The Blue Mountains and Lilianfels
Microscopic droplets of oil from the leaves of dense eucalyptus forests hang in the air, refracting the sunlight to create the misty blue haze that gave this park its name. Just ninety minutes from Sydney, the Blue Mountains are a glorious playground of twenty-six small townships that offer everything from antiques shopping to bushwalking.
The mountains are not even really mountains but a vast sandstone tableland whose dramatic eroded scenery is best enjoyed from lookouts like Govett’s Leap. Echo Point is the best place to view the park’s famous sandstone pillars, the Three Sisters.
Just west of here are two of the park’s highlights: The Scenic Skyway, Australia’s only gondola ride, travels 1,000 feet above the canyon, and the Katoomba Scenic Railway, an open-sided cograil incline, descends at 52 degrees but feels twice as steep. If they’re not hairy’ enough for you, there’s still the Zig-Zag railway near the town of Lithgow, an engineering marvel of switchbacks and bridges built in the 1860s.
You can catch a highlight or two on a day trip from Sydney, but the area really deserves a longer stay, and for that, the 19th-century Lilianfels hotel is hard to beat. It’s one of Australia’s best getaway destinations, with a fantastic setting, magnificent panoramas, and Darley’s, a smart, award-winning restaurant where the ingredients of your traditional meal come from the surrounding country.
Looking every bit like a gracious European home, the hotel is perched 3,300 feet above sea level, almost at the edge of the cliff at Echo Point, with the canyons and ravines of the Jamison Valley below. After all the outdoor adventure, you can sit by one of the hotel’s inviting fireplaces (even on summer evenings the air is crisp), or enjoy a proper afternoon tea served on a veranda overlooking acres of English gardens and the misty eucalyptus forests. Full spa facilities further tempt one to cocoon.
Where the Oldest Living Rain Forest on Earth Meets the Great Barrier Reef
Two of Australia’s World Heritage sites, the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, come together at Cape Tribulation, so named in 1770 by a peeved Captain James Cook “because here began all my troubles” when his ship hit a coral bed.
Protected within the Cape Tribulation and Daintree National Parks and believed to have been the evolutionary cradle for much of Australia’s unique wildlife, the cape’s rain forest contains trees that are 3000 years old, and many can be traced back over 120 million years. Dinosaurs have disappeared, but little else seems to have changed.
To immerse yourself entirely in this jungle exotica, choose from two outstanding eco-tourism properties that comfortably coexist within miles of each other. Progressive forerunners in the design of environmental lodges, both Silky Oaks and Coconut Beach Lodge are swathed in their own private jungle. Naturalists on staff will point out the unique ecology’, and a concentration of flora and fauna species that has no parallel on earth.
The Charm of Old Mexico in a Hilltop Silver Capital
Silver-hungry tourists make a beeline for this delightful colonial-era hill town, whose zigzag streets are lined with more than 250 silver shops. The shop-till-you-drop group won’t be disappointed by the quantity and refined quality of Taxco’s silver objects and jewelry, but sightseers will also find a charming town of red-roofed, whitewashed houses piled on top of one another.
Cobblestone streets lead to the Plaza Borda, the main square, named after the town’s 18th-century benefactor, a miner who inaugurated Taxco’s second silver boom (the first happened with the 16th-century arrival of the conquistadores). In gratitude for the bounty (since depleted) that made him wealthy, the French-born Borda financed the construction of a Baroque twin-towered church, Iglesia de Santa Prisca, in the square.
It is considered one of the most elaborate examples of the extravagant churrigueresque architecture in Mexico—no expense was spared either for the exquisitely carved pink-stone facade or for the interior, where twelve gilded altarpieces vie for attention.
The church and plaza are at the heart of Taxco’s renowned Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, the most compelling in Mexico—self-flagellating, black-hooded, bare-torsoed penitents are only part of the lavish spectacle that involves the entire town.
Take advantage of Taxco’s magnificent views, especially romantic at night, from the top-notch restaurant and Mexican-style bungalows that make up the beautifully landscaped hilltop Hacienda del Solar.
Among the Most Romantic Views on Earth
Much of Acapulco’s sultry reputation as Hollywood’s south-of-the-border beach club has been shattered by a groundswell of tourism, but the heart-stopping beauty of the bay is eternal. With physical endowments that have often been compared to those of Rio de Janeiro, Acapulco also features unbeatable sunsets over its 7-mile horseshoe-shaped bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Avoid the package tourists and revel in unparalleled water views by checking in at the Hotel Las Brisas, the legendary hilltop grande dame that has shared Acapulco’s fame and high profile for more than three decades. Every day is a honeymoon here: Secluded fuchsia- and bougainvillea-draped casitas boast private pools filled with floating hibiscus flowers and breathtaking views of the bay. The hotels Bella Vista alfresco restaurant is aptly named.
Most guests never leave Las Brisas’s 750 tropical acres on the lush mountainside, but those who do jump in one of the hotel’s hallmark pink-and-white-striped jeeps and head 6 miles north to the nearby fishing village of Pie de la Cuesta, a laid-back spot where a hammock and the roar of the surf evoke a long-ago Acapulco.
A Celebrated Artists’ Colony and a National Monument
Mexican and international artists and writers are drawn 6,200 feet above sea level to the mountaintop town of San Miguel de Allende by the glory of its Old Mexico charm and the purity of its seductive light. Among its many attributes are restored mansions of noble families, 18th-century churches, the always lively laurel tree-shaded El Jardin square, outdoor cafes, and excellent restaurants.
In addition, a still-active and centuries-old trade in traditional Mexican artisanship helps make San Miguel a vigorous cultural center. Founded in 1542 by wealthy Spanish cattle barons and retaining an aura of prosperity that came later from the Guanajuato region’s lucrative silver mines, this casual but sophisticated town draws a mix of well-heeled Mexico City weekenders, intelligentsia, international tourists, and a growing community of American residents.
Much of its fame has been secured by the long-term success of the Casa de Sierra Nevada, San Miguel’s most refined hotel (and one of Mexico’s finest inns). Built in 1580 and transformed into the sumptuous home of the Archbishop of Guanajuato in the late 1700s, it is comprised of seven colonial-era manor houses.
A welcoming staff gives new meaning to the expression “Mi casa es su casa.” Each distinctive suite has its own personality and decor: Some have wood burning fireplaces and their own courtyard patio or private garden, while many enjoy full views from the unique mountaintop vantage point for which San Miguel is known.
A Colonial Showcase Resonates with Dance and Song
With its historic architecture and old-world courtliness, Guanajuato is the picture-perfect location for the Cervantes Arts Festival, an annual affair that keeps alive the image of the errant knight Don Quixote, tilting at windmills and fighting to preserve the romantic side of the Spanish soul.
On any given day, the narrow cobblestone lanes resonate with the music of the estudiantinas—local university students dressed as strolling 16th-century troubadours and armed with mandolins and guitars, evoking the Andalusia of centuries ago.
The multiweek Festival Internacional Cervantino is considered one of the most important celebrations in Latin America, and it floods the city’s and state’s many venues with well-known performing artists from around the world. Anything being performed in the Teatro Juarez, the center of Guanajuato’s cultural life, is worth seeing, if only to admire the theater’s ornate metalwork, gilt carving, and thick velvet.
The opulent turn-of-the-century theater—considered by Enrico Caruso to be one of the finest in the Americas—is located on the Jardin de la Union, the former mining capital’s main square and ultimate gathering place for the festival’s more spontaneous alfresco performances.
The venerable Posada Santa Fe, the oldest and most charming inn in town, has a number of rooms that overlook the plaza and the festival’s movable concert; its outdoor cafe downstairs promises front-row seats and some of the best regional food in town.
A Breathtaking Train Ride Through a Rugged Wilderness
This little-known, inaccessible region of the Sierra Madre contains one of the greatest canyon complexes in the world, inhabited by one of the most isolated peoples, the Tarahumara Indians. Las Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon, is actually a network of deep gorges, five river systems, six major intertwined canyons, and 200 minor ones that are cumulatively four times larger (and often deeper) than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Remote and largely unexplored, it is best seen from a window seat aboard the glass-domed deluxe South Orient Line, which travels the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway. Perhaps the most scenic train ride in North America, it is 400 miles and thirteen Wild West hours from Chihuahua to Los Mochis on the Pacific coast, snaking through pine-forested highlands and wild ravines.
To experience the real grandeur of this rugged wilderness, take advantage of the stops. At 7,300 feet, the midway station of Creel offers entry into the heart of the back country, either with organized treks or through a stay at the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge, where native guides can be hired.
The endless maze of hiking trails through the highlands and lowlands of this enormous canyon land and the opportunity to interact with the shy and beguiling Tarahumara make your stay here unique. There’s no electricity at the Sierra Lodge, but a toqued chef prepares surprisingly good local dishes, and the vast views are what you dreamed of.
The silver-mining village of Batopilas was once one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico; it now sits forgotten on the riverbank at the bottom of the canyon, amid lush subtropical foliage and flowers. Sierra Lodge can arrange for accommodation there, enabling you to take the most thrilling, cliff-hanging road trip you’re ever likely to take: a 6,000-foot descent into the mouth of the canyon that takes six to eight spine-tingling hours. Those who think they’ve seen it all should opt for the “suicide seats” atop the lodge’s Chevy van, a veritable roller coaster.
Most Haunting of the Ancient Mayan Cities
In a dense virgin jungle at the foothills of the Usumacinta Mountains lies one of the most extraordinary ruins of the Mayan culture. Occupying a high, strategically situated plateau, Palenque blossomed during the middle to late Classic Period of the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. as a center of art, religion, and astronomy.
It was one of the first Mayan sites to be discovered and remains one of the most majestic and best preserved. Its elegant architecture, descriptive stucco carvings, calligraphy, and decorative friezes reached great artistic heights, and much has been left in situ.
Other artworks are displayed in a small museum recently opened near the entrance to the grounds, or in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Only a fraction of the monuments have been excavated, the foremost the Templo de las Inscripciones (Temple of the Incriptions), a stepped pyramid that holds the extraordinary tomb of Palenque’s ruler, King Pacal, who died in A.D. 683 (his burial mask, made of 200 fragments of jade, is in the museum in Mexico City).
The perfect complement to the Palenque experience is the lodging at Chan-Kah Ruinas. Its simple stone and wooden bungalows are spread out over 50 acres of primordial jungle like a timeless Mayan village. Your wake-up call comes at dawn when the tropical birds begin their chorus.
An Anthropologist’s Dream in the Heart of the Mayan Highlands
People-watching is the most exciting pastime in this blissfully untouched, high-altitude colonial city. More than thirty different Indian tribes— descendants of the ancient Mayas, known for their woven textiles and other highly sophisticated crafts—trek into town to fill the daily mercado, especially on Saturday. Here near-extinct languages like Tzotzil or Tzeltal and beautiful headdresses and embroidered costumes decorated with tassels and ribbons distinguish one tribe from another.
No trip to San Cristobal is complete without a visit to Na Bolom, home of the much-respected archaeologist Frans Bloom, which he shared with his wife, ethnologist-journalist-photographer Gertrude Bloom, until her death in 1994.
The 19th-century hacienda functions as a museum, cultural gathering point, and guesthouse. It is the headquarters for continuing research on the area’s constellation of highland villages, where the cultural and religious traditions of the local people thrive.
Communal dinners at the hacienda, in a salon filled with art and artifacts, guarantee an interesting mix of visiting scholars and like-minded travelers. Spending a night or more at the guest house may well be the highlight of your journey to this little-traveled corner of Mexico.
Who’s Watching Whom?
At San Ignacio Lagoon, a magical place halfway down the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula, whales regularly rise out of the sea to touch and be touched by humans. In one of the most remarkable annual migrations nature offers, Pacific gray whales make the 5,000-mile trip from the chilly feeding grounds of the Arctic to the safety of the warm, shallow waters of the Baja Peninsula for their breeding and calving season (the calves are about 15 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds at birth).
Several thousand whales may visit San Ignacio every winter, and there are sometimes up to 400 in the lagoon at one time. Las amistosas (the friendly ones) is the local nickname of the whales, which regularly approach the small panga fishing boats to be stroked and touched by awed whale-watchers, in a genial gesture that has stumped scientists for more than twenty years, since it was first recorded.
Nearly driven into extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gray whales now return in greater numbers every year and were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. Baja’s Pacific lagoons and fifty uninhabited islands, often referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos, are renowned for their exceptional marine and bird life. Hundreds of dolphins accompany the gray whales, while humpbacks, finbacks, and Brydes whales make regular appearances along with blue whales, the largest animals on the planet.