The past few weeks have brought the Oscars, followed by the Genies, Canada’s film and TV awards; it seems this is the season for doling out awards. Not to be left behind, The Travelling Boomer has decided to hand out some travel awards too – recognition of the people, places and services that have impressed the most over 25-odd years of travel.
Since I’m the Travelling Boomer, it’s kind of a biased view, I admit: as I always say, every traveller has his or her own trip, seen through his or her own eyes. But to me, an honest opinion from someone who’s been there is always worth a look, and often more useful than the descriptions you read in the travel brochures.
So here they are, my first annual Travelling Boomer Travel Awards – hope you enjoy them:
Most amazing country
Few countries on earth can boast the incredible combination of exotic culture, fascinating history and natural wonders offered by Peru. The star attraction is Machu Picchu (right), but even the Spanish/Inca city of Cuzco, high in the Andes, is a revelation. There are also great pre-Incan sites in places like Trujillo, not to mention the famous Nazca Lines, giant figures cut into the coastal plains.
The Andean culture is a rich tapestry, as well. The native Quechua live a centuries-old way of life, tending llamas and weaving colourful designs into their clothing. Then add natural wonders like the Colca Canyon, South America’s version of the Grand Canyon, and Lake Titicaca, one of the highest in the world, where the Uros people live on reed rafts. Makes you wonder why the country doesn’t win more travel awards.
Runners-up: Indonesia, France
Great cities offer a banquet of delights, but there are none that serve up as rich a feast as Paris. A city built by artists, it’s replete with showpieces, from the great palaces and beautiful bridges to the small, cobblestoned streets. And where landmarks are concerned, there are few more iconic than the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Nôtre Dame Cathedral.
But the city’s beauty only hints at the rich culture inside. Paris is filled with historic buildings turned into famous museums, starting with the Louvre — the list is too long to even attempt … As well, for centuries it’s been a magnet for artists of all types, from painters and writers to musicians and even chefs. Food and wine are an integral part of its art, as well, and the worlds all combine in the city’s historic cafés.
Runners-up: Vienna, Copenhagen, Bruges, Belgium
Best historic site
The Acropolis, Athens
It may not be the world’s most beautiful historical site, or the most complete, but for my money, the Acropolis of Athens ranks as the most important. Its classic assembly of temples and theatres created the mould for centuries of architecture, and it stands as a symbol of the ancient culture that gave the world ideas like democracy. It’s truly the cradle of modern Western civilization.
Today, many of the buildings in the Acropolis are only fragments: even the famous Parthenon was a restoration project when I visited in 2013. But the parts that are left are still an amazing sight, with their masterful construction and classic sculptures. And the vision of the Acropolis still standing, high above downtown Athens, is like a classical painting come to life.
Runners-up: Tikal, Guatemala; Machu Picchu
Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France
Europe is full of castles, from London to Copenhagen to the Rhine, but the one that stands out is Château de Chenonceau, in France’s Loire Valley. Castles are the stuff of fairy tales, and there’s no more romantic setting than Chenonceau. Set on the Cher River, it rises up like a white fantasy, with spires and turrets and a lovely bridge spanning the river, where people paddle by on their summer outings.
The château’s interior is just as impressive, with a series of lavish bedrooms that once were home to France’s royalty, including Catherine de’ Medici, who once ruled the country from this “summer palace”. To add a little intrigue, the long ballroom was a hospital during WWI, and the bridge was a used as a secret escape route for people fleeing occupied France in WWII.
Runners-up: Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen; the Tower of London
Best tropical getaway
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
I’ve been to a few beach spots around the world, but for my money, the place to while away the winter in the sun is Puerto Vallarta. Yes, this haven on Mexico’s Pacific coast has a long, lovely beach. But while there’s no denying it’s a tourist town, Puerto Vallarta also has a real town attached, with neighbourhoods and local businesses, a cathedral and a town square where people dance on Sunday nights.
The gringo population has added some good things, too, like fine restaurants and book stores, and tour companies to keep you from getting bored. Speaking of which, the small towns around PV offer great beach getaways for those who want to get away from it all. And for nature lovers, there’s amazing bird life, turtles nesting on the beaches, and whales you can sometimes see from the malecon in the middle of town.
Runners-up: Moorea, Tahiti; Ubud, Bali
Bali is known worldwide for its lush green landscape and exotic culture. But what impressed me most was the genuine friendliness of its people. Besieged by constant hordes of tourists, they somehow managed to preserve not only their cultural traditions but their ability to see visitors as people rather than walking ATMs.
Time and again, Balinese people engaged me in conversation for no reason other than to be friendly, shared a laugh, invited me to watch TV with them. It was a shining moment in a tour of Asia where everyone else seemed bent on making a sale. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Bali, and things have changed a lot: I just hope the people have stayed the same.
Runners-up: New Zealand, Fiji Islands
Air New Zealand
I’ve flown on a lot of airlines over the years – around 25, when I count them all up – and frankly, most of them are adequate at best. These days they generally squeeze you into tiny seats, feed you as little as possible and charge you for everything they can. But one of the few that leaves a warm glow in my memory is Air New Zealand, which flew me across the Pacific, from island to island, back in 1994.
The flights were comfortable and well run, the seats weren’t torture devices, and since the same plane did the route every week, I could even pick my favourite spot. But what really made it special was the service: the meals were among the best I’ve ever had in the air, and the friendly Kiwi flight crew even let me sample the different wines on offer – and that was in economy, not first class.
Runners-up: Malaysian Airlines, CP Air (defunct)
Best ocean cruise line
Norwegian Cruise Line
I’ve also cruised on a few of the major cruise lines, but the first time I really felt comfortable cruising was on Norwegian. Suddenly, I was able to cruise solo comfortably, and eat in the dining room at night without feeling a bit awkward. Norwegian’s “anytime” dining started a whole new trend in cruising, and its hang-loose attitude has caught on, too, making cruising more fun for everyone.
I haven’t been on Norwegian’s new mega-ships, like the Epic and the Escape, but they’ve led the way too, with their innovative “studio” cabins and lounges for solo cruisers (I’d love to try those). As well, the constant stream of hard-sell advertising is muted on NCL ships, compared to some lines. There are things NCL could do better – their alcohol rules are strict, and other cruise lines have bigger cabins – but if I have to choose, I cruise like a Norwegian.
Runners-up: Princess Cruises, Disney Cruise Line
Best river cruise line
Viking River Cruises
Viking is the only river cruise line I’ve sailed with, so this is a sample size of one. And my cruise was a sponsored press trip, so I’m biased. That said, I was still impressed with the experience of sailing the Rhine with Viking last summer. The ship was spotless and well-appointed, the food was good, and since this was river cruising, the wine with my dinner was free.
And the cruise was well run. The crew was friendly and efficient, and things went smoothly given the challenge of docking in a new town each day and getting everyone out on a guided tour. When low river levels disrupted the schedule, adjustments were made and announcements kept us informed. Downside: there was more bus travel than I’d expected, but that seemed unavoidable. You can read my impressions of the cruise here.
Runners-up: Some day … I’ll let you know
Most memorable hotel
Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais, Paris
For the most part, giant, modern hotels leave me cold: they promise much, deliver little and charge you for everything. My taste is small hotels with character, and the one that personifies that category is the Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais in Paris. Tucked away in a historic street in the funky Marais district, it’s a little piece of the 18th century, lovingly restored with period furniture and decor.
The hotel is named after Caron de Beaumarchais, author of the original Marriage of Figaro, who lived only a few doors away. And the hotel’s owner scours the local auctions for reminders of his era: you’ll find framed pages from an original copy of Figaro in the bedrooms. You’ll also find the original beams from the centuries-old building, and charming views of the neighbourhood. Completing the picture, the owner and staff are friendly and eager to share their labour of love with you. A great stay.
Runners-up: Batang Ai resort, Sarawak; the Hard Rock Hotel, Panama City
Most memorable restaurant
Gaylord, New Delhi
Generally, I find dining in great restaurants a stretch for my travel budget. But one I remember fondly is Gaylord, in downtown New Delhi. Tired of the usual low-budget places on a trip back in 1990, another traveller and I decided to dine in style. We chose Gaylord, a New Delhi institution, and walked through the doors into an elegant scene, with padded seats and cut-glass partitions.
We ordered tandoori chicken, kebabs, vegetable cutlets and several other dishes, and what followed was a revelation. The Indian food we’d eaten elsewhere could be heavy-handed, but here the spicing was perfect, savoury but not overpowering, the meat tender and moist. Later we had coffee in a huge, two-storey coffee house and talked the night away.
Runners-up: Groften, Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen; Café Imperial, Prague
Most memorable café
A tough choice. I’m a great fan of the famous literary cafés of Paris, but the one that really transported me back into history was Café Central, in the historic district of Vienna. With its vaulted roof, stately pillars and marble tables, it’s a scene out of a period painting – one filled with the writers, artists and other notables who ate here, including Freud and Lenin.
Today, Café Central seems to be a favourite stopping-off spot for everyone from tourists to business people to students at the local university. But the food is still traditionally Austrian, the coffee is rich and good, and it takes a strong will (or a full stomach, in my case) to resist the decadent pastries lined up in rows in the glass case inside the front door.
Runners-up: Les Deux Magots, Paris; Le Sélect, Paris
There it is, the first edition of the Travelling Boomer Travel Awards. I’m sure there are a few picks you might argue with; as I said, travel is something everyone sees through his or her own eyes. If you have some nominations of your own, leave a comment and let us all know so we can add them to our bucket lists. Maybe one day we can have the great annual Readers’ Travel Awards …
Indian food photo by Mohans1995 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons