Game viewing in Zambia, hiking the scenic desert of southern Utah, exploring the medieval towns of Portugal and driving amid the terraced vineyards of Alsace, France — these were just a few of the life-changing moments that distinguished 2019 as an unforgettable year in travel. Here are our Editors' Choice Awards for the best travel experiences of the past year.
No one goes to Victoria Falls solely for the game viewing. The great spectacle of the falls overshadows reserves like Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia, but our experience there was indelibly memorable nonetheless. As we exited our safari vehicle, our guide introduced us to two rangers who told us that if the rhinos charged to listen for instructions. In other words, our safety briefing was “TBA!” We tried to keep an eye out for rhinos as we walked, but the massive thunderheads encircling us kept grabbing our attention. Unexpectedly, a group of rhinos emerged from the emerald-green brush and gathered in a clearing. We were close enough to hear them chewing on leaves. Lightning bolts flashed in the distance from time to time, providing a Wagnerian backdrop. We don’t often do safaris in the “green season,” but this walk, with foliage-framed rhinos contentedly munching as roiling storms approached, has made its way onto our all-time-best game-viewing experiences.
Canyon Point, Utah
Amangiri in southern Utah is famous for its luxurious spa and astonishing pool, but the most memorable parts of our stay came during hikes in the dramatic surrounding landscape. The resort comprises more than 600 acres of desert and buttes among a much larger tract of protected lands near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We hiked the more than 11 miles of trails that crisscross the property and scarcely saw another human being. The blustery winds and passing sun showers of early spring could have been off-putting to some. However, the soft orange-hued light and shivering rabbitbrush created a dreamlike atmosphere. Looking out from atop a hoodoo at distant red cliffs, we wanted the experience to last forever.
Alsace in eastern France is an ideal place to pick up a rental car and explore on your own. The roads are well-maintained and well-marked, and more important, it’s a joy to putter at your leisure around the terraced vineyards, well-preserved half-timbered villages and the romantic ruins of castles that once protected them. Of course, Alsatian wines are also a major draw. Riesling and Gewürztraminer reach great heights here, and red wine lovers will find much to praise in Alsace’s Pinot Noirs. (If you plan to do tastings, it may be safer to hire a driver!) For years, we recommended only two hotels in Alsace, both of which were in Strasbourg. We’re pleased to say that on our 2019 trip to the region, we discovered two other charming inns, one in a village at the northern end of Alsace’s line of grand cru vineyards and the other in Colmar, a delightful small city farther south. With these properties, it’s now possible to put together a sensational driving tour of the region.
Historically, Portugal has been much farther down on visitors’ lists than France, Italy and Spain. But more and more travelers have begun to discover its appeal: beautifully preserved Old World architecture, a varied landscape dotted with medieval towns, underrated cuisine and lovely, hospitable people. Now the hotels, restaurants and shops are becoming much more sophisticated. The long lag in development means the Portuguese remain refreshingly unpretentious, despite their proud emphasis on their country’s products — from wine and olive oil to wool and ceramics — and cultural heritage. We recommend that you follow in our footsteps: Spend a few days in Lisbon, take a side trip to see Sintra’s romantic palaces and then head to the city of Porto, followed by the Douro Valley wine region, the plains and hill towns of the Alentejo and the chic beach town of Comporta. Driving is easy, and the highways are excellent and well-maintained. English is widely spoken. Spring and fall are the optimal times to visit, with warm temperatures, abundant sunshine and fewer crowds than summer.
Namibia and Botswana
Rather than cruise from one point to another, the 14-cabin Zambezi Queen makes day excursions along the Chobe River, which forms the border between Botswana’s Chobe National Park and Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, returning to the same mooring each evening. Here, the flat land encourages the slow-moving river to spread out into sinuous curves and numerous small side channels, creating a wetland environment rich with life. From small motorboats, we saw myriad birds, lounging crocodiles, pods of hippos, herds of graceful antelopes and families of elephants playing in the water. On board, the crew took excellent care of us, mixing delicious cocktails and cooking (mostly) very good food. And our cabin, a stylish master suite, had a compact bath but a large balcony at the front of the boat, furnished with loungers. Our two-night stay was the right amount of time to avoid repeating activities, but we felt sorry to disembark nevertheless.