National Geographic Traveler presents the New Year's must-see places. From Argentina to Oz, the final lineup reflects what’s authentic, culturally rich, sustainably minded—and, of course, superlative in the world of travel today.
Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda
Photograph by Thomas Marent, Minden Pictures/Corbis
Redemption in the Rain Forest
How does a nation overcome the gut-wrenching stigma of a genocide, now two decades past, and proclaim to the world that it is a safe and surprising place to visit? For Rwanda, one strategy is to highlight a tract of unspoiled mountain rain forest rife with chimpanzees and a dozen other primates plus hundreds of species of birds—namely, Nyungwe National Park, in the southwestern corner of the country.
Nyungwe, which became a national park in 2005, exemplifies the farsightedness of a government that is channeling aid money toward preserving the best of Rwanda’s natural beauty, while bringing in tourist dollars that benefit surrounding communities. An example is the USAID-funded Nyungwe Nziza (Beautiful Nyungwe) project, which recently built a canopy walkway above a forested canyon—a thrilling perspective on the park and its residents.
Chimps are the star attraction in Nyungwe, though they’re not as readily watchable as the famed “in the mist” mountain gorillas farther north in Virunga National Park. Far easier to view are colobus monkeys. The world’s largest community of them lives in Nyungwe. The park hasn’t yet gained renown among birders, but it will. Almost 300 species abide here, including showboats like the oversize, clown-headed Ruwenzori turaco.
“Nyungwe stands out among Africa’s intact montane rain forests for its size and diversity,” says conservationist Bill Weber, who with his wife, Amy, pioneered the gorilla tourism project in Virunga. “It’s a place where people can spend several days and really get to know a rain forest, having different experiences each day.” Visitors can hike trails to peaks and waterfalls, and meet locals in Banda Village near the park entrance. Should one ask residents whether they are Tutsi or Hutu, the answer will almost certainly be “We are Rwandan.” —Robert Earle Howells
When to Go: The drier months (July-October) are best for gorilla trekking, hiking, and tea plantation tours. For birding, visit December-March.
How to Get Around: International flights arrive at Kigali International Airport, about 140 miles northeast of Nyungwe National Park. Rental cars are available but not recommended. The most convenient option is to book a custom or small group tour (including airport transfers, lodging, meals, activities, and park entrance fees) with a responsible tourism operator, such as Rwanda Eco-Tours, founded and operated by native Rwandans.
Where to Stay: Serene and luxurious Nyungwe Forest Lodge is the ideal home base for exploring the park. It's surrounded on three sides by tea plantation, and on the fourth by rain forest. Opened in 2011, 12-room Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel lives up to its name. Step out onto your private balcony or sit on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace for mist-shrouded views of the national park and Lake Kivu.
Where to Eat or Drink: Kitabi Cultural Village, located at the Kitabi entrance to the national park, offers guided tours (with samples) where guests can learn about banana beer brewing, traditional milk preservation, millet grinding, and picking and processing tea leaves.
What to Buy: Shop for original indigenous crafts, such as baskets, place mats, bracelets, and wood carvings, at the Kitabi Women’s Handicraft Cooperative. Crafts are handmade using locally sourced materials, and purchases support the cooperative’s efforts to create a path out of poverty for local women.
Cultural Tip: Environmental protection is a top priority throughout Rwanda. Plastic bags are banned and will be confiscated at border crossings. Litter laws are strictly enforced in Kigali, where footpaths protect green areas. Don’t walk on the grass.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: The 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist, the biopic of slain primatologist Dian Fossey, was filmed on location in Rwanda and promoted global awareness of the endangered Rwandan gorillas.
Fun Fact: Nyungwe National Park’s black-and-white colobus monkeys live high in the trees, rarely touching the ground. Their name is derived from the Greek word for “mutilated” since the monkeys typically have no thumbs. This adaptation makes it easy to scramble across branches on all fours.
Insider Tip From Robert Earle Howells: At Nyungwe Forest Lodge listen closely and you can hear a distant waterfall.
Northern Territory, Australia
Photograph by Johnathan A. Esper, Wildernesscapes Photography/Getty Images
A New View From the Top
“Wildly and unreasonably happy.” That’s how author Nevil Shute’s heroine felt as she arrived in Darwin in his postwar classic, A Town Like Alice. Today, Darwin feels even better.
Australia’s “Top End” wears colors that sing: rust red earth, deep blue skies, and the golden eyes of watchful crocodiles in the flower-tangled waterways of Kakadu National Park.
But it’s the people here who make the place come alive.
“We are older than the Pyramids and older than the Bible. We have had no dictators. No caste systems. And no concept of money,” says Robert Mills, spokesman for the Larrakia people, on his walks around Lameroo Beach.
More than 50 Aboriginal tribes still live in the “NT,” and new government partnerships have created a respectful balance in the outback. Visitors can gaze at Rainbow Serpent rock art from one of the longest existing societies on Earth, while the artists can live on the land in peace. Frontier town Darwin sports an energetic face-lift, with an interactive history museum, a redeveloped waterfront, a deck chair cinema, and a flurry of cosmopolitan markets.
One oldie remains, though: the annual Beer Can Regatta with boats fashioned from leftover “tinnies” of Melbourne Bitter and other brews. Like everything else, the event runs on “NT time.” Not today, not tomorrow. Next Tuesday … maybe. —Abigail King
When to Go: May-July (early dry season) and August-September (late dry season) are the best times to visit, with clear skies and lower humidity. March to May is rainy, yet ideal for viewing aquatic birds (such as pelicans, egrets, and herons) and water lilies and other perennial water plants. Barramundi fishing is best February to April.
How to Get Around: Fly into Alice Springs or Darwin, rent a car, and follow a designated self-drive tour. The Northern Territory encompasses 548,265 square miles (more than Texas, California, and Colorado combined), and 95 percent of the roads are paved. Download helpful travel apps, including maps, GPS-triggered audio guides, and podcasts before you set out.
Where to Stay: Exclusive Bamurru Plains offers safari-style accommodations (nine elevated, screened-in suites with private baths) in a remote bush setting (you can hear the buffalo splashing in the floodplains). The camp is located on a coastal buffalo station (a 25-minute flight from Darwin) and named for the local magpie geese, tens of thousands of which serenade guests each morning. Rates cover all meals.
Where to Eat or Drink: The Northern Territory is known for its fresh seafood—mud crabs, saltwater barramundi, and banana prawns—and Pee Wee’s at the Point in Darwin serves some of the best. Pee Wee’s is a bit out of the way in East Point Reserve, but the secluded waterfront setting adds to the allure. Sit on the covered deck and wash down some wild-caught, coconut-crusted crocodile tail with a glass of NT Draught, the pale liquid gold that fills the Northern Territory’s iconic “Darwin Stubby” 2.25-liter bottles.
What to Buy: Sales at not-for-profit Aboriginal Bush Traders in Darwin support community initiatives in indigenous communities throughout the Northern Territory. Shop for fair trade art and craftwork, such as silkscreen sea turtle prints and traditional, hand-carved didgeridoos.
Cultural Tip: When charting a self-drive tour, check to see if your travels will bring you through an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA). Many IPA communities or lands require tourist permits to enter. When visiting, follow the Australian government’s IPA visitor guidelines, designed to protect and respect the privacy, environment, and cultural traditions of indigenous people.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Nevil Shute’s timeless World War II love story, A Town Like Alice (Vintage International, 2010), captures the essence of life in the remote and rugged Australian outback.
Fun Fact: Even if you can’t see crocodiles in a Territory waterway, they likely can see you. Northern Australia is home to approximately 150,000 saltwater crocodiles and at least 100,000 freshwater crocodiles. The Mary River has the highest concentration, with nearly 15 saltwater crocs per half mile.
Insider Tip From Abigail King: Drive to Anbangbang Gallery via the Nawurlandja lookout for a spectacular view without the crowds.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Photograph by Ken Kochey, National Geographic Creative
The Imperishable City
New Orleans, like Rome or hope, is eternal. Visit Louisiana’s filigreed, fleur-de-lis city twice or 20 times, and the scent will be as unchanging as the air is unmoving: a humid mix of confederate jasmine and fried shrimp, diesel fuel and desire. The French Quarter? Always rolling. At Galatoire’s, Uptown lawyers still get “liquor-store-robbing drunk” on five-hour Friday lunches of oysters Rockefeller and Pouilly-Fuissé, while farther down Bourbon Street, exhibitionists hooched-up on Hurricanes play to the balconies. The Garden District remains quieter than sleep—the whitewashed tombs of its cemetery still shelter the dead and fascinate the living. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar? Forever un-air-conditioned. Its open windows frame America’s most beautiful boulevard. Last year’s Mardi Gras beads will be there, too, dangling from the live oaks.
The music remains unrivaled. Rebirth, or maybe a Neville or two, should be playing Frenchmen Street; in the Treme a jazz band sends a second line snaking past the Creole cottages painted cantaloupe, carmine, and chartreuse.
Immutable. Imperishable. As predictable as seersucker after Easter. Yet change has arrived like Blanche DuBois, suitcase in hand and a tad dishabille. The Crescent City has always depended on the kindness of strangers, but now they’re staying. Some 20,000 in the past four years have settled along the Mississippi, revitalizing whole faubourgs, or neighborhoods. They’ve Brooklyn-ized the Bywater with Banksy murals and hipster clubs. Audubon and City Parks are replanted, and the theater marquees for the Joy and the Saenger shine again on Canal Street. The Lower Garden District now claims French antiques and molecular gastronomy. Freret Street sports fancy franks and cocktails. Mercedes-Benz got its mitts on the Superdome (or, at least, the name). Those who love this town may worry that the change will overpower the charm. Relax. What’s new will just join the party, Sazerac in hand.
“Goodness, sugar,” says Marda Burton, doyenne of the French Quarter. “New Orleans just excites the senses. It always has. It always will.” New Orleans! Storied past. Bright future. Hot mess. Here’s mud in your eye. —Andrew Nelson
When to Go: A subtropical climate makes New Orleans a year-round destination. July and August, typically hot and humid, are the best months for hotel deals. Book well in advance and prepare to pay higher prices during Mardi Gras March 4, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival April 25-May 4.
How to Get Around: Take a private shuttle or taxi from New Orleans International Airport to your hotel. From there, walking and riding streetcars should get you most anywhere you want to go. Streetcar lines run along St. Charles Avenue, Canal Street, Carrollton Avenue, the riverfront, and Loyola Street (connecting the city’s bus and train terminal with the Canal Street line).
Where to Stay: Escape French Quarter crowds, noise, and prices at Jazz Quarters in the adjacent Treme neighborhood. The collection of historic Creole cottages, suites, and guest rooms is clustered around a leafy courtyard and was extensively renovated by the new owners in 2011. Rates include daily breakfast (Saturday’s sweet potato bread pudding soufflé is reason enough to stay a Friday night) and gated, onsite parking. Leave your car for the duration and walk to Bourbon Street, the French Market, and the riverfront.
Where to Eat or Drink: If New Orleans were a meal, it would be prepared at Antoine’s. Continuously operated since 1840 by the family of founder Antoine Alciatore, the French Quarter landmark serves French-Creole classics, including oysters Rockefeller and pommes de terre soufflés, both invented in the kitchen. There are 14 dining rooms (many decorated with memorabilia from the dignitaries and celebrities who have dined here); however, reservations are strongly recommended.
What to Buy: All things Haitian voodoo, including tarot readings by priestess Sallie Ann Glassman (appointments required), are available at Island of Salvation Botanica. Situated away from the well-trod tourist paths in the New Orleans Healing Center on St. Claude, the shop stocks herbs and spiritual supplies ranging from spirit-calling sticks (made with sticks collected from the levee) to Mexican papier–mâché skeleton masks.
Cultural Tip: Learn about the ongoing post-Katrina rebuilding efforts in the “Lower Nine” with Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours. The four-hour tour helps support revitalization efforts by connecting visitors with residents, restaurants, and businesses typically left off tourist itineraries.
What to Read Before You Go: Sample New Orleans’ rich literary tradition with John Kennedy Toole’s classic, A Confederacy of Dunces (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987); The Feast of All Saints (Ballantine Books, 1986) by Anne Rice; and Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans (Spiegel & Grau, 2010) by Dan Baum.
Fun Fact: In New Orleans, medians are known as neutral grounds. The term is thought to have originated in the early 19th century on Canal Street, where the green space in the middle was considered neutral ground between the Creole and American neighborhoods.
Insider Tip From Andrew Nelson: The Mississippi River is often hidden behind dock walls and levees, but not at a public park called the Fly. At this park, located behind the Audubon Zoo in Uptown, you can sit and enjoy the play of sky and water.
Photograph by Francesco Iacobelli, Getty Images
Where Old Ways Still Rule
Greeks and Goths, Romans and Normans, Byzantines and Venetians: All put their feet, and flags, in the heel of Italy’s boot. There, the region of Puglia stretches a strategic 250 miles along the Adriatic Sea (and 95 miles on the Ionian), making it a key connection between Italy and Europe’s east.
Today’s conquerors? The handful of cruise lines, maybe, that recently have added Puglia’s capital of Bari, once dismissed as a den of drug dealers and pickpockets, to glamorous itineraries alongside Venice and Corfu. Or the Italians who come from the north, packing Puglia’s beach-lined Salento peninsula each July and August.
But few visit Puglia beyond its most famous seaside towns, fewer still outside of the warm months. And—as proud as they are of their region’s ancient vineyards and medieval castles, cone-roofed trulli dwellings and white-sand beaches—many locals seem surprised by tourists’ attention. “If you go to Tuscany nowadays, you have to know where to go and what to do to have an off-the-beaten-path experience,” says Antonello Losito, a Bari native and the owner of tour company Southern Visions Travel. “But Puglia is always off the beaten path.” By the time the sun sets on even the busiest summer day in Bari, cruise passengers have fled back to their buffets, and locals swell the town’s narrow streets and cobblestoned piazzas in their stead. Old men clutching canes chat in the distinctive local dialect. The scent of ragù floats through open doorways, blocked from the street only by hanging blankets. Families push strollers. Laundry flaps from windows.
Will Puglia change? Probably, someday. But not yet. For now, Puglia boasts the best of southern Italy: the pace, the traditions, the beauty. Unconquered. —Amanda Ruggeri
When to Go: Visit in October or November, when summer tourists are long gone and the olive harvest is in full swing. Celebrate Carnival season in Putignano, which hosts one of Europe’s oldest and longest pre-Lenten festivals (dating back to 1394 and beginning each year on December 26).
Where to Stay: With its ancient tower and fortified whitewashed walls, upscale Masseria Torre Coccaro appears to be more fortress than farmhouse. Set among olive groves and almond trees, the seaside boutique hotel has 39 luxurious rooms and suites appointed with antiques. Breakfast is included, and there’s an onsite cooking school and a shuttle to the nearby beach club (and the hotel’s private yacht). Tower suites have the best Adriatic Sea views, and the Orange Grove Suite (a whitewashed hideaway built inside an ancient cave) with outdoor private terrace and pool is the most secluded.
Where to Eat or Drink: Pizzeria Enzo e Ciro is a no-frills Bari favorite for its thin-crust pies baked in a traditional wood-fired oven. Eat in (if tables aren’t available, there’s a stand-up counter at the back of the restaurant) or take out a whole classic pizza topped with buffalo mozzarella, tomato, and basil. Or choose from a lengthy list of topping options, including Nutella, bacon, and housemade stracciatella, Puglia’s own rich and tangy cheese made from strands of mozzarella soaked in heavy cream.
What to Buy: Shop for traditional Salentine crafts—cartapesta (papier-mâché) figurines, marsh-reed baskets, Leccese stone carvings, and wrought-iron candlesticks—at the city-run Mostra Permanente dell'Artigianato Salentino (Consortium of Craftsman of Lecce) in Lecce and at Terrarossa in Nardò.
Cultural Tip: When in doubt, smile and say prego. The multitasking word has multiple meanings, including “You’re welcome,” in response to grazie; “You're welcome to” or “Please do,” as an invitation to do something; “Can I help you?” or “What would you like to order?”; and “Go ahead” or “Help yourself.”
Helpful Link: Puglia Tourism
Fun Fact: Alberobello in southern Puglia is the city of fanciful trulli, which are clustered in a settlement dating back to the mid-14th century. The fairytale landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes several trulli restored as vacation rentals.
Insider Tip From Amanda Ruggeri: For the best of authentic Puglia, stay at a masseria, a working farmhouse that’s traditionally been fortified against attacks by pirates or Turks (a serious local issue until the 19th century!). Bonus: Masserie that are B&Bs often also serve up home-cooked meals from their own produce.
Photograph by Christian Kober, Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
For Whom the Bells Toll
The election of the first Jesuit pope has piqued interest in Jesuit history, and there are few better places to explore it than Argentina, homeland of Pope Francis I. Though the former Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio hails from Buenos Aires, the city of Córdoba, 435 miles to the northwest, contains one of the world’s richest depositories of Jesuit lore and architecture.
Once the largest Spanish city in Argentina, Córdoba still rings with the tolling from more than 80 bell towers and churches. UNESCO named the city’s historic core a World Heritage site based on its sheer density of mostly 17th-century Jesuit structures, including Argentina’s oldest university. On the other hand, many of those grand church buildings were built by African and indigenous slaves, a point of history long obscured by Argentina’s historians. A UNESCO-sponsored African heritage route is in the works, with stops in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
One of the locations can be found outside Córdoba, at a well-preserved former ranch town established by the Jesuits called Alta Gracia—which also happens to be where another of Argentina’s most famous sons, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, lived in his younger days. —Michael Luongo
When to Go: Fall (March-May) and spring (September-November) are the best times to visit. In fall, days are generally clear with average high temperatures in the 60s and 70s. In spring, humidity, rainfall, and temperatures increase, with average highs in the 80s.
How to Get Around: The international airport is located about nine miles north of Córdoba. If staying in the city, take a taxi to your hotel, then walk or use public buses (purchase tokens in advance at kiosks) to visit old city historic sites centered on Plaza San Martín. Rent a car for travel outside Córdoba.
Where to Stay: For an upscale gaucho experience, drive 45 minutes north of the city to the exclusive El Colibri Estancia de Charme. The 420-acre Relais & Chateaux ranch has nine individually styled guest rooms (hand-painted wall designs, wood-burning fireplaces), and offers polo lessons and gaucho-led horseback rides through the countryside.
Where to Eat or Drink: Bring your appetite and cash (no credit cards accepted) to El Faro de Garrido, a traditional Argentine parrilla (steak house) where barbecue beef and kid goat are served sizzling off the grill. Follow dinner with Argentina’s go-to mixed drink, Fernet con Cola. The somewhat medicinal Fernet-Branca and Coca-Cola blend is an acquired taste, purported by many to be a remedy for hangovers.
What to Buy: On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, local artists set up stalls in Paseo de Las Artes to sell ceramics, jewelry, paintings, and other original pieces at the city’s most renowned arts and crafts market.
Cultural Tip: Pay in cash (Argentine pesos and, in many tourist areas, U.S. dollars) to avoid credit card surcharges. ATMs are readily available in Córdoba.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Labyrinths (New Directions, 2007) is a representative selection of classics by Argentine short story writer, poet, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986).
Fun Fact: The Jesuits of Córdoba planted Argentina’s first vineyards in the 16th century. In addition to supplying the grapes needed to produce sacramental wine, the orchards (along with the Jesuits' ranches and farms) helped generate the funds to build churches, university buildings, and residences.
Insider Tip From Michael Luongo: Borello Travel has a Following in the Footsteps of Pope Francis tour encompassing Buenos Aires and Cordoba. Owner Sandra Borello recommends the 14-room Azur Real Boutique Hotel in a renovated turn-of-the-last-century structure in the heart of the colonial district, a few streets from the Jesuit Block. Rooms from $120 (US).
Photograph by Peter Adams, Getty Images
Islands of Soulful Song
“There in the sky you are a star / There in the sea you are a sandy seafloor / Poor country full of love,” sang Cesária Évora of her homeland, the West African island nation of Cabo Verde. In this ten-island archipelago, strong Atlantic winds carry songs filled with sodade, a bittersweet longing at the core of Cabo Verdean culture. Melancholy marks the morna ballads that speak of islanders who left, many with whaling ships that took an entire generation across the ocean. So with the songs of the rainha dos pés descalços, or “barefoot diva” (Évora graced many a world stage shoeless), Cabo Verde came into the spotlight.
It still feels like an uncharted hideaway, where tourism is nascent and blissfully small scale. That elusive feeling of discovery awaits on the more far-out islands, reachable only by boat, like the tiny flyspeck of Brava and the vertical Santo Antão with its lush valleys, pine ridges, and stark canyons.
Even on more well trodden islands, such as sand dune–filled Boa Vista, pristine pockets hide: Winds and sunshine power the 12-room Spinguera, an abandoned fishing village turned ecolodge, its island-salvage decor curated by the Italian artist owner. On dramatic Fogo, with a giant cinder-clad volcano at its heart, a pair of hamlets perch inside Chã das Caldeiras, the ancient crater where residents grow coffee and grapes, and hikers begin the ascent to the Pico do Fogo volcano.
“In this busy century, Cabo Verde still has places of absolute stillness,” says Praia-based photographer and filmmaker César Schofield Cardoso, “and a force that invites pilgrimage and meditation.” —Anja Mutić
When to Go: Cabo Verde is a year-round destination, but rain is more likely August to October. September to June is prime surfing season along the southern tip of Sal, one of the archipelago’s sandy, eastern islands.
How to Get Around: International airports are located on the islands of Sal, Santiago, Boa Vista, and São Vicente (also serving Santo Antão). Taxis and public minibuses are available on most islands. Travel between islands generally is either by ferry or propeller planes.
Where to Stay: On Boa Vista, the 12-room Spinguera ecolodge is as good as it gets if getting away from it all is your objective. The remote cluster of rustic, stone cottages is separated from the ocean by expansive, wild dunes. Meals are included, as is use of the beach hammocks, where you can relax and watch sea turtles swim by.
Where to Eat or Drink: Surfing hub Santa Maria has the largest concentration of restaurants. Menu options range from plates of chicken curry and rice at the Tam Tam Bar (owned by an Irish couple) to upscale seafood and tapas dishes (seafood paella, tartar salmon, ceviche) at Geko Gourmet, opened in 2013. At traditional Cabo Verde restaurants like the bare-bones Blue Marlin on Boa Vista, try catchupa, a popular slow-simmered stew of corn, beans, and vegetables.
What to Buy: Shop for local art and crafts, including woodcarvings, colorful batiks, and jewelry, in Santa Maria at Surf ‘N Soul. Boa Vista artisans craft necklaces and bracelets incorporating found objects from the island, including bones, shells, and beads. Other traditional Cabo Verde crafts to look for are pottery, tapestries, and woven baskets.
Cultural Tip: Although counterfeit and pirated goods are openly displayed in many street markets, buying these items is illegal under Cabo Verde and U.S. laws.
What to Listen to Before You Go: Miss Perfumado is the 1992 album that transformed Cesária Évora into an international world-music star.
Fun Fact: Portuguese is the official language, but locals speak Crioulo (Portuguese Creole), a Portuguese-West African-French blend originating in the slave-trading era. Although the Alupec (Unified Alphabet for the Cabo Verdean Language) was established in 1994, Crioulo remains a spoken language only.
Insider Fact From Anja Mutić: Don’t miss a cup of artisanal coffee at Dja'r Fogo in Fogo’s capital of São Filipe, which has been grown on the owner’s nearby coffee plantation since 1874; it’s still roasted and packaged right there at the art gallery-café.
Ranthambore National Park, India
Photograph by Keren Su, Getty Images
Eyeing the Tigers in Rajasthan
On the bumpy road to Ranthambore National Park, warden Balendu Singh says, “It takes some luck to see a tiger.”
Not long after, he stops on the verge of a dusty trail inside the 151-square-mile reserve. Ensconced in tall grass, a male tiger, T-25, lollygags on his back in the sun, as playful as a house cat. When two chubby cubs emerge, wrestling, rolling, the bigger cat bats them away. Singh lifts his camera, recording it all. As the first male tiger known to raise cubs orphaned by their mother, T-25 is making history.
Indeed, things have changed since this temple-laden, lake-mottled, brushy expanse of land in central India served as the royal hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur. Back in the day, even Prince Philip shot a tiger here for sport. But since 1973, this wildlife-rich terrain has been a protected area and tiger reserve. Abundant with monkeys, leopards, wild boars, foxes, macaques, crocodiles, and birds, Ranthambore’s exotic landscape—punctuated by a crumbling, ancient fort—evokes scenes from a Rudyard Kipling tale. Here roam 24 glorious adult tigers, and the population continues to grow. “We’ve welcomed 26 cubs in the last two years,” says Singh, who blames deforestation and poaching for the decimation of India’s once plentiful tiger population. With conservation in mind, the park limits the number of visitors. Yes, one has to be lucky to glimpse a tiger, but Ranthambore makes its own luck. —Becca Hensley
When to Go: Ranthambore National Park is open to visitors October 1-June 30. Daily opening and closing times vary seasonally. Morning visits are best since animals typically are more active and visible.
How to Get Around: Culturally entrenched outfitters, like luxury Micato Safaris, can organize custom itineraries that include a stop in Ranthambore. Many hotels in Jaipur (where the closest airport to the park is located) can also arrange day trips to the park for guests. The number of daily park visitors is limited, so make safari reservations when booking accommodations.
Where to Stay: Based on the edge of the park, opulent Oberoi Vanyavilas oozes sense of place: luxury guest “tents” with polished wood floors, embroidered canopies, and private walled gardens; two resident elephants; an onsite naturalist; and an elegant dining room decorated with frescoes of flowers and animals. Equally posh are the Deluxe Allure Suites (each with private, stone-walled courtyard and outdoor fireplace) at Sawai Madhopur Lodge in Ranthambore. The Vivanta by Taj brand hotel includes 12 acres of gardens and the property’s original art deco-style lodge building.
Where to Eat or Drink: Make and taste authentic Rajasthan specialties, such as daal baati (mixed lentils and hard, unleavened wheat rolls), choorma (wheat, doughnut hole-like sweet), and govin ghatte (fried dumplings stuffed with nuts), at Sushma’s Cooking Classes in Udaipur.
What to Buy: Rajasthan has a rich arts and craft tradition (don’t leave without purchasing at least one kathputli—the region’s traditional wood and cloth string puppet); however, the items aggressively hawked in the village outside the national park entrance typically aren’t the best quality. If possible, wait to purchase handcrafted souvenirs like salwar kameez (traditional pajama-like pants and tunic top), quilts, and turquoise and silver jewelry, at Govind Rajasthali Cottage Industries in Jaipur, where the no-pressure sales environment is as refreshing as the complimentary chai.
Cultural Tip: Touring can be stressful if you’re not used to haggling, persistent vendors, and being dogged by enterprising “guides” who offer (for a fee) to negotiate the best deals and lead you through tourist sites. When shopping, predetermine how much you're willing to spend on any item, and be willing to walk away.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children (Random House, 2006) and E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic, A Passage to India (Mariner Books, 1965), both evoke a powerful sense of place, yet are vastly different takes on India.
Fun Fact: The national park is named for and includes Ranthambore Fort, founded in 944 and open to the public. Inside the fortress are three 12th- and 13th-century Hindu temples built with pale-red stone from Karauli in eastern Rajasthan.
Insider Tip From Becca Hensley: Tigers, leopards, and jaguars can often be found amid the fort complex, making for a truly one of a kind setting.
Photograph by Paul Hahn, laif/Redux
Defying Middle East Stereotypes
One of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Arbil will make you forget everything you’ve heard about Iraq. The political capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq is largely a world apart from the strife to its south. Visitors bypass Baghdad, arriving into Arbil’s new airport via flights from Vienna, Amman, and Istanbul. Booming with oil money, Arbil—known as Hawler to Kurds—has even earned the designation Capital for Arab Tourism for 2014.
A citadel, the basic structure of which is at least 6,000 years old, looms at the city’s historic center, surrounded by renovated Ottoman palaces and labyrinthine bazaars selling everything from traditional carpets to kitchen supplies. Though the city was marred by deadly violence in 2013, many consider it a singular occurrence, with construction continuing on high-rises, including a Marriott hotel, that overlook traffic-clogged boulevards. In the Ankawa neighborhood, one of the Middle East’s largest Christian enclaves, an imposing ziggurat-style church pays homage to the region’s Babylonian past. Restaurants serve wine and regional fare like kefta (a kind of kebab) and biryani. Outside the city, the landscape unfolds with mountains rich with waterfalls, lake resorts, and snowy winter ski trails. Australian Shannon Skerritt, founder of travel company Kurdistan Adventures, says he tells his Western clients, “Kurdistan is really the other Iraq. It’s not what you see on the news.” —Michael Luongo
When to Go: Spring and fall are the best times to visit with clear skies and mild temperatures (typically between 65 and 70 degrees). Temperatures can be significantly cooler in the mountains, however, so pack accordingly if your itinerary includes hiking or touring outside the city.
How to Get Around: Lufthansa operates direct flights to Arbil from Frankfurt and Vienna. Independent travel within Iraqi Kurdistan is safe, but first-time visitors may appreciate the convenience and local expertise of a small-group tour operator like Kurdistan Adventures or Wild Frontiers Travel. Both offer fully escorted tours and include airport transfers, local transportation via private vehicles, and English-speaking drivers and guides.
Where to Stay: The city’s newer hotels are predominantly international big-box brands catering to business travelers. For more character (the entrance is guarded by white lion statues with tongues that light up red at night) and convenience—only a 10-15 minute walk to the bazaar and citadel—choose the independently owned Chwar Chra Hotel. The room décor is a bit dated, but there’s free Wi-Fi and satellite TV and an outdoor garden bar where you can relax at day’s end with a glass of arak, a clear, aniseed-flavored alcohol mixed with water and ice.
Where to Eat or Drink: At the aptly named local favorite Hawler try the barbequed fish, a Kurdish specialty. Abu Shahab started as a street kebab stand in 1970 and is now a brightly lit, two-story complex housing a coffee shop, supermarket, and restaurant serving founder Shahab’s authentic Kurdish dishes, such as lamb quozi—jasmine rice cooked with meat and special spices and topped with lamb shanks and mixed nuts.
What to Buy: At the Kurdish Textile Museum located inside the citadel, young women learn weaving, felt-making, and embroidering from older mentors committed to preserving the artistic cultural traditions of Kurdish nomadic communities. Completed items, such as ranku chokhel (traditional cloth woven from goat hair) and thick, multicolored rugs woven with carpet hooks, are displayed in the museum and available for purchase in the gift shop.
Cultural Tip: “Go with the flow,” says Kurdistan Adventures founder Skerritt. “It's common to be approached for a chat or offered tea. You may even be invited for a meal or to a Kurdish picnic with traditional dancing.”
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts (Random House, 2005) tells the stories of the people, places, and customs that writer Christiane Bird encounters on her travels throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.
Fun Fact: According to UNESCO, Arbil’s Citadel Town is believed to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement, dating back 7,000 years or more. Though its buildings have been rebuilt over the centuries, the inner network of pedestrian alleyways remains virtually unchanged.
Insider Tip From Michael Luongo: The airport entry stamp is all you need because unlike the complicated process for southern Iraq, there’s no visa process for Kurdistan as long as your visit lasts up to ten days.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Photograph by Richard I'Anson, Getty Images
The Balkans’ Urban Phoenix
Franz Ferdinand’s counselors urged him not to go to Sarajevo. He didn’t listen. Like many before and after him, the Austro-Hungarian archduke misread the region and underestimated its people. The gunshots fired a century ago—on June 28, 1914—in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina took his life and lit the fuse for World War I.
The world irrevocably changed that day. But Sarajevo, which has endured three devastating wars and rebuilt under six national flags in the century since, still retains much of its character. Thick coffee cooked in copper pots perfumes the air in Bašcˇaršija, the Ottoman-era bazaar. Silversmiths and rug merchants haggle and banter on the cobbled streets. Secessionist buildings, erected during the archduke’s empire, sit alongside minarets punctuating the skyline. And obelisk Muslim headstones lean this way and that on patches of grass scattered between the oldest mahalas (neighborhoods).
Called “the world’s most dangerous city” during the war of the 1990s, Sarajevo is now among Europe’s safest capitals. Visitors—no longer just postwar gawkers—stroll busy avenues to historic sites wedged between Muslim, Jewish, and Christian places of worship. The renowned Sarajevo Film Festival is held every summer. Tourists and locals alike, led by in-the-know guides, are rediscovering pristine hiking trails in the surrounding Dinaric Alps.
Sarajevo’s reemergence is perhaps best symbolized by the National Library’s long-awaited reconstruction. Destroyed, along with some two million books, in 1992, the pseudo-Moorish landmark is scheduled to reopen as Sarajevo’s Town Hall (its original purpose in 1896) in time for the commemoration of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. “In 2014 the eyes of the entire world will be directed at Sarajevo,” says Mayor Ivo Komšić. “This time not as a tragedy but as something entirely new.” —Alex Crevar
When to Go: Spring, summer, and fall (April-October) are generally clear and comfortable. In July, the hottest month, average temperatures are only about 70°F. Downhill skiing is available in winter at Mount Jahorina Ski Resort, which hosted 1984 Winter Olympic events.
How to Get Around: Public transportation (tram, trolleybus, and bus), taxis, and walking are the most convenient ways to navigate the city. Bus and train routes connect Sarajevo to other destinations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During ski season, buses connect Sarajevo to Mount Jahorina.
Where to Stay: The 186-room Hotel Bristol Sarajevo is a 12-story, luxury hotel located about five minutes from the Old City via taxi or the hotel’s free shuttle. There’s an indoor swimming pool, free underground parking, and a mini-fridge stocked daily with free soda, juices, and water. Boutique Hotel Michele offers less luxury, yet more charm. The six apartments and two spacious guest rooms are appointed with antique furnishings. Room 43 has skylights, a wood-beam ceiling, and city views.
Where to Eat or Drink: Sarajevo’s ubiquitous street food is pita, in Bosnia a stuffed, coiled phyllo dough pie. The filling determines the name you’ll see on the menu, such as burek (ground meat and onions), krompirisu (potato), and zeljanica (spinach and cheese). Sample some at tiny Old City pita shops like Buregdžinica Bosna and Buregdžinica Sac.
What to Buy: Coppersmithing is one of Sarajevo’s oldest craft traditions, dating back to 1489. Shop for traditional copper, tin-plated, and metal items like coffee pots, coffee serving sets, plates, and cups in the tidy workshops linking narrow Kazandžiluk (Coppersmiths Street).
Cultural Tip: Drinking kafa (coffee) in Sarajevo isn’t done on the fly. Seek out a kafić (café) that serves traditional Bosnian coffee cooked in a copper pot called a džezva (pronounced jez-vah) and served with Turkish delight. Then relax and enjoy, but make sure to ask your waiter how to properly spoon the froth and when to dip the sugar cube.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Inspired by a true story, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks's epic People of the Book traces the survival story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, the famed Hebrew illuminated manuscript.
Helpful Link: Tourism Association of Sarajevo Canton
Fun Fact: From Sarajevo, it’s only about a 20-minute public bus ride to the village of Nahorevo, starting point for hikes to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s biggest waterfall, 322-foot-high Skakavac. Green Visions’ local, English-speaking guides lead day hikes along a mountain road to the top of the waterfall and down to the base.
Insider Tip From Alex Crevar: Though mountaineering around Sarajevo, which hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, is more popular every year, land mines from the 1990s war are still a concern. Hiring a guide who knows where and where not to trek, like those from Green Visions, is a must.
Cathar Country, France
Photograph by Jean-Daniel Sudres, Hemis/Alamy
Rebellion and Refinement
“We are all Cathars here,” declares an art student, sketching amid the aromatic blossoms and Romanesque arcades of Albi’s St.-Salvi Cloister. He refers to the ascetic, heretical Christian sect that stirred up southwest France in the 12th and 13th centuries. (Some of its followers believed in reincarnation.) Once entrenched in today’s Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon regions, the Cathars were suppressed by the medieval Catholic Church in a series of fierce battles that led to their virtual elimination. Yet their rebellious spirit lives on amid lofty moldering castles, secret trails, and rolling hills fragrant with rosemary, juniper, thyme, and orchids.
Visitors beguiled by Cathar lore should visit the fortress of Montségur or Château de Peyrepertuse, but base themselves in pink-stoned Albi on the River Tarn. In this UNESCO World Heritage site and former Cathar stronghold, street signs point the way in both French and the old Occitan language. David Enjalran’s Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Esprit du Vin, is a bargain-hunting foodie’s dream stop—a daily-changing, multicourse lunch is $33. The birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi pays homage to the artist at the Berbie Palace, which houses the largest collection of his work in the world. Beyond the town, rocky hiking paths splay out in all directions, arteries of history that keep alive the region’s wild lore. —Becca Hensley
When to Go: With clear skies and temperatures in the 70s and 80s, May-June and September-October typically are the best months for outdoor touring. July and August are sunny but hot (80s and 90s). The city’s July 14 Bastille Day celebration features a fireworks show over the river.
How to Get Around: Renting a car at the airport in Rodez is the most convenient way to explore the region.
Where to Stay: Secluded La Réserve is a seasonal (open May-October) Relais & Châteaux property located in the countryside just outside of Albi. The 22 individually styled rooms (French country, art nouveau, ultramodern) are split between two guest lodges on the River Tarn. All rooms have either a balcony or terrace with river or garden views. Rooms in the newer building (away from the outdoor pool) are the most private.
Where to Eat or Drink: The prix fixe lunch (about $36) in the vaulted brick-cellar restaurant L'Esprit du Vin in Albi is a bargain-hunting foodie's dream stop. The multicourse menu features such items as crispy shrimp with a creamy lobster and coconut sauce, beef's cheek crépinette sausages, Vitelotte purple potatoes with a sangria beef sauce, and Mirabelle plums with gingerbread ice cream. The menu changes daily, inspired by what’s fresh at the market.
What to Buy: L’Artisan Pastellier produces and sells pastels, watercolors, soaps, clothing, scarves, cosmetics, and pillows in regional heritage hues. The colors are created using natural plant and vegetable dyes, including woad, an herb that's the source of the region’s signature shade of blue. In the old city, visit the St.-Salvi district, once the center of medieval commerce and still home to Albi’s bustling covered market, completed in 1905, where locals shop for fresh produce, meats, and cheeses.
Cultural Tip: Linger over lunch, since restaurants typically are the only businesses open between noon and 2 p.m.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: British scholar R.I. Moore’s War on Heresy (Belknap Press, 2012) is a provocative, suspenseful reexamination of Catharism and the history of heresy.
Fun Fact: In the 15th and 16th centuries, a single field crop, Occitan woad, funded the construction of Renaissance mansions (hotels) throughout the “blue triangle” of Albi-Toulouse-Carcassonne. The blue dye produced by woad made traders extremely wealthy, fueling the ostentatious building boom.
Insider Tip From Becca Hensley: Avoid Mondays at museums, many restaurants, and some shops, which are closed on that day.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Photograph by Robin Wilson Photography, Getty Images
In the Presence of Giants
A climb in the Rockies, proclaimed naturalist Enos Mills, will “put one in tune with the infinite.” He would know: The mountain air buoyed his health after he moved to Colorado as a sickly teenager. Rocky Mountain National Park owes its own life to Mills, who pushed for the official park status it received in January 1915.
Rising up along the Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain National Park is a natural overachiever, with 77 mountains above 12,000 feet—including 14,259-foot Longs Peak—and a span of alpine tundra. Snow-packed granite peaks tower over a calm of ponderosa pines, which ease toward meadow and meandering stream—four ecosystems within one park. It’d be simple to cover them all on a drive along scenic Trail Ridge Road, but why not channel Enos Mills and hike some of the 355 miles of trails instead? You might hear elk bugling or spy otters swimming among lily pads.
Starting in September, the time of year when aspens flare to gold, a yearlong celebration will mark the park’s centennial anniversary—a mere pebble in the life of a mountain, a milestone for a national park. —Alison Brick
When to Go: Tourist traffic is heaviest mid-June to mid-August, so plan to visit the park early or late in the day to avoid the biggest crowds. Subalpine wildflowers bloom in May. September typically brings fewer visitors, as well as the most sun and peak fall foliage; however, September 2013 brought catastrophic flooding to the area.
How to Get Around: Changing weather conditions, construction, flooding, and other factors can cause road closures in and around the park, so always check the park website before visiting. On a one-day visit, drive Trail Ridge Road from the East Entrance as far as Farview Curve for an overview of the park's mountains, valleys, and tundra. With more time, drive all the way to Grand Lake on the west side, walk the nature trails, or take a day hike.
Where to Stay: If possible, spend at least one night inside the park at one of the drive-in campgrounds. Moraine Park and Aspenglen take online reservations. The rest are first-come, first-served. Check the park’s Campgrounds page for up-to-date information about campground closures. Cushier digs are available a 15-minute drive from the park’s East Entrance at the Stanley Hotel, the granddaddy of Estes Park wilderness retreats opened in 1909.
Where to Eat or Drink: Dine on refined Colorado fare, such as Denver leg of elk medallions and trout filet baked in herb butter at Twin Owls Steakhouse in Estes Park. The casual fine dining eatery opens at 5 p.m. (reservations recommended) and is located in a restored 1920s log cabin homestead at the Black Canyon Inn. Request a table on the upper landing for a full view of the open dining room and floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace.
What to Buy: At her Estes Park store and studio Neota Designs, weaver, dyer, knitter, and designer Deb Coombs hand-paints yarns in a Colorado- and Rockies-inspired color palette. Twenty different hand-painted yarn colors include Trail Ridge, a silk bouclé named after the national park’s main road, and Isabella, an alpaca lace yarn named after 19th-century natural historian and world traveler Isabella Bird, who lived in and wrote about the Rockies. In addition, Coombs sells hand-woven jackets, vests, Möbius ponchos, shawls, and hand-painted silk scarves.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) chronicles the writer’s time spent in the still wild Rockies, where she encountered grizzly bears and climbed Longs Peak when it was thought impossible for a woman to do so.
Fun Fact: The Stanley Hotel was built beginning in 1907 with timber cut near Bear Lake, which was ravaged by fire in 1900 and now is part of the national park. On summer days, a hint of woodsmoke from the hundred-plus-year-old timbers can sometimes be detected in the hotel.
Insider Tip From Alison Brick: For standout architecture, stop at park headquarters at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. The nature-inspired building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm Taliesin Associated Architects after Wright’s death, has been recognized as a national historic landmark.
Photograph by Matytsin Valery, ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis
“Only in Russia,” says the Sochi cabdriver, “can you make Winter Olympics in city with no snow.” With its balmy Black Sea location amid palm trees and flower gardens, Sochi seems an incongruous place to hold the 2014 games (not to mention controversial, due to the country’s new antigay law). But once the new high-speed rail line whisks visitors 30 minutes from town up into the Caucasus Mountains, a compelling view of this region unfurls.
Standing at the icy, windswept peak of the new Rosa Khutor resort, home of the downhill and slalom competitions, skiers gape at 360-degree views of the jagged black mountains of Sochi National Park, a haven for bears, wolves, deer, and the recently reintroduced Persian leopard.
Sochi itself (where the Olympic stadium events will be held) looks like Atlantic City as imagined by the tsars, then reinvented by Putin-era developers: boardwalk carnival rides, epic neoclassic buildings, and posh nightclubs. Add to the scene entrepreneurial babushkas selling honey and homemade mead by the roadside and the aroma of Black Sea sturgeon grilling at family restaurants, and you indeed get something found only in Russia. —Bill Fink
When to Go: The winter sports season at Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi’s mountain resort, runs from mid-December to March, but the mild climate makes early and late season snowfall less reliable. Late January and February are better bets for skiing and snowboarding. Seaside resorts typically are crowded July and August, so plan a May to June or September to October visit.
How to Get Around: Sochi is one of the world’s longest towns (90 miles!) so it’s best to use their new public light rail system to get around, or you’ll be spending a fortune in cab fare.
Where to Stay: New luxury chain hotels (such as Marriott and Swissotel) built for the Olympic Games are clustered in Krasnaya Polyana, site of Nordic ski jumping, bobsled, and other events. For a seaside getaway, opt for the opulent Rodina Grand Hotel and Spa, built in neoclassical Stalinesque style and located in a parklike setting. Many of the 40 rooms and suites have Black Sea views and outdoor terraces.
Where to Eat or Drink: Follow the locals to Belye Nochi, Ne Goryuy, and other seaport restaurants serving traditional Georgian dishes, such as kharcho (rice with beef or lamb soup), khinkali (large fried or boiled dumplings filled with beef and pork), chanakhi (spicy meat stew cooked in a clay pot), khachapuri (cheese bread), and shashlyk (grilled meat on a skewer), as well as Russian ukha (fish soup).
What to Buy: Stop at Tsentralny Market for multicolored strands of churchkhela, the chewy sweet known as “Georgian Snickers.” These necklace-like treats are made from nuts, dipped in a thick grape syrup and spice mixture, and hung to dry in the sun for at least two weeks. Additional aging (up to three months) helps produce the unexpected chocolate taste.
Cultural Tip: Stay alert when crossing the street. Russian drivers are notorious for not yielding to pedestrians, even in marked crosswalks.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Part first-person travelogue, part history lesson, Neal Ascherson’s Black Sea (Hill and Wang, 1996) explores the cultures, conflicts, legends, and personalities that have shaped the Black Sea region.
Fun Fact: Joseph Stalin summered in Sochi, and his dacha (country home) has been converted into a restaurant, hotel, and small museum. A life-size Stalin wax figure is seated behind the desk in the study, where visitors can see the famously paranoid dictator’s bulletproof leather couch.
John Muir Way, Scotland
Photograph by Doug Corrance
A Native Son's Walkathon
John Muir, nature lover and Sierra Club founder, was no fan of hiking—“either the word or the thing.” He preferred “sauntering,” the better to savor nature’s splendors, slowly.
He would find much to savor along his new namesake trail in Scotland, with its windswept hills, bird-filled wetlands, and ragged cliffs dropping off to the sea.
The John Muir Way opens in 2014, the hundredth anniversary of his death. The 105-mile path sets out from Dunbar, Muir’s birthplace, and follows the coast west, passing natural wonders such as North Berwick Law, a volcanic remnant jutting abruptly out of the earth, and Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) in Britain. The Highlands views—enveloping visitors in vast lonesome moors, scraggly hills, and turbulent, dramatic skies—are the Scotland you see in movies.
The trail passes through Edinburgh, with its battlemented fortress on a hill. It also takes in ridiculously picturesque villages and historic marvels, including the 15th-century Blackness Castle, which resembles a giant stone ship poised on the edge of a fjord, and the remains of the Antonine Wall, once the northwestern barrier of the Roman Empire.
The trail ends at the waterfront town of Helensburgh. The sauntering, Muir believed, is the work of a lifetime. —Suzanne Bopp
When to Go: Multiple Muir-related events, including the official opening of the John Muir Way, an extension of the existing John Muir Way in East Lothian, are scheduled to take place during the John Muir Festival, April 17-26, 2014. Summer (July-August) is high tourist season in Scotland, so May, June, or September would be better options for pleasant weather with lighter crowds.
How to Get Around: From Edinburgh, you can travel by rail or bus to several points along the trail, including Musselburgh, Prestonpans, Longniddry, North Berwick, East Linton, and Dunbar. Use the trail map to plan an itinerary.
Where to Stay: From the Dunbar to Dunglass section of the John Muir Way, it’s less than 330 yards (about three football fields) to Thortonloch House, a farmhouse-style bed-and-breakfast overlooking Thortonloch Bay. All four guest rooms are spacious, with private baths, but the best sea views are from the bay window in the second-floor double.
Where to Eat or Drink: At trail’s end in Helensburgh, join the line outside the Wee Kelpie, a nondescript, waterfront “chippy” serving fresh fried haddock and cod with thick, hand-cut chips and homemade mushy peas. Closed 2-5 p.m.
What to Buy: Follow the Water of Leith Walkway from Edinburgh to the Leith Gallery. Located on the Shore at Leith, a vibrant arts and restaurant district, the gallery showcases Scottish contemporary art, including paintings, ceramics, and jewelry.
Cultural Tip: The Scottish Outdoor Access Code outlines the rights and responsibilities of walkers, hikers, mountain bikers, campers, and other outdoor recreationalists. Before heading out on the trail, review the code.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Waverley Books, 2012) includes a helpful glossary for translating the national bard’s masterful Scottish prose into modern English.
Fun Fact: Walking the section of trail between North Berwick and Dunbar, you can see the Bass Rock, the world’s largest single island gannet colony. Located a mile off the mainland, the island is home to an estimated 150,000 gannets.
Insider Tip From Suzanne Bopp: The top of North Berwick Law—about an hour’s climb—offers panoramic views and the ruins of a lookout used during the Napoleonic Wars.
Nahanni National Park, Canada
Photograph by Leon Werdinger, Alamy
Quintessential Canoe Country
No one returns from the Nahanni unchanged. It’s too big, too old, too wild.
The morphing begins as visitors soar west in a Twin Otter plane from Fort Simpson, in the Northwest Territories. Below, vast boreal plains reach toward cave-riddled karstlands of the Ram Plateau. Soon descent begins into Canada’s deepest river canyons—a 200-mile ancient waterway, home to the Dene people for thousands of years. “Many say if the trip ended here, they’d have gotten their money’s worth,” says veteran Nahanni guide Neil Hartling with a chuckle.
But go farther along the Nahanni River, and Virginia Falls—or what in the Dene tongue translates to “big water falling”—thunders as it drops 302 feet, nearly twice the height of Niagara. Rare orchids thrive in its billowing mist.
Canada’s most revered river expedition brims with lore of Klondike gold prospectors, trappers, adventurers, and their gory misfortunes in places named Headless Creek and Deadmen Valley. Ahead: the Gate’s plunging sandstone chasm, neck-high mud baths at Kraus Hotsprings, maybe a tin plate of arctic char riverside.
In a nation built on legends of daring voyageurs paddling its myriad waterways, the Nahanni is deep Canada—le Canada profond. It beguiled late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. A master canoeist, he paddled here in 1970 and was instrumental in having it made a national park reserve. With the help of his eldest son, Justin (now vying for his father’s old job), the reserve has grown sixfold.
So yes, the Nahanni leaves a mark. Once asked by a journalist what job he’d want if he weren’t prime minister, Trudeau smiled and replied, no hesitation, “I’d be a guide on the Nahanni.” —Liz Beatty
When to Go: Paddling season runs from mid-June to September. Early season brings nearly 24 hours of daylight (and more insects), while the late season offers the possibility of seeing the northern lights.
How to Get Around: The safest and most convenient way to explore Nahanni is via a paddle trip led by a registered, licensed outfitter such as Nahanni River Adventures or Black Feather. Trips vary in length and skill level and can include hiking and rafting. Floatplane daytrips to Nahanni via Simpson Air are a less taxing yet more expensive way to see Virginia Falls and surrounding areas.
Where to Stay: Reserve two nights (the maximum allowed) at the Virginia Falls Campground, accessible by two- to three-day paddling trip from Rabbitkettle Lake. Or travel by floatplane to remote Nahanni Mountain Lodge on the eastern shore of pristine Little Doctor Lake. Originally built by northern pioneers Gus and Mary Kraus of Kraus Hotsprings fame (Gus is fabled to have advised Pierre Trudeau on the original park boundaries), the fishing lodge has four basic log cabins, and a fire pit and grill on the beach to cook the perch or trout you catch for supper.
Where to Eat or Drink: Food is not available in the park. Guided trips include meals, drinks, and snacks. Menus typically include some local delicacies like arctic char, Taku River salmon, and caribou.
Cultural Tip: You have to register before embarking on a paddling trip in the park and de-register when you safely return. No reservations are required for day-use visitors, but a fee (about $24) must be deposited in a collection box at the Virginia Falls information kiosk.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: British-born adventurer Raymond Patterson’s The Dangerous River: Adventure on the Nahanni (TouchWood Editions, 2009) chronicles his 1920s expeditions as one of the first outsiders to journey up the Nahanni River.
Helpful Link: Nahanni National Park
Fun Fact: It’s been more than a century since the headless corpses of two gold prospectors were discovered in 1908 in what’s now Nahanni National Park Reserve. Yet their haunted legend lives on in park locations like Headless Creek and Headless Range.
Insider Tip From Liz Beatty: I recommend Nahanni River Adventures (of the three licensed to guide here). Founder Neil Hartling has written two books about his three decades in this wilderness (he guided Justin Trudeau). Neil’s quiet, even-handed nature seems akin to what I imagine of Raymond M. Patterson.
Cacao Trail, Ecuador
Photograph by Tui De Roy, Minden Pictures/Corbis
Sweet Talk at the Source
“It warms the heart to see fifth-generation cacao farmers taste their own chocolate for the first time,” says Santiago Peralta, CEO and founder of Ecuadorian chocolate company Pacari. Until recently, many Ecuadorians had eaten only reimported milk chocolate from Europe and the United States. But a locavore revolution means that locals and visitors now can sample the delights of the cacao bean at its source. Cacao was thought to come from the Maya, but recent archaeological discoveries have found traces of processed cocoa on 5,200-year-old Ecuadorian Chinchipe pots in the Upper Amazon, possibly changing the history and provenance of the bean.
The burgeoning bean-to-bar movement here has created “choco-lodges” and cocoa plantation tours in two standout regions easily reachable from Quito. In Santa Rita in the Amazon Basin, visitors to working farms can try their hand at roasting beans. In Guayas Province, they explore 19th-century plantation towns such as Velasco Ibarra.
A tour of both includes a drive over the Andean Plateau, one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots with more than 25,000 plant species, nearly 1,600 bird species, and about 340 mammal species. In other words, so much more than just desserts. —Adam H. Graham
When to Go: The best time to go to the Pacific coast is December to April (warm temperatures and sporadic rain). June to September (sunny and clear) is better for visiting the highlands. In the Amazonian jungle, it’s warm, humid, and rainy year-round; however, rains typically aren’t as heavy August to September and December to February.
How to Get Around: Jeff Stern, owner of Gianduja Chocolates in Quito, suggests starting in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, to visit coastal cacao plantations before heading north toward Quito. “A lot of people want to visit somewhere [from Quito] in one day, but that's really not possible,” he says. “Distances are not long in Ecuador, but travel times can be.” One option is to fly into José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil and fly out of Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito. Since many Cacao Trail locations are remote and tourist services limited, the best option may be to join a small group tour. Stern’s Ecuador Chocolate Tours offers custom and small group itineraries, including airport transfers; transportation; meals; lodging; cacao farm, plantation, and collection center visits; and chocolate factory tours.
Where to Stay: Sleep in a jungle loft, wake up to the whistling sounds of capuchin monkeys, and learn how chocolate is made at the Ecuador Jungle Chocolate. Located on a Napo River cacao plantation near Puerto Misahuallí, the thatched-roof lodge offers basic (dorm-style bunk beds) to luxury (spacious, river-view suites with wood ceilings and floor-to-ceiling screen windows) accommodations, guided adventure tours into the Amazon forest, and opportunities to engage with local indigenous communities.
Where to Eat or Drink: At El Quetzal in Mindo, the locally grown Ecuadorian coffee is roasted onsite, the produce is fresh from the garden, and the owners, Joe Meza and Barbara Wilson, make their own Mindo brand single-origin chocolate. Save room for a chocolate brownie topped with homemade ice cream. In Quito, help support the Kallari Cooperative’s efforts to preserve Kichwa cultural traditions and enjoy a steaming mug of hot chocolate made with farmer-produced organic chocolate bars at Kallari Café.
What to Buy: The Folklore Olga Fisch main store and museum in Quito and satellite locations in Guayaquil and the Galápagos showcase original Ecuadorian and Andean art made with sustainable materials. Shop for handcrafted Andean straw fedoras, hand-woven tapestries and rugs, and hand-carved hardwood or hand-engraved metal tiles. In addition to ten types of chocolate bars, the Kallari Café sells organic Kallari vanilla and artisanal jewelry made by Kallari farmers.
Cultural Tip: Ecuador’s currency is the U.S. dollar; however, larger bills aren’t readily accepted. Carry coins and small bills (ones, fives, and tens).
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Chilean political activist and writer Luis Sepulveda’s environmental parable The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Mariner Books, 1995) was inspired by his experience working for UNESCO in the Amazon jungle.
Fun Fact: In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to grant inalienable rights to "Nature" in its constitution. Nature’s rights, which can be enforced by the people on behalf of ecosystems, include the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”
Insider Tip From Adam H. Graham: EC Travel is working closely with Ecuador’s Tourism Ministry and several local cacao farmers and producers to create customized tours of more remote cacao-growing regions.
Photograph by Davide Monteleone, Contrasto/Redux
Newest Member of the Culture Club
Riga’s cobblestoned streets seem lifted from a fairy tale—and perfectly suit the little-known charm of this Baltic capital. The often uneven paths, so easily negotiated by stiletto-heeled locals, twist between medieval timber-frame houses through the city’s old town, ending at the grand but asphalt boulevards, which feel transplanted from Paris or St. Petersburg.
Along these streets, the architecture chronicles the city’s complicated history, from ornate merchant guild buildings dating to Riga’s days as a key port of the Hanseatic League, to a brick tower built by the 17th-century ruling Swedes, to glorious art nouveau facades and wretchedly drab iterations of Soviet ideology. Through centuries of foreign rule, Riga’s undeniably Latvian spirit never waned.
Now, with more than 20 years of freedom under its belt, Riga is racing to make up for lost time. Many of the city’s 800-plus art nouveau buildings gleam again, including the theater where Mikhail Baryshnikov got his start. Wine bars and designer lattes are not only trending, they’re practically commonplace. Garāža serves imported tipples to a youthful crowd lounging on leather seats ripped from discarded buses. MiiT hums with contented coffee drinkers, as students in plaid fix bicycles out back. The central market, housed in former zeppelin hangars, keeps up a roaring trade in forest mushrooms and blackberry jam. Restaurants, such as Vincents, elegantly update Latvian home cooking (fresh fish and cloudberries).
With the European Union’s designation of Riga as a 2014 Capital of Culture, the city is set to reclaim its title as a crossroads—proudly cobblestoned—of the continent. —Brandon Presser
When to Go: Riga is a four-season destination. Tourist traffic and hotel prices are highest June-August, so May-June and September-October are better options. Average winter temperatures are in the 20s.
How to Get Around: Riga International Airport is about a 20-minute taxi ride away from the city center. Take a taxi or bus from the airport to your hotel. If you’re staying in or near the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s easy to walk or bike to major tourist attractions. Riga Bike Rent offers walking and cycling tours in addition to bike rentals. Taxis are another inexpensive option, and most hotels can arrange transportation or tours for day trips outside the city.
Where to Stay: Walk from the art nouveau-style Grand Palace to all of Old Town Riga’s historic sites, as well as shops and restaurants. Built as a bank in 1877, the elegant hotel has 56 rooms and suites decorated in soft blues and beiges. Evening functions in the glass-domed courtyard restaurant can be loud, so request a room overlooking the street instead.
Where to Eat or Drink: International SV inspires global gastronomic travel with small plates such as Australian beef Wellington, Russian sturgeon filet, and Swiss green cress salad with goat cheese. The open dining room has an industrial, gallery-space feel with high ceilings; white columns; and modern black, white, and gray furniture and murals. Reserve one of the few booths for a bit more privacy.
What to Buy: Skip the ubiquitous amber (fossilized resin from ancient Baltic forests) found in souvenir shops and bring home an original, artist-designed necklace, bracelet, or pair of earrings from Amber Line. Pick up a fresh baked loaf of Latvian rye bread and local honey from the Central Market.
Cultural Tip: To avoid being grossly overcharged, only take registered taxis displaying official yellow license plates. You can call a Baltic Taxi via Skype, smartphone app, or phone (English-speaking operators).
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga (University of Colorado, 2004) by Holocaust survivor Max Michelson is a conversational memoir recounting life in Latvia under Nazi and Soviet occupations.
Fun Fact: Riga once ranked as Sweden’s largest city. In 1621, Swedish King Gustav II Adolf claimed Riga during the Polish-Swedish Wars. The city remained under Swedish control until 1710, when it became part of the Russian Empire.
Insider Tip From Brandon Presser: After taking in the city center’s circuit of attractions, head slightly north toward the Laima chocolate factory to find the so-called Miera Street district. Dotted with unpretentious cafes and a flurry of secondhand stores (be it books, clothes, or furniture), Miera is Riga’s unofficial headquarters of hipsterdom, and a great place to mingle with the locals.
Photograph by John Kernick, National Geographic Creative
The Prince and the Pea-Size Country
How small is this itty-bitty monarchy? “You might run into the prince and his wife at the grocery store,” says Sandra Thurnheer, an Internet entrepreneur and native-born Liechtensteiner who loves her “dwarf country” with its many castles and quirks. “We have this minority complex, and we’re proud of it,” she adds, boasting that Liechtenstein prints some rather rare stamps.
This patch of Alpine meadows, craggy peaks, and vineyards finds itself wedged between Austria and Switzerland. What it lacks in size, Liechtenstein makes up for with a mighty landscape that swoops up from the marshy green banks of the Rhine into the cloud-kissed Alps. “It’s as if the whole country is leaning on those mountains!” says Thurnheer, recommending a good walk in the hills. Named after the ruling prince’s mother, the Princess Gina Trail sends hikers through scenery with singular views of three different countries.
Beyond the banks and billionaires, Liechtenstein grants a glimpse into Europe’s oldest traditions, like Lenten bonfires and autumn’s Wimmlete (the grape selection for winemaking). Sip a glass with a heaping plate of käseknöpfle (cheese spaetzle), and this place feels anything but small. —Andrew Evans
When to Go: Visit the Malbun Alpine resort mid-December through mid-April for skiing and snowboarding, and May to October for hiking and mountain biking. A warm down-slope wind known as the föhn produces mild winters (highs can reach the 50s) at Liechtenstein’s lower elevations. The principality’s national holiday, August 15, is celebrated with a public ceremony on the lawn in front of the private royal residence, medieval Vaduz Castle.
How to Get Around: Everywhere is within walking distance in Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s 6.7-square-mile capital. Start at the Liechtenstein Center for a walking map, day trip ideas, and bus schedules. Use the yellow Swiss PostBus for travel outside Vaduz.
Where to Stay: Park Hotel Sonnenhof in Vaduz is a regal, 29-room Relais & Châteaux villa set amid manicured gardens. The deluxe rooms with balconies offer Rhine Valley, castle, and Alpine views. In Triesenberg, you can start hiking from the front door of the family-run Hotel Oberland, a traditional Alpine inn completely renovated in 2011. Village church bells ring throughout the day beginning at 6 a.m., so you’re guaranteed to be up and out early, after stopping to fill up on the complimentary continental breakfast (hard-boiled eggs, bread, jam, yogurt, and fruit).
Where to Eat or Drink: The Hotel Restaurant Kulm in Triesenberg serves seasonally fresh foods such as whole trout fileted at the table, potato soup, locally grown asparagus, and game, but it’s the views across the Rhine Valley and into Switzerland that make this a must-stop. Reserve a table on the glassed-in patio for lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch.
What to Buy: Each year, Liechenstein prints several sets of new postage stamps, about two-thirds of which are purchased by international collectors. Shop for the latest mini-masterpieces of philately at the Liechtenstein Center in Vaduz, where you also can purchase a souvenir passport stamp to prove you’ve visited the principality.
Cultural Tip: Dress is predominantly business casual since it’s the financial industry, not tourism, that typically draws visitors.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: In his engaging travelogue Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream (Little, Brown Book Group, 2005), award-winning BBC broadcaster and writer Charlie Connelly introduces readers to Liechtenstein through the personal stories—and national pride—of its overmatched national soccer team.
Helpful Link: Principality of Liechtenstein Official Tourism Site
Fun Fact: Liechtenstein was named by and for the family that bought it. In 1719, the princely House of Liechtenstein consolidated two parcels of land they had purchased—the County of Vaduz (1712) and the lands of Schellenberg (1699)—to create the 62-square-mile Principality of Liechtenstein.
Insider Tip From Andrew Evans: Rather than hole up in town, capture the unbeatable evening alpenglow and following brilliant sunrise by spending the night in the stone-sided Pfälzerhütte.
Photograph by Kitchin and Hurst, All Canada Photos/Corbis
Is Green the New Gold?
Guyana, a land the size of Kansas, may be the best kept secret in South America. “About 80 percent of Guyana is still wild forest,” says Annette Arjoon-Martins, chair of the Guyana Mangrove Restoration Project and one of many Guyanese passionate about safeguarding their land’s extravagant natural resources—including what likely is Earth’s largest single-drop waterfall.
“We have one of only four intact rain forests left on our planet,” says local conservationist Sydney Allicock. A Makushi Amerindian, Allicock and fellow Makushi developed Surama Village Eco-tourism. “Our guests come to watch for toucans and scarlet macaws, spot otters and caimans on riverboat excursions, and spend the night in our hand-built thatched huts.”
Chances are you’ll have the place to yourself; Guyana has yet to make it onto bucket lists, in part because it remains, as Surama guide Gary Sway puts it, “blessedly undeveloped. Even many Guyanese have little idea how vast our rain forest is. The Iwokrama reserve, down the road, covers a million acres.”
“It can feel like a lost world here,” says Englishman Colin Edwards, who moved to Guyana after he fell in love with the vast Rupununi savanna, and built Rock View Lodge. “Sir Walter Raleigh, when he came upon this magnificent landscape, thought he’d found El Dorado, the fabled land of gold.” —Jayne Wise
When to Go: January to early April (dry season) is ideal for viewing wildlife since low water levels draw animals to ponds and rivers.
How to Get Around: Wilderness Explorers’ 16-day Amerindian Guyana itinerary includes airport transfers from and to Cheddi Jagan International Airport (www.cjairport-gy.com) in Georgetown, plus all transportation, lodging, meals, and expert guided rain forest, river, and savannah tours and activities. Surama Village Eco-Lodge guests can take a two-week jungle-survival course, go on a guided canoe day trip on the Burro-Burro River, and hike Surama Mountain. The Iwokrama Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development offers several tours ranging from one to three nights.
Where to Stay: At the community-run Surama Village Eco-Lodge in North Rupununi guests stay in rustic Amerindian huts (with private bath) built from wood, palm leaves, reeds, and other materials gathered in the forest. Rates include one meal per day plus snacks. The secluded Iwokrama River Lodge, hub of the Iwokrama Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, accommodates visitors in eight roomy riverfront cabins, each with private bathroom, 24-hour solar-powered electricity—and a wraparound veranda strung with handwoven hammocks. At the al fresco restaurant and bar you may find yourself dining next to visiting biologists and climatologists—as fruit bats cruise under the eaves and black spider monkeys call from nearby trees. An altogether different setting, the vast Rupununi Savannah, surrounds Rock View Lodge, a lovingly landscaped outpost of civilization with eight guest suites, a restaurant, a rock swimming pool, and a gift shop selling local crafts.
Where to Eat or Drink: Since nature lodges are remote, meals are provided. Wash down local favorites like Guyanese pepper pot (a spicy, cassava-based meat stew) and Guyanese-style pholourie (fried dough-ball snacks filled with a blend of ground yellow peas and spices) with a cold glass of homemade mauby (made from mauby bark), sorrel (made from dried sorrel or roselle), and ginger beer.
What to Buy: Arrows, blowpipes, and hammocks made by local Amerindian tribal artisans are for sale in the Surama Eco-Tourism Village gift shop.
Cultural Tip: Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, making it easy to ask questions, listen, and learn from local indigenous peoples.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: The narrator of Rahul Bhattacharya’s award-winning adventure novel The Sly Company of People Who Care (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011) is a 26-year-old cricket journalist who journeys from Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, into the jungle, where he encounters diamond hunters.
Helpful Links: Guyana Tourism and the Iwokrama Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development
Fun Fact: The Iwokrama rain forest is home to some of the world’s largest creatures, such as the green anaconda, which can tip the scales at 550 pounds, and the black caiman, a four-legged, alligator-cousin carnivore that can grow up to 20 feet long.
Insider Tip From Jayne Wise: A must is a visit to Kaieteur Falls, reachable by small plane, both to experience the power of the tallest single-drop waterfall in the world and to sneak a peek at one of the most toxic creatures known to man: the tiny, endangered golden poison frog, which lives in the water-filled pockets of bromeliad plants growing around the falls. Known to scientists as Phyllobates terribilis, this sunflower yellow amphibian has skin coated with a defensive toxin so potent, it could kill an elephant.
Photograph by Krzysztof Dydynski, Getty Images
Great Leaps in the Dark
“Alentejo represents 33 percent of our country’s land but only 7 percent of its population,” says Marta Cabral, head of a nonprofit nature tourism network in Portugal. “The new generation is committed to preserving the region as it is, sustainably developed and real.”
Really wild describes the Rota Vicentina, one of Europe’s newest hiking paths, which Cabral’s organization, Casas Brancas, created. The trail crosses 133 miles of Alentejo, from rough coastline to countryside where storks nest and endemic plants like camphor thyme flourish.
Lying right below the country’s heart, Alentejo has served as Portugal’s breadbasket and seduces with its slow pace, a sense of modern times in half step. Look no further than the recently opened museum in the village of Belver, devoted to the tradition of artisanal soapmaking. Or the newly launched Marble Route, which takes visitors into quarries and underground galleries, celebrating the prized local material. Also now taking reservations: Évora’s Ecorkhotel, coated in that Alentejo staple, cork.
And then look up, at the night skies. Above Lake Alqueva, the heavens remain unmarred by light pollution, prompting the UNESCO-supported Starlight Foundation to designate Alqueva the world’s first Starlight Tourism Destination. —Anja Mutić
When to Go: May-October is the best time to visit; however, temperatures can reach over 100 degrees in inland areas during July and August. Summer temperatures along the coast are significantly lower (by up to 15 to 20 degrees).
How to Get Around: To visit northern Alentejo, including the Evora World Heritage site, fly into Lisbon International Airport. For southern Alentejo itineraries, Faro International Airport is more convenient. At either airport, renting a car will make it easier to explore the region following Alentejo Tourism’s self-drive routes.
Where to Stay: Opened in May 2013, the sleek, modern Ecorkhotel is a low-slung, all-suite hillside retreat outside Évora. As the name implies, local cork (cork, olive, and holm trees grow on the property) figured prominently in the construction. The cork coating on the main building acts as a natural insulator buffering cold, heat, and noise. Geothermal and solar energy heats the two pools and 56 suites, each with private terrace.
Where to Eat or Drink: Owner José “Celso” Cardoso lives just down the street from his popular Tasca do Celso restaurant in Vila Nova de Milfontes. Inside the cheery whitewashed house with bright blue trim, Celso prepares a variety of pork sausage, beef, and fresh seafood dishes, including traditional Alentejo shrimp açorda (spicy bread soup). There’s outdoor courtyard seating in back, but the cozy interior (warm wood ceilings, terra-cotta tile floors, homey furnishings) evokes the feeling that you’re dining at a friend’s table. Closed in January.
What to Buy: Local tour operator Mundo Montado specializes in responsible tourism itineraries, which can include meeting local artisans and sampling local products, such as honey, berries, and wines. Shop for regional fair-trade products—Medronho (fruit brandy), olive oil, handcrafted baskets and pottery—at the Mundo Montado store in São Luís.
Cultural Tip: Alentejo’s slow pace of life is part of the attraction. Relax, practice patience, and don’t check the time.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali (Scribner, 2007) is a loosely connected collection of stories told from the perspectives of different characters living in and around Alentejo’s cork forests.
Fun Fact: Cork is harvested by stripping the outer bark of a cork oak tree every nine years. The inner bark protects the tree, allowing the bark to regrow. Harvesting begins when a tree is 25 years old, and sustainably harvested trees can live for approximately 250 years.
Insider Tip From Anja Mutić: Nestled among cork forests, pear groves, and pomegranate orchards on a private 32-acre country estate, Imani Country House has seven rustic-chic rooms and suites inside a converted farmhouse in Alentejo’s farmlands, a ten-minute drive from Évora.
Bolaven Plateau, Laos
Photograph by Colin Brynn, Getty Images
Beauty and the Beans in Southeast Asia
The general manager of the Jhai Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative stoops to grab a handful of rich red soil. “This is what makes coffee from Laos special,” Ariya Dengkayaphichith explains, letting it trickle through calloused fingers. “Here on the Bolaven Plateau we’re standing inside the bowl of a giant extinct volcano. This is probably the most fertile place in Southeast Asia.” Slowly making its way onto coffee connoisseurs’ itineraries, the Bolaven Plateau is blessed with a cool climate, regular rainfall, and abundant nutrients, and produces the major share of the burgeoning Laotian coffee crop. Hot, dark, and bittersweet, Lao coffee—served with a layer of condensed milk—delivers a caffeine kick aimed squarely at reluctant risers.
“Growers don’t use chemicals here because the soil is so good,” says the singularly named Koffie, a Bolaven-based Dutch roaster and restaurateur who one suspects may have changed his name. “It’s organic farming made simple.” Despite its heady brew of culture and scenery, the Bolaven Plateau is frequently bypassed by travelers. Koffie shakes his head at all those missing out. “Wake up, man. Smell the beans.” —Daniel J. Allen
When to Go: The Bolaven Plateau's waterfalls are more spectacular between July and October (rainy season), whereas those visiting between October and February can observe the local coffee harvest.
How to Get Around: From Pakse International Airport, take a taxi or tuk tuk for the 2.5-mile ride to Pakse, capital of Champasak Province. If you’re an experienced motorbike driver (and can share the roads with dogs, cows, and water buffalo), it’s easy (and inexpensive) to rent a bike in town for solo travel along the Bolaven Loop. For a custom tour, including all transportation and lodging, partner with luxury outfitter Remote Lands to create a Bolaven Plateau itinerary.
Where to Stay: Sinouk Coffee Resort near Paksong is a convenient base for Bolaven Plateau day trips. Located on a secluded coffee estate, the compound includes a restored plantation house and a newer wood chalet, both with traditional Lao interiors: wood and rattan walls, bamboo furniture, and reed floor mats. Breakfast (options include steamed pork meatballs, fried eggs, or rice porridge) is included and dinner is available, which is helpful since there aren’t any restaurants nearby.
Where to Eat or Drink: Tam mak houng, the potent local version of classic Thai som tam (papaya salad) is worth trying, as long as you’re prepared for the seemingly combustible dosage of crushed red chili peppers. Before digging in, open a bottle (or two) of cold Beerlao to douse your flaming tongue. In Pakse, Moom Sabai on the riverfront is a good choice for authentic Lao food like khào pûn (flour noodles with sweet-and-spicy sauce).
What to Buy: Handcrafted items, such as the elaborate wood carved statues and oversize bamboo pipes seen in villages, typically are not for sale. Sinouk Coffee Resort does have a small gift shop selling coffee beans and other coffee products, as well as a limited selection of colorful textiles made by local villagers. In Pakse, the sprawling Talat Dao Heuang (New Market) is more like a mini-city than marketplace, with vendors hawking everything from fresh fruit and dried fish to home electronics and clothing.
Cultural Tip: To visit one of the hill tribe villages, which typically are difficult to find and accessible only by dirt roads, hire an expert, English-speaking guide. Remote Lands can arrange guided village trips, including private transportation via four-wheel-drive vehicles.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Colin Cotterill’s nine-book Dr. Siri Paiboun suspense series is set in Laos and weaves history, heritage, and mirth into crime tales starring Lao national coroner, Dr. Siri.
Helpful Link: Bolaven Plateau
Fun Fact: The French brought Vietnamese coffee to the Bolaven Plateau in the early 20th century, but production was disrupted numerous times due to disease, weather, and war. Today, the Plateau produces 95 percent of the nation’s coffee, it’s fifth largest export.
Readers' Choice Winner: Derawan Islands, Indonesia
Photograph by Darlyne A. Murawski, National Geographic Creative
This year for the first time we invited our well-traveled online readers and followers to participate in creating our Best Trips list. We asked them via Twitter, Facebook, and our Intelligent Travel blog to nominate one place using the same criteria we use—sustainable, culturally minded, authentic, superlative, and timely. Among the 66 nominations we received, Traveler staff chose the following winning entry, which captures the thrill of discovering a remote destination. —Amy Alipio
Derawan Islands, Indonesia
Every traveler dreams about getting lost and finding the perfect spot somewhere off the beaten track. Even though the Derawan Islands are pretty well known, they are hard to get to and being there still feels like a discovery. I have traveled to hundreds of places around the world but there is no other place like Derawan. A small community lives in a tiny, immaculately clean village and welcomes travelers with open arms. After you get up and watch sunrise from your stilt-house balcony, you jump into tranquil and crystal-clean turquoise water to hang out with as many turtles as you can imagine and then snorkel around breathtaking reefs. Then you can stretch out on the empty beach, listen to the sound of palm trees moved by wind, and wait for an extraordinary sunset over the ocean while the sounds of evening prayers from the mosque soothe your thoughts and worries. If the reef and turtles start to bore you, visit the nearby manta ray spot or swim with stingless jelly fish in the atoll at Kakaban Island. Recently an airport opened at Maratua Island, which will make access to Derawan much easier. Get there before Derawan village is covered with hotels. —Beata Ulman, Redhill, Surrey, UK
When to Go: May to October is dry season, which typically is the best time to visit, particularly if you want to volunteer to help with World Wildlife Federation sea turtle conservation efforts.
How to Get Around: Getting to the remote Derawan Islands (Derawan, Maratua, Kakaban, and Sangalaki) begins with three flights: first to Singapore, Jakarta, or Kuala Lampur; second to Balikpapan, Indonesia; and third to Kalimantan Province’s new Berau international terminal (opened in 2012). From Berau, hire a driver (resorts typically arrange airport transfers for guests) or shared taxi for the 2- to 2.5-hour ride to coastal Tanjung Batu. Book a speedboat (chartered, shared, or resort transport) in advance for the ride (about 30 minutes) to Derawan Island.
Where to Stay: The ten rooms at Derawan Dive Lodge are in elevated, Balinese-style wooden villas clustered along the resort’s private white-sand beach (where it’s easy to spot giant green sea turtles). Mosquito netting cloaks the bamboo beds. Ask for Room 10 if you enjoy being lulled to sleep by the waves that break under the room at high tide. Don’t worry about sleeping in. Chickens hang out under the cottages and are known to provide natural wake-up calls.
Where to Eat or Drink: Derawan Dive Lodge serves Indonesian specialties such as barbecued meats, stew with a soy sauce base, satay squid, and dried fish with red chili peppers. Sashimi, served with soy sauce, chili peppers, and peanuts, is prepared with fish caught daily by local fishermen.
What to Buy: At the small, family-owned warungs (cafés/shops) and souvenir stores in Derawan’s stilt house fishing village, shop for salted fish and local Dayak handcrafts, such as beadwork, basketry, mandaus (ceremonial knives), and carvings. Do not purchase bracelets and other accessories made from the shells of hawksbill and green turtles. While officially protected in Indonesia, sea turtles remain under threat, and turtle products (including shellacked whole turtles) can still be found in stores and marketplaces.
Cultural Tip: The local population is predominantly Muslim, so resorts typically do not serve alcohol or pork products.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: The Derawan Islands are off the coast of eastern Borneo, setting of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, the 1895 classic Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (Dover Publications, 2003).
Helpful Link: Indonesia Tourism
Fun Fact: Kakaban Island’s land-locked Jellyfish Lake is a warm, brackish mixture of sea, rain, and ground water. The resulting habitat has caused the resident jellyfish to evolve. All are stingless. The spotted jellyfish lost its spots, and the Cassiopeia swims upside down.
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