(Bloomberg) -- My travel tally for 2017 went something like this: No less than 16 trips, 12 countries, 24 destinations, 57 hotels, and roughly 90,000 miles.
Many people can beat those numbers (maybe you’re one of them), but as someone who has the distinct professional pleasure of scoping out the next great vacation spots before everyone else gets there, I’m lucky to say that even my business trips were to places that left indelible impressions.
There was the Balinese-style resort with the elephant rescue center in northern Thailand—a place I’d long dreamed of visiting and writing about. There was a lightning-speed trip to Mumbai—a place I didn’t imagine I’d fall in love with but did—and hard. There was even an exhausting week spent racing around Paris with the flu, made infinitely better by the incredible staff at Rosewood’s newly-restored Hôtel de Crillon, who graciously stocked my room with get-better notes and silver tea sets piled with honey and lemon.
Every place I visited, from Puerto Rico to Zambia, was remarkable in some way, shape, or form. These are the five I still can’t shake.
5. St. Barths
Sometimes you just need a few days to veg on the beach and recharge. But when you’re married to someone who hates laying out in the sun, planning that type of lazy, Vitamin D-centric trip can be a near impossibility. Enter St. Barths, which satisfies on barefoot beach vibes without ever feeling boring. Here, it’s more popular to rent an open-air Moke jeep and explore the island’s 14 separate beaches—our favorite was the remote, mangrove-flanked Gouveneur—than to stay holed-up in your resort. Of course, the resorts are cossetting places to return to, whether you’re watching windsurfers swoosh through the breeze from the year-old Le Barthelemy, whose rooms have Hermès bath amenities, or having a toes-in-the-sand lunch at Eden Roc.
How to do it yourself: Following the storms of 2017, St. Barths is still recovering. Some 90 percent of its hotel rooms are still offline, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go. Local villa specialist Wimco is back in action, as is the charter airline Tradewinds Airways Ltd., which gets you there sans yacht.
4. Napa Valley
Only two weeks before I was scheduled to leave for a girls’ getaway to California wine country, fires started blazing around the Silverado Trail. From her home in Oakland, my best friend could see (and smell) plumes of smoke burning a few dozen miles away. Yet, by the time we pulled into St. Helena’s new Luxury Collection hotel, Las Alcobas, the only discernible sign of what had happened were the many handmade billboards lining Highway 29, all expressing thanks to local firefighters who had kept the damage (relatively) in check.
The good vibes were impossible to ignore: Menus featured special dishes or by-the-glass wine selections benefiting the handful of wineries that had suffered damage; locals beamed to welcome visitors; even my therapist at Meadowood’s extraordinary spa was ecstatic to see her community springing back to its feet. The quick comeback was remarkable, and with tourism an important part of the local economy, feeling we were helping the cause made every indulgence worth it.
How to do it yourself: Watch the sun go down from the patio at Ashes & Diamonds, an edgy, new winery that’s taking a cue from 1950s viticulture techniques to produce funky, non-traditional bottles. Everything here breaks Napa’s tight mold, from the mid-century-designed tasting room to the late opening hours it keeps.
3. St. Moritz
Because I learned to ski on the East Coast and skied only there for many years, my husband would always rave to my deaf ears about skiing out West. Eventually we made it out for our first trip to Vail, and I was ruined. The granular, iced-down snow pack of our local New York mountains would never be as good again.
Fast-forward a few seasons to 2017: our first ski trip to the Alps. Everything—from the fabulously fur-coat-filled Badrutt’s Palace to the fondue huts on the mountain—ratcheted the fantasy of skiing to a whole new level. The small moments stuck most: the DJ-filled beach cabanas that provided a hilarious stopping point in the middle of a long, legendary run; couples holding hands as they walked across a beautiful frozen lake; and an impromptu performance by the Patrouille Suisse pilots, who drew hearts in the sky on our last day in town. Colorado, I love you, but you’ve officially been outdone.
How to do it yourself: The newly-remodeled Suvretta House was my favorite hotel in aesthetics and service; the only thing missing was regular shuttle service to and from the lifts. The Carlton, Kulm, and Badrutt’s Palace all have that critical perk, among more traditionally styled rooms.
On Jan. 21, it felt as if the entire world was marching in solidarity with the 500,000 activists who gathered with pink hats for the Women’s March in Washington. Not where I was. That day, my sister and I climbed Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan, a tiny town in Myanmar that’s dotted with thousands of bulbous temple stupas. At its base, we struck up a conversation with mother and daughter members of the Padaung tribe, known for the stacks of heavy golden rings that elongate their necks, as they worked on ancient-looking looms.
That encounter, and others like it, were facilitated through our excellent Asia Transpacific Journeys guides who had earned the trust of local communities over many visits and, crucially, spoke their various languages. One candid 16-year-old girl said she couldn’t wait to add more golden rings to the short stack on her neck, adding that her younger sister, who attended a mixed-heritage school, was teased for having them and felt differently. Several women at Inle Lake’s floating market marveled at the color of our skin and laughed with us as we tried some of their commonplace ingredients (such as ants!) for the first time. We asked about the Rohingya, talked about the country’s war times, and had some of the most open dialogue I’ve ever experienced far from home. Seeing this mysterious country through the eyes of its strong women—who are fiercely clinging to tradition in the face of rapid modernization—was haunting and inspiring in ways I’ll never forget.
How to do it yourself: While quality hotels are still in short supply in developing Myanmar, the Strand in Yangon is world-class by any standard. One day is all you need in the traffic-filled capital (enough to see the gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda). From there, allocate two full days apiece in Bagan and Inle Lake for a condensed tour of the country’s greatest hits.
1. Zimbabwe and Botswana
Don’t call this choice a cop-out: It was hard enough narrowing down my favorite trips of the year without simply putting Africa at the bottom. It’s been nearly six months since my first safari—a trip that was five years in the making—and I still can’t choose between these two spellbinding countries. Truth is, Zimbabwe and Botswana are a perfect pair, and having experienced them side by side, they put one another’s best qualities in sharp relief.
Zimbabwe, with its reputation for the world’s greatest safari guides, finally has the lodges to match. That’s no small thing: In a country with 90 percent unemployment and plenty of lingering political uncertainty, a burgeoning tourism industry has brought palpable optimism to even the remotest communities. Safaris in Hwange National Park now offer an incredible density of wildlife sightings—as good as in neighboring Botswana—with the added benefit of authentic cultural exchanges, both in nearby villages and right on the property.
If Zimbabwe feels like a diamond that’s still slightly in-the-rough, Botswana’s Okavango Delta sparkles by comparison. Here, you see the benefits a booming luxury tourism economy can create in the long run. Guides are relatively well-traveled, hold high-paying jobs, and have risen through one of the best public school systems in all of Africa. Hospitality here has been perfected to a tee—you’re not likely to find more thoughtful service anywhere on Earth. Couple it with incredible sightings of lions and leopards; canoe rides through elephant territories; and the most dramatic Technicolor sunsets the eye can see, and it’s no wonder this has become a bucket-list topper for royals and regular folks alike.
Combined, the two countries tell a powerful story about the impact and importance of tourism: When done responsibly, it can protect the earth’s most beautiful places and change lives for the better. This combination has certainly changed mine.
How to do it yourself: I booked with Wilderness Safaris, a longtime leader for conservation and community development in Africa. There are many great operators on this wide continent, but I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
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