The most exciting cities. The newest trails. The most wallet-friendly destinations. Here's what will be on your to-do list in 2016
Why it’s hot: This Middle East marvel needs you!
Why is Jordan hot? Because it is. No clever hook – we just love it, plain and simple. And right now, it could do with the love. Jordan suffers from its proximity to troubled neighbours, with visitor numbers dismally down; in mid-2015, the Jordanian government even waived visa fees (on certain provisos) to try to encourage visitors. But, really, the greatest encouragement is the country itself.
Jordan has surprising diversity: from tropical diving in the south to hot, otherworldly desert in the middle and unexpected lushness in the north. And, of course, it has some of the world’s most astonishing historic sites: Mount Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land; Jerash, one of the best-preserved Roman cities of the east, where chariots raced (and still do); and Petra, where, 2,000 years ago, the Nabateans carved a city out of solid rock. Go now and there’ll be few other travellers around. What’s not to love?
US National Parks, USA
Why they’re hot: They’re 100
Comprising over 339,935 sq km, there are 408 areas – including national parks, historical parks, monuments, lakeshores and battlefields – that come under the jurisdiction of the US National Parks Service. It’s a diverse collection, ranging from the high-profile fizz of Yellowstone (the world’s oldest national park, designated 1872) to Alaska’s vast Wrangell-St Elias (the US’ biggest), Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (the smallest, reopening in April) in Pennsylvania, much of American Samoa and even the White House.
The US NPS was created by an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson in August 1916, so celebrates its centenary this year. Parks will run a range of events, geared towards inspiring people to have fun in these wild, historic, momentous locations.
Within the general centenary, special mention should go to Haleakala NP (Maui), Hawaii Volcanoes NP (Big Island)and Lassen Volcanic NP (California), which were all designated in 1916. Visitors considering doing a multi-park roadtrip should investigate an annual park pass (US$80) for the best value.
Why it’s hot: Prices are falling, conservation is on the up
No country can boast the same longitudinal variety as skinny Chile – it’s just so streeetched, running from northern desert to icy end-of-the-world Cape Horn. Of course, travellers are cottoning on, and this Latin lovely has seen a surge in popularity of late, bolstered by the recent BBC Patagonia series.
While it shares this wild region with Argentina, Chile arguably has the more dramatic half, home to trek-friendly Torres del Paine and the wind-whipped Magellan Straits. Chile is also the cheaper option – in mid-2015, its peso plunged to its lowest value since 2003. So that’ll be a second glass of Mendozan carmenère, por favor…
Chile is also making a real commitment to conservation right now. In October 2015, Prime Minister Michelle Bachelet announced that the amount of protected land in the country is set to double. The Rio Clarillo reserve, a swathe of pre-Andean mountains south of Santiago, has been upgraded to a national park, as has Río Olivares in San José de Maipo, while a huge marine park has also been created. This year, Chile is hot.
Why it’s hot: It’s cheap and celestially spectacular
Indonesia has always been great value. But with the rupiah weakening in the past two years, it’s become even more of a bargain. This is especially good news for budget-conscious astronomers: come 9 March, parts of Indonesia will be the best places to see the 2016 total solar eclipse. Top picks include the Maluku islands of Tidore and Ternate, where eclipse totality will last just over three minutes.
Also, it feels about time the Maluku archipelago, a group of around 1,000 islands sitting between Sulawesi, Papua and Timor, got some attention again. From the 16th to the 18th century, these ‘spice islands’ were the planet’s sole source of cloves and nutmeg, and trade here boomed – often at a rather terrible cost to the local population. When their monopoly came to an end, the islands faded into idyllic obscurity.
From the main gateway Ambon, visitors can fly or float off to explore the sprawling archipelago’s ancient spice groves, as well as experience village culture, volcanoes, palm-swayed beaches, colonial forts and laidback markets.
Amsterdam & Netherlands
Why it’s hot: It’s train-n-bike brilliant
If such a thing was necessary, the 2015 Tour de France opting to make its Grand Depart in Utrecht confirmed the Netherlands’ high status with cyclists. The famously flat country has 29,000km of cycle paths; route options are many and varied.
With Eurostar launching a direct service to Amsterdam (via Brussels, Antwerp and Rotterdam) in December 2016, a great green adventure will be even easier to organise; Eurostar charges a £30 fee to carry boxed bikes, or you can easily hire one locally.
Central Amsterdam is a great place to pootle by bike. The city is also on the circular 400km Zuiderzee cycle route, which loops around the IJsselmeer, a troublesome sea tamed into a lake by some innovative early 19th-century dyke building. Indeed, it was a flood in 1916 that hastened the construction of the 30km-long Afsluitdijk dyke; 100 years on, cyclists can pedal right across the barrier, around the now-placid bird-flocked waters, passing the cheesy town of Edam, innumerable windmills and seemingly endless polder landscapes.
Tiger parks, India
Why it’s hot: Getting in got easier, while tigers play a starring role
India can be a testing destination – travellers often feel a bit Marmite about the bedlam that greets them on arrival. So it’s great to hear that at least the farce encountered before departure has been reduced. The Indian government has extended its e-Tourist visa to over 100 nationalities, including Brits. Visa applications can now be made online; the cost has been halved; the hassle slashed.
And 2016 is the year to visit India to see its tigers. With a big screen adaptation of The Jungle Book set for release in April, it’ll have us all longing to peer into the forests of Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and other parks. Last year also saw promising news: according to official figures, the number of tigers increased by a third from 2011 to 2014. Spending money going to see them is the best way to do your bit for the species’ survival.
Why it’s hot: The last boat launches, the first planes land
It’s the end of an era. South Atlantic-stranded St Helena, best known for incarcerating Napoleon Bonaparte and for being bleeding miles away from anywhere else, is finally set to get an airport.
Previouslyonly accessible by Royal Mail Ship (a voyage of five days from Cape Town), the volcanic isle will, from late February 2016, be reachable by plane (a 5.5 hour flight from Johannesburg).
The once-weekly flight is expected to cost around £500-600 return, and will make it significantly easier and cheaper to visit this unique outpost of Britishness, with its pretty colonial buildings, dramatic geology, hair-pinning roads and 4,000 friendly residents. It’s hard to imagine, but the spit-and-sawdust pubs and takeaways of the quaint capital of Jamestown could soon well be clacking with footsteps.
What it won’t do is allow long, ocean-bound days of deck cricket and shuffleboard, star-gazing and humpback spotting. Those still hankering for the old ways, take note: the RMS St Helena will continue sailing to the island until June 2016, before being consigned to a fate as yet unknown.
Why it’s hot: Direct flights, and a focus on the little-known north
At last! In May 2016 BA will launch direct flights from Gatwick to Lima (with a journey time of 12.5 hours), bringing bucket-list Peru that bit closer. The only downside is that certain parts of the country are already loved too much.
There were fears that Machu Picchu would be put on UNESCO’s ‘In Danger’ list in 2015; it escaped the ignominy, but the visitor experience at the Inca site is set to be ‘reconceptualised’ in order to try to cope with the huge numbers of people: time limits and set guided routes will be implemented.
So, it’s time to spread the love in Peru, which is, after all, far from a one-trick pony. And this will be the year of the north. In 2016, a cable-car will open at Kuélap, enabling easier access to the ridge-top fortress, started by the Chachapoyas culture in the sixth century. Kuélap can be combined with visits to the newly enhanced El Brujo Archaeological Complex, Chan Chan (the largest pre-Columbian city in South America), the fishing village of Huanchaco, Moche pyramids and 771m Gocta Falls. Machu who?
Trinidad & Guyana
Why it’s hot: Eco-trails and big birthdays
Though home to only 750,000 people, Guyana will be celebrating big time on 26 May 2016 – the 50th anniversary of its independence. This makes it a good time to investigate the country’s wild places too, of which there are plenty: 85% of Guyana is covered in primary forest, and ever-improving infrastructure makes it easier to access.
For 2016, we fancy the overland route to Kaieteur Falls (a five-day trek from Mahdia) and Wilderness Explorers’ Amerindian Guyana trip, a wildlife-filled journey between ecolodges run by indigenous peoples.
There are no direct UK-Guyana flights, but there are to Trinidad; flights link Port of Spain to Guyanese capital Georgetown in just 70 mins. Trinidad is worth lingering in too. The birdlife here is spectacular and the country is making great green strides: in 2015 it announced the launch of the Eco Adventure Trails Project, which aims to rehabilitate over 1,000km of existing trails across the island.
These trails, it’s hoped, will open up Trinidad’s wilder places for hiking, biking, birdwatching and other nature experiences. The first section, now open, is a 9km Atlantic-tracing route between Grande Rivière and Sans Souci.
Why it’s hot: It’s feel-good and foodie
With Northern Ireland qualifying for Euro 2016 – its first major tournament in 30 years – expect a feel-good vibe on the streets of Belfast, up the Mourne Mountains, across the Fermanagh Lakelands and over to Derry/Londonderry.
Finding something with which to toast this success shouldn’t be too tough either: 2016 is the ‘Northern Ireland Year of Food’ and NI has cause to shout about its fodder. At the top end of the scale, two Belfast restaurants – Ox and Eipic – have been starred in the 2016 Michelin Guide (NI had been star-less since 2011). But, beyond that, countless cafés, pubs and markets offer a range of fine produce, from Finnebrogue venison to Bushmills whiskey, from Lough Neagh eels to County Down’s Comber potatoes.
A year of events is planned, with each month themed: January is Breakfast Month (time to book into a B&B for an Ulster Fry), February is Love Local, etc. You can educate yourself at cookery schools, or perhaps hit the Mourne Foods & Films Cycle Tour, a self-guided bike ride in the Shimna Valley, showcasing the region’s artisan produce as well as locations used in the likes of Philomena and Game of Thrones.
Why it’s hot: New flights open the wild island’s other side
Thingvellir national park, the Gullfoss waterfall, the Haukadalur geysers… if this is your instant image of Iceland, it’s time to start redrawing that mental map.
Up until now, the vast majority of visitors to the island – with tourism being Iceland’s number one industry – land in Keflavík, and concentrate on the western highlights; however, in spring 2016, tour company Discover the World is launching the first direct flight from the UK to Egilsstadir, in Iceland’s little-visited east. Flights, which take just 3.5 hours, will run twice weekly from Gatwick from May to September.
This new flight will open up the scenically spectacular, fjord-incised far side, providing easier access to less-crowded sites such as Lake Mývatn, the historic town and inlet of Seydisfjordur, the rhyolite mountains and elf legends of Borgarfjördur Eystri – one of Iceland’s best hiking areas – and the thunderous Dettifoss waterfall.
San Sebastián, Spain & Wroclaw, Poland
Why they’re hot: They’re European Capitals of Culture
One lounges on the Bay of Biscay, oozing seaside cool and astonishingly good food. The other sits by the River Odra, splendidly mashing-up Baroque palaces, Germanic churches and Flemish-style townhouses. Two disparate, distant cities, linked by the same accolade: ‘European Capitals of Culture 2016’.
San Sebastián doesn’t really need the extra exposure; its fine sand, old centre and pintxos (tapas) bars have long been drawing crowds. Still, this year will see a focus on both culture and peaceful coexistence in the Basque town, with a range of arts and social programmes planned.
The 2016 team in Wroclaw (pronounced ‘vrots-waf’) aim to ‘double the number of culture-savvy citizens and tourists’ in the city. To that end, there will be a range of festivals and arty happenings; the city will simultaneously be World Book Capital City of UNESCO, so literary events will proliferate too. Meanwhile the new National Forum of Music, which opened in September 2015, will set your ears jingling.
Why it’s hot: Direct flights are flooding in
Gloriously green Costa Rica has long ticked many boxes, for many kinds of travellers. Handily compact, with a well-developed infrastructure and a pleasing leaning towards the eco, the country suits beach-lollers, wildlife-spotters, trekkers, rafters, riders, surfers, birders, botanists, vulcanologists and those after all of the above. Simply, Costa Rica is an adventure all-rounder.
Humpback whale breaching in Marino Ballena National Park (Shutterstock)
However, historically, it’s been a pain to access. But not any more. In November 2015, Thomson Airways launched direct weekly flights from London Gatwick to Liberia (in the north-west). And on 4 May 2016, BA will launch direct twice-weekly flights from Gatwick to capital San José. Journey time will be around 11.5 hours.
These new flights will make it easier to reach Costa Rica’s best wild places – the turtles of Tortuguero, Arenal volcano, bird-full Monteverde Cloudforest, the rainforest-backed sands of Manuel Antonio. Plus, with time and hassle saved on the flight, more travellers might consider multi-country trips, combining Costa Rica with neighbouring – and arguably even wilder – Nicaragua and Panama too.
Why it’s hot: There are adventures aplenty
Wales’s ‘Year of Adventure 2016’ is more tipping point than brand new phenomena. Truth is, the valley crinkled nation has been gaining an ever greater reputation for its adventure possibilities for years; 2016 is simply the culmination of it all. It is a timely recognition of the innumerable world-class mountain-bike trails; of the country-encircling coast path; of the superlong, super-fast zipwires strung across Penrhyn Quarry in 2013; of the Snowdonia WaveGarden, opened in 2015; and of many more active attractions besides.
It’s rumoured that 2016 will see the development of food-based adventure trails that will combine the country’s great produce with outdoorsy fun; further Dark Sky initiatives within the national parks are also planned, to entice people out on nocturnal escapades.
Literary adventures will be encouraged too, with 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wales-born author Roald Dahl; a ‘City of the Unexpected’ performance across Cardiff is just one of the Dahl-flavoured events scheduled over the year.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Why it’s hot: It’s about to be Attenborough-ised
It’s almost 60 years since Sir David Attenborough first visited Australia’s 2,300km-long sweep of coral. He’s recently been back, aboard one of the world’s most advanced research vessels and, in early 2016, a three-part series promises to reveal the Great Barrier Reef in full high-def, high-tech, Technicolour splendour. If ever we needed a spur to visit, this will surely be it.
The beauty of the GBR is that, even if everyone who watches Sir Dave books a next-day ticket,there’s so much of it to see that we’ll all still have plenty of space. Good options include liveaboard dive-boat trips, to access the pristine outer reef; stays on offshore islands, such as turtle-frequented Wilson and Heron; scenic helicopter or floatplane flights; unusual activities such as Scuba Doo (underwater scootering); and trips combining the reef with the rainforest of the tropical north.
On a side note, the Australian dollar – so painfully strong for the past few years – has decreased in value, making Oz more affordable. A budget-friendly bonus.
Why it’s hot: Top new trek opens
By gosh, they know how to do hiking in Tasmania – see beauties such as the Overland Track and Maria Island Walk as evidence. And the new Three Capes Track, looks to be another prime example…
Starting from the Port Arthur penal site in the island’s south-east, this new trail traces wild, wind-whipped headlands, passing eucalypt forest, dolerite cliffs and (maybe) migratory whales. Measuring 46km, and taking four days, it has been thoughtfully planned and paced: the trail is wide and well-surfaced; there are three cabins, with heating, kitchens and quality mattresses; and only 48 walkers are allowed to set off each day, keeping the path nice and clear.
After your hike, head north from Port Arthur to pick up the Great Eastern Drive – one of Oz’s great road trips. There are lots of experiences en route, including ‘Devils in the Dark’ at Bicheno (a night tour to watch nocturnal Tasmanian devils) and five-star cruises from Sail Freycinet; indeed, don’t miss glorious Freycinet NP itself – celebrating its own centenary in 2016.
Akagera National Park, Rwanda
Why it’s hot: The Big Five await, again
Following the troubles in Rwanda in the 1990s, Akagera – one of Africa’s oldest national parks – was slashed in size and much of its wildlife poached out. Since African Parks became involved in its management in 2010, the park is on the up, creating a better track network enabling more diverse safaris (including night drives). In 2013, Ruzizi Tented Lodge opened, providing an alternative to run-down Akagera Game Lodge, with new camps planned for the near future.
Importantly, thanks to fencing and antipoaching controls, wildlife populations are recovering – there are thought to be around 8,000 large animals here now, including impala, topi, buffalo, giraffe, Burchell’s zebra, hippo and elephant; birdlife is profuse, with 480 species recorded. Perhaps more tantalising, seven lions were translocated to Akagera in 2015, and there are plans to reintroduce rhinos too, returning the park to Big Five status.
Trans- Siberian, Russia
Why it’s hot: It’s the centenary year of some legendary rails… and change is afoot
It took from 1891 to 1916 to complete the line between Moscow and Vladivostok – which isn’t that bad, given that the Trans-Siberian line runs for 9,289km. After its completion, a French paper announced: ‘Since the discovery of America and the construction of the Suez Canal, history knows no other event that had such massive direct and indirect consequences’.
Riding the train in its anniversary year seems an appropriate celebration of the effort put in to create it, as well as being the best way to reach Lake Baikal and historic cities such as Yekaterinburg.
Also, it’s worth hoping aboard the Trans-Sib now: China is building high-speed trains in high-speed times – a two-day Moscow- Beijing journey has been mooted – while Russian Railways is proposing a highway from London to New York, across Siberia and over the Bering Strait to Alaska, a roadtrip of around 13,000km. Catch the old train while you can.
Rio & Brazil
Why it’s hot: On your marks, get set… go!
You might have heard, there’s some sort of sports gathering happening in Rio in August-September time… The Olympics will doubtless bring a buzz to the city, but the event has also (along with 2014’s World Cup) hastened the ‘pacification’ of Rio’s favelas. Once no-go areas, more and more of these sprawling slums have been made safe; Rio has committed to the urbanising its favelas by 2020.
This has seen an increase in favela tourism, including a rise in tours run by the communities themselves; favela bars and restaurants have also opened – many of which have fantastic views, as the slums cling to the city’s hills. A well-chosen tour in Riowill provide an illuminating counterpoint to the sports-glitz down below.
But also, look beyond Rio. An extensive domestic flight network opens all points of this vast country. To retain the Olympics’ international feel, but lose the other tourists, consider flying south down the coast to Florianopolis or Curitiba (less than two hours). The green-hilled, little-trodden interior here was settled by Germans, Italians and Ukrainians, and the Alpine-style valleys offer good walking and a cosmopolitan vibe.
Why it’s hot: It’s green
Once South-East Asia’s hottest ticket, Thailand was beloved of banana-pancake-seeking backpackers, and a great intro to exoticism for newbie travellers. Then the likes of Vietnam and Burma boomed. Thailand, unfairly, seemed a little old hat.
But now, are we seeing the rise of Thailand II? All the great stuff that first attracted visitors is still there: the temples, jungles, beaches and curries are all still fantastic. It’s just that now there’s a focus on doing things greener.
Elephants take a bath in Kwae-noi River, Thailand (Shutterstock)
Celebrating these ecotourism initiatives, the Thailand Green Excellence Awards UK have gone from strength to strength over the past few years, reflecting the increasing depth of the country’s commitment to conservation and sustainability. For example, this year’s winners include projects as diverse as Local Alike, a social enterprise that offers fun, authentic tours, to Elephant Hills, a luxurious forest camp that seeks to educate visitors about elephant welfare.
Via Dinarica, Balkans
Why it’s hot: It’s one of the world’s best new hikes
It wasn’t so long ago that a trek through the Balkans would have been utterly unthinkable. Albania was all-but closed off from the world until the 1980s; the 1990s saw war rage across the former Yugoslavia.
But in recent years, this chunk of eastern Europe has become one of the hottest tickets – mention the likes of Kosovo and Montenegro among the travel trade and there’s a palpable buzz. Those dark days had one travel positive: the mountains here remain some of the least explored and most untouched on the continent. Hikes pass villages and shepherd huts like time warps; the landscapes are spectacular.
The Via Dinarica, which runs across the Dinaric Alps from Slovenia to Macedonia via Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, was launched in 2013, encompassing around 2,000km of trails. There are three strands: the main White Trail traverses the highest peaks; the Blue Trail is an easier route along the coast; the forest-and-foothills Green Trail is designed for cyclists.