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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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!