New Day in North Africa
Byrsa Hill, in Tunis’s upmarket suburb of Carthage, makes a dizzying aerie to watch the sun set into the bay. The vantage point might be the Light Bar at the decidedly 21st-century Villa Didon, but Phoenician streets lay deep beneath and, down on the waters’ edge, the scalloped foreshore traces a Roman naval port. Inland, the coils of the ancient medina and the colonial grid of the early 20th century French city tell other chapters of Tunis’s story of conquest, resistance, flux, and assimilation, from mythic Dido to the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.
The city’s layered charms are something that many pre-revolution visitors missed entirely, on their way to the Sahara or the Mediterranean beach resorts of Hammamet and Sousse. These sun-holiday tribes all but abandoned Tunisia after 2011, but with a relaxation of most travel warnings to the country, a new breed of traveler has replaced them. They come to discover Tunis’s past, yes, and now also its cultural energy, what Ahmed Loubiri, the organizer of international electronic music festival Ephemere, sees as a widespread “urge to be creative.” Loubiri says this ranges from “random jam sessions in garages and coffee shops to humongous festivals.” Galleries such as Selma Feriani and Hope Contemporary continue to thrive in the neighborhoods of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said, and Tunis’s antiquities museum, the Bardo, has reopened with an ambitious new wing.
“It’s a Tunisian habit to know how to receive guests. We get back as much as we give,” says Marouane ben Miled, who runs La Chambre Bleue, a medina B&B, suggesting that this fresh popularity might also mark the beginning of a fertile conversation. —Donna Wheeler
When to Go: April-October (summer) for beach vacations; November-March for golf and spa vacations
How to Get Around: Take a metered yellow taxi from Tunis-Carthage Airport (cabs queue up outside the terminal) to your hotel. Use yellow taxis and white louages (shared cars or vans) with red stripes painted on the front and sides to get around the city. Travel in the medina is on foot. A light-rail route connects the city center to Carthage; however, trains are overcrowded during commuter hours.
Where to Stay: The Residence Tunis has 155 rooms and nine suites, each elegantly appointed with ivory Alicante marble floors, private balconies (request a sea view), and calming beige and white tones. Moorish architectural features, including domed ceilings, arched alcoves, and cupolas, pay homage to Tunisia’s Arab-Andalusian heritage. The resort’s opulent Spa and Thalasso offers massage therapies and other restorative treatments incorporating natural northern Tunisian elements such as sea salts, heated seashells, and marine mud.
What to Eat or Drink: Northern Tunisian cuisine is an aromatic, cross-cultural melange blending Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and African influences. Exotic herbs and spices, including anise, cloves, ginger, saffron, and potent harissa (hot chili-pepper paste) are used to season popular dishes such as couscous au poisson (with fish), merguez (lamb sausage), and kabkabou (baked sea bream with tomatoes and capers). Sip mint tea and sample authentic Tunisian dishes in style at the venerable Dar El Jeld, housed in an 18th-century palace on the western edge of the medina. Reservations recommended. Closed Sundays.
What to Buy: Look for perfume, incense, gold and silver jewelry, silk, and other gifts in the medina’s lively souks—and be prepared to bargain. Shops and stalls are clustered by trade in specific areas, making it easier to compare prices and quality. At the Souq des Chéchias, watch artisans shape knitted tubes (dyed red and dried) into traditional Tunisian red caps, or chéchias.
What to Read Before You Go: In Tunis, family storytelling traditionally is a women’s ritual that takes place in private. Behind Closed Doors: Women’s Oral Narratives in Tunis (English translation, Rutgers University Press, 1996) is a collection of 47 of these stories told by three Tunisian women from the city’s prominent Beldi community.
Cultural Tip: Tourists are easy targets for con artists, thieves, and pickpockets (particularly in the city’s crowded marketplaces). If you are a crime victim, immediately contact the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.
Helpful Links: Tunisia National Tourism Office and Come to Tunisia
Fun Fact: The painted doors found in the medina are brightly colored for a reason. There’s a special meaning in each color, including yellow ochre (the color loved by God in the Koran); green (the color of paradise); and blue (recalling the blue of Sidi Bou Said village north of Tunis).
Insider Tip From Donna Wheeler: Up the stairs from the push-and-shove of the medina’s heaving main drag is El Ali, a serene, book-strewn café and cultural center where tangy citronnade with almonds is served on a terrace facing the Almohad-style minaret of the ancient Zitouna mosque.
The Original Machu Picchu
The Inca emperors had quite the eye for spectacular real estate. Upon taking power, each of these great lords picked a breathtaking piece of property for a new royal residence. The emperor Pachacuti likely built the most famous of these royal digs—Machu Picchu—on a mountainous ridge of cloud forest northwest of Cusco. But his successor, Topa Inca, was no slouch either: his presumed estate, Choquequirao, drapes temples, plazas, and fountains along an orchid-strewn mountain 61 miles west of Cusco.
At an elevation of 9,800 feet, it lacks easy access by railway or bus. But the cardio-intensive climb is well worth it. Choquequirao looks much as it did when the Incas finally abandoned it. And travelers often have the place nearly to themselves: only 20 to 30 people journey there each day in the high season. “It’s like Machu Picchu in the 1940s,” says Gary Ziegler, an American archaeologist who has written a book on Choquequirao.
But all that may be changing. The Peruvian government is studying the possibility of constructing a tramway to Choquequirao, hoping to lure travelers away from the crowded vistas of Machu Picchu. It’s a prospect that saddens Ziegler. Choquequirao, he says, “may be the last pristine royal Inca estate in the mountains.” —Heather Pringle, @hpringle
When to Go: June-August (winter), the dry season, is the best time for hiking. Be prepared for overnight temperatures below freezing.
How to Get Around: Choquequirao’s remote location makes joining a small group tour or booking a custom trek the most convenient option. Cusco-based Bioandean Expeditions offers four- and five-night Choquequirao-only tours (plus Choquequirao-Machu Picchu options) led by bilingual (Spanish/English) guides. From Lima, take the one-hour flight to Cusco, followed by a roughly four-hour ride to Cachora, the starting point for Choquequirao hikes. Tours by Bioandean Expeditions include all ground transportation, plus meals, tent camping, and porters to haul your gear.
Where to Stay: Built as a family home in the early 1800s, the intimate Hotel Andenes al Cielo in Cusco has 15 guest rooms off a tri-level, open-air courtyard. The design and name (andenes are cultivation terraces, cielo is sky) were inspired by the surrounding panorama, which you can take in from the rooftop patio. Rates include airport transfers, breakfast, and, if needed, oxygen to help you acclimate to the high altitude.
Where to Eat: The local specialty is cuy (guinea pig), typically whole-roasted with teeth and ears intact. If you’re game, Pachapapa restaurant in Cusco’s San Blas Square is the place to try cuy (allow 45 minutes) and other traditional Peruvian dishes, such as alpaca anticuchos (skewers) and pachamanca (meat and potato stew baked in an underground oven).
Where to Shop: The nonprofit Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco works to preserve Andean ancestral textile traditions by supporting Cusqueñan weavers. The center’s nine partnering communities use plants, insects, and minerals to dye the wool that's woven into brightly colored blankets, shawls, bags, and other textiles sold online and in the center’s Cusco museum store. Each item is tagged with the name and photo of the weaver, who earns the full purchase price when the product is sold.
What to Read Before You Go: Anthropologist, documentary filmmaker, and writer Kim MacQuarrie’s 522-page The Last Days of the Incas reads like an epic novel, yet it is a balanced, detailed, and sweeping history of the empire.
Practical Tip: Spend a couple of days in Cusco to get acclimated to the high-altitude environment before attempting the hike to Choquequirao.
Helpful Links: Peru Tourism and VisitPeru
Fun Fact: Researchers believe that the placement of Choquequirao’s famous llama-shaped stone inlays wasn’t random. Viewed from a distance, it appears that the animals are grouped in compact packs led by a dominant llama and following a figure thought to be a llamero (shepherd). This deliberate formation is a realistic reflection of how domesticated llamas would have traveled.
Insider Tip From Gary Zieglar: Look closely at the walls and you will see patches of light-orange tinted plaster. In its prime, Choquequirao would have looked like the adobe pueblos of Santa Fe.
Sark, Channel Islands
Tradition's Last Stand
In Sark, time flows like molasses. Sarkees will mark the 450th anniversary of feudalism in 2015; the tiny Channel Island off the coast of Normandy abolished the medieval form of governance in 2008. But old ways linger: The two banks have no ATMs; the unpaved roads lack street lights; cars are banned.
Signposts usefully give distances in walking minutes, for in this unhurried place ambling is what one does—or cycling, or riding in a horse-drawn carriage. Wander country roads bordered by fieldstone walls and storybook cottages, past foxgloves and bluebells and 600 other kinds of wildflowers, taking note of butterflies, seabirds, Guernsey cows. Destination? Perhaps the sea caves of Gouliot Headland, to find anemones. Or La Marguerite Cottage, to buy duck eggs from Sue Adams’s streetside honor box. Or Venus Pool, for a swim at low-tide. Or especially La Coupee, to walk the skinny track atop an isthmus 300 feet above the sea.
A visitor’s daytime choices abound. But late at night, there’s just one: the sky. Sark is the first island certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. Time may have swept feudalism aside. The stars are timeless. —Peter Johansen
When to Go:April 3-May 11, 2015Channel Islands Heritage Festivalcelebrating the 70th anniversary of the islands’ liberation from occupying German forces; July 3-5, Sark Folk Festival; July 17-19,Sheep Raceweekend; September 11-13, the inaugural Opera Weekend, including master classes, an evening opera gala, and islandwide events
How to Get Around:Sark only is accessible by boat. From London Gatwick, flyto Guernsey, then take the 50-minuteIsle of Sark Shipping Companyferry from St. Peter Port Harbour to Sark. Travel on Sark is on foot or by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. There are no paved roads and no motorized vehicles for transportation.
Where to Stay:The 23-room (including suites) Stocks Hotelis a comfortable, family-owned estate with a storied history. The Smugglers Barsection of the original granite farmhouse dates to 1741, and during German occupation in World War II, the hotel housed German officers (their former escape tunnel is now a wine cellar). Dogs are welcome in designated ground-floor guest rooms, and several rooms connect to accommodate families.
Where to Eat or Drink:Freshly caught seafood (lobster, scallops, crab) is available at most restaurants, and menus often also include island-raised beef, lamb, and pork. For dinner, try the roasted sea scallops with garlic butter at the La Sablonnerie Hotel restaurant. The hotel’s outdoor Tea Garden serves another Sark must-try: cream tea—a piping hot pot of tea plus fluffy scones topped with cream and homemade jam.
What to Buy:Stop by the Caragh Chocolatesfactory to buy handmade sweets, including Sark cream and tiramisu truffles, Sark cream and champagne chocolate “horses," and fresh walnut ganache. Look in local shops for Sark’s Larderrelish, chutney, sauces, pickles, jelly (such as mint, tarragon, rosemary, chili), and peach and brandy conserve.
Practical Tip:Label your luggage with your name and where you’ll be staying. When you arrive on Sark, leave your luggage on the boat. Ferries and charters contract local porters to load visitors’ bags into a tractor-drawn wagon for delivery to local hotels, guesthouses, and inns.
What to Read Before You Go:Co-authored by Annie Barrows and the late Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society(The Dial Press, 2008)is a novel set in post-World War II England and crafted out of a series of letters written between Channel Island locals and a London author.
Helpful Links:Visit Guernseyand Sark Tourism
Fun Fact:Although its approximately 600 residents are British citizens, Sark isn’t officially part of the United Kingdom. Sark, Guernsey, and Alderney are administered by the bailiwick of Guernsey, which is not represented in British parliament or the European Union. So if you’ve purchased travel or health insurance for coverage in the U.K., you may want to confirm that you’re also covered in the Channel Islands.
Insider Tip From Peter Johansen:The restaurant at Dixcart Bay Hotel, once a haunt of exiled French novelist Victor Hugo, was last year named the British Isles’ sustainable restaurant of the year.
A Diamond Is Forever
Stories of Hyderabad’s poetic past weave amid strings of programming code in this southeastern India city that was home to one of the richest men in the world, Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last ruling nizam of Hyderabad. Now a seedbed for many global IT brands, Cyberabad (as it’s dubbed) is where you can hear the muezzin’s call above the trafffic din generated by aging Urdu scholars and young software engineers alike. Here, ancient boulders guard the peripheries of HITEC City, while new rooftop bars hem in lakes and gardens. The opulent Taj Falaknuma Palace hotel perches atop a hill overlooking the Old City, where Irani cafés thrive alongside fifth-generation pearl merchants and the finest fountain pen makers. Prone to exaggeration, the Hyderabadis’ conversations within these cafés often linger over three cups of chai and four hours.
A good Muslim ruler was expected to be an expert with the pen as well as the sword; the city’s founder, Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, is credited with the first published anthology of Urdu poetry. The later ruling dynasty, the Nizams, provided patronage to poets within their court. Attend a mushaira (poetry symposium) for a good introduction to the city’s literary legacy. There’s also the Hyderabad Literary Festival in January, followed by February’s Deccan Festival, during which the most passionate performances involve qawwali, an 800-year-old form of Sufi music. Another evocative setting to witness qawwali is Chowmahalla Palace, the recently restored residence of the Nizams. “Dakhan—Hyderabad—is the diamond, the world is the ring,” says historian Narendra Luther, quoting the court poet Mulla Vajahi. “The ring’s splendor lies in the diamond.” —Simar Preet Kaur
When to Go: November-March (dry season) for relatively mild temperatures (about 85º to 95°F); January 23-26, Hyderabad Literary Festival; February 25-March 1, Deccan Festival celebrating the varied cultures of the Deccan, a vast area stretching from the Maharashtra in the north to Karnataka in the south, Goa in the west, and Andhra Pradesh in the east
How to Get Around: Hyderabad is just over a two-hour flight from New Delhi or about a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Mumbai. Many large hotels offer airport transfers, and taxis are readily available. Hiring a private car and driver or booking custom day tours with a local company like Detours India are convenient ways to visit historic sites. Travel around the Old City on foot. For short trips, use the yellow auto rickshaws (three-wheeled mini-taxis). Before getting in, ask about any preset fees and insist that the driver turn on the meter.
Where to Stay: The regal treatment at the sumptuous Taj Falaknuma Palace includes airport transfers for guests in the Grand Presidential and Grand Royal suites (nightly rates starting at about $2,000). For a more budget-friendly Taj Group option, stay at the sleek wood-and-glass Vivanta by Taj-Begumpet, Hyderabad (from $120 per night). The nine-story hotel has 181 rooms and suites, an outdoor pool, and four restaurants.
What to Eat or Drink: Try the ubiquitous Hyderabad street food biryani (fragrant rice with meat, egg, or vegetables) at no-frills restaurants like Hotel Shadab in Ghansi Bazaar and Grand Hotel in Abids. And although Tata Starbucks (the joint venture between Starbucks Coffee Company and Tata Global Beverages Ltd.) was scheduled to open its first Hyderabad location in late 2014, the city’s signature brew remains Irani chai, a sweet, milky tea typically served with Osmania biskoot (sweet and salty biscuits).
What to Buy: At the open-air markets and bazaars around Charminar, shop for Hyderabad’s famous pearl jewelry (necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and pendants) and handcrafted bangles. Jewel-studded, enamel-covered, and glittery gold bangle bracelets are stacked floor-to-ceiling in the Laad, or Chudi, Bazaar.
Cultural Tip: While English is widely spoken in Hyderabad and throughout the state of Telangana, Telugu is the official and most commonly spoken language, followed by Urdu.
What to Read Before You Go: Samina Ali’s Madras on Rainy Days: A Novel (Picador, 2004) is set in modern-day Hyderabad, where the Indian-American protagonist is preparing for an arranged Muslim marriage to a near-total stranger.
Helpful Links: Channel6 Magazine, Made in Hyderabad, and Hyderabad Tourism
Fun Fact: Hyderabad is home to Ramoji Film City, which, according to Guinness World Records, is the largest film studio complex in the world. The 1,666-acre site has 47 sound stages, with permanent sets that include replica railway stations and temples. In addition to the working movie and television production facilities, Ramoji Film City includes a Disneyesque theme park.
Insider Tip From Simar Preet Kaur: Hyderabad takes its culinary pursuits seriously. Try biryani at Paradise Restaurant, haleem during Ramadan, and a cup of Irani chai with native Osmania biscuits in the Old City.