My list is in the blue notebook, toward the back, hidden, and written in short-hand to avoid potential embarassment should I accidentally leave it in the back seat of a rental car again. 

Admit it. You have one, too. You may not go to such great lengths as I to conceal it — you may not have even written it down — but you’ve got one, nonetheless. It is more than a mere list of places to explore, countries to visit, cultures to experience. To call it a bucket list would cheapen its significance; diminish its allure.

After all, the true traveler knows its not really about how many countries you can boast (though we admit, it’s really fun to gloat at all the pins we have tacked to our wall map); instead, travel is about the people you meet along your journey, the cultures you experience, the families who welcome you into their homes, and the landscapes that paralyze you with their beauty.

If you found my hidden list, you would simply read names of locations. I do not delve into much detail otherwise. These hoped-for experiences are implicit; they are not guaranteed, and that is perhaps why  they are so carefully guarded. For what I want from my list — from my travels — is to be left speechless, humbled, and inspired. I don’t just want to see the world;  I want to experience it.

It is for that reason that I offer to you the following 8 locations to add to your list of places to experience in 2012. They have each, in their own way, blown me away; left me speechless. My hope is they will do the same for you.

1.) White Mountain National Forest (New Hamsphire, USA)

Franconia Ridge, viewed across a frozen Lonesom Lake; White Mountains, New Hampshire

Franconia Ridge, viewed across a frozen Lonesome Lake; White Mountains, New Hampshire

 I’m not exaggerating when I say that New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest is my favorite place to escape to. These majestic 5,000 ft.+  granite peaks sprawling across New Hampshire from the edge of Vermont to the border of Maine beckon me from the North, begging my return, no matter the season.  Summer hikes can take you for a traverse across the renowned Presidential Range or for a summit of New England’s tallest peak, 6,288 ft. Mt. Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Winter adventures include day hikes on snow shoes or overnight cross-country ski adventures providing heart-stopping views of snow-capped peaks and peaceful valleys.

2.) Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast

Sunrise on the island of Korcula, Croatia

Sunrise on the island of Korcula, Croatia

We spent three weeks along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast for our honeymoon in 2010. This is a country that still bears the emotional and physical scars of recent war, but has yet overcome much. From the city of Split down to the fortified medieval town of Dubrovnik, Croatia’s Dalmatian coast captivates visitors with its rocky coastline, pristine waters, and historic villages lined with terra cotta roofs. See Diocletian’s Palace in Split, stroll the city walls surrounding Dubrovnik, sea kayak on the island of Hvar, and play Marco Polo in the Adriatic waters of the explorer’s hometown of Korcula. Whether you’re into history, culture, hiking, eating, snorkling, or sunbathing, Croatia has something to offer at every stop. Don’t plan too much for this trip. You’re going to want to just sit and savor it.

3.) Coastal Maine (United States)

Portland Head Light, Maine

Portland Head Light, Maine

The coast of Maine is one of the most magical places in New England. Violent waves crash into hundreds of miles of rock-strewn coastline. Swim at Old Orchard beach. Picnic on the rocks at Nubble Light in York Maine. If shopping is your thing, stop by the outlets in Kittery. Drive through the quintessential coastal New England fishing towns of Rockport and Camden. Further north lies one of the most beautiful slices of Maine: Acadia National Park. Here you can hike to the top of Cadilac Mountain and be among the first people in the United States to see the sun rise. Head down to beautiful Bar Harbor for the best in shopping and dining. And finally, no trip to Maine is complete without a stop in Portland. Go on a whale watch, enjoy shopping downtown, visit the art galleries, have lunch on the ship’s deck at DeMillo’s Restaurant in the harbor, and then head to Fort Williams Park in South Portland for a cliffside walk along the coast and a visit to the famed Portland Head Light.

4.) Washington, D.C. (United States)

The already-vicious 2012 election season is certain to crank the usual frenzy of policy wonks and government workers up a notch or two in this, my favorite of all U.S. cities. Visiting the nation’s capital during an election year is a very unique experience as the District shifts into overdrive in an attempt to promote, or prevent, a change in leadership. Set up a visit of the magnificent Capitol building, with its famed rotunda, and see Congress in action. Get a tour of the U.S. Supreme Court, then make a quick stop next door at the Library of Congress. But this city offers so much more than just an eighth grade-level civics lesson. D.C.’s museums alone can keep you busy for a week. I recently toured the Newseum, an interactive 7-level museum that offers a journey through history as told by international media. To make your trip complete, visit the National Mall and its monuments beginning at sunset, where the grandeur of the structures and their significance is accentuated by the lighting. My favorite is the World War II Memorial. If you’re headed to Washington, D.C. soon, though, be aware there is construction going on at the Reflecting Pool that is a bit ugly to say the least. No matter the time of year or the amount of road construction, something about being in Washington, D.C. just makes me really grateful for my country.

5.) Greece

Greece certainly is getting its fair share of negative publicity lately, and that’s exactly why you should go — now. It always bothers me when negative media coverage damages a place’s reputation, keeping people from experiencing everything else that place has to offer. Greece is just too beautiful to miss out on, even if it has seen more prosperous days. Start your journey in Athens, visiting the museums and ruins, and enjoying leisurely lunches in the plethora of outdoor cafes. Wander the streets admiring the street art and local artisan shops. But don’t linger in Athens for too long. Instead, head out to some of the lesser-frequented islands, like Naxos in the Cyclades islands. Don’t bother planning a jam-packed itinerary. Just plan to show up and hang out. The local culture, rich sea food, spectacular Agean coast, and jaw-dropping sunsets will give you plenty to take in. You visit Naxos not to do things, but rather to experience the place itself. To get away even further, take the bus from Naxos Town to Appollon, where you can lounge on your choice of sand or pebble beaches and visit some spectacular ruins. Return to Naxos Town in time to witness one of the most amazing sunsets you’ll ever see from the site of the unfinished Temple of Apollo.

6.) London

In 2011, it was the Royal Wedding. In 2012, it’s the summer Olympics. All eyes are on London once again, and I can certainly see why. I never had a desire to visit London. I always assumed it was over-hyped and unnecessarily expensive. But when an airline mishap on our way home from Croatia kept us in London for a day, I quickly overcame my London stigma. We followed the sound of bagpipes through the Westminster Underground station to the stairs that led us out at the base of Big Ben. I must have stood there in awe for ten speechless minutes. Normally, when I finally see in person what I have been seeing in textbooks all my life, I am, more often than not, disappointed. That’s it? I thought it would be bigger? But not Big Ben. Not Parliament. Not Westminster Abbey. And not London. There are very few places in this world that have moved me to tears with their beauty. Standing on the Westminster Bridge gazing across at an illuminated Parliament and Big Ben, I admit, I actually cried. I may have claimed to have something in my eye, but I really cried. Westminster Abbey was no different. Incredible. I’ve never been so moved by anything man-made.

7.) Montreal, Quebec (Canada)

The city of festivals has something for everyone — history, architecture, museums, world-class shopping, delicious food, and outdoor adventure. Each month, the city hosts a different festival. Two of the most popular are the Jazz festival in June and the Just for Laughs festival in July. To learn about the history of Canada and the settling of North America by Europeans, spend some time in the European-esque Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal), visiting the Chateau Ramezay and the archeological museum, where you can view an incredible multi-media 3-D presentation on Montreal’s history before heading underground to check out ruins of 17 Century Montreal, including remnants of the city’s walls when it was fortified. This is definitely one of the coolest museums I’ve ever visited. While in Old Montreal, be sure to spend some time in the Notre Dame Basilica, by far the most beautiful cathedral I have seen. Follow it up with a walk or run along the St. Lawrence River at the Old Port, or head toward Parc Mont Royal for a great hike and a spectacular view of the city skyline and the river.

8.) Your home town!

A farm in Warrick County, Indiana

A farm in Warrick County, Indiana

Most people are just plain bored by their home towns, unless of course, you live in New York, London, Paris … you get the picture. After all, we travel to get away from home, right? I used to feel this way, too. If you would have told me in high school that I would someday consider my hometown to be one of my favorite places to travel, I would have thought you were crazy. It was not until I started cycling the rurual countryside of southern Indiana that I realized how truly beautiful corn is! There is no more beautiful sight in this world than sprawling acres of rolling farmland, dotted with barns and silos, intersected by country roads. And the smell — sweet and earthy. Home. If you find yourself unable to get away much this year, use that opportunity to experience your hometown in a different way. I guarantee you will find a new appreciation for it if you view it from a new angle. I suggest a bicycle!

Wherever your travels may take you this year, I encourage you to reassess the intent of your bucket list. Are you preoccupied with checking items off your travel to-do list? Or are you searching for something deeper? Don’t limit yourself to merely seeing the world … experience it.