As you might expect, AFAR staffers get about. What I didn’t realize, until compiling this piece, is quite how far our travels collectively extend. My own trips took me to Cabo San Lucas, San Antonio, San Diego, Argentina, and Belize this year, but our team explored everywhere from Estonia to Tasmania—via Mozambique, Svalbard, and beyond—between them. These were some of our most memorable trips of the year—in no particular order.
In August, I got to spend a week in Estonia. It was not enough. We started in Tallinn, of course, the capital city where all the Baltic cruises stop and which sees most of the country’s tourism. And it was lovely—its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site after all. But I was much more wowed by everything else outside of the city’s central area: modern architecture plopped right on top of older structures, beautiful historic churches, an Astroturfed beach-side beer bar (Mere Park’la) right next to a former prison (Patarei Prison), Soviet-era block-style buildings, a former factory decorated with murals and converted into art studios and bars, and a harbor walk on Tallinn Bay with great restaurants and views (do not miss the fresh seafood at Lore Bistro)!
The trip got even better once we left the city. Two hours south, in Soomaa National Park, I hiked in a bog, laughing as I squished forward on a thick carpet of rust-colored peat, my bare feet strapped into converted snowshoes that kept me from sinking. It was one of the most surreal and wonder-filled nature experiences I’ve ever had. Then it was on to Tartu, the main city in the southern region and one of Europe’s three Capitals of Culture for 2024. Here, the central piazza felt straight out of southern France, with cobblestones, stately buildings, and open-air cafés. And the art-scene hit every level, from the bright and edgy street art (book with Pseudo Tours), to the awesome record store and neighborhood hangout Psühhoteek (say hi to owner Ahto, he has a stellar collection), to the country’s oldest theater and opera house, to the pop-up galleries in Soviet-era “garage box” sheds behind people’s homes. The greater southern region around Tartu was full of unexpected delights too: its own lakes district, medieval towns with ancient ruins, and giant 360-degree swings invented by Estonians for a sport called kiiking. Believe me, you just have to go to Estonia—and make sure you see more than Tallinn. —Billie Cohen, executive editor
2. Madison, Wisconsin
I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, for the first time last June and I was so impressed by this progressive Midwestern city. I live in California, which is no slouch in the food department, but I would happily move to Madison just for the food. There’s A Pig in a Fur Coat, the Garver Feed Mill (a food hall), and Fromagination, which (shocker), specializes in cheese. And then there are dozens of ways to balance out all the eating: A spa day at Kosa, an Ayurvedic spa. A cycling tour with Madison Adventure Tours, kayaking in the lake, hiking through the arboretum, or strolling along the river trail. It’s the kind of city that makes you fantasize about pulling up roots and starting life over again. — Aislyn Greene, associate director of podcasts
3. Manchester, England
I often plan my travels around a very specific reason. I went to Switzerland because I’d heard there were free tours at the nuclear-research center CERN. I went to Halifax because it has a really cool public library. That’s how, in May of 2023, I ended up on vacation in northern England. Some friends and I had decided we should fly over to see an old favorite Britpop band, Pulp, who were kicking off their reunion tour in the tiny seaside town of Bridlington on the east coast.
We decided to extend this trip dedicated to northern English beats with a stay in Manchester, a pretty train ride away. This is the city that gave the world New Order, Joy Division, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Buzzcocks, the Chemical Brothers, Oasis, the Charlatans, James, the 1975, Oasis. I arrived expecting to spend the week immersed in sonic nostalgia, but what I found was an arts scene looking firmly to the future. The famed Manchester International Festival was about to launch a permanent space to host year-round events. In mid-2024, the Co-Op Live arena will be unveiled and it’ll be the U.K.’s largest entertainment venue (and is, not surprisingly, acoustically designed to be especially good for concerts). Even the 150-year-old Manchester Museum was rethinking its collection of historical objects in light of the country’s colonial past and had just opened the fantastic new South Asia Gallery in collaboration with city residents as one step in its efforts to be more inclusive.
On top of that, anywhere we walked, I felt that intangible buzz of being surrounded by creative people: The city has five universities, a slew of art and design galleries, a ton of small music venues, and our walking tour guide even sang and danced. We even got to join the pub scene for a football match (between rival hometown teams Man City and Man United, no less). Oh, and for my fellow nerd-travelers out there: Do not miss Machester’s libraries. One of them is the oldest surviving public library in the English-speaking world, and you can tour it and many others. Put this city on your list for 2024—we did. (And in case you’re wondering, the Pulp concert was amazing.) — BC
I finally made it to Argentina for the first time in October and was suitably wowed. I was there with Journeys With Purpose to see the work that Tompkins Conservation and Rewilding Argentina are doing in two national parks: El Impenetrable in the north and Patagonia Azul in the south. These are two vastly different regions: a remote dry forest full of peccaries, giant anteaters, and reintroduced jaguars, and a windswept stretch of coast where penguins and guanacos roam, respectively. But they’re both being established as centers of sustainable wildlife and wilderness tourism, with new campsites, glamping, and other infrastructure—all run by local people. Look for a Travel Tales podcast and a digital story in the new year.
I also got to spend three nights in Buenos Aires, sampling all the steak and malbec one person can reasonably sample. The Palacio Duhau, a Park Hyatt, was the most opulent hotel of the trip and served an excellent plant-based lunch at Gioia. I had a series of 5 a.m. wake-up calls, so I didn’t get to fully immerse myself in the city’s famous nightlife and tango scenes. But, as always, there’s always next time . . . — Tim Chester, deputy editor
5. Costa Rica
In March, I had the pleasure of traveling to the rain forest of Costa Rica to participate in the annual Travel Weekly Editors’ Roundtable. I spent four days at Nayara Tented Camp as a guest of owners Leo and Ruthy Ghitis. The camp is the third and newest luxury resort within Nayara’s sprawling acreage in the hills overlooking Arenal Volcano National Park in northern Costa Rica. The family-friendly Nayara Gardens first opened in 2008; the adults-only Nayara Springs opened in 2013 and is a member of Relais & Châteaux; and the tented camp, which has 38 stand-alone tents, each with a hot springs–fed plunge pool, opened at the end of 2019 and expanded last summer.
All three micro resorts offer guests intimate access to nature and Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity: We heard cacophonous birdsong at every turn, spotted sloths in the wild, and watched brightly colored butterflies, moths, and lizards flit about us. Ghitis introduced our group to William Rodriguez, Costa Rica’s minister of tourism. “Sustainability in Costa Rica is a way of life,” Rodriguez said. “For us, there are three pillars: political, social, and environmental. In the future, we don’t want to have 10 million visitors a year. We aim to inspire visitors who share our values, who will stay longer and spend more. We don’t want this to be crowded.”
We also spoke by Zoom with Franz Tattenbach, who serves as Costa Rica’s minister of environment and energy. Renewable energy in Costa Rica supplied 99.78 percent of the energy output for the entire nation in 2020, according to the International Trade Administration. Costa Rica is also the first tropical country in the world to have reversed deforestation. Listening to Tattenbach—and reflecting on discussions I had on property with Ghitis—I was struck by a commitment to leading with principles first. Start with what is right and how things should be—and then build a pragmatic plan to make it so. In an email exchange after I returned home to California, Ghitis wrote to me, “Sustainability and luxury are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they need to exist together.” I couldn’t agree more. —Julia Cosgrove, vice president and editor in chief
6. Minneapolis, Minnesota
When I was asked to speak on a panel about the future of sustainable travel for the annual Great Northern festival, I looked at my January calendar and thought, bring on a frigid weekend in Minnesota. Each year the festival celebrates “cold, creative winters” over 10 days of multidisciplinary programming across Minneapolis and St. Paul.
I arrived late in the evening from my home in California, went straight to my beautiful room at the new Four Seasons, and marveled at the frozen Mississippi River below. After the panel at the American Swedish Institute the next day, I found myself exploring the region’s burgeoning mobile sauna scene at the Market at Malcolm Yards, a thriving food hall in a brick and timber industrial compound built in 1889. Yes, I stood outside in a bathing suit in negative 20-degree temperatures after emerging from a sauna and lived to tell the tale. Later in the year, we celebrated the diversity of the Twin Cities with a beautiful feature story in the magazine. — JC
7. Kumano Kodo Trail, Japan
Travelers flocked to Japan this year—myself included. But while attractions in urban areas felt crowded and often overrun with tourists, it was a different story outside the cities. It was my third time visiting the country, and the four days I spent hiking on the Nakahechi Route of the Kumano Kodo Trail was one of the most magical experiences I’ve had in Japan. It was peaceful, full of beautiful nature, and allowed me to see a totally different side of the country.
As an added bonus: Some of the nature in this region served as artistic inspiration for anime hits like My Neighbor Totoro and Mushishi. As a fan of both, it was fun to see it firsthand. We ended our trip in Shingu with a stay at an Airbnb that the hosts have transformed into a living, interactive novel. As a book lover, I was totally enchanted with the entire experience. — Jessie Beck, associate director of SEO & video
8. The Sea Ranch, California
I’ve been traveling to the Sea Ranch, a coastal community in California about three hours north of San Francisco by car, since the early 1990s. I spent much of 2020 and 2021 living there, and return as often as I can. To celebrate a friend’s milestone birthday in September, she and I test-drove a loaner electric vehicle, the Mercedes-Benz EQE 500 4MATIC SUV, to see how the car’s 269-mile range would fare on an up-and-back long weekend trip.
We rented a house through Sea Ranch Escape, a locally owned property management company, and celebrated with a cold plunge in the Pacific and cocktails and dinner at the newly renovated Sea Ranch Lodge, where guest rooms went online this spring. We hiked, made pesto, cooked salmon, picked wild blackberries, and swam in the well-heated Moonraker pool. The car was a champ, navigating the windy sections of Highway 1 and Highway 116 with ease. We charged a couple of times at the Chargepoint charger at the Lodge and made it back to the Bay Area with mileage to spare and sea salt in our hair. — JC
I’d always wanted to see the autumn color in Colorado, particularly the bright yellow aspens. So for five days in October, I road-tripped with dear friends in a rented Tesla Model Y from Denver to Aspen, then on to the small towns of Salida and Buena Vista before returning to Denver. The foliage did not disappoint—and the robust EV charging infrastructure in Colorado makes it easy to tool around free of so-called range anxiety. In Aspen, we stayed at the centrally located Hotel Jerome, an Auberge Resorts Collection property. Before arriving, we signed the Aspen Pledge, agreeing to explore responsibly.
We wandered around the town’s farmers’ market, hiked in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, and visited the Aspen Art Museum, where we grabbed a bite on the roof. Before leaving the area, we had a burger at the late writer Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite watering hole, the Woody Creek Tavern. The dramatic mountain drive out of town brought us up to the Continental Divide (elevation: 12,126 feet).
Inspired by AFAR contributor Ashlea Halpern’s road trip, we drove a few hours southeast to Salida, a river town full of art galleries, boho boutiques, family-owned restaurants, and opportunities for outdoor recreation (hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing, you name it). We made jewelry for our kids at Riveting and overnighted at the Amigo Motor Lodge, a midcentury-modern motel recently renovated with all the hipster chic accoutrements in mind. Next up: the neighboring town of Buena Vista, where the Surf Hotel recently opened as part of a New Urbanist project to reinvigorate a former landfill next to the Arkansas River. After a hike in the hills behind the hotel, we drank excellent Manhattans and ate dinner at the in-house restaurant and lobby bar, Wesley & Rose. Aspens were ablaze everywhere we went, even as we made our way back to Denver.
We spent our last night at the Thompson Denver and celebrated the trip by ordering everything on the menu at Alon Shaya’s wonderful Israeli restaurant Safta. The next day before flying out, we had breakfast at Fox and the Hen and toured the Clyfford Still Museum, one of my favorite collections of a single artist’s work in the United States. With an hour left, we wandered around the Denver Botanic Gardens. On our way to the airport: a few last bright yellow aspens. — JC
10. Maria Island, Tasmania
During a week in Tasmania in May, I was dazzled by the wildlife (platypus, white wallabies, ultra-rare 40-spotted pardalotes), but the definite highlight was a three-day walk with Great Walks of Australia on Maria Island National Park. The mountainous island—called wukaluwikiwayna (yes, it’s supposed to be lowercase!) in the local language—was a former whaling and sealing port and convict settlement, and we stayed in the heritage-listed 1880 home of an Italian entrepreneur who once variously tried to turn the island into a silkworm farm, a winery, and a limestone quarry/cement factory.
These days, it’s so overrun with wombats that you’re asked to sign a cheeky pledge that you won’t try to pick up or take a selfie with the teddy-bear-like marsupials. The thing is: You easily could—they’re just that docile and unafraid. I spent hours wandering through fields after them, watching little joey faces poking out of their moms’ backward-facing pouches and seeing others scoot around the island’s other marquee residents, Cape Barren geese, which have bubblegum-pink legs and highlighter-yellow skin around their nostrils. On my last day, I sat cross-legged on the porch of a convict-era building and let a wombat come to me, grazing mere feet away. It was so quiet and peaceful that I could hear its teeth snipping the grass. — Nicholas DeRenzo, contributing editor
11. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
I have a soft spot for undervalued destinations, and that has led me in recent years to become a cheerleader for the Canadian Prairie Provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. I finished out the trifecta this year when I attended a conference in Saskatchewan’s biggest city, Saskatoon. Before my visit, all I had known about the city is that it’s where Joni Mitchell started playing music. I was impressed with the Remai Modern museum, and especially its atrium installation by Nick Cave, made of thousands of glittering wind spinners; Black Fox Farm and Distillery, where many of the ingredients for the award-winning gins and whiskeys are grown on site; and POP Wine Bar, which proved two things: Yes, you can have excellent oysters even if the nearest ocean is 900 miles away, and horseradish does belong in cocktails.
The highlight was Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an archaeological site on land where Northern Plains peoples have been gathering for an estimated 6,400 years to hunt bison. The cultural center sits on a cliff that was used as a buffalo jump, where Indigenous peoples used to hunt and kill bison by driving herds over the edge. The park has worked to reintroduce bison, and some of the massive mammals even helped out with archaeology work: As they wallowed in a dust pit, they uncovered petroglyphs that likely date back 1,000 years. It’s no surprise that the park is well on its way to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. — ND
12. Cleveland, Ohio
The first time I visited my in-laws in Cleveland, Ohio, the city pleasantly surprised me—when a place’s epithet is “Mistake on the Lake,” you go in with low expectations. But when I visited this past summer, my attitude went from, “No, really, it’s not as boring as you might think” to, “This city has something special going on.” In particular, Cleveland’s arts and culture scene is booming. At Playhouse Square, which is home to 11 performance spaces built in the 1920s, we saw Six, the spunky retelling of English history from the perspective of Henry VIII’s wives. That weekend, we took picnic blankets and snacks to Blossom Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater that serves as the summer home of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra. Legendary singer Audra McDonald performed a revue of Broadway songs to an audience of about 20,000 Clevelanders on a perfect August evening. We ate well, too: new favorites include the Mediterranean-inspired Zhug (go for the za’atar roasted carrots) and Poppy, which serves flavorful small plates (I enjoyed the white bean puree with grilled bread) and an herbaceous gin and tonic. And we always visit Little Italy for some homey pasta at Mia Bella and a sweet treat at Presti’s Bakery. — Sarika Bansal, editorial director
13. Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
I visited Cape Town in May, and decided to take a flight up to the small Mozambican beach town of Vilankulo, and then a helicopter over the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean to stay at Kisawa Sanctuary. Located on Benguerra, one of six islands that make up the Bazaruto Archipelago, the hotel’s thatched roof residences blend in organically within the sand dunes, beaches, and lush jungle. The hotel also partners with the Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies, which focuses on marine conservation. While the natural beauty and wildlife (humpback whales, dolphins, dugongs to name a few) are the main draw to this region, what made the trip so memorable were the people we met.
On our first day, we were introduced to our guide, Querino, who goes by Q. A charismatic, young guy, born and raised on Benguerra Island, he was excited to share his part of the world with us. The island has a local population of approximately 1,000, and they typically either work in tourism or fishing. Q took us out on the water and introduced us to some of his local community as we hopped onto one of their dhows, traditional wooden boats, to learn the process of fishing. On land, Q took us to neighboring Bazaruto Island to hike the towering sand dunes. Sinking into soft, untouched sand up to our knees, we hiked the steep few hundred feet to the peaks that opened up to 360 degree views of the ocean. Back at the hotel, they provide chefs to prepare meals at your bungalow, but I preferred to go out to their casual, Mozambican-style restaurant, Barraca. The bartenders made their signature palomas while inviting us to join them for a game of ntchuva, a popular board game on the island. —Michelle Heimerman, photo editor
I could tell you that I went on a dreamy island getaway in 2023, but you’d perhaps get the wrong idea. Svalbard is an archipelago located more than 500 miles north of mainland Norway. Longyearbyen is about 800 miles from the North Pole, making it the world’s northernmost human settlement of more than 1,000 people. When we landed, I quickly realized that the more woolen socks, the better, and that in temperatures like these, the synthetic stuff just doesn’t cut it. I was there with a delegation from Tourism Cares to discuss what climate-conscious tourism could look like. Over the next few days, we went on a cave tour underneath a glacier, where the ice formed stalagmites and our voices reverberated; we rode snowmobiles through the Arctic Desert, flanked by wind-sculpted mountains of snow; and we visited the Svalbard Seed Vault, which holds 1.2 million seeds in case of global catastrophe. The sun never set while we were there, as we had arrived at the beginning of the four-month “midnight sun” period. As I gazed at a pink-hued sky at 1 a.m. from the glass-enclosed dining room of the Funken Lodge, a cozy boutique hotel, all I could think about was how fragile Svalbard was and what we could do to protect places like it. —SB
15. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
One of my biggest highlights of 2023—scratch that, of my life—was getting to meet the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Early one morning in November, I set off from Virunga Inn Hotel & Spa with all of my fingers and toes crossed that I would meet our long-lost cousins. After hiking for a couple of hours, our wonderful guide, Epa, told us that we were close by (he had been radioing with the trackers who spend the day with the gorillas). He taught us some basic gorilla sounds and behaviors so that we would stay safe—most importantly, how to make the throaty call that signals contentment. He also distributed face masks to everyone; since we share 98 percent of our DNA, it’s possible to spread disease to the gorillas and vice versa.
After walking for a few more minutes, we were treated to an hour with nearly a dozen members of the Susa family, who were first habituated in 1974 by Dian Fossey. I will never forget the first look I got at a gorilla’s hands, which look just like human hands with giant gardening gloves on. I loved seeing a mother gorilla snuggle with her baby in the exact way I snuggle with my daughter. Watching a silverback cross his arms reminded me of my dad when he’s focused. The gorillas were so gentle, so sweet with each other, and exuded such quiet strength; I couldn’t believe anyone would ever try to hurt them. At their lowest point in the 1990s, there were fewer than 200 gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, thanks to conservation efforts across the three countries, there are nearly 1,600 of these beautiful creatures thriving in the hills. They use what’s called a “high value, low volume” model of tourism—meaning that the fee to see the gorillas is quite high (in Rwanda, it’s $1,500 per person) and the number of tourists who can see them is strictly controlled.—SB
16. California’s Central Coast
Located between the megalopolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Central Coast spans 350 miles of shoreline—and as a Californian transplant from Texas, it’s the perfect embodiment of all the Golden State beauty I thought I’d find here. Before 2023, I’d visited just once, traipsing through Big Sur seeing things like dreamy redwoods at Big Sur State Park and the waterfall that spills into the ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. But this year, I got to explore the area more thoroughly on a couple of different trips.
Though there are many things to love about the Central Coast, I adore its small towns. For ocean and surf enthusiasts (such as myself), the town of Cayucos offers a nostalgic Californian beachtown experience that feels akin to a Beach Boys song. The recently renovated and reopened Pacific Motel is located a few blocks from Cayucos’s “downtown” and is a few minute’s walk from the beach. And less than six miles south of Cayucos is Morro Bay, best known for its impossible-to-miss landmark, Morro Rock.
But perhaps one of my personal favorites in the area is San Luis Obsipo, a cute, understated college town home to California Polytechnic State University as well as a well-established winery scene. I made Hotel San Luis Obispo my base and began exploring my surroundings—there was the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (the fifth established in the state by the Spanish) and lively downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers Market, which features over 100 vendors and is open every Thursday evening. There are over 280 wineries in the county, so if you’re partial to a glass of vino, make plenty of time to take it all in. One of my favorites was Chamisal Vineyards, which specializes in sustainably produced wines—they’re perhaps best known for their pinot noir, but also have chardonnays and sparkling wines available.
Editor in chief Julia Cosgrove is also a big fan of the Central Coast and recommends staying at the Inn at Mattei’s Tavern, a new Auberge Resorts Collection property in Los Olivos. The new luxury resort is set in a converted stagecoach stop and tavern, in the middle of the charming wine country town. Book dinner at Bell’s, a California-by-way-of-France bistro in nearby Los Alamos.
So the next time you’re zipping between San Francisco and Los Angeles, take time to explore all that land in between—there’s natural beauty, adorable boutique hotels, and glasses of wine available up and down the Central Coast. —Mae Hamilton, associate editor, and JC
I lived in Ireland during the era of the Celtic Tiger, and while I have been back since, it’s never been for long enough. So this spring, when I was asked to participate in the Travel Classics Conference at Ashford Castle, I decided to extend my trip, revisit some old haunts, and explore some new ones. After arriving in Dublin from San Francisco, I checked into the Merrion, the city’s most elegant classic hotel (also a member of the Leading Hotels of the World luxury consortium) and explored its grounds and art collection. I was a student at Trinity College Dublin when I lived in Ireland, and my apartment was close to the university on Windmill Lane, famous at the time for being home to U2’s recording studio. It was also a semi-sanctioned street for graffiti artists to use as a canvas. Today the area has been completely reinvented, full of luxury condos and tech company offices. Dinner that night was just across the River Liffey: the perfect fish plate at the Winding Stair, where I used to browse books in my student days.
The Irish are my people and I am theirs—my ancestral surnames are Gormley, Sullivan, King, Mooney, Cavanaugh, and Cosgrove. There’s no place in the world where I blend in more seamlessly with the crowd. The next day, I went west, reminding myself that even in middle age, I can do difficult things: I drove the rental car on the correct (and opposite) side of the road. Highlights include, of course, Ashford Castle, where I stayed in the Kennedy Suite, met with travel writers, and learned about the country’s Púca Festival, a Halloween-adjacent celebration of music, fire arts, and storytelling. I rented an e-bike during a trip to Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands that lie off the coast of County Galway. I hiked in the rain across the Burren in County Clare and listened to trad music in Doolin. The time still wasn’t enough: Next summer I’m bringing my family back with me and heading to County Donegal. —JC