With the arrival of a new year, our thoughts turn to where we want to go in the next 12 months, inchoate musings about experiencing a new destination. And when we get there, our brains make a snap decision, subconsciously determining if we’re going to like it or not. First impressions do last, and they’re usually right. As soon as I arrived in Stockholm, Sweden, I was completely won over, right from the second I stepped off my plane and into its streamlined, friendly, and user-friendly airport, well before I even approached the city proper and started exploring its churches, museums, and watery setting. Occasionally, however, they’re wrong: My first impression of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, was negative: I had arrived by train the morning after a massive national holiday, and the city was still reeking of urine and spilled beer, its trash bins overflowing with the detritus of a colossal bash. Fortunately, things quickly improved, and I fell in love with the city, and its fantastic churches, museums, canals, and lifestyle, but that first impression still lingered. Ultimately, your first impression of a new place stems from how you arrive, whether it’s by plane, train, automobile, or some other vehicle. And I’ve experienced some unforgettable welcomes around the world. These are my favorites.
#1 Victoria, British Columbia (by Seaplane)
I based my British Columbia expedition in Vancouver, an extremely livable city with its gorgeous Stanley Park, fascinating Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, terrific grounds of the University of British Columbia, and one of the world’s best aquariums. It also served as a great springboard for Victoria. With only one full day to spend in the BC capital, I decided to forgo the car-ferry option, which would have taken about three hours each way, and instead hopped on a seaplane for a much shorter 30-minute trip. The early-morning flight departed from Coal Harbor in downtown Vancouver. Tucked into a 16-passenger floatplane and with the provided earplugs secured, I was soon flying at a low altitude of 2,600’ above the city and then out over the Strait of Georgia. At some point, the plane crossed into U.S. airspace before returning to Canadian territory. Green islands of all sizes and shapes, some populated and others unspoiled, began to appear in the blue water as we approached massive Vancouver Island. Before I knew it, we were above Victoria, looking like we were plunging into the water of Inner Harbor as we descended. But the thrilling landing right into the harbor in the heart of the city was actually quite soft. Stepping off the plane and onto the bouncy dock, I was surrounded by small crafts docked around the harbor, buttressed by Thunderbird Park, the striking Parliament Buildings, and the equally stunning Empress Hotel. This was the most dramatic entry to a city I’ve experienced, and it put me immediately in extremely short walking distance to just about everything I wanted to see. Arriving here any other way, in retrospect, would have been unthinkable.
#2 Zagreb, Croatia (by Train)
Zagreb Glavni kolodvor, the main train station in the city and the largest in Croatia, was built in the neoclassical style and opened in 1892. A very long building with balustraded terraces, arches, statues, columns, and a sculpted pediment, it makes for an impressive arrival site in the nation’s capital. But it’s what happened as soon as I stepped outside of it that makes arriving by train in Zagreb so memorable. Having just spent nearly a week in largely pedestrian, Mediterranean-vibe Dubrovnik and Split, I stopped dead in my tracks the second I walked out the doors of the station. Zagreb hit me with full force. I suddenly remembered what cars and trams were, and the very un-Mediterranean feel of this Central European city engulfed me. Tomislav Square sprawled right in front of me, an inviting green park flanked by trees that leads up to the yellow Baroque Art Pavilion. The equestrian statue of King Tomislav (the first king of the medieval state of Croatia) on his horse, mounted high up on a stone base, dominates the park and welcomes you to the city. Lines of beautiful old buildings with protruding balconies and round towers frame both sides of the park. To the left, the old Hotel Esplanade, built in 1925 to provide accommodations for passengers on the Orient Express, rises elegantly behind a fountain, a row of trees of remarkably uniform height, and a long balustrade. This was a setting made to impress, and it remains one of the best introductions to a city I’ve ever had.
#3 Venice, Italy (by Train)
I suppose arriving in Venice by sea has its appeal, watching the city grow closer from its watery base and gradually being seduced by its beauty. But if you’re coming in on a giant cruise ship, expect a little resistance: The Venetians hate them, as they wreak havoc on the views and the already fragile lagoon, their destructive wakes battering ancient buildings and foundations. I preferred to arrive from Slovenia by train, when the introduction isn’t so progressive. Rather, like Zagreb, it hits you with full force all at once. At the end of the route, my train glided over Liberty Bridge across part of the lagoon and into Venezia Santa Lucia, the city’s central station, in the Cannaregio district. Completed in 1952 to replace the earlier station, it’s a Fascist structure, one of the very few modern buildings along the Grand Canal. When I exited it, I almost tumbled down the staircase in front of me. Right there was the famed city. Behind the chaotic open plaza, with hundreds of people toting an even greater amount of luggage, those famous canal houses and mansions sprung up, not as ornate as those further down the canal, but unmistakable nevertheless. The church of San Simeon Piccolo stands in the center of it all, with a statue of the saint waving ciao! atop the giant green dome of his church. To the left, the Ponte degli Scalzi, one of the biggest and highest bridges in the city, spans the Grand Canal, turbulent with private water taxis, public vaporetti, gondolas, and small crafts shuttling people and produce in both directions. As soon as you leave the train station, you’ll be immediately swallowed up by its crowds, its churches, its watery avenues, its hundreds of bridges — an abrupt and unforgettable way to arrive in one of the world’s cities that simply cannot be mistaken for any other.
#4 Dubrovnik, Croatia (by Bus)
Another city that can’t be confused for another is the endlessly romantic city of Dubrovnik. My flight from Vienna took me directly over the Croatian coast — brown mountains to the east, green islands rimmed by white sand, and the shockingly azure Adriatic Sea to the west. At the small airport, I boarded an inexpensive bus for the ride into town. The road heads north, hugging the dramatic, spectacular coast and making stops at little stone or concrete bus shelters. When it reached the top of a certain hill, I caught my first view of Dubrovnik and instantly fell in love. The walled Old Town occupies the entire peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic, its white buildings and orange roofs contrasting against the deep blue sea. Within those walls you’ll find some of the best museums in Croatia, ancient churches, marble streets, and seductive restaurants that invite you to linger over superb meals accompanied by wonderful Croatian red wine. And it’s your first glance of the city, from high above in a seat on the left side of a bus, that will cause your heart to skip a beat and make you want to immediately be a part of it.
#5 Queenstown, New Zealand (by Car)
I was spending nearly a month in New Zealand, offering me plenty of time (but, alas, never enough) to drive around this magnificent country, easily one of the most scenic on earth. During that time, I clocked about 2,100 miles, 1,900 of which were truly photo-worthy. One of the most spectacular stretches was the road I was on from the tiny township of Franz Josef to Queenstown, a small South Island city of about 16,000 people — a 217-mile trek that took me along the western coast before turning inland into Mt. Aspiring National park and then into the arid terrain of the old gold rush territory. That soon opened up to a spectacular, massive, hilly, green valley with a switchback road that was so sharp I practically had to stop to handle the turns. It is into this valley that could have easily been in Ireland, or in Hobbiton, that I descended. With snow-capped mountains on both sides of the road, my approach to the outskirts of Queenstown on the Frankton Arm of gorgeous Lake Wakatipu built in excitement right up until the second I pulled into my lodging in a city that has one of the most spectacular settings in the world, best viewed from one of the world’s top five aerial tramways, and that leads to one of the best drives in the world, too.
- New York, New York (by airplane)
- St. Lucia (by sailboat)
- Mackinac Island, Michigan (by ferry)
- Drottningholm, Sweden (by the steamship Drottningholm)
- Mariefried, Sweden (by the steamship Mariefried)
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