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Top Travel Tips

December 16, 2013 Travel Agent

The Travel Agent team is on the road for much of the year, traveling tens of thousands of miles so that we can bring you an insider’s perspective that you can share with your clients. As 2013 draws to a close, we decided to give you some of our best picks of the year, so that you can add them to your portfolio of travel knowledge. Note that this is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of the best hotels and travel experiences in the world, but simply a curation of what we witnessed firsthand.

Joe Pike is Travel Agent’s senior editor covering Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Central and South America. Whether it was drinking in the splendors of New Zealand’s wine country, lounging in an ocean-kissed villa in Jamaica or stopping to smell the roses (and other flowers) in Medellin, Colombia, he recaps some of his “best of the best” for 2013.

Best Hotel: The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, a Relais & Châteaux resort in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, was the best hotel I stayed at in 2013 simply for its ability to combine old-fashioned, classic elegance with subtle modern chic touches. The incredible views of the mountains from my balcony didn’t hurt either.

The classic vibe of the hotel is preserved by clever design elements, such as having all flat screen TVs in the rooms hidden behind either paintings or colonial-style cabinets with curtains. There are speakers in the living room and bathroom ceilings, iPod docking stations and free Wi-Fi.

The best rooms here are located in the Owner’s Cottage, which is a four-bedroom cottage that can sleep as many as 12 people, since extra beds can be added. Wine pairing dinners can also be arranged in the rooms. This cottage is well suited for a family or group of friends traveling together. The large living room has a stone fireplace, generously sized open-plan kitchen and dining area. It also comes with two smaller sitting rooms, each with fireplaces, TVs and comfortable seating. There is also an outdoor Jacuzzi and a stone terrace. 

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers is definitely a must for all foodies and wine enthusiasts. The restaurant changes its wine-pairing menus every day, the service is impeccable and the staff can meet most requests. 

RELATED: New Zealand's Wine Country

Best Room: Villa #14, one of 13 villas (there is no villa #13 for superstitious reasons) at the Trident Hotel in Port Antonio, Jamaica, was the best room I stayed at in 2013. Also known as the Shiprock Villa because it is so close to the ocean and the rocks, this room may in fact be the best room I have ever stayed in my 20+ times visiting Jamaica.

Just outside of Medellin, Colombia, Joe Pike visits Puente de Occidente (Bridge of the West), which spans the Río Cauca.

Just outside of Medellin, Colombia, Joe Pike visits Puente de Occidente (Bridge of the West), which spans the Río Cauca.

The best part of this room, however, was the private patio with a small swimming pool and lounge chairs. It is completely gated off from the other villas so you basically have a backyard to yourself. The pool is only about two feet away from the ocean and elevated about two feet above the ocean. It’s not uncommon to get sprinkled by the ocean as the waves crash on the rocks. The villa is also the closest one to the hotel’s private beach. 

Though thoroughly renovated, the Trident Hotel, thankfully, maintains most of its original Jamaican-Georgian exteriors.

RELATED: A Firsthand Look at The Geejam Collection in Port Antonio, Jamaica

Best Overall Destination: There were so many incredible places I got the chance to experience in 2013, from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala to the French-Caribbean island of Martinique. But Medellin, Colombia takes the prize for the best overall spot I visited this year simply because I love a good comeback story. Roughly 30 years after it was deemed the drug and murder capital of the world, the Medellin you will see now is perhaps the best tourist destination in all of Latin America for everyone — from foodies to adventure lovers to night owls. 

Now, there are hundreds of activities clients should be taking part in during a visit here, but there is one event they should absolutely not miss. Considered to be a “bucket list” item by many, the Desfile de Silleteros (Silleteros Parade) is the central event of Medellin’s annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair), which attracts roughly 20,000 residents and tourists, and usually runs during the first or second week of August.

RELATED: The Blossoming of Medellin

Best Nightlife: During the second annual Destination Immersion, in which I had the pleasure of escorting some of Travel Agent’s 30under30 winning agents on a trip to Barbados, I was lucky enough to dance the night away at Sugar Ultra Lounge in St. Lawrence Gap

Now, I’m not much of a club guy, but the Caribbean is a hard spot to find places that aren’t full of couples. Sugar was a great spot for those travelers who may not have brought a significant other with them and are instead looking to mingle with a local at the club. 

All the fixtures of a good club are there — beautiful, scandalously dressed women dancing on the tables, really good house music, clubby versions of rock songs and excellent VIP table service.

RELATED: A Bajan Conversation - 30 Under 30 Hits Barbados

Meagan Drillinger feeds sugarcane to one of the gentle giants who reside at Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Meagan Drillinger feeds sugarcane to one of the gentle giants who reside at Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Staff editor Meagan Drillinger covers a variety of destinations for Travel Agent, including Mexico, Asia and Europe. This year she discovered the magic of Mexico’s cities, including Mexico City and Puebla. She also visited Dubai, Paris and Thailand.

Best Room: The Ray Charles Suite at Raffles Le Royal Monceau in Paris was inspired by the soul star himself. The foyer greets guests with a beautiful baby grand piano, and life-size photos of Ray Charles. From there, guests can see directly through the open living/dining room into the master bedroom. The secret to the suite is in the details. Designer Philippe Starck took into consideration the performer’s life and mixed that up nicely with Art Deco flourish. (The lampshade over the bedside lamp was a print of notes written by Charles’ daughter.) Our favorite corner was the sprawling bathroom, which was decked out in white marble and mirrors. There is a deep soaking tub along with a separate walk-in shower. Best part? From the window of the bathroom, guests have a spot-on view of the Eiffel Tower

RELATED: Travel Buzz - London, Paris and Rome

Best Meal: Though less fancy than some other restaurants in town, China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas packs a punch to the taste buds that had me coming back for more. It fuses Mexican and Chinese flavors and offers a split menu of Mexican street food and Chinese noodles and dim sum. The best item on the menu is the Rou Jia Mo Street Sandwich, a buttery arepa stuffed with red braised pork. 

Best Tour Operator/Guide: Journey Mexico, founded by U.S. native Zachary Rabinor, is an exclusive operation that can cater to a wealth of interests and experiences in Mexico, from beaches and wellness to native crafts, adventure, food and wine, and archaeology. The company is able to set up private tours (including after-hours museum visits), as well as group experiences, family vacations and honeymoons. On my recent visit to Mexico City, I was met by my private guide, Juan Carlos, who whisked me off to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. He’s a walking encyclopedia of Mexico City history and his energy thrives at the museum. Juan Carlos also took us through the streets of the Coyoacan neighborhood to sample the city’s delicious street food — everything from tacos and quesadillas to churros and Mexican hot chocolate.

RELATED: Mexico City Today

Best Spa/Resort: Tucked on a secluded island just 45 minutes by boat from Phuket, Six Senses Hideaway Yao Noi in Thailand is hands down the most superlative resort and spa I have ever seen. Six Senses raises luxury to a new level because it incorporates over-the-top service and amenities with a casual, barefoot atmosphere that focuses on environmentally friendly practices and local experiences. Guests can experience a four-handed 90-minute massage in the tree house-style spa, sunset yoga on a private beach, private island-hopping with a beachside picnic, biking through the local villages, or simply be pampered in their own pool villa. 

RELATED: Just Back: Thailand (VIDEO)

Best City: Mexico City, often glossed over by the American traveler, is the “it” destination for most affluent Latin American globetrotters. With dining that is on par with Rome, Paris and Tokyo (so says Forbes), world-class entertainment and historic heritage, Mexico City is poised to rub elbows with international jet-set destinations that have been luring the American elite for years. Be sure to book a Grupo Habita hotel, like Downtown Mexico City. Other hot spots to hit in Mexico City are the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the premiere opera house in Mexico; San Angel, a neighborhood filled with colonial era homes and haciendas; and Avenida Presidente Masaryk, a street in Polanco with high-end boutiques and restaurants. Other attractions include four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 175 museums, more than 100 art galleries, 1,500 restaurants…and the list goes on. Outside the city, first-timers will not want to miss Teotihuacan, an archaeological site that has some of the world’s largest pyramids.

RELATED: Millennials in Mexico - Meet Grupo Habita

At Universal Studios Florida, Jena Tesse Fox spends some quality time (travel) with Doc Brown from Back to the Future.
At Universal Studios Florida, Jena Tesse Fox spends some quality time (travel) with Doc Brown from Back to the Future.

This year, staff editor Jena Tesse Fox has traveled stateside to Orlando, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas (twice), Denver, Minneapolis and Nashville, and internationally to Nassau in the Bahamas, and London and Leicester in the UK. Here are a few of her top picks from the past year’s journeys. 

Best Hotel Room: Sleek and elegant, my room at The Encore, Las Vegas was a surprisingly quiet retreat from the energy of the city. The little touches in this suite made all the difference: All of the lighting could be controlled from a bedside console, for example — including the curtains and blinds to let in sunlight. The desk had a set of plugs that popped up when needed, and the TV rotated 180 degrees to serve either the living room or the bedroom. Just about everything about this room was understated and subtle, with elements appearing only as needed, and light flowing easily from the floor-to-ceiling windows through the open-plan layout. It made the space at once very comfortable and very soothing.

RELATED: Top Las Vegas Spas for 2014

Best Restaurants: The quality of the places we dined at was too great to pick just one, so it came down to a delicious three-way tie, with variety adding spice to the mix.

Rolf and Daughters, Nashville: The culinary scene is on the rise in Tennessee’s capital, and Bon Appétit magazine’s recognition of Rolf and Daughters as the third-best restaurant in the entire country should be a signal to foodies everywhere. Simple and tasty dishes made with fresh ingredients are the order of the day at this casual-but-classy eatery: The garganelli verdi, served with a heritage pork ragout and covered in Parmesan cheese, was hearty, filling and wonderfully tasty. The spinach-infused pasta was not overpowered by sauce or cheese — instead, every element of the dish worked beautifully together for maximum taste. Rolf and Daughters is keeping fine fare affordable (the most expensive item on the menu costs $24), which enhances its great popularity. Be sure to book several months in advance. 

Chutney Ivy, Leicester, England: This ultra-modern (if rather cavernous and industrial looking) restaurant on a busy Leicester street serves top-notch classic Indian fare with some nice European twists. The whole menu has plenty to recommend, but the Feasts are the best pick: Foodies can get small plates of almost everything on the menu, either vegetarian or meat, to best experience (almost) everything the restaurant has to offer. The spices used in these dishes, which can be adjusted to taste, maximize flavor rather than burning the tongue — and those flavors are hard to forget.

RELATED: How to Plan a Day Trip to Leicester, England

The Table Orlando: This is the ultimate in foodie exclusivity — a small room with one large table that fits only 22 guests for a single seating two nights per week. The culinary journey begins with wine and appetizers at the bar, and the main meal is a five-course dinner with wine pairings. Best of all: The owners have partnered with farmers all over the area and get daily deliveries of whatever the farmers feel is their best crop. This means that the ingredients are always top-notch, everything is always super-fresh...and that no meal ever has the same menu twice. Make reservations well in advance.

RELATED: Communal Fine Dining

Best Airport Lounge: If you’re going to spend hours in an airport, there is no better place to do so than in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at London Heathrow. In fact, one might want to book a layover of several days just to have time enough to try everything at this haven: One can order multi-course meals from a full menu of dishes and snacks, a wide range of cocktails (some of which were quite creative, and all of which were very tasty) at the bar, unwind with spa treatments (including facials and hair styling), shower, play pool or games, watch movies, have a business meeting...There’s even someone to shine your shoes, with slippers to borrow until they’re ready. Everyone needs some comfort before a long flight, and this is the place to find it.

Mary Winston Nicklin visits one of the vineyards in Alsace, France, during the 60th anniversary of her favorite region’s wine route.

Mary Winston Nicklin visits one of the vineyards in Alsace, France, during the 60th anniversary of her favorite region’s wine route.

From across the pond, Mary Winston Nicklin, Travel Agent contributor based in Paris, chimes in with her best travel experiences of this past year.

Best Overall Destination: I live in Paris, so I may be a bit biased — but the numbers don’t lie. With 83 million international visitors in 2012, France is the most popular destination on earth. Whether you’re a culture vulture seeking out the hottest contemporary art exhibits, a gastronome looking to get your food fix, or a history buff eager to see the Renaissance châteaux, Gothic cathedrals and Normandy’s D-Day landing beaches, there’s something for everyone. Excellent tourism infrastructure means that even the smallest of villages has a well-equipped tourist office, and the high-speed rail network means that crossing the country is a breeze. (The TGV train connects Paris and Marseille in three hours; Strasbourg in the east is reached in just over two hours; and Champagne Country is just one hour from Paris.)

Favorite Region: I visited Alsace in fall 2013 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the wine route. I’m a big fan of the annual Christmas markets in Strasbourg (hot mulled wine and lots of yuletide merriment), but it was my first time traversing the route des vins. Small local producers create some of the best Rieslings and Gewurztraminers in the world, and the landscapes are beautiful: Hillsides are cloaked with vines and the villages are straight out of Hansel and Gretel. 

Best New Hotel: Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul, opened this year on the banks of the Bosphorus and it’s absolutely dreamy. When I tested out the hotel in early November, I was impressed with all aspects — graceful service, elegant rooms with all the creature comforts, excellent cuisine, the hammam treatment in the spa, and a sigh-inducing design. (The marble lobby will take your breath away.) Did I mention the breakfast buffet overlooking the sea? 

Favorite Hotel: My pick is constantly changing, and I have some long-standing favorites in cities such as London and Paris, but the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort in Abu Dhabi is one of those fairytale destinations that linger in your memory. It’s designed as a fortress at the edge of the Empty Quarter, the largest continuous sand desert in the world. Climbing the dunes at sunrise is spectacular.

Best Hotel Restaurants: While in San Sebastian in Spanish Basque Country, I enjoyed lunch at Tse Yang, the restaurant at the Luxury Collection’s Hotel Maria Cristina. The haute Chinese cuisine is a welcome change when you’ve overdosed on pintxos in the city’s Parte Vieja. The Peking Menu is great value. Epicure, the Michelin three-starred restaurant by Eric Frechon at Le Bristol Paris, is also extraordinary. 

Best Hotel Bar: In my book, Artesian at The Langham London still reigns supreme. Head barman Alex Kratena is a creative genius when it comes to inventing new cocktails that are as visually pleasing as they are delicious.

Favorite Restaurant: Paris, the world’s culinary capital, has a galaxy of Michelin stars, but one of my favorites doesn’t have one. Le Ciel de Paris is at the top of the Tour Montparnasse, and the views over Paris are amazing. Lunch is a real value, and you can gape at the Eiffel Tower while choosing either two or three courses. Terroir Parisien is another long-time favorite, as is Sola, and Chef Eric Frechon recently opened Lazare, a classy eatery at the Gare Saint-Lazare, which is worth reserving on your next visit to Paris.

Best Tour Guide: Fatih Copuroglu, of InS Luxury Travel in Istanbul, has provided tours for celebrities, dignitaries, and international business tycoons when visiting Istanbul. The company’s managing partner Koray Sahmali is also a wealth of information and quite generous when sharing his rolodex of insider addresses. 

Susan J. Young relaxes on the balcony of her stateroom onboard MSC Cruises’ MSC Divina.

Susan J. Young relaxes on the balcony of her stateroom onboard MSC Cruises’ MSC Divina.

As she looks back on an eventful year in cruising, Susan J. Young, senior contributing editor for cruises, is already working on her “bucket list” for 2014 and beyond. Susan cites Russian Far East and Myanmar, which she says has generated a lot of agent buzz, among the most exciting new cruising destinations she is looking forward to. She is also excited about Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas, set to launch next fall. Here are some items she found most noteworthy in 2013.

Most Amenity-Laden New Ship: Breaking away from the pack is Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Breakaway, New York’s largest home-ported ship. It boasts up to 29 eclectic dining options, including new seafood venues by celebrity Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. During my week onboard, I loved the Waterfront, an outdoor boardwalk where cruisers can stroll and dine alfresco. It’s fun to cool off in the ship’s Ice Bar (parka provided), watch Dora the Explorer dance around the Atrium, and slide down five water slides. The Haven is a pampering ship-within-a-ship enclave for those seeking a more upscale experience. 

RELATED: First Look - Norwegian Breakaway

Best Refurbishment: Honors go to Carnival Cruise LinesCarnival Sunshine, the refurbished Carnival Destiny, almost a new ship with $155 million of new features, decor, spaces and amenities. I liked the muted colors (à la Carnival Breeze) in the hallways and the addition of signature eateries like Guy’s Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina. Yet Sunshine still oozes “Fun Ship” with an atrium that has thin lines of attractive neon lighting. I liked the new aft space at Havana Bar. It’s a less frenetic spot for Lido Restaurant guests to enjoy lunch. Here you’ll also find Cucina del Capitano and Ji Ji Asian Kitchen, a new restaurant for Carnival. I enjoyed Ji Ji’s Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Mongolian and other cooked-to-order Asian dishes.  

RELATED: First Look - Sailing on the 'Carnival Sunshine'

Best Big-Ship Christening: Nothing trumps a “live royal” for a christening ceremony. Travel Agent “oohed” and “aahed” at the majesty, pomp and circumstance as Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge (better known to Americans as Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William) christened Princess Cruises’ new 3,600-passenger Royal Princess in Southampton, UK, in June. The Duchess looked stunning and even managed to walk adeptly in high heels, despite this being her last public event before the birth of her son, Prince George.

RELATED: Jewel in the Crown - The New Royal Princess and the "Wow Factor"

Best Small-Ship Christening: This past spring, Viking River Cruises propelled itself into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most river ships christened on one day. The action unfolded dockside in Amsterdam with multiple ships and christenings dockside, multiple VIP godmothers, large screens, a live video feed to a German shipyard, ladies in traditional costumes, and even a small Viking band that I felt resembled the guys from the Capital One commercials.

RELATED: Meet Viking River Cruises' Newest Longships

Best Culinary Experiences: Most cruise lines do culinary well, and the upscale lines do it exceptionally well. In October, I wrote an entire cruise section about culinary options afloat and ashore; these articles, which you can find here:, included examples of culinary and wine tastings, themed culinary cruises, shore trips with a culinary twist and so on. Personally, I like Oceania Cruises for its Bon Appétit Culinary Arts Centers on Marina and Riviera; 24 guests receive hands-on instruction at 12 individual cooking stations. 

Top River Boat Trend: Certainly soaring consumer demand and humongous capacity increases are top river cruise trends. Newly developing? Agents are starting to see a “symbiotic relationship” between river and ocean cruising. Some river cruisers are now opting to try an ocean cruise for the first time, not just vice versa. 

Most Dramatic Moment of the Year: Anyone who watched the time-lapse photography of the raising of Costa’s Costa Concordia knows that from an engineering perspective it was a marvel to behold. The ship is now upright and rests on an underwater platform. In spring, it will be floated off and towed away on its final voyage to the scrapyard.

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