Another year well traveled; how about for you?

Chicago Tribune travel writer looks back on 2014 travel highlights. What are yours?

Every year should bring some memorable travel into every life. It can be as grand as reaching a distant mountaintop or visiting a country 10,000 miles away. It can be as small and quiet as reading a local newspaper in a distant coffee shop while the rain pours outside.

I want to hear about your travel highlights from 2014, big or small. Send a brief, evocative memory from your year in travel along with your first and last names and where you live, and a collection of responses will be printed in a future column.

But, first, here are my travel highlights from the last year:

The ruins of Gary, Ind.: I headed to this small Indiana town with a grim reputation for violence and urban decay in June. I ate well, visited the town's brewery and checked out Michael Jackson's childhood home. But most stunning was that urban decay — an overgrown, abandoned gas station, a hulking church empty since 1975 and countless vacant residential buildings and storefronts. A city official told me the curiosity is understandable, and "those who are respectful are welcome in Gary." But while you're there, spend money in the local economy — perhaps at a restaurant or that brewery. Gary needs it.

Ghent, Belgium: Tourism mainstays Brussels and Bruges were always on the to-do list, but this college town of 240,000 was the clear highlight. Ghent strikes the right balance between tourist-friendly and local flavor in its restaurants, shops and bars (which serve an abundance of the glory that is Belgian beer). Ghent has the verve of youth, but, as one of Europe's biggest cities during the Middle Ages, it echoes with historical richness.

The bars of Honolulu: My most memorable Hawaii experiences have generally involved a combination of gentle breezes and stupendous scenery. But this year in Honolulu, I took a deep dive into the local music scene and witnessed several bands create a joyous freight train of a ruckus with the combination of ukulele, upright bass, acoustic guitar (sometimes augmented by pedal steel guitar) and whirling three-part harmonies. It was some of the most astounding live music I've ever heard and, better still, comes accompanied with cheap beer, delicious Hawaiian food and a friendly crowd that is far more local than tourist.

Ojai, Calif.: This peaceful, verdant valley about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles is where Angelenos get away from their city. It should be included on any Southern California itinerary.

On foot in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Smokies are in the nation's most visited national park, but a very small fraction of visitors spend much time walking there. Two friends and I spent three nights hoofing 30 miles through the park with our lives on our backs. Sure enough, we saw all of 50 people during those four days. It was well-spent time with beauty, quiet and no 21st century distraction.

Ometepe, Nicaragua: I have a thing for islands — the quieter and prettier, the better. Ometepe, in Lake Nicaragua, qualifies on both counts. The island of 40,000 residents gets a steady flow of tourism arriving by boat from the mainland. Many come to climb one, or both, of the island's volcanic peaks, but Ometepe is just as rewarding for its relaxation, including its natural spring, El Ojo de Agua, which is one of the most perfectly laid back and serene places I've ever been. Construction on a canal through Lake Nicaragua is imminent, so it might be worth getting to Ometepe before modernity arrives.

Hudson Valley: I'd never been to this region north of New York City until this year, and it may be the best bang-for-the-buck trip I've ever taken. It's not "bang for the buck" in terms of cost but that the 150 miles between the city and Albany are impossibly rich with natural beauty, history, food, art and architecture. You could literally spend a lifetime exploring the region and probably not uncover all its gems.

jbnoel@tribpub.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

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