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The world seemed to get a little bit smaller this year. I crossed hemispheres via a 17-hour nonstop flight, brought my family together in Munich, hiked Central America’s youngest volcano, stomached pickled herring in the Netherlands, rode on the back of an African elephant and watched great whites circle me from the “comfort” of an iron cage. This was certainly a year to remember. In no particular order, here are my five favorite travel experiences of 2011.
Art in the Streets
Paris may be a “moveable feast” and Prague’s cobblestone streets at night can be heartbreakingly beautiful but, for me, there is no other European city as exhilarating and undeniably alive as Berlin. Pressed for time, I chose to spend most of my two-day vacation in the former East Berlin and booked a room at the city’s only music-themed hotel, N How Berlin. The hotel’s cuisine and in-room amenities, including an electric Gibson guitar, stood out as did the property’s proximity to the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, one of the longest remaining segments of the Berlin Wall. Completely renovated in 2009, the open-air gallery features the work of hundreds of international artists.
The East Side Gallery isn’t the only place to find art in the streets, however. Fans of graffiti and street art will want to head to nearby Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg where local and international artists treat the sidewalks like canvases. Huge murals created by Victor Ash and Blu graced the side of Kreuzberg’s buildings, while the propaganda-style art of Berlin-based Alias recalled the work of America’s Shepard Fairey, best known for his Obama “Hope” posters. Friedrichshain’s RAW Tempel complex, a former train depot-turned-cultural space, is also a must-visit for any fan of the ephemeral arts.
Hanging Loose on the Big Island
This summer, after many years away, I returned to a favorite hotel from my childhood, the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows on the Big Island. And, while the resort has upgraded the guest experience in several ways, Mauna Lani Bay manages to retain the understated tropical elegance that has made it a top resort since it opened in 1983.
The property occupies 30 oceanfront acres that feature three miles of secluded shoreline and two 18-hole golf courses carved from ancient lava fields. Contrasting with lava outcroppings along the shore, the property grounds are immaculate with bright-green grass and towering palm trees, some equipped with hammocks.
The most enjoyable part of my stay was when I cycled to the trailhead of the Malama Petroglyph Trail and hiked through the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological District. This petroglyph field is one of the largest and best preserved in Hawaii, with approximately 1,200 ancient stone carvings. The hotel also offers a two-hour guided hike though Puako, which I will definitely take part in during my next visit.
There’s nothing quite like experiencing a destination on horseback — particularly when it involves unspoiled beaches, wildlife sightings and a swig of Nicaragua’s famous rum. This was my experience and more at Rancho Chilamate, a horseback riding tour operator with heart, located in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua.
Founded and operated by expatriates Blue Van Doorninck and Jaime Lake, Rancho Chilamate gives back to the local community in several ways including donating a portion of its profits from each ride. Recent community efforts also include providing school supplies and uniforms to schools in the area and creating a community fund to help three local families pay for medical procedures and medicine.
The half-day Rural Nicaragua & Beach tour, the company’s most popular horseback riding excursion, began with a very memorable costume change. My tour group exchanged their sneakers for leather cowboy boots, tied colorful bandannas around their necks and donned cowboy hats in all shapes and sizes. We looked like an advertisement for Wrangler Jeans, but it was all in good fun.
We saddled up, basked in the sunshine and took deep breaths of the fresh, country air. Along the way, we rode past small villages, over rolling hills, spotted dozens of howler monkeys and traversed streams to find our way to a pristine stretch of beach, recently featured in the television show, “Survivor: Nicaragua.”
On the beach, Van Doorninck encouraged the more comfortable riders in the group to bring their horses to a gallop. She also directed our attention to the mountains of Guanacaste, Costa Rica, which were visible in the distance. We capped off our afternoon with a dip in the ocean and, lastly, raised our glasses of Nicaragua’s own Flor de Cana rum. Salud!
Living the High Life
If you have a fear of heights, The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong is not the hotel for you. It is, however, the tallest hotel in the world. Perched between floors 102 and 118 of Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre, the recently opened hotel is arguably the best place to view the city — particularly at night, when the multi-colored lights from Hong Kong’s skyscrapers reflect off Victoria Harbour in a near-mirror image.
En-suite telescopes and floor-to-ceiling windows further accentuate the property’s jaw-dropping views. To my delight, after having just misplaced my MP3 player, my suite featured a preloaded iPod, with everything from Tony Bennett to dubstep, and a pair of brand-new Bang & Olufsen speakers to put to the test. I also loved the suite’s white marble bathroom, which was decked out with an in-mirror television and backlit his-and-her basins.
Any visitor to Hong Kong should experience high tea, a vestige of 156 years of British colonial rule. While there are ample options for afternoon tea, there is little reason to leave the hotel, especially if you have a weakness for chocolate. The Chocolate Library, located on the lobby level, entices guests with cocoa- and cappuccino-colored furnishings and a chocolate-inspired menu in the shape of a book. My tea presentation for two (consumed by one) included a signature hot chocolate and a selection of sweet and savory treats (duck foie gras terrine on cocoa nib bread, white coffee chocolate tarts, chocolate madeleines) served in a book-shaped tray.
Into the Wild
For a city girl who thinks that seeing a squirrel counts as a wildlife sighting, I was absolutely floored when I saw the Big Five on safari in South Africa. In fact, the wild game sightings began even before my tour group arrived at Kapama River Lodge in Hoedspruit — a family of baboons lined the airport runway and, on the drive to the reserve, we spotted dozens of animals, including a family of warthog, a pair of zebra and two juvenile giraffe.
I certainly can’t say that I was “roughing it” at Kapama River Lodge. My thatched-roof suite had all the amenities of a five-star resort — apart from a television — and stunning views of the bush, best observed from the bathroom’s stand-alone soaking tub. Dinners were a treat, featuring regional delicacies (impala curry, wildebeest stew, pap with tomato gravy) in an outdoor, campfire-like setting.
Of course, everyone who goes on a safari wants to see the five most dangerous animals in the bush (elephant, lion, rhino, hippo and leopard), but it’s not always possible. Leopards, in particular, are notoriously elusive. Our ranger, Tim, and tracker, Willy, made sure that we maximized our time in the bush and, by the end of our second game drive, we had seen the Big Five — and so much more.