The Very Best Vacation Destination in the Whole World
By R J Furth
The title for this essay – The Very Best Vacation Destination in the Whole World – was selected for its absurdity. In a way, I’m knocking those magazine covers that herald ‘The Top Ten Island Vacations’ or ‘The Top Five Hotels in the World’ or even ‘The Hottest New Destinations’. I’m also making fun of my own quest for the best of. As most of my readers know, Sandy and I live in Colorado, one of the most beautiful places on the planet (oops, there I go), yet we fell out of love with snow and cold many years ago when we lived in Malaysia. As a result, we’ve talked for many years of moving to a warmer climate. Southeast Asia, a region we’ve always loved, is too far from loved ones. We’ve checked out a few spots in the United States (Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Tucson, Arizona), yet none suited us. We flew to Puerto Vallarta (PV), Mexico, over Christmas in hopes of finding that special place where we can hunker for the dreariest winter months. PV came highly recommended and was particularly desirable since the flight from Denver is just over three hours. Unfortunately, we were disappointed with our trip, and our disappointment appeared to have disappointed people who had recommended the PV area. After a lot of pondering, I’ve come to a – perhaps obvious – conclusion: One person’s dream vacation is another person’s disappointment.
This realization makes a mockery of those The Ten Best Places To… articles. (The same could be said about movie awards, restaurant reviews and anything else that relies on subjective criteria.) The best of anything is relative and highly personal. I recommended a Brazilian restaurant to neighbors. She wasn’t fond of it because many dishes were too rich in coconut milk. I liked the restaurant in part because I like dishes cooked in coconut. When I traveled through Asia the first time in 1976 I spent months on beaches in Bali, Sumatra and India. Our son Alan recently returned from a month in west Africa and didn’t visit a single beach in spite of the high praise for some west African beaches in the Lonely Planet guidebook. (He seeks adventure and knowledge rather than a good tan.) Some people love large, all-inclusive resorts because they are easy and you often get pampered in ways that small hotels are unable to do. Sandy and I prefer small boutique hotels because of the personal service and calm.
So why were we disappointed with our trip to Puerto Vallarta or, more specifically, Sayulita which is north of PV? I’ll start by saying what we liked about it. The people were friendly and the food fresh and delicious and prepared mild so as not to hurt the tourist, though you can request as much spice as you like. The area itself was lovely with lush forests and clean, wide beaches. Our accommodations were quiet and comfortable, and the staff outstanding. The fact is that we liked the PV area and understand why it is so popular. It is a short flight from the frozen north and nearly everybody speaks English and accepts US dollars (for those who struggle with exchange rates). Everything was familiar, and I suppose that accounts for much of our disappointment. Having lived in Denver for forty years, I am no stranger to the Mexican-Latin American culture. I knew far more Spanish than I’d realized. I know Mexican holidays, Mexican food, even Mexican television shows and soccer players. As a Catholic country – albeit one with unique features – Mexico’s religion is interesting yet it’s not exotic. For many Americans, this familiarity is part of the draw. There is no jetlag, no strange language, no bizarre foods or customs. Whether you spend your time in a big city (Bubba Gump Shrimp, Wal-Mart, MacDonald’s) or in a small village (quiet, slow paced, less expensive), Mexico is an easy place to spend an extended vacation. It’s just not the place where we will be spending our extended vacations.
So what is, in our opinion, The Very Best Vacation Destination in the Whole World? I would answer the same way as when people ask what my favorite teaching posting was: It is not so much a place as a time in our lives, a perfect storm of pleasure. Sandy and I loved teaching in Malaysia as newlyweds. We loved teaching in Japan when our children were little. Same with vacation destinations. Sandy and I loved Sumatra for our first Christmas vacation as newlyweds. We loved a little group of cottages on Ko Samui in southern Thailand when Jody and Alan were little, a place with only cold water showers that was run by a small bunch of the friendliest, kindest people we’ve ever known. Have we had terrific vacations since? More than I can remember. (Sandy’s memory is better.) Will we forever be disappointed because nothing can match Paris in 1983 or Ko Samui in 1993 or a week on a farm in western England in 1996? Of course not. Adventures await. New food tantalizes. Great hotels have turned down our beds and left chocolate on the pillows in anticipation of our visit. Every trip brings disappointments (little kids throwing rocks at us in Morocco two years ago) and pleasures (a lamb tangine eaten on a carpet under the stars in the Sahara in Morocco). It’s a tough – and risky – task to recommend The Very Best Vacation Destination in the Whole World because there are too many factors that can bring the dream crashing down, not least of which is the danger of heightened expectations. Besides, one of the great pleasures is to be surprised by the unexpected. We never expected to find a new favorite small hotel in Tucson last year, nor did we think we’d find great Chinese duck in the outskirts of London.
Travel is a mixed bag, especially in this age when going to airports is akin to visiting a maximum security prison. I will continue to ask advice from fellow travelers; read magazines, books and online reviews of travel destinations; and seek the perfect, the best vacation. But I know that perfection doesn’t exist. A great vacation is a special blend of mood, climate, time, people, food, culture and accommodations, with a pinch of fairy dust. Bon voyage. May your next vacation be the very best ever.