2020 was the year the world held its breath and travel had to reinvent itself ; what’s certain is that we’re going to be travelling more thoughtfully from hereon in. And perhaps, more gleefully. I've taken great care in selecting this top holidays destinations for 2021. On the list you’ll find a geographically diverse range of trips, from eco-cool enclaves in Central America to some of the best places in Europe. As always, I’ve listened to the surfers, the architecture buffs and the foodies; I’ve considered go-slow camping spots in Australia as well as buzzy African metropolises. There are some destinations that have been on my favs list for a while – like Vietnam or the Caribbean – and there are those, as is the case with Charleston, that are undergoing an important process of reinvention. 2020 has been the year of the staycation and with UK breaks at an all-time high, this year I’ve included some places to visit in the UK. Some destinations would require a bit more planning time than other, so it can be a 2021 project time for a 2022 trip as well !
Of course, the options are endless, and ask me another day when I'm in another mood, my inspiration may differ ! Remember, do check FCO advice and what the latest travel quarantine rules are before travelling. Without further a-do, here is my pick, 27 most-exciting spots to try and get to in 2021!
27. CHANIA, CRETE, GREECE - Inventive cooking and isolated beaches make for a perfect island escape
While its Ottoman-influenced harbour and the labyrinth of cobble-stoned streets are delicately beautiful, Chania is packing a real punch when it comes to its food. From simple seaside cafés to exquisite Cretan fine dining, this city on the north-west coast of the Greek island has a select but quickly expanding scene that’s luring in expert palates. In the Old Town, Ginger Concept can appear a little pretentious but is a must-try – the lemon artichoke pizzas and deep-fried coxinhas are to die for. Elsewhere, no-frills locals’ favourites include To Maridaki for fish soup and Oxo Nou Studio, a little spot with wobbly outdoor tables overlooking the water. A little further out of town, impeccable fish restaurant Sunset at Sfinari beach calls for a well-worth-it coastal drive, while the hidden eco-retreat of Milia can be found far up in the mountains, serving farm-to-table Cretan cooking with breathtaking views. In Pollirinia – where languorous cats slip through the shadows like liquid – the Acropolis taverna is a magical little shack serving soul-warming home cooking beside the ruins of an old Roman town. Hot new places to stay include The Tanneries, on the waterfront in historic Halepa – where 19th-century leather makers scoured their hides in saltwater – and the recently launched Elafonisi Villas, overlooking the islet’s cream and candy-floss beaches. Smack in the centre of town are Hotel Doma, a local classic bursting with antiques and character, and Casa Delfino with its fairytale foliage-filled courtyard. 26. PULAU MERAH, JAVA, INDONESIA - A remote, still-under-the-radar surf hub This corner of Indonesiais starting to be whispered about by surfers. And as we know, wherever the surfers go, the boutique hotels and eco-entrepreneurs follow. Often overlooked in favour of its famous neighbour G-land at Plengkung about a three-hour drive away, this underdeveloped island escape is drawing clued-up sorts to its empty beach breaks. Otherwise known as Red Island – people argue over the genesis of the name, divided between the russet sand and the bold-red sun rays that strike the sea – this is a place of deserted stretches of sand, patchy Wi-fi and barely any visitors. The hidden haven is an ideal spot for beginner boarders – instead of the sharp coral found in the shallows at G-land, the beach here is a swath of soft, sugary sand – although 13ft-high barrels make it a destination for experienced surfers, too. Here you’ll find locals, laid-back blow-ins and the occasional Aussie lounging salt-skinned and sipping on a cold Bintang at Mojosurf Camp, and the nearby hugger-mugger fishing village of Pancer is a great base to shack up in a homestay. Elsewhere, the hidden beach of Pantai Wedi Ireng is reachable via a short but strenuous hike, while the oft-deserted Pura Tawang Alun temple – sparsely frequented by Hindus from East Java’s Mount Bromo or across from Bali – is as good a place as any to do some solid, in-depth soul searching. 25. CHARLESTON, USA - The historic city has a much-needed reckoning with its past With its eccentric old-world image and haunting blackwater cypress swamps, Charleston has been on my must-visit list for a long time. Unfortunately, it was raining when I visited the historic time, and I need to give it another chance ! Now the South Carolina city is shaking off the genteel ‘southern charm’ façade and re-emerging as a place that thoughtfully confronts its truthful narrative. As the capital of the North American slave trade, Charleston saw as many as 100,000 Africans – an estimated 40 percent of the people captured and brought to the USA to be sold into slavery – enter via Gadsden’s Wharf. This is where the International African American Museum will sit when it opens in 2022, after more than two decades of planning and passionate fundraising. Until then, a growing number of eye-opening tours are shining a light on the city’s challenging past, including those run by the Mcleod Plantation, which focus on the quarters where enslaved people lived, rather than the grand home that belonged to the white owners, and Gullah Tours, which provide an insight into the black history of Charleston (with the Gullah language spoken by the area’s first black residents used throughout the route). Black-owned businesses, many of which have previously been priced out of the city, are coming to the fore more than ever, too. Especially thanks to initiatives such as Black food Fridays launched by local entrepreneur KJ Kearney, who has also created a map of black-owned restaurants in and around Charleston. Included are soul-food mainstay Hannibal’s Kitchen, which has been serving fried shark and sautéed crab over grits for decades; the upscale Savi Cucina in Mount Pleasant; and Nigel’s Good Food, known for its low country ravioli, baked turkey wings and gravy. The city is also considering how best to rework its popular Wine and Food Festival (currently on pause), consulting with neighbourhood chefs to better tell the narrative of the region’s Gullah Geechee food traditions. 24. COSTA RICA - Sustainability reigns supreme in the eco-travel power player Filled with misty cloud forests, belching volcanoes and surf-pummelled beaches, Costa Rica is at the cutting edge when it comes to sustainable tourism. A long-standing focus on lodges with feather-light footprints and a strong commitment to genuinely effective eco-initiatives make the Central American country one thing above all: green. Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the country is home to more than six per cent of the world’s biodiversity (that’s more than the USA and Europe combined). It also produces almost 99 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources and aims to become one of the first countries to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is so unwaveringly green, in fact, that it has been recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council for its muscular conservation efforts. There are plenty of chances to get off the well-trodden track here. Pick your way through the forests of the remote Osa Peninsula, where tapirs snuffle alongside red-eyed tree frogs, armadillos and kinkajous; or visit the Guatuso Indigenous Reserve in the north, home to the country’s smallest tribe of indigenous people, the Maleku. The tribe have developed tours, hikes and sunset theatre productions to share with visitors, and will gladly guide guests through their land, sharing knowledge of medicinal plants and native wildlife, from bright-billed toucans to rambunctious monkeys. Hammerheads, white-tips and bull sharks can be spotted in the surrounding seas, or you can kayak the sultry mangroves, binoculars in hand, in search of wily caimans and sleepy sloths in the low-hanging branches. Nayara Tented Camp, which opened late last year, is surrounded by hills that act as a sloth refuge, while long-standing eco-lodges Pacure and Lapa Rios run pioneering jaguar conservation efforts and host Future Lab stations, where visiting researchers and interns share their jungle knowledge with guests. 23. SHETLAND, SCOTLAND, UK - The far-flung archipelago makes its mark as a foodie hotspot Floating in the whale-filled waters between the northern extremities of Scotland Scotland and the western reaches of Norway, the Shetlands Islands might strike some as a surprising place for a food revolution. But the rich soil and pristine sea ensure a cornucopia of natural ingredients, drawing chefs and curious foodies to these remote, sea-battered shores. The 16 inhabited islands, which are all closer to Bergen than Inverness, are lashed by waters that teem with mackerel, haddock, mussels, velvet crabs and lobsters – a bounty that is duly hauled in and served up at Lerwick’s trendiest establishments. Alongside fluffy bannocks and Reestit mutton soup, you’ll find pickled herring and plump scallops – plus tennis-ball-sized Scotch eggs – at The Dowry. Scattered across the archipelago, resourceful islanders are making the most of their own smallholdings too, growing previously unavailable crops, from trophy-sized ears of sweetcorn to grapes and tomatoes, or rearing hearty heritage boars and selling the spoils to local chefs. But it’s not all about the food. 2021 is anticipated to be a boom year for citizen science, with many expected to take part in Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s beefed-up Shorewatch scheme, which encourages locals and visitors to help monitor at-risk species, including the squadrons of mammal-eating orca that patrol these northern waters in the summer. 22. OAXACA CITY, MEXICO - The history-steeped town is more intriguing than ever Oaxaca's heritage runs through the lifeblood of the city, with everything from its food to its textiles steeped in tradition. It’s no surprise, then, that chefs, artisans and designers flock to its rainbow-hued streets to sample spices, finely made handicrafts and lashings of mezcal. Last summer, cactus-and-white-stone minimalist Casa Criollo opened on the same site as the much-lauded Enrique Olvera restaurant. More recently, Escondido Oaxaca, from beloved Mexican brand Habita, launched its latest design-focused hotel with old-world-meets-modern-grandeur vibes (quarry stones, ochre walls and heaps of terracotta). Further afield, an hour south of Puerto Escondido in the fishing village of San Agustinillo, you’ll find Monte Uzulu – 11 boho rooms by architect Mariana Ruiz and other designers, with sun-slathered terraces and rooms filled with macuilí wood furniture, colourful cotton textiles and intricate basketwork handmade by local craftspeople. The best way to gulp down Oaxaca’s vivifying delights is with in-the-know guides – such as non-profit En Via, which offers trips to visit local artisans who are part of its microloan programme, or Oaxacking, which organises immersive and bespoke food, drink and craft tours. And although Oaxaca is Mexico’s mezcal heartland – with snuggled-away bars filled with hundreds-strong libraries of the spirit and mezcalerias serving up innovative cocktails and ultra-small-batch tasting flights – a new trend for corn whiskey is also muscling in. Distillers are buying up native corn from indigenous small-plot farmers in the Central Valleys and turning it into a more mellow drink. 21. VIETNAM - Hot hotel openings abound in the South-east Asian sanctuary In the coastal enclave of Bãi San Hô, overlooking a near-deserted sweep of pearly sand, you’ll find the much-awaited new property from forward-thinking Zannier Hotels, spearheading a flurry of hot arrivals in Vietnam, a clutch of smart-but-unshowy stilted wooden villas, located in Phú Yên, one of the country’s most biodiverse regions. Aspirational railways travel is also steaming into South-central Vietnam this year, with the launch of a boutique 12-seater carriage on a daily return route between Da Nang and Quy Nhon. The wood- and marble-strewn Vietage train has been developed by high-end hotel group Anantara to serve guests riding between its luxe outposts in both cities. Trundling through peaceful rice fields and winding along jagged coastlines that jut out as if they were broken teeth, the train offers free-flowing wine, a three-course supper and spa treatments. But as well as the country’s more lustrous offerings, community-based tourism is finding its feet here, too. In the pristine Ngoc Son Ngo Luong nature reserve – sometimes described as Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs – local operators are working alongside a European NGO to bring in conservation funds and valuable work for isolated Muong villagers. 20. THE BERKSHIRES, USA - The low-key Hamptons alternative comes into its own The Berkshires might not have the flashy allure of the Hamptons, but this once down-on-its-luck corner has been slowly reinventing itself, emerging as an arty refuge for creatives from the busy surrounding cities. Thundering across Massachusetts’ undulating western stretches, the mountainous region – a three-hour drive from New York and Boston – is where avant-garde culture meets farm-to-table dining. Once home to free-roaming bison and expansive untapped wilderness, the breezy Berkshires now shelter pockets of farmland, New England autumn and picturesque towns to rejuvenate burnt-out weekenders. The former industrial cotton-mill city of North Adams is quickly settling into its new creative identity. Home to a sparky food scene, cool new places to stay and art establishments such as Mass MoCA, it also has plans for museums by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, a 110-room hotel, a craft distillery and a wave of exciting new restaurants. In nearby Williamstown, you’ll find The Clark Art Institute, where classic Renaissance pieces rub up against outré modern sculptures. One of the coolest places to stay in North Adams is Tourists, a mid-century motor lodge turned contemporary rustic-chic hotel, with a restaurant serving up food inspired by Native American, Welsh, Italian and Lebanese cultures. Just out of town, life has been breathed back into Greylock Works, a former mill now hosting yoga classes, farmers’ markets and DJs, with a hotel to come. 19. HELSINKI, FINLAND - The Scandi city emerges as a cultural hotspot Forget the magnificent architecture and superb waterfront dining spots, if there’s one thing Helsinki has in spades, its steely-eyed focus. In 2018, the city ploughed more than 99 million euros into its arts and culture scene, bolstering an already meaty offering of museums, concert venues and galleries. The result is a truly world-class cultural city – exciting enough to rival Copenhaguen and Stockholm – filled with genre-busting design spots and fringed by Baltic archipelagos which leave a satisfyingly salty taste in the air. The newest art museum Amos Rex – pooling like molten silver below the functionalist Lasipalatsi – is a place where art and urban culture combine; while the long-standing Kiasma contemporary art wing of the Finnish National Gallery (once considered inelegant, now alluring) hosts cutting-edge exhibitions, showcasing the work of Finnish, Nordic and international artists. As part of a further 10-year plan, the coal-fired Hanasaari B power plant will be transformed into a large-scale cultural hub in 2024 (expect Tate Modern vibes), attracting some of the world’s most exciting artists. Elsewhere, there are bracing sea pools on the far reaches of the South Harbour (summer concerts are staged behind the pavilion) and a raft of alternative, outdoor museums, including the forest-filled island of Seurasaari, in Helsinki’s inner archipelago. Traditional celebrations are rolled out here come Midsummer and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Suomenlinna sea fortress shoulders cafés, restaurants and a brilliant little microbrewery.
18. AMAZON RAINFOREST - The beautiful but beleaguered region needs the support of eco-conscious travellers more than ever With its flooded woodlands and riverways coiling like fat anacondas, the Amazon – which stretches across much of north-western Brazil and extends into Peru, Colombia and other parts of South America – has been described as the lungs of the earth. It represents the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world and is home to at least 10 per cent of the planet’s known animal and plant species. But rampant fires, logging, gold-mining and deforestation still pose seemingly unrelenting threats to this crucial natural environment. Each felled tree and forest fire affects the communities who call this place home and while it might seem an understandable reaction to stay away, studies have shown that, when done well, eco-tourism is the most profitable long-term strategy for providing sustainable employment for locals and protecting the jungle and its fantastical flora and fauna. An adventure here means bedding down on local house boats, camping in the tangled, dew-soaked jungle, and visiting community schools and indigenous villages. That’s not to mention the huge amount of wildlife to be spotted, from rare pink dolphins to jaguars and chattering spider monkeys swooping through the tree canopy. Eco-lodges abound in the rainforest and new offerings for 2021 include Aqua Nera, the river-cruise outfit’s latest boat, which will glide along the piranha-filled Peruvian Amazon. Visit during the wet season (February to May), when waterway navigation is easier and you’ll find the riverbanks populated with migratory birds, while mating season brings the surrounding greenery alive with a cacophony of courtship sounds. 17. EL HIERRO, THE CANARY ISLANDS - The quiet Canary is singing louder Shrugging off the archipelago's unwarranted package-holiday reputation, the lesser-known Canary Islands are stepping into the spotlight for 2021. The sun-blasted Spanish chain off Africa’s Atlantic coast – a network of black, white and butter-gold beaches – is home to awe-inspiring landscapes, from lush banana plantations to laurel forests. But instead of busy Gran Canaria and touristy Tenerife , it’s the smaller, more characterful spots that are rising to claim the Canaries’ must-visit mantle. La Palma, the most north-westerly island, has a clutch of Renaissance palaces, charming churches and a stone town hall made out of volcanic rock. But it’s the meandering coastal roads – passing expansive calderas and swaying forests of banana – as well as its quaint pitch-roofed houses of pinky-purple, mint green, azure and ochre that leave a lasting impression. Lesser known, and therefore the island we’re most excited about, is El Hierro. A windswept idyll of Atlantic wildness – it is set to become the world’s first sustainable and self-sufficient island, ploughing eco-efforts into everything from energy to food. The mountainous terrain, which feels more like the Scottish Hebrides than anything Spanish (bar the climate), bristles with cacti and ‘living fossil’ trees, and 90 per cent of its coastline is made up of towering tar-black volcanic cliffs. Luxury here comes not in the form of flashy hotels, but of wide, open, unspoilt landscapes and tiny paradores serving up delectable small plates. Both islands are biosphere reserves (La Palma is home to subtropical forests), meaning large swaths are strictly protected. But this makes them a haven for birdwatchers, botanists and hikers, who come for El Hierros' Bimbape rock carvings and the intense elevations of the Camino de Jinama trails. 16. UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Modernist minimalism takes root in the desert When it was announced that Dubai would be the site of the Middle East’s first World Expo, there was no doubt that the City of Gold would pull out all the stops. Billions were ploughed into a vast host site double the size of Hong Kong island, and various feats of engineering were put in place (including the steel-domed Al Wasl Plaza, which transforms into a 360-degree projection surface at the push of a button). What could not be anticipated, however, was that a global pandemic would set the entire project back a year. But 2020’s loss is 2021’s gain. Now it is slated to launch in October 2021, and all hands are on deck to ensure plans are as tight as a fiddle string. But as the city is busy flexing its organisational prowess, a whole host of design destinations are cropping up in the surrounding UAE. From brutalist hotels to minimalist converted clinics, these cafés, hotels and art sites are a far cry from the usual opulence of the Emirates. In Dubai itself, the understated Jameel Arts Centre takes its inspiration from traditional Sha’abi houses, while the exterior of multidisciplinary event space Concrete, tucked into the Al Quoz creative hub, has been dressed in polycarbonate cladding and glass and mirror aggregates, and Form Hotel, located in the Al Jaddaf neighbourhood, is as pared back as possible. Finally, the ME Dubai hotel, which has the appearance of a gigantic misshapen cube, opened in March 2020 and is the only hotel anywhere to have both its architecture and interiors designed by late visionary Zaha Hadid. In Sharjah, the Sharjah Art Foundation is a clustered mix of historic Emirati architecture, modern skylights and glass façades, while clean-line concrete and gleaming glass shelter Random International’s magnificent Rain Room installation on a low-key city street. But it’s the Maliha desert’s strikingly simple Al Faya Lodge, a five-room boutique hotel and saltwater spa on an old petrol-pumping site, that is really setting the bar for the emerging sleek aesthetic, with locally sourced stone allowing it to hunker unassumingly in the stark surrounding of rugged mountains and sand. 15. MELIDES, PORTUGAL - A hidden Portuguese beach spot emerging from under the radar I was supposed to go to Comporta last yer, indeed had to cancel, I might replan a relaxing combo Comporta + Melides this year ! With pristine sands, tiny village squares and, well, very little else, Melides is Portugal but not as you know it. Right in the middle of the untouched Alentejo coast, this low-key rural hillside village is already being hailed as the new Comporta by those in the know. But there’s little in the way of boutique hotels and trendy art galleries here. Instead, deserted beaches and miles of vineyards, rice fields and cork oaks are slowly drawing in clued-up artists. But while the cool crowd is already testing the waters – famous homeowners in the area include Philippe Starck – the area remains blissfully unshowy: you’ll still find locals passing the time with syrup-slow card games. Think of Melides as Byron Bay before anyone else caught on; a remote creative haven untrammelled by travellers. That said, there is some development here – Christian Louboutin is currently building a boutique hideout near the centre. Until then, pop into the butcher’s to pick up a roast chicken for lunch, then spend the afternoon dipping your toes in the waters at Praia da Galé, a stretch of beach with natural sandstone sculptures, a few snack shacks and lolling lifeguards, and not much else. 14. YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND, UK - The booming northern county bolsters its arty credentials As well as being a (rather large) land of brooding moors and moody coastlines, Yorkshire has long been an important arty enclave, with its renowned sculpture triangle and a long love affair with heritage artists such as Henry Moore, David Hockney and Barbara Hepworth. But beyond the famous names, a real grassroots arts resurgence is underway in God’s Own County. Crumbling old mill sites, converted churches and arboretums are being repurposed, regenerated and filled with studios, artisanal shops and restaurants. Holmbridge Mill – a redeveloped textile mill in pretty Holmfirth – is developing a new studio space for lease to local sculptors, painters and illustrators. Creative takeovers are also planned for Left Bank Leeds, a lofty-ceilinged converted Grade II-listed church, and London-based gallerist Johnny Messum recently set up a new outpost in Harrogate, while Leeds' multi-million bid for an international cultural festival in 2023 means focus is firmly set on the county’s ever-evolving artistic credentials. But it’s the highly anticipated, who-knows-when-it-will-happen, development of Bretton Hall at Yorkshire Sculpture Park that has everyone in a tizzy. Overseen by art juggernauts Hauser & Wirth, the hotel project will add to their pioneering galleries in Hong Kong, London, New York, Somerset and beyond. If the sumptuous arts-and-crafts vibe of the dazzling Fife Arms in Braemar is anything to go by, this is sure to put Yorkshire on the international map. 13. SLOVENIA - Michelin-starred food and old-world wine make this an exciting up-and-comer It’s somewhat mind-boggling that Slovenia – tucked between old favourites Italy and Croatia – hasn’t been overrun already. After all, its turquoise rivers, glacier-fed lakes and soaring, snow-capped peaks are pretty enough to make even seen-it-all sorts weak at the knees. The country's most famous landmark, Lake Bled, is more peaceful than any of Europe's better-known lakes. But for now, at least, it remains blissfully unbusy; a place of wide-open spaces, splendid solace and restoratively pristine air. But it’s the sustainable food practices and carefully considered old-world techniques that mean Slovenia is making itself known as a big-hitting foodie hotspot. And the hubbub is well-deserved – 2020 saw the launch of its first Michelin Guide, in which six restaurants – including Hiša Franko, helmed by Ana Roš of Chef’s Table fame – were awarded a total of seven stars. You’ll find future-focused Alpine dishes on Roš’s imaginative menu – from goat’s-milk croissants stuffed with rosehip to roebuck sashimi with juniper and chestnut – while one-starred Dam in Nova Gorica serves exquisite local seafood. This all comes ahead of Slovenia’s real moment in the spotlight, having been named the European Region of Gastronomy for 2021. Emphasis here falls firmly on ecological farming and sustainability – the capital Ljubljana is one of the greenest cities on earth – with locally sourced ingredients harvested from Adriatic salt pans, grown in gardens, foraged from meadows and turned out by the country’s ever-productive bees. Oenophiles are getting a whiff of its potential, too, with a staggering 52 grape varietals producing award-winning amber and natural wines. Zorjan’s Dolium Muscat Ottonel was recently named the world’s best orange wine by Decanter, and whole parts of the country – including the Lendava route in the east – are dedicated to the drink. In fact, the globe’s oldest vine grows in the Slovenian city of Maribor, and you’ll even find a sleek restaurant and wine bar, Strelec, on the top floor of the historic 12th-century Ljubljana Castle. When it comes to bedding down, the folks behind Michelin Plate-awarded Pikol restaurant, a favourite of in-the-know foodies in Nova Gorica, have transformed the site into a floating clamping village. Here, you can hole up in cabins on the lily-flecked lake, emerging only to trek around the surrounding forests and tuck into sea-bass carpaccio. 12. KYOTO, JAPAN - Hot hotel openings and sporting spectacles in Japan’s timeless city Kyoto is an effortless blend of past and present. Its futuristic railway station purrs like a well-oiled engine, while beyond the modern shopping complexes and glassy hotels you’ll find tranquil karesansui rock gardens and centuries-old Shinto shrines. Of course Japan will also be hosting ‘the big one’ – the 2021 Olympic games. Hotel Fauchon, the second hotel from the Parisian delicatessen brand, will open in the central Shimogyo-ku district packed with busy izakaya pubs and the feudal-era Shosei-en Garden. The cool Ace Hotel has also singled out Kyoto for its next Asian outpost, launched in spring 2020. The building has been designed by world-renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who also drew up the architectural plans for Tokyo’s New National Stadium, which will be used in the Games. Adding to the roster of slick new offerings is Aman Kyoto. Surrounded by moss-carpeted meditation gardens and with views across to the monastery-dusted Mount Hiei, the group’s third Japanese offering will offer ryokan-inspired accommodation, onsen bathing and Kyoto-style cooking using local produce. 11. PANAMA - Eco-retreats are putting an idyllic isthmus back on the map From coffee farms and cloud forests to ruined Spanish forts and footprint-free islands, Panama has the goods, just not the visitor numbers. But that looks set to change as the much-buzzed-about Islas Secas eco-retreat opened in December 2019, giving access to 14 rugged little islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui on Panama's sun-drenched Pacific coast. I've already made a booking as we speak ! Cast 33 nautical miles off the mainland, the full-service, off-grid escape, which previously boasted only a clutch of beach yurts and a basic fishing lodges, comprises four individual casita sites, sleeping up to just 18 guests on one of the islands. Residences, snuggled into the island’s toucan-filled tropical forest, are designed with privacy in mind, each with an outdoor decking area, plunge pool and thatched-roof cabana. The marine park has one of the largest coral reefs in the Pacific, meaning the waters surrounding Islas Secas bubble with eagle rays, humpback whales, hammerhead sharks and endangered Green Olive Ridley turtles. Guests will be able to paddleboard, snorkel and Seabob their way around, and there will be an on-site scuba instructor, two kitted-out fishing vessels and a designated Adventure Concierge to advise on prime wildlife-spotting opportunities. One-hundred per cent of energy used here will be solar-generated; 100 per cent of food waste is to be recycled or composted; 100 per cent of waste water will be re-used for irrigation; and 75 per cent of the remote archipelago has been left entirely untouched. You’ll find no single-use plastics here and the retreat was constructed using certified sustainable wood. Impressive, but these green credentials stretch further afield, too. The Islas Secas Foundation supports local land, water and wildlife conservation organisations as well as community programmes in the region. Next year, a field station for scientists to observe migrating humpback whales will open, with guests being encouraged to participate in research and conservation efforts. While perhaps the most luxurious, Islas Secas isn’t the only environmentally friendly spot in the area. Last summer, the Cayuga Collection opened a 14-room hideaway in 161 hectares of protected jungle on Isla Palenque, to the north of Islas Secas, and next year Marriott International will launch a property on Pearl Island – a slightly more developed part of Panama – as part of its Ritz-Carlton Reserve brand. There’s eco-gold to be found on these shores. 10. RABAT, MOROCCO - Art’s new epicentre The UNESCO-listed Rabat, Morocco’s political capital, is a polyglot city (French, Arabic and English are the most common languages), where clean streets buzz with agate blue ‘petit taxis’ and the city’s role in the spice trade can be tasted in its many cafés and restaurants. More modern than Marrakech but less busy than Casablanca, there’s a distinctly European feel to the city, with its wide pavements, Andalusian gardens and city beaches filled with locals strumming guitars. Previously, travellers came for the palm-lined boulevards of the Ville Nouvelle, the 17th-century, walled medina and the evocative Kasbah at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, which once teemed with Barbary pirates trading human lives and other ill-gotten goods. But the city is upping its art game, drawing a new kind of bohemian visitor to its streets. In September 2019, the inaugural Rabat Biennale offered a new perspective on the artistic practices and cultural heritage of the Global South, using Rabat as its axis. Operating under the title An Instant Before the World, the international exhibition, curated by Algerian art historian Abdelkader Damani, was spread across significant cultural sites in the city – from the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art to the historic 19th-century Rottembourg fort. It was also dedicated to female creatives around the world, including Palestinian installation artist Mona Hatoum and the late Dame Zaha Hadid. The Biennale highlights a multi-disciplinary approach to art, inviting film-makers, sculptors, architects and performance artists to create a wide range of works. Stays here come in the typically charming riad style, but the smell of fresh polish signals a new high-end opening, as the swanky Ritz-Carlton Rabat – set amid acres of oak forest and manicured gardens, next to the famed Dar es Salam Golf Course – is due to throw open its grand doors later in 2019, with five restaurants, ornate spaces, a spa and a hammam. 9. THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS - The Caribbean’s comeback kid The British Virgin Islands suffered terribly in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria – the former the most powerful to ever hit the Atlantic – and the destination experienced a 90 per cent loss in tourism as a direct result of the damage. But over the past two years, following extensive hotel renovations and reopenings, these enduringly cheery islands – awash with pearlescent bays and neon-bright shoals of fish – are finally bouncing back. Oil Nut Bay was one of the first to relaunch in early 2019, with the retreat – spread across 300 acres on the eastern tip of Virgin Gorda – adding a clutch of two-bedroom villas and suspended private pools (accessible only by helicopter or boat). Similarly exclusive, the privately owned Guana Island is home to seven butterscotch beaches stretching over 850 acres, yet hosts up to only 35 guests. Addressing the urgent need to replant the island’s indigenous trees, the Seeds of Love charity – founded in 2017 when Gabi Romberg of the islands’ German tourism agency started a fundraising drive to replant coconut palms on decimated beaches – is ramping up its efforts to raise awareness and funds. While empowering local communities, it’s also calling on ‘voluntourists’ to help plant vital, life-giving vegetation. In August 2019, the Beyond the Reef project saw the wreckages of three planes and the former Willy T Ship, left behind from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, sink into the ocean. The team worked solidly over several months to strip the vessels of all hazardous materials and cut holes in their surfaces to create handy deep-dive access. The resulting dive sites will raise money, which will be ploughed into local communities and used to teach local children how to swim. These previously pristine islands have shown their mettle in the wake of disaster and should soon be rewarded with the return of travellers. 8. FRISIAN ISLANDS, DENMARK - A windswept archipelago where sustainability is king Shared by Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, and linked by the tin-coloured Wadden Sea, the Frisian islands are tantalisingly tiny, offering a natural fringe barrier between the shallow waters of the Frisian coastline and the knife-cold North Sea. Here, sustainable openings bloom. Holland’s Lauwersmeer National Park started offering Dark Sky safaris in 2018 (quite extraordinary, considering Holland actually has one of the highest levels of light pollution in the world) while Pieterburen Seal Sanctuary, which lets visitors rehabilitate and release two native seal species, opened in the neighbouring Groningen province in 2019. Quaintly Dutch campground retreats such as Beleef Lauwersoog offer excursions to Schiermonnikoog – virtually car-free and home to breeding colonies of birds – and recently beefed-up digs in the area include new barrel-shaped sleeping pods and refurbished overwater bunkers, once occupied by sheltering duck hunters on wild swaths of the North Sea. These small islands are pretty powerful pieces of land. That’s because the UNESCO-listed Waddenzee is considered the largest and most important coastal tidal wetland in Europe, forming the world’s largest connected system of sandbars and mudflats. The nutrient-rich waters make the Sea an incubator for many varieties of fish and sea mammals and millions of migratory birds that stop over on their way from Siberia to Africa in order to bulk up dwindling fat reserves. The best way to get around these parts is on a wadlopen, or mudwalking, tour, when the sea retreats, allowing you to walk across the bottom of the ocean. But delicate sorts be warned: the activity’s been dubbed ‘horizontal alpinism’ due to its challenging nature. Rumbling stomachs are easily rewarded here, too. The Denmark Oyster Festival, which takes place every October, lures chefs from across the country, and you’ll find exquisite local produce on offer in many of the islands’ restaurants. Take a trip to nearby Texel, 20 minutes by boat from Den Helder on the Dutch mainland, to find Bij Jef, where the kitchen is overseen by ambitious chef Jef Schuur, who uses freshly caught ingredients, such as cockles and shrimp, from the Wadden Sea in his refined dishes. On land, 2020 will see the Oranjewoud music festival put on concerts in eclectic spots across Friesland, from steam trains and gyms, to giant plastic bubbles and swimming pools. This smattering of islands are certainly making their mark. 7. LEBANON - A dynamic country capitalising on its cultural clout Momentum is starting to gather in fascinating Lebanon, and its crumbling crusader castles and intricate mosaic-paved streets, which have become tourist-free in recent years, are ushering in culture-curious travellers once more. Earlier in 2019, the British Foreign Office changed its travel advice regarding Lebanon – which previously warned against visiting areas including the Bekka Valley – deeming it safe for travellers to return. As such, adventurous tour operators are introducing exciting itineraries for 2021, opening up Lebanon’s world-class restaurants, shortbread-sand beaches and ancient ruins for exploration. At Baalbek lies one of the largest and best-preserved Roman sites in the Middle East, with its monumental 2,000-year-old temple to Jupiter and six towering, free-standing columns. As the home of the Phoenicians, the early traders who controlled most of the ports in the Mediterranean, the country is full of similarly intoxicating ancient sites, including the enormous hippodrome and Roman ruins of Tyre, which can also be admired underwater while snorkelling (you may have to jostle for space with the resident sea turtles, though). A melting pot of religions, traditions and cultures, Lebanon’s appeal is perhaps most apparent in Beirut, where a burgeoning arts scene draws in young creatives and alternative business owners. At Tawlet, a different woman from a local community cooks the food of her village every day on rotation, and the same non-profit runs the spice-scented farmers’ market at Souk el Tayeb. Less than an hour away, you’ll find Ixsir, which stakes a claim to the title of ‘the highest altitude vineyard in the world’. Indeed, the country’s wine industry looks set to make (fresh on the nose, stone-fruit-scented) waves in the future. In the 1980s, there were just seven wineries in the Bekka Valley, now there are more than 40, some of them producing world-renowned bottles such as Chateau Musar. Add to that fine-sand beaches, a sprawling network of mountains and expansive, lung-cleansing cedar forests, and it’s not hard to see why Lebanon’s on the up. 6. DAKAR, SENEGAL - West Africa’s new centre of style Teetering at the tip of Africa’s westernmost peninsula, Dakar thrums with the energy of a city that defies easy categorisation. The art-centric capital is slick yet frenetic, proudly West African but Francophone, and these contrasts show in its mish-mash of old and new architecture and lively cultural scene. It’s one of the region’s safest and most politically stable cities and also the most accessible, with regular affordable flights from TAP Air and Iberia, while a rumoured non-stop on Ethiopian Airlines from JFK will soon make the Senegalese capital doable in a long weekend for Statesiders, too. Drive along the seaside Corniche and you’ll spot wetsuit-free surfers (there are world-class waves right off Ngor Island), sun-worshippers and oil-slick bodybuilders. At night the city comes alive with a hypnotic blend of the local mbalax dance beats, reggae and Senegalese hip-hop. Stop by restaurant and live-music venue Just4U for big-name acts and the Penc Mi club for rising mbalax stars. There are some sound business hotels in the area, such as the water-facing Terrou Bi and the Radisson Blu on the popular Sea Plaza. But Seku Bi, from surf brand Bantu Wax, is Dakar’s first design hotel. Divided between two French colonial villas within walking distance of Independence Square and the city centre, it’s the slickest place to stop while in town. 5. EGADI ISLANDS, SICILY - Five isolated, history-rich islands ready to make their mark Sicily is my favourite island, and I keep on discovering it ! This summer you'll find me in Egadi. In-the-know travellers previously drawn to Sicily’s sun-splashed Aeolian Islands are looking further afield to fuel their lust for affordable, go-slow spots that other tourists haven’t reached. Flung off the western coast of Sicily, a short hydrofoil ride from Trapani, the Egadi archipelago is formed by the islands of Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo and the rocky islets of Formica and Maraone. The butterfly-shaped Favignana, the largest of the five islands, offers tussock-flecked mountains and photogenic bamboo-framed daybeds on the beach. Streets are foliage-fringed and bikeable and the island is also home to the Stabilimento Florio, a former tonnara, or tuna fishery and factory, that is now a fishing and maritime museum. Levanzo is the smallest and perhaps the most exquisite of the three main islands, with a jumble of whitewashed houses clustered around the port like wonky teeth. Here, scuba enthusiasts can dive the atmospheric remains of a Roman shipwreck scattered with amphorae and shards of black glazed pottery. On dry land, the cave-art figures scratched into the walls of the Grotta del Genovese date back to the Palaeolithic era. Marettimo, considered by some to be the ancient homeland of Odysseus, is a hiker’s dream, and trails will take you past Norman castles and Byzantine churches. Climb up to Pizzo Falcone, at a majestic 2,300 feet above sea level the island’s highest point, for air dusted with the scent of fragrant plants and the sight of peregrine falcons circling overhead. You’ll not want for wildlife here. The islands represent the largest Marine Protected Area in Europe, and the seabed is home to vast, submerged prairies of Poseidon seagrass – providing a valuable reproductive habitat for many fish and migratory seabirds, as well as coffee-table-sized Caretta Caretta sea turtles and rare monk seals. 4. PARIS, FRANCE - Hip new openings reignite the city’s enduring appeal Bien sur, Paris never really went away, but a volley of slick new openings looks set to draw a fresh crowd to the City of Light. A collective breath is still being held for the opening of J K Place Rive Gauche, which was scheduled to swing open its doors in Summer 2019 but is still delayed. Until then, eyes are firmly focused on next year’s new lot. First Up: Bulgari Hotel Paris, designed by Parisian architects Valode & Pistre (the team charged with overhauling the design of the Gare du Nord) will grace the gleaming paving stones of the Triangle d’Or. The eighth Bulgari outpost will have a spa and pool, a restaurant with a contemporary Italian menu designed by Michelin-starred chef Niko Romito and and a leafy courtyard garden. On my next parisian escapade, I know already where I'll stay : last year, the LVMH group opened the new Cheval Blanc Paris on the banks of the Seine. The hotel is housed in the iconic Art Deco La Samaritaine building, once a grand department store selling designer goods to chic shoppers. A garden terrace above the building’s famous glass rooftop and a restaurant overseen by three-Michelin-starred chef Arnaud Donckele will undoubtedly draw in a cool crowd. Meanwhile, billionaire art collector François Pinault has been ploughing his cash into the development of an ambitious new art space housed in the historic Bourse de Commerce (the former stock exchange) near the Louvre. The new modern art museum has been designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, while the sweeping circular panoramic painting lining the building’s giant dome, depicting global trade in the late 19th century, has been fastidiously restored as part of the project. 3. SIARGAO, PHILIPPINES - The tiny Philippine island giving Bali a run for its money Ask the surfers: something special is happening in Siargao. The teardrop-shaped tropical island in the rarely trod south-east of the Philippines is luring legions of right-on sorts to its shores, with its gnarly surf breaks, including the legendary Cloud 9 barreling wave, which counts Kelly Slater and Anthony Kiedis among its riders. Siargao is fringed with pristine beaches, tree frog-green mangrove forests and sweeping groves of coconut palms, and it’s little wonder tourism here is gathering pace. Less than a tenth of the size of Bali, the island feels the way the Indonesian hotspot did three decades ago: scooters with surfboard racks ferry people about the streets, convenience stores pour petrol from glass Coca Cola bottles and farmers sell rice – dried on tarpaulins at the side of the main road – at the local market. Of course after the surfers come the eco-entrepreneurs, and Siargao is welcoming a slow glug of new independent hotels and small businesses to its bone-white beachy shores. 2019 saw the likes of Bulan Villas in the lively hub of General Luna, and the refreshingly stripped-back homestays at the two-unit Kubo join the exquisite Nay Palad Hideaway and the sustainability-conscious Harana Surf Resort as the island’s most appealing accommodation offerings. Those who’ve had their fill of surfing can sail to the nearby white-sand-ringed islets of Daku, Guyam and Naked Island or explore Siargao by motorbike. To escape the (relative) crowds, pay a visit to the almost-deserted beaches of Pacifico and Alegria to the north, where palms trees cast dancing shadows on the sand. This island idyll won’t stay low-key for long – 12 flights a day now land at Siargao’s tiny airport, up from two per week – so pack your surfboard now. 2. GALWAY, IRELAND - All eyes on 2020’s European Capital of Culture Ireland’s effervescent west-coast city virtually threw its arms open wide to the world as it became the 2020 European Capital of Culture. With its glut of traditional pubs spilling out jaunty bodhrán and fiddle music, the bohemian city has developed new community heritage and arts projects, such as pop-up culture cafés and funambulism (tightrope-walking) workshops. Galway’s designation as a 2018 European Region of Gastronomy has already cemented it as a fizzing foodie hub. The brilliantly beardy JP McMahon is Galway’s most high-profile chef, earning the city its first Michelin star in 2012. He’s also the man behind the annual Food on the Edge symposium to explore the future of food which draws in big names such as Nathan Outlaw and Skye Gyngell. The ambitiously modern Loam has joined McMahon’s 24-cover Aniar as one of only two Michelin-starred joints in the city, but it’s what’s happening away from the notebooks of the Michelin inspectors that’s most exciting. Galway is home to the world’s longest-running oyster festival (65 years of shucking so far), which also sees the World Oyster Opening Championships whip up competitive fervour among shellfish enthusiasts. You’ll find local Dooncastle and Flaggy Shore oysters (as well as natural wines and exquisite seaweed shortbread) served up at McMahon’s latest terroir-based opening, Tartare. And in nearby Burren, an hour away from the city, a raft of local producers are really bolstering Galway’s gourmet credentials, with a focus on fish-smoking, cheese-making and small-batch brewing (and look out for Burren wildflower honey at Galway’s Saturday market, too). Unsurprisingly, the city – which is also a mid-point stop along the glorious 1550-mile Wild Atlantic Way driving route – will welcome a clutch of new hotel openings in 2020. The most promising of which looks to be the Dean Galway, a sister hotel to the moody, Brooklyn-feel Dean Dublin, on the spot of an old dry cleaners in Bohermore.
1. KYRGYZSTAN - A true off-grid escape
Now that Uzbekistan has found itself a firm fixture on the travel map, more intrepid types are turning their attention to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. For travellers willing to go completely off-grid, digitally detox and taste the kind of wilderness that is still untouched, untamed and untainted by tourism, Kyrgyzstan ticks all those boxes; it’s a country on the cusp of discovery, but not for much longer.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the friendliest and most beautiful countries in Central Asia. Whereas Uzbekistan is known for its parched deserts and heady cities, Kyrgyzstan is 95 per cent mountains; an undulating landscape with remote prehistoric and Silk Road sites, dizzying passes and plunging valleys. Its traditions are nomadic – the word Kyrgyz actually means ‘40 tribes’ – and before Russian settlement in the 1870s, most towns, including the capital of Bishkek, were made up of yurts. Bunking up in one of the country’s well-established homestays is one of the best ways to experience the Kyrgyz way of life and encounter the country’s fascinating traditions.
Its stark, craggy mountain ridges are also home to the newly minted Issyk Köl Trail Network, a 506-mile lattice of trails that allow hikers to combine ear-popping mountain landscapes with living nomadic cultures. Most of the routes pass alongside active yurt camps and high-altitude jailoo pastures, where local shepherds bring their flocks to graze during the summer months. Hardy types can summit an 11,000ft pass, then descend to share shots of vodka or a mug of fermented mare’s milk with friendly resident herders. Elsewhere, the alpine meadows of Sary-Chelek lake should not be overlooked, while the crumbling mausoleums of the Karakhanid rulers in Uzgen are too stirring to miss.
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