My 10 favorite trips: From Nepal to French Polynesia
In two weeks Marina and I are headed to Skopelos for our annual August journey into Greek hedonism. Everyone needs a regular getaway destination that’s as comfortable and familiar as your corner coffee bar. Skopelos is ours.
Why is Skopelos our favorite? It’s not just the convenience of being across the Adriatic Sea from Rome and a 40-minute flight from Athens where our layover Plaka Hotel has this terrific rooftop bar with a view of the Acropolis.
It’s the isolation of our tiny village of Panormas, the beauty of its beach, the luxury of our hotel, all combined to make it one of the best trips of our lives. It made me think. I’ve been traveling internationally for 45 years in 110 countries.
What are my 10 favorite trips of my life? I jotted down about 20 then whittled them down to my top 10. Surprisingly, a couple were guided tours. Normally, I loathe tours. But my rule of thumb is I’ll take a tour if the logistics are too complicated to do it solo or the places I want to go, such as the Amazon Jungle, require permits and a guide.
I once wrote my travel tales from hell. Here are my 10 favorite trips, in no particular order. Hopefully, this will give you a travel itch that you’ll want to scratch in a far-off outpost you never considered before. (Note: I included only one trip in Italy where I live. I could write a separate blog on Italy alone. In fact, I will. Also, I did not include any place from my trip around the world in 1978-79. Below are individual trips):
This was definitely No. 1. I went with Overseas Adventure Travel, a terrific adventure tour company that smoothed over a mountain of red tape. We spent a week camping in the Andes, a week canoeing in the Amazon and a week boating around the Galapagos Islands. Then I spent a week drinking in Quito and the countryside.
I emerged from my tent one morning just below the summit of Chimborazo, a 20,000-foot (6,268-meter) volcano with snow covering the top like a birthday cake. I went piranha fishing and learned, with a little butter, they taste like sea bass. One time in the Galapagos, I was writing in my journal at the bow of our boat. I heard a little peep behind me. A small Galapagos penguin stood on the bow looking over my shoulder at my diary.
You touch any wildlife in the Galapagos and you’re gone. Thus, all the animals, even the sharks, are as friendly, curious and docile as school children.
French Polynesia (1995)
Tahiti and its other islands are outrageously expensive. The most economic – and best – way to see them is on a sailboat. I had a friend in Southern California who rented sailboats around the world and invited friends to crew for him. I hoisted sails for him in the British Virgin Islands and Bahamas but French Polynesia was the best.
We bought groceries to cook onboard and avoid restaurant costs. We went scuba diving off different islands every day. I went to sleep atop the bow with torchlights lining the beach and soft Polynesian music filling the air. I woke to a South Pacific the color of a robin’s egg and the sound of waves lapping against the boat.
It is off-the-charts romantic. It’s worth getting married just to go there for the honeymoon. It hits everybody. Spend enough time in French Polynesia and eventually everyone – man or woman, it doesn’t matter – will look around the turquoise sea, jungle-covered cliffs and beaches and say, “I have GOT to get laid!”
This is my favorite island in the Caribbean, where I traveled often on scuba diving trips while living in the U.S. Tobago was a world away from Trinidad, its sister island, despite being only 50 miles (83 kilometers) away. Tobago had only 18,600 people and the isolated beaches along the jagged coastline were the most beautiful I’ve seen in the Caribbean, especially Englishman’s Bay. It is down a mud path that opens to a beautiful half-moon beach lined with palm trees and sugar-white sand.
The island had no big chain hotels (although a Hilton was in the works) and locals had turned down millions from conglomerates to sell their land. I hiked through rain forest to secluded waterfalls and scuba dived over virgin coral reefs.
My Blue Waters Inn had its own beach on Batteaux Bay and stood next door to the Bird’s Eye Cafe where the locals taught me liming, a Trinidadian term for hanging out. As I later wrote in a story for the Los Angeles Times, “If the chain of Caribbean islands is the rainbow of the Western Hemisphere, the nation of that rainbow is truly a pot of gold.”
This is the Georgia with the Caucuses, not Waffle Houses. It gets my vote as the most underrated country in the world. It has everything. The snow-capped Caucuses that form the spine of the country put the Alps to shame for pure beauty. Its food and wine are so good, it was called the Tuscany of the Soviet Union.
Tbilisi is a lively, clean, safe capital with hopping nightlife and a fascinating history. It has a terrific public transportation network, cheap prices and friendly people.
I’ve had few joys better in life than hiking up 3,000 feet (900 meters) to Cross Peak above Mestia then descending and dining on Georgia’s famed khachapuri cheese-filled bread and its equally famous Saperavi wine.
It still shocks me that a country so wonderful produced the likes of Joseph Stalin.
The most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen remains the sun coming up on Africa from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At 19,340 feet, the sun was just an orange fireball sitting on a bed of clouds. A 360,000-year-old crater was to my left; a glistening glacier was to my right.
It took six days: 4 ½ up and 1 ½ down. Only about half the climbers who attempt it make it to the top. I did it with one guide, two porters, no friends and a side of beef they carted up the mountain to feed me. It was hard but training for four months in the Colorado Rockies helped. Other than the ubiquitous headache on the summit attempt at midnight and some mild nausea when I returned to base camp, I had no problem.
I followed that with a 10-day safari that took our group through Olduvai Gorge, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. I found myself way too up close and personal with something ominously called a black African spitting cobra and got buzzed by a curious hyena while taking a piss outside my tent in the middle of the night.
Hey, travel isn’t all beaches and fine wine.
I’ve always been fascinated with Eastern Europe for its interesting mix of East and West. But in Cuba in 2013, you had a system from the old Soviet East smack dab in the West just off the coast of Florida. It’s where families still lived off government rations cataloged in little 1960s-style booklets I see sold in flea markets around Eastern Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba tried unsuccessfully to be self-sustainable. The mother whose home I took a room in traded milk to young mothers on the black market.
But it’s also where I watched a pickup baseball game between men and boys aged 15 to 55 in the parking lot of Havana’s baseball stadium. It’s where Fidel Castrol’s brother, Raul, took over governance and allowed Cubans to rent rooms (see above) to visitors and open restaurants serving their fabulous home recipes. And, of course, it’s still home to gorgeous, mostly unspoiled beaches.
I wanted to get there before it turned into another Miami. But as a tour guide told me over a beer outside Ernest Hemingway’s old mansion, “I make $25 a month. I hope they turn it into another Miami.”
Today, Albania is on the short list of in places to visit. But I went 30 years ago, one year after its rigid communist government fell and tourism was non-existent. Still hung over from the iron-fisted reign of Enver Hoxha, the dictator so communist he turned his back on the USSR and China for creeping revisionism, Albania remains the strangest place I’ve ever been.
Cars were still banned. The capital of Tirane had a six-lane downtown boulevard, void of traffic, as it was built to also serve as an emergency airplane runway. All over the country were 300,000 concrete, steel-reinforced machine gun bunkers in case of attack. Hitler didn’t even screw with Albania. Defectors were shot at the border. A windsurfing instructor in Corfu, Greece, 20 miles (35 kilometers) to the east, sailed to the Albania shore and was shot on sight. I met Albanians whom Hoxha threw in jail for 12 years for meeting other intellectuals on street corners.
But the virgin beaches made Albania look like Greece in the time of Zeus. The rivers were crystal clear. The food was excellent and authentic. The people were so curious and hospitable after a lifetime of unthinkable oppression and fear. I remember sitting in the mountain home of a hill tribesman drinking raki, Albanian whiskey, and laughing all afternoon despite the language barrier.
This made the list purely by my fascination with its relatively recent history. The Troubles of Northern Ireland have been over for more than 30 years but you can’t walk anywhere without seeing their fallout or meet first-hand witnesses.
The conflict from 1969-99 claimed 3,500 lives and tension still simmers. The city remains segregated along Catholic and Protestant lines. Falls Road on the Catholic side still has a giant mural of martyr Bobby Sands and reminders of the war.
What made the trip special was a tour guide who lived through it. Patrick O’Byrne, my good friend in Rome, grew up in Belfast and showed Marina and me around. I don’t remember a tour when a guide said, as Patrick did as we passed the Europa Hotel, “This is the most bombed hotel in Europe.”
And Belfast has evolved so much. Michelin-star restaurants are thriving and the Titanic Museum, built in 2012, is one of the top museums in the world. Also, how can you not have a great time spending New Year’s Eve in Belfast as we did?
But what makes Belfast is the people. They taught me lessons of forgiveness. I met one man in The Stadium Bar, a Protestant pub, whose grandfather was blown up in a nearby pub in 1971. He told me he wasn’t bitter at Catholics, saying, “They’re the same as us. They lost people the same way we lost people.”
You can trek independently in Nepal but for the first trekking trip of my life, I signed on with Mountain Travel. Now called Mountain Travel Sobek, it’s a highly recommended adventure company that made this the greatest trek in a life full of them.
We hiked for two weeks to the Annapurna Sanctuary, a bowl of 10 mountains from 18,600-25,000 feet (5,663-7,555 meters). With every turn on the trail, with every 100 feet of elevation, we had new views of the highest mountains in the world. All snowcapped, they stretched across the horizon like craggy clouds.
Porters carried our gear and Mountain Travel hired a gourmet chef from Kathmandu who made mouth-watering meals with the vegetables and meat he gathered along the trail. You’ve never had a better breakfast than sitting under sunny skies and 27,000-foot mountains eating a yak cheese omelet.
An added bonus was taking a Nepal Airlines flight from Kathmandu past Mt. Everest. It remains the only time I’ve flown by a mountain and had to look up at a summit.
This little island of about 5,000 people year round will always be in my top 10. It’s the greenest island in Greece with forest making up 80 percent of its 37 square miles. Eighteen beaches seemingly make up the rest.
Last year was our third trip and I upgraded to the Panormos Beach Hotel with the beach-side pool and private beach. We developed a nice routine. We’d wake up for the hotel’s superb buffet breakfast, walk about 50 feet to the beach where we hung out on lounge chairs until about noon.
We’d head across the street to one of the many dive tavernas where we sat in our swimsuits and ate scrumptious, cheap gyros and fresh Greek salads. We’d go home for a nap then wake to drink ouzo on ice with the friendly bartenders poolside. Our biggest decision every day is what wonderful restaurant we dine at on the beach while watching the sun set on the Aegean Sea.
I have long since forgiven Skopelos for being the site of Mamma Mia, the worst movie in the history of cinema.
That’s my top 10. What’s yours? Make a top 10 then do this: Go on a trip that will make the list.