I remember three things about a quick afternoon visit to Innsbruck, Austria, during a family bus tour of Europe in 1999.
Its most famous landmark is the Golden Roof.
It’s home to an impressive Olympic ski jump.
And it was there we visited a Christmas-themed boutique and picked out a couple of crystal ornaments to represent that year’s annual gift from my stepmother, who has sustained this holiday tradition for more than two decades now.
I’m not sure what it is about vacationing that inspires people to shop for Christmas ornaments, but wherever you go and whatever the month, you can find shops offering various baubles to hang on your tree — whether it’s December in one of those European Christmas villages or June on a beach in the Caribbean.
We have plenty of photos and souvenirs from our trips, but the ornaments have a special significance , perhaps because they only come out briefly once a year.
Sifting them out from the others in our collection is like alittle treasure hunt of memories. Here are some of our favorites:
1. THE TREE-BARK ANGEL
In 2001, we visited Maui for the first time and of course had to experience the Ironman of Hawaiian car tours: the Hana Highway.
The narrow, winding road from Kahului to the tiny town of Hana is only 52 miles but takes three to four hours depending on stops.
It crosses 59 bridges and navigates 620 curves, meandering through a lush rainforest and offering exquisite views of the ocean below.
About three-quarters of the way, we pulled off the road at a wide spot to take a look at a waterfall.
Nearby, a woman had set up a little table to sell her crafts, and it was there we found this unique angel, handmade from tree bark gathered on the island.
2. SANTA AND HIS ELVES
My all-time favorite type of vacation is the great American road trip, and my all-time favorite destination is British Columbia, Canada.
My wife, Mrs. Animal Doctor, keeps journals of our vacations and each day invariably starts out like this: “Up in the a.m. to drive, drive, drive. ”
If you have three weeks and are lucky to have a patient family like me, a memorable route we’ve taken multiple times takes us up through eastern Oregon and Washington, through Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, across the border and up into the Canadian Rockies of Alberta — home to Banff and Jasper National Parks and one of the most spectacular glacial areas in North America.
From there, we circle back down to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, hop a car ferry across to Vancouver Island, continue down to Victoria , then back across to the mainland, on to Seattle and homeward.
In 2004, when Little Miss Sixth-Grader and Mr. Big Third-Grader were ages 4 and 1 respectively, we set up our tent one night at a small campground that featured a view of the Athabasca Glacier, which is one of the six toes of the Columbia Icefield and the most visited glacier on the continent.
The next day we boarded a massive snow coach with tires as tall as a man for a drive onto the ice, where we spent some time tromping around the frigid surface, learning about the dangers of crevasses and filling our water bottles with snowmelt so clear and cold it almost tasted sweet.
At the visitor center’s gift shop afterward, we picked up an ornament of Santa and four elves who move by pulling the red threads.
3. VARIATIONS ON A SEA TURTLE
2007 took us back to Hawaii for the wedding of a family friend, this time to the Big Island.
We’d never visited there before, so of course high on the to-do list was some basic exploration.
One day, we traced the circle route around Mauna Loa and visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (where we did not get to see lava flowing but did get an up-close look at a sea turtle on a black-sand beach).
On another day, we hiked to a secluded cove and found more turtles, swimming silently through the reef.
On yet another, we paired a north shore tour with a drive out to Hilo, where we raced the setting sun for a glimpse of Akaka Falls, which plunges 420 feet into a deep green pool, looking like something out of the intro scenes to “Fantasy Island.”
On that drive we stopped at a couple of shops, first picking out a wood, mosaic-style turtle before finding a second glossy, green ceramic version as well.
4. A SEMI-ALASKAN SEAL
Normally, I’d be loath to buy a souvenir that doesn’t actually originate from the spot we’re visiting, but in 2008, we had no choice.
At the end of an Alaskan cruise — which took us from Vancouver to Sitka, the Hubbard Glacier, Juneau and Ketchikan, we realized on the eve of disembarking the boat that we’d completely forgotten to pick up an ornament from the trip.
So instead of returning with a hand-carved eagle or a copper salmon, we had to settle for this little resin seal, which not only doesn’t look like the spotted fellows we saw swimming among the icebergs but also was fabricated nowhere near the Great White North.
It comes from China. Bah.
5. TWO AMERICAN LEAVES
We took two vacations this year: the first a mega camping trip to the national parks of Arizona, Utah and Colorado, and the second an educational trip to Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The road trip was a variation on an earlier journey a few years back that took us through Utah’s red rock to Rocky Mountain National Park and back up to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, where we picked up a shimmery metal elk ornament.
This time, we spent more of the trip in Colorado and were particularly enamored by the Aspen trees, with their white bark and delicate leaves that shiver in the breeze. At the visitor center in Rocky Mountain National Park perched on a ridge line some 12,000 feet above sea level along one of the most stunning mountain highways you’ll ever drive — we found this golden recreation of an Aspen leaf.
A few months later and thousands of miles away, we found another burnished metal leaf, in all places but the visitor center at the U.S. Capitol.
We’d planned that trip for mid-October with the hopes of catching the East Coast in its annual show of fall foliage.
It turned out that we were a little early for the real thing, so we brought back a memento with some of the color instead.