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 2014 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, Travel Agent’s senior editor, covers Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Bermuda and Latin America on a regular basis, and his travels sometimes take him beyond the Western Hemisphere. Sipping fine vintages in South Africa’s wine country, discovering new culinary delights in a re-imagined old haunt and lounging in the quiet of the adults-only section of a “new favorite” Caribbean resort are just a few of his best experiences in 2014.
Best Hotel: Azul Sensatori Jamaica was the best hotel I saw in 2014. I must say I was intrigued when Karisma Hotels & Resorts announced in 2013 that it had acquired land in Negril, Jamaica, to bring its Gourmet Inclusive concept to the Caribbean. It did not disappoint.
|Joe Pike also thoroughly enjoyed his visit to Bermuda’s Elbow Beach Resort this year.|
It’s practically a new build, considering that $20 million was invested into completely gutting the property and redoing just about everything. It should be a revenue generator for agents as it is a solid pitch for both families and couples.
The resort is divided into an adults-only section (with an oceanfront pool with a swim-up bar that becomes a lounge in the evening) and a multigenerational section. They really felt like two different resorts, although they both offer luxurious rooms and suites with beach and sea views.
Best Overall Destination: I discovered something when I visited South Africa back in May; you don’t have to go on a safari to make a trip there worthwhile. Now, don’t get me wrong, a safari can be a life-changing adventure, but during my week there I uncovered amazing selling points for clients who are interested in more than lions and tigers. This turned out to be not only my favorite trip of the year but also one of the greatest trips of my life.
To those who say a safari is a must on any trip to South Africa, I counter that a visit to Robben Island is even more mandatory for anyone experiencing the country for the first time. This is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid and his eventual election as president of South Africa.
There are 600 wine estates throughout the Western Cape, and La Couronne is just one fine example of what your clients can expect when they visit such an establishment. Note to agents: The best wine here is the Unwooded Chardonnay 2012.
For soft adventure lovers, ATV and helicopter rides along Cathedral Peak are a must and provide some absolutely beautiful landscape views. Music lovers need to visit the Drakensberg Boys Choir School, a school near the small town of Winterton in KwaZulu-Natal.
Best Dining Experience: When it comes to hotel restaurants, Casa Havana at Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa was my favorite when I dined there last year. So naturally I was disappointed upon hearing the Caribbean-style restaurant with a Cajun twist was being rebranded. It was a pleasant surprise when a few hungry friends and I enjoyed an outstanding three-course meal at the newly launched Beach House restaurant, which was even better than its predecessor.
The Beach House bar seats 25 and features a comfortable combination of casual furniture and Adirondack chairs for small groups to enjoy “toes in the sand” dining. Whether indoors or out under the stars, everything is served on sparkling place and table settings, with Riedel glassware, perfect for palate-pleasing wine pairings from a full selection of wines brought into Grand Cayman from around the world.
|For Jena Tesse Fox, Walt Disney World was the year’s most fun experience.|
Best Airport Lounge: Between all of my departing and returning flights during my May trip to South Africa, I got to experience three of South African Airways’ premium airport lounges, one at JFK in New York and two in South Africa at Cape Town International and O.R. Tambo International in Johannesburg.
The best of the three—and my favorite lounge that I saw this year—was the one in Johannesburg. It had a full bar with a bartender who would bring me a frosty Castle Lager beer every 10 minutes without me even asking him to. There were full sandwiches and other snacks from chips and dip to crackers and cheese. There were tons of computer stations, iPad stations, phone-charging stations and 50+-inch flat-screen TVs everywhere. Très chic.
The best views, however, were found at the lounge in Cape Town. This was more of a self-service lounge, although attendees were there to assist if needed. Most of the leather, reclining chairs and couches here offer stunning mountain views. The one at John F. Kennedy was pretty simple but efficient. It had everything you need to get you in the mood for the flight.
This year, staff editor Jena Tesse Fox traveled stateside to Walt Disney World, Arizona, Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Washington, D.C., and internationally to the Bahamas and Cancun. As this issue goes to press, she is flying to Barcelona and Seville in Spain, where she’s sure to collect some great insights to share with our readers next year. Here are a few of her top picks for 2014.
Best Hotel: The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Tucson wins hands down for its flawless service, private casitas (just off the main hotel) that offer plenty of privacy, and activities that seem to never end. Even in the middle of the night, stargazers can take advantage of Arizona’s clear skies to explore constellations with professional astronomers.
Another Arizona resort gets props too. I stayed at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess twice: once in winter for a conference and once in summer for fun. Each time, the service was enough to impress even the most jaded luxury traveler, with in-room deliveries of make-your-own margarita kits (tequila and fresh lime included) and bandanas when the weather turned unexpectedly cold and event attendees had left their scarves at home. The resort is close to Scottsdale’s famous shopping scene, so guests don’t need to feel trapped onsite.
Best Rooms: The all-suite Delano Las Vegas emerged over Labor Day weekend from a soft renovation that didn’t look soft at all; while the rooms’ footprints remained the same, everything else was turned around 180 degrees. The dark colors and heavy draperies were replaced by an all-white decor and plenty of light, evoking Florida on the Las Vegas Strip, nicely balancing comfort and class.
|Meagan Drillinger wrote effusively about her visit to China in July.|
At the aforementioned Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, some of the Casita Suites are isolated in their own little houses and some of them connect to other suites, making them great for families or groups. Regardless, if a couple or a group is looking to get away (but not too far away) from the action at the main resort building, these suites are spacious, adjustable and a very comfortable pick. (The in-room fireplaces are the icing on the cake.)
Best Overall Destination: Cancun tops my international list based on experiences at two iconic hotels. The all-inclusive Club Med Cancun Yucatan, one of the first resorts to open in Cancun way back in the 1970s, has continued to attract visitors by adapting to new demands. Its family-friendly suites and five-year-old luxury building appeal to an ever-increasing range of guests. Similarly, the new Hard Rock Hotel Cancun has two sides: one for adults and one for families, making sure each type of guest gets a unique experience. Complimentary in-room bars and room service make this ideal for people who want luxury without the nickel-and-diming. Combined, they show how Cancun is catering to ever-broader demographics.
On the domestic scene, Las Vegas is constantly reinventing itself, and the crop of new hotels and attractions that have opened this year (the Cromwell, Delano, SLS, Linq) make the city worthy of repeat visits...even within a few months of one another. The new Linq Promenade offers a preview of the new Las Vegas—intimate, boutique, pedestrian-friendly and focused on individual experiences rather than glitz and neon.
|Susan J. Young met Ted Lange (Isaac, the bartender, on TV’s “The Love Boat”) onboard the new Regal Princess.|
Best Nightclub: The fun and funky Mixx at Borgata in Atlantic City is intimate and intense, encouraging dancers to get close and let loose. While the resort’s other nightclub, mur.mur, is significantly bigger, the smaller size of this option makes it great for couples and friends who want to stick together.
Best Dining Experience: Foodies should be sure to try the tasting menu at Jean-Georges Steakhouse at Las Vegas’s Aria Resort & Casino. It includes small samples of a wide range of vegetarian, fish and beef dishes. And get the wine pairing—why enjoy a meal from a top-tier chef only halfway?
Best Hotel Bar: If there is a better gin and tonic in Las Vegas than at Jaleo at The Cosmopolitan, I haven’t found it yet: rich, flavorful, complex and with visible juniper berries in the gin. Jaleo is technically a full-service restaurant (the paella is among the best you’ll get outside of Spain), but its cocktails make it worth visiting for the libations alone.
Best Spa: Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale is worthy of a full day’s visit, if only to unwind on the rooftop pool in the sun or work out tense muscles standing under a waterfall below. The treatments here cover a wide range of needs, from tense muscles to a troubled mind. This is a perfect haven for relaxation, and is worthy of a visit in its own right.
Meagan Drillinger did plenty of onsite reporting for her regular beats in 2014, making multiple trips to Mexico and exploring India and China in-depth. She shares some of her favorite far-flung experiences here and also shows affection for her home base, New York City.
Best Hotel: In the lush mountains of Coorg, India, high atop a twisting road is the Vivanta by Taj - Madikeri. Its 62 villas are scattered among winding paths and tucked into the hillside, and the views are awe-inspiring. Just take note of the main lobby, which has an infinity edge over a cliff staring out into green forest and open skies. Guest accommodations and spa treatments here are also something special. Read on.
Best Room: My villa at Vivanta by Taj - Madikeri, overlooking rolling green mountains, tops the list of rooms I have inhabited this year. The villa’s design is largely inspired by the surrounding environment, with a twist of modern elegance (think dark, chunky woods and clay roofs combined with stark whites and clean lines). The room has a deep-soaking tub, separate rain shower and floor-to-ceiling windows to take in gorgeous mist-covered sunrises.
Best Spa: Be sure to visit Vivanta by Taj - Madikeri’s Jiva Spa for the signature treatment, which is not offered at any other Jiva Spa. The Gudda Bath is a traditional Coorg bath, native to the area, and is available in every traditional Coorg household. We were escorted to a wooden cabin hidden in the jungle trees where water was heating in copper pots. The experience begins with a massage using a blend of nutmeg, turmeric, kalonji and other herbs. This is followed by a hot-water bath. The therapist scrubs away the oil with a soapnut powder and then proceeds to soak guests in the hot water and rose petals. It is an ethereal experience and a must for any client who is tired of the traditional massage or aromatherapy.
Best Overall Destination: Mexico City is one of Latin America’s most exciting and gorgeous cities—one that we think can rub elbows with any European destination. I have sampled a slew of hotels in the city, but would recommend booking clients at either the St. Regis Mexico City or Downtown Mexico, one of Grupo Habita’s several hotels in the city. Mexico City is home to hundreds of museums and galleries, but one of the best is the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The only permanent collection here is its murals, which display the differences between artists and represent significant moments in Mexican art history. Mexico City is also known for its juxtaposition of ancient Mexican culture with European history.
Best Dining Experiences: Mexico City wins again. A must-do here is to eat at Pujol, an intimate restaurant in the swanky Polanco district. Ranked on San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World, Pujol is widely considered the number-one restaurant in Mexico. Diners are treated to an eight-course tasting menu, which changes regularly based on what is in season. The menu takes Mexican street food up to white-linen level. Try the roasted leek with escamoles; the lobster taco with chorizo and black beans; and the fried pork belly with smoked navy beans and radishes.
Atop the Libreria Porrua in the Centro Historico there’s an outdoor terrace and café that serves Mexican specialties from breakfast to dinner, along with local beers and cocktails. Psst: This is a local, hidden hotspot. The café overlooks Mexico City’s Templo Mayor archaeological site—an Aztec pyramid that was discovered beneath the pavement of the Zocalo.
Best Nightlife: Even after having lived in New York for the past decade, it is still a city that continues to reinvent itself. There are several dance clubs worth mentioning that are perfect for Millennials who love to move to beats from the hottest European and U.S. DJs. During the summer, we recommend Tiki Disco and Mister Saturday Night, two day-time outdoor dance parties that pack a punch—DJs spin throughout the afternoon, and local food vendors set up shop selling everything from tacos and sandwiches to frosty brews. For night owls, look into Zurich-based record label Cityfox NY, which hosts monthly parties in New York. Output (www.outputclub.com) in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood is another must for late-night revelers.
In 2014, Susan J. Young, senior contributing editor for cruises, crossed the Atlantic on Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, rocked with travel agents to Pitbull performing “live” onboard the new Norwegian Getaway, sailed on Crystal Serenity’s annual trade gala and chatted with “The Love Boat” actors on the new Regal Princess. She also practiced her French on a big ship cruise and river cruise in and around Bordeaux, plus a Saone/Rhone river trip. Bucket list? She’d love to return to Alaska, sail to Asia or head up the Peruvian Amazon.
Best Technological Innovations: Cruising has gone “super high-tech” on Royal Caribbean International’s new Quantum of the Seas. Cruise passengers belly up to the aptly named Bionic Bar and order drinks from a robotic bartender who raises an arm to the ceiling; liquid flows in exact mix specifications to create different libations. High-tech wristbands open stateroom doors and can be used to make onboard purchases. Millennials and others who can’t live without multiple tech devices can now enjoy robust high-bandwidth service.
Best Big-Ship Christening: What boomer could resist the nostalgia surrounding this fall’s christening of the Regal Princess, the newest “Love Boat”? Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015, Princess Cruises (www.princess.com) rolled out the gold carpet for a slew of 1970s and 1980s TV stars arriving at Port Everglades, FL, for the ship’s inaugural festivities. Gavin MacLeod, aka Captain Stubing from the original “Love Boat” TV series, and the entire original “crew” were on hand.
Actress Florence Henderson, known as “mom” on the Brady Bunch and a frequent “Love Boat” guest star, moderated the christening event. Jack Jones sang “The Love Boat” theme song, as he did for the original series’ opening credits, and a who’s who of guest stars who appeared in the original series also walked the red carpet. Charo, the show’s most frequent guest star, dazzled with a classical guitar performance. (For more on Regal Princess, see page 18.)
Best Small-Ship Christening: We felt très chic watching French movie star Catherine Deneuve christen Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s new S.S. Catherine dockside in Lyon, France. And while docked later at Tain l’Hermitage, Uniworld treated inaugural guests to a private wine-tasting event at Tournon Castle, affording stunning river and town views.
Top Tastes for Foodies: Tasting menus, tapas on the terrace and food-and-wine pairings are now not just a one-off experience at sea, but the norm for most lines. We like the “Esperienza del Vino” at Palo on Disney Cruise Line because it artfully pairs food and wine, such as grilled portobello mushrooms and polenta with a glass of Summus Castello Banfi 2010. Our personal favorite, though, is Tastes, the to-die-for tapas-style restaurant onboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity. Located on the pool deck, this restaurant serves up cuisine inspired by Sapphire Laguna Restaurant in Laguna Beach, CA. Guests dine amid olive trees and living walls of flora. We loved the seafood lo mein, stir-fried noodles with shrimp, bay scallops, calamari and Asian veggies in a delicious chili-garlic sauce. Don’t miss the coconut creme brulee with vanilla ice cream.
Best Cruises for Wine Lovers: Clearly, any cruise that takes guests to Bordeaux, western France’s superb wine growing region, is a winner with fans of the grape. One big plus: It’s accessible by both river and ocean lines, and is an immersion in wine culture and heritage—from elegant chateaux to savory tastings, from vineyard tours to wine museums and friendly locals. With Viking River Cruises we savored the experience into the countryside to visit the family-owned Chateau Siaurac, dating from 1832, near quaint St. Emilion. On a big-ship cruise we headed for the larger Château Mouton Rothschild located in the Médoc vineyard region.
Best Refurbishment: Travel agents say it’s critical that cruise brands retain consistency from ship to ship. That’s why Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Pride, launched in 2002, just received the line’s highly popular Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades. So guests can now saunter over to the popular Guy’s Burger Joint, Alchemy Bar, EA Sports Bar and the BlueIguana Cantina. We can’t really single out one ship in this category, though, as collectively the lines have all done a superb job.