Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best of... A Year Long Journey Around the World... Favorite Town

Kate and I continue our "Best Of..." series with our picks for our most favorite small towns that we visited over the past year.

Favorite Town: Clarens, South Africa
It could have been the tidy artsy town with tree lined streets. Maybe it was the day hike in the hills around the town - our first hike a month. It might have been the Clarens Brewery; the best micro brew we'd had since we left the States 3 months earlier. Or maybe it was the wonderfully furnished efficiency apartment a few blocks from the main square. Or maybe...just was the mac & cheese we made the first night in town - to this day, Kate's benchmark for homemade mac & cheese.
Little Clarens, nestled into the Drakensburg of South Africa
Whatever reason it turned out to be, Clarens turned out to be our favorite small town we visited along the way. This is a huge upset over other, very much well loved towns along our journey and, as such, holds a very special place in our heart. We are not big city people; we're more of smaller cities and town people so, it's with no small amount of fanfare that we anoint Clarens our favorite town of our trip.
Charles, toasting Clarens
Amazingly, we only spent two nights and two days exploring this little slice of heaven but it obviously left a big impression on us. We arrived immediately after the infamous car crash in Durban and, likely for the first time on our trip, felt at ease and at home. In Clarens there was a calm that almost transported you out of Africa and the crazy hustle and bustle that accompanied so much of our time there.
Trust us; this is not what a typical South African town looks like
Great hiking straight out the front door. Lazy tree lined avenues. Great local bread, cheese and wine shops to stock up on. Terrific restaurants that punched way above the weight of the size of the town. A local brewery on the town square that had an outstanding deck. A BBQ to grill some chicken and a kitchen to make mac & cheese. Friendly people. The cool winter weather that felt like a crisp autumn day. It's not the easiest place to get to; but in some ways, that made it all the more worthwhile when we arrived.
Great hiking & views right out the door
Also super comfy inside the door
Clarens, for us, at this time and place, had everything we needed. And we were able to appreciate it like never before.
Kate, showing her appreciation, for Clarens

Honorable Mention: In my humble opinion, this category might have been the most difficult one to choose a winner. Each one of these towns provided us with such great memories, experiences, food, libations and love that to term them "honorable mention" is like picking a favorite child. (We've been told at least) that you love each one in a different way. Well that's how we feel about each one of these following places. So in due order, we'll give each one a bit more love than in other Honorable Mention categories.

Queenstown, New Zealand
I've likely already waxed poetic about how much I loved Queenstown too many other times in this blog. How much walking off the plane made it feel like coming home. How crazy it was to run into a friend from 10 years ago the very first morning on a street corner as Kate and I were walking into town for coffee. Just how unreal the Remarkables are to look up at from anywhere in town. So I'll save you the effort of mentioning all that again.
A town fit for the Queen
What I would say is that Queenstown is a special place that few people forget once they've been. Trust me, you'll notice when talking to someone who's experienced the adrenalin rush of the adventure activities or the pleasant meals by Lake Wakatipu or the never ending late night partying that occurs there... talk to them and eyes light up. A smile creeps onto their face. Details not typically remembered from holidays long ago emerge. Words like "beautiful", "unbelievable" and "spectacular" bounce around without a hint of the superlative.
The Fosters & The Westrins enjoying a hike out our back door
Queenstown is that type of special place.
Not a bad spot for a town
And, we, can't wait to return again someday.
Will return both for this... 
And for this... 
Leh, Ladakh, India
Kate, had no desire to return to India. Charles, couldn't consider not going to India on the trip. Ladakh, in the far most reaches of northwest India, was the compromise. And what a great compromise it turned out to be.
Leh - India but not India like you think of it 
The thing about Leh, is that nobody gets there on accident. It's simply too difficult to get to. First you have to get to India. Then you have to either catch a flight from Delhi (way too easy for us to consider...) or take a 14 - 17 hour bus ride from Delhi to Manali, then hop a 2 day hired car ride over multiple 17,000 foot tall passes to arrive into Leh.
Yes, the car ride was long, but when you see this at 15k ft above sea level, it makes it worthwhile
But once you're there, you're in Little Tibet. Gone is the trash, the smell, the chaos of India. In washes the prayer flags, the clean mountain air of 11,000 ft and the arid dustiness of an oasis carved into a high alpine desert.
The 2013 Ladakh Festival
Tibetan culture on full display
Apparently Leh has been popular with German and French teachers, nurses and professionals for a few years now. Regardless of who's been going, go now while you still have the chance. Guest houses are popping up everywhere and the quiet quaintness of this little town will soon be a bit louder and less serene.
Serenity can still be found in the remote Merkha Valley, a 5 day home stay hike that was a hiking highlight of our trip
"Highlight" because of views and days like this. 
It may be a long ways to get there, but after 10 days hanging out here, even Kate had to admit that she liked traveling in India. (Ok. Maybe just Ladakh.)
Leh: Go now
Nelson, New Zealand
So by now you can probably deduce the primary considerations for a Kate & Charles favorite town: located in a beautiful natural setting; plenty of hiking/activities out our back door; great food and restaurants out our front door; nice accommodation walking distance from the town center and, more than likely, the fact that we ended up staying for a week or more. Nelson had all of these things and more.
The view from our front door in Nelson
Our lock off apartment had a stunning view over the Abel Tasman sound; world class hiking was a stone's throw away in any direction; the town turned out to be the hop beer AND wine capital of New Zealand; and we hunkered down for 6 days to drink it all in.
The Nelson Lakes was a surprisingly beautiful park
Highlights included hiking in the Abel Tasman and Nelson Lakes National parks; Kate dominating yard games at Louise's house for a Kiwi BBQ;  easy access to great places to eat in town (sushi! beer gardens!); and frequent stop offs at random microbreweries and vineyards along the way.
The Abel Tasman
Our favorite micro brewery
Kate & Louise dominating the yard games
Nelson is often overlooked when compared to many of the South Islands more famous destinations, but that might be OK. Best leave it to the locals and few travelers who decide to stay for a while...
Nelson: Sea, mountains, a small town and sheep (aka quintessential NZed) 
Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos was our surprise favorite country and Luang Prabang was our surprise favorite town in the country. Never really heard of it? Well, neither had we heard much before we arrived via the slow boat into this little French colonial town that time seemed to forget.

If I told you that French colonial architecture blended seamlessly with the Buddist wats and daily alms walks by the monks, would you believe me? Probably not, but that's what you get in Laung Prabang.
Laung Prabang? Who knew?! French Colonial architecture...
...with a bit of Buddhist flair.
A traveler here also gets cheap eats at one of SE Asia's most colorful nightly markets or cheap eats at one of Laos' best restaurants.
Umbrellas at the night market
Fish Laap - some of the best we had
Cheap Beer Lao at one of the backpacker bars or cheap yoga located in a temple for the next morning's cleanse.
Pretty sure a cleanse was required after this night with Dave & Noelle
Oh. And new friends. Definitely new friends. This was where we met both Flo & Nina - our favorite German couple who we proceeded to travel with AND Dave & Noelle - our favorite Chicago couple who were likely our traveling couple from another motha. (I don't know...Work with me here. There were a lot of similarities is all I'm trying to say...)
C&K, with Flo & Nina and the rest of the German contingent
And none of this mentions the world class waterfalls a short distance from town, the easy vibe of the Mekong river flowing by or the amazement that somehow Laung Prabang isn't as well known for its' many charms as it could be.
Diggin the waterfalls...
And (of course) the rope swing

El Chalten, Argentina
El Chalten was one of the last small towns we stayed in during our trip and, unlike Laung Prabang, we came in with some high expectations. Also like Laung Prabang, El Chalten delivered in spades.
El Chalten: Delivering in Spades
Turns out we should've known when this was the view for our bus ride in
Chalten offers the best of what a great mountain town should be...Some of the best hiking of the entire trip out our front door every morning; great food, beer and coffee a block away from our tidy little apartment; and wonderful friends to enjoy it with as we found ourselves hiking through stunning mountains and hanging glaciers with our favorite Belgium family.
Our local brew pub
The view out of our bedroom window
The Ronsse & Westrin families
We split our time between staying in El Chalten and staying in El Pillar, which is a 17 KM drive to the north. If you go to one; be sure to find time to go to the other. Both are well worth the effort necessary to go there. 

El Pillar; also providing nothing to complain about
Our friends Clayton, Jenny and Cody are heading to El Chalten in January...don't think that Kate and I haven't talked about trying to crash the party and join them just for a bit to relive it all over again...
I'm purchasing a return ticket immediately

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