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This year, I took a magnifying glass to my favorite cultures — Italian, Spanish, French, Polynesian and, um, the one particular to the New Yorker. Each instantly seduces you with its food, language, music, art, architecture and history. If there existed a canon of travel destinations — a list of places that are the most influential for travelers, or the travel destinations by which all other travel destinations are judged — my favorites in 2012 would certainly be among the Shakespeares of travel. But it’s not just that they make good first impressions or have a long history of wooing visitors — these countries, cities, islands and cultures have enduring lure, the result of having too many noteworthy experiences for one visit or too many experiences worth repeating. This year, I explored off-the-beaten-path counterparts to the world’s best big cities and returned to old favorites in new ways — onboard a luxurious yacht through the islands of the Mediterranean to on-foot, armed with only the new iPhone map through the back alleys of Rome.
ItalyTaking shots is not exactly an unheard of travel activity, nor is it a terrible experience to share with new travel companions. But it was the first time I had ever found olive oil in my cup. My last time in Rome was as a college student, fumbling with my espresso and wine orders and failing at attempts to moderate my gelato, pizza and pasta consumption. I left Rome with more culture and appreciation for the finer things, similar to other first-time or young visitors to Italy. However, I think the nuances of local, organic, sustainable, unfiltered, first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil would have been lost on me.
Since then, I’ve become passionate about healthy and traditional ways of eating; choosing local, sustainable foods over industrially produced food products; and promoting the consumption of fresh, organic fruits, vegetables and whole grains to all people, regardless of their income level. This is also the mission of Slow Food International, a non-profit organization that has recently begun offering Slow Food Travel tours via Brendan Vacations’ new Boutique Journeys catalog.
My week through the regions of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria involved visits to wine, cheese and olive oil producers, against the backdrop of sheep pastures, vineyards and olive groves. These places were beyond gorgeous. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I imagined I was the star of a parallel universe called “Under the Tuscan Sun,” thanks to the beauty of my surroundings. Rays of sunlight intersected through silvery olive groves and grapevines, atop undulating hills that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see. The aesthetic excellence was matched only by the quality of the food, and I brought home several new recipes, jars of cherry jam from a daughter selling her mom’s product at a small farmers’ market and olive oil grown, produced and bottled by two brothers with wild eyes — which showed a passion for their product and a side effect of not sleeping in order to guarantee its quality. Once again, I left Italy with a more developed palate — this time not just for quality food, but for what creates quality: passion.
New YorkOn the first night, I could hear snippets of conversation from the drunken passersby outside my friend’s studio apartment on the street level in the East Village. The next night, I slept far above the riff raff, where the streets surrounding Times Square looked like the magnified surface of a bumble bee — taxi cabs checkered by asphalt. From the Westin New York at Times Square, I headed toward Central Park. At The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel, I thoroughly enjoyed champagne, chocolate-dipped strawberries and my privileged view of the part of town for the privileged. Before I could get use to the luxuries of sleeping on a street where honking is fined, I was back at the bottom — the Lower East Side, sharing a bed in a room about the size of the bed, located at the top of an old, six-story walk-up.
In between sleep, I revisited favorites such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and High Line park, and ate to my heart’s content. Thanks to my brother, I found myself backstage at “Saturday Night Live” — feeling the walls shake from the music act and watching the actors, clad in costumes and wigs, elude their agents and hairdressers. I felt short looking up at “SNL” guest Usain Bolt, and I felt tall, atop of “Cloud City” on the Met’s roof, a mirrored structure that refracted the city’s skyline and turned it into a piece of experiential art. It was the kind of trip that made me remember that while we might try and explain a destination broadly, no two people have the same experience anywhere. In a city that is as dense with possibility as New York, this is obvious — but a destination is only alive if you show up for the show too.
Barcelona and a Windstar CruiseThe trip through the Western Mediterranean islands began with a whirlwind day through port city Barcelona, where my friend and I vowed to sleep little in order to do a lot. It was one of those days that reminded me of being a backpacker during college summer break, but allowed me to reflect on changes as well. One obvious change was La Sagrada Familia which, since my last Barcelona visit in 2008, now boasts a gorgeous completed interior and an interesting new front door. We visited some of Antoni Gaudi’s other sites — Park Guell and La Pedrera — with the expert guidance of Tesa Farriols Comas of Barcelona Tailor Made Tours. She also delivered us to one of our other favorite Spanish institutions — Zara. The clothing and home decor brand’s reportedly biggest store is located on Las Ramblas, where we also strolled and drank fresh juices. At Hotel Arts Barcelona, we enjoyed bespoke cocktails and modernist cuisine at Arola, as well as after-dinner drinks at Frank’s, where bartenders prepared table-side cocktails for us. Thanks to hours saved by not sleeping, we managed to squeeze in two brunch meals, both also listed in one of our freelancer’s articles about what to do in a single day in Barcelona.
After our jam-packed, sleepless run through Barcelona, we nearly melted into the top deck of the newly refurbished Windstar. The yacht was the smallest ship I had ever sailed on, and I instantly became a convert to the small ship experience. We made friends throughout the ship — stylish people with interesting professions and a love for travel and fun, as demonstrated by our early morning piano sing-a-longs. Our new friendships not only enriched our onboard experience, but came to our advantage at small ports, one of the perks of sailing with Windstar Cruises. For example, my friend and I couldn’t find a cab in Porto Vecchio, Corsica, but, while walking its streets, bumped into shipmates who wanted to split the price of a rental car to breathtaking Bonifaccio — which remains one of my all-time favorite travel discoveries. I loved experiencing how Elba, Corsica, Mallorca and Sardinia resembled and differed from their mainland counterparts — Italy, France, Spain and Italy, respectively — but also how they shared their own commonalities as neighboring islands.
Paul Gauguin and the South PacificIt’s almost like Pavlov and his dogs — when I tell people that I visited Bora Bora, Tahiti, Moorea, Taha’a and Raiatea, their eyes widen. This visit also taught me an important lesson in social media. Want to know how to engage your Facebook and Instagram followers? Post a photo of an overwater bungalow, and sit back as red “like” notifications burst forth from friends and foe alike.
While it may not be a science, the lure of the South Pacific is not illogical. The islands deliver on secluded, gorgeous, luxurious, relaxing scenes that seem to be plucked from travel dreams. Paul Gauguin, renovated in 2012, makes movement from island to island easy and comfortable. Gauguin also does a great job of bringing island culture onboard with special shows and The Gaugines, the ship’s onboard cultural ambassadors, and the rest of the ship’s staff — from the house band to the captain — are among the friendliest and most talented that I can recall. Itineraries also feature nights in port and the ability to book overwater bungalows at InterContinental Hotels & Resorts located throughout French Polynesia. I loved the dual experience of the Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort, where I enjoyed a traditional Polynesian show while dining with the property’s legendary general manager, and the Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, where I received an expert massage as fish swam underneath and around me.
Hawaii IslandIt was nearly pitch-black dark, the road was very narrow, I didn’t know the area, I was tired, I was unfamiliar with the car I was driving — and then it started to rain. On the night I got into Hilo, I had my doubts about my ensuing roadtrip through Hawaii Island. On top of that, I had a fear that I would be desensitized to Hawaii’s cultural and natural offerings, since the state is not exactly under the radar. But what unfolded was an unspoiled adventure through the bottom half of Hawaii Island. My roadtrip debunked many preconceived notions — that I wouldn’t be dumbstruck by the beauty of a waterfall and that I hated driving, for instance. Traveling solo was also very easy on the island, where I made new friends with other solo travelers hiking through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; while actively pursuing new active pursuits — such as stand-up paddleboarding and snuba; or when gawking at manta rays at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. At the hotel, I was also treated to the best facial I have ever received from a hotel and, in Kona, I found a great natural foods’ market and an unbeatable spot for wholesome acai bowls — the essentials of a fabulous wellness vacation. No matter how much is uncovered about the island, open-minded explorers will be surprised at how much awaits them.
At the Azienda Agricola Romanelli family farm near Montefalco, Umbria, a farmer discusses the importance of maintaining balance in the soil. // © 2012 Mindy Poder
On the rooftop of the Met, after climbing Tomas Saraceno’s sculpture “Cloud City” // © 2012 Mindy Poder
Bonifaccio, Corsica was one of Poder’s favorite discoveries. // © 2012 Blessing Yen
The Akaka Falls State Park waterfalls are a stunning sight to behold in person. // © 2012 Mindy Poder