2015 was one of my best years of traveling. I visited fewer new countries and focused instead on revisiting destinations I already love like Italy, Japan and Namibia. It paid off. Overall I visited 16 countries, listed below. But only three of those were new countries for me (Qatar, Zimbabwe, and Brazil.)
Over the course of the year, I stayed at 80 hotels, (ranked in a forthcoming post) which run the gamut from uber-budget at $45/night to total luxury at $1,200 per night. Of the 80, only 11 stood out above the rest. 10 were abysmal for various reasons.
More than anything, 2015 was a year of food for me and a weight gain of 15-20 lbs is annoying proof of that. I had more truly excellent meals in 2015 (listed in a forthcoming post) than I have in previous years, with the lion’s share of them being in Japan and Italy, but also outstanding meals in France, Dubai, Switzerland, Spain, and Brazil. A road trip down the east coast of the U.S. provided stellar eats in New York City, Miami, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Countries I visited in 2015
- United Arab Emirates
- Italy + Sicily
- Spain + Mallorca
- South Africa
Favorite Places of 2015:
I didn’t bother ranking favorite countries since countries harbor many destinations that vary greatly place to place. While I visited 16 countries in 2015, my 16 favorite destinations come from only 9 of those countries. What makes a destination a favorite for me is its ability to get me out of my head and bring me into a totally new reality. One common denominator of these destinations is that they are all doing their own thing. They don’t copy other destinations or force things like uninspired Thursday night gallery hops or Asian-style night markets. The have an organic connection to the landscape and its people. All of my favorite destinations seem to be doing their own thing, a reminder that it’s a big world and each destination can do something entirely different to draw visitors. Tourism professionals need not look to their neighbors to find ideas and spend millions on lame tourism campaigns that nobody cares about. They should look inward, be more innovative, and support young and fresh new ideas of the locals already living in a place.
Here are my personal favorite 16 destinations of 2015, in no particular order. These are all places I’ve traveled to this past year and would go back again next year, and the year after and again and again and again.
- Tokyo, Japan: If one more travel writer uses the Blade Runner term to describe Tokyo, I’m going to lose it. The 28-million strong city—the world’s largest by far— has more parks, gardens, quiet green spaces and earthy, organic, deliciously prepared food than any other city I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot of cities. Can we please retire this unfit descriptor and start looking at Tokyo as a urban model instead of a futuristic freak? The city also has some of the world’s best hotels (see my forthcoming list of Best Hotels of 2015) and restaurants (see forthcoming Best Meals of 2015 List).
- Charleston, SC: When South Carolina’s capital Columbia finally lowered the confederate flag in 2015, it ushered itself into a new, long-delayed era of Low Country equality. Charleston was built and defined by the riches of slavery, but it doesn’t have to remain a slave to its past. And it doesn’t. The vibe of this sun-kissed, palm-studded, forward-thinking hub on the coast of Carolina low country is positively charming. The people are so southern they sound British. The antebellum architecture is marvelous. The cuisine—oysters and grits—is incredible.
- Sicily, Italy: By turns broken and graceful, the windswept and sun-baked Mediterranean island of Sicily is everything you thought it would be and more. Sophia Patrillo on every corner. Gelato sandwiches for breakfast. Pork and pasta married and divorced and married again. Gesturing and glances you won’t get anywhere else. Sicily is like the rest of Italy but with the volume turned up and the hubcaps stolen. To experience its urban grit and ancient mountains is to step back in time and experience an Italy that no longer exists.
- Koyasan, Japan: Mindful travelers who visit Koyasan come on the funicular train for one thing: to bunk with monks at the town’s 54 some odd shukubo, traditional temples that double as B&Bs for visitors who want a chance spend serious meditation time with masters. Most stays include vegetarian meals and morning and evening meditation sessions with the monks. The ancient mountain top town is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a Buddhist sect dating to 805AD. But what I found most exciting was the eerie, misty and mossy 2-kilometer long Okunoin cemetery, Japan’s biggest, and home to over 200,000 graves of Buddhist monks, dating to at least 800AD and nestled in a woody forest with incredibly long pine and oak trees.
- Canton Fribourg, Switzerland: Gruyere Cheese was Switzerland’s first luxury product and the Swiss began exporting it as far back as 900AD. It’s easy to see why the tasty curds remain such a popular export when you taste a fresh hunk at the source at Canton Fribourg’s magnificent Gruyere Castle, just one reason to visit this tiny underrated canton. But it’s the canton’s capital city of Fribourg, half Swiss German speaking and half French speaking, that is the real culinary highlight not to mention the birthplace of fondue. It’s also home to a thousand other Swiss dishes most Swiss have never even heard of. En guete and bon appetite!
- Mindo, Ecuador: The Andes run straight down the center of Ecuador and on both sides lie the dense, cool, green, fog-choked cloud forests, a vertical bird, fern, and flora rich habitat that does not exist in the US or Europe. Here, orchids, bromeliads, sequined hummingbirds, shy ocelots and bold croaking toucans watch each other in the foggy mists and time seems to move as slowly as the clouds form. There’s no place better to experience it than Mindo, a small town teeming with eco lodges and bird-friendly guides that is sure to please nature loving travelers.
- Ishigaki, Japan: A Japanese island jungle? Yes ma’am! The subtropical southern Okinawan Island of Japan, the southernmost island in the country, is replete with thick misty rainforests, glass-bottom boats, Hawaiian shirts, taco rice, hidden white sand beaches and brilliantly turquoise water ideal for snorkeling. Don’t leave without trying Ishigaki beef, just as good as another Wagyu beef like Kobe or Hokkaido, from locally raised island cattle.
- Jabal Akhdar Mountains, Oman: There’s a reason Oman has the Mid-East’s only smiling sultan. Imagine the Swiss Alps, parched and sun baked. That’s what you’ll find in Oman’s rusty, dusty eco-friendly Jabal Akhdar mountains, part of the Al Hajar mountain range, that are only now beginning to be developed. While several hotel chains are moving in, so are new roads and a new infrastructure that promises to highlight the region for generations to come.
- Naoshima, Japan: Ancient Japanese traditions meld with contemporary art on this tiny Seto Sea island, home to numerous world class museums, architecture and dozens of ongoing blue-chip art installations that draw visitors from London to L.A. The best part is that it the art experience on the island is built to be balanced with nature, something you won’t find at Art Basel in NYC’s galleries or any other of the other Art Islands that have cropped in recent years. So do as Japanese do, come for the art, but let the nature wash over you.
- Lago Da Iseo, Italy: This is Italy’s Anti-Como. While its true that the small Northern Italian lake has an island on it that’s a universe unto its own, the lake itself is the real gem and will be home to Christo’s next big art project—his first since New York City’s The Gates— which will connect the island to the mainland in a series of yellow floating bridges and will run for only two weeks this June. It’s also where chic Riva Boats are made and home to some of Italy’s best sparkling wines.
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: The Economist predicts that Brazil will epically fail in 2016, but I give the city high marks for staying true to what it is: a subdued, tropical, urban environment that has given birth to Samba, Bosa Nova, Burle Marx, Oscar Niemeyer, Havaianas, and Açai. How many other cities have given so much beauty to the world? Rio is a study of multiculturalism for the world and it’s bled of cultures and ethnicities is sexy, warm and gives me hope that we can all live together on this planet.
- Umbria, Italy: The road to my loving Italy was slow and meandering. Milano helped me admire Italy. Napoli helped me smile at it. But Umbria is what ultimately captured my heart. To many, not much is happening in Umbria. There are no opulent Florence-style villas, no major museums, no throngs of tourists. This is precisely why one should go. The day-to-day eating and sleeping with a snoogle pregnancy pillow and dolce far nienete is what makes Umbria such a perfect Italian gem. Its wine—red, tanniny Sagrantino—is the healthiest wine in the world too.
- Namib Desert, Namibia: Africa’s hope for conservation can be found in the parched, dusty, rusty deserts of Namibia. If animals like the elephant, cheetah and lion can adapt to the conditions of the Namib desert than hotels can adapt to Wilderness Safari’s strict conservation policies that every single hotel chain should be doing, (but none are.) Namibia is an example of one country’s ecological success and a reminder of the rest of the world’s ecological shortcomings.
- Bonito, Brazil: If floating down a crystal clear river while watching fish in the water below you and birds in the canopy above you sounds like a dream, than make way for Bonito. Another eco-contender, beautiful, bodacious and biologically-friendly Bontio is filled with sparkling natural limestone pools and rivers where travelers are forbidden from wearing sunscreen in the water. Here, the rule of look don’t touch is strictly enforced, a standard the rest of the world should follow.
- Mallorca, Spain: The Germans call it Putzfrau’s Insel. (The Maid’s Island.) And yes, the Chardonnay-tanked Brits and Teutonic trash who repeatedly vacation there are absolutely terrifying. Still, I absolutely adore Mallorca and the spaciousness of the Maid’s Island make it easy to avoid the unsavory. There are so many hidden beaches where the island’s red rocks plunge into the turquoise Med. There are also legions of excellent restaurants. The aioli alone is reason enough to go. But it’s the islands’ Aragonian landspace that pulls me into its grip every time I go.
- Lake Como, Italy: I love Como in the winter when its gray and shuttered. I love Como in the spring when its birds are wildflowers are electric. I love Como in the summer when its tourists eat gelato. And I love Como in the autumn when its hillsides bear the brunt of Alpine thunderstorms and strike back in a blaze of orange, yellow and red. The Y-shaped lake was Milano’s 15th century playground and it still gives a performance worthy of aristocrats.
Next up: Best Hotel Stays of 2015