Travel


Bucket-List Vacations: What's On Our Travel Writer's Itinerary

A seasoned scribe imagines lifetime-longing visits to these enchanted castles, mysterious forests, ancient ruins and more—for both herself and you.

 

When you’re just about the luckiest travel journalist in Southwest Florida, having retired several passports because the State Department refused to cram in any more pages, how dare you whine about things you haven’t done? Because travel seeps into your soul, and the most awe-inspiring moment is surely just ahead. None of the fantasies I share here is an over-the-top trip that only the most privileged few could possibly attain. But they’ve been gently calling to me: autumn leaves, cherry blossoms and lemon groves. Enchanted castles, mysterious forests and ancient ruins. Color, light and mystery. Maybe they’ll call to you, too.

 

A Glass Igloo, the Aurora Borealis & Thou   

I saw it once, the aurora borealis, forever ago. Not so much saw it as absorbed the natural electrical phenomenon’s sudden gauzy arrivals and departures from an indigo-blue sky at the very top of the world. Greens, mostly, with swirls of white and lavender, but it was more than just color. I felt it brush my skin like butterfly kisses. I even imagined I heard it sing. I looked it up later, and, yes, the aurora borealis actually crackles and hisses as it swirls.

I was traveling with a group of journalists in Finnish Lapland when our guide unexpectedly stopped the van in the middle of nowhere and commanded us to get out on the snow-banked side of the road. The element of surprise and awe made it magical, but anticipation made it even more magical the next night, and the night after that.

I’ve often dreamed of going back, and things got serious last year when I learned about the new one-room glass-domed igloos at the luxurious Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

By some kind of engineering feat, the glass dome doesn’t frost over when it’s toasty warm inside. Surrounding your private igloo is nothing but a vast snow-covered Christmas tree forest. There are also snow igloos (you need a down sleeping bag) and cozy combination log cabin/glass igloos.

At night my beloved and I will drift to sleep beneath the magical light show, and in daytime go husky sledding, or cross-country skiing, or maybe join a reindeer safari. I did the ice fishing thing once, and that was enough. I’ll also skip the ice swim (sometimes they have to saw out a hole for you), but I’m all about that authentic Finnish smoke sauna, birch leaves included. And we can pack light: The resort offers for rent all the necessary winter apparel, boots and gear.

With all this, plus Finnish and Lappish cuisine, a wonderful native art gallery, spectacular Arctic Circle scenery and a modest supply of Finland’s legendary spirit, Koskenkorva vodka, could there be a more romantic destination on the globe? I think not.

Finland​: The Aurora Borealis is visible between late August and late April. kakslauttanen.fivisitfinland.com/lapland (Photo: Valtteri Hirvonen/Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort)

 

Enchantment on the Fairy Tale Road

I consider myself pretty much a grownup, but I’ve never quite lost that childhood fantasy of slipping into the pages of  an evocative Grimm’s fairy tale. That witch who planned a roasted Hansel and Gretel dinner didn’t frighten or fascinate me, but how I would have loved to walk through a deep enchanted forest and come upon that perfect, tiny gingerbread cottage. Other woodsy cottages not made of cookies and candy held equal fascination, with their requisite gnarled vines, untended wooden fences all but obscured by outrageously overgrown summer gardens.

The way-too-pretty Handsome Prince of this fairy tale and the others failed to capture my heart, but I fell in love with their grand turreted castles, complete with spires and towers and secret passageways, each perched impossibly in the clouds atop a craggy mountain peak. And, oh, those cobblestoned Bavarian villages, with their half-timber houses, pitched roofs and tiny balconies.

When I started writing travel pieces for Gulfshore Life about 20 years ago, No. 1 on my must-see list was the Fairy Tale Road, a 360-mile north-south route between Bremen and Frankfort. Remember those brave and roguish Musicians of Bremen: an aging dog, cat, donkey and rooster, mistreated by wicked masters, who set off on a journey of valor, banished a band of robbers and lived in great honor ever after? No? How about Rapunzel’s tower, Little Red Riding Hood’s forest, or the rat-catcher’s house in Hamlin, home of the Pied Piper? There are bronze rat tiles imbedded in the street, bakeries featuring rat-shaped cookies, and a restaurant with the not-so-appetizing name of Rattenfängerhaus. Well, anyway.

The Germany tourism people say that the most significant towns along the Fairy Tale Road can be nicely seen on a four-day drive, but for me, no less than a week will do. There are street performances, puppet shows, statues and museums to see, and treks to take through deep, dark forests. I’ll take roads less traveled, sleep in a medieval castle (yes, there are a few, like Hotel Schloss Romrod and Colmberg Castle, that accommodate guests!) and an old Bavarian inn or two. I’ll do the tourist thing and visit Neuschwanstein (Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle) and Hohenschwangau, both homes of the so-called Fairy Tale King, Ludwig II, as well as the lesser-known, picture-perfect 13th century Braunfels Castle.

I’ll go in September, when Germany is aflame in the reds and golds of a fairy tale autumn. Smoke will be curling from chimneys, enticing aromas will waft from quaint pub kitchens, and the chilly nights will create a proper mist around spooky castle grounds.

After all that forest walking and castle climbing, I’ll be ready to check off the next item on my wish list: a barge trip on the picturesque Mosel river aboard La Nouvelle Etoile, a drenched-in-luxury floating boutique hotel. On this six-star, eight-passenger barge, one needn’t lift anything heavier than a fine crystal wine glass, or exert oneself beyond stepping into the Jacuzzi or a deck chair to watch the scenery pass by. The sensuous cabins have picture windows, double-sink baths and thoughtful amenities. Onboard, chef-prepared gourmet meals are served on Wedgwood china with Christofle silver. I think my favorite castle in Germany will be Burg Eltz, rising imperiously from a deep green forest. Besides our escorted visits to Burg Eltz and wineries and shopping in quaint riverside towns, there are Batavus eight-speed bicycles onboard and plenty of time for individual exploring.

Germany: The six-day cruises, priced from $7,960 per person, are offered only from mid-September to late October. bargeladycruises.com
Fairy Tale Road: deutsche-maerchenstrasse.com
More Germany information: germany.travel.en
Suggested Reading: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm)

Cherry Blossoms & Geisha in Kyoto   

My newly purchased red lacquered bento box containing artfully placed dumplings, sushi, kiwi and sakura mocha is balanced on my lap; a cup of royal milk tea sits on the mat beside me. Overhead, shards of blue sky slice through the thick canopy of flowering cherry trees. Snowy white petals dance like thousands of tiny fairies in the breeze before taking their place on the downy-soft quilt of fallen blossoms on the lush lawn of Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. April is the month of sakura matsuri (cherry blossom festivals) and hanami (flower-viewing picnics) throughout Japan, when the crisp air of early spring carries the promise of summertime to come.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo’s treasured green space, has had four centuries to mature since the land became the “new” home to the Imperial Family. The old home is Kyoto, dating back to the eighth century. That city is known for some of the most stunning gardens and displays of blooming cherry trees in the world. So, after a good first night’s sleep in Japan, I’m on my way to Kyoto.

Three hours from Tokyo by bullet train, Kyoto also is a land of temples, castles, shrines and mystical places. On my must-see list are the Arashiyama and Sagano bamboo groves, where the surreal rustling sounds made by the 100-foot-high stalks are said to be the whispers of ancient spirits. I also want to walk the milelong cherry tree-lined Philosopher’s Walk, the serene meditation path of Japan’s most revered philosopher, Nishida Kitaro. In April, the old stone path is covered in pale pink blossoms.   

I plan to suspend my sense of time and immerse myself in the spiritual mysteries that lie within the Kamigamo-jinga Shinto, Fushimi Inari and other shrines. My photographer’s soul wants to capture the dying embers of the geisha culture in Gion, Kyoto’s historic geisha district. Each evening around dusk, exquisitely graceful geisha and their apprentices (maiko) with chalk-white doll faces and startling red lips glide through the narrow streets toward the teahouses, where they will sing, dance and make charming conversation with patrons who can afford the price. While the thousand-year-old geisha culture is rooted in slavery and indentured servitude, it’s now about art, music, refinement and exclusivity. Still, there are only a few hundred geisha left in Japan, and too soon they will be seen only in stage performances.

In the likely event that I won’t receive a coveted invitation to dine at the 300-year-old Ichiriki Chaya, Gion’s most famous teahouse, I’ll bring along my lovely red bento box. April is the best month for strolling. The lanterns of the old city cast romantic light, and the cherry trees are illuminated at night.

Japan: Luxury sleep: The seven-room boutique Hotel Mume. hotelmume.com
Advance reading: The Old Capital, by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata
More information: kyototourism.org/en

A Hike through Sicily   

Love, adventure and even dying seem to take on the lemony gold aura that is Sicily, that medieval isle floating in the Mediterranean Sea at the toe of Italy’s boot. At least it seems so in literature through the ages. Consider:

“Know’st thou the land where lemon blossom grows? There, there, would I with you, oh my beloved, go.” (Goethe, 1796)

“He smelled the garden, the yellow shield of light smote his eyes, and he whispered, ‘Life is so beautiful.’” (Dying moment of Vito Corleone, The Godfather; Puzo, 1969)

“We Cyclopes are stronger than Zeus. I will show you hospitality.” (The Odyssey; Homer, 800 BCE)

I’ve long wished to see this light-saturated isle outside the pages of a book or movie screen. Though I don’t care to partake of the Cyclops brand of hospitality or cross paths with The Godfather, I imagine one gossamer day drifting seamlessly into the next as I explore old fishing villages and pick my way (perhaps literally) through lush grape-laden vineyards. I’ll lose myself in the narrow mazes of Medieval villages where centuries have passed with barely a nod to architectural change, and hike across Mount Etna’s black lava fields fringed with wildflowers. I might picnic in a rocky cove on the Tyrrhenian Sea or among the ruins of a Greek temple or an Arab-Norman castle. And I’d most definitely dine well and often on fresh-caught seafood, paired with the island’s famed Marsala and Nero d’Avola wines.

A Country Walkers’ Sicily walk promises all these things, plus olive groves, the ruins of 12 civilizations and fields of wildflowers. Accommodations include a 14th century  farm estate, two palace hotels, a wine estate and other historic buildings repurposed as luxury hotels in the Sicilian vernacular. No chain hotels, no tour vans—just intimate groups of companionable strangers who become family over the course of 10 days. I had my first taste of Provence and, later, the Tuscan countryside with a similar company, The Wayfarers. Each day we left our luggage behind to walk unencumbered from one luscious accommodation to the next, where our bags magically reappeared. We dined with a count and countess, slept in a convent-turned-inn beside a papal palace, and tasted wine from private reserves personally poured by world-famous vintners. We dined beneath ancient linden trees in the countryside, and at long wooden tables in a magazine-cover-perfect barn on a traditional farm. Very much like The Wayfarers, Country Walkers is passionate about active, authentic travel. They are renowned for overlooking no detail; every bend in the road is a new visual high. And their 10-day Sicily experience checks off every item in my personal fantasy. So, if you’re reading this, Country Walkers, call me soon. 

Italy:  Sicily walking tours for 2019 run April through October. A 13-day experience with air is priced at approximately $7,000. countrywalkers.com (Photo courtesy of JNTO, Miyagi Prefecture)

 

Will 2019 be my year for kimonos and cherry blossoms, a romantic igloo at the top of the world, or a journey along the magical Fairy Tale Road? Will I fly back through the centuries into the pages of Homer’s Odyssey, or float through a week of indulgence on one of the most luxurious barges in Europe? And which will you choose?