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Hikers stand above the clouds at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. (Photograph by Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images)

Transformed by Travel: Nine Stories

This year, at the ILTM conference in Cape Town, the most buzzed about topic was transformative travel. And, in many respects, Africa has been ahead of the curve in offering these life-changing experiences.

As travel consultant Anita Mendiratta declared in her keynote, “You may leave Africa, but Africa never leaves you.”

Transformative travel is really just a term for what most of us want to feel when we leave the comfort of our daily lives to experience the world. We want to be inspired and to give something back; we want to have our lives and thought processes changed through the meaningful connections we make on our journeys.

And when we return from one of these experiences, we want to tell anyone who will listen all about it.

Looking back on the past year, some of my most memorable travel moments include riding the cableway to the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, taking an early morning sidecar tour of Ho Chi Minh City, and swimming with penguins in the Galápagos.

I asked nine lifelong travelers to share the most life-changing trips they’ve ever taken. Here’s what they had to say.

> Family Matters: 

“On a scale of one to ten, this particular sunrise was about a six. Not bad, but certainly not memorable,” Michael King, co-owner of Great Getaways, a boutique travel company based in Kansas City, recalls. Nevertheless, that sunrise would transform the way he approached leisure travel.

“It wasn’t the sunrise slowly lighting up the African landscape 18,000 feet below me or the fact that I only had another 1,000 feet to climb to reach the roof of Africa—Kilimanjaro,” he says. “The transformation occurred because my 16-year-old son had asked to join me. He left his friends and phone behind to be with me, sharing this sunrise.”

The experience triggered a revelation in King’s professional life as well. He realized that his role as a travel advisor went way beyond facilitating the act of traveling itself; at heart it was about helping others form deeper connections with the loved ones in their lives. “I saw myself entrusted with the most valuable of assets—people’s time,” he says.

> Shattered Stereotypes: 

Iraq doesn’t exactly top most travelers’ wish lists. But Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, says it should.

Stowell was to spend a week in northern Iraq and didn’t know what to expect. “There’s so much tension in the region and Americans aren’t always the world’s favorite guest,” he says. His friends and family had concerns, and voiced them.

Despite his apprehension, he was welcomed by kind and hospitable Kurds. “The people were so gracious and warm that I felt nothing but care and trust,” he said.

“I played pool with strangers, walked through the markets, shared tea and meals, crashed a wedding, rode a cliff-edge roller coaster, and even got a shave from a street barber with a straight razor,” he says. “That’s trust.”

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Illuminated balloons, part of the so-called “Border of Light,” float skyward in Potsdamer Platz to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Photograph by Soeren Stache/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

> Moments in Time: 

Matthew Upchurch, CEO of the Virtuoso travel network, believes wholeheartedly in travel’s power to transform. “How many Christmas or birthday gifts do you really remember? But to this day, I remember going to Africa with my parents.”

When he heard that white balloons were to be placed on evenly spaced poles where the Berlin Wall once stood and released to mark the 25th anniversary of “the fall” in November 2014, he knew it was something he wanted his whole family to experience.

The night of the big event, Upchurch and his family returned to their hotel in Berlin to watch the spectacle from their room. “I have the video on my phone of  the moment the balloons went up over the Brandenburg Gate and my son, Clay, squealing,” he says. “I remember thinking, My children will be telling their children about this.”

> Life in Color: 

For Terry Dale, head of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, India is “extraordinary” and an ideal destination for those seeking transformative moments when they travel.

He recalls with particular fondness a trip he took to the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur, commonly known as the Pink City.

“The colors made a lasting impression that I can still feel and see today,” he says. “The people, architecture, textiles, spices, and spirituality all combined into one transformative experience that I carry with me.”

> Restorative Reboot: 

When their son was born, Cup of Jo founder Joanna Goddard and her husband spent so much time focused on his needs that they lost touch with who they had been as individuals and as a couple.

The antidote? A weekend getaway to Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos.

“Everything felt romantic and magical—white sand, turquoise water, sea kayaks, conch fritters,” she says. “After a hazy, sleepless year, we finally felt like grown-ups again.”

“Our last night, we sat outside under the stars, drank straight from a bottle of bourbon, and went skinny-dipping in the ocean. It was a shot in the arm, and we’ll never forget it.”

> Natural Mystic: 

For Maria Pellicer, editor of Travesías, New Zealand is the ultimate life-changing destination owing to its natural beauty.

“I dream about living there, where the biggest luxury is to walk through your back door on a weekend and get lost in the forest,” she says. (A bonus: The country produces “the best Sauvignon Blanc ever.”)

But for Pellicer, it’s not just about the landscapes, it’s how the Kiwis live in them.

“If more people could see the way [New Zealanders] respect nature, the world would be better,” she says. “It’s a shame the ticket can be so expensive!”


> Common Connection: 

Samantha Brown has spent the past 15 years of her life roaming the planet as the host of various shows on the Travel Channel (in fact, she’s currently filming her latest gig, 50/50). For the peripatetic television personality, most memorable travel experiences involve simple connections with locals.

When we spoke, she recalled a time when an older gentleman began walking beside her on a hike in Peru. After stumbling through a hard-to-follow conversation in broken Spanish and English, the two strangers exchanged names.

“When I said my name was Samantha, his eyes lit up. ‘Samantha?!,’ he asked, then wiggled his nose with his finger. ‘Magic!,’” she says. “It had been around 25 years since I had gotten a Bewitched reference and I loved it.”

> Past and Present Harmony: 

For Ted Teng, CEO of Leading Hotels of the World, some travel experiences have the power to change the way we see the past, and envision the future. Two trips stand out in his own life for having had that effect: going on a safari in Africa and visiting Machu Picchu.

In Africa, Teng was struck by the symbiotic way in which the animals coexisted “in rhythm with each other and their environment. Their very being was vital to the majesty of the setting,” he says.

Likewise, standing at the foot of Machu Picchu and imagining the civilization that created the citadel in the clouds more than 500 years ago made him “think about what [the Inca] might have achieved had the Spanish invaders not overrun them.”

> La Vita è Bella: 

Edie Rodriguez, CEO of Crystal Cruises, is constantly on the move and focused on her job. Visiting Tuscany allows the busy exec to exist in a much calmer space where she can appreciate the basic elements of human happiness.

“When I go there, I really rest and have a simple life of walking, eating great food, drinking wine, and enjoying the fresh air,” she says.

Over time, the region occupied such a special place in Rodriguez’s heart that she began to search for a property there. After eight years of looking, she chose a small village called Castelfalfi near San Gimignano as her home away from home. “It is my utopia or nirvana on Earth.”

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.