Need a cure for your winter wanderlust? Check out our editors’ list of the 10 Best Winter Trips. We've assembled a world of reasons to travel this season, starting with a European city with Old World charm. —Maryellen Kennedy Duckett
Walk in a Lithuanian Winter Wonderland
Photograph by Aleksandr Volkov, Alamy Stock Photo
With its medieval layout, baroque cityscape, and cobblestone streets, the heart of Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius, charms in any season of the year. But add a dusting of snow to the castles, Gothic churches, and red-tile roofs, and the Vilnius Historic Center, or Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), becomes an utterly enchanting winter wonderland.
“I love seeing the frozen River Neris in the middle of the beautiful Old Town,” says Vilnius resident Inga Aukselyte. “Every time I cross one of the bridges I notice the glaciers [ice floe] quietly flowing through the town. It is especially romantic in the evening when all the city lights are on.”
Celebrate winter in Vilnius at seasonal events such as the free Christmas in the Capital (November 27 to January 6); performances of "The Nutcracker" at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre; and a Three Kings Procession from the Gate of Dawn toward Cathedral Square (January 6). There’s also a Winter Safari on Snowmobile through nearby national park forest trails and across snow-covered fields and frozen lakes.
How to Get Around: Vilnius Airport is fewer than four miles south of the city. Take light rail from the airport to the Vilnius Railway Station, or bus 88 from the airport to Old Town. Walking is the best way to travel around Old Town and to nearby center city attractions.
Where to Stay: The 18-room Moon Garden Art Hotel is close to the Gate of Dawn, the only remaining gate from Old Town's original 16th-century city wall. Book a room through the hotel website for a free ride from the airport, and ask for help with your luggage—there’s no elevator. A larger Old Town option is the 118-room Artis Hotel. The popular conference hotel is located near the Presidential Palace. Rates include a buffet breakfast.
What to Eat or Drink: The menu at Old Town’s Ertlio Namas celebrates the traditions of early Lithuania. Dishes such as sturgeon with mustard sauce and veal with steamed root vegetables are based on recipes from the 17th to 19th century. Reservations recommended.
What to Buy: Locals keep their hands warm by wearing thick wool mittens knit in snowflake and geometric patterns. Buy a pair (and wool sweaters, hats, and scarves) at Wool House, a family-owned traditional woolen-wear enterprise originally founded in 1936 and revived in 1988.
What to Read Before You Go: Ellen Cassedy’s award-winning memoir We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust details her efforts to learn Yiddish as a way to discover her family’s Jewish Lithuanian roots and, in turn, explore Lithuania’s brutal history under Stalin’s Soviet regime and during Nazi occupation.
Fun Fact: The name of Vilnius’s main street reflects Lithuania’s tumultuous modern history. Built in 1836 as Georgij Avenue, the street was renamed Mickiewicz by the Polish, and first Stalin and then Lenin Avenue by the Soviets. The current name, Gediminas Avenue, was briefly used in 1939 and 1940 (between the Nazi and Soviet occupations) and was reinstated in 1989. The name honors Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania (circa 1275 to 1341).
Staff Tip: During my Baltic tour, the quirky Užupis area of Vilnius stood out the most. This self-proclaimed republic of artists possesses its own anthem and has its constitution displayed on a fence, as well as a bronze angel keeping watch at the entrance to the neighborhood. Cross the river to find alternative shops, arts performances, and fashion festivals in this charming, unique district. —Christine Blau, @Chris_Blau, associate producer, National Geographic Travel
San Sebastián Street Fest
Photograph by Thais Llorca, epa/Corbis
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Old San Juan’s biggest winter event, San Sebastián Street Fest, has food, parades, children’s activities, and vendors. But it’s the music—Puerto Rican-style salsa, reggaeton, meringue, and batucada (percussion samba), and more—that keeps this party moving day and night.
The free festival marks the official end to the island’s holiday season. And, since the carnival-like atmosphere attracts both tourists and locals, being there is a joyous way to experience “a part of the real Puerto Rico,” says Marta S. Albanese Bras, communications and public relations officer for the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. “The rule of thumb in Old San Juan is the more uphill you go, the more local it gets,” adds Bras. “And San Sebastián Street is at the top of the hill.”
Climb the hill (carefully, since the cobblestones get slippery when wet) to dance, listen to live music, and visit the arts and crafts and food stalls. Daytime activities are family friendly. After sundown, the partying and dancing rev into high gear.
How to Get Around: Old San Juan is only five blocks by seven blocks, making it extremely easy to walk around. If you aren’t staying in Old San Juan, use the special public shuttle buses that run from various metro San Juan locations to the festival.
Where to Stay: Rooms in Old San Juan fill up fast during the festival. For the sake of convenience, it’s worth checking around the neighborhood to see if there’s any availability at El Convento, a 58-room luxury hotel housed in a former convent, or the 30-room Hotel Milano. If you need to expand your search area, look among the upscale properties hotels in Condado or the resorts in Isla Verde.
What to Eat or Drink: At Café Puerto Rico in Old San Juan, try mofongo, the island staple traditionally made of fried green plantains mashed with garlic and deep-fried pork skin. The menu includes three mofongo options: plátano (plantain), yucca (cassava), or amarillos (sweet plantain). All are served relleno (stuffed) with a protein such as octopus, diced pork, shrimp, codfish, or skirt steak strips.
What to Buy: During the festival, local artisans set up stalls in Old San Juan plazas, including Paseo La Princesa, Plaza Dársenas (in front of the cruise piers), Plaza de Armas (in front of City Hall), and on Plaza San José on San Sebastián Street. Year-round, Puerto Rican Arts and Crafts in Old San Juan sells island-produced pieces, such as burlap and fabric bags, original paintings and prints of Puerto Rican landscapes, and santos (saints) statues carved from white cedar and other woods.
What to Read Before You Go: The late Hunter S. Thompson’s raw, intense novel The Rum Diary is loosely based on his experiences as a hedonistic, young newspaper reporter in San Juan in the late 1950s.
Cultural Tip: Plan to arrive at the festival around mid-morning and stay until late in the evening. Wear comfortable clothing (but not beachwear) appropriate for both day and night.
Helpful Links: See Puerto Rico
Fun Fact: Established by the Spanish in 1519, San Juan is the oldest continuously inhabited European-founded city in United States and its territories. It’s also the second oldest such city in the Western Hemisphere. (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, has been inhabited since 1496.) The San Juan forts and city walls built by the Spanish, and now part of the San Juan National Historic Site, are the oldest European constructions in the U.S. and its territories.
Welcome the Year of the Monkey at the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival
Photograph by David Chang, epa/Corbis
New Taipei City, Taiwan
The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is one of Taiwan’s most beloved Chinese New Year events. Staged in New Taipei City’s mountainous Pingxi District, the festival’s main lantern launch site is Shifen Sky Lantern Square.
Beginning on the evening of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year (February 22 in 2016) an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 glowing orange rice paper lanterns are released into the night sky above the square. The lanterns carry festival participants’ handwritten wishes, prayers, and vows for the year ahead, which according to the Chinese lunar calendar is the Year of the Monkey.
In addition to the main festival, the New Taipei City government typically sponsors related events such as carnivals, lantern-making workshops, and lantern blessings.
How to Get Around: Purchase an EasyCard for seamless “touch and go" travel on public transportation (bus, metro, high-speed rail, and trains) around New Taipei City and throughout Taiwan. Add value to the card as you go. To get to Pingxi, take a northbound train from the Taipei Main Station to Ruifang Station. Transfer here to the historic Pingxi Line, a former coal-mining railway turned tourist train, and take it to the Shifen train station. The whole trip takes about two hours one way.
Where to Stay: There are few lodging options in Pingxi, so stay in Taipei. A fun and budget-friendly choice in Ximending, Taipei’s buzzy fashion and culture hub, is the urban-hip Meander Hostel, which attracts an equal mix of Western and Southeast Asian tourists. There are 20 bright, uncluttered rooms (a mix of private doubles and shared dorms), and the multilingual staff regularly organizes group activities, such as visiting a night market or cooking a traditional Taiwanese dish in the communal kitchen.
What to Eat or Drink: At the Raohe Street Tourist Night Market near Shongshan Railway Station, sample a selection of xiao-chi (“small eats”) such as xiao long bao (steamed dumplings), deep-fried and pungent stinky tofu, and a variety of New Year mochi (rice cake) balls including fa guei (rice cakes steamed with baking powder), which symbolizes prosperity.
What to Buy: Sky lanterns and ready-to-assemble sky lantern kits are sold at the vendor stalls set up near Shifen Sky Lantern Square and in shops on Shifen Old Street. To lower the impact on the environment, some store owners offer NT$5 to NT$7 for each recycled sky lantern.
What to Read Before You Go: The English translation of Hsiao Li-Hung’s 1980 award-winning family saga A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers offers insight into the culture, values, and traditions that have shaped Taiwanese society.
Fun Fact: The Pingxi District’s most famous natural landmark is the Shifen Waterfall, known as “Taiwan’s Niagara Falls.” Measuring 50 feet tall and 100 feet wide, Shifen is the largest curtain-type waterfall in Taiwan. The waterfall is about a 15-minute walk from Shifen Old Street, and it has three observation decks for easy viewing.
Staff Tip: If Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan is performing when you're in town, snap up a ticket. This contemporary dance troupe often travels internationally, wowing audiences from Washington, D.C., to Sydney, Australia, with their visually stunning, lyrically danced productions. But as of April 2015, the company has a home base at Cloud Gate Theater, an arts complex that overlooks the Tamsui River and the Taiwan Strait. —Amy Alipio, @amytravels, features editor, National Geographic Traveler
You'll be jet-lagged anyway when you first arrive, so get up at dawn to watch (and maybe join) the groups of people young and old practicing tai chi in the plaza surrounding Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Afterward, head to one of the many dumpling cafés for a hot and tasty breakfast. —Marilyn Terrell, @Marilyn_Res, chief researcher, National Geographic Traveler
Take a “Big 5” Safari Day Trip in South Africa
Photograph by Frank van Egmond, Alamy Stock Photo
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, South Africa
From urban Durban, it’s an easy day trip to see the “Big Five” (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino) in the wild. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, Africa’s oldest game reserve, established in 1895, is less than a three-hour drive from the city. In addition to the Big Five, the park is home to blue wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, warthog, hyena, impala, cheetah, and other animals. And summer (December to March) conditions are conducive for game viewing, says local guide Tim Brown, owner-operator of Tim Brown Tours.
“Most days are sunny and over 30 degrees Celsius [86 degrees Fahrenheit] with the occasional rainstorms. This means beautiful rainbows,” adds Brown, who leads daylong and overnight safaris to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi. “Game viewing is still good as the grass or bush is too thick, meaning animals may use roads more often. And, of course, mud wallows and rivers are full, increasing the chance of seeing animals wallowing in the mud and drinking from the river.”
How to Get Around: Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park is about 150 miles north of Durban. There’s no public transportation to the reserve. Guided day or overnight safari tours including transportation are the most convenient options. To travel safely around Durban, use only reputable taxi companies recommended by your hotel or guesthouse.
Where to Stay: Behind the 1920s colonial facade at the Concierge Boutique Bungalows are 12 thoroughly modern and individually styled guest rooms with dark slate floors and brightly colored couches, pillows, and lamps. The quirky hotel’s playful design elements include black fiberglass dachshund statues in the courtyard and the onsite Freedom Café made from red metal shipping containers. Rooms are cozy, so add extra space by requesting a room with a veranda. Rates include a daily “brekkie,” such as an omelet, sweet potato rosti (Swiss hash browns), or a fruit platter with Greek yogurt and honey.
What to Eat or Drink: Durban’s go-to fast food is a “bunny” (short for bunny chow), a hollowed out, quarter-loaf of white bread filled with a scoop of spicy mutton, beans, mince, chicken, or vegetable curry. Street vendors hawk hot bunnies, but it’s easier to eat one sitting down with plenty of napkins and a cold Carling Black Label beer at the Hotel Britannia.
What to Read Before You Go: When Eagles Roar: The Amazing Journey of an African Wildlife Adventurer is the riveting memoir of South African native James Alexander Currie, an internationally acclaimed wildlife, conservation, and sustainable development expert.
What to Buy: Shop for local Zulu handicrafts—such as shields, beadwork jewelry and bags, and woven grass mats and baskets—along Durban’s beachfront promenade and at the outdoor Essenwood Market. Open Saturdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Fun Fact: In the early 1960s, hundreds of white rhinos were captured in the Umfolozi game reserve as part of “Operation Rhino.” The initiative, which helped to save the animal from extinction, involved relocating the rhinos from the reserve to repopulate other South African wildlife areas and to develop breeding programs at zoos around the world.
Ring in 2016 at New Year's Festival Dublin
Photograph by Peter Grogan, Emagine Media
December 30 to January 1
The inaugural NYF (New Year’s Festival) Dublin earned “Best Live Event” honors at Ireland’s 2015 Event Industry Awards. And this year’s event promises to be even bigger and better. The arts, culture, and live entertainment festival includes dazzling streetscapes illuminated by 3-D light projections and an outdoor New Year’s Eve Countdown Concert. Most events are free and family friendly and take place downtown in the designated NYF Hub, which will remain car-free during the festival.
At 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, join the joyous Procession of Light through the city center and along O’Connell Street, Dublin’s historic grand boulevard. Keep any 2016 health and wellness resolutions (for a day, at least) by participating in Resolution Day (January 1) events, such as the NYF Dublin 5K Fun Run, fitness workshops, and GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) and rugby activities.
How to Get Around: Walk. Dublin is easy to navigate on foot, and most festival events take place within the NYF Hub at Stephens green. To follow the 20-venue Dublin Discovery Trails (stops include Guinness Storehouse and Aviva Stadium), walk and use Luas (light rail) and Dublin Bus.
Where to Stay: With its rooftop bar and Harcourt Street nightclub neighbors, the Dean is a convenient, center-city choice for New Year’s Eve revelers. The 52 funky rooms are designed for fun: from cozy "modern pod" rooms with a daybed couch to the two-bedroom penthouse filled with big-kid toys (including foosball table, record player, vinyl LP collection, and classic Martin acoustic guitar).
What to Eat or Drink: Make any night New Year’s Eve at Lillie’s Bordello, open seven nights a week from 11 p.m. The ultraplush nightclub has four bars, three lounges, and Lillie’s Laboratory—Ireland’s first microdistillery. Book a day or evening group mixology session (minimum six people) to distill and enjoy your own flavored blend of Lillie’s Bathtub Gin or Vodka.
What to Buy: Visit the Nassau Street Kilkenny Shop shop for Ireland-made products such as Waterford crystal, Stephen Pearce pottery, and retro-inspired clothing, accessories, and home décor items by top Irish designer Orla Kiely.
What to Read Before You Go: Ulysses, James Joyce’s masterpiece of modern literature, is set in Dublin and uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative to chronicle the experiences of three ordinary Dubliners over the course of a single day: June 16, 1904.
Cultural Tip: When Dubliners say they’re getting a “Hailo” home, they’re referring to the free app used to book a licensed car or taxi.
Fun Fact: In Ulysses, James Joyce mused that a “good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub.” In 2011, Dublin software designer Rory McCann attempted to solve the riddle by creating an algorithm that used Open Street Maps to create a route that would do just that. McCann makes no guarantee you won’t pass a single pub, since new ones pop up in Dublin all the time—but if you do, stop in for a pint.
Staff Tip: For theater geeks like me, Dublin's Abbey Theatre is a place of pilgrimage. The theater was founded by W.B. Yeats in 1904 as the national theater of Ireland, and it has produced the works of leading Irish playwrights from Sean O'Casey and J.M. Synge to Brian Friel. A night at this historic theater captures the Irish gift for storytelling like nothing else. —Amy Alipio, @amytravels, features editor, National Geographic Traveler
Explore Ancient Archaeology and Oases
Photograph by Bildagentur Huber, Sime / eStock Photo
Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain (“the spring”) is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements, and was a key crossroads on the ancient caravan routes between the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and Mesopotamia. At first glance, modern-day Al Ain is a bustling metropolitan area with six-lane highways, sprawling suburbs, and multistory buildings. But protected within greater Al Ain is the United Arab Emirates's first World Heritage site, designated in 2011. It includes the settlement’s six oases plus three archaeological sites.
Al Ain is an easy day trip from the city of Abu Dhabi, capital of both the U.A.E. and of the Abu Dhabi emirate. Must-see sights include the Al Ain National Museum, the Al Ain date palm grove with a sophisticated falaj irrigation system dating back to the Iron Age, and the Bronze Age Hafit tombs. About 500 of the 5,000-year-old, dome-shaped tombs are at the bottom of 4,068-foot Jebel Hafit, one of the emirate’s highest peaks.
How to Get Around: Etihad Airways, national airline of the U.A.E., provides its passengers with luxury motor coach transportation from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Al Ain. Viator has air-conditioned tourist buses. To travel around the city, use taxis (silver with yellow roof signs) or the air-conditioned public buses.
Where to Stay: The exclusive Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort has the Arabian Gulf as its front porch and the Sir Bani Yas Island wildlife sanctuary as its backyard. There are 30 private luxury villas overlooking the sand and sea. Some villas include a private plunge pool. Guest activities include wildlife drives to see gazelles, Arabian oryx (antelope), and the sanctuary’s other free-roaming animals.
What to Eat or Drink: Emirati specialties include the Ramadan favorite hares, a stick-to-your-ribs meat and whole wheat dish slow-cooked in a clay oven or pot and served with ghee (clarified butter). A popular fish dish is madrooba, a thick stew made with salt-cured fish, spices, flour, and sauce. Rice is a staple and is commonly served with saffron, nuts, and spices.
What to Buy: Sougha (“traveler’s gift”) is an initiative designed to promote traditional Emirati arts and crafts among young people living in rural areas, as well as preserve Emirati heritage by empowering skilled craftspeople to market and sell their work. Purchase handwoven pillows, palm-leaf beach bags, traditional embroidered bracelets, and other original pieces created by artists at the Sougha shop in Abu Dhabi’s Central Market souk and other locations.
What to Read Before You Go: Jo Tatchell’s travelogue, A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World’s Richest City chronicles her return trip to the city where she lived as a child in the 1970s, but had not visited in 35 years.
Cultural Tip: Ask permission before taking photos of people, particularly women. And do not photograph government buildings, military installations, ports, and airports. Cameras may be banned in public areas designated for women and children only.
Fun Fact: Al Ain’s historic Al Jahili Fort, built in 1891, is the former headquarters of the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS). Established by the British in 1951, the TOS was a dashing Lawrence of Arabia-esque paramilitary force. Scouts patrolled the desert in Trucial Oman, the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates. Six of the seven were part of the original U.A.E. federation in 1971. The seventh, Ras alKhaymah, joined in 1972.
Feast on Film and Food in Santa Barbara
Photograph by Scott London, Alamy Stock Photo
Santa Barbara, California
February 3 to 13
Long promoted as “the American Riviera," Santa Barbara delivers its best Cannes-like performance during the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). The 2016 edition features 200 films, including screenings of Ireland’s top animated cinema from the Dingle International Film Festival. There’s also a full slate of panel discussions and free community events, such as filmmaker seminars and a daily screening (first come, first serve) of some of the festival’s best films. Several local restaurants play a supporting role by offering special Film Feast VIP menus, premium plates, and pours showcasing locally sourced ingredients.
“Attending SBIFF is a cinephile’s dream,” says SBIFF executive director Roger Durling. “Since the festival takes place right after the Oscar nominations are announced, you will be able to see about 30 nominees talk about their craft in a very educational and inspiring way.”
How to Get Around: Festival events are downtown, which is easy to navigate on foot, by bike, or using the city’s fleet of low-impact electric shuttles (including downtown and waterfront shuttles).
Where to Stay: Walk to the festival’s screening rooms from the Canary, the Kimpton boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. The 97 rooms and suites are stylishly appointed with hardwood floors and four-poster beds. Amenities include Santa Barbara’s only rooftop pool and loaner Public bikes to use during your stay.
What to Eat or Drink: Local chefs, vintners, and other participating Film Feast partners will be offering special items inspired by this year’s theme: the perfect pairing. Sample their creations at Film Feast venues such as opal restaurant and bar (eclectic California cuisine), Grassini Family Vineyards downtown tasting room (award-winning Cabernets from Santa Barbara County’s Happy Canyon), and Olio e Limone (fresh pastas and authentic Sicilian recipes).
What to Buy: Hand-dyed silks, botanical soaps, handcrafted jewelry, and other items made by 50 local artists are on display at Santa Barbara Arts. Shop for artisanal and sustainably produced local foods, including Green Star Coffee and regional Il Fustino olive oil, at the Santa Barbara Public Market.
What to Read Before You Go: Crime novelist and native Kentuckian Sue Grafton lives in Santa Barbara and set her famous Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries in a fictionalized version of her adopted hometown. All 24 titles, from “A” Is for Alibi to X, reference actual Santa Barbara landmarks and locations.
Practical Tip: The budget-friendly SBIFF “Remains of the Day” pass is only $60 and gets you priority admission to all late-night (10 p.m. or later) screenings.
Fun Fact: “Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies” brings 4,000 Santa Barbara County fifth and sixth graders to SBIFF each year. The field trip, named for its founder, the late nature cinematographer Mike DeGruy, is designed to empower students to think creatively and follow their dreams. The day includes the screening of a 3-D film and a discussion with the film’s director. Past presenters have included Oscar winner James Cameron.
Cook, Eat, and Experience Yucatán Cuisine in Mexico
Photograph by Eduardo Cervantes
The history of the Yucatán Peninsula is most deliciously told through its food. Taste and learn to prepare the region’s distinctive cultural mélange at Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the Yucatán state capital and largest city.
“The cuisine of Yucatán is like an archaeological dig,” says Los Dos founder, chef David Sterling. “At the very foundation is Maya food: primal and present. And in subsequent layers you will find Spanish, Portuguese, French, Lebanese, and Dutch influences.”
Sterling leads a variety of cooking classes (from one-day sessions to weeklong workshops), each a deep dive into Yucatecan tastes and traditions. Classes typically begin by choosing ingredients at the market, and longer workshops can include field trips to a cacao plantation and the homes of local Maya families. Tasting tours take participants to sample the best street foods or visit local cantinas.
How to Get Around: Mérida is located in the northwestern Yucatán Peninsula, about 25 miles south of the Gulf of Mexico. There are direct flights to Mérida from Cancun on MAYAir and from Mexico City via AeroMexico. Walk or take taxis in downtown Mérida. Rent a car at the airport or book day tours through your hotel to travel outside the city.
Where to Stay: Hacienda Xcanatún is an 18th-century ranch turned sisal plantation, reinvented in 2000 as a small luxury hotel. Inside the colonial-style main house are 18 spacious rooms and suites, all with 18-foot beamed wooden ceilings, hand-carved furnishings, and a veranda. Amenities include a spa, two swimming pools, tropical gardens, and a restaurant (housed in the plantation’s former threshing room). The hotel is located about 15 minutes north of Mérida.
What to Eat or Drink: Sundays only, tamal colado (a pudding-like tamale unique to the Yucatán) is sold in the Plaza Principal. Tacos are mostly eaten at breakfast and lunch, so hit the Mérida taquerias before 2 p.m. Order the tacos de castacán (pork belly tacos) at Wayan'e and the cochinita pibil (Maya pulled-pork sandwich) at El Nuevo San Fernando. Another breakfast option is huevos motuleños (fried tortillas traditionally topped with pureed black beans, fried eggs, tomato sauce, ham, and peas) at Siqueff Restaurant.
What to Buy: Sisal, the fiber harvested from a type of agave native to Yucatán, is handwoven by local artisans to create baskets, boxes, placemats, handbags, and other items. Gourds, often from the fruit of native calabash trees, are sculpted into bowls and cups, and then decorated with carved or painted designs. The Sunday flea market at Santa Lucia Park is a good place to shop for Yucatecan and Mexican antiques and vintage items.
What to Read Before You Go: Winner of the 2015 James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year award, Los Dos Cooking School chef David Sterling’s Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition is a meticulously researched Yucatecan cooking, culture, and history guide featuring more than 275 authentic recipes and hundreds of photographs.
Cultural Tip: Yucatecans basically speak in a whisper and shake hands in a similar way: light as a feather and never too long. Follow their lead by talking softly and leaving the firm handshake at home.
Practical Tip: Most traditional Yucatecan restaurants are only open for the main meal of the day, which is served between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Taquerias typically close at 2 p.m. (and may open as early as 3 a.m.), since tacos are served for breakfast, lunch, and after hours.
Fun Fact: Corn, or maize, was the key ingredient in the Maya diet. And according to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya people, corn was what the gods used to make the human race. In the Maya creation myth, the gods unsuccessfully tried using animals, mud, and wood to make humans before arriving at the winning formula: corn dough made from ground white and yellow kernels.
Staff Tip: A few hours inland from the coast, Mérida is the "real Mexico" many lament from Cancun's tight hotel strip. It's best on weekends, when the city center is turned over to pedestrians strolling by taco stands, dancers, and musicians. Mérida is also a great hub for excellent Maya sites; the Ruta Puuc bus runs a loop by several sites like Uxmal that see fewer visitors than Chichén Itzá. —Robert Reid, @reidontravel, National Geographic Digital Nomad
See Nesting Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins
Photograph by Kevin Schafer, Corbis
Chiloé Island, Chile
Summer in the Southern Hemisphere (December to March) brings the Pacific’s only known mixed pingüinera (penguin colony) of Magellanic and Humboldt penguins to southern Chile. The colony is a located on the Puñihuil Islets, a protected national monument off the northern coast of Chiloé, the largest island in the Chiloé archipelago. Guided boat tours offer up close, yet responsible and respectful, views of the penguins. And, on the 30-minute ferry ride to Chiloé from the Chilean mainland, you’re likely to see sea otters, chimango caracaras (raptors), cormorants, pelicans, and other seabirds.
“To see the penguins, you have to take a motorboat trip, and will navigate with fishermen who have always lived there [in the Chiloéarchipelago],” says Andrés Oyarzún González, founder and director of Patagonia SouthernLand Expeditions, which offers tours to the Puñihuil Islets. “The interaction with local fishermen is very important to us. As dueños de casa, or homeowners, they have tried to specialize and learn more about ecotourism and English. Visitors get to meet local people who often were never able to study, but who love their home and their job.”
How to Get Around: Located 700 miles south of Santiago, Chiloé is just over a mile from the mainland at its nearest point. It is possible to fly from Santiago to Chiloé via Puerto Montt, but flights are limited and the 30-minute ferry ride across the Chacao Channel is part of the experience. Instead, fly to Puerto Montt and take a combination bus/ferry ride (about four hours) to Chacao at the northern end of the island.
Where to Stay: Palafito Hostel Cucao is located next to Chiloé National Park on the island’s more remote Pacific coast. Built at the edge of Lake Cucao, the wood-shingled lodge has 11 rooms and a pier. All rooms have a lake view, and kayak rentals are available.
What to Eat or Drink: Chiloé cuisine is rooted in pre-Hispanic and native Chonos and Huilliches traditions. Specialties include curanto, a seafood-pork-chicken-potato-vegetable bake prepared hoyo (roasted over stones in an underground pit) or pulmay (stewed in a pot). Add a glass of te frio (white wine).
What to Buy: Local markets carry hand-knit chomba chilota (sweaters), gorro chilote (hats), and manta chilota (ponchos) made from sheep wool. If you see something you like, pay the posted price. Haggling isn’t customary.
What to Read Before You Go: Chiloé, Gateway to Patagonia by Paula Gonzalez and Matias Errazuriz covers the history and geography of Chiloé and includes dozens of color photographs.
Cultural Tip: Don't be surprised if people invite you out for a drink or even to their homes to share a meal, especially asados al palo (barbecue). If you accept the invitation, arrive with a bottle of Chilean wine.
Fun Fact: Part of Chile’s bicentennial celebration in 2010 included plans to build the Chiloé Bicentennial Bridge, connecting Chiloé to the mainland. The controversial project, which was shelved a few times due to projected costs and environmental concerns, is moving forward. When complete in 2020, the roughly 9,000-foot-long Chacao Bridge suspension bridge will be the longest of its kind in South America.
Staff Tip: Chiloé lays claim to an unusual "collective" World Heritage site: 16 wooden churches, built in the 1700s and 1800s for Jesuit and Franciscan missions. Each a distinct blend of European and local architecture, the churches reflect the island's love of the sea. Some church roofs look like overturned boats, fashioned by builders who also made fishing vessels. You'll spot another colorful piece of Chiloé architecture around its harbors: palafito, or stilt, houses that appear to rise from the water.
You can experience the architecture yourself, but over green meadows, at the homey Hotel Parque Quilquico. Looking out over the protected wetland, or humedal, of Pullao, the hotel offers a prime perch for bird-watchers—to see black-necked swans, flamingos, curlews—and seekers of rainbows. Misty Chiloé conjures up at least one a day. —Jayne Wise, senior editor, National Geographic Traveler
Photograph by Dallas Stribley, Getty Images
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
A glistening blue lagoon surrounds lushly vegetated Rarotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands’ 15 volcanic islands and coral atolls. By day, the widest parts of the lagoon are a pristine play space for snorkelers and swimmers. After dark, few visitors venture out on the water. Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) at night is a truly unique way to experience Rarotonga’s spectacular marine life. Local Ariki Holidays offers twilight-to-dark SUP tours on boards outfitted with LED lighting.
“The lights allow us to see the coral at night, along with any marine life that are still awake,” says Jules Tamaariki, who co-owns Ariki Holidays and leads SUP tours with her husband, Kave. “We often see the fish as they prepare to head to their coral beds for the night, along with turtles, octopuses, eels, rays, and little fish that jump on the surface. When we experience the flat pondlike surface of the lagoon, the full moon, and a sky full of stars, it is simply magical.”
How to Get Around: Rarotonga is located in the South Pacific Ocean approximately 1,600 nautical miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. There are daily nonstop flights (about four hours long) from Auckland to Rarotonga International Airport in Avarua, the national capital of the Cook Islands. On Rarotonga, rent a scooter or bike, or buy a Cook’s Island Bus “hop on, hop off pass” to travel around the island.
Where to Stay: In addition to offering SUP night tours and kiteboarding lessons, Ariki Holidays rents three studio bungalows close to Muri Beach in eastern Rarotonga. The nearby (about a ten-minute walk) Pacific Resort Rarotonga sits beachfront on Muri Lagoon and has 64 studio rooms, suites, and two- and three-bedroom villas. Request a room overlooking the white-sand beach and crystalline blue waters.
What to Eat or Drink: Get a fresh-off-the-boat mahimahi sandwich topped with homemade mayonnaise at the Mooring Fish Cafe. The takeout fish shack (sit at the picnic tables outside) is housed in a bright-blue shipping container, and is part of the Avana Fishing Club near Muri. Four nights a week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday), locals prepare and sell street food—everything from fish curry to burgers—at the Muri Night Market.
What to Buy: Visit the Punanga Nui Cultural Market in Avarua on Saturday morning to shop for ukuleles, pareus (sarongs), jewelry made from shells and black pearls, and other island-made arts and crafts items.
What to Watch Before You Go: BBC America’s new television drama Tatau is set in the Cook Islands, filmed on location in Rarotonga and New Zealand, and is available to watch on demand and on multiple digital platforms.
Cultural Tip: Locals wear pareus and perfumed flowers in their hair and either go barefoot or wear jandals (flip-flops). English is widely spoken, but it’s appreciated when visitors attempt the customary Rarotonga greeting: "Kira orana—May you live on."
Fun Fact: Rarotonga’s public transportation system consists of only two routes (clockwise and anticlockwise) and three buses (clockwise, anticlockwise, and night). The daytime routes circle the island, making stops in Tupapa, Muri Beach, Titikaveka, and Arorangi; near major hotels and popular restaurants; and at the airport before returning to the Cook’s Corner Terminal. The night bus travels clockwise around the island, stopping at designated restaurants, resorts, and nightclubs.
Staff Tip: Three Rarotonga musts: navigating by the stars on a traditional double-masted Polynesian canoe, or vaka, with the Cook Islands Voyaging Society; a cross-island trek into Rarotonga’s rugged interior with former pro surfer turned herbalist Pa; and an epic, five-hour progressive dining tour, on which visitors mingle with native Maori—including tribal elders—at their homes, learning about their family life and culture while sampling delectable island staples such as coconut-curry ceviche, fried taro, and tropical fruit galore. —Leslie Trew Magraw, @leslietrew, editor/producer, Intelligent Travel
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