Uçhisar, Turkey

Photo: Museum Hotel Cappadocia

Photo: Museum Hotel Cappadocia

You arrived in Cappadocia with a laundry list of things to do. You planned to tour the canyons, the Derinkuyu Underground City, the Ihlara Gorge, Pigeon Valley, and the village of Selime. You wanted to visit the Göreme Open-Air Museum, Uçhisar Castle, and the Devrent Valley. You’d see an ancient Roman city and the Keslik Monastery. Plus you’d go horseback riding around the fairy chimneys, explore a local street market, make manti (ravioli with yogurt and garlic sauce) during a cooking class, and taste Narince and Boğazkere at a small winery. That was the plan, at least.

Then you arrived at your hotel. The Museum Hotel in Uçhisar looks good on paper. The hillside hotel promised cave rooms and valley views, like many of the hotels in the region. But it immediately felt different—special—here. The caves and stone houses have been meticulously restored. They’re full of handmade carpets, priceless antiques, and fragile ceramics, but not in a stuffy way. The bathrooms are marble with deep jacuzzis. With different layouts and nooks, no two rooms are alike. The Safir Cave, for example, is unique for its in-wall tap that pours both white and red wine.

The relaxed atmosphere continues outside of your room. The open-air terrace has stone archways, comfy sofas and lounge chairs, and overflowing flower pots. The pool overlooks Avanos and the Love Valley; Mount Erciyes is in the distance. Herbs and vegetables grow in the garden. Grape vines climb the trellises. While peacocks roam the grounds. With a cup of black tea in a tulip-shaped glass, you could enjoy this view for hours.

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

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

You woke up this morning ready to tackle your list. Just a quick breakfast, and you’ll be all set to explore. You eat warm bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes, and eggs on the terrace. You sip more tea, adding just a little bit of honey. You watch the mountains change colors as the sun rises behind them. The lunar-like landscape looks magical.

But suddenly, something is blocking your amazing view. You can barely see the mountains, the pillars, or the valleys anymore. Yellow, red, and blue stripes are rising in the air directly in front of you. A whooshing sound gets louder and louder. Breakfast is forgotten as a basket and then people appear. A hot air balloon.

As the balloon climbs higher and higher, your view reappears. But this time, it’s dotted with hot air balloons. They come in every color imaginable and are decorated with stripes, zig zags, and other crazy patterns. Despite there being dozens, if not hundreds, of them, it’s quiet and serene. You watch the balloons until the last one floats out of sight. Then you start rethinking your list. Your Cappadocia plans just changed.

Berlin, Germany

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

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

November 9th marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concrete barrier was supposed to separate East Germany and West Germany after World War II. In reality, it prevented emigration from the communist Eastern Bloc. Berlin will celebrate the wall’s destruction—and the city’s eventual reunification—with a light installation, wall tours, and the release of white peace balloons. You’ll go for the festivities, but you’ll stay after being enchanted by a neighborhood that looks nothing like it did a quarter-century ago.

Prenzlauer Berg, in northeast Berlin, was built as a tenement-housing neighborhood in the late 19th century. Unlike the rest of the city, few of the area’s buildings were destroyed during World War II. But it was largely neglected under the German Democratic Republic. It’s since been rehabilitated and become one of Berlin’s most popular neighborhoods. It’s full of quirky galleries and independent shops, chic cafés and hip bars, street markets and green parks. Some even call it the Williamsburg of Berlin.

Your first stops are the historic sites. Circular Wasserturm Prenzlauer Berg is Berlin’s oldest water tower. It was used from 1877-1952; today, it’s filled with pricey apartments. Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp was built next door in 1933, though that building was later demolished. A Jewish cemetery and Rykestrasse Synagogue, the largest synagogue in all of Germany, stand nearby. While the high-steepled Gethsemane Church was an important meeting place during the reunification process.

Photo: Abaris at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Abaris at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

From there, it’s just a short walk to Mauerpark, where the “death strip” and part of the Berlin Wall stood. A graffiti-covered section of the wall still remains, but the park is now a joyous place. A flea market is held every Sunday, an amphitheater has become a karaoke destination, and people lounge and play on the grass during the warmer months. Most of the anniversary’s festivities take place here.

Then go to Helmholtzplatz or Kollwitzplatz. Both of the small parks are surrounded by little cafés and are perfect for people watching. Stroll down tree-lined Kastanienallee, a street filled with tiny, fashionable shops. Have a beer and a hot dog under old chestnut trees at the Prater Garten, Berlin’s oldest beer garden. Make plans for dinner, since this neighborhood has every type of food imaginable. Alsatian, African, Vietnamese, and even a new American place are all within a few blocks of each other. Then hop between bars that feature chocolate, table tennis, burlesque, and live music. The options, right in this little borough, are endless. Prenzlauer Berg, like the rest of Berlin, has come a long way in 25 years.

Jabal Akhdar, Oman

Photo: Alila Hotels and Resorts

Photo: Alila Hotels and Resorts

The route from Muscat is long and winding. After passing through the expansive desert, you head into the green mountains. You drive by craggy hills and orchards full of apricots, peaches, and grapes. The air becomes cooler and clearer. Little villages have sun-baked houses and terraced fields. Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in Eastern Arabia, stands in the distance. While a deep gorge and a cliffside hotel appear at the end of a zig-zagging road. You’ve finally reached Alila Jabal Akhdar.

The hotel may look like an old stone fort on the outside, but inside, it’s sleek and modern. You’re welcomed into the lobby with Turkish coffee and a tray of dates. An open fireplace sits in the center of the room, which is decorated with a rose pattern inspired by the region’s famous Damask roses that are used to make Omani rose water.

Your room is even more relaxing, though. It’s filled with earth tones, handmade pottery, and a fluffy bed. A walk-in stone shower, a free-standing stone tub, and juniper-scented soap are in the bathroom. While the balcony has a daybed and a view of the gorge.

Photo: Alila Hotels and Resorts

Photo: Alila Hotels and Resorts

You could sit on your balcony and stare at the view for your entire visit, but there are other amazing views you should see as well. The limestone Jabal Akhdar is part of the Hajar Mountains in northeastern Oman. It’s long been home to the Bani Riyam tribe and was recently named a nature reserve for its unique and fragile biodiversity. You spend the cool mornings hiking along the canyon’s rim, trekking into the gorge, and exploring dark caves. You pass sandy slopes, dry wadis, low shrubs, and wandering goats. Pomegranates and walnuts thrive here. It looks like a desert, but it feels like a Mediterranean climate.

After an exhausting hike, return to the hotel for a late-afternoon spa appointment. The spa smells like frankincense and juniper. Book a lung-cleansing herbal steam and an acupressure herbal compress massage. Then relax by the outdoor heated infinity pool. The canyon’s rocks look like they’re changing color as the sun starts to lower toward the horizon.

The temperature will cool down quickly once it gets dark. The fireplace will be roaring in the lobby. The smell of modern Arabic cuisine—including hummus, baba ghanoush, roasted beets, and curry chicken—will be wafting from Juniper Restaurant. Plus dessert will be served at the Rose Lounge. But first, you’re going back to your room to sit on your balcony. Your daybed is the best seat in the house for sunset over the gorge.

Krynica-Zdrój, Poland

Photo: Czarny Potok Resort & Spa

Photo: Czarny Potok Resort & Spa

Your back is aching. Your muscles are tight. Plus your feet are in desperate need of a pedicure. It must be time for a spa appointment. No. Make that a spa retreat.

Krynica-Zdrój, “the pearl of Polish spas,” sounds like the ideal place to relax. Poland’s largest spa town, located in the Beskid Mountains near the Slovak border, is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Hikers, mountain bikers, and whitewater rafters flooded the area in the summer. An economic summit, dubbed “Eastern Davos,” beckoned financial analysts in September. Skiers, snowboarders, lugers, and ice hockey players will soon descend on the mountain Jaworzyna Krynicka during the winter. But right now, it’s quiet and the perfect time to relax at the spas.

You’re staying at the Czarny Potok Resort & Spa at the foot of the mountain. It’s sleek and modern with lots of glass to let in the warm sunshine. A calming stream runs through the hotel. The comfortable restaurants offer views of the Black Brook Valley. While the spa is ready for your aches and pains. Decompress in the dry herbal sauna or the steam shower. Restore your energy in a brine bath, a mud bath, or a mountain-cooling bath. Sit in the jacuzzi, swim in the pools, or lounge on the heated deck chairs. Then decide which treatments to book over the next few days.

Photo: Czarny Potok Resort & Spa

Photo: Czarny Potok Resort & Spa

When you don’t have a spa appointment, there is still plenty to keep you occupied. Stroll through the riverfront town past old villas, the Nikifor Museum, and wooded hills. Ride the old Góra Parkowa Funicular from Park Zdrojowy for views of the surrounding countryside. For even better views, take the new Mount Jaworzyna Cable Car higher into the mountains and then hike back down along the trails lined with gold and crimson leaves.

Drink a pilsner at Pod Zielona Gorka, an old-fashioned pub with picnic tables. Go rafting down the Poprad river. Feel like a kid again on the ropes course or in the paintball arena. Make friends with an old horse who knows the trails well. Then try local cuisine—including beetroot soup, venison, and raspberry liqueur—at the traditional Restauracja Koncertowa. Just return to Czarny Potok in time for your next spa treatment.

Isla Grande, Colombia

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

The last boat is getting ready to depart. The sunburned day-trippers climb aboard. The captain revs up the engine. Then they head off toward the mainland. But not you. You stand and wave as the wake waves rush to the beach. By the time the boat is out of sight, the water is calm, and you have a big smile on your face. You have an island (practically) to yourself.

You’re on Isla Grande, one of the Islas del Rosario (Rosario Islands) off the coast of Colombia. Most of the 27 islands are uninhabited. All of them are part of the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park, which was established to protect the country’s largest coral reef. The islands are full of white beaches and majagua trees; clear water, schools of fish, and that reef surround them. Since they’re only 45 kilometers southwest of Cartagena, it’s a popular trip for both locals and tourists.

But most people only visit the islands for the day. They arrive around 10 am and depart around 3 pm, leaving you plenty of time to leisurely explore. Swim over colorful angelfish, butterflyfish, and parrotfish as you snorkel in calm lagoons. Dive farther underwater to see sea turtles, octopuses, and barracudas. Go fishing for mackerel and grouper. Canoe around the mangrove-lined island. Hire a guide to take you to Laguna Encantada at night, when bioluminescent sea creatures light up the lagoon. And claim your spot on the fine, white sand to relax when the boats start to arrive.

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

You can also relax in your beachfront room at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua. The hotel’s name combines the home’s original owner (a French painter in the 1950s) with the majestic trees that surround it. White walls, natural wood, and decorative wooden oars fill the interior of the stone bungalow. The living space extends outside with built-in couches with bright, aqua cushions and a hammock. The salty sea breeze keeps you cool. The sound of the waves keeps you calm. While the endless Caribbean Sea keeps you mesmerized.

The rest of the hotel is just as open and relaxing. The spa and the dining room are both open air. The breeze, the waves, and the view are never far away. Colombian coffee and tropical fruit are served for breakfast. A picnic lunch can be brought to the garden. Dinner features the catch of the day, possibly snapper, with coconut rice. While the dock is the perfect place to watch for shooting stars . . . especially when you don’t have to share it.

Isfjorden, Svalbard

Photo: Wilson44691 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wilson44691 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s late October, which means everyone is starting to think about the holidays. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and even Christmas are right around the corner. Pretty soon the baking, the shopping, and the decorating will begin. But your mind is on a different type of holiday. You’re thinking about the vacation type. Specifically, where to go after all those other holidays end.

For next year, you’re thinking big. Not anywhere you can drive. Not a quick trip to the Caribbean, though that does sound quite relaxing. Not even a multi-city tour of Europe. You’re thinking about a remote island, the midnight sun, polar bears and reindeer, and a cozy lodge in the middle of nowhere. Svalbard it is.

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world with a permanent population. The unincorporated Norwegian archipelago sits in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between mainland Europe and the North Pole. It was first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries. Coal miners and its first real settlement followed in the 20th century. It’s now an adventure-lover’s paradise, with seven national parks and 23 nature reserves. Glaciers cover 60 percent of the islands. Boats and snowmobiles are the primary modes of transportation; there are no roads between the villages. While polar bear sightings are so common that people carry rifles, just in case.

Photo: Basecamp Spitsbergen

Photo: Basecamp Spitsbergen

So don’t be alarmed when you board a boat in Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, and notice the captain is carrying a gun. You’re also given an immersion suit, to help you stay alive for one hour, should you land in the icy water. Your mind bounces between the two scenarios. Neither sounds like a pleasant way to die. But soon, you’re passing mountains and fjords. The sun reflects off the bright white snow. Northern fulmars swoop into the water and emerge with flopping capelins. Seals pop their heads above the water as they swim. And a whale is crossing the fjord up ahead.

When you finally reach Isfjorden, you’re welcomed with a warm apple drink and a roaring fire in the library. Isfjord Radio was once a radio station that connected Svalbard to the mainland and aided with sea navigation. Satellite communication rendered it unnecessary in the late 1970s. It was recently renovated into a modern hotel. The building looks basic on the outside, but inside you find squishy beds, wool and cashmere blankets, and fleece robes. Gourmet dinners feature local ingredients: cod, whale, and reindeer. While the view includes Isfjorden (Svalbard’s second-longest fjord), Alkhornet (a snow-covered mountain), and Nordre Isfjorden National Park (full of Atlantic puffins, Brünnich’s guillemots, and black-legged kittiwakes). Greenland is in the distance.

You spend the next few days hiking and riding boats through the fjord. You spot walruses, white arctic foxes, and Svalbard reindeer. You drink hot chocolate and sit in the sauna. And you eagerly anticipate your first polar bear sighting. Then this epic trip will be complete.

Atauro Island, East Timor

Photo: molly+ [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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

Conservation, low-impact, local. Long before the term “ecotourism” was coined, places like Belize, Costa Rica, and the Galápagos Islands were trying to protect the environment while allowing visitors to enjoy the beautiful scenery. They became—and remain—some of the most sought-after vacation spots in the world. Now up-and-coming destinations are trying to follow their lead.

Until a few years ago, no one was traveling to East Timor. The Southeast Asian country makes up the eastern half of the island of Timor. The Portuguese first colonized it in the 18th century. The East Timorese people eventually declared independence in 1975, only to be invaded by the neighboring Indonesians. The brutal war that followed lasted more than 20 years and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Rebuilding is a long process, but they now get to decide how they want to do it.

Atauro Island is taking the ecotourism route. The island is located 25 kilometers north of the capital, Dili, across the Wetar Strait. It’s name means goat, for the large number of goats kept on the rugged island. It’s also home to lots of birds that live in the evergreen forests and marine animals that inhabit the vibrant coral reef surrounding the island.

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

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

After arriving on the ferry from Dili, head inland to hike sacred Mount Manucoco, Atauro Island’s highest point. You pass grasslands and traditional gardens, hillside villages and the dense forest, olive-headed lorikeets and bar-necked cockoo-doves before reaching the summit. From here, you can see steep slopes, eucalyptus forests, and crushed coral beaches. It’s beautiful and unspoiled.

Exhausted from the hike, you’re ready to cool off by the water. Ride a bike along the eastern coast from Vila Maumeta, the largest village, to North Point, on the tip of the island. Here the water is so clear that the reef is plainly visible. Ride a traditional outrigger to see pods of dolphins and migratory whales. Learn how to fish with a spear—your catch will be roasted over hot coals later. Go scuba diving in Manta Cove, where light passes through the underwater ridges, creating an amazing light show. Then find a perfect beach on the quiet western side of the island. The bright white coral sparkles like snow.

East Timor—and Atauro Island—is bound to change. As more and more people realize that the now-peaceful country has pristine reefs and stunning beaches, it will be added to must-visit lists. Hopefully those will be lists of the best ecotourism destinations.