Top Destinations for Culture
The ceiling decoration at the souq (bazzar) in Muscat, Oman (creative commons/Kate McKennasdsd)
It's Arabian Peninsula neighbors are using their oil riches to erect skyscrapers, convention centers, and megamalls, but Oman is planting gardens, building opera houses, and turning the capital city, Muscat, into a cultural playground for travelers. With private yachts prowling the coastline and world-class restaurants drawing elite local crowds, it's becoming easier to mistake the Gulf of Oman for the Mediterranean Sea.
Bentonville, Arkansas - USA
Does the name Bentonville, Arkansas ring a bell? If not, here's a hint: it's the proud home of the world's largest retailer, Walmart. Cast your preconceptions aside because this small, middle-America city is gearing up for some major changes. Alice Walton, the youngest heir to the Walmart empire, has made it her goal to make the Bentonville region a world-class cultural destination. First up: The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The Walton family's impressive collection went on display in November as Alice takes a gamble that a major art institution can thrive in the middle of the Ozarks.
Cuba is once again on America's radar with the Florida Straits the only thing lying between the two nations. The Obama administration loosened travel restrictions to Cuba, and a growing number of organizations now operate licensed trips as airlines rush to ad routes to Havana. Three and a half hours southeast of the capital lies the 500-year-old city of Trinidad. Tourism officials like to say Trinidad is a museum in itself. Indeed, the UNESCO World Heritage site's cobblestone streets, Spanish colonial architecture, and pastel-hued houses make it one of Cuba's finer attractions.
The Amador neighborhood of Panama City will see major changes when the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo opens in 2012. Ghery's first work in Latin America is expected to draw thousands of tourists in its opening year. Meanwhile, the Panama Canal itself is in the early stages of a multi-billion-dollar expansion project to be completed for it's 100th anniversary, in 2014. With high-end hotels opening their doors in this tropical oasis, Panama City is in the midst of a dramatic transformation.
Like gaping at clouds as they morph into barely familiar shapes, the Hampi region is a mesmerizing, constantly surprising jumble of utter unpredictability. One of India's fastest growing tourist destinations, the landscape was formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion - the result of which is truly bewildering. It's at once both desert and oasis. Amidst the rubble of precariously perched boulders and jumbled rock clusters sit ancient ruins to rival those of Angkor. Just before it was raised to the ground by the Decca sultanates in 1565, the ancient city of Vijayanager boasted over 500,000 residents living in unparalleled grandeur. What's left today is a testament to a remarkable empire.
The cliff-hugging villages of Cinque Terre will always be the defining image of the Italian Riviera. However, as they struggle to rebuild from the devastating mudslides of last October, nearby Portovenere may finally get the attention it deserves. Portovenere shares UNESCO World Heritage status with Cinque Terre and is equally picturesque, with bobbing boats, towering Gothic churches, and winding hilltop trails. The streets of Portovenere are riddled with history and the seaside views are bellissimo.
The oft-overlooked Northern Portuguese town of Guimarães is ready to put its name on the map this year when the city hosts thousands of visitors as the EU-designated European Capital of Culture for 2012. Associated with the emergence of Portuguese national identity in the 12th century, Guimarães is an exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of a medieval settlement evolved into modern town. Ancient history aside, Guimarães has been revivified in recent years thanks to its youthful population and emerging art scene.
Kazan is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan and brands itself as the Third Capital of Russia after Moscow and Saint Petersburg. This often overlooked city peacefully blends Muslim and Christian cultures and is famous for its museums, theaters, restaurants, and riverside views - all with an atmosphere redolent of Central Asia. Kazan's also known as a sports city, and it's gearing up to be the host of the 2013 Universiade and a main host city for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. As it opens its arms to the world, Kazan's reputation as a bona fide tourist destination is sure to rise in 2012.
Top Destinations for Nature
View down the Nam Ou River in Muang Ngoi, Laos (mark-map.com)
Muang Ngoi - Laos
Some find paradise on the beach. Others find it in a hammock overlooking a pristine river valley. Muang Ngoi is the authentic Southeast Asian destination many seek but struggle to find. Only accessible by boat from Nong Khiaw or Luang Prabang, an astonishing number of small guesthouses and eco-tourism operations have sprung up in Muang Ngoi over the past five years. It's the ideal location for exploring caves, waterfalls, and tribal Laos. Moreover, it's a choice location for voluntourism. Trek to a homestay in a remote tribal village and bring along books from Big Brother Mouse to promote rural education in Laos.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Scientists from across the globe are flocking to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile to uncover the mysteries of the universe. Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the world's largest astronomical project, began operation at the end of 2011. Construction is currently underway to build the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world. The charming, tourist-minded town of San Pedro de Atacama is arguably the best place on earth to view the stars and is surrounded by steaming geysers, fuming volcanoes, and flamingo-packed lagoons.
Costa Navarino, Greece
Sure, Greece's economy is in the pits, but that's all the more reason you should get your gluteus maximus to this sun-soaked Mediterranean mecca. Messenia, the westernmost finger of the Peloponnese peninsula, has long been overlooked by travelers who traditionally prefer the Greek islands. One spot hopes to change that. Costa Novarino is a quickly emerging destination that boasts world-class resorts amidst lush olive groves with views of the storied waters of the Ionian Sea. With two signature golf courses, revitalizing spas, and 90% of the land reserved for natural and cultivated greenery, there is no place better to soak up the sun and splendors of Greece.
Wilpattu National Wildlife Park, Sri Lanka
The north and eastern parts of Sri Lanka were completely off-limits to tourists for years while under the occupation of the Tamil Tigers. But in 2012, Sri Lanka is once again urging tourists to visit this largely unspoiled region as the civil war fades into memory. Known for its jaw-dropping beaches, the northern part of Sri Lanka is also home to the nation's largest reserve, Wilpattu National Wildlife Park. The park is slowly attracting intrepid tourists who come to view over 31 species of exotic mammals including leopards, sloth bears, and Asian elephants. Sorry, the tigers left in 2009.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota - USA
Voyageurs is a water-based national park in the extreme north of Minnesota that's only accessible by boat, kayak or canoe. Boaters and paddlers can explore the forests of the park through interconnected waterways that house hundreds of undisturbed species of fish. If you want experience the park at its fullest, try to come in the spring, summer of fall, as dropping winter temperatures freeze lakes and rivers, rendering much of the park inaccessible. The park opened a new headquarters in 2011 with a museum, conference rooms, and large reception area in hopes of drawing more tourists to this remote region.
The Catlins, New Zealand
The Catlins jut out from New Zealand's South Island, two hours southwest of Dunedin, at the very bottom of the country. Follow the Southern Scenic Route through rural heartland and podocarp forests, past hidden lakes and meandering waterfalls. This peaceful corner of the country offers a chance to spot New Zealand's rare yellow-eyed penguin or feast on the region's famed oysters. The Catlins are also a great escape for those looking to spend less time in the South Island's earthquake-prone metropolis, Christchurch. Amongst its rugged, windswept beaches, glowing lighthouses, and rich maritime history, you'll be braced by salt air and southern seas.
In the early part of the 20th century Moganshan was a popular and exclusive retreat for the Shanghai elite. Virtually abandoned for several decades, the bamboo-strewn hills rising from Zhejiang plane are once again emerging as a popular escape from the hustle and bustle of modern city life. Chinese and foreign visitors alike visit Moganshan for relaxation and hiking along numerous historical and scenic paths; old villas transformed into modern guesthouses; and luxury resorts that help restore the region to its former glory.
Top Destinations for Beaches
The Quirimbas Islands of Mozambique (creative commons/sergio.agostinelli)
Quirimbas Islands, Mozambique
Move over Seychelles and Mauritius, there's a newcomer to the world of high-end Indian Ocean resorts. The pristine stretch of coastline in northern Mozambique has transformed from rustic beach huts to ultra-luxurious lodges in the past decade. The 34 coral-lined islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago are the premier destination, dotted with well-appointed accommodations. Yet, much of the archipelago is protected as part of the Quirimbas National park, keeping development at bay and the views unadulterated.
Rabbit Island, Cambodia
Close to the mainland -- but far away in mindset -- Cambodia's Rabbit Island is a 20-minute hop from the dock in Kep. This small, clover-shaped island in the Gulf of Thailand has rustic bungalows and rudimentary beach shack restaurants, but remains predominantly undeveloped. It's hub of action is concentrated around the main beach, leaving the rest of the island blessedly vacant. There are no air conditioning units, no televisions, no mirrors, and no Internet access. Rabbit Island is an emerging destination for those who want to get away from it all, relax, and enjoy a throwback island paradise.
Agonda Beach, India
Back in the 1960's, Goa burst onto the scene as a premier destination for secret stretches of sun-kissed sand. Yet over the years, the beach bungalows of the hippies morphed into megaresorts for Russian snowbirds, and the covert beaches of Goa became package-tour destinations. But all is not lost. There are still a few stretches of this Portuguese-flavored Indian oasis where development has yet to develop. Agonda Beach, five miles north of popular Palolem, remains a bungalow bum's dream. With an amiable Catholic community, affordable eco-accommodation, and a quiet, palm-lined perimeter, Agonda is the place to unwind in southern India.
Koh Lipe, Thailand
You haven't heard of Koh Lipe yet, but that's about to change. This island underwent a rapid transformation over the past five years. What once housed only rustic huts, now boasts world-class resorts. Yet, Koh Lipe retains its undiscovered status - and even exploits it. Unlike Phuket, Koh Lanta, or Koh Samui, the small, horseshoe-shaped Koh Lipe has held on to its Thai authenticity. Koh Lipe provides all the amenities of its more famous neighbors, but without the hefty price tag and hordes of red-faced farangs.
Samaná Peninsula, Dominican Republic
When foreign tourists head to the Dominican Republic they go to one of three places: Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, or Santo Domingo - and that's why you should head to the Samaná Peninsula. Equidistant from Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and Santo Domingo, this North Coast peninsula boasts untouched beaches, soothing azure waters, and coconut-covered mountains that march down to the sea. Connected to Santo Domingo by a fast new highway and the rest of the word by a recently opened international airport, it's never been easier to reach Samaná. Punta Cana and Puerto Plata are great - but they're expensive and you'll spend most of your time in the company of peeling, pink-skinned tourists. If you're searching for a beach that doesn't look like it was attacked by the creators of Disney World, head to Samaná.
Mark Johanson is the travel editor at the International Business Times. He has traveled to and written about more than 30 nations and territories on every continent except...