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2020 Year in Review: My Highs, Lows and Goals for Next Year

Overlooking the Big Sur coastline
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To be honest, I debated whether I was going to write a recap blog post this year at all. It’s a tradition I’ve held each year since I started blogging back in 2016, but considering all that 2020 has brought, the thought of it just made me feel anxious.

We’re all aware by now that travel took a huge hit this year due to the pandemic, and the thought of recapping my last 12 months of me, myself and I on the couch with a bottle of wine seemed underwhelming to say the least. I mean…I’m kind of joking?

But for real, when I look back on 2020 a big part of me thinks: what did I even do this year? I know a lot of you can relate. It all felt like one never-ending groundhog day of time spent at home, trips getting cancelled, plans postponed and people being missed.

This is the year that flew by and simultaneously dragged on for eternity.

And that’s a big reason why I decided to forge on and write this post, because doing so in past years has helped me to remember the little joyful moments and small wins that I tend to forget about or gloss over at year’s end.

I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to remember the good memories I made during such a strange and heartbreaking year and fill myself up with gratitude as we go into 2021, because despite all the craziness there were good times. Side note: How good does just seeing the number 2021 make you feel?!

I’m going to call this my year of California travel. Boy, did I feel lucky to call California home this year as I mostly stayed within state boundaries for the majority of the last 12 months.

This year made me appreciate how much there is to explore in my own backyard and it showed me that even when travel fully opens back up again, I don’t need to take a 13 hour flight to arrive somewhere incredible. There are still so may destinations on my own California bucket list, not to mention just a short drive away in other states.

This was also a year to focus on a lot of personal goals. One of the greatest things to happen to me this year was moving into my first solo apartment. It was completely unexpected and a scary decision at the time, but I’m so glad I went for it. I finally feel like for the first time in my life that I’m making a real home my own.

Another benefit of being home so much in 2020? I was also able to forge some beautiful new friendships and strengthen others that suffered in the past from me being away so frequently.

For those of you who have been around since the beginning, you likely know that both my parents passed away in the spring of 2017, and while this year was terrible for many in so many ways, to me I felt my grief from that loss get a lot easier to bear oddly enough. With any grief, it gets a little easier as time goes on, but this year was noticeably less painful for me.

Unfortunately, a different kind of grief overshadowed this year with the loss of normalcy, the loss of social interactions, the loss of a lot of income I depended on in the past, and the loss of many freedoms. I know this is a grief we’re all sharing in collectively, and hopefully these are temporary losses that will return to us in time. I’m feeling hopeful as we look ahead to the new year.

Recap posts from other bloggers have always inspired me, to both dream about places I can travel in the future but also from a business standpoint. In this post, I’m breaking down some of my biggest personal and professional milestones, goals for the year ahead, and a breakdown of everywhere I traveled in the last year both pre and post pandemic.

Whether you’re a blogger, loyal reader, a friend of mine, or a travel lover, I hope you find some inspiration in this post to explore safely and set your own goals for the New Year as we welcome in 2021 with open arms.

Want to Read More of My Past Annual Recaps?

Check Them Out Below

My 2019 Year in Travel Blogging

My 2018 Year in Review

A 2017 Recap: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

My Top Moments of 2016

My Goals for 2020

When I first started to reflect on my goals for the year, it was really easy at first to go full 2020 mode and immediately jump to the assumption that I didn’t accomplish any of them.

I always start the year off super energized and inspired, but as we know, something called Covid-19 swooped in at the beginning of spring and all my normal motivation seemed to go out the window. Life seemed to fall apart. Goals seemed to be completely pointless. To be honest, I didn’t even remember what my 2020 goals were until I read over my 2019 recap post–I had abandoned all hope of accomplishing them this year.

Turns out, I actually still (somehow?) accomplished by biggest goal for the year which was adding two new revenue streams to my business. In fact, I added three: Lightroom Presets, fine art prints and a blogger mentorship program.

I’m really proud that despite everything seemingly falling apart this year, I still managed to see this goal through and I’m excited to build on it in 2021.

Another goal of mine that didn’t turn out so well was to outsource more of my business. While I started to do this earlier in the year, panic quickly set in during March/April/May when the world of travel came to a screeching halt.

I didn’t know what would happen with my business or what my future income would look like, so I cut ties with all contractors. Thankfully, I was able to reinvest in outsourcing come summer but this is still a big goal for me in 2021 as I continue to grow my business.

The woods behind the Ventana Inn in Big Sur

Biggest Milestones and Moments of 2020

While 2020 seemed like an absolute shitshow, I think it’s important to reflect on the littlest wins (and the big ones of course) and I encourage you to make your own list because I guarantee progress DID happen, even if you didn’t realize it. Here are some of my proudest accomplishments of the year both personally and professionally.

Professional Milestones

  • Finally launched Lightroom Presets with 7 different collections and a fresh Shopify website
  • Launched a collection of fine art prints from my travels in collaboration with Idyll Collective
  • Launched a third new revenue stream for the year: a blogger mentorship program where I worked with a group of new bloggers to help them grow their blog and build strategies for success
  • Had my first $20K month in my business
  • Doubled my website’s advertising revenue from 2019
  • While a lot less website growth happened this year compared to 2018-2019, I still grew my website traffic by over 30% despite huge dips in traffic during the early days of the pandemic
  • Increased my affiliate revenue by over 400% from 2019
  • Grew my website’s passive revenue streams (advertising and affiliates) to over $60,000 for the year (quadrupled from 2019)
  • Was featured as a travel expert in Forbes for the third year in a row
  • Booked projects with some amazing clients that had been on my list for awhile like GoDaddy, the Ventana Big Sur, Artifact Uprising, Herschel Supply Co., and App in the Air

Personal Milestones

  • Moved into my dream apartment in Santa Monica where I’m living alone for the first time!
  • Built stronger local friendships in LA
  • Made a lot of new strides with my therapist and have seen the positive effects of committing to therapy for the last year ripple into a lot of areas in my life–especially my dating life ?

Lowest Moments of 2020

Of course, like everyone has experienced this year, there were a lot of low moments in 2020 too. While moving into my own apartment was really beneficial for my safety during the pandemic and has been a huge blessing, it has also been extra isolating at times during a year when my social life has basically been non-existent.

I feel lucky that I haven’t personally been affected by loss from Covid, but having to witness friends, acquaintances and the general public suffering so deeply has been heartbreaking to say the least.

I mean, I could make a long list of the low moments of 2020–between so much systemic racism witnessed, mishandling of the Covid crisis from government officials, raging fires in California…the list goes on, but I know we’re all aware of them at this point.

Perhaps the hardest thing for me this year personally was making the decision not to fly home to Virginia to visit my step-dad this year, for fear of putting him at risk for getting sick. Having lost two parents in the last 5 years already, that’s not another scenario I want to risk again. I’m hoping 2021 will bring reunions for many people including myself and my family.

Route 62 Diner in Joshua Tree, California

Looking Ahead to 2021

I wrote recently on an Instagram post that my 2021 goals are going to look a bit different than past years. The reality is, we aren’t close to out of the woods when it comes to the pandemic and I know travel is going to still be restricted for some time.

While last year seemed to smash down a lot of my big travel goals, this year I’m going into the year taking a different approach to what I want to accomplish. With a lot more of my time being spent at home, I’m looking to focus more on growing my site while I have time to clock hours behind my desk, but I also want to work at putting more boundaries in place when it comes to balancing work and play. I can admittedly be really bad at shutting off at the end of the day.

Here’s a look at some of my 2021 goals:

  • Be OK with shifting, testing, experimenting more even if it doesn’t feel perfectly conceptualized
  • Fewer newer projects and more nurturing of the projects and products I already have in place
  • Since so many of the days seem to run together, I need to focus on putting better boundaries in place with work time and downtime so I can recharge
  • Finish decorating and furnishing my apartment so it really starts to feel like home
  • Focus on growing my blog first, other projects come second (I want to triple my traffic in 2021)
  • Hopefully a Live Like it’s the Weekend site redesign coming in 2021!

How Much I Actually Traveled in 2020

Ok, now that we’ve gotten the milestones and goals out of the way, let’s talk travel. It’s crazy how much changed from 2019 to 2020 in my world of travel. Pre-pandemic, I looked at my 2019 year as “light” on the travel front (I traveled to 11 different countries that year). Now it looks like a dream compared to how much I was actually able to explore during this year of lockdown.

Countries Visited: USA, Canada and Mexico (3 total, 0 new)

Total Time Traveling: 54 days on the road, (19 international, 35 domestic)

Time at Home: 311 including a three day staycation locally in Los Angeles

Everywhere I Traveled in 2020

Charlottesville, Virginia

I started out the year in Charlottesville, Virginia where I stayed with family for Christmas and New Years. Little did I know this would be the last time in a while that I would be able to fly out there from Los Angeles due to the pandemic.

While I’ve clocked a lot of time in Virginia over the years, this visit was especially fun because I got to work on a project that forced me to explore more of the local wineries and foodie scene which is a huge part of Charlottesville culture.

I only wish that I would have hugged my step-dad and dog a little tighter before leaving. Seriously can’t wait to see them again.

Read More

How to Plan a Fun Foodie’s Weekend in Charlottesville

Glamping tents at Blue Sky Center in Cuyama, California
Outside patio of Cuyama Buckhorn boutique hotel

New Cuyama, California

The first official getaway of 2020 was to New Cuyama, an under-the-radar town just north of the Los Padres National Forest that has some interesting accommodation options popping up.

I had been especially curious about the covered wagon huts at Blue Sky Center and Cuyama Buckhorn, a renovated roadside motel that is now serving both locals and design savvy travelers passing through. My friend Sebrin (@theclumsytraveler) and I road tripped up there for a couple days and loved seeing a different side of what California has to offer. This is a great little pitstop if you’re planning adventures close to Pismo Beach or Santa Maria Valley.

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Zabriskie Point landscape, Death Valley

Death Valley, California

One of my favorite trips this year, hands down, was to Death Valley National Park on the border of California and Nevada. Despite living in California on and off for 8 years, I’d still never explored this area.

My friend Jeremy of Travel Freak and I decided to take a pretty spontaneous road trip there for about 5 days, and we had a blast waking up at the crack of dawn each morning to shoot sunrises over Artist’s Palette and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and catch epic sunsets from the magical landscapes of Badwater Basin and Zabriskie Point.

This is one of my favorite photography trips I’ve ever taken and can’t recommend a trip to Death Valley enough (it’s an especially great getaway to do during Covid since you can completely social distance from everyone).

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Dagne Dover backpack, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree, California

In late February, I took another spontaneous road trip out to Joshua Tree with my friends Amy and Brandon of Away Lands for a couple shoots for clients.

We stayed at the adorable Wonder Valley Hot Springs out in TwentyNine Palms, overdosed on ribs at Pappy & Harriets and hiked through Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree has always been one of my favorite local getaways. It’s quirky, super quiet and feels like a true peaceful escape from the chaos of LA life. It’s one of those places I return to every year, but it always feels a bit different and fun to go with a new group of friends.

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Fairmont Banff Springs in winter

Banff, Canada

This was the last trip I took of 2020 before the reality of the pandemic really set in. I left for this trip in early March as news was picking up rapidly on the evolving Covid-19 situation.

I felt really nervous to take this trip but didn’t want to cancel on my friend only a few days in advance and decided to go anyway. By the time we landed in Calgary, Covid had been declared a global pandemic and Tom Hanks had announced he’d contracted the virus. I honestly went a little bit into panic mode at that point.

Since I was already there, I tried to make the most of it and enjoy my time in Banff which I had traveled to previously in 2017. It’s one of my favorite winter destinations and is such a beautiful place to visit. We did a ton of fun winter activities on the trip including ice skating at the Fairmont Lake Louise, snowshoeing (my first time ever), and dog sledding.

Despite the general unease I was feeling, we had a great time and I look back on this trip feeling really grateful I was able to explore Banff again before everything shut down. We were really lucky that we had no issues getting back home and we went into lockdown shortly after in California.

Big Bear, California

Soon after I returned home from that Banff trip, everything in California went into lockdown. From late March to early June I barely left my apartment, spent my days cooking and trying to keep myself sane at the house like many others around the world.

Finally in early June I had a client project to shoot and decided to book a secluded escape to the Getaway House cabins near Big Bear, just two hours from Los Angeles to get the project done on location.

This was a quick weekend getaway but felt much needed after being cooped up at home. I went on a couple easy hikes, caught sunset from Keller Peak and enjoyed nights by the campfire at the Getaway House, which felt both safe and rejuvenating.

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What It’s Really Like Staying at the Getaway House

Design centric lobby at the Hotel June

Staycation at Hotel June, Los Angeles

In late July I was invited out to Hotel June, a new boutique hotel property from Proper Hotels that had just opened up 5 minutes away from LAX. I invited my friend Natalie out to stay with me and we enjoyed a couple nights by the pool, trying the delicious food at their Caravan Swim Club and just being grateful to be somewhere different than the four walls of our own homes.

This was my first hotel stay during the pandemic and it was really great to see how hotels were taking all the precautions necessary to keep guests safe.

While I went into it a little nervous, this stay definitely eased my worries a bit about staying in hotels during Covid and I wrote a post for Visit California about how to do safe hotel stays during the pandemic as a response to my experience.

Summer beaches in Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach, California

After staying with Hotel June, I was feeling a bit more comfortable with the idea of more hotel stays as things seemed to calm down over the summertime here in California. At the end of August, my friend Nikki (@nikkthequick) and I decided to travel down to Laguna Beach for a few days of local exploring.

We stayed at the surf-inspired Laguna Beach House, beach hopped, and took in some gorgeous sunsets. This trip made me realize how much of my own state I had been glossing over without really truly exploring. I’m so lucky to live in one of the most beautiful states in the U.S. and Laguna Beach is one of those places that oozes pure California vibes. I already can’t wait to go back!

Catalina Island

In mid-September, I worked on a project with the Catalina Island Company and took a mid-week adventure out to the island to explore both the Avalon and Two Harbors sides. I had only been out to Catalina once to go camping back in my early days living in LA, so this was a fun treat to really get to explore in depth.

My travel buddy, Betty of Nomoon Travel, and I rented a golf cart to explore Avalon, went paddleboarding, ziplining and lounged at the chic beachside Descanso Beach Club. If you’re in need of an easy getaway from LA that feels a world away, Catalina is a great place to escape to.

Twelve Senses retreat in Encinitas, California

Encinitas, California

Continuing on my California tour, I headed down to Encinitas in late September to visit a local friend. While down there, we checked into the Twelve Senses Retreat for a couple nights which was named a Design Hotel in just its first year of opening.

Located in a little residential neighborhood in Encinitas, Twelve Senses is super unassuming, but is beautifully executed. We were blown away by the level of detail and love that the owner Anke has put into the property and making her guests feel at home. She even served us organic homemade breakfasts each morning that looked like they could have been straight out of a Balinese cafe.

Las Gaviotas, Mexico

For my birthday in mid October, a few friends and I road tripped over the border of Mexico to a small beach community called Las Gaviotas where we rented a house overlooking the ocean. It was a smaller birthday than many in the past, but it was just what I needed: sun, ocean and to be surrounded by a great group of friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to ring in 34 years.

Big Sur coastline

Big Sur and Central Coast, California

Earlier in the fall, I had to cancel a trip up to Big Sur due to the fires in California, so this trip got rescheduled for late October. It was a collaboration with my dream hotel in Big Sur–the adults-only luxury resort, Ventana Big Sur. In typical Michelle fashion though, I extended the trip a few days to make stops in destinations up the coast including San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Cambria.

My friends Amy and Brandon’s wedding was cancelled in Big Sur this year, so I invited them to come along with me so they could at least get a trip to the area even if it wasn’t to tie the knot like they originally planned. We had a ton of fun road tripping together for our second time since Joshua Tree.

Temecula, California

After client destination projects all but dried up when the pandemic hit, I was thrilled to book my first (and only) destination project of the year to California wine country with Visit California. The first stop on the adventure was to Temecula, which is Southern California’s official wine country destination.

My friend Lauren and I had so much fun exploring Old Town Temecula, taste testing at too many wineries to count and getting a bird’s eye view of the area from a hot air balloon (well, actually I had to go alone because Lauren chickened out last minute).

I definitely plan on returning to Temecula again when things start to open back up in 2021.

Read More

Road Tripping Through 3 of the Best Wine Regions in California

Exterior of the Alamo Motel

Los Alamos, California

One of my favorite stops during my press trip with Visit California was to Los Alamos which is an up-and-coming wine destination in Santa Barbara county. It’s basically a one-street town, but it’s shocking how much this little town packs in.

We had some of our best meals and wine tasting experiences of the entire trip here. A few places you can’t miss: the Alamo Motel, Bell’s, A Tribute to Grace Winery and Pico Restaurant.

Santa Ynez General store

Solvang, Santa Ynez & Santa Maria, California

Our final stop on our epic winery tour through California was to Solvang, Santa Ynez and Santa Maria which are all located in Santa Barbara County. I had previously visited the adorable Danish town of Solvang and had done some wine tasting in Santa Ynez and nearby Los Olivos, but this was my first time in Santa Maria Valley.

While there, we visited Presqu’ile Winery which is this gorgeous modern architectural building perched on a hill overlooking vineyards and ocean which you can see on a clear day. It ended up being my favorite winery of the whole trip and their picnic lunch spread was out. of. this. world. Seriously.

Wine tasting is one of my favorite activities, but it’s safe to say that after this trip I didn’t want to look at another glass of wine for a very long time. I think we visited 13 wineries in 5 days on this trip ?

Tulum, Mexico

One of my most popular destinations on my blog is without a doubt Tulum, Mexico and I knew I needed to go back and visit to refresh some old content on the area. I hadn’t booked an international flight since the pandemic hit, but traveling to Mexico on a direct flight where everything is outdoors seemed to be one of the safest bets.

My friend Betty and I decided to meet down in Tulum in mid-November to check out some different hotels and new things in the area and I feel really lucky to have been able to even get one big international trip under my belt this year. Updated Tulum posts coming soon!

We also adventured to Bacalar and Isla Holbox while down there–more on those below!

Bacalar overwater bungalows in Mexico

Bacalar, Mexico

This was the surprise foodie destination of the year I never saw coming. Bacalar is a small town two hours south of Tulum that has been given the moniker “the Maldives of Mexico” because of its gorgeous turquoise lagoon and overwater bungalows. In my opinion, equating it to the Maldives is a bit of a stretch, but it was still gorgeous.

I was disappointed at first because due to heavier than normal rainfall, the lagoon water level had increased dramatically in previous months giving it more of a murkier color than its typical blazing blue. However, we went on a boat tour that was able to take us out to a section of the lagoon that was returning to its stunning color so in the end we got a taste of the true Bacalar Lagoon.

What we weren’t expecting from this part of Mexico was incredible food. While Tulum food prices are basically the same as LA, Bacalar is way way more affordable. And if you go to the right spots the food is even better. If you’re down in Bacalar, make sure to eat at Nixtamal–this was a Michelin level restaurant at Mexico prices that’s definitely yet to be discovered. We ate a feast of grilled lobster and some of the best mojitos I’ve ever had. 10/10

Isla Holbox, Mexico

After hectic hotel shoots in Tulum, Isla Holbox was meant to be the vacation portion of the trip to go out with a bang, but it ended up being a bit of a letdown. I was really looking forward to the chill vibes I had heard about in Holbox, but when we arrived the streets were pretty flooded from past storms and a new storm was about to roll through, making the weather super windy and the water less than enticing.

I can imagine in pre-pandemic times that Holbox would be way more lively and fun with travelers from all over the world, but it seems like for now Covid has cleared out a lot of the tourists. While we still enjoyed ourselves, I’ll be honest–it wasn’t my favorite destination this year. Holbox is definitely a destination I would consider returning to once the pandemic is over though.

Michelle Halpern at home in Santa Monica

Home in Santa Monica, California

And now for the destination where I clocked the most time in 2020….drumroll please…

HOME.

One of my best moments of the year was without a doubt moving into my very first solo apartment. Not only has it made me feel safer in Covid times, being able to control who comes through the house, but it’s been such a fun project for me to work on decorating the way I want and make my little slice of paradise feel like a home that’s a true reflection of me.

As I wrap up the initial stages of decorating (whoa, it takes time!), I’ll be working on a post sharing where I got everything from in the apartment. Having my own place has been such a blessing and I hope to incorporate more home content in the blog moving forward.

***

I hope that despite all of the challenges this year has brought, that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never looked forward to a new year more than I am looking forward to 2021! I hope you’re just as excited and feeling hopeful for what the future has in store. Thanks for reading and being part of this community. Sending you best wishes for the year ahead.
xx
Michelle

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