Take a break from the ordinary this spring by zipping through the Japan Alps on a bullet train or boating past brightly blooming Dutch tulip fields. From urban escapes to outdoors adventures, our editor’s list of the ten best spring trips to take this year—plus one reader’s choice—is filled with off-the-beaten-path options. —Maryellen Kennedy Duckett
Take a Wildflower Hike in Joshua Tree National Park
Photograph by Dennis Frates, Alamy
Twentynine Palms, California
Due to its rich and varied flora, Desert Plants was the initial name suggested for Joshua Tree National Park. Over 750 plant species have been documented in the 794,000-acre park. The amazing diversity is due to an ecosystem trifecta: Sections of the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Desert, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains are all located within Joshua Tree’s vast desert landscape. March through May, blossoms burst into color at various times and places throughout the park. What you’ll see—yellow desert dandelions, fiery red ocotillo flowers, clusters of creamy-white flowers sprouting from Joshua trees—depends on when and where you visit. According to lead park ranger David Denslow, a favorite area for spring wildflowers is the Bajada Nature Trail on the park’s southern border. In March, this quarter-mile trail “usually catches the first blooms to hit the park,” he says. It’s also one of four wheelchair-accessible trails and is easy to walk. Check the park’s weekly Wildflower Bloom Report (posted February through early May) to plan your trip. Park entrance fees ($15 per vehicle) are waived April 18-19, opening weekend of National Park Week.
How to Get Around: Driving is the most convenient option. There is no public transportation to the park, which is located 140 miles east of Los Angeles via Interstate 10 or California Highway 62. The closest airport is 45 miles west in Palm Springs. There are visitor centers with maps, restrooms, exhibits, and bookstores within seven miles of each park entrance: West near Joshua Tree Village, North in Twentynine Palms, and South near Cottonwood Springs (25 miles east of Indio).
Where to Stay: Camping is the only way to stay in the park. There are nine campgrounds. Most operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Two (Black Rock and Indian Cove) accept reservations. Campgrounds regularly fill up on spring weekends, so plan a weekday visit or reserve a site. There are hotels in the communities closest to each park entrance.
What to Eat or Drink: No food or drink is sold in the park. Carry in whatever you will need, including plenty of water. The Natural Sisters Café in downtown Joshua Tree is a popular pre- and post-park fueling stop. Try the homemade granola for breakfast, order a takeout avocado and veggie sandwich to put in your pack for lunch, and recharge after hiking with a Rock Climbers Revenge smoothie (soy milk, banana, cashews, and dates). Open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
What to Buy: Visitor center bookstores stock Joshua Tree memorabilia, gear, and helpful guides, such as the "Wildflowers of the Joshua Tree National Park" brochure ($2.95). Wildflower-related gifts include local artist Pat Flynn’s Desert Bloom Assortment #1 note cards. The set features reproductions of original watercolors depicting seven Joshua Tree blooms: brittle bush, coyote melon, Mojave yucca, beavertail cactus, buckhorn cholla, desert Canterbury bells, and Mojave mound claret cup.
What to Watch Before You Go: Longtime California PBS broadcaster Huell Howser’s California’s Golden Park television series includes a Joshua Tree episode filmed on location in spring.
Practical Tip: It’s rare to get a cell signal within the park. Don’t count on your phone or GPS for directions or emergencies.
Fun Fact: Of the 794,000 acres of land in Joshua Tree National Park, 585,000 acres are preserved as wilderness. Designated wilderness areas are protected and primitive: no roads or permanent buildings and no trails, signs, or other improvements are permitted unless required to protect the public or resources. That means that, in most parts of Joshua Tree, you're free to roam (on foot) off-trail, off-road, and without boundaries.
Indulge in a Foodie Fest
Photograph by Cephas Picture Library/Alamy
Malton, North Yorkshire, England
Billed as Yorkshire’s Food Capital, the classic Yorkshire market town of Malton is gaining steam as a year-round tourist destination for foodies. “I think what appeals to visitors about Malton is that it’s still a real working town with the most superb produce on its doorstep,” says Tom Naylor-Leyland, director of the Talbot Hotel and Malton Cookery School. “[We have] game from the moors, shellfish from the coast, rare-breed cattle and pigs, great cheeses and breads, and wonderful baking." Visitors, he says, can sip and taste their way around town before collapsing into a warm bed. Spring highlights include the Malton Monthly Food Market and the annual Food Lovers Festival, May 23-24, featuring over 160 food stalls, famous chefs, and, new for 2015, a night market. Cooking and baking classes at the Malton Cookery School are open to visitors too. Register in advance to save a spot in the kitchen.
How to Get Around: Malton is located in northeastern England, 220 miles north of London. The nearest international airport is Leeds Bradford, about 50 miles southwest of town. Take a train from London Kings Cross station (2 hours and 30 minutes) or Leeds (about an hour) to Malton. For local travel, walk, rent a bike at Northern Ride, and use public transportation.
Where to Stay: The 26-room Talbot Hotel, built in the early 17th century as a hunting lodge, was completely restored in 2011 and named White Rose Award Small Hotel of the Year in 2014. The four opulent “feature rooms” have garden views and original details, such as chandeliers and fireplaces. Some of the Dinner, Bed, and Breakfast packages include a class at the Malton Cookery School.
What to Eat or Drink: Although BBC celebrity chef James Martin left his post as executive chef at The Talbot Hotel Restaurant in February 2015, recipes still reflect Martin’s focus on fresh, simple Yorkshire dishes. Menus are based on what’s available locally, such as haddock and hand-cut chips, Waterford Farm pork tenderloin, and frozen beetroot mousse. For more informal fare, pick up a pork pie at family-owned and operated Costello’s Malton bakery. From here, walk over to the Brass Castle Brewery Tap Room to sample Malton-made keg and cask beers, such as Bad Kitty dark porter and Heretic saffron-infused Belgian ale.
What to Buy: Pick up Yorkshire-made edibles, including Puckett’s Pickles, SLOE motion handcrafted SLOE whisky chocolate truffles, and Wolds Cottage Kitchen orange and ginger marmalade at Malton Relish, a deli-catering-artisanal foods shop focused on seasonal, local, and sustainable eating.
What to Read Before You Go: Whet your appetite for Yorkshire cuisine by perusing one or more titles from native son James Martin’s collection of cookbooks, including Masterclass: Make Your Home Cooking Easier (HarperCollins UK, 2011) and My Kitchen (Collins, 2011).
Fun Fact: Scrooge’s counting house in A Christmas Carol was reportedly modeled after the Malton office of Charles Smithson, a solicitor and friend of the author. Dickens regularly visited Smithson in Malton, and he included references to local people and places in some of his novels. Learn more by walking the Dickens Trail.
Staff tip: Skip the glitz and glam of a cosmopolitan food scene and indulge in the local food experiences found in the English countryside. You'll find small-town charm and sophisticated meals at stately country homes where meals are served with the freshest ingredients found in the area. The Corinthia Hotel London offers my favorite countryside dining experience at Petworth Estate, where guests enjoy daytime excursions and meals made from fish, fruit, and foraged ingredients from its grounds. Soak in the picturesque views of bluebells, butterfly orchids, and the woodlands where Henry VIII once roamed. —Andrea Leitch, Digital Director, National Geographic Travel
Go Whisper Boating Through the Tulip Fields
Photograph by Rob Donders
From mid-April until the first week in May, millions of hand-planted tulips, hyacinths, and other spring annuals burst into bloom at Lisse’s world-famous Keukenhof. Known as the “garden of Europe,” the 79-acre park is only open March 20 to May 17. Mid-season is typically a prime time to see the landscape blanketed in a quilt-like rainbow of colors. Nine miles of walking paths wind through the gardens and exhibits. To capture up-close photos of the tulips in the surrounding bulb fields, take a 45-minute ride aboard one of Keukenhof’s whisper boats, flat vessels named for their virtually silent motors. The electric-powered boats glide along shallow canals and provide field-level flower views that are available only from the water.
How to Get Around: Keukenhof is located in the Netherlands' Bollenstreek (bulb-growing region), a 30-minute bus ride southwest of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Keukenhof Combi Tickets include round-trip public transportation from central Amsterdam (Leidseplein), or from Schiphol, Leiden, and Haarlem. Whisper boat tickets are sold at the mill in the park.
Where to Stay: The Andaz Amsterdam's Blooming Holland Package includes floral-themed amenities such as Keukenhof tickets (one per guest) and transportation, a Garden View room, and a welcome flower bouquet. The 122-room hotel is housed in a former city library located on the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), about a ten-minute walk from Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market.
What to Drink: The Jopen brewery in Haarlem crafts a spring Tulpomania beer named for Amsterdam’s golden age and based on a 17th-century Dutch recipe. At the Jopenkerk—a restored church housing a microbrewery, grand café tasting room, and restaurant—sample Tulpomania and other artisanal Jopen beers, including Koyt, which is brewed with a spicy, medieval herb blend.
What to Buy: Dutch tulip bulbs preapproved for export are sold at Keukenhof and shipped directly to your home. To harvest blooming tulips to display in your hotel room, visit Annemieke’s Pluktuin (picking garden) in Hillegom (about 30 minutes north of Lisse by bus). Before choosing your flowers, picnic on the grounds and rent a pedal-kayak to cruise through the canals bordering the bulb fields. Check the website for bloom updates.
What to Read Before You Go: Deborah Moggach’s romantic thriller Tulip Fever (Dial Press Trade Paperback, 2001) is set during 17th-century Amsterdam's "tulip mania," when tulip bulb prices soared precipitously, then crashed spectacularly. A film based on the book and starring Judi Dench and Zach Galifianakis is scheduled to premiere in 2015.
Practical Tip: The 68th Bloemencorso Bollenstreek (flower parade) is scheduled to pass by Keukenhof on Saturday, April 25, at about 3:35 p.m. Stake out a spot outside the park to watch the passing procession of elaborate floats and luxury cars adorned with blooming Dutch bulb flowers. The Bollenstreek or Blomen Route (flower route) parade begins in Noordwijk and travels approximately 15 and a half miles north to Haarlem, where the floats are displayed in the Grote Markt (market square) on Sunday, April 26. The 2015 parade theme—200 Years a Kingdom—celebrates the Netherlands' bicentenary.
Fun Fact: The 2015 Keukenhof theme is “Van Gogh,” commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Dutch post-Impressionist’s death. In preparation, Keukenhof staff planted Vincent van Gogh tulip bulbs last fall at the Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo. This spring, visitors to the museum can see the fringed, dark-purple Van Gogh tulips blooming outdoors and the world’s second largest collection of Van Gogh works displayed indoors.
Celebrate the 1,000 Years of Leipzig Festival Week, May 31-June 7
Photograph by Michael Bader
Leipzig hits some monumental milestones this year, including a thousand years of history (it was first documented in 1015), 850 years as a city, and the 25th anniversary of German reunification. To celebrate, the former East German cultural and economic hub is hosting the 1,000 years of Leipzig Festival Week (May 31-June 7), a highlight of the city’s year-long We Are the City campaign to promote wider awareness of Leipzig’s past and present. The festival kicks off with the multisensory Lipsia’s Lions Street Theatre Festival on May 30. Combining music, dance, theater, and conceptual art, this performance event moves through the city in five separate processions, each led by an oversize, people-powered puppet. Join one of the parades, which converge at the historic city center Marktplatz (market square) to meet and march with the locals. “Leipzigers welcome guests of the city with open arms,” says Ina Thyrolf, franchise partner for Leipzig’s eat-the-world culinary and food tours. She explains that “locals are known to like it gemütlich” (pronounced guh-myoot-lish), which roughly translates to cozy and comfortable. “That’s just one of the many reasons to discover the city,” she adds. Festival Week also includes an outdoor concert (June 6) of Mendelssohn's "Hymn of Praise" performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and a thousand singers at the 43,500-seat Red Bull Arena.
How to Get Around: Leipzig is located in Saxony, 93 miles southwest of Berlin. High-speed ICE (Intercity-Express) train service connects Berlin’s main train station (Berlin Hauptbahnhof) and Leipzig’s central station (Leipzig Hauptbahnhof) in only an hour and 12 minutes. In Leipzig, walk and use public buses and trains for local and regional travel.
Where to Stay: Hotel Fregehaus opened in 2014 as the first privately owned boutique hotel in Leipzig's city center. The restored 16th-century merchant’s home (which, most recently, housed the Frege family trading company) has 20 rooms and suites. White interior walls and an eclectic mix of vintage furnishings (such as elaborate chandeliers and mid-century modern plastic chairs) create a relaxed vibe befitting Leipzig’s gemütlich spirit. Behind the hotel’s yellow, baroque-style façade is a brick courtyard filled with potted plants and flowers.
What to Eat or Drink: Sour gose (pronounced gose-uh) is an ancient German wheat beer that’s been brewed in Leipzig since the 1700s. Try traditional, unfiltered Leipziger Gose at the Gasthaus & Gosebrauerei Bayerischer Bahnhof, the brewery restaurant located inside the historic Leipzig railway station. To soften the beer’s sour taste, add a schuss (shot) of red (raspberry-flavored) or green (flavored with woodruff, an aromatic herb) syrup.
What to Buy: Leipzig’s former cotton mill complex has been reinvented as Spinnerei, a massive art gallery and studio space. Buy original paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other works directly from more than a hundred local artists and designers, including contemporary artist Claudia Biehne, who crafts translucent porcelain objects (such as sculptures and vases) imprinted with flower petals, lace, leaves, and other patterned items.
What to Watch Before You Go: Filmed on location in Leipzig and at performance venues worldwide, Die Thomaner: A Year in the Life of the St. Thomas Boys Choir Leipzig (DVD and Blu-ray, 2012) provides an inside look at the daily lives of the choristers.
Cultural Tip: Locals don’t appreciate the constant comparisons to Berlin, or being called “the new Berlin.”
Fun Fact: Leipzig is home to the longest running boy band: the St. Thomas Boys Choir, based at a local boarding school established in 1212. The hundred choir members range in age from 9 to 18 years old and perform most Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in Leipzig. German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who is buried at St. Thomas Church, directed the choir from 1723 until his death in 1750.
Staff Tip: Make a point of visiting the Stasi Museum, housed in the former area headquarters of East Germany's secret police, or Stasi. Assembled by citizen-activists after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the museum and archive document everyday life under the round-the-clock scrutiny of Stasi operatives—and exhibit some of the extraordinary devices the Stasi designed, including both a bra and a false stomach (made of cloth padding) with a hole for a secret camera. Jars on display contain "odor samples": Suspects would be made to sit for 15 minutes on a cloth, which would then be sealed in a jar for possible future use in tracking. Since 1989, many citizens have come to the museum to find their Stasi file—and to learn how the state once oversaw every moment of their lives. —Jayne Wise, senior editor, National Geographic Traveler
Ride Japan’s Newest Bullet Train Line
Photograph by mikecranephotography.com/Alamy
Tokyo to Hokuriku, Japan
Be among the first to ride the 281-mile-long Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet-train line connecting Tokyo and Kanazawa, a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art. The new service launches March 14 and extends the existing Tokyo-to-Nagano high-speed railway line west by 143 miles. Sleek bullet trains whisk passengers at speeds of up to 160 miles an hour between Tokyo and Kanazawa in about two and a half hours (one-way). The trip includes spectacular views when crossing through the Japan Alps and along the Sea of Japan. Located on the less visited north-central coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, Kanazawa and the surrounding Hokuriku region harbor a wealth of natural and cultural treasures, including national parks and natural hot springs, traditional Japanese art and crafts such as lacquerware and gold leaf, samurai and geisha heritage districts, castles and ancient ruins, and historic farming and fishing villages.
How to Get Around: Buy a Japan Rail (JR) Pass before your trip. Designed specifically for foreign visitors, the pass provides one, two, or three weeks of unlimited travel on most Japan Rail routes, including Hokuriku Shinkansen. The JR Pass is also valid on most local bus routes and on the Tokyo Monorail from Haneda Airport to Hamamatsucho Station. Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen Kanazawa from Tokyo to Kanazawa Station. From Kanazawa, use local buses and trains to travel around the region.
Where to Stay: The eight-room Sumiyoshiya ryokan (traditional inn) in Kanazawa’s city center (a 20-minute walk from the train station) has been welcoming guests for more than 300 years. Rates include breakfast and communal hot baths (separate men’s and women’s baths). Onsite bike rentals and the efficient local bus system make it easy to visit popular attractions such as the Omi-cho Market and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
What to Eat or Drink: Himi, a small fishing port on Toyama Bay, is Hokuriku’s seafood capital. Local fishermen practice the ancient art of fixed-net fishing to “herd” a veritable seafood sampler—yellowtail, marlin, mahimahi, sardines, squid, and dozens of other varieties—into a system of interconnected nets. Sample the fresh catch and sake from area sakagura (sake cellars) at local sushi restaurants such as Manyo and Yauchi.
What to Buy: Walk the cobblestone lanes of Kanazawa’s historic Higashi Chaya and Kazue-machi Chaya Districts (named for the lattice-front, wooden ochaya, or teahouses, where geisha entertain) to visit traditional artisan studios. Kanazawa-made products for sale include bean-paste sweets, “good luck” Kaga Hachiman Okiagari dolls, lacquerware boxes decorated with gold leaf, and kimonos adorned with kaga-nui embroidery. Some studios offer hands-on workshops (reservations required).
What to Read Before You Go: Nobel Prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata’s internationally acclaimed Snow Country (Yukiguni) (Vintage, English edition, 1996) is set at an isolated hot spring in the Japan Alps and opens with a train emerging from a tunnel into the snowbound backcountry.
Fun Fact: The Hokuriku region is home to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, known as the “roof of Japan." The 56-mile route through the Northern Alps, which includes cable car, train, and road sections, is closed from December to mid-April due to heavy snow. From April 16 to June 22, the highest section of the route (elevation 8,038 feet) reopens for scenic bus rides and Yuki-no-Otani (Snow Wall) walks. The sheer snow walls bordering the road can be as tall as a five-story building in April.
See the Real Jurassic World
Photograph by John De Mello, Alamy
Kauai’s jagged peaks, thundering waves and waterfalls, and rain forest valleys are expected to play leading roles in Jurassic World, the fourth installment in the Jurassic Park feature film series. Several scenes in the new movie (which premieres June 12) were shot in remote reaches of the island, known as the “garden isle” for its lush tropical landscape. Before seeing the spectacular backdrops on the big screen, experience the real thing by touring epic Jurassic locations such as Allerton Garden, Olokele Canyon, and Manawaiopuna Falls, nicknamed “Jurassic Falls.” Only on Kaua‘i can you “sail along the Napali Coast seen in the Jurassic World movie trailer,” says Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. The island is also home to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, where you can see the actual Moreton Bay fig trees where the dinosaur eggs were found in Jurassic Park.
How to Get Around: Driving is the most convenient way to travel around the island. Rent a car at Lihue Airport. To see Jurassic-related locations, book a scenic helicopter or plane tour. Island Helicopters’ Jurassic Falls Landing Adventure includes an aerial circle tour of Kauai (including Waimea Canyon, the island’s signature attraction), plus a hike to the base of 400-foot-high Manawaiopuna Falls.
Where to Stay: The oceanfront Waipouli Beach Resort and Spa by Outrigger, located on Kauai’s eastern coast, played host to members of the Jurassic World film crew. The low-rise, luxury condo complex is only 6.8 miles north of Lihue Airport and has a two-acre pool with lazy river and two flumed waterslides. Condo rentals (studios and one- and two-bedrooms) are available through the resort, VRBO, and Kauai Exclusive Management, among others. Shop around to get the best deal (including location, price, and view) for your specific dates.
What to Eat or Drink: Wok-charred ahi is the specialty at Merriman’s Fish House, where the fish is locally caught and delivered the same day. Make dinner reservations online, and request either a mauka (mountain) or makai (ocean) view. For a Native Hawaiian lunch in the Hanalei Valley, look for the Hanalei Juice and Taro food truck (open 11 a.m.-3 p.m.) parked across the street from the historic Ho`opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill. The menu centers around taro, the starchy tuber plant and Native Hawaiian staple food, and includes taro-and-fruit smoothies and lau lau (steamed Kauai pork wrapped in taro leaves).
What to Buy: Browse the County of Kauai’s Kauai Made resource guide to find products such as hand-carved mango wood vases that are “made on Kauai, by Kauai people, using Kauai materials.” County-certified local products bear a purple-and-green Kauai Made logo. Kauai Made items are sold island-wide in retail stores and hotel gift shops and at craft fairs and farmers markets.
What to Watch Before You Go: The Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy (Universal Studios, 2011) includes Jurassic Park (1993); The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997); and Jurassic Park III (2001), plus bonus features such as the Return to Jurassic Park documentary and a behind-the-scenes look at how the three movies were made.
Fun Fact: Jurassic World is one of the more than 60 movies featuring scenes filmed on location in Kauai. The island’s film credits include the four Jurassic movies, plus Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hook, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Blue Hawaii, South Pacific, and the animated feature Lilo & Stitch.
Staff Tip: To experience more of Kauai's Jurassic Park-esque scenery, paddleboard on the Wailua River, which snakes through the Garden Island's lush green mountains. If you want the views without the exercise, drive down the coast to Waimea Canyon, the Pacific's very own Grand Canyon, and take the winding roads up to a lookout point above the clouds. Afterward, celebrate seeing the summit with shave ice at Jo Jo's in Waimea—and always ask for a snowcap (a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk) on top. —Hannah Sheinberg, @h_sheinberg, assistant editor, National Geographic Traveler
Get to Know Cuba
Photograph by nobleIMAGES, Alamy
The door from the United States to Cuba opened a bit wider in January 2015 with the easing of travel and trade rules established in 1961. Before, only a limited number of U.S. travel agencies were granted special licenses for Cuban travel. Now any tour operator or individual can plan a trip provided it meets one of the 12 existing legal travel categories, such as educational activities, academic research, or family visits. It’s unclear if and when unrestricted tourist travel from the U.S. to Cuba will be permitted. And waiting until then to discover the beguiling island would be a mistake, says Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, which creates Cuban itineraries for U.S. tour operators: “When you travel somewhere as a tourist, your experiences with locals are usually about transactions. But in Cuba, at least for now, the interactions between Americans and the local merchants, farmers, musicians, and artists are authentic and personal. People get to know each other as individuals. That’s a special experience that likely will change when Americans can go to Cuba freely as tourists.”
How to Get Around: Group travel remains the most convenient way to visit Cuba. To ensure a tour meets all OFAC (Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control) requirements, choose an education-based, people-to-people program such as National Geographic Expeditions’ Cuba: Discovering Its People and Culture and Classic Journeys’ Cuba People-to-People Tour. Group tours include charter flights from the U.S., plus ground transportation in Cuba.
Where to Stay: The 427-room Hotel Parque Central, conveniently located near the García Lorca Theater in Old Havana, is like two hotels in one. An underground tunnel links the original Spanish-colonial hotel with its modern wing, opened in 2009. The complex includes a rooftop pool, fitness center, and several restaurants. Stay in the colonial section for the old-world charm, and ask for an upper level room facing the park for less street noise and the best view.
What to Eat and Drink: At Havana’s thatched-roof El Aljibe restaurant, bring a hearty appetite and a table of traveling companions and order the oferta—an all-you-care-to-eat Cuban feast of glazed chicken al Aljibe, black beans and rice, plantains, and fried potatoes. For after-dinner drinks, choose a Cuba libre—a classic Havana cocktail made with Havana Club rum, Mexican Coke, and lime—at the Churchill in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba; a daiquiri at El Floridita (one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts); or a mojito (white rum, mint, sugar, and lime) at La Bodeguita del Medio.
What to Buy: It’s now legal to bring home up to $400 worth of Cuban goods and gifts for your personal use. Up to $100 of that total can be alcohol and tobacco products, so leave room in the budget for a few hand-rolled Habanos (premium-brand Cuban cigars) and a bottle of Pernod Ricard’s Havana Club Cuban rum.
What to Read Before You Go: Everyone Leaves (AmazonCrossing, English translation, 2012) by Wendy Guerra is a semiautobiographical novel based on diary entries the author wrote while growing up in Cuba during the 1970s and 1980s.
Practical Tip: Travel booking websites such as Kayak.com and Orbtiz.com are expected to add Cuba flights and hotels in the near future. When that happens, tourist travel from the U.S. will still be prohibited. Independent travelers planning a Cuba trip must complete and sign an OFAC travel affidavit confirming that their trip qualifies as one of the 12 approved travel categories.
Helpful Links: U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Cuba Sanctions page, Cuba Travel Services, and Cuba Travel App
Fun Fact: Most restaurants in Cuba are government-owned, but there are a growing number of privately run paladares, such as Havana’s popular Le Chansonnier and San Cristóbal. Traditionally, paladares could only be simple mom-and-pop dining rooms in family homes. But economic reforms have sparked a proliferation of larger, full-service paladares that cater to U.S. travelers and other international tourists.
Attend the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, March 14-22
Photograph by Russel KORD, Corbis
Navy Pier, Chicago
In the winter-weary upper Midwest, the annual Chicago Flower and Garden Show is a sure sign that spring is on its way. “The two dozen fragrant display gardens, including the show's first blooming rose gardens in more than a decade, are a can’t-miss cure for cabin fever,” says show owner and director Tony Abruscato. “Bring a notebook to jot down ideas for your garden back home.” Daily seminars and how-to workshops celebrate the theme “Do Green. Do Good.” Related activities include Garden Gourmet cooking demonstrations by top Chicagoland chefs, plus tips for growing and using sustainable foods. New this year: the 14th annual Retail Bakers of America National Cake Decorating Competition (March 21-22) and an Irish Heritage Garden, near where dancers from the Mulhern School of Irish Dance will perform following the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade (March 14). While at the show, see how the multiyear Navy Pier redesign is taking shape. Recent enhancements include an airy food court with city skyline and Lake Michigan views, as well as an open, tree-lined promenade along the South Dock.
How to Get Around: Walk or take a taxi or CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) bus from your hotel to Navy Pier. If staying outside the city, take the Metra commuter rail downtown to Ogilvie Transportation Center or Union Station, then transfer to CTA bus 124 for direct service to Navy Pier.
Where to Stay: From the 33-story W Chicago Lakeshore, the closest hotel to Navy Pier, it’s about a ten-minute walk to the Chicago Flower and Garden Show. The 520-room hotel completed a $38 million total transformation in 2014. Interiors styled with glass, metal, and mirrored elements create a sleek, urban feel. An indoor heated pool overlooks Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. Book an upper-floor Fabulous Room for unobstructed lake views.
What to Eat: The Flower Flat in Lakeview is part cozy café, part flower shop. Menu items are named for their floral characteristics, such as the Delphinium “boldness,” a hearty breakfast sandwich stuffed with potatoes, eggs, bell peppers, and mixed greens. Food and fresh-cut flower arrangements are available for takeout. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; and Fridays, 10 a.m.–3 p.m., and 6 p.m.-close for a three-course, prix fixe dinner ($19; reservations suggested).
What to Buy: More than a hundred gardening, landscape, outdoor living, and fresh food vendors are expected at the Flower and Garden Show’s onsite Marketplace. Outside the show, visit the Gethsemane Garden Center on the border of the city’s Edgewater and Andersonville neighborhoods. In addition to seasonal shrubs, plants, and trees, the family-owned store sells gardening supplies and gifts.
What to Read Before You Go: Navy Pier: A Chicago Landmark (Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority; English Language edition, 1996) includes 75 photographs and tells the story of why the pier was built and how the original vision evolved over the years.
Fun Fact: Built in 1916 as the Chicago Municipal Pier, Navy Pier was renamed in 1927 to honor the Naval personnel stationed there throughout World War I. During World War II, thousands of pilots, including future U.S. President George H.W. Bush, trained at the pier. Up to 200 planes that crashed during training accidents remain at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Take a Sustainability-Focused Spring Break
Photograph by Hughes Herve, Corbis
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Punta Cana’s resorts attract throngs of spring breakers to the Dominican Republic’s easternmost Caribbean and Atlantic beaches. To escape the crowds and experience a more natural side to the country, head instead to the 15,000-acre Puntacana Resort and Club. The upscale, planned community is focused on sustainability in areas big—such as the onsite 1,500-acre Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park and Reserve—and small, including the homegrown organic vegetables and honey served in the resort’s restaurants. Through the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, resort guests can participate in a variety of natural and cultural excursions, including Segway ecotours, freshwater lagoon swims, and opportunities to learn about local sugarcane production, worm composting, and organic beekeeping. Visitors can also help Peregrine Fund biologists monitor, feed, and track the Ridgway’s hawk, a rare and threatened species found only on the island of Hispaniola.
How to Get Around: Punta Cana International Airport is conveniently located less than ten minutes from the Puntacana Resort and Club. Prebook airport transfers (via private car or group shuttle) through your hotel.
Where to Stay: Lodging options within the Puntacana Resort and Club property range from the budget-friendly Four Points By Sheraton Puntacana Village (starting at about $99 per night) to the posh and private Tortuga Bay, an exclusive beachfront enclave designed by the late Dominican-born fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. Tortuga Bay has 30 opulent suites (one-, two-, three-, and four-bedrooms) in 13 villas. Guest pampering begins at the airport with a tarmac greeting and expedited customs and includes private use of a golf cart to travel within the resort.
What to Eat or Drink: The Puntacana Ecological Foundation’s Lionfish Control Program pays local fishermen to catch lionfish, an invasive species threatening the biodiversity of Dominican coral reefs. The daily lionfish catch makes its way onto local restaurant menus, including Bamboo, at Tortuga Bay. Eating lionfish helps control its population and protect the reefs. The sweet, white meat is tasty, particularly when paired with a Sea Grape Mojito, Tortuga Bay’s signature cocktail.
What to Buy: Handmade purses, necklaces, and other items crafted from recycled materials such as plastic bags and towels are available at the Brisas del Caribe gift shops in the airport. Local women produce and sell the sustainable souvenirs as part of the Nuestra Señora de Punta Cana workshop, an economic development initiative sponsored by the Puntacana Foundation.
What to Read Before You Go: The detailed footnotes and Dominican slang in Junot Diaz’s lyrical Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, reprint edition, 2008) build a foundation for understanding the historical, cultural, and spiritual forces that have shaped the Dominican-American immigrant experience.
Fun Fact: The threatened rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta), a prehistoric reptile named for the hornlike growths on the tip of its nose, was once common throughout the Dominican Republic. The Iguana Conservation Project launched by the Puntacana Ecological Foundation helps protect and monitor existing populations and release captive-bred iguanas into the local area. See and learn about the large reptiles (adults can be two to four feet long) at the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park and Reserve.
Experience Sakura Season
Photograph by John Henshall, Alamy
Alishan National Scenic Area, Taiwan
Sakura (flowering cherry tree) season in southern Taiwan’s Alishan National Scenic Area can stretch from the beginning of March through the end of April. Thousands of cherry trees (including Yoshino, Fuji, Takne, Formosan, and Yaebenishidare, or double-blossom) bloom at various times and locations during the season. Some of the best spots to see the delicate pink-and-white flowers are located in the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, the main tourist hub for the 102,598-acre national scenic area. Look for blooming trees in the courtyard in front of Alishan House hotel, the square in front of Alishan Zhaoping Railway Station, and along the Miyang Creek Trail. Beyond the cherry trees, make time to catch Alishan’s famed “sea of clouds” sunrise views. The experience requires a 30-minute predawn train ride up the mountain from the Alishan Railway Station to Zhushan. From the viewing platform here, look down and watch (weather permitting) waves of rolling pinkish-white clouds wash over the jagged peaks below.
How to Get Around: From Taipei, take the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) south to Chiayi HSR Station, located about 50 miles west of Alishan National Scenic Area. Taiwan Tourist Shuttle buses to Alishan depart from the Chiayi HSR Station (bus route A) and the public bus terminal next to the Chiayi Railway Station (bus route B). The entire trip from Taipei takes more than three and a half hours (one-way). In the park, follow the well-maintained and well-marked (in English and Chinese) walking and hiking trails.
Where to Stay: Chao Li Alishan House is a 35-room, wood and glass hotel perched on a forested mountain slope inside the national scenic area. In spring, the courtyard in front of the hotel is typically awash in blooming cherry trees. Just before dawn, stand on the back balcony terrace to watch the sun emerge from the cloud-covered valley below. There’s a restaurant and gift shop onsite, plus free Wi-Fi. A free guest shuttle runs daily (8 a.m.-8:30 p.m.) between the Alishan Visitor Centre (near the Alishan Bus Station) and the hotel.
What to Eat or Drink: Alishan’s homegrown specialties include highly caffeinated, high-mountain oolong tea from the area’s many terraced tea plantations; powerfully pungent wasabi (a hot and spicy mustard-like condiment) grated fresh from the stems of wild wasabi plants; and aiyu jelly, a chilled beverage or dessert made from the seeds of Alishan’s indigenous creeping fig plant.
What to Buy: Look for local products such as mountain-grown coffee and tea; “fragrant candy” made from a local bamboo and local organic white sugarcane; and Teinmeichen Train Cakes, filled pastries imprinted with a train design.
What to Read Before You Go: Taiwan Tales–One Country, Eight Stories (Amazon Digital, Kindle Edition, 2014), an anthology of short stories about Taiwanese daily life and traditions, was written by eight members of the expat Taipei Writers Group and inspired by their personal experiences.
Fun Fact: Alishan is also known as “Mount Ali,” but it isn’t a single mountain and doesn’t have a peak. The scenic area gets its name from the Alishan mountain range, which runs north to south through the eastern part of the park. The range includes 18 mountains, the highest of which tops 8,700 feet.
Staff Tip: Don't miss hiking the trail through giant cypress trees; swaying along on the hundred-year-old cog railway that climbs up through several distinct ecosystems; and watching the sun rise over Yushan (Jade Mountain), the highest mountain in Taiwan. —Marilyn Terrell, @Marilyn_Res, chief researcher, National Geographic Traveler
Readers' Choice Winner: Go Whale-Watching
Photograph by Jeremy Koreski, Corbis
Tofino, British Columbia
The waters of Clayoquot Sound off Tofino, a remote hamlet on Vancouver Island’s west coast, are spring feeding grounds for gray and humpback whales and the occasional orca. Up to 20,000 gray whales pass through here each year on their trek north from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to Alaska’s Bering Strait. The Whale Centre and local tour boat operators offer whale-watching trips, plus bear- and bird-watching tours and excursions to natural hot springs with whale sightings along the way. Since the whales chase salmon, herring, and baitfish into inlet waters, it’s also possible, at times, to spot the giant cetaceans from shore. “We watch whales from the beach sometimes,” says Jeff Mikus, a commercial fisherman and co-owner of Tofino’s Wildside Grill. “Take the dog for a walk and the whales are spouting in 30 feet of water right off Chesterman’s Beach.” And, according to Mikus, killer whales occasionally cruise by the Wickaninnish Inn into the inlet. “You could be sitting in the Point Restaurant having dinner and watch the whales go by.” Whale-watching season officially kicks off with the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, March 14-22, and continues through October.
How to Get Around: For local travel, driving is the most convenient option. There’s limited taxi service and limited public transportation to nearby Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. To reach Tofino from Vancouver, take the passenger/vehicle ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay (Nanaimo) on Vancouver Island (an hour and 40 minutes). Then drive, rent a car, or take the Tofino Bus from Nanaimo to Tofino (three to four hours), located at the western terminus of the Pacific Rim Highway (Highway 4). Or fly from Vancouver International Airport to Tofino (an hour-long trip), and rent a car.
Where to Stay: At the 75-room Wickaninnish Inn on North Chesterman Beach guest amenities include binoculars and ocean views from every room. Scan the sky for eagles and the water for dolphins, seals, and the occasional whale. To up the odds of seeing marine life outside your window, request a south-facing room in the Wickaninnish-at-the-Pointe building, which sits on a rocky point overlooking the ocean.
What to Eat: Tofino is surrounded by water on three sides, so most wild salmon, halibut, lingcod, spot prawns, and other seafood served locally are boat-to-table fresh. Try the unofficial Tofino signature dish—fish tacos—outdoors at the Wildside Grill and indoors at foodie favorite SoBo (Sophisticated Bohemian). Wildside co-owner Jeff Mikus can tell you where and when the lingcod in your tacos was caught. And SoBo’s co-owner and chef Lisa Ahier shares her recipe for the restaurant’s “killer fish tacos” (spicy wild halibut and salmon topped with seasonal fruit salsa) in The SoBo Cookbook: Recipes from the Tofino Restaurant at the End of the Canadian Road (Appetite by Random House, 2014).
What to Buy: At the Reflecting Spirit Gallery locations in Tofino and Ucluelet shop for wood and stone carvings, jewelry, metalwork, pottery, paintings, and other pieces crafted by Vancouver Island artisans. Works by over 200 First Nations and non-native artisans are available for sale in the galleries and online.
What to Read Before You Go: The digital version of Among Giants: A Life With Whales (Lightbox Press, 2011) chronicles the life of Flip Nicklin, one of the world's leading photographers of whales and a founding member of Whale Trust Maui. Included are over 150 photos, plus audio, video, pop-up images, and Nicklin’s personal commentary.
Practical Tip: Spring temperatures in Tofino are mild (average March to May high temperatures range from 50º to 60ºF), but it can get cold, wet, and windy on whale-watching tours. Bring a tuque (a knitted, wool, or fleece beanie hat), winter-worthy layered clothing, and closed-toed footwear.
Fun Fact: To get a better sense of what’s going on around them, a whale can “spyhop,” or hold its head straight up out of the water for minutes at a time. The maneuver, which gives the appearance that the whale is treading water, can be performed with eyes above or below the surface.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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