From Kilimanjaro and Bhutan to the Seychelles, our writers recount their best travel experiences of the year.
The best travel destinations of 2010
It was a year of not staying put. I didn't pay rent anywhere the entire year, living entirely out of a backpack, starting 2010 at the ashram of Amma, India's "hugging mother" (I got two hugs, the second lasting several minutes) and ending it somewhere in Africa, probably Cape Coast, Ghana. In between - south East Asia, China's Sichuan province and Tibet, Lebanon, east Africa, the southern Mediterranean and Maghreb, then down the Atlantic coast of Africa.
When people find out I'm a travel writer, the standard response (after raised eyebrows and, "So how does that work?") is to ask about my favourite destinations. In 2010, my answer changed. I used to say India (it's so big, it's so diverse!), but lately I've tried Indonesia. I don't know why, exactly. Indonesia was in the headlines a couple of times this year - when Mount Merapi exploded, killing more than100 people, and when Bali was a setting for that Julia Roberts movie that I don't feel like naming. I was in both places just before these events.
With Bali, I've found there's no shame in loving a place Julia Roberts also happens to like. For friends looking for an "exotic" holiday (a bad word; do not use without quotation marks), I recommend starting in Flores Island and taking a three-day, live-aboard boat trip westward to Lombok, a short drive and ferry ride to Bali (see page 7). My journey was part of a longer overland and oversea journey from Borneo, but those pressed for time can take a domestic flight out to Flores (or back, doing an eastward boat journey). It's fairly unexplored territory and you may well have the seas to yourself; you'll bathe in waterfalls, snorkel amid manta rays and enjoy close encounters with Komodo dragons. Compare a stay-put beach holiday on the vehicle-free island of Koh Phi Phi, southern Thailand (something I also did this year and, as it happens, the setting for a Leonardo DiCaprio movie that I don't feel like naming) - pleasant, but too pricey, too comfortable, too crowded.
The highlight of my year, though, was summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. I thought I was woefully unprepared. But climbing Africa's highest peak isn't a matter of being in shape; reaching Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres) depends, instead, on one's ability to adapt to elevation and uncomfortable (read: cold) living conditions. Resolution: climb more mountains.
* Scott MacMillan
My travel highlight of the year by a good measure was Bhutan. Early autumn found me joining a small group for the 14-day Laya Trek, whose numerous passes coax one up and down a network of trails parallel to the border with Tibet. Fine walking, great scenery and the almost "lost world" culture of remote villages whose inhabitants now have mobile phones invariably make for great travel experiences.
Luxury rail travel in India has had a bumper year with the launch of the Maharaja's Express (www.maharajas-express.com), hot on the buffers of the confusingly named Indian Maharajah. Its Delhi-Kolkata itinerary, which ran briefly in spring, was set to break new ground until this winter's schedule was adjusted to drop Kolkata and Bodh Gaya. Kolkata, though, is a revelation. Notorious for poverty and urban decay, it's often presented as a place or experience through which the traveller survives relatively unscathed. The train seemed to turn that notion on its head, as here, quite rightly, was a great city once imperial and now imperfect though still a fascinating destination with real, sometimes quirky, treasures.
* Amar Grover
Samburu Reserve, Kenya
Last January I spent a week in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve staying at Elephant Watch Camp (www.elephantwatchsafaris.com), a six-tent photo safari operation set up by Oria Douglas Hamilton, the wife of Iain Douglas Hamilton, a British biologist and one of the world's foremost authorities on elephants. Elephant Watch Camp is near a favourite crossing spot for Samburu's 900 resident elephants and is one of the loveliest places I've visited during two decades of travelling across Africa; it's a few minutes' drive from Iain's Save the Elephants research foundation, which can be visited, and whose staff track satellite radio-collared elephants to learn more about their behaviour. Oria decorated her canvas tents with Kenyan and Somali textiles and constructed all the beds, chairs, and the camp's thatched dining salon from tree branches knocked down by elephants while feeding. The guides - young Samburu warriors recruited from local manyattas - were knowledgeable and articulate, providing insights not just into ecosystems, but the Samburu culture and its relation to nature. The head guide and camp manager, Sevonoy Letoiye, in particular, described elephant life with both scientific precision and as an epic narrative, identifying each member of a family group by name and life story. Besides elephants we sighted gerunek, giraffe, kudu, lion and a rare pack of African wild dogs.
On March 5, after my visit, a freak flashflood decimated Elephant Watch Camp and eight other safari lodges along the river. The Douglas Hamiltons rebuilt and reopened in June, and the animals (who instinctively moved to high ground during the flood) have returned. In 2011, I'll be heading for Uganda and Namibia. But I hope travellers consider Samburu, where they can enjoy the wildlife and spread the word about the elephant's cause (www.elephantwatchsafaris.com; 00 254 20 889 1112).
* Susan Hack
Argentina, Swiss Alps, Morocco
Welcome to another hectic year on the goat-class air travel circuit. After the first of far too many brutal sardine-can long hauls, I tackled the General San Martin trail from Mendoza to the Chilean border on horseback. Having liberated his native Argentina from the Spanish yoke, the national hero crossed the mountains in blazing January heat to lead Chile to independence in 1818. My resolute band of macho Argentinians and Kiwi cowboys camped at 4,000m plus as we retraced the liberator's precipitous hoofprints to Aconcagua, South America's highest peak.
Moving swiftly on, 2010 was supposed to be a great Alpine snow year, yet the descent from Klosters to Arosa was my only half-decent powder day. Instead, the icing on the cake was the Tschuggan Grand Hotel (www.tschuggan.ch), high above the venerable Swiss resort. It wasn't so much the recent refurbishment or the awesome spa that bowled me over - though they did - but the fact that they were ruled by Leo Maissen, the very youthful general manager. A decade ago, Swiss five stars were outposts of stuffiness, overseen by men in frock coats with "dress code" tattooed on their foreheads. By administering the kiss-of-life to one such dinosaur, Leo has set the bar commendably high.
By way of keeping ahead of my golf buddy in the numbers of countries played in - pathetic, but he's counting so I'm competing - I added Morocco by tackling Marrakech's two new courses. As a riad first-timer, I was even more impressed by the Borjs de la Kasbah (www.lesborjsdelakasbah.com), my base in the old city. The Franco-British owners have used ingenuity and lateral thinking to combine five derelict properties into an elegant maze of tiled courtyards, 18 individual lairs and public rooms that look as if they've been there for generations.
* Minty Clinch
The simplest travel pleasures are the best. There is a photograph of me in Toledo, Spain, this summer, sitting in a backstreet cafe, with the walls of the Alcazar in the background. I look exhausted - and I am. I've just spent two hours laughing and trading jokes with a Spanish woman with a dirty laugh and a Syrian man with a tendency to deliver his punchlines in Italian. In a year when I have travelled thousands of miles across four continents, the simple pleasures of tea and good company remain incomparable.
Travelling makes you understand home better and what that means to different people. The most fascinating single place I visited this year was easily Banda Aceh, the western-most city in Indonesia, facing the loneliness of the Indian Ocean. It was Banda Aceh that bore the full force of the 2004 tsunami, losing 150,000 people in a few days. I was sitting with a young Acehnese woman in the grounds of the Grand Raya mosque, talking about her university days in New York. The neon-lit cities of the west have a gravitational draw for young people around the world, but not for her. She had been eager to return to a place most people would understand if she wanted to leave, a place remote even to Indonesians, a place rocked regularly by earthquakes. And yet: "I want to bring what I learnt back to Aceh, back to my home. Where else could I live?" In a world where everywhere seems in a rush to become the same, it is sobering to recall how closely some are bonded to their roots.
My must-see destination for 2011 is Armenia. I still remember the first time I saw a photograph of the skyline of Yerevan, the capital. I was sitting in a Moldovan embassy flicking through brochures for the national airline when I came across this astonishing vista: an ancient city set in grids and circles, watched over by the snow-capped peaks of Mount Ararat. Since then there have been numerous half-occasions when I almost went, when we pointed north from Syria and said let's go, when a friend called from Georgia and said, "I'm here, get a flight," and I wanted to go and I didn't. But 2011 is the year I intend to finally set foot in Yerevan.
* Faisal al Yafai
Despite living in the region for years it's still difficult for me to come to terms with the idea of heading to the Levant to cool down. Yet that's what I did this September, fleeing Abu Dhabi's lingering and oppressive heat for Jordan in the last embers of its summer. Clear blue skies and temperatures in the low 30s made it a good time to visit.
Petra, the country's star attraction, is impressive but the crowds and the cinematic precedent (for years the ruins were for me the backdrop to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) diminished the awe of the spectacle. Lesser-known places such as the Roman ruins at Jerash in the north of the country rivalled the rock-hewn Nabataean city. Wandering the pristine, centuries-old, colonnaded streets of the expansive and almost empty site at dusk was wonderful. The next morning the street market in the shabby new town, which sold everything from fruit to shoes piled high on the back of trucks, proved the region's trading spirit lives on.
A weekend trip to Kathmandu was another highlight of 2010. The city is more than simply a stop on route to treks such as the Annapurna Circuit and the route to Everest Base Camp. It is an interesting destination in its own right. Bumping through the muddy and rubbish-strewn streets of the city I realised the place was a perfect antidote to a surfeit of smooth, three-lane, tower-lined motorways in the UAE. Pashupatinath, Nepal's largest and most important Hindu temple, was an evocative place. Standing on the banks of the Bagmati River, watching the ashes from cremations being tipped into the rubbish-flecked holy waters made me ponder on our rituals for coping with life and death.
Next year I hope to travel to Cuba, a place I have wanted to visit for over 10 years; I'm interested to see how the island has responded to capitalism.
* Rob Carroll
Montserrat, Libya, Liwa
The first surprise of my travelling year was discovering a taste for goatwater. A spicy stew made with goat or lamb, it's the national dish of Montserrat, a tiny and very off-the-beaten-track Caribbean island with an active volcano - which ironically makes it ideal for a truly relaxing holiday. The beaches are deserted, the diving is crowd-free and the roads have so few cars the number plates only run to three digits. Everything is as bizarre as a fairy tale - settled in the mid-17th century by Irish immigrants, its topsy-turvy green hills are dotted with place-names like Kinsale and Davy Hill, while the national football team, the green-shirted Monster Rats, vie with the likes of Papua New Guinea for a coveted bottom place on Fifa's world ranking.
Equally beguiling, and rather easier to reach, was Libya where I was astounded by the immense Roman ruins at Sabratha and Leptis Magna. At the latter you can wander the streets of a prosperous seaside city that was once home to 100,000 people, complete with a haughty triumphal arch, a massive forum, lavish marbled baths and a hippodrome where chariot races were held before a roaring crowd of 23,000 spectators. What comparable great monuments, I wonder, will be left to posterity from the colossal building boom now transforming the UAE? Perhaps in 4010 some lonely travel writer will gaze down in awe at the spire of Burj Khalifa poking through the sand ...
A choice place for such musing is the resort of Qasr Al Sarab (qasralarab.anantara.com), near Liwa, which offers an audacious union of raw desert and 21st-century pampering. "Stop right there, dunes!" cried the architects. And lo, three years and 5,000 workers later, there arose a lavishly appointed holiday palace that stretches for almost two kilometres, bejewelled with gourmet restaurants and a serene, Thai-staffed spa. The covetable pool villas here are a fitting spot to sit with an atlas pondering new adventures for 2011.
Madrid is definitely on my wish-list - besides the outstanding art museums, it has many design hotels at very appealing prices. I'd also love to take an epic train ride across the USA. But should it be the California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco), or the Crescent (New York to New Orleans)? Oh what a big, fun world we travellers live in.
* Kipat Wilson
Socotra, the Seychelles
The year began with a longed-for trip to Socotra, the isolated Yemeni archipelago off the Horn of Africa that is a Unesco biosphere reserve on account of its unique and fragile ecosystem. The main island receives fewer than 5,000 tourists each year, who must camp and travel by 4x4 to see the island. I was transfixed by wild, unspoilt beaches, dramatic rock formations, giant sand dunes and cliff-top forests of endemic Dragon's Blood trees. I'll never forget the sense of space and quietude on the open road or the shooting stars we watched from our open-air camp on sand dunes on the south coast. The toilets weren't great and we didn't shower properly for four days, but that only added to the experience.
At the opposite end of the comfort scale, three days in Cape Town in April staying at the new One&Only resort (www.oneandonlyresorts.com) was an exercise in pure indulgence. To wake up to a view of Table Mountain, breakfast on a sumptuous spread of local fare, submit yourself to a Bastien Gonzalez pedicure in the spa before dining at Nobu in the evening was worth travelling for. The hotel is also next to the historic Victoria & Albert Waterfront, home to the Nelson Mandela Gateway museum and boats to Robben Island, to keep pampered visitors' feet firmly on the floor. A drive around the Cape Peninsula, stopping at small villages for fish and chips and culminating in a brisk walk around Cape Point, brings wilderness within the realms of a half-day trip from the city.
In May, Mahe in the Seychelles, another far-flung archipelago in the Indian Ocean, proved that even decades of tourism development need not ruin and can even compliment a largely pristine environment. The Hilton Seychelles Resort (www.hilton.com), on the north-west coast, is small-scale and sensitively designed, with villas on stilts over sandy beaches with waves crashing on the rocks below - just as Ian Fleming experienced it in 1958, when he wrote For Your Eyes Only. The island's forested slopes, giant boulders, hidden coves, turquoise water and sweeping bays, complimented with a laid-back population and delicious creole food - means anyone looking for a honeymoon destination need look no further.
Kenya in October first saw me taking part in a much-needed week-long bootcamp through Wild Fitness (www.wildfitness.com), a brilliantly relaxing combination of fresh air, excercise, good food and rest on the wild coastline of Watamu. It prepared me well for a gruelling three-day ascent of Mount Kenya; watch this space for stories about both trips. On my first safari, in the Masai Mara, I was lucky enough to catch the end of the spectacular annual wildebeest migration; for comfort and location, stay at Governors' camps (www.governorscamp.com). An armed robbery on the way to the airport meant the end of my trip was an experience I could have done without, but it only served to underline the benefits of travel insurance and the importance of keeping your guard up.
This month, at the onset of summer down under, a visit to New Zealand in business class on Emirates' A380 made the 17-hour trip via Sydney seem like a breeze: flat beds, huge individual in-flight entertainment screens and an on-board bar serving a continuous selection of drinks and canapes made the time pass in a flash. Going through airport security in Sydney, however, highlighted the fact that even fliers on premium tickets are not spared the indignities of security regulations applied inconsistently around the world. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Queenstown on the South Island and a 45-minute flight over the mountains to Milford Sound, followed by a 90-minute cruise; it may be well known, but it's a sight worth trekking to New Zealand for.
* Rosemary Behan
Kwande Game Reserve, South Africa
This year I've been spoilt rotten. In the past 12 months I have visited six continents and, in that time, I've stayed in monasteries and palaces, have been wined and dined under the stars, walked with royalty and, even better, I've been welcomed into the homes of people the world over.
Coming up with the best of the best is no easy task in a year brimming with superlatives. But just the other day, in the closing weeks of what was a really magnificent year, I experienced a realm that stood out for all the right reasons. On a journey to South Africa, I flew up to Port Elisabeth, and drove two hours inland to the private, malaria-free Kwandwe Game Reserve (www.kwandereserve.com). As an old Africa hand who's visited all but a few of the continent's 50 nations, I'm pretty hard to impress. But what I found at the reserve left me touched in the most magical way. Until a decade ago, the lands that form Kwandwe - all 17,800 hectares - were farmed. They had been settled in the 1820s and were home to a hardy breed of white ostrich farmers. They'd slaughtered the original wildlife long ago in the name of "sport". Then, in the 1990s, an American investor with deep pockets and a dream teamed up with a local ranger with the know-how. The result - the vision of Kwandwe was mapped out, and a reserve was born.
Over the past 10 years, an entire spectrum of wildlife was reintroduced - from lions and rhino, to elephants and buffalo, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs and all the rest. With painstaking attention to breeding patterns and sustainability, the private game reserve has taken hold and is now thriving.
There's nothing quite like seeing wildlife without cages and walls. And, for me, the most precious moment of the year was coming upon a nest of honey-yellow lion cubs at twilight, their mother watching us through sleepy eyes. It was the most humbling moment, and one that made me remember that even the wildest dream can eventually become reality.
* Tahir Shah
This was predominantly a Europe year with trips to Germany, Iceland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK. All were good, but the stand-out destination was a bit of a surprise. I had expected a three-day stay in Munich in late summer to be a touch long and I was worried I might be kicking my heels, but the Bavarian capital gripped me. I spent almost an entire day at the Pinakothek der Moderne art and design museum, marvelling at exquisite pieces of furniture and masterly models of German auto engineering. My wife and I took bicycle rides and summer strolls through the leafy lanes around Amalienstrasse, seeking out hidden vintage clothing shops and dropping into cafes. The coffers of the old central market - the Viktualienmarkt - were considerably strengthened by an afternoon I spent gathering up cheeses, cured meats, jams, pastes and other tasty delights, most of which had been produced within a short drive of the city.
We spent a sun-drenched afternoon lying on our backs in the cool grass of the main park - the English Garden - eating our way through a pile of tangy Bavarian apples and smoked cheese and listening to the whoop of people leaping into the river that flows through the park. The whoops were coming from surfers catching a permanent wave; what a stunning idea - creating a surfing spot for locals stranded hundreds of kilometres from the sea.
Another wonderful idea is the Louis Hotel (www.louis-hotel.com), which came in first place in my 2010 Hotels of the Year list and in my Top 10 of the decade. The service is impeccable, the attention to detail (treated oak floors, handmade wooden stools, lamps by the local firm Winhart, etc) is extreme and the breakfast is a mesmerising combination of exquisite flavours and natural, local produce. At checkout I may have looked calm but inside I was kicking and screaming that I had to leave.
"You must come back in December when the Christmas markets are here and it is snowing," said the receptionist, "it is very romantic." I am already booking for next year.
* Matthew Brace
In 2010, I travelled to 13 countries over five continents and somehow managed to keep up a weekly travel column in this newspaper. While it's impossible to sum up a trip of this proportion, there are moments that I'm still reflecting on.
On a water sports adventure day out in Laos, I met Evelyn. She had just arrived from Vietnam the day before where her bag had been snatched, although she didn't seem the slightest bit perturbed. Evelyn is in her sixties, and had become a grandmother just before joining us on a day of kayaking and cave tubing. She has a travel blog (www.getjealous.com//travellingemu) and had been on the move since January 2009. I've just revisited the blog and she is still on the road, on her 47th stop in Spain.
Japan was the place that surprised me most. I suppose I would call it culture shock - out of awe and curiosity. I struggled to compare its culture and aesthetics with that of other countries. The uniqueness of the place drew me in but the expense meant I couldn't stay longer. Definitely another time.
Standing on one of the world's highest peaks, in -20 degrees, semi-conscious, looking over Africa was a indeed a 2010 highlight, but it wasn't my few minutes at Kilimanjaro's summit that was the most memorable - it was the seven-day journey to reach there. It was the tears, the muscles aches, the laughs and overwhelming experience of pushing my mental and physical boundaries beyond my own limits. I'm still on some sort of a buzz from it now.
Eager to keep the adrenaline pumping to the end of 2010, I returned to the UAE before Christmas and booked myself on a dive with SkydiveDubai, freefalling from 4,270 metres. My slight worry now is my raised threshold for adventure. That cannot be a bad thing though, surely?
In 2011, I will attempt to make up for my sizeable carbon footprint this year. With so many disruptions - from volcanic ash clouds to snow - bringing Heathrow to a standstill this week, I'm planning on keeping things closer to home. Landing in any city and heading straight out exploring made me appreciate just how much there is to explore on my own doorstep. I've just returned from a weekend in Dublin, and I'll be heading out to the English countryside for some hiking when the weather improves, and have booked the Eurostar to Belgium to indulge in medieval architecture and fine chocolate. As for my annual summer charity projects watch this space; I might have another story to tell.
* Ismat Abidi