Climbing a mountainous island in the Atlantic Ocean where others have fallen to their death in order to see beehive huts built by monks in the 6th century and attempt to fathom what life was like for these brave and lonely men.
Spotting a black bear swim across the headwaters of a river in a boreal forest in Ontario, then boating an hour downriver to startle an 1,100-pound bull moose eating weeds in the mouth of the river.
Standing on a platform in Edinburgh Castle and looking down at one of Europe’s most famous cities from the castle’s perch atop a massive rock formation that’s been occupied since the second century.
Watching mountain goats cling to Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, just yards away from a 650-foot drop formed by earth plates shifting 300 million years ago.
Holding an owl and stroking its snow-soft feathers following an afternoon horse and carriage ride around the private estate of a 16th-century baronial castle that’s hosted Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and The Beatles.
As incredible as these five experiences were, not a single one of these locales made my list of Top 5 Travel Destinations of 2013. I have been extraordinarily fortunate this year to explore the world and revel in some of the most spectacular destinations on the planet. And so, the competition for this list was fierce.
But without further adieu, here is my list (in alphabetical order) of the absolute best-of-the-best, the Top 5 Travel Destinations of 2013:
I have died and gone to fishing heaven. Past the pearly gates at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge lies a miraculous collection of contradictions: extreme luxury in Manitoba’s remote wilderness; 5-star service and gourmet food at a fly-in camp; world-class fishing with lavish accommodations in the midst of a beautiful and unspoiled boreal forest.
If that sounds like hyperbole, let me put it another way: I’ve been lucky enough to fish at elite destinations ranging from Florida to California, from Ontario to Alaska, from Ireland to Scotland, but I’ve never been to a fishing lodge that combines world-class fishing with world-class accommodations like Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.
On our first Monday at Aikens the action began immediately with two small walleyes: a 17-incher followed by a dink we didn’t bother to measure. And then, like the flip of a switch, the big ones started biting. I caught a 23-incher at the same time my dad landed a 25. A moment later, I set the hook on a barely-perceptible twitch and immediately saw my rod double over. A 26-incher that fought like hell on my light-action rod and 8-pound monofilament.
Dad couldn’t believe the bevy of broad-shouldered walleyes we were hauling in left and right, and we quit measuring or counting fish that at quick glance appeared less than 24 inches. Another 25 and a thick 26-incher later, and next thing I knew I was in The Century Club with four walleyes totalling 102 inches in length. And it was only 9:15 in the morning!
As an angler, you spend your whole life praying that a paradise like Aikens really does exist––and that, by the grace of God, the past fishing lies you’ve told are forgiven and you’re deemed worthy to enter into such a haven. When you then catch four walleyes over 25 inches in your first 75 minutes fishing on Monday morning you realize your faith has been justified and, incredibly, such salvation is real.
Click here to read my full article about Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.
2.) Ashford Castle
Having traversed the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region to reach fabled Ashford Castle, I now can say that I have lived like royalty. It was only for a day, but a day in an ancient world lasts a lifetime in memory.
The castle, once the proud estate of the Guiness family, was built on the shores of Lough Corrib in 1228. The view across the lake has not changed in over 6,000 years and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features. The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands. It was a view made better (if not blurrier) by the complimentary bottle of champagne and decanter of cherry that welcomed us upon our arrival. And so we learned, quite quickly on this special visit, that life as royalty is good.
As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens that Rick Steves raves about––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.
The Drawing Room was my favorite, where live music entertained at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib entertained by day. As soon as we checked in, my wife and I took our drinks to the Drawing Room, plopped down by the piano and wondered: Who else might have sat in these very chairs?
Possibilities include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wilde, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”
It takes less than five minutes at Ashford Castle to see why the estate has attracted such dignitaries and has been voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler.
Click here to read my full article about Ashford Castle.
3.) Inverlochy Castle
Fort Williams, Scotland
After visiting Inverlochy Castle in the highlands of Scotland, I now have a new travel motto: If it’s good enough for Elton John, Robert Redford and Queen Elizabeth, it’s good enough for me.
The 150-year-old castle hotel, tucked away in the outdoor capital of the UK, has also attracted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, The Duke of Edinburgh and King Hussein of Jordan, along with “regular folks” from over 20 countries, including Brazil, China, Baku, Russia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. It is easy to see why.
Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Great Britain, overlooks the ornate castle and its 17 guest bedrooms. Entering the castle is akin to walking into a museum come to life. The Great Hall’s frescoed ceiling, Venetian crystal chandeliers and dramatic staircase are spectacular; meanwhile, all three of the dining rooms feature elaborate tables, chairs and dressers received as gifts from the King of Norway as a thank you for the castle offering him exile during World War II.
Less than two hours drive from Inverlochy lies the mystical Isle of Skye, where Mother Nature surprised us by displaying herself in shapes and forms we didn’t think possible.
The morning of our Skye expedition we headed straight to The Old Man of Storr on the northern part of the island, known as the Trotternish Peninsula. The 19-mile long peninsula is the highest point of the island; The Old Man of Storr is a bizarre rock formation at the peninsula’s peak that stands 160-feet tall and towers over The Sound of Raasay.
Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, but we were blessed with a rain-free morning and made our ascent up the mountain-side with dry footing and relatively clear skies. The views were spectacular. Skye is sparsely populated––the 600-mile island is said to have more sheep than people––and our early start allowed us to have The Old Man to ourselves. We reached the summit without seeing another soul, hiking alone with the mountain goats.
As we were about to begin our descent I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. Let’s just stand here another few minutes in silence.”
I am so grateful we paused. Moments like that are hard to come. You only have so many instances in life when Earth’s rugged beauty knocks you over and leaves you gasping for air. When it happens, you want to soak up every ounce of it.
Click here to read my full article about Inverlochy Castle.
4.) Little Palm Island Resort and Spa
I am balancing on a 12-foot, wooden paddle board armed with an oversized kayak paddle I used to propel myself away from the jungle island and into the Atlantic Ocean when I notice a shark swimming 30 yards behind me. Ahead of me I see nothing but azure water so I do the only thing that comes to mind: I wobble down to my knees to untie the fishing pole I have strapped to my board and cast out in the direction of the unmistakable fin.
The shark is oblivious to my first two casts, but on the third cast she catches the scent of the shrimp I’m using for bait and charges after it. I wind faster. This angers her; she accelerates with remarkable speed to close the gap between her teeth, my bait and me.
I’m quickly running out of space––I have wound in nearly all my line and the chase is still on. I lower my rod tip into the water and whip it to the back of the board to keep my bait in motion when––BANG––the shark annihilates my bait 18 inches in front me! The shark strike creates a surface explosion like a cannonball hitting the water.
My pole is instantly doubled over from the weight of the sea creature, which spins 180 degrees with a splash of its tail and races off into the depths of the Atlantic with me now in tow behind her.
As thrilling as it was, the shark escapade was just one episode of a surreal sequence of adventures my wife and I experienced at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa near the Florida Keys, a private, 5-acre island resort miles off-shore from the southernmost tip of the United States.
At Little Palm Island, breathtaking moments seem as common as palm trees. Just 12 hours before the shark encounter, Jodie and I feasted on a tikki torch-lit, five-course dinner on the beach with a personalized menu congratulating us on our 4th wedding anniversary and a pianist playing in the background. Less than 90 minutes after the shark, we were pampered beyond belief for two hours with an ancient Indonesian ritual known as the Javanese Royal Treatment at Little Palm’s award-winning Spa Terre.
From the instant we arrived until the tragic moment when we had to leave paradise and return to the real world, it was abundantly clear why Little Palm Island is routinely named one of the best resorts on the planet.
Click here to read my full article about Little Palm Island Resort.
5. The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach
My wife and I gazed out from our corner-suite balcony on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach watching the sun rise over the most famous beach in the world.
That’s a statement I never thought I would make, and a view I know I will never forget.
We were just visitors in this foreign world, where beautiful people stroll by with million-dollar smiles and $50,000 purses, so we soaked in South Beach as best we could during our weekend at the famous hotel. Our impression of the land of luxury? Puttin’ on the Ritz was every bit as magnificent as we had imagined.
“South Beach is truly a unique destination,” said Kevin Kelly, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach Hotel. “You have everything you’d want in one city. I’ve lived in many parts of the world, and I’ve never seen a city like South Beach.”
Indeed, South Beach is unlike any other place on the planet. You have the glitz and glamour of gorgeous people dressed to the nines going to nightclubs that don’t close until sun-up. You have a pristine beach with sand as soft as velvet. You have Art Deco buildings that refuse to age or adapt to architectural advances. You have high-end shopping and dining that lures in sophisticates from around the world. And a half hour away from it all you have the wildly untamed Florida Everglades, an outdoorsman’s dream.
The hotel itself is gorgeous. Any other word would fail to do it justice. One of the most famous Art Deco walls in Miami anchors the main lobby, which is surrounded by 375 luxurious rooms, 20,000 square feet in meeting rooms, two restaurants, one 16,000-square foot spa, and a $2 million art collection.
Click here to read my full article about The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.