Yesterday I handed out my Jimmy Awards for my best/favourite spots of 2015 in Canada and the U.S. Today, it’s the turn for the rest of the world. Again, thanks to everyone for reading. And Happy New Year!
BEST OVERALL MOMENT: I might live another 60 years and not do better than watching the sun come up behind ancient stone Moai statues on Easter Island. Truly the most wondrous place I’ve ever been in my life.
BEST ATTRACTION I’D SOMEHOW NEVER HEARD OF: Sintra Portugal is a fantastic collection of homes and hilltop castles and archaeological sites north of Lisbon. The coastal drive to get there is pretty nice, too.
BEST URBAN HIKE: It was exhausting, but the three-hour-plus hike I did on the Dragon’s Back trail in Hong Kong was exceptional; a roughly 10 km stretch with a steep uphill start and magical views of Hong Kong and surrounding islands. The hike finishes off at a good surfing beach called Big Wave Bay, where you’ll find a strong surf culture that feels like California or Australia.
BEST NATURE HIKE: The walk from the nearest parking lot on Sao Jorge to the seaside “village” of Faja Dos Cubres in the Azores. Simply magical scenery, with deep blue water, red-tiled roofs and thick, green jungle growth on cliffs that drop dramatically down to the ocean.
BEST MEXICO RESORT: The One and Only Palmilla in Cabo San Lucas is one spectacular resort, with fantastically tiled pools, great food (one restaurant is by celeb chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten) and two lovely beaches. Great sunrises, as you can see. They even will adjust the emergency mending kit in your room so the thread colours match your clothes. Now THAT’s service.
BEST CARIBBEAN RESORT: I love Half Moon, A Rock Resort, in Jamaica. The grounds go on forever, they have excellent food and the beach is just right. You also can take horses out in the surf, and how cool is that?
BEST FOOD: I loved almost everything I ate in Malaysia. The Indian food was cheap and wonderful, but I’ll save my highest praise for the roadside and market stands selling Laksa soup, tiny fried pastries with perfectly crispy exteriors and the omnipresent Char Kway Teow, a noodle dish that tastes to me like a smoky, deeply-flavoured version of Pad Thai. Awesome place.
BEST UNDERWATER SCULPTURE OF A MAN ON HIS COUCH WATCHING TV AND EATING A HAMBURGER: They’ve built several underwater statues off the shore of Cancun, which you can visit on a snorkelling trip. Very cool.
BEST RESTAURANT VALUE: Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan in Kowloon, Hong Kong. This place is even better than I remembered, with exceptional and inexpensive dim sum treats. The har gow comes in a thin, transparent and almost diaphanous wrapping that’s not even remotely chewy. Not a lot of ambience, but tons of folks taking advantage of what’s said to be the world’s cheapest 1-star Michelin restaurant.
CRAZIEST WAVES: When the weather is right, truly massive waves roll into the east side of Curacao near a place called Shete Boka and smash onto high, black cliffs, sending majestic spumes of spray high into the air. It’s dangerous in the caves down at the water’s edge, but you’re safe enough if you watch from the protected areas on top of the cliffs. Wildly impressive.
BEST INTERACTION WITH A LOCAL: I was on a hike a couple hours outside of Puerto Varas, Chile, when we met up with a local woman, Ester Vargas, who lives alone on a farm near the Pacific Ocean. We were walking across her property and our tour guides had arranged for her to invited us in for tea and a snack. Instead we had coffee and tea and about four types of homemade crackers and cookies. Ester wore a huge smile as we complimented her on her small but tidy home and her wonderful cookies. The scenery in the area is majestic, but it can’t match the wattage of her smile.
CRAZIEST SPA TREATMENT: They do something called a “Temezcal” treatment at the Westin Resort and Spa in Cancun, where you get blessings from a shaman and sit inside a small stone dome that’s hot and smoky and filled with heated rocks. It’s a bit of a purification process, made weirder by the fact they asked us to think about our families and loved ones and that it was my late Mom’s birthday. Weird fact two? I was born in California and my Mom and Dad and sister and I used to a lake called Temescal in the Oakland hills. Cue the Twilight Zone TV music.
PRETTIEST BEACHES: Knip Beach on Curacao has a lovely stretch of pale sand flanked by green/brown hills and more shades of blue and green water than I’ve seen anywhere else. There are several great beaches on the northwest coast, actually. And they’re not surrouned by gated resorts.
BEST ROOFTOP BAR: The views of Lisbon and Castelo Sao Jorge (St. George Castle) from the bar on the roof of the Hotel Mundial are utterly sensational. Good food and drinks, sure, but the view is what gets your attention.
PRETTIEST LAKESIDE TOWN: Puerto Varas, Chile is a delight; a town with German heritage poised on the side of a pretty lake, with a couple of towering, snow-clad volcanoes in the distant Andes. A truly spectacular setting.
BEST BIKE RIDE: I borrowed an Explora Lodge bike and did a fantastic ride on Easter Island, riding past wild horses and through forests of eucalyptus and then on to a crescent-shaped beach with several Moai statues and a wild spit of land that guarded a tiny beach at the bottom of a cliff. The views from the top of hill looking east were magnificent.
BEST CLIMB: It’s a relatively easy scramble to reach the top of the main pyramid in Coba, a fantastic Mayan site near Cancun. Great views from the top, too. Okay, I had to scoot back down on my backside to avoid getting dizzy and to avoid the risk of falling. But I made it.
GOOFIEST “TOURIST ATTRACTION” There’s a small village north of Willemstad Curacao that some folks started calling Williwood. I don’t recall the story, but someone decided to put the town on the map by building a sign that mimics a rather famous one in Los Angeles. I loved it.
BEST OVERALL LODGE: The Explora Lodge on Easter Island is unreal; with rustic yet luxurious lodging on a hill looking down towards the Pacific Ocean. The food is first-class and they can arrange all sorts of activities; from hikes and Moai statue tours to diving and bike-riding.
BEST TOUR GUIDE: Mandy Lam, our tour guide for five days in Hong Kong, is easily one of the top guides I’ve experienced in my years writing about travel. She’s not only thorough but knowledgeable, amenable to adapting a tour on the fly and super-friendly and fun. She lives in Paris most of the year, where she gives tours to Chinese groups. But she’s in Hong Kong some of the time and is well worth contacting. If you’re interested, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
LUSHEST GARDEN: There’s a truly wondrous garden out behind the Terra Nostra Hotel in Furnas, on the island of Sao Miguel in The Azores. Towering rhododendron, a gazillion types of camellias and tiny azalea flowers in shades of candy floss and candy cane red and white tell only a part of the story. I was there on a day when the overhead trees and lush plants gave the place a bit of a Lord of the Rings feel.
BEST HOTEL SPA: I’ve been in fancier spas, but the low-key, rustic spa at the Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios was, putting aside the barking dog in the distance, a bucolic and restful experience with a fantastic massage.
MOST BEAUTIFUL DISH: One of our seafood dishes at T’Ang Court at the Langham Hotel in Hong Kong, recently given a third Michelin star, came in a shell that was placed on a gold crab. Talk about presentation.
MOST ROMANTIC RESTAURANT: La Habichuela is a fantastic restaurant on the water in Cancun, with displays of Mayan artefacts, a small waterfall and cool lighting. The soft shell crab dish I had was one of my top dishes of the year.
WEIRDEST TOUR: I did a night tour in Kowloon with a company called Walkin HK. The enthusiastic, young guide took us past some great markets, but we visited a truly mediocre restaurant that he admitted wasn’t very good but that had nice atmosphere. We also inspected a former porn theatre turned legitimate concert venue, wandered to the fourth floor of a parking lot to see a bustling street market and had tea at a bizarre, Karaoke-style bar with an older guy who looked to be doing the Hawaiian hula on stage. Weird, but wonderful.
FAVOURITE NEW CARIBBEAN SPOT: The aforementioned Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios is a fine spot; with low-key charm to spare, spacious grounds and one of the island’s better beaches. One caveat: I found the food to be good, but not amazing.
BIGGEST SURPRISE DESTINATION: I expected the Azores would be pretty. But I wasn’t expecting a mixture of Hawaiian-looking water, Portuguese-style red roof homes and grassy fields in blazing shades of green that would make an Irishman weep with joy. Not only that, the food and the people and the hotels I tried were unique and wonderful. SATA Airlines often has great deals from Toronto.
COOLEST MEXICO TOWN: Playa Del Carmen is way too big and busy for my taste. This year I stopped for a few hours instead in Puerto Morelos, which I found much smaller and easier to digest, with a nice beach and a public park in the main square where kids can play.
BIGGEST FOOD SURPRISE: The steak in the Azores is friggin’ amazing. I think it might be the super-green grass or perhaps the clean air, but for some reason I was blown away by the fresh beef on these islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
BEST YACHT RIDE: The folks at the One and Only Palmilla took several writers out on their 95-foot yacht, where we drank champagne and toasted our view of the offshore rock formations in Cabo San Lucas. We also got to swim in some lovely, aquamarine waters and try our hand at stand-up paddlebloarding. Which brings me to…
TOUGHEST STAND-UP PADDLEBOARD EPISODE: I was part of a group paddling around a bay near the beautiful Santa Barbara Resort on Curacao when the winds suddenly came up. We had to get our boards back to the hotel, which was a good 45 minute paddle away into the wine, with waves of about a foot or more swirling the water around us. Proud to say I made it without a hitch, and without falling. But I really do need to get into better shape.
BIGGEST SURPRISE HOTEL: I didn’t know much about the place, but I was impressed by the style, amenities and food at the Beach Palace Hotel in Cancun. If it’s representative of the chain, I think it’s worth checking out.
BEST GOLF PRO: I wish I’d had time to play the course, which looks great. But I had a quick and lively lesson with head pro Ed Van Kampen at the Santa Barbara Resort on Curacao. He’s the only golf pro I’ve met who quoted Einstein d