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In 2012, I got to travel to some amazing places all over the globe – from the streets of Seoul to the jungles of Cambodia, the Baltic Sea and Scandinavia, Hawaii, China, Switzerland and more.
But now that it’s 2013, I’m looking ahead to my future travels, and in addition to my upcoming trip to South Africa (leaving Friday!), here are the top 10 up-and-coming destinations that I have my eye on.
1. Burma / Myanmar: The past year has seen a dramatic change toward the democratic in this once closed-off country that is now open to foreign investment and tourism alike, and every jetsetter seems to be rushing to get there before it becomes more developed like some of its neighbors. The country is home to lush jungles, beautiful rivers, preserved ancient cities and temples, and a rapidly opening culture. However, reports are that it’s changing quickly, so while you might not be able to get there on the cheap like some people were able to do this year thanks to a mistake fare on Swiss, it is still accessible via other major Asian gateways including Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and should still be at the top of your list.
2. Tasmania: For a first trip to Australia, you might want to hit the usual sites like Sydney Harbour, Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef and the big-city streets of Melbourne, but what was once a wild, untamed island between the continent and Antarctica where they sent the worst of the worst criminals has now become Australia’s next major destination. That’s thanks to a renaissance of artisanal food, spirits and wine producers cropping up (the cheeses, whiskey and wine being made here are spectacular – not to mention the seafood) as well as to the opening of the country’s most exciting new museum, the MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in the capital of Hobart. It’s just under 400 miles from Melbourne and over 600 to Sydney, meaning it’s a quick easy flight from the major cities Down Under as well.
3. Namibia: Brangelina made headlines in Namibia a few years ago when they decided to have daughter Shiloh in a seaside setting, but these days travelers are flocking to this southwestern African nation in swelling numbers thanks to new hotel and safari experiences, an extreme landscape that feels like walking on the moon, the stark splendor of the Skeleton Coast (so named because of the shipwrecks and whale bones that litter the dunes) and the chance to see awe-inspiring wildlife in an unspoiled setting at a variety of eco-conscious lodges scattered throughout the country. While Africa “beginners” might still head to South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania for a first foray, this vast desert nation is quickly finding its place as a destination for wildlife devotees, and those seeking a more unique experience of the sub-Saharan continent. That’s not to say the country is without its own issues of history and race, but it’s one of Africa’s most stable democracies and developed economies. Not ready to visit Namibia on its own? The national carrier, Air Namibia, flies to several other well-trod destinations in southern Africa including Cape Town, Johannesburg and Victoria Falls, so you can make it part of a larger trip.
4. Oman: While much of the Middle East was (and still is) embroiled in conflict this past year, this sunny sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE has quietly become a jetsetter destination with new luxury resorts from high-end brands like Shangri-La, Ritz-Carlton as well as more offbeat experiences like trekking through desert wadis, glamping caravan-style in the Arabian dunes, and taking to the high seas in traditional dhows. Plus with not one but three top-tier carriers serving the region (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar), there are more ways than ever to get there in style.
5. The American South: Maybe it’s the fact that there’s a hit show called Nashville or that suddenly Southern comfort cuisine is all the range in foodie circles, but the American South is definitely having a moment and there is plenty to see and do no matter what part of it you want to visit. Austin’s rockin’ music scene has become second to none now. There’s no beating the blues and barbecue in Memphis, but it’s actually Tennessee’s capital of Nashville that, in addition to being the home of country music, has become one of the country’s latest gourmet meccas thanks of the hottest tables in the nation at The Catbird Seat. For a more rarefied look at local artisanal foods, luxury gourmands have been heading to the upscale Blackberry Farm resort near Knoxville in the Great Smoky Mountains, while Asheville in North Carolina has become a veritable creative colony of artists and musicians where you can also visit one of America’s most stately private homes, the Biltmore Estate. Don’t discount big cities like Atlanta – itself an epicenter of the music industry with plenty more sights to recommend it including a world-class aquarium and art museum – and stately Charleston, which still charms with its antebellum architecture and a feisty food scene of its own. Best of all, many of these cities are regional if not national airline hubs making them easier to get to than ever.
6. Panama: Some of Central America’s nations have become almost as touristy as Mexico, with everyone heading to Costa Rica for surfing and zip-lining, and Belize for scuba and snorkel – when they’re not getting embroiled with “unique” American billionaires there, that is. However, Panama is fast gaining ground on its equatorial neighbors thanks to an American-friendly culture, a historic old town in the capital that has numerous exciting restoration projects, and a spate of new resort hotels up and down the Pacific coast including a Westin and an Intercontinental at Playa Bonita. American, Delta and United all fly here non-stop from their hubs, as does the country’s national airline, Copa, and at just 5.5 hours from New York, it’s an easy trip.
7. Central Asia: Forget Borat – and everything else you know about Kazakhstan for that matter. The “Stans,” as they’re called – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are the next great tourism hotspot in Asia. Pretty much forgotten to modern history thanks to the Soviet “Iron Curtain,” these fast-developing countries are quickly making themselves known again thanks to huge foreign investments, building projects and quick cash from energy markets. That doesn’t mean they’re all energy conferences all the time, though. Rather, this region’s past as crossroads upon the ancient Spice Road is evident in the mix of cultures, religions and even cuisines present in the cities, while the countryside of each Stan is distinct and awe-inspiring, from the “Celestial Mountains” of Kyrgyzstan (the least developed) to falconing in Tajikstan or the vast desert plains and ancient cities of Uzbekistan. This is a wild, mystical corner of the world and one that is becoming more accessible every day.
8. Slovenia: First it was Croatia, then Montenegro. Now this third former Yugoslav republic is making its mark in Central Europe thanks to pristine forests and lakes, a sleepy but stunning Adriatic coastline, a burgeoning food and wine scene, and both accommodations and activities to suit every budget, not to mention tons of great little storybook, dramatic history and a friendly population. It’s just a short flight from most major European gateways – Delta and Air France operate connections via Paris to Ljubjljana, or you can fly to neighboring countries like Italy, Austria and Hungary then drive or take a train. Many cruise ships also stop here on itineraries, so it’s easier to visit (and maybe not reboard that cruise ship!) than ever.
9. Chile: Thanks to LAN’s vast route network and a host of other draws like Andean ski resorts, a burgeoning wine industry, the glaciers of Patagonia and the wild beauty of the Atacama Desert in the north, Chile has long been on the must-see list for adventure and epicurean travelers alike. But now with more US airlines forging alliances with South American carriers – such as Aerolineas joining SkyTeam – and a some recent fare sales like one on TAM in November, it is easier and cheaper to get to and from as well as around Chile than ever. The cosmopolitan capital of Santiago has seen some great new hotels open recently including a W from Starwood and boutique inns like the Aubrey. The wine region of Colchagua has also developed a booming tourism industry in recent years as Chilean wines have gained worldwide recognition, while the otherworldly landscapes of the northern deserts, the pristine forests of the country’s lake region, and Patagonia’s breathtaking natural beauty and solitude are now accessible thanks to stunning new eco-lodges ranging the spectrum from budget to luxury. Even if you’ve already been to Chile, chances are there’s still much more to explore.
10. Puerto Rico: Everyone is waiting for Cuba to open up to American tourism again, but until that happens don’t forget about humble Puerto Rico, just a short flight away from the east coast. Sure, the mega-resorts of San Juan and the well-trod paths of the El Yunque rainforest might be infested with tourists, but exciting new hotels like the W Vieques Retreat and Spa and the just-opened Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach as well as some exciting new boutique properties and chef-driven restaurants in the historic center of Old San Juan are bringing caché to this little Caribbean paradise that’s practically the 51st state.