More than once, taking in all the chaos of 2012, I thought about making a year-end list of destinations to avoid rather than places to go.
But optimism got the better of me. And so the theme for 2013 is renewal — seeing the familiar with fresh eyes, uncovering novelty in well-trodden regions. Here are my top picks for travel in what I hope will be a wonderful year for all:
1. Nicaragua, a fresh take on the Caribbean. While neighboring Costa Rica has been drawing American vacationers for years, Nicaragua is a Central American gem whose political upheaval kept it off the radar until recently. But there’s arguably even more to see in this dramatically beautiful land of volcanoes, Caribbean beaches and colonial cities.
Under the oppressive Marxist government — hostile to Jews and to Israel — most of the country’s small Jewish population fled into exile in the ’80s. The political climate is considerably more welcoming today, and Nicaraguan Jewish families are trickling back home, re-establishing a community with support from Chabad. Their return is part of a countrywide renewal, evident in cities from Granada, a 16th-century settlement on magnificent Lake Nicaragua that has a historic Jewish cemetery, to León, a cobblestoned university town full of museums and gilded churches, more than a dozen volcanoes and two pristine coastlines. While the word is getting out, Nicaragua is still cheap, uncrowded, and full of the unexpected.
2. Miami: always something new. Few cities are as well known to Jewish Week readers as Miami. And yet the city has a remarkable capacity to keep us entertained, with endless reinventions and up-and-coming neighborhoods. Witness the recent emergence of the Wynwood Art District, in the spotlight during this month’s Art Basel Miami Beach festival. More than 70 galleries, many of them Jewish-owned, offer an edgy visual punch under the patronage of the 10-year-old Wynwood Art District Association.
Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road remain the glitzy heart of South Beach tourism, but it’s fun to see the gentrification creep farther west and north every year, with new boutique areas and kosher cafés to discover. Gone are the sad “For Lease” signs that were the visual wallpaper of 2009: Miami has re-emerged, triumphant, from yet another real estate bust, and its cultural life is more vibrant than ever, with January kicking off the latest edition of the beloved Jewish Film Festival. Later in 2013, the Miami Art Museum will be reborn as the Pérez Art Museum Miami in a new, Herzog & de Meuron-designed building in Museum Park.
3. Albania: the last Mediterranean bargain. With neighboring Croatia thoroughly discovered and Montenegro catching up fast, the so-called Albanian Riviera remains inexpensive and delightfully rustic, and its coastline is as gorgeous as any place on the Adriatic. You’ll find the same virgin beaches, mountain scenery and red-roofed villages as those in Greece — but with fewer crowds, far less political drama and half the price.
The tradeoff is that traveling rural Albania can be stressful; you contend with poor roads, reckless drivers and a mystifying language. Tourism is developed enough, however, that you can easily negotiate a room rental anywhere from Vlore to the Greek border. Cultural highlights include a number of crumbling castles, amphitheaters and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint – a palimpsest of historical excavations from ancient Greek times through the late Middle Ages.
4. San Francisco: a hip Jewish alternative. For a long time, the Bay Area Jewish community was overshadowed by its higher-profile neighbors to the South. But lately the most self-consciously cool of American cities has a homegrown Jewish scene to match, with activities as unique and compelling as these funky bayside barrios.
Hipster havurim in the Mission, Jewish drag queen standup, mainstream gay shuls and Yiddish karaoke are just a few examples of what makes S.F. Jewish life distinctive. In my columns I’ve highlighted the profusion of alternative Jewish holiday events, but there’s plenty going on all year ’round — from thoughtful, unexpected examinations of Jewish aesthetics at the Contemporary Jewish Museum to Californian chill-out at the Makor Or Jewish Meditation Center to the local band Kugelplex, whose Bay Area concerts fuse klezmer with Gypsy, Balkan, Chasidic and rock. It’s a very Left Coast sound indeed.
5. New Zealand’s South Island: more than Hobbit fever. When Peter Jackson chose to film “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” in New Zealand, the country became a pilgrimage spot for Tolkien fans. The increased spotlight is an incentive to explore the less-discovered terrain south of Auckland and the busier North Island; a startling diversity of landscapes comes in an easy-to-navigate package.
Climate zones on the South Island range from the California-like north (where the famous Marlborough sauvignon blancs are made) to the fjords and snow-capped Southern Alps, making this is a paradise for hikers, climbers and nature lovers. Low-key Christchurch is a Victorian charmer still recovering from 2011’s devastating earthquakes; its Jewish Centre was among the physical casualties, but the community is rebuilding and remains a popular stop on the Jewish backpacking circuit.