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Readers share their 2014 travel highlights

Readers' favorite travel spots, from national parks to Nepal.

I spend most of the year telling you about my travels, so I always enjoy the opportunity to turn that around and hear about your journeys. I recently wrote of my 2014 travel highlights, both big and small. Readers poured in their recollections, and here they are, edited for space. Happy travels in 2015. I look forward to hearing about them.

In January, my wife and I went to Yellowstone National Park for an unbelievable trip. Among the highlights was Old Faithful erupting under a full moon, when we were the only two people at the geyser. We also took a 105-mile guided snowmobile tour of the loop around Yellowstone Lake and surrounding area. For the first 45 miles we did not see another human. The sights, sounds and smells of this trip were spectacular.

— Don Haraf, Elmhurst, Ill.

During our September trip to the Canadian Rockies, I experienced four seasons in one week. Warm and sunny weather changed to snow and then back to warm and sunny. The result was snow-covered mountaintops in spectacular scenery.

— Marie Caviness, Round Lake, Ill.

After walking 200 rain-soaked miles along the Camino de Santiago, we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and attended the Pilgrim's Mass in the St. James Cathedral. While watching the ritual — the red-cloaked priests, the nuns leading us pilgrims in song, the swinging 120-pound silver incense burner — we deeply felt the emotion of it all and were filled with a strong spiritual meaningfulness. It placed the various challenges we were facing in our lives back home into a refreshing and cleansing perspective.

— Mark and Mary Kay Biernacki, DeKalb, Ill.

I'm on the board of a nonprofit that raised money to build primary schools in two villages in southern Mali, and I had the opportunity to visit them in November. More than 100 villagers greeted me in both villages, presenting gifts (including a handmade wooden mask and baby goat!) and dancing, drumming and singing for what seemed like hours. Visiting the children in their new classrooms and seeing the smiles on their faces as they recited their French vocabulary or answered math problems was so fulfilling.

— Katie Aune, Chicago

On our way from Dingle to Dillon, my fellow band members and I (we play traditional Irish music) stopped in Milltown Malbay, in County Clare, Ireland, because one of the band members' grandfather was from this town before immigrating to Chicago (he tragically lasted only a week as a Chicago fireman, dying after a horse kicked him in the heart). We ventured into Friel's pub for a quick pint in his honor when suddenly a guitar and violin appeared, and before we knew it, we were belting out our set list to a rapidly growing crowd of locals who were singing along with us. In true Irish fashion, one pint turned into many more, and our quick stop became several hours.

— Todd Nuelle, Mount Prospect, Ill.

A highlight in the Finger Lakes region of New York in early September was the town of Seneca Falls and how it was the backdrop idea for "It's a Wonderful Life." We stayed in the B&B where Zuzu from the movie stayed and visited the museum there about the movie.

— Bill and Marylou Buchhaas, Burbank, Ill.

I thought that I was going to Peru to experience Machu Picchu, and while that was an amazing part of my trip, it was only one of many highlights. There were numerous other Inca (and pre-Inca) sites to explore, as well as weavers, silversmiths and potters, delicious food and drink, local marketplaces, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, music and dance, folk healers, fascinating flora and fauna along the Amazon, and, everywhere, the most warm and welcoming people you could hope to meet.

— Paula Matzek, Mount Prospect, Ill.

My best friend and I went to Milwaukee for two days in August searching for the "hipness" we have heard was brewing up there. We found new and old cool stuff! I have lived in the Chicagoland area my entire life but never really "did" Milwaukee. Now I can't recommend it enough — it's fun, easy to get around, the people are friendly, and it's easy on the pocketbook for people used to Chicago prices. There are tons of things to do besides Summerfest.

— Karol Kent, Des Plaines, Ill.

I traveled to India in March, and a highlight was a visit to a village school. I observed opening exercises that were rigid and disciplined. When the students were dismissed, one child grabbed my hand and showed me the school. We climbed up a narrow staircase to the roof where we played Frisbee. Then we returned to the child's classroom, where students were waiting for the teacher. I could not resist the urge for further interaction so I engaged the group in an echo pantomime of a poem. On completion, the word "beautiful" was echoed through the classroom. The child read to me in English but had struggled to converse. It was rote learning, but she was so proud. I praised her effort and we hugged. Suddenly others were pushing in to read to me, and I enjoyed the readings and hugs of several more students.

— Sarah Jossart, Groveland, Fla.

In mid-November we went to Palm Springs, Calif., for a wonderful trip back in time as we stayed at an adobe-style hacienda hotel just off the main strip. The hotel grounds were enclosed by adobe walls, and beautifully landscaped with orange and fig trees, beautiful flowers and cactus. We took a bus tour of the movie actors' homes, and we especially enjoyed seeing the home of Bob Hope, who my husband saw at a USO show many years ago. It was a wonderfully interesting and relaxing trip to celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary.

— Marvin and Linda Debolt, Shumway, Ill.

I am a 72-year-old woman who went to Japan for three weeks in November to see the gardens in Kyoto. Alone — no tour, no family, no friends. And I do not speak, understand or read Japanese. To say it was quite the experience is a vast understatement. But I managed and saw a great many exquisitely beautiful gardens. I only hired a guide for four of the 21 days, just to take me on day trips outside of Kyoto. I wrote a 38-page online journal of my travails and travels.

— Catherine Wilson, Elmhurst, Ill.

We have been to New Orleans many times, and I thought we had seen and done almost everything there is to see and do. Wrong! The Audubon Insectarium, located in the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, is a quirky place to visit. What a delight! The museum is big and bright, and the bugs are real. Giant cockroaches and termites are not normally in my wheelhouse, but the Insectarium is done so well that you forget that you are looking at live bugs. The animated 3D movie, complete with moving seats and well-timed puffs of air, was great fun, and the Japanese butterfly garden was beautiful. Having colorful butterflies alight on you as you walk through the gardens is almost a childlike experience. We went there thinking that we could escape the heat of the day for a few minutes and ended up spending almost three hours looking at the exhibits.

— Sherry Frankenbach, Genoa, Ill.

My husband and I spent his 65th birthday in a helicopter flying over the Big Island of Hawaii. First we flew over the active Kilauea volcano and observed the lava flow that would later threaten homes and commercial areas. Then we landed and spent several hours in Volcanoes National Park with a guide before meeting our pilot and taking off again. This time he flew us through Jurassic Park-like valleys and right up to spectacular waterfalls that can only be seen from a helicopter. It was a birthday to remember!

— Tom and Wendy Reiman, Highland Park, Ill.

We visited Michigan's Upper Peninsula in April, and took a day trip to Sault Ste. Marie, a pleasant surprise as we took the boat tour and saw how water was filled when we trudged up the river and then drained when we came back. It was like a Panama Canal experience — but no passport required!

Vaishali Belsare, Mount Prospect, Ill.

On the last day of our trip to the California coast, we drove south to Big Sur. As we drove along the beautifully rugged coastline admiring the views, what looked like a distant storm rolled in from the ocean. It was pretty late in the afternoon and, being November, the sun was quite low. The clouds came over the mountaintops and descended upon us. It turned out to be a wonderfully cool mist of fog, and as we drove, we admired it billowing down and swirling around us.

— Susan Starnes, Chicago

We trekked for two weeks in Nepal through the Himalayas to reach Everest Base Camp and the neighboring peak of Kala Patthar (a summit of more than 18,000 feet) for a head-on sunrise view of the world's tallest mountain. Until other trekkers arrived, we had the quiet and subzero spot to ourselves to see Everest bathed in the early sun. Our 75-mile round-trip trek allowed us to slow down and collect memories: listening to Buddhist monks chanting in a remote monastery, walking through rhododendron forests, playing Nepali card games with our guide, moving over for yak caravans and sleeping in wool hats and scarves to try to stay warm.

— Keith and Kelly Spong, St. Charles, Ill.

jbnoel@tribune.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

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