Hey fellow travelers! In my Celebrity Travel Addicts interview series, I chat with fellow travel content creators I admire and pick their brains about all things travel-related! In this edition, we speak with Nicole Smoot, the traveler, photographer, and storyteller behind the popular travel blog The Adventures of Lil Nicki! We chat with Nicole about her love for traveling to atypical destinations far off the beaten path, how travel has the ability to shift perspectives, her favorite destinations around the world, and more. Check out her best travel advice and find out where she’s off to next!
How did your passion for travel get started?
I always had an interest in travel growing up, whether I was looking at colorful images in books at the school library, or balancing foil on the bunny ears to get channel 7 to come in on the TV to watch National Geographic Explorer on Sundays. I never had the opportunity to travel outside of Alaska until I was about 11 years old for the first time. It wasn’t until I was 16 and went to Mexico though that I started thinking of how I would incorporate it into my life.
Nicole Smoot of The Adventures of Lil Nicki at Spencer Glacier Ice Cave in Alaska
What does travel mean to you? Why do you feel it’s important?
Although travel is the ultimate freedom to me (not to mention a luxury and a privilege), it’s really about learning, understanding, and acceptance. There have been countless times that I’ve had preconceived notions about certain cultures, their traditions, or religion before visiting a destination, but after returning my perspective had shifted. I truly believe that traveling generally opens people’s eyes and minds, and challenges them to empathize more and accept and appreciate our differences. When you finally get to meet and speak with people with very different lifestyles and backgrounds from you it helps to form a better understanding between cultures even if our rudimentary beliefs are quite different.
You document your travels on your blog, Adventures of Lil Nicki. Can you please tell us a bit about it? How did it come about? What makes it unique?
I started a blog a little over 5 years ago to essentially write about my travels after a little pushing from family and friends to do so. Back then I didn’t exactly know what blogging was, aside from being an online diary. I didn’t even know there were people making incomes and businesses online.
By the point I began blogging, I was already traveling to atypical destinations whenever I had the chance to go somewhere and I figured that would be my main focal point. Paired with the fact that I have a habit of getting into odd predicaments that turn into full-blown misadventures that looking back on usually turn out to be quite entertaining. Those couple caveats gave me the idea that I could blog about off the wall destinations and figure everything out the hard way so that you don’t have to.
Nicole Smoot of The Adventures of Lil Nicki at Mazar i Sharif in Afghanistan
You typically focus on destinations that are off the beaten path. What makes these locations so enticing to you?
I don’t feel like I necessarily sought out off the beaten path destinations from the beginning, they sort of just found me. Socotra, Tajikistan, and Moldova were three places hovering around the top of my list since my late teens. Socotra ended up on my radar because of a list of peculiar places around the world that popped up on the MSN homepage (this was like 2003 of 2004). I saw Dragon Blood Trees and wild beaches and knew that was somewhere I had to see if the opportunity ever arose. A year or so later, Tajikistan came to me from a random image search when I was scrolling through photos of mountains and I stumbled upon someone’s photos from a trek into the Fann Mountains, including Chimtarga Pass and those names stuck with me. Moldova I was assigned as the main subject of a project in a social studies class in grade 10 and as I researched more about the little-known country in Eastern Europe, the more I found it fascinating.
I think always being naturally allured to offbeat places has in a way shaped my interests, to be honest. Paired with the fact that I’m from a place with such a small and sparse population, a selfie-stick wielding mob of tourists is an anxiety-inducing thought to me and has kept me away from a lot of the iconic destinations most people gravitate to (or at least away from them in the peak season).
You’ve had some incredible adventures (and misadventures) in remarkable destinations around the world. Can you please share one that was particularly memorable or meant a lot to you?
I think my first trip through Yemen and Socotra is probably the most memorable and important trip I’ve taken. As I mentioned earlier, Socotra has firmly been atop my list of places I wanted to see. This was about 10 years after I was made aware that the island existed. But as I would do occasional research, I started to become more and more enamored with the whole of Yemen as well. By late 2013 I had already been talking back and forth with Socotra Eco Tours about arranging a visit. At around the same time, my grandmother had fallen ill somewhat abruptly. As the month of December crept on she pleaded with me to book a trip somewhere as I hadn’t traveled overseas in a while and her health was improved and looked like she’d have a smooth recovery. I booked the trip for January and went about life.
Well, my grandmother took a sharp turn for the worse about two weeks before my departure, so I had decided that I would assess things as the date neared and potentially have to cancel at the last minute. Six days before I was set to leave, she passed away. At that moment I knew I had to go, she’d have killed me if I’d have stayed behind to feel sorry for myself. What else did I have to lose after all?
It wasn’t the easiest trip I’ve taken, from the perspective of the chosen location or the situation I was in when I left for it, but I think because of the rollercoaster of events leading up I appreciated travel a lot more because it was my first time experiencing how finite life is.
Nicole Smoot of The Adventures of Lil Nicki admiring a dragon blood tree on the island of Socotra off the coast of Yemen
You’re from the state of Alaska. What are some of your favorite things to do there? What do you suggest other travelers do there when they visit?
Alaska is wild and untamed and that’s what I adore about it. It’s one of those places where the more effort you exert and the further you push your limits the bigger the reward. My favorite things to do when I’m between trips back home mostly involve outdoor activities. With hundreds of thousands of mountains and glaciers, the hiking opportunities are endless, and with more than 3 million lakes and 6,640 miles of coastline, there are more than a few places to kayak or canoe across. When people ask me what they should do in Alaska, I always tell them to rent a car, road trip, camp, hike, fish, kayak and enjoy the endless nature.
How many days/weeks do you travel in any given year?
It depends on the year. In 2016, 2017, and 2018 I traveled for a little under six months each year. In 2019, after having had plans to spend more time at home I was only away about four months. In 2020, it’s hard to say, with the ensuing Coronavirus pandemic, but it’s really looking like I’ll spend a lot more time home this year which I’m okay with given the situation.
I have been focusing on reducing the number of trips I do take each year and trying to condense my travels into fewer, but longer trips that focus on a single country or region and via overland travel as much as possible. This is partially because I don’t want to constantly be flying, but also because I’m a nervous flyer at all, to begin with.
Nicole Smoot of the Adventures of Lil Nicki admiring the view at Hatcher Pass, Alaska
What do you want audiences to gain and learn from your work?
For the people that land on my blog researching their next trip I hope they find the tools, resources, and information they need to make it happen. For the people that come across my work via my photography, I hope that showing some of these lesser-known parts of the world stims a curiosity to travel there one day themselves or at least to want to learn more about the location or its inhabitants and culture.
What are the top three destinations you’ve visited?
I’d say Yemen + Socotra, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan likely top my list, but that’s a loaded question!
Give us your ‘Top 5’ list for one of your top 3 destinations. Like a mini-guide or a to-do list of sorts. It can be anything from your favorite hotel, the best place to have lunch, the best sightseeing, etc.
My top 5 for each would be:
Yemen + Socotra
- Sana’a and its mountainous surroundings.
- The whole island of Socotra, I can’t narrow it down to certain locations between Dragon Blood Tree forests, untamed beaches, and the lovely Socotri people.
- Exploring the Yemeni Empty Quarter with Bedouin families and sleeping under a billion stars without a tent.
- Trekking and sightseeing in Wadi Doan in Central Yemen. Wadi Doan is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever stepped foot.
- Visiting schools in remote areas of the country and getting to meet school children as well as the teachers. It gives you insight into the day to day lives for many, and the bonds you build with their communities and individuals are unreplaceable. I keep in regular contact with several of the teachers I’ve met along the way.
- Trekking between the glacier lakes and jagged peaks of the Fann Mountains.
- Making trips into side valleys off of the Bartang Valley.
- Hiking out to villages in the Yagnob Valley to hear the Yagnobi language (related to ancient Sogdian) and witness their ancient traditions.
- Making friends all around the country- Tajikistan’s inhabitants are some of the warmest and welcoming the world over.
- Take on the Bam i Dunya- the Roof of the World- The Pamirs. Whether you go on the world’s most epic road trip up the Pamir Highway, cycle it, hike into the gnarl of mountains that make up the area, or trail way off the main path and into little-visited villages and mountains passes without a single soul around.
*Bonus 6. Try the uniquely Tajik dish of Kurutob at Kurutob Olim in Dushanbe.
- Trek around the lapis lazuli blue lakes of Band e Amir and go trekking into the beautiful Bamyan Province in Central Afghanistan.
- Catch sunrise and sunset at the Blue Mosque in Mazar i Sharif. Not only is this a holy site, but it truly is a gathering point of locals, especially in the late afternoon and early evenings. Bonus if you experience the epic Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebration here in March.
- Hike deep into the Wakhan Corridor, an extremely remote area of Afghanistan that forms a peninsula that separates Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan (look up the ‘Great Game‘ and it’ll make this area even the more fascinating). Here you’ll have the opportunity to meet the Wakhi that inhabit this region as well as Ismailism, the sub-sect of Shia Islam they practice. Trek deep enough and you’ll find Kyrgyz nomads in the Little Pamir.
- Visit the Western Afghan city of Herat, known for its beautiful Joma (Friday) Mosque where you can see artisans working away at repairs and replacements to the tiles that adorn the mosque. There’s also a section of the mosque that layers have been removed to reveal beautiful Ghorid architecture beneath.
- Go to Kandahar. On my third visit to Afghanistan, I finally made it to the southern city of Kandahar. In comparison to the remainder of Afghanistan that I’ve visited it is the most starkly different. Culturally, being predominantly Pashtun the city has a very different feel to it but the landscapes feel wildly different from the remainder of the northern and western reaches of Afghanistan I’ve seen.
Nicole Smoot of The Adventures of Lil Nicki overlooking Detwah Lagoon on the island of Socotra
How many countries have you visited so far?
I’m not 100% sure at this point! I’d have to sit down, make a list and count. I stopped counting once I started spending a lot of time in autonomous territories and separatist regions. I will say in the last couple of years I have not visited many new countries as I have been returning to the same few to travel more extensively.
What are your top 3 favorite cuisines?
This is another hard question to answer for me because there are so many places with amazing cuisines! So not counting Alaskan seafood, I think I would have so my all-time favorite is Cypriot. Southeast Asian cuisine (Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese) and Mexican I’d say round out the top three for me. Since I was limited to three, I’d like to add that I also love Yemeni, Afghan, Egyptian, Dungan and Uyghur cuisine.
What is your favorite restaurant in the world? What dish do you recommend there?
7 St. Georges Tavern in Paphos, Cyprus. It’s a small family-run restaurant and there is not a menu. You’ll simply be asked if you want red or white wine and if you have any food allergies or intolerances. After that, it’s plate after plate of delicious Cypriot goodness. All the ingredients used are locally made on the family farm or sourced locally.
Nicole Smoot of The Adventures of Lil Nicki and a friend admiring a beautiful mountain lake
What is your favorite travel movie?
Well, I’m gonna be honest- I rarely ever watch movies. I just Googled ‘travel movies’ and clicked on IMDB’s article ‘The 25 Best Travel Movies of All Time’ for ideas, and it turns out I haven’t seen a single one on the list.
What is your favorite international airport?
I’d say probably Dubai, Ashgabat, Taipei, and Incheon, are probably my favorites. Though if the questions is to fly into, I’d say Juneau because the views over Glacier Bay on a clear day and the look of the wingtips nearly touching the snow-capped peaks on either side of the plane is mildly terrifying, yet beautiful.
Which city had the friendliest people?
Dushanbe, Tajikistan for sure (I may be biased after spending to much time there), but there are heaps of other cities I could list off.
Nicole Smoot of the Adventures of Lil Nicki surrounded by nature in Kulikalon, Tajikistan
Who is your favorite travel companion?
My friends, Jolie, Tay, Jeremy and Dan (as in Dan from Dan Flying Solo).
What is the best way to kill time while traveling?
I’d say if I’m in motions, like in airplane- probably sleeping. Honestly, though, I rarely have time to kill in my travels.
What is the most exotic place your career has taken you?
Probably Antarctica if you ask most people. To be completely honest, Antarctica didn’t exactly feel exotic to me given where I come from (Though I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity).
For me, I’d say the tours I’ve lead in Mainland Yemen, Socotra, Eastern Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Northern Pakistan were probably the more exotic (and fun) of my work-related travels.
Nicole Smoot of The Adventures of Lil Nicki
What is your best bit of travel advice for someone who wants to, or is about to, embark on a life of travel?
Just go. I know a lot of people hold back because they’re scared to go alone, or because of what friends and family back home say (it’s dangerous there, a woman shouldn’t travel alone, are you insane?!?). Of course, do your research and know what you’re getting into, but if you’re waiting for someone to go with you or for someone else’s approval, you may die on your couch and never had gone anywhere.
What are 4 things you could never travel without?
I can’t think of four things I truly need to have with me for all my travels as we as humans are truly resilient and can usually find a means to survive in a lot of situations if we absolutely had to… but then again my backpack, busting at the seams says otherwise.
What is your ultimate dream destination?
Dream destinations that I want to visit and haven’t yet would be Sikkim, India; Astola Island, Pakistan; Chad; Niger; Abd al Kuri (part of the Socotra Archipelago); Nuristan, Ghazni, Ghor, Kunduz, and Takhar Provinces in Afghanistan; and several destinations in Northern Yemen that aren’t currently possible.
Nicole Smoot of The Adventures of Lil Nicki viewing the mountains at Gomi Felaw in Iraqi Kurdistan
Where are you headed next?
I was supposed to be accompanying two groups to Turkmenistan right now actually, but that fell through due to the current Coronavirus outbreak. In May I tentatively have a work trip back to Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan) that will more than likely be canceled. After that, I have a project that will be taking me back to Tajikistan this fall but may need to be postponed for obvious reasons.
Nicole Smoot at Jeti Oguz in Kyrgyzstan
Alaska bred, Nicole was born for adventure travel. She spends her days venturing to some of the most inaccessible corners of the planet, from Antarctica to Moldova, Tajikistan to Yemen, Karakalpaktan to the Republic of Artsakh and countless places in between. She started her adventure travel blog in 2015 and spends much of her time growing her content.
When not traveling, Nicole is based at home in Southcentral Alaska.