by Ashley Lodato
Often called the most beautiful harbor in the world, Hydra, Greece is the gemstone in the crown of the Saronic Islands in the Aegean Sea. No cars are allowed in Hydra, so the only transport is by donkey, bicycle or foot, which gives the small but bustling town of Hydra Port an intimate feel. Although A-list celebrities are frequent guests to the island and its promenade shops and restaurants cater to an upscale clientele, Hydra manages to maintain a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for mainstream travelers, both maritime visitors and those who arrive via water taxi from Piraeus.
Throughout its history of human habitation beginning around the second half of the third millennium BCE, Hydra has cycled through periods of poverty and prosperity. Farming sustained the island for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the 1970s that Hydra really found its groove as an artist enclave, hosting jet-setting actors, songwriters, painters, and socialites.
What will you do on your visit to Hydra?
Kaminia Beach is located just 1/2 mile west of Hydra. With its shallow waters, it's perfect for families and children. An array of cafes and restaurants within walking distance of the beach complete the appeal.
Vlychos Beach can be reached from Hydra by water taxi or on foot. Its long pebbled beach is relatively undisturbed and tends to be quieter than most.
Although Spilia Beach is more of a rock diving site than a proper beach, it offers the most exciting plunges into the turquoise sea surrounding it. The Spilia Beach Club serves food and refreshments nearby.
The remote Agios Nikolaos beach is a quintessential Greek beach: aquamarine waters, sandy stretches, and a sheltered cove. It's accessible by foot or boat from Hyra.
EAT & DRINK
Traditional Greek food like tzatziki, moussaka, ouzo, and kleftiko can be found at most of the Hydra restaurants serving Greek fare. Seafood fans will delight in the freshness of the catch of the day, served at most of the seafood eateries. And the Italian influence looms large in Hydra, as evidenced by the many eateries offering Italian food with a Greek twist.
When you're not eating or on the beach, climb the bastions that flank the harbor, visit one of Hydra's 3 major museums (Historical Archives Museum, Ecclesiastical Museum, Kountouriotis), tour the main cathedral--the Monastery of the Assumption of Virgin Mary--or ride horses through town or up steep trails, along the beach, or up steep trails leading to the island's interior.
The capital of Yucatan, Mexico, Merida has a vivid Mayan past and colonial history and is rife with cultural heritage and archaeological sites. Coupled with the fact that it's surrounded by nature reserves, diverse wildlife, cenotes, and tiny charming villages, Merida should be on the bucket list of any international traveler.
The blend of Mayan inhabitants and Spanish conquistadors creates a dynamic cultural identity for this town, and its proximity to Quintana Roo's 5-star resorts make it a popular place for visitors from all over the world, giving Merida an international flavor.
You'll never be at a loss for things to do and see in Merida.
You've undoubtedly heard of--or even visited--the recently designated wonder of the world Chichen Itza (Mexico's most impressive Mayan ruin), but Merida offers easy access to smaller (and less crowded) sites such as Uxmal, Mayapan Ruins, and Ruta Puuc.
Yes, wild flamingos. Like the lawn art, but so much better. Just 90 minutes west of Merida, the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestun is home to thousands of wild flamingos. A boat tour is the best way to experience these animals live, outside of the aisles of dime-store kitsch.
CENOTES & CAVES
66 million years ago an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula and in addition to wiping out the dinosaurs, also created a vast network of limestone sinkholes and caves. Swimming in a cenote is truly a magical experience, as Mayan shamans determined when they performed spiritual rituals in these pools.
If swimming is not your thing, you can still explore the Yucatan's cave system through dry caverns like Grutas de Calcehtok or Grutas de Loltun.
THE YELLOW CITY
There's no yellow brick road, but the town of Izamal does a fine job of promoting the golden color through its architecture. Mayan ruins are interspersed throughout the town, and visitors can spend a whole day just finding them and snapping photos of the buildings' unique harmony.
Crafts Bazar García Rejón is packed with stalls selling Mexican crafts, fruits and vegetables, flowers--oh, the flowers! (anthuriums! gingers! heliconiums!)--toys, chilis, handbags, salsas, and jewelry. It's a feast for the eyes, and if you can't help but indulge, rest assured that pricing is typically quite reasonable.
You won't want to miss Merida's rich cultural history, which can be best experienced through its museums. The Museo del Mundo Maya de Merida is a glimpse into the Yucatán’s ancient history of Mayan life and colonization. The Museum of Anthropology and History features photography and Mayan artifacts, while the Popular Art Museum showcases ceramics and fibers from various places in Mexico.
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Luang Prabang Province in northern Laos, was considered the royal capital of the country until 1975, when Ventiane donned that mantle. Unlike many places in Laos, Luang Prabang has been consistently inhabited for thousands of years and was in 1995 designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Luang Prabang is seated in the heart of a mountainous region in Southeast Asia, surrounded by a lush peninsula. Its blend of urban architecture with that of the colonial era make it an aesthetic and interesting townscape, highlighting the effective juxtaposition and harmony of these two distinct cultural traditions.
With its stunning setting, Luang Prabang is the ideal place to get active. Options for mountain biking, road cycling, river rafting, and whitewater kayaking present themselves at every turn. If you prefer to enjoy the scenery at a more leisurely pace, you can't go wrong with trekking, for just a few hours or even for several days. You'll see majestic waterfalls, native flora and fauna, and most likely experience interactions with members of the Hmong tribe, who make their home in the hill villages, or the Khmu who are located in the lower regions of lush tropical jungle.
TEMPLE WALKING TOUR
Whether you hire a guide or tackle a self-guided tour, you won't regret visiting Luang Prabang's temples. These glittering mosaic-covered temples--known as wats and vats in Laos--are both impressive and other-worldly. With paper flags, sacred sand pagodas, monks praying, candles flickering, and incense burning, these historic temples represent the essence of sacred. Don't miss Wat Visou, Wat Souvanna Khiri, or Wat Xieng Thong.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Roasted chiles, galangal, roast garlic, lemon grass, basil, banana flower, kaffir lime, padaek (fermented fish sauce)...the flavors of Laos are irresistible. Elevate your senses through the local cuisine, beginning at the morning market. Located near the National Museum, the market is piled high with vegetables, fish, rice. Locals eat skewers of fish or crispy riverweed, but if you arrive at the market too early for street meat, look for vendors steaming up bite-sized coconut cakes served up in banana leaves. Laotian plantation-grown hot or cold coffee and a croissant (first introduced when Laos was part of French Indochine) serve as breakfast or a mid-morning snack.
For lunch and dinner, you'll undoubtedly eat something involving sticky rice, which is traditionally eaten by hand. Laotians eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world, and when in Luang Prabang...
The most well-known Laotian dish is lapp, which is spicy marinated meat or fish wtih herbs, greens, and spices. The green papaya salad is divine and the nam khao (crispy rice salad with fermented pork sausage) features peanuts, coconut, mint, cilantro, lime, and fish sauce. Try sangkaya (Asian squash custard) or voon (coconut milk jelly) for dessert.
Conscientious travelers avoid riding elephants these days, but these magnificent creatures can be viewed and even interacted with at several elephant sanctuaries near Luang Prabang. Protection and rehabilitation of elephants are paramount at these sanctuaries, and guests are offered a respectful way to connect with the animals. Responsible tourism helps fund the sanctuaries.