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As 2016 winds down, The Points Guy team has got travel on the brain, thinking back at our best airline mileage and hotel points redemptions of the year and looking forward to all the fantastic spots we hope to explore next. With some exciting new adventure destinations and a few classics thrown in, here’s our list of the places we’re eager to see in 2017, as well as a few we’ve been to and would suggest others visit next year, presented here in alphabetical order.
If it’s good enough for Wills and Kate, it’s good enough for us. Though the royal couple paid a visit to Bhutan earlier this year, the little Himalayan kingdom remains a mystery to many. There are a few hurdles to surmount if you do want to go here, including the fact that you must book your trip through a Bhutanese tour operator, pre-arrange your visa (which can get a little complicated) and expect to pay at least $200 per person per day for the time you spend in the country — it’s mandatory, but includes money you’d be spending on things anyway, like accommodations and activities, so think of it as an all-inclusive vacation of sorts.
For all your trouble, you’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to visit one of the world’s last unspoiled corners, a remote kingdom where local culture and tradition remains intact despite the pressures of globalization and the people are friendly and welcoming. Not only that, if you’re willing to splurge, there are a number of incredible luxury resorts by the likes of Aman, COMO and Six Senses that can put together multi-day itineraries if you’d like to go trekking from mountain lodge to mountain lodge, passing spectacular scenery and culturally significant sites. Fly into Bhutan’s Paro Airport (PBH) from several major Asian hubs, including Bangkok (BKK), Delhi (DEL), Mumbai (BOM) and Singapore (SIN), among others.
2. Charleston, South Carolina
Routinely listed among the top cities to visit in the U.S., Charleston takes history, culture and southern hospitality, wrapping them all up in one big colorful and exciting destination — there are some pretty great beaches nearby, too. The city’s food scene has taken off in recent years thanks to restaurants like Husk, The Ordinary, Leon’s Oyster Shop and 167 Raw. It’s also full of historical treasures like Fort Sumter as well as various neighborhoods and architecturally significant buildings that you can explore on foot or by horse-drawn carriage. Just outside the city, you’ll find plantations like Boone Hall, where you can learn about one of the darkest chapters of American history. Charleston is also home to a plethora of points properties from all the major chains as well as more upscale boutique options like The Restoration and Belmond Charleston Place.
3. Chengdu, China
This bustling Chinese city is quickly becoming one of the country’s first-rate destinations thanks to a hearty helping of delicious cuisine and the fact that it’s the gateway to panda country. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in western China, a region that’s known for one of the China’s most storied — and spiciest! — culinary traditions, as well as for being the heart of its tea culture. Visitors can stroll restored alleyways shopping for traditional handicrafts and, well, challenging street food like chili rabbit face and hen’s feet — or just go for a nice, simple hot pot. Just outside town is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can spend a day learning about these rare creatures and the efforts being made to prevent their extinction.
Chengdu is also experiencing something of a hotel boom, with properties like The Temple House bringing a new sense of chic to the city, while larger chains like Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Fairmont, JW Marriott and Grand Hyatt have opened high-end properties here over the past few years. There are also plenty of ways to get to Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU) from other major Chinese hubs, including Beijing (PEK), Guangzhou (CAN), Hong Kong (HKG) and Shanghai (PVG), not to mention United’s non-stop flight from San Francisco (SFO).
No, not the one that’s on your mind — the other Georgia, in Europe. While the country’s claim to fame for much of the 20th century was that it was the birthplace of Stalin, it would be a mistake to write it off as a post-Soviet backwater. Georgia’s home to some of Europe’s most beautiful mountains, stunning medieval villages full of postcard-perfect castles and chapels… and have I mentioned the wine? The country is back on the international map thanks to some of the delicious — and offbeat — vintages being produced here. Meanwhile, the capital, Tbilisi, seems to have a new lease on life, with a preponderance of galleries, restaurants and bars springing up along its atmospheric, cobblestoned streets. For folks looking to explore even more of eastern Europe, this country should be at the top of your list.
5. La Paz, Mexico
The bay on which the city of La Paz sits is home to more than 900 species of fish, including many that only exist in these waters — Jacques Cousteau once referred to the Sea of Cortez as the “Aquarium of the World” because of the wide range of biodiversity and profusion of marine life found here. You’ll be able to see many types of rays, rare sea turtles, an enormous seal colony, endangered Vaquita porpoises and the largest fish on earth, the whale shark, among other wildlife. This is one of the only places in the world where you can regularly swim with these gentle giants when they appear each year from October-February, though in truth, it’s just one of the extraordinary wildlife and diving experiences you can have here.
The town of La Paz itself is also having a moment, with new luxury developments like Playa de la Paz, as well as a number of boutique inns and hotels popping up, and a surprisingly good, down-home dining scene with restaurants like Tres Virgenes specializing in grilled meat and seafood. Throw in the fact that it’s just a short hop from much of the west coast to Los Cabos International Airport (SJD) and a two-hour drive from there, La Paz just might be the next great Mexican getaway destination.
6. Langkawi, Malaysia
Sometimes you just want to go to the beach. And if that’s your travel goal for 2017, look no further than this resort town on the Malaysian coast, especially if you’re already in Asia and are looking for a nice, quiet beach destination as part of a larger trip. The area has had a Four Seasons since 2005, but the St. Regis just opened last year and has been upping the luxury game — the new Ritz-Carlton that’s scheduled to open in July with 90 guest rooms and 30 villas should do so as well. Use your points for a luxurious stay at the St. Regis or the Ritz-Carlton, Langkawi, so you can spend more money on tropical drinks at The Datai Langkawi’s Beach Club instead.
While better-known and more accessible destinations such as South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania seem to get the lion’s share of first-time Africa travelers and folks looking for a great safari experience, this slender African nation deserves some attention as well. Lake Malawi, which covers about 20% of the country, is a diving and wildlife haven thanks to the richness and diversity of the animals here, while on the islands that dot its waters and the secluded coves along its shores, you’ll find lodges ranging from rustic getaways like Blue Zebra Island Lodge to top-tier luxury camps like Pumulani by Robin Pope Safaris.
There are more traditional safari experiences to be had in Majete Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park, while the capital city of Lilongwe is becoming more cosmopolitan by the day thanks to boutique hotels like Latitude 13. There are more ways to get here than ever before, too, including flights from Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB), Lusaka, Zambia (LUN), Nairobi, Kenya (NBO) and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (DAR).
8. The Maldives
If you ask me, the Maldives should be on a list of top places to visit every single year. This island nation offers unparalleled opportunities for diving and snorkeling throughout the rich network of reefs that make up its many atolls. The archipelago also boasts world-class surf breaks, tremendous opportunities for fishing and other more high-adrenaline water activities and some of the world’s best beach resorts. Because of its remote location straddling the equator south of the Indian subcontinent and the prohibitive expense of inter-island transportation or in-resort amenities like dining, the Maldives can still seem like a once-in-a-lifetime destination — it’s no wonder so many people come here on their honeymoon.
But that’s all changing thanks to more and more flight connections not only from Asian hubs like Hong Kong (HKG), Shanghai (PVG) and Singapore (SIN), but also from the three Gulf hubs of Abu Dhabi (AUH), Doha (DOH) and Dubai (DXB), plus seasonal flights from European airports; as well as the wide variety of points properties you can book. Last week, Brian Kelly (aka. The Points Guy), stayed at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa and scored one of the best hotel-points redemptions of all time with a five-night award stay at the stunning new St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, which opened just a few months ago. Translation: if you play your points right, you don’t have to burn through your 401k on a trip here… and you can enjoy all the natural beauty and splendor the islands have to offer even more.
One of Asia’s other undiscovered destinations, Mongolia seems poised to make its mark on the map in the coming years, which might seem strange, given that the country was closed off from much of the rest of the world throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. But times, they are a-changing, and travelers are now beginning to flock there. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar is experiencing a growth boom, with the opening of two new luxury hotels — the Shangri-La Hotel and the Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace — in the last few years.
But it is out in the country’s vast steppes that its true soul waits to be found at sites like the centuries-old complex of Buddhist temples at Erdene Zuu Monastery and the ruined city of Karakorum, which was built by Genghis Khan’s son. The Three Camels Lodge is one of Asia’s top adventure lodges, where guests stay in traditional gers, or tents, warmed by hand-painted wood-burning stoves. During the day, visitors can take camel safaris, learn ancient skills like horseback falconry and explore the dramatic Flaming Cliffs (pictured below), where paleontologists have discovered dinosaur eggs. Fly into Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar (ULN) from Beijing (PEK), Moscow (DME) and Seoul (ICN), among other gateway cities.
10. New Zealand
Another locale that a strong US dollar has made more affordable than ever, New Zealand remains one of the world’s premier adventure destinations — it’s been making its mark as a phenomenal setting for food, wine and luxury experiences as well. Up in the north, the small but luxurious Helena Bay Resort made a splash when it opened right on the beach earlier this year. Of course, if you’re short on time and just sticking around Auckland, hit Waiheke Island, which is just a short ferry ride from the city and boasts dozens of great little wineries. If you have a few weeks, however, spend some time exploring more off-the-beaten-path areas like Hawke’s Bay, where you’ll find delicious, Bordeaux-style red wines and golf enthusiasts can enjoy a round on the breathtaking cliff-top course at Cape Kidnappers.
In Nelson, located on the tip of the South Island, you can alternate between days of wine and beer-tasting, kayaking with seals in Abel Tasman National Park, tramping the Queen Charlotte Track or boating along the Marlborough Sounds. Of course, Queenstown is all about adventure travel and you can bungee jump off nearby Kawarau Bridge, where it all started, or take a helicopter ride over the magnificent fjords of the Milford Sound — just don’t forget to spend some time in nearby Central Otago tasting Pinot Noirs for which this area is now famous. Getting to New Zealand from the US is also easier than ever thanks to new routes out of Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) on American and United respectively, not to mention service by the country’s flag carrier, Air New Zealand.
11. Paris, France
Sacré bleu! You might be befuddled to see the City of Light on our list this year, but it’s here for a few reasons. First of all… it’s Paris and will always be a great destination. But now, the US dollar is strong and looks like it might actually get all the way up to parity with the euro, meaning a trip here is going to be the best value it’s been in years. Due to the horrific terrorist attacks that took place in 2015 and 2016 — and the brazen armed robbery of a certain reality-show princess — France also seems to be experiencing a serious tourism slump at the moment.
Because of these things, you’ll find fantastic rates at hotels throughout the city, even at top-tier properties like the Peninsula Paris and the newly-reopened Hôtel Ritz. You’ll also have a better chance of getting a table (even at the last minute) at previously booked-months-in-advance brasseries like Frenchie and Spring. Then there are the incomparable special exhibits going on at museums throughout the city, like the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s display of 19th-century Russian collector Sergueï Chtchoukine and a Magritte exhibit at the Centre Pompidou. Even if you’ve been to Paris, dozens of times, now is the time to go back and rediscover parts of the city you’ve never seen before.
With its famous Inca ruins, Andean culture and the unspoiled majesty of the Amazon, Peru has long been a traveler’s paradise, but it now seems poised to make the transition from being a top South American destination to a world-class one thanks to a slew of new developments. The continent’s most thrilling restaurant scene can be found in Lima thanks to chefs like Gastón Acurio (La Mar) and Virgilio Martínez (Central). The capital city is also home to pre-Columbian ruins and the imposing remains of its colonial era, not to mention a daring (and darling) new boutique hotel called Hotelito Atemporal.
Up in the north, Iquitos is the gateway to the Amazon basin from which cruises depart. Luxury line Aqua Expeditions, for example, has launched a new series of three-, four- and seven-night cruises to help visitors explore the lush rainforest. The country’s most famous body of water, however, has to be Lake Titicaca down south, where guests can now stay at the ultra-luxe Relais & Chateaux lodge, Titilaka, as they spend their days visiting floating villages and learning about the local culture.
Of course, you can’t come all the way to Peru without spending at least a little time in Cusco, where you’ll have your choice of hotels — your points will come in handy at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, for instance. On your way out to Machu Picchu, where there’s also a bunch of fancy lodges — like the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, located right near the entrance — spend a few days exploring the scenic Sacred Valley and put your Starpoints to use at Tambo Del Inka, A Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Valle Sagrado, or splurge on a stay at Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, which opened late in 2015 and offers activities like cultural hikes and bird-watching.
Portugal has been hailed as Europe’s next “it” destination for several years, only it’s never actually turned into the next major destination — all the better, because its cities and beaches and vineyards remain as uncrowded as ever, and unlike other European hotspots, a visit here doesn’t have to drain your bank account. After years of economic hardship, Lisbon is once again flourishing as a center of design and culture. The city is home to a new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, while the hotel scene got a breath of new life thanks to the opening of several exciting new properties, including the stunning (and perfectly located) Pousada de Lisboa and the chic, under-the-radar AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado boutique hotel.
To the south lie the Hamptons-like beaches of Comporta and one of the country’s must-stay luxury resorts, Sublime Comporta, home to lovely villas that are interspersed throughout groves of umbrella pines and cork trees. Inland from here are the vineyards and medieval hilltop towns of the Alentejo region. Porto is the big go-to spot up north; a UNESCO-listed city whose red-roofed Port houses hold centuries of history and millions of gallons of wine. Farther east, along the Douro River, the countryside becomes winding and steep, its slopes covered in vines that produce the grapes for the region’s famous wines. Near the main town of Regua is a new Six Senses resort that blends the brand’s spa sensibility with the area’s focus on gastronomy and wine for a complete epicurean experience.
14. Rajasthan, India
India is massive — after all, it’s not just a country, it’s a subcontinent. So why bother trying to fit everything into one trip? Instead, plan to visit this fascinating place again and again because once you’ve been there, you’ll want to go back. For a first or second visit, consider concentrating your activity in the region of Rajasthan, a quick flight from New Delhi (DEL). The area is home to some of the country’s most culturally significant landmarks and beautiful cities, including Jaipur — where the buildings are painted a dusty pink — and the scenic lakeside city of Udaipur. Each is a shopper’s paradise and offers a panoply of palaces to visit. Because they are popular tourist spots, though, the infrastructure here is among the best in India and it’s easy to get around, even if you’re short on time.
The region is also home to Ranthambore National Park, which looks like the backdrop for The Jungle Book because of its vast areas of brush, serene reservoirs, ruined hilltop forts and palace and, oh yeah, its tigers — the safari experience here is similar to those you’ll find in Africa. The main quarry here are tigers, and spotting one is a feather in any wildlife-lover’s cap. There are also luxury camps to stay in (like Aman-i-Khas) that make you feel like a Moghul emperor, or the lower-key Sher Bagh luxury camp next door. While trying to see all of India would be a sensory overload, a visit to Rajasthan will give you a taste of city life, art, architecture, culture, crafts and wildlife, all in one place.
15. Santa Fe, New Mexico
The oldest state capital in the US (it was founded in 1610) still has plenty surprises to offer visitors looking for everything from a fun weekend getaway or an impromptu ski trip to a longer trip exploring one of the country’s most indelible landscapes. There are several points properties to check out here, too, including the historic Posada de Santa Fe, part of Starwood’s new Tribute Portfolio. There are also gorgeous boutique and luxury properties like Rosewood’s Inn of the Anasazi, located near Santa Fe Plaza — its restaurant has some of the most exciting avant-garde cuisine in the city, but you’ll also want to get red and green enchiladas at The Shed nearby.
As for culture, there’s the George O’Keeffe Museum, the Palace of the Governors that covers the city’s history and the complex at Museum Hill just outside the center of town that contains the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts and the Museum of International Folk Art. The Santa Fe Opera season, one of the country’s most anticipated performing-arts festivals, takes place each summer. For a taste of the scenery that makes this part of the country so singular, drive 45 minutes to Bandelier National Monument for a scenic hike among ancient cliff dwellings and to learn about the area’s indigenous peoples.
Which destinations are on your list for 2017? Let us know, below.
Featured image of Lisbon, Portugal, courtesy of Getty Images.
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