Looking for inspiration for your first overseas adventure since borders reopened? In part one of a two-part series, international expert travel writers pick the greatest holidays of all time, from luxury safaris in Africa to one of the most scenic coastal roads in Australia.
Did we all take travel for granted? Who could have predicted, when 2020 arrived in all its innocence and naivety, that holidays – mind-opening; life-affirming; the red-letter day in our calendars that makes the 9-to-5 slog bearable – would be off the cards (even, for a time, illegal) for the best part of two years?
The goal is now to make holiday memories that last. According to Kerry Golds, managing director of luxury specialist Abercrombie & Kent, "Our clients are wanting to make their next holiday really count, increasing their budgets, and treating themselves to an extra bit of indulgence." Big-ticket experiences like safaris, gorilla trekking in Uganda, and Nile cruises, are proving particularly popular.
The awful human cost of the war in Ukraine is another reminder – if Covid had not already underlined this point – that life is fragile, and for living. In many ways, now is the time to seize the day. Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis: "Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."
To that end, we asked 10 of our most widely travelled experts to reveal their ultimate adventure – the one trip they would recommend to a friend who has been stuck at home for two years harbouring a serious case of wanderlust. Here are the results...
1. The ultimate beach holiday… in the Seychelles
By Michelle Jana Chan
Everybody has their favourite beach, and our choices are usually influenced by personal memories as much as the softness of the sand or the clarity of the sea.
For powdery grains and transparent water, it's hard to beat Maundays Bay in Anguilla, Plage de Gouverneur in St Barths, or Pampelonne, close to St Tropez. Yet I'd always head to the Indian Ocean for my ultimate beach holiday.
The Seychelles . . . even the alluring name is suggestive of coconut trees, pillow-soft sand, coral reefs and gently lapping surf – and, yes, this archipelago of 115 islands delivers all of that in spades.
But there is more. Here is an Eden of primeval forest, gigantic palms with the world's heaviest seeds, delicate wild vanilla orchids, endemic endangered birds like the black parrot, and fruit bats soaring against vibrant blue skies. This profuse wildlife and abundant vegetation makes the Seychelles stand apart from other paradises.
Back on the seafront, the geology is astounding. Massive, smooth boulders litter the beaches, creating a truly unique landscape. Hard granite doesn't usually belong in the middle of the ocean, but these islands were created from a rogue underwater rock formation called the Mascarene Plateau – and are all the more beautiful for it.
From the main island of Mahe, hop on the ferry to Praslin, then to tiny La Digue. Pre-pandemic, the boats coming here carried hundreds of visitors a day, but when I came last year there were fewer than a dozen tourists at the island's most beloved beach. Anse Source d'Argent is smattered with gargantuan boulders that create winding passages, natural arches and tunnels to a seemingly endless selection of private slips of sand, each kissed by clear, warm waters.
Hire a bicycle to explore the sandy lanes of La Digue, stopping at Veuve Nature Reserve, where it is surprisingly easy to spot the critically endangered Seychelles paradise flycatcher, as well as the mighty three-dimensional cobwebs of red-legged golden orb-weaver spiders.
The go-slow island of Praslin is home to the forests of the Vallee de Mai, with endemic palms such as the coco de mer, which grows up to 30 metres tall and bears seeds weighing 40kg. Here is another beach I love, Anse Georgette, where I snorkelled with reef sharks, stingrays, parrotfish, powder blue tang, and lined surgeonfish, before hauling myself on to a rock to dry in the sun. This time of year is perfect for spotting turtle hatchlings making their way down the sand towards the surf.
The main island of Mahe offers a more dynamic kind of paradise and my favourite beach, Beau Vallon, is one of the Seychelles' longest, allowing for languorous strolls at sunrise and sunset, with stops for drinks from beach bars, takeaways from food trucks, or fresh mangoes and papaya from market vendors. Here, you can watch fishermen hauling in their nets and locals foraging for shellfish at the shoreline, or playing football and throwing frisbees.
2. The ultimate safari… in Tanzania
By Brian Jackman
Choosing the ultimate safari is a tough call. How I love Kaingo, surrounded by the leopards and carmine bee-eaters of Zambia's magnificent Luangwa Valley; and there is hardly a day when I do not pine for the Masai Mara – Kenya's incomparable carnivore stronghold – the place where I first fell under the spell of Africa half a century ago.
If you would rather spend time with elephants, you should go to Botswana's dreamy Okavango Delta, or Samburu game reserve in Northern Kenya. But for me, given one last chance to live like a lion in the sun and the wind, it would have to be Namiri Plains in the Serengeti.
When it comes to boundless space and endless horizons combined with Africa's wildlife in all its staggering abundance and diversity, this remote corner of Tanzania ticks all the boxes. Added to which, at over 1500m the light is dazzling, and the climate is the best in the world.
For 20 years it was off-limits to visitors; a cheetah hotspot exclusively set aside for scientific research until Asilia Africa was granted permission to set up a high-end safari camp in 2014. Since then, due to its off-grid location a good hour's drive from any other camps, you can enjoy the rare privilege of spending all day in big cat country with no other vehicles around.
Surrounded by glades of flat-roofed acacias, the camp itself, with its 10 en-suite guest tents, is an oasis of comfort. It even has a swimming pool – a rare treat in the Serengeti – but its greatest luxury is the professionalism of its guides, whose knowledge and enthusiasm are second to none.
If you want to catch the great Serengeti migration, November is the month to choose. This is the season of the grass rains – warm days of sunshine and showers that bring the savannah back to life – when upwards of a million wildebeest, together with thousands of zebras, gazelles, and other plains game, are passing through on their way back from the Mara to their calving grounds in the south of the park. No wonder it is known as the greatest wildlife show on earth.
But apart from the long rains of April and May, any time can be just as rewarding. The migrating herds may have moved on, but the cheetahs are still there, and they are not the only attraction.
Leopards lurk in the fever tree forests, and the kopjes – those enigmatic granite outcrops that rise like islands from the seas of grass – are home to large prides of the famous Serengeti lions. And when at last you find them, having driven out at first light with a picnic breakfast on board, thanks to Namiri's exclusive location you can have them all to yourself.
3. The ultimate cruise… in Antarctica
By Mike Unwin
A hush overtakes our party as our zodiac driver cuts the engine. I gawp at the wonderland around us: the improbable ice sculptures – anvils, pagodas, elephants – that crowd the bay; the huge tabular bergs along the horizon and fissured glaciers beneath the towering peaks of the peninsula. It's hard to process the immensity. Behind us, Scenic Eclipse awaits our return, her sleek lines perfectly framed through an ice Arc de Triomphe.
Wildlife brings focus. Crab-eater seals yawn and wave languorous flippers while Chaplinesque adelie penguins break off preening to scrutinise our approach. As I raise my camera, an abrupt exhalation, like the hiss of hydraulic brakes, wrests our attention to the stern where the gleaming back of a humpback whale rises through the floating brash ice not 10 metres away.
Antarctica is the greatest wilderness on Earth, and the ultimate destination for cruisers and adventurers alike. Nowhere else will you feel quite such a sense of puny irrelevance. Be warned: getting there means two days crossing the notorious Drake Passage from Argentina's Ushuaia. But Scenic Eclipse, the very latest in expedition cruise comfort, takes these lively seas in its stride. And when you venture up on deck, tearing yourself away from the fine dining and excellent lectures, there are albatross outriders in your wake.
Every voyage is a new one. In Antarctica, the weather and ice dictate the itinerary. Working your way down the peninsula, you glide through picture-book panoramas without another vessel in sight. And at every opportunity, you disembark by zodiac – either to cruise the ice edge in search of wildlife or to tramp the white continent underfoot and mingle with the penguins. Where conditions allow, you can even slip into a kayak and paddle past snoozing seals.
Launched in 2019 as the world's first "discovery yacht", Scenic Eclipse also has other toys at your disposal. A helicopter flight reveals the full scale of this jaw-dropping landscape from the air, while a descent in the ship's unique six-guest submarine takes you to the seabed – where ice-fish and krill appear outside your picture windows in a spot no human being will ever have seen before.
The Antarctic Peninsula, via Ushuaia, is the classic Antarctic cruise. But there are other options. You could sail via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. You could head south to the Weddell Sea, where Shackleton's wreck was discovered earlier this year, in search of emperor penguins. Or east, via the Ross Ice Shelf and the huts of the first explorers. The longest expeditions are 33-day epics, though you'll be more comfortable than the likes of Scott and Shackleton.
Cruises run during the Antarctic Summer (November–March), when the days are long, ice-free seas allow access, and wildlife gathers in its breeding colonies. On Scenic Eclipse, all your needs are catered for. You needn't bring much, except a mind prepared to be blown. Oh, and a pair of binoculars: those albatrosses don't always spot themselves.
4. The ultimate food and wine holiday… in Spain
By Chris Caldicott
Street food tours have become an increasingly trendy part of the travel experience. In India, stalls offer spicy selections of savoury snacks; in Vietnam you can slurp steaming bowls of pho soup and noodles on plastic stools in every back street. In Europe, however, finding authentic regional cuisine usually requires booking a restaurant table, removing a large degree of spontaneity. The exception is Spain, where tapas culture comes with the same casual street food style – with the added attraction of a cold cerveza or copa di vino, often from an under-rated local vineyard.
I've sampled wonderful cuisine in every corner of the world, but a trip around the historic Moorish towns and "pueblos blancos" of Andalucia, punctuated with the delicious food and colourful snapshots of day-to-day life found in any neighbourhood tasca or tapas bar, is my ultimate culinary holiday.
Tapas can be as simple as a plate of manchego cheese and olives, wafer-thin slices of cured smoky and spicy Iberico hams served on olive oil-soaked bread, a scoop of paella or deep-fried crunchy anchovies. They can also be as complex as sizzling earthenware casseroles of stuffed squid, clams or chickpeas with spinach (garbanzos con espinacas). They are always made in-house and presented in mouth-watering displays. The complementary tapas or pinchos provided with your drink are usually moreish salty snacks served to encourage more drinking; the more sophisticated larger tapas dishes known as racions are added to your bill and refreshingly good value.
In Seville, home of the magnificent Alcazar palace, there is no shortage of tapas bars sporting hanging hams and attractive, locally-made ceramic tiles in the former Gypsy quarter, Triana. Make a pilgrimage to Bar El Riconcillo on Gerona, which claims to have invented the concept of tapas, then head up to Carmona on a spur of the Alcores Hills, above the city, for stunning views at sunset and evening tapas in Plaza San Pedro.
Tapas in the sherry capital of Jerez de la Frontier are accompanied by chilled glasses of delicate dry fino; Bar Juanito off Plaza del Arenal, has a menu of 52, and artichokes are among its specialties.
Down on the Atlantic coast in Cadiz, wall-to-wall tapas bars specialising in super-fresh seafood line C Zorilla; try La Gaditana for the best selection at excellent value.
Inland, past the stunning white village of Arcos de la Frontera, Ronda sits dramatically astride the deep El Tajo Gorge in the Serrania de Ronda mountains. Plaza del Socorro is packed with tapas bars; El Lechuguita at Remedios 35 is famous for its fried calamari and vegetarian options.
After touring the mesmerising multi-arched interior of Cordoba's Byzantine La Mezquita mosque, order the wonderful salmorejo cold soup with boiled egg or the pesto vegetables with fried egg at Taberna San Miguel in Plaza San Miguel.
Your final stop is Granada, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains and home of the mighty Alhambra palace. Los Diamantes at 28 Navas serves superlative gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimps), and pulpo gallego (spicy octopus). Reina Monica at 20 Panaderos offers complimentary Arabic tapas (three with each drink) and serves a generous tapas buffet of Andalucia's finest culinary treats.
5. The ultimate city break… in Venice
By Anne Hanley
Pick a tower – the campanile in St Mark's Square will do, or the one on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore – and make your way to the top. To the east, thin strips of land protect the fragile lagoon from the waters of the Adriatic; to the north, the peaks of the Dolomites – snow-capped in winter, fading into heat haze in summer – heave into view. And at your feet, the world's most improbable city is laid out, glimmering. Venice has always been the stuff of dreams. For holiday-starved visitors, hungry for difference, it's a mesmerising place in which to rediscover the delights of travel.
Having revelled in La Serenissima from a great height, it's time to savour her at ground level. You'll want to (re)visit the famous landmarks of course. St Mark's Basilica might seem rather too obvious a destination, but think again: those acres of glistening golden mosaics are heart-stoppingly splendid. If you find yourself wondering how many works by grand masters you can stomach the moment you spread your travelling wings again, visit the Accademia Gallery; you might find that the answer is a whole marvellous, dazzling gallery full.
Between one peerless sight and another, be aware that one of Venice's greatest joys is simply walking. The colours, the reflections, the echoes, the churches along the way in which any shadowy side-altar could harbour an exquisite masterpiece – these are the things that make this watery wonder simultaneously the simplest and the most sophisticated of city breaks.
As you proceed, you could make a restaurant your goal. Famous for its uninspiring tourist traps, Venice also harbours some real gems. Splash out on the ever-changing fishy fare at Osteria alle Testiere, a gourmet's delight you'll need to book well ahead: the secret is out. Or go for Michelin-starred Local, where Venetian classics blend with subtle exotic touches.
You've been aloft, you've pounded pavements, all that remains is to take to the water. A gondola ride comes with a hefty price tag (€80/$133 for 30 minutes) and, for some tastes, is a trifle cheesy, but don't be too put off: a fish-eye view of the city's crumbling palazzi along quieter waterways is memorable.
Not convinced? There are alternatives. Venice's vaporetti waterbuses are a means of getting from A to B, certainly, but they can also be an attraction in themselves, especially if you climb aboard at quieter moments and grab an outside seat. The 4 and 5 lines circumnavigate the city centre, passing along the wide Giudecca canal and out into the northern lagoon, where the dramatic cemetery island of San Michele rises into view. Line 12 plies across the wide lagoon to the smaller islands of Murano, Burano, and impossibly atmospheric Torcello, with its few fascinating reminders of a once-thriving community. A three-day vaporetto pass (€40/$66) makes it easy to hop on and off the boat wherever you spot something too fascinating to miss.
There are eating options, too, at the end of a watery ride. La Palanca, by the vaporetto stop of the same name on Giudecca island, is a local bar with excellent food (lunch only) and the best city-encompassing view from its quayside tables. For greater sophistication, Venissa, on the island of Mazzorbo, offers Michelin-starred treats in a sprawling walled garden.
For a return to travelling, the perfect accommodation is a must. Recently restored, the St Regis (marriott.com; doubles from around €700/$1172 per night) offers a lighter, airier take on traditional luxury, especially if you splash out on a Grand Canal-facing room. What the Hotel Flora (hotelflora.it; from €160/$268) lacks in panorama it makes up for in its leafy garden and homely atmosphere. For a quieter option, head to Burano, where CasaBurano's (casaburano.it; from around €140/$235) suites are designer-sleek.
6. The ultimate road trip… in Australia
By Sarah Marshall
Few forces could challenge the power of an angry ocean. In a battle between land and water, fierce waves have conquered Australia's south-eastern coastline, lashing against millennia-old cliffs to create a scenic stretch of sculpted archways, limestone stacks and hidden bays.
Dramatic and awe-inspiring, it's a fitting location for the world's largest war memorial – a thrilling coastal road built by more than 3,000 soldiers between 1919 and 1932 in memory of 60,000 comrades killed in the First World War.
Running for 245km through Victoria, from surf capital Torquay to small town Allansford, The Great Ocean Road is a wild, windswept driving route, which – at times – feels like it could be leading to the end of the Earth. Thread along ochre cliffs soaring above sparkling beaches and tunnel through ancient forests where even the sound of tumbling waterfalls fails to rock sleepy koalas from their treetop cribs.
Stop at an inexhaustible selection of unique viewpoints to appreciate the strength of the Southern Ocean, watching waves roll thousands of miles from the ice shelves of Antarctica across some of the most treacherous waters to navigate. Then continue to swimmable, sheltered bays where the surf trickles lazily to shore.
Among the route's essential stops is Erskine Falls, 10km from Lorne in the Great Otway National Park. Fresh water cascades down a vertical staircase of rocks carpeted in lime-green mosses and ticked by the fronds of enormous ferns. A strenuous hike to the second lookout point offers the best views.
Indigenous wildlife can be encountered at any point, but for (near) guaranteed sightings head to the recently opened Wildlife Wonders eco-tourism attraction at Apollo Bay (wildlifewonders.org.au). A one-hour walk led by a conservation guide winds through protected bushland habitat for kangaroos, potoroos and bandicoots.
The biggest highlight of the drive, however, is the Twelve Apostles – a collection of limestone stacks isolated by erosion and gobbled by the waves. Seven of the marine monoliths remain offshore from Port Campbell National Park, all visible from clifftop trails or even helicopter sightseeing tours.
More natural sculptures are scattered along the coastline. Nearby, giant towers Gog and Magog can be seen from sea level by descending a natural staircase of 86 steps carved into the rock, tracing a path once used by the indigenous Kirrae Whurrong people. The Grotto, The Arch and Loch Ard Gorge – a steep-sided, sparkling bay laced with walking trails – are all additional highlights.
Longer days and less rain make the summer months between December and February an obvious time to visit. But the shoulder seasons are also pleasant, much quieter and cheaper: expect mild in autumn and carpets of wildflowers in spring. If you can bear the cold, winter can be dramatic. Watch mighty waves charge from stormy horizons; listen to the rush of waterfalls swollen with rainfall, and spot whales making their journey to the icy south.
7. The ultimate hotel stay… in Morocco
By Aoife O'Riordain
Everyone has their own opinion on what makes the perfect hotel. Do you savour the smaller scale and intimate boutique style, or is over-the-top opulence with all the five-star frills more your thing? Maybe it's all the location or the superlative service that really matters.
For me, having stayed in hundreds of properties in more than 60 countries, La Mamounia, a Marrakech institution, comes as close to perfection as anything I've encountered, offering everything you'd expect of a legendary hotel.
Pulling up outside its history-steeped portals, you can't help but feel a frisson of excitement as you are greeted by its smiling, tarboosh-topped doormen and ushered in. The best hotels transport you to another world and as soon as you are through the doors, you are instantly enveloped by its exotic glamour. On this front, La Mamounia certainly succeeds.
It helps to have heritage and La Mamounia has a compelling backstory. Its stunning gardens were originally gifted by the 18th-century Alaouite Sultan, Mohammad Ben Abdallah, to one of his sons as a wedding present. Two centuries later, the Moroccan Railway Company decided to build a hotel fit for the great and the good, employing French architects Henri Prost and Antoine Marchisio, who married the Art Deco style of the times with Arabo-Andalucian flourishes.
Evolution is key, of course, and numerous refurbishments – the most notable a three-year transformation at the hands of French tastemaker Jacques Garcia, completed in 2009; the most recent in 2020 when a cinema, wine cellar and new restaurants were added – have kept things fresh.
The best hotels should echo their surroundings, so you are never in any doubt where you are. There is a real sense of place at La Mamounia; you could not be anywhere other than Morocco. It leans into its heritage and Art Deco-meets-Arabo-Andalucian style to spectacular effect with Moorish arches, giant lanterns and delicately-carved masharabiyah wood screens. Beyond its walls, you can immerse yourself in Moroccan culture with guided tours of the medina and the souks or day trips to the Atlas Mountains – the concierge can open doors not normally available to everyone who visits the Rose City. (If you can bear to leave, that is; the shady pool, zellige-tiled spa, and gardens dotted with swaying palms, orange and olive trees have a magnetic quality.)
Location is also critical. La Mamounia sits on the edge of Marrakech's ancient medina, a short stroll to the city's iconic D'jemma El Fna square. Throw open your windows early in the morning and the birdsong competes with the evocative sound of the muezzin's call to prayer. Ask for a room overlooking the gardens with views of the snow-dusted peaks of the Atlas Mountains in the distance.
Seamless service is also a given, and at La Mamounia it hits that sweet spot between attentiveness and that uncomfortable sensation of people hovering around you. Other guests are also an essential element of hotel life. Winston Churchill was a fan and used to paint in the hotel's garden and a veritable red carpet's worth of famous faces have slipped between its sheets. These days, there is ample opportunity for people watching, whether poolside or in one of the bars, where you can speculate and spin stories about your fellow drinkers.
Truly great hotels move with the times but never lose their soul. La Mamounia embodies the ideal escape that we've all been longing for after two years of confinement – a stay here will linger in your memory long after you have checked out.
Check vaccination, testing and entry requirements for each country before travel, and see NZ's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel advice at safetravel.govt.nz
For part two in the series, see next week's Travel magazine. In the meantime, go to nzherald.co.nz/travel for the latest news, tips and advice
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