My 16 Favorite Destinations of 2015

by adam on January 18, 2016

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

  1. Switzerland
  2. Japan
  3. Austria
  4. Qatar
  5. United Arab Emirates
  6. Oman
  7. Germany
  8. Italy + Sicily
  9. France
  10. Spain + Mallorca
  11. Namibia
  12. South Africa
  13. Zimbabwe
  14. USA
  15. Brazil
  16. Ecuador

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.

  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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!
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

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Best Meals of 2013, Six months late!

by adam on July 5, 2014

Marisqueria Ribeira do Miño, Madrid

Madid

 

I never miss a meal. But I’m the king of inconsistency when it comes to this blog. Fortunately, the best part of writing your own blog is that when you’re six months late, as this Best Restaurants of 2013 piece is, there’s no punishment. Annual “Best Of” lists are usually written and published in the winter months, when the year is winding down and folks are reflecting on memories of the last 12-months. These lists are also often filled with bullshit, such as newly opened restaurants and hotels that haven’t worked out their kinks yet, but that newspapers and magazines feel obliged to cover in the spirit of reporting on “travel news.” The best thing about putting a list like this out now, on the 4th of July weekend in 2014, is that I’ve had six months to digest (pun intended) the 1,095 meals I ate in 2013. I’ve thought hard about which meals I liked the best, and which challenged me and changed me. The restaurants that I long to go back to, and whose dishes I still crave now, a full six months later, are my obvious favorites. Often, we need a little perspective to sort out our favorites.

What makes a restaurant a favorite for me? It’s usually not a new restaurant. It’s also not typically a glassy modernist Michelin three-starred restaurant where people are splurging on 22-courses of foraged sea kelp and deconstructed gastro-molecular fare that’s been infused, macerated, reduced, and re-and-or-de-hydrated. Yet these menus predictably feature the obligatory foie gras, lobster, truffles, and chocolate, usually in a form that’s as tarted up as the runner up from last season’s Ru Paul Drag Race to prove to the diner that while the seared hay and sea buckthorn might be from a chef’s pathetic patch of green out back, the lobster came from Castine and the cacao from Ecuador, meriting the meal’s costliness. There’s nothing wrong with all that. I respect Michelin’s methodology and support all good food and hardworking chefs trying new things. But I’m usually drawn to simpler cuisines and locally-loved atmospheres with limited tourists and a menu that adds a knock or two of creativity while still executing simplicity. In the words of my good friend Dianne, “I don’t fetishisize food.”

I’m also drawn to value. So many of us expect that good food has to cost a lot of money. That’s just not true. The most expensive food is never never never the best. OK, sometimes it’s the best. But very rarely. As an example, on a trip to Italy Amalfi’s Coast in September 2013, I had many great meals. As my husband Ralph and I often do, we ranked our 25 meals from the trip very carefully and methodically. Of those 25 meals, the three best ranged from $5 to $270. (All three are included in the list below.) A Michelin one-starred seafood meal at Il Riccio, that cost around $250 for two, was number three. The simple and affordably-priced $75 meal for two at cozy dockside restaurant Lo Scoglio—far from the tourist hustle of Positano—was number two. But the cheapest meal—a $5 pizza at Napoli’s Pizzeria da Michele—was hands down the number one meal. All three meals were excellent, but the pizza was simple and delicious. Six months later, I still think about. Longingly. Lovingly. Pavlov-like. And well, maybe nothing taste as good as value feels!

Lastly, I feel obliged to mention a few things about 2013. First, I should acknowledge two homemade dishes that really deserve attention. My American friend Landis’ awesome “all-day fried chicken” (which literally took him all day to prepare). He cooked it for us in our kitchen on his visit here in July 2013. It was so good it made me homesick. I didn’t think Swiss grocery stores stocked the spices to make such flavorful American soul food. “Grill Mix” from Denner? Who knew? Also, my mother-in-law Marthe’s vittelo tonnato, a popular Italian dish made with cold thin slivers of veal draped in a velvety creamy tuna sauce. She’s made this for me a few times at her lakehouse in Bäch, and it’s absolutely delicious. I also wanted to mention the 2013 destinations I ate in that didn’t make the cut, so that readers are aware of what my parameters were. I traveled to Paris three times in 2013, and had great meals each time, but nothing as good as anything on the list below. Other notable 2013 destination candidates that failed make the grade were Greece, Ecuador, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Amsterdam, Munich, Germany’s Black Forest, Italy’s Dolomites, Milano, Oman, Norway, Florida, Los Angeles, Portugal’s Sagres, Mallorca, London, Shetland, Gstaad, Basel, Engadin, Geneva, and a few more.

The following restaurants are not listed in any particular order. This is not a ranking, just a list. All meals were eaten between Jan 1, 2013 and Dec 31, 2013. Prices shown below are just a rough estimate of two main course, starters, and wine.

Happy reading, and as we say in Zürich, en guete!

–Adam

 

 

1. L’Auberge du Raisin, Cully, Canton Vaud, Lavaux, Switzerland

Some of Switzerland’s best food can be found in the Lavaux, where old world auberges beg to be splurged at. This one, in “chocolate box charming” Cully, is a regional favorite not to mention one of my top three meals in Switzerland ever. The dining room is paneled in rough-hewn wainscoting and plaster walls festooned with vintage wine presses, while an impressive parquet ceiling marinated in decades of fondue steam draws your eyes upward. I ate alone, but the food here was a most entertaining dinner companion, or as the French say, commensal. Fresh morels and white asparagus tips frothed it up together in a rich cream sauce, while medallions of lake perch arrived dressed in silky jackets of truffled butter sauce, and a hot, crunchy posse of pomme frites begged to soak up any extra puddles or spills…of which there were none! Aged flanks of steak dripping of fat, are charred in the dining room fireplace as suited waiters whisk to and fro prim Suisse grandmeres and trysting French couples who popped over Lac Lèman to linger anonymously for hours over post-dessert espressos. Or so I imagined. Perhaps my imagination was corrupted by the Swiss wine list—extensive and expensive—featuring a Calamin Grand Cru from Louis Bovard and a Viticole de Lutry Chardonnay with hints of barrique and the trademark mineraly gunpowder that the French call pierre à fusil. If you don’t have at least one long, boozey, borderline-delusional meal like this, you haven’t experienced the essence of the Lavaux. Read more about my bike trip through Switzerland’s Lavaux wine country in my Four Seasons magazine story on Swiss Wine. Dinner for two, $150

 

 

2. L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Napoli, Italy

Picture it. Napoli. 2013. A thin pie-crust is smothered by a blood red sauce of San Marzano tomatoes and buried under a veil of mozzarella di bufala Campana before being stuffed in a 905-degree oak-fired stone oven for 90 seconds. No toppings, just one single leaf of basil, which serves as a headstone to commemorate this pizza’s deliciousness. The D.O.C. protected pizza in Naples is the real deal and its simplicity is its allure. I first tried Naples style pizza in New York City when I wrote restaurant reviews and I didn’t like it one bit. It’s one of those foods that, for me, just doesn’t translate out of context. But Napoli style pizza in Napoli…well that’s something else altogether. In September 2013, Ralph and I visited Napoli and the Amalfi Coast and we tried about eight different pizzas during our 10-day stay—but nothing beat the $5 pies here, eaten with a fork and knife and washed down with a glug of Peroni. We stumbled into this place not knowing it was so iconic, and loved it so much. It was only later we realized what an institution it was. It’s also one of the few pizzerias open all day, so go early or late. Lines peak by noon and die down by 2 p.m. This spot can be a bit touristy, but it was locally loved for 140-years before Eat, Pray, Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert wondered if her pizza love was reciprocal and before Julia Roberts guffawed in its tiled dining room during the 2009 movie shoot. Read my Wall Street Journal article on How To Avoid Tourists on the Amalfi Coast to find out more. Dinner for two, $18

 

 

 

3. Shop Café, Santa Barbara, California, USA

After spending a sunny half-week in April of 2013 packing up my Burbank storage unit to be shipped to Zürich, Ralph and I escaped to lovely Santa Barbara for a weekend of eating and R+R. Ten minutes into our meal at Shop Café—a sweet roadside California joint that opened in December 2012 and serves up fantastic slow food, fast and cheap— I wondered if I’d made a mistake moving away from California. I’m a big fan of California, and even bigger fan of its food. Dishes there can be twenty times fresher and more creative than anything you get in megacities like NYC and Paris. With that in mind, there wasn’t a single menu item I didn’t want to try at Shop Café. So, I tried many, and loved each. Highlights included a juicy tri tip sandwich drenched in wasabi creme fraiche,onion marmalade and melted cheddar and piled atop toasted ciabatta. The “mac on crack” is a creamy bed of macaroni topped with crumbled gorgonzola, pecans, apple, and bacon. A basket of crunchy buttermilk-fried chicken is served on a crumbly biscuit. The signature Rolex—a popular Ugandan street food made with egg and tomato wrapped in chapatti—was inspired by co-owner Chris Vigilante’s trip there. The Shop Café is everything in a restaurant that cannot exist anywhere else. And it’s the kind of place that will probably make me move back some day. Read more about Santa Barbara’s food scene in an article I wrote on Santa Barabara’s food scene for Four Seasons Magazine. Dinner for two, $28

 

 

4. L’Estanco Food Truck, Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia

“Table for one? Really, just one?!” I was asked this question—in a pouty French accent no less— during my eleven days in French Polynesia every time I arrived solo in a restaurant, which was every night, as I traveled there alone. French Polynesia is honeymoon ground zero. And it seemed all honeymooners fell into two camps. Those who chose to begin expressing their martial conjugation sur le table, and those who starred at me while whispering phrases I half heard, like “…left at the alter?” and “…runaway bride?” After this played out about ten times, I headed to Les Roulottes, a convoy of food trucks parked on Papeete’s Pier, that hawks everything from raw tuna and steak au poivre to pizza and Chinese. No trip to Tahiti is complete without a visit there. When I visited French Polynesia in May of 2013, I asked everyone I met which roulotte was the best. Every single person emphatically recommended L’Estanco, which specializes in raw tuna dishes. So after scoping out the smattering of trucks for good measure, I sidled up to a plastic table and ordered a Hinano beer, brewed in Papeete, and the most famous dish—le poisson cru au lait de coco, a scarlet carcassian heap of raw tuna chunks soaking in a bowl of thick white coconut milk punctuated with curls of green scallions. It looked like, well…honeymoon afterbirth. And like most everything in French Polynesia, it wasn’t cheap. But it was as vivid and fragrant and exotic and alive as the purple hibiscus and white tiare flowers tucked behind the ears of the Tahitan women walking the street. It was magnificent, a gracefully composed dish that I think about a lot. Not to mention something I was happy I didn’t have to share. Read more about my trip to Tahiti in my New York Post story on Tahiti’s Monoi RoadDinner for two, $65

 

5. Fondue at Jurablick, Uetliberg, Zürich, Switzerland

Living in Switzerland, I’ve had a lot of fondue in the last four years. But the best one in 2013 was at Jurablick, a fondue speakeasy of sorts, hidden on a hiking path on Uetliberg, Zurich’s leafy park/mountain. I’ve been here about four times, but first went in January 2013 with friends who live in Thailand. Getting to the wood-paneled stubli requires a 20-minute hike from the top of Uetliberg, often on pitch-black trails and in earshot of the screeching whistle of the Uetlibergbahn. But as you near, the smell of steamy cheese and kirsch permeates the darkness and you know you’re on track. The fondue itself is creamy, flavorful with a mixture of Gruyere and Appenzeller Surchoix and very kirshy. There’s a nice selection of Swiss wines, including a selection of Fendants, the only wine the Swiss will allow you to drink with fondue. The salads are fortresses—large, green heaps with spikes of speck, and doused in a tangy milky dressing. On my first visit here, we didn’t have cash, but the owners, who we absolutely didn’t know, said they’d mail us the bill. Only in Switzerland! Dinner for two, $80

 

6. Ubiquitous Chip, Glasgow, Scotland

I visited Glasgow in January of 2013 and again in October 2013. I adore Scotland and I love Scottish food. I didn’t grow up on Scottish food, but I have an inexplicable nostalgia for its fish, oysters, barley, potatoes, wild game, and sheep, and can’t get enough of its oaty, carmely deserts and whiskies. But I’m also impressed by how Scottish chefs use, but are not limited to, Scotch ingredients. There’s a casual locavorism in Scottish cuisine, yet a genuine reliance on the land that pre-dates the novelties of Italy’s Slow Food and Scandinavia’s New Nordic cuisine movements. This meal was one of the ten best for several reasons. For one, the West End restaurant walls remain painted with local artist Alasdair Gray’s cool and colorful murals depicting locals. But also, the kitchen turned out upgrades of old Scottish dishes like Lapsang souchong-smoked salmon and venison haggis with turnip cream, mussels in a smoky Chip broth, and a brown crab velouté. The namesake bowl of chips is excellent too—thick cut and double fried perfectly, something the Scottish also do exceptionally well. Read more about Glasgow in my New York Times story. Dinner for two, $89

 

7. Il Riccio, Capri, Italy

I didn’t fall in love with Capri during my September 2013 visit. The tourists there are maddening and you have to constantly strategize to avoid them. Still, it’s a must-see island and there are some super lovely off-the-beaten-path pockets. I did however, fall in love with a meal there. Ralph and I lingered over a breezy, albeit expensive, sea-kissed lunch at the one-star Michelin restaurant that recently became Capri Palace’s offsite beach club. It’s tucked into a private cove on the same cliff face as the touristy Grotta Azzurra, but a world apart. The turbot baked in salt, scallops nestled into puréed artichokes and its namesake spaghetti strewn with sea urchin are delicious and worthwhile splurges. Did I mention that there’s a Pudding Room— a temple to Neapolitan pastry! If you haven’t gone overboard in it, you can jump overboard into the sea from the restaurant’s private swimming deck while Blue Grotto-gawking tourists gaze in envy. Read my Wall Street Journal article on How To Avoid Tourists on the Amalfi Coast to find out more. Dinner for two, $220

 

8. Georgian Room Chef’s Table, Cloisters, Sea Island, Georgia, USA

You don’t hear about father-son Valentine’s dinners all that often, but in 2013 while waiting out my Swiss work visa arrival, I spent a Valentine’s weekend with my dad, Edson, at South Georgia’s Cloisters, which turned out to be a lot of fun. In my line of work, I’m fortunate enough to sample a lot of chef’s tasting menus. To be honest, they rarely impress me, and I waddle away feeling as stuffed and trapped as a foie gras goose the night before he’s slaughtered. But the meal at the Georgian Room Chef’s Table was different. Not only did we have an excellent meal, but we were given TV remote controls so that we could zoom in the mounted kitchen cameras to see exactly how the chefs were making it for us. Highlights from Chef Daniel Zeal’s menu included an amuse bouche of sweet potato panna cotta, crispy maitake mushrooms lapping in a sherry vinaigrette, even crispier pork belly, and a cauliflower slow roasted for three hours and served with kobe cheek and black truffle. Romantic? Not so much. Voyeuristic? Weirdly. Delicious? Yes! Read more about Sea Island in my Departures.com story. Chef’s Table dinner for two, $200

 

9. Ristorante Lo Scoglio, Massa Lubrense, Italy (Amalfi Coast)

My lovely friend Pavia—who founded the travel site Fathom and has a knack for finding the world’s best food—has had her fair share of excellent Italian and Italian-American meals. She characterizes lunch at Lo Scoglio as the “Best Lunch Ever,” which I couldn’t agree with more. In September of 2013, Ralph and I escaped the madness of Amalfi’s vespa-clogged streets to this quiet hidden gem where diners were casually perched at the end of a dock overlooking Nerano Bay sipping affordable local wine, forking into house specialties like linguine con cicala, spaghetti with zucchini, and copper pans of verdure miste, cooked seasonal vegetables from the family’s farm. Isn’t this exactly what people came to Amalfi for in the first place?In most restaurants that offer views, the food loses out to the views. But not here. Check out my WSJ story mentioning Lo Scoglio, or my Hollywood Reporter story mentioning Lo Scoglio. Dinner for two, $75

 

10. Marisqueria Ribeira do Miño, Madrid, Spain

For my 41st birthday in December of 2013, Ralph and I met up in Madrid with my New York friend Matt. Matt is originally from the U.K. and studied oenology at Oxford, but spent some time living in Madrid. His sense of food is impeccable and he knew all the best spots in town (and then some.) My one requirement for him for a birthday restaurant was to find an affordable but good resto without tourists. “No problem in Madrid.” said Matt leading us to a side street in gritty Chueca where a giant glass window glimmered with fresh seafood. Walking into this weathered marisqueria with 1970s turquoise walls draped in casting nets (instead of castanets) and brown tiled floors covered in dirty napkins and shellfish carcasses was like entering an Almodovar film. It’s everything I love I in a restaurant: rough-around-the-edges, crowded, mostly with locals, and a bit noisy and chaotic. This is the mark of a successful restaurant in my eyes. The locals came here to catch up with each other over glasses of Albariño, hot plates of pimientos del padrón, and heaping piles of fresh Galacian seafood: changurros (crab), shrimp, octopus, hake and sole. If you don’t like the idea of shellfish and napkins on the floor and waiters brusquely bypassing you, this place is not for you. No matter how many restaurant Trip Advisor reviews, magazine articles, and guidebooks write-ups I read, I still find it hard to locate restaurants like this. But the search is often worth it. Dinner for two, $57

 

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My Best Hotel Stays of 2013

by adam on December 29, 2013

Best Hotels of 2013

IMG_6515Amanzo’e, one of my nine favorite hotels of 2013

I stayed at 62 different hotels in 2013, ranging from $50 to $1,200 per night. My friends think I’m spoiled because I get to stay in the most luxurious hotels on the dime of someone else. But I end up paying for a lot myself too, and not all of them are luxury properties. Some are anything but. In fact, the hotels I love the most are not always the most lavish. I love value. My parents were “deeply middle class,” as an ex of mine used to say. They had money, but they couldn’t enjoy something if it was overpriced. When I worked at Sherman’s Travel, we lived by the tagline ‘Smart Luxury Value,’ a phrase conjured up by the editors of the magazine and website. We scoured the web for value and dispatched our writers and staffers to find the world’s best travel deals. We despised “aspirational travel” or #travelporn that other travel magazines relied on.

Unfortunately, ST magazine folded, but my colleagues live on in travel publishing, many in prominent positions. What most of us learned from that experience was that even the wealthiest travelers seeks out deals. CEO and founder Jim Sherman himself used to say, “Everyone loves a bargain!” Travel deals might clutter our mailboxes today, but back in 2005 they were still in their nascent age. Few publications were weighing in on what was “worth it” and infinitely more useful, what wasn’t. Today it seems like the concept of value is once again slipping away from travel media. So I wanted to weigh in personally on which hotels I loved this year. The ones that were worth it, to me personally.

So what makes a $1,200/night hotel “worth it?” The design, architecture, location, privacy, clientele, service, or the name brand? Or perhaps a combination of a few of those elements? Of course, it’s a highly individual call. For me, a combo of attentive service, a stylish, kid-free crowd and understated design makes a stay especially worth it. I also value creative and innovative methods, and tend to dislike unnecessary amenities like stuffed animals, catch phrase concepts like “barefoot luxury,” turn down services that I don’t want/need, and overly fawning service. I also value hotels that go the extra mile to be truly eco-friendly, not just the ones who tell you to hang your towel if you don’t want it washed. If you’re going to be an environmentally-friendly hotel, great, then stand by your principles and make some serious changes. There’s no punishment for hotels who make no claims to be eco and don’t—though all hotels could make small environmental improvements that go a long way. (More on this later.)

That all said, there are a few really expensive hotels on my list, and well, they’re wonderful! I wish everyone could afford to experience them, because a few have enhanced my understanding of a destination and made my trip better.

Finally, I should mention that being married to a Swiss architect can be a bit of a luxury hotel buzz kill. I’m not that easy to wow with hotels. But my Swiss architect husband Ralph is even harder to impress. In fact, he’s a total design bitch! But I love that I have his opinion on architectural corners, the use and cost of materials, landscaping solutions, and other engineering and structural elements I might not notice as a plebian travel writer. His understanding of architectural terms and concepts has taught me how to recognize cheap labor, quality and innovative design, and helped make me a better travel writer. More important, his knowledge has helped me appreciate value even more. Thanks Ralph!

Without further ado, here’s the list of my nine favorite hotels of 2013.

 

1. Amanzo’e, Greece

Rooms from $1,060

Amanzo’e was such a favorite, I included it in my Favorite Destinations of 2013. Here’s the write-up:

Sometimes hotels are the destination. This was a hard lesson for me. I believed that one should always get off the property to explore the culture. Now, in my 40s, I disagree. Hotels can be fine destinations in and of themselves. One need not try every type of local cuisine, visit every museum, and chat with locals in order to experience a destination. There’s something to be said about relaxing on property and communing with yourself and your partner and maybe even the surrounding birds and plants.  No property moved me more in 2013 than Amanzo’e, which was by turns time travel and luxurious Greek cocoon.

Neoclassical architecture doesn’t get me very excited. I recall all those dreadfully boring monuments in Washington, D.C. But Amanzo’e, designed by the great Ed Tuttle (Aman’s sort of Ghost Architect who eschews all publicity) is nestled (yes, I said nestled) atop a hill near Porto Heli on the Peloponnese coast. It’s a modernist temple of Mediterranean tranquility, three hours drive from Athens. The serene resort is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, pine forests and ancient sites like the Temple of Hera and Avgo’s St. Dimitrios Monastery. It’s become a favorite of architects, among them my Swiss architect husband Ralph who particularly loved the plunge pools and library. But it’s also a favorite of design-minded travelers who come to shut out the exterior world, like we did during our incomparable 3-night October stay. I’ve stayed at seven Amans. I adore the brand. But Amanzoe (alongside Amangiri) are my favorites. I also had a fine-tuned watsu massage (underwater) with Steve Karle that was among the best treatments I’ve ever had.

Aman’s service is unobtrusive. There are no cloying hotel soundtracks, cheesy welcome amenities like stuffed animals, iPads, or flower arrangements in sustainable wood vases whittled by handicapped local villagers. Amanzo’e is clean and clutter-free.There are no claims to save the world.  It also makes no promise to be anything but a hotel. It’s not aiming to be an eco-resort, a Design Hotel, or offer “barefoot luxury” an over-marketed buzzword I’m dubious of. Amans are what you want them to be. They are intricately sculpted shells, and invite the guest to appreciate their simplicity, integrity and grace. They require an education, but they give one too.

The luxury hotel sector is a cluttered market. They are desperate to please guests with bells and whistles, but thankfully Amans remain about discovery and the creative teams behind them opted for the blue ocean instead of the red ocean. Aman founder and CEO Adrian Zecha gets a big A+ from me for sticking to his game.

 

2. Le Royal Monceau Raffles, Paris

Rooms from $790

I’ve stayed here twice. When it first opened in 2010 then again this past spring. It’s utterly urban and luxurious. Beds feature ivory leather headboards, while oversized beveled mirrors conceal the TVs, a white monochromatic 1,500 square meter Clarins spa opened in 2012 and includes a 23-meter long pool, the longest in any Paris hotel and guests are smartly swaddled. But that’s not why I love the hotel, and the brand. I love it because it’s made a genuine commitment to art.

When it opened, Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris—designed by Philippe Starck—developed an extensive art and culture program, including a bookstore dedicated to contemporary art (La Librairie des Arts), a private cinema (Katara Cinema), a contemporary art gallery, a private collection of over 300 works of art and a contemporary Arts Concierge who knows where the best galleries and street art in her city can be found. She also scores guests tickets to hard to access blockbuster shows, like Ron Mueck at Fondation Cartier, and the Chanel No. 5 Exhibit at Palais de Tokyo. If that weren’t enough the hotel’s art gallery space—has exhibited works from Basquiat, Dennis Hopper and Michael Somoroff and Kate MccGwire.

The hotel’s two restaurants, La Cuisine 
and Italian Il Carpaccio each racked up a Michelin star after opening, but breakfast remains a standout, with Pierre Hermé’s bread basket stuffed with viennoiseries—yeast-leavened treats like flaky glazed raspberry-Ispahan rosewater croissants, sugary crunchy and moist Alsatian kugelhopf soaked in orange blossom syrup and studded with raisins, candied kouign-amann aux, and smooth and fragrant brioches and poundcakes. It’s one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had. (Note: Shangri La hotels also have seriously excellent breakfast spreads.)

3. South Place, London

Rooms from $258

I stayed here in winter 2013 during my Schengen crisis, which forced me to leave the Schengen Zone multiple times so as not to overstay. (I now have a Swiss Visa, thank you very much.)  It’s hard to find a hotel that is so playfully branded and creative about its operations. But the fresh and lively South Place is just that, while remaining serious about service and attention to details.

Opening in September of 2012, this is the first hotel project by power couple/restaurateurs D&D London who nestled this new 80-room Design Hotel on the extremities of Shoreditch, making it a go-to for well-heeled creatives and their bespectacled cohorts. Conran and Partners peppered the bright rooms with macro houndstooth loungers, leather-topped writing desks, and minibars stocked with Sipsmith dry gin, gelatin-free gummy bears, and bottles of refreshing elderflower presse. There’s also glass-sided tubs—a sexy take on the ubiquitous clawfoot.

4. Nira Alpina, Switzerland

Rooms from $220

People think five-star Swiss hotels are out of their budget, but properties here can be surprisingly affordable, especially off-season in September, an excellent month to visit, and exactly when I visited Design Hotel member Nira Alpina. The ski-in-ski out property was rebranded in 2011 by the gracious and chatty Setai Miami alum MS Puri whom I met during the visit. The property remains just 3-miles from glitzy St. Mortiz, but a hushed world apart. Each of its 70 spacious rooms features muted spruce paneling, organic cotton pillows from Swiss textilers Schwob, and balcony views of turquoise Lake Silvaplana and the light pink Alpenglühen (alpine glow) for which the Romanch-speaking Engadine Valley is famed.

But the food at Nira is a major highlight, and among the best hotel food in Switzerland, (and I’ve stayed at most of Switzerland’s five star palaces!) The casual bakery café is stocked with affordable soups, sandwiches, icing-topped cupcakes and Swiss breads like whole-wheat gipfeli (croissants) and zopf (challah), while the breakfast includes an array of Swiss preserves, nutspreads and honeys including quince, raspberry, and several juices. Dinners are knock-outs including Engadine game meat specialties with special attention paid to vegetable dishes and sides. I try hard not mention celebrity chefs in hotels, because they are seldom in the kitchen, but the young handsome chef here, Marek Wildenhain was, even during breakfast. He’s not a celebrity, yet. And I suspect his is name in food that will go far. I look forward to hearing more about him and watching the Nira brand expand.

 

6. Hotel de Nell, Paris

Rooms from $331

Sometimes location makes all the difference. While many luxury hotels in Paris are adjacent to the sirens and tourist traffic of the Champs-Élysées, this Design Hotel newcomer is nestled on the especially quiet Rue du Conservatoire in the 9th arrondissement. Everything about the hotel was understated, a trait French hotels usually fail to get right. Medium sized rooms feature triple-glazed windows, ultra-heavy 175-pound doors, wood floors topped in thick carpets, dense velvet blinds, and wood ceilings with micro-small holes to absorb noise. Prestige Rooms come with deep Japanese tubs made of marble and Oregon myrtle are a great way to enjoy the silence. The service was also especially friendly during a stay in spring 2013 and the hotel was unusually responsive to email communication. The staff recommended handful of excellent local restaurants that were not in guidebooks, and their picks were consistently spot on.

 

7. Park Hyatt, Milano

Rooms from $670

This is another hotel brand I consistently fall for. Park Hyatt Tokyo is one of my all time favorite hotels. The Park Hyatts in Shanghai and Zürich are favs too, with special attention paid to service. After my stay here in October 2013, the understated 117-room Park Hyatt Milan is a new favorite. The minute you walk inside the lobby and La Cupola, the lobby lounge bar, crowned by a 30-foot glass cupola, you feel like the executive of a highly functional company. Rooms are designed by Ed Tuttle whose work offers a graceful symmetry and can also be found at Amans in Bali, Thailand, Greece and Java. Travertine work desks, black marble edging in the bathrooms, and Murano glass fixtures and views of the Duomo give the rooms an air of Milano privilege. And privilege in Milano is an art form, and not something to scoff at.

8. Villa Magna, Madrid

Rooms from $389

I stayed here for my 41st birthday this past December and was not prepared to love it as much as I did. Turns out it used to be a Park Hyatt, but was deflagged after the completion of a major renovation in 2009. The PH attention to detail shows, but Villa Magna continues on sans brand-name as a wonderful urban hotel that’s both vintage and modern. There are Bauhaus architectural elements and Chinese screens, Louis XVI style armchairs and Empire style couch sofas, a glimmering marble lobby and a chic and sexy clientele that includes the Spanish royal family. The nine-story, 150-room granite building was born in 1972, seven months before me, and sits in Salamanca, a bit of a schlep from the tapas restaurants and bars, but definitely walkable, even after a raucous night of birthday boozing.

I sleep in a lot of super comfortable hotel beds, but VM’s fluffy soft white cotton sheet and down topped beds were especially dreamy and had me sleeping in past noon, after said birthday boozing, without a single interruption. The marble-lined bathrooms were roomy and masculine, while robes and slippers were sized for two men, not a man and a woman. This says to me that housekeeping staff really customize rooms for guests. The staff were especially intuitive and gracious, always asking if I needed restaurant recommendations or directions. The breakfast service, which often disappoints me at European hotels mired by slow breakfast service, was excellent. My coffee was waiting for me immediately after grabbing some Iberico ham at the  buffet. I’m really impressed with Villa’s Magna’s attention to detail and hope to return again soon.

9. Blythswood Square Hotel, Glasgow

Rooms from $200

There’s an organic Scottish hospitality at this property that opened in 2009. There’s also a great combination of playfulness and classic Scotch design. You know you’re in Scotland when you stay here. But what impressed me most during my January 2013 stay at this plush, hilltop Harris tweed-filled nest of tranquility was that all the hotel’s services hit especially high marks: rooms retain a masculine feel with plaids, and understated neutrals, grays, and browns accented with a pop of purple or turquoise;  in the cellar, a massive and excellent spa facility features Hebridean seaweed baths, a few heated pools, and a tranquil relaxation lounge; the Salon Bar is intimate and sexy and an ideal place for a nightcap of affordable Malbec or just a pint; breakfast buffet was lavish and local, with items like Ayrshire back bacon, haggis, Mull cheddar and smoked haddock; and service was warm and especially friendly, without being cloying. The staff sent me to some really affordable local bars and restaurants when I asked where to go. Glasgow is a city that’s kept luxury at a safe distance, but the Blysthwood Square adds an authenticity to it that really enhances your stay in Scotland.

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Where to Go in 2014

by adam on December 18, 2013

Once a year, usually in the autumn, travel writers are asked by editors what their picks and forecasts are for travel in 2014. These are usually a very news-driven projects that require us to chase new hotels, museums, tourist developments, anniversaries, and flight routes. My own list doesn’t differ, and some of the following 11 places you’ll also find on lists I contributed to at T+L, NYT, Robb Report, Endless Vacation and National Geographic Traveler for 2014.

Obviously, there are thousands of  places to travel  every year, and like all these superlatives, this is by no means a comprehensive list. These are compiled from bits and pieces of used and unused pitches and ideas. It should do nothing more than inspire you to travel. Also, I’ve tried to emphasize places with ecological, art, and scientific angles. Enjoy!

1. Space

Training for commercial travel to space has already begun with Virgin Galactic  (virgingalactic.com; from $ $250,000) and SXC, (spacexc.com; from  $95,000) both of which officially launch in 2014, and two of the most advanced in the launch plans. Training for SXC is in the Netherlands, while Virgin is using Mojave Air and Space Port and teamed up with NASA for less commercial projects. SXC will perform daily commercial flights into space, offering the chance to view Earth from 64-miles high from a specially designed spacecraft dubbed the Lynx, and built by XCOR Aerospace in Mojave. Virgin Galactic is using a different system altogether, the White Knight Two, a special plane whose hulls are fused together by a central wing, and which functions as the mother ship and launch-platform for the spacecraft SpaceShipTwo. Four additional companies are launching commercial travel to space, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, commencing in 2016.

 

2. L.A.

Los Angeles art scene was too long in the shadow of New York but a crop of new museums, renovations and arty anniversaries have firmly fixed the City of Angles on the art map. 2014 marks the 35th anniversary of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Downtown LA, founded in 1979, as the then only museum in Los Angeles devoted to contemporary art produced after 1940. MOCA celebrates with a yearlong series of special events and exhibitions including a retrospective of the late Mike Kelley who was a pivotal part of L.A.’s scene in the 1970s. (moca.org; running through July 2014.) The 25th anniversary of the Hammer Museum is not until 2015, but in 2014 the museums hosts the second “Made in LA” Biennial Exhibition featuring L.A. artists and emphasizing emerging and under-recognized talent. (hammer.ucla.edu; admission free since February 2014). In 2014 the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) shutters its Downtown location and moves to Glendale. Designed by the Shimoda Design Group, the 10,000-square-foot museum houses a permanent collection of 50 plus vintage signs, rotating exhibition spaces and a neon fabricating facility. (neonmona.org/). The most anticipated opening is Downtown LA’s new Broad Museum opening in late 2014 and designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (and located across from Disney Hall). The three-story, 120,000-square-foot museum was designed to showcase the extensive collection of contemporary art amassed by billionaire philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with owed). (thebroad.org; free). Other 2014 news include a new Ace Hotel in Downtown (acehotel.com) located in a former theater, and the long-awaited $1.7 billion re-opening of the Tom Bradley Terminal at LAX (la-next.com), which includes a few California classics like Fred Segal, Sees’s Candies, and Lamill Coffee not to mention an Umami Burger, Bulgari, and news shops sponsored by Travel + Leisure and The Economist.

Hollywood also celebrates several 100-year milestones and anniversaries in 2014. In 1914 Charlie Chaplin moved to LA, Patchwork Girl of Oz, Perils of Pauline, Keystone Cops were shot, Paramount Pictures was founded and the Los Angeles Aqueduct began delivering water from the Owens Valley launching the country’s then largest municipal water system. 2013 also saw the openings of a massive new city park/reserve Cahuenga Peak with awesome views of the Hollywood Sign, and the re-opening of the Japanese Gardens at Huntington.

 

3. Namibia

African conservation success stories are scarce, but Namibia bucked the trend with its communal conservancy movement, which pairs sustainable tourism with rural community outreach. As a result, 2013 saw Namibia’s 79 conservancies receive the prestigious WWF ‘Gift to the Earth Award’ and its Sand Sea Desert join UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Wilderness Safaris, a collection of African properties, run Desert Rhino Camp in partnership with the Save The Rhino Trust. Stays there include tracking rhinos on foot and directly support the conservancy, which has reversed dwindling rhino populations. They also plan to open the Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in 2014 on the Hoanib River in the north. To help access these and other rural areas, Namibia’s Tourism Board is launching three self-drive routes in 2014 (the Arid Eden, Omulunga Palm and Four Rivers) to divert visitors to lesser-visited corners. Air Namibia is expanding their fleet by ordering a pair of new A330s.

4. Ethiopia

Ethiopian Tourism doubled between 2011 and 2013. Upscale tour operator Cox and Kings launches a few new route to Northern and Southern Ethiopia in 2013/14. A new property Bale Mountain Lodge opened in fall November 2013. The 15-bedroom eco-safari lodge in the Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP) of south central Ethiopia where you can see rare wolves. There are a number of new 5* & 4* hotels being built in Addis, Capital Hotel & Spa – 5*, Kenenisa Hotel – 4* (is owned by one of Ethiopia’s famous runner’s, Kenenisa Bekele). Ethiopia Airlines is the biggest news. The excellent new airline just launched an brand new fleet of Boeing Dreamliners which puts the carrier in the running with 5-star Middle Eastern carriers. They are launching several new routes. There are new privately owned charter flight companies starting to emerge too, like National Airways, making many rural locations easier to get to.

5. Glasgow (Consideration for Top Ten)

I’ve already waxed poetic on what’s old in Glasgow, but visitors should also go for what’s new. 2014 sees Scottish Homecoming, possible Independence, the best online Games(Click To Find Out More) , and UNESCO Music City 2014. Two projects from Belle & Sebastian are released in late 2013/2014, an album and a feature-length film God Help The Girl produced (via Kickstarter), written, and directed by B+S lead Stuart Murdoch. Glasgow is also home to a new Zaha Hadid designed Riverside Museum (2011), but also a new 10,000+ seat arena called the Hydro (Foster & Partners) which opened in late September 2013. Other modernist projects include a new Velodrome and a Steven Holl annex at the Glasgow School of Art and the 2013 merging of two venerated institutions the Hunterian Museum and Kelvin Hall. 2014 also brings the Commonwealth Games, the Scottish referendum, which puts the future of Scotland’s sovereignty into voter’s hands, and a Visit Scotland sponsored Scottish Homecoming, modeled after Ireland’s successful tourism program inviting those with Scottish heritage and ancestry to come back “home” to explore their roots. A New Music Biennial will be featured at a showcase hosted by Glasgow UNESCO City of Music in August 2014. Gleneagles is also hosting the Ryder Cup in 2014, the first time it’s been hosted in Scotland since 1973.

6. Munich

This Bavarian city has shed its image as an old world hub of beer and begun a campaign of modernization. Why go in 2014? 2013 saw a modernist push as the Lenbachhaus Museum, renown for its collection of Blue Rider art, reopened after an extensive renovation by Norman Foster in May 2013, and the newly renovated Egyptian Museum housing one of the most important collections of Egyptian relics and art in the reopened in summer 2013. The Pinakothek der Moderne also reopened after renovations, in September 2013. The Deutsches Theater is re opening in 2014, and the Dokumentationzentrum, a history museum opens in 2014. Six affordable 4 star hotels are opening in 2013/14.

 

7. Aarhus, Denmark

Denmark’s second biggest city, Aarhus will be the European Cultural Capital in 2017, but it’s been quietly making itself a global hub of alternative energy with plans to go carbon neutral by 2030. It’s also where Copenhagen sources a lot of that New Nordic Cuisine and the home to Scandinavia’s biggest food festival. http://foodfestival.dk/en/ 2014 sees the completion of the Aarhus Docklands, a conversion of industrial space turned to car-free residential areas which includes a low-carbon residential Lighthouse—Denmark’s tallest building—a high tech library and media space, and a new light rail transit system. The Viking Museum, part of Moesgård Museum also re-opens in 2014. ARoS Kunstmuseum opened in 2004 and celebrates 10 years in 2014 with a noteworthy exhibit by light artist Tal R and a young new Norwegian director. An ongoing Sculpture by the Sea contest will be again commissioned by the Royal Danish Family in 2014. And a batch of new hotels is opening in 2014, including new highrise hotel The Comwell, which will be the largest in Aarhus.

8. Engadine Valley, Switzerland

Many know the Upper Engadine valley for its posh ski resorts in St Moritz, but the lower Engadin is a world apart. Home to Switzerland’s endangered Romansh speaking culture, this is one of the most rugged and least populated corners of Switzerland bordering Italy and Austria. Its Swiss National Park celebrates its 100th Birthday in 2014. The park, founded in 1914, is the oldest in the Alps, and will host a series of birthday events and nature lectures. Its hiking paths remain great spots to see ibexes, chamois, marmots, northern hares, lizards and innumerable birds and alpine wildflowers. It is a World UNESCO Heritage Biosphere for its diversity of Alpine wildlife, much of it on the Endangered Red List. If that weren’t enough, the Raethian Railway, also in the Engadin, is celebrating its 125th Birthday in 2014. The Glacier Express and the Bernina Express are UNESCO Heritage sites, one of three railways inscribed on UNESCO’s list of cultural sites. This is not a tourist train, but a regular SBB passenger train that runs along a steep, winding mountain track, careening and roller-coasting over dozens of stone bridges and coursing through tunnels and high over glittering rivers.

9. Andermatt, Canton Uri, Switzerland

Opening in December of 2013, Switzerland’s svelte 106-room Chedi Hotel is part of a 1.8 Billion Swiss Franc Andermatt project built over the existing bones of a former working class town at a military base atop Canton Uri’s rural and rugged Adula Alps. The development will eventually feature six resorts and connects to ski resorts, a new golf course and loads of new residential housing. The game-changing Chedi property was designed by Jean-Michel Gathy of Denniston Architects. It will be home to a ski-in living room, a Japanese restaurant, and a 2,400-square-foot spa using organic Alpienne products emphasizing Swiss folk medicine like olive oil, beeswax, and lanolin. Canton Uri is also home to the new Gotthard Base Tunnel, made up of 95 miles worth of tunnels, shafts and passages snaking underneath the Swiss Alps, which will be the longest tunnel in the world when completed in 2016. It will also cut an hour off the trip from Zurich to Milan. 

10. Yakushima, Japan

Yakushima is a remote, mountainous and UNESCO-inscribed island south of Japan’s southern mainland tip. It’s home to an ancient cedar forest with 1,200 species of moss and was the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s Shinto-and animism inspired classic Princess Mononoke. This winter I hiked to the center of the island, about 5-hours, to the “Mononoke Forest” (home to one of several famed cedar trees) and witnessed horned deer, native rhododendrons, giant ferns, birds and mushrooms. Afterwards, I snacked on Yakushima oranges and soothed my muscles with a dip in a secret oceanfront onsen (natural thermal bath), which is in an rock pool aside crashing waves and only accessible at low tide. Yakushima was inhabited by the ancient Amani people, who also colonized Okinawa, and sold the virgin cedar wood to mainland Japan. The prized, water-resistant cedar was used to build many of Kyoto’s (the then capital) temples and shrines.

Why go in 2014? The Yakushima municipal government is currently studying capping the number of daily visitors to Yakushima’s Jomon Sugi tree at 420. The island has undergone a local tourism boomlet but is adamant about finding a tourism-environmental balance to help preserve the trees and paths on the island. In 2013 Yakushima celebrates 20 years on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and remains a model of sustainable tourism. In August 2010, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd and Kagoshima prefecture signed a Zero-Emission partnership to jointly embark on the “Development of a CO2-Free Island” project to create an advanced low-carbon society on Yakushima. The partnership will primarily focus on promoting the widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) on the island and creating an environment where people can safely drive EVs and utilize renewable energy. Culturally: Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s creative anime studio, is scheduled to release two feature films in summer 2013, including the Japanese classic The Bamboo Cutter which promise to continue an environmentalist message and renew interest in Princess Mononoke.

 

11. Ecuador’s Cacao Revolucion!

Why go in 2014? Cacao was long thought to be come from the Mayan world, but an archeological discovery in 2014 found traces of processed chocolate on 5,000 year old Ecuadorian pots, changing the history and provenance of cacao as we know it. Also, the heirloom “nacional” bean was “rediscovered growing wild in Ecuador in 2012. The Ministry tourism is working on a developing an official cacao tourism network in the Amazon, jungle, highlands, and cloud forests, while local cacao companies like Pacari, whose locally harvested biodynamic organic chocolate swept the London Chocolate Awards (blind tastings among 600 entries) in October 2012 in a movement similar to the France’s Judgment of Paris that shifted the geography of quality from Europe to the New World. They won ten awards in 2012. Visitors to Ecuador can harvest and roast their own cacao over fire, then make their own chocolate at several plantations and lodges, like the newly opened Chocolate Jungle in the cloud forests of Mindo, a 20 hectare cocoa plantation with thatched jungle lofts, adjacent to the lush forest. New volunteer vacations through Travel Works allow visitors to come to Ecuador and work directly on cacao farms. Ecuador is also the world’s largest grower of high-end cocoa. Most of its cacao farms are run by families who’ve been growing it for several generations, found in the Coastal Lowlands provinces of Los Rios, Guayas, Manabi, El Oro, and Esmeraldas (though some are found on the edge of the highlands in the Amazon near Sucumbios).  Ecuador also has a series of new train opening in 2013; A new luxury line known as Tren Crucero will travel from the Andes south to the Pacific Coast over the course of a four-day /three-night journey is powered by steam and diesel locomotives. Tren del Hielo (the Ice Train) will go from Riobamba to Urbina, and the Senderos de los Ancestros (Ancestors’ Trails) train will travel from Riobamba to Colta. The Tren del Hielo route passes through an especially scenic route and its large panoramic windows allow visitors to see Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest snow-capped volcano (20,564 feet), as well as the Altar, Tungurahua and Carihuayrazo peaks. Urbina is home to a new Eco-Center where traditional agricultural activities, including cacao can be observed. The train also offers typical Ecuadorian dishes from the Andean region, even ice cream made with local cacao and ice from Andean peaks. Ecuador is consistently overshadowed by other South American destinations like Machu Pichu, the Galapagos, and the Amazon, and its Highlands are one of the world’s richest biodiversity Hot Spots with over 25,000 plants, 1,600 birds (more than double the species found in Europe), 365 mammals, and countless other forms of life still being discovered and understood.

 

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My Favorite Destinations of 2013

by adam on December 18, 2013

Ok, first up. My Favorite Places of 2013.

Favorites Places of 2013 sounds like the kind of listicle that makes you want to punch someone. What sort of bullshit ‘aspirational travel” or “travel porn” as I used to say while on staff at a now defunct magazine, could be on such a list? But of the 76 places I traveled in 2013, these 9 destinations really touched me. So much so that I’m certain I’ll return.

I made no attempt to give this list a good “geographic distribution.” The only rule for inclusion is that it’s a destination I traveled to in 2013. But the underlying criteria for such a list—favorite places— is obviously deeply personal and subterranean. What draws us to a place is often a mystery. I have a travel writer friend Anja who is the pepper to my salt, my female counterpart. We are drawn to totally different destinations. She loves warm, earthy, wild and free-spirited places like Chile, Portugal and Bombay, while I lean towards extremely clean, orderly, type-A spots—Switzerland, Scotland and Japan. During a mini writer’s retreat in Switzerland’s remote Lower Engadine Valley, she and I met and discussed this, among other topics like travel writing privilege and ennui. But what is it that attracts us to the places we love? What makes a destination lovable? And why is it so deeply personal for each of us?

On the flip side of the coin, where do our travel dislikes come from? Travel writers are condemned for not being critical enough, but we’re downright lambasted when we reveal which destinations we dislike. Where is the line between prejudice and judiciousness? In the age of twitterbullies, P.R. schilling, buzzfeeds on overrated destinations and sensitive reactions to discussions about race and place, are we even allowed to explain why or what we don’t like about a particular destination? How does a travel writer tell the truth and maintain diplomacy? Being a somewhat rootless ex-pat has made this an especially relevant issue for me. I was born in Massachusetts, but my family moved to Florida when I was 5 years old. I left for Vermont at age 18. But to this day, people (mostly New Yorkers) love to tell me how much they hate Florida. (Often during the Trayvon Martin verdict, but never during Miami Art Basel.) Someone once said to me, “At least I’m proud of where I grew up,” as if I had some sort of control over where my parents decided to settle and my pride should be fixed to that. At the time I felt ashamed, and it hurt my feelings. But I got over it. As an American, I frequently hear non-Americans say they have no desire to ever go to USA because of how commercial it is, or because of its bad politics, or because of how stupid Americans are. Europeans are the worst offenders regarding this. “There’s already so much to see in Europe,” is a popular soft rejoinder used by the more sensitized. My own list this year is very Euro-dominated, so I can’t disagree, but I often remind them that Americans use the exact same excuse as a reason to not leave America. Another friend once told me she hated rich countries, regardless of how generous they were with their wealth. “Isn’t that the same as hating poor countries?” I wondered. To me, destinations reflect their nature and people, not their GNP or politics.

I used to get defensive and angry when people said this sort of stuff to me, but now I realize that the only people more boring and ignorant than those who tell you where they “don’t want to go” are the people who specifically tell you they don’t want to visit the place you’ve come from. Fine by me if you don’t want to ever visit America or Florida or Switzerland or Brooklyn or L.A., but unless you know me well, or you’re a fellow travel writer who makes his living weighing the pros and cons of destinations and want to engage in a little shop-talk, please spare me your preconceived ideas about a place you’ve never been to. Everyone has a right to avoid somewhere because of a bad experience, but it’s crucial that we remain open-minded and respectful about destinations we haven’t been to.  There are so very many destinations I’ve been to that I deeply dislike, and like everyone, I feel a burning urge to discuss them. More often than not, I hold my tongue, because I’m not comfortable hurting people’s feelings. That said, my close friends know exactly where my least favorite places in the world are. I can’t pretend to love all destinations equally, but perhaps the real art of traveling is learning to love something about each destination you visit. Even, and maybe especially, the places you loathe.

Earlier in 2013 during a visit to Ecuador, I had a less controversial, but no less interesting  conversation with my dear friend Michael, an anthropology professor in Quito. After touring the cloud forests and trekking through the jungle for Nat Geo and WSJ stories on Ecuadorian Cacao, Michael and I had a long discussion about “Cellular Memory”, which is a theory that individual cells in the body have memory, (not just the brain). This scientific hypothesis is supported by migrating birds, moths, and butterflies who rely on instinctual and physical homing instincts. The mysterious monarch butterfly, for example, migrates to the exact same sacred grove of fir trees in Santuario de Mariposa el Rosario in Michoácan, Mexico. I witnessed this natural spectacle firsthand with another friend, John in 2009, and it remains a personal travel highlight, which I wrote about for my friend Pavia’s website Fathom. What John and I learned was surprising. It’s not the same butterfly that migrates back to the fir trees every year, but rather every fifth generation. Monarchs have short lives, about two months. Come winter, the future butterfly generations make the thousand-plus mile pilgrimage to the exact same spot their ancestors journeyed.

For Michael, cellular memory was something of a mystery. Despite looking quite European (blonde and blue eyes) and having Appalachian heritage, he was strangely drawn to pre-Colombian America cultures—Mayans, Inca, and the several indigenous cultures he works with in Ecuador. For me, cellular memory explains the allure of places where our own ancestors lived, or perhaps just the places they loved. In Scotland, (which is twice on my list of Favorite Places of 2013), I get a strong sort of homing feeling. The oatmeal, haggis and Scotch agree with me. And the landscape moves me profoundly. The combination of the two feelings is restorative. I have Scotch/Irish roots, and this is the land that shaped me, literally. It’s where my genetic DNA evolved. I get this homing feeling often in the British Isles and even parts of Northern Europe where I imagine my Celtic ancestors lived and migrated through. Many Europeans roll their eyes at this, but for those of us who grew up in the New World, “returning home” remains a powerful experience.

The conversation inspired me to dig a little deeper into my roots at Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). I’d already joined Nat Geo’s National Genographic Project by submitting swabs of spit to their lab back in 2006. It was analyzed to determine my paternal migratory DNA history and I was given access to a bunch of personalized digital maps tracing my ancestors exact migratory routes from Ethiopia to Western Europe. But I recently dispatched more spit, to a lab in Texas this time, to test the maternal line. Regardless of whether you’re male or female, the maternal line of DNA is permanently locked inside our genes, while paternal DNA mutates more over generations. So though we might carry our paternal ancestor’s names, we always carry our maternal DNA. In other words, you still carry the exact same DNA as your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother. I learned this from reading Saxons, Vikings, and Celts by Bryan Sykes, which is tediously informative but helps put a warm face on the cold science of Genetic DNA. I highly recommend having your own genes tested, especially if ancestral DNA and cellular memory interest you. One glitch, FTDNA has taken an extremely long time to get back to me about my maternal DNA. I mailed off my samples in August and am still awaiting results. It’s only supposed to take a month or two, so maybe shop around for other providers. Meanwhile I’m left wondering if I’m Portuguese, as was once rumored by my Aunt Linda? Maybe I have some Cherokee or Sioux in me? Or am I Scotch/Irish on both sides, as my freckled skin and dark brow suggests? The wait’s been annoying, but admittedly exhilarating.

Regardless of who I am and what my DNA/cells might remember, I’m not only drawn to my ancestor’s lands, but also to the “other,” which factors into my list. French Polynesia, for instance, remains one of my favorite places of 2013, and all-time. Colors exist there that can’t be found elsewhere. Unlike most travelers, I’ve never loved Italy—the tourists, the chaos, the church you have to see, and pizza you must try. Italy is constant engagement. But Napoli (which is all those things amplified) was the first city in Italy I really fell in love with. Having low (or no) expectations helped, as it often does in travel. California seduced me, as it always has. This year, Santa Barbara won me over with its affordable wine and fresh local food. You don’t get avocados like just anywhere. Ralph and I dream about buying a house here some day. But to quote Robert Louis Stevenson, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

Without further ado, here are my Favorite Places of 2013…

1. Appenzell, Switzerland

I rang in last New Year’s in my favorite Swiss canton, Appenzell, with Ralph and friends Nicola and her husband Shen. We attended Urnäsch’s bizarre (allegedly Pagan inspired) New Year’s festival called, Silvesterchlausen which is marked with three types of mummers (spirits)—good, ugly, and forest. Mummers are local dairy farmers dressed up in gorgeous (and all natural costumes. No plastic allowed!). At 5am, they begin to circle through the villages and mountain towns stopping occasionally to sing a sad haunting song, then mysteriously move on to the next without any public itinerary or schedule. They are fully masked the entire time, which adds to the secrecy. The mummers can be spotted on January 1 and again on January 18, which is the Julian Calendar New Year.

In 2013 I returned to Appenzell several times. It’s a slice of Switzerland that’s reminscent of Vermont, where I lived as a college student in the optimistic early 1990s when Pad Thai, internet, and Hilary Clinton were not yet household words. With a big splash of Twin Peaks. Appenzell is a step back in time. The landscape is not as alpine as central Switzerland, but green and hilly and marked by cows and big colorful broad-roofed barns. There is a strong cheese and beer culture, as it’s close to Germany, Liechtenstein and Austria. Yet it’s a world apart. Men wear earings, as they have for generations. There’s a Landsgemeinde, an open air cantonal assembly” that draws 3,000 citizens to the main square to vote by hand. Appenzeller music—Switzerland’s most plaintive—uses the zither and the yodel in haunting ways. This might explain why the suicide rate here is through the roof. (Switzerland’s highest concentration.) Last year Appenzell was home to one of my best meals—the (Käserahmsuppe) cheese soup, $7 and Käsekuchen (cheese pie), at Schaukaserei in Stein. Heaven! And my picture of Ebenalp’s fantastic cliff-hugging Bergasthaus Aescher got more likes on Facebook than any other travel picture of mine. But be forewarned, sleeping here is a lesson in massenlager, a terrible German invention lining-up beds side by side so that up to 20+ guests can share one room. (How can the country that invented separate duvets also invent this hideous system of sleep?) Beds at the guesthouse start at $45, and there are no showers, but it includes a hearty cheese and meat breakfast. The guesthouse is only reachable by foot (20-minutes from cable car) and built in the early 1800’s directly into the cliff. Sunsets from it are sublime. Here you can see some spectacular alpenglühen and nabelmeers (fog seas) in the autumn.

Appenzell might not boast 40-plus 4000-meter peaks, as the ski-friendly Valais does. It doesn’t offer the highest quality of life, like Zürich. There is no iconic Matterhorn to satiate tourists and it lacks the luxury hotels of St. Mortiz and Gstaad, but it’s definitely a place to go to understand an off-the-path slice of Switzerland. And every traveler should do that a little bit more.IMG_1305IMG_1269IMG_1233IMG_1217IMG_1182IMG_1170IMG_1156IMG_1149IMG_1145IMG_1144

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2. Amanzo’e, Greece

Sometimes hotels are the destination. This was a hard lesson for me. I believed that one should always get off the property to explore the culture. Now, in my 40s, I disagree. Hotels can be fine destinations in and of themselves. One need not try every type of local cuisine, visit every museum, and chat with locals in order to experience a destination. There’s something to be said about relaxing on property and communing with yourself and your partner and maybe even the surrounding birds and plants.  No property moved me more in 2013 than Amanzo’e, which was by turns time travel and luxurious Greek cocoon.

Neoclassical architecture doesn’t get me very excited. I recall all those dreadfully boring monuments in Washington, D.C. But Amanzo’e, designed by the great Ed Tuttle (Aman’s sort of Ghost Architect who eschews all publicity) is nestled (yes, I said nestled) atop a hill near Porto Heli on the Peloponnese coast. It’s a modernist temple of Mediterranean tranquility, three hours drive from Athens. The serene resort is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, pine forests and ancient sites like the Temple of Hera and Avgo’s St. Dimitrios Monastery. It’s become a favorite of architects, among them my Swiss architect husband Ralph who particularly loved the plunge pools and library. But it’s also a favorite of design-minded travelers who come to shut out the exterior world, like we did during our incomparable 3-night October stay. I’ve stayed at seven Amans. I adore the brand. But Amanzoe (alongside Amangiri) are my favorites. I also had a fine-tuned watsu massage (underwater) with Steve Karle that was among the best treatments I’ve ever had.

Aman’s service is unobtrusive. There are no cloying hotel soundtracks, cheesy welcome amenities like stuffed animals, iPads, or flower arrangements in sustainable wood vases whittled by handicapped local villagers. Amanzo’e is clean and clutter-free.There are no claims to save the world.  It also makes no promise to be anything but a hotel. It’s not aiming to be an eco-resort, a Design Hotel, or offer “barefoot luxury” an over-marketed buzzword I’m dubious of. Amans are what you want them to be. They are intricately sculpted shells, and invite the guest to appreciate their simplicity, integrity and grace. They require an education, but they give one too.

The luxury hotel sector is a cluttered market. They are desperate to please guests with bells and whistles, but thankfully Amans remain about discovery and the creative teams behind them opted for the blue ocean instead of the red ocean. Aman founder and CEO Adrian Zecha gets a big A+ from me for sticking to his game.

 

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3. Napoli

Second helpings are the true test of a destination. Naples. Yes, please! Filthy, third-world, corrupt, loud, smelly, busted, broke and belligerent, but filled with some of Europe’s best food. Napoli is a love letter to the scrappy determination of cities. Its influence on New York City is immediately evident on arrival—cracked walls scream with graffiti, trash occupies every corner, and laundry hangs from the endless sea of fire-escape balconies. The nitty gritty details are indeed gritty. But the overall image is an elegant patchwork making a modern and vibrant city worth exploring, not just during your Amalfi vacation, but instead of your Amalfi vacation. Sure, there are cabbies who will try to rip you off, as mine did in September while grinning at me in the rear view mirror; the traffic is utterly chaotic; and there are two-hour queues for 5 Euro pizza, among the best I’ve ever had, which is a lot for a New Yorker to admit. (Sorry Artichoke Pizza!) But ultimately, ramshackle Napoli is a step away from the awful American tourists who plague Italy and the Amalfi Coast. This is a subject I will expand upon in my Biggest Travel Disappointments of 2013.

I loved the patina of Napoli. The sudden random views of Vesuvius from a laundry strewn back-alley kitchen. The blue sky and way the Neapolitans dress and eat and talk and smoke and look at each other. The gestures….oh the gestures! This fun NYT article captures some of those. I could go on and on about Napoli, but think Lawrence Osborne nailed it in this recent CNT article on the city.  Instead of trying to outdo him, I will let my Napoli photos do the talking since they ones used in his story…well…uh…sucked. It’s like they forced it to resemble some sort of bleached out Amalfi golf course. Love it or hate it, those who’ve been to Napoli know that it’s anything but bland.

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4. Santa Barbara, California

One of the many things I learned about living in L.A. for a year in 2008 is that L.A. has much better food than New York City. I don’t state this as opinion. It’s a fact, people. Anyone who claims that NYC has better food is being paid to say so and/or hasn’t been to the right L.A. restaurants. NYC just has louder food. In L.A., the food is fresh. It’s grown right there in the world’s seventh largest agricultural economy. The humble avocado is the litmus test. They arrive on your plate a shade of green that you won’t find in Manhattan.

This year, I discovered that Santa Barbara has better food than L.A. Angelinos love to make fun of Santa Barbara. But I never got why. I always secretly loved it there. It’s sunny, has incredible food, (possibly  the west coast’s best), a car-free culture, a wine funk zone, and a lack of actors and d-bag Hollywood types. What’s to hate? I lived in NYC for a decade and Los Angeles for a year. They’re both great places with excellent food. But now, I’m coming out. It’s no longer a secret. Santa Barbara does it better.

You can read about my favorite SB restaurants in an forthcoming NYT story, or in my story American Riviera Renaissance that I wrote for Four Seasons magazine. But if I had to pull one restaurant from the list, it would be the Shop Café—“There wasn’t a single menu item I didn’t want to try at Shop Café, a casual go-to that opened in December 2012 and serves up fantastic slow food, fast and cheap. I tried many and loved each. Some highlights include juicy tri tips smothered in wasabi creme fraiche, melted onion marmalade, cheddar, and romaine and piled atop toasted ciabatta; the “mac on crack” topped with crumbled gorgonzola, pecans, apple and bacon; crunchy buttermilk-fried chicken on crumbly biscuits; and the signature Rolex—popular Ugandan street food made with egg and tomato wrapped in a chapatti—inspired by co-owner Chris Vigilante’s trip there.

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IMG_37115. Tahiti

Not Bora Bora, not the remote vanilla lined island of Raiatea and not Tahaa. Tahiti, French Polynesia’s main island is vastly underrated. Most visitors fly into Papetee and venture on afield, but they miss the most modern, urban and contrasting part of French Polynesia where hipster skaters, raw tuna-hawking Roulettes, women with plastic flowers in their hair, and wind bent palms paint a picture  Gaugin would salivate over. See also My Best Meals of 2013.

You haven’t seen all the colors of the world until you’ve been to French Polynesia. Color takes on new meaning in the chain of 118 islands that scatter from Manuae to Mangaravea, covering the size of Europe over the placid and sapphire South Pacific. The ocean may be famously “gin-clear”, but it’s home to a flamboyant universe of creatures you’ll see during casual offshore snorkels. The sky is a million shades of color from bruised peach to smudged ink. And a lush green flora seals it all together. Credit for this work of art goes to the ancient god Ta’aroa, who, according to Polynesian creation myth, made the rocks, sand and mountains from the shell he came from, filled the rivers and oceans with his tears and painted the rainbow with his blood. To put it in more modern words of a friend who recently visited, “I felt like I woke up in a screensaver.”

Many visitors to French Polynesia make the mistake of spending 14-hours flying to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti island and home to its international airport, then promptly departing to overwater-bungalows on islands like Bora Bora, Moorea, and Raiatea. This contrarian circuit was established by Gauguin when he returned to Papeete for a second visit in 1891 and beelined for the Marquesas claiming that European influence had destroyed Tahiti’s charm. But the main island of Tahiti is no shrinking violet. It’s full of charm, both in the city of Papeete and in its remote and fragrant corners where the infinity of colors can be yours for a fraction of the price you’ll pay in other French Polynesia destinations.

 

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6. Shetland, Scotland

The least Scottish part of Scotland, in some ways. The blustery Atlantic chains of  islands shares a deep connection to Scandinavia as evidenced by the sing-songy accent spoken there. I spend four nights in Lerwick, a  fiddle destination, but also a fantastic place to wander neolithic ruins, explore the sloping hills, birdwatch, eat cod, and clear my mind. I think my photos captured Shetland particularly well, so will let them do the talking.

 

7. Offen Pass/Monastery Valley from Italy to Switzerland

They say it’s the journey not the destination.  I dispute this a lot, but there’s always one particular journey I make, often by car, that has a deep long lasting affect on me. This year it was a return 4-hour road trip from Süd Tirol’s bulbous Dolomites to Zürich via the scenic Offen Pass and Monastery Valley that connect Switzerland to Italy. I did the drive with my husband after visiting some relatives in Suiss Alp.

The first highlight of the return was stopping in an Italian grocery before coming home. We pillaged Merano’s CC Amort grocery store, bagging some smoked ricotta, wine, speck, squash blossoms, jogurt butter, peaches, plums, amazing strawberries and lots and lots of dried beans and seeds, chestnut flour, mulberry mustard and artichoke pesto. I’m seldom as happy as I am when I’m in a car full of wonderful groceries. But then driving home, Ralph and I discovered what seemed like a secret forgotten mountain pass in Glorenz and the Monastery Valley. It was insanely picturesque, replete with Alpine monasteries and wildflower strewn meadows. The pass was somewhat abandoned after a Car/Passenger train was built to cross the same valley, diverting road traffic onto the train. We ascended up the 2,500 meter high Offen Pass, which slowly and gracefully winds down to the rugged, rocky, green and gorgeous Lower Engadine Valley in Switzerland, bypassing ancient walls, Celtic walking routes, cows, daring bicyclists and an eerie and pleasant European emptiness that could only be found atop these mountains.

I’m no stranger to Swiss mountain passes. I’ve written about hiking and biking them for the NYT, the WSJ, Newsday, Four Seasons magazine and a forthcoming article about Canton Uri on BBC Travel. But none of those passes were as remarkable as the Offen, where the evening August light was so delicate it felt like it might shatter into a million pieces. This was also my first glimpse of the Lower Engadine, more rugged and beautiful than the Upper Engadine. This is  home to Switzerland’s National Park, celebrating its 100th birthday next year, and where forests are untouched and entirely unmanaged. Not easy to find in Europe. (See my Where to Go in 2014)

 

 

8. Glasgow

You don’t get a chance to write about what’s not new in a city, but my fantastic NYT editor wanted just that for Glasgow after I pitched her a contrarian idea involving the consequences of Scottish starchitecture in a city know for its rough and tumble. I love Glasgow. I traveled there twice in 2013 and could easily go back for an extended stay. For those who’ve only been to Edinburgh, Glasgow is quite opposite. While there, I met one of my favorite musicians, Stuart Murdoch, lead singer of Belle and Sebastian who talked about his upcoming film Gold Help The Girl and discovering Old Glasgow which got me thinking about cities and what’s cool about them. An old quote I used in a story once is:  “What is ‘cool’ in a city tends to be something that has remained unnoticed, right in front of you, that has an authentic life of its own, and not the hip new hotness that invariably vanishes as fast as it appeared.” Stephan Crasneanscki, founder of Soundwalk Audio Guide company. Stephen is spot on. 99.9% of travel writing feeds directly into multi billion dollar tourism development plans and invested in by right wing banking executives and corporate evils that continue to make the rich richer. Sometimes, I’m tired of chasing new luxury hotels, starchitecture museums, and development projects that claim to add new life. I will always have to chase these stories a little, as travel magazines are fed by travel news, but I think magazines should take a good long hard look at their business models and try to find other ways to monetize travel writing.

Glasgow is the epicenter of unnoticed. It’s been Scotland’s stepchild for centuries, yet it’s home to a funny sort of inbred culture (in the good way) that is introspective and localized. It’s music scene gets lots of play, but the city itself, its restaurants, bars, museums and parks, are vastly underrated. It feels as if most Glaswegians have no idea what the appeal of their city might be.

Also, my cellular memory kicks in hardcore in Glasgow. I have no historical record of any ancestor living there, but there’s something quite familiar about its customs. See also my Best Meals of 2013, and Where to Go in 2014.

 

9. Paris

I’ve been to Paris 20 some odd times. I visited three times in 2013. During those visits, I enjoyed art—exhibits on street art, Coco Chanel and Ron Mueck but it was not they year’s best art (see my Departures and Four Seasons articles on Art Basel). I ate great meals— raspberry-Ispahan rosewater croissants at Pierre Hermé, and fresh shucked oysters at Le Baron Rouge— but they were not among my best meals of 2013. (Ralph even mistakenly ordered a veal head one night at Le Bon Bock after seeing the Postal Service concert. Where else but Paris…) And I stayed at fabulous new hotels, which were the best. Two Parisian hotels stood out in 2013: Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris and Hotel de Nell, a member of the Design Hotels. But the latter was a real underated favorite. (See Best Hotels on 2013)

But what Paris does best is mood. To quote an old ex-boyfriend, “The city is a tableaux.” Paris is a series of moods interconnected through architecture. Walking its streets and neighborhoods and plazas is like being in a wonderfully cinematic movie, one you watch repeatedly over the course of your life, each time discovering new things.

It’s a bit of a cliché for an American to love Paris so much. But I like to think I love it for different reasons. Paris satiates my craving for New York. Few cities in the world have the sheer diversity of people, and Paris (along with London, Hong Kong and New York) offers this flavor. What still surprises me is that most tourists who come (even most European tourists) stick to La Tour Eiffal, Champs-Élysées, and maybe venture into a few neighborhoods like the Marais, Canal St Martin, and Montmartre. But if you’re not going to other parts of Paris, La Butte aux Caille, the African Goutte D’or in the 18th, Marche Charonne straddling the 11th and 20th,  you’re really missing out on what the city has to offer as a whole. Going to Paris for classic French food is like going to New York City for a turkey dinner. The various cultural and culinary hybrids, fusions, and mash-ups are infinitely more interesting and unique to this city. Paris is not solely about fashion, food, or art. Paris is about authentic expression, and those who follow a beaten path to its written-about bistros and neighborhoods are doomed to play supporting roles on the small screen instead of living immortally in the rich celluloid.

I can never seem to capture Paris on film without feeling like some Rosseau-postcard loving college sophomore. Or maybe I’ve exhausted my inner Parisian flâneur. Or perhaps Paris is better experienced in real life, not through a lens, so I’m more keen to put down my Cannon. Most cities are better in abstract form, but Paris is delicious realism. And after all these visits, the charm and earthiness of the city continue to move me.

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2013 Year End Report

by adam on December 18, 2013

2013 was a big year for me personally. I got married, changed my country of residence, shipped 28 boxes of my belongings from L.A. to Zürich and quit Twitter. These are Adam H. Graham’s Personal Highlights of 2013 according to Facebook gaming. Not bad for a computer, right? What the almighty Book didn’t seem to detect were the global issues, travel destinations and experiences that touched me deeply. Can metrics, SEO formulas, Likes, and RTs account for that? I’m no technophobe, but I don’t believe a server can interpret that sort of stuff. At least not yet.

I write about travel for a living. I prefer narrative travel stories, but a lot of travel writing is served up in list form, so, I often rank hotels and destinations in categories as cutting edge as Top Power Breakfast Spots and profound as Memorable Hotel Arrivals. These listicles are not winning any awards, but they are a decent way to get ideas across.  So rather than try to crucify the format, I thought it was time to write my own more personalized and uncensored listicles. So I turned down the last four travel assignments I was offered so that I could make time to add these online games with Overwatchsrpros to my blog during the next few weeks. Think of them as my transparent annual Year End Report. They are tallied from my experiences in 2013. They are: My Favorite Destinations of 2013, Best Hotel Stays of 2013, Best Meals of 2013, Where to Go in 2014 and last but not least,  Biggest Travel Disappointments of 2013. These lists are not necessarily newsy, objective, or balanced. They are not fit for an audience determined by an algorithm. These are my personal opinions and views. And since I’ve been travel writing for over ten years now, I hope you’ll find them relevant and helpful.

2013 has been a year of soul-searching for me and many other travel writers.  Travel, it turns out, is not just some sort of innocuous, do-gooder niche industry that helps people find themselves spiritually, relax on a beach and become better soccer moms and bankers. We all know that the travel itself has a massive environmental cost. But all that soul-enriching, detoxing, and “reawakening” as a wildly popular recent NYT Modern Love called it, is a huge ecological incidental. Like all industries, the travel industry (and it is an industry—generating some $6.5 trillion a year according to 2013’s Best Selling Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker), has its fair share of politics, favors, back-scratching and dirty deeds. Becker asserts that tourism ranks among oil, energy, LoL finance and agriculture industries in terms of corporate power and greed. The costs of travel are serious.

I’m reminded of a popular magazine tagline “Truth in travel,” which suggests a certain editorial and journalistic integrity, but also illustrates a need for overall travel regulation. Most travel insiders are dubious of this tagline’s claim, and might tell you that ‘truth in travel’ is all relative. The most jaded of them would add that the phrase is equivalent to “Truth in Oil,” or “Truth in Politics.” It’s almost an oxymoron. Regardless of its meaning, I think the phrase is aimed at the wrong people. The corporations within the industry need better regulation, not just the people who write about it (though I can think of a few travel writers/editors who need permanent “regulation”).

What’s fascinating and really noteworthy here is that travelers and readers of travel writing expect more “truth in travel” than they do of truth in other industries…banking and politics included! Why? Because travel promises an awakening and a spirituality that one can’t achieve by voting for a senator, depositing a check, or even doing downward dog at the neighborhood yoga studio. Travel is the ultimate nirvana. The antidote to the everyday. The alleged enemy of busy. Travel claims to be transformative and prophetic and nobody more than those of us on the industry’s inside shout it louder. Whether it’s a false prophet remains to be seen. Are the days of equating truth with travel over? Let’s hope not. But it’s time for hoteliers, restaurateurs, tourists, honeymooners, and writers and editors of travel magazines, guidebooks, blogs and newspapers to start being more truthful about travel, both with ourselves and with others. To be clear, I don’t mean who pays for what. I mean being accountable on an environmental level for what happens while “there.”  Let’s face it. What happens in Vegas, does not stay in Vegas. It never did.

In another important book I read in 2013, How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee, I learned more about the specific metrics behind travel’s carbon footprint. Flying roundtrip from L.A. to Barcelona burns around 3.4 tons of CO2. Quadruple that if you fly business class. Berners-Lee suggests that the ideal carbon lifestyle uses 10 tons of CO2 per year, so three of these flights (in economy) are a whole year’s worth of 10-ton Carbon Living. For those who need a more tangible picture, 3.4 tons of CO2 is equivalent to 1 ton of fertilizer, or 340,000 plastic bags, or having one child. The news worsens. The burnt fuel to power airplanes is three times worse for the environment than the fuel used on the ground. So for frequent flyers like myself who pride themselves on not driving SUVs, this is not good. Flying is one of the worst things you can do ecologically. (This does not excuse SUV drivers!) In the book, Berners-Lee meticulously tallies the carbon footprint of everything from a tomato and a text message to a night in a hotel and Christmas excess, to the world’s data centers and a war. He also takes on some environmental arguments surrounding disposable diapers, bicycles, burgers, and synthetic fibers that make for interesting contrarian reading. More important, he shows us how to cut down. No brainers like simply turning off the lights remain one of the most impactful things you can do to significantly reduce. A 100-Watt bulb produces 1,100 pounds of CO2 per year. Leaving the lights on when you exit a room is “the cheapest way to trash the planet,” he says. Hotel rooms count! So do smart energy bulbs league of legends. Just don’t use something when you’re not there to really use it. Simple.

I try hard to keep a low carbon footprint. I don’t drive a car, I don’t have kids or pets, I recycle, reduce, reuse, compost, eschew waste, and live in Switzerland, one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. (In Zürich, bikes are the norm, the lake-water is drinkable, we have a new city-wide compost system, and our garbage costs are based on our personal output. Why isn’t the rest of the developed world doing this?) Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone, I’m a consumer and part of the problem. I consider myself an environmentalist, but in 2013 I traveled to and in 18 countries (including my home of Switzerland). I visited 76 destinations on 91 separate trips and accrued 96,117 air miles, which is just under 25 tons of CO2. That’s absolutely terrible! Is there another way to do this job or must I consider changing careers? I don’t know. It costs me $189.43 to offset it at www.carbonfund.org, but I hope there are soon more creative ways to offset. Throwing money at your lifestyle’s wasteful habits seems ultimately hollow. The ancient Greeks had a word for it: iatrogenic, which means sicknesses you get from visiting the doctor. I’m not an environmental scientist, but throwing money at any sort of fund when you continue to lead a wasteful life just seems to perpetuate the problems.

My 2014 resolution is to decrease my consumption and advocate for more positive environmental change, starting by taking my own industry to task and revealing some of the terrible “Green-Washing” going on among hotels. I’m calling out two individual luxury hotels I visited this year in my Biggest Travel Disappointments of 2013 post. It’s time for travelers and hospitality executives to stop letting Green-Washing run amuck. We don’t let big corporate petro and ag companies get away with destroying the planet, so why do hotels get off the hook? When we fly 10K miles to stay at them and crank up the A/C, leave the lights on, and waste food, we create a demand that adds to this cycle. Vacation shouldn’t be a time when you relax your green principles, it should be the time when you strengthen them. If you’ve flown somewhere for vacation, that’s reason enough to be extra vigilant. And if you appreciate the clean beaches, forests and parks of the world you’re flying to, perhaps you should do something substantial to help preserve it. Hanging your towel on the ‘Don’t Wash’ hook doesn’t count. Turning off the lights and a/c when you’re not in the room, or eating less meat and air-cargo food does! Thinking about how and where you go, and who you go with is even better. Do the kids and pets really need to join you at the new Aman Resort in Vietnam? No, they don’t. Nobody but you wants them there. Get a sitter!

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I don’t foresee travel decreasing in the coming years, but I hope we can all make small changes and big improvements to the industry. One needn’t entirely quit eating meat, using a/c or traveling to far flung exotic luxury hotels. We just all need to start examining the ramifications more, and then probably cut down little to start. We’re allowed to still love traveling and I encourage everyone to ditch the iPhone and status updates for a week and get lost in the sensorial and magnificent planet we still physically live on! Though some friends and family say I’m a jaded traveler, I’ve loved doing just that in 2013 and in the process discovered some wonderful places that touched me deeply. Reawakened me even. And I hope those places will be around long after the Re-Tweets have silenced and the algorithms have conked out.

Thanks for reading,

Adam

PS: Stay tuned for my Travel Listicles….

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Update

by adam on May 2, 2013

Ok. Mercy. Writing a blog takes a certain discipline that, it turns out, I don’t have. That’s not to say I’m bad at managing my time as a freelance writer. I’m pretty good at that, if I do say so myself, and busy typing and writing for other magazines who pay me. But this nonpaying photo blog-like ambition of mine constantly gets pushed to the back burner.

Rather than try to catch you up month-by-month, I hereby give you this mega-post on where I’ve been since the last posting in October of 2012. It’s been an especially busy winter and spring for me. One assignment alone took me on a memorable 3-week spin around the world with stops in L.A., Hawaii, Bora Bora, Sydney, Uluru, Bali, Chaing Mai, Bombay, Agra, Budapest and London. In addition to that insanely epic journey, I’ve embarked on dozens of other trips, including cozy Swiss weekends in Davos, Basel, and Appenzell; short (and at times, Schengen Visa forced) hops to Paris, Milan, Baku, Norway, London, Munich, Amsterdam, Glasgow, and Stuttgart; I visited three distinct corners of my native U.S.A on three separate trips since October 2012—N.Y.C., Miami, and L.A. with side trips to Philly, Orlando, Ponce Inlet, FL, Georgia, and utterly gorgeous, green, compelling, and ever-changing Santa Barbara. I’ve endured massive long haul journeys to China (Shanghai, Beijing and Guanzhou), Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Chiba, Karuizawa, Aso, and Yakushima), Ecuador (Quito Quevedo, Mashpi, Pappalacta, and Santa Rita, and I head to Tahiti next week, which is my last big trip of the season. Did I forget and/or misspell anything? Probably.

If all of that weren’t enough, I somehow managed to turn 40, get married, and move/change my legal residency from the U.S. to Switzerland too. For anyone who thinks this job is an endless vacation, think again. 2012/13 was the most difficult, expensive, cathartic and life-changing year of my life. But also its most rewarding! I’ve met so many fascinating people along the way, made some really fantastic new friends, and fallen in love with a whole new crop of destinations. “Don’t you get tired of traveling?” people often ask me. I usually reply yes, and even kvetch a little about the personal sacrifices we travel writers have to make just to make the askers of such questions feel less crummy about their pent-up cubicle jobs. But the real answer is “Never! I love my job more than ever!” It may not be an endless vacation, but it is an endless education and my pre-conceived notions about people and places are constantly evolving, being challenged and shaped and reshaped and then reshaped again. I’m 40 now and I’ve traveled to about 70 countries in 40 years, but I feel like I’ve only begun to see the world. It’s all been a mere flirt. I’m now ready for a second date.

All that said, I’m really looking forward to a summer of staying put here in Europe and hiking, bird-watching, and wildflower admiring its pristine mountains, doing some vineyard e-biking, and swimming in every body of crystal clear water I can find. Maybe I’ll even have time to update this thing. But don’t hold your breath.

Below are some photo highlights of the past eight months. Thanks for reading! —Adam

 

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Ponce Light, Ponce Inlet, Florida—where I grew up.

 

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Married at 40! Picked up rings in N.Y.C. in November, and got hitched to Ralph Meury in Zürich in February 2013.

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Secret tour of Ai Weiwei’s massive bike scupture in Beijing, October 2012

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Beijing

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I thought it would be overrated but it’s not! The Taj Mahal lives up to its reputation as a spectacular must-see piece of art. October 2012

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Chaing Mai, October 2012

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One of my top five meals of 2012: The Indonesian Bento Box at the Four Seasons, Bali Sayan, Indonesia. What’s in it? Bubur ayam is a creamy but stiff, congee-like rice porridge. It is golden, flecked with ginger, and topped with shredded chicken, chilli, crispy shallots, soy and spring onions. Beside it comes a box of palate-cooling, acar-pickled cucumber; red chilli; and shallots, all sweetened with simple syrup. All of these things are ideal for folding into the smooth bubur ayam.

Also on display is a nest of mocha-coloured egg noodles and vegetables wok-fried in sesame oil. This is Indonesia’s iconic dish called mie goreng. It is ubiquitous and delicious. Another box holds a small stack of krupuk, slightly greasy shrimp crackers, which soften the sting of Bali’s bracingly hot chillies. If your mouth is still aflame, as mine was, cool it off with a toothsome trio of fried banana chunks oozing out of a crispy cake-and-rice-flour shell. No spices, no fancy menu adjectives or haughty concepts to describe it, just the deep, sweet flavour of hand-peeled bananas.

Other standouts of the last 8 months include meals in Bora Bora, Sydney, Chaing Mai, Milan, Beijing, Tokyo, Zurich, Glasgow, Santa Barbara, and Paris. Sorry NYC.

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Sydney’s new world open-minded culture surpised me. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.

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It’s hard not to love Bora Bora, but the experience was much more sensual than I thought it would be. Those blazing sky and sea colors are seared into my brain for life.

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After hiking around the Alps of Vierwaldstättersee for a few years, I finally plunged into its icy turquoise waters.

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I’m pretty nomadic, and not exactly sure what terms like “home” and “homesick” mean. But a April 2013 stay in my former homestate of California elicited serious pangs of homesickness. Here, Santa Barbara offs up some of its best elements: poppies, eucalyptus tree shade, sunshine and a pool.

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Oh those tall lanky California palm trees. A bungalow gets some leafy banana shade at Santa Barbara’s newly refubished El Encanto.

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A favorite L.A. spot and where Rebel Without a Cause was filmed: Griffith Observatory. It never gets old up there for me. “Once you been up there you know you’ve been someplace.” —Jim Stark (James Dean) in Rebel

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While hiking to the Life Center at the newly opened Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador in April 2013, this orphaned ocelot showed up trailside and stole our hearts.

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In the lush misty cloud forests an hour outside of Quito, this quiet affordable property, Pappalacta Termas, offers a series of tranquil and natural hot baths where I experienced an especially violet twilight.

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A decrepit and forlorn graveyard en route to Sheki, Azerbaijan.

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I’ve seen three Zaha Hadid projects this year— in Glasgow, Guanzhou and Baku. The Baku project is by far my favorite and the most incredible of the three.

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Aurora Borealis electrifies the black Nordic sky aboard Hurtigruten’s new Chasing the Northern Lights excursion that traverses north up the icy coast of Norway.

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This little chocotale shop is hidden on a side street behind Munich’s Viktuelmarkt. It’s called Sama Sama and is home to many intricate and beautiful pastel flower-fondant adorned chocolates.

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My then-new husband Ralph burning off calories from our rich boozey lunch at La Loteria (one of our absolute favorite hidden gem restuarants) and also chanelling Tilda Swinton in the incredible film I Am Love atop Milano’s fantastic, surreal and only-in-Italy Duomo. “Happy is a word that makes one sad,” quote from I Am Love.

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Duomo. Spendid. Italy.

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My favorite corner of Switzerland is Appenzell and Appenzell’s Silvesterchlausen is a most unusual and bizarre New Year’s Eve Pagan based ritual. Pictured is a “mummer” and mummers come in three different flavors, nature, good, and bad. They wander around the town of Urnäsch and sing and yodel and chant all night and day. The experience is eerie and beautiful and sad. All the mummers’ costumes are made entirely from natural resources, so there are no leftover plastic beads and glitter. The only thing worse than a festival is festival detritus.

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You have to turn 40 somewhere. I chose that somewhere to be Kyoto after finishing a few assignments in Japan this past December 2012. Ralph and I were joined by my friends Niels and Andrin (from Zurich) and Alicia and Matt (from Shanghai) and we all celebrated my big 40 in true Japanese style by visiting the moss temple (pictured), eating our hearts out, hiking through a bamboo grove and onsening in the buff. Japan is one of my favorite spots on the planet and radically different from any other place I’ve been. I hope to go back soon.

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Kyoto

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Kyoto

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Hiking Japan’s ancient cedar forest on Yakushima Island, the inspriation behind Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, was amazing. Unfortunately, I got really sick and really put the yak into Yakushima, so didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I should have. “In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts who owed their allegiances to the Great Forest Spirit. For those were the days of gods and of demons…” from Princess Mononoke

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Ibusuki, Japan: Home to the famed hot volcanic sand baths.

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Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

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One of the many perks of my job: cuddling with baby tigers in Chaing Mai.

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Skiing with Niels, Andrin and Ralph in Davos, February 2013. I already knew how to ski, but it turns out, skiing is like dancing. You just have to let your body lean and give way to the inertia and gravity.

 

 

 

 

 

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Around The World

by adam on October 4, 2012

Pleae follow me on my Around The World assignment from Sept 29- Oct 22.

http://magazine.fourseasons.com/around-the-world-by-private-jet/adam

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Butterflies, Michoacán, Mexico

by adam on September 7, 2012

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Therme Vals, Switzerland

by adam on September 7, 2012

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