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‘My best travel discovery of 2016’

Inspired by the surprises thrown up in our weekly A great little place I know series, we asked writers and adventurers to share their best discovery of the year

Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China

Peter Frankopan, historian and author
The world of 2016 is not all doom and gloom. In Asia, things are changing fast as the Silk Roads rise again. In September, I was in north-west China, in Dunhuang, between the Gobi and the Taklamakan deserts, on the southern Silk Road. The city is an oasis, the last stop, going west, before nearly 1,000km of sand, and near the Mogao caves, a Buddhist complex founded in the fourth century.

My favourite spot is in the desert, above crescent-shaped Yueyaquan lake. The best views are at dawn from the top of a series of metal ladders pinned into the steep dunes. As you look down to the lake and city, you feel the heat and oppression of the desert behind you. Deciding to head west required determination, commitment and courage. As new connections are woven across Asia, it is hard not to feel awed by how easy it is to travel today and how difficult it once was. It feels like the present meeting the past, and brushing against the future.
Peter Frankopans The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for 24.60 including UK p&p visit the guardian bookshop

Six Depot Roastery and Cafe, West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, US

Mark Vanhoenacker, pilot and author

Six
Photograph: Mark R Jones

In the late 1990s, on a weekend break in Copenhagen, some friends and I stopped at a cafe and ordered what turned out to be the best sandwich Id ever had: a splendid, open-faced, pesto-laden creation that I would talk about incessantly. Years later, when I became an airline pilot and had the chance to return to Copenhagen often, I spent evenings walking the city, but I could not find that cafe again.

This past August, though, I came across a sandwich thats just as good at Six Depot Roastery and Cafe in West Stockbridge, a classic New England village in the Berkshires, the Massachusetts area where I grew up.

As a long-haul pilot whose main pleasure is coffee, I can report that Six Depot, which opened in 2013, is one of my favourite cafes in the world. An armchair caffeinator could spend weeks exploring the menu of beans curated by owners Lisa Landry and Flavio Lichtenthal, while the venue itself, a modern adaptation of an old railway station that also serves as an art gallery and live music venue, is thoroughly New England. And the sandwich? Its a panino called Chicken Mechado. The chicken is seared, braised and pulled, then smothered in something called Miami salsa yoghurt, mint, coriander and a few other ingredients. This glorious sandwich is something to tell all your friends about.
Mark Vanhoenacker flies Boeing 747s for British Airways. He is the author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. To order a copy for 13.93 including UK p&p visit the guardian bookshop

Cmara Oscura, Cdiz, Spain

Katharine Norbury, writer

Panoramic
Panoramic view of Cdiz. Photograph: Alamy

In Cdiz the streets are long and narrow. The architecture of the city acts as a giant cooling system that funnels Atlantic breezes through shaded streets in a triumph of civil engineering. The city is full of treasures, though finding them can be a hit and miss affair. But in 1994, Spains first camera obscura was erected on top of a former watchtower, the Torre Tavira. When I noticed a stream of Brownie guides with backpacks tripping down the steps of a white-painted building, I knew Id found it.

Inside, the tower was cool and airy. A small group of us were ushered into a dark room at the top a notice urged Silencio. We clustered around a large white-painted bowl, its edges stained with the grey bloom of fingerprints. Our guide extinguished the light and began to open the shutter, rotating the lens with a brass handle.

People the size of ants suddenly swarmed across the concave surface. I reached out my hand and the ant-people climbed over my fingers. A woman cycled past Roman ruins and a container ship drifted into the harbour. Two summer-flowering South American magnolia trees attested to the citys colonial past. Then it was over. Outside, on the roof, I picked out the Roman ruins and the tops of the magnolia trees. And armed with this new perspective, I returned to Cadizs shaded streets.
Katharine Norbury is author of The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream (Bloomsbury, 9.99). To order a copy for 8.19 including UK p&p visit the guardian bookshop

Dhara Dhevi Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Steve McCurry, photographer

Dhara
Dhara Dhevi Hotel. Photograph: Steve McCurry

The Dhara Dhevi is the kind of place you could spend a week in and never feel the need to leave the grounds. I have spent many hours exploring its classical Thai architecture, exotic trees and working rice paddies. Ive always had a passion for art and Buddhist iconography from south-east Asia, and the Dhara Dhevis collection is museum-quality. I found it fascinating that this project was the vision of one man, Suchet Pom Suwanmongkol, who is as comfortable hanging out with the workers who built the hotel, as he is with the royalty who frequent it.

A
Photograph: Steve McCurry

On one visit, I fell asleep under a tree and woke to the feeling of something nuzzling my leg. To my surprise, it was a small horse, the size of a St Bernard dog. At first, I thought I was still dreaming, and then I saw several more of these tiny horses grazing in the distance. It was surreal, but not really unexpected in a place that is so amazing it feels like you are staying in a dream.

Dancing in the Zcalo, Veracruz, Mexico

Kevin Rushby, Guardian travel writer

Dancers
Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

For many years, Veracruz was a city people avoided gang warfare rarely attracts the right kind of visitor. But with governor Javier Duarte gone, there is hope that the bad times are over. If they are, travellers are in for a treat. This magnificent city loves to party. Every weekend the Zcalo (central square) hums with activity. Around the fringes, strolling mariachi, norteo and marimba bands compete to entertain cafe-goers, while in the centre, dancers gyrate to local danzn bands. A cheerful assortment of hustlers, clairvoyants and street vendors work through the crowds. Wares might include lung-buster cigars, mouth-blasting chilli snacks and, most bizarrely, electric shocks to fry your fingers. The idea is to hold two electrodes until the pain is unbearable and pay for the experience. The polite refusal is ahorita!, meaning in a minute. The sellers know that actually means never.

Around the corner on Callejon de la Campana, the dancing is several degrees hotter. Few would dare start to learn Latin dance here, but if you do, no one will bat an eyelid. Later, the party shifts to the malecn, the harbour wall, and continues till dawn.
Sustainable tourism company Sumak Travel offers tailor-made journeys to Veracruz, and other parts of Mexico

Los Islotes, Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico

Steve Backshall, naturalist and TV presenter

California
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Just two hours from La Paz in Mexicos Sea of Cortez, Los Islotes is a rocky California sea lion colony, peppered with resting blue-footed boobies, cormorants and pelicans. The waters are deep blue, and packed with tropical fish flitting like butterflies among the blocky rocks and through a dazzling natural archway. The stars of the show, though, are the sea lions. You need to know a bit of marine mammal psychology: if you chase after them, theyll treat you with disdain, but if you figure out what makes them tick, theyll dance with you under water for hours, pirouetting and prancing around you in an intoxicating aquatic ballet. Los Islotes was a happy discovery, made on honeymoon with my wife, Olympic rower Helen Glover. Helen got scuba qualified, and we spent hours diving alongside whale sharks and manta rays, but the sea lions stood out as our finest animal encounter.

Manuelas restaurant, Puyuhuapi, Chile

Karen Darke, paralympic cyclist, adventurer and author

Christmas
Christmas tree in village of Puyuhuapi, with Manuelas restaurant in the centre. Photograph: Karen Darke

The Carretera Austral, the 1,240km highway through southern Chile, felt like being on a Patagonian forest roller coaster. Cycling over gravel with the odd blissful stretch of asphalt we were coated in dust and mud, suncream and Vaseline. Our days were measured in kilometres, not time; 1,240km seems an excruciatingly long way when the average speed is just 3km an hour. In the worst of the gravel grade three, we called it it was quicker to walk.

Does this tempt you to cycle the Carretera Austral? It should. Among the gravel and grind were many wonders. Everything was supersize: trees reached for the clouds, valleys yawned wide and leaves cast shadows big enough to shelter under. And at 370km on the way south is the village of Puyuhuapi, where the forest is broken by colourful timber houses and shops on the edge of a fjord. There, we filled stomachs and souls with giant portions of cod and chips, bread and salad. At Manuelas there is one set menu, a view over the small harbour and the Christmas tree in the square a reminder in the warm evening sun that we were in the southern hemisphere.

The Gastrobus, Bantham, Devon

Pat Riddell, editor, National Geographic Traveller (UK)

The

A winding single-track road leads to the village of Bantham in south Devon. The estate snapped up in 2014 for 11.5m by a friend of David Cameron after he saw it advertised for sale in the Sunday Times covers 728 acres including the village, beach and estuary. But one of the main attractions in this sleepy part of the South Hams predates the arrival of Nicholas Johnston by two years.

The Gastrobus a laid-back surfers retreat offering locally roasted coffee, gourmet burgers and hotdogs, freshly baked bread and cakes, and luxury ice-creams may not be one of south Devons best-kept secrets, but this summer, Claire Bishops creation saw the addition of two vintage Citroen H vans (along with Wi-Fi, card payments and a licensed bar), making it even more appealing.

The Bakewell slices are one of the best things Ive ever tasted. Granted, it lies by one of the UKs finest stretches of sand, but the Gastrobuss curry nights and acoustic sessions make it practically an attraction in itself.

Running alongside the Atlantic, Porto, Portugal

Katie Parla, Rome-based food writer

Boats
Photograph: Alamy

In 2016 I trained for two marathons challenging enough for a person with no natural athletic ability. But when Im on the road, the physical challenge of long-distance running is amplified by a lack of motivation. On a recent trip to Porto, I would have much preferred to explore the citys food and drinks scene than hit the pavement, but I dug deep and got in a good 30km.

I did a quick Google search and read that Gaia, the area on the other side of the Douro from downtown Porto, had a long, safe well-lit path along the ocean. Beginning in the Afruda district and ending near Espinhos golden beaches, the path includes wooden walkways above undulating dunes and paved promenades with ocean views. There are cafes and restaurants along the way, so when I needed water, I could make a quick stop. I prefer to run at night, so it was pure joy to go so far afield, safely, in a new city.

Statue at New York Public Library, US

TC Boyle, author

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