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Somewhere between making friends with sea lions and trolling Hamburg’s streets for remnants of the early Beatles, I realized that as long as I’m curious, I’ll love to travel. Making unlikely friends in both a low-income, hilltop Jamaican village and in the crystal-clear waters of an UNESCO Heritage Site, tracing the early steps of my favorite band and exploring the homeland of my ancestors were among my favorite learning experiences of 2011. This last year I also solidified what can catapult any trip from good to truly memorable: breaking bread with locals, particularly when the carb in question accompanies a double digit tasting menu by a Michelin multi-starred chef. Below are my favorite five travels of 2012, in no particular order.
The Homeland of Milk and HoneyIsrael has always been precious to me. My mother found out she was pregnant with me while visiting the country where she grew up, but since I grew up during a backdrop of tension in the Middle East, that meant the region was off limits to me. During my visit, I felt incredibly safe throughout the entire country, which I was happy to realize I could traverse during the course of a day on a chartered bus, though I preferred my camel ride through a Bedouin desert camp. My favorite spots included the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem shuks (markets), where it was easy to brush shoulders with locals as well as sample the country’s famed falafel, rugelach and much more. For my next visit, I’d love to try out another beachfront boutique hotel by Atlas, or wander from gallery to gallery on the cobblestones of the artsy, mystical, waterside city of Tzfat (Safed), the highest city of Israel.
Michelin MadridI knew I was in for a treat the minute I boarded the new Iberia Airlines’ direct flight to Madrid from LAX. Chomping on olives and sipping on cava (Spanish wine) in the air prepared me for what ended up being a week-long, stomach-expanding embrace of traditional and modern Spanish eating. Spain’s been on the map for its high-end, innovative cuisine for years — Ferran Adria’s El Bulli restaurant in Roses, Spain was one of the world’s most sought-after reservations before it shuttered last year — but visitors will find that exciting eating opportunities are alive and well in Madrid. I’ll never forget the “hardboiled egg” I received for dessert at the Michelin-starred El Club Allard, which turned out to be a white chocolate shell which, after cracked, revealed a coconut meat flesh containing bright yellow mango syrup. The dessert that preceded the egg — a fishbowl filled with an aquatic scene that turned out to be sweets masquerading as algae, foam and corral — will also continue to appear in my dreams.www.elcluballard.com
Playing Marco Polo with Sea LionsLa Paz is an easy gateway to the Sea of Cortez, especially if you’re staying at the city’s first five-star hotel, CostaBaja Resort & Spa. At the resort’s marina, a yacht chartered by Fun Baja picked up my group and delivered us to waters less traversed — Isla Espiritu Santo. After a luxurious yacht ride, we stopped the boat, put on snorkels and jumped into the crystal-clear waters of the island, which is a protected National Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Immediately, we saw sea lions of all shapes and sizes — from nursing babies to alpha males — soaking up the sun on a giant rock. We were told not to get too close to the sea lions as the sanctity of the island’s ecosystem has always been important to maintain — indeed, Jacques Cousteau famously dubbed the Sea of Cortez as the world’s aquarium. Luckily, since the sea lions have been historically treated well by humans, they were extremely friendly. As we snorkeled around the sea lions, many left their comfortable perch and dived into the water, swimming below, adjacent and around our group. At one point, I wasn’t sure if the wet, shiny, black skin peaking through the water belonged to our guide or to a sea lion, and I was ecstatic when I discovered that what was peaking up at me was a sea lion, hosting me in his natural habitat.www.funbaja.com
On Tour with The BeatlesHamburg is a sophisticated, upscale European city, offering opera, art, parks and Alster Lake, which is a must-visit site for recreational water activities and al fresco dining. But Hamburg’s seedy underbelly — the red light district of St. Pauli — is where I spent the most time. Many tourists flock to the area for its Vegas-style antics including strip clubs, sex shows, lively restaurants, bars and shops, but I was drawn to the area’s history of music. Growing up on the music of The Beatles, I was more than happy to discover where The Beatles were said to have “grown up,” and I’ll never forget what I learned on my interactive, walking tour of The Beatles in Hamburg.
Making Friends in JamaicaAfter returning from gorgeous Jamaica, friends expected stories of sun, sand and island time, but even I was surprised when I reminisced most about the Reading Road Trip, a voluntourism opportunity offered by Sandals Grande Riviera Ocho Rios. The trip’s mission — to promote literacy — is laudable and indeed beneficial to the school’s children, as many of them don’t have literate parents. While I discovered that the program is indeed helping frame literacy and learning in a positive light, I felt that I was the greatest benefactor of the trip — it’s always a special treat to interact with local community members in the midst of their daily life.
During my trip, we drove from the resort up to neighboring Parry Town, a low-income area north of Ocho Rios Bay, surrounded by hills and many of the children’s homes. We were greeted by the principal and taken to a classroom, where a class of youngsters eagerly smiled back at us. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was more of an interruption or a help but, when asked if they wanted to read, every single hand shot up. After getting paired up with a few students, we began our reading session and I was extremely gratified when my three little girls begged for more. Also, it never hurts to feel popular — during snack times, other students were drawn to the reading room for a chance to hear and draw a story. On my way back to the van, I peeked in the school’s new computer lab, which the Sandals Foundation and Air Canada donated in July. The 40-person computer lab was in use by a class, who clearly had taken to their new facilities.
There’s no doubt that the oceanfront resort’s newly renovated facilities, numerous pools, spa services and butler concierge helped, but this excursion left me feeling greatest of all. Guests can book the two-hour excursion through the resort’s activities desk for $20, which includes transportation to and from the school. The Reading Road Trip marks the company’s first official voluntourism program, offered in conjunction with The Sandals Foundation and its school adoption policy which pairs up resort staff members with neighboring schools for mentorship and homework assistance. Tours are available to all guests of Sandals Resorts, Beaches Resorts and Grand Pineapple Beach Resorts and take place in Jamaica as well as schools in Saint Lucia, Antigua, the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos.www.sandalsfoundation.org
Camel riding through a Bedouin camp is one way to traverse the Israeli desert. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Diners were puzzled when waiters brought out a hardboiled egg for dessert at Madrid’s Michelin rated El Club Allard. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Sea lions in Isla Espiritu Santo have historically been treated well by humans, so they are very playful with snorkelers. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Beatles-Platz, a plaza that memorializes the original five members of The Beatles, is located in St. Pauli, Hamburg’s red-light district. // © 2011 Mindy Poder