The most exotic journeys for 2015

So many places in the world, so little time to see them all.

This is the traveller's constant lament, the flip side of which is the excitement of knowing that there will always be new places out there waiting to be seen and experienced.

Here are 10 holiday hotspots to check out this year.

Modernity and heritage meet in each of these locations, from the mysterious Mergui Archipelago at the southern-most part of Myanmar to the made-over cities of Columbia with art-filled parks and salsa dancing, and all the way to the desert dunes of intriguing Tunisia.

brynasim@sph.com.sg


Drink to the home town of port

Portugal is "the undiscovered sister of Spain", says Ms Sheryl Lim, regional director of Insight Vacations Asia.

But travel experts like her project strong growth in visitor numbers to Portugal this year because the country is fast gaining appeal for its beaches, mild climate, heritage and range of landscapes.

While many are keen to see the capital Lisbon, Portugal's second-largest city, Porto, also entices as the birthplace of port.

"A stop in Porto is a must to sample fine port wines," says Ms Lim.

Built along the banks of the Douro River, Porto's historic centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site. In highlighting Porto as a hot destination this year, The Guardian newspaper described it as a "picturesque mish-mash of mediaeval churches, cobbled lanes, pretty squares, steep steps and beautiful buildings tumbling down to the river".

With more cruises on the Duoro River, another lovely way to take in this wine region is by boat.

Some of the key operators that will take you through the Unesco-designated Douro Valley are Viking River Cruises, CroisiEurope and Uniworld.

Beyond Porto, it is also worth checking out smaller, quieter destinations in Portugal.

Insight Vacations has a Country Roads of Portugal tour this summer that covers the quaint fishing port of Portimao. It has white sandy beaches, rustic houses and seafood so fresh one can "still taste the ocean", says Ms Lim. It costs from $2,956 a person for the 10-day land tour.

Another charming city is Evora, with its mediaeval ruins, cathedrals, churches, ancient castles and aqueducts.

Several carriers fly from Singapore to Portugal - either Lisbon or Porto - with stops in Istanbul, Dubai, London or Paris.


Dips and dunes in Tunisia

Since last December, Singaporeans do not need tourist visas to visit Tunisia.

Ease of travelling there aside, the small, northernmost country in Africa offers many holiday options, including visiting historical sites and quaint towns, dune activities and a dip in the sea.

A site film buffs will not want to miss is Matmata, a Berber-speaking town in southern Tunisia where Star Wars movies were filmed. Some of the film locations include Hotel Sidi Driss, a traditional Berber cave dwelling that was used as the Lars Homestead in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and Attack Of The Clones (2002).

Up north, another noteworthy site is the Unesco World Heritage Site that is Amphitheatre of el Jem, the largest colosseum in North Africa with seating for up to 35,000. Dynasty Travel, which conducts tours to Tunisia, says these ruins are better preserved than those of Rome's Colosseum.

Also in the north is the picture-perfect town of Sidi Bou Said. With its buildings painted in white and blue, and overlooking the Bay of Tunisia, it could easily be mistaken for the Grecian island of Santorini, where buildings are of a similar colour scheme and the waters of the Aegean call out from below.

Tunisia is home to several beautiful beaches and oasis towns, among them Douz, also known as the gateway to the Sahara desert, where you can try a camel ride or go on a desert safari. You should aim to be there on a Thursday - just in time for the Douz weekly market, where one may buy dates, made-to-measure desert shoes and, yes, camels.

To glimpse a mirage, drive from Douz to the Chotte el Djerid, a salt lake in southern Tunisia.

If, after Tunisia, you are still craving the sight of dunes, consider taking a short flight to Egypt.

Insight Vacations has re-launched its Egyptian itineraries this year, after careful assessment of the political situation there. The first tour began on Jan 8. Rates begin at $3,125 a person for a nine-day tour.

Ms Sheryl Lim, regional director of Insight Vacations Asia, says the company has been "keeping a close eye on the political and social situation in Egypt" and is confident that tour guests will be able to enjoy the destination with the safety and security of travelling in a group, and with a highly experienced tour director.

Singaporeans keen to go to Egypt should check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website updates and travel advisories before booking any tours.

Once there, enjoy cruises down the Nile River, check out the Sphinx and pyramids, and explore the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.


The Cambodian Riviera

Cambodia's islands have glistened in the seascape of the Gulf of Thailand for years and remained undeveloped jewels.

However, that has started to change since the 2012 arrival of Song Saa, a resort that spans the two islands of Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, which are next to Koh Rong. It is the country's first private island resort. Rates start from $1,500 for a one-bedroom villa during low season.

This year, another idyllic island, Koh Russey - also known as Bamboo Island - will be transformed into Alila Villas Koh Russey, which will house 48 hotel suites and 135 luxury villas.

The hotel opening is estimated to take place by late this year and the entire project is expected to be fully operational by 2019.

On both properties, expect to enjoy pristine beaches and colourful marine life.

From the Sihanoukville International Airport, it is a 30-minute ride to the Sihanoukville port. From there, holidaymakers can get on a speedboat provided by the resort - Koh Russey is a 15-minute journey away, while Song Saa is a 35-minute journey away - and head towards paradise.

Mr Etienne Chenevier, director of CityStar, the property investment company overseeing the Koh Russey project, says that with the development of the Cambodian Riviera, travel agents "shall at last" be able to propose what they have been asking for years - packages that cover sightseeing, temple tours and beaches all within the same country.

He predicts that for hotel investors, Sihanoukville will therefore become the "natural prolonging of a stay in Siem Reap".

Siem Reap has held its own as the epicentre of Cambodia's emergence as a major tourism destination, drawing more than 1.4 million visitors in the first seven months of last year alone.

Those considering a trip to the Cambodian Riviera should not rule out the sights of Siem Reap, where many new activities are now available.

Mr John Neutze, director of sales and marketing for Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Siem Reap, says that besides the magnificent Angkor Wat temple, visitors can also go zip-lining, quad biking and cycling. He adds that day-cruising along the Tonle Sap River, where one visits floating villages, has also become increasingly popular.

For those interested in combining a holiday with community outreach, Chan Brothers Travel has launched an Eat, Play & Love tour to Siem Reap, which will involve visitors preparing lunch for a local community and interacting with local school children, apart from sightseeing.


Exotic Rajasthan

With a country like India that is so large and populous, how do you even know how to approach it as a tourist?

A must-see is Rajasthan, India's largest state and where The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) was shot. The film, which is a sequel to the 2012 comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - also set in Rajasthan - is due to be released this March and has a cast of headliners including Judi Dench, Richard Gere and Maggie Smith. The first film was an international hit and the sequel continues the adventures of several British retirees enjoying their sunset years in India.

If you want to stay where the stars walked, then allow yourself a couple of nights at The Pearl Palace Heritage Boutique Guesthouse in Rajasthan's capital Jaipur, a filming location for the sequel. Rates begin at $17 for a basic room for two.

If not, ITC Hotels - the largest luxury hotel chain in India - also has a property in Jaipur, called ITC Rajputana. For women travellers, the hotel offers rooms with female security guards, a personal female butler and transportation services to ensure women feel safe and comfortable, whether they are in the hotel or are out and about. Room rates begin at $295.

There is much to discover in Jaipur itself. It is known as the Pink City because of its pink walls and buildings. The city has many well- preserved forts and palaces that you can admire for their elaborate architecture and bygone-era splendour.

To get there, fly from Singapore to Mumbai or Delhi, before taking a connecting flight to Jaipur.


Mysterious Mergui and other archipelagos

Island travel is not new, but few have ventured to the Mergui Archipelago, a huge cluster of 800 islands in southern-most Myanmar.

Film-makers Klaus Reisinger and Frederique Lengaigne, who co-directed a documentary, Burma's Forbidden Islands, in 2004 about the islands and its sea gypsies, describe the area as "one of the last paradises left on earth".

Think unspoilt rainforests, mangroves, white beaches and waters teeming with marine life. Wildlife sightings in the island chain include monitor lizards, sea eagles and hornbills.

While visitors usually travel by boat from Phuket in the southern province of Thailand to the Mergui Archipelago, Silversea Cruises will in November launch a new cruise from Singapore to Phuket, with a three-day stop in between at the archipelago.

"This gives Singaporeans an excellent opportunity to explore uncharted waters at a leisurely pace," says a Silversea Cruises spokesman. "With limestone rock pinnacles, fringing sloping reefs and hard coral reef gardens, this is a haven for divers and snorkellers alike."

Farther away, another exotic island cluster worth checking out is the Bazaruto Archipelago of six islands in Mozambique, a country in south-east Africa. The waters are said to be warm year-round and teeming with thousands of tropical fish species.

The largest island, Bazaruto, is home to the Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort & Spa. "With its unique combination of huge dunes, freshwater lakes, white shell-kissed beaches and thick forest of Casuarina trees and coconut palms, Bazaruto Island is the ultimate destination to unwind at," says the resort's general manager Roberto Simone in an e-mail interview with SundayLife!. Room rates begin at $917.

The family-run Azura Boutique Retreat occupies the second-largest island, Benguerra. Rates begin at $840 a person a night.

Later this year, Benguerra will also see luxury safari outfitter &Beyond re-open its lodge there, following extensive rebuilding and refurbishment works.

Singapore Airlines flies to Johannesburg in South Africa. From there, travellers fly to Vilanculos - on the coast of Mozambique and the nearest airport to the islands. From Vilanculos, it is a boat transfer or plane ride to the resorts.


Japan's castles, old towns and geishas

Japan's rich heritage means that there are plenty of hidden gems located off the beaten tracks of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

The city of Kanazawa is one such destination, with its restored Edo period (1600-1868) residences, scenic mountains and strong artisanal culture.

It is an accessible one hour and 15 minutes away from Tokyo by plane or high-speed train.

Mr Nick Barton, chief commercial officer of InterContinental Hotels Group's Asia, Middle East and Africa markets, recommends checking out the Kanazawa Castle, the Kenrokuen Japanese landscape garden, as well as the historic Nagamachi samurai district and Higashi Chaya geisha district.

The Kanazawa castle features restored gates and turrets. Next to it is the Kenrokuen garden, considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan.

Nagamachi was once home to the samurai and their families. Today, the area retains its old-world aura, with restored samurai houses and museums filled with samurai artefacts.

Higashi Chaya, however, is still a lively place, where you can stroll and hear the sound of music played by geishas. The Kanazawa City Tourism Association holds a geisha performance show in the three chaya districts of the city every Saturday.

Another beautifully preserved city is Takayama, a city in Gifu prefecture. It is a two-hour car ride from Toyama prefecture, which itself is an hour-long flight from Tokyo.

Takayama's charming old town still has many buildings and houses that date back to the Edo period. Not to be missed is the Takayama Jinya, a traditional building that served as Takayama's government office during the Edo period. Besides architecture, craft markets and festivals, the city is famous for its Hida beef, a local staple said to melt in your mouth.

A third lesser-known place is Inuyama town in Aichi prefecture, which is known for the Inuyama Castle, a 40m-tall landmark overlooking the Kiso River.

Managing director of Airbnb's Southeast Asia and India markets Jia Jih Chai says of the castle: "It stands as the oldest original wooden castle in Japan, and is beautifully framed by cherry blossom flowers in springtime."

With the falling yen, this is a good time to seek out hidden Japanese gems.


Colombia, haven for coffee lovers

Travel media brand Afar asked readers in its Where To Go In 2015 article to head to Colombia for its rich history and culture. Indeed, there seems to be much going on in this South American country.

Mr Kevin Khor, head of sales and marketing for Contiki Asia, says: "From beaches to the Andes to Spanish colonial towns, Colombia has everything that the discerning traveller is looking for."

Its capital, Bogota, has a bustling nightlife, colourful local culture and a vast array of fantastic food, he says.

Colombia's coffee region, Armenia, with its many coffee plantations and varieties of the bean, is a haven for coffee-lovers.

According to Afar, the city of Cali is pumping, but perhaps that is natural for it is the Colombian capital of salsa dancing.

Then there is the made-over Medellin, Colombia's second city and the world's former cocaine capital, which has now been "rehabbed", says National Geographic Traveler. The "Medellin miracle" has seen the city being transformed with art-filled public parks and futuristic architecture.

That is not all. There are also the lively cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena de Indias (where superstar Shakira hails from). In Cartagena, stay at the city's Hotel Caribe, a historic beachfront property with colonial architecture. It is a member of Preferred Hotel Group and room rates begin at $190 a night.

Hop over to Peru after touring Colombia.

According to The Peruvian Commission for the Promotion of Exports and Tourism, Peru is not only rich in historical and natural attractions, but is also a gastronomically exciting place, bubbling with European, Asian, African and indigenous Peruvian flavours.

So apart from ascending to Machu Picchu or shopping for Andean textiles, also go for Peru's pink salts and its culinary scene.


See Cuba before it modernises

With the announcement last month that the United States was ending its Cold War diplomatic freeze with the communist country of Cuba, modernisation is sure to follow. Before that happens, visit the time-warped land, with its vintage cars and colonial architecture.

An island country in the Carribean located between the US and Latin America, Cuba is described by Lonely Planet as a "prince in a poor man's coat".

Lonely Planet, which publishes travel guide books, also views Cuba as "a country that is economically poor, but culturally rich; visibly mildewed, but architecturally magnificent".

There is plenty to see and do, from snorkelling to fishing, from dancing to renting a 1950s-era car to take in the sights.

A recent law that allows entrepreneurship has also prompted Cubans to open their own shops, restaurants, cafes and home-stays, especially at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Old Havana.

All these private enterprises and improved relations with the US are injecting energy and buzz in the country, which is also steadily increasing its tourism services.

A tour company that should interest history-lovers and avid motorcyclists is one founded by the son of Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevera.

The Argentine leader's son, Ernesto Guevera, has set up motorcycle tour company La Poderosa Tours, which offers trips around Cuba. Tour highlights include a ride to Che Guevera's mausoleum in Santa Clara, and visiting his headquarters.

It is easiest to fly to Cuba from Europe or South America. A tourist card, required to enter the island, can be obtained at the airport of the country where you embark for Cuba.


Croatia, the new Greece of Europe

Wedged between Central and South-east Europe and surrounded by Mediterranean waters, Croatia has become known in recent years for the city of Dubrovnik. The city's walls, impressive fortresses, quarries and mountains have been used as filming locations for the popular American television series, Game Of Thrones.

President of Trafalgar Asia, Mr Nick Lim, says the Dalmatian coast is one of the most beautiful in the world, and is gaining a reputation as the "new Greece of Europe".

General manager of luxury and boutique hotel guide Mr & Mrs Smith's Asia markets, Ms Amira Morgan, says Croatia has become a destination for honeymooners because of its cafe culture and waterfront seafood eateries.

Regional seafood dishes include scampi, prstaci (shellfish) and Dalmatian brodet (seafood stew usually served with rice).

If seafood is not your thing, Dynasty Travel suggests you head inland for specialities such as manistra od bobica (beans and fresh maize soup). Traditional dishes from the area around Zagreb include purica z mlincima (turkey with pasta noodles) and strukli (ravioli-like pasta dough balls with a cheese filling).

Gastronomy aside, the emergence of summer music festivals in Croatia is also starting to rival Ibiza's music scene, says Ms Morgan.

Indeed, Croatia's Zrce beach on the island of Pag will be host to the Croatia Rocks music festival this July - brought in by the Ibiza Rocks Group.

For non-partygoers, the island is also known for its handcrafted, decorative Pag lace.

There are lots of local produce to purchase in Croatia too, from cherry liqueur in the Zadar region to olive oil to Croatian beer (pivo) and Croatian plum brandy (sljivovica).

After all that wining and dining, spend some time surrounded by nature there. You can take a hike around Paklenica National Park in Starigrad, northern Dalmatia, and admire its river canyons, or go bird-watching at Kopacki Rit nature park in Eastern Croatia, which has close to 300 species of birds.

Mr Lim recommends the country's Plitvice Lakes National Park as a must-do for this year. It is the largest national park in Croatia, with lakes famous for their distinctive range of colours - from green to azure to grey.


Beautiful, far out Faroe

On March 20, a full solar eclipse will be visible from the Faroe Islands (Vagar, one of the islands that make up the Faroe Islands), a tiny 18-island archipelago situated halfway between Iceland and Norway.

The archipelago is one of only two places in the world where travellers can be spell-bound by the eclipse by observing it from land. The other location is Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

The Guardian newspaper and National Geographic Traveler magazine have highlighted the Faroe Islands as a must-visit destination this year, not only because of the eclipse but also for its untamed beauty.

Nature lovers can bask for hours in the splendour of waterfalls and fjords, and look out for noisy gulls, playful seals and herds of sheep.

The Guardian's article earlier this month notes that most hotels are booked out for the eclipse, but suggests bed-and-breakfast lodgings and camping for a back-to-nature experience.

The Faroe Islands are accessible via cruises and ferries from either Iceland or Norway. Since visitors to the islands are already out in the Arctic, they can also try to catch the Northern Lights in either Iceland or Norway - especially since the United Nations has named 2015 the International Year of Light.

The aurora borealis can be viewed usually between September and April - so there is still time to catch the magnificent dance of lights if you book now.