Playground of the tsars
"Russia needs its paradise,” Prince Gregory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s general, wrote in 1782 urging the annexation of Crimea, and no wonder.
The Crimean Peninsula, with its voluptuously curved Black Sea coast of sparkling cliffs, is paradise—with Riviera-grade vistas but without Riviera prices. Balmy with 300 days of sun a year (“It is never winter here,” said the writer Anton Chekhov, who had a dacha near Yalta), the place served as the playground of tsars and Politburo fat cats. Russians practically wept when, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea was pulled out of the orbit of Russian rule and became part of an independent Ukraine.
A trace of Soviet hangover endures in the form of unsmiling babushkas and concrete block architecture. Visitors can tour the once secret nuclear-blast-proof Soviet submarine base in Balaklava, a piece of Cold War history, now a museum. Afterward, retreat to one of the briny health resorts of the west and east coasts for a therapeutic mud bath, or go for a run down to Livadia Palace in Yalta, scene of the 1945 conference that reconfigured post-war Europe.
Summer is high season, crowded with Russian and eastern European tourists (North Americans are still rare). In autumn the air turns soft and its harvest time at vineyards like Massandra, built in the 19th century to supply wines for Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar. There you may have the pleasure of tasting a Riesling with the scent of alpine meadows, port the colour of rubies, and nectar called “Seventh Heaven,” of which a recent visitor said: “I could kneel in front of this wine.
France’s new capital of culture
On a once derelict jetty, opposite the stone ramparts of 17th-century Fort St. Jean, a new glass-and-steel building shimmers behind a lacy spider’s-web facade of finely cast concrete. Poised between lapis sea and Marseille’s sun-drenched hills, the National Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) stands at the entrance to the Vieux-Port, the city’s historic heart. And when it opens in May 2013, MuCEM will be a bold symbol of Marseille’s re-emergence as a flourishing pan-Mediterranean hub.
Cities may rise and fall, but the great ones—and Marseille is among them—always rise again. Founded by ancient Greeks, France’s second largest city was already 500 years old and a bubbling stew of many cultures when Caesar laid siege in 49 B.C. A 20th-century wave of immigrants from Algeria and some other former French colonies led to Marseille’s modern reputation as a city far removed ethnically and psychologically from the rest of France. Despite recent headlines about drug-related crime, Marseille still stands tall as a world-class city.
These days Marseille has every right to act the cagou (slang for a show-off) as it and the surrounding Provence region assume the role of 2013 European Capital of Culture. “There is a new energy in the city, especially in music, theatre, and museums,” says MuCEM director Bruno Suzzarelli. Young, multiethnic crowds gather for cutting-edge happenings at La Friche la Belle de Mai, a tobacco factory turned art and performance centre. Major renovations have polished up many of the city’s 20-plus museums, including the Musée Cantini, whose trove of Picassos and Mirós is housed in an elegant 1694 town house. For all the new energy, Marseille’s old pleasures remain as alluring as ever: a stroll along the narrow lanes of the Panier Quarter, the lusty aromas of a good bouillabaisse, a boat ride into the fjord like inlets called calanques. It’s no wonder that visitors are becoming fadas (big fans) of
France’s southern gateway.
An emerging island Eden in Indonesia
Raja Ampat has been dubbed the Amazon of the Oceans. Is that hyperbole? Not really. There are single reefs here containing more species than the entire Caribbean. A mini-archipelago of rain-forest-clad islands, cays, mangroves, and pearlescent beaches off the coast of West Papua, Indonesia, this marine frontier brims with life. Expect close encounters with recent discoveries such as Raja Ampat’s walking shark and pygmy seahorse, along with more familiar creatures—manta rays, leatherback turtles, and bumphead parrotfish. Not to mention three-quarters of all known coral species.
The scenery proves just as spectacular above the surface. On Wayag, steep limestone karsts drenched in jungle bisect a cobalt lagoon. Tree canopies filled with rare birds offer lofty theatre. It’s well worth rising at 3 a.m. to witness the amorous, flamenco-like mating dance of the endemic red bird of paradise.
Remote doesn’t mean rough here. Cruise the region aboard an upscale conversion of a traditional phinisi schooner or stay at a hideaway such as Misool Eco Resort, with its swanky overwater bungalows. Diving is the draw, but kayaking and trekking are picking up. This is nature at its most vivid, above and below the water
A vibrant historical mosaic in Italy
At first glance, there hardly seems to be any comparison between Ravenna and Rome: Ravenna is smaller, sleepier, and without Rome’s domed skyline or ruins. But back in the fifth century, it was Ravenna that served as capital of the Western Roman Empire. In this burgeoning city, Roman rulers built monuments celebrating both Christianity and their own power—monuments famous, then and now, for their sweeping mosaics.
Seven of Ravenna’s eight buildings from the fifth and sixth centuries are spectacularly decorated with examples of this ancient art. “In the past, many people couldn’t read or write,” says tour guide and Ravenna native Silvia Giogoli. “Mosaics were a way to explain the religion, and the political situation, to the people.”
At the Basilica of San Vitale (above), a bejewelled Empress Theodora stares across the apse at her husband, Justinian. At Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, two rows of larger-than-life saints march toward the apse. But in Ravenna, mosaics aren’t just historical remnants. Visitors admire pieces by contemporary mosaicists including Chagall, Mathieu, and Vedova at the MAR (Museo d’Arte Ravenna) or poke into cluttered bottegas (workshops) where modern artists use the same methods as their Byzantine forebears. At the Parco della Pace, locals relax beside mosaic sculptures; even the city’s street signs glitter with glass fragments. At the 2013 RavennaMosaico, mosaic mania takes hold. Visitors can gawk at new pieces, listen to musicians, and learn to make their own masterpieces
Great Bear Rainforest
Canada’s fragile coastal wilderness
Sometimes you can see both the forest and the trees. The Great Bear Rainforest, the planet’s largest intact coastal temperate rain forest, is an untamed strip of land stretching 250 miles along British Columbia’s coast that harbors extensive tracts of giant hemlock, Sitka spruce, and red cedar. The mighty trees rise high above a moist and ferny forest floor patrolled by coastal wolves, minks, Canada’s largest grizzly bears, and rare white Kermode spirit bears.
This tranquillity has recently been rocked by a proposal to send tar sands crude oil from Alberta to a terminal at Kitimat in the Great Bear Rainforest. The project would entail two pipelines crossing some of the world’s largest salmon-producing watersheds and a steady procession of super tankers plying the narrow channels. The local First Nations and environmental groups are vehemently opposed, fearing the catastrophic effects of an Exxon Valdez–type spill. “This is a wilderness sanctuary, a very spiritual place,” says Ian McAllister, founding director of Pacific Wild. “The pipelines would fundamentally alter the coast forever.” A decision on the pipelines could come by the end of 2013. —Robert Earle Howells
Africa’s liquid asset
Locals call it the “Lake of Stars,” and it’s easy to see why. After nightfall, paraffin lamps illuminate Lake Malawi with a constellation of firefly-like flickers; fishermen in dugout canoes work the glassy waters as they have since before the era of the Maravi kingdom.
Deep and clear, the teal lake—Africa’s third largest—glimmers in the Great Rift Valley. Bordering Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zambia, Malawi is an increasingly steady presence within a dynamic continent. Last year, a political transition introduced the world to Joyce Banda, a progressive new president and the second female chief of state in sub-Saharan Africa. More than a domestic shift, this turning point presents an invitation to explore Africa’s best kept secret.
“When you make friends with a Malawian, they watch out for you,” says Moses Mphatso Kaufulu, a blogger from the historic British capital of Zomba. “The depth of African experience rests on friendship—this is what makes my country second to none in the world.”
Where better to befriend a local than by the lake? Swimming boys laugh as a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured fish glitter to the surface. The only high-rise in sight is a jumble of sun bleached boulders. Malawi offers much more than serene lakes. Dusty roads connect towns, and mountains give way to plains of green maize punctuated by baobab trees. But the nation’s heart is a watery realm where waves lap the sand, leaving streaks of silt.
The fresh face of Ecuador’s old city
Surrounded by bunches of bright sunflowers and chamomile, Rosa Lagla gently performs soul-cleansing limpia treatments in a market just a few blocks from Plaza de San Francisco, hub of Quito’s restored Old Town. Rubbing handfuls of stinging nettles, sweet herbs, and rose petals into the skin drives out bad energy, she says, working the plants to a pulp. With botanicals brimming from plastic bags, Lagla brings the Andean healing practice to guests of the newly restored Casa Gangotena on the plaza. Healer and hotel span two worlds, the traditional and the modern; both are reinvigorating this city of 1.6 million.
For too long, travellers have neglected Ecuador’s capital city en route to the nation’s marquee attraction, the Galápagos Islands. Though its Spanish colonial centre has been enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978, the area has more recently undergone a renaissance warranting longer stays. In the past decade, city officials have invested nearly $500 million to make improvements to its historic quarter. At Quito’s heart, cobblestoned streets and pastel-coloured mansions hem the revitalized San Francisco Church. Many restorers of the landmark learned to apply gold leaf, inlay wood, and chisel statuary in a nearby workshop with a mission to teach skills to impoverished teenagers with an aptitude for art. People are primary in Quito’s new museums. Emphasizing storytelling, Casa del Alabado arranges its pre-Columbian art and artefacts thematically to dramatize the mystery of the ancients. Quito’s historic centre is now beginning to cultivate a vibrant nightlife. On Calle La Ronda, music sings out from restaurants and bars. But Lagla lifts spirits the old way.
Nova Scotia’s treasured island
During the 18th and 19th centuries, fishermen and settlers from France and Scotland came to Cape Breton Island, drawn by its rich fisheries, ample timber, and the chance of a better life. Originally settled by the ancient ancestors of the Micmac people, this island off Nova Scotia now lures visitors with its abundant wildlife, natural beauty, and assembly of French, Micmac, and Celtic cultures.
One-fifth of Cape Breton is preserved as a national park, laced by 25 hiking paths and looped by the Cabot Trail, a 186-mile driving route frequently ranked among the world’s most spectacular. “I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes, the Alps, and the Highlands of Scotland,” said inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who spent 37 summers here. “But for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.”
The mingling of cultures means you can seek a clan tartan at the craft shop at Gaelic College/Colaisde Na Gàidhlig in St. Anns, then explore the French-founded Fortress of Louisbourg on the east coast. In 1745 this garrison withstood a 48-day siege by New Englanders, backed by British naval support, before surrendering. In 2013, the reconstructed fortification celebrates the 300th anniversary of the founding of the French colony of Île Royale (present-day Cape Breton)
Africa’s new frontier
Uganda, once the cornerstone of Africa’s Grand Tour, is today bypassed by most visitors. The nation and its people have been brutalized by dictators, battered by warlords, and negatively portrayed by viral videos. Safari goers line up in next-door Kenya and Tanzania, with only a few coming to Uganda to see the famed mountain gorillas.
The land mixes savannah, enormous lakes, rain forests, and the glacier-clad Rwenzori Mountains, one of Africa’s tallest ranges. The headwaters of the Nile originate here, and then burst through a cleft in the rocks at Murchison Falls. Uganda’s parade of animals is amazingly diverse. Hippos graze along the shores of Lake Edward in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, while lions lounge in the trees of Ishasha, in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The star in Bwindi is the mountain gorilla, a species down to about 720 animals visible in their tiny habitat.
Uganda has tough decisions ahead. Oil lies beneath the Rift Valley, right inside Murchison Falls National Park. Extraction seems inevitable. But tourism dollars could provide an easier coexistence between banana-loving gorillas and banana farmers in Bwindi.
New York’s original art show
Not even Rip Van Winkle could sleep through the cultural clarion of today’s Hudson Valley. The legendary snoozer in Washington Irving’s tale might descend from his Catskill Mountains hollow to find some of the country’s best folk musicians at the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson. Founded by now 93-year-old Pete Seeger, the festival marks its 35th anniversary in 2013. “The Hudson must surely be one of the world’s most extraordinary streams,” says Seeger. “Other rivers are longer and start higher, but my wife and I and our daughter look every day from the windows of our two-room house and see the Hudson. Bless it!”
Just a couple hours north of New York City, this is a land of mom-and-pop shops, “u-pick” wildflower fields, and organic farm stands where “chain” is a four-letter word. Between the Culinary Institute of America grads too enchanted to leave Hyde Park and the influx of NYC chefs realizing the land is greener (and apartments bigger) here, area eateries such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns are stoking locavore passions.
Artists of all media find their muses here. Take a drive to the newly expanded Hudson River School Art Trail to see 17 sites in New York that inspired America’s great mid-19th-century landscape paintings. “The views that compose the art trail are a national treasure,” says Elizabeth B. Jacks, director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Or visit museums such as the outdoor Storm King Art Centre sculpture park to see the work of contemporary visionaries.
Some villages marry art and music famously. In the wonderfully weird and artsy Woodstock, indie performers and music icons rub elbows and grab crusty loaves at Bread Alone Bakery. Budding musicians bring their bongos to the weekly hippie drum circle on the Village Green.