Madison, Connecticut

Photo: Madison Beach Hotel

Photo: Madison Beach Hotel

A long weekend, the holiday, and the true beginning of summer are finally here. What are your plans for the Fourth of July? Grilling hot dogs, hamburgers, and corn on the cob? Building sand castles and splashing in the waves at the beach? Or watching a parade roll down Main Street or fireworks light up the sky? All your outdoor activities will be more fun if someone else is taking care of the prep work.

The Madison Beach Hotel can handle everything. The small, beachfront hotel sits along the central Connecticut coast overlooking Long Island Sound. Madison’s town green, boutiques, and art galleries are just a short walk away. A farmer’s market is set up on Friday afternoon, so you can stock up on artisan cheese, freshly cut flowers, and ripe berries for the weekend. Hammonasset Beach State Park, the longest public beach in the Constitution State, juts out into the sound. While preparations for this weekend’s fireworks, parade, and Concert on the Green are currently being finalized.

The small hotel—with its gray walls, white shutters, and wicker patio furniture—fits in perfectly with its surroundings. Quickly check out your king room when you arrive. Soaking tub—check. Fireplace—check. Balcony overlooking the water—check. By the time you finish your checklist, you’ve changed into your swim trunks, dug the sunscreen out of your bag, and grabbed the book that’s been sitting on your nightstand for months. West Wharf Beach is loudly calling your name.

Photo: Madison Beach Hotel

Photo: Madison Beach Hotel

Follow the sandy path through the blocked-off sand dunes down to the beach. The golden sand is already hot when you kick off your flip-flops. Little pebbles and crushed shells form a barrier between the dry and wet sand. Rock formations, which look like slate, sit toward the left. A seagull stands guard atop them. While an old fishing pier, once used to build ships, is farther down the beach.

Within a few minutes, a beach attendant has set up two wooden sun loungers and towels under a wide umbrella. Two beers are on their way, as well. Slather yourself with suntan lotion. Say hello to a friendly golden retriever, who comes bouncing off his owner’s ground-floor veranda. Read an entire chapter of that book. Float in the water until a surprisingly big wave crashes over your head. Then, after drooling while the couple next to you eat lunch, order a New England lobster roll on a buttered brioche bun.

Throughout the rest of the long weekend, you plan to eat littleneck clams, New England clam chowder, diver scallops, and maybe another lobster roll or two. You want to do cat, cow, and other silly animal poses during morning yoga on the sand; pull one of the colorful kayaks into the water; and eat gooey s’mores on the beach. You hope to sit on your balcony, share a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and watch the fireworks spray across the sky in the distance. But one thing is certain: you’ll get to relax the entire weekend. No prep, clean up, or headaches will interfere with your plans—or those lobster rolls.

Kamaran Island, Yemen

Photo: onkwma.buzznet.com

Photo: onkwma.buzznet.com

In a perfect world, you’d be able to hop on a plane and see any part of the world you wished. You could travel around Middle Eastern countries—and see their ancient historical sites—the way some people jump around Europe. You could explore Yemen, a country currently controlled by protesters, rebels, and possible terrorists. You could visit the islands in the Red Sea that are off-limits due to pirates and smugglers. And you could see the two moons on Kamaran Island. But, unfortunately, you can’t.

Kamaran Island sits one kilometer off Yemen’s west coast in the Red Sea. The Portuguese used it as an outpost to control the waterway between Africa and Asia in the 16th century. The Ottomans established a quarantine station here in the 19th century. The Idrisi Army seized control of it in 1915 during World War I. They later handed control over to the British Aden Province. The shelf island, surrounded by coral reefs on three sides, is now the largest of the Yemen-controlled islands.

The 42-square-mile island is flat, very flat. It’s few hills sit near the southern cape. Jabal Yaman, the highest point, is less than 80-feet high. Dust storms and high humidity make the interior practically unbearable. The coasts are much more appealing, though. Turquoise water laps against the desert island. Three pearl-fishing villages sit on the west coast. Flamingos and pelicans peck at empty oyster shells. Windswept beaches are vast and empty. Plus schools of groupers, sea turtles, sharks, and dolphins swim among the vibrant coral reef.

But back to those two moons. For two weeks each month, it looks like there are two moons, or a double reflection, from the island’s northern coast. It’s actually the moon on one side of the peninsula and the sun on the other. Regardless, it’s a breathtaking phenomenon. Or at least you’ve heard. Hopefully, one day, you’ll have the chance to see them yourself.

Norman Island, British Virgin Islands

Photo: Matt & Nayoung [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Matt & Nayoung [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Are you ready to search for buried treasure? Yes, real buried treasure. Pirates stashed silver coins, jewelry, and who knows what else in Norman Island’s deep caves many centuries ago. Some of it was supposedly found quickly, though no one was foolish enough to broadcast their good fortune. Numerous boats wrecked attempting to find the loot. But some of it must still be there. Finders keepers, right?

Norman Island is the southernmost island in the British Virgin Islands archipelago. The uninhabited island, save for some wild goats, was named after a pirate in the early 18th century. Shipwrecks, hidden bays, and those caves surround the now privately owned island. It’s even the reputed inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Ride a ferry south from Hannah Bay on Tortola to Norman Island. Rocky cliffs surround the entrance to Bight Bay, a large, protected harbor filled with bobbing sailboats on the west coast. Dock at Pirates Bight, a beachfront restaurant that’s more like a day resort. Since the staff is just starting to open the dive shop, set up the bar, and pull out the sun loungers, you follow the trail behind the open-air restaurant. It winds up the hillside and around prickly cacti. Goats bleat in the distance. While you have a view of Benures Bay, Soldier Bay, Peter Island, the turquoise water all to yourself.

Photo: Piratesbight.com

Photo: Piratesbight.com

Back at Pirates Bight, rock in a hammock hung in between two droopy trees, walk along the still-quiet beach, and play Jenga with giant blocks. Order a cocktail once the Jimmy Buffett music starts playing. The Pirates Punch, the Dark and Stormy, and the Tropical Storm are each filled with dark rum. Then munch on conch fritters and tuna tartare from a couch on the sandy floored bar.

It’s starting to get hot and sticky by the time you finish lunch. Join a group heading to the caves in a dinghy. Snorkel among oddly shaped coral, squid-like cuttlefish, and a few huge barracudas. Avoid the poisonous pufferfish to your right. Follow the glow of a flashlight into the caves, which become narrower and darker the farther you go. More coral is growing along the sides of the cliffs. And keep an eye out for that treasure.

Everyone is in a great mood after exploring the caves. Head back to the Bight for a celebratory drink and a perfect spot to the watch the sun set. Instead of returning to the beach though, climb aboard the Willy-T. The 100-foot schooner was once a Baltic trading vessel. It’s now a bar anchored in the harbor. People jump off the deck and splash into the water below. Zeus, the bartender, serves Zeus Juice, another strong rum drink. Jumbo prawns, baby back ribs, and fish and chips smell delicious as they emerge from the kitchen. Loud music, this time Bob Marley tunes, has people singing and swaying their sunburnt arms. While the setting sun promises another perfect beach day tomorrow. You may not have found the buried loot, but you certainly found a treasure.

Nesjavellir, Iceland

Photo: ION Luxury Adventure Hotel

Photo: ION Luxury Adventure Hotel

The Golden Circle is a must-visit in Iceland. Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss, and Geysir—really Strokkur—are three of the most-spectacular sites in the country. Since they’re right outside of Reykjavik, they’re easy to see during a day trip. But instead of rushing around the 300-kilometer loop, you should ditch the tour group and spend at least one night at new design hotel in the area.

The ION Luxury Adventure Hotel is a striking hotel. It juts out of Hengill—an active volcano. Moss-covered lava fields surround the pillars of the glass, steel, and concrete building. While Thingvellir, where Iceland first established its Parliament, is in the distance.

After spending the day in the Golden Circle, not rushing like so many others seem to be doing, you can’t control your curiosity any longer. It’s time to check out the hotel. Floor-to-ceiling windows are absolutely everywhere. A huge photographic mural, salvaged driftwood, and a sheepskin throw are set up in your bedroom. The bath products are made with Icelandic herbs. Silfra Restaurant focuses on the view and the food, of course, instead of the decor. The Northern Lights Bar stocks new Icelandic beers and spirits. Plus the Lava Spa has a gas fireplace, leather throw pillows, and a long hot tub that runs toward the mountains.

Photo: ION Luxury Adventure Hotel

Photo: ION Luxury Adventure Hotel

Since the sun won’t set until midnight right now, there’s no hurry to do everything before it gets dark. Sit in the sauna and then move outside to the hot tub. Between the volcanic rocks and the barren landscape, you feel like you’re on the moon. Sip an Einstök Toasted Porter, made just south of the Arctic Circle, at the bar. Then settle in for a feast at Silfra. Snack on traditional smoked trout with crème fraîche. Try glazed cod cheeks and a braised lamb shank. But discover that your favorite course is dessert: Skyr mousse with birch-scented sorbet.

The next morning, choose your activity based on your favorite element: earth, fire, ice, or water. Go horseback riding (earth) along a black-sand beach. Ride a methane-powered Super Jeep to Hekla (fire), the volcano once believed to be the entrance to hell. Hike into an ice cave at the Langjökull glacier (ice). Or go whitewater rafting (water) on the Hvítá River. There will be no lines, tour buses, or selfie sticks whatever you decide to do. Those are all back on the three Golden Circle sites that everyone is trying to fit into one afternoon.

Nuwakot, Nepal

Photo: The Rural Heritage

Photo: The Rural Heritage

Last April, an earthquake rocked Nepal. Nearly 9,000 people died. An avalanche destabilized Mount Everest. Historical sites, temples, and entire villages were flattened. While aftershocks continued for weeks. Your thoughts have been returning to Nuwakot ever since.

You visited Nuwakot (Nine Forts) during your last visit to Nepal. The “city of nine hills,” southeast of Trishuli Bazar, is an undiscovered gem. It was the capital of Nepal for a few years in the late-18th century. A fortress and numerous temples surround Durbar Square. Small farms, a meandering river, terraced hillsides, and snow-capped peaks are beyond them. Plus an old manor house—and two nearby cottages—were converted into a lodge for travelers looking to add a traditional element to their trip.

That lodge, the Famous Farm, sits at the end of a long winding road. It overlooks the village’s terra-cotta roofs, the green valley, and the Langtang Himal mountain range. The manor house has carved furniture and an open kitchen. Wooden beams, low doorways, and traditional fabrics fill the bedrooms in the cottages. All three buildings surround a courtyard that has plenty of nooks in which to relax. Add organic crops, flowering vines, and baby goats for a picture-perfect setting.

Photo: The Rural Heritage

Photo: The Rural Heritage

It was easy—and necessary—to decompress at the Famous Farm after landing in hectic Kathmandu. The first few days, you didn’t wander very far. You sipped coffee in a rocking chair and watched the fog rise from the floor of the valley. You visited the farm animals, hung out in the kitchen, and sat by the fireplace on the terrace. You ate healthy meals in the courtyard and listened to other travelers’ stories and suggestions by flickering lanterns late into the night.

You walked into Nuwakot to find a city lost in time. You explored the Saat Tale Durbar, the fortress where the Shah lived and, eventually, died. You saw the beautiful carved gates at the Taleju Temple, the golden roof of the Bhairab Temple, and the breathtaking view from the Kalika Temple. Then you started hiking by alpine lakes, Buddhist monasteries, and playful gray langur monkeys in Langtang National Park.

Much has changed in Nuwakot since your trip. Families are now displaced and grieving. Rubble lines and, in some cases, blocks the roads. Though the manor house was damaged, the Famous Farm is still receiving guests, just fewer of them. And as you watch the news about Nepal’s recovery, you still dream about going back. Make that a promise.

Chirongui, Mayotte

Photo: Le Jardin Maoré

Photo: Le Jardin Maoré

Do your favorite islands tend to be the French ones? You head to Guadeloupe for rich French cuisine. You travel to Martinique for bottles of wine rarely seen outside of Europe. Plus you fly to Réunion for remote, gorgeous resorts. But you seem to have overlooked one. It’s time to explore Mayotte.

Mayotte is in the Mozambique Channel off the coast of Southeast Africa. Geographically, the archipelago—which includes Grande-Terre, Petite-Terre, and many small islets—is part of the Comoro Islands. But when the neighboring islands voted for independence in 1974, Mayotte chose to remain part of France. Somehow, the French have managed to keep this seahorse-shaped island under the radar ever since.

You arrive on Grande-Terre, the oldest of the Comoro Islands. The volcanic island has rich soil and many protected forest reserves. Huge baobab trees dot the coastline. A double barrier reef encircles the island. You enter the South Ridge Forest Reserve as you head south toward Chirongui. Mangroves line the Baie of Bouéni. Madagascar pond herons, Mayotte drongos, and endangered Robert Mertens’ day geckos live among the shrubs and the mudflats. Ngouja Beach, perhaps the most-beautiful beach on the island, has golden sand and calm, turquoise water. While a little ecolodge is hidden in the gardens just steps from the sand.

Photo: Le Jardin Maoré

Photo: Le Jardin Maoré

Le Jardin Maoré is tucked in between giant bamboo, mango and lemon trees, and frangipani and ylang-ylang blossoms. Lemurs and flying foxes live in the trees. The rustic bungalows—with names like hibiscus and vanilla—are made of braided coconut, bamboo, stone, and mud. Sea turtles feed in the sea grass at high tide and slowly move up the beach to lay their eggs at night. Coconut crabs also come out once the sun goes down. Plus sleeper sharks, manta rays, and schools of barracudas move through the reef just beyond the bay.

After checking out your bungalow, with its exotic wood furniture made of movingui, you’re anxious to start exploring. Feed bananas to the friendly lemurs. Pull a sea kayak—they’re sitting next to a pirogue on the beach—into the water to paddle around the bay. Ride a boat to the Maoré Garden to scuba dive among the graceful sea turtles. Hike Mont Choungui, the island’s second-highest peak, for panoramic views of the southern half of Grande-Terre and the vast Indian Ocean. Then return to Le Jardin Maoré for a spectacular sunset from under the restaurant’s bamboo pergola. Dancers from Kani-Keli (a traditional village), fresh seafood prepared with proper techniques, and wine from a remote part of France will follow shortly.

You found a gorgeous ecolodge, delicious food, and perfectly paired wine off the southeast coast of Africa. Your love affair with the French islands continues.

Tromsø, Norway

Photo: The Municipality of Tromso from Tromsø, Norway (Tromsø sentrum  Uploaded by Arsenikk) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: The Municipality of Tromso from Tromsø, Norway (Tromsø sentrum Uploaded by Arsenikk) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Do not fall asleep on this flight. This morning, you may have been at the airport before you’re usually awake, but now is not the time for a nap. The sky is bright blue, the sun is intense, and your forehead is pressed against the airplane window as you fly above the Arctic Circle. Snow-capped fjords and sparkling water are below you. The pilot just announced your descent into Tromsø. And that’s just the beginning.

Tromsø is the largest city in Northern Norway. It sits 350 kilometers above the Arctic Circle and spreads across two islands—Tromsøya and Kvaløya—and onto the mainland. The area has been inhabited since the ice age, and the Norse and Sami people thrived here during the Middle Ages. The city was eventually established in 1794, when Norway was part of Denmark. The Norwegian government even moved here when Germany invaded the country in 1940. But it was only after the airport opened in 1964 that Tromsø started to become a tourist destination. Nature lovers and adventure-sport enthusiasts have been flocking to the “capital of the Arctic” ever since.

As soon as you heard “above the Arctic Circle,” you envisioned a cold, unwelcoming place. Tromsø is neither of those things. Due to the Gulf Stream, the city is warmer than most places that are located on the same latitude; temperatures are in the low 60s right now. Most of the snow has melted. While the midnight sun, when the sun never sets, lasts until the end of July. Add music and film festivals, late-night marathons, and stunning views for a surprisingly cosmopolitan little city.

Photo: Active Tromsø

Photo: Active Tromsø

Start by exploring the center of Tromsø. See the old wooden buildings. The oldest wooden house dates back to 1789, and the Tromsø Cathedral—Norway’s only wooden cathedral—was built in 1861. Wander through Polaria, an aquarium in a striking building, to see bearded seals. Learn about Arctic expeditions at the Polar Museum, located in an old warehouse along the waterfront. Walk through the world’s northernmost botanical gardens at the Tromsø Museum. Take photos of the ski jump, where the Olympics Games could one day be held. Cross the Tromsø Bridge to see the modern Arctic Cathedral. Then ride the cable car to the top of Mount Storsteinen for a panoramic view of the Lyngen Alps, the deep fjords, the little islands, the busy harbor, and the still-sparkling water.

In most cities, your day would be nearly over by now. Sip a Mack beer as you decide what to do tomorrow, return to your hotel for a quick shower, and find a seafood restaurant for dinner along the waterfront. But instead of heading to bed, you then join Active Tromsø for a midnight sun kayaking trip.

Wiggle into a protective suit, complete with booties and gloves, that will save your life if you fall into the frigid water. Get the feel for the sea kayak, which is longer and narrower than the kayaks you’ve used on lakes. Paddle around fjords, mountains, and small waterfront villages. Look for eagles in the sky and whales in the water. And stop at a golden-sand beach for a break and a hot drink. Despite waking up incredibly early this morning, you’re still full of energy out in the kayak. The sun isn’t the only thing that refuses to settle down above the Arctic Circle right now.