In The Shadow Of Cinque Terre, Discovering The Treasures Of La Spezia

Will the loved-to-death, storm-martyred Cinque Terre ever see the light at the end of the tunnel?

Which tunnel? There are many, many tunnels between the wave-lashed coves and perched, pastel-painted villages of the over-subscribed, over-reported, and now brutally hobbled Cinque Terre.

Above all there’s a long, dark tunnel not of love but of disdain or disregard in the mind of the global public lying between the little-loved, unsung port city of La Spezia and the tourist mecca of the Cinque Terre 5 miles north.

The latest blow to the Riviera’s breathtakingly picturesque suspended villages came last September, with yet another flash flood and killer landslide.

While the world’s attention was focused on Sandy, smaller but similarly devastating storms hit the eastern Italian Riviera. Four people were seriously injured. Hillsides and hiking trails slid into the hungry Mediterranean’s waves. Since September, the authorities have closed not only the roller-coaster hiking trail #2 linking all five Cinque Terre villages, but also the celebrated Via dell’Amore seaside stroll between Riomaggiore and Manarola.Does this mean blissful silence and solitude as in the good old days? Sure, but there’s a price to pay.

The cafes, restaurants and hotels of Monterosso, Vernazza and the other three villages are empty for now. So too are the cash tills of the Cinque Terre National Park, where normally rangers sell tickets to mobs happy to pay to stride among the millions through the land of dreamy dreams.

Meanwhile, south in homely La Spezia, life doesn’t just go on – it’s positively hopping. After a morning of condolences in Monterosso and Vernazza, my wife and I de-trained famished at La Spezia Centrale and hoofed it down a long, wide, pedestrianized street of handsome buildings leading to the palm-lined port. Our nostrils twitched in the air. We were not being snobs: we were following the irresistible scent of fresh-baked farinata chickpea tart.

The scent wafted from La Pia, a cult, century-old, pizzeria-style place in the heart of old La Spezia’s tangled alleyways. Chickpea tart is a local culinary obsession. It’s blistered, yellow, soft and, in La Spezia, also creamy in texture.

Farinata is a favorite of the merchant marine and Italian navy crews that fill La Spezia year round. There aren’t many tourists at La Pia or anywhere else, unless they’re catching trains or ferry boats to the Cinque Terre, or maybe heading to Portovenere and Lerici to see where Shelley drowned.

Much about La Spezia is rough-and-ready. Seated in the centuries-old, raucous maw of La Pia, we wolfed our succulent farinata, devouring it off plastic plates. It was nutty tasting, redolent of olive oil, and it was divine.

Outside towering cranes swung over docklands. Ferries came and went. Fishermen unloaded everything from La Spezia’s famed mussels to flipping-fresh bass and slippery squid. One of the region’s biggest markets is here. It was teeming with humanity.

We’ve been to La Spezia many times; some of its restaurants and specialty food shops are among the favorites listed in my book “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa.”

But in all the times we’ve visited, we’d never climbed the hilly knob in the center of town. From below it seems to merge Genoa, San Francisco and Montmartre, pleated with staircases. A sign pointed to a castle and museum. We’d never heard of them.

Atop a lung-bursting rise we spotted stegosaur-crenellations and scary battlements of the kind seen on better castles. They led to a ramp and gaping gateway. Inside the castle was spot-lit, dust-free, high-tech and artfully filled with display cases. The cases were in turn filled with exquisite antiquities. The only thing that wasn’t filled was the castle itself. We had it to ourselves.

The lonely ticket-seller gave us brochures and told us how to navigate this vast pile built in part in the 1300s but added to again and again, then transformed in the early 2000s into the municipal museum. Our footsteps echoed on stone floors. Beckoning us were local archeological finds from nearby ancient Luni plus other Bronze Age or Iron Age sites.

A finely sculpted horse’s head 2,400 years old might have inspired an Art Deco artist. Delicate painted ceramics of equal antiquity showed wild boars and lions. A mosaic sea goddess rode a monstrous mosaic sea monster, its mouth agape.

Jewelry, weapons, tombstones, plates, jars and architectural motifs; the displays led from one cavernous room to another, up ramps and staircases, higher and higher. At each turn a more gorgeous view appeared through one of the castle’s cannon-hole windows.

My wife spotted a bronze spearhead from 1700 B.C. A bronze hammer next to it was even older.

The beauty of these objects haunted me. The thought that men and women had fashioned them in and around La Spezia and Luni – about 10 miles away – all those millennia ago made my head spin. But it was the half-moon-shaped tombstones that mesmerized me most. And they were 5,000 years old or more.

By the time we clambered onto the uppermost outdoor terrace we needed fresh air. Several things struck me. First, how could such a splendid museum be so utterly unknown? Second, how could neglect by the global mob have been the fate of such a seductive small city? It was homely only if you didn’t take time to look at it, walk through it and eat its divine foods.

The answer was clear. I gazed at the seafront, the huge port facilities, the heavy industry far off in the suburbs, the navy ships, the ungainly high-rise apartment towers. This was real and I liked it. Over the steep, olive-stippled hillsides due west of La Spezia, through that long, dark tunnel, lay the answer: the dreamy, unreal Cinque Terre villages were just 5 miles away. La Spezia was safe. Like Genoa it was a city for the intrepid, individual traveler. I sighed with satisfaction. Alone atop our castle, we wondered if we should tell anybody about our find.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photos Credits: Alison Harris or David Downie]

Buffalo Rome: Mozzarella, Martians And Culinary Crusaders

I was staring, mesmerized, my mouth watering at a giant mozzarella. The elastic curd was submerged in a giant bowl of cold water in my favorite small, family-run specialty food store in Rome. The bowl was shaped like a huge puckered blossom. It sat atop a glinting counter at E. Volpetti & C. on Via Marmorata near the Pyramid of Cestius in the Testaccio neighborhood in southern-central Rome.

The archetypal Aladdin’s Cavern of gastronomy, Volpetti is a place of secular pilgrimage for savvy foodies but also for normal, food-loving, unpretentious Romans.

Dozens of hams were displayed in cubby-holes, the archives of porcine paradise waiting to be sliced to order by bona fide prosciutto experts. Jowl bacon and smoked pancetta dangled like headhunters’ trophies. Jars of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and slices of eggplant towered over the human scrum at the counter. Baskets brimmed with gnarled white truffles worth their weight in silver, truffles so nose-tickling that I nearly swooned of airborne gluttony.

Hundreds of fabulous, expensive cheeses beckoned: yellowish bitto or pecorino di fossa aged in limestone pits, pungent-smelling pear-shaped provolone with whole lemons buried inside, immense wheels of black-rimmed pecorino romano and flame-branded Parmigiano.
But it was the humble fresh mozzarella trucked in several times weekly afloat in that funny-looking bowl that held my gaze.

Ebullient Emilio and charismatic Claudio Volpetti saw me staring and smiling and they must have wondered what had gotten into me. Both are beyond retirement age. They still work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, and are passionate. They have trained deeply knowledgeable staffers and groomed an heir, Alessandro. And they are still top of the heap in the world of old-fashioned gastronomy in this, arguably the greatest food city in Italy, a city with the freshest produce, the best meats fresh or cured, the greatest variety of wines from around the country and the world.

To be the best among the best is difficult in the best of times. It is almost impossible in hard times when big box stores take over, especially when Martians with a spaceship the size of the Coliseum land down the way and spend countless millions offering bread and circuses and razzle-dazzle morality lessons to the famished citizenry.

The reason I was obsessing about the mozzarella was simple yet multi-layered, like everything in Rome, where simplicity hides infinite complexity. I have been coming to the Volpetti brothers for decades and always assumed they would continue to thrive forever. But earlier that day I had faced a crisis and had wondered how much longer the place could remain in business.

Why? I had gone shopping. Then I’d performed a private, comparative tasting of Volpetti’s trucked-in mozzarella from the Naples area and the freshly-made mozzarella I’d bought at Rome’s new Martian food emporium.

The Martians are the creators of a chain of high-end foodie shopping malls and foodie food courts called Eataly. There are Eataly malls across Italy and Japan and in New York City. They are coming to a city near you if your city has money to spend and a holier-than-thou attitude among its consumers.

Rome’s Eataly, the chain’s latest conquest, is the biggest and the best, a true “americanata” as the Italians say, meaning in this case a glitzy Las Vegas Coliseum of gastronomy, a four-story showcase with canned music and moving sidewalks where the right-thinking, well-off, trendy consumer feels good about consuming both sanctimoniously and with orgiastic abandon in clean, modern, sanitized surroundings.

Eataly Rome occupies a disused air terminal at Ostiense train station. It’s a quarter-mile down grim, semi-industrial streets from E. Volpetti & C. and the caper-shagged Pyramid of Cestius.

The terminal building looks vaguely like a postmodern Gare d’Orsay, the famed museum in Paris. Instead of Impressionist masterpieces, it is stuffed with hundreds of millions of packages, bottles, barrels, bags and containers containing everything edible or potable produced in Italy by the anointed friends of Eataly who are, needless to say, the very best in the business.

The Eataly operation is unlike other commercial malls. It’s a for-profit business, but you get didactic displays, videos, cooking lessons, wine-tasting courses, seminars, and lots of cheerleader foodie propaganda in the bargain, including a paradoxical, not to say contradictory, spiel.

That spiel boils down to the claim that Italy’s small, family-run shops like Volpetti are finished. They’re gone. Kaput. So Eataly is it. It’s no mere supermarket. It’s responsible and good, and you are good because you shop there.

For instant enjoyment and to make sure customers have fun while being converted to the Eataly creed, a choice of fancy or cafeteria-style restaurants offer open kitchens behind picture windows and views over parking lots, housing projects, and railway tracks. This is the quintessence of trendy, meaning the cult of the ugly and the edgy. There are two cafés, one of them also a coffee-roasting establishment. There’s parking out front for hundreds of cars. It’s a fine way to encourage Romans to use vehicles in a city not designed for cars and ruined by cars.

Everything at Eataly is certainly the best. Some of the eager, handsome or comely young employees at Eataly are probably also knowledgeable. The poultry they spit and roast before your eyes is not mere poultry. Those are coddled, range-raised birds of noble lineage and include guinea fowl among their caste. The fish are caught responsibly by fish-loving environmentally aware fishermen and are so fresh they’re flipping and sometimes die dramatically before your eyes.

The chocolates are sourced with the good of the cacao growers in mind. The wines on tap or in the bottle are made responsibly, some of them according to the phases of the moon, and sold with incantations like the True Drink dispensed by the Vatican across town.

Precious shade-grown coffee beans are roasted on site. Beer is brewed from pure, unadulterated grains raised with love instead of fertilizers. Bread is shaped by loving hands and baked before the eyes of beholders. All is transparent, performed by performance artists of food behind large plate-glass windows.

In fact everything at Eataly comes with a giant explanatory panel, a video, a song and a dance, a label, an appellation, an approbation of excellence and wholesomeness and deliciousness. The acolytes and high priests of the Eataly cult and perhaps even Pope Benedict XVI himself when he visits wear badges of the Slow Food movement, born in a manger in Piedmont.

After decades of quiet preparation by the politically left-leaning Christian zealots that many of its founders once were, the Slow Food movement has found its Emperor Constantine, the ruler who recognized the cult of Jesus as a religion worthy of the Roman state. The foodie cult from Piedmont has united with the cleverest of clever Italian merchants, a group who in a few paragraphs can proclaim all small family-run retail food businesses dead, and yet claim in the next breath that it is promoting and protecting small, family-run businesses that produce the products Eataly sells. The world of Italian gastronomy is now safe. Eataly has arrived in the Eternal City in the nick of time. Beware those who dare to question its infallibility!

On the morning I visited, the moving sidewalks linking Eataly to Ostiense station were broken. So with my roast chicken, mozzarella and coffee all made or roasted on site, and much else stuffed in eco-friendly bags, I lumbered underground for the quarter-mile of fluorescent-lit tunnels separating Eataly from the great marble-clad, caper-shagged Pyramid of Cestius and Via Marmorata. I headed home and, with a group of food-loving friends, set to work comparing products. We did blind tastings of many exquisite things from Eataly and Volpetti. The results were unsurprising.

Back at Volpetti & C. that evening I stared happily at the last ball of mozzarella floating in the funny-looking container. It hadn’t been made minutes ago on site by eager zealots behind plate-glass windows. Why was it more flavorful, firmer, more luscious and perfect than the lump I’d bought at Eataly? Ditto the other cheeses we’d taste-tested, the hams, even the fresh bread.

It’s not that the Eataly products weren’t excellent. They were. But the ones bought at Volpetti’s dinosaur emporium were even better. How now, things purchased at a small, quiet, family-run place, which, as everyone knows, should no longer exist? Perhaps the reason was as elusively simple as everything else in Rome. Here reigned spontaneity, joy, passion and straightforward business instead of canned music, moving sidewalks, picture windows, handsome young acolytes, preachy zealots, and vats of sour-smelling sanctimoniousness.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photo credits: David Downie]

Discovering Nonna Nina’s Kitchen: minnow heaven on the Italian Riviera

Just north of Portofino on the Italian Riveria, on the Genoa side of the Monte di Portofino Regional Park, is a perched hamlet called San Rocco di Camogli. This is the best place on earth to devour the marvelously flavorful minnows that come from the Gulf of Genoa, which the locals call rossetti – little red things. And little red things they are: about an inch long, thin as a thermometer, translucent, and with a little red dot near the gills. You don’t just pop rossetti in your mouth whole – you fork in dozens of them at a time. And the best place to do this is on San Rocco di Camogli’s single street, at the venerable restaurant La Cucina di Nonna Nina – Grandma Nina’s Kitchen.

You will not find Grandma Nina in the establishment: she left her corporeal essence behind some years ago, and never set foot in the place anyway. She also left behind many delicious regional recipes from yesteryear, recipes transformed into exquisitely delectable dishes by the elusive, retiring, shy Paolo Delpian and his wife, Rosalia, Grandma Nina’s natural heirs.

Paolo says little and works a lot: he’s not a super chef and doesn’t like “super” anything, including wine. He’s an excellent cook who makes everything from scratch, fresh, using local ingredients. Rosalia runs the show. A bona fide grandmother, she doesn’t look the part. She’s fashionably turned out and has little of the plump, flour-dusted Italian nonna of yesteryear. The restaurant and its food reflect the owners’ personalities: quiet, discreet, tastefully simple.

Tasteful simplicity is the root of the best Italian cooking. Paolo gets his minnows squirming fresh – they’re too small to flip. They’re fished along the jagged coast below the restaurant – whose dining room is blissfully unequipped with a distracting panoramic view. Into boiling water go the minnows, and mere seconds later, they’re slid onto a warm plate, then onto your table and into your watering mouth. Purists eat them this way, naked. Others dribble their minnows with the lightest, fruitiest local Ligurian olive oil: full-bodied oil would spoil the delicate flavor. A minnow-sized pinch of salt is also allowed. And then: piscine heaven.The first local decree regulating the fishing and devouring of rossetti was drawn up in Genoa in the 1300s. At about the same time, a Genoese proverb, often unfairly attributed to Dante Alighieri, ironically declared that Genoa’s bay was a “fish-less sea.” And yet to this day local fishermen keep pulling up little spiny, unmarketable fish-the most flavorful and delicious of fish-and zillions of minnows. The fishermen are careful about how and when they fish. Over 700 years after that first wise decree, the hedonist insiders of the Riviera swim by the school to places like Nonna Nina to savor this minuscule bounty.

Naturally, Paolo Delpian also transforms guppies into fritters – golden knishes studded with glinting little eyes. They’re flash-fried in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and are too exquisite to describe.

Nonna Nina offers more than mere minnows. The place also happens to serve the best traditional Genoese air-dried cod-soaked, softened, then slowly stewed with pine nuts, potatoes, tiny local Taggiasca olives and that same olive oil pressed from them-anywhere, period. So having dispatched a few thousand minnows, washed down with the region’s finest white wine, I tucked into the cod.

This was a full-sized specimen of fish, yet I felt a moment of hesitation before being subdued by the simple, healthful, tender, deliciousness of the dish. Cod has been a specialty in the region for over 1,000 years. But it doesn’t come from the Mediterranean. Hereabouts what is served is from Iceland, mostly (that’s why Iceland has an embassy in Genoa). My worry suddenly was and remains: how sustainable are cod-fishing practices? The massacre of minnows doesn’t seem to bankrupt the Genoese fish bank, but those giant factory ships flying global flags pull up nothing but immature cod these days.

So it was with somewhat guilty pleasure that I mopped up the last drops of the flaky cod essence and the olive oil. But guilt-free was my amazement at the perfect match made by the pale yellow Pigato from the Western Riviera. Crafted by winemaker Azienda Agricola Bruna, in the village of Ranzo, this bottle of single-vineyard “Le Russeghine” seemed genetically engineered to accompany minnows and cod to digestive paradise.

The Pigato also flowed easily in the company of Paolo’s homemade semifreddos and rustic hazelnut tart. Though not necessarily an adept of fish, I felt no envy watching other diners enjoy land-based dishes of veal or rabbit or poultry accompanied by luscious Ligurian red wines.

Yes, the reds too are good, some excellent. They’ll never be as big and flowery and popular as Tuscan reds. Like the olive oil, the tiny olives and the ethereal cooking, things Ligurian are small, delicate, and quiet. They don’t export well. The ham-hankering, spice-loving, sugar-and-alcohol adoring crowd will never embrace them. And that suits people like Paolo, Rosalia and their customers. The tables at Nonna Nina are always full, even in deepest winter, when the Riviera empties of its speedboats and backpackers. The sun of Tuscany, the herbs of Provence, the over-loved beauty of the Cinque Terre and the glitz of Portofino-just over the hill-feel like they’re those proverbial million miles away.

[flickr image via Jeremiah John McBride]

Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

David’s Discoveries: Portofino Perfect

Portofino’s horseshoe-shaped harbor and plumb-line cliffs are among the more actively gorgeous places on the Italian Riviera, as Italians call the boomerang-shaped region of northern Liguria. And Liguria is one of my favorite regions in the world for hiking, eating, dreaming and wandering.

A picture-postcard faux fishing port, Portofino is the Riviera’s most glamorous time warp: the villas of the super-rich perch on pine-studded promontories jutting into the Mediterranean. Billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi spend precious leisure hours here. “Precious” is the operative word.

Five hundred years ago one irreverent overnight traveler noted that in Portofino “you were charged not only for the room but the very air you breathed.”

Paying for the atmosphere is still what Portofino is all about.

But my wife Alison and I have a novel way enjoying Portofino for free. It includes some of the greatest views on the Mediterranean seaboard, plus lots of fresh air, and exercise. Naturally on either end of our “Portofino Perfect” walking experience (and even halfway along it) you can drop a few euros for a cappuccino, or spend $200 per head for a snack at a fashionable ristorante.We live much of the year in Paris, but spend several months-usually in fall and winter-in Liguria. Childhood attachments and more–call them elective and professional affinities–draw us back.

Why fall and winter (and spring, for that matter) and not summer, when you can swim and sunbathe? The easy answer is we prefer the low-season peace and ease of access. And I am not a lover of heat
.
Our fall-winter ritual is to trek to Portofino from the neighboring resort of Santa Margherita Ligure. This is an unwise proposition in summer, when the traffic on the narrow, serpentine coast road flies thick and fast. Until recently it was not only unwise, it was downright suicidal. That’s changed.

So to ring in the autumn, we laced up and marched toward Portofino on foot, marveling at the scenery: a jigsaw of conglomerate boulders and cliffs, offset by those patented Italian umbrella pines and deep blue waters, where sailboats, fishing boats and motorboats splashed and spluttered.

What’s refreshingly new on this walk is that cars, buses and trucks were unable to molest us.

A skillfully sprung boardwalk now runs from Santa Margherita Ligure a couple of corkscrew miles toward Portofino, via the oligarchs’ hamlet of Paraggi. It’s hunkered down in a hairpin curve a few hundred yards west of Berlusconi’s turreted castle.

The boardwalk ends at Paraggi. A steep, curving, perfectly paved forest pathway leads the remaining mile or so to Portofino.

We scrambled up it, amid the pines and strawberry trees–arbutus to a botanist–and drank in the scent. The wisteria and jasmine were having their third blooming, and the arbutus trees were covered with spiky orange fruit and tiny, sweet-smelling, bell-shaped blossoms.

Instead of battling summertime crowds to reach Portofino’s stone-paved harbor and airborne, black-and-white church of San Giorgio, we were practically alone. A garrison of cats guarded the Castello Brown-the hilltop fortress-mansion where Enchanted Aprilwas filmed.

Back down in the quaintly costly village, there were no lines at the fashion boutiques-not that either of us could afford to or wanted to shop. Shop for designer clothes in Portofino? That’s what the sun-bronzed vacationers who roll off the 200-foot motor-yachts do, before hitting perennial Portofino hangouts and glam, chic-issimo Lo Strainer, on the wharf.

More important to us, there was no wait for the onion focaccia at the sole bakery in Portofino. No, it is not the best focaccia in Liguria, but it’s not bad, and it won’t bankrupt you.

This year my understanding and appreciation of Portofino and of “Enchanted April” deepened as never before: I actually read the novel and was enchanted. Enchanted April, the book, is better than the movie. Read it, take this leisurely seaside stroll, and you too may understand why, back in the 1840s, Portofino became Italy’s first full-blown resort. You might also appreciate why it’s so popular today. Granted, “popular” isn’t the right word. In its peculiar, pretentious, gilded way, Portofino still manages to distill the essence of the Italian Riviera.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.comand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via Valentina_A]

Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011

gadling favorite destinations 2011

We travel a lot, to destinations both well-known and unfamiliar. In our defense, it is our job to travel like mad, to explore the world and then write about our discoveries.

Though most travel writers find something or other of interest in most places we visit, there are always those personal favorites that rise above the rest. This year, we decided to scribble our favorites down for you. Some of these spots we’re tipping for greater coverage in 2011, while others are simply tried-and-true favorites that we can’t stop raving about to our friends and the various publications that allow us to write for them. Over the course of this week, we’ll weigh in on our favorite hotels, airlines, gadgets, apps, and websites.

So, without further ado: Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011.

Mike Barish. St. Kitts. I genuinely enjoy how locals and visitors frequent the same beach bars and restaurants. During evenings on the strip, I’d recognize staff members from my hotel doing the same thing I was doing: enjoying the ocean breeze with a cocktail and some jerk chicken.

Kraig Becker. Everest Base Camp, Nepal. For adventure travelers, a visit to Everest Base Camp is one of the best treks in the world. The 12-day hike isn’t just about the destination, however, as you walk in the shadow of the Himalaya each day, passing through sleepy mountain villages steeped in Sherpa culture along the way. The scenery, and altitude, is a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Catherine Bodry: Ko Chang, Thailand and Sayulita, Mexico.

Joel Bullock: My favorite new roller coaster of 2010 is Carowinds’ Intimidator. Carowinds is located on the border of North and South Carolina in Charlotte in the heart of NASCAR country. It was only fitting that the park design a racing-themed roller coaster that bears the nickname of racing legend Dale Earnhadt. Intimidator is an exciting ride. It’s the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the South East.

David Downie: As a general trend, I revisit places that have fallen off the tourist maps, or that have been taken for granted, and delve deeper into favorite destinations such as Paris and Rome, which are infinitely rich and fascinating and satisfying. Cities: Paris (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Rome (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Genoa (food, wine, scenic beauty, history, magically restored architecture), Bologna (food, food, food and atmosphere and architecture), Helsinki (scenic beauty, atmosphere, seafood). Countryside destinations: Burgundy (wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Massif Central (hikes, scenery), Drome-Provencal (ditto, plus truffles and wine), Tuscany (art, culture, museums, wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Italian Riviera (ditto).

Don George. (1) Peru‘s Sacred Valley. I finally made it there this year and was enchanted by scenery, history, culture, people, cuisine. Machu Picchu is of course life-transformingly amazing but the other untouted ruins all around the valley are equally amazing. (2) Kyoto, Japan. The cobbled back quarters of this ancient city are as enchanting now as they were when I first visited 30 years ago. Tiny temples, impromptu shakuhachi concerts, apprentice geisha in full splendor. (3) Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Incredible island scenery, hospitable people, stunning lagoon, peaceful and laid-back lifestyle, thriving dance, carving, and textile arts scene.

Tom Johansmeyer. If you’re a cigar smoker, nothing beats Esteli, Nicaragua. On just about any budget, you can spend a few days down there. Make a few calls in advance, and you’ll have the opportunity to tour tobacco fields and cigar factories. Even if you aren’t a smoker, it’s amazing to see such craftsmanship in action.

Jeremy Kressmann. Hanoi, Vietnam for its great history and architecture, awesome cuisine, and intriguing Cold War sights. Secondly, Laos. The rugged north of the country has great hikes and the buzzing cultural capital of Luang Prabang is totally worthwhile.

Grant Martin. Bogotá. Forget what you’ve heard about kidnappings, drugs and danger, Bogotá is the new cosmopolitan capital of South America. With quaint, brick streets, a buzzing commercial district and a hip, young population, there’s not much to dislike about this place. Get there before the rest of North America figures it out.

Melanie Nayer. Shanghai. The city of old and new hit a turning point when it hosted the World Expo, and set the stage for Shanghai to become one of the most talked about–and visited–cities in the world.

Sean McLachlan. Ethiopia. Friendly people, rugged scenery, historic sites, and great coffee. What more could you want? Beautiful women, good food, adventure travel? Ethiopia has all that too.

Laurel Miller. Ecuador, especially Cotopaxi National Park (see above), because it’s stunningly beautiful, uncrowded, and there are loads of outdoor recreational opportunities. Ecuador is an amazingly diverse country, kind of like a mini-Peru but with very low-key tourism. There’s also great whitewater rafting/kayaking and mountaineering, fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful colonial cities, delicious regional foods, and the people are wonderful. There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the (admittedly spectacular) Galapagos.

Meg Nesterov. Bulgaria is cheap, creative, and easy to explore. Several of my most well-traveled friends already rave about it. Go now before tourism overexposes the country.

Heather Poole. Positano, Italy. It’s just so beautiful and the food is amazing. I’m a flight attendant and I have a four year-old son, as well as a husband who travels over 100,000 miles a year for business. Our life is like a game of tag. So when it comes to vacations all we want to do is relax. I love to be able to sit on a balcony and let the vacation come to me.

McLean Robbins. Telluride. It’s not new, but as ski towns go it feels non-commercial and relatively untouched. You’ll find truly friendly people (and your fair share of under-the-radar celebrities), but also the country’s best extreme skiing. And it looks like heaven when it snows!

Annie Scott. I’m big on Vienna. It’s a magical city that embodies everything I think of when I think of Europe: culture, history, cathedrals and class. I think the Swiss Riviera may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Lake Geneva looks so pristine you could drink it, and the French influence gives everything from the dining to the shopping that elusive je ne sais quoi. Lastly, I had a marvelous trip this year in Zambia where the wildlife was rampant and the scenery was enchanting and unexpectedly dynamic: sweeping plains, dreamlike riverscapes and incredible trees. The thrill of being immersed in the bush is hard to match.

Alex Robertson Textor. Lima, Peru continues to pop. While the Inca Trail is old hat, Lima is emerging as a major destination on its own. Perhaps most notable is the Peruvian capital’s excellent restaurant scene, which is as disarmingly inexpensive as it is top-notch. I also have to mention green, rustic, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dominica as the Caribbean’s top adventure destination. Dominica has a number of fantastic eco-lodges that showcase the island’s natural beauty wonderfully and are priced reasonably.

Karen Walrond. As a diver, I love Cayman. Love it. Very touristy, but the diving is beyond anything I’ve seen, and i’ve been diving all over the world. And I’m partial to Grand Riviere in my homeland of Trinidad, which isn’t touristy at all. Between April and June, you can see Giant Leatherback turtles nesting in Grand Riviere.

[Image: Flickr | alepheli]