I spent a great deal of time in Canada and the U.S. in 2016. I also had visits to several Caribbean Islands, including small spots like Mayreau on a Sea Dream Yacht Club cruise and larger islands such as the Dominican Republic, Anguilla, Barbados and St. Martin. I had week-long visits to both Australia and New Zealand. And I managed time in Portugal, England, Italy, Germany and several other countries on my Viking River cruise. Here are my Jimmy Awards for top travel spots of 2016 outside Canada and the U.S.
Best Beach Surprise: Playa Rincon, Dominican Republic. Reached via boat or a fairly rough road, this is a long stretch of sand that’s almost three beaches in one. The first part in the north has a small river and a wide, shallow pool you can use to rinse off the salt or dirt. Above that is a large cliff covered with jungle growth. Further south is a beautiful, curving, well protected stretch of sand with a couple of huts where you can buy good, cheap bbq chicken or fish and a beer or three. After that, just around the corner, is yet another beach that’s much more open and wild; great for long walks. Easily my new favourite spot in the Caribbean. Next time I’ll go for a full day.
Favourite Village: Burgau, Portugal. We had a full week, and I loved getting up and going for a hike, followed by breakfast served by a fun British couple just up from the beach. The Beach Bar serves magical Sangria, and the water is beautiful. The hiking is outrageously good, too, and everyone in the village seems to have a smile on their face.
Most Unusual Winery: Most wineries play Bach or Beethoven in their tasting room, or maybe Diana Krall. At Framingham Winery in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, they were blasting out “I’m So Bored With the USA” by punk rockers The Clash when I was there. The owner is a big punk rock fan and has sayings from famous musicians etched into paving stones in the garden area.
Best Museum: I’d somehow never been to London’s Victoria and Albert musuem, but they have a great exhibit on 1960’s Rock ‘n Roll and 60’s culture on now (it’s called You Say You Want a Revolution and runs until Feb. 26) so I didn’t want to miss it. The exhibit was wonderful, but the rest of the museum has great material from the worlds of art and design as well. Not to mention a current exhibit on underwear (oh, those cheeky Brits) and a strikingly handsome courtyard.
Most annoying tourist: Some fellow was spinning in circles with his selfie stick inside the main cathedral (St. Stephen’s Basilica) in Budapest. If you must be so self-indulgent (and you shouldn’t, by the way), at least be respectful and do it outside. Preferably next to a large, man-eating reptile.
Coolest Flight: In Australia we took a morning flight over to Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost spot on the Great Barrier Reef, and landed on a grass runway. We explored the island and did some pretty good snorkelling on the reef, where I spotted tiny, iridescent blue fish and coral the colour of a field of French lavender.
Best Hilltop View: Terre-des-Hautes, an island that’s part of the chain called Les Saintes, which is in turn part of Guadeloupe. We visited on our Sea Dream cruise. You feel like you can see half the Caribbean from outside Fort Napoleon, which rests on a large hill near the main village on Terre-des-Hautes.
Sexiest (and largest) Hotel Room: My room at the Midland Hotel in surprising Manchester was enormous, a full suite with a lovely living room and a modern-style bedroom with deep purple cushions and a soft blanket. Too bad I was alone on this trip.
Best Rum-Punch-Drinking-Monkey Photo: This fellow (of course, it may have been a lady monkey) at Sunshine’s, a legendary bar in Nevis. Bold little critters. Good taste in booze, too.
Best Kiss: I was taking a photo of the train station in Rome on a visit in May as my wife and I met there (at the station, actually) 36 years ago and this year celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. I pulled out my iPhone and she planted a kiss on my cheek. Thanks, hon. Here’s to 35 more!
Favourite city: Lisbon. I love the hills and the dips and valleys and narrow streets and rickety trams and piazzas. I also love that four of us had good chicken and nice Portuguese wine at an outdoor table near a pretty church downtown one night for about $60 Cdn. Try that in central Paris or London.
Best Airline: I flew Air New Zealand in Economy Plus from Vancouver to Auckland and back. Great service, comfy seats with plenty of room and good NZ wine to boot.
Surprisingly Average Airline: I thought Virgin Australia would be awesome. But it was pretty ordinary in my opinion. Maybe I was an old plane.
Most Entertaining Tour Guide: Aidan McManus of Flipside London Tours. This guy was irreverent with a capital I, sneering at the “Hugh Grant-ification” of Notting Hill and playing up the good old days when he worked at a nearby betting shop and well-known punk rockers would come by looking for marijuana. A great bloke.
Best Beachfront Lunch: We stopped at Playa Grande in the Dominican Republic and got wonderful, fresh fish roasted a few feet away, along with plantains, salad and more. Our meal was served at a picnic table under a leafy tree right on the beach; just steps from the surf. For a real treat, get yourself a Pina Colada served in a cool, green coconut. Not remotely expensive, and hugely memorable.
This Close to a Celebrity: Actor Chris Hemsworth was just a few feet away from me as he extolled the virtues of his native Australia at an Australia Tourism event I attended near Brisbane. Seems like a good guy.
Best Boat Ride: A ferry ‘cross the Mersey River in Liverpool. I’ve always LOVED that song by Gerry and the Pacemakers and I saw the video when it first came out in the 1960’s. I’ve wanted to take this boat trip ever since, and I finally got the chance on a visit to Liverpool in September. Yes, I played the song on my iPhone as we went along. And smiled like a little kid the whole way.
A St. Maarten Beauty: The Westin Dawn Beach Resort on St. Maarten has a lovely beachfront location, with terrific swimming pools and a great patio for breakfast. The fresh seafood at dinner was outstanding. The spa treatments were even better.
Best Human Pyramid Photo: This one, built by visitors at a fresh-water lake on Fraser Island in Australia.
Prettiest Drive: Highway One (the other one) on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Hardly another car in sight. I probably saw more sea lions in the water than cars on the road. And the scenery is glorious, with long lonely beaches and pretty headlands.
Surprising Geography: I didn’t realize that Emilia-Romagna area of Italy had so many awesome hilltop towns. Every day we seemed to find wonderful, atmospheric spots such as Verducchio and San Leo, which is perched on a massive rock and is one of the most attractive little towns I’ve found on the planet.
Newest Barbados Hotel Experience: Sugar Bay. It’s got a relaxed, fun vibe, with a great pool and a wonderful patio that’s right next to a fine beach.
Best Seafood Dinner: Beira Mar in Burgau, Portugal. The owner comes from a long line of fishermen and has his cook broil fresh Atlantic-caught fish over a very hot fire, with not much than salt and a bit of spice. The result is a perfect, moist, flavourful piece of fish served in a casual, neighborhood place where everybody knows your name. Or soon will.
Most Interesting Rum Tasting: They do a good job at Topper’s Rhum in St. Maarten. They also like to experiment with some odd flavours, including a Cotton Candy Rum.
Most Unusual Critter I Heard About: While on a tour of Fraser Island in Australia, I learned there’s a local marsupial called an antechinus. Apparently the little guys go without sex for several years, then go crazy and mate like, well, animals for a short period before their hall falls out and they die. Presumably with smiles on their faces.
Prettiest Beach: Saltwhistle Bay in Mayreau, which I explored briefly on our Sea Dream Yacht Club cruise. It’s hard to beat Playa Rincon in the DR, but this curving bit of sand is probably a tad prettier to behold. The water is shallow and lovely and there are beautiful, gleaming sail boats docked in the calm waters most of the time. Even better, it’s on a thin point of land with yet ANOTHER great beach just steps away. How great is that?
Favourite Pub: The Briton’s Protection is a classic, old-style spot in Manchester. Love that city.
Best Lord of the Rings Moment: It was a perfect day when I did a tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set on the North Island of New Zealand. They’ve done a fantastic job of making the place feel natural, and I often felt as if Sam or Frodo might come hullo-ing down the road any time. I spent the entire visit grinning like an idiot.
Most Helpful Cruise Worker: A guy on our Viking River Cruise found out our son was marrying a woman of Slovakian descent and insisted on buying candies for her when he was in Bratislava. Lovely folks on our cruise.
Best Little Kid Photo: I chatted with this little guy at the Crankworx bike event in Rotorua, New Zealand and was captivated by his smile.
Coolest London Neighborhood: On previous visits I loved The Cut in South London; an awesome street. This time I got to wander around the Acklam Village area of Notting Hill. You’ll find organic food spots, funky clothing stores and still a trace of 1960’s hippie spirit.
Best Cruise Food: Again, Sea Dream Yacht Club takes the cake. Luscious meals and great wine to go with it. They even served up Champagne and caviar on a surfboard in the water on the island of Mareau.
Most Unusual Tour: I did a motorcycle tour of Auckland, New Zealand on the back of a powerful Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I was a tad scared at first but it was smooth as can be, and a ton of fun. Great city, too.
Best Hotel Meal: The Gansevoort Dominican Republic (it’s in the Sosua area at Playa Imbert) went all out when I was there with their Canadian public relations folks and some travel writers. I think we had a six-course meal and I know we had matching wines and a sip or two of a $1,500 bottle of rum at the end. The food was exquisite and beautifully presented. And it’s a gorgeous, sleek resort on top of that, with a fine beach.
Closest Wildlife Encounter: There are a good number of wild dingoes on Fraser Island in Australia, billed as the world’s largest sand island. I was lucky enough to spot this guy as we were driving about. Then again, maybe it had just eaten somebody’s baby.
Coolest New Zealand Attraction: The “blokart” ride in took in Papamoa was a ton of fun. It’s basically a go-kart on pavement (some folks do it on the sand) that’s powered by sail. I’ve never sailed but I was able to get the hang of it fairly quickly and got up to so some pretty decent speeds.
Best Cruise Moment: My wife and I put in dibs for the Crows Nest outdoor bed on the top deck of our Sea Dream ship as it steamed from Guadeloupe to Nevis. The moon was out and the stars of Orion’s belt gleamed brightly in the sky as we slid past the darkened outline of Guadeloupe on a still night. Of course, come 5 a.m. it rained like heck. But it was still one of the most memorable nights of my life.
Best BBQ Lunch: Barbequed spiny lobster on an island called Scilly Cay in Anguilla. You reach the island by waving your hands in the air and waiting for a small power boat to come get you. The rum punch is wickedly good and there’s a small, lovely beach.
Favourite non-Caribbean Island: I adore New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, reached via a short ferry ride from Auckland. The food is great and the wineries exceptional (try Cable Bay and Mudbrick, which also has a fine restaurant) or Peacock Sky, partly owned by a Canadian. I did an awesome, off-road Segway ride through the forests and even on the beach with an outfit called SegWai. Highly recommended.
Best Jet Ski Experience: Off the coast of Australia in the town of Hervey Bay. We explored islands of white sand and passed a few dolphins on a brilliant, sunny day. Oh, those jet skis can MOVE.
Best Giant Teddy Bear Photo: I took this on the first day of our Viking River cruise in Passau, Germany. It’s a lovely town on the Danube. Why this guy was sitting on a bench with a stuffed teddy bear the size of a refrigerator I don’t know. But I liked it.
Best Mountain Bike Ride: At the Whakarewarewa Redwood Park outside Rotorua, New Zealand with Mountain Bike Rotorua. It was a fantastic journey over hill and dale, complete with filtered sunlight and massive, glowing ferns.
Best Smile of the Year: I loved this young woman at the market in Marigot, St. Martin.
Best Overall Cruise Service: A guy on our Sea Dream Yacht Club cruise of the Caribbean insisted on putting the mustard on my hamburger. They also served caviar from a surfboard floating in the ocean off the island of Mayreau. A classy outfit, this.
Coolest hotel: The Old Clare in Sydney is carved out of a former brewery. The rooms are decadent yet quirky in design. The on-site restaurant Kensington Street Social does inspiring work.
Favourite Punting Trip: I had a short but thoroughly enjoyable ride on the Avon River in Christchurch. My guide was kind enough to ham it up for me a bit.
Coolest New Caribbean Hotel: Zemi Beach House Anguilla is a sleek and sexy spot with a great rum bar and fabulous pool. Great food, too. I didn’t get the chance to stay there. But my calendar is open in April, folks.
Best Electric Bike Ride: Okay, they were electric bikes we got at the elegant Adler Thermae Spa in Tuscany. But there are some mighty steep hills in the area, and some of the hilltop towns aren’t very accessible for regular bikers who aren’t on the Tour de France. We found several idyllic spots quite close to the resort, including Castiglione d’Orcia and Bagno Vignoni (just a short walk away).
Favourite Personal Moment: I couldn’t get a good photo, and I didn’t really want to try too hard. But one night in Bologna as I was walking about I spotted two teenage girls with an older, steeped over man. The girls each had one of his arms and they walked gently along the arcaded streets of town, stopping now and then to talk with friends or neighbours. They were probably his granddaughters, and they were of an age where they undoubtedly would rather have been Snapchatting with friends. But they were instead gently guiding their beloved friend or grandfather around the town, cradling him to their sides to keep him from falling on small stairs or sidewalk cracks. It’s an image I hope will stay with me for a long time.
Best Marine Life Encounters: On a tour of the bay in Akaroa, New Zealand we got extremely close to several pods of spinning dolphins. I also did a flight with Wings Over Whales in Kaikoura, spotting whales and massive pods of dolphins from the window of a small plane.
Best Gelato: Scrumptious, creamy, not too sweet offerings at Gelateria Pomposa in lovely Modena, Italy. The local balsamic vinegar also is to die for; thick and syrupy and sinfully good.
Most Striking Garden: The Giants House in Akaroa, New Zealand is a stunning mix of wild ceramic art and flowers of every style and colour. A truly amazing place I could’ve spent hours in. And probably did.
Favourite Sushi-making Lesson: They do a fine job of explaining the do’s and dont’s at the lovely Cuisinart Resort in Anguilla. The rooms and grounds are gorgeous, and there’s a fantastic beach, too. Not to mention a fine, 18-hole golf course.
Best Kayak Ride: I had a guided tour of an arm of Queen Charlotte Sound on the north end of the South Island of New Zealand from the lovely Lochmara Lodge to the town of Picton. We spotted several sea lions and also a couple of pods of tiny, playful fairy penguins who chatted and squeaked at one another before heading off to find some fresh fish. Or maybe it was Italian gelato.
Best Beach Bar: Elodia’s in Anguilla. We had ribs, fries and cole slaw for about $15 USD. The best part was watching an older lady dancing with a guy 30 years younger than her with dreads as a bland played pop and bouncy reggae tunes.
Best Hike: On our Viking River Cruise I clambered off the ship in Durnstein, Austria and made the hike up the hill to the ruins of an old castle. One of the best parts of a trip that was filled with great moments.
Best Sporting Event: I had a couple days at Crankworx in Rotorua, New Zealand. It’s a bike fest/competition with wild jumps and down hill races and crazy tricks that started in Whistler. It’s quite something. And the racers are totally low-key; like snowboarders on bikes.
Favourite People Photo: Not to get all multicultural on you, but I loved the feel of this wedding shoot at Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. The beer gardens in the city are pretty great, too.
Dream Come True Tour: I’ve been a Beatles fan since the day they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show more than 50 years ago. Touring the childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon and then visiting the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool and singing along to “I Saw Her Standing There” and “She Loves You” was a spine-tingling, extraordinary experience I’ll never forget.
Coolest European Town: Most definitely Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.This might be the European village/town of your dreams, with a castle, a river running through the place and narrow, cobblestone streets. Magnificent.
Most Luxurious Hotel: Hapuku Lodge in New Zealand has a series of stunning rooms with all the amenties you can imagine. It’s all done in superb style, and the food is out-of-this-world good.
Best Pasta: Having authentic, rich and oh-so-filling Spaghetti Bolognaise at a simple but fabulous spot in Bologna caled Buca Manzoni. They don’t make it like this in North America.
Best Spa Experience: I was ordered to strip down to nothing and don the tiniest little G-string for my couples massage at the Adler Thermae Spa in Tuscany. It was a fantastic massage, even if the girl got a little closer to home plate than I’m accustomed to. Afterwards, my wife and I soaked in bathtubs partly filled with local red wine. Aaahhh….
Most Sobering Memorial: I was taken aback by the horror stories surrounding the Christchurch Earthquake of 2011. Of course, more quakes have since hit this poor, unlucky city. My heart breaks.
Unexpected City Surprise: I was blown away by the architecture in Manchester. Super-friendly people and some great areas to explore.
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