Make 2018 an unforgettable year, and venture to new corners of the world with inspiration from our annual travel hotlist. These are the destinations we can't wait to visit in 2018...
Why it’s hot: Remembering Nelson Mandela in the Eastern Cape
A century ago, the man who went on to change the face of modern South Africa was born in the green valleys of the Eastern Cape. Few attractions mark Nelson Mandela’s early years in the village of Qunu, just the modest museum 100 metres from the home he later built and retired to. But as Madiba’s 100th birthday sees the world cast a gaze over his legacy, many will look to his home province – and it’s about time.
The region has long been overlooked, and not just by travellers. This was the heartland of the fight against apartheid yet it remains largely undeveloped. For visitors, however, this is part of its appeal, and in the spartan Karoo desert or among the reserves and scenic trails of the lush, cool Amatola mountains, it is still possible to glimpse a virgin wild. Meanwhile, in Addo Elephant National Park, the region also has one of the great wildlife reserves. When it was established in 1931, just 11 elephants lived there; today more than 550 roam South Africa’s third-largest park.
Whether you’re spotting wildlife wonders, road-tripping the scenic coastal Garden Route from Port Elizabeth or winding the Karoo into the foothills of the neighbouring Drakensberg Range, visitors will quickly discover that the Eastern Cape is full of icons. Just remember to spare a thought for the most famous of all.
Why it’s hot: Get your motor running... on the 'Route of Parks'
This coming year sees the final leg of a journey that began over 40 years ago with Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet building a 1,200km road through Patagonia. In the decades since, work by private conservationists to create, and then donate, a park to Chile has been coupled with over 40,000 sq km of land being set aside to create five new national parks.
The exciting part for travellers comes when you learn that the Carretera Austral is the basis for a new road trip running through what is now the Patagonia National Parks Network, a 2,400km stretch that skewers 17 national parks between Hornopirén and the Beagle Channel. This ‘Route of Parks’ steers through some of the most dramatic land on Earth, and even though much is still to be built, the bulk of the road (albeit little more than dirt track in parts) is in place. It also offers the opportunity to divert into Argentine Patagonia – providing you get your bureaucratic ducks in a row well beforehand – to gaze up at sights such as the Perito Moreno Glacier.
But don't miss Pumalín NP, where the incredible story of Doug and Kris Tompkins, buying up farmland across 20 years to create their own park, unfolded. Trekking through its verdant rainforest today is a reminder that sometimes the good guys do win.
Why it’s hot: Come face to snout with Paddington’s cousins
This year sees the 60th anniversary of Paddington Bear, the late Michael Bond’s accident-prone Peruvian protagonist. And while there’s little about this ever-so-English creation that recalls the wilds of the Andes (he originally came from ‘Darkest Africa’ until Bond’s publisher’s advised that the continent had no bears), any excuse to seek out the real thing in the cloud forests and páramo of the Andean highlands is welcome.
Paddington’s loose progenitor, the spectacled bear (or oso de Andino), is South America’s only native ursine. Sixty years ago, when Bond started writing, they were more common in Peru; today as few as 6,000 of these shy, reclusive creatures may roam the Northern Andes, with the diverse Chappari Ecological Reserve up in Peru’s remote north-western point probably your best chance of spotting one in the wild.
Combine with a trip to Peru’s rocky south and trek among the plummeting Colca Canyon, where you can spy giant hummingbirds busying over cactus flowers and yet another Peruvian icon, the Andean condor, circling the clifftops upon which they lays their eggs. Just don’t forget your marmalade sandwiches...
Why it’s hot: Scotland’s wild west is within easier reach
From heathered highlands and glassy lochs to remote windswept isles where the only sound is the breeze gusting through rocky crag, few countries do ‘middle of nowhere’ quite as poetically as Scotland. It’s just getting there that’s the issue, which is why the renovation of the Caledonian Sleeper, linking London with Scotland’s northerly tips (Fort William, Inverness, Aberdeen) is welcome, putting its remote western coast and islands within more comfortable reach.
From Inverness, grab a barge down the Caledonian Canal to glide through lochs and waterways under the gaze of medieval castles and stern-looking Munros, or simply escape for the largely car-less wilds of the Knoydart Peninsula. The service’s westerly tendrils also offer connections to the new ferries linking Skye and the Western Isles, putting 100-plus islands of wind-blasted archipelago within an easy hop; make your way past the barren peaks of Harris, and the causeways that link its southern reaches, to the golden sands of Barra. But for pure drama – and joy – you can simply head to the wild green canvas of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula, where walks pinch the 30km edge of this wide open expanse offering unrivalled views of the majestic Cuillin range.
Why it’s hot: Follow in the footsteps of TV favourite Simon Reeve – and dodge the World Cup fans
While it’s true that Russia divides travellers, what can’t be debated is its beauty, whether cruising the rivers and canals of St Petersburg or squinting through your billowing breath in the icy forests of Siberia. When we spoke to Simon Reeve about his new Russia travel documentary, he expressed a similar thought, and we reckon many of those watching will feel the same.
It’s no coincidence that the indigenous fringes of Russia’s forested east loomed large in Reeves’ series opener, and there’s no better way to escape the rush of football fans as Russia hosts this year’s World Cup. The volcanic wilds of Kamchatka are a chance to tread nature at its rawest, whether hiking up to the acid lakes and puffing fumaroles of Mutnovsky (2,322m) or spying brown bears on the shores of Bystraya River.
Siberia’s Lake Baikal is another water to take the breath away. The world’s deepest freshwater lake is worth a chilly dip. Trek its shores to reveal glowering monasteries or circle it on the Circum-Baikal train, a feat of engineering belligerence. Then head into the far south-east and Durminskoye Reserve (close to the end of the Trans-Siberian rail route), where rare sightings of the country’s few remaining Siberian tigers still tempt visitors.
Why it’s hot: Moorish marvels, river escapes, and the end of the world minus the crowds
Over 7.1 million of us flocked to Portugal last year. Whether riding funiculars and trams up the steep cobbles of Lisbon’s baroque streets, ravishing your taste buds in Porto’s bustling Mercado do Bolhão, or strolling the neoclassic gates and Moorish flourishes of Faro, budget flights have packed these stops with weekenders. Which is why travellers are searching for alternatives.
Head west to the overlooked hilltop town of Sintra, a glimpse into how things were before the crowds arrived. Perched in the forested rises of the Sintra Mountains, the town’s historic centre is exquisite, its palace all Arabesque flourishes and fairytale charm, while the surrounding hills reveal fortresses, operatic villas and the hikable Sintra-Cascais Nature Park.
To the east, the Douro River sheers through the Romanesque streets of Porto and offers an obvious escape, winding red-cheeked vineyards (with port tastings aplenty) as river cruises bob all the way to the Spanish border. Lastly, just along the coast from Faro lies Sagres, its wind-battered cliffs pocked with hidden caves and coves. Wander its historic fortress and soak up the end-of-the-world vibe at Cape St Vincent, Europe’s south-westerly tip and utterly crowd-free.
Why it’s hot: High-speed rail open up the rugged north-east
When it comes to traversing north to south, South Korea’s rail network is arguably faster than flying. But it does have some blind spots, which is why the new 70-minute bullet train route from capital Seoul to Pyeongchang in time for 2018’s Winter Olympics is so promising for travellers, opening up the region.
South Korea’s vast, rugged north-eastern province of Gangwon has never been a priority. Yet its muscular topography, war relics and wide, empty shores beg more attention. Little-visited Odaesan is perhaps the pick of the four big national parks here. Stroll its gentle slopes, stumbling across quiet temples amid yew tree forests. Those looking for more of a challenge may prefer Seoraksen, however, for hikes up exposed crags that top 1,700m in places.
The coast is long, empty and hides the odd surprise. Jeongdongjin’s train station even spills onto the shore, where beached naval craft (including a North Korean sub) remind you how close you are to the DMZ. These all lie in the shadow of its most bizarre sight: a huge cruiseship-shaped hotel dangling off the edge of the cliffs. It’s quite a sight, though perhaps the less said about the nearby ‘Penis Park’, the better.
Why it’s hot: Rediscovering everything that made it great in the first place
Back in July, the UK’s Foreign Office lifted most of its travel restrictions on Tunisia. The previous two years had seen UK tourism there drop by 90%, with those ancient cities, Roman ruins and otherworldly wilds quietly falling off travel agendas.
At less than three hours’ flight from London, there are few more ‘exotic’ short breaks than Tunis. Start here, wending the capital’s French-colonial flourishes before heading to Sidi Bou Said (20km away) for a softer vision of Tunisia’s past, its white walls, trimmed with ocean blue, recalling the hues of the Bay of Tunis below. Nearby, the ruins of the port city of Carthage offer a glimpse into antiquity, though those staying longer might prefer El Djem’s impressive take on Rome’s Colosseum, to the south.
Few realise just how wild Tunisia can be, from its blushing-pink salt lakes to vast dune seas. North of the capital, UNESCO-listed Ichkeul NP is the last-remaining of a chain of wetlands that once extended across North Africa. Thousands of species of birds migrate through every year, its brackish waters a shimmer of rouge as flocks of greater flamingos hot-step its shallows in autumn, jostling for space among white storks and cattle egrets. Heaven.
Why it’s hot: The first ever direct flights to Australia from the UK are here
For years, getting to Australia in fewer than 40 bleary-eyed hours felt like a win. But 2018 is serving up a brave new world, as Qantas launches its first direct route this March, linking London and Perth in just 17 hours.
Though many will have their eye on connecting flights to Sydney and Cairns, Western Australia’s wild coast and scorched interior are the real prize here. This is a rugged, half-finished land ripped straight from God’s sketchbook. In exploring the spires of the Pinnacles of Nambung NP or the beehive-like sandstone of Bungle Bungle Range, it seems for all the world like they were etched into the land in some manic fit, while natural wonders like Kimberley’s Horizontal Falls defy belief, let alone gravity.
The wildlife’s just as compelling. Wrinkle your nose at the quokka of Rottnest (a short ferry ride from Perth), then swim alongside whale sharks in the coral seas of Ningaloo. Meanwhile, just outside Perth, the Bibbulmun Track winds 1,000km of some of the best coastal walking on the planet to Albany. There really is nowhere else like it – though perhaps the most amazing thing is that it’s still a surprise to many.
Why it’s hot: Hit the heights of Denver and beyond with new direct flights from the UK
Colorado has long been the outdoorsy state with a liberal vibe. Of course, a sense of freedom comes easily when you have huge skies and cloud-scraping mountains to remind you just how small your troubles are. But until recently, this revelation came with a hefty price tag and long hauls, which is why new direct flights (budget and premium) connecting London and Denver are now opening up this state to first-time visitors.
The ‘Mile-High City’ is a good place to start, and a handy beer trail guides you through Denver’s bubbling microbreweries and LoHi street food scene. But you don’t come here for a city break, and most visitors soon find their way into Rocky Mountain NP for a real high, its peaks riddled with crystalline lakes and forests patrolled by black bears and moose.
Away from the trails, history and scenery collide in the ancient rock-carved city of Mesa Verde and the faded promise of gold-rush era ghost towns. Plunge into the 800m depths of Black Canyon for trails dangling over the Gunnison River, or scramble for footing on the golden rises of Great Sand Dunes NP, as you realise just how diverse Colorado’s landscape really is.
Why it's hot: Hike the islands’ next great walk
New Zealand isn’t short of amazing trails, with its Tongariro Alpine Crossing widely hailed as one of the world’s great day walks. But the South Island’s latest addition offers travellers not just a chance to stroll amid the alpine ridges and coastal forests of the Paparoa National Park in the mountainous north-west, but shines a light on a region looking to revitalise itself.
The 65km Paparoa Trail fords the limestone karst between Blackball in the south and Punakaiki on the coast, following the old mining trails that were lifelines in the region’s gold-rush era. Taking two-to-three days to complete, it weaves beech and podocarp forests, trickling creeks and unique birdlife, passing still-intact 1930s miners’ huts before rising into the Southern Alps.
But at its midpoint, hikers can veer off on the 10.8km Pike29 Memorial Track to the site of a mining disaster that saw the loss of 29 miners in 2010. The hope is that when this trail opens fully in spring of 2019 (though older parts of the track can be walked in the meantime), it may finally offer some peace to a shattered area that’s been criminally overlooked by travellers.
Why it’s hot: A freshly rediscovered Maya city opens its doors – away from the clouds
There are few more-imagination firing sights in travel than the crumbling glory of a lost city. Back in 1995, archaeologists stumbled upon Ichkabal, a vast Maya complex in the south of Mexico’s Quintana Roo State. The site consists of five main pyramids – some over 40m high – yet it went undiscovered in the forests of Bacalar for centuries and somehow remained remarkably intact. This year sees it finally open to visitors.
Even after 23 years of pondering, intrigue surrounds the city. Evidence suggests it was occupied between 1000 BC and AD 320, when it was suddenly, mysteriously abandoned at the end of the Classic Maya period. But in a state best known for its coastal resorts, the site is quite a find.
Some 10 million visitors a year descend on Quintana Roo’s northern shores, flooding the plush sands and cenotes of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. By comparison, barely 100,000 find their way south to the forested fringes of Bacalar. With Ichkabal’s opening pencilled in for some time this year, you may just get one of the world’s newest (and oldest) wonders practically to yourself.
Why it’s hot: Three icons for the price of one
Anyone who’s ever visited Morocco knows getting around can be slow-going. Piling into a grand taxi (having failed to bag a last-minute train ticket) for a long, winding journey along narrow mountain roads eats up the day. So the arrival of Africa’s first high-speed rail network, linking Casablanca (via Rabat) to Tangier in just two hours, offers a fresh twist on a short break, letting travellers tour the north Atlantic coast in one long weekend.
Start in Tangier, a city reborn following its post-Bohemian slide into notoriety. Boutiques now pepper its old colonial neighbourhood, while the mosques of its labyrinthine medina recall an era long before you could spy Jagger et al sprawled, pupils-wide, in louche cafes. From there, a side trip to the whitewashed houses and cobbles of Chaouen in the Rif mountains offers a break from the hustle, before continuing on to the gardens and ancient kasbah of Rabat.
Outside the city, the necropolis of Chellah takes you around crumbling 2nd-century ruins now patrolled by nesting storks, before pressing on to Casablanca and its old medina. Its haze of pedlars, shrines and Moorish architecture hides the beautiful waterside Hassan II mosque – a sight fit to crown any long weekend.
Why it’s hot: Celebrate 100 years of the Baltic States!
Back in 1918, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were in the midst of a messy break up. Not the kind that leads to drunken lovelorn texts, but rather the sort that involves fending off wartime German occupation and the admiring glances of a newly Socialist Russian Republic. But in that brief moment of freedom they declared independence; and while it didn’t last long, for the Baltic States this was Year One. A century on, they intend to celebrate!
For those travelling outside of the various national days, it’s just a good excuse to explore one of Europe’s wildest corners. From the medieval cobbles of Estonian capital Tallinn, make for the ‘bogland’ of Soomaa NP, where its forests shiver with brown bears, wolves and tales of witches. To the south, Latvia’s art nouveau capital Riga lies within striking distance of Gaujas NP, a vast stretch of forest best explored by kayak along its serpentine river.
Finish in Lithuania, leaving the baroque streets of Vilnius behind for the trails of Trakai Historical NP and its 14th-century castle, perched on an island in the wide, glassy waters of Lake Galve. If you ever needed a reason to celebrate freedom, it’s landscapes like these.
Why it’s hot: One of Britain’s remotest islands just got a whole lot closer
Napoleon buffs, rejoice! Good things come to those who wait… and wait. Having completed its £285m airport back in 2016, flights to the British colony of St Helena have been a long time coming, but South Africa’s Airlink will finally fly from Johannesburg via Namibia. What once took five days aboard an old Royal Mail ship now takes just six hours. Vive la différence!
Plenty will want to tick off one of the world’s remotest territories, where French emperor Napoleon lived out his post-Waterloo days in exile – his old homes and (empty) grave are worth the visit alone. Elsewhere, capital Jamestown lies wedged between two narrow ridges, with a clamber up Jacob’s Ladder rewarding with views over its colourful Georgian buildings. From there, wander down to coke-black beaches, splash alongside whale sharks offshore, and even meet the island’s 186-year-old tortoise.
Best of all, a new connection will also run to neighbouring Ascension Island, where you can hike up into its mini ‘cloud forest’, which was transformed from a barren rise back in the 1800s thanks to one of Charles Darwin’s boldest projects. Why wait?
Why it’s hot: Europe’s first national park turns 100
To the returning conquistadors, Northern Spain’s Picos were a first glimpse of home on the horizon; to devoted locals, its Covadonga cave shrine is where the Asturian king made a stand against the Moors, regarded as the first blood in the Christian reconquest of Spain. To everyone else, they’re just breathtaking. Little wonder that Spain made them Europe’s first national park 100 years ago.
A feathery green canvas wraps the spine of the three limestone massifs that make up Picos de Europa NP. Below, beech forests smother the horizon, hiding lakes, Palaeolithic caves and Iberian wolves. Never mind a single century: it’s a scene 300 million years in the making, and one that makes today’s hikers the beneficiaries.
To the south, the 12km Cares Gorges route weaves a dramatic line, plunging well over a kilometre in places. For something more challenging, the two-day Jermoso Traverse extends its route across the south-western shoulder of the Central massif (mountain huts are available) before rising up on the Pico de la Padierna (2,300m), with fine views out across the Cantabrian mountains as sharp-eyed griffon vultures circle overhead.
Why it's hot: Discover a fresh way to summit Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro (5,895m), Africa’s largest mountain, is one of travel’s great teases. The world’s highest trekking peak lures some 50,000 to attempt its summit every year, and each plucky contender is met with that view: an imperious frosted cone rising above the dusty plains and umbrella-like acacia, almost within reach. For those tempted, there are a half-dozen traditional routes up, each spanning around six or seven days (to acclimatise to the altitude) and usually with teams of porters in tow. But ambitious climbers are now able to join new tours up the mountain’s ‘North Face’ in 2018.
This alternative route takes seven nights and combines parts of well-known hikes like the cloud forests of Umbwe, before diverting across the lunar-like expanse of the Shira plateau. From there, hikers round the northern circuit before breaking off. But reaching the summit in daylight is the big lure: you descend into Reusch Crater, passing chunks of huge glacier sprouting from the rock like errant wisdom teeth, before brushing your fingers along the ‘Roof of Africa’. But the beauty of this mountain is that there is no right way; and no matter how you reach the top, you’ll never forget the journey.
Why it's hot: Discover the Buenos Aires' barrios on a budget
With a raft of budget airlines picking Europe’s short-haul destinations clean, 2017 saw the dawn of a new era: the low-cost long-haul, with flights across the Atlantic going for less than £60. A year on, this ethos has extended south, with new direct routes from London to Buenos Aires starting from £600 return in February 2018 (around £300 less than the closest alternative), bringing the barrios (neighbourhoods), deltas and dance halls of the Argentine capital a quickstep closer.
From the sweeping necropolises of La Recoleta and Chacherita to the gauchos and street food (so much meat!) of the Mataderos and the beautiful lyric theatre of Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires wears its passion on its sleeve. Its chaos is liberating, but incentive enough to want to explore further, with boat trips on the lush Parana Delta, a vast expanse of sub-tropical islands rich in birdlife, lying in sight of the city.
Of course, if you want to put all that money you've saved to really good use, you can wander even further afield: think about trips on to the wineries of Mendoza, hanging with the gauchos at the Pampas’ estancias (ranches) or experiencing the crashing falls of Iguazu.
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