Lafayette, Louisiana

Photo: Lafayette Travel

Photo: Lafayette Travel

Do your trips to Louisiana begin and end in New Orleans? You probably go down for Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, eat your way through the French Quarter, or wander through the Garden District. The rest of the state remains largely ignored. The Big Easy provides only a taste of Cajun country, though. To really immerse yourself, you need to head west to Lafayette.

Louisiana was first settled by French colonists in the 17th century. Then the Acadian-Creoles arrived in the late 18th century, after being expelled from Eastern Canada by the British. Though French-speaking, their culture—from their music to their food to their folk beliefs—was very different from the original settlers. They founded Vermilionville in southwestern Louisiana in 1821. Though later renamed Lafayette, the city is still considered the center of Cajun culture.

Though only two hours from New Orleans, Lafayette feels different, almost foreign. As you enter the West Gulf Coastal Plain, the air becomes even more humid, the cypress trees get bigger and droopier, and the swamps expand. Stop at Poupart Bakery for warm croissants and crawfish pistolettes. Then spend the day learning about the area’s history. The Alexandre Mouton House was the home of Louisiana’s first democratic governor. It now houses antiques and Mardi Gras costumes from the 19th century. The Acadian Cultural Center offers Cajun-boat bayou tours and a film about the Acadians’ forced migration from Canada. While Vermilionville is a living history museum with a reconstructed blacksmith shop, chapel, and general store. A swamp pop band is setting up as you head out.

After your tours, you’re ready for food and music. Stop at Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe, the company’s last shop in the country, for a “Davis Cone” dipped in chocolate and rolled in sprinkles. Or drive through Daiquiris Supreme for an alcoholic slushy drink; open-container laws are thoroughly disregarded here. Eat a huge Cajun meal—alligator, boudin balls, étouffée, and fried shrimp—at Prejean’s. Then dance off all that unhealthy food at the Blue Moon Saloon. The zydeco music combines blues, R&B, reggae, and even hip hop. The music, like the rest of Lafayette, feels both completely different and completely familiar all at the same time.

San-Pédro, Ivory Coast

Photo: Bellecotedivoire.com

Photo: Bellecotedivoire.com

Decisions, decisions. Do you want to go to the coast or on a safari? Would you prefer the beach or a national park? Is your heart set on seeing unique animals or colorful fish? Each time you travel to Africa, you have to make difficult choices. The continent is too big and hard to navigate to see everything in one trip. At least most of the time. There’s one country where you can visit both the rainforest and the shore on not only the same trip, but even in the same day.

Ivory Coast is a small West African country along the Gulf of Guinea. Despite political turmoil—a coup d’état and two civil wars since its independence from France in 1960—the country is prosperous (thanks to cocoa and coffee) and relatively easy to navigate. While the southwest corner, on the Liberian border, is home to Taï National Park and miles upon miles of sandy beaches.

Taï National Park is one of the last-remaining primary rainforests in West Africa. The 1,350-square-mile reserve was established in 1926. It later became a national park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and eventually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s full of swollen rivers and swampland, dense greenery and colorful flowers, moss and ferns, fruit and fungi. Mont Niénokoué is the highest point. But it’s the animals that lure you to the park.

Photo: Axe (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Axe (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The park is home to five mammals on the red list of endangered species. They include the pygmy hippopotamus, a nocturnal creature that likes to bathe in forest ponds, and chimpanzees, who use stone tools to crack open wild nuts. Eleven primate species, including the vervet monkey and the black-and-white colobus swing between the trees. Leopards, African forest elephants, and lots of duikers roam the humid forest. While more than 250 types of birds have been spotted.

Less than 100 kilometers away, there’s a very different, but equally beautiful, spot. San-Pédro was once a tiny fishing village. It’s now the country’s second-largest port. Yet the golden-sand beaches and the flag-covered fishing boats just outside of the city remain the same. Check into Les Jardins d’Ivoire. The family-run hotel is five minutes outside of town and just two steps from the Atlantic Ocean. Enjoy the freshwater pool, the overflowing flower gardens, and the delicious Italian pastries at Mann Restaurant. Then walk down to the beach, where you watch the waves, the surfers, and the kids playing in the sand. This little corner of Ivory Coast has everything you wanted to see.

Wollamia, Australia

Photo: Paperbark Camp

Photo: Paperbark Camp

As someone who has camped your entire life, you’re used to hearing strange noises outside of your tent. Chipmunks and mice scurrying through the leaves on the ground. Owls hoo-hooing after it gets dark. Tree branches rustling when the wind picks up. Birds chirping, and then singing, as the sun begins to rise. And, eventually, other campers waking up, making breakfast, and packing. But now you hear a new—and startling—noise. It sounds like people are fighting.

After listening to the scuffle for a few minutes, you nervously pull back the flap of your tent to peek through the insect screen. You see slapping, kicking, and tangled limbs. The fighters aren’t who you expect, though. They’re not drunk men stumbling back after a long night or little kids fighting over a toy. They’re kangaroos.

You’re at Paperbark Camp in New South Wales. The Jervis Bay bush retreat is less than three hours from Sydney. Many daytrippers drive south to see the gorgeous beaches in the drowned river valley. Humpback whales rest in the sheltered bay during migration season, while fur seals and little penguins live on the rocky islands just offshore. You opted to stay when you saw not only the deserted beaches and the amazing animals, but also the pristine scuba-diving spots and the national parks filled with hiking trails.

Photo: Paperbark Camp

Photo: Paperbark Camp

The surprises continued when you arrived at the camp. Paperbark Camp’s 12 canvas tents sit between eucalyptus and broad-leaved paperbark trees. Screeching kookaburras and cockatoos fly overhead. Eastern grey kangaroos and possums roam the grounds. While torches light up the paths between the tents and Gunyah, the communal lounge, after dark.

But that’s where Paperbark Camp’s similarities to a regular campsite end. The stilted tents have wraparound decks, polished hardwood floors, and solar-powered lighting. Open-air bathrooms have views of the starry sky and animals heading toward the creek. Sugar gliders float between the trees as you sip a sundowner on Gunyah’s veranda. While three-course gourmet dinners—which might include beetroot carpaccio, confit pork belly, and orange-ginger-carrot sorbet—are served by candlelight.

Now you’re sitting on your tent’s deck, sipping a cup of single-origin coffee. Soon you’ll return to Gunyah for breakfast. Then you might canoe down the creek or ride a bike to the beach. But right now, you’re fascinated by the kangaroos rummaging through the nearby bush. Even if their fighting did wake you up this morning.

Berlenga Grande, Portugal

Photo: Pedro Chagas (tirada por mim) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Pedro Chagas (tirada por mim) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe this was a bad idea. It was supposed to be a quick ferry ride. The island is less than 10 miles off the coast. You could practically see your destination from the shore. But before you even departed, plastic bags were distributed and life vests were pointed out—more than once. Now you know why. The sea is rough. The boat is being tossed between the waves. While everyone around you looks a little green. Thank goodness you’re getting closer and closer to land.

You’re approaching the Berlengas. The archipelago sits in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of central Portugal. The small rocky islands were claimed by everyone from the Romans to the Vikings to pirates before a monastery was established on Berlenga Grande in 1513. The monks didn’t last very long; disease, horrible weather, and those relentless pirates forced them to abandon the island before the end of the century. A fort was eventually constructed on the monastery’s ruins, and a lighthouse was later built nearby.

Today the islands are known as the Berlenga Biosphere Reserve. They’re home to nesting birds, sun-loving lizards, hidden caves, and clear green water. After arriving at the stone dock on Berlenga Grande and steadying yourself once you disembarked, you set off to explore the largest of the six islands. Hike up to the white lighthouse, which locals call the Duke of Branganza. Take in the 360-degree view: the mainland is on one side, while the rough, open Atlantic is on the other. Pass yellow-legged gulls, puffins, and guillemots along the way. Cross a stone-arched bridge and walk around the Fort of the Berlengas. Then hire a small boat to see the grottos, the rock formations, and the sandy beaches around the edge of the island.

Back near the dock, stop at the little restaurant, Mar e Sol, for lunch. Eat caldeirada (seafood stew), nurse a cold drink, soak up the sunshine, and take in the gorgeous view. You’re completely relaxed on this little Portuguese island. The only problem: at some point, you’ll have to board the ferry again.

Pittsboro, North Carolina

Photo: Fearrington House Inn

Photo: Fearrington House Inn

Another bitter-cold weekend is on its way. After way too many weekends in a row like this, you had to expect it. It doesn’t get any easier, though. It’s hard to make plans with friends or go out to dinner, much less run errands, when the temperature dips this low. All you want to do is hibernate.

The Fearrington House Inn is the perfect place to hibernate for a few days. The picturesque inn is located in central North Carolina, easily accessible from Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. The white-columned inn has red-brick pathways, overflowing gardens, and perfectly positioned Adirondack chairs. Rolling pastures, an old silo, and Belted Galloway cows surround it, as the land was once a dairy farm. While cozy bedrooms, a relaxing spa, and one of the best restaurants in the Tar Heel State are inside.

Your first morning at the inn, you stay in bed much longer than you usually do. The king-sized, pillow-top featherbed is that comfortable. Plus, you’re hibernating. Make your way downstairs for breakfast. Snack on warm bread, blackberry preserves, and honey harvested on-site while you wait for your meal. The English breakfast is served with farm-fresh eggs, sausage, mushrooms, and roasted fingerling potatoes. While your cup of Early Grey tea is never empty.

Photo: Fearrington House Restaurant

Photo: Fearrington House Restaurant

As you eat, you go over your options for the day. You could hike the Woods Loop, a four-mile nature trail. You could browse the shops at the Village Center; McIntyre’s Books is a great independent bookstore. Or you could explore Pittsboro’s historic downtown and nearby Chapel Hill. But all of those options involve going outside. Instead, you opt to spend time at the farmhouse-like spa with a Bliss for Two massage followed by afternoon tea in a sun-filled room.

Luckily, you don’t have to leave the inn for dinner either. The acclaimed Fearrington House Restaurant is set in a 1927 Colonial Revival farmhouse. Order a Yadkin Valley Petit Verdot as you look over the farm-to-fork menu. Your four-course dinner begins with a cauliflower and romanesco salad that’s served with whipped brie. Honey-braised parsnip with ginger cake and ash meringue follows. After looking at both the guinea hen and the seared black grouper, you ultimately decided on the venison for your entrée. There’s no question about dessert, though. You’re skipping the sweets for a more savory artisanal cheese plate. It’s served with house-made chutney and, hopefully, more of that honey you had for breakfast.

Returning to your room, you find that the lights have been dimmed and the bedding has been turned down. A small carafe of Rozès port and homemade truffles sit beside the bed. While a note with tomorrow’s weather report was placed on your pillow. You ignore it. There’s no need for a forecast when you’re hibernating.

Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

Photo: Chmee2 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Chmee2 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you plan vacations around UNESCO World Heritages Sites? It’s not a surprise. This list includes some of the most culturally and physically amazing places in the world. Italy, China, and Spain are each home to more than 40 sites—it’d almost be hard not to see one during your visit. But Northern Ireland, a country you’re considering for your next trip, has only one spot on the list. Don’t let that deter you. The single location is well worth the detour.

More than 40,000 basalt columns dot the northeastern coast of Northern Ireland. Giant’s Causeway look like stepping-stones that lead from the foot of a cliff out into the sea until they disappear. Scientists estimate that the mostly hexagonal columns are the result of a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. According to legend, a giant tried to walk across the sea to Scotland without getting his feet wet. Regardless which version you believe, Giant’s Causeway and the surrounding Causeway Coast are stunning.

After driving to County Antrim and parking, a shuttle will take you the last mile toward the sea. Along the way, you see unusual plants like frog orchids and vernal squills. Seabirds consider the protected area a haven. Fulmars, redshanks, and guillemots vastly outnumber people. While the dark lava starts to look like actual columns as you get closer and closer.

Carefully walk out onto the slippery rocks. See the Giant’s Eyes, the Honeycomb, and the Chimney Stacks formations. Small waves crash and spray. See Port-na-Spania, the spot where the 16th-century Spanish Armada Girona crashed against the rocks; its gold and jewels were only recovered in 1967. Walk up the wooden staircase to Benbane Head—the country’s northernmost point—for a breathtaking view of the coast. Then return to see the Giant’s Boot and the Wishing Well. While taking photos, you get soaked by a sudden swell.

Now wet and chilly, you’re ready to leave Giant’s Causeway. Drive three miles to the little town of Bushmills. A tour and a tasting of single malts at Old Bushmills Distillery should warm you up quickly, even if it’s not on the UNESCO list.

Hot Water Beach, New Zealand

Photo: Steve & Jem Copley [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Steve & Jem Copley [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

You’re sitting in a hot tub. Kind of. Like usual, you’re surrounded by bubbles and 147°F water. You have an amazing view with a golden beach, blue water, and impressive surfers on one side. A rocky hillside and a rugged forest are on the other. But one thing is very different this time. Your hot tub is made of sand.

Welcome to Hot Water Beach on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. At this unusual beach, hot springs flow underground and calcium-rich water filters up through the sand. For two hours on either side of high and low tides, the beach becomes a natural (and free) spa. It’s one of the most-popular destinations on the North Island.

You arrived early this morning, a few hours after the 6:00 a.m. low tide. You felt like a kid again as you began digging a big hole in the sand. It quickly filled with very hot water. You filled a bucket with water from the bay (to keep you cool), stripped down to your bathing suit, slowly lowered yourself into your new tub, and waved at your neighbors about to do the same. Time to relax.

Hot Water Beach sits in V-shaped Mercury Bay. The bay, which is filled with big yachts and marlin fishermen, was named by Captain James Cook when he explored the coast of New Zealand in the 18th century. A café, a little store (where you can rent a shovel, if you forget one), and an art gallery overlook the beach. More white-sand beaches and lots of seafood restaurants are nearby. Though right now, everyone is focused on the hot beach.

But you only have a few hours to enjoy this beach. The tide is already starting to creep toward you. High tide is around 12:20 p.m. Soon, waves will start breaking down the walls and diluting the hot water. Rip currents will make the beach unsafe. While your hot tub will eventually disappear. It’s time to go eat green-lipped mussels and smoked fish for lunch. Then you can decide if you’ll return for another soak in the afternoon.