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The Perpetual Tourist : Our intrepid reporter picks his best and worst travel experiences of 1994

Times Travel Editor

At the risk of offending the Costa Ricans, the Greeks, the Mexicans, the Dutch, the Panamanians, the Californians, the Coloradans, the Hawaiians, the good people of Massachusetts and Wyoming (whatever they’re called), the Mississippians, the Montanans, the Nevadans, the New Yorkers, the Oregonians, the Tennesseans, the Utahns and the Washingtonians, let me just say this about the year just ended: I visited all those states and nations. But I liked Halibut Cove, Alaska, better.

You can argue that it’s not fair to compare apples and oranges, or catfish and buttes, or fall leaves and the rain forest. But every traveler’s memory plays favorites. And in the last few days, every time I’ve tried to impose some order on the impressions I collected in 1994, the image of Halibut Cove has bobbed up. It was, I have decided, my favorite discovery of the year.

That’s the place up there on the projection screen. When I visited, it was July, sunny and breezy. I stood on a boardwalk at the edge of Kachemak Bay, with Homer across the water and Anchorage beyond the mountains, about 100 miles north. A fine halibut dinner from the Saltery restaurant lay in my belly. Behind me were arrayed the scattered structures of downtown Halibut Cove (population 40 in winter, 160 in summer), fringed by green forest, purple flowers, a 400-pound pig in a pen, the studio of artist Diana Tillion (who paints with squid ink) and, grinding down the mountains beyond, a dozen or so glaciers. No cars, no roads; the only ways in are by boat and plane. Before me on the boardwalk sat 9-year-old Nicky Riordan, coaxing minuets from his cello. I don’t know what moose calls sound like, but that’s what his low notes made me think of, resounding across the bay.

Moments like that are why we fly, or drive, cruise, to strange places. On the whole, a traveler wants to be surprised, and many of us are willing to endure plenty in the effort.

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In my 1994, for instance, there was a wasted afternoon among the Costa Rican gimcrack peddlers, and a Denver classical concert where a man recited his long poem about the municipal money pit. And there was that flight to Greece in September--hour after transatlantic hour, wedged into my seat by a woman who pounded down cocktails, assaulted me with tales of cruise-ship travels and then, when I raised and opened a book as a shield, chastised me for destroying my eyesight by holding the volume so close. I finally feigned sleep.

This is my revenge for that torture in the sky, my thanks for the rapture at the cove--one traveler’s utterly biased, comprehensively unscientific slide show of bests, worsts, firsts and lasts from 1994. The superlatives that follow focus on places I visited last year, with a couple of exceptions in the case of locations I saw in 1993 but didn’t get to describe in these pages until 1994.

Favorite U.S. city: San Francisco, for all the obvious reasons. Scenic hills, rolling fog, the big old Golden Gate Bridge, the Victorian architecture, the Italian food, the Chinese food--just about all of the food, really. The public transit and stylish small hotels. The landscapes of Marin and Napa counties to the north. Beyond all that, the conversion of the Presidio into a national park next to the Golden Gate Bridge won’t hurt, nor will the reopening later this month of the San Francisco Museum of Art, now in a handsome new building in the Yerba Buena Center arts complex near Moscone Center.

Favorite foreign city: Paris, not just because of the epic scale and striking landmarks but because of the way they serve as staging areas for new bursts of energy. Case in point: the narrow streets, crowded nightclubs and cheek-by-jowl sidewalk cafes of the Bastille district. Sixty years after Edith Piaf sang there on still-raffish Rue de Lappe, the area is younger and hipper than ever before, now with an opera house at the site of the old Bastille jail that the revolutionaries stormed in 1789. Soon to follow: the nearby Bercy district, where the recently opened American Center is one of several new cultural attractions.

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Least favorite city: Las Vegas. Bright lights. Entrepreneurial ingenuity. Big winners. Big losers. Greed. Soullessness. Bad restaurants. Desperation. Greed. Soullessness. Bad restaurants. Pandering. Greed. Soullessness. Bad restaurants. Self-deception. Greed. Soullessness. Bad restaurants. (Is anybody bored yet?) Greed. Soullessness. . . .

Favorite urban place for a daylight stroll: New York City’s Central Park. After years of crossing that 843-acre municipal playground, playhouse, museum and garden as a short-cutting visitor on the way to other places, I got an in-depth tour from park historian and photographer Sara Cedar Miller in 1993, amid fall’s first fallen leaves. Last spring, in town for a wedding, my wife and I called on her again, and after a lunch at the Boathouse were treated to a survey of all things blooming and newly planted. Few New Yorkers know it, but the most elaborate and impressively ordered garden in the park is in one of its least-frequented, most-feared corners: The Conservatory Garden along the park’s uptown East Side edge, near 105th Street, verging on Harlem.

Favorite slice of small-town America: Oxford, Miss. The place’s population is listed at just 10,141, but its regional culture is as deep and strong as they come--blues, Faulkner’s home, various vestiges of segregation and the civil rights movement. Among the runners-up, Homer, Alaska, had the most spectacular natural setting, and good radio. Sheridan, Wyo., was an unpretentious, unprettified holdover from the Old West, lying in the middle of wide open spaces, not far from Eatons’ Ranch, which may have been the first dude ranch in the country.

Most self-satisfied U.S. town: Williamstown, Mass. “Billsville” is an orderly corner of the handsome Berkshire Hills, and has a remarkably sophisticated arts community, including Williams College, two top-flight museums and widely admired summer programs of theater (the Williamstown Theater Festival) and music (Tanglewood is a short drive away). But it all feels a bit too tidy. College tuition is about $25,000 per year, and it’s a bit dismaying to hear the way Williamstown people discuss the next-door blue-collar town of North Adams as if it were some needy distant relation. Also, there’s that sign at the end of Williamstown’s main drag: “The Village Beautiful.” Beware of any destination that supplies its own adjectives.

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Best drive: The narrow, winding, foliage-crowded, cliff-hugging, waterfall-skirting 50-mile Hana Highway on the island of Maui, if you’re not in a hurry.

Worst drive: Same road, if you are in a hurry.

Best place to ride a bike: Moab, Utah, if that bike has knobby tires and a sturdy body, and you have an interest in clambering up and careening down rock-strewn old mining roads. Big red buttes rise all around, and the Colorado River cuts a deep, wide path just outside of town. Warnings: If you go in summer, it will be hot, and if you go in late spring or early fall, it may be crowded. More importantly, if you leave the established paths you become part of a large and growing local problem: the destruction of a delicate desert ecosystem.

Most ill-advised subject for epic poetry: The astronomically costly, repeatedly delayed, still-unfinished Denver International Airport. But not everyone thinks so. When I showed up in April to hear a brass concert at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, there was a pause in the music and a man named Lou Malandra was introduced as the airport’s poet laureate. Before I could digest that title, the versifying had begun: “Natives and Nomads . . . You who build these great pyramid-like tents for the travelers of the world to gather/ A paradise for people and planes . . .” It went on for more than 100 lines, which seemed like a long time to me. But maybe Denverites are accustomed to the idea that anything to do with that airport is going to take a good, long time.

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Best transformation of lemons into lemonade: The staff at the Milano Hotel in San Francisco. Visiting anonymously during the new hotel’s first weeks, I had lunch at the on-site Bistro M restaurant, then found the next day that the meal charge had been left off my bill. Seeing no Bistro staff around and recognizing that the necessary data lay irretrievably deep in her computer, the woman at the desk told me the meal was on the house. Then the next day, when my hotel-arranged airport shuttle failed to show at the appointed time, the man at the desk took it upon himself to pull $30 from his register and put me in a taxi. I’ll be back soon, hoping that more will go wrong.

Most perplexing service: On the first night of the newly renovated Star Odyssey’s maiden cruise from Aruba to San Francisco, I asked an inexperienced Greek waiter for a Heineken. A few moments later, he returned with an empty champagne flute and a can of Budweiser.

Biggest language problem: Someone in China dropped the ball, and so when my flight from Hong Kong landed in the Yangtze River town of Wuhan, there was no one to meet me as planned. In fact, there was no one at all in the airport who spoke English, and the only other obviously English-speaking passenger on my flight had fled in a van before I realized my fix. I was alone, among 3.2 million Wuhan Chinese. I pulled out a bilingual map, circled the airport, circled the Yangtze Hotel and drew a line between them. Then, stepping free of the crowd that had gathered around me, I followed a gesticulating woman to her car, thrust the map at her, and by pantomime negotiated a price. As we pulled away another woman hopped in the back of the car, and as we crawled through hideous traffic, Woman No. 2 did her own pantomime, apparently suggesting other services that I might purchase, services directly involving herself. I declined once, twice, three times, and, with the car never exceeding 20 m.p.h., finally reached my hotel more than an hour later. There I paid the agreed-upon amount--about $20, or roughly $18 above the going rate. I elected not to attempt to contact the Better Business Bureau.

Best view from a hotel window: The Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco. From many rooms, you see the Golden Gate Bridge, the TransAmerica Building, the bay and the contours of the city--fog permitting.

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Worst airline seatmate: The woman who sat between me and the aisle on that LAX-Athens flight. After hours in the air, she introduced me to her husband--a cagey fellow who was seated several rows away on the other side of the plane.

Most satisfying armchair journeys: “Falling Off the Map,” Pico Iyer’s 1993 collection of pieces on “lonely places” from Cuba to Bhutan; “Great Plains,” Ian Frazier’s 1989 ode to the middle of America; “Travels With Alice,” a Calvin Trillin collection of light travel pieces, most of them first published in the New Yorker; and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” John Berendt’s best-selling 1993 nonfiction story of murder and quirkiness in Savannah, Ga.

Best resort: The Hotel Hana-Maui, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, was tropically lush, wonderfully remote and has held on to much of the home-grown feeling that developed in its first 40 years of operation. (That home-grown feeling could be lost if the hotel, managed by Sheraton, gets hungry for revenues and goes forward with plans to add a golf course.) Another idyllic spot--and far more accessible--was La Quinta Hotel Golf and Tennis Resort, near Palm Springs, with its 45 acres of Spanish-style units (640 of them), about 20 tennis courts, 54 golf holes and 25 swimming pools. (And no, a golf course in the desert is even less natural than a golf course in the jungle, but Palm Springs has been the way it is for so many decades that the grassy expanses there don’t surprise anyone anymore.) Architecturally, the Omni Zaashila in Huatulco, Mexico, was most impressive, boldly colored with an enormous oceanfront pool. But the hotel was hampered by the fact that the surrounding vacation area on the Oaxaca coast is between identities. A decade ago it was a remote village; now it’s a half-made tourist mecca, with thousands of hotel rooms done but thousands more yet to come.

Biggest disappointment: The shops of Sarchi, Costa Rica, which rope in the eco-travelers bound for the cloud forest and coasts, and also the cruisers whose ships call along the nearby coast after passing through the Panama Canal. The tourist brochures and guidebooks promise an artisans’ village, but the town’s tourism epicenter is a block of nondescript buildings bulging with cheap souvenirs. The central theme is painted miniature wooden oxcarts, but at least on the day I browsed, the craftsmanship wasn’t impressive and the atmosphere was less exotic than your neighborhood Pier One Imports. In a country with twin coastlines, staggering biodiversity, a well-educated and welcoming population, fuming volcanoes and steamy rain forests left and right, I can’t think of a worse way to pass a few hours. If anyone ever gives you a choice between lying on the beach and riding a bus to Sarchi, stretch out on a towel and don’t think twice.

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Travel cliche that lives up to its image: Waikiki. Sure, it’s crowded with mainland tourists and Japanese tourists and tourist souvenir shops and tourist restaurants and the profoundly touristy and useless merchandise of the international marketplace. But the water is that wonderful blue-green hue, the outrigger canoes bob photogenically, the tides are just right for a beginning surfer, and Diamond Head looms in the background

Travel cliche that doesn’t live up to its image: Hollywood Boulevard. It seems to happen to us every year. House guests from out of the country arrive determined to see the stars’ homes, Mann’s Chinese Theater and the rest. So we head out in the car, and they gape in horror as we roll past the desolation of T-shirt shops, runaway teen-agers and star-map hawkers. Malevolent cruisers race their engines next to us, prostitutes slouch on the sidewalk, predators wait in alleys. If this is the best city redevelopment can manage, Universal’s bright, shiny, tidy and privately policed City Walk has a bright future indeed.

Words that ring in my head every time I come home to Los Angeles: Spoken by a California emigre at a popular restaurant in the town of Story, 16 miles south of Sheridan, Wyo. “On a winter night,” he told me with wide eyes, “this parking lot is full of cars with doors unlocked, keys in the ignitions, engines on and rifles in back. And nothing goes wrong.”


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