Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

U.S.A.
For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

CANADA
The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

MEXICO
The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

THE CARIBBEAN
This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

EUROPE
Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

CENTRAL AMERICA / SOUTH AMERICA
In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

MIDDLE EAST
With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

ASIA
The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

AFRICA
From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

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Tequila, Mexico — Not Just a Day Trip Anymore

December 14, 2009 at 9:24 am | Posted in culinary/food & drink, Mexico | 5 Comments
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by Diana Rowe

Tequila — the liquor, not the town — has picked up a bit of a bad rap even as it’s grown increasingly popular throughout North America, Europe, and beyond. As in, margaritas and shooters, a cheap and surefire way to get — how can I put this — majorly wasted.

And yet…ever more folks are coming to appreciate the spirit’s finer points — there are reposados the equal of any single malt or Cognac, and a lore nearly as varied and distinguished as either. It was this pedigree — plus a taste of the lesser-known color of colonial Mexico — that I was seeking when I set out for this legendary central Mexican town.

This singular liquor is distilled from the cactuslike agave plant, and an officially designated “Tequila Route” passes through various villages that live for agave (including homemade brew in mini-barrels lining shopkeepers’ shelves; sample at your own risk). But it’s in and around Santiago de Tequila (pop. 27,000) on scenic Carretera15 less than an hour from Guadalajara, that you’ll find more than half of Mexico’s 90,000 acres of blue agave cultivation.

Tequila and neighboring communities like Amatitán and Arenal are this country’s heart — and definitely not tarted up for gringos. This is unvarnished countryside where weathered jimadores (agave farmers) hit the fields before sunrise to beat the worst of the sun’s heat and the dark shadow of the Volcán Tequila hugs hilltops covered with acres of spiky blue agave — an industry that all began when the Spanish conquistadors invented “tequila wine” within a few decades of their arrival.

The town itself consists of stone arches and ochre-washed brick and adobe homes, wedged between several tequila factories, such as José Cuervo’s Mundo Cuervo, a mammoth complex in the town’s center. In traditional Mexican style, the hub of activity is the town square with its typical high-steepled church, vendor kiosks, and permanent neo-classical or baroque buildings.

But soon after arriving, I found myself out in the field, navigating rows of spiky, sharp greenish-blue agave plants and hearing the story of 68-year-old jimador Quirino. He’s walked these lands for decades, harvesting the heart of the agave — yet, despite sun-weathered skin, he strode briskly, and his mind was as sharp as an agave leaf. It’s a labor of both love and sweat, this — from daybreak until the heat gets to be too much — usually around 2 pm. Our early morning highlighted by my jimador collecting wood and building a fire to roast warm quesadillas and freshly-picked ears of corn. Over this earthy breakfast, we sat at a picnic table and enjoyed a panoramic view of agave fields dotted with livestock.

Indeed, for Quirino and the tequila industry’s 40,000 other workers, (mostly farmers and field pickers), tequila’s far more than a simple drink – it’s their history, culture, and legacy. In fact, for many, “Tequila es México.” UNESCO agrees; the area’s been on the World Heritage list since 2006.

As recently as several years ago, tourist accommodations and amenities hereabouts were still barely more than rustic at best, and most travel guides would’ve recommended it as nothing more than a day trip from Guadalajara. But this fall I discovered the latest local offering, on the outskirts of town run amid 600 acres of agave: a new boutique hotel run by the boutique distillery La Cofradía.

This year La Cofradía opened its first four themed rooms — really casitas — and it plans 18 more. Each features a local artist’s mural and amenities such as A/C, Internet and minibar; rates start at US$150. The highlight here is a night tour and tasting showcasing the distillation and fermentation processes; I tasted the baked agave fresh from an oven and sipped raw tequila dripping from the still. Agave seeped from oak barrels stored in dark, shadowy warehouses, their musky smell surprisingly alluring. And as we sipped the final product, the house Casa Noble, we were surrounded by agave fields and the aroma of fermenting tequila — a heady experience, for sure.

Another great way to go — if you’ve got the dough — is a 10-day/nine-night tequila tour from  Oregon-based company Experience Tequila ($1,400 per person not including airfare). If on the other hand you still prefer tackling Tequila as a day trip (as many still do), there are plenty of affordable options from Guadalajara, as well as a two-hour train ride called the Tequila Express (adults 950 pesos, kids 550, seniors 850), which includes music and a dance performance, and stops at Amatitán for a tour of the 2,500-acre Herradura spread and factory at the 19th-century Hacienda San José del Refugio.

Alternatively, rent a car in Guadalajara for a 45-minute drive along the well-marked and scenic Mexican highways (just be forewarned that traffic can be tricky for those unfamiliar with Mexican driving). Many use the faster toll highway, but for those preferring the full experience, I’d recommend the slower two-lane as it runs through the smaller towns before reaching Tequila. If you’d like to spend the night in any of them, look for picturesque members of the Haciendas y Casas Rurales de Jalisco.

More info: TequilaJalisco.gob.mx, TequilaSource.com, TasteTequila.com.

On Mexico’s Hot “Riviera Maya,” Dial It Down a Notch in Tulum

November 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Mexico, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

Running from Cancun some 240 miles down to the Guatemala border, the stretch of coast branded as the “Riviera Maya” has become known for the bopping town of Playa del Carmen, along with a string of big and increasingly upscale resorts north and south of town. All well and good. It’s just that part of the charm of this area for us had always been getting away a bit more from the glitz and development of Cancun. For that, nowadays it helps to head farther south a couple of hours south to Tulum, which you might recognize as the name of the picturesque Maya ruins by the sea but which is also home to Tulum Playa, with a stretch of small beach hotels like the Hotel Zamas, starting at just $100 a night.  Here you’ll find a more laid-back and less pricey beach experience still within easy reach of both Playa and Cancun, along with some spectacular eco-adventures (cenote diving!) and Maya ruins (not just Tulum next door, but Cobá, a half hour inland, and of course the famous likes of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, doable as overnighters or long day trips). More info: RivieraMaya.com.

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