Ah, the New Year. It’s a time for making to-do lists and a time for resolutions. Here’s a resolution I like: “Travel more and embrace the world with an open mind.”
We have a habit for always going back to the same places: a friend’s cottage in the country, the beach resort where the manager knows guests by name, the hotel overlooking Canal Street. There’s nothing wrong with that, but something about travel also requires newness and a sense of exploration. So shake off the old habits and go someplace you haven’t been before. Drawing on some of my own travel experiences (and a couple places I still want to visit), I jotted down five places to stir your travel dreams. They range from easy, family-friendly trips to far-flung destinations where “off the beaten path” doesn’t even come close to telling the story. Let’s go:
The country still is in the midst of an economic recession, something that seems to have persisted now for the better part of a decade, and while political turmoil and political grumbling seems to now be part of the country’s culture, it’s still a great value (but not a bargain deal since Greece is on the Euro). The country has it all: Beaches, mountains, good people (who love Nescafé and talking politics), historic sites, incredible cuisine and undiscovered corners where the massive cruise ships and tour buses don’t go. The nation has a definite peak tourism season, but the shoulder seasons and the off-season offer a less-crowded perspective, and there are great deals to be had as long as you’re not there in peak season. Here’s my tip: Don’t spend more than half of your time at the extremely famous sites. They’re awesome, but there is so much going on in this nation to see, to do and to experience. One of my favorite visits was a short 5-minute hike up a stone trail in the mountains on the island of Naxos to a decaying temple overlooking a massive valley and ringed by high ridges glowing golden by the setting sun. The best part was that not a soul was around besides my wife and I, having been conveyed there by our petite orange scooter.
St. Augustine, Fla.
Orlando gets top billing as the family destination of northern Florida (and for all of Florida, really), but here’s a secret: St. Augustine may not have princesses and famous mice to draw the crowds, but it has a small-town feel, tons of history, a touch of rural Florida, some very nice beaches and plenty of family-friendly destinations. The lodging options range from budget to boutique, and from historic to beach resort. I visited the area last year, and I’ve been talking to a number of families who have visited recently and in my entirely unscientific vacation-happiness study, St. Augustine regularly receives two thumbs up. The year 2015 is the city’s 450th anniversary (the oldest city in the U.S. permanently settled by Europeans), so there will be many festivities, including a possible papal visit and a visit by the King of Spain. Personally, I’d recommend avoiding the crowds and instead seeing St. Augustine when there’s not an event buzzing in the city. A vacation here, after all, is all about slow movement and relaxation.
Admit it: You’ve probably watched a couple episodes of the popular Alaska TV shows that seem to dominate cable these days, whether it’s blasting for gold, homesteading, or just trying to survive for a few days in the wilderness. And if those shows interested you, then know this: The place is real, and you don’t need a passport or an expensive overseas flight to get there. You’ll arrive and find fresh fish (high protein and low fat to help you along on that other resolution), great hunting and fishing, amazing hiking, Native American culture and probably the Northern Lights. If those don’t immediately tick the boxes you want for a vacation, then consider these options: Cabins, lodges, cruises, railroad excursions, glaciers, massive mountains, wildlife viewing and air taxis. Trips tend to take a few common formats: 1) Fishing, hunting or wildlife-viewing trips with guides, while staying at small lodges; 2) a cruise ship tour up the “Inside Passage” from the Seattle or Vancouver area; 3) A self-guided RV-style road trip up from Washington State that involves driving the ALCAN highway and then exploring Alaska’s interior; 4) guided motor-coach tours launched from Anchorage and often lasting around one week, and 5) Denali National Park visits for those wanting to go directly to the big mountains in Alaska’s interior. We've got a full travel guide to Alaska here.
Just out the door are 14,000-foot mountain peaks and scores of whitewater rafting trips on the Arkansas River. You have “S” mountain within walking distance across the river with ample hikes and mountain biking (S mountain trail map here). Motorcyclists come for the serpentine pavement over mountain passes and the off-road trails. Salida is classic, small-town Colorado, the kind of place where you can chill in the afternoon at the riverfront park, then grab a pizza and a microbrew, and walk back to the vacation rental you found online. In sum, it’s a great home base for all manner of outdoor explorations, even if it that just means rolling up the valley to the Mount Princeton hot springs outside the equally awesome town of Buena Vista.
Say Myanmar and most people draw a blank, so let’s put a few things in order: It’s Thailand’s western neighbor; it was once called Burma, and it’s been relatively closed off from Western influence for decades (read a quick Myanmar history synopsis here). It just wasn’t one of those places that people visited. Today you still can’t visit the entire country since much is still closed to tourism, but even in the open section, you’ll find plenty to endear you with this developing country. Here’s the travel recipe: Mix equal parts traditional culture and cuisine hardly marred by globalism, plenty of coastline, a little British influence (it was a British colony in the 1800s), lots of influence from India and China, Buddhism, the hangover of government repression, hot weather, stunning temples and pagodas, rural lifestyles, the difficult unveiling of democracy and, lastly, a major income gap. If you want 5-star hotels, theater, shopping and low likelihood of protests or election strife, don’t even consider it, and wisely stick to New York, Paris, Rome or London. If you want an “off the beaten path” destination, then this one is for you. Even Anthony Bourdain gave the nation mighty praise in his “Parts Unknown” show on CNN.