Note from the editor: This article includes updates from its initial publication clarifying some of the details given and correcting other details. We regret any misrepresentation of Ignacio Maza's presentation.
One particularly well-attended session at Signature’s Sales Meeting in Las Vegas was Ignacio Maza’s presentation on some hot new destinations and underrated or overlooked places—and how to sell them.
Myanmar is gaining in popularity, but there isn't a lot of availability right now because of the strong demand. Instead, consider neighboring Laos, which is “authentic” and “unspoiled,” Maza said, and has plenty of culture, ancient monuments, adventure excursions and shopping opportunities to appeal to a wide range of travelers. “Go now, before KFCs and McDonalds pop up on every corner,” he quipped.
Destination highlights in Laos include Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Paske and Wat Phu Champasak and the Northern Mountains and Plain of Jars. Visitors should take a tour of the Presidential Palace, with plenty of shrines and artwork and a garage filled with vintage cars. (There is even an Edesl with royal seals, a gift from President Eisenhower.) Maza recommends using local tour operator Trails of Indochina, which he said will keep visitors away from the touristy areas and guarantee a more authentic experience (including giving alms to Buddhist monks on a quiet, less popular street).
The peak season for Laos in November through March (book at least six months out and get a visa in advance), and it’s a good destination for grown-ups (mainly couples and singles). For accommodations, Maza recommends Residence Phou Vao by Orient Express in Luang Prabang, which has 62 rooms on a hilltop just outside of town, a two-to-one guest-staff ratio and a large infinity pool. Good to know: US dollars are widely accepted and in demand, so no need to change currency.
“People here aren’t reliving battles,” Maza said. “They want to move ahead.” And while many ancient and authentic cities are succumbing to modernization, there are still many unique experiences to enjoy throughout the country.
Since Vietnam is more than 1,000 miles north to south, the different parts of the country have as great a variety in offerings as New York City does from Miami.
Hanoi has a lot of French colonial architecture worth exploring, but be careful of the streets: The few traffic lights are considered mere suggestions by drivers, Maza warned. “Crossing the street is an adventure,” he said. “Walk and pray.” The Temple of Literature is both a place of learning and worship, and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is also worth seeing.
Halong Bay is good for a relaxing visit, but don’t try to do it all in one day. It’s four hours over and four hours back, so Maza suggests booking an overnight stay on one of the boats managed Trails of Indochina—"the best in Halong Bay," Maza says. Sapa, meanwhile, is good for adventure travelers, and visitors should spend at least two nights in Hue, which he calls the “heart and soul of Vietnam.” Hue has its own Forbidden City (Vietnam was occupied by China for 1,000 years, and there is plenty of Chinese influence to be found) and grand tombs for touring.
Maza calls Ho Chi Minh City the New York City of Vietnam, and lamented how many older buildings are being torn down. “Old Saigon is disappearing,” he said, and recommended exploring the French architecture in the central district. For accommodations, he recommends the Park Hyatt.
In the Danang area, which has a new airport, stay at the Nam Hai, which is run by GHM and is a member of Leading Hotels of the World. The property has prime villas on beach, and Maza says there are no bad rooms.
Vietnam is good for couples, singles and families alike, and the peak season runs from November to March. US travelers will need a visa, and should book at least six months in advance. It can be combined with trips to Cambodia or Laos, and Vietnam Airlines’ business class service is a good value.
Next: The Americas
In the Americas, Costa Rica has plenty of biodiversity and natural beauty to recommend it. In fact, Maza said, almost 50 percent of the country is a nature reserve. Costa Rica has never been invaded or at war, and disbanded its army years ago to spend more money on education. As such, the country has some of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Highlights of Costa Rica include the Guanacaste region and the northwest beaches, the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna Region, Manuel Antonio National Park, Corcovado National Park and the Osa Peninsula and the Eastern Caribbean Coast.
Maza recommends the Tabaccon Hot Springs Hotel, which he calls the “first and best good hotel in the area,” and which is across street from the "best hot springs" in the area. (Good to know: Bring water shoes to walk over the rocks and sand. In the morning, the hot springs are reserved for hotel guests only, and they are also open after the sun goes down.)
Adventurous visitors should be sure to go exploring in the rainforest with Memorable Costa Rica and Costa Rica Expeditions. The Sky Walk, Sky Trek and Sky Tram are great ziplining opportunities, and canopy bridges in some nature reserves bring guests on the same level with monkeys and toucans. In La Fortuna, visitors can see an active volcano. On the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio National Park has great beaches. Two hours north San Jose, Maza recommends the bungalows at El Silencio. In Puerto Jiminez, he likes Lapa Rios, which he warns has “bugs the size of a Buick,” but offers the best opportunity to experience a primeval rainforest untouched by man at Corcovado National Park. The hotel also has also has mosquito netting around the beds and offers great service. In Playa Conchal, try the Westin and in San Jose, the Real InterContinental is a good pick.
Costa Rica is good for couples, singles and families, Maza said, noting that the peak season is from November to April and August through October is the rainy season. Dollars are accepted anywhere, and Nature Air or Sansa are good picks for air travel.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio, Maza noted, will host both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, both of which seem poised to put the city in the world’s spotlight. Rio de Janeiro is the “heart and soul” of Brazilian culture, he says—the home of bossa nova and samba music as well as the iconic Carnaval.
The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue is an obvious must-visit, and Maza suggests getting there early for the best light and the smallest crowds. Conversely, go to Sugarloaf Mountain at the end of the day to watch the sun set and to see the city lights come on. The beaches are not generally used for sunbathing, but more for socializing instead, so don’t expect beach chairs or butler service as one might find in Miami Beach or the Caribbean. At night, a visit to the Lapa district is a must.
For hotels, Maza recommends the Copacabana Palace, an Orient Express hotel that has played host to many celebs and was featured in the James Bond film Moonraker. The Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro, meanwhile, has a rooftop swimming pool for a swank experience. Further inland, the Santa Teresa hotel used to be a coffee plantation, and has plenty of history attached to its old-world style.
Maza likes organizing tours with VIP Tour Brazil, which can organize biking tours of Lagoa de Freitas, a cooking class in the Santa Tereza district, a VIP visit to Rio Scenarium with live music, a private yacht charter, a tour of favela with a kite-making class, a stand-up paddleboard excursion in Guanabara Bay, samba lessons from masters or architectural tours...among others.
Rio is good for couples, singles and families, and its peak season is during Carnaval (which should be avoided unless one especially wants to experience it, Maza advises) and from November to March. Spring and fall are the best times to visit. The Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are the main gathering places, and hotel demand always exceeds supply. Good to know: Brazil is very expensive, and US citizens will need a visa before arriving. “Be cautious and savvy,” Maza suggested.
In contrast to Rome or Venice, Milan is decidedly not touristy and is often overlooked, Maza said, describing it the Chicago of Italy. With a decided focus on art, Milan is Italy’s capital of fashion, culture and design, he added, and it can be easily combined with visits to the Lake District, Turin and Parma.
IDI and IC Bellagio are Maza’s preferred destination specialist for Italy, and they can arrange unique experiences like after-hours visits to The Last Supper, a private tour of the Duomo, a backstage visit to La Scala, a personal assistant for a shopping tour, a dinner within Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, cooking classes or even a test drive of the F1 circuit.
Top attractions in the city include the Duomo, La Scala Opera House, the Vittorio Emanuelle Gallery, “Golden Triangle” shops, the Brera district with top art and architecture, the Navigli district and all of the art and architecture one can see. (Tip: If going to see The Last Supper, get tickets well in advance.)
The Park Hyatt, The Bulgari Hotel, Principe de Savoia, Westin Palace and Carlton Baglioni are some of Maza’s hotel picks within the city, with the latter two offering lower price points than many five-star hotels in the city.
Milan is best for couples and singles, and unless one is in town specifically to attend these events, visitors should avoid fashion week and the annual furniture fair.
For a different side of Europe, Croatia and Montenegro are good places to get the best of the Adriatic. The area has a good combination of Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Austrian heritage and culture, along with some great architectural gems. There are plenty of beaches to unwind on, as well as fine dining and nightlife options.
On the downside, logistics can be difficult: There are no trains along the coast, so visitors should rent a car or book a chauffeur. Highlights include Split, Hvar Island (which Maza calls the St. Tropez of the Adriatic), Dubrovnik, Kotor, Sveti Stefan and Cetinje. In Split, the Vestibul Palace is in the city center, attached to the walls of Diocletian's Palace (the Roman emperor's showcase). The hotel doesn’t have elevators, so make sure all guests can handle stairs. In Hvar, Maza recommends the Hotel Adriana; in Dubrovnik, the Hotel Excelsior (which has both a historic wing and a modern wing) or Villa Dubrovnik; and in Montenegro, the Aman Sveti Stefan. Exeter International is Maza’s tour operator of choice, and can create itineraries for self-drive tours. (He recommends a stop in Mostar in Bosnia when driving from Split to Dubrovnik.)
Summer is the region’s peak season, and it can get very crowded in July and August, so try arranging a trip in spring or fall. US citizens don’t need visas, and tours can combine trips to Zagreb, Istria and Slovenia. If visiting Split or Dubrovnik, book hotels as far in advance as possible.
Grand Teton National Park
For a more local option, the Grand Teton National Park was a popular gathering spot for the Rockefellers back in the day. The vistas and wildlife are the stars here, with mountain peaks of 13,700 feet and more than 300 bird species. Located in western Wyoming, Jackson Hole is the main airport and gateway, and it is easy to combine with Yellowstone National Park.
Activities in Grand Teton include taking a cable car to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, floating down Snake River, whitewater rafting and kayaking, hiking and mountain climbing, horseback riding, hot air balloon rides, paragliding and golf. In the winter season, add skiing (both downhill and cross-country), snowboarding and snowshoeing to the list…and we think it would be safe to remove the rafting and kayaking.
For accommodations, Maza likes Amangani, Spring Creek Ranch or the Hotel Terra. Spring Creek Ranch has a range of villas, rooms and condos, and has a rustic vibe with wooden floors and fireplaces. The Hotel Terra is very modern and affordable, and is close to the tram to go up the hill.
Maza recommends visiting during the “shoulder” season and avoiding the peak months of July and August. Book all activities and reservations well in advance, and leave extra time to get to any destination. (Wildlife has a way of creating traffic jams in the roadways.) Maza also suggested a visit to the Laurence Rockefeller Interpretive Center for a different experience.