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.

Gevrey-Chambertin, France

Photo: Les Deux Chèvres

Photo: Les Deux Chèvres

It’s just after sunrise in Gevrey-Chambertin. Fog still hovers over the grape vines. Drops of water drip from the thick-skinned, practically black grapes. The leaves, which have turned red and gold, are starting to crinkle with the cooler fall temperatures. Church bells ring in the distance. While sunlight is just beginning to seep through the wooden shutters in your room. Good morning, Burgundy.

You’re staying at Les Deux Chèvres, a small hotel in the heart of wine country. Your room may have antique furniture, but a rainfall shower and an incredibly comfortable bed are the perfect modern touches. Stone walls, wooden beams, and a wine press have been meticulously restored throughout the property. A vintage chart details wine production over 100 years, beginning in 1863. Even the artwork focuses on the area’s precious Pinot Noir grape. Plus there are vineyard views in every direction.

There’s absolutely no rush this morning. You cross the gravel courtyard to the main building, where a continental breakfast is served. After eating buttery croissants, local cheese, and fresh fruit, you finish your coffee on the terrace and stare at the vines across the stone wall. Limestone hills stand in the distance. A wine maker lives next door. While you wonder what the acceptable time is to begin tasting the actual wine.

Photo: N. Preseault

Gevrey-Chambertin is part of the Côte de Nuits, a small area that produces some of Burgundy’s best wines. Of the region’s 33 Grand Crus—the highest wine classification—24 are produced in the Côte de Nuits and eight are found right in Gevrey-Chambertin. The Romans first planted vines here in the 1st century BC. Catholic monks established many of the vineyards during the Middle Ages. People around the world now covet the deep, fruit-flavored wine that can be cellared for more than 20 years.

You spend the next few days exploring Dijon and Beaune, while drinking as much wine as possible. Dijon is famous for its historical buildings—Medieval and Renaissance—and mustard. The smaller, walled city of Beaune is known for the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune (a Gothic hospital) and numerous tasting rooms, including the self-guided Marché aux Vins. In between them, the Route des Grands Crus is lined with little villages and endless vineyards. Make appointments for tastings in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Chambolle-Musigny, and Morey-Saint-Denis. The hard part will be deciding which Grand Crus to bring home.

Back at Les Deux Chèvres, you return to the terrace to relax with a glass of wine as the sun sets. Maybe a glass of white Burgundy after a day of intense Pinot Noirs. Later you walk into town for dinner at traditional Chez Guy or more modern Bistrot Lucien. You eat poached eggs à la meurette and beef cheeks that have been braising for hours, while you try not to drink your bottle of Premier Cru—the second-highest classification—right away. But it’s so hard to let it breathe. By the final glass, it’s just starting to really open. Your wine palate will never be the same.

Harbour Island, Bahamas

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

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

Ready for a break? Summer feels like forever ago, while the holidays are still a ways away. You need something to look forward to now. Just a few days in the sun would hold you over until the festivities begin in late November. How about a quick trip to the Bahamas?

Harbour Island is just 50 miles from Nassau, though it feels worlds away. The three-mile-long island has colorful, colonial-style buildings, small hotels, turquoise water, and pink-sand beaches. After arriving at the North Eleuthera Airport, a 15-minutes water taxi brings you to Dunmore Town. The island’s only town was settled by English colonists from Nassau in the 17th century. It was named after a former governor of the Bahamas; he had a summer house on the island.

The island still looks like the ideal place to relax. You’re staying at Pink Sands, a resort near a bird sanctuary on the eastern side of the island. Your cottage, one of only 25, has a California king bed, teak furniture, and a large sitting area. An iPod is preloaded with island tunes. While the neutral color palette keeps your focus on what’s really important: the view of the beach.

Photo: Pink Sands Resort

Photo: Pink Sands Resort

But first, you need to find some lunch. You left home before the sun rose this morning, and the food on the airplane doesn’t really count as breakfast. So you’re starving, and the smell of nearby frying fish is making your mouth water. The Blue Bar serves smoked fish dip, conch fritters, and green curry fish sandwiches that quickly fill you up. By the time your second fruity rum drink arrives, you’re mellow and adjusting to island time.

The freshwater pool looks tempting, but you’re focused on the beach. That truly pink-sand beach. It gets its color from foraminifera, red and pink shelled amoeba that live in the coral reef just offshore. You spend the rest of the afternoon watching small waves lap against the sand, swimming in the bathtub-like water, and picking up little shells as you walk down the beach.

Later you’ll sip your third fruity cocktail—or is it your fourth?—during happy hour. You’ll eat grilled octopus salad and green tamarind black grouper at the open-air Garden Terrace for dinner. You’ll plan to play tennis, go bone fishing, and try paddleboarding tomorrow. You might even walk to Sea Grapes, where local bands play live music. But right now, you’re just going to enjoy the salty air, the warm sun, and the beautiful beach, since this is just what you needed.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Photo: PDH [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: PDH [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do your trips to the Midwest begin and end with Chicago? Well, that’s sad. No one is suggesting you plan a trip to St. Louis or Flint, Michigan. That would be crazy. But you could easily explore beyond the Windy City.

Take Milwaukee. German food and beer probably come to mind when—or if—you think about Wisconsin’s largest city. But it’s quietly become so much more than that. A lakefront trail, beautiful parks, and exciting museums line the waterfront. Distilleries, artisanal shops, and award-winning restaurants now mix with the sausage factories and the breweries. Hip hotels are changing old neighborhoods. Hipsters have moved in. And it’s just 90 miles from Chicago. This weekend, you’re heading north.

You arrive at the Iron Horse Hotel, in the trendy Fifth Ward neighborhood. The six-story, 100-year-old building was once a bedding warehouse. It’s been converted into a loft-style hotel with exposed brick walls and ducts, tattoo-inspired upholstery, and wooden posts. Dogs and bikers are welcomed with treats and covered parking.

Photo: Aparium Hotel Group

Photo: Aparium Hotel Group

There are also plenty of places to hang out. The Library has communal tables and heaps of work space for breakfast. The Yard is an outdoor patio beneath the Sixth Street Viaduct. Branded has talented mixologists and vintage decor. And Smyth turns food into works of art. You might not go far your first afternoon in the city, unless it’s to the nearby Harley-Davidson Museum to see hundreds of motorcycles from the company’s 110-year history.

The next morning, head north to Lakeshore State Park for views of the skyline and waterfront trails. Visit the Milwaukee Art Museum. The distinctive building seems to soar above Lake Michigan. Eat a decadent French lunch at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro on a bluff overlooking the water. The chef, a James Beard award winner, serves baked French onion soup, Prince Edward Island mussels, and cheese during the middle of the day. Then tour the Lakefront Brewery to taste the seasonal pumpkin and Oktoberfest lagers. A polka band is starting to play as you finish the tour.

Then you’re off to Walker’s Point. Clock Shadow Creamery offers tours, as well as cheese curds and ricotta. Nearby Purple Door Ice Cream serves flavors like whiskey and raspberry green tea. Your dinner reservation is at Braise, a farm-to-table restaurant where old bowling lanes have been turned into communal tables. And the night ends at Bryant’s with a brandy Old Fashioned. The city’s oldest cocktail bar was also named the best bar in America in 2013 by Esquire. It’s amazing you’ve overlooked Milwaukee this long.

Loango National Park, Gabon

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

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

You’re slowly walking along a windswept, white-sand beach. St. Cathérine Beach, located where the rainforest meets the ocean, is deserted and nearly 100 kilometers long. Fiddler crabs scurry to get out of your way. Olive ridley sea turtles nest along the dunes. It looks like a gang of African forest buffalo are up ahead. While huge elephant footprints pool with salty water. You barely notice any of them, though. You’re staring at the crashing waves and the hippos that seem to be riding them. The surfing hippos.

Body-surfing hippos, that is. As the white-capped waves crash, the barrel-shaped, 2,000-plus-pound animals roll toward the shore with them. Then, using their stubby legs, they swim back out, trying to keep their snouts above the water, to do it again. And again. You’re mesmerized and completely unaware of the elephant footprints, the nesting sea turtles, and the buffalo that are getting closer.

These fascinating hippos—and everything else on the beach that you’re ignoring—are in Gabon. This Central Africa country sits on the Equator. It’s stable, relatively prosperous, and conservation-minded. In 2002, the president created 13 national parks, preserving 10 percent of the land in a country about the size of Colorado. Loango National Park is one of them.

Loango National Park has been called “Africa’s last Eden.” It’s full of vast savannas, untouched forests, dense mangroves, and pristine beaches. Besides elephants and buffalo, gorillas and leopards roam the land. Colorful parrots and fruit bats fly overhead. Killer and humpback whales, plus lots of dolphins, are seen just offshore. While tarpon congregate where the Iguéla Lagoon meets the Atlantic.

After spending the day on the beach, you return to the Loango Lodge on the Iguéla Lagoon a few kilometers inland. You relax on your bungalow’s terrace with a Régab beer. The animals are coming out to graze as the temperature drops and the sun starts to set. First red river hogs appear. Then buffalo. Finally an elephant strolls down the beach. Without any hippos in sight, you can finally appreciate the rest of the amazing animals in Gabon.

Sonora Island, Canada

Photo: Sonora Resort

Photo: Sonora Resort

You expected a boring river cruise. You’d chug along at barely walking speed and listen to a dry history of the area. So you were surprised when you boarded the Eagle Master, a bright yellow, inflatable boat, and then handed a set of headphones. The boat eased away from the dock, quickly picked up speed, glided over rapids, and almost reached 50 mph. Firs, cedars, and uninhabited islands passed by in a blur. You felt like you were flying. But the best part was yet to come.

The next time the Eagle Master slows down, it looks like you’ve entered another world. A Steller sea lion yawns, exposing more than 30 teeth, as he bakes in the sun on a big rock. A pod of Dall’s porpoises streak beneath the boat. Two herons swoop down to pluck lunch from a whirlpool of silver fish. Your guide points out Pacific white-sided dolphins in the distance, and you keep your eyes peeled for a late-migrating killer whale. While three—no, make that four—bald eagles circle overhead. Welcome to the Discovery Islands.

The Discovery Islands sit in between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. There are few people, fewer roads, and no cities here. Water taxis and helicopters are the primary modes of transportation. Most of the islands are unspoiled and uninhabited, while quiet fishing lodges sit on the waterfront of just a handful of them.

Photo: Sonora Resort

Photo: Sonora Resort

You’re staying on Sonora Island, which was named after a Spanish schooner that explored the Pacific Northwest in 1775. The west side of the island is home to Thurston Bay Marine Provincial Park. A coast guard radio station sits atop Discovery Mountain. While the Sonora Resort, an eco-adventure resort, is spread out on the east side of the island. It’s only an hour from Vancouver, though it feels more like days or centuries.

Besides cruising around the islands, you spend your time fishing. First you take a fly-fishing refresher course in the stocked trout pond. Then you ride a Grady-White boat to cast for salmon: acrobatic cohos and feisty chums. You head into the moss-covered rainforest along the Orford River to watch for grizzly bears coming down the mountain to feed on salmon. You hike the Blue Loop, an old logging trail, past red huckleberries and thimbleberries, American robins and Steller’s jays, and busy Douglas Squirrels. Or you follow the Top Loop Trail 853 feet above sea level for views of Bute Inlet, the Pacific Coast Range, and the Yaculta Rapids.

By late afternoon, you’re exhausted each day. You return to the Sonora Resort and relax by the outdoor heated pool. You sink into a deep armchair for a pre-dinner cocktail in the piano lounge as the sun sets. You sample the best Pacific Northwest cuisine: Quadra Island scallops, roasted carrot tortellini, and poached halibut cheeks from Queen Charlotte one night; green garlic soup, Pacific octopus, and wild Chinook salmon the next. Finally, you retreat to your room, where a goose-down duvet and a stone fireplace keep you cozy, regardless of how low the temperature drops. Boredom never crosses your mind.

Krak des Chevaliers, Syria

Photo: Krak_des_Chevaliers_landscape.jpg: (Ergo) derivative work: Nev1 (Krak_des_Chevaliers_landscape.jpg) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Krak_des_Chevaliers_landscape.jpg: (Ergo) derivative work: Nev1 (Krak_des_Chevaliers_landscape.jpg) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Syria is a mess. It’s not a secret. The world is watching as atrocity after atrocity is being committed. Some people are being forced from their homes and violently killed, while others have fled the country, fearing for their lives. There is no end in sight.

Eventually, the world will look back at this time with embarrassment and regret. First as memorials are erected over the lives lost. Second over the widespread destruction of such a beautiful country. Just as it’s impossible to replace family members, it’s also impossible to replace historical sites, like Krak des Chevaliers.

Krak des Chevaliers is one of the most important medieval castles in the world. The Castle of the Kurds was built in the 11th century and given to the Knights Hospitaller, a Christian military order in the Middle Ages, by the Count of Tripoli. Its strategic position, on a steep hill in the Homs Gap, was a crucial stop along the trade route between Homs and Tripoli. The limestone castle now sits near the Lebanese border and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Until a few years ago, people rushed into—not out of—Syria to see Krak des Chevaliers. The Crusader castle has two massive walls separated by a moat. The outer wall, which was added in the 13th century, has 13 towers looking out in every direction. Warden’s Tower, in the southwest corner, has the best views of the green countryside. The courtyard has vaulted chambers and a Gothic façade. Dark tunnels connected the Great Hall, the baths, and even the stables. The chapel was converted into a mosque when the castle fell to the Muslim Mamluk Sultan Baibars later in the 13th century, though the pulpit still remains. Also remaining: well-preserved frescoes.

Well-preserved until recently, that is. Krak des Chevaliers was shelled during a 2012 attack, causing damage to the chapel. Airstrikes in 2013 destroyed one of the towers. And the fighting continues in the hotly contested surrounding area. Pretty soon, everything and everyone will be gone.