This was my fourth annual month-long trip around the world in 2009. My last trip included a lot of adventure and so I decided to take things a bit slow this time. I planned this trip to include serene destinations that included cultural destinations and a lot of Sun n' Sand. Destinations included: Costa Rica, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, New Zealand, Tahiti & Belize.
My first stop Costa Rica greeted us with the kind of pounding rain normally reserved for the Asian monsoon season. (If this is the dry season, I don’t want to see the wet one.) The primary tourist areas in Costa Rica are relatively spread out and drive times can range up to 4-5 hours to get from one area to another. Since I only had three days, flights and buses weren’t as practical because of the limited schedules. Renting a car offered the most flexibility but thorough research revealed that the road conditions in the country were less than optimal.
My arrival in Paris couldn't have been more tedious with my luggage missing. I had to run around filling forms and chasing various departments to get my bags back. I had one free afternoon though, which I spent walking around Paris and taking photographs of all the usual sights with snow on the ground. I’ve never seen snow here in Paris so these are all new sights for me.
As soon as I arrived in Naples, I couldn't delay trying the “Pizza Napoli” the local favorite with only tomato sauce, garlic and basil (no cheese, even!). It was divine, the best pizza I have ever eaten (and I never thought I would say that about a pizza without cheese). The crust was light and soft and the tomato sauce sweet and tangy, the garlic and basil were icing on the cake.
After Naples, I headed to Salerno. I awoke to a gorgeous panoramic view of Sorrento from my balcony. Finally, the sun! I got ready quickly and checked out of the hotel to get to the train station where the local SITA buses depart for the Amalfi Coast. The SITA buses are a great way to get around in the Naples, Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano area. They run frequently and only cost 1 euro per ride. The 1-hour ride up the Amalfi Coast to the town of Amalfi is an ear-popping, cliff-hugging ride through the mountains that makes you pray the bus drivers know what they’re doing. Luckily, the ride is so incredibly picturesque that you hardly notice the steep drops into the sea below as you round each corner.
Coming to Bangkok is always a pleasure! But, this time I decided to check out an area of Bangkok that I can’t believe I’ve never gone to before, Khao san Road. Known as command central to the international backpacker set, Khao san Road is lined with hostels, tourist service desks, restaurants, laundry services, tattoo parlors, massage parlors and everything else the budget-traveler could ever need (okay, maybe that’s why I’ve never been here!). It was quite a lively area full of Europeans, Aussies and other Americans – for once, I blend!
My visit to Cambodia was filled with discoveries. My temple visits were complete by day two, I decided to visit the Cambodian Land Mine Museum for an educational history of the curse of land mines in Cambodia. The museum was established by a former Khmer Rouge explosives expert who set thousands of mines as a child soldier. Now, he devotes his life to personally disarming land mines throughout the country and caring for children who have been victims of land mines with the proceeds from the museum. It was an eye-opening visit and provided much insight into the dangers still faced by Cambodians to this day.
In Tahiti, I settled into my suite and instantly went to sleep. I woke up to see the beginnings of a spectacular sunrise outside my window. Since this was my first look at the resort in the daylight, I got my camera and headed out at 5:30am to check out the beach and the rest of the property. Though the beach isn’t much to speak of, the Meridien’s sandy-bottom pool is fabulous so I spent some quality time there in the morning before heading into Papeete to check out the market and catch my ferry over to Moorea.
In Moorea I had the opportunity to stay in a Tahitian Bungalow! In case, you are confused as to why that is such a big deal, here is a little history of the Tahitian bungalow…Moorea is believed to be the inspiration for James A. Michener’s mythical isle of Bali Hai and is also the birthplace of the legendary overwater bungalow. As the story goes, a trio of California guys came to the island in the 1950’s and became known as the Bali Hai boys. They developed several hotels and are credited with dreaming up the idea for the signature hotel rooms over the lagoon. To this day, the islands of French Polynesia are known worldwide for this unique style of accommodation. There you go.
For my last stop in Belize, I will have to confess I had done almost no research prior to my arrival. Who had time? In fact, I just got around to booking my hotel while in Thailand a few weeks ago. I had no guidebook for this part of Central America but what little research I had done said that the best place to stay was on the island of Ambergris Caye, just off the coast of mainland Belize. Kind of ironic that I’ve never been to Central America before and on this trip I started (Costa Rica) and ended here.
After 3 days, I was in Belize City and waiting for my last flight home to Atlanta. Another wonderful RTW trip sadly came to an end, but I was ready to be home for a while!
I began this year's trip in Costa Rica with stays in Arenal and Jaco. Jaco was fun with our hotel situated right on the beach. Manuel Antonio National Park just south of Jaco was one of the highlights. We decided to visit the Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica’s largest, about a 90 minute drive from Jaco. I hiked jungle-like trails to two picturesque, white-sand beaches and spotted several white-faced monkeys and one sun-loving iguana along the way. It was a great day and we had definitely earned another good meal and spectacular sunset after a day full of hiking.
Two thousand years ago, Vesuvius was thought to be just a mountain…until it famously blew its stack in AD 79. The devastating eruption preserved for posterity an entire ancient culture, discovered centuries later like an enormous time capsule. An entire ancient city remains today, in remarkably good condition. Everything from a theater to multi-family dwellings can be seen at the sight. And numerous drawings and works of art from Pompeii are on display in the Naples Archaeological Museum. It is a bit eerie to wander Pompeii with the imposing shadow of Vesuvius hovering nearby. Luckily, the volcano last rumbled in 1944.
All of the Amalfi Coast was gorgeous but the town of Positano was my absolute favorite. Known for its impossibly vertical architecture, the pastel-colored buildings of Positano seem carved out of the side of the mountain. The Gulf of Salerno was impossibly blue before me and looking up at this charming little town is like stepping inside an impressionist painting. Absolutely exquisite! Positano is quiet and deserted today, most hotels are closed this time of year, but I can picture it in the summer months overflowing with tourists. I think I like this better. I wandered the tiny streets and staircases, taking my time on the way back up the hill and stopping eventually for lunch at a small café. Each level I climb offers another impossibly colorful view.
I returned to the Phuket area again this year but decided to stay in the small beach town of Khao Lak instead. Khao Lak is a thriving tourist destination for backpackers, up-scale tourists, adventure tourist and scuba enthusiasts, the 17-mile Khao Lak coastline was the Thai area hardest hit by the Asian tsunami of December 2004. Fortunately, most of the town has been rebuilt. It's about a 90-minute drive from the airport but totally worth the drive to escape the crowded beaches of Phuket. For my last day, I drove around exploring the Khao Lak area a little further. I made a visit to the Tsunami Museum to make a donation and then contributed my last bit to the local economy with one final massage.
Off the coast of Malaysia, Langkawi Island was the perfect place to relax and do nothing for a few days. For my two nights on the island, I couldn’t decide between two equally beautiful Starwood properties on the island, the Westin and the Sheraton. So, what to do when you can’t decide? Try them both, of course! I spent my first night at the Westin Langkawi and the second at the Sheraton Resort Langkawi. When I arrived at the Westin, the dreamy views from the lobby alone were enough to make you want to sit down with a cocktail and never explore any further. In the evening I enjoyed an excellent sunset from the hotel’s beach followed by a great meal in town. It was an extremely relaxing couple of days, though I feel a little bad that I didn’t get out to see much of the island. Oh well, sometimes you need a break…even from being a tourist.
Best sunrise I've ever seen in my life. In fact, I loved watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat so much I got out of bed at 4am every morning I was there to see it. Angkor is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and home to ancient gods. The walled city of Angkor Wat is widely believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. Most of Angkor’s great temples were abandoned to the jungle for many centuries until a massive restoration took place in the 1960’s. But it was not until the years of brutal Khmer Rouge rule and civil war ended in the 80’s that Angkor Wat emerged as a viable tourist destination. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and was removed from UNESCO’s endangered list in 2003. The temples of Angkor are the capital of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire. As staggering as Angkor Wat is, I was surprised to discover the sheer volume of temples and diversity of design from era to era that dot the extended Angkor area. You could quite literally spend weeks exploring them all. But with only three days, I had to economize on the sightseeing. In addition to Angkor Wat, I chose to visit Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.
My hotel, the Westin on Lighter Quay, was beautiful and had great panoramic views of the city. It was a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon in Auckland, mid-70’s and not a cloud in the sky, and it seemed like the whole city was out on the harbor front enjoying the day. I spent the afternoon walking around the city enjoying the weather and then had a terrific dinner of New Zealand green-lipped mussels on the waterfront (not exactly a burger, but when in Rome). I was so happy to be back in the land of my favorite wines…New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs! It had been weeks since I’d had a good glass of wine so, of course, that was top priority.
The island of Moorea was much smaller than Tahiti, only 36 miles around the perimeter along the coastal road; easy to explore in a single day with your own wheels. The interior of the island, like Tahiti, was mountainous and best explored by 4 x 4 vehicles that are also available for rental. I decided I was far more interested in exploring the shoreline so a regular car would suffice. Just a mile or two from the port the road climbs up a hill along the coastline and there was a spectacular lookout point over the lagoon and the Sofitel Resort with the island of Tahiti off in the distance. I sat there for about 20 minutes just taking it all in: the stark contrast between the shallow, pale blue clear lagoon; the deep blue sea beyond the breakers; the thatched-roof bungalows of the Sofitel dotting the lagoon and the sandy white shoreline. It was like something out of a movie, almost too perfect to be real. I, also took a drive inland up to the Belvedere “lookout point”, the island’s highest point accessible by car.
Ambergris Caye is known as one of the top diving spots in the world but since I’m not a diver, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with my 4 days there. (I briefly considered getting certified while I was there but then I remembered…I am afraid of sharks.) There are numerous fishing, diving and snorkeling trips departing daily to many of the outer islands or there are the ubiquitous hammocks dotting the shoreline. After 5 weeks of time zone hopping, I chose the hammock. I guess this was as good a place as any to recover from jetlag. I did take long walks every day to explore each end of the island and went out to dinner with my hotel-mates a few times, but mostly I just adopted the life of a beach bum for 4 days. If you haven’t done that in a while, I highly recommend it. Ambergris Caye is quite possibly the most laid-back place I’ve ever been. No one is on a schedule and the only traffic jams involve the islands’ numerous golf carts. Everyone seems to have a golf cart or a bicycle on this island and that’s all you need. There are a few cars but the golf carts are much more practical considering the narrow and sandy roads.