Legend holds that the ancient city of Mada’in Saleh, deep in the Saudi Arabian desert, is a cursed place, punished by Allah for its inhabitants’ idolatry. Indeed, the wind-carved pillars of sandstone jutting out of the dunes are easily likened to writhing souls, tortured for eternity in eerie formations visible for miles.
Yet in its 1st century heyday, this vital city of the Nabataean kingdom was a key trading post for merchants plying spices, frankincense and myrrh from as far away as Yemen. The once nomadic Nabataeans lived in mud-brick dwellings long washed away, but they housed their dead in elaborate mausoleums carved from these sandstone monoliths. Some 111 exquisitely preserved tombs survive. In 2008, UNESCO named Mada’in Saleh a World Heritage site, Saudi Arabia’s first, but the stigma of God’s wrath remains. The Prophet Muhammad, wary of a relapse into idol worship, exhorted his followers never to sleep, eat or pray in the tombs’ shadows. The result is an archaeological wonderland utterly devoid of visitors—a curse that is also a blessing.
If you associate African safari holidays with being bussed around on bone-jarring game drives to look at identikit herds of antelope, then Tassia will restore your faith. Antonia Hall and Martin Wheeler, a young Kenyan duo, provide an all-natural wilderness experience within a 24,300-hectare playground for no more than 12 guests. Tassia perches on a bluff above the Laikipia plateau. Kenya, in its fabled vastness, stretches beneath. As the sun rises, you’ll find yourself tracking a leopard on foot with a Masai guide, or learning the medicinal value of plants. Clamber around caves and trace the ancient etchings of the Mokogodo tribe. Take up archery in the dry riverbed, swim by the waterfall during rains, or even game-drive—but on horseback, camel or oxcart. You will rarely get in a car. Sit, drink in hand, on the flat rocks as the sun sinks and the moon rises and watch Wheeler teach his injured birds of prey the art of hunting. Eat alone under the stars, or with your hosts around an old wooden table that is waxy and worn by candlelit dinners (there’s no electric light). Then sleep to the call of lions in an open room where one wall is nothing but the night sky. More at tassiasafaris.com.
(SPECIAL: The Best of Asia 2010)
Cricket at Hovingham
Ancient abbeys and craggy castles. Yorkshire pudding and real ale. All images that evoke a proud county in northern England, though nothing better captures the spirit of Yorkshire than a village cricket match.
Picture, then, the scene at Hovingham Hall, where for two centuries the Worsley family has hosted games of cricket on its front lawn. The first recorded match was contested here in 1858. On that occasion the England team took on the villagers and won (not always a given with the national side). These days, Hovingham Hall is thought to have the oldest continuously used private cricket ground in England.
Cricket, more than any other sport, is as much about the setting as the game. At Hovingham, your eye sweeps from lush fields across immaculately tended lawns to a handsome Palladian palace. The cricketers, in their pristine white flannel, elegantly animate this lovely panorama.
The weekly match is an afternoon-long affair, punctuated by sandwiches, cakes and lashings of tea. Perhaps the best time to catch it is in late June, when daylight lingers deep into the evening and all you hear is the thwack of leather on willow, the cooing of pigeons and the bleating of sheep. If you’re lucky, the sun may even shine. See hovingham.co.uk.
Iceland’s austere essence can be found in the Westfjords, a claw-shaped peninsula facing Greenland. First visit the Vatnasafn/Library of Water, a striking Modernist building where artist Roni Horn has installed columns of melted ice from 24 Icelandic glaciers, each a different color based on its geological history. Then take the ferry across and stay at Hotel Latrabjarg, in Patreksfjordur, an appropriately homey ex-schoolhouse. At Breidavik, where the guesthouse is a notorious former boys’ home, we were told the saga of two farmhouses in nearby Sjounda: in 1802 an adulterous couple murdered their respective spouses, as recounted in Gunnar Gunnarsson’s novel The Black Cliffs. High up on the windy cliffs of Latrabjarg, the westernmost tip of Europe, we communed with black-and-white puffins in the midnight sun. Memory is long here, and the landscape has a palpable supernatural spirit. Visit westfjords.is for more.
A flyer from the tourist office reads: “Siwa, the world’s first and oldest tourist destination.” Hard to say if that’s true, but Alexander the Great, for one, was enticed to cross the desert to consult an oracle of Amun, who dwelled in this oasis. Populated mostly by Berbers hailing from Libya, Siwa is accessible only by a single asphalt road and has lost none of its isolated charm. Nowadays European jet-setters flock to the Adrère Amellal eco-lodge, a mud enclave without electricity set against the White Mountain. For more social types, the Albabenshal hotel is built into the old fort at the center of town. As light dims, gaze from its rooftop restaurant while calls to prayer and the cries of livestock bring the main square to life. Sunset is silent, however, at Cleopatra’s Bath—a thermal pool in the middle of the dunes, where countless stars carry you to heaven. See siwaoasis.com.
Spa on the Rocks, Ayana Resort
When it comes to sheer rugged romance, the pair of treatment villas that belong to the cliffside spa at Bali’s Ayana Resort have few equals. They are perched on jagged rocks bound by ferocious ocean tides. Having a pummeling (or a pampering) in body-beautiful Bali is a given. But a massage in a tranquil beachfront sala is one thing. It’s quite another to get to your appointment by navigating the zigzagging bridge that connects the Ayana Resort to these villas nestled at the foot of a 35-m rock face.
Ayana’s enterprising owner, Indonesian businessman Rudy Suliawan, was strolling along the resort’s 1.3 km coastline when he noticed a group of boulders and thought that his guests should like nothing more than a massage amid the waves that crash so thunderously upon this stretch of shore. This was no casual undertaking: construction of the bridge and two thatched-roof cottages took six months because work had to be scheduled around swell and tidal conditions. But it was worth it.
The trick is to start your 21⁄2-hour treatment at 4 p.m. so you’re ready to step into your postmassage bath at sunset. The tub—but of course—is filled with the petals of 500 roses. You can also request strawberries and champagne as extras, but then there is nothing so intoxicating as the deafening roar of the ocean at twilight. From $558 per person for twin use. See ayanaresort.com.
Reggie’s Jazz Bar
Color-soaked Rajasthan isn’t short of singular pleasures, but even here Reggie’s jazz bar is in a league of its own. Located on the fringes of the Thar Desert, it is the lair of the exuberant Reggie Singh, a cousin to the Maharajah of Jodhpur and owner of the surrounding namesake, Reggie’s Camel Camp Osian.
The camels are frankly the warm-up act: after dinner, your affable, cigar-chomping host ushers guests into his cavernous den. The room is adorned with faded photos of royal relatives and plush armchairs. Eschew these for a stool at the bar while Reggie plies you with his home-doctored rum, and spins the tunes, choosing from a collection that runs the gamut from jazz and blues to rock and pop. He might start you off gently with, say, Johnny Lee Hooker, Etta James, Aretha and Buddy Guy and then ease you into the Stones, Journey or Van Morrison. Cheesy or not, you’ll soon be dancing with wild abandon on the heirloom rug, wondering if it’s all a mirage. Happily, it ain’t. Visit camelcamposian.com.
Even in a land that provided scenery for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, New Zealand’s South Island is a road-trip destination writ large. Among its most gobsmacking routes is the Glacier Highway—a.k.a. the Ice Run—which includes a ceaselessly twisting 400-km-long section that takes in the most accessible and lowest-lying glaciers on the planet. Starting at the historic gold-rush town of Hokitika on the west coast, the road travels south along a windswept shoreline before cutting inland through vast tracts of farmland tinted with lavender.
It is there that drivers encounter New Zealand’s colossal Southern Alps, their peaks dusted with snow. Turns of every gradient and camber pile onto one another as the road weaves into Westland National Park, home to more than 60 glaciers. It then meanders into Mount Aspiring National Park and crosses the Haast Pass before climaxing at the Neck—a land saddle dividing Lakes Hawea and Wanaka.
“There are not many roads where you can see beaches in the morning, rainforests at midday and glaciers in the afternoon,” says Mike Rose of Paradise Motorcycle Tours NZ. “It’s got to be the most epic road trip in the world.”
—Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Garden of Dreams
If you find yourself in the frenetic Themel tourist district of Kathmandu and overcome with a need for tranquility, leave the Nepalese capital’s snarling traffic and persistent hawkers behind you and make for this lush greensward across the street from the former Royal Palace. Designed in the 1920s as a private garden, its wide lawns, surrounded by bamboo, fountains and exotic trees, are the perfect place to revive after a grueling climbing (or shopping) adventure. Start on the breezy terrace of the Kaiser Café, eating your fill from the Mediterranean-influenced menu (think seafood cappuccino and chicken Florentine), then go for a postprandial stroll. Unlike most parks in Nepal and neighboring India, the garden is walled, keeping out stray dogs—and the city’s ubiquitous beggars. Walk its immaculately kept perimeter paths before finding a spot to lie on the grass and read a book, the sounds of the city drifting overhead. Details at gardenofdreams.org.np.
El Otro Lado
You have to head to pirate country to reach El Otro Lado—a 110-hectare hideaway on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Barely 90 minutes’ drive from Panama City, this is the place where British and Spanish pirates battled for bounty centuries ago. Today, though, travelers go for the treasure of solace.
Originally built as a private residence, El Otro Lado is a group of four villas shrouded in rain forest, reached only by boat from historic Portobelo town. Although each villa is individually designed, they all share a visual DNA—whitewashed interiors enlivened by contemporary furniture, stark black-and-white photography and Latin-Caribbean painting. Relax on a palm-fringed beach lying a short boat hop away or by the resort’s infinity-edge swimming pool. Then dine on ultra-fresh ceviches washed down with potent mojitos. Back in the pirate days, both Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake fought for control of the Portobelo region. A few nights at El Otro Lado and it’s easy to understand why. Visit www.elotrolado.com.pa.