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Published: Sunday, 12/30/2012

One traveler’s sweet spots on the road in 2012

BY GARY A. WARNER
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa pool offers an unusual swimming experience with waterfalls spilling over a cave leading to a children's water play area in Lahaina, Hawaii. The Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa pool offers an unusual swimming experience with waterfalls spilling over a cave leading to a children's water play area in Lahaina, Hawaii.
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER Enlarge

“What’s new?”

That’s the overriding question I asked myself all of the past year. I opted for new places or at least new spots in old places. I love Paris, Rome, and Berlin, but this year I passed on these and other usual suspects and set course for Istanbul, Athens, and Moscow.

I traveled to four new countries: Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. When I visited a familiar place, I searched for unfamiliar territory.

My greatest wish for 2013 is that it resemble 2012 a great deal of the time. A few reasons why:

Most beautiful place: Santorini, Greece. Yes, it is overrun with tourists every day. Yes, the famous bay created by an ancient volcano imploding fills up with bulbous cruise ships. True, there’s hardly a shop that doesn’t cater to tourists. But some places are on the beaten path for a reason. Santorini, with its white houses, steep black cliffs, blue-domed orthodox churches — all above a deep electric blue sea — cannot be ruined. It is eternally sublime.

Favorite foreign city: Istanbul. It’s hard for me to believe that it took me so long to visit the city that along with Rome and Jerusalem so effortlessly shows the passing of the ages. I was especially entranced by the Hagia Sophia, the great Christian cathedral that was converted into a mosque when the city fell to the Turks, ending the last vestiges of the Roman Empire.

Favorite U.S. city: Alexandria, Va. From the French and Indian Wars to Robert E. Lee to the Doors’ Jim Morrison’s childhood, every foot of old town Alexandria has a story to tell. Plus the Federalist period buildings are filled with great restaurants and coffeehouses. I only stayed there early this summer because of the ludicrous prices at D.C. hotels across the Potomac. Now I think I would prefer to stay there and use the easy subway connections into the capital.

Favorite tourist trap: Lenin’s Tomb, Moscow. The great revolutionary still lurks, rubbery and pink, inside his huge mausoleum on Red Square. Admission is free, though everyone has to keep moving as they pass by the stern visage of a man who died 90 years ago.

Favorite souvenir: Evil-eye charms, Greece and Turkey. Discs, usually ceramic, that look like a blue eye, meant to ward off evil spirits. Regardless of whether it was a Christian or Muslim country, the charms were there. They hung on bus drivers’ rear-view mirrors, in restaurant doorways, and on baby strollers. Sizes ranging from manhole cover to key-chain bob were on sale.

Favorite people-watching: Saturday in Odessa, Ukraine. Odessa’s main park was full of families on late summer walks or saddling their toddlers up on miniature ponies for a walk around the gardens. War veterans met for coffee atop the famous Potemkin Steps above the harbor, and a woman was trying very hard to look like Paris Hilton — right down to the pink outfit and small Chihuahua. But the kicker was that on every corner, there seemed to be brides, brides, brides. Some were actually getting married, others posing with their husbands-to-be or solo at the opera house, war memorial, or other spots. Times are tough in Ukraine, but on Saturday there is still time for love, family, and fun.

Favorite foreign hotel: Renaissance St. Pancras, London. I’ve been waiting for this grand, Gothic, 1880s rail hotel to be resurrected. The long-delayed plans finally became reality last year when the former Great Western Hotel reopened after a half century of decay and near-demolition.

Favorite U.S. hotel: Magnolia Hotel, Houston. The fact that the hotel is the former headquarters of the Houston Post newspaper would be enough to get me in the doors, but once inside I found a sleek boutique hotel within walking distance to both Minute Maid Park, the home of the Houston Astros, and the arts district with its Italian coffeehouses, “buy local” produce markets, and concert halls.

Favorite “comfy-cozy” lodging: Alpine Village Cabins, Jasper, Alberta. I drove from Calgary to Jasper and stayed at two of the great old railway hotels, the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise, both now run by Fairmont. But my favorite stop was this ultralow key resort of blond wood log cabins just outside of town. The collection ranges from rustic and inexpensive to luxuriously modern. I picked a midpriced one-bedroom amid the pine trees with a fireplace and kitchen. While the two Fairmont hotels were grand, the cabin was the kind of cozy, warm mountain experience I was really looking for in the Canadian Rockies.

Favorite inexpensive foreign hotel: Bungalows, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The B&B in the hills above town was relatively inexpensive, beautifully maintained, quiet at night, and yet within relatively easy walking or driving distance to the “Cabo Wabo” tequila Jell-O shots scene or the boats out to Los Arcos for an escape to the beach.

Favorite inexpensive U.S. hotel: Hotel Lanai, Lanai, Hawaii. I like Waikiki, but nothing is more head-spinning than going from the cacophony of Kalakaua Avenue one day to the silence of the Garden of the Gods in Lanai the next. The slo-mo feel of the “Pineapple Island” is best captured at the small Hotel Lanai at the top of Dole Park. The two Four Seasons resorts are islands on the island.

Favorite airport hotel: Springhill Suites, Houston. I’ve stayed at scores of airport hotels and most are utilitarian pit stops on the way in or out of town. Many have nice touches like free breakfast and working stations with lots of electrical sockets in the rooms. But few combine that with the genuinely fun and warm welcome that you get at Springhill Suites. I’ve seen plenty of fake friendliness on the road, but this place serves genuine Southern hospitality in what’s usually a sterile environment.

Favorite pool: Hyatt Maui, Kaanapali, Hawaii. I have never been a big fan of the 1980s hotels that went up around Hawaii, particularly in Maui and the Big Island. They tried to be the equivalent of Disneyesque water parks. When I did my first survey of the best swimming pools in Hawaii about 10 years ago, I skipped right over the Hyatt on purpose. But during an impromptu visit to the “doc-in-a-box” drop-in medical center to clear out my son’s waterlogged ear a few years back, we had to kill time and enjoyed walking around the bridges and tunnels, past the flamingos and the kids playing basketball in the pool. We gave in to the allure of the waterfalls hiding a swim-through grotto with its mid-grotto secret bar, the cool waterslides and the swinging bridge. I surrender. Over the top can sometimes be fun.

Favorite travel movie: Skyfall. I’ve often been immune to the more prosaically photographed locations that are thrown in as eye candy in the half century of James Bond films. But Skyfall director Sam Mendes had a way with the many worlds 007 raced through. The movie had me saying, “I want to go there ... or there ... or there ...” from start to finish.

Favorite drive: Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada. The titanic geological forces that shaped North America are on display along this drive between Banff and Jasper, Alberta. The carving and flooding are seen at Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and the Vermilion Lakes with their green-tinged glacier water. The massive amounts of ice melt that fuel the thundering Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls, and the up-and-over folding of land that creates the mountains that flank the road. All around are mountain goats and bighorn sheep, plus the regular “bear jams” when cars stop to watch black bears eat berries by the roadside or a rare grizzly making its way across a mud flat.

The star of the trip is riding the special tractors out on the Columbia Icefield to experience a last remnant of the great glaciers that once covered most of North America. Bring an empty cup along to drink water directly from the glacier lip.



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