A new year is always an excellent excuse to pull up the old bucket list and start pondering where to spend those precious holiday days. While there are oh-so-many places to go, there are always a few standouts that beckon travellers craving the extraordinary.
Cheap chic: Turkish Riviera
Thankfully, the sweep of exquisite Med coast between Bodrum and Antalya – where balmy turquoise waters lap white sand coves backed by thick forest through which the ancient Lycians roamed – knows nothing of geopolitics.
Nor, for that matter, do hoteliers on the so-called Turkish Riviera seem to be paying all that much attention to wider goings-on (an attempted coup, Trumpian interventions) that have knocked the lira for six and made the country, poor Turks’ travails aside, juicily affordable for travellers.
A whole tourist-oriented town, Kaplankaya, has opened north of Bodrum, for example, complete with hardcore, top-to-toe wellness centre. And the ribbon was cut this year on the swank Bodrum Edition hotel, with restaurants by ex-El Bulli gastronomist Diego Muñoz, within a stroll of the Yalikavak Marina. All that’s missing are the crowds and the high prices.
City buzz: Vancouver
It jostles with places such as Melbourne and Vienna as the world’s most livable city but distance and fares have so far blocked many from enjoying the urbane delights of Vancouver.
Now low-cost flights from Wow Air to the Canadian metropolis, launching in summer next year via Reykjavik, will make Vancouver’s world-in-one-city food offerings, aromatic coffee culture and sophisticated arts scene all the more appealing.
Lounge about in indie cafes talking about conceptual art all you want here but the seaside city is also very much about the outdoors. There’s hiking galore nearby, skiing 30 minutes away and distinctive beaches such as Kitsilano, popular with the outdoor yoga crowd, and clothing-optional, alternative-friendly Wreck Beach.
Fresh tastes: Emilia-Romagna
Emilia-Romagna hardly needs to polish its culinary credentials. Ragù, that deliriously delicious sauce bastardised as spaghetti bolognese, was invented in the capital, Bologna.
And then there’s the famed cheese – parmigiano reggiano – you sprinkle on top of a ragù, as well as soft and smokey Parma ham, also from the region.
Now Emilia-Romagna has what claims to be the world’s largest food theme park, FICO, called by some the ‘Disney World of food’. Within the site’s 10 hectares, you can watch a demonstration of truffle dogs sniffing out the precious fungi or take an educational ride with compelling themes such as the future of food.
There are also more than 40 restaurants and stalls, including Osteria del Fritto, serving up Neapolitan deep-fried street treats, or The Veggie Bistro, doling out some of the most spanking-fresh salads you can imagine.
Hidden highlight: Albania
For a long time, dictatorship obscured the charms of this little Mediterranean country. The presence of that holiday behemoth next door, Greece, hasn’t helped its cause either.
But word has got out about the travel appeal of Albania, and 2019 could be the year it comes into its own. You should certainly visit now to experience something of the beauty of the Med (OK, along with a few concrete bunkers remaining from Albania’s Communist period) before mass tourism took over.
Albania has rustic Alpine villages like something from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale (complete with ‘vendetta towers’, from when life here was even tougher). There are pretty little beaches and the capital, Tirana, has ramshackle appeal and surprisingly good restaurants.
All this, and you’ll be hard put to find a cheaper place than Albania for a European holiday.
For two: the Seychelles
There’s never really a bad time to visit the Seychelles, but now there’s all the more reason to go: direct BA flights to the islands have cut out more of the tiresome part of getting there, and cost-conscious travellers are realising you don’t have to be a millionaire to visit.
This is romantic couple territory par excellence. There are beaches of glowing-white, silk-soft sand and azure seas that you’d say were postcard-perfect, except that the postcard would probably look rather faded in comparison. Rent a hidden-away cabin for two and snorkel over shipwrecks and reefs; hike thickly forested hills teeming with birdlife.
And you needn’t suffer a heart attack over the bill. Self-cater and bike around the islands to experience the Seychelles (relatively) cheaply.
New frontiers: China
Increasingly, mainstream visitors to China are discovering that it’s not just about merciless urban development and endless crowds on the one hand and the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the odd panda encounter on the other.
For China is a whole world of travel. Alternatives sites revealing the nation’s past, rich enough for 1,000 story books, include the fascinating old capitals of Kaifeng and Luoyang, the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang and the Venice-like ancient canal city of Suzhou. There are stupendous landscapes aplenty, too, such as Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest on the planet, or the alien-looking sandstone pinnacles at Zhangjiajie.
And, of course, China promises an unforgettable food journey. We all know Peking duck but saliva-inducing dishes such as Shanghai’s xiaolongbao (a steamed dumpling bursting with hot soup) or Mongolian hotpot are just the start of a lifetime’s culinary exploration.
History fix: Samarkand
Its very name evokes the exotic allure of travel: Samarkand, one of the most important stopping points on the ancient Silk Route through central Asia, has been at the crossroads of trade and culture for more than 2,000 years. Despite plentiful relics of its enthralling history, however, only a handful of UK travellers have made the trip to the venerable Uzbek city each year. That should change since, late last year, Britons have been able to travel to Uzbekistan for up to five days without a visa.
Intrepid types will find in Samarkand sites including Registan: one of the world’s oldest medressas (place of learning), it’s a vision of radiant blue mosaics and elegantly curved entranceways. Shah-i-Zinda, a cluster of tombs, is a serene, moving place with more exquisite centuries-old tilework.
Green getaway: Rwanda
Watching gorillas – that fascinating, nearly-human species – in the wild is one of the biggest travel draws in Rwanda: more than a third of the mountain gorillas in the world are found here. Now the opening of several upscale hotels, the One & Only Gorilla’s Nest and Singita Kwitonda Lodge, promises to add more comfort to the enthralled gazing.
Beyond big-ape-spotting, other sights in a country transformed since the genocidal civil war of the 1990s include Volcanoes National Park and the capital, Kigali, with a buzzing food scene and nightlife.
It is just a coincidence – but a nice one – that the line preceding the well known chorus of “Wonderful, wonderful… ” in Danny Kaye’s paean to Copenhagen goes:
“With a welcome so warm and so gay”
Unless, that is, the travel gods, with an eye to the future, intervened, because these days you’d struggle to find anywhere as all-round tolerant and sophisticated – those qualities much appreciated of your average gay and lesbian traveller – as the Danish capital.
Denmark was the first country in the world to recognise registered partnerships for same-sex couples, and in 2019 there are even more reasons to visit beyond superlative design pickings and the general attention to living considerately and well. Lonely Planet puts Copenhagen top of its list of cities to visit next year, citing among other temptations the reopening of noma restaurant, home of high-end foraged grub, and a new winter season for Tivoli Gardens amusement park, bringing extra cheer to the short days.
Go solo: Austin
Some lone travellers want to be alone, striding into the wilderness with only their own thoughts for company or observing foreign folk from an anthropological distance. Others, though, go solo precisely to meet people, and there must be few places in the world with a new-friend-finding hit rate better than that of Austin, Texas.
Eating in the city, for example – which, unlike other parts of the state, isn’t dominated by plaid-shirted characters in 10-gallon hats – is a thoroughly social affair. A reputed 1,000 food trucks trundle around Austin, their customers tucking into Gourdough doughnuts and other delights at shared tables.
One of the city’s biggest draws, the SXSW festival, is a yearly bonanza of film, music, comedy and interactive arts promising crowds of every stripe to mingle among or disappear into. “Head south in 2019, y’all!”