The last year of the first decade of the 21st century is unlikely to make anyone’s all-star list of great travel years. The economic crash-and-burn of the recession hit home in 2010, with millions of people cutting back on the length of trips and the amount of money they spent on vacations.
I was one of them, ratcheting back my plans (maybe next year, Australia!), combining trips and making the most of long weekends not so far from home.
I rediscovered the grand Mission Inn in Riverside, less than an hour from my home. I delved deeper into Los Angeles and northern San Diego County, too.
The savings helped me still manage to make my way to Hawaii and even a wonderful solo driving trip around the British Isles, using ferries and trains instead of planes to get around England, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and back.
Here’s my annual list of favourite moments and places from a year on the road. As always, a warning. These are my favorites. They are not “the best”—that’s something different that I will leave to more egomaniacal and/or dishonest annual list-makers. But if you find yourself around any of the spots on this list, my hunch is you will enjoy them.
• Most beautiful place: Isle of Skye. I stayed in Portree, at a bed & breakfast with a view across the harbor toward the Black Cullins, the bleak but beautiful mountains in the highlands of Scotland. But the best views were on a drive across the top of one of the fingers of the Isle of Skye, heading north to the snug harbor of Uig and then the northern turn to Flodigarry, with its sweeping vista of the Isle of Lewis. It was a clear, warm, late spring week with the sun setting around 9:15 p.m. I wondered aloud how there could be so few people living in such a gorgeous place. “Come back anytime between October and April and you’ll see why,” a local said. Guess it gets a wee bit cold.
• Most amazing sight: Kilauea, Hawaii. During the day, the caldera on the Big Island is a gaping hole in a bleak, gray landscape filled with venting fumes. The real treat is to return at night, when all the visitors are gone. From the Jaggar Museum viewpoint, the dark of night reveals the orange glow of the lava that bubbles well below the lip of the crater. Orange County Register photographer Mark Rightmire and I had the spot to ourselves on two consecutive nights. With the dark night sky, all man-made markers disappeared. The combination of the stars above, the orange oval in the distance and the emptiness of the surroundings felt primordial.
• Most intriguing place: Northern Ireland. I’ve been visiting for almost 20 years and until this year, the trend was always for the better. More peaceful, more prosperous. A unified Protestant-Catholic government. But the harsh economy that has especially damaged the Republic of Ireland to the south has hit Northern Ireland, too. Prosperity quiets divisions. Hard times can bring them out. So far, so good. I do think there is no going back. But the road to the future might not be the straight line everyone envisioned a few years ago.
• Most relaxing place: Lanai. After three hectic days in Honolulu, I fled for a weekend to the old pineapple island. During a visit more than a decade before, the place had left me cold. On that trip, I had followed the normal tourist route of staying at the two luxury resorts—now the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele in the upcountry and the Four Seasons Manele Bay down by the ocean. To get around, I rode the shuttle bus that hit the resorts and Lanai City, the old plantation town that is the center of local activity. The resorts, especially Manele Bay, were very nice, but I felt like I was in a bubble, disconnected from island life. I was in no hurry to return. Fourteen years later, I did. This time I stayed at the only other hotel, the tiny Hotel Lanai, a restored plantation-style building that had once been the guest house for Dole Pineapple Co. executives and visitors. From my porch, I could look out through the pine trees at Lanai City life. Best of all, I rented a Jeep and kicked up red dust from one end of the island to the other. Now I can’t wait to go back.
• Favourite airline: Continental. They rescued Orange County travelers from having to go to LAX to fly to Hawaii. The once-a-day flight to Honolulu and less frequent flight to Maui are hardly the heyday of Aloha Airlines, when there was a nonstop to the four major tourist islands, but it’s a start.
• Favourite train ride: Caledonian from Inverness to London. High-speed rail has made the overnight train an anachronism through much of Europe. The Caledonian survives (some say because it is beloved by Scottish members of Parliament who like the comfort of its sleeper berths compared to the security gantlet of airports or the daylong trip during daylight hours). I rode from Inverness to London and with the late sunset in summer, was able to enjoy scenery nearly all the way to the border with England. I arrived in London’s Euston Station rested and relaxed, and already in the center of the city.
• Favourite foreign city: London. The British capital lacks the style of Paris, the verve of Berlin or the glow of Rome. The heady days of “Cool Brittania” during the financial boom are gone. But the British capital remains a collection of urban villages knitted together into a great city. I strolled the banks of the Thames from the old press corps haunts of Fleet Street all the way to Westminster, where I stood under the pink clouds of evening to watch Big Ben strike 8 p.m. I checked out a photography exhibit at the National Gallery and had tea and scones in the crypt cafe of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. But my favourite moment was sitting under the broad canopies of the old plane trees in Green Park, reading the Sunday “broadsheet” newspapers.
• Favourite U.S. city: New York. America’s largest city is always changing—for good and bad. I spent much of my trip last year along The Bowery, the street that since the Civil War has been synonymous with the rough end of life in Manhattan. It has been a four-lane skid row running north from downtown to Astor Place, named after one of the city’s earliest millionaires. It has resisted gentrification that has transformed other neighborhoods, even the distant “Alphabet City” of the far lower east side of avenues A, B, C, etc. But an aggressive expansion by New York University and the opening of boutique hotels and cafes at its north end have altered the Bowery’s culture. Gritty landmarks like the punk-era CBGB nightclub recede into history. As a former New Yorker and longtime visitor, I have mixed feelings about the changes to familiar streetscapes. But New York is always nothing less than intriguing as neighborhoods rise and fall.
• Favourite weekend away: San Francisco. For a while, 2010 was a bit of a golden age for travel between Orange County and San Francisco. There was a fare war in the first few months between Southwest and Virgin America that kept tickets below $150 roundtrip. The great BART connection at the SFO airport took visitors into the heart of the city, meaning no car was wanted or needed. From there, you could ride the vintage streetcars collected from throughout the world to points from AT&T ballpark to Ghirardelli Square. While Virgin America skipped out on Orange County, Southwest has kept fares fairly low, making a trip to one of the world’s great cities still relatively easy and inexpensive.
• Favourite hotel, domestic: Waimea Plantation Cottages, Kauai. It’s hard for any other hotel to win this category when my year includes a stop in Kauai. The restored plantation houses set amid a grove of palm trees next to a black sand beach are easily my favorite spot to stay in Hawaii, probably the whole United States. Part of the allure for me—and a drawback for some—is the location on the far, nontouristy west end of the Garden Island.
• Favourite motel: Monterey Bay Lodge. Yes, they use the “lodge” word—no one likes to be called a motel anymore. But the low-slung, gray-shingle buildings with parking spaces right outside the door are classic motel. This place has survived the dominance of chains by making itself more attractive and a better value than just about anyplace on this part of the California coast. With the ocean across the street and a park across the way, a fountain spouting out of the pool and a nice little cafe on the premises, it’s a steal at an offseason base rate of $81 a night for an AAA member.
• Room with a view: Dream Inn, Santa Cruz. San Francisco’s boutique Joie de Vivre chain has taken a tired old hotel near the famous Steamer Lane surf spot and turned it into a retro-’60s, surf-themed hotel. I visited during the O’Neill Coldwater Classic surf contest in mid-October. The large balconies overlook the beach and pier, with the muffled sounds of waves and barking sea lions lulling visitors to sleep. In the morning are pretty sunrises that cast a golden glow on the classic amusement park nearby.
• Favourite breakfast: Ken’s House of Pancakes. A laid-back local favorite that personifies all the best qualities of the east side of the Big Island: fun, unpretentious, inexpensive and good. Macadamia nut pancakes are the big draw, though the voluminous menu—said to be the biggest on the Big Island—has Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian favorites, along with normal coffee shop fare. The good food is served by waitresses who exude brash, friendly “tutu” (grandma) attitude. It’s open 24 hours a day and is almost always crowded.
• Favourite lunch: Katz’s Delicatessen, New York City. The old deli in Manhattan’s Lower East Side has the kind of natural, old-school feel that interior designers are paid thousands to replicate in newer places. It’s not resting on its reputation like other spots in New York City—the pastrami sandwich still gets kudos from the gourmet magazines when they go slumming for comfort food. You still get assigned a ticket that you hand to the cashier on the way out to calculate your bill. It’s a great stop when visiting the nearby Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
• Favourite dinner: AZ88, Scottsdale, Ariz. On a warm February evening, I met friends outside this crowded contemporary restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale. Part of the buzz is the no-reservations policy, which means you start out hanging out at the bar with big martinis or strong mojitos before heading off to your table. In our case, it was out on the patio enjoying more big martinis and good conversation. The place gets good reviews for its grilled vegetables and chicken. But the star is a high-end hamburger—in this case, a very good one. A great night out is a combination of atmosphere, friends and food. For me, this was the best of the year. AZ88 can be a bit daunting to find—the entrance is on the pedestrian side of the Scottsdale Mall.
• Favourite entertainment: Early Angels spring training, Tempe, Ariz. While the Angels’ modern facility at Tempe lacks the cachet of the Dodgers’ great old Vero Beach complex in Florida, I loved the proximity of The Buttes, a Marriott Resort. I could walk from my hotel room to the ballfields. I came during the early “pitchers and catchers” period before games begin, but also in advance of the big crowds. Wandering around the fields watching practice, I was able to stand just a few feet from where Mike Napoli smashed practise pitches over the distant fence and Jered Weaver smoked fastballs into the glove of catcher Jeff Mathis. It’s lazy fun for me, even if the players aren’t always enjoying the end of their offseason.
“This (expletive) ain’t (expletive) fun,” said a flushed Joe Saunders.
• Isle of Skye: visitscotland.com
• Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: nps.gov/havo or 808-985-6000
• Northern Ireland: discovernorthernireland.com
• Lanai: gohawaii.com/lanai or 800-gohawaii
• Continental Airlines: continental.com or 800-523-3273
• The Caledonian: britrail.com or 866-BRITRAIL
• New York City: nycgo.com or 212-484-1200
• San Francisco: onlyinsanfrancisco.com or 415-391-2000
• Waimea Plantation Cottages, Kauai: waimeaplant ation.com or 808-338-1625
• Monterey Bay Lodge, 55 Camino Aguajito, Monterey: montereybaylodge.com or 800-558-1900
• Dream Inn, 175 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz: dreaminnsantacruz.com or 866-774-7735
• Ken’s House of Pancakes, 1730 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, HI: 808-935-8711
• Katz’s Delicatessen, 205 E. Houston St., NY: katzdeli .com or 800-446-8364
• AZ88, 7353 Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, AZ., az88.com or 480-994-5576
• Angels spring training. Tempe Diablo Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. Major League Baseball’s voluntary spring training for pitchers and catchers begins Feb. 13. Angels games Feb. 26 to March 24. angelsbaseball.com or 800-892-7687