This was my 7th annual round-the-world trip in January 2012. This time I planned my itinerary very well. 30 days is more of a guideline than a rule and this year’s trip topped the calendar scale at 45 days. Like previous trips, most of the stops were new to me but there were a few favorites that I never miss when “in the neighborhood” (like Paris, Bangkok & Auckland). This was also my most ambitious itinerary yet with 19 stops in 16 countries (increasing my current country count from 105 to 115). Two of this year’s stops were hard to reach destinations that have been on my wish list for years (Easter Island and Maldives) this is the year I finally got there! Without further adieu…here’s the complete itinerary:
Destinations included: Easter Island, Malta, Mauritius, Reunion Island, Abu Dhabi, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Koh Samui & Bangkok, Thailand, Hong Kong & Macau, Melbourne and Tasmania, While I again used frequent flier miles for my RTW ticket, this year's trip required a few pricey extra flights to Easter Island and the Maldives which increased the cost of this year's adventure.
Easter Island was Magical. I had dreamed of visiting Easter Island for several years and after 5 days on the island I still feel like I could spend a few more weeks here. It’s rare that a place you’ve built up in your mind lives up to your expectations. This mysterious island and its native people actually exceeded my every expectation and I’m only sorry I didn’t try harder to get here sooner. So much culture to experience and so many sights to see on this magnificent little gem of an island in the middle of the Pacific. If Easter Island isn’t on your bucket list, add it. It’s worth the effort and every penny you’ll spend to get here.
It’s inevitable that in the course of my annual January round-the-world trips, I will sometimes be visiting a destination in its off-season. Over the years I’ve discovered it’s not always detrimental to my enjoyment of the country; in fact in many cases I prefer it to a high season visit. That may well have been the case with the island nation of Malta. My four days here were the best!
Another highlight of this trip was my stay in Maldives. The W Retreat Maldives exceeded my every expectation. W’s motto is Whatever, Whenever and that mantra quickly permeates your mindset on the island. You truly begin to feel like there’s nothing you can’t have whenever you want it. The only downside to this extreme pampering is that eventually, you have to return to the real world where people expect you to wear shoes and free ice cream isn’t waiting for you around every corner. Real life can be so cruel.
Next best stop? Ahh….Bangkok. My home away from home on these RTW trips and the only place I’ve visited on all 7 trips. Why? Because it was love at first sight on RTW #1 and – truth be told – I fall more in love with Bangkok every time I visit. From gleaming temples to exotic markets. The chaos of hot pink taxis dodging rainbow-colored tuk-tuks to the electric hum of the backpacker ground zero of Khao San Road. A winding river lined with 5-star hotels next to ramshackle fishing huts and aromatic street food beckoning from seemingly every corner. Blend them all together and you’ve got one of the greatest cities in the world.
Every year when I’m planning my Big Trip I think, “how can this ever surpass last year’s trip?” And somehow, it always does. This year was no exception.
It’s one of the most remote islands on earth. A startling 2,200 miles west of the nearest continent and 1,290 miles east of the nearest populated island. The United Nations has proclaimed Easter Island the most isolated inhabited island in the world. It’s also one of the world’s greatest mysteries and an undisputed archaeological treasure. Known as Rapa Nui to the native population and Isla de Pascua to Chileans, the English name commemorates its European discovery by a Dutch expedition on Easter Sunday in 1722. I decided to start my day by exploring the island’s only town of Hanga Roa, just a short walk from my hotel. I made my way to the water and immediately spotted my first moai that seemed to be guarding the town’s small harbor. Despite the small size of Easter Island, it is home to three dormant volcanoes. The nearest to town, Rano Kau, was said to be the most spectacular so the next morning I decided to hike it. On the walk from town, I passed two giant caves at Ana Kai Tangata. They were stunning enough to be their own tourist attraction and I was surprised that they were barely mentioned on my map (which just goes to show how many amazing sites this island has).
With over 7,000 years of history, the culturally rich Maltese Islands are literally saturated with attractions and places of interest. Despite their close proximity to Sicily, Malta is no mere Italian outpost. In fact Northern African and Arabic influences are much more prominent than Italian. This is true in the architecture and in the local language that is Semitic in origin. Each of the three islands have their own unique charm. Malta is by far the largest of the three and is home to the capital city of Valletta and the large majority of the population. Gozo is just a 30-minute ferry ride away and is home to numerous towns and villages boasting Renaissance cathedrals and Baroque architecture as well as the magnificent natural attraction, the “Azure Window.” Comino is the smallest of the islands and is largely uninhabited. However, in the summer months, visitors flock to the stunning blue lagoon on daily boat trips.
Sandwiched between Madagascar and Mauritius…and hundreds of miles from anywhere else, the lush island of Réunion is a French outpost with a decidedly spicy Creole flavor. But the real draw of Réunion is its stunningly unique natural setting featuring soaring peaks and one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. Most visitors come to Réunion for two things: the sunshine-splashed coastline of the west (sometimes called the “Réunion Riviera”) and the dramatic volcanic cliffs of Piton de la Fournaise. The next day I planned driving through the heart of Reunion’s National Park and a recent addition to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The National Park covers 40% of the island’s surface area and includes the volcanic summits of Piton des Neiges and Piton de la Fournaise as well as the three natural amphitheaters of Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie carved into the land. Formed by millions of years of rainfall and erosion after the collapse of the walls of a prehistoric dome volcano that once encompassed the whole island, they were given the name ‘Les Cirques” because of their circular shape. The Cirques are a natural wonderland with mineral springs, towering waterfalls and endless hiking trails. You could spend days on the island just hiking the Cirques but since my time was sparse, I limited my focus to the National Park’s top attraction.
Yep, scariest thing I've ever done...inside an enclosure with a dozen or so lions. The big thing to do at Casela is the "Walk with Lions" but that was fully booked during my stay so I had to settle for the "Lion Encounter." A little online research revealed that Casela was one of only three places in the entire world where you can interact one-on-one with lions, tigers and cheetahs (the other two, in case you’re in the market for such things, are Lion Encounter programs in Livingstone, Zambia and at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Casela offers both hour-long walks with the animals and their trained guides – which are extremely popular and were booked up completely when I inquired – and a lion/tiger/cheetah interaction. I picked Lions, relectantly, for my interaction. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill and yet terrifying at the same time. An incredible animal experience that may have even surpassed my reigning favorite animal encounter – swimming with the jellyfish in Palau. I’m so glad I did it!
Mauritius is world-famous for its beaches so that was tops on my list. My first stop was the northern tip of the island and an endless stretch of white sand called Trou aux Biches (translated as Does’ Watering Hole). This fast-developing tourist destination is lined end-to-end with beachfront apartments, villas and bungalows instead of the ubiquitous mega resorts and had a very relaxed, homey vibe. Your own personal slice of beachfront nirvana available for weekly or monthly rental. Next, I made the long (and often confusing) drive south to the southwestern coast to a town called Flic en Flac. Many of the island’s 5-star mega resorts are located here and it’s easy to see why. Unlike some of the questionable towns I’d noticed fronting some of the resort areas, Flic en Flac was a pleasant little town blessed with perhaps the most stunning stretch of beachfront real estate on the island.
A stopover in Abu Dhabi on the way to the Maldives. Abu Dhabi is home to more than 200 islands, a great expanse of Arabian Desert, some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, one of the world’s largest mosques and a vast array of gleaming skyscrapers. There was far more to do than our 24 hours would allow so we narrowed our day down to the top sights. We headed to Abu Dhabi’s iconic luxury hotel, the Emirates Palace. The distinctively massive Emirates Palace is the hotel alluded to in the movie “Sex & the City 2” even though the movie was actually filmed in Morocco. After that we moved on to another spectacular sight. One of the largest and most beautiful mosques in the world, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the only one in Abu Dhabi open to non-Muslims. As long as you visit outside of the daily prayer times, you are free to explore this exquisitely appointed mosque.
The entire country of the Maldives consists of hundreds of tiny, idyllic islands scattered across an expanse of ocean. The Maldivian Archipelago of 26 atolls stretches over 500 miles from North to South and forms a natural barrier across the Indian Ocean. Its nearest neighbors are India and Sri Lanka. It was time to get out on the water for a little kayaking. I went to the water sports bungalow on the beach, that see-through kayak was right there waiting for me. It was so unique to be able to look directly through the kayak at the coral and fish below. I loved it! The W Retreat Maldives exceeded my every expectation. W’s motto is Whatever, Whenever and that mantra quickly permeates your mindset on the island. You truly begin to feel like there’s nothing you can’t have whenever you want it. The only down-side to this extreme pampering is that eventually, you have to return to the real world where people expect you to wear shoes and free ice cream isn’t waiting for you around every corner. Real life can be so cruel.
The only place I've ever stayed where you arrive by seaplane. On its own private island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, this resort is one of the world's best. From the luxuriously-appointed, spacious interior to the decadent indoor/outdoor open-air bathroom, everything in this thatched-roof slice of heaven was first-class. But the real WOW-factor still awaited just outside the glass doors…a sundeck featuring a private pool, barbeque grill, lounge chairs and a circular daybed for lounging the day away in style. And as if that wasn’t enough, just steps from the pool on the other side of swaying palms was our own private stretch of sand complete with umbrella, two more lounge chairs and direct access to the sparkling clear blue lagoon. WOW, indeed.
Now, after two nights at the extraordinary W Maldives, I have to admit I didn’t have high expectations for our room at the Sheraton. I mean, I knew it would be nice (they always are) but I didn’t expect to be wowed. My apologies to the Sheraton Maldives for underestimating them, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Recently, the Sheraton added 20 new luxury villas and I was fortunate enough to be upgraded to one. The villa’s design was elegant and contemporary with clean lines and calming colors. It was similar in size to the W retreat and more importantly, it had a truly outstanding terrace outfitted with private infinity pool, lounge chairs, hammock and the tranquil sound of crashing waves. Once again, the first word that came to mind was, WOW.
On the way from the Maldives to Thailand, we had a full day layover in Sri Lanka. We made the most of it by visiting an elephant orphanage, a tea plantation and the holy city of Kandy. After a 60-mile drive that indeed took almost 4 hours in traffic and on mountain roads, our first stop for the day was the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Thanks to the delay in our arrival, we missed the morning bottle feeding of the baby elephants but arrived just in time to see the elephants enjoying their late-morning trip down to the river. There were dozens of elephants – young and old – enjoying the cool river on a blazingly hot Sri Lankan day. There were also hundreds of people (mostly locals) who had come out to see them. Since the day of our visit turned out to be Sri Lanka’s national independence holiday, tons of local families were out and about enjoying the day. It was so much fun to watch the baby elephants play in the water and we spent quite a while just taking it all in. Our final stop for the day was one of Sri Lanka’s prime tourist sites, the Royal City of Kandy. Set in the center of lush hills and surrounding a scenic lake, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kandy was the last bastion of resistance to colonial rule. The city is known for distinctive architecture, dance, art and music. Its most famous site is the Dalada Maligawa or the “Temple of the Tooth.” The temple is home to the Buddha’s tooth relic which is an item of great significance to all Buddhists.
Rumor has it Koh Samui is on track to be the next big destination for Thai tourism. I stepped into W retreat and found bliss. The lobby was literally a vast infinity pool of blue that seemed to melt right into the Gulf of Thailand. Talk about WOW-factor. It simply wasn’t possible to process this stunningly beautiful scene with so many hues of blue on only an hour of sleep. The expansive deck with its dramatic infinity pool, lounge chairs and daybed beckoned with panoramic views of the turquoise sea. It was absolutely awe-inspiring. From the large bathroom, sliding glass doors led directly into the infinity pool. I immediately decided I never wanted to leave.
The beautiful thing about Bangkok is that most of the major temples are located right along the river and easily reached on the tourist boat (which is by far the best mode of transportation in Bangkok). We began first with the striking Wat Arun (or Temple of Dawn). The temple consists of four “stupas” positioned around an elongated Khmer tower all covered in a mosaic of broken pottery and seashells. The colorful mosaic is quite elaborate and can only truly be appreciated up close. On each side of the main tower, daringly-steep staircases invite those without a fear of heights to climb up and enjoy a panoramic view of the river. Next, we crossed back to the other side of the river to visit Wat Pho. Bangkok’s largest and oldest temple, it is also home to the famous Reclining Buddha – Thailand’s largest. Our final stop on the temple tour was the Grand Palace, Thailand’s most famous attraction. Within the grounds of the Grand Palace is Wat Phra Kaew, home to the revered Emerald Buddha. Dating back to the 15th century, the image has been enshrined all over Thailand. The Grand Palace itself is an homage to the ornate eccentricity of Thai temples. The gleaming facades are incredibly grand with vast amounts of gold inlay and glittering, colorful statues of mythical beings.
First, I wanted to take a walk to the only place I really knew on the Kowloon side, the Avenue of the Stars. Similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hong Kong version immortalizes Chinese film stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Normally, it’s a lovely walk along the water with picture-perfect views of Victoria Harbor but today it was overcast, chilly and windy enough to sweep an unattended child right into the harbor.I couldn't miss the Symphony of Lights show over Hong Kong harbor that starts every night at 8:00pm. Many of the skyscrapers along the water are outfitted with multicolored laser/strobe lights and the whole show is set to music. It was what I remembered most about my last visit to Hong Kong and I wanted to be sure we didn’t miss it. Since it was freezing outside by the water (where most people watch the show) and our room had a panoramic view of the harbor, we decided to watch from there. It was a great call because I never realized that the show involved so many lights on top of the buildings on the Kowloon side of the harbor. You can’t really appreciate that from the water’s edge but you sure can from the 23rd floor of the Sheraton! It was an awesome 18-minute show and when it was over it was time to venture out to find a good spot for dinner.
A day trip to Macau wasn't quite as exciting as I thought it would be but it was still an interesting way to spend a day. Macau is called the Las Vegas of Asia. I don't agree much with that. I walked through casino after casino, they were all the same. Beautiful, but B-O-R-I-N-G. Now, I will say, we walked through one of the casinos that I’d not heard of before – the Galaxy – and the interior of it was all glitz and glamour and it had a spectacular Crystal Lobby that rivaled anything I’ve seen in Vegas. But, all in all, I was disappointed by Macau, it was not at all what I expected.
Right next door to the Hilton, where I was staying was one of Melbourne’s top sites and the temple for sports-mad Melbournians: the Melbourne Cricket Ground (also known as the MCG or just the “G”). Seating almost 100,000 fans, the G was the site of the first Australian Rules football game in 1858 and the first Test cricket match between Australia and England in 1877. It’s massive and I can only imagine what the atmosphere is like around here on a match day. From the G, I wound my way over to the Yarra River and walked along the water all the way to the Docklands area and Victoria Harbor. Along the way I passed several of Melbourne’s beautiful bridges. The most interesting of which was the Sandridge Bridge. From there, I cut over to the modern steel and glass wonderland that is Federation Square. This is Melbourne’s central meeting place and on a beautiful summer day like today it was overflowing with people. The square is home to the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI) and is the site for regular cultural events and sports telecasts.
Just under 200 miles south of the Australian mainland, the country’s only island state - nicknamed “Tassie” - has a unique and compelling history. My visit to the island of Tasmania included Freycinet National Park, a hike up to the Wineglass Bay overlook and two nights in the charming town of Hobart. For a one-day trip, I really had two options: the Port Arthur Historic site where I could delve into Tassie’s troubled history or Freycinet National Park, one of the island’s most spectacular natural wonders. Deciding I wanted my brief visit to focus on the natural scenic beauty of Tasmania more than its history, I opted for the park. The peninsula is home to abundant wildlife including road-crossing marsupials and a large variety of birds. In addition to numerous camp sites, there are dozens of hikes available ranging from short 10-minute walks to a lookout point to full day or overnight hikes with camping. One of the most popular hikes is up to the lookout point for the perfect arc of white sand known as Wineglass Bay. I thoroughly enjoyed my 24 hours in Tasmania and I can definitely see why it’s been referred to as “Dazzlin’ Tassie.” There’s plenty to do here to fill an entire week and I’d love to return someday and see more of the eastern coastline and especially to explore the convict trail and Port Arthur. So much history amongst all that natural beauty.
An archipelago made up of 83 islands, the island nation of Vanuatu is about a 2 ½ hour flight from either Brisbane, Australia or Auckland, New Zealand making it one of the most easily reachable South Pacific islands for both Aussies and Kiwis (and they account for almost all of the visitors). In 2007, it was named the Happiest Country in the World by the New Economic Foundation’s “happy planet index” which has helped to promote their tourism industry (who wouldn’t want to visit the happiest country in the world?). And after just a few hours on the main island of Efate, it’s easy to see why everyone’s so happy here. After all, what’s not to be happy about when you live in paradise? Like in Tasmania, I’d procrastinated about booking a hotel in Vanuatu and only in the past few days had confirmed where I would be staying. My top choices were the Erakor Island Resort and the Hideaway Island Resort, both on their own separate islands reachable by jetty.
It was time to change hotels over to the Erakor Island Resort for the remainder of my stay. As we got closer and closer to the island I was blown away by how beautiful the resort was. I felt like I’d stepped out of the boat to a remote tropical paradise. The resort encompasses the entire island so it’s about as private as a hotel gets, yet within easy access of the main island by 24-hour jetty. Remote…yet connected. I was quickly checked in and shown to my spa waterfront bungalow. It was absolutely beautiful with a big jacuzzi tub and a lovely deck right on the water. The only problem (for me) was that it wasn’t air conditioned and I wondered if I’d be able to sleep (I was, but not especially well). After settling in, I changed into my swimsuit, grabbed my book and headed right back to the island’s main beach where I took advantage of the rest of the afternoon to just relax and swim in the water with the island’s hundreds of resident starfish. I had a full day planned for the next day and wanted the rest of the day to just enjoy doing nothing on Vanuatu.
Originally a gold mining town in the 1860’s and surrounded by a mountain range so remarkable it is actually called The Remarkables, today’s Queenstown is widely considered the adventure capital of the world. The colorful downtown area is bordered by the bay of sparkling-blue Lake Wakatipu on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other making it one of the most visually stunning towns I have ever laid eyes on in all of my travels. Queenstown offers all sorts of adrenaline-inducing activities that I, as a reasonable adult, would likely never attempt: bungee jumping, sky diving, hang-gliding, canyoning and even something called the world’s highest sky swing (whatever that is).So, since I’d ruled out bungee jumping a long time ago, a jetboat ride was definitely on my to-do list. As well as a ride up the mountain on a gondola to take in the panoramic views over Queenstown. Other than that, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do.