Lonely Planet’s Top 10 to Visit in 2016

Botswana ranks Number 1 in LP’s 2016 list; it’s somewhere I have trekked several times and I must admit it never disappoints.  I particularly love the stunning Duba Plains, the Tsodilo Hills – Botswana’s first World Heritage site – and the mysterious disappearing Lake Ngami.  Stable and prosperous, Botswana has blossomed since independence from Britain in 1966. It is Africa’s longest continuous democracy and one of the world’s biggest diamond producers. Currency is the Pula.

Brian Jackman wrote a great piece in the Telegraph a couple of years back if you want to learn more on the Okavango Delta here.

Ned


1. Botswana

Democratic, progressive, enlightened – but above all, invigoratingly wild. The story of Botswana’s journey from poverty to become one of Africa’s most stable, thriving societies is inspirational; the country celebrates 50 years of independence in 2016 and there’s a lot for it to shout about, not least the way it has balanced economic growth with protecting its natural riches. Prepare for a severe case of slack-jawed-with-awe syndrome when you visit.

In 2016 Botswana will celebrate its 50th year of independence. So what, you may say. What’s there to shout about? Well, quite a lot really. Not least the longest continuous multi-party democracy on the continent, a progressive social outlook (Botswana was one of the first countries to offer free antiretroviral drugs to its citizens in 2002), minimal corruption, a healthy and enlightened tourism industry and a fast-growing economy since independence. The country’s journey from abject poverty in 1966 to become one of Africa’s most stable and thriving societies is hugely inspiring and, no doubt, deserves a proverbial pat on the back.

But that’s not all. Botswana is a unique destination: an unusual combination of desert and delta that draws an immense concentration of wildlife. It is wild, pristine and expansive. Seventeen percent of the country is dedicated to national parks, many of them spreading into the vast Transfrontier parks of Kavango-Zambezi and Kgalagadi. This dedication to conserving some of the world’s last remaining wildernesses was finally recognised in 2014 when the jewel in Botswana’s conservation crown, the Okavango Delta, became Unesco’s 1000th World Heritage Site. Despite this embarrassment of accolades, Botswana remains off the radar for most people. The impression is: it’s too difficult to get to, it doesn’t cater for families. But we’re here to tell you that’s all nonsense. Go now! Go by plane, car or mokoro (canoe). Go in the green season or the dry season – it’s all great. Go to Vumbura Plains Camp or Jao Camp with tons of cash for the trip of a lifetime or go on a budget to community projects like Tsabong Camel Park and Moremi Gorge. Go as a honeymooning couple to gaze over the dreamy Zibandianja Lagoon in Linyanti or as an adventure junkie to ride horseback through Mashatu Game Reserve. Go as a wildlife enthusiast and track elephants in the mini-Serengeti of Savuti or meerkats on the Makgadikgadi Pans. Go alone to take your guiding qualifications at Okavango Guiding School or with the kids to experience Ker & Downey’s award-winning family safari (Safari Awards 2015). Whatever you do and whenever you go, you won’t regret it. Trust us on this one.

Life-changing experience

Botswana is so full of life-changing experiences it would be easier to list the things that aren’t remarkable. Here is a real wilderness that puts you in touch with palpable primitive thrills and fears, whether it’s being poled by an African gondolier in a mokoro past pods of sunbathing hippos in the Okavango Delta; or feeling the spirit of the first men in the thousand-year-old rock art in the Tsodilo Hills; or in the eerie beauty of Kubu Island’s ancient baobabs backlit by incandescent constellations in a vast night sky.

Current craze

So called ‘car park pimping’. Thanks to a 30% tax on alcohol and new licensing hours enforcing club closures at 2am, Gaborone’s club scene has moved outdoors and hijacked suburban car parks. Here the party continues around makeshift DJ decks with experienced clubbers equipped with personal cool boxes and camping chairs.

Trending topics

Direct flights. For years the government has been clamouring for direct international flights, and the relocation of De Beers’ sales office from London to Gaborone (handling about US$6.5-billion worth of rough diamond sales annually) in 2013 has undoubtedly added new pressure. Gaborone’s airport and runway have recently been upgraded and similar upgrades are planned for Maun and Kasane. With all the action people are hoping the long-awaited day may come within the next 6 to 12 months.  – Paula Hardy

2. Japan

Japan. It might be number two in this year’s rankings, but it’s always number one for travellers in search of an otherworldly experience. Nowhere else on earth exemplifies that dog-eared ‘modern yet ancient’ cliche like the land of the rising sun. Tokyo’s successful bid to host the Olympics in 2020 has raised the temperature of a feverish city amid a blur of new development, but beyond the suburbs Japan remains as elegant and enticing as its graceful wooden temples.

Even if you’ve never been to Japan, you probably already know that it ranks number one in the world for that quintessential not-in-Kansas-anymore travel experience. Its cities are expertly crafted odes to futurism where the trains whirr by in the blink of an eye and the towers of metal and glass are bathed in neon light. The countryside, too, feels otherworldly, with all-continents-in-one landscapes that blend alpine peaks with shimmering shores. And everywhere in between are prim wooden temples – the constant reminder that a well of deep-seated traditions hides just beneath the country’s enticing veneer of perfection.

Although Japan didn’t secure the Olympic bid for 2016, it was resoundingly successful with its application for Tokyo in 2020. And Olympic fever is already apparent in the capital as the city executes an elaborate feat of urban planning that will create a brand new shopping district, an entirely new Olympic village, and – most interestingly – move the much-venerated Tsukiji fish market (which sees over US$20 million in seafood sales each day) to a sparkling new facility that is set to swing open its doors at the end of this year. As everyone’s radioactive paranoia is finally put to rest by honouring five years since the fateful 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and with the government’s continued efforts to devalue the Japanese yen, there’s no better time to experience the country that pays such vivid tribute to manic modernity and hallowed history.

Life-changing experience

One of the world’s most famous pilgrimage routes after the Camino de Santiago is Japan’s Kumano Kodo near Osaka. For over a millennium devotees of every ilk – be it farmer or emperor – would walk betwixt hidden Oji shrines and forests of haunting trees to reach the three grand worshipping complexes of Kumano. There are a handful of different paths that extend like spokes around the Kii peninsula, but the goal is united in the act of spiritual penance performed by hikers as they rigorously trek. The preferred route – and also the oldest – is Nakahechi, which starts in the west and travels 30km to the shrines. Unesco officially recognised the network of trails in 2004, and over the last 12 years the walk has seen a steady increase in foreign tourists.

Current craze

Animal cafes. Yes, cat cafes are so 2009, and have proliferated across the globe, but in Japan – the genesis country – animal cafes have reached new heights: hobnob with goats, sip tea with a turtle, pose for selfies with owls, and do whisky shots while watching penguins.

Random facts

  • There are over 5.5 million vending machines in Japan selling everything from umbrellas and cigarettes to canned bread and hot noodles.
  • Japan’s birth rate has plummeted so significantly that adult nappies (diapers) outsell babies’ nappies, which are also sold in vending machines.
  • It is estimated that more paper is used for manga comics than for toilet paper in Japan. (Surprise: both are sold in vending machines as well.)

Most bizarre sight

Cafes where you can tickle owls? Vending machines that sell canned bread? Dentists that help patients accentuate their snaggle-teeth? Take your pick!  – Brandon Presser

3. USA

The ‘best idea’ America ever had turns 100 next year – the National Park Service, which oversees the country’s 59 national parks and hundreds of historic landmarks, celebrates a centenary of safeguarding Yosemite, Yellowstone, Badlands, Zion, and the rest. So lace up your hiking boots and set foot in the miraculously well-managed 340,000 sq km network of surreal and spectacular landscapes it defends, from earth-rending canyons to alligator-infested swamplands to belching geysers. It’s a national triumph.

Yellowstone, the Badlands, Zion, Shenandoah… Even their names evoke lands of Tolkienesque make-believe. Places where trolls and dragons roam, and magic happens. Step beyond the gates of America’s national parks, and you’ll soon be thinking old JRR should have broadened the scope of his imagination. Geysers spurt hundreds of feet high, massive canyons split the horizon in two, herds of bison graze in stunning valleys, and giant tree trunks, as ancient as Rome’s Colosseum, disappear into the sky. These are some of the most spectacular and surreal landscapes on the planet, and the fact that they are looking much the same as they did at the birth of this land-grabbing, highway-loving nation, is frankly a miracle. In 2016, the National Park Service (NPS), the government body which protects and maintains America’s 59 national parks and hundreds of historic landmarks, is turning 100 years old, and like any great host, this old-timer has been busting a gut to ensure the parks are at their best for the centenary.

It was historian Wallace Stegner who called the national parks ‘the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.’ These are the country’s national treasures; as hallowed and revered as India’s golden temples or the castles and cathedrals of Europe. Since its inception the NPS – most recognisable in the wide-brimmed figure of the park ranger – has been busy clearing litter, fighting fires, protecting wildlife, and providing information on everything from the habitat of the American black bear to the geology of Utah’s sandstone arches.

This centenary is an occasion that will be marked not by cake and balloons, but by the fruition of billions of dollars of investment and ambitious initiatives that will prepare the NPS for a second century. These range from the physical: clearing trails, improving accessibility, and installing the latest technology, to the inspirational: hosting ‘discovery’ events, involving thousands of young people in volunteer programs, and promoting enjoyment of the parks to urban communities.

It’s serious work. Serious work that has the most wondrous end: discovery of the national parks themselves. Yosemite’s mighty granite cliffs and fairy-tale waterfalls, Zion’s claustrophobic slot canyons, the steamy swamps of the Everglades, howling wolves, soaring condors, glittering glaciers… There are 340,000 sq km (84.4 million acres) to choose from. As you lace up the hiking boots, just remember to give your thanks to those hard-working folk at the NPS.

Life-changing experience

The world’s third-largest nation is a road-tripping paradise. As you take to highways travelled by Thelma and Louise and Bonnie and Clyde, watch the landscape morph from prairie to desert to breathtaking ocean road. On the way, goofy roadside attractions, small-town diners and curious locals are the added spice for the great American road trip.

Trending topics

The election. In 2016, America’s first African-American president will step down. As nationwide protests change the way Americans think about politics, this election year promises raging debate, as well as the usual flag flying and amusing (or just plain rude) bumper stickers. Will history be made again with the inauguration of America’s first female president?  – Dora Whitaker

4. Palau

Handballed between various foreign powers for centuries, Pacific pipsqueak Palau is charting its own path through the uncertain waters of national independence. While the US still plays Big Daddy, Palau is its own master. In 2014 President Remengesau was named a ‘Champion of the Earth’ by the United Nations for strengthening the economic and environmental independence of Palau and creating a 100% marine sanctuary of its oceans. His message: ‘The environment is our economy. The economy is our environment.’

Collected behind a 110km barrier reef, more than 200 largely unspoilt limestone and volcanic islands – a mere eight are inhabited – are blanketed in tropical and mangrove forest and surrounded by waters teeming with marine life. Fairly constant temperatures and rainfall mean any time of the year is good to visit, although it becomes more typhoon-prone in the back half of the calendar.

Palau has as much to fear from rising sea levels and environmental degradation as any other Pacific nation, but it’s tackling those fears head-on, and is leading conservation efforts in the region. Such progressive thinking makes these islands a haven for diving and snorkelling (among the best in the world) as well as kayaking, sailing and wildlife watching. The secret is out in East Asia already, which means Palau is looking to limit the number of tourists it can host at a time.

Life-changing experience

Cutely dubbed an ‘underwater Serengeti’, Palau’s waters are stunningly diverse and it’s unquestionably one of the most magical underwater destinations in the world. Divers and snorkellers enjoy hundreds of species of fish and coral, sharks, dolphins, dugongs and turtles, all attracted by the confluence of nutritive currents that meets in this corner of the Pacific vastness.

If you prefer to stay above sea level, take an ocean kayak through the uninhabited archipelago of the Rock Islands. Almost alien in its beauty, it’s made up of 445 limestone formations swaddled with verdant green and fringed by reefs. Nearly 400 species of coral, the world’s highest concentration of marine lakes, the remains of now-vanished human habitation and the continuing discovery of new and endemic species led Unesco to list this as a World Heritage Site.

Current craze

In 1944, the Japanese and Americans fought for three desperate months for control of the island of Peleliu’s important airfield. The tragic result was over 10,000 Japanese and 2,000 American casualties, and an island paradise littered with wreckage. Today, many of the rusted tanks, planes, small arms and (highly dangerous) unexploded ordnance that attest to the ferocity of the struggle remain. Tourists, carefully shepherded by expert guides, are increasingly being drawn to this fascinating site, where you can even enter the cave networks left by the Japanese defenders, and find everyday artefacts left behind. This isn’t as ghoulish as it may sound: many of the visitors are here to pay respect to fallen relatives, and moves are afoot to preserve the site for its outstanding historical significance.

Trending topics

A 400% year-on-year increase in visitors from China in February 2015 put some noses out of joint in Palau and resulted in a reduction in flights scheduled from China. Palau’s pristine environment makes it a popular destination for the Chinese, Korean and Japanese jet set, but locals have complained about a lack of environmental awareness threatening their precious assets.

Most bizarre sight

Jellyfish Lake is an otherworldly lagoon on the uninhabited limestone Rock Island of Eil Malk. Millions of an endemic sub-species of golden jellyfish drift across the marine lake in an east-west migratory pattern that’s repeated every day. Such is the sensitivity of the lake that visitors must obtain a permit, but snorkelling with these harmless, highly photogenic jellyfish is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  –  Tasmin Waby

5. Latvia

Latvia is shining for its silver anniversary. Celebrating 25 years of freedom from its Soviet fetters, little Latvia is poised to take centre stage after more than two decades of playing catch-up with many of its European brethren. And the title of ‘most improved’ is rightfully deserved for casting aside the dismal shadow of Communism and resuscitating centuries-old traditions that have long made this Baltic treasure shine.

Hundreds of crumbling castles and manor houses – from medieval to Rococo – hide in the nation’s dense forests of pine, and today many of these estates have been lavishly transformed into inns and museums. In fact an entire week could be spent in the countryside connecting the stars of this constellation.

Food, too, has come a long way from sweaty pork and potatoes. A fleet of (new) New Nordic chefs are catapulting local flavours to such artisanal heights that they would truly give Copenhagen a run for its money if Michelin were paying them more attention.

And as the country’s rural population continues to dwindle, Riga, the capital, further bolsters its importance throughout both the country and the region, especially after receiving a generous infusion of EU funds during its reign as European Capital of Culture in 2014. Much of the money was earmarked for infrastructure improvements and major renovations to important civic structures like the former KGB headquarters (now a fascinating museum), and the clutch of coveted Art Nouveau façades, of which the city has over 700 – one of the largest collections in the world.

Life-changing experience

Cast modesty aside and indulge in Latvia’s most Latvian tradition, the pirts – a hot birch sauna. A traditional pirts is run by a sauna master who cares for her naked attendees while performing choreographed branch beatings that draw on ancient pagan traditions. Herbs and wildflowers swish in the air to raise the humidity in the chamber for a series of sweltering 15-minute sessions before you exit the sauna to jump in a nearby body of water (lake, pond or sea). Nibbles and tipples, like smoked fish and beer, are intermixed for good measure, in what is largely the best way to swap the latest gossip with locals.

Random facts

  • It’s believed that the Christmas tree originated in Latvia. In 1510 a fraternity of drunken bachelors hauled a pine tree into Riga’s town square, covered it in flowers and set it on fire. A commemorative plaque marks the spot where the burning tree once stood.
  • A Latvian named Arvĩds Blũmentãls was the inspiration for Crocodile Dundee. Originally from a town in western Latvia called Dundaga, he moved to Australia after the WWII, where he hunted reptiles and dug for opals.
  • Technically the Latvian language has no word for ‘mountain’; the same word is used for ‘hill’ and ‘mountain’. No wonder, since Latvia’s highest point, Gaiziņkalns, is only 312m high.

Most bizarre sight

Gauja National Park may be known as a pine-studded preserve filled with medieval ruins, but it also holds some of the most eccentric relics from the Soviet era. Don’t miss the 1200m cement bobsled track built near Sigulda as the training course for the Soviet Olympic team, and check out the top-secret nuclear fallout shelter buried under a convalescence home in Lĩgatne. The bunker was of high strategic importance during the Cold War and the rooms covered in untouched switchboards and Soviet propaganda will undoubtedly perk the antenna of any Bond enthusiast.  – Brandon Presser

6. Australia

Unless you’re from New Zealand or Papua New Guinea, Australia can seem a long way from anywhere. Getting here usually involves folding yourself into a plane for 24 hours. But with 2016 shaping up as a definitive year for several of Australia’s key wilderness areas, it’ll be 24 hours well spent. In fact, with the weak Australian dollar, anything you spend here this year will be value for money. Petrol prices are heading south too: perfect timing for your great Australian road trip.

Environmentally, battle lines are being drawn near the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, where a string of proposed mining ports will require the dredging and dumping of millions of tonnes of seafloor. In Tasmania, the peace accord between pro- and anti-logging forces has been torn up by the new state government, keen to unlock old-growth forest for export. Now is the time to experience these astounding wilderness areas before compromises are made.

More positively, increasing numbers of Aboriginal land rights claims are being recognised here, including recent claims over Queensland’s Fraser Island and a huge tract of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. Indigenous tourism is booming, with new Aboriginal tour companies such as Ngurrangga Tours in Karratha and Bungoolee Tours in the Kimberley offering authentic cultural experiences. Contemporary Aboriginal art remains an Australian cultural high-water mark, as evidenced by the fab new Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Culture Centre in Katherine.

Life-changing experience

Australia does a roaring trade in Unesco World Heritage wilderness areas: the 2300km-long Great Barrier Reef; the blood-red rocks of Uluru and Kata Tjuta; the 15,800 sq km Tasmanian Wilderness Area; the seething jungle of Kakadu National Park… Given the cross-continental distances involved, you mightn’t see them all – but what they have in common is a humbling sense of awe at first sight.

Current craze

Food vans and small bars. Battling innumerable fast food joints in Australian cities, the current clog of takeaway food vans – serving everything from burgers to barramundi curry – is constantly expanding. Afterwards, sip a craft beer at the latest alleyway speakeasy around the corner.

Trending topics

Real estate is the national addiction. Australians love talking about it, building it, buying it, looking at it on TV and (most of all) making money selling it. When the GFC jumped up and bit everybody in 2008, world real estate prices tumbled – but not in Australia. A glorious mining boom was in full swing: Australians just kept on buying pricey houses, driving the market skywards. Now – having reached a tipping point where the median house price is more than five times the median annual household income – Australian house prices are among the least affordable on the planet Will the bubble burst?

Random facts

  • Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world (behind Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Brazil).
  • When the British landed in 1788, Australia comprised more than 500 different Aboriginal nations, with distinct languages and territories.
  • Since the inception of the Man Booker Prize for literature in 1969, four Australians have won: Peter Carey (twice), Thomas Keneally, DBC Pierre and Richard Flanagan.
  • Since Europeans arrived in Australia, 27 native mammal, 23 bird and 78 frog species are believed to have become extinct.

Most bizarre sight

Emerging from the haze in the far-flung Oodnadatta Track in the central Australian desert is the Mutonia Sculpture Park – a kooky roadside installation featuring several large aeroplanes welded together with their tails buried in the ground to form ‘Planehenge’.  – Charles Rawlings-Way

7. Poland

If any country in Europe can boast superpowers, it’s Poland. The nation defied a recession that brought the rest of Europe to its knees, and visitor numbers continue to climb. Sceptics said Poland’s luck would wane after the country co-hosted the Euro 2012 football championship. Instead, Wrocław is poised for stardom as a European Capital of Culture, makeovers are adding lustre to lesser-known cities, and wildlife tourism is on the rise. Clearly 2016 is the year to put the icing on the cake – or perhaps, the swirl of śmietana in the beetroot soup.

Wrocław, the historical capital of Silesia, already had plenty of reasons to preen. Its Old Town Hall, with gothic turrets firing off a custard-coloured exterior, is one of Poland’s most beautiful buildings. And among beer gardens and soaring bell towers, Wrocław harbours a show-stopping 114m-long painting, the Panorama Racławicka. Highlights of the city’s stint as one of 2016’s European Capitals of Culture will be an artist-in-residence programme to promote artists across borders and world music days that combine influences across 50 different countries.

Kraków too will sparkle this year for World Youth Day, when the Pope touches down to kick off a calendar of celebrations and activism. In a country nearly 90% Roman Catholic, the turnout in picturesque Kraków is sure to be record-breaking.

And while budget airlines have long spidered their way across Poland, access is even easier with British Airways flying London to Kraków, Wizz Air opening routes to Szczecin and Katowice, and Finnair launching one to Gdańsk. Any lingering condescension about how well this post-Soviet country is muddling along will vanish as quickly as a shot of tangy wiśniówka (cherry vodka).

Life-changing experience

Plummet 135m into the Wieliczka Salt Mine for an unforgettable underground adventure. In this yawning Unesco-listed grotto, carvings grace walls and chandeliers drip from ceilings – all of them made out of salt. Other subterranean sights offer a glimpse into some of Poland’s most colourful myths. Beneath Kraków’s Wawel Hill lies the rumoured lair of a slain dragon, while in the chalk tunnels of Chełm you’ll learn of a legendary white bear, now the city’s emblem.

Hundreds of bison lumber through Białowieża Forest – though we’d wager the first one you spot will grace the label on a bottle of Poland’s legendary bisongrass vodka, Żubrówka. Unesco-listed Bialowieża is the last remaining expanse of the vast forest that once spread across the European plain. The 141,885-hectare forest (which extends into neighbouring Belarus) is home to around 900 bison, more than half of which are in the Polish reserve. The forest is also prowled by elk, wolves and lynx.

Weekenders looking beyond well-loved Warsaw and Kraków are now spoilt for choice. Increasing visitor numbers mean that Łódź, with its 19th-century mansions and cafe-strewn Piotrkowska Street, is abuzz with redevelopment. Meanwhile Szczecin continues to add polish to its Old Town and is now luring golfers to nearby Binowo Park.

Trending topics

Poland’s heavy-metal scene elicits headbanging or howls of dismay, depending on whom you ask. Some of Poland’s heaviest artists have risen to global acclaim, in particular Behemoth, who loudly protest Poland’s religious majority in between bouts of imperious black metal. To some, they are champions of a new, more secular Poland; to many, they’re the terror of the nation. Wherever you fall in the debate, you’ll never associate Poland with folk dancing again.

Most bizarre sight

Wrocław’s gnomes commemorate the1980s thanks to Orange Alternative movement, an anti-Communist group known for its absurdist style of protest – including graffiti and gnome-hat demonstrations. Today more than 300 gnome statues wave from street corners and twirl their beards beneath window panes. Gnomes with canes and wheelchairs have been added to the elfin army, to draw attention to the challenges faced by people in Wrocław with disabilities.  – Anita Isalska

8. Uruguay

Squished between South America’s two titans, Brazil and Argentina, this small country packs a big punch. What it lacks in size, Uruguay makes up for in peacefulness, hospitality and personality. While its two boisterous neighbours lurch from one crisis to the next, Uruguay stands out as a haven of political stability, good governance and prosperity – it’s not dubbed ‘the Switzerland of America’ for nothing. Uruguayans may seem shy and low-key, but they pride themselves on having constructed one of the continent’s most progressive societies – without civil conflict.

After two centuries living in the shadow of its neighbours, Uruguay is now eager to promote its identity and assets as more than just a side trip from nearby Buenos Aires. In 2016, it’s expected that the number of foreign visitors will reach the 3 million mark. But what is it that these holidaymakers come for?

Take Montevideo, which must be the safest capital in South America. When it comes to quality of life, Montevideo is unrivalled on the continent. It’s small enough to get around, but big enough to have some great architecture and a superb restaurant scene. The beach-lined seafront is easily navigated by bike, as is the Old Town, with its array of grand 19th-century neoclassical buildings.

An hour’s drive away lies gaucho (cowboy) country. Here, undulating pampas are dotted with working estancias (cattle ranches), many of which serve as guesthouses. For great nightlife and sexy beaches, head to Punta del Este, a modern resort city on the Atlantic coast full of beautiful people. But if you’re weary of high-rise buildings and cocktail bars, venture further east to Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo. These fabulously remote fishing-surfing villages peppered with colourful wooden cabins are seeing an influx of visitors, drawn by the bohemian vibes, empty beaches, shifting sand dunes, seal colonies and superb waves. Need some cultural sustenance? The gorgeous town of Colonia del Sacramento delivers the perfect blend of authenticity and tourism development. A Unesco World Heritage site, this ancient Portuguese stronghold, with its cobblestoned alleyways, postcolonial ruins, art galleries and elegant B&Bs, has enough to keep visitors happy for days.

Life-changing experience

Uruguayans are the masters of the asado barbecue (but don’t tell the Argentines and Brazilians!). One of the best and most atmospheric places to sample Uruguayan beef is the Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo. This 19th-century wrought-iron market hall shelters a gaggle of steakhouses. Pull up a stool at any of the parrillas (steakhouses) and watch the weighty slabs of meat being cooked over hot coals on a grill, then sink your teeth into a tasty morcilla (blood sausage) – memorable! Saturday lunchtime, when the market is crammed with locals, is the best time to visit.

Random facts

  • Uruguayans consume even more maté (a strong green tea) than Argentines and Paraguayans – which is saying a lot.
  • The 29th of each month is Gnocchi Day, when most restaurants serve gnocchi. This tradition dates back to tough economic times when these potato dumplings were the only thing people could afford to cook at the end of the month.
  • Marijuana is produced and sold legally. Home growers are allowed to keep up to six cannabis plants per household.

Most bizarre sight

In Punta del Este, you can’t miss La Mano de Punta del Este (The Hand). This quirky iron and cement sculpture by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal was created for an art contest in 1982 and has been a ‘Punta’ fixture ever since. It’s unsurprisingly selfie-friendly – thousands of visitors pose in front of its large digits, with the beach in the background.  – Jean-Bernard Carillet

9. Greenland

Our world is ever warmer, ever more crowded, and ever more plugged-in. So there’s something wildly refreshing about a place that’s about 80% ice covered, boasts the world’s lowest population density, and has cellular coverage so poor that many rely on satellite phones. Come to see the midnight sun on the glaciers, sail among breaching whales, ride across the tundra on a dogsled, watch the Northern Lights dance across the ice sheet.

In March 2016 Greenland (technically a territory of Denmark rather than an independent country, although one with a great deal of autonomy) will host the Arctic Winter Games, the largest event of its kind ever. Competitions range from snowshoeing to native games like pole-pushing (think reverse tug-of-war with a tree trunk). There will also be a cultural festival with song, dance and food. If you’re going to visit Greenland, this is the time to go. Luckily for you, it is easier than ever to access. It’s a quick four-hour flight from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s main airport. And now there are also seasonal and yearly flights from Reykjavík in Iceland to Nuuk, Ilulissat, Kangerlussuaq, Kulusuk and Narsarsuaq.

Life-changing experience

Witness icebergs the size of the Empire State Building calving in the Ilulissat Icefjord, home to the northern hemisphere’s most productive glacier. The town of Ilulissat, next to the glacier, is known as ‘the iceberg capital of the world’, and offers a huge number of iceberg-watching adventures. Kayak through the fjord’s navy blue waters, soar above the glacier in a fixed-wing plane, or hike along the icy cliffs with a pair of crampons strapped to your shoes.

From September to April, Greenland becomes one of the world’s prime places to see the aurora borealis, nature’s own laser light show. Though you can see the eerie green sine waves from anywhere in the country, for a true once-in-a-lifetime experience join a dogsledding expedition to the interior, where you can pitch a tent on the ice sheet and watch the sky in delicious solitude.

Current craze

Eating local. Yeah, yeah, so calling yourself a locavore is trendy everywhere from Peoria to Little Whinging these days. But Greenland is an Arctic island with little agriculture and no ground transportation. So cooking and eating local here is hardcore. A new generation of young chefs, some of whom have trained abroad in Denmark or elsewhere, are taking on the challenge and making meals with the delicious, albeit limited, local ingredients. Think juniper-poached musk-ox fillets, razorbill with crowberries, kelp salad studded with reindeer bacon, bellflower gelée atop local honey ice cream.

Trending topics

Though Greenland sits atop substantial uranium deposits, the mining of radioactive materials was illegal for a quarter century. Then, in 2013, uranium mining was approved by the government in a close and hotly debated vote. Now the country must decide whether to move forward. Some decry the environmental hazards and potential destruction of Greenland’s way of life, while others say the mining of uranium and other substances is the key to Greenland’s financial woes

Random facts

  • The iceberg that took down the Titanic most likely came from Ilulissat Icefjord in western Greenland, where it began as a snowflake 15,000 years earlier.
  • Greenland’s first brewery invented ‘ice beer’ – beer brewed with water from melted icebergs.
  • There are no roads between towns and settlements in Greenland. Locals and visitors must travel by plane, boat, snowmobile or sled.  – Emily Matchar

10. Fiji

After an uncertain decade following the coup of Commodore ‘Frank’ Bainimarama in 2006, and the constitutional crisis of 2009, Fiji has reverted to its peaceful and pleasure-loving self. In late 2014, Bainimarama finally made good on the promise to hold democratic elections, winning the prime ministership and restoring something of constitutional normality (albeit to a situation he had played an important part in creating).

The 2016 upgrade of the Nadi International Airport should increase capacity and make the transition to paradise a little smoother. Fiji’s international carrier, Fiji Airways, thinks your Fiji experience should begin as soon as you get on board a flight. Those smiles from the cabin crew are just the beginning.

Always blessed by natural beauty and the kind of climate that makes clothes seem a tiresome necessity, today there is a palpable and unprecedented vitality and confidence to Fiji. Whether your bent is idling in a resort, putting your body on the line sampling the latest extreme sport, or the more classic island delights of diving, sailing and angling, 2016 will be the year to soak up all Fiji has to offer.

Life-changing experience

It’s hard to visit Fiji without being serenaded by warm and welcoming singers brandishing guitars or ukuleles. There will be singing at the airport, at your hotel, and even on local buses. But for a real peek into this very traditional culture’s everyday life, get to a village church on a Sunday. Dress modestly (ask locals for advice on what’s appropriate) and have your spirits raised by the voices of a community singing traditional songs in harmony.

Floating in the turquoise waters of the Mamanuca islands is a two-storey pizzeria and bars servicing surfers, divers, sailors and holidaymakers. Swim up and order your wood-fired margherita, lounge on a day bed listening to the surround-sound music, and then ‘cannonball’ back into the spectacular ocean below. Kids are catered for (though did we mention it is completely surrounded by sea?) and prices for the day are all-inclusive. Cloud 9 is a 40-minute speedboat ride from Viti Levu, or a short hop from Musket Cove Island Resort.

Nothing will bring out your inner Attenborough like diving Fiji’s Somosomo Strait off the island of Taveuni. Crowned the ‘soft coral capital of the world’, Rainbow Reef is famous for its marine life, and the luminescent Great White Wall, a vertical drop-off reached by a tubular swim-through, is covered in soft white coral that looks like glimmering snow. The islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni also boast bird watching and forest hiking for the nature-loving land lubber.

Current craze

Just when you thought the human talent for frivolous invention had exhausted all potential for new ‘sports’, along comes flyboarding. Essentially a jet-propelled, hand-controlled hoverboard, the flyboard allows you to skim above the waves, shoot high into the air, plunge into the swell, then do it all again! Try it at Bounty Island.

Trending topics

Music from the African New World has taken root on the Fijian islands. What started in imitation of the original US and Jamaican styles has evolved into distinctive local variants: artists such as E.3 & Cracker (hip hop), 1stribe (reggae) and Kula Kei Uluivuya or KKU (pop) still pay homage to their musical roots, but reflect the experiences of Polynesians today.

Most bizarre sight

Vilavilairevo (fire walking) was originally performed only by the Sawau tribe of Beqa, an island off Viti Levu’s southern coast, but now you’ll probably catch a performance anywhere in Fiji. Traditionally, strict taboos dictated the men’s behaviour leading up to the ceremony and it was believed adherence to these protected them from burns.  – Tasmin Waby

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s