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The TPG Hot List: Must-See Destinations For 2015

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We’re just about to wrap up 2014, and if you’re anything like the team here at TPG, you’re already planning some epic trips for 2015. TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino guides us through some destinations that the TPG team is hoping to visit in the year ahead. 

Increasingly, travelers are seeking remote, little-known destinations that may be hard to reach or were once off-limits to visitors, and in a revamp of the Golden Age of Exploration, everyone wants to be amongst the first few to get there. The following fresh, exciting hotspots may be revitalizing their tourist industry or newly emerging due to a sudden change in government, but they’re all places that we here at TPG are eager to see in 2015!

The ancient temples of Bagan, Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The ancient temples of Bagan, Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Myanmar. After decades of international sanctions and isolation due to its military junta leadership, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is finally opening up a bit to the outside world. You still need a visa to enter, but now you can use an e-visa at various entry points, like Mandalay. Although planning a trip here can be frustrating due to government restrictions (e.g., domestic flights must be booked through a travel agency, purchased via a hotel, or bought at an airport), Myanmar is still relatively untouched and culturally authentic, although tourism is rapidly growing. This destination will likely be a completely different spot five years from now, so go soon to experience a more traditional Myanmar. Highlights include Inle Lake, where the tribal Intha people live in stilt houses with floating gardens, and Bagan, where you can explore dusty, ancient temples by horse and buggy.

Tip: Low-cost carrier Air Asia and boutique airline Bangkok Airways fly to Yangon (RGN) and Mandalay (MDL) from Bangkok (BKK). For more info, check out TPG contributor Eric Rosen’s posts on Useful Traveling Tips In Myanmar and Booking Domestic Flights in Myanmar.

The Marrakesh market in Morocco. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Marrakech market in Morocco. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Morocco. Back in 2005, Brian (aka The Points Guy) and I headed from Madrid down to Marrakech for a long weekend. The trip was amazing but at times overwhelming, as our walk from the Le Meridian N’Fis Marrakech included running across streets with no stoplights or crosswalks to arrive to the city center, being hassled and offered drugs in the Medina, and wandering down streets so broken we had to tiptoe across wooden planks to avoid huge holes in the ground. However, with an upswing of boutique riads (the Moroccan version of a bed & breakfast), trendy yoga retreats and the emergence of “glamping” (glamorous camping) Morocco is now the place to be, and is sexier and safer than ever. Essaouira is a beautiful port town, perfect for strolls along the beach and through the souk, or marketplace. Hip Marrakech is a great resource for finding the perfect riad for your stay in Marrakech, Fez, and other Moroccan hotspots. You can glamp your way through the Sahara via camel with Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp, or chill out with a surf/yoga retreat at Surf Maroc

Tip: Low-cost carrier Easy Jet flies to Marrakech (RAK) from several European hubs, such as London (LHR), Paris (CDG) and Milan (MXP), so you can easily tack a Morocco visit onto your trip to the Continent.

Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is on the TPG bucket list!. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is on the TPG bucket list!. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Iceland. Thanks to Game of Thrones filming and a precipitous drop in their local currency a few years ago, Iceland is an intriguing and newly affordable destination. Especially exciting for adventure travelers, the modern Hotel Ion offers a variety of outdoor activities, such as horseback riding and kayaking, while Hotel Ranga, located next to the Mt. Helka volcano, provides great views of the Northern Lights. Reykjavik is six hours or less from several North American cities, and Delta has offered direct flights from New York (JFK) since 2011, while Icelandair also flies from JFK, as well as Boston (BOS), Toronto (YYZ) and Minneapolis (MSP). Thanks to new low-cost carrier Wowair, Iceland will soon be more accessible than ever: starting in late March 2015, the carrier will begin non-stop service to RKV from Boston (BOS) and in early June 2015, from Washington D.C. (DCA), each for as low as $190 one way.

Tip: Make sure to read up on TPG’s trip report from his 2013 visit to Iceland, and if you’re looking to use points for an Iceland hotel stay, try the Hilton Reykjavik.

The pristine Uppuveli beach in Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The pristine Uppuveli beach in Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s civil 26-year Civil War came to an end in 2009, and since then, it’s been slowly establishing itself as a tourist destination. For the time being it’s still pretty under-the-radar despite some of the best beaches and surfing in Asia, but affordable prices for lodging and food make it attractive to both backpackers and luxury visitors. The east coast is particularly charming, as its underdevelopment due to Civil War devastation and tsunami damage has kept it free of crowds; Arugam Bay in the Southeast is relatively tranquil, without high-rise hotels, cruise stops and big tours, while clean white sand and clear water make Uppuveli a draw in the Northeast. Aside from Sri Lanka’s pristine shores, there are plenty of Buddhist temples, colonial villages and wildlife areas to explore, and if you’re looking for a city with a bit of everything—history, art and a beach scene—Galle in the south (just about 70 miles from Columbo) is the ideal well-rounded getaway. Make sure to check out the new Anantara Peace Haven Resort , a relaxing sanctuary featuring luxury guest rooms plus villas complete with private plunge pools and traditional Sri Lankan architecture, slated for an early 2015 opening.

Tip: Visit Kandy, Sri Lanka in August for the Esala Perahera festival, commonly called the “Tooth Festival,” which features parades, dance, music, fire-breathers and elephants in celebration of this Buddhist holiday. SriLankan Airlines is a Oneworld member, but offers no flights to/from the U.S.  However, you can take Oneworld’s American Airlines or British Airways to London (LHR) or Paris (CDG) and connect to a SriLankan Airlines flight to Colombo (CMB).

The historical churches and azul aguas of Cartagena, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The historical churches and azul aguas of Cartagena, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Colombia. It seems like everyone’s talking about Colombia lately, and not just the chic, colonial Cartagena, with its enticing combination of culture, history, parties and shoreline. Bogotá is being praised as Latin America’s newest affordable hotspot, and even Medellín, once known as the murder capital of the world, is on a major rise. The Colombian economy is growing rapidly, and the Bogotá area has fast become one of the top shopping capitals in Latin America; high-end designers are flocking there to open boutiques, and Starwood just opened the posh W Bogotá, one of just three W properties in Latin America (the other two are the W Santiago and the W Mexico City). The Colombian capital is easily accessible from the U.S., only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami or a five-hour flight from New York. Most U.S. airlines fly to Bogotá non-stop from several major cities, and you’ll also find a few flights offered by JetBlue and Spirit.

Tip: Foreign visitors are exempt from paying sales tax on hotel rooms, making an already affordable destination even more affordable.

Georgia still makes wine in traditional clay pots. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Georgia still makes wine in traditional clay pots. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Georgia. This small country on the edge of Eastern Europe hasn’t had it easy for many years. After the fall of the Soviet Union, things got so bad that in 2006, Russia closed its border entirely to Georgia, angry at its budding relations with the U.S. and the EU. Then in 2008, an ill-fated war with Russia led Georgia to lose 17% of its territory. Things have since calmed down, and all U.S. and EU citizens can now travel freely to Georgia without a visa. Even though Georgia is a small country, it has enormous mountains (Mount Elbrus, one of the highest peaks in Europe, reaches over 18,000 feet), intriguing medieval villages, and gorgeous shoreline along the Black Sea. Archaeologists have discovered that Georgia may be one of the oldest wine regions in the world, with production dating back to 8,000 B.C. The present-day Georgian wine industry grows over 520 different grape varieties, and many wineries age their vintages in traditional beeswax-lined terracotta vessels called kvevri. Most vineyards are in the east of the country, and there are plenty of winery tours that will allow you to sample the Caucasus region’s popular white Saperavi and red Rkatsiteli, as well as unusual red varietals from Georgia, such as Alexandrouli, Ojaleshi and Usakhelauri. 

Tip: Before heading to the beaches of the western coast or the wine regions in the east, spend a few nights in the capital city of Tbilisi which is known for small churches, winding streets and friendly locals. Using points, you can stay at the Marriott Tbilisi or the Radisson Blu Tbilisi. For the wine-obsessed: the Tbilisi Wine Festival will take place on May 9, 2015.

Oman is a hot spot for 2015. Photo courtesy of Oman Tourism.
With tall, jagged mountains and pristine turquoise water, Oman represents an exciting hotspot for 2015. Photo courtesy of Oman Tourism.

Oman. This emerging Middle Eastern country is located south of the U.A.E. next to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and is lucky enough to have avoided nearly all the political turmoil that has impacted many of its neighboring countries. Muscat, the capital, is filled with white-washed houses overlooking the sea and mountains, peppered with palm trees and reminiscent of the Andalucía region of southern Spain. If you’re hoping for a textbook desert landscape, visit Wahiba Sands, which has dunes as high as 100 feet.  Nature buffs will love Ras al-Jinz Turtle Reserve, a beach nesting site of the endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas) that’s set beside the Indian Ocean. You can watch in awe as these turtles lay their eggs between June and August and/or view the eggs hatch between September and November. For a Bedouin-style sand safari adventure, embark on an overnight trip with Safari Desert Camps

Tip: To enter Oman, U.S. citizens will need a tourist visa that costs about $13 for up to 10 days, or roughly $52 for up to a month. You can use points to stay at the Grand Hyatt Muscat or the Radisson Blu Muscat.

Port, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Lori Zaino.
Port, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Lori Zaino.

Portugal. With its colorful charm and gastronomic attractions, Portugal has been a popular destination for years, but a drop in the euro makes it ideal for a visit in 2015. If you’re into sweet wine, head north to Port, where you can wine and dine in high style for practically nothing. Get lost wandering the cracked and winding stone streets of Lisbon as you indulge in their famous pasteis de belem, a custard treat with a pastry crust. The south of Portugal has miles of coastline covered with rocky cliffs (Sagres, one of the most Western points in Europe, is a particularly stunning spot) and for the castle of all castles, check out the trippy Sintra. Try to do all of this before the euro spikes again!

Tip: TAP is part of Star Alliance and flies direct to Lisbon (LIS) from Miami (MIA) and Newark (EWR); you can also fly TAP direct from EWR to Porto (OPO). US Airways flies direct from Philadelphia (PHL) to LIS, and United flies direct from EWR to LIS. (Ryanair also flies direct from several European cities, and I’ve gotten fares as low as $20 US round-trip from Madrid to Port or Lisbon.) Read up on our Destination Guides for Lisbon and Port for what to do in each city.

Spot these lovable giants in Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Spot these lovable giants in Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Rwanda. Since the latest Ebola outbreak began in December 2013, the mere mention of Africa has struck panic among many potential travelers. Not to fear, though, as Rwanda is in East Africa, roughly 3,000 miles from the Ebola-affected countries of West Africa—Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau. About 20 years have passed since Rwanda’s Civil War and genocide, and things seem to finally be looking up for the country, as their economy is booming with new construction and an influx of tourism. The capital, Kigali, is one of the cleanest cities in Africa thanks to a community clean-up day once a month and a ban on plastic bags.

One of the most exciting adventures to be had in Rwanda is gorilla trekking, and the best spot to view these gentle giants is at the Volcanoes National Park, an imposing forest home to both volcanoes and gorillas in Northwest Rwanda. This adventure isn’t cheap thoughpermits alone will cost you $750. After meeting these endangered primates, beach relaxation awaits just an mere hour away at Lake Kivu, the sixth largest lake in Africa. You can also have the typical game-trek experience in Rwanda by heading to Akagera National Park in Eastern Rwanda; between the rolling hills, swamps and lakes, you can spot giraffes, rhinos, elephants, baboons and many other species. 

Tip: Though there’s no present risk of Ebola in Rwanda, you should still be sure to check well in advance of your trip what vaccines are required for entry by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, the Serena Hotel and the Kempinski Des Mille Collines rule as some of finest hotels in the country, but you’ll soon be able to use your Marriott Reward points at the Radisson Blu Kigali hotel, opening in late 2015.

The Taktshang monastery in Bhutan. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Taktshang monastery in Bhutan. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Bhutan. Bhutan? Where’s that? This land-locked idyllic country just north of India and near Nepal has officially declared 2015 the year to “Visit Bhutan” in honor of their beloved king, who will turn 60 in November 2015. The Bhutanese people believe that happiness is derived from a sense of community, pride in their cultural and spiritual heritage, and a spirit of celebration, a trifecta of joy that makes for a country full of warm, welcoming cheerful people. The country’s incredible natural and man-made beauty is no slouch, either: Bhutan is famous for its sprawling fortresses known as dzongs, as well as its ornate temples and monasteries, lush, unspoiled forests, and the huge, jagged Himalayan Mountains. Be aware that all travel here must be arranged through an authorized travel agent or hotel and Bhutan’s government requires an entry visa and daily tourist fees that average $200 US, both of which are applicable to all foreigners except those from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives.

Tip: Arrive from the U.S. by first flying to India’s Delhi (DEL) or Mumbai (BOM) or Thailand’s Bangkok (BKK), then connect to Bhutan’s own Druk Air to travel onwards to Paro (PBH).

Other destinations you’ll definitely be hearing more about from us here at TPG in 2015 are the Greek Islands, Mexico City, Kenya and Ecuador… just to name a few. Happy New Year—and onward and upward to your 2015 travels!

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