It’s an absolutely amazing world, and I was lucky enough to see a lot of it this year, mostly with the kids. I started the year in Thailand, then moved on to the Philippines, Taiwan, the US, Tanzania, Kenya, Switzerland, Germany, Jamaica, China, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Hungary, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, the UK, France, UAE, Oman, Indonesia, Australia and Mexico – 24 countries total. I actually made it to the UK, Australia, Italy and Ireland twice on different trips. Within the US I traveled to New York twice, Hawaii, Minnesota, Louisiana, California and Colorado. I may be forgetting some! I’m writing this from Brisbane, Australia, here for my six-year-old’s annual trip. Flight miles this year: 253,292.
I had fun last year thinking through the Best of 2015, so I’m doing it again 2016. These are our favorite things from this very cool travel year. None of the links are affiliate links and I don’t get anything if you book based on this – as always, my goal is to inspire you to travel to cool places and (when applicable) to take your kids along!
Best Resort, Middle East
Six Senses Zighy Bay
We loved everything about Oman’s Six Senses Zighy Bay, from the location to the Paragliding entrance to our villa and private pool to the food to the activities. My blog post is here. We’re hoping to get back next year.
Best Resort, Europe
One of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed! My post on everything we did, including falconry, horseback riding, tea and chess is here. And there’s so much we didn’t get to. Next time you’re within a couple hours of here in Ireland (the Galway area), book at least a couple of nights. It will be one of the highlights of your year too.
Best Hotel, Europe (Tie)
Aria Hotel Budapest and The Merrion Hotel, Dublin
We stayed in a lot of great hotels in Europe this year, including one of our all-time favorites in Venice, but the Aria Hotel in Budapest and the Merrion Hotel in Dublin stood out. They both had excellent connecting room setups for families of five and great breakfasts. Both were perfectly located for exploring their respective cities and, most importantly, both were nicely kid-friendly – even though they are luxury hotels, the staff all interacted with our kids in a way that made them feel welcome.
Best Resort and Best Pool, Americas
Four Seasons Orlando Resort at Walt Disney World
We returned to Four Seasons Orlando for the second straight year and it only got better. It’s simply the best resort in the US, effortlessly balancing luxury and kid-friendliness, and I can’t imagine a better pool layout anywhere. My post from our first stay is here.
Best Resort Setup for Families
Kayumanis, Jimbaran Beach, Bali
At Kayumanis Jimbaran my daughter and I were given a villa complex that was brilliant for families. It had two separate villas with a large open-air living room and the biggest private plunge pool we’ve had anywhere. I think it was technically for up to four people, but hopefully they would let a family of five stay there – there’s easily enough room. The food at the hotel is excellent as well.
Best Zoo Experience
We visited a lot of zoos and animal parks this year on five continents. Australia Zoo near Brisbane was the kids’ favorite because of its animal encounters – we absolutely loved feeding lemurs, walking a wombat (so cool!) and feeding echidnas.
Serengeti Pioneer Camp, Tanzania
This is one of those categories where there’s no easy answer and probably deserves its own blog post. We witnessed at least two dozen beautiful sunrises in amazing locations this year, including at Borobudur Temple in Indonesia, from a kayak in Palawan, overlooking cormorant fishermen on the Li River in China, walking around Florence and gazing out over the Sydney Opera House and the Dubai skyline. But if there was one sunrise experience that stood out based on color and location it was at the Serengeti Pioneer Camp, from the lodge’s main overlook. Absolutely stunning! Plus there was coffee.
Best Day Tour
See Orkney, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Our Disney Cruise this year was decidedly mediocre, but the port stops were excellent, and in several places we arranged for day tours. Lorna at See Orkney was the best. She picked us up at the ship early and kept us away from other cruise passengers all day as we explored the islands. We told her that we would love to see puffins and, on an island only accessible at low tide, she found us puffins! Plus she took us to standing stones and Viking ruins, we visited an interactive farm and we had a great pub lunch. A really enjoyable day.
Best City Walking Tour
Our Way Tours, Copenhagen
We had been to Copenhagen before but had never done an organized tour. Javier from Our Way Tours met us at our hotel and showed us what we’ve been missing, tailoring everything to us and especially to our kids. Not every tour does that.
Best Cooking Class
Probably our favorite cooking class ever (and we do a lot of cooking classes). Marika at Acquolina welcomed us into her kitchen for a four-hour pasta class and it flew by. Our kids loved helping to prepare everything, and it was one of our best meals we’ve had in Italy. Highly recommended. It’s on Lido, a short ferry ride from Venice.
Four Seasons Bali at Sayan
At the end of our Day in the Life of a Balinese Farmer experience at Four Seasons Sayan, my daughter and I were taken to a massage villa for hour-long massages. The entire experience was great (see my list of our favorite kid activities), but the massage at the end was the best part – not surprising since massages at both of Four Seasons’ properties on Bali are always excellent.
Best Theme Park
We love Universal Orlando. We started our around-the-world trip there, and no matter how many times we go back we never get bored. We can’t wait for Universal’s third Orlando park, Volcano Bay, to open this coming summer.
Easily our coolest, most unique breakfast ever! The food was excellent, but the experience was all about the giraffes constantly reaching in for giraffe treats. So much fun! My post is here.
Irene Firenze, Florence
We always eat well when we travel, but even then there weren’t any lunches with the kids this year that were particularly memorable. My best lunch sans kids was in Florence with a friend and two local travel writers/photographers (Laura at Ruberry and Georgette at Girl in Florence) at Hotel Savoy’s Irene Firenze. The food (cinghiale and polenta for me) and wine were extraordinary, as was the conversation for three hours. And the location, right on Piazza della Repubblica, can’t be beat.
Best Afternoon Tea
Milestone Hotel, London
We actually did Afternoon Tea several places in Europe this year. All were excellent, and all had child options, but the Milestone‘s stood out because it actually had a list of teas specially designed for kids. How cool is that? I love when places go out of their way for their younger guests.
Crayfish Boil at James Carville’s House, New Orleans
As with lunch, I can’t think of any spectacular, amazing dinners with the kids this year. But when I was in New Orleans with AFAR Magazine, James Carville and Mary Matalin hosted us at their house one night for a crayfish boil prepared by James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya. The night began with a private streetcar picking us up downtown and taking us to the Carvilles’ neighborhood, where a police escort and brass band met us to march us to the house. Everything was surreal and the food was amazing! Unless you’re good friends with the Carvilles and Alon Shaya you probably can’t duplicate this, but I highly recommend signing up for an AFAR Experience because they’re always (somehow) able to make things like this happen. The next one is in Bermuda in April. I’ll be there!
Best View from Breakfast
Hotel al Ponte Antico, Venice
Probably my favorite place in the world to have breakfast – without giraffes, anyway. This was our third stay at Hotel al Ponte Antico. Starting the day on the patio overlooking the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge never gets old.
Best View from Room
El Nido Miniloc Island, Palawan
We loved everything about Miniloc Island and even though we stayed busy with kayaking and island hopping, we found time to relax on our balcony too, reading but mainly just staring. In a year of amazing views, this was our favorite.
Best Photo Trip
China with Nomad Photo Expeditions
This was my first time traveling with Nomad Photo Expeditions and it couldn’t have been a better trip. We visited Beijing for a couple of days, but most of the trip was spent in the villages of Guizhou and Guangxi provinces, far away from the standard Western tourist track. It was a small group, the photographer guiding us (Tino Soriano) was excellent, and the itinerary was perfectly arranged to maximize photographic opportunities – kind of the opposite of my trip to Japan last year with National Geographic Expeditions. I wouldn’t hesitate to join any of their trips in the future. My highlights are here.
Lake Ndutu, Tanzania
We went on game drives in five different parks in Tanzania and Kenya with Sunworld Safaris / 4×4 Adventures. In my blog post on our Africa trip I said that our favorite was Ngorongoro Crater, but looking back I would now give the advantage to Lake Ndutu. The animal viewing was excellent, and it was nice to be able to go off-road and get up close to animals, as opposed to every other park where we had to stay on the roads. It was especially cool to drive straight through the wildebeest migration. And our lodge in Lake Ndutu was far better than at the Crater.
Coolest Experience with Kids
This is one category where we simply had too many great experiences to narrow it down to just one, so I did a separate blog post on our favorite kid-friendly activities around the world.
Coolest Experience without Kids
Train Ride from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
My favorite four hours of the year was spent on the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka. The scenery is gorgeous and the company was amazing (Nicola from Polkadot Passport and Marta from In a Faraway Land are two of the coolest people you’ll ever meet). The mango with chili powder that they sell on board is crazy good. The best part, though, was sitting in (and literally hanging out of) the doorways watching the tea plantations and countryside pass by. I’d love to do this journey with my kids, but I’m definitely not letting them hang out of the doorways! My post on my trip around Sri Lanka with Cinnamon Hotels is here.
Next year will involve less solo travel, since I’m cutting out a couple of travel conferences, but just as much family travel. Right now we’re planning Hong Kong, Maldives, Chile, Israel, Bermuda, Italy, Greece and Ireland, and two of the kids haven’t chosen annual destinations yet so we could end up literally anywhere for those. If you have suggestions in those countries or elsewhere, please let me know. I’m always looking for the absolute coolest, most unique kid-friendly destinations, no matter where those are.