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Travel Agent Magazine's Top Travel Destinations of 2011

December 7, 2011 By: Travel Agent Central Contributor Travel Agent
 


 

Joe Pike
Joe Pike visited Beale Street in Memphis this year.

 

Joe Pike is Travel Agent’s senior editor covering the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Mexico, and Central and South America. Whether it was a gourmet meal on top of a mountain in Bariloche, Argentina, or enjoying a glass, or four, of wine at a little known winery in Spain, we recap some of Pike’s “best of the best” for 2011.

Best Room: Room JA2, known as “Moon”—one of the 29 rooms at Jade Mountain in St. Lucia—is my favorite room of 2011. Each of the rooms have only three walls. Without the fourth wall, you are basically outside while in your room. You can catch plenty of rays just by sitting in the lawn chairs in the living room. The pool begins from your bed, which is netted to protect you from mosquitoes, and extends to the front of your living room with perhaps the best view I’ve ever seen at a Caribbean hotel. Looking out from the edge of your pool, you can see the pride of St. Lucia: the gigantic, green twin mountains called the Pitons. To your right is more ocean, which looks like a painting when the sun goes down. To cut a long story short, I was in my room, in a pool, drinking cold beer, gazing at a gorgeous mountain. This was one of the first luxury properties I had seen in the Caribbean when it first opened roughly four years ago, right around the time I began covering the region. I didn’t get the chance to stay there until now, but the wait was well worth it—even if it was only for one night.

Best Meal/Wine: Although outside of my beat, I enjoyed my favorite meal of the year in the Spanish wine region of Castilla y Leon at GrupoYllera winery. The region actually comprises two wineries, the newer Group Yllera and the older El Hilo de Ariadna winery. I had lunch at the older one, which dates back to the 14th century and has a Greek mythology theme. It is based on the legend of Ariadna, which is basically a folk lore about the origins of wine in Spain and makes the tour very fantasy-like. And although my preconceived notions of Spain, and Europe in general, were how expensive it was, this place is just €7 for a tour. The entrance fee includes a tour of both the new and the old winery and samples of roughly 2-3 glasses of wine. For €40, your clients get the two tours, 2-3 glasses of wine, an authentic Spanish lunch and a bottle of wine to take home. I highly recommend the full tour. Yllera wine is absolutely delicious and goes perfectly with the cuisine served, which was traditional Spanish meats—Iberian ham, Lomo, which is close to ham, but is basically the back of the pig, and Salchichon, which is a salty, Spanish sausage. Yllera is exported to only a few U.S. destinations—New York, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia and California. I recommend the Bracamonte 2009 red wine and the sparking white wine, Cantosan, which you can purchase for just €8-€10 each.

Best Tour/Tour Operator: The high point of my trip through Argentina earlier this year came, rather aptly, on the top of a mountain. It was in the Lake District town of Bariloche. I was strapped to a harness as I began taking baby steps to the edge of a 100-foot-tall rock and rappelling slowly to the bottom, knees shaking every inch of the way. I had arrived in the picturesque Bariloche from the bustling, vibrant Buenos Aires on a tour organized by Blue Parallel. Blue Parallel is a bespoke travel boutique with the mission to “take discerning travelers who are time-constrained to the most spectacular natural and cultural wonders of Latin America.” The operator/villa owner specializes in private, custom-made itineraries around the themes of World Heritage destinations, outdoor adventures, gourmet regional cuisines, exclusive lodging and insider access. Although based in the U.S., it has an operations center in Buenos Aires. The company was founded in 2002 by Emmanuel Burgio, who previously worked in investment banking in New York City.

Best Spa: The Regent Spa is the crown jewel of Regent Palms, Turks and Caicos, with plenty of space and 17 treatment rooms. The most sought-after treatment here is the Zareeba, a 90-minute indigenous island herbal steam cleansing and detoxification ritual. Guests can sit quietly in a private Zareeba (a dedicated hut) and inhale an aromatic steam of freshly brewed therapeutic herbs. A cooling wrap and a body massage to release toxins complete the ritual. I went with the Fitness Facial Massage, a gentler deep tissue massage. The 90-minute treatment included an intermission in the form of a quick, rinsing shower before the masseuse applied essential oils and lotion on all vital muscle parts.

Best Nightlife: It’s a toss-up between Acapulco and St. Lucia. If it’s clubs you are into, Acapulco’s Baby ‘O is the best I’ve seen in Mexico this year. If it’s bars, St. Lucia’s Rodney Bay area takes the cake. Baby ‘O is full of younger tourists, perhaps new to the drinking scene. But regardless of age and maturity level, the club rocks all night long, even if it’s not the type of music you would typically crank on your iPod. Rodney Bay is the best place in the Caribbean to bar hop. It is home to a cluster of at least 10 open-air bars where the dingier they are the better. All are home to a healthy mix of locals and tourists as well as cheap domestic brews (try the local Piton beer) and tons of tasty Caribbean finger foods.
 

Mary Winston Nicklin
Mary Winston Nicklin in Burgundy. Being based in Paris, gives her great access to the world.

The Best of 2011, according to Mary Winston Nicklin, Travel Agent contributor based in Paris.

Best Overall Destination: There’s a reason France is the most visited country in the world in terms of tourism numbers, and Paris, the No. 1 visited city. (And I’m not just biased as a Paris resident and Francophile!)

Best Hotel: The arrival of three ultra-luxury Asian brands in the French capital has upped the luxury factor in a city already celebrated for its haute couture style and gastronomic greatness. With so many amazing luxury hotels, it’s a tough call, but I’m leaning toward the new Mandarin Oriental or Le Meurice.

Favorite Hotels: Le Pavillon de la Reine in Paris for its enviable setting on the Place des Vosges, Sumahan on the Water in Istanbul for its architectural style, and The Langham London for its understated elegance and fantastic F&B outlets.

Best Hotel Suite: The Real Suite at the Hotel Villa Magna in Madrid—a penthouse with a sprawling terrace and its own private yoga room (Brad Pitt threw a birthday party here!) The new infinity pool suites at the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, one of only nine “palace” hotels in France, have views of the Mediterranean.

Best Hotel Restaurant: It’s a tie between a triumvirate of Michelin three-starred French chefs—Eric Frechon’s restaurant at Le Bristol, Alain Ducasse at the Hotel Plaza Athenee, and Yannick Alleno at Le Meurice, all in Paris.

Favorite Restaurant: Sola in Paris, and a restaurant in Provence helmed by prolific cookbook author Benoit Witz, at Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, one of Alain Ducasse’s country inns.

Best Hotel Bar: Artesian at The Langham London, Beaufort Bar at The Savoy, The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Paris, Le Bar at Le Royal Monceau (not to mention the hotel’s private cinema!)

Best Spa: Spa Pure Altitude at Les Fermes de Marie in the French Alps. There is something particularly rejuvenating about hitting the spa after an action-packed day on the powder beneath Mont Blanc. Decorated with stone and tree bark to reflect the natural setting, the spa uses “Pure Altitude” line of products with organic ingredients like mountain edelweiss. I also love the Six Senses Spa beneath the steaming sulfurous waterfalls at the Evason Ma’In Hot Springs in Jordan, the thermal water experiences at the spa at the Blythswood Square Hotel in Glasgow, and the indoor/outdoor spa, all in white marble and volcanic stone, at Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort in Italy.

Best Tour Guide: Jean Blair (travelthroughscotland.com) is a Blue Badge Guide in Scotland, and one of the best guides I’ve had anywhere in the world. I also recommend Ibrahim Abdelhaq (011-962-6-562-0941, guide76@nol.com.jo) as the top tour guide in Jordan.
 

Meagan Drillinger visited Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate in Napa Valley.

 

Meagan Drillinger covers a variety of destinations for Travel Agent, including Asia, Europe and the U.S. Her adventures this year took her everywhere from Shanghai to Jamaica. Here is her run down on the best-of-the-best.

Best Room: One-Bedroom Suite, #221, at The Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai. Done up in Art Deco flair, the one-bedroom suites measure 957 square feet and have views of either the city and the Huangpu River or the courtyard. The suites feature king-size beds, walk-in closets and writing desks, along with claw-foot tubs in the bathroom and bath-side LCD TVs. The suites also have two Philips 37-inch flat-screen TVs.

Best Meal: Stripsteak at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas. This sexy-chic steak house has a sleek vibe perfect for the steak house of the 21st century. My best meal of the year was the Kobe Filet Tartare and the 10 oz. Filet Mignon.

Best Pool: Boulevard Pool at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas. There are three pool settings at The Cosmopolitan, but my favorite is the Boulevard Pool, which overlooks the Strip.
You would be hard-pressed to find a place to lounge at this multilevel, open-air pool deck, complete with bar and waitress service. The pool area doubles as a concert venue on select evenings and can host up to 3,000 revelers.

Best Spa: Willow Stream Spa of The Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai. This spa was added as part of the hotel’s $64 million restoration a few years ago. I suggest booking the 90-minute Mystic Peace treatment, which involves a massage that traces a continuous knot on the body, using essential oils tailored to relieve whatever is ailing you the most. The spa has 11 treatment rooms, a fitness center, pool, sauna, and steam room.

Best Resort: Half Moon (halfmoon.rockresorts.com) at Montego Bay, Jamaica. Sitting on two miles of beach and 400 acres of land, this property has 197 guest rooms and 33 private four- to seven-bedroom villas. Other amenities include a 68,000-square-foot Fern Tree Spa, an 18-hole golf course, a dolphin lagoon and a fitness center. Even at maximum occupancy, guests can get complete privacy.

Best City: Vienna is steeped in history, from streets flanked by former Hapsburg palaces to the Elmayer Dance School that has been teaching the Viennese Waltz since 1919. Travelers with deep pockets and a taste for the refined should visit Kohlmarkt, the most elegant shopping district in Vienna. Tip: We suggest sending your clients to Vienna during winter when the Christmas spirit is in full swing. Be sure to check out the coffeehouse culture and the Hofburg Palace.

Best Nightlife: Home to some of the world’s best restaurants, bars and clubs, there can be no other city like New Orleans in terms of nightlife. When it’s time to hit the town, newcomers to New Orleans will of course want to hit Bourbon Street, but I suggest making this only a small part of the itinerary. Running straight through the French Quarter, Bourbon Street has become less authentic and more akin to Times Square, flanked with all sorts of New Orleans’ memorabilia shops, frat boy-packed bars and other houses of temptation. Still, it is a colorful part of New Orleans culture that should be briefly explored. After your fill of Hand Grenades (a lethal concoction of grain alcohol and sugar), I suggest moving to calmer, trendier Frenchman Street for some true New Orleans-style jazz and a local crowd.

 

Jena Tesse
Jena Tesse Fox in London, her favorite city for shopping.

 

Jena Tesse Fox, staff editor, has visited London, Sydney, South Africa, Tanzania, Oahu and Orlando in the last year. Here are a few of her top picks (with a few ties in some categories).

Best Room: One-Bedroom Suite, #229, at The Four Seasons London Park Lane. Simply and tastefully furnished, this room has made the most of its space, blending form and function so that everything is comfortable but not overwhelming. It has a massive balcony and a bathroom the size of a New York studio apartment, as well as a closet/dressing room that would make Carrie Bradshaw weep with envy.

Two-Bedroom Suite, Sasakwa Lodge at Grumeti Reserve, Tanzania. The cabins at Sasakwa are all isolated from one another, guaranteeing complete privacy and peace. Outside, the plunge pool is the perfect place to watch a sunset. Inside, the living room echoes the height of East Africa’s colonial period. The bedrooms are wonderfully spacious and the bathrooms are equally huge (claw-foot tubs angled to look out over the plains).

Best Meal: Singita Explore in Tanzania. Maybe it was the fresh air, maybe we were just ravenous after a day of game drives, or maybe it was the complete lack of any other people outside of the camp group for miles around, but the dinner prepared on site at Singita’s new Explore camp was just wonderful. Plenty of chicken, grilled beef, stewed vegetables and other goodies were available. Before dinner, while we enjoyed some cocktails, we sat around a campfire and roasted some raw dough into hot bread, which we dipped in a nice chili sauce. The combination of ambiance and taste made the whole experience top-notch.

Olive Tree in New South Wales, Australia. This simple eatery is part of the Wyndham Estate winery in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley. Chef Andy Wright has created a deceptively simple menu, with no more than three ingredients per dish. The food is fresh, locally sourced where possible and absolutely delicious. The steak, served rare with herb butter, was especially rich, but the chicken and chorizo is also a mouth-watering option.

Best Spa: Laniwai at Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa. Laniwai (meaning “freshwater heaven”—water is a dominant theme) has 15 treatment rooms, private saunas and steam rooms for men and women, and a teen area for younger guests to try and make their own perfumes. But the real novelty at Laniwai is the outdoor co-ed hydrotherapy garden, Kula Wai, which is included in all treatments but can be booked independently. The garden has six distinct motion-activated showers guests can wander through before jumping into either a warm Jacuzzi or a cold-water plunge pool, and several herbal soaking tubs. Guests also get a custom-made scrub when they check in.

Best Resort: Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa. Disney’s first foray into Hawaii is a winner by all accounts—a truly family friendly resort that has plenty for the kids but feels decidedly grown-up. The lagoon has gentle waves, the “river” pool follows a meandering path, the rooms are spacious and beautifully furnished, the food is abundant and the activities (both on site and off) are first-rate. If you’re going to splurge on a resort, this is the one to pick.

Best Shopping: London. From Portobello Road market to Savile Row and Bond Street and the many arcades that seem hidden away from the busy streets, shopaholics can have a field day on London’s streets.

Best Tour Operator: Going from city to wilderness is never easy, but the Africa Adventure Company made sure my tour of Tanzania this year was very comprehensive, taking us from Dar es Salaam to Arusha to the Serengeti. Along the way, our guides (Ephata and Toti at different points) were top-notch, finding wildlife and pointing out local sites, sharing local history and culture and ensuring we recognized the country as their home, not merely an attraction.

SAILING ON THE HIGH SEAS

Susan J. Young
Susan J. Young in one of the staterooms with a balcony on Uniworld’s Antoinette.

 

When Susan J. Young, senior contributing editor for cruises, achieved Gold Medallion status on Delta Air Lines only about half-way through the year—with many more months and miles yet to come—it shows just how much she’s traveled in pursuit of cruises and land-based destinations this year. Here are some of her favorite along the way in 2011.

Best Cruise Line Christening: The roots of Disney Cruise Line are solid in entertainment. So, not surprisingly the Disney Dream christening at Port Canaveral earlier this year was an amazing, razzle-dazzle array of fantasy, tradition, pyrotechnics and movie magic. The event was unforgettable with appearances by everyone from The Fairy Godmother to Captain Jack Sparrow, from Cinderella to Disney executives, from the ship’s singing godmother Jennifer Hudson to Mickey Mouse himself.

Most Appealing New Ship: Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice-class ships continue to wow with their class-act looks and upscale contemporary styling. Each new ship in the series has enhancements. Check out the new humongous Adirondack chairs on Celebrity’s Silhouette which also has introduced a new Lawn Club Grill.

Most Amenity-Laden Ship: My pick is Allure of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean International ship that I have sailed on for a week during this year’s CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. conference. With zip lining, aqua-shows, a full Broadway production of Chicago, skating rink and multiple alternative dining venues, it’s becoming a multigenerational family favorite.

Best Laid-Back, Luxurious Ship: A veteran of six Silversea Cruises, I sailed for the first time this year on Silver Spirit. I liked the friendly, yet very professional, onboard service and the inclusive nature of the product. I also liked the intimate feel of the ship despite the fact that it’s the largest in Silversea’s fleet.

Most Engaging “New Class” of Ship: Early in 2011, I participated in a walk-through tour of Oceania Cruises’ new Marina, docked at the Port of Miami. Its classy look and cool features such as a glowing purple casino bar are worth appreciating. A sister ship, Riviera, debuts in 2012.

Top River Boat Trend: I traveled to Europe for two christenings where creative balconies were the buzz. Uniworld’s Antoinette has accommodations with drop-down glass; clients just push a button, and presto, they have a balcony! Guests on Avalon Waterways’ new Panorama just slide aside several glass panels to create a floor-to-ceiling open air experience.

Best Déjà Vu Experience: Singer Andy Williams’ rendition of the Academy Award winning song Moon River is iconic, so when I toured Branson this summer and met the performing legend, I was thrilled. Williams even sang a few bars of Moon River and was gracious in posing for photos.

Best Historic Shore Trip: Traveling on a Voyages to Antiquity shore trip from the Port of Kusadasi, Turkey, I visited the ancient Roman city of Aphrodisias—touring its agora, baths, stadium and amphitheater. Just think Ephesus without the crowds.

Best Eco-Focused Shore Trip: I loved the aerial tram tour offered by Rain Forest Adventures in St. Lucia. In a gorgeous one-hour tram ride, passengers view tropical plants, towering trees, hummingbirds and small waterfalls. It’s a journey into the rainforest primeval, and tour goers can also take a forest walk or add on a zip-line adventure.

Best Come-Back Destination: New Orleans is my choice for come-back destination of the year. I arrived to check out the revitalized Hyatt Regency New Orleans and left believing the city is fresher and better than ever for cruisers.

Best Move of the Year: I just relocated to South Florida to be close to the cruise action for Travel Agent and travelagentcentral.com. Stay tuned for more firsthand, up-close reporting on cruise people, agencies, events and major cruise lines.


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