JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN
I can’t wait to get back to the place I was scheduled to revisit this month: Slovenia. In 2017, on a bizarro-fairytale adventure, a couple of friends and I took a White Christmas road trip around this little Balkan nation that to me felt like make-believe fiefdom dreamed up in new Hollywood. Smooshed in a corner of the Adriatic between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia has a rolling green landscape across which a somewhat incongruously shiny-new highway system connects cute, old, bitty towns whose friendly residents still seem somewhat surprised to have visitors.
It has fantastic restaurants, where delicious baseline rustic Central European stew-, potato- and dumpling-heavy fare has also evolved into more modern takes on the traditionally locavore food culture (most famously in the person of Ana Ros, who was named World’s Best Female Chef by World’s 50 Best the year I visited). It has a rich viticulture characterized by gorgeous heritage wine varietals from small family-owned vineyards. It has nice skiing, is the birthplace of regal, white Lipizzaner horses, and seems casually dotted with castles.
Three examples: The castle on a verdant bluff above the cobblestoned medieval capital of Ljubljana, over which we watched a magical New Year’s Eve fireworks show. The thousand-year-old Bled Castle, overlooking glassy Lake Bled and its steeple-topped tiny island, where we spent Christmas competing to see who could pour the most mulled wine and cram the most cream cakes into our mouths. And Castelletto Gredic, the boutique hotel perched, along with its own vineyard, on the Italian border, where after dinner one night the staff literally gave us the keys to the 400-year-old castle, informing us, “You’re the only guests tonight. We’re all leaving. We’ve stocked your wine fridges with our favorite bottles and the fireplace with wood. See you in the morning!”
Most of the credit for the trip’s perfection goes to bespoke travel agents Matej Knific and Mattej Valencic, of Luxury Slovenia, who opened all possible doors for us, from the country’s most famous winery, whose owners they convinced to welcome us for a cellar-door tasting during their Christmas closure, to a wee-hours dirty-dive club in a part of the capital no tourists ever see at which they arranged us gratis admission. That the Mat(t)ejs became our actual friends was indicative of how hospitable and chill everyone we met there was. That they have for years been working with the country’s tourism board to keep the in-bound travel industry there selective, high-end and low-impact provides a model for how destinations should (re)invent themselves for the calmer once the whole world is flying again.
I was slated to head back to Slovenia with Jacada Travel, which uses revenues from its private trips to fund conservation and community-focused projects and to preserve half a hectare of rainforest per guest. With a goal of offering the pinnacle of luxury while ensuring that all experiences are not only non-invasive and sustainable, but also have positive effects, these are the types of leaders we need to usher in the next chapter of global travel.
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If you’re going to ask me about my next trip, I’m dreaming of pure escapism. As has happened to us all, I’ve had several journeys canceled including a cycling trip to the interior of Portugal this month. Since we’ve all shut down, I’ve spoken with a good friend in Girona, one of the best destinations on the planet for cycling. A small business owner, Jaume is suffering along with the rest of Catalonia, so I’ve marked down in my calendar—dateless as of now—that I’ll return to those roads as soon as possible.
If our memories and our photos are what we look to in these lockdown days for a smile, then this is the perfect shot from a trip a few years ago. Early one morning, Jaume and I drove north towards the French border from Girona, his words of warning that the first hour of our ride would be sheer, straight uphill. Aside from being fit in ways I never will be, Jaume, I should point out, is the master of understatement, so that drive became more nerve-wracking the closer we got to our starting point.
Once we arrived and began turning the pedals, I remembered why I love cycling: there was nowhere to hide on that rising tarmac. Jaume shouted encouragement over his shoulder before he shot off up the hill. Only later, once I saw his photographs, did I realize how far ahead he was: there’s a series of shots where he is looking straight down at me as I churn my way along at my own pace. In cycling parlance it’s called pedaling squares, but at the top of the climb, the Mediterranean spread out beyond us, all aqua blue as it merged seamlessly with the cloudless sky. We zipped down the hill, past a mountaintop monastery, Jaume ahead of me and again out of sight. At one point when I couldn’t see him, fortunately I could hear his voice screaming at me to brake. Now. Swinging around a tight rocky bend high above the sea, I was on top of the reason why sooner than I could fathom: a herd of sheep was trotting up the two-lane road. Their stares told me I was on their turf, so I let them pass.
Once we arrived at the coast, a quick café con leche was in the cards, but we weren’t finished yet. South we pedaled along this magical coast, rolling along to Cadaques and the former home of Salvador Dali. To this day, I still wonder if Dali ever rode a bike here. And I can’t wait to go back.
BEK VAN VLIET OWEN
Before Thailand’s Songkran holiday was canceled I had planned a weeklong getaway on this largely unheard-of island in Phang Nga Bay. The last time I visited was in 2010, but from what I gather, blessedly little has changed since then. The island weirdly has two names—Koh Pu is its northern half, where I stayed last time, and Koh Jum, the southern end, is where I’d planned to stay next. I chose it because it’s got a rustic, deserted vibe, totally devoid of mass development and therefore mass amounts of people, with pretty, empty beaches and unsealed roads to scooter around on. Zero ATMs. No high-rises or concrete or pollution. The bungalow resort I’d booked apparently has macaques living in its old banyan trees, something I thought my preschooler would get a kick out of, since she rarely gets out into real nature—I wonder if she remembers what nature is like after this long in our Bangkok apartment. I actually delayed clicking the ‘cancel booking’ button until yesterday because I was so deep in denial. When travel is allowed again, Koh Jum is top of the list.
There’s pretty much never a point throughout the year that I am not thinking about how awesome it would be to be in Bali. And now that I’ve been holed up in my postage-stamp-sized Bangkok apartment for over a month, the pining has reached record levels of severity.
Around this time a few years back, I visited Ubud for the first time for the Ubud Food Festival. I spent four days thinking, talking about, and eating amazing food in a setting that felt straight out of Indiana Jones (minus the action). During this trip, I had a meal at a restaurant called Nusantara that was so good and heartfelt that I started crying and promptly became known as “crying girl” amongst everyone at the festival. My best friend and I traveled to Canggu after exhausting Ubud and spent a few days swimming and beach-club-hopping, visiting plenty of trendy Aussie-run health cafes in between.
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When my spring break plans got abruptly canceled by COVID, like everyone else who had trips lined up, I was pretty bummed. Not only was I not going on vacation, but now I’m cooped up indoors for the foreseeable future in dangerously close proximity to a fully stocked fridge. Goodbye summer body goals!
Nonetheless, there’s plenty to look forward to once we can all finally travel again! I’m a beach over mountains type of person. So, for me, I’m dreaming of spending my days diving into the crystal-clear waters of Koh Samui. The last time I was in Samui was in high school for my senior class trip. This time around, I’m putting a stay at the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui on my wish list. The sea-view pool villas are very much dream-worthy, but I’m equally as excited about their rum vault.
For what and where to eat, I’m taking my recommendations from Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and visiting Chef David Thompson’s Long Dtai at Cape Fahn Hotel for amazing food and a view that is just as impressive.
The trip I’m dreaming of most at the moment is reactivating a golf odyssey in Vietnam that was meant to take place in March. With long-serving layouts such as The Bluffs Ho Tram Strip and Laguna Golf Lang Co regularly ranking among the best courses in Asia, Vietnam has been established as a golfing heavyweight for quite some time now. I’ve played in the country before and I can attest to the quality of the product on offer. It’s been a while though and I’m looking forward to seeing if my post-COVID 19 game can do justice to holes such as the 4th at The Bluffs, one of the most beautiful par-3s in Asia.
Once social distancing guidelines lift, I’d love to return to the historic port town of Hoi An. With its crumbling colonial architecture, the UNESCO World Heritage Site feels like stepping into another era. Be sure to stick around after dark, when the lanterns light up and couples flock to the illuminated Japanese Covered Bridge. After a few weeks of living off of a whole lot of canned beans, I could really go for a bowl of cao lầu, bright, savory rice noodles topped with barbecued pork. There are all sorts of delicious things to eat on the street here, but for a sit-down meal, head to Mango Mango, where the rakish chef Duc Tran serves inspired fusion cuisine overlooking the water. Fabulous hotels abound in nearby Danang, but my personal favorite is the Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An, which has a jaw-dropping tiered infinity pool leading straight to a mile-long stretch of powder-sand beach.
Summer has been glorious, with stunning blue skies and warm breezes. I’m in real need of some Vitamin Sea. The first thing that comes to mind is the barefoot living lifestyle Siargao has to offer. Crashing waves, chill vibes, cold beers and carefree mindset… I’d happily plant myself on the shores of Nay Palad and watch the sun set and the sea and sky turn golden.