The Backpacker: My top 12 moments of 2015

It's the small moments that make travel great.

You spend so long building up to these points, hanging out in airports, schlepping your way around cities, occasionally battling through boredom or just falling into a groove of eat, drink, roam, repeat.

But then, it happens. A tiny slice of perfection. A small moment in time when it seems like everything has fallen into place just so.

That's what makes travel so great. That's what will be filed forever in the highlight reel of your memory, the thing that will stick with you far longer than whatever it took you to get there. That's what will make you keep coming back for more.

This is a countdown of my favourite moments of travel perfection from 2015.

12. Boating on Sydney Harbour

Finally, after 10 years spent in Sydney gazing out at the harbour every sunny day and thinking how good it would be to get my boat license and join them, I actually did it this year. I got my license, and a few days later hired a powerboat and headed with friends up into Middle Harbour, eventually anchoring in Sugarloaf Bay. There, sitting in the sun, shucking oysters, drinking a beer… Perfection. And I didn't even have to leave home.

See also: Twenty things that will surprise first-time visitors to Australia

11. Going to a dim sum war in Hong Kong

Lin Heung teahouse is one of the oldest dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong, and it's a warzone. You don't sit at your table and politely wait for the best food to be wheeled past – you get up and chase the carts, grabbing whatever you can get your hands on before someone else does. The food is great, but the best part about the experience for me was sitting down at a table with a whole load of strangers, taking a deep breath, and going into battle.

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10. Watching sunsets in Western Australia

I'm a fairly recent convert to sunset fandom, but you can't fail to be impressed by the constant stunners that Western Australia dishes up. I can't pick a favourite: the one on the beach in Dunsborough, or the one at the Pinnacles, or the one from the boat in Shark Bay, or the one I watched from a pub in Kalbarri. Each was a slice of colourful perfection.

See also: Western Australia Coral Coast road trip: Red-hot desert fun

9. Discovering the best carbonara in Rome

My girlfriend and I searched far and wide, across the city, on one occasion eating three pasta meals in one day, and it was all worth it, because eventually we found the best carbonara in Rome. We found it at a little suburban restaurant called Da Cesare. We ate it in a courtyard under the shade of grapevines. We washed it down with a glass of chilled white wine. You can't tell me it gets any better than that.

See also: Where to find the best carbonara in Rome?

8. Drinking coffee in Sousse Medina

There were so many highlights in Tunisia – seeing the Roman amphitheatre in El Jem, visiting one of the world's oldest mosques in Kairouan, eating fresh-baked pastries in Tunis – but the best of them was probably just a quiet little moment in the bustling Sousse Medina, drinking a glass of strong black coffee, smelling shisha pipes and spices and not-quite-tanned leather, and watching a foreign world go by.

See also: Three amazing countries with bad reputations

7. Swimming with spinner dolphins in PNG

This is such a cliché – swimming with dolphins, it doesn't get any less imaginative as a holiday highlight – but the reality was as amazing as it's always made out to be. I was in a small fiberglass boat off the coast of Kokopo, in PNG, when we spotted a huge school of spinner dolphins, some leaping out of the clear blue waters, splashing around, diving and breaching. A few of us donned masks and jumped in with them, spending about half an hour swimming and gazing.

See also: Have you visited Australia's closest neighbour?

6. Going to a hair-cutting ceremony in Mongolia

Mongolian children traditionally don't cut their hair until they're about three years old – then, surrounded by their extended family, with a feast of meat and vodka to come, the patriarch takes a pair of scissors and cuts off the first lock, wishing the child well before handing him or her some money and sending them around the circle of people to complete the cut. I got to watch one of these ceremonies this year, in a ger in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness, and it was incredible.

See also: How Ben Groundwater was bitten by the travel bug

5. Diving into Lake Baikal

They say a swim in Russia's Lake Baikal – the temperature of which usually hovers around five or six degrees – will add seven years to your life. Or 10. Or five. I dunno, depends who you're talking to. Whatever the number, I'll be living significantly longer after taking a very chilly dip this year while on a journey from Ulan Baator to Moscow. And even if doesn't work, the shot of vodka afterwards made it all worthwhile.

See also: Ten countries you (probably) haven't visited

4. Sitting on the rocks at Ipanema

This is another one of those really unimaginative clichés that turned out to be amazing: sitting on the rocks at the eastern end of Rio's Ipanema beach, sipping on fun-sized caipirinhas in plastic cups, watching surfers on the break right in front of us, checking out footballers on the beach, listening to people from all over the world laughing and chatting, and watching as the sun slowly goes down behind Morro Dois Irmaos far in the distance. I could relive that moment every evening for years.

See also: Meet a girl from Ipanema: the songs that created tourist hotspots

3. Seeing Sardinia on a scooter

You want travelling perfection? Hire a Vespa in northern Sardinia. Stick your girlfriend or boyfriend on the back of it, and race off towards the horizon. Cruise winding coastal roads skirting the bluest water you've ever seen on the Costa Smeralda. Climb your way up into the rugged hills around Tempio Pausania. Explore ancient, narrow streets in Castelsardo. Feel the sun on your skin and the wind in your face. I did all of this in Sardinia in June this year, and absolutely loved it.

See also: The 16 best countries to visit for 2016

2. Watching the Baining fire dancers in PNG

I had no idea what was about to happen. I was sitting on a plastic stool in the middle of a clearing in a forest in Papua New Guinea. It was pitch dark. Over one side of the clearing, a group of men sat on wooden planks, chanting softly, drumming with large logs. In the middle, a huge bonfire was set. Just as the flames reach their highest, men in towering, ghoulish masks appeared from the night, running through the fire, kicking at the embers, stomping on the flames. These are the Baining Fire Dancers. It was like nothing I've ever seen before.

See also: Not Bali: A tropical paradise without the tourists

1. Pintxos crawling in San Sebastian

And here it is, my absolute highlight of 2015, and it's one I've done probably five or six times before: eating pintxos – the Basque version of tapas – in San Sebastian, Spain. I don't know exactly what it is about this place – although it's probably a combination of the friendly small-town vibe, the incredibly good tapas bars, the beaches, the locals, the sense of joy that seeps into my pores every time I set foot in the city – but I love visiting San Sebastian, and I particularly love heading out on the town with good friends, going from bar to bar, eating the best food ever, drinking wine, chatting, laughing, eating, and eating, and eating. It doesn't get any better.

See also: Why San Sebastian is the centre of the foodie universe

What was your favourite travel moment of 2015?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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