Alaska's Denali National Park is one of the largest national parks in the U.S., with ample space for wildlife encounters and happy memories.

AFAR’s first-ever Travel Happiness survey asked: What is your happiest travel memory? We read about surrendering to a storm in Honduras, a photo shoot with orangutans, a family dinner in 14th-century French châteaus—and a parade of corgis.

The survey, presented by the Aruba Tourism Authority, gauged how people travel, which destinations make them smile most, and how they hang onto post-travel bliss once they’re home. (Read the full results here.) We also asked them to recount their favorite travel memory. After reading through more than 15,000 happy memories, we selected a handful of our favorites. Here they are. 

Denali National Park is home to its namesake mountain, the tallest peak in the U.S.

North America

A lucky awakening
“After a long day trekking in Denali National Park, I couldn’t wait to ditch my pack. Instead of cooking dinner, I ate a few energy bars and passed out in my sleeping bag. I awoke to a sniffing noise and froze in fear. Terrified it was a bear, I sat still for what felt like hours. Finally, I slowly and quietly unzipped the door of my tent. It was a clear cold night. As I looked up, the northern lights danced among the stars. In the morning, I investigated the area around my campsite for animal tracks. The ground was frozen solid—my visitor had disappeared without a trace. It still remains a mystery, but I’d share that life-changing view with a bear any night.” —KRISTEL VOIT, CHICAGO

 

Seen and herd
“My husband and I spent the night on the beach at Cabo Pulmo National Park while road-tripping through Mexico. As we set up camp, we were startled by the sound of stomping hooves—we turned to see a small herd of wild horses on its way to the water. They washed their dusty fur in the waves for 20 minutes as the sun set, before nibbling on some grass and then strolling away. The scene will be imprinted in our memories forever.” —JULIE DAY THOMAS

Eye of the storm 
“It was a long bus ride from Antigua, Guatemala, to Copán, Honduras. By the time we arrived at the border, it was getting late. I was dirty, tired, and hungry. When I finally stepped off the bus, I felt that ominous feeling of an approaching storm. I got my passport stamped, then stepped outside to what had become a light rain. There were no buses to take anyone to Copán, but one of the locals waved me over to a truck where everyone else seemed to be headed. It was the last truck to Copán, so I hopped in the bed. The 10 of us shared a small tarp as best we could. I held onto the side as the truck barreled down the gravel road, trying to beat the storm. I looked around at a lady with a basket of groceries, a man with his arm around his young son, a very tired-looking man who had probably worked in the fields all day, a group of teenagers in school uniforms on their way home. Then there was me—a solo female traveler. No one seemed to care about the rain. We just laughed at how unbelievably drenched we were. They were happy. I was happy. I realized this is why I travel—to connect with people from all over the world in these little moments.” —DEBRA HARRIS, ST. LOUIS 

Tobagonian beach bash 
“After a long afternoon at Pigeon Point beach on the island of Tobago, my husband and I were walking to dinner. We passed a group of local fishermen grilling their fresh catches on the beach. They called out, inviting us to join them. There we were, eating the freshest fish, drinking the coldest beer, and dancing with the friendliest, liveliest people I’ve ever met.” —LINH TRAN


Finding home in Jamaica 
“When I arrived at my hotel in Negril, I was greeted by a sweet-spirited woman who led me to my cottage. On the way, we stopped to pick an orange, which she peeled in one single spiral. She then set the delicious, juicy fruit in the palm of my hand. Inside my cottage, the bed was covered with red blossoms and a gentle breeze hinted at the sea just across the road. I woke up with the roosters each morning and walked along the road while the vendors were setting up for the day. A local taxi driver offered to take me to beautiful secret spots, but I told him my budget wouldn’t allow it. After a few days of running into him, I let him drive me to a beautiful beach near a shipwreck. I fell asleep on a thick tree branch that reached across a lazy river and ended the day on a cliff high above the sea. The next day, I ventured into sugarcane fields and made friends with a multi-generational family who led me on a donkey up the hillsides to share the view. By the end of the day, the grandfather was holding my hand and asking me to choose the spot where he should build my little house. I changed my return ticket twice on that trip and wondered if I would ever truly be ready to go home.” —LAINE PERRY, SEATTLE

Bruges is the capital of Belgium's West Flanders province and known for its picturesque canals and medieval architecture.

Europe

Songbirds of Switzerland 
“We were skiing in Wengen and ran to catch the last train down to Interlaken. Some of the railroad workers hopped on the train as well—many carrying tools and wearing work clothes, with boiled wool jackets, traditional hats with feathers, and heavy boots. Two had handmade cowhide backpacks. As the tiny train wound down the mountain, we could see the lights of chalets up the snowy slopes. Suddenly, the workers broke out in song, yodeling and singing folk songs to celebrate the end of the day.” —PATRICIA HAUBNER, VERMONT 

One-way road to Castellino Tanaro 
“I was driving aimlessly on a back road, following the River Tanaro from Ceva to Mondovi, Italy. I had no plans other than to get the rental car back to Geneva, Switzerland, in six days. On a ridge about 1,000 feet above the road, I saw a medieval tower. I took the only road that led up to the village of Castellino Tanaro. A tall, striking blonde woman stood in front of Il Punto Bar. I soon discovered that she and her husband owned it—she was from Germany, he from the Netherlands. I asked for a cappuccino, but the machine was broken. After talking over a couple of beers, I asked her what I owed. “Nothing, we are closed,” she said. We exchanged email addresses, and eight months later I inquired about the possibility of renting something in the area. Two months later I was living there. Prior to the move, people always gave the same responses: “I’ve always wanted to do that” or “Someday I’m going to do that.” Living abroad is a fantasy for many. Although it seems glamorous, it isn’t easy. You have to have an open mind and few expectations. Lucky for me, I had no expectations—I rarely do.” —KIM D. RUST, DENVER

The pooch parade 
“After a perfect day of cycling through the streets of Bruges, breathing in the waffle-scented air, I sat alfresco at a tiny cafè and was treated to a parade of more than 100 corgis walking down the street.” —SAM GEAN, PHILADELPHIA

Moms kitchen 
“My best friend Donna and I had a room booked for one night on a trip through eastern France, but we wanted to find a hotel that could accommodate us for longer. We came across a 14th-century château and pulled into the back driveway, where tools were strewn about and chickens were moseying around. Eventually, we found the right driveway and settled into our room. Later in our stay, the matriarch, who we would eventually call Mom, invited Donna and me to dinner—they were having coq au vin, a classic French chicken dish. On the day of the dinner, we awoke to the sound of a rooster crowing. We later found Mom in the heaven-scented kitchen. She asked if we remembered how we woke up that morning, referring to the loud rooster that had crowed us awake. ‘Eh voilà, il est dans le casserole!’ she said. Hes in the pot!” —LORI ROMAN, VALLEY FORGE, PA

article continues below ad


Its all Greek to me 
“I was standing beneath a giant cross at a war memorial in Kalavryta in the hillsides of Greece, taking in the beautiful mountainside and quaint cityscape beneath me. A tour bus rolled up to the bottom of the hill. I was worried they were going to ruin my serenity. Instead, the group got out of the bus, gathered at the base of the memorial, sang the Greek national anthem, and left.” —SOPHIA BEDDOE, DIAMONDHEAD, MS 

Monkey business 
“On our way from Kraków, Poland, to Bremen, Germany, my cousins and I stopped for a night in Berlin. After trying several hostels—all full—we were on the verge of finding a comfortable bench for the night. The last hostel we tried prevailed. Its rooms, along with a bike repair shop and a preschool, formed a courtyard with a playground. In the center was a single vibrant green wagon, which acted as a hostel room and was propped up on cinder blocks. Inside the wagon was a mattress, no heating, and an old radio that only played classical music. The hostel receptionist apologized for having no other rooms, but naturally we took it. When the three of us awoke the next morning, we were surrounded by children swinging on monkey bars and an odd gratitude for our good fortune.” —KAJA PEDERSEN, CALGARY, CANADA 

Escaping reality in Ronda
“I had been backpacking by myself for a few weeks in Andalucia when I arrived in Ronda, a town made famous by its much-photographed Puente Nuevo—an arch bridge that spans a 393-foot chasm containing the Guadalevín River—and its association with Ernest Hemingway, who loved the bullfights and majestic scenery there. Fifteen minutes in, I was slightly lost and asking myself why I’d chosen accommodations so far out of the town center. I reached a dirt path, grumpy from the heat and weight of my backpack, and turned the corner to see the setting sun illuminating the Puente Nuevo. It looked like something out of a painting. The next few days were filled with unexpected delights bordering on magic, and every kind stranger I met became a long-lost friend. I exchanged friendly banter with the hostel staff in Spanish. I met a fellow lone female traveler who taught me to eat fruit straight from the trees and fed stray kittens with me outside the hostel. One day, I spontaneously hiked up a hill trying to find a shortcut into town, panicking when I got lost but ultimately emerging in a hidden spot beneath the bridge that runs through town. I explored a bizarre museum, chatted with Moroccan shopkeepers, wandered the ruins of an ancient Moorish bathhouse, climbed to a garden where peacocks roamed free. For a few days in Ronda, I felt as though I’d slipped into an alternate reality where everything and everyone was momentous and lovely beyond belief.” —JENNY QI, SAN FRANCISCO

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef, stretching half the length of Australia's eastern coastline.

Australia/Oceania

The fruits of labor 
“While studying abroad, I traveled to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef with friends. We rented bikes, rode up the coast, met cliff-jumping locals, and ended the night on the beach. The next morning, we got our sore bodies back on our bikes and rode into the hot afternoon. Like a mirage, a man selling bags of frozen mangoes stood on the side of the road. Of course, we treated ourselves.” —NATALIE PULS, BEND, OR

The Okavango Delta in Botswana is a vast, lush area suitable for Africa's most stunning animal populations.

Africa

Into the wild
“We had just set out on our night safari in Kruger National Park when we saw movement in the bushes. Our guide stopped the jeep, and a pride of lions emerged. It wasn’t long before another pride walked out of the bushes. Words cannot describe the experience: two prides of lions, walking down the dirt road alongside our jeep.” —KATHRYN BRAZIER, WILLIAMSBURG, VA

Generosity of spirit
“My love and I had been engaged for five years, but the time never seemed right to get married. In Essaouira, Morocco, we made it official. After two weeks of touring, hiking, and eating, we decided the time and place were perfect. Rashida, a local guide, took us to a silver shop to buy wedding rings, lent me her traditional dress, and gifted me a mother-of-pearl pendant. Mohammed, our tour guide, presented a beautiful bouquet of white roses for me to carry. Just before sunset, 15 of our new friends gathered in the courtyard of the riad to walk to the beach for the ceremony, and one of them officiated. We celebrated at a rooftop restaurant, where we all danced to lively Berber music as the sun melted into the sea. The security man at the restaurant presented us with matching silver necklaces and heart pendants that fit together. I was completely astonished by the generosity of the Moroccan people.” —BEVERLY MCLEAN, NEWPORT NEWS, VA

Sweet serendipity 
“Walking down an abandoned road in southern Cameroon, I came upon a tiny village and spent an hour with the elders, sharing palm wine under a frond-thatched gazebo. When I left, they gave me a beautiful, ripe pineapple. I walked a bit farther, but eventually stopped, stripped, plopped in a fast-flowing stream, and ate the sweetest pineapple I’ve ever had in my life.” —RICHARD KAHN, PENNSYLVANIA 

Shades of Botswana
“The sky was illuminated in shades of red and gold as we prepared our tents to camp in the Okavango Delta one evening. I took a break to take capture some photos of the sunset. As I walked into the clearing, I saw one solitary, magnificent elephant silhouetted in the distance. I quickly and quietly alerted the group, and we all stood in silence, in awe of the incredible beauty of our Earth.” —STAR RONG, MONSON, MA

Nepal is a landlocked country bordered by India and China, and enveloped by the record-breaking Himalayan mountain range.

Asia

The power of prayer
“My cousin and a friend and I hiked to the David Gareja monastery on the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan. After lunch, we paused to take in the mountains and valleys, the butterflies dancing around the wildflowers, when I heard the faint, rhythmic singsong of a monk praying inside a cave. It was surreal—the sounds, sights, and smells of the mountain all coming together in one beautiful moment.” —ADRIENNE TOUMAYAN, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Friends around the world
“In our late 20s, my wife and I met an older couple in the pre-dawn hours while waiting for a mountain flight around Mount Everest. We conversed, and they gave us their contact info in Delhi, should we ever pass through. A few years later, during a three-week trip to India, we stayed at their home and got to know them more. In turns out, the husband was a U.S. diplomat about to retire. After that trip, we exchanged letters for decades, even visiting them once in Washington, D.C., with our three children. Later, we attended their son’s swearing in as ambassador. By then, the husband was in a wheelchair. We hadn't seen them in years and didn’t expect him to recognize us. I got down on one knee and took his hand in mine, telling him he probably didn’t remember me. "You’re Adam!" he exclaimed. "Once, perhaps twice, in your life, if you’re lucky, you meet someone with whom you have an emotional and spiritual bond, and that time for me was when I met you. I could never forget you." We both cried. I later learned that he had been the first African American to dine in the congressional dining room. Travel brought us together.” —ADAM PIERGALLINI 

A candlelit lullaby 
“We hiked the Annapurna Circuit and met wonderful people from around the world. After the trek, we all spent time in Kathmandu before continuing our travels. One night, a new friend from the Netherlands invited us to his room to listen to him play the sitar. About a dozen of us headed over after dinner, just before a storm knocked out all of the power in the city. We listened to him play by candlelight with only the sound of rain in the background.” —DON THOMPSON, LARKSPUR, CA 


The greatest exchange
“I learned how to scuba dive in Aqaba. My instructor, Mohammed, ran the family dive shop with his father. One day I showed Mohammed my sketchbook. He said he would provide the paint and throw in a few dives, gratis, if I painted something in his shop. I agreed, planning a mural of an underwater scene for the back wall. For the next week, I dove every morning and painted every afternoon. I extended my stay to finish it, and Mohammed proclaimed it ‘amazing’—his favorite adjective in the English language.” —NEIL UHL, SAN FRANCISCO

One with nature 
“In the jungle of Borneo, I happened upon a mother orangutan with her baby. She sat down on a log in front of me, and we had a wonderful 40-minute photo shoot while she played with her baby. She was so relaxed and human-like.” —CAMILLE CAIN, OGDEN, UT 

Tight-knit and talkative 
“I was sitting on a bench in Beijing one beautiful afternoon, knitting. Several people sat down and started talking to me. Since I don’t speak Chinese, I just smiled and listened. It seemed to be enough for them. Each person chatted for about 10 minutes, touched my knitting, and then left. I believe I inadvertently opened up a free therapy bench.” —LISA KRINER, BEREA, KY 

Oasis in the desert 
“I did a drive for charity with my brother and two friends, driving in a couple of tiny, ill-equipped cars on an 11,000-mile road trip from the United Kingdom to Mongolia. One night, the four of us were driving a rough, rocky stretch in Tajikistan. It was pitch black, but we could see the outline of the Afghanistan mountains across the river. No one was around. As we rounded a corner, we saw a house with people out front changing a flat tire on a truck. There were lights on and music playing. Totally surprised, we pulled over to figure out what this place was. The owner’s grandson, who spoke English, explained that this was a sort of family-run rest stop, and that we could eat dinner and camp there for the night. When we awoke, we saw that we were in an oasis—surrounded by trees and bushes with fresh figs, pomegranates, apples, and other fruits.” —SCOTT GURIAN, NEW JERSEY

Gauchos, or nomadic horsemen, have become symbols of several South American countries, including Argentina, where rural land is plentiful.

South America

A very Argentinian day
“A group of fellow Remote Year travelers and I decided to go horseback riding and have an asado with some locals in the Sierras of San Clemente, near the city of Cordoba. We started at the stables, rode across the mountains with a local gaucho, up hills and past streams as the sun started to set. In true Argentine fashion, we stopped for a merienda, or snack, of malbec, bread, and chorizo. We were in awe of the pinks, purples, and oranges of the sunset. It got dark quickly on the ride to the restaurant where we’d have our asado. We noticed fireflies on the streams and puddles all around, and the most striking blanket of stars covered the sky. At the restaurant, we feasted on meat cuts, roasted peppers, and drank enough malbec for a football team. On the ride back to Cordoba, we stopped atop a hill for a while—each in our thoughts and half asleep—admiring the city’s skyline.” —MARTA RIPOLL, LONDON

>>Next: What Happiness Looks Like Around the World