2020 did not suck – Personal Highlights from the year of COVID

2020 was the strangest year of my adult life, but I still managed to have many memorable experiences during the year of COVID. I started the year off by speaking at the New York Times Travel Show for the second consecutive year. From February 9 to March 12, I visited four different countries. I got back to New York just as international travel was grinding to a halt.

After spending mid-March to early July in near isolation, I managed to have at least a dozen exciting experiences during the last half of the year. From rediscovering my love for cycling and Manhattan’s Little Italy to visiting Mexico City for the first time and booking my first trip to Antarctica, here are 18 reasons that 2020 did not suck.

Speaking at the 2020 New York Times Travel Show

For the second consecutive year, I spoke at the New York Times Travel Show as part of their Meet the Experts panel. My topic was Being an Airbnb Experience Host. For 45 minutes, I answered questions from aspiring tour guides from cities like New York, Buenos Aires, and Amsterdam.

Although I’m still not getting as many tour bookings as I was back in January, I’m still running my Goodfellas Tour of NYC and Ramones Walking Tour on some weekends.

My first trip to Abu Dhabi

I only visited one new country in 2020, but it was one I’ll never soon forget (like the Pearl Jam song). Right before Valentine’s Day, I took my first business class overseas flight to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways. Although the trip was short and condensed, I was able to cross off at least one bucket list item per day. Check out the video below to watch me try the famous gold cappuccino from Emirates Palace. 

In addition to being told that I had gold on my lip for the first time, I also spent my first night(s) in a St. Regis hotel. For the final two nights of the trip, I stayed at the world’s most Instagrammable hotel (the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara). During my stay, I shot my first bow and arrow, tried camel meat for the first time, and watched my first falcon show. 

Expo 2020 was eventually postponed, but I had the chance to tour the grounds, which were still under construction at the time. So I can say I was in Dubai, although the grounds are far from the city center. Too far to see the skyline. 

Here is my suggested itinerary for a short stay in Abu Dhabi. 

Making Chocolate Bars in Punta Cana

Just 11 days after returning from Abu Dhabi, I was off to Punta Cana for a short stay at the Bahia Principe Luxury Ambar. It was my first visit to the Dominican Republic since 2005. My personal highlight from this trip was making my own chocolate bars at the Melia Caribe Beach Resort. Fortunately, I had the chance to take some home for family, friends, and myself. The DR is currently accepting American tourists. The resort I stayed at is offering rooms starting at just $120/night – adults only. 

Another trip to Southeast Asia

In early March, I visited Malaysia for the fourth time. Just as the COVID madness was taking over the world, I was exploring Kuala Lumpur by train. My flight itinerary from JFK was changed (by Cathay Pacific) four times, but I still managed to get to KL on time for my hotel reservation at the conveniently located E & O Residences.

The week before I left, I joined Jessica from Dining Traveler at South Philly’s Sate Kampar for dinner and a video shoot. Chef Ange Branca (who grew up in KL) gave me a lengthy itinerary of her favorite hole in the wall cafes and hawker stalls. I managed to visit more than half of them in between museums and other attractions. Here is some footage from Sate Kampar with Ange and Jessica. Jessica is also the author of The Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico

After three days in KL, I flew to Jakarta for my second visit. Each day, I joined a different free walking tour with Jakarta Good Guide. I highly recommend their tours for short-term visitors. In the evenings, I had my friend (and Bali From Locals author) Shabrina to show me around her city. 

Here is my list of Kuala Lumpur attractions you can visit without a car

Learning to cook Indian and Thai food

In late 2019, I visited India for the first time. During my stay in Delhi, I enjoyed lunch at places like Monsoon and Café Lota. In the evenings, I explored some of the street food in areas like Chandni Chowk. After returning from Jakarta on March 12, I did not see the inside of a restaurant again until July 5.

So I decided to make the best of an inconvenient situation and learn to cook some of my favorite dishes at Indian restaurants. The first three dishes I learned were cashew chicken, chicken tikka masala, and butter chicken. After a string of three-hour sessions in the kitchen (and gaining 10 lbs. over the course of 10 days), I decided to keep it simple(r) and learned to make chicken tikka malai, which I first discovered in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, around 2016. It’s still one of my go-to dishes if I know I’m going to be in the same place for at least a few days.

At the same time, I also learned a few of my favorite Thai dishes. Joy from Go Vegan Cuisine NYC gave me her papaya salad recipe and also taught me to cook gooay teow guo gai, which is my favorite Asian noodle dish. It translates to chicken with noodles, but the preparation is more complex. There are 13 ingredients in total. The other Thai dish I learned (thom kha coconut soup) is much easier and ideal for beginners. Green papaya salad is now my second favorite dish (after pizza). It’s fairly easy to prepare. Here’s an IGTV clip of the vegan version.

Rediscovering Drive-in Theaters

I can’t recall my last pre-COVID visit to a drive-in theater, but it was probably before the year 2000. By August, I was already going out in public for more than a weekly trip to the grocery store. That month I attended two memorable drive-in events. The first was Troma Dance, which is their annual film festival. I had the chance to watch The Toxic Avenger from my car, surrounded by hundreds of Troma fans who descended on Carbon County, Pennsylvania, from as far away as Florida and Ohio for the weekend.

Later that month, I attended Metallica‘s Encore Drive-in Nights outside of Bethlehem, PA. That’s the closest I’ve come to a concert experience since 2018. 

Bringing my car to New York

After nearly four months of quarantining in Pennsylvania, I returned to New York with my car on July 5. Prior to COVID, I dreaded even the idea of driving below 100th Street in Manhattan. But since then, I’ve been able to park on my street on the Lower East Side with little difficulty. Maybe one out of ten times, I have to move into a garage on the next block.

Thanks to my car, I’ve been able to explore parts of the outer boroughs (especially Staten Island, which only has one train line) that would have taken up an entire afternoon using public transit. I discovered a handful of new Italian bakeries in The Bronx, some of which I still visit (like Zeppieri and Sons). There are also excellent options beyond the subway lines in Queens (Russo) and Staten Island (Alfonso’s).

I also visited more Goodfellas locations in Brooklyn, New Rochelle, Queens, and Staten Island. Now I can finally say that I’ve been to every major location in the movie. Here’s my complete list. I’m currently working on a comprehensive list of real-life locations from Henry Hill’s books.

Learning to fly a drone

In addition to bringing my car to New York, I also brought a Yuneec Typhoon H drone that’s been on long-term loan from a friend/multi-time tour guest. As I’m writing this, there are two places in New York City where you can legally fly your registered drone without any membership. Both are in Queens. My personal favorite is the airfield at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The other option is Forest Park (pictured below), near the border with Brooklyn. Both have ample free parking, which really helps. Have you tried hauling a large drone, remote, spare battery, etc., through the subway?

Exploring smaller cities and towns along the Hudson River

Between August and October, I visited some smaller cities and towns along the Hudson River. First, Beacon, then Hudson, followed by Peekskill, and finally, Cold Spring. Each town or city had its unique vibe, but all had one thing in common: a quaint main street replete with locally owned shops. These towns are also no secret to city dwellers from downstate. They all have Amtrak and/or Metro-North stations, with relatively frequent service. I usually parked at the train station. Parking tends to be free on weekends, especially on Sundays. While I didn’t run into any neighbors there, it was obvious that many other visitors were also day-trippers from Brooklyn, Manhattan, etc.

Rediscovering Midwestern States like Indiana and Missouri

The most satisfying part of my domestic travel in 2020 was rediscovering Midwestern states like Indiana and Missouri. I had never been to Indianapolis, and my last visit to St. Louis was an overnight stop on the way to Kansas City back in 2006. 

I discovered surprising ethnic enclaves in both cities. From eating cevapi sausages on the back deck of Balkan Treat Box on the outskirts of St. Louis to having lunch with the owner of one of South Indy’s many Burmese restaurants, I was pleasantly surprised by both cities. In Missouri, I went as far west as Springfield, where I tried cashew chicken in the city of its birth and also had my first chicken tikka masala pastie from a food truck named after my favorite Clash record. 

The longest road trip of my life

From late September into early October, I spent 11 days exploring cities like Cambridge, Indianapolis, Louisville, St. Louis, and Springfield. In total, I logged just over 2,450 miles, which is just a few miles longer than my 2002 trip to Miami. I spent two nights in all of the cities, with the exceptions of Cambridge and Louisville.

I visited some of the quirkiest museums and roadside attractions in my 21 years as a traveler. When it came to quirkiness, Indiana had the edge. In Alexandria, I put the 27,099th coat on the world’s largest ball of paint. My favorite museum experience was the Indiana Medical History Museum.

Here’s a video of me applying the 27,099th coat of paint.

Rediscovering my love for cycling

With gyms closed throughout the northeast, I rediscovered my love for cycling. While quarantining in Pennsylvania, I explored many of the rails to trails paths around the Lehigh Valley.

Once I returned to New York, I started taking advantage of the Citi Bike program. A one-way ride with a 30-minute limit is just $0.25 more (plus tax)  than a one-way subway ride. So on most weekends, I would wake up (like the Mad Season song), stretch, walk a couple of blocks, grab a bike, and cycle over one of the BMW (Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg) bridges. From there, I typically cycled along the waterfront and then caught the NYC Ferry back to Manhattan.

The Lower East Side to Red Hook via the Brooklyn Bridge is still my personal favorite. Just remember to change bikes every 30 minutes, or you’ll end up with unnecessary charges.

Getting to know Brighton Beach a little bit better

Prior to earlier this month, I never ate in a Russian restaurant. While I have a Russian stamp on my passport, it was from a six-hour layover on the way to Astana. It allowed me just enough time to hop aboard the SVO Aeroexpress, connect to the metro, and walk around the city center for an hour. I did eat some memorable street food, but that was it. In Astana, I ate at a USSR-themed restaurant, but it was all local dishes.

Earlier this month, I made two separate hour-long journeys to Brighton Beach. Both were right before Governor Cuomo once again shut down indoor dining, so I had the chance to try a few different restaurants. The most memorable was Skovorodka, located right under the Brighton Beach B-Q stop. The menu is one of the largest I’ve ever seen. They have live entertainment on weekends and offer most of the signature Russian dishes like blintzes, pelmini, and stroganoff. If you’re visiting for the first time and are not familiar with Russian food, I recommend trying this place first.

If you’d rather drive, there’s a large municipal lot along the boardwalk, which is free on Sundays. Coney Island is also within walking distance via the boardwalk. 

Finally visiting Mexico City and Oaxaca

From the first time I listened to Metallica’s Binge & Purge box set (released in 1993), I’ve wanted to visit Mexico City. Ten years ago, they released a DVD set from the same venue, which rekindled my interest. Since then, I’ve also watched Anthony Bourdain and Mark Wiens in Mexico City and Oaxaca.

By October, I had not been out of the country in seven months. So I decided to use some of my Delta SkyMiles to visit Mexico City. They are currently offering 35,000 bonus miles when you sign up for the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card. That’s more than enough for a round trip from most North American cities.

In Mexico City, I joined free walking tours with Estacion Mexico by day and explored the local cuisine in Roma Norte by night. I was pleasantly surprised by how well my hotels in Mexico City and Oaxaca handled the COVID situation. The Brick Hotel, in particular, went above and beyond to the point where they sanitized my bag upon arrival and gave me a bag for my mask when dining.

Playing tourist at home (thanks to CityPASS)

Right around my birthday, CityPASS offered me a complimentary C3 pass, which includes admission to three attractions. Despite being a licensed NYC sightseeing guide and having used every subway line multiple times, I had never been to the top of Rockefeller Center or out on Edge NYC. Edge is currently the highest outdoor observation deck in the western hemisphere.

From late November to early December (within the required 30-day period), I visited the Statue of Liberty for the first time since 2008 and also went up to Edge NYC at Hudson Yards. I shot some video footage from Top of the Rock

Rediscovering Mulberry Street

In the early 2000s, my New York consisted of Chinatown, Flushing, Midtown, and Little Italy. By 2008, I had pretty much given up on Mulberry Street as a tourist trap with slightly overpriced food. After reading Gianni Russo’s Hollywood Godfather book and listening to his podcast, I decided to start exploring Mulberry Street once again. I started with his suggestions like Ferrara, Luna, and Puglia. Then I kept going back every other Sunday. The main drag is only a 15-minute walk from the Lower East Side. Most of the restaurants in Little Italy have outdoor dining with heat. 

My current suggestions are the squid ink seafood pasta from Umberto’s, zuppa di vongole from Luna, and the Ferrara’s baba cannoli. La Bella Ferrara is also a favorite dessert spot. It’s not related to one on Grand Street.

Finalizing my first trip to Antarctica

At the end of November, I’ll finally be visiting number seven! On Christmas Eve, I booked a cabin on a Chimu Adventures cruise aboard The Ocean Endeavor. We’ll be cruising from Ushuaia to the South Shetland Islands. It will be my first time in Argentina since New Year’s Day 2008.

I haven’t done much research on Antarctica, so please leave a comment below if you have any tips.

Not catching COVID in 2020

Despite visiting 11 different states and five different countries in 2020, I did not catch COVID. Only four immediate family members caught it, but all were in their 20s with no serious health issues.

Personally, I plan to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available. I expect it to be required for at least some of the international travel I plan to do in 2021.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to wear my mask when I’m around people unless we are dining together. While indoor dining is once again banned in New York, there is no shortage of outdoor tables available in Lower Manhattan. I do often meet friends for dinner in areas like Chelsea, Little Italy, and the East Village, but we don’t face each other when our masks are off. And it should go without saying that the polite thing to do is to keep your mask on when your server is at the table. In my observations, they won’t ask you to, but it’s the right thing to do for these people who in many ways are on the front line as much as our healthcare workers.

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2020 did not suck: Personal highlights from the year of COVID

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How was your 2020? What are your plans for 2021? Leave a comment below!