National Geographic Explorer Zodiac excursion at Cierva Cove - Photo by Andrew Harper
Best Travel Experiences 2017
Looking back at my year in travel, several activities stood out: a hike through the timeless Halawa Valley on the unspoiled Hawaiian island of Molokai; kayaking among icebergs in Antarctica; and snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos. All three were exhilarating travel experiences, and yet there were still others.
National Geographic Explorer
The National Geographic Explorer in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
© Ralph Lee Hopkins/Lindblad Expeditions
Antarctica is the place of the moment. Its emptiness and purity are certainly part of the appeal, but for many, the teeming wildlife is probably the primary draw. Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest of the seven continents. While the interior may range from minus 40 to minus 94 degrees, the coastal areas, most notably the Antarctic Peninsula, see daytime summer temperatures usually in the high 20s. We journeyed this year to Antarctica with Lindblad Expeditions aboard the 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer. The expedition team included 14 naturalists and two photo instructors, who by my calculations had more than 250 years of combined experience in the field. They consistently went out of their way — whether on the bridge or on our Zodiac excursions — to guide us to sightings that made the trip unforgettable!
Most Spectacular Hike
Hiking in the Halawa Valley
Mo'oula Falls at Halawa Valley, Molokai
Photo by Andrew Harper
On the last day of our seven-day adventure through the Hawaiian Islands aboard Un-Cruise’s Safari Explorer, we made an unforgettable excursion to the Halawa Valley on unspoiled Molokai. Although jungle now surrounds the trail to the Mo’oula waterfall, the path once served as a public way between taro fields and villages. Ancient ruins of volcanic rock dotted the entirety of the route, ranging from stones used for grinding medicinal herbs to sacred multilevel heiau (temples). We marveled for a while at the narrow waterfall, plunging down a towering green cliff into a round pool. Back at our guide’s farm, we walked through his terraces of taro plants, irrigated by ancient channels he had restored. In that place, at least, there was no need to imagine how the valley once looked. The old Halawa was there, spread out before us.
Wildlife Experience of the Year
Swimming With Sea Lions
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Sea lion coming up for air during our snorkeling excursion near Mosquera Island
Photo by Andrew Harper
Each time I return to the Galápagos, there are moments that leave me astonished. This visit was no different. I’ll never forget how, as our Zodiac made its way back to the Pikaia I, our guide decided to make a detour to nearby Mosquera Island. He had spotted some sea lions playing in the surf. The four of us jumped in the water with our snorkels and swam toward them. It wasn’t long before the sea lions spotted us. Graceful and inquisitive, they came within inches of us to inspect our face masks and cameras, and some even nipped at the tips of our fins. All around us swirled sleek, furry creatures, as eager to play with us as we were to photograph them. It was a moment of pure joy.
Eco Adventure of the Year
Kayaking Amid Icebergs
Kayaking near Booth Island, Antarctica
Photo by Andrew Harper
Our days in Antarctica were filled with shore landings and Zodiac tours. But on one afternoon, conditions were so calm that we were able to leave the ship and explore our surroundings in two-person inflatable kayaks (designed to be resistant to capsizing). We were cautioned to keep 25 feet from the larger ice formations in case they “calved,” but gliding past them with the only sound being the gentle splash of our paddles was like being in a vast outdoor gallery with some of the most extraordinary abstract sculptures I’ve ever seen.
Most Memorable Wine Tasting
Chablis Grands Crus at S. Chablis
Selection of grand crus at S. Chablis
Photo by Andrew Harper
This year, I had the good fortune to visit a number of impressive wineries, but the tasting that most stands out in my memory took place in a small unassuming shop. The bright and cheerful S. Chablis offers one of the best deals in all of Burgundy: tastes of four local grands crus for 14 euro. Before we started, the good-humored owner, Arnaud Valour (who speaks perfect English), chatted with us about Chablis and what sort of wines we wanted to experience. He tailored a tasting just for us, pouring wines from four grand cru vineyards — La Moutonne, Les Clos, Les Preuses and Vaudésir — ranging in age from 3 to 12 years old. The richness and force of top-quality Chablis never fail to amaze me.
8 Rue Auxerroise, Chablis. Tel. (33) 3-86-46-32-85
Best Driving Tour
Route of Santiago de Compostela
City of Logroño along the Ebro River, Spain
Not everyone has the time or the physical stamina to do the famous pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela on foot, but much of it can be seen and experienced during the course of a relaxed and delightful drive. We began in Santiago and headed east, following the N-547 to Lugo. Because it’s a beautiful old road that parallels the pilgrims’ path, many street signs indicate crossing points for the faithful. The N-120 from Astorga to León is another stretch where the roadside is visibly busy with those on their purposeful trek, and in good weather it’s fun to stop for a coffee or a cold drink at one of the hostels where the walkers are taking a timeout. Chatting with several — a middle-aged couple from New Zealand; a grandmother, mother and daughter from Boston; and two Japanese sisters — the same explanations for undertaking the walk kept coming up. These included the beauty of taking it slowly and seeing the countryside up close, the meditative state brought on by hours of walking, the pure pleasure of the exercise and a constant quiet musing on faith. The N-120 continues from just south of León to Burgos across the plains of Castille and goes through many beautiful small towns on its way to the lively wine town of Logroño, where many pilgrims begin their journey.
Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands and Quito
Pikaia Lodge on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos
Two of the world’s most exciting eco-lodges recently opened in Ecuador — in the Galápagos and in the cloud forest of the Andean foothills — and they complement each other beautifully. This two-week itinerary also includes the best of Quito, which has a striking valley setting and a well-preserved colonial center, along with the Avenue of the Volcanoes, where my recommended hideaway incorporates ancient Incan buildings into its construction.
Staying in these destinations allows visitors to experience four vastly different environments in one truly enviable vacation. The wildlife encounters in Ecuador are unforgettable, and its capital city has its own unexpected delights. Though I visited the country only a few months ago, assembling this itinerary made me anxious to book a return trip as soon as possible.
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