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Personal Picks: Expert Travelers’ Favorite Destinations

Locations in this article:  Auckland, New Zealand Bangkok, Thailand Los Angeles, CA

Palm Trees DestinationNeed to get away, but not sure where to go?

Recently, you may have heard Tom Swick on Peter’s radio show, discussing some of his favorite destinations. Tom has been the travel editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel since 1989, and, like Peter, has traveled to all corners of the earth for both business and pleasure.

We sat down with Tom to find out some of his top recommendations that may not be on your list … but they should be.

Barging French Canals

Traveling by barge through France’s 5,000 miles of waterways is one of the most relaxing journeys you can take. Whether you’re on a guided barge with gourmet meals and local wines served on board, or captaining your own ship, this is the long and lazy way to explore the country’s quiet regions.

The Barge

We took the boat by ourselves, just like a rental car, and sailed for a week. Fortunately, [my wife and I] were traveling with two couple friends, and both of the guys are boaters. It’s a pretty basic, but there are a lot of locks that you have to pass through. We saw people who were kind of struggling, but we didn’t have to stress … The only thing that might be a disappointment is that this kind of boat doesn’t look like a [traditional] barge; it’s more like a boat. On a barge, whoever is driving has to be inside. But this boat has two wheels, so whoever was driving could be outside with the rest of us.

The Route

We traveled on the Canal du Midi in the South of France. We picked it up a little west of Montpelier and ended up east of Toulouse. The only major city on the way was Carcassonne, a medieval town with beautiful ramparts. The rest of the trip was basically villages, vineyards, stone bridges, and farmhouses.

The Experience

The canals were built in the 1600s and it was an incredible engineering feat. The canal is lined with sycamore trees, which are perfectly spaced next to one another, so you’re in the shade most of the time. The water was very smooth—my wife is very susceptible to getting seasick and she was fine …

For a week, you don’t see modern life. It’s like this backstage view of France, unchanged in the last 100 years. Everything along the way is for boaters, so there are lots of little cafes along the canal. You can go into town to buy supplies—we caught a couple of markets, bought cheese and bread, roasted chicken, potatoes, and you can eat right there on the canal.

Aitutaki, Cook Islands

This remote island is part of the South Pacific’s Cook Island, located nearly 2,000 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand, and nearly 1,000 miles from Tahiti.

The Travel

What I like about it is that you really have to make an effort to get there. I flew from Los Angeles to Tahiti, from Tahiti to Rarotonga (the capital of the Cook Islands), and then on another plane to Aitutaki.

The Culture

I met some Tahitian teenagers there last year who said it was like Bora Bora 15 years ago—it’s hidden but not undiscovered (Survivor was filmed there). The people were extremely hospitable. Even the tourists are interesting because they made an effort to get there … I stayed in a little guesthouse. It’s all little mom and pop motels, and then there’s this one really nice resort on the island. On Sunday, everyone goes to church—it’s interesting, because when they took communion, instead of bread and wine they used coconut water and coconut meat.

The Food

Unfortunately, the cuisine is pretty unhealthy. It’s lots of fried things, lots of starches—potato salad, macaroni and cheese. There was a lot of pork, and I think they may also be into Spam.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Located near Thailand in Southeast Asia, this ancient city is hidden among high mountains along the Mekong River.

Why here?

As soon as I arrived, I had a really good vibe about it. It’s such a laid-back place. It has this incredible mix of ancient Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture. But it is starting to get discovered: They sell these beautiful fabrics, and apparently nowadays, designers are flying in from New York to buy materials.

The Experience

It’s a UNESCO-protected site, with lovely little guest houses with French shutters. It’s a very walkable city. At my guesthouse in the morning, you could see the monks wandering outside to collect their alms. You can take boat on the Mekong, where they take you to these caves with old Buddhist statues.

Getting There

There are direct flights from Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Of course, Thailand is set up for tourists, which is great especially if you’re traveling to Asia for the first time … but Luang Prabang is one of those very special places.

Tom Swick is the author of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He is a contributor to Travel & Leisure and National Geographic Traveler magazines, and his works have appeared in several editions of “Best American Travel Writing.”

For more great ideas on where to travel, check out our “Off the Brochure” series that will show you the world’s most famous cities in a whole new way.