Top 10 Destinations – ‘Year of extraordinary travel’

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Always good to have something to read on the road. Another year of extraordinary travel: dozens of countries on six continents.

The Top 10 Destinations I visited in 2016

It’s a seemingly simple question friends often asked: “What’s your favorite destination?” Some cities stand out instantly, while others emerge after more thought. I began compiling my Top 10 Destinations not just to head off the question but to recognize these incredible locations that have enormously enriched my travels.

This year, several favorite destinations didn’t make the list. Those include London and Madrid, both of which I visited multiple times in 2016. Another that fell off is Marrakech, although I visited twice and had a great time there.

I judged these destinations on the quality of my visit and how I felt after leaving. Would I revisit? Would I recommend it to others? Did the destination live up to or surpass expectations? In some cases, a little-known destination might knock off one that is more popular because I believe the real value of travel is exploration and discovery.

For the first time, the list features a tie and no repeats. All the destinations are first-timers. The 2016 list was the result of an extraordinary year of travel that took me to dozens of countries on six continents. By year’s end, I had flown a record (for me) 210,000 miles. Now, the Top Destinations of 2016:

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Hadn’t planned to visit Limpopo on brief visit to South Africa but very happy I did..  

10. Limpopo, South Africa.  When I travel, I often like to go off the beaten path. But I hadn’t planned to do so on a brief visit to South Africa. visit Limpopo during a quick stop South Africa. A friend, however, invited me to join her for lunch just outside Limpopo, a four-hour drive from Johannesburg. The drive itself was incredible. I stumbled upon dozens and dozens of teenage boys returning to their villages after the traditional circumcision ritual in the mountains. But the real star was the spectacular vista of the Limpopo Valley itself. Well worth a visit if in South Africa.

9. Cali, Colombia There was a time when many people won’t be caught dead in Cali. Its violent past has now given way to a city with lots of soul. Located on the Pacific Coast, Cali has incredibly friendly people amid a truly authentic Latin vibe. Walk the streets, whether to church or the neighborhood grocer, and you’ll find yourself feeling very much at home. Most people think of Cartagena, Medellin or even Bogota when they consider visiting Colombia. But with the peace deal between the government and FARC guerrillas ending a half-century of civil strife, there’s no better time to give Cali a try. You just might end up learning some salsa steps.

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Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai helped to give Dubai a place on my Top Destinations list. 

8. Dubai I’ve been to Dubai before, but about seven years ago. I remember little from that visit. The city has been through tough economic times since then but has rebounded, regaining its position as the place in the Middle East where many around the region go to play. Whether having a drink at the Skyview Bar atop the Burj Al Arab or shopping at one of the many malls, Dubai is a must-visit.

7. Mahabalipuram, India At dinner with friends shortly after arriving in Chennai, they insisted that I visit Mahabalipuram. Once there, it was easy to see why so many people were pumped about the place. If you want to see spectacular stone carvings, you’ve got to visit. It’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason. The carvings date to the 7th and 8th centuries. Two of my favorites were The Great Penance and the Shore Temple, near the shores of the Bay of Bengal.

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Tel Aviv bridges the old and the new. A city on the move.

6. Tel Aviv, Israel This second visit to Tel Aviv was as exhilarating as the first. A friend took me on a tour of the Old City of Jaffa, which is not to be missed. Tel Aviv is a city on the move and it shows in the brisk developments taking place everywhere, including Jaffa. The city is blessed with terrific weather, which made lunch at a wonderful restaurant on the banks of the Mediterranean feel like perfection. My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to go swimming.

5. Taipei/Tokyo For the first time, a tie. It was my first visit to Taipei. In fact, I had purchased a ticket to visit on Sept.13, 2001. Then 9/11 happened. Planes were grounded. I was as busy as ever reporting on the attack. The airline refunded my money. I’m happy to have finally made it. From strolling through the National Palace Museum to shopping at late-night bookstores to riding the super clean subway (no gum chewing allowed), I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. As for Tokyo, it was my second time there. It probably would not have made this Top Destination List had I not dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am to sit on the cold floor while waiting for the auctions at the Tsukiji fish market. Attending the auction was an unforgettable experience, made even more so because the market is moving (originally scheduled for November, the move has now been pushed into 2017). It has been at the same location since 1935. I had never seen tuna so large — nor sold so quickly. Tokyo and Taipei, two jewels of Asia.

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Tuna anyone? A visit to the Tsukiji a must on any visit to Tokyo. But hurry. It’s moving soon.

4. San Francisco I haven’t been to San Francisco much, but there’s probably no more incredible experience than to be suddenly “surprised” by the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. The site left me marveling at this wonder of the modern world. On this visit, I had a chance to walk downtown and was amazed at its transformation into a high-tech city. A friend who used to own an apartment in the city told me as we walked past her former building that she sold it for a small fortune. In San Francisco, the American Dream still lives.

3. Seychelles I’ve seldom landed in a country where I felt the deep urge to jump out the plane and into the ocean. Part of the charm of Seychelles is that it mesmerizes you with incredible island vistas for miles before touchdown. Each small island and the amazingly blue waters surrounding them grew more beautiful as we approached touchdown on Mahe Island, the largest of the Seychelles islands. If unable to dive in right away, a drive through Mahe’s mountainous interior gave me a feel for the people and the country’s history. Eventually, I dove into the Indian Ocean every morning during my visit. Best part: it appeared I was the only one up early, allowing me to have the beach all to myself.

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Seychelles, where each approaching island seems more beautiful than the last.

2. Paris I landed in La Ville-Lumière shortly before winter gave way to spring. The weather was perfect: Cool enough to stroll for miles after dinner without breaking into a sweat. This was among my most memorable visit to this mesmerizing city. Tourist traffic had dipped because Paris was bouncing back from a terror attack, making it fairly easy to get into tourist attractions or fine restaurants. From the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe, a resurgent Paris laid out the welcome mat.

1. Sydney I’ve wanted to travel Down Under for years. When the opportunity came, I jumped at it, even making it a family vacation. Perhaps that explains why I found myself at the Sydney Zoo. It was one of the best stops on the trip — beautiful and incredibly educational. And it has some of the best views in Sydney. If interested in views, Sydney is among the best places in the world to be. Whether soaking in the sights from atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge or a seat at the Opera House, Sydney is unforgettable. Well worth the wait!

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Sydney celebrates on New Year’s Eve – or perhaps after learning it was selected as my Top Destination of 2016.

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TOP 10 VISITED CITIES OF 2014

On the road in 2014. Thousands of miles and dozens of cities.

On the road in 2014. Thousands of miles and dozens of cities.

Friends often ask what’s my favorite city. It’s usually difficult to name just one. Each city has a flavor all its own and I like each for different reasons. In 2014, I visited almost 50 cities in the U.S. and abroad, traveling more than 140,000 miles. So what were my favorite stops along the way? This was a very difficult exercise (some cities I thought would make the list, didn’t), but I’ve settled on 10 to come up with the World Dispatch Top 10 Visited Cities of 2014. First, a caveat: This is not a list of the 10 best cities in the world; it’s the Top 10 of the ones I visited. Hope you find your favorites here. What’s your Top 10? Leave a message in the comments and follow World Dispatch if you like what you read. Happy trails.

A young boy feeds pigeons at one of the main squares in Bogota.

A young boy feeds pigeons at one of the main squares in Bogota.

10. BOGOTA I had stopped briefly in Bogota in 2013 en route to Cartagena, a city that would have made the list had I visited in 2014. I looked forward to returning to Bogota and was glad I did. Thanks to Jim Wyss, chief of the Miami Herald’s Andean Bureau, the visit surpassed my expectations. Whether touring the Botero Museum, haggling over prices at the flea market, dining at one of its fantastic new restaurants or hanging out in the Candelaria, Bogota’s Latin American flavor made it a must-list.

9. TORONTO I’ve been to Toronto each of the past four years but the city remains fresh. Always something new to discover or an interesting person to meet. Both occurred on my trip last year, including my visit to Casa Loma. Looking forward to returning to both. I visited Montreal for the second time last year and thought it would make the list but Toronto had just that much more, which elevated it over Montreal.

Marrakesh. Old world meets new. Camels grazing at the side of the road.

Marrakesh. Old world meets new. Camels grazing at the side of the road.

8. MARRAKESH After visiting many cities in Morocco, I finally made it to Marrakesh. And it did not disappoint. It’s the old world meeting the new. I still can’t get the images of camels at the side of the road out of my head. I initially thought this fascinating city would make my top 5 but the competition was stiff.

7. LOS ANGELES I live in Miami where downtown is not as vibrant as it can be. So it was refreshing to visit Los Angeles and see so many people walking about downtown. (A protest happening while I was there no doubt contributed to the pedestrian traffic.) Visiting LA can be intoxicating, especially with such close proximity to the playground of the stars. Also, for someone who lives where it’s flat, the mountains were a real treat.

London. Didn't crack the top 5 but still beautiful -- day or night.

London. Didn’t crack the top 5 but still beautiful — day or night.

6. LONDON It pains me not to have London crack the top 5. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love London. I went to school there and have lots of friends there, even some who claim me as family. I visited five times in 2014 but it had lots of competition from other cities.

5. HONG KONG It was great being back in Hong Kong. The scenery is spectacular and the food, even more so. Wandering through the tiny alleys, you never know what you might happen upon – a major anti-government protest or a night market.

4. ISTANBUL What can I say? Istanbul continues to be a city of intrigue after all these years. I would look out my hotel window onto Taksim Square at all hours of the night and see thousands of people walking about. In Istanbul, it seems, there’s no time for sleeping. Makes sense because there’s so much to see and do there.

Traditional ruler arrives for a meeting in Accra accompanied by courtiers.

Traditional ruler arrives for a meeting in Accra accompanied by courtiers.

3. ACCRA My second visit, even stayed at the same hotel (though now under new management). In Accra, the Africa of my high school and college text books came alive on this visit. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked out the hotel window to see a traditional ruler arriving for a meeting draped in gold and wearing an intricately woven Kente robe. A courtier held a large umbrella over his head. The scene repeated itself as other leaders arrived. Glad I wasn’t dreaming. Great history. Great culture. Great people.

2. GENEVA My first visit. The weather was a bit cold but perfect. Strolling along Lake Geneva, wandering through art shops in the Old Town, stopping for coffee at an outside shop and sipping it beneath a warm blanket on the square helped to make my stay exceptional.

The beauty that is Cape Town. Table Mountain in the backgroud.

The beauty that is Cape Town. Table Mountain in the backgroud.

1. CAPE TOWN My second visit to Cape Town but no less mesmerizing than the first. It’s a city that continues to burst with possibilities. And it seems to have it all: incredible beauty, friendly people and great food. Stroll along the waterfront, take the cableway to Table Mountain, tour one of the myriad wineries or go dancing in one of its hip nightclubs and you’ll see why this enchanting city scored as the World Dispatch Top Visited City of 2014.

PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, AFRICA’S CENTURY, TORONTO FORUM, HOME

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[Photo: Cranes dot the Toronto skyline. The boom continues.]
TORONTO — The Toronto Global Forum closing dinner ended moments after President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney began to duke it out in their first presidential debate.
Eager to watch as much of the debate as possible, I was among the first to exit the dinner. Outside, I hopped into the sedan that awaited Mamadou Kone, the Ivory Coast’s secretary of Reconstruction and Rehabilitation.
I’m glad I did because it led to a fascinating discussion about Africa with someone who’s passionate about the continent. “This is Africa’s century,” he told me as I settled in. Several countries in Africa have growth rates double or even triple the rates of some countries in Europe, he said, adding that not many people know about the economic miracle that’s playing out throughout Africa. I’ve been following Africa for more than two decades and I agree with him. I’ve seldom seen the kind of optimism among Africans about the future than I’m seeing now.
We pulled up at the Intercontinental with plenty of debate time on the clock.
After three days here, some observations from the Toronto Global Forum:
Europe. There was a lot of discussion about the Euro crisis. The consensus, however, is that the EU will survive. But it will be a long time before the continent returns to robust growth. Former Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said Euro growth will hover around 1.5 percent for at least the next five years.
U.S. Debt. It was called a ticking time bomb that has to be addressed.

IN CHINA, CONSUMPTION SLOWS

China. The economic slowdown there is real as labor costs rise, Europe and the U.S. economic slowdown reverberate there and Chinese citizens reduce consumption. It’s an issue worth watching.
Brazil. The country is well poised to benefit from the upcoming Olympics and World Cup. One study showed that countries that invest well in facilities can see foreign investments and tourism increases for years after the games. The games are coming at a good time fornBrazil; it had begun to show some signs of slowing.
Canada. The dollar is high, employment is down and cranes can be seen downtown. (An image that the U.S. recession has forced out of many U.S. cities.) Lots of optimism here about the future.
U.S. Elections. The outcome will impact the economy. Policy makers are not expecting critical issues, such as impending budget cuts, to get much attention. But the election will not clear up all the uncertainties because the major issues are not being addressed in the campaign. Still, the feeling was that there will not be a second dip to this Great Recession.
Jim Baker. The former Secretary of State gave a strong luncheon speech. He said nations “need to do whatever it takes” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and called for the U.S. to negotiate a free-trade area of the Americas.
After stops in Madrid, Casablanca, Rabat, London, New York and Toronto, I’m thrilled to be back in Miami and home.
[Photos: James Baker speaks at Forum luncheon, TV shows presidential debate at local bar, Miami from the air.]

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