Today (December 26, 2016): my 10 most memorable travel experiences of 2016.
It’s that time of the year again: time to look back at everything that happened – the good, the bad, and everything in between – during the past 12 months. At first sight, 2016 seems to have been dominated by depressing headlines: bizarre political outcomes, deaths of some our most beloved stars, horrific terror attacks, the never-ending refugee crisis, rising tensions between the West and Russia, political turmoil in Turkey, and continuation of wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. We tend to forget that an overwhelming lot of good things happened as well in the past year, and that never before, the world was so safe. Giant pandas are no longer endangered, a woman (!) ran for president in the USA, NASA’s spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit, the tiger population increased, and scientists made considerable progress in the fight against cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS.
It was also a big year for travelers, with the introduction of new travel markets (e.g. Cuba, Iran), giant hotel and airline mergers, exciting hotel openings, devaluation of loyalty programs, and horrific events that painfully made clear that traveling is not always safe (e.g. the Columbia plane crash and – among others – the attacks in Brussels, Turkey, Berlin and Nice). Still, this won’t stop us from traveling since traveling is the spice of life. It is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness (Mark Twain) and the best way to understand the ever-changing world we live in. Since this is a luxury travel blog that tries to give you a daily moment of travel inspiration with a focus on my personal stories, I hereby share with you my travel highlights of 2016 (which seem to involve a lot of A380 flights).
There is more information (with trip reports & Youtube clips) below the slideshow. You can share your own 2016 travel highlights in the comments section below!
10. FLYING BUSINESS CLASS IN A BRITISH AIRWAYS A380
Last August, I flew Business Class in an Airbus A380 of British Airways from London to Vanvouver. The world’s largest passenger aircraft entered into service for British Airways in 2013, and the UK’s national carrier has currently 12 of these massive aircraft in its fleet, deploying them on routes from London to Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami (seasonal), Vancouver (seasonal), Singapore and Washington. While I am still impressed by the A380 (and feel honored every time I can fly in one), I was disappointed in the Business Class service provided by British Airways (so it’s kind of a memorable travel experience, but not in a good way). The airline has introduced several service cuts this year, which do affect the overall experience and will make me think twice flying them again. As I published in my trip report, there was no choice of a starter anymore (only a compulsory and very cheap looking mozzarella salad), food was terrible (fastfood quality), the selection of snacks in the onboard bar was drastically reduced, and several seats were broken. On a positive note, the return flight from Calgary to London in a British Airways Dreamliner was a much better experience (you can read my trip report here).
9. HIKING IN THE CANADIAN ROCKIES
The Canadian Rockies is one the world’s most scenic places and one of my favorite destinations. The National Parks of Banff, Jasper and Yoho offer world-class and jaw-dropping scenery, centered around glacial lakes that are filled with deep crystalline waters, mirroring pine forests, dizzying mountains and endless sky. Wildlife is also abundant in these areas, with grizzlies, bisons and wolves roaming free in the forests. And the Icefield Parkway between Banff and Jasper is one of the most scenic drives in the world. I returned to the area in September, and despite dreadful weather, I combined day hikes and sightseeing with stays at the best hotels and lodges in the area. I published several articles & trip reports about this holiday:
- Top 10: best hotels & lodges in the Canadian Rockies
- Top 10: things to see and do in the Canadian Rockies
- Review: Post Hotel & Spa
- Review: Fairmont Banff Hot Springs Hotel
- Review: Emerald Lake Lodge
- Review: Lake Moraine Lodge
- Review: Mount Engaldine Lodge
- Review: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (to be published later)
8. FLYING FIRST CLASS IN A QANTAS AIRBUS A380
Qantas – the flag carrier of Australia – is one of the airlines that I admire the most, and I was finally able to fly them last month (from Dubai to London). I am not sure where my fascination with the airline comes from, but perhaps it has to do with the fact that it’s the third oldest airline in the world (after KLM and Avianca) and that is has a reputation for being the safest airline in the world. Qantas hasn’t had a fatal crash since during the entire jet area, which began in 1951. Qantas mainly deploys its A380s on the London, Dubai, Hong Kong, and USA routes. The particular plane I flew on was an Airbus A380-800 with registration number VH-OQI, nicknamed ‘David Warren’ after the inventor of the flight date recorder and cockpit voice recorder. My experience onboard the Qantas A380 was awesome: the product is slightly inferior to the Middle East A380 First Class cabins but the cheerful and courteous cabin crew was the best I ever encountered in all my years of flying. You can read my trip report here and/or watch my Youtube clip:
7. SIGHTSEEING IN THE SULTANATE OF OMAN
Last April, I visited the sultanate of Oman, a growing tourist destination of the Middle East, although I had to postpone that trip by one month because of passport issues. IMHO, Oman is the most hauntingly beautiful country in the Middle East. It’s a shame that recent events in the world have caused anxiety for tourists and particularly (understandably) to the Middle East. However, Oman is a perfectly safe country, located in a turbulent region, and should be on your bucket list. Its grandiose landscapes and fascinating culture have inspired myths, legends and dreams that still take hold of the imagination. Oman has spectacular mountains, lonely deserts, idyllic beaches, picturesque villages, elusive wildlife, and phenomenal hotels. A welcome and authentic respite for the modernism of its popular neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, Oman still offers a sense of the oriental spirit of 1001 nights with its low-key profile tourism profile. Now is the time to immerse yourself in the mysterious beauty of Oman, because the country gears up to attract much more tourists, with the opening of a new airport, a large conference center and a string of new hotels. I published several articles & reviews about this trip:
- Top 10: most luxurious hotels in the Sultanate of Oman
- Trip report: British Airways B787-9 First Class London to Muscat
- Review: Shangri-La Al Husn
- Review: Alila Jabal Akhdar
- Review: Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton hotel
- Review: The Chedi Muscat
- Review: InterContinental Muscat
6. FLYING FIRST CLASS IN A QATAR AIRWAYS AIRBUS A380
Qatar Airways has a superb and cutting edge Business Class product on its Boeing Dreamliners (I published a trip report here), Airbus A380s, and Airbus A350s, earning the airline a spot in my top 10 list of the best Business Class cabins in the skies. Their First Class is a more elusive product, since they only installed it on their Airbus A380 fleet and Qatar only has 6 of these planes in its fleet, mostly deploying them on the Doha to Paris, London, Guangzhou, Sydney, and Bangkok route. I was able to snatch a seat on their Doha to Paris flight last February for only 80 euros (100 USD), since I used 80,000 British Airways miles (Avios) to book the flight. The First Class cabin on Qatar Airways’ A380 fleet features ultra-wide seats tailored in the softest fabric and with signature design elements. The open suite is a flexible space: the seat automatically reclines into a fully flat-bed, or the table can be extended to allow two people to dine in style. Sleeper suits, flight slippers, and the finest amenities from renowned Italian fashion house Giorgio Armani add extra touches of luxury. One of the highlights of the whole event, was my visit to the Qatar Airways First Class Al Safwa Lounge at Doha, which is supposed to be the most luxurious airline lounge in the world. You can read my trip report here.
5. BEING WOWED BY AMAN TOKYO IN JAPAN
For a long time, Japan was a blind spot on my travel map, but finally, that’s a thing of the past after I traveled through the country last May. Remarkably, Japan is not very popular with tourists, because of the lack of iconic landmarks, language troubles (most Japanese people don’t speak English very well), and expensive lifestyle (transport, food, and accommodations). And that’s a shame, because Japan is a fascinating country that should be on your bucket list, since it represents a unique and inspiring blend of traditional and ultramodern culture. During my visit to the country of the rising sun, ancient temples, mysterious shrines and traditional geisha districts offered me a fascinating glimpse into the country’s rich history and heritage. I explored the temples in the stunning imperial city of Kyoto, emerged myself in the bustling capital of Tokyo with its dizzying dimensions and flashing neon lights, and I also did some hiking in the area surrounding Mount Fiji. I was also impressed by the service onboard Japan Airlines during my Business Class flight from London to Tokyo. Highlight was my stay at the incredible Aman Tokyo hotel (read my trip report here). I published several articles & review about my stay in Japan:
- Top 10: things to see and do in Japan
- Top 10: best luxury hotels in Japan
- Top 10: best luxury hotels in Tokyo
- Trip report: Japan Airlines B77W Business Class London to Tokyo
- Review: Amanemu
- Review: Aman Tokyo
- Review: Hyatt Regency Hakone
- Review: Park Hyatt Tokyo
- Review: St Regis Osaka
- Review: Andaz Tokyo
- Review: The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
- Trip report: British Airways B77W Business Class Tokyo to London
4. FLYING FIRST CLASS IN AN EMIRATES AIRBUS A380
Since I flew First Class in the A380 cabins of both Etihad Airways (see below) and Qatar Airways in 2016, I though it would make sense to fly an Emirates A380 in First Class as well this year, so that I could publish trip reports about and compare the First Class products of the 3 major Middle East airlines. My post in which I compare the First Class products of Emirates versus Qatar versus Etihad is one of my most read articles of the past year. In addition, my Youtube clips about Business and First Class trips on the Middle East airlines are very popular, and all have hundreds of thousands of views each. So, apparently, there is a lot of interest in the Middle East airlines and their A380s. I paid my Emirates First Class Dubai to Amsterdam ticket by transferring some of my Starwood points to Alaska Airlines‘ loyalty program, which partners with Emirates. The privacy of the Emirates First Class suite (with sliding doors), mouth-watering food, excellent bedding, onboard shower, impressive amenities, and the well-appointed bar made for a brilliant experience, although the gold-clad interiors are not really my cup of tea. You can read my trip report here.
3. ENJOYING THE GOOD LIFE AT SONEVA FUSHI IN THE MALDIVES
It’s no secret: the Maldives is one of my favorite beach destinations in the world and I try to visit the islands at least once a year. I consider it to be the globe’s ultimate luxury hotspot, synonymous with paradise whether it is for honeymooners, sun worshipers, or scuba divers. The stunningly beautiful islands are blessed with some of the most spectacular beaches in the world, crystal clear blue lagoons, incredible underwater wildlife, and unrivalled luxury resorts that take up their own private island. Last January, I stayed for a week at ultra luxe Soneva Fushi, which is managed by Soneva, my favorite hotel brand in the world. The Maldives’ original desert island hideaway, is located in the stunning Baa Atoll, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Massive, Robinson Crusoe-style, multi-bedroom luxury villas and private residences are hidden among dense tropical foliage. In keeping with the castaway theme, many are built to resemble tree houses. All open to their own private stretch of sugar white sands, and most boast their own private seawater swimming pools. Intuitive service is provided by Mr./Ms. Friday butlers who know what you want before you want it. You can read my Soneva Fushi trip report here.
Soneva Fushi features in my top 10 lists of the best luxury resorts in the Maldives, the most astonishing beach retreats in Asia, the best family hotels in the world, and the world’s most insanely beautiful hotel beaches.
2. FLYING FIRST CLASS IN AN ETIHAD AIRWAYS AIRBUS A380
Last year, Etihad Airways introduced an enhanced onboard product for its new Airbus A380 and Dreamliner Boeing 787 planes. The Abu Dhabi-based carrier even pushed luxury to a sky-high new level – and beyond First Class – with the unveiling of its new ‘Residence’ class on board its Airbus A380 superjumbos. The three-section private cabin, designated “the most luxurious living space in the air”, features a lounge area, a bedroom and a bathroom with shower. There is also an onboard butler solely to service passengers in the ‘Residence’, trained by the Savoy Butler Academy in London. While I won’t be flying the Residence soon, I did take a trip from London to Abu Dhabi in Etihad’s First Class A380 cabin, which is in fact an apartment with leather armchair and separate bed of 208 cm (6 feet and 10 inches). IMHO, Etihad Airways has by far the best First Class product in the skies. There is even space to walk around in your suite after closing the privacy doors. A friend joined me, which was quite cool since the divider between apartments can be lowered to join rooms. I booked the flight for 30 USD and 80,000 AAdvantage miles. You can read my trip report here.
1. STAYING AT THE WORLD’S MOST EXCLUSIVE GETAWAY: NORTH ISLAND
North Island in the Seychelles is the holy grail of luxury travel. The legendary resort is almost mythical in its allure, with a whispered, word-of-mouth reputation among its guests, which include royals and celebs. The insanely beautiful island was the decor for honeymoon of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. Last October, I was lucky enough to experience North Island myself and boy, the outrageously exotic beauty of the island, the ultra-stylish accommodations, the exquisite food, and unrivaled service swept me off my feet and left me speechless. The large island has only 11 opulent hand-crafted villas overlooking one of the most pristine, powder-white sand beaches and turquoise waters that I have ever seen. You can read my trip report of North Island here. In addition, I also published some of my other trip reports of my Seychelles holiday (including the excellent new Six Senses Zil Pasyon resort), which you can read below. You should put the Seychelles – and if your budget allows, North Island – on top of your bucket list as mother Nature was extremely generous with these 115 idyllic islands scattered in the Indian Ocean east of Kenia. The beauty of its beaches is beyond words, with exquisite ribbons of powdery-soft white sand being lapped by turquoise waters and backed by jungle-covered hills and large rocky boulders. IMHO, its unrivaled scenery makes the Seychelles the planet’s best beach destination.
- Top 10: most insanely beautiful luxury hotels in the Seychelles
- Top 10: things to see and do in the Seychelles
- Review: Condor B767-300ER Business Class from Frankfurt to Mahe
- Review: Six Senses Zil Pasyon
- Review: Maia Luxury Resort
- Review: North Island Seychelles