This is the year to go someplace epic. In 2015, exotic places are trending and new destinations are emerging. And several of them are more affordable than you might think. Catch a total solar eclipse in the Faroe Islands, see The Hobbit movie set’s Hobbit holes on a New Zealand farm, or check out the new ecotourism hot spot dubbed “the next Costa Rica.” This roundup of dream trips also takes you to Cuba and a few other emerging destinations where travel restrictions are loosening and the U.S. dollar goes a long way.
Travel to Cuba has been off-limits to American tourists for decades, but U.S. government restrictions are loosening, giving the curious a first glimpse at the country just 90 miles to the south. Last month, President Obama announced that—for the first time since the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in the 1950s—talks have begun to restore full diplomatic relations. For now, Americans can travel to Cuba only with a tour company that holds a special government cultural-exchange license through the newly establishedPeople-to-People program. Take a trip sooner rather than later to see Cuba in its most authentic state, before McDonald’s and Starbucks find their way onto street corners.
If You Go: Natural Habitat’s Undiscovered Cuba tours give you the chance to experience Old Havana’s restored architecture, lively salsa music, and big 1950s American cars cruising the streets. You’ll tour tobacco farms and hike virtually unknown national parks as you talk politics and issues with Cuban scientists, naturalists, academics, farmers, community activists, artists, business owners, and more.
About halfway between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are one of only two places in the world where you’ll be able to see the 2015 total solar eclipse from land. On March 20, the moon will appear to block out the sun and enshroud the islands in darkness for a few minutes at 9:41 a.m., just as it did in the year 1612, according to the old Faroese legend. The remote archipelago country governed by Denmark will mark the event with a major celebration, featuring the symphony orchestra, choirs, dancing, tours, activities, and local cuisine specialties.
If You Go: Ask a local to tell you about the legend of the eclipse. Also keep an eye out for the aurora borealis in the Faroe Islands’ clear winter sky. Located near the Arctic Circle, the islands are popular places to spot the lights. This year also debuts a new knitting festival in the small village of Fuglafjørður, the first knitting festival in the area that takes place in people’s homes.
On the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula next to the United Arab Emirates, Oman is a peaceful Middle Eastern gem with stunning beaches, mountains, forests, and deserts that stretch for miles. Only since 1970 has the oil-exporting country established an infrastructure of roads and ports, and then resorts, gradually emerging as a tourism destination. Visitor statistics show a 32 percent jump over the past few years, and Oman tour operators expect to see more growth with several recent new developments: the Opera House in Muscat, international standard golf courses, the Alila hotel opening, luxury catamaran boat trips, and luxury tented beach and desert camping.
If You Go: Get an authentic Arabian experience with Mountain Travel Sobek’s Oman Explorer tour, one of the tour operator’s new bucket-list trips for 2015. The trip takes you “Wadi bashing” along rocky river beds in a four-wheel drive. You’ll also camp in luxury tents on the beach and stroll through Omani villages without a trace of Western influence.
In 2015, this Asian country of 63 islands celebrates 50 years of independence since separating from the Federation of Malaysia, and the nationwide commemoration lasts all year long. Golden Jubilee events in Singapore began with a New Year’s Eve fireworks display in Marina Bay and continue with a 50th-themed parade in February and a National Day Parade in August. In the fall, the new National Gallery Singapore opens and the National Museum of Singapore will revamp its permanent galleries. As a lasting tribute to the year, a new Jubilee Walk is under construction to connect and mark historic monuments in the civic district and Marina Bay area. A new pedestrian bridge will link Merlion Park to Marina Promenade. Singapore is also the host of the 2015 Southeast Asian Games/Para Games.
If You Go: Between 50th anniversary events, save time to sample the country’s national dish: stir-fried chili crabs with tangy gravy. Another authentic food experience is at the open-air hawker center’s food stalls. Don’t miss Singapore’s Chinatown trishaw night tour.
As this isolated Southeast Asian country has begun opening up to visitors over the past few years, tourism has exploded. “We believe that 2015 might be the last year to see a more innocent Myanmar that hasn’t been strangled by overdevelopment,” says Elias Garcia of Global Basecamps tours. Garcia says you can still visit some areas and be the only foreign traveler, a rare experience in the world today. Although it is quickly modernizing, Myanmar has held onto its traditions. Locals still wear sarong-like longyi attire and prefer to travel by canoe or horse-drawn carriage. The temples of Bagan are a true must-see, on par with the pyramids in Egypt or Angkor Wat.
If You Go: Both the Global Basecamps’ Trekking & Temples tour and the Go Ahead Tours’Myanmar: A Cultural Journey through Burma tour take you to Bagan to see one of the world’s largest collections of Buddhist temples. The tours also include visits to the gold-plated Shwezigon Pagoda, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site where sacred relics are enshrined.
Tour companies are calling Nicaragua the next Costa Rica. This verdant ecotourism hot spot has untouched rainforests for hiking, an active volcano where you can go “ash boarding,” and quiet beaches that draw international surfing competitions. In Nicaragua, you’ll avoid the crowds of neighboring Costa Rica and find prices that are nearly half of what you’d pay across the border. The country also just opened its first five-star resort,Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, and ocean-view villas are surprisingly affordable. In spite of Nicaragua’s war-torn past, perceptions of the country are changing. Nicaragua scored the highest for security levels among Latin American countries in a 2013 Gallup poll.
If You Go: Wander the charming Spanish colonial city of Granada, home to the new boutique Tribal Hotel. The Inn at Rancho Santana opens on the southwest coast this March. In November, the new Emerald Coast Airport opens, offering connecting flights to the beach from Managua’s international airport.
A perennial bucket-list favorite, South Africa shows up on the travel radar this year because 2015 marks 25 years since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom. Honor the hero with a visit to the Apartheid Museum or Robben Island (where he spent 18 years), and you’ll feel South Africans’ sense of pride in their progress. Once you pay for airfare, this country is an excellent value destination, especially as the U.S. dollar is strong against the South African rand. Last year, Cape Town was named the 2014 World Design Capital and was transformed by more than 460 design projects. The initiative spurred tremendous growth in the city’s arts and culture, says Shaheed Ebrahim of Escape to the Cape tours. Don’t miss the new iconic sites, revamped public squares, quaint neighborhood markets, and design quarters.
If You Go: The smarTours South Africa Highlights & Safari tour hits the Nelson Mandela sites as well as Cape Town, Table Mountain, and Kruger National Park. It also includes a safari experience in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve.
Iran is still an unexpected destination for most Americans, but the tide is definitely turning. With the 2013 election of a new president in this Persian country, visa restrictions have relaxed and more tourists are visiting Iran. Last year, the inaugural rail journey to Iran withGolden Eagle Luxury Trains sold out in three weeks, prompting the company to add several new departures in 2015. Michigan-based Journeys International also added three guided trips to Iran for 2015 in response to increased demand. “Experienced world travelers are planning trips to Iran as a destination that will help them understand the world more clearly,” says Will Weber, founder of Journeys. “Until recently, there was no way to gain firsthand knowledge of Iran.”
If You Go: Don’t miss Shiraz, the city of poets and gardens. The ancient city of Yazd, known for high-quality silk weaving, rises out of the high desert plateau with homes made of mud brick. Both places are stops on Journeys International’s Persia Past & Present tour.
The European Union welcomed Lithuania into the Eurozone on January 1, 2015, when the country became the last of the three Baltic states (after Estonia and Latvia) to officially adopt the euro. Now that it’s easier to make electronic payments and access cash via ATMs, tour companies anticipate that an influx of travelers will visit this relatively undiscovered gem. “Lithuania is like a piece of Old World Europe you haven’t seen before, yet it’s very sophisticated, fresh, and new,” says Barbara Banks of Wilderness Travel.
If You Go: Wilderness Travel will debut a new cruise route this year that includes Lithuania:Summer in the Cities of the Baltic. It will stop in Klaipeda, a center for amber jewelry and home to one of the largest amber museums in the Baltic. If you’re touring on your own, take a side trip to the country’s capital city of Vilnius to see the beautiful architecture in Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the European cities that was never bombed in World War II.
Last December, a week after the third Hobbit film in the popular series debuted worldwide, London’s Daily Telegraph announced that New Zealand (the real Middle-earth) was voted “Best Country” by readers in the newspaper’s annual Travel Awards. Tourism officials expect to see an upsurge in travel to the country and its filming locations, as they did with the release of the first two movies. Also highly anticipated this year, the Cricket World Cup will take place in New Zealand in February and March, and a new luxury Sofitel hotel will open in Wellington to fill a hole in the five-star market.
If You Go: On a picturesque farm, you can tour the Hobbiton movie set, kept intact fromThe Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. See Hobbit holes, the Green Dragon Inn, the Mill, and other gardens and structures that appeared in the movies. Then go meet New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people, learning their customs and sharing a traditional feast. Collette’s A Down Under Adventure and Audley Travel’s New Zealand tours include these experiences.
by Jamie Moore
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