My Travel Destination Short List for 2014: Bora Bora, The Galapagos and More…

by on April 28, 2014 · 25 comments

in Destination Edition

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It seems like half the year is already gone, and even with a lot of bucket-list travel under my belt so far – like my first trip to Australia and a remote island paradise in Brazil, as well a return to my beloved Dublin – I’m finding myself feeling antsy for adventure. Before I blink and the summer’s here, I want to lend you a little inspiration for your own vacation time, and remind myself of what’s special about my top choices for travel adventures in 2014.

These destinations would take me (and hopefully you, too) all around the globe: to the South Pacific, South America, the Antipodes, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. So let’s all start thinking about some trip planning!

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Gorgeous Bora Bora, one of the Society Islands in the South Pacific

1. Bora Bora. The popular name of this French Polynesian island is actually a mistake made by 18th-century explorer Captain Cook (the island’s ancient Tahitian name is actually “Pora Pora”), but that doesn’t make it any  less of a dream destination. Often referred to as the most beautiful island on Earth, Bora Bora is known for almost ridiculously turquoise water, lush mountain peaks that offer views that go on forever, pink-purple sunsets that you’d have to see to believe, and the most sought-after black pearls in the world.

This could be me, diving right next to a shark in Bora Bora

This could be me (I wish!) diving next to a shark in Bora Bora

But why do I want to go? The reportedly amazing scuba diving, including an oceanic drop-off composed of big, bright clusters of coral, where there’s plenty of space to observe large schools of sharks and tropical fish, as well as the passes, where large varieties of big animals play in a very dynamic environment. I’m also intrigued by a private, invitation-only satellite island called Motu Tapu,  and the overwater bungalows at resorts like the Le Meridien Bora Bora and the The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort. Now that I’ve been to an underwater restaurant in the Maldives and been surrounded from above by the glassed-in Indian Ocean, my ideal next step is  to see the South Pacific from my own guest room, right beneath my feet!

Iguanas run wild in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands

Iguanas run wild in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands

2. The Galapagos. If you love travel as much as I do, chances are this once-in-a-lifetime destination’s on your own list, too. Hopefully, this is the year I’ll finally make it to this remote chain of 18 volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador, where creatures have evolved differently than anywhere else on the planet. Largely uninhabited by people, the Galapagos are full of sea lions, iguanas, bright orange crabs, and seabirds called blue-footed boobies, as well as some of the world’s most pristine dive sites.

Schools of fish swarm beneath Darwin Arch in the Galapagos

Schools of fish swarm beneath Darwin Arch in the Galapagos

Top on my to-dive list is Darwin’s Arch (named for the explorer who made these islands world-famous), where visibility is clear between 40 and 80 feet down, and I’d love to see massive schools of fish, rays and sharks, including tigers and hammerheads. You pretty much had me at “sharks,” but I’d also love to explore topside, taking a small-boat cruise to see double-named islands like Bartolomé (Bartholomew), Española (Hood) and Isabela (Albemarle). You used to have to sleep aboard the small vessels that are approved for traveling through these protected waters, but happily for me and my long legs, there’s now the environmentally friendly Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island where I could return for a good night’s rest each night. 

Lake Matheson near Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand - Photo by Jerry Merrill

Lake Matheson near Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand (photo by Jerry Merrill)

3. New Zealand. I’ve featured write-ups on Queenstown and the Wellington-area wine country of Martinborough, but sadly, I’ve never been to New Zealand, myself. Two main islands are set 1,500 miles across the Tasman Sea from the southeast coast of Australia, and there’s an amazing array of adventures to be had in this wide-open country where sheep outnumber people by about 5 to 1. In addition to Hobbits, there are enormous snow-capped mountains called the Southern Alps, the famous fjordlands at Milford Sound, board-walked paths through protected rainforests (where ferns sometimes grow as tall as me), thermal pools colored neon-bright by minerals, huge lakes and rushing rivers, and the fascinating Maori people, who create incredible carvings out of wood, bone and an indigenous type of jade called greenstone.

Blue Maomao beneath the arch named for them in New Zealand's Poor Knights Islands

Blue Maomao beneath the arch named for them in New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands

But again it’s scuba diving that calls to me in a Kiwi accent. Named for a native fish called the Blue Maomao (which rhymes with cow cow), the Blue Maomao Arch is found 14 miles offshore from the southeast (or Tutukaka) coast of New Zealand’s North Island and marks the site of a well-lit, cathedral-sized aquarium full of, well…blue maomao. I’ve heard that sometimes there are so many of these fish here that you can’t see other divers – and the arch itself is covered with colorful sponges, hard corals and little nudibranches. Sounds like an incredible dive to me!

The sands of

The orange sands of A’Sharqiyah, in Oman

4. Oman. A sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula, there are lots of different exciting landscapes to explore here: the turquoise Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman, the  jagged Al Hajar Mountains in the northeast, palm-rimmed deserts with ancient ruins, and romantic cities like the capital, Muscat, which is known for sweet little wine grapes, lavishly tiled buildings, and a history that stretches back thousands of years. I want to go to the A’Sharqiyah Sands, the original land of the Bedouin nomads, and experience a sand safari, where you stay in a luxury version of a Bedouins tent camp in the middle of the desert, leaning back on hand-woven pillows and staring at some of the clearest, starriest skies in the world. I also want to climb aboard an ancient style of boat called a dhow, which is pointed and curved (imagine a genie’s slipper), and glide along the fjords of Khor Sham, surrounded by tall mountains and leading to the remote, white-sand beaches of Telegraph and Seebi islands for some snorkeling.

In Oman, I'd love to glide down a mountain-rimmed sea channel on an ancient boat called a dhow

In Oman, I’d love to glide along mountain-rimmed sea fjords on an ancient style of boat called a dhow

I’d also want to head just a little ways outside Muscat to the Bandar Khayran Marine Reserve, where there are 22 separate dive sites amongst protected coral reefs. Sounds like the water is clearest from September to May, and to and from dive sites — which are home to about 900 types of tropical fish!  - I could see whole schools of dolphins, who like to chase dive boats around these parts. Once I’m done diving, I’d be happy to stay in Muscat at one of the three properties that make up the five-star Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa -  the Al Husn, which has views overlooking the Sea of Oman.

The crystal-clear waters of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off Belize's Ambergris Caye - Photo by Melanie Wynne

The crystal-clear waters of Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve (photo by Melanie Wynne)

5. Belize. This Central American country has the second-longest barrier reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef), and in addition to chocolate tours, banana fields, bright yellow butterflies, furry little raccoon-cat-dog creatures called coatis, and Mayan pyramids slowly being reclaimed by thick jungles, Belize is known for having some of the best dive sites in the Caribbean Sea.

Solderifish hang out way beneath Half Moon Caye in Belize

Soldierfish hang out way beneath Half Moon Caye in Belize

One I’m especially excited about is Half Moon Caye, set 52 miles off the coast of Belize’s Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”) and home to plunging walls of colorful coral that attract tons of marine life. Its neighboring site, the Blue Hole, is the more famous of the two, but this site sounds like the better place to see a reef in macro action. Visibility apparently goes on for ages, and I’d be likely to (very clearly) see loggerhead turtles, tarpon, eagle rays. I want to swim through caves that shelter groupers, barracudas and Moray eels, and then come up to the surface to spot razorfish, conch and garden eels.

For a high-end jungle experience near the ruins of Xunantunich (pronounced “zoo-NAN-too-neesh”), I’d look into Ka’ana Resort in San Ignacio and in Ambergris Caye, and in Ambergris Caye, a beachside resort like Las Terrazas. While on Ambergris Caye, I’d go explore the main town of San Pedro, which has a ton of ice cream shops and a popular restaurant called Elvi’s Kitchen, which is known for its seafood, including a whole fish fried in roasted garlic. (And see there, now I’m hungry…)

Where do you see yourself going this year? I want to hear about your dream adventure(s) for the rest of 2014 – and beyond!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • listen

    in addition to Oman and Belize, you might want to round out the list with Jamaica, Uganda, and Kuwait.

  • Brandon

    Just got back from Bora Bora and it was great! Really a place to unwind. The coral isn’t as vibrant as Australia or Belize and the fish aren’t as varied, but still a great place to go to see all the different shades of blue in the ocean, it is crazy. Google Maps sucks in Bora Bora, but if you want a map, I made one that I can share.

  • Orlando Corp ✈

    In my list there is as well Bora Bora,Galapagos and Belize :P

  • RJP

    Galapagos is my favorite dive destination, and I’ve been diving everywhere! A few things to keep in mind about diving there…

    1.) If you want to dive Wolf/Darwin, you need to do a liveaboard. It’s a 16hr overnight ride and no one goes there but liveaboards.

    2.) If you want to do that in 2014, you better have a reservation already. Those boats (there’s only 2-3) book 18-24mo ahead, though the odd cancellation does come up.

    3.) It ain’t “warm/clear/calm water, pretty fishies” diving. It’s cold, dark, and ripping current. I believe you are relatively recently certified? I would be sure you’ve got ~100 or so dives under your belt… including cold, low-vis, and strong currents.

    As a long-time diver – and new travel hacker – I’ve been trying to convince all the dive liveaboard boats/fleets to change their MCC code to “steamship, cruise line” so that they show up as “travel” and I can use Barclay rewards to pay for week-long dive trips. I was recently at a major dive trade show and spoke to all of the major liveaboard fleets. Only ONE boat got it, immediately seeing the benefit to them. The rest looked at me as if I had asked them to allow human sacrifices on-board. Was obvious they thought I was nuts or trying to scam them.

    BTW – if it shows, here’s a pic of me with a whale shark at Darwin. (I’m the one on the right.)

  • Maury

    When are you planning your Bora Bora trip? I am headed over there in July.

  • Ennis

    This site is a wonderful resource for points & miles, but I’m not so sure of it for travel destinations: focus is fairly narrow leaning toward glamour and exotica. The post above really solidifies that stance. Definitely not for the truly intrepid traveler, or for the close-to-home ordinary traveler. It would be great if the site kept its focus on points.

  • thepointsguy

    We all have our own travel preferences- this list is not supposed to be anything but what I have on tap (thanks to miles and points for being able to allow me to hit up all these spots, hopefully). So, feel free to share your travel plans- I love hearing all sorts of viewpoints, even those different from my own!

  • thepointsguy
  • thepointsguy

    I’m looking at June/July hopefully, but TBD! I hear summer is a great time to go

  • Belize!

    Check out Matachica in Ambergris Caye…boutiquey, but very nice. Also, check out their sister property in the mountains (outside San Ignacio), it’s called Gaia River Lodge. We stayed at Hidden Valley Inn, which is more rustic, but lots of character and good food. They run personal guides to Caracol (highly recommend!).

  • Joseph Alberts

    politically cast-off, eyebrow-raising destinations have intrigued me more and more as of late, though this summer my GF and I will probably wind up in latvia, lithuania and estonia. iran is on my list (but independent travel for americans is banned at the moment). two years ago i visited north korea as part of a tour run by this company–

    something different, no doubt. but it will blow your mind. and the trips leave from beijing–great place for a wrap-around visit utilizing FF miles. also looking at flying to NZ this winter on the 100K AA credit card offer.

  • SKS

    If visiting NZ, you should consider taking a day long cruise to Doubtful Sound which is just amazing and the drive to get to Milford Sound is breathtaking. Though Queenstown gets a lot of coverage in the media, Wanaka, in my opinion is better and worth the trip. Definitely driving the crown range road to reach Wanaka from Queenstown is a must-do.

  • Craig

    Matachica, is the perfect place to disconnect from the wired world!

  • Tim

    RJP is right. You need to be very experienced to dive Galapagos. It’s not for beginners, and the best sites are remote.

    You will also have a very poor selection of tours/boats if you’re basing yourself on land. Even the Finch Bay’s private yacht only goes to a handful of the very close islands. You miss out on the best island (Floreana, Espanola, Fernandina, Isabela) that you reach on most cruises.

    Consider a cruise. It’ll probably cost less than the Finch Bay and the wildlife will be vastly superior.

  • CBM

    We are doing Galapagos and Machu Picchu this summer and Belize (Ambergris Caye) is an annual winter get-away. Next year its back to Bora Bora – our third trip – for our 15th anniversary. I recommend the Hilton Bora Bora Nui.

  • George

    I wanna get to Iceland. With all this talk of scuba diving, have you heard about diving at Silfra? It’s where you literally dive between the North American and European continental plates. It looks incredible!

  • RJP

    Note the govt has put significant restrictions on “who can do what” in the Galapagos. For instance, cruises can’t offer diving (traditional cruises, not liveaboards) and dive boats are limited in terms of land excursions. So you need to determine if you want a “dive trip” or a “land trip” up front in reality. (Again, with my assumption that if you want to dive there, you want to dive Darwin/Wolf.)

    Of course you could do a land tour before or after a week on a liveaboard. I opted to go to Peru afterwards to do Cusco and Machu Picchu instead of land tours in – as my buddy calls them – “the Galloping Pogos” based on sea conditions.

  • Mark D
  • The Mightiest of Mice

    I’m sure it’s no big surprise that you can’t be all thing to all people. While some reader like Ennis didn’t like this blog, I really enjoyed it. I bet a significant number of your readers are traveling vicariously through you. Additionally, many people that play the points game choose/are able to travel to locations that seem exotic. Personally, Oman is very high on my list (it is the only O country) and I am planning a short trip there on my way to Mozambique and Madagascar later this year. If you go first, I will look forward to reading about your experiences.

  • John
  • John

    How to get to Bora Bora from the west coast?

  • Clive Field

    John out of LAX there are two options which I know of. Air Tahiti Nui and Air France. A check on ITA will bring up the various options into PPT (Papeete)

  • bsheern

    I just booked a trip to Ambergris Caye for the end of July. Amex Platinum points are getting us there and then we’re renting a house via VRBO. I’m getting certified to scuba dive before we go. Should be awesome!

  • Philatravelgirl

    What a great short list – all are wonderful and I look forward to seeing where you go – I’d vote for New Zealand, it is truly stunning – I spent the majority on the South Island in December. My list this year, after surprising my niece with her first trip to Paris/London thanks to Chase BA travel together & SPG 25% points discount, includes a few of your destinations – Galapogos, Oman/Jordan,. With Qatar in Philly, the Maldives are closer. Iceland and Morocco still on the list- key is figuring out best use of points + avoiding single supplements traveling solo.

  • chuckcarpenter

    Did this happen? We’re considering a trip here for our honeymoon and would love some details or an article if you made it.

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