2016 is nearly over and with a crazy year nearly behind us, I’m grateful to have been able to travel to some mighty bucket-list worthy destinations this year.
From Japan’s high-energy Tokyo to a lazy day snorkeling on the Big Island, there have been some sweet highlights to grace our travel calendar this year. I’m putting Japan on top of the list because getting over there was by far the greatest opportunity I’ve been given to date.
The other four are in no particular order of love but are included because they wowed me in one way or another.
Even though it’s taken us this long to get across the ‘other’ pond to Japan, we finally had the chance to explore four cities on a two-week exploration trip. I say exploration because we are most definitely going to return to this fascinating pocket of Asia.
In those two weeks, we covered Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. The weather wasn’t clear enough to get a view of Mt. Fuji, so that, along with the northern area of Hokkaido, are two spots we’re already planning to explore on a return trip to Japan!
The Park Hotel Tokyo was a wonderful introduction into the country after a long flight (plus 15-minute monorail and short cab ride) as we checked in on a humid September evening.
If you can get into one of the Artist in Hotel rooms on the 29th floor, you’ll find yourself immersed in one of a couple dozen highly-coveted, uniquely-designed rooms – some with a drop-dead-gorgeous view of Tokyo Tower.
As a first-timer to Austin, Texas, I made sure to ask around for some of the best BBQ joints in the downtown core. Lo and behold, one of the most popular spots happens to be right on the same block as the JW Marriott Austin, where I spent one of three nights in town. The JW Marriott has plenty of dining options however when in Texas…
While I wouldn’t consider myself a meat-centric person, walking into Cooper’s BBQ and coming face to face with their meat pit was pretty impressive. I planned a somewhat late lunch to avoid the rush and it paid off (I’ve heard the line can wind its way out the door).
That man wielding the knife is there to get your BBQ on: brisket, pork and beef ribs, chicken, sausage — it’s all there. The beauty of this place is getting exactly what – and how much – you want. Once the meat’s selected, it gets dipped into Cooper’s famous BBQ sauce then packed up to take over to the next counter where you can pick up sides to go with the order.
Long tables throughout the main floor of the two-story restaurant are set up close by the drinks and condiments. The original Cooper’s is located outside of Austin in Llano. If Texas Hill Country is the BBQ capital of the world, I wonder if every rack of ribs I dig into from now on will live up to that mighty tasty one I had in Austin.
Although the record waves at the time were better suited for surfing than for snorkeling, we throughly enjoyed exploring the Big Island, particularly on our final stop, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel. Every one of their 350 rooms faces the ocean for those dreamy sunsets we’re craving right about now as our days are at their shortest.
The hotel grounds are magnificent, filled with native plants and greenery, all enjoyed over a meal at one of the resort’s three restaurants. The Ahi poke at Coast Grille is gorgeous if that’s one of your go-to dishes when vacationing on Hawaii.
We took advantage of the luau over at sister property Mauna Kea, feasting on plates of traditional Hawaiian dishes while getting a slice of the culture through word and song on stage.
The Mauna Kea and Hapuna Beach Prince share a free hotel shuttle so you can walk the lobbies of one of the world’s top three best-designed hotels. The Hapuna Beach Prince does a great breakfast buffet that includes both Western and Japanese style breakfast offerings. We’re ready to go back, especially with snorkeling available right off the beach at Turtle Point.
While this wasn’t my first time seeing the Northern Lights, it was definitely the most intense! I was up in Yellowknife to take advantage of two Aurora Borealis tours, one at Aurora Village, the other with Aurora Ninja Photo Tours.
It all boils down to a matter of luck. While solar activity on the night of my Aurora Village booking was strong, the cloud cover made life frustrating for the dozens of groups who’d been bussed out from downtown Yellowknife to experience aurora awesomeness. On the final night of my time up in polar country, I headed out with Aurora Ninja, a small tour company owned by a Hong-Kong-born couple.
We were two small groups in two separate vans, headed out into the wilderness outside of town where aurora activity was active for most of the night. The advantage of the vans is when there’s no aurora, it’s into the van and off to find where they are active.
These guys seem to know exactly where to find the action too! By the end of the night, we’d been to at least three locations and filled our SD cards with memories to last a lifetime.
This last choice was a hard one to make. While I was equally wowed at the Great Northern Hotel at King’s Cross St Pancras, a prime location for the Eurostar line, walking through Notting Hill’s white house-lined streets to the cozy, chic Portobello Hotel was an experience that’s hard to top.
From check in and a hot pot of tea and biscuits after a long international flight to a bedroom with gorgeous rounded glass windows looking onto a private park, this hotel exudes charm (and has seen its share of celebrities from George Michael to Tina Turner) and elegance.
The prim and proper streets leading to Portobello Market are lined with a collection of Instagrammable boutiques and cafés. The Great Northern is a runner-up in this list as it’s centrally located in a beautifully renovated 1854 railway hotel, however the majority of its rooms are on the small side.
Dining at the Great Northern’s Plum + Spilt Milk is a treat. Don’t miss it.
I wish all you wonderful, loyal readers a 2017 filled with wishes-come-true travel and above all, a safe and Happy New Year!