Like most of you, we were remarkably stationary in 2021 thanks to ongoing Covid-19-related travel restrictions. We remained in Mendoza, Argentina (where we’d been since March of 2020) for the first five months of 2021, then we took a flight to the US when we were eligible for vaccines there. We spent the ensuing six months in the US where we crisscrossed the country on planes and trains to see friends and family before we flew back to Argentina where we are currently working on getting our truck up and running after being parked for months. Yeah, we know the feeling.
We did manage to get around a bit (we flew 20 flight segments in 2021 which is VASTLY more than we’ve flown in decades) to experience some remarkable things in the year that was, so here are our travel highlights of 2021.
Best adventure travel of 2021
We logged two notable travel adventures in 2021. And we’re proud of it.
Best adventure on rails: Our first travel adventure of 2021 was our cross-country trip via Amtrak. When the company slashed the price of its USA Rail Pass (which provides 10 travel segments to be used within 30 days), we snagged a pair of passes and rode the rails for 4,888 miles (7,866 km) from the west coast to the east coast. Before you do the same, check out our post about 15 Amtrak Travel Tips so you can make the most of your own cross-country long-distance train travel adventure (this post also explains some of the train adventures you may not be expecting but certainly need to plan for).
Best repeat adventure: Our second adventure of 2021 was a return to Ecuador for an 11-day whirlwind circuit that included the best hotel in Quito (more about Casa Gangotena below), the best rainforest lodge (more about Mashpi Lodge below), and our fourth trip to the Galapagos Islands, this time onboard Metropolitan Touring’s La Pinta boat. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the Galapagos Islands is a destination that consistently lives up to the hype. This was our fifth cruise through this archipelago of volcanic islands (though our first on a boat operated by Ecuadorean tour company Metropolitan Touring) and we were still amazed daily and even experienced a number of hikes and destinations that we had not done on previous trips. Fewer tourists and better deals make the Galapagos Islands even more tempting right now.
Best hotels of 2021
We only stayed at four hotels in 2021, but they were all doozies in their own ways.
Best theme hotel: The TWA Hotel, in the restored TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, is a much an experience as it is a place to spend the night. All of the 510 rooms (book one overlooking the runways for a shockingly close look at aircraft coming and going) are in new towers built behind the original terminal. That original terminal has been restored to its 1960s glory and repurposed as a kind of travel museum and playground. Peruse an exhibit of TWA uniforms through the ages and admire a few classic 1960s cars in the lobby as a ’60s soundtrack plays. Sip a cocktail in “Connie”, an aircraft turned into a bar. Look for locations you may recognize from Catch Me If You Can, Oceans 8, and The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel which have all used the building as a filming location. Take a swim in the rooftop pool overlooking the runways. And use the free photo booth. There’s also a 10,000 square foot gym (one of the largest hotel gyms in the world), Cafe Paris, the hotel restaurant created by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and an Intelligentsia coffee shop serving superior coffee. It’s playful. It’s relaxing And it’s convenient. The TWA Hotel is attached to Terminal 5 at JFK Airport via a sky bridge, which makes this the perfect place to book before or after a flight.
Best glamping/cabin mash-up: The entire Getaway concept seems tailor-made for these pandemic times: give people everything necessary for an unplugged deep dive into nature with none of the hassles or discomforts of camping but all of the serenity and beauty and plenty of social distancing. Check-in is totally contactless (you’ll get a text with the name of your unit and the door code and staff are on hand should you need something). There is no Wi-Fi or TV. And each Getaway cabin/trailer is positioned for privacy and views in protected areas within easy driving distance of dozens of major cities in the US (with more locations rolling out in 2022). We spent a night in the Getaway Mount Adams location about a 2-hour drive from Portland, Oregon in the Deschutes National Forest along with Karen’s sister. We love camping. Karen’s sister, not so much. But we all ended up loving the Getaway package. Each 2 or 4-person unit (all are named for grandparents of Getaway employees) includes a totally serviceable kitchen, electricity, a flushing toilet, a good shower with plenty of hot water, comfy beds and bedding, an effective heater and A/C, huge windows, and many more smart and hospitable touches. All units also have an outdoor sitting area with Adirondack chairs and a fire ring (firewood and starter are available to purchase). In warm weather, this essentially adds an outdoor living room to this outdoorsy yet comfy setup.
Best luxury hotel in Quito, Ecuador: It’s always lovely to return to a hotel that impressed you the first time to find the place even more amazing. That was our experience on our return to Casa Gangotena, the best luxury hotel in Quito and one of only three Relais & Chateaux hotels in Ecuador. Our first stay at Casa Gangotena was back in 2014 when we were impressed by the service and the thoughtful renovation of a lovely historic home. Seven years later, those elements remained plus an extremely improved food and beverage offering including some of the most inventive (but not silly) cocktails we’ve had in Latin America and rock-solid dishes like fork-tender pork shoulder cooked for 72 hours with lavender, carrots, roasted beets, and sour cream. Add in a petite but welcoming new spa and this hotel just keeps getting better.
Best rainforest lodge in Ecuador: On our return visit to Mashpi Lodge, which we first visited in 2015, we found this remarkably modern luxury haven in the middle of an enormous track of privately protected rainforest still delivering the right combination of comfort, outdoor activity (hiking, bird watching, waterfall swimming), and eco-education under the watchful and passionate eye of long-time general manager Marc Bery. Since our first visit, Mashpi has added more reasons to spend more days including a new spa, an outdoor jacuzzi with a view, and The Dragonfly. This 1.2 mile (2 km) open gondola cable car system (pictures above in the bottom row on the left) takes passengers slowly through the rainforest canopy. It’s a sister adventure to the lodge’s Sky Bike line that lets guests pedal through the treetops.
Best food and beverages of 2021
In the very limited brave new world of pandemic dining, here were our top food and beverage experiences of 2021.
Best version of outdoor dining: Since 1999 (long before the pandemic forced restaurants to put their tables outside) the team behind Outstanding in the Field (OITF) has been making a name for itself with casual and convivial dining events in some of the most beautiful outdoor settings in the US (and in Mexico coming soon). We’re talking communal dining at connected tables stretching hundreds of feet on beaches, blufftops, deserts, and farms. And those tables get set with glee by a rotating cast of chefs *in true farm-to-table style*. During our OITF dinner, on a bluff just below Hearst Castle overlooking the Pacific Ocean in California, the family-style spread included springy flatbread and chewy sourdough with butter rolled in seaweed, a platter of perfect yellow and red tomatoes, bulgar salad with lentils covered in seaweed, live-fire cooked Hearst Ranch beef with roasted beans and potatoes and charred onions, and a dessert of grilled apricots and strawberries with local cheese. The wine, in this case Hearst Ranch wine, flows freely throughout the meal as does the conversation. Another hallmark of OITF events is the presence of many of the purveyors of ingredients used in the meal. Having them on hand to talk passionately about oysters or radishes (from a grower with pink hair) is a bonafide plus.
Best not-so-bad-after-all cocktail: Taberna El Hoyo is an institution in Santiago, Chile. It’s been around since 1912 and, nearly 110 years later, it’s a bit frayed around the edges, but still humming along. The menu is full of meaty classics (the costillar ribs were tasty and tender) and they also serve Chile’s terremoto cocktail. The word terremoto means earthquake in Spanish in part because this drink was invented after a big earthquake in Chile in 1985. If you want to get cute, you can refer to your second terremoto as an “aftershock.” Whatever you call it, this concoction, which is a mix of cheap white wine and pineapple sorbet, sounds awful. That’s why we’ve avoided it during all of our months in Chile, *we vividly recall watching Tony Bourdain’s visit here in a 2009 episode of No Reservations and we thought that cocktail sounds horrible*. However, when we passed through Santiago on our way from the US to Argentina we went to El Hoyo for lunch and finally ordered a pitcher of terremoto. We have to say, it was much less sweet than we feared. It was also way boozier than we expected even though Tony Bourdain made it clear that the terremoto packs a punch when he shot part of a segment of his show at El Hoyo.
Best tasting menu surprise: Casa Julián, the Relais & Chateaux restaurant for Hotel del Parque (also a Relais & Chateaux property) in Guayaquil, Ecuador was the last stop on our whirlwind trip back to Ecuador and we were running late. This meant we arrived for lunch around 4 pm with just a few hours before we needed to board our flight back to the US. It was time well spent. The restaurant, helmed by chef Javier Urrita, offers an ala carte menu of elegant classics (giant prawns on rice, succulent lamb, ceviches) and two tasting menus. We opted for the 6-course tasting menu with wine pairings figuring (rightly) that the meal would serve as lunch and dinner for our long day of travel. Standouts included a dish of sweet plantain with olive oil, egg yolk, and mustard that had the texture and look of steak tartare but was totally vegetarian. A dish of chopped and tender shrimp with sweet corn, shaved hearts of palm, and beets topped with tiny squid legs was fresh and satisfying. Ecuadorean wines were an added bonus and it’s nice to see the country’s winemakers upping their game.
Best travel gear of 2021
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