As we head toward the holidays, I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight some of my favorite discoveries of 2008. They’re not all new, but they are certainly still buzzworthy.
* Ecuador blew me away with its natural beauty and crazy topography, its friendly people and bang-for-the-buck prices. I especially loved Hacienda Zuleta, a couple of hours outside Quito. This family-run farm and historic hotel sits in a bucolic location–you can explore the countryside by horseback.
* Another getaway I discovered this year was Maratea in Basilicata. South of Amalfi and blessed with the same picturesque coastline, it is relatively undiscovered, and hotels come at a fraction of the price of its more well-known neighbor. La Locanda Delle Donne Monache, in a former convent, has just undergone a huge overhaul under new ownership, but the rooms still start at a reasonable 120 euros.
* I made my first trip to Portugal this year. The UNESCO-designated Douro Valley is a beautiful and easy trip from Porto, and the wines there are surprisingly complex and affordable.
* Borgo Santo Pietro in Tuscany was one of the best openings of the year. This former lodging house for pilgrims outside of Siena is a model of what a small country inn escape should be.
* On the other hand, Barcelona’s new Murmuri is close to the action but still a retreat–and stylish to boot.
* Housed in what could be charitably described as a humble shack on the beach in the Tuscan town of Marina di Bibbona, La Pineta was one of my favorite finds of the year. Three fishing boats bring in the fresh seafood every morning, chef Luciano Zazzeti transforms them into innovative but simple dishes, and the wine list puts most to shame. This is one of the most underrated spots in Italy in my estimation.
* El Bulli, south of Barcelona, was my most OTT dining experience of ’08, and my bill could have paid for a New York studio for a month. Nonetheless, I am happy I went: It is all it’s cracked up to be.
* The reopened River Café owned by one of my close friend’s mothers looks amazing in its new incarnation. The private dining room makes it the best new dinner party spot in London.
* I bow down to Junot Diaz. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was one of the funniest and most tender novels I have picked up for ages. As for the prose, well, as I said before, I bow down to Diaz.
* A thank you, too, to CNN’s Anderson Cooper for his Dispatches from the Edge. Published in 2006, I only just picked it up in October, and Cooper’s descriptions from famine- and war-torn Somalia, and from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina put the current economic crisis in context for me.
* My favorite songs of the year for a road trip, for lying on the beach, for getting ready to go out, or for all of the above: Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire,” MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” MIA’s “Paper Planes,” and Kaiser Chief’s “Never Miss a Beat.”
* Rothko at London’s Tate Modern was an example of a retrospective worth waiting for. Seeing his Seagram murals in one room was an unmatched experience.