbourg,Canada,15,2017:Old fort rebuilt in Nova Scotia

Photo by Teresa Gomez Puertas/

Several years ago, I traveled to Nova Scotia with my parents. We visited the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, a reconstructed French colonial town and fortress from the 1700s. While walking the cobblestone streets and touring the stone buildings, I had this overwhelming feeling I had been there, lived there, and belonged there. It came from the core of my being. My heart ached. This is my home! I do not believe in reincarnation, nor am I aware of any French or Canadian background in my family tree. But the emotion was unmistakable. I did not want to leave. —Vikki Hall, Temecula, California


Dynastic marvel

Great Wall of China at the Jinshanling section

Photo by zhaojiankang/

The first time I laid eyes on the Great Wall of China, I was speechless—the pure magnitude of that structure moved me. —Margarita Hetzel, La Verne, California

Monte Carlo

Jet-set playground

Monte Carlo

Photo by Leslie Yap

The first port on our Mediterranean cruise stands out as the most breathtaking—Monte Carlo. I practically had to pinch myself as our ship docked ever closer to the amazing array of yachts below the famous casino, perched majestically above it all. —Sue Clouse, Moorpark, California


Letter perfect

Pulling into Haifa Harbor in Israel, the place of my ancestors, and seeing buildings with Hebrew lettering. —Eileen Gaudette, San Diego


Royal fortress

A night shot of Edinburgh Castle taken from a low angle on a wed night.

Photo by Billy Currie/Getty Images

During a visit with our expat son and his family in northern England, we took a side trip to Scotland. The train arrived in Edinburgh at the underground Waverly Station. Our chicken-skin moment was seeing the majestic Edinburgh Castle and skyline, with bagpipes playing in the square as we emerged. —Sally and Gary Fry, Ridgecrest, California

Looking glass

Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland

Photo by Richie Chan/

During a tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland, I found myself briefly alone in Mary, Queen of Scots’ bedroom. As I looked at my reflection in the silvered mirror, I got a shiver, realizing this mirror had reflected her face all those years ago. —Janice Peters, Morro Bay, California


Following the light

Stained glass windows in the Gloucester cloister hallways.

Photo by Rich Vintage/Getty Images

On a cloudy day in England, my husband and I were inside one of the many churches we visited because he insisted a member of his family was buried in one of them. We started looking for his family name. Do you know how big these famous churches are? My husband started on one side, and I started on the other. Well, after about an hour, I was ready to give up, so instead of looking for the name, I started looking at the wonders of the church, including the stained-glass windows. All of a sudden, the sun came out and I saw dust mites dancing in a beam of light coming through one of the windows. It was absolutely beautiful. Just for kicks, I followed the beam (and the dust mites) to see where it went. It landed on a crypt in the wall that had my husband’s family name—Hurst—on it. For a minute I couldn’t talk, and then I yelled for him (yes, yelled even though I was in a church) to come over from the other side. He was amazed. I still get goose bumps when I think about this.
—Kerry Park, Bullhead City, Arizona

Elevated music

St Martin-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square - London

Photo by Leonid Andronov/

In London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, I attended a concert of Handel’s music. At the end, the conductor said, “Let’s all stand and sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus. ’  ” So, there we were, hundreds of people standing and singing my favorite choral piece in an 18th-century church that was lit by candles. —Rosemary Abend, Torrance, California

French Polynesia

South Pacific spell

Bora Bora, French Polynesia, Society Islands

Photo by Matteo Colombo/

As our ship approached Bora Bora, in French Polynesia, we glided through an opening in the outer reef where giant waves crashed and whooshed back into the sea. Schools of manta rays escorted us into a ring of islets, where thatched-roof bungalows jutted into the water. We slipped into the inner lagoon, where the waters glowed of turquoise and brilliant teal. Our ship turned to face the island’s towering volcanic peak. Fluorescent foliage in shades of green and bright lime covered the twisted lava cliffs. Powder-white beaches and flower-lined coves curved under swaying palms. I looked up as shafts of sun streamed through the rainbow-colored sky with birds swirling up into the mist. —Douglas Cleaver, Long Beach, California

You may also like: On a quest for authentic experiences and cultural heritage in French Polynesia

United States

Light show

Northern Lights in Alaska

Photo by Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images

Upon arriving in Fairbanks, Alaska, at 2:30 a.m., I looked up to the left and saw a curtain of green rippling across the sky, covering the entire view, as the aurora started its show. It continued until 4:30 a.m. —Mary Gernheuser, Ventura, California

A pipe dream comes true

After booking my first visit to Boston, I realized that Harvard’s Music School would be on spring break, and therefore the Harvard Organ Society’s weekly lunchtime recital in Adolphus Busch Hall would not take place. So I emailed the head of the organ society, asking if there was some way, in the absence of hearing somebody truly worthy of the Harvard Flentrop, that I could arrange time to apply my own meager chops to the instrument. To my great surprise, she said I could have the run of the instrument during one of the morning practice slots. The very thought of playing an organ that was the “personal property” of E. Power Biggs was chicken skin in itself. Finding out that even a ham-handed beginner like me could manage the subtle nuances that the instrument was famous for was icing on the proverbial cake. —James H.H. Lampert, Fountain Valley, California

Ultimate birding

Our party of six was resting at the edge of Plateau Point in Grand Canyon National Park. We were taking in the view when we noticed huge birds that looked like buzzards circling and getting closer. They landed some 30 to 50 feet from us. Then we noticed they had numbers painted on their shoulders—they were California condors! They worked their way to within about 15 to 20 feet of us, expecting a handout. We sat very still and quiet and watched them for about 30 minutes, being very careful not to disturb them. —David Garcia, Merced, California

Telltale tattoo

I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to supplement my trips to Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. I now better understand the horror of the Holocaust. As an amateur historian, I felt the museum was very well done, and I asked an elderly docent about museum protocols for labeling the exhibits. Foolishly, I asked about the provenance of the boxcar we walked through (standard European for 14 horses or 40 soldiers). Tears came to my eyes as she slowly rolled up her sleeve to display the tattooed numbers and said, “It’s just like the one my mother, sister, and I rode into Auschwitz.” She explained how the municipal police had helped her family box up their furniture, wrote a receipt, and then took them to a train for relocation. She never saw her family again. —James Gilliam, Rancho Cucamonga, California


Sensory overload

Männlichen with Mönch  and Jungfrau on the background.

Photo by Sasipa Muennuch/Getty Images

We were in Kleine Scheidegg, the penultimate stop on the train ride to the top of the Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps. It’s at the summit of the pass and offers glorious views of the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Mönch mountains. At our hotel waiter’s suggestion, we took a trail that opened onto a plateau with a crystal turquoise lake. Little park benches were placed in the shallow parts of the water, so visitors could sit and dip their feet in the lake. Putting my feet in the soft, pristine water, breathing the crisp, pure Swiss air, and viewing the magnificent mountains was nothing short of a chicken-skin moment. —Christina Linhardt, Culver City, California

You may also like: Friends fulfill a dream of hiking the Swiss Alps


Indelible performance 

In 1958, my father purchased our first stereo record player. That same year, pianist Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, becoming a national hero. One of our first two records was Cliburn’s performance of the First Piano Concerto. Since then, I’d always dreamed of seeing Cliburn perform in person. My dream was dashed when he retired at an early age. Many years later, I learned Cliburn was breaking his retirement to play Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto at Carnegie Hall for its 100th anniversary. I got tickets and traveled to New York. On May 1, 1991, with my two best friends, I sat in the front row of the balcony of Carnegie Hall as Cliburn played. A highlight of my life! How often does one’s dream come true? —Jo Ellen Johnson, Los Angeles


The iron lady

Eiffel Tower at sunset, Paris

Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images

Chicken-skin moments can happen even after you’ve seen pictures of something hundreds of times. On my first trip to Paris, I was sightseeing with friends when we turned a corner and there it was: the Eiffel Tower. I learned that just as a picture is worth a thousand words, similarly, the real thing is worth a thousand pictures.
—Steven Bernstein, San Diego

Your AAA travel advisor can provide trip-planning information. Visit a AAA branch, call (800) 814-7471, or go to

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