From Iceland's volcanoes to the terraces of the Philippines, the Gili Islands to the slopes of Val d'Isère, the travel editor and contributors share their highlights of 2009.
Adventures near and far
From Iceland's volcanoes to the terraces of the Philippines, the Gili Islands to the slopes of Val d'Isère, the travel editor and contributors share their highlights of 2009.
Never has a destination moved me as much as Iceland. During my trip in May I was awed by the power of its landscapes, consumed by its thrilling sagas and enamoured by its delightful people. The highest of the high points involved climbing the lava-strewn slopes of Hekla (an active volcano overdue for an eruption), staying at the remote but super-cosy Hotel Budir (www.budir.is) on the wild Snaefellsnes Peninsula, dining on perfect poached halibut at the Northern Light Inn (www.northernlightinn.is) and walking through the streets of Reykjavik in the sunshine at 10pm. The trip left me so besotted with the place that I have promised to visit every year until I am too old or infirm to board a plane.
Staying north, my most relaxing week of 2009 was spent renting a small private house just outside Copenhagen, eating pickled herring and apple kringle, gazing at the waters of the Oresund as they glistened in the sunlight, and touring the magnificent Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The trip was wrapped up with three nights at the delightful Nimb Hotel (www.nimb.dk) in the capital which has been imaginatively restored as a design hotel with rooms overlooking the charming Tivoli Gardens.
Closer to home was an Eid break to Jordan and the wonders of Petra. Even with the throngs of people, it is still possible to marvel at the rock-hewn tombs and façades of this Unesco world heritage site but it pays to rise before dawn and be first in to beat the crowds and grab a people-free snap or two. My 2010 list is looking decidedly cool: Iceland (of course) but this time its far northern extremes; Finland's southern lake country; childhood reminiscing in England's Lake District; and then a chance to warm up on a return visit to wonderful Bali.
2009 was a year of travel essentials - of seeing a handful of places I'd always wanted to travel to but had never quite got round to visiting. Beirut was just as smart, tatty, glamorous and rough as I could have hoped for: from the boutiques of Solidere to cups of tea with fishermen and pigeons on the Corniche. Skiing in January in Faraya Mzaar was a different story - poor visibility, bad snow - but I'll try again in February.
Damascus' old city was grittier and less well-preserved than I imagined, but I loved the Ummayad Mosque and the northern quarter around Bab al Salam - wandering there at dusk, when tradesmen in their living rooms-cum-workshops lit candles or gathered around a single bulb, was mesmerising. Cyprus, which is much closer to the Middle East than most people think, is now served by Etihad's new route to Larnaca. I was pleasantly surprised by the capital's old centre and by the Troodos Mountains, where I walked around Mount Olympus and had lunch in the gorgeous rustic village of Omodos, somewhere I'd love to stay for a few days.
I spent 10 days in Bali and the Gili Islands - destinations which were bumped from my backpacking list a few years ago - just long enough to thoroughly decompress in gorgeous Ubud and the starkly beautiful Bali Barat National Park in the far north-west corner, where wild deer and black monkeys were the only other presence on wild beaches. The snorkelling off Menjangan Island was probably the best I've ever seen. Two nights in the Gili Islands off Lombok was the perfect end to the trip. Getting around by horse and cart on an island still without roads or motorised vehicles was a novelty which, combined with the beauty of the beaches and surrounding islands and breakfast on the tiny beach opposite our hotel, was almost as idyllic as it gets.
In January I visited Chile and fell in love with Valparaiso, the seaport straight out of a Graham Greene novel. I've never seen a place where the grandeur is so gloriously faded, so intensely atmospheric. There are rickety wooden homes clinging like limpets to the hills, painted in blinding colours. And there are fabulous funicular lifts trundling up and down the impossible gradients, buses from the 1950s, and some of the grandest imperial buildings on the continent.
Then, in the summer, I took my wife and two small children to Tibet. We made the two-day journey from Beijing by train, on the highest railway on Earth. (It's so high that oxygen is pumped into the carriages). Staying in Lhasa, and at remote monasteries in the countryside, was so incredibly touching. It was the kind of experience that alters the way you perceive the world. The dazzling mountain light, the Buddhist shrines, the hospitality, and the yaks ... all parts of an extraordinary mosaic of life.
A few weeks later we travelled as a family again, to stay at La Mamounia (www.mamounia.com), the great iconic hotel in Marrakech. After a $178 million (Dh652m) facelift, the grande dame of Morocco was reopened, and we were lucky enough to be invited for the event. There are hardly enough superlatives to describe the level of pure luxury, the attention to every detail. What's wonderful about La Mamounia is the understated opulence, and the sense of immense privilege merely of being in such a palatial oasis. The hotel has been restored to how it was when Winston Churchill knew it. He was obsessed with it and in the interwar years he would paint scenes of the snow-capped Atlas from the balcony of his suite.
My last long-haul flight of the year was to Rio de Janeiro. A world treasure, it's a city with an intoxicating spirit, a joie de vivre like nowhere else. Overwhelming in its contrasts in terms of rich and poor, set against a backdrop of awe-inspiring natural beauty, Rio is touched with raw magic. It's one place that every pair of feet on earth ought to visit at least once. I can only thank providence that my own found their way there in 2009 - but with 2010 ebbing closer, my feet are itching to reach new lands once again. I'm fantasising about a journey to Bukhara, Tashkent, and Samarkand. As always, I find that wishing for a far-flung destination before I sleep is all it takes for the universe to set the wheels in motion, and make my dreams come true.
This was a year of meetings with great powers. On a tour of Iran this spring, I was awed by the colossal ruins of Persepolis, the showcase city founded in 518BC by Darius I. Its immense pillars, triumphal gates and delicate bas-reliefs that survive here are an absorbing treat for travellers who like to contemplate the candle-ends of history. Persepolis is one of 10 Unesco world heritage sites in this country of marvels - other must-sees include the classical Persian gardens of Shiraz and the shimmering blue mosques of Isfahan. And all this is less than two hours' flying time from the UAE.
I was astounded, too, by my first visit to the chain of jewel-like atolls that is the Maldives. This time it was the overwhelming beauty of nature that impressed. When the sun shines here, the harmonious colours of beach, lagoon, ocean and sky are bewitchingly intense, while underwater lies a second universe filled with turtles, manta rays, whale sharks and outrageously dressed tropical fish. As I zipped around in seaplanes and speedboats, the enveloping splendour was so uplifting I'm already planning a return visit next year. Equally high on my travel wish list are two places now moving swiftly on from past troubles to become what I predict will be top spots for a holiday in 2010: Beirut and Sri Lanka.
Visiting the Philippines and finding its people to be probably the friendliest of any I have encountered is my travel highlight of 2009. Their easy-going nature and willingness to chat, always with a smile, made even the longest bus rides along bumpy roads a real pleasure. The capital, Manila, was a city of vast contrasts, with shanty towns rubbing shoulders with large malls and wide tree-lined boulevards.
Heading up north and seeing the country's spectacular rice terraces, which date back as far as 2,000 years, was also a must-see, combined with visits to villages that are only slowly being drawn into the modern world. The northern city of Vigan, with its well-preserved colonial-era architecture, was likewise impressive; its cobbled streets and horse-drawn carriages taking visitors back in time. What's more, the Philippines was remarkably good value and communication was never a problem thanks to English being so widely spoken.
Another memorable experience was seeing the extraordinary Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. It was a pain queuing up in a crush with hundreds of others to enter on a sweltering, sunny day, and the real highlight was coming back one evening and seeing pilgrims walking around the huge lake that surrounds the temple, which was glowing with lights. Next year, I hope to travel to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, as Manila has made me keen to experience more great South-east Asian cities, warts and all.
One of a travel writer's preoccupations is to investigate cultural stereotypes. When I took a geisha tour of Japan, I used a local travel company, Michi Travels, to get under the skin of a geisha. There are shops in Kyoto, the geisha heartland, that will paint you in geisha make-up and dress you up in the costume for a fee. Also in Kyoto are the Origin arts workshops (www.kyoto-machiya.com), which introduce foreigners to traditional Japanese arts such as calligraphy, Noh drama, flower arrangement and the tea ceremony. It gave me an inkling of Japan's refinement.
Quite the opposite is Florida's South Beach, which is exuberant and gay, as much extroverted as Japan is introverted. Incongruously, we took our kids to this singles outpost but it turned out well. We stayed at the Tides (www.tidessouthbeach.com), a lovely oceanfront property in the heart of the strip with bars and nightclubs all around. I would put the kids to bed and steal out. After a few days, we retreated to Naples, a quiet, genteel, upmarket town. The Inn at Fifth (www.innonfifth.com) is a charming boutique hotel surrounded by restaurants, shops, and the beach.
I flew through Dubai to the Shanti Ananda Mauritius (www.shantiananda.com), owned by the same group that runs the highly rated Ananda in the Himalayas. Mauritius feels like a toy country but its tropical charms are beguiling. You can fly through Singapore too, and I'd recommend a stop at Mustafa's in Little India for everything from gadgets to spices. Next on my list: everyone knows about Cambodia's Angkor Wat, but Luang Prabang in Laos, where I've been before and want to go again next year, is still underrated. I've never been to Vietnam and, as a food writer and lover of its graceful ao dai dress, I want to go.
The year began in the cab of a ramshackle bus on the pothole-ridden Jaipur-Delhi road, celebrating the New Year with the gaggle of locals that typically ride shotgun in an Indian bus - a fitting start to a year in which I would see out five of the 12 months criss-crossing the subcontinent. High points included a week-long stay on a houseboat in Srinagar, a jewel of a city in the Himalayan paradise of Kashmir. The houseboat cost a mere $13 (Dh47) per night, including two meals and internet access (Yellow Submarine, near Dal Gate). In Cochin, 3,500km south, learning to cook Keralan fish curry at Leelu Roy's evening cookery class, at $11 (Dh40), was worth a hundred five-star restaurant meals.
For me, the title "world's best cocktail bar" is held in perpetuity by Hapu, an arty dive in Prague's eastern district of Zizkov, my former neighbourhood, but I found a worthy contender in Blue Violet, a faux speakeasy in Chicago's Wicker Park area. Behind the hidden entrance, a reassuring sign hangs over the house rules: "No baseball caps, no reservations - no O-bombs, Jager-bombs or bombs of any kind - and finally, do not bring anyone to Blue Violet that you would not bring to your mother's house for Sunday dinner."
Best among undiscovered neighbourhoods: Tokyo's Shimo-Kitazawa, a few stops from Shibuya station. A night-time stroll turned up bustling izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) alongside second-hand shops selling vintage early 1990s flannels (found in Chicago for less than one-tenth the price), used American T-shirts, and plenty of random Japanese kitsch. Top find: a worn Greenwich Village tourist tee, likely from the 1980s, with a line drawing of the Twin Towers rising jauntily from behind the arch on Washington Square Park - worn now as a pre-September 11 memento in an off-kilter world.
My favourite memory of 2009 is watching the early morning sun burn off the last of the autumn mist on Lake Boshkung in northern Ontario. Boshkung is one of the dozens of small lakes just outside Algonquin Park, the vast natural reserve home to bears and moose located a three-hour drive from Toronto. I was staying in a small cottage at the Buttermilk Falls Resort (www.buttermilkfallsresort.com) run by a Toronto businessman and his wife who became fed up with the rat race. Summer is the most popular time to rent a cottage in Ontario, but I was delighted to discover the best time of all is during a glorious Indian summer when autumn foliage is at its fiery best. Most of the cottages here are small, family run affairs - there are hardly any hotels - which means service can be uneven but they all have individual character.
At the other end of the spectrum, a visit to Istanbul in Turkey should rank high in anyone's top 10 destinations. Next year this great maritime city will be celebrating its status as the European Capital of Culture with a host of exhibitions, museum openings and concerts. Turkey may not be a member of the EU but its cafe culture gives continentals a run for their money. Istanbul is wonderful for wandering around and discovering little gems of historical buildings and cafes. During my last visit in the summer I found my favourite urban spot in the whole world: the House Cafe in Ortakoy on the European shore of the Bosphorus where you can sip cocktails at a candlelit table perched on the very edge of the water. Next year I would like to visit Libya to visit the great Roman ruins and perhaps the Greek islands for a lazy, sun-drenched holiday.
In this, the last year of the decade, I have continued to seek out places where tourism is in its infancy. I travelled to Nigeria in March and was able to jaunt away from the hectic capital of Lagos to see the Yoruba heartland of Osogbo, where traditional religion, art and craftsmanship still play a major role in everyday life. Overall, the country proved to be a difficult one to operate in, with crooked cops and scammers being common, but I also found spontaneity, a fascinating culture, fantastic music and a celebratory spirit that made me want to brace myself and return again. Variations on this theme were to continue as I headed in 2009 to Yemen, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Kashmir and Tunisia and dealt with great hassles and abundant rewards in about equal measure.
Kyrgyzstan, in particular, offered perhaps the most intense natural beauty I have witnessed anywhere. On the shores of Lake Issykol near the Tian-Shan mountain range, the high, thin air is so pure and crisp that you can see distant peaks with an almost impossible clarity. On the weird scale, I think I did well in 2009 judging by the diversity of places where I slept: on an autorickshaw driver's roof, in the house of a Raj, on a cot beside salt flats, on bloodstained sheets in a flooded hotel, in a yurt, shivering in a hostel with no heat in a medina, in an ancient high-rise in Sana'a, on a houseboat on Dal Lake, in a troglodyte dwelling and on a 22-hour ferry crossing the Mediterranean. In retrospect, I guess I haven't had much rest.
Perhaps the greatest surprise, however, came recently in a well-travelled country on a continent whose mainland I haven't visited in almost 10 years: France. I had forgotten how lovely it is and those who avoid Marseille for its unseemly reputation don't know what they're missing. In 2010, I hope to make it to Bukhara, which has long fascinated me with a 5,000-year-old history touched by Buddhists, Persians, Khans and Soviets.
Perched on a rocky outcrop two hours drive north of Damascus, Mar Musa is a beautifully barren place. This community of monks, nuns and novices has restored an ancient monastery and turned it into a modern enclave for "interfaith and intercultural dialogue". It attracts scholars, backpackers, sheikhs, students and tourists who stay for anywhere between a few nights and a few months. Being welcomed into this sanguine zone and encouraged to participate in the life of this group is an inspiring experience.
A huge patchwork of lochs, mountains, peninsulas, moors and valleys, the Scottish Highlands never fail to evoke awe. The vast emptiness of Rannoch Moor, one of Britain's last great wildernesses, is a perfect antidote to city-strained eyes. For most of the year, the region is quiet and free from tourists and it is easy to find places to stay - from sparse climbing lodges to luxury hotels. Windswept, rain-soaked and sun-starved, the region's invigorating bleakness fulfils the yearning of anyone in search of the wild. Next year I'm keen to take the three-day Trans Asia Express (www.rajair) from Tehran to Istanbul.
The best snow for 20 years and tumbling prices meant the year started with a ski trip. With 18 of us, aged from one to 70 and ski abilities from absolute beginner to serious off-pister, Val d'Isère was the perfect resort, fulfilling every need. Plus it's one of the few French resorts that is actually pretty.
I expected to love the Seychelles and I did - I have never seen sand so white and silky. And the biggest surprise of the past year? Washington DC. A frequent traveller to New York City, I had never been to the capital before and it is as different as Abu Dhabi is to Dubai. An action packed cycle ride took us on a tour passed every major monument, museum and significant building, providing in three hours the best possible lesson on American history and culture. The newly refurbished W Hotel (www.starwoodhotels.com) has the most fabulous roof terrace overlooking the White House.
Signature spa treatments over the past year included fish eating my feet in Singapore (not nice) to a hammam treatment in the Four Seasons Istanbul (www.fourseasons.com) ridding me of the detritus of years of old skin (quite painful but fantastic) and Cleopatra's bath (milk, rose petals and honey which I found rather indifferent about and could have done at home). The two best were Balinese massages but not in Bali - at the Four Seasons in the Seychelles and the St Regis (www.starwoodhotels.com) in Singapore.
Visiting Yemen just as the already-ropy security situation in the country deteriorated was my travel highlight for 2008 because it was the chance to see beautiful, historic and friendly areas that are now effectively off limits. Sana'a and Socotra remain safe and definitely justify a holiday on their own but the regions - the Hadramaut's historic towns of Shibam and Tarim, the ancient cities of the Tihama on the Red Sea, and the mountain regions north-west of the capital - have now become very difficult to visit. Anyway, the threat of terrorism still remains a distant second in threat to life expectancy compared to Yemeni driving.
The mountains of Sichuan in central China were another highlight, particularly the pilgrim trail up Emei Shan, one of the nation's four sacred Buddhist mountains, with the chance to stay in one of a series of basic monasteries sited in lush green forest amid cliffs and waterfalls along the way. The two-day hike is not for the faint-hearted - the trail is good but to climb the mountain from the foot of it is the equivalent of scaling the Burj Dubai four times - so it weeds out the less committed visitors. There's even a hot spring at the base of the mountain to recover in afterwards. traveL@thenational.ae