Sunday, January 6, 2013

34 Favorite Places (updated)

(I forgot to include Yelp review lists for some of these places.  I have since added them to this post.)

So it's been a blessed and fruitful traveling life.  Travel has been the single biggest educator of my life and refinement of my person. I've been very grateful for my opportunities and see all of my travels as incalculable gifts.

While Down Under I thought I would compile my favorite places - one for every year of life I've lived so far.  The list is not in any particular order. As always, I would appreciate any suggestions for what's next or critique of what I've written.

1. San Diego - laid back personality and wonderful weather all year long.  Tons of museums, restaurants, and fun things to do in the water.  Just a walk to Mexico or a train into LA.

2. San Francisco - my favorite city in the United States.  History, architecture, food, people, culture, conversation, and a mass transit system that will get you around to all of it (it doesn't always work perfectly, but it does an amazing job).  Also the backdrop for my favorite Hitchcock movie of all time, Vertigo.

3. Whitefish, Montana - one of many similar settings in Montana - pristine, untouched, undeveloped (in the best ways) with an absolutely enormous lake and lovely mountains.  Close to Canada.

4. Sundance, Utah - a gift to all of us from Robert Redford.  He bought this property many years ago and developed it into an amazing getaway.  I first came here in 2004 on the invitation of a friend.  I have been back 5 times since and am in love with this quiet valley of recollection.  Close to Park City - the only ski slope in America to have hosted the Olympics - as well as all the other amazing Utah resorts.

5. Austin - only go here if you love live music, amazing food, and very cool people.  There is ALWAYS something going on in Austin and I love discovering the "new" in the old every time I go.

6. San Antonio - just a freeway jaunt away from Austin, the Riverwalk is worth walking and taking one of the famous boat cruises on.  You'll hear a lot about this town's storied history on one of those boat rides or on many of the historical tours available.  Don't miss the Mission Trail and see the hard work of the Franciscans - and if you love Mexican food - you'll be right at home in this mostly-Spanish-speaking small town with a big heart.

7. Saint Louis - I am absolutely obsessed with this city.  Yes, I lived there for a year, but if I had only been there a month I would have fallen just as deeply in love.  Beautiful old neighborhoods.  Wonderful history.  T.S. Eliot.  Mark Twain.  The Arch.  Forest Park. A great baseball team in a lovely old-style stadium.  The Mississippi River.  Need I go on?

8. Savannah, Georgia - I've never read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but I will before I return to this lovely Southern town.  Wrought-iron architecture, a unique city layout, Southern cuisine and hospitality, and the childhood home of Flannery O'Connor await you.

9. New Orleans - I hear Louis Armstrong's voice every time I think of this jewel of the South.  Tons of great museums - not just the Confederate Museum and the World War II Museum, but it's just down the road - not even an hour away from - the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Home.  Jazz, blues, food, and absolute soul.  Yes, it's a cliche to sit in Jackson Square with a beignet.  Best cliche in the South.  Go here to be heartened by a people that will not ever ever ever give up.

10. Charleston - Perhaps the best view of Charleston is from the battery at Fort Sumter.  It's a short boat ride out to this monument of history, but you can see all of Southern history from its vantage points.  An integrated Southern city - far more tolerant and accepting of differences in class and race than its pretentious and racist Northern Yankee counterparts - with amazing preserved period architecture, graceful streets, and shrimp and grits that'll make you cry.  Make sure you set aside a day to drive out to one of the plantations near town.

11. Key West - You won't believe just how far south the United States extends until you've driven from island to island at the bottom of Florida.  Super-charming small town with ties to Hemingway.  Get a drink, kick back, dive, parasail, jet ski, or none or all of the above.  You'll be glad you came down.

12. Martha's Vineyard - My favorite place on God's green earth.  I've been 5 times in my life and every time I go I bring new friends and feel that the island shows new secrets and insights to me.  Sitting on a natural aquifer that keeps the island absolutely green, and possessed of a mass transit system that insures that starving students can get around just as well as POTUS here, MV possesses a magic and charm that is partly due to an interesting history that predates the existence of the United States, but mostly due to amazing sunsets, clear water, great wetlands, good people, and pristine wildlife and habitats. Nantucket is a 15 minute flight away and worth a day trip, but is nowhere near as precious to me.

13. Montreal - You have to imagine that an 18-year old Francophile college student with a car had only one place in mind for weekend road trips when he went to college out East.  I've been to Montreal 5 times, including a very memorable NYE.  In a way it's a miniature Paris at half the travel cost.  In another way it's uniquely Canadian and is a perfect showcase of how a bilingual culture lives together and understands itself.

14. Stowe, Vermont - the site of the first place I ever put on skis, it is every bit the charming quiet Vermont town.  Tiny diners packed with people and generous with the maple syrup that you will swear by and pristine snowmobiling trails that you can have to yourself.  Not far from Montreal if you want to nip up there for a day.

15. Yosemite National Park - Two words: Half Dome.  We owe so much to the people who discovered and more importantly, PROTECTED this National Treasure for all of us.  I don't use the phrase "life-changing" often - but it very much applies to this place.

16. Manassas/Bull Run National Battlefield - the conflict that forever defined (and still defines) us as Americans really got underway here, with picnickers who even then reflected the naiveté of the American public about war (some things never change).  You owe it to yourself and the men who laid down their lives for their convictions to visit here and understand what happened.  Not far from DC if you want to make a day trip of it.

17. Grand Cayman - one of my newest discoveries, this island paradise (one of many in the Caribbean) features beautiful beaches, breathtaking diving and snorkeling, and Stingray city - a place where these beautiful creatures are as docile and friendly as kittens.  If you can swing it, fly to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman while there for an even more remote experience. 

18. Buenos Aires - all the old-world charm of Europe - and the Spanish Empire - down at the bottom of the world.  Great steaks and ahem, beautiful women.

19. London - the city I never expected to love so much is a discovery to me every time I go.  Astonishingly old for Americans, whose country is so young, there is so much to see and do - when you're not consuming a delicious curry, the country's most eaten dish.  This city, through the Royal properties, presents a glimpse at a shadow of what the glory of the English monarchy was in its heyday.  I also get to walk through parts I've seen in Luther, Sherlock, and the old-time series The Prisoner.  If you come during summer, queue for Wimbledon.  Even if you're not a fan of tennis you'll enjoy it immensely.

20. Paris - the city of my dreams.  It was every bit what I had imagined in my mind before I actually arrived.  I always hear Americans say, "but aren't they rude?"  Never.  But then again, if you go blabbering in English to someone who is incredibly proud of a noble language, instead of making even a token gesture of trying to speak theirs, how can you blame them?  Paris, like San Francisco, is one of those cities that I don't have to give restaurant recommendations for because almost any place you walk into (that doesn't have "tourist menu" posted outside or doesn't front a major monument) serves amazing food at a reasonable price.  I know the Louvre is here but, like the Prado and the Vatican Museum, it's too big to take seriously as a one-day endeavor.  Take in the Orangerie or my personal favorite, Musee d'Orsay.  If you must go to the Louvre - mark out 20 of your must-sees and take your time taking them in.  Then leave the madhouse.  In the city walk or take the metro.  Anything else is depriving yourself of the treasures in every arrondissement.

21. Madrid - More "royal" than Paris probably only because there is still a functioning monarchy in this majestic capital.  Reina Sofia, the Prado, and the Thyssen are absolute must-sees for those who care about art (but pace yourself) and Madrid's culinary supremacy (that opinion may hurt the feelings of my Basque or Catalan acquaintances) was surprising and wonderful.  Do NOT miss El Escorial or the Valle de los Caidos - just a short day trip out of the city.

22. Rome - I had the privilege of living here for my semester abroad and it changed everything for me - how I understood and saw myself as an American in the modern world - how I visualized and felt my Catholic faith - and how grounding it can be to live in a place people have inhabited for millennia.  There are 900 churches in Rome and it's probably the best metaphor for knowing you can never adequately see it.  Some brief tips: don't go to St. Peter's through the stupid Mussolini-created Via de Conciliazione.  Instead, cut south to Trastevere and walk up the side and discover it how Bernini wanted you to - as a breathtaking spectacle.  Don't miss Piazza Navona, Piazza de Michelangelo, and the Campo de Fiori.  And eat gelato and crepes every opportunity you have :-) On the savory side don't miss the one dish I always order when in Rome: oxtail.

23. Singapore - born here and spent the first 9 years of my life here.  Have been back twice since - once before high school and once in 2010.  It's a very successful island country in a number of ways - home ownership, crime, cleanliness.  But its paternalistic ruling party has stifled the organic growth of new leadership and the opposition parties are hopelessly divided.  All things considered, I love the food and the people of Singapore.  Best food in the world.  Full stop.

24. Phuket - some people rave about Bangkok, but if I want a chaotic mess I can just visit New York.  So many wonderful beaches and a great group of travelers to get to know.  Oh, and everything is subject to bargaining.

25. Tangier - too many movies like the Bourne Identity and Inception have prepared me for what I saw in Tangier but it didn't make it any less exotic. I only managed to nab over for a day trip but I could have lingered for weeks - and Tangier is only the gateway to Morocco with so many even more exciting cities ahead.  I plan to return here soon and give it the time it deserves.

26. Cabo San Lucas - while Cabo San Lucas is definitely the destination, I recommend Cabo San Jose, just 15 minutes north, as the place to have your accommodations.  It's quiet, far away from the craziness, which is what you want when you want to crash out back in your room, anyway.  Cabo is everything that Cancun is not, and that's why you should go.

27. Venice - the floating city has been memorialized in so much literature it's really a crime not to visit.  An early morning walk will remind you that there are no cars in this city.  Friends who have been more recently than I have called it crowded and commercialized. Perhaps go on a Sunday when the city is more quiet - and stay a Monday - get up early and walk the streets when you have them to yourself.  Then you can appreciate them more when you walk them during the day.  While Piazza San Marco is probably the star of the show, don't miss a trip across the way to the church of San Giorgio, or if you're feeling more adventurous, 20 minutes away to the lush and quiet Lido (where alas, there are cars).

28. Dublin - prior to visiting Dublin I was content to simply "go along" with the notion of the Irish's love of drink.  But when I witnessed the line for beers at 7am when I was leaving the airport to go to London, it was confirmed.  Mind you, it was probably confirmed the night before on the most epic pub crawl of my life, which was with - big surprise - a whole bunch of Australians. It is definitely a city for those of us who love literature but the charm of Temple Bar will make even the most jaded cynic crack a smile.

29. San Sebastian/Donostia, Spain - Anyone who has taken Latin or any romance language feels at least some comfort in European countries that use those languages.  But Basque, which defies every linguistic rule you fall back on, with its multiple "k"s and "t"s in its words, makes you feel like a child.  Dive in and try the tongue!  Walk the amazing waterfront, climb the overlooking hill or take the funicular up, swim to the island in the middle of the bay, or feast on the culinary delight that is pinxtos - you'll wish you stayed longer.  Do not miss a day trip to French Basque cities, via trains which cross the border without customs hassles.

30. Athens - I was a bit conflicted about putting it on the list because I didn't care for the people or the food in Athens.  It was dirty, run-down, and depressing.  But there's the part of me that absolutely loves antiquity and classical culture and if Socrates was right that the unexamined life is not worth living, lovers of architecture very might well despair at never having seen the Parthenon up close.   It lived up to all the expectations that had been building since I first studied it as a freshman in high school.  Don't miss a chance to day trip out to Delphi and dig even deeper into antiquities and see an ancient amphitheater.  But more importantly, don't miss going to the islands of Santorini, etc.  They are really the only reason to go to Greece.

31. The Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia - What if there were 74 islands, formed from volcanoes, some uninhabited, which you could sail, snorkel, dive, and dine on?  Well, then you'd have the Whitsundays.  Located near the Great Barrier Reef, this treasure of Australia is alone worth the price of admission. If I only could return to one part of Australia (and I've seen nearly the whole country) I would return here.

32. The Rock of Gibraltar - one of the most magnificent natural views I've seen in my life. Behind you - the entire Iberian peninsula. In front of you - Africa. Below you - the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. No one's rushing you in and out. You can take in the view for as long as you'd like. While the Spanish have tried to get it back since it lost it in the War of the Spanish Succession, this is a UK territory and you'll need to spend in pounds if you want to eat/drink/buy here.

33. Sydney - on a regular ferry ride in this city I heard 8 different languages being spoken - and that was just walking from where I was sitting to the front of the boat.  Blessed with an amazing natural harbor, the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the Botanic Gardens, unbelievable beaches, and everything that makes this city the beating cultural and historical center of this amazing country are all the reasons you should come.  And come for NYE.  It will be the best of your life.  Canberra is a side trip - but should not be missed - not just for its civic layout but for its museums.

34.  NYC - What can I say?  The part of me that hates "popular" destinations doesn't want to put New York City on the list.  It's a city I love quite a bit - the Cloisters, the MET, Central Park, Greenwich, SoHo, Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State...endless food choices and amazing cultures clashing and meeting.  I suppose admitting that I love NYC doesn't conflict with me stating that no one is more full of themselves regarding their city than New Yorkers.  Slightly forgiveable, given how amazing it actually is.  Central Park in Spring is only superceded by Central Park in the Fall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to make time for a trip to Montreal for years... London, & Singapore.