Nan Madol, Micronesia

Photo: Tara Sturm, Nan-Madol.com

Photo: Tara Sturm, Nan-Madol.com

Welcome to one of the most-mysterious places in the world. You’re standing among the ruins of a 1,000-year-old city in Micronesia. It was built atop 92 artificial islets made of stone and coral. Canals linked them together. Huge sea walls were created out of giant basalt pillars. Temples, tombs, and bathhouses filled the interior. It’s now a wildly overgrown and completely deserted archaeological site.

Nan Madol is often compared to Easter Island or the walled cities built by the Mayans and the Aztecs in Central America. The city’s construction began around the 8th century and continued for hundreds of years. The Saudeleur Dynasty ruled the island of Pohnpei from this magical spot until 1628, when they were overthrown by Isokelekel. It was mysteriously abandoned soon after.

After landing in Kolonia, the current capital of Pohnpei, you boarded a small boat close to high tide. You passed smaller islands, a wide lagoon, and a long reef as you headed southeast. Fishing sea birds dove into the water ahead of you. While the mangroves grew denser once you started maneuvering toward the narrow canals that gave Nan Madol its nickname of the “Venice of the Pacific.”

Now you’re exploring the ruined city. You pass through the high basalt walls. No one has determined how the heavy stones were transported to this side of the island. Nan Dowas, the largest islet, was the burial spot for chiefs. Canoes were made on Dapahu. Coconut oil was prepared on Peinering. While Usenamw was the kitchen. There was no fresh water on the islets. It was brought in with food grown on the rest of the island. Seafood was abundant, though.

More than 1,000 people supposedly lived in this grand city. It’s now home to colorful geckos, bats, and sea turtles. Trees grow between the rocks covered with moss. They’re tangled with bright green vines. And most of the time, it’s at least sprinkling, since Pohnpei is one of the wettest places on Earth. So move carefully but quickly through Nan Madol. When the tide starts to go out, the islets become inaccessible. No wonder they remain so mysterious.

Irish Town, Jamaica

Photo: Strawberry Hill

Photo: Strawberry Hill

Jamaica is one of your favorite islands in the Caribbean. Or so you claim. You’ve been to all-inclusive resorts outside of Montego Bay and Seven Mile Beach and Rick’s Cafe in Negril. But those tourist-filled spots are only a small portion of the “Land of Wood and Water.” To really get to know the island, you need to head into the mountains.

After landing in Kingston, spend the day exploring the historic downtown, listening to reggae music around Emancipation Park, and eating spicy jerk chicken—washed down with a Red Stripe Beer, of course. Then, when the afternoon traffic and the heat become unbearable, head north into St. Andrew Parish and the Blue Mountains. The island’s longest mountain range is home to its highest point. You can see both the north and south coasts, along with Cuba on a clear day, from Blue Mountain Peak.

There are supposedly 365 bends on the winding road up the mountain. You certainly don’t doubt it—and you’re glad you weren’t driving—when you finally reach Irish Town. It’s surrounded by thick greenery and fruit trees. The driveway you turn onto is lined with juniper. The air is cooler and fresher and smells like flowers when you step out of the car. Birds are chirping. Jamaican giant swallowtails flutter through the air. While a plantation-style hotel stands in front of you.

Photo: Strawberry Hill

Photo: Strawberry Hill

That hotel is Strawberry Hill. It’s main building was built in the 18th century for the son of Jamaica’s prime minister. It’s now a quiet hotel where time looks like it stands still. A wraparound veranda has views of the infinity pool with Kingston and the Caribbean Sea in the distance. Winding footpaths lead to cottages nestled into the mountain. While inside your white, wood-framed cottage, you’re welcomed with a four-poster bed, rosemary scented toiletries, and locally made snacks.

By the time you return to the main house, rum punches are being served at the wood-paneled bar. Sip your drink from a hammock and watch dusk fall over the great lawn. Kingston’s lights start to brighten the sky. Candles flicker in the dining room behind you. And your stomach starts to grumble with the smell of grilling crab and fish.

In the morning, watch the blue-hued clouds disperse as you drink Blue Mountain Coffee back on the great lawn. The beans grow up to 5,000 feet above sea level. Hike along the Hope River and cross tiny bridges along the way. Swim in little swimming holes and under strong waterfalls. See a 19th-century British Army base in nearby Newcastle. Learn how the delicious coffee is grown at high elevations at the Creighton Coffee Estate. Then return to the hotel’s spa for a coffee elixir body scrub. Now you can truthfully say Jamaica is your favorite island.

Åre, Sweden

Photo: David Castor (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: David Castor (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s your last ski trip of the year. Most likely. So you’re taking advantage of the packed powder and the bright sunshine. You started the day on the easy Duved slopes, where the covered chairlift protected you from the chilly morning wind. You moved on to the gladed trails at Tegefjäll and stopped for a warm drink and pizza at Restaurant Tegetornet. Then you spent the afternoon on the steeper slopes of Åre By, near the half-pipe and the freestyle park. You might even return for night skiing later tonight. But first, you’re going to relax at your hotel.

Lucky for you, you can ski right into your hotel. The Copperhill Mountain Lodge sits atop Förberget Mountain. As you ski toward the design hotel, you start to see the stone-and-wood building through the droopy pine trees. A ski platter lift, two excited huskies (the hotel is dog friendly), and large sculptures are outside. Two glowing women are near the helipad, while a lonely bronze girl stands near the entrance. You go directly to the ski room, where you stash your skis and put your boots in a heated holder. They’ll be warm and toasty when you go back out tonight.

The Copperhill Mountain Lodge, which was designed by an American architect, is gorgeous. The massive lobby is filled with metal, North Swedish pine beams, and huge stone fireplaces. Your frozen extremities won’t take long to warm up here. Every window has a view, whether it’s of Åreskutan mountain, Åresjön lake, or the snow-covered forest. While your warmly colored room—with its heated bathroom floor, thick bathrobes, and even thicker comforter—is ready for you to relax. 

Photo: Copperhill Mountain Lodge

Photo: Copperhill Mountain Lodge

This perfect setting is in central Sweden near the Norwegian border. The Vikings and the Sami people lived in the foothills of these mountains more than 1,000 years ago, before the area became known for its copper mines in the 18th century. Then Scandinavian nobility started vacationing here in the 19th century. Today Åre is considered Northern Europe’s best and largest ski area.

Change out of your ski clothes and go down to the spa. Stare at the panoramic view from the indoor pool or jump into the outdoor hot tub while you wait for your appointment. The treatment rooms look like kators (traditional Sami dwellings). Yours is filled with soft music, flickering candles, and reindeer skins when you enter for your massage. Plus, the mountain juniper massage oil might be your new-favorite scent.

Follow your massage with a cocktail at the Fireside lounge. Between the soft armchair and the smell of bourbon-marinated ribs, you’re tempted to stay put for dinner, even though you already have a reservation for a three-course dinner at Niesti. Either way, you’re excited to return to the slopes after an early meal. You have to take advantage of the last runs of the season.

Palimé, Togo

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

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

What’s your favorite hike in Africa? Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in the world? Table Mountain, overlooking Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula? Or Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon on the continent? If you’ve already knocked these iconic treks off your list, it’s time to start tackling the spots that aren’t as well known.

You’re heading to Togo, one of the smallest countries in Africa. It sits in between Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, and the Atlantic Ocean. The West African nation is lush, tropical, and home to beautiful scenery. Most visitors stick to Lomé, the little capital, and the palm-lined Gulf of Guinea. But you’re heading 120 kilometers north to Palimé in the Plateaux Region.

Palimé sits in the forested hills near the Ghanaian border. The steeple of the red-and-white Palimé Cathedral can be seen throughout the small city. Weavers work alongside the dusty roads. The kente cloths are later sold at the market, along with avocados and citrus, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Cocoa plantations surround Palimé. While Mount Agou (Togo’s highest peak) and Lake Volta (Africa’s largest reservoir) are in the distance.

It’s Mount Agou, in the Atakora Mountains, that you’ve come to hike. It’s not a hard or long trek by any means—you can reach the peak within a few hours—but it’s gorgeous. Pass tiny hillside villages as you begin walking up the sloped path. Friendly people wave and ask if you’re climbing Baumann Peak. The mountain was originally named after an Austrian-African explorer. Hike into the forest, where butterflies seem to guide the way. Hear a waterfall up ahead and stop to watch the water cascade down the layers of rocks. Pass caves filled with bats. And make it to the peak, where an antenna and a communications post took over an old German hospital.

After you take a sip of water and put on another layer—it’s much cooler up here—you finally look at the view. It’s green as far as the eye can see. You see shades of chartreuse, emerald, olive, and lime. They’re disrupted only by small clusters of brown roofs and other mountains. This may not rank as one of your most-strenuous hikes, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.

Lindos, Greece

Photo: Lindos Blu Rhodes Luxury Hotel & Suites

Photo: Lindos Blu Rhodes Luxury Hotel & Suites

It’s time for your annual trip to Greece. You go every spring, before all the European tourists arrive for their extended summer vacations. Each time, you choose a different island and spend the week exploring the historical sites, lounging on the beaches, and eating at the little tavernas. But last year, you fell in love with a beautiful spot in the Dodecanese. So for the first time, you’re not picking a new place. You’re returning to Lindos.

Lindos is a medieval village on the east coast of Rhodes. It sits 50 kilometers south of the island’s largest city, also named Rhodes, and faces the tiny fishing village of Haraki. The village was an ancient city-state and major maritime power. The ruins of a strong-walled Acropolis sit on a hill above Lindos. An ancient amphitheater, Byzantine churches, old captain’s houses, whitewashed homes, and cobbled lanes tumble down the hill to a turquoise bay. While a gorgeous resort sits just outside of the village.

That resort is Lindos Blu, an adults-only resort facing the Vlicha Gulf. It’s quiet, isolated, and stunning. The pools, the restaurants, the gym, and, of course, your room have panoramic views. They were hard to see when you arrived late last night, since clouds covered the stars and the half-moon. But when the light woke you up early this morning, you pulled back the curtains and pushed the glass door open to greet the sunshine.

Photo: Lindos Blu Rhodes Luxury Hotel & Suites

Photo: Lindos Blu Rhodes Luxury Hotel & Suites

From your terrace—and your jacuzzi and your bathtub—you have a perfect view of the sparkling water and the rocky coastline. A few sailboats bob in the harbor. A smaller fishing boat leaves ripples as it moves through the water. But it’s still quiet. No one is swimming in the pool or claiming a sun lounger yet. At least in front of the resort. The cruise ship passengers have already descended upon Lindos.

While tourists take over Lindos, enjoy the resort. Sit in your jacuzzi until it’s time for breakfast. Walk along the beach down the hill from the hotel. The water is still a bit chilly this time of year. Soak up the sun from the edge of the infinity pool. Eat a light lunch at Allegro Pool Bar. Sip a gin cocktail—you are on vacation now—back in your sun lounger. Then head into town once the tourists depart in the early afternoon.

Start by visiting more beaches. Main Beach is lined with white umbrellas, and St. Paul’s Beach is in a sheltered cove. Walk out to the tomb of Kleoboulous at the edge of the bay. Cool off in the Church of the Assumption. Wander through the narrow lanes and the little shops. Ride a donkey up the hill to the Acropolis; the views from the fortification are breathtaking as the sun starts to set. And pick one of those little tavernas, preferably one with outside seats and a view of the Acropolis, for drinks and a seafood dinner. You’re starting to feel right at home in Lindos.

Grytviken, South Georgia Island

Photo: Lexaxis7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Lexaxis7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After spending days at sea, you’re getting antsy. Between the rough swells, the bone-chilling wind, and the consistently gray horizon, you quickly realized you weren’t cut out for life on the water. But a few minutes ago, someone spotted land in the distance. Not a chunk of floating ice or an enormous whale breaching, but actual land. As the ship moves closer, you start to see mountains and glaciers. Dark mounds on the ground are actually big seals and penguins. While gulls and terns start circling overhead. You finally made it. Made it where, though?

You’re on South Georgia Island. The remote island is a British Overseas Territory, along with the South Sandwich Islands, in the southern Atlantic Ocean. They’re more than 1,300 kilometers from the already remote Falkland Islands and more than 2,000 kilometers from South America, where you originally departed from Uruguay. The islands have no native population. Only government officials and scientists live here. People-wise, at least. Birds, seals, penguins, fish, and whales thrive on and around the rugged islands. Especially since a ship is the only way to visit them.

After stopping in Right Whale Bay—where earless elephant seals, sea lion-like fur seals, and a king penguin colony live—the ship finally drops its anchor in sheltered King Edward Cove. Grytviken, a small settlement on one of the island’s few flat areas, sits along the cove. It was first established as a whaling station. It’s now home to a rare fresh-water supply. The South Georgia Museum provides details about the island’s history, the Falklands War, and the sealing industry. A little library is found in the black-steepled Whalers Church. While polar explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s grave is outside in the cemetery.

Photo: nomis-simon (20090109-IMG_0490.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: nomis-simon (20090109-IMG_0490.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But you aren’t really here to explore buildings and learn about history. You’re here to see the animals. Ride a smaller boat to Willis Island, off the main island’s northwestern tip. The rocky island is where yellow-crested macaroni penguins and lots of albatrosses—black-browed, grey-headed, and light-mantled sooty—live. Scan Bird Island for giant petrels as you pass, since no tourists are allowed to visit the island. See thousands of penguins. Long-tailed gentoo penguins live around the small harbor of Elsehul, and a king penguin rookery is on Salisbury Plain. Don’t miss the small rookery of Weddell seals, which live among the gorgeous scenery at Drygalski Fjord. And keep an eye out for reindeer—they were introduced to the island for hunting—in the distance.

Eventually, hike part of Mount Paget, the highest peak in the Allardyce Range. From high above the island, you have a panoramic view of the glaciers, the calm bays, the anchored ships, and the endless ocean. Listen to the waves crash, the ice break, and the birds screech. Plus, breathe in the salty air and the faint, unpleasant stench of an island covered with penguins and seals. South Georgia Island was well worth the long trip.

Erts, Andorra

Photo: Hotel Palomé

Photo: Hotel Palomé

Not quite ready to give up on the ski season yet? You shouldn’t. It may be the middle of March, but the mountains are still covered in powder. After a cold, snowy winter, there will be plenty of spring skiing this year. Especially in the Pyrenees, which might remain snowcapped until the beginning of summer. So off to Andorra!

Andorra might be one of the smallest countries in the world, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as a ski destination, since it’s full of mountains. There are 65 mountain peaks, 110 ski lifts, and more than 300 kilometers of downhill trails within its only 181 square miles. Andorra la Vella is the highest capital in Europe. While gondolas link tiny villages to the slopes high above them.

After arriving in Andorra la Vella, drive northwest to La Massana. The parish, which borders Spain, is home to stone churches, thermal baths, and Coma Pedrosa, the highest peak in Andorra. You opt to start on an easier mountain, though. Ride the gondola from the village of La Massana up to Pal. The family friendly mountain offers snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and sleigh rides. But you head right to the forest slalom trails to break in your rental skis. Then, in the afternoon, ride another gondola to nearby Arinsal for the steeper slopes.

Photo: Hotel Palomé

Photo: Hotel Palomé

Fast snow and bright sunshine kept you on the trails all day, but now your legs are exhausted. Follow a vineyard-lined road to the little village of Erts. You’re staying just outside of town at Hotel Palomé. The stone-and-wood hotel sits near the Pollós River, which is already rushing with early melted snow. Enter the design hotel to find an iron staircase, leather couches, and a fire roaring in the hearth. Stash your skis in the ski locker. Check out your mountain-view room, where the steel and the leather are softened with light-wood furniture. Then, after a quick shower, go back downstairs for a glass of Andorran wine—perhaps a Pinot Noir-Syrah blend—at Emo.

Hotel Palomé is just a quick walk, or an even faster drive, from Borda d’Erts, where you’re eating dinner tonight. The traditional stone restaurant serves hearty meats—beef, duck, and lamb—on open grills. Between the fireplaces and the sizzling meats, it’s quite toasty inside. Despite being stuffed, you accept a warm brownie at the end of the meal.

Don’t worry, you’ll quickly work off the huge dinner and the unnecessary dessert tomorrow. You plan to ski at Arcalis, the country’s most-beautiful mountain. From Arcalis’ even steeper slopes, you’ll have a gorgeous view of Andorra’s highest peaks and the narrow valleys in between them. Everything is still covered in white. With all this snow, it certainly doesn’t seem like winter is close to being over.