Special Recognition Award Winners
Mr. Harper's favorites from the past year of travel
Travel can provide experiences that are so powerful they prove transformative; you feel that you have acquired new insight and life will never quite be the same again. At the end of each year, I look back and reflect on such moments of revelation.
Off the Coast of Maui, Hawaii
During our Safari Explorer cruise in Hawaii, I dutifully arose early one morning to join a sunrise whale-watching excursion. As I sipped my coffee in the twilight, longing to return to our cabin’s comfortable bed, a crew member spotted a whale “logging,” or resting, on the surface. We approached and discovered a humpback nursing her newborn calf. The mother sometimes helped the calf onto her back, raising it above the waterline in order to catch an easy breath. We watched for an extraordinary 45 minutes as mother and calf bonded. Throughout the cruise, we spotted whales spouting and breaching, sometimes with breathtaking proximity. But when I think back on our cruise, it is the memory of a humpback and her calf that I most treasure.
Visiting Yaxha at Sunset
Spectacular ancient ruins are often crowded, but we had Mayan Yaxha all to ourselves. This enigmatic complex of nine plazas and some 500 buildings — just across the Guatemalan border from Belize — proved to be sensationally atmospheric. Numerous pyramids, palaces, observatories and ball courts have been unearthed, but many more buildings remain covered in palms and strangler figs. We timed our visit so we could watch the sunset from atop the tallest pyramid, which affords panoramic views as far as Lake Yaxha. We stood alone outside the entrance to the temple, from where Yaxha’s priests and rulers once surveyed their domain. As the sun disappeared, the hoots of howler monkeys echoed across the treetops, but the vast city below stood silent.
Walking on the Frozen Ocean
Toward the end of our Antarctic cruise aboard the National Geographic Explorer, we entered a tranquil fjord flanked by impressive snow-capped hills that stood silently beneath gray skies. Ahead lay a vast sheet of ice. To our amazement, the ship plowed right into it. Through an entryway on the lower deck, we walked onto the frozen ocean. Some people wandered about in wonder; others fell to the ground to make snow angels. Out on the ice, I thought of the Apollo astronauts who ventured out onto the plains of the Moon and looked back at their lunar module. For a moment, I understood the feeling of being on another world.
Jet Boating Down the Waiau River
The Waiau River flows south out of Lake Te Anau at the southwestern tip of New Zealand. Clear, fast and powerful, it achieved fame as the Great River Anduin in the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I had come to fish for trout from a jet boat, the advantage of which is that it enables you to remain stationary, even in the strongest current, and to fish the slack water at the edge of the flow, where the fish are mostly found. Over the course of eight hours, with a break in the middle for a lunch of lobster sandwiches, I caught 15 rainbow trout between three and five pounds in weight, all on a floating dry fly. It was precisely the kind of experience for which keen trout fishermen travel halfway around the world. At the end of the day, Keith (my guide) suggested a six-mile trip downstream to where the river enters Lake Manapouri. The jet boat swerved and crashed through the rapids until we reached the lake. There, we killed the engine and, in the sudden silence, sat staring at the vast sheet of sky-blue water, untroubled by scarcely a ripple and backed by the jagged peaks of the Fiordland National Park. Surrounded by pristine wilderness, I felt profoundly at peace.
Seeing the North Face of the Eiger
From the center of Wengen, it is a 10-minute ride on the Aerial Cableway to Männlichen. Emerging from the station, I was confronted by one of the world’s great mountain panoramas. To my right were the Mönch and the Jungfrau, but directly in front was the immense north face of the Eiger, the Mordwand, or “murder wall,” a mile and a half of vertical rock and ice on which the sun never shines. Although it is relatively easy to reach the 13,025-foot summit of the Eiger along a ridge, the sinister north face was long considered to be unscalable. Since 1935, at least 64 people have died attempting to conquer it. It was first climbed by members of an Austrian-German team in 1938, who were immediately summoned by Hitler to be extolled as exemplary specimens of Aryan manhood. Parts of the face are slightly concave and create their own weather systems. As I stood watching, buffeted by a chill wind, swirling vortices of cloud formed, dissipated and then regrouped. The whole scene had a Wagnerian quality, and it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by a feeling of menace.