Every year, the road surprises me — which is, come to think of it, why I go out there in the first place. Here are some of the best and worst things I found in 2012, along with a few other superlatives.
That weird hotel wallpaper in San Francisco, for instance. Also, the overpriced coffee in New York, homespun hospitality in the Yucatan and that rainy graveyard in Nova Scotia. Here's hoping your travels in the year ahead feature more bests and fewer worsts than ever.
Best hotel: The Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore, built in 1927 in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a wonderland of Spanish Colonial arches and colored tiles, shaded by fig trees, swaddled by ferns, neighbored by Butterfly Beach. Its pool is across the street at the Coral Casino, a ritzy private club, open to hotel guests, with two restaurants and a bigger-than-Olympic-size pool. Your laps may take days. I've done the math, and I'm pretty sure this is how the other half of the 1 percent live.
Best cardio-visual workout: Coba, Mexico, a set of ruins about 135 miles east of Merida, has something that Chichen Itza doesn't: a pyramid you can climb. It's called Nohoch Mul, and with the help of a heavy rope, brave travelers climb 120 steps to the top. The view is enormous — green, overgrown plains on all sides and a sharp, flat horizon.
Best wallpaper: In San Francisco, the Hotel Triton's lobby is tired and many of its rooms are small, but it has a great location (Grant Avenue, across the street from the gateway to Chinatown). And in a recent upstairs renovation, management covered the guest-room walls with typescript passages from Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."
Best temporary architecture: Down on the big, wide, white beach by the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego County, sandcastle master Bill Pavlacka often fashions amazing edifices, which you can admire with the Hotel Del's red turrets in the background. Also, keep an eye out for stray Navy SEALs — their base is nearby and they do a lot of training exercises on the sand.
Best cemetery: Fairview Lawn, Halifax, Canada. Nova Scotia's Fairview Lawn Cemetery is home to 121 Titanic victims, more than you'll find anyplace else above sea level. I showed up on a day of frigid rain — nearly cold enough to start the headstones shivering. There are four rows of Titanic graves, and the last row bends to follow the contour of a gentle hill. The result is a curve that looks like the bow of a ship. Eerie. Yet I couldn't find anybody who could say for sure whether this effect was brilliant design or dumb luck.
Hippest, cheapest, smallest hotel room: The Jane in New York is a quirky old brick building at 113 Jane St. at the western edge of Greenwich Village. In 1912, this was sailors' lodging with 150 cabin-sized rooms (7-by-7 feet, toilets and showers down the hall), and it's where many Titanic crew members wound up after the survivors were delivered to New York. All these years later, the tiny rooms remain, but the occupants — who often pay just $99 a night — are a trendy, youngish crowd that knows its way around the big, eccentric bar downstairs.
Best young museum: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. Crystal Bridges, which opened in late 2011, is largely bankrolled by members of the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame. So it's no surprise that the swooping, glass-walled museum building can be found in Bentonville, Ark., where Wal-Mart is based. The collection, which covers Colonial to contemporary eras, is intriguing and growing fast. Just outside, you'll find heartland scenery, the Ozark Mountains, small-town friendliness and a hub of global commerce. After putting up big-box stores around the world — and being blamed for the decline of many a Main Street — Wal-Mart and its founding family have relaunched their hometown's downtown.
Worst place to put a thousand souvenir vendors: The ruins of Chichen Itza, Mexico. Somehow, vendors have persuaded authorities to let them set up their tables within the national park, hogging much of the shade around the archaeological zone's most popular pyramid.
Best vibrations: The Integratron, Landers, Calif. The Integratron, about 20 minutes north of Joshua Tree, is a white wooden dome, 38 feet high, built by a renegade aeronautical engineer who died in 1978. He wanted to contact other worlds. Nowadays, the building is a venue for meditation, music and "sound baths" — its resonance is mesmerizing. Climb the ladder to the upper chamber, curl up on a blanket and listen for half an hour to hear somebody coaxing eerie, powerfully resonant sounds from a series of quartz bowls. To sound-bathe alone was $80, by reservation. But two weekends per month, you could join a public sound bath at noon for $15.
Most overpriced cup of coffee: Plaza Hotel, New York, $9. The Plaza, at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, is a symbol of wealth and privilege, now owned by a Saudi investor. The hotel's Palm Court might be a prime spot for people-watching, but a cup of coffee will run you $9. I'd rather find some other people to watch.
Best reminder of why we travel: After days of hiking around Maya ruins and colonial towns in the Mexican state of Yucatan, I wound up lunching in the hut of a Maya farming family in the town of Xocen. The Puc Canuls (Mom, Dad, six kids) grow corn, limes, coriander, mangoes and mint, keep bees and sleep in hammocks. Eldest daughter Helmi, 13, made tortillas on a traditional stove (three rocks, a campfire and a metal tray), and the younger kids told me all about school and sang songs in Spanish and Mayan. I showed them pictures of my daughter and drank Fanta from a gourd. Good times.
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