Many travelers agree that, although the experience can be intensely pleasurable at the time, it is often the recollection of a particular moment or incident that later provides coherence and meaning to the trip. In the past year, we have assembled a stockpile of such significant memories.
My hot tub was set into the deck of my cottage, next to a metal woodburning stove with a large conical hood. A pile of logs was neatly stacked nearby. The stove provided a focal point, as well as a source of warmth on evenings when the air in the mountains of Costa Rica turned surprisingly cool. It also provided a constant supply of hot water. If the temperature of the water fell, throwing another log onto the fire soon did the trick. Thanks to an underwater light, the tub glowed an unearthly green in the darkness of the surrounding rainforest. I liked to listen to the rustles and squawks of the nocturnal animals. Tapirs, ocelots and jaguars inhabited the nearby slopes, but of course I never saw any of them; it was enough to know they were there. It was lazy sunlit afternoons, however, that afforded me the greatest pleasure. I would sit up to my neck in warm water, savoring the fragrant wood smoke, as dozens of raucous green parrots crashed about in the nearby trees. Over a line of crimson calla lilies, I could see down a steep slope that descended to a wide expanse of forested plain. And far in the distance, 25 miles away at least, a line of shining silver revealed the southern shore of Lake Nicaragua.
I first saw the Ngorongoro Crater in the 1980s. Northern Tanzania was quite remote back then; there were few visitors, and you were even allowed to camp on the crater floor at night. Which I did, awaking to find the prints of elephants’ feet in the soft ground where they had stepped carefully between the guy ropes of my tent. Over the next 30 years, tourist numbers increased exponentially, until Ngorongoro often found itself linked improbably with Venice in articles about the bane of overtourism. The pandemic changed all of that. In March of 2021 I returned, and on my first morning I headed down into the crater with my guide. So far as I could tell, we had the place to ourselves. We drove along dirt roads for two hours or more, in the general direction of the soda lake and its 50,000 flamingos, pausing to watch small herds of grazing buffaloes and wildebeests, a brown snake eagle alert atop a giant boulder, and a male lion, fast asleep after the exertions of a nighttime’s hunting. I stood up in the Land Cruiser, buffeted by the wind and overwhelmed by the grandeur of the landscape, a yellow-green ocean of grass enclosed by the 2,000-foot forested walls of the caldera. It was nearly midday when I finally spotted another vehicle, trailing dust. And for a moment, its appearance felt like a violation, an invasion of my own private Eden.
Isabel Costa was president of a Portuguese supermarket chain when she and her husband, João Tomás, chief counsel for a large Portuguese bank, first visited the Serra da Estrela while looking for a country house. The couple fell in love with this mountainous rural area of central Portugal. They found a former pousada (government-owned inn) and decided to turn it into a luxury hotel, now the recommended Casa São Lourenço. While spending time in Manteigas, the region’s largest town, Costa saw firsthand how the area had been devastated by the closing of the wool mills that had once employed hundreds of people. Only one, the Lanifícios Império, was still open, but just barely surviving. The couple decided to save it and began by renovating the old looms. They also rehired people who had been laid off and persuaded retirees with great expertise to return. The revival of the mill has been a huge success; today, under the Burel brand, its workers produce millions of dollars’ worth of blankets and clothing, made from locally spun and woven wool. I found touring the mill to be a fascinating time-travel experience; the smiling employees were clearly proud of their work and seemed thrilled by my curiosity. The factory tells a happy and hopeful story, one I’m unlikely to forget anytime soon.
Silvies is a golf resort set on a remote 140,000-acre working ranch in Seneca, Oregon. On our second afternoon, we reluctantly started our round in pouring rain. The day before, we had played through smoke from wildfires. So the rain was a good thing, we told ourselves. After nine holes, the sun struggled out. The smoke haze was gone, and we now had the links to ourselves. It was still light as we finished the 18th hole, so we decided to play it again. As we teed off, an intense rainbow arched over the clubhouse. Approaching the green it began to grow dark, and as we lined up our putts, a pack of coyotes began to howl close by. We jumped into our golf cart and headed to our cabin. The entire way back we were speechless, as we savored a magical end to an extraordinary round.
While staying at the Four Seasons Sensei Lanai, we booked a sunset cocktail cruise aboard the company’s plush catamaran. Five or six other couples joined us, and we sipped aperitifs as we skirted the island’s dramatic sea cliffs. The crew set up two fishing rods at the stern for trolling, even though they didn’t seem to expect us to have much luck. Their pessimism proved misplaced. I happened to be in the right spot as the first fish struck, and I reeled in a footlong bonito. Less than a minute later, seeing the other rod bobbing with a strike, I called for backup. A stylishly attired young man set aside his Mai Tai and rose to the occasion, landing a small tuna. Five more fish quickly hit our lines. I won’t soon forget the sight of resort guests in their finery — chic designer dresses and well-tailored button-down shirts — delightedly hauling in their catches as the sun set behind Sweetheart Rock and a misty pink moon rose from the opposite horizon.
Maya culture is rich with religious beliefs that reflect a reverence for nature. My guide at the ruins in Tulum led me to a hollow in a tree and pointed out a colony of Melipona beecheii, the rare stingless bees native to the Yucatán. Commonly referred to as xunan xab — “royal lady” in the Mayan language — these bees were first cultivated over 3,000 years ago, and there is even a Maya bee deity, Ah Muzen Cab. To connect with these traditions, I booked the Hunan-Kab wellness treatment at the Viceroy Riviera Maya. The 50-minute “honey ceremony” first employs fragrant medicinal herbal compresses prepared by the hotel’s shaman. My therapist then coated me in a honey salve and gave me an invigorating full-body massage. As I breathed in the sweet scent of honey, I felt my skin tingle and my muscles relax. Lost in the moment, I took a quick lick of the honey on my arm. My therapist giggled and said, “We offer a cacao ritual treatment as well and every guest takes a taste. For a full immersion, I recommend it!” Leaving fully rejuvenated, I peeked around the corner at the on-site apiary to observe the bees that had made such a heavenly experience possible.
One of the Florida Keys’ most unusual attractions is the Turtle Hospital, a former motel complex converted into an emergency room and rehabilitation facility. Although human visitors are secondary to the hospital’s function, the 90-minute tours held eight times a day are fascinating. We passed by a surgery suite and paused at two large tanks, each home to a recovering loggerhead turtle. As our engaging guide explained their treatments, the turtle nearest us surfaced occasionally, to breathe and inspect us with its endearingly grumpy face. We then approached some of the smaller enclosures below, where many of the approximately 50 patients had names written on their shells (“Little Fat Briana” was a personal favorite). The motel’s former swimming pool now serves as a home for turtles that cannot survive in the wild, either because their flippers are damaged or because of air trapped beneath their shells. They paddled about awkwardly but contentedly — if my reading of sea turtle body language is reliable — snapping up snacks of pellets that we tossed to them. A visit here is a delight, and the entrance fee supports the important work of the hospital.
Getting back to nature at most hotels means spending time outdoors, but at Primland Resort, in southwestern Virginia, it can also mean taking a space walk in an astrological observatory. Every night, the hotel, which sits at an elevation of 3,000 feet in a remote part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, hosts three guided tours of deep space. Our enthusiastic guide, Rani, made us feel like we were in a fascinating science class with a teacher who never tired of her subject matter. Using two state-of-the-art telescopes, she took us first to the star Vega, 25 light-years away. We moved on to Bode’s Galaxy, centered on a giant black hole 70 million times the mass of our sun, then to Cigar Galaxy, a huge and energetic star nursery, and finally to Whirlpool Galaxy, a classic spiral cluster 31 million light-years away. Our evening was somewhat antithetical to the usual experience at a luxury hotel. Instead of making us feel important, it reset our perspective and provided a quiet reminder of our being just specks in the universe.