The past year was a busy one for our Travel writers. Here, they go through their personal globetrotting highlights of 2013, from the unique sights of Cuba and James Bond-worthy landscapes in Thailand to pilgrims in India and Eastern European colour.
Ticking off the bucket lists: 2013 in travel
“Magical” is one of the most overused, meaningless words in the undisciplined world of travel clichés, but somehow, the central squares of the Kathmandu Valley, and Dwarika’s Hotel, which provides an Asian Oxbridge style of accommodation between the airport and the city centre, still live up to the word, despite having been on the trail of both backpackers and the well-heeled for decades. I had the luxury of three different, knowledgeable local guides who took me to the most interesting and attractive sights, including the outlying temples of Pashupatinath and Bodnath, particularly atmospheric at dusk when candles are lit and the giant white stupa is circumnavigated by Tibetan monks ringing bells and swinging rounds of incense. The temple is encircled by a historic crescent of buildings housing shops, cafes, restaurants and guesthouses.
Mozambique, where I went in June, had an exhilarating combination of small-scale, luxury accommodation and exciting location. Islands with not just great snorkelling but fresh, spicy seafood, towering sand dunes, crocodile lakes and an authentic local population, plus a safe, historic and manageable capital city, made for a great adventure. Some people call this the “new Zanzibar” – I haven’t been to the old one, but I think that they might be right.
More firmly on the tourist radar, but a new route for Emirates, is Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, which is just a 5.5-hour flight away from Dubai and fields an impressive ensemble of serious culture. Most notably, as home of the Nobel Prize, it boasts cutting-edge contemporary photography and modern domestic design, as well as impressive scenery, history and visitability (its central islands are easily walked around; outlying ones are connected by regular boat services).
Belgrade, the Serbian capital, now served by a direct route with Emirates, had been on my bucket list since 1999, but it took an actual visit to bring home the depth of intellectual culture, the genuineness and generosity of people towards foreigners and the surprisingly energising sense of raw history. On a sunny day in the city centre, I found shockingly hip cafe culture reminiscent of Beirut; one evening, as a storm blew in and leaves fell from trees in a street of historic apartment blocks, I felt like I was in Paris.
Ecuador is seeking to woo more visitors beyond the Galápagos Islands and the May launch of its upmarket “Tren Crucero” or Cruise Train (www.ecuadorbytrain.com) was notable. Travelling between Quito in the Andes and Guayaquil near the Pacific coast, millions of dollars have been spent restoring and rehabilitating the old railway. The challenging “Devil’s Nose” stretch of the line in the Chanchan Valley is particularly memorable.
In southern Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains, I spent a week looking at the restoration of a handful of ancient, fortified Berber granaries. There’s some stunning scenery in this relatively little-visited part of the country and these decaying fortresses are a distinctive part of the national heritage. Restoration will hopefully ensure its long-term preservation and perhaps coax a few more visitors.
In Ladakh in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, The Ultimate Travelling Camp (www.tutc.com) – a new luxury summer camp near Leh – brings scope for more high-end tourism in one of the Himalayas’ most beautiful regions. Superb guiding, remarkable food and a range of activities complement some terrific sights in the Indus Valley region.
On my last day in Cuba, my passport was stolen. With embassies closed for Easter, emergency travel documents were off-limits for nearly a week. I’d already stayed at La Gaubina stud farm, a hilltop breeding ground for quality pinto and Appaloosa horses used by gaucho farmers. I’d ridden through the north-western sierra, stopping to visit tobacco farms and villages. Now I had time to check into homestays in Havana Viejo (Old Havana), visit the Hemingway house on the outskirts of the city and rent a Chinese car to drive the empty highway to the town of Trinidad, the heart of slave- and sugar-trading in the colonial era. Be warned: Havana’s waterways are dredged and waiting for the American cruise ships that will queue up as soon as the Castros go. For Cuba purists, the only time is now.
It’s a tale of two road trips. The first was a loop of New Zealand’s North Island – generally regarded as the less interesting and less scenic of the two. Well, it sure ain’t ugly. Over three weeks, senses of freedom, peace and wonder jostled for primacy as adventures stacked up. Floating on inner tubes through the glow-worm-lit caves of Waitomo, black-sand west-coast beaches, the Art Deco city of Napier and trekking through Lord of the Rings territory on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing all stick vividly in the memory.
The second was through the US south-west, where the grand red-rock set pieces of the Zion National Park in Utah and Monument Valley in Arizona gave way to the unexpectedly mountainous New Mexico. It became an object lesson in allocating the time to take the scenic route – every back road was a mesmerising mix of cliff-hugging tarmac, soaring pine forests, endless rolling dunes and old mining villages that had been happily colonised by hippies.
Location, location, location: it’s still the most important element in a hotel, because it’s the one thing that you can’t duplicate at home. I’ve stayed at one excellent place after another this year and I realise what linked them – apart from comfort, convenience, good food and service and a plug near the bed for phone charging – were their wonderful views. Favourites? Amangiri in Utah, where the beautiful concrete-brutalist rooms look onto a landscape of 300-million-year-old rocks. The Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas (the neon views are fun only by night, there, though). The hilltop Cavalieri, Rome, where at dawn I saw the city bathed in a purple-and-gold light that I’ve seen nowhere else. Hong Kong’s Four Seasons: by day, I gazed over the world’s most photogenic harbour from the infinity pool; by night, from a massage bed in the glass-walled spa. In the Austrian Tyrol, the fantastic Parkhotel Igls spa hotel overlooking Innsbruck. And the new COMO hotel, the hilltop Point Yamu, Phuket, with 360-degree views over Phang Nga Bay, made famous by the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Total heaven, each one.
I’d first seen TV images of India’s Maha Kumbh Mela festival way back in the early 1990s. The sight of this mass Hindu pilgrimage, when millions of Indians descend on the city of Allahabad to wash away a lifetime of sins at the point where the Ganges, Yamuna and the Sarasvati rivers all meet, had stuck with me and I vowed to one day be a part of it. While the Kumbh Mela occurs once every three years, in a different place, the Maha Kumbh Mela occurs only once every 12 years. I missed the last one, but I was determined to make it in 2013. So, what will I remember most from it? Watching hundreds of naked, ash-smeared naga sadhus (holy men) making their way to the Ganges in the predawn light? The giant, tented “courts” of India’s most famous gurus? Gasping at the feats of self-immolation practised by some sadhus? No, for me it was the sheer sense of comradeship among the millions of ordinary people who’d come to Allahabad that will stay with me.
This has been a fantastic travel year of bucket-list blockbusters and slow-burn regional charmers. The latter included Istria, northern Croatia: an emerging foodie hot spot with more than 110 small-scale wineries springing up across the region. It was a pleasure to cycle and sample along the new network of cycle paths. I was similarly thrilled (and at times frankly terrified) driving the beautiful coastal highways and switchback mountain roads criss-crossing the Peloponnese: from Greece’s olive-rich Kalamata, up to ancient Olympia, all the way to Athens.
It’s strange how an ancient civilisation can be a new tourist destination, but that’s certainly true of China. During my visit to Chengdu, I developed a taste for local, tongue-numbing Sichuan cuisine, even as I melted at the sight of 14 newborn panda cubs at the world-renowned Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. But the highlight of 2013 had to be my six-hour night drive from Akureyri in far-north Iceland, south to Reykjavik: the sky above boiling and billowing with the outlandish Northern Lights. I can only hope that my travels in 2014 are as exciting.
This year’s travel highlight came in the form of a pleasant surprise hidden behind seemingly grim facial expressions and colourful regeneration disguised by historic walls of war, communism and invasion. Eastern Europe had never been on the top of my travel hit list until 2013. In the last 18 months, the UAE has opened up short-haul routes to the likes of Ukraine, Georgia, Macedonia and Moldova. Yet my predisposition that the infrastructure would be a sea of grey leftovers from the partial Soviet-era destruction was overwhelmingly proved wrong. The Black Sea is also surrounded by coastal eastern European cities such as Odessa, which, in stark contrast to the inland cities, is like a sun-filled Spanish beach town. My taster of Eastern Europe has left me with nothing but an appetite to learn more about its history and explore more of the region, with the convenient knowledge that a Mediterranean-style beach holiday or a fascinating walking tour rich with a colourful history and architecture is a few hours away.
It lasted mere moments, but it’s a scene that has replayed in my mind ever since. The thunderous stampede of wildebeest in their hundreds was spectacle enough, but the sudden sight of a sprinting lioness hot on their hooves, a flash of gold against the green Kenyan hillside, had me gripped. What followed – a pounce, a haze of dust and death – wasn’t exactly heartwarming but it proved to be among the most memorable few seconds that I’ve had this year.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have several travel highlights in 2013. Hiking around one of the world’s largest volcanic craters in the Galápagos Islands being one. Learning to sail in the Grenadines and riding the Orient-Express through Thailand were others. The biggest of all, however, took place at the very beginning of the year when I fulfilled my lifelong dream of setting foot on Antarctica. The sight of mountainous bays peppered with penguins, whales and cathedrals of ice will remain with me forever.
I will remember 2013 as a vintage year: three visits to the Indian Ocean, my first visits to Berlin and to the famous La Mamounia in Marrakech, a two-week fast in the Buchinger Clinic on Lake Constance near Zurich and a family ski trip to an old favourite, La Ferme de Montagne in Les Gets. The jewel, though, was Patagonia, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Torres del Paine, the Chilean national park, is a five-hour drive from the airport at Punta Arenas and we stayed at Explora, the only lodge within the park. Perched by a waterfall on the edge of Lake Pehoé, with the mountain range ahead, it was pure picture-postcard stuff. Cruceros Australis, the expeditionary cruise company, has linked up with Explora for the first time and our next stop was like an old geography lesson – the Beagle Channel, Drake Passage and Cape Horn, otherwise known (as it’s the most southerly piece of land) as the end of the world.
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