Our inaugural travel writing competition saw readers take us around the globe. But there could be only one winner...
In April, in conjunction with Lonely Planet, we launched our first writing competition, asking you - our well-travelled readers - to send in your stories of the best trip you've ever taken.
The entries were impressive, and not only because of the breadth of destinations your stories spanned. From New Zealand to New Orleans, South Africa to Spain, Ukraine to Uruguay, your stories transported us around the globe and captivated us with your tales of adventure and exploration.
From a shortlist of finalists chosen by Herald Travel Editor Stephanie Holmes, Lonely Planet's vice-president - experience Tom Hall had the unenviable task of picking the ultimate winner. He crowned Stephanie Delagarza as our champion. Her story about a trip to Milford Sound "read like a love letter to a moment of opportunity that was taken, resulting in a unique experience," Hall said.
"Stephanie wrote very well about somewhere that will be familiar to many and gave a visit here atmosphere and depth ... It was a real reminder to get out of bed early."
Delagarza wins $1000 of Lonely Planet books of her choosing. Two runners-up - Tim Mathis and Kate Lawless - each receive $250 Lonely Planet book packs.
You can read their stories below, and we'll publish some of our other finalists' work in later issues of Travel.
Thank you to everyone who entered.
THE LAND OF THE LOST
Fiordland, located in the southwest of the South Island of New Zealand, is an area untouched by technology with no cellphone signal or internet for miles. Nights are so dark you can't see the hand in front of your face. The Milky Way is easily seen and it's so quiet, you can practically hear your heart beating.
When walking through the many trails, large ancient-looking tree ferns filter the sun through their outstretched fronds. Questionable mushrooms pop up sporadically and the forest floor is oddly devoid of crawling insects. You have entered the land of the lost.
Mirror Lakes is unlike anything I've ever seen before. A picture-perfect reflection of the mountains in the incredibly clear water is a magical sight. Ducklings speed across the glassy surface chasing insects and black eels slither effortlessly in their underwater garden. Nature's minerals colour this lake so beautifully, it makes you want to envelop yourself in it and drink it in until you're full.
The road to Milford Sound has been touted as one of the top 10 drives in the world. I can say without hesitation that I've never been this impressed before. The sheer magnitude of the mountains and the ever-changing weather brings this area alive. The views were delicious as the clouds looked like meringue, forming soft peaks on the treetops far above. Cotton-candy clouds lazily blew through at varying altitudes, dusting their sugar on to this sweet land.
The squawking of kea from dark, moss-covered trees helped wake the lazy land below. They look as if they've stepped right out of a palaeontology book, with eons of experience embedded behind their intelligent eyes. Flying in a group to investigate the tourists, the heavy-bodied birds are obsessed with biting off any exposed weather stripping on cars.
Continuing on the windy road to Milford Sound, one definitely wants to be the passenger and not the driver. With hundreds of shades of green and more fern species than you ever thought possible, sensory overload is imminent. You can't take a bad picture here, nature just won't let you.
Milford Sound hasn't yet become crowded at 9:15 in the morning and for that, we are fortunate. We board our small boat and set off over calm waters seeing high waterfalls and seal colonies basking in the sun. Ever-changing views are created by following along the rocky, mountainous walls. The animals that live here are blessed; possibly taking for granted that this IS the place to be.
If there is such a thing as love and peace in this world, this place stores it in abundance. Perfectly rugged and beautiful, there is an aura here that you don't encounter often in your lifetime, if ever. It's hard to not be moved by this amazing locale and even harder to put into words the feeling one walks away with. I will never forget that some of the finest hours of my life were spent here.
After enduring hours of dehydration through a scorching canyon in Western Spain, you don't need the extra stress of a rambling American seminary professor.
The Camino de Finisterre is a 90km exclamation point on the end of the Camino de Santiago - an ancient path across Spain ending at St James' tomb in Santiago de Compostela. It's communion with a dead saint's innards, to paraphrase Sarah Vowell. My wife and I were a few hours from the coast after a summer of chorizo, ornate cathedrals, low-slung villas, all-night fiestas, good, cheap wine and 30km days. It was hard to believe we were here.
The professor found me during a moment when I'd decided to quit. It was midday, siesta time. I was hyperthermic, hiding from the sun, dousing myself with water from a hostel's garden hose and drinking litres of Aquarius - a ubiquitous citrus sports drink.
He told me that I looked like I was from Brooklyn, that he taught at a Bible College in Texas, that he was a really strong hiker, and that we should walk together even if it was unlikely that I'd be able to keep up.
I was raised in Ohio in the Midwestern United States. My homes had been New Zealand, Seattle. I'd never been to Brooklyn. I was walking after a decision to leave behind a fundamentalist upbringing. The Camino is an ancient spiritual pilgrimage, it's true, but I was seeking closure on my departure from a certain type of faith. I hadn't asked for any of this. I turned away and resumed drenching myself, hoping he'd pick up my body language.
"Okay Brooklyn, I don't have a lot of time to talk! I'm going to get me a bocadillo!"
I told my wife we needed to move quickly. We left the hostel a few minutes before the professor and established a several hundred-metre lead.
He followed, calling after. "Hey Brooklyn, slow down! I want to walk with you!"
The Galician countryside was sunbaked hills, exposed terrain, and expansive views dropping down to the Atlantic. It was a clear day. The heat was beginning to break.
We decided to run.
Hours later we limped into a hotel on the coast in Finisterre - a place that was considered the end of the Earth by pre-Christian Europeans. It feels that way, with a lighthouse perched on a cliff overlooking a seemingly endless expanse of sea.
A reliable outcome of a very long walk is that you become a different person at the end than you were at the beginning. Pilgrims burn their clothes on the beach as a symbol of transition from one stage of life to the next. It's a dirty habit that bothers the locals, so we threw ours in the bin as we watched the sunset over a deep blue ocean. We didn't see the seminary professor but I'm sure he made it.
A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
4pm. The chiming doorbell wakes me from a deep sleep. I vaguely remember the hotel manager asking us yesterday if we could be in our room around this time for a surprise.
I shake my husband awake. We had spent most of the day exploring the ruins of Sri Lanka's ancient city of Polonnaruwa and had been completely wiped out by the energy-sapping heat.
Bleary-eyed and face slick with sleep-drool, I answer the door. I must look a fright.
The guest services manager at the door is unfazed. "Good afternoon, Miss Kate. Please, can you and Mr Robin come with me?"
I glance at my husband, who shrugs, and our rumpled forms obediently follow him along to the lobby.
Several smiling staff members are waiting for us. A saturated-pink bouquet is thrust into my hands. Both my husband and I have floral crowns placed on our heads. The doors open and we are hit with a wall of damp heat.
Outside, a photographer is snapping away like a paparazzo. We are asked to offer a blessing at the Buddhist shrine near the hotel entrance. A cacophony of Kandiyan traditional dancers and drummers suddenly appear and we are prompted to follow them down the street. People are lined up watching the action and cheering us along.
Robin and I are completely bemused, wondering if this is a case of mistaken identity.
We eventually circle back, following the somersaulting dancers and clamouring drummers around the exterior of the hotel to its front lawn. This is a beautiful lakefront area. An infinity pool, entirely shaded by a giant frangipani tree, merges with the lake.
Instructions are coming fast now. We light an oil lamp as a symbol of hope and success. We stand under a decorative bower and feed each other rice cake as a symbolic pledge to take care of each other for life. We are seated before a monk who binds our index fingers together and chants blessings over us. Finally, we are asked to stand inside a giant heart outlined on the lawn with bougainvillea. Here the photographer has us posing cheesily, while the hotel manager cracks open the champagne with a great flourish.
I briefly put down my bouquet which is quickly stolen by an opportunistic macaque. A mad scene ensues as staff members give chase, to no avail.
By now we are fizzing with excitement. No one has told us exactly what this is, but it seems safe to assume it's a mock Sinhalese-Buddhist wedding. It was an extraordinary and surreal experience on what was a memorable tour of Sri Lanka (we were there during the Easter 2019 terrorist bombings, but that's a whole other story).
This tiny hotel, EKHO The Lake House, is where Queen Elizabeth resided during her 1954 tour. In fact, we were staying in her suite, complete with golden bath-tub.
The next morning when our driver picked us up he grinned broadly and said, "I hear you got married yesterday!"