From political rhetoric to weather, is there anyone who doubts that 2017 was a year of superlatives and extremes? Our teeth were collectively on edge as world leaders rattled their nuclear sabers and hurricanes battered beloved cities — even people stranded on a desert island probably followed the latest tweets out of Washington.
A desert island sounds pretty good right now, preferably one without Twitter access. But novel museums, prominent historical sites and new adventures in beloved destinations offer fresh perspectives on our human planet, Jewish and otherwise.
So here are a few suggestions for your 2018 vacation — and may all our travels be safe and happy.
1. Ferrara, Italy
On my first visit to Ferrara, I struggled to connect with its Jewish culture — a legacy of alternate refuge, adversity and prosperity in a Northern Italian city once famous for power and affluence.
That Jewish connection should become much clearer with the December opening of the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah, Italy’s first comprehensive institution devoted to the story of its Jews. MEIS, as the museum is known by acronym, is the latest in a string of national European Jewish museums — though we’ll have to wait until the 2020 unveiling of a permanent exhibition, in a renovated prison complex, to assess its full ambition.
Ferrara, a pleasant medieval town with a moat-ringed castle, was already on the discerning Jewish traveler’s itinerary. But tourism should increase exponentially with MEIS’ inaugural temporary exhibit, “Jews, an Italian Story: The First Thousand Years,” which illuminates Italian-Jewish life from ancient Rome to the Middle Ages.
UNESCO recently anointed a seventh-century Cambodian temple complex, called Sambor Prei Kuk, as one of its latest World Heritage sites — further raising the profile of a Southeast Asian nation whose popularity has quietly been exploding.
Cambodia expects to welcome approximately 15 percent more visitors this year than last year. Israeli backpackers were among the early crowds who headed to this budget paradise, but older, more upscale Jewish tourists are joining the mix, and Chabad’s Phnom Penh center explodes with activity year-round.
Now these travelers have a less-crowded alternative to the famous Angkor Wat temple site. Sambor Prei Kuk, about a two-hour drive from Phnom Penh, was once the capital of a 7th-century Khmer civilization; its erstwhile importance is reflected in more than 10 square miles of palaces, octagonal temples and other striking architecture.
It sure doesn’t feel like it this week, but the planet’s icier precincts are warming, starting with the glaciers and stunning, icy landscapes that make our 49th state a perpetual draw. This year, there are more ways than ever to experience the home of the so-called “Frozen Chosen,” America’s northernmost Jewish communities. An increasingly diverse array of cruise options (some kosher) now caters to various travel styles, from ocean liners to small boats that get up close to the penguins.
Overland options are also expanding for the adventurous (and the cruise-averse) — including new sightseeing routes from Alaska Railroad — making 2018 an ideal time to finally explore Alaska. A flourishing cultural scene in Juneau and the Nordic quaintness of Ketchikan add to the case.
4. Cape Town
With stunning landscapes, world-class wineries and a vibrant Jewish community, Cape Town is always a hit with travelers. But last September, this city unveiled the world’s largest museum of contemporary African art — the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Zeitz is a linchpin of the area’s waterfront redevelopment that will ultimately include new lodging and dining options — and will provide fresh perspectives on a continent, literal as well as metaphorical.
The Zeitz offers a nice counterpoint to the venerable Iziko South African National Gallery, an aesthetic sweep of the cultural influences that shaped this land. British and Dutch masterworks are on display alongside numerous pieces that speak to the city’s rich Jewish presence — from biblical doors donated by Cape Town’s first Jewish mayor to the painting collection of the prominent Jewish de Pass family.
5. Florida and the Caribbean
Of all the places I’ve taken my daughter, Zelda, in the past several years, none beats sunny Florida for the sheer number and quality of engaging, family-friendly activities, from parks of all kinds to wildlife collections, world-class kosher dining and, of course, the beaches.
But Florida needs our love more than ever this year — especially greater Miami and the Keys, beloved Jewish destinations where tourism infrastructure has been restored post-hurricanes, but where communities privately struggle to rebuild. The same goes for storm-battered Caribbean islands; any visit here, whether a cruise or a hotel stay, will yield many happy returns.
*This article was published in The Jewish Week on January 2, 2018.