The other day I talked about my favourite Canadian destinations and travel bits for 2014. Here are some thoughts (okay, a LOT of thoughts) about the U.S. and a couple Caribbean and European spots I visited during the year.
Most surprising U.S. destination: Apalachicola, Florida. A super-relaxed, fun town in a quiet section of the Florida panhandle with just the right mix of old-time charm and trendy, new shops. A very good brewpub, too.
Most wonderful host: The delightful Anthony Hunte of Hunte’s Gardens in Barbados. A lovely man, great conversationalist and incredible gardener. His garden is always the highlight of any visit I take to this fabulous island.
Best world hotel view: Jade Mountain in St. Lucia, with simply magical suites and killer views of the Pitons. Probably the most memorable hotel you’ll ever stay in, if you’re lucky enough to make it.
Sorest butt experience: Three days of bike riding on a bike and barge trip through Holland. It was a fabulous trip and I loved the villages, but I really should’ve brought bike shorts with padding. Lots of padding.
Best U.S. hotel view: The Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco has “bridge rooms” where you can gaze out and see the Golden Gate in one direction and the new Bay Bridge in the other. Wow.
Most beautiful golf course: The Princeville Makai course in Kauai. So many holes along the water overlooking the Pacific and stunning Hanalei Bay and the distant mountains. Great conditions, and possibly the best resort course you’ll ever play.
Favourite golf photo: I love the shadows on the course at Troon North in Scottsdale, a fantastic desert layout.
Coolest unexpected restaurant: Bespoke Inn in Scottsdale. Sensational food and cool, unique rooms to rent in a restored complex that also houses a high-end bike shop.
Most surprising golf course: Royal Westmoreland in Barbados features views of the water on every hole. The layout is challenging but fun. I also way more green monkeys here on a 2014 trip than I did on a round at the Green Monkey course down the road a few years ago. Maybe they should flip names….
Most surprising musical performance part II: The LM Stone band at Anse Chastanet in St. Lucia. The man capitalizes on St. Lucia’s love for country music with regular performances at various resorts on the island. His grizzled voice is ideal for singing about “friends in low places,” but he also can do reggae and pop and even gospel.
Best fishing experience: On a driving tour of St. Vincent I stumbled into a group of locals fishing for tiny river fish called “tri tri.” It was a marvel to watch them catch the tiny, wriggling critters, which they clean and bake into bread.
Best urban discovery: Finding the Bronx version of Little Italy, which is far more authentic than the one in Manhattan.
Best tour guide: Dan Abatelli of Big Apple Tours in New York, who showed us around the Bronx. An absolutely first-rate guide and even better guy to spend time with.
Biggest surprise hike: A short walk from the Four Seasons Manele Bay takes you up a lonely, high cliff to reveal superb views of the Lanai coastline and a hidden beach near wehat’s called Sweeetheart Rock. Superb.
Best drink: At the bar at the Argo Inn in the pretty town of Ithaca, New York, A blend of silver tequila, apple-fennel shrub, lemon, sugar celery bitters and a float of smoky Laphroiag Scotch. Yowza.
Best B and B: The Meranova Inn in Dunedin,Florida. Sparkling clean rooms with personality to spare, plus lovely grounds, great ownership and a perfect location just off Main Street. A great place to stay in a great little town.
Most intense golf course: Ko’olau Golf Club, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, once had a slope rating higher than 160. It’s been toned down but the sloping fairways are a huge challenge on this course, located at the bottom of a fierce and majestic, green-clad mountain range, just minutes from bustling Honolulu.
Most sobering travel experience: Seeing those small, perfect headstones in Belgium with the names of Canadian soldiers who died in action during World War I and the tiny Canadian flags you find at memorial sites all around Flanders. Truly heartbreaking.
Biggest cultural surprise: Shangri-La is the stunning, seaside home of the late Doris Duke in Honolulu, where you’ll find a world-class collection of Islamic art and design. Not to mention beautiful gardens and lush, coastal views.
Best new winery discovery: They’re growing excellent wines up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California these days. Stop in the town of Murphys for great wine tasting and a fun, lively atmosphere with great restaurants.
Most surprising city: Brussels. Sure there’s great pommes frites and Belgian beer and comic books, but there also are fantastic, old neighbourhoods, wonderfully atmospheric restaurants and world-class museums. Definitely a new favourite spot in Europe.
Best surf instructor: JoJo Howard of Gone Surfing Hawaii is not only a great surf teacher, but a great teacher in general and someone you’ll make instant friends with if you go. You’ll find on the western edge of Waikiki Beach, near the Outrigger Reef Hotel.
Most impressive restaurant: Grace, in Chicago. One of the highest-rated restaurants in the U.S., with stunningly presented, inventive cuisine the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
Best sunset: At the lovely Cap Maison resort in St. Lucia, a fantastic spot for a family holiday or romantic getaway.
Biggest surprise island: Bequia, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, has a super sleepy feel to it, with cool open-air bars and casual shops along a tiny main street. Fantastic beaches are steps away.
Coolest hotel lobby: The Epicurean in Tampa. You’ll find dozens of wine bottles and parts of wine crates, as well as sleek furnishings and lighting in a surprisingly chic setting. Downtown Tampa, a short drive away, has come a long way, too.
Best beach: I saw a few doozies this year, including gorgeous Miami Beach in Barbados. But in my mind you still can’t beat Carmel, which has gorgeous white sand, surrounding hills, gnarly cypress trees and Pebble Beach Golf Course at one end.
Best spa experience: A fabulous and romantic couples treatment at the Rainforest Spa at the Sugar Beach resort in St. Lucia. Sheer bliss.
Best hotel buffet breakfast: La Playa Carmel. Breakfast includes sparkling wine from Sophia or Sofia Coppola, as well as great egg dishes, croissants and tasty prosciutto.
Best swimming pool complex: The Crane Resort, Barbados. A marvellous series of pools that spill into one another and cascade down a small hill in a resort that’s the perfect blend of luxury and relaxation.
Best lazy river and waterslides: The new Four Seasons Resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando. All kinds of fun in an elegant property that’s just minutes from the Magic Kingdom.
Best coffee shop, U.S. By a mile, Zocalo in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area town of San Leandro. Full disclosure; my Dad and my sister live in town. But I’d put it up against any other place around for its coffee and collegial, community atmosphere.
Best U.S. hotel beach view: The Royal Hawaiian at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, with magnificent views of the beach and Diamond Head crater.