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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FOOD & DIPLOMACY

South Beach Food & Wine

Food & Wine Festival

With the South Beach Food & Wine Festival taking place over the weekend, Miami was a great place to be if you love food. It was also a good place to be if you love diplomacy.  I enjoy the former but much prefer the latter. And it’s even better when you can combine the two. My weekend involved lunching with the former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda on Saturday, driving to Palm Beach on Sunday to interview former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and lunching with Miami’s entire diplomatic corps.

Jorge happened to be in town over the weekend and my friend Beatrice Rangel, the highly regarded international business executive, used the opportunity to bring together a few friends for a lunch on her Miami Beach terrace. The group was a mixture of people from around the Americas — Venezuela to Argentina to Mexico to Trinidad.

LONG WAY FROM RABAT

I last saw Jorge in Rabat last October at the German Marshall Fund’s Atlantic Dialogues. It was a great to catch up with him. We had great conversation about pressing issues in

Jorge Castaneda

Jorge Castaneda

the region and at one point we were passing around cell phones to show pictures of the demonstrations taking place in Venezuela at the time.

A big thanks to Beatrice, one of the first people to take me under her wing when I arrived in Miami a decade ago. It’s good to see her back in town. (Two weeks ago, she was my guest for the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations annual dinner.)

PALM BEACH VISIT

On Sunday, I drove to the Four Seasons in Palm Beach to interview Barak for an upcoming Miami Herald Issues & Ideas newsmaker Q&A. I reminded him that I was in Israel seven years ago when he was first appointed defense minister – after his time as Prime Minister.

With Ehud Barak

With Ehud Barak

We had intended to talk for about 25 minutes but our conversation stretched on for 40. We touched on an array of topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Haiti and Latin America. He was in town to speak at the American Friends of Magen David Adom, which supports MDA, Israel’s national emergency medical response and blood services organization. MDA was among the first outsiders on the ground in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.

CONSULAR CORPS LUNCH

On Monday, I attended the annual American Jewish  Committee’s Consular Corps luncheon. The speaker was Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland. I

Miami Consular Corps

Miami Consular Corps

spent 10 minutes with him before the luncheon to talk about his recent meetings with Pope Francis and the pope’s planned trip to Israel in May. Rabbi Rosen has met the pope five times since he was inaugurated last March. Look for that conversation in the Miami Herald soon.