Below are my 8 favorite destinations of 2016 in no particular order.
- Cueñca, Ecuador: For New Years, 2015/2016, my anthropologist friend and I spent 3-nights in the colonial city in the Austro (Southern Andes). The city is known for its 16th-century churches—Iglesia de El Sagrario and Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción are highlights. But also known for its colorful indigenous markets and increasing amount of ex-pat retirees. But Cueñca’s unloved modernist architecture is not to be overlooked, and styles that pay homage to Le Corbusier, Brutalism and various whimsical mid-century flairs reflect the city’s 20th century boom when roads first linked it other parts of the country. Cuenca also offers a close connection to nature and a relaxed quality of life, neither of which I experienced in bustling and sprawling Quito. The tranquil Tomebamba River flows right through the city center, and its green riverbanks make a great place to sit in the sun and reflect on Andean life. Stay tuned for my forthcoming Hummingbird Journey in the WSJ.
- Emilia-Romagna, Italy: The more I explore the boot—my southern neighbor—the more I adore it. Emilia-Romagna left a big impression on me this year. To eat here in Italy’s pantry is to experience the heart of Italian food. This oft overlooked northeastern region stretches from the earthy and untouristed Apennine Mountains to the mega beaches of Rimini. Between them is one of Italy’s biggest food producing valleys. It’s also home to Parma, Bologna, Ravenna and Modena which produce Parmesan cheese, Po Delta Rice, Modena Balsamic Vinegar, Lambrusco, Parma ham, prosciutto, and lesser known foods like Borgataro mushrooms, culatello, and Mantua melon. But getting off the path in Emilia-Romagna was equally rewarding. The villages of Savigno and the peaceful mountain town of Sant’Agata Feltria are great places to understand Italy a bit deeper, with nary “grazie-ing” tourist in sight.
- Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland: My hiking trips across my adopted homeland of Switzerland are some of my most rewarding, because time spent in the Alps gives me a clarity and a calmness that is needed more than ever. My one night in Lauterbrunnen really delivered the quintessential alpine experience. The scenic village sits in a valley bed who mossy, rocky ledges are laced with waterfalls both grandiose and tinkling. The village was the inspiration for J.R. Tolkien’s Rivendell, the elvish wonderland in The Lord of The Rings,’ and is every bit as inspiring. A 3-4 hour hike from Mürren was an excellent way to enjoy the area various vantages.
- Mt. Hagen, Papua New Guinea Highlands: My 10 days in PNG was exhilarating. It’s home to the nicest people I’ve ever met anywhere. There are no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no KFCs. At least none that I saw. In fact there were no recognizable brands anywhere. PNG is home to 700 cultures and 838 languages. Bio-geeks will go ballistic over the 3,000 species of orchids, and 708 bird species, 43 of them elaborate birds-of-paradise. See my Papua New Guinea stories in National Geographic and T+L SE Asia.
- Barcelona, Spain: Like many travelers, I’ve been to Barcelona a few times, but on my four night visit in April it felt like the city was entering an especially exciting period. The economic collapse of 2008 saw many of Barcelona’s young people leave to take jobs overseas, but many are returning for the city’s indisputable quality of life (sunny weather, excellent food, amazing art and architecture), and they’re bringing new international ideas with them. Barcelona, and particularly the neighborhood of Gràcia, is teeming with happy youthful energy, third wave coffee spots, and exciting new restaurants like Catalan-Japanese, and Vietnamese tapas.
- Faroe Islands: Cast adrift in the mighty swells of the wild North Atlantic, this forlorn 779 piece smattering of islands, islets, and skerries has all the antiquity and modernity of its Danish motherland, yet the autonomous, verdant green islands rest in the Norwegian Sea halfway between Scotland and Iceland. I spent five nights on the islands in May, in awe of the rigged, treeless landscape, the waterfall-laced mountains that plunge thousands of meters to craggy fjords below. The islands are also home to a rich avifauna that’s nothing short of an seabird lover’s mecca. They include puffins, skuas, guillemots, fulmars who make good use of the Gulf Stream warmed waters and fill the air with their rich haunting cries that add a melancholic element to the already lonely landscape. Read my Faroe Islands story in the NYT, National Geographic and Cadillac Magazine.
- Aarhus, Denmark: Copenhagen gets the ink, but Denmark’s second city Aarhus, is not to be overlooked. The lively university hub is home to 319,000 residents, but dominated by students. It’s situated on the Jutland Coast of Denmark and has been designated a 2017 European Cultural Capital, while surrounding Central Denmark has been awarded the European Region of Gastronomy 2017. To see it now is to witness a city undergoing a complete transformation, as new street food markets, light rail links, living libraries, refurbed hotels, and value-forward restaurants have altered the mechanical workings of a Danish city. But Aarhus’ makeover has been in the works for the past several years. In 2009 it announced plans to go carbon neutral by 2030, and has stayed on track since, despite several impressive new developments every year. The city has been relying on 70+ new green technologies to meet the reductions and assesses its growth every year, including by shifting from coal to biomass in local heat production, using co-generators, solar and wind power, promising to become a new model in old Europe. You can read about my Aarhus stories on BBC Travel and New York Times and a forthcoming story in National Geographic Travel.
- Kinosaki Onsen, Japan:I spent two nights in the 8th century onsen town located on the Sea of Japan in Japan’s under-visited Hyogo Prefecture in Kansai Region. The willow lined Otani-gawa River that runs through the town is the source of the thermal waters that feed the town’s various baths. Evenings see visitors klip klop through town wearing yukata (Japanese robes) and geta (wooden sandals) hopping from onsen to onsen. Legend says that Kinosaki was founded in the 8th century by Dochi-shonin, a Buddhist saint. Today town is also known for its delicacies like crab, sake, and its excellent ryokan, some of the best in all of Japan.
- Tokyo, Japan Greener and quiter than you think.
- Dubrovnik, Croatia Walk the medieval wall in the morning
- Soca Valley, Slovenia Glittering rivers and pristine Alps.
- Southwest England (Devon and Dorset) Sunny England with beaches, cliffs, and moors
- Assisi, Italy Home of St. Francis is spiritual even for atheists
- Stoos, Switzerland Quiet Swiss Alps in a nutshell and close to Zurich
- Gruyere, Switzerland Eat fondue in a fortified medieval castle town
- Sud Tirol, Italy Excellent food and skiing, in bald mountains of German-speaking Italy
- Vejle, Denmark Underrated gem hidden in Denmark’s hills