x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Highlights of 2011: our travel writers' best picks

Twelve of our contributors recall the trips and experiences that made their year, from the Maldives and Moscow to Mexico, and where they hope to find themselves next year.

India continues to offer a feast for the senses, even for a native from that country, as Tishani Doshi discovered while travelling in Rajasthan. Pawan Singh / The National
India continues to offer a feast for the senses, even for a native from that country, as Tishani Doshi discovered while travelling in Rajasthan. Pawan Singh / The National

Adriaane Pielou

Art, opera and snow - and numerous stops in old cafes for coffee and cake - made for an almost perfect wintry stay in Vienna. I loved a whirlwind tour of Jamaica's breezy old hotels: Round Hill, Strawberry Hill, Jamaica Inn (where Marilyn Monroe honeymooned) and the new Goldeneye, built around Ian Fleming's old house.

Taking trams and eating sweet eggy cakes (yes, again) intensified the pleasures of Lisbon. But it's my week in Calcutta that haunts me. Calcutta is a crumbling wreck. Once-grand buildings stand dilapidated and dirty, pockets of Raj-era luxury and architectural magnificence exist amid streets layered with filth. Amid the poverty, though, there's a ferocious sense of life. The streets teem with enterprise. The future is visible there, too: in the new Silicon Valley growing on the outskirts. Everyone should go, if only en route to a languid stay in the foothills of the Himalayas. Calcutta makes everywhere else pale into insignificance.

Rosemary Behan

Landing on a small Maldivian island by speedboat across calm, clear water tinged with indigo was probably the best travel moment of 2011.

Anantara's new Kihavah resort offers pristine beaches, a small jungle which still manages to look wild, and a selection of brand new over-water designer villas. Adding to the effect, it's just a four-hour flight away from the UAE (www.anantara.com).

In summer, a road trip in the US state of New Mexico proved as wild and cinematic as I had hoped it would be; I also fell in love with Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. A captivating medieval old centre with sweeping views of the sea was complemented by the freshest, tastiest seafood lunch I've ever had (L'Osteria restaurant, Via Azuni 56, Stampace).

After the frustrating and time-consuming process of obtaining a visa to visit Russia, I was able to sample Emirates' new route to St Petersburg, and fly back from Moscow. Both cities were highlights for their monumental architectural and historical significance. A view of Red Square from the Ritz-Carlton was another once-in-a-lifetime moment.

I ended the year with a cruise from Luxor to Aswan in Egypt: with just 70 out of about 300 tourist boats currently operating and our boat half- empty, it felt like a private party as we glided down the river with peaceful countryside either side and had whole temples to ourselves.

 

Scott MacMillan

In a year of geographic madness, the most unexpected "like" of 2011 was Cameroon. Never would have thought it - for never did I think much, good or bad, about Cameroon before - but this overlooked country has a better vibe, higher quality street food and even better roads (between the main cities, anyway) than most of West Africa, though admittedly that's a low baseline for comparison.

Dual francophone-anglophone, Cameroon also has a diversity of language, terrain and even transport options, with mountains, deserts, beaches, jungle and savannahs. Signs switch from English to French from one village to the next in some areas. I passed through on an overland journey by bus, boat and bush taxi from Tangier to Cape Town, scrambling over frozen lava fields to the 4,000-metre summit of Mount Cameroon, enduring the rugged tracks of the scenic "ring road" of the north, and finally, in the city of Bafoussam, discovering a roadside shack that specialises in avocado salads. Come again? We'd gotten used to gristly meat and starchy mush by then, but here were delectable fresh avocados mixed with crisp greens, purple cabbage and grated carrots. Baked Brie and sun-dried tomato baguettes, served from a shanty town shed, anyone?

 

Tishani Doshi

One of the traveller's great thrills is to discover a jewel in her own backyard. This year, I travelled to Shekhawati in the Rajasthani desert to explore a cluster of villages famed for their ancient houses filled with frescoes. To drive around crumbling villages in an Ambassador, and encounter these painted havelis, was a truly Indian experience, as magical and timeless as locking eyes with a mountain gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (my second highlight of the year). My most memorable meal of 2011 was a spaghetti vongole with pumpkin at the Ristorante Da Adolfo at Laurito Beach, Positano. The most luxurious bed was at the Hotel Mirande in Avignon (www.la-mirande.fr). And the best discovery was the humble Australian lamington. Next year I want to make a pilgrimage to grand old cities like Beirut, Jericho and Benares, and to recuperate, I'd like to treat myself to a weekend at a Japanese Onsen.

 

John Henzell

I have to thank the brutal efficiency of the US Navy for my travel highlight of 2011. In a surprise attack in 1944, it sunk a dozen Japanese ships sheltering in a bay in the Philippines and what was a boon to the war effort then is now a boon to experienced scuba divers because seven of the wrecks are accessible. And it helps too that the wreck site - Coron Bay, on the southern side of Busuanga Island - is in Palawan, one of the best-kept secrets of south-east Asian tourism and easily accessible from Manila. After you've had your fill of wreck diving or have upgraded your dive qualification in one of world's cheapest places to do so, head south to El Nido, the jumping off point for an archipelago of soaring limestone spires and white sand beaches fringed with coconut palms.

 

Nicholas Holmes

Europe has been my host for much of this year, and like the rest of the world, it's had a turbulent 12 months. Perhaps because of this, I found that the real moments of travel joy in 2011 came from places that have stood the test of time, places less transient than governments, economies or scandals du jour.

The most memorable moment occurred in Italy - after a sleepless night, I managed to be the first visitor of the day to the Arena di Verona, arriving at dawn. Sitting totally alone in this magnificent 20,000-seat amphitheatre, I watched the sun rise from behind the city rooftops and flush the stone seating with the colours of the morning, just as it has done for thousands of years. A world away from the traffic and colourful Italian outside, I could almost hear the roar of a Roman crowd - a gentle, wonderful reminder of our tiny place on the ever-expanding canvas of history.

 

Michelle Jana Chan

If I close my eyes I can recall almost every detail about swimming with whale sharks off the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The sea was rough and murky with plankton. My goggles were leaking. Yet beneath me, rising up from the depths, I began to make out the white freckles on the dark curved back of the biggest fish in the world.

Ladakh also wowed me with its fabled Indus Valley and treks in the Karakorum - a trip enhanced by staying at Shakti's village houses, which cleverly reposition homestays in the realm of luxury (www.shaktihimalaya.com). Staying in the mountains I was won over by France's ravishing Courchevel 1850 with new properties Le Strato (www.hotelstrato.com) and K2 (www.hotellek2.com) as strong on ski pedigree as on bling.

Looking ahead I'll be on Kenya's coast tonight toasting better times for a country clamouring for tourists to return since the kidnapping crisis in Lamu. Other planned adventures include sailing across the Great Australian Bight in a replica of James Cook's HMS Endeavour and attempting Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas.

 

Minty Clinch

What makes an irresistible hotel? For me, it should be small and perfectly formed with food to die for. Otherwise, I'm as happy camping out under the stars.

In 2011, my pick was the Rosengarten in Kirchberg outside Kitzbühel. Simon Taxacher is a wunderkind chef, already a two-star Michelin man at the age of 32. The Rosengarten is a five-star extension to his parents' three-star hotel, and is chic and minimalist to appeal to diners in his temple of gastronomy. But there was a fly in the ointment: even before the hotel opened in December 2010, Michelin pulled its Red Guide to Austria, leaving Taxacher up a creek without a paddle. A body blow but he still had a great restaurant, lovely bedrooms named after delicacies like Beluga and Cepes, and a Harley Davidson he uses to cruise the mountains for raw material for his dishes. As of a couple of months ago, he's in the Relais & Chateaux stable. Success couldn't come to a nicer guy (www.rosengarten-taxacher.com).

In riding safari terms, 2011 was the year of the shifting sands. First stop, the Andes to the south of Mendoza where we sand-surfed down the mountain on horseback as if we were skiing untracked powder. I'm used to putting up my own tent, but I was seduced by my first experience of glamping in Sergio and Maria's luxurious Guatana camp. Semi-permanent walk-in tents, hot showers, huge meals on real chairs; what's not to love? In the spring, I rode for a week with Pat and Mandy Rezlaff, refugees from the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. When they lost their farm, they drove 100 young Basuto horses - their own and their neighbours' - into Mozambique and set up a safari operation in the port of Vilanculos and the glitzy island of Benguerra. With sand stretching as far as the eye could see, we galloped as if there was no tomorrow.

In 2012, it'll be back to the rough stuff with a conservation ride in South Africa's Limpopo province in April and a mountainous trek through southern Albania in June in the hoof prints of Lord Byron. The poet was welcomed into the citadel at Tepelene by the vizir and lived to tell the tale. Given that Albania's take on tourism is to sell off the last stretch of pristine Mediterranean coast in Europe to the highest bidder as quickly as possible without providing any infrastructure, he'd probably find it unchanged today.

 

Sakhr Al-Makhadhi

2011 has been a year of small cities for me. Riding a rattly old one-car tram into town from Sarajevo airport was like a trip back in time. Just south of the low-rise Ottoman walled old city, the Latin Bridge is where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in 1914, sparking the FirstWorld War. The city is surrounded by lush, green hills (Sarajevo sits in a valley), but the white gravestones peppering the view are a reminder of Sarajevo's more recent past.

Sitting on the Russian border, Tallinn's pastel-coloured medieval buildings make Estonia's capital feel like a toytown city. The Unesco World Heritage site has all the appeal of bigger rivals such as Prague, with fewer tourists. With a youthful population, and just a few hours of darkness in the summer, the cafes and bars are full all night. It may be small, but Tallinn is truly a 24-hour city.

 

Robert Carroll

At the beginning of 2011 I moved to The Hague in the Netherlands. Later in the year, I bought a small Toyota camper van. As a result, I have spent most of my time in Europe and much of my travel has been on roads.

I have been to many of the places before. Amsterdam, Paris and parts of France and Germany were the zones on my first solo travel more than 15 years ago. Revisiting them as the parent of a two-year child was a strange experience. It was a reminder of what you have lost and what you have gained.

The highlight of the year was Switzerland, which I'd always avoided because it felt too expensive for my meagre budget. The grassy lakeside bathing areas of Lake Geneva were surprisingly delightful. The facilities were great: diving platforms, pristine wooden decks with showers and lifts for disabled bathers. The water felt so pure it was like swimming in Evian.

 

Mariwan Salihi

My most memorable trip of this year was to Sulaymaniyah. With an estimated metropolitan population of nearly two million, it's Iraqi Kurdistan's second most important city (after Erbil, two hours away by car). It's also the cultural capital of the Kurdistan region, a city from which many famous Kurdish singers, poets, writers, journalists and artists originate. Sulaymaniyah - shortened as Suly by many expats and locals - has many art galleries, museums and exhibitions. Numerous cultural festivals are held here each year.

Named Sulaimani by the Kurds, it's regarded as the country's most secular city; Sulaymaniyah is often called the "Paris of Iraq" for its vibrant cultural life and its wide tree-lined boulevards. However, in the past few years, the city has adopted an American lifestyle, where modern, futuristic high rises dominate the mountain views, a cinema culture is spreading fast, and the music and styles of R&B and hip-hop are popular among the young. Not to forget, the city is also home to the sprawling, prestigious American University of Iraq - Sulaimani (AUI-S), one of the largest, and most modern, university campuses in the entire Middle East.

Surprisingly for Iraq and the Middle East, the city has a vibrant Chinese community, with their businesses concentrated around the "China Town." But the city's biggest attraction, a hidden gem, is the Slemani Museum. Tucked away between the skyscrapers on Salem Street, it's Iraq's second-largest archaeology museum, with many treasures showcased, covering thousands of years of ancient Mesopotamian civilisations. This year, the museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and in partnership with the Unesco, I hope this place will be back on the map.

 

Sue Ryan

I travelled widely this year but two destinations stood out, Botswana and the Maldives. Safari and sea may sound like opposites but they had much in common. Both deal almost exclusively in high-end luxury accommodation and are all about going back to nature. Honeymooners or those on a trip of a lifetime dominate the scene.

The Okavango Delta, in the north of Botswana, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. At times, it is pretty scary. Elephants come so close that you can see their eyelashes, and being driven in jeeps through deep water containing crocodiles and hippos makes for an interesting time.

By contrast, the Maldives is tranquil and with each hotel trying to outdo each other, the hotels are out of this world. Only one word of advice - you really need to adore the company of your companion because once you are on your particular sandbank there is no way of escaping.