The sun sets behind the Olympic Stadium and Orbit tower at the Olympic Park in Stratford in east London (REUTERS)
Sure, the Royal Wedding made London one of the most buzzed about destinations of 2011, but things are about to get even hotter as the British capital opens its arms to the world as host of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. The Olympics will bring millions of people to London, but what many people don't realize is that the global event is so much more than just a sporting competition. In addition to the myriad of sporting events, the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic movements and will culminated with the London 2012 Festival, bringing leading artists from all over the world together from June 21 to Sept. 9.
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Samaná Peninsula, Dominican Republic
Playa Rincon (creative commons / Stupid Dingo)
A recent poll from booking engine Kayak found that the Dominican Republic was the most searched Caribbean destination for summer 2012 travel. If you're one of the interested parties, here's what you need to know: 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.
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Bugarach, France
A local woman walks through the sleepy streets of Bugarach. (REUTERS)
Resting in the foothills of the Pyrenees -- a region once home to the mysterious heretic sect of Catharas before they were driven underground in the 13th century -- Bugarach has inspired countless myths over the years. But the greatest myth is yet to come as visitors continue to pour in to town in the thousands awaiting the apocalypse on December 21, 2012. Apocalypse devotees, dressed in white, are fast becoming a familiar sight in the picturesque village, population 194. They're drawn here by a myriad of New Age theories, including claims that a nearby rocky outcrop, the Pic de Bugarach, harbors an alien technical base. Forget the Mayan heartland of Mexico, if you really want to get into the doomsday spirit, head to this French hill town and chat with the over 20,000 believers waiting for their alien saviors.
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Virginia Wine Country
Cooper Vineyards in Louisa, VA (creative commons / USDAgov)
Virginia is the Old Dominion and the Mother of Presidents -- a state known for its historic battlefields, rolling hills, and politically-minded Washington commuters. But in the last two decades, the state has grown a reputation for something altogether different: fine wine. Wine Enthusiast recently named Virginia one of its top 10 wine travel destinations for 2012, adding to a growing list of awards and accolades. Though winemaking in the state is hardly a new phenomenon -- it dates back to the early 1600's in Jamestown Colony -- the state has seen a dramatic increase in wine production over the last decade from 64 wineries in 2000 to 213 in 2012. In that time, the quality has also improved and Virginia is now internationally recognized as a budding region that's not to be missed.
READ MORE: Virginia Wine Tourism to Boom in 2012
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Myanmar
The Burmese people have always had a reputation for being some of the world's kindest, most welcoming individuals, but nearly 50 years of military rule virtually closed off this Southeast Asian treasure to the world. Now, the leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party that has urged foreigners to stay away since 1996, have a new message: We want people to come to Burma. With timeless towns, towering pagodas, and fervently Buddhist locals, Myanmar promises the authentic Asian experience that's fading in neighboring Thailand. There are no McDonald's or Starbucks and no name-brand Western Hotels. But much of that is about to change. If you want to see the untouched Myanmar, book a ticket now.
READ MORE: Myanmar: A Nation At A Crossroads
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: St John, US Virgin Islands
The view from Maho Bay's dinner pavilion (creative commons/kaymohusband)
In 1976, there was no such thing as eco-tourism and Being Green was just a song by Kermit the Frog. The sustainable living movement was only in its early stages when a small cluster of tent-cottages peeked out of the brush on the tiny Caribbean island of St. John. Maho Bay Camps was the pioneer in eco-tourism, opening up its mesh and wood doors in 1976 with a non-renewable 36-year lease. Thirty-six years later, the day they've been dreading is fast approaching and a temporary one-year extension will end mid-2013. This is likely the last summer you'll be able to visit, and with rooms as low as $80 a night, you can't beat the price.
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Costa Navarino, Greece
Voidokilia Beach (wikimedia commons)
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.
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Bariloche, Argentina
Cerro Catedral ski resort (wikimedia commons)
For those that felt gypped by this year's lack of winter up north, here's an idea: head south! Argentina's Bariloche had a rough 2011 season with Chile's Puyehue volcano belching ash all over the resort. This year, things look a lot better. Though Bariloche is a Patagonian city, the vibe is much closer to that of Buenos Aires with bars open late and clubs bumping all night long. On the slopes, Bariloche boasts huge quantities of lush snow, first-class facilities and a warm, welcome resort that has a true European flavor. One of the Southern Hemisphere's largest resorts with 75 miles (120km) of groomed runs and 38 ski lifts, there's plenty of terrain to play on.
READ MORE: Southern Hemisphere Ski Season Preview
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Kauai, Hawaii
Kauai, Hawaii (REUTERS)
Oscar-nominated The Descendants was one of the most critically lauded films of last year, but the 2012 Academy Awards favorite was more than a good flick. In stripping away nearly all of Hawaii's exotic tropes, the Alexander Payne movie offered one of the most fascinating looks to date at the lives of everyday people in Hawaii. As Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday put it, 'The Descendants' features Hawaii in its first candid role, demythologizing Hawaii and bringing it into a new post-Obama, Pacific Rim-era relevance. In the film, the land the King family owns is on Kauai's South Shore, the sunniest part of the island. The North Shore of Kauai is rocky and hilly while the south is lined with white sand beaches and towering palms. Despite what The Descendants may have you thinking, it's also well developed with a plethora of sprawling resorts to choose from, particularly in and around Poipu.
Top Destinations for Summer 2012: Lake Michigan
Mackinac Island (creative commons/Chris Clayson)
In the first few months of 2012, Chicago opened up new tourism offices overseas, consolidated its resources, and made a very public push to lure international tourists. Chicago is great, but there's a lot more to the Midwest beyond the Windy City. Few outside the Midwest take the scenic trip up Michigan's western shoreline along its namesake lake -- which makes it something of a local secret. This all-American road trip boasts soaring dunes, sand-swept beaches, glowing lighthouses, and charming lakeside towns. From the Riviera of the Midwest to Sleeping Bear Dunes, recently voted The Most Beautiful Place in America by viewers of ABC's Good Morning America, the left side of the Michigan mitten has no shortage of thrills for young and old. This ideal family road trip from Chicago culminates at Victorian-era Mackinac Island. From savoring Traverse City's famed cherry pie to splashing in an indoor water park in Mackinaw to tumbling down Sleeping Bear Dune, this journey -- steeped in good old-fashioned Americana -- is a retro-adventure of the sort you may remember, and one your kids may never forget.