In this age of 24/7 connectivity and instant news reports via Twitter and press releases, it’s relatively easy to cover events even from half a world away. For the past couple of years, that’s how we covered the three-ring horological circus known as BaselWorld. But there was always a nagging feeling that the only way to truly report on the world’s largest watch event was to be there on the ground. So this year we booked a ticket, rented a room, bought some comfortable shoes and packed our bags for Basel.

MORE FROM BASELWORLD: Preview: BaselWorld 2014 | Best of BaselWorld 2013

This place is big — the sheer acreage of the event is hard to fathom. Spread through two huge halls, a few smaller ones and a couple of outliers squatting in hotel conference rooms, this is no ordinary trade show. Why so much space just to show off things as small as wristwatches? Well, because the showing off requires massive and elaborate booths.

“Booth” is an understatement and a misnomer. The bigger brands like Rolex, Breitling and TAG Heuer had booths that occupied blocks of space within the halls. Imagine a common two-story bungalow — then double it. Typically, each booth uses the first floor as a sort of boutique, with glass display cases for the year’s “novelties” surrounded by the requisite decor that evokes the feelings the brand is trying to project. The Rolex booth was conservative and minimalist, reflecting the company’s watches. Meanwhile, Breitling had a massive aquarium with colorful fish swimming in it, ostentatious enough to become a well-known landmark of this year’s show. TAG Heuer’s booth was all edgy and modern, in keeping with the brand’s focus on youth, technology and sports timing.

Vintage continues to be a popular inspiration, as evidenced by Tudor’s new Ranger, OMEGA’s Seamaster 300 and pretty much Hamilton’s entire lineup.

Of course, not all the companies that exhibit at BaselWorld can afford palatial booths. We took what little free time we had between appointments to stroll past the smaller booths of suppliers (movement and cases, strap makers, component specialists) and independent watchmakers. Plenty of exciting things are happening in these small shops. Bill Yao of MkII Watches let us in on some goodies he has in store for tool watch lovers; the brothers Groenefeld took time to explain their new Parallax Tourbillon; Devon Works showed us their steampunk creations and told us about future plans for a mechanical movement for their Tread watch, partnering with no less an expert than American watchmaker RGM. A quick dip into the DOXA booth turned up a vintage gem on their Marketing VP, who was wearing Jacques Cousteau’s personal SUB 300T Sharkhunter. As is so often the case, the best stuff was found off the beaten path.

So what about the watches? Some themes and trends bubbled to the surface. Vintage continues to be a popular inspiration, as evidenced by Tudor’s new Ranger, OMEGA’s Seamaster 300 and pretty much Hamilton’s entire lineup. NATO straps were everywhere, from standard nylon ones to an embossed crocodile leather version. Companies continue to experiment with colorful materials and coatings like rubber-coated steel, color-impregnated ceramic and a lot of PVD and DLC in everything from red gold to brass. Bremont is using a new super-hard 465 stainless steel that came out of its new partnership with Boeing, and Linde Werdelin’s newest Oktopus features a new proprietary alloy that is half the weight of titanium.

The trend towards slightly more sane diameters continues. Many men’s sports watches came in at 42 millimeters and below, and Longines brought back a Heritage Collection Conquest at its excellent 1960s 35-millimeter diameter. On the movement side of things, more and more brands are developing in-house solutions to wean themselves from the soon-to-be dwindling access to ETA motors. Maurice Lacroix and NOMOS made news by showing off completely homegrown calibres right down to the escapements and hairsprings; Breitling is bringing out its own in-house SuperQuartz for its Professional ana-digi watches.

If you like dive watches, this was a banner year.

If you like dive watches, this was a banner year. Rolex brought the Sea-Dweller to its lineup, to the glee of oil field commercial divers everywhere. Tudor continued its winning ways with a blue-bezeled version of the excellent Black Bay. OMEGA debuted its homage to one of its past greats, the Seamaster 300, this new version a showcase for all of OMEGA’s prowess — an antimagnetic co-axial calibre, a LiquidMetal bezel and innovative new expanding clasp. Not to be outdone, Blancpain showed off a chronograph version of its minimalist Bathyscaphe dive watch and Bremont released a titanium GMT version of its Supermarine 500 diver called the Terra Nova, which was proven out in the Antarctic with explorer Ben Saunders. The Aqualand name returned to its rightful place in Citizen’s Promaster line.

There were plenty of great watches to be had above sea level. TAG Heuer continued to show off its specialization in sports chronographs with the Carrera CH80, which boasts an 80-hour power reserve and styling straight from 1967. Arnold & Son keeps cranking out drop dead gorgeous haute horlogerie pieces like the TEC 1, an automatic tourbillon with column wheel chronograph. Formerly fluffy fashion brands showed they’re more than pretty faces, with Hermes, Harry Winston, Bulgari and Louis Vuitton bringing their watchmaking A-game with mystery hours, thin tourbillons and double chronos.

Formerly fluffy fashion brands showed they’re more than pretty faces, with Hermes, Harry Winston, Bulgari and Louis Vuitton bringing their watchmaking A-game.

So what is Basel city like? Don’t ask; we barely saw the sun for three straight days. Our schedule was tight with appointments (54 in all) from dawn ’til dusk. A typical meeting was only half an hour, barely enough time to pull out a notebook, the right camera lens and a business card and crank through a dozen new watches before it was time to pack up and hustle off the next appointment, which typically was on the opposite side of the hall or even in the next one over. Not that we’re complaining. There are worse ways to spend a few days than looking at shiny new timepieces in what, for a week, is the world’s largest showroom. But it does mean that by day’s end, the dogs are barking loud.

By the time our Basel baptism of fire ended, we felt like grizzled veterans and boarded the plane home bleary eyed, sore of feet and with memory cards full. The watch world tilted back to its normal axis, journalists retreated to their offices to tease out the themes and trends of the year while the watchmakers went back to their benches to work on next year’s novelties. Before next year’s BaselWorld, we’ll surely be shopping — maybe for a new watch, but definitely for a pair of more comfortable shoes.