Napoleon’s Soulful Island Home
Two hundred years after Napoleon Bonaparte suffered his final military defeat, Corsica, his birthplace, stubbornly resists its own cultural Waterloo. Though this Mediterranean island has deep, historic ties to Italy and has been part of France since 1769, its 300,000 inhabitants retain a fierce pride in their own unique culture, including the proverb-rich Corsican tongue. But to keep that birthright vibrant in the face of tourism and its homogenizing effects, their battle remains constant.
Fortunately, most of the island’s three million annual visitors come for the undeniable pleasures of the coast or for the thrill of visiting historic La Maison Bonaparte, in the city of Ajaccio. All of which leaves the island’s mountainous interior largely untouched. “Go inland and you will find the soul of Corsica,” advises Jean-Sébastien Orsini, director of a traditional Corsican polyphonic choir in the foothill town of Calanzana.
Olive groves and quiet villages dot the slopes and isolated valleys of the interior, vast swaths of which are protected by the Parc Naturel Régionale de Corse, which covers more than 40 percent of the island. Hiking trails lace forests of oak and pine. In the villages here, you encounter Corsicans who still feel passionately the adage “Una lingua si cheta, un populu si more—A language is silenced, a people die.” —Christopher Hall,@HallWriter
When to Go: May-June and September-October for walking, hiking, biking, and horseback riding; July-August (peak tourist season) for beaches and water sports
How to Get Around: Corsica has four commercial airports: Bastia (northeast), Ajaccio (southwest), Calvi (northwest), and Figari (south). Although driving is the most convenient way to travel around the island, many roads are narrow and winding. For shorter trips, hike, bike, or walk.Classic Journeys offers a six-night, seven-day Sardinia-Corsica cultural walking tour, and Corsican Places leads guided, weeklong cycling trips, including bike rental. Sign on with Tour Adventure to trek interior Corsica’s bucket list-worthy GR20, a challenging 112-mile hiking route.
Where to Stay: Carpe Diem Palazzu, a six-suite, pastoral estate in the village of Eccica-Suarella, is a convenient base for both sea and mountain activities. Access to the Ajaccio airport, beaches, and water sports (including sailing, scuba diving, and jet skiing) is about 20 minutes away by car. Hotel staff can also arrange various inland adventures, such as horseback riding, canyoning, river kayaking, and fishing. To stay in the mountains, pitch a tent or rent a rustic cabin at Alivetu campground in Corte. Open May-September.
Where to Eat or Drink: Castagne (chestnut) is the flavor of Corsica. Look for chestnut-flavored ice cream, Pietra ale brewed from chestnut flour,suppa di castagne (chestnut soup), and chestnut-flour beignets stuffed withbrocciu, Corsica’s ricotta-like cheese (made with goat or ewe’s milk).
What to Buy: Look for homegrown products such as fig jam, Muscat wine, and honey at the farmers market on Boulevard du Roi Jérôme in Ajaccio (closed Mondays). Pottery, stoneware, baskets, and knives are some of Corsica’s best known artisanal items. Visit metalworker and cutlery maker Patrick Martin’s atelier (workshop) in Calvi to see how Corsican knives and daggers are crafted and to buy a traditional shepherd’s knife with a curved ram’s horn handle.
Practical Tip: Bonifacio is touristy but worth a visit for the spectacular views. Walk the cliff-top path out toward Capo Pertusato just before dawn to see the cliffs change from chalky white to warm orange as the sun rises.
What to Read Before You Go: Jérôme Ferrari’s philosophical Corsican epic The Sermon on the Fall of Rome (MacLehose Press, English edition, 2014), 2012 winner of France’s top literary prize, follows a young philosophy student whose idealistic dreams are dashed by violence and corruption.
Fun Fact: The likelihood of spotting one of Corsica’s European mouflon (wild sheep) is greater if you hike in the mountains, but the odds still aren’t very good. The wild and wily sheep with outsize, sickle-shaped horns (males only) are nocturnal and live in the island’s thickly wooded and rugged interior.
Insider Tip From Christopher Hall: In bakeries across the island, look for golden brown fiadone, a classic Corsican cheesecake of lemon zest and ricotta-like brocciu cheese made with sheep’s or goat’s milk.
Famous for Flowers. Yes, Flowers.
Call it the Medellín miracle. Colombia’s second city still has its vices, but the world’s former cocaine capital has been rehabbed. Terrorism has ceded to tourism, thanks to visionary social policies that have transformed the once menacing city into a model metropolis. Slums where police feared to tread are now linked to the innovative business and cultural hub by the well-policed MetroCable, whisking visitors aloft to Barrio Santo Domingo, a new tourist hot spot where the black cubist España library perches dramatically over the shanties. Downtown, in the valley below, sunlight glints on skyscrapers and avant-garde architecture framed by Andean mountains—proof that a jewel is made complete by a stunning setting.
Art-filled public parks lie at the heart of the city’s holistic makeover. Voluptuous sculptures by Medellín native Fernando Botero stud Plaza Botero, where the Museo de Antioquia displays paintings by Botero and Picasso. Nearby, office workers strolling Plaza de los Pies Descalzos (“barefoot park”) cast off shoes and socks to rejuvenate amid a sensory Zen garden. Families flock to Parque Explora, with its interactive science exhibits and world-class aquarium. Self-assured young people in designer jeans swell Parque de Lleras, the city’s epicenter for chic nightlife. Art-mad Medellinenses have even morphed a former steel mill into the Museo de Arte Moderno. Its Bonuar restaurant serves Creole fusion fare spiced with live American-style blues.
Tradition? Relax. It scents the air when the City of Eternal Spring bursts into mid-summer bloom for the annual Feria de las Flores in August. The 58-year-old flower festival fills the streets with kaleidoscopic color, a winsome testament to Medellín’s metamorphosis. —Christopher P. Baker
When to Go: Year-round, average temperature remains about 72ºF every day; December-February is the dry season; May and October are the rainiest months; early August, Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), a ten-day celebration of regional Antioquian culture; December, elaborate holiday light displays
How to Get Around: Use the modern Metro system to travel around the city for about a dollar per ride. For the best aerial views of Medellín, ride the Metrocables (cable cars) up the eastern slopes of the Aburra Valley (and over some of the city’s poorest, mountainside favelas). Transfer (for about two dollars each way) to the scenic Metrocable line that extends up to theParque Arvi nature preserve.
Where to Stay: The six-story Art Hotel Medellin in the upscale El Poblado neighborhood has an industrial loft vibe: brick walls, polished concrete floors, and exposed steel and wood beams. Rooms facing the atrium can seem cavelike, so book a brighter Superior or Executive room with a window overlooking the street. Walk a block to Parque Lleras, Medellín’s popular restaurant and nightlife district.
Where to Eat or Drink: Two go-to Antioquian staples to try aremondongo—slow-simmered tripe and vegetable stew topped with a savory tomato and onion criollo sauce—and bandeja paisa, a platter piled high with filling foods like beans and rice, ground beef, avocado, plantain, andchicharrón (fried pork belly) and topped with a fried egg. The aptly namedMondongos serves both dishes at two Medellín locations.
What to Buy: Medellín’s supersize malls are worth a visit for people-watching alone. At Poblado’s posh El Tesoro Parque Comercial, fashion-forward Paisas (Medellín residents) stroll, dine, hang out on the atrium’s cozy couches, and shop at upscale retail stores, including Arturo Calle andTennis. The four-story, open-air mall also has a movie theater and a pint-size amusement park with a Ferris wheel and train.
Cultural Tip: Only tourists wear flip-flops, and local men are rarely spotted wearing shorts. To look more like a Paisa, leave the beachwear at home. Pack long pants and jeans instead.
What to Read Before You Go: Medellín native Héctor Abad’s memoirOblivion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, reprint edition, 2013) is a profoundly moving tribute to his father, who was murdered by Colombian paramilitaries in 1987.
Fun Fact: From Medellín, it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride east to La Piedra del Peñol, or El Peñol (the Stone), a 721-foot monolith towering over the Embalse del Peñol hydroelectric dam. A switchback concrete staircase (built into a vertical crevice) leads up 649 steps to the top of the rock. Make the extra climb up the three-story observation tower for panoramic views of the islands and man-made lakes below.
Insider Tip From Christopher P. Baker: The Art Hotel Boutique, steps from Parque Lleras, embodies Medellín’s chic sophistication.
Let There Be Enlightenment
The austere heart of Japanese Buddhism beats loudly at Koyasan, a monastic complex that lies two hours by train south of Osaka. Koyasan marks its 1,200th anniversary in 2015.
Established by revered scholar-monk Kobo Daishi in 816 as the headquarters for his Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism, Koyasan remains one of Japan’s most pristine and sacred sites, manifesting a masculine side of Japan worlds away from the hostesses and Hello Kittys of Kyoto.
“Koyasan is purity,” says a monk after a crack-of-dawn fire ceremony, where a priest burns wooden wish-tablets to the boom of a taiko drum and the sprinkling of herbs and oils on high-leaping flames. Staying in one of the temples that welcome guests here opens a portal onto everyday monastic life. Waking to enshrouding mists, visitors are invited to join morning chants swirled by cymbals, gongs, and incense. At night, no-nonsense monks who began the day hand-scrubbing wooden hallways roughly plop vegetarian feasts in front of visitors.
Kobo Daishi is believed to live here still, sitting in eternal meditation in an elaborate mausoleum, and through the centuries, Japan’s most rich and powerful have built palatial sepulchers here as well. At night, a ghostly lantern-lit trail winds among the moss-covered stones deep into the mystery and majesty of ancient Japan. —Don George, @don_george
How to Get Around: At Osaka’s Namba Station, purchase Nankai Electric Railway’s Koyasan World Heritage Ticket, which includes round-trip transportation (train, cable car, and bus) and discount coupons for admission tickets and stores. Take the Koya Line to the last stop, Gokurakubashi Station (about 90 minutes). The Koyasan cable car boarding area is inside the station. From here it’s a steep, five-minute cable car ride up to Koyasan Eki-mae Station and the Nankai Rinkan bus terminal. Board the tourist bus to stop at all major Koyasan sites, including the Koyasan Tourist Association office, where you can pick up a map.
Where to Stay: Fifty-two of Koyasan’s temples offer guest accommodations, called shukubo. Rates, comfort levels, and amenities vary from dormlike to spa-retreat minimalism. Breakfast and dinner are typically included. Get up at dawn to observe the monks’ devotional morning chants and fire ceremonies. Make reservations via the official Shukubo Koyasan website, or book directly with temples such as Fukuchi-in, Eko-in, and Kumagai-ji, which have English-language websites.
What to Eat or Drink: Shukubo guests are treated to shojin-ryori(devotion cuisine), the strictly vegan and subtly flavored (no garlic or onion) fare of Japanese Buddhist monks. The multicourse Koyasan shojin-ryoridinner—typically served in tiny lacquer bowls either on trays in your room or in a separate dining room—often includes sticky goma-dofu (sesame tofu), plus rice, tea, and dishes such as koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu), vegetable tempura, and sashimi konnyaku (thin slices of a gelatinous core made from the yamlike konjac root).
What to Buy: Visit Juzuya Shirobe (a World Heritage Ticket discount-coupon partnering store) to shop for Shingon-style Buddhist juzu prayer beads and bracelets, small jisuzu bells, incense, and other Buddhist devotional items.
Cultural Tip: For an English-language Koyasan tour, rent a Koyasan Audio Guide from the Koyasan Shukubo Association, or book a two- or four-hour walking tour or custom trek with the Koyasan Interpreter Guide Club.
What to Read Before You Go: Anthropologist, writer, and filmmaker Christal Whelan’s Kansai Cool: A Journey Into the Cultural Heartland of Japan (Tuttle Publishing, 2014) includes a chapter devoted to the Koyasan Buddhist monastery.
Fun Fact: The anniversary of Kobo Daishi’s eternal meditation (March 21 on the lunar calendar) is the only day each year when the public is permitted to enter the sacred Miedo building in Koyasan’s Danjo Garan complex. A revered portrait of Kobo Daishi painted by his disciple Imperial Prince Shinnyo is enshrined in the aptly named Miedo (hall of the honorable portrait).
Insider Tip From Don George: Staying at thousand year old Ekoin Temple, a three-minute walk from the entrance to Okunoin, allows visitors to participate in the morning goma fire ritual, an unforgettable experience.
Boldly Old World
In the historic Land of Maramure?, the hills are alive with ways long forgotten elsewhere in Europe. “My cows don’t like grass that is cut with a machine,” Ion Pop says while harvesting his meadow near the village of Botiza. “They prefer the clean taste of handcut.”
The splendor is not just in the grass. In this remote northwest corner of Romania 300 miles from Bucharest, the schedule is set by the seasons, the weather, tradition. In each of the five valleys, with their meandering rivers and haystack-dotted fields, life plays out as it has for hundreds of years—though one recent change is telling. Rather than asphalting roads that are mainly used by horse and carriage, Maramure? has newly upgraded its bike trails—pathways to experience the region at the pace it deserves.
Maramure? is a wooden world. The farm tools are made of wood, and wooden gates, chiseled with century-old motifs, form the glorious entrances to modest yards around wooden, steep-roofed houses. UNESCO-designated churches from the 17th and 18th centuries tell stories of faith and glory, saints and sinners, crime and punishment, through still vivid paintings on their wooden walls.
Many of the colorful wooden crosses at the Merry Cemetery in the village of S?pân?a are inscribed with lighthearted epitaphs written in verse. They laugh in the face of death—and hence celebrate immortality. —Pancras Dijk, @Pancras_NatGeo
When to Go: May-June for wildflowers; July-September for hiking; September for harvest events like the Chestnut Festival (Baia Mare), Onion Festival (Asuaju de Sus), and Autumn in Chioar (Remetea Chioarului).
How to Get Around: Baia Mare is the region’s largest town and its transportation hub. From Bucharest, the quickest option is the 85-minute direct flight to Baia Mare International Airport. Rent a car at the airport to travel regionally, and walk, hike, or bike in villages and rural areas. The English-speaking staff at the Maramure? InfoTurism office in Baia Mare (open weekdays) can provide biking, driving, and hiking itineraries, plus information about public transportation and bike rentals.
Where to Stay: Small, family-run guesthouses are located in many villages. Rates typically include breakfast or all meals. The Village Hotel in Breb has three guest rooms in the main house and three small cottages, each restored or built using reclaimed local materials. Owners Duncan and Penelope Ridgely, who started developing the bucolic Village Hotel compound in 2007, are as close to local as British expats in Maramure? can get. In addition to lodging, the Ridgelys can arrange biking and walking tours.
Where to Eat or Drink: The Casa Iurca de Calinesti hotel, located next to Elie Wiesel’s birthplace in Sighetu Marmatiei, has an adjacent restaurant offering traditional Maramure? tastes, such as palinca (fruit brandy) andciorba de burta (tripe soup). Weather permitting, sit in the courtyard and watch the chefs spit-roast a whole lamb or pig over the open fire or grill vegetables, sausages, and trout on the hearth.
What to Buy: Hand-carved wood spoons and crucifixes, ceramic pots, brightly colored woven vests, and traditional clopuri (straw hats) are among the items crafted and sold by local artisans. Follow the self-guidedWay of the Crafts tour to meet village craftspeople and purchase Maramure?-made creations.
What to Read Before You Go: William Blacker’s memoir Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (John Murray Publishers, 2010) is an insightful look into the customs and cultural traditions of rural Transylvania and Maramure?, where the author lived from 1996 to 2004.
Fun Fact: There are close to a hundred wooden churches in Maramure?, and, while most are locked, it’s usually possible to find the key. When faced with a locked church, get a local’s attention, point at the door, and say, “Cheia?” (pronounced kay-ya), Romanian for “key.” Chances are good that the person you ask can locate the church’s key keeper to let you in.
Insider Tip From Pancras Dijk: Spend a clear night in the village of Breb and watch the most beautiful Milky Way you may ever see.
The Sounds of Silence
The quiet is what strikes people here most on Haida Gwaii. On this 180-mile-long archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, labyrinthine coves snuggle up to dense forests with towering cedars. Beneath the ground, scientists have found evidence of human habitation stretching back 12,000 years.
“We brought students—minus laptops and cell phones—to the forest,” says Guujaaw, a Haida leader. “They could carry a pencil and tablet for sketching. A couple hours later, one student said the sound of the pencil scratching on the pad was too loud.”
Thirty years ago it wasn’t so quiet. In 1985 the Haida people, alarmed by the ecological damage caused by clearcutting, blockaded the logging road. This nonviolent protest led to Canada’s creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. In the village of SGang Gwaay, Haida Watchmen share their culture with visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage destination.
“You use your listening sense more,” says Ernie Gladstone, a Haida who is superintendent of Gwaii Haanas. “You hear the water washing down the beaches, clams squirting, and ravens, eagles, and songbirds in the forest.” —April Orcutt
When to Go: Summer (May 1-September 15) is the best time to visit, since tourist services (tours, cultural events, restaurants, and lodging) are readily available. Winter (October-May) is surfing season.
How to Get Around: Flying from Vancouver is the most convenient way to get to Haida Gwaii. In summer, there are twice daily Air Canada flights from Vancouver to Sandspit. Pacific Coastal Airlines also flies daily year-round between Vancouver and Masset on the northern end of Graham Island. There isn’t any islandwide public transportation, so rent a car, then book an Inland Air Charters Ltd. floatplane tour or Moresby Explorers Ltd.boat tour (they also rent kayaks) to visit more remote areas.
Where to Stay: The Haida House at Tllaal is a Haida-owned post-and-beam cedar guest lodge. Haida guides, formally trained to serve as cultural ambassadors for the Haida nation, lead hikes and tours such as studio visits with Haida weavers and carvers. The lodge’s ten rooms (eight with a double and single bed, two family rooms with extra bedroom) are styled in the traditional Haida colors of red and black. Views are of either the tidal Tlell River or forest (with the dunes and ocean beyond the trees). All-inclusive packages (other options are available) include meals, accommodation, flights from Vancouver, ground transfers, and ambassador/guide fees.
Where to Eat or Drink: The Haida House dining room menu changes frequently to feature what’s fresh from the garden, forest, and ocean. Local favorites include dried fish, smoked salmon, octopus, razor clams, and black cod (sablefish). Open to the public for dinner May 1-September 24. Closed Mondays. Reservations recommended.
What to Buy: The Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay gift shop in Skidegate sells local Haida arts and crafts such as argillite carvings, silver jewelry, masks, and woven goods. Before shopping, view the center’s current art and cultural exhibits and tour the working canoe, weaving, and totem pole studios. Closed Sundays in June; open daily July and August; closed Sundays and Mondays, September to May.
What to Read Before You Go: Set in Haida Gwaii’s old-growth forest, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed(W.W. Norton & Company, 2006) by John Vaillant tells the story of how logger turned activist Grant Hadwin’s obsession to protect a 165-foot-tall Sitka spruce led to its destruction.
Cultural Tip: Locals, both Haida and non-Haida, sprinkle bits and pieces of Haida language into conversations. The most important phrase to know and use is haawa (how-a), which is Haida for “thank you.”
Fun Fact: The modern-day Haida Gwaii archipelago was unnamed until 1787, when British naval captain George Dixon, commander of the Queen Charlotte, named the islands after his ship. The Queen Charlotte Islands officially became Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People) in December 2009 as part of a reconciliation agreement between the British Columbian government and the Haida nation.
Insider Tip From National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis: You can dig up enough razor clams on Graham Island’s North Beach for a good meal of chowder in a matter of minutes. But be like the Haida, and don’t take too many.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Pride of the Plains
Oklahoma City has never been “mighty pretty,” despite the shout-out from Bobby Troup’s iconic “Route 66.” To look at, it’s been more like the beer-gut metropolis spilling across the Great Plains. But things have changed.
The central Oklahoma River has a community boathouse and a new West River Trail. An 11-acre white-water rafting center is due in 2015. Local architect firms and coffee roasters that wouldn’t be out of place inPortlandia now line once dormant Automobile Alley. And then there’s MidTown. Not long ago a den of crackhouses and abandoned lots just north of downtown’s 1995 bombing site, MidTown has sprouted condos, a boutique hotel, and Dust Bowl Lanes, a Tulsan import, with its 1970s-style bowling alley. The city even plans to add a streetcar loop downtown in 2017.
This is Oklahoma?
“We’re such a blank canvas that even people from Austin are moving here,” says Hunter Wheat, who launched MidTown’s Blue Garten last year, a one-block food truck complex with open-air movies and live bands. “I’m just happy to see it’s growing into the city I always knew it could be.” —Robert Reid, @reidontravel
When to Go: April 26, Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, Half Marathon, and 5K, which supports the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum; June 10-14, deadCENTER Film Festival; October 2-5, Oklahoma Regatta Festival.
How to Get Around: From Will Rogers World Airport, rent a car or take the shuttle bus for the 15-minute ride downtown or to Bricktown, the city’s entertainment district. Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer also runs daily between Fort Worth, Texas, and Bricktown’s Sante Fe Depot. Downtown, walk or use Spokies, Oklahoma City’s bike-share program. Daily memberships are $5 and include unlimited 30-minute rides. For longer explorations, ride the Oklahoma City EMBARK public buses or rent a bike at Schlegel Bicyclesin the Automobile Alley district.
Where to Stay: Housed in OKC’s first skyscraper (built in 1910) and restored to its original grandeur in 2006, the luxurious 12-story Colcord Hotel combines convenience (free downtown shuttle service) with pampering (complimentary coffee or tea wake-up calls delivered to your room). The Colcord is within walking distance of the Myriad Botanical Gardens, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, and Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
Where to Eat or Drink: Join the local “Que-heads” at Back Door BBQ, where the daily Beast-wich (such as pulled pork piled high and topped with mustard, mayo, spring mix, sweet pickle relish, red peppers, and red onions) could be enough to cover both lunch and dinner. Or follow the aroma of smoky pecan wood to the Wedge Deep Deuce Pizzeria, where handcrafted pies such as the Truffle-Shuffle (truffle oil, sage, cremini mushrooms, spinach, roasted chicken, parmesan, and mozzarella) are baked bubbly and golden brown in a wood-fired oven.
What to Buy: Support Keep It Local OK’s locally owned and operated shops, such as hip and playful Plenty Mercantile in the historic Automobile Alley district. Located in a building that housed a 1920s Chevrolet dealership, Plenty specializes in consciously produced home goods, foods, and gifts, including Oklahoma-made Strong Tonic, Kize Bars, and Always Greener turf doormats. There’s also a rooftop event space, where Plenty regularly hosts community workshops, gardening classes, wine tastings, intimate dinners, and brunch.
What to Read Before You Go: The hero of master storyteller Elmore Leonard’s 40th novel The Hot Kid (HarperTorch, reprint edition, 2006) is a quick-draw U.S. marshal in Depression-era Oklahoma.
Fun Fact: It only took a day for Oklahoma City to become a city. The day was April 22, 1889, when the federal government held the first “land run” into the Unassigned Lands (territory not designated for a specific Indian nation) of modern-day western Oklahoma. More than 10,000 men, women, and children moved to Oklahoma City that day, founding the city that would become the state capital in 1910.
New Day in North Africa
Byrsa Hill, in Tunis’s upmarket suburb of Carthage, makes a dizzying aerie to watch the sun set into the bay. The vantage point might be the Light Bar at the decidedly 21st-century Villa Didon, but Phoenician streets lay deep beneath and, down on the waters’ edge, the scalloped foreshore traces a Roman naval port. Inland, the coils of the ancient medina and the colonial grid of the early 20th century French city tell other chapters of Tunis’s story of conquest, resistance, flux, and assimilation, from mythic Dido to the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.
The city’s layered charms are something that many pre-revolution visitors missed entirely, on their way to the Sahara or the Mediterranean beach resorts of Hammamet and Sousse. These sun-holiday tribes all but abandoned Tunisia after 2011, but with a relaxation of most travel warnings to the country, a new breed of traveler has replaced them. They come to discover Tunis’s past, yes, and now also its cultural energy, what Ahmed Loubiri, the organizer of international electronic music festival Ephemere, sees as a widespread “urge to be creative.” Loubiri says this ranges from “random jam sessions in garages and coffee shops to humongous festivals.” Galleries such as Selma Feriani and Hope Contemporary continue to thrive in the neighborhoods of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said, and Tunis’s antiquities museum, the Bardo, has reopened with an ambitious new wing.
“It’s a Tunisian habit to know how to receive guests. We get back as much as we give,” says Marouane ben Miled, who runs La Chambre Bleue, a medina B&B, suggesting that this fresh popularity might also mark the beginning of a fertile conversation. —Donna Wheeler
When to Go: April-October (summer) for beach vacations; November-March for golf and spa vacations
How to Get Around: Take a metered yellow taxi from Tunis-Carthage Airport (cabs queue up outside the terminal) to your hotel. Use yellow taxis and white louages (shared cars or vans) with red stripes painted on the front and sides to get around the city. Travel in the medina is on foot. A light-rail route connects the city center to Carthage; however, trains are overcrowded during commuter hours.
Where to Stay: The Residence Tunis has 155 rooms and nine suites, each elegantly appointed with ivory Alicante marble floors, private balconies (request a sea view), and calming beige and white tones. Moorish architectural features, including domed ceilings, arched alcoves, and cupolas, pay homage to Tunisia’s Arab-Andalusian heritage. The resort’s opulent Spa and Thalasso offers massage therapies and other restorative treatments incorporating natural northern Tunisian elements such as sea salts, heated seashells, and marine mud.
What to Eat or Drink: Northern Tunisian cuisine is an aromatic, cross-cultural melange blending Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and African influences. Exotic herbs and spices, including anise, cloves, ginger, saffron, and potent harissa (hot chili-pepper paste) are used to season popular dishes such as couscous au poisson (with fish), merguez (lamb sausage), and kabkabou (baked sea bream with tomatoes and capers). Sip mint tea and sample authentic Tunisian dishes in style at the venerable Dar El Jeld, housed in an 18th-century palace on the western edge of the medina. Reservations recommended. Closed Sundays.
What to Buy: Look for perfume, incense, gold and silver jewelry, silk, and other gifts in the medina’s lively souks—and be prepared to bargain. Shops and stalls are clustered by trade in specific areas, making it easier to compare prices and quality. At the Souq des Chéchias, watch artisans shape knitted tubes (dyed red and dried) into traditional Tunisian red caps, or chéchias.
What to Read Before You Go: In Tunis, family storytelling traditionally is a women’s ritual that takes place in private. Behind Closed Doors: Women’s Oral Narratives in Tunis (English translation, Rutgers University Press, 1996) is a collection of 47 of these stories told by three Tunisian women from the city’s prominent Beldi community.
Cultural Tip: Tourists are easy targets for con artists, thieves, and pickpockets (particularly in the city’s crowded marketplaces). If you are a crime victim, immediately contact the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.
Fun Fact: The painted doors found in the medina are brightly colored for a reason. There’s a special meaning in each color, including yellow ochre (the color loved by God in the Koran); green (the color of paradise); and blue (recalling the blue of Sidi Bou Said village north of Tunis).
Insider Tip From Donna Wheeler: Up the stairs from the push-and-shove of the medina’s heaving main drag is El Ali, a serene, book-strewn café and cultural center where tangy citronnade with almonds is served on a terrace facing the Almohad-style minaret of the ancient Zitouna mosque.
The Original Machu Picchu
The Inca emperors had quite the eye for spectacular real estate. Upon taking power, each of these great lords picked a breathtaking piece of property for a new royal residence. The emperor Pachacuti likely built the most famous of these royal digs—Machu Picchu—on a mountainous ridge of cloud forest northwest of Cusco. But his successor, Topa Inca, was no slouch either: his presumed estate, Choquequirao, drapes temples, plazas, and fountains along an orchid-strewn mountain 61 miles west of Cusco.
At an elevation of 9,800 feet, it lacks easy access by railway or bus. But the cardio-intensive climb is well worth it. Choquequirao looks much as it did when the Incas finally abandoned it. And travelers often have the place nearly to themselves: only 20 to 30 people journey there each day in the high season. “It’s like Machu Picchu in the 1940s,” says Gary Ziegler, an American archaeologist who has written a book on Choquequirao.
But all that may be changing. The Peruvian government is studying the possibility of constructing a tramway to Choquequirao, hoping to lure travelers away from the crowded vistas of Machu Picchu. It’s a prospect that saddens Ziegler. Choquequirao, he says, “may be the last pristine royal Inca estate in the mountains.” —Heather Pringle, @hpringle
When to Go: June-August (winter), the dry season, is the best time for hiking. Be prepared for overnight temperatures below freezing.
How to Get Around: Choquequirao’s remote location makes joining a small group tour or booking a custom trek the most convenient option.Cusco-based Bioandean Expeditions offers four- and five-night Choquequirao-only tours (plus Choquequirao-Machu Picchu options) led by bilingual (Spanish/English) guides. From Lima, take the one-hour flight to Cusco, followed by a roughly four-hour ride to Cachora, the starting point for Choquequirao hikes. Tours by Bioandean Expeditions include all ground transportation, plus meals, tent camping, and porters to haul your gear.
Where to Stay: Built as a family home in the early 1800s, the intimate Hotel Andenes al Cielo in Cusco has 15 guest rooms off a tri-level, open-air courtyard. The design and name (andenes are cultivation terraces, cielo is sky) were inspired by the surrounding panorama, which you can take in from the rooftop patio. Rates include airport transfers, breakfast, and, if needed, oxygen to help you acclimate to the high altitude.
Where to Eat: The local specialty is cuy (guinea pig), typically whole-roasted with teeth and ears intact. If you’re game, Pachapapa restaurant in Cusco’s San Blas Square is the place to try cuy (allow 45 minutes) and other traditional Peruvian dishes, such as alpaca anticuchos (skewers) and pachamanca (meat and potato stew baked in an underground oven).
Where to Shop: The nonprofit Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cuscoworks to preserve Andean ancestral textile traditions by supporting Cusqueñan weavers. The center’s nine partnering communities use plants, insects, and minerals to dye the wool that’s woven into brightly colored blankets, shawls, bags, and other textiles sold online and in the center’s Cusco museum store. Each item is tagged with the name and photo of the weaver, who earns the full purchase price when the product is sold.
What to Read Before You Go: Anthropologist, documentary filmmaker, and writer Kim MacQuarrie’s 522-page The Last Days of the Incas reads like an epic novel, yet it is a balanced, detailed, and sweeping history of the empire.
Practical Tip: Spend a couple of days in Cusco to get acclimated to the high-altitude environment before attempting the hike to Choquequirao.
Fun Fact: Researchers believe that the placement of Choquequirao’s famous llama-shaped stone inlays wasn’t random. Viewed from a distance, it appears that the animals are grouped in compact packs led by a dominant llama and following a figure thought to be a llamero (shepherd). This deliberate formation is a realistic reflection of how domesticated llamas would have traveled.
Insider Tip From Gary Zieglar: Look closely at the walls and you will see patches of light-orange tinted plaster. In its prime, Choquequirao would have looked like the adobe pueblos of Santa Fe.