Lonely Planet's 2016 Best in Travel list of top 10 countries to visit

Global travel company Lonely Planet has announced - early Wednesday morning - its Best in Travel list for 2016 featuring the top 10 countries to visit.

Singapore was listed as the No. 1 country to visit in its 2015 list mainly due to its SG50 hook of "various new developments to elevate the Singapore experience to a new level, from Marina Bay to a new crop of swanky hotels".

It is no longer on the list for 2016. But Singapore did get a mention on one of the few side lists compiled along various travel themes - namely, New Openings in 2016 (for the new National Gallery Singapore- see bottom of story).

Otherwise, the top country to visit in 2016 as recommended by Lonely Planet now is Botswana.

1. BOTSWANA


Sightings of great predators on bespoke safaris at Mombo, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. PHOTO: A2A SAFARIS

Lonely Planet says: "Botswana remains off the radar for most people. The impression is: it's too difficult to get to, it doesn't cater for families. But we're here to tell you that's all nonsense. The story of its journey from poverty to become one of Africa's most stable, thriving societies will be celebrated when it celebrates 50 years of independence in 2016."

It wrote: "Seventeen percent of the country is dedicated to national parks and here is a real wilderness that puts you in touch with palpable primitive thrills and fears, whether it's being poled by an African gondolier in a mokoro past pods of sunbathing hippos in the Okavango Delta; or feeling the spirit of the first men in the thousand-year-old rock art in the Tsodilo Hills; or in the eerie beauty of Kubu Island's ancient baobabs backlit by incandescent constellations in a vast night sky."

Current Craze:

'Car park pimping'. This is due to a 30% tax on alcohol and new licensing hours enforcing club closures at 2am, Gaborone (capital of Botswana) has seen its club scene move outdoors and hijack suburban car parks. The party continues around makeshift DJ decks with experienced clubbers equipped with personal cool boxes and camping chairs.

Trend to Watch:

Direct flights. For years the government has been clamouring for direct international flights. Gaborone's airport and runway have recently been upgraded and similar upgrades are planned for Maun and Kasane. With all the action, the long-awaited day may come within the next 6 to 12 months.

2. JAPAN


 The sakura blossom season at Osaka Castle Park in Japan. PHOTO:: OSAKA CONVENTION & TOURISM BUREAU  

Lonely Planet says: "It might be number two but it's always number one for travellers in search of an otherworldly experience. Nowhere else on earth exemplifies that dog-eared 'modern yet ancient' cliche like the land of the rising sun."

It wrote: "Most interesting is move of the much-venerated Tsukiji fish market (which sees over US$20 million (S$28m) in seafood sales each day) to a sparkling new facility that is set to swing open its doors at the end of this year. As everyone's radioactive paranoia is finally put to rest...since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and with the government's continued efforts to devalue the Japanese yen, there's no better time to experience the country that pays such vivid tribute to manic modernity and hallowed history."

Current Craze

Animal cafes have reached new heights: People there can now hobnob with goats, sip tea with a turtle, pose for selfies with owls, and do whisky shots while watching penguins.

Life-changing Experience:

One of the world's most famous pilgrimage routes after the Camino de Santiago is Japan's Kumano Kodo near Osaka. For over a millennium, devotees would walk between hidden Oji shrines and forests of haunting trees to reach the three grand worshipping complexes of Kumano. There are a handful of different paths but the preferred route - and also the oldest - is Nakahechi, which starts in the west and travels 30km to the shrines. Unesco officially recognised the network of trails in 2004, and over the last 12 years the walk has seen a steady increase in foreign tourists.

3. UNITED STATES


The Nevada Fall at the Yosemite National Park in east-central California. PHOTO: YONG SHU HOONG

Lonely Planet says: "The 'best idea' America ever had - the National Park Service - turns 100 next year. It oversees the country's 59 national parks and hundreds of historic landmarks, and celebrates a centenary of safeguarding Yosemite, Yellowstone, Badlands, Zion, and the rest. So lace up your hiking boots and set foot in the miraculously well-managed 340,000 sq km network of surreal and spectacular landscapes it defends, from earth-rending canyons to alligator-infested swamplands to belching geysers. It's a national triumph."

 

Life-changing Experience:

The US is a road-trip paradise. As you take to highways travelled by Thelma and Louise and Bonnie and Clyde, watch the landscape morph from prairie to desert to breathtaking ocean road. On the way, are goofy roadside attractions, small-town diners and curious locals.

Trend To Watch:

The election. In 2016, America's first African-American president will step down. As nationwide protests change the way Americans think about politics, this election year promises raging debate.

4. PALAU


The Ulong Beach in Palau. PHOTO: ST FILE

Lonely Planet says: "Palau is unquestionably one of the most magical diving and snorkelling destinations in the world - and it's fighting to stay that way. This far-flung Pacific archipelago has turned 100% of its marine territory into a sanctuary in a bid to protect what has been dubbed a 'Serengeti' of the sea."

It wrote: "Palau is charting its own path through the uncertain waters of national independence. While the US still plays Big Daddy, Palau is its own master. Collected behind a 110km barrier reef, more than 200 largely unspoilt limestone and volcanic islands - a mere eight are inhabited - are blanketed in tropical and mangrove forest and surrounded by waters teeming with marine life. Fairly constant temperatures and rainfall mean any time of the year is good to visit, although it becomes more typhoon-prone in the back half of the calendar."

Current Craze:

In 1944, the Japanese and Americans fought for three desperate months for control of the island of Peleliu's important airfield. The tragic result was over 10,000 Japanese and 2,000 American casualties, and an island paradise littered with wreckage. Today, many of the rusted tanks, planes, small arms and (highly dangerous) unexploded ordnance that attest to the ferocity of the struggle remain. Tourists, carefully shepherded by expert guides, are increasingly being drawn to this fascinating site.

Bizarre Sights:

Jellyfish Lake is an otherworldly lagoon on the uninhabited limestone rock island of Eil Malk. Millions of an endemic sub-species of golden jellyfish drift across the marine lake in an east-west migratory pattern that's repeated every day. Such is the sensitivity of the lake that visitors must obtain a permit, but snorkelling with these harmless, highly photogenic jellyfish is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

5. LATVIA


 The Great Kemeri Bog in Latvia, more than 8,000 years old and one of the largest dry moss swamps in the Baltics. PHOTO: REUTERS

Lonely Planet says: "It's taken Latvia 25 years to shrug off the fetters of Communism, but this Baltic treasure looks ready to shine for its silver anniversary. The country is resuscitating ancient traditions, restoring crumbling castles and manor houses hidden in its pine forests, and transforming its once stodgy cuisine into cutting-edge New Nordic fare."

It wrote: "Hundreds of crumbling castles and manor houses - from medieval to Rococo - hide in the nation's dense forests of pine, and today many of these estates have been lavishly transformed into inns and museums. Food, too, has come a long way from sweaty pork and potatoes. A fleet of (new) New Nordic chefs are catapulting local flavours to such artisanal heights that they would truly give Copenhagen a run for its money if Michelin were paying them more attention."

Life-changing Experience:

Cast modesty aside and indulge in Latvia's most Latvian tradition, the pirts - a hot birch sauna. A traditional pirts is run by a sauna master who cares for her naked attendees while performing choreographed branch beatings that draw on ancient pagan traditions. Herbs and wildflowers swish in the air to raise the humidity in the chamber for a series of sweltering 15-minute sessions before you exit the sauna to jump in a nearby body of water (lake, pond or sea).

Bizarre Sights:

Gauja National Park may be known as a pine-studded preserve filled with medieval ruins, but it also holds some of the most eccentric relics from the Soviet era. Don't miss the cement bobsled track built near Sigulda as the training course for the Soviet Olympic team, and check out the top-secret nuclear fallout shelter buried under a convalescence home in Ligatne. The bunker was of high strategic importance during the Cold War and the rooms covered in untouched switchboards and Soviet propaganda will undoubtedly perk the antenna of any Bond enthusiast.

6. AUSTRALIA


Uluru in the Northern Territory, Australia. PHOTO: AFP

Lonely Planet says: "The strength of the Aussie dollar over recent years has made a trip down under a tough proposition for travellers on a budget. But with the currency faltering and petrol prices also on the slide, 2016 could be the perfect time for a road trip."

It wrote: "More positively, increasing numbers of Aboriginal land rights claims are being recognised here, including recent claims over Queensland's Fraser Island and a huge tract of South Australia's Eyre Peninsula. Indigenous tourism is booming, with new Aboriginal tour companies such as Ngurrangga Tours in Karratha and Bungoolee Tours in the Kimberley offering authentic cultural experiences. Contemporary Aboriginal art remains an Australian cultural high-water mark, as evidenced by the fab new Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Culture Centre in Katherine.

Current Craze:

Food vans and small bars. Battling innumerable fast food joints in Australian cities, the current clog of takeaway food vans - serving everything from burgers to barramundi curry - is constantly expanding. Afterwards, sip a craft beer at the latest alleyway speakeasy around the corner.

Bizarre Sights:

Emerging from the haze in the far-flung Oodnadatta Track in the central Australian desert is the Mutonia Sculpture Park - a kooky roadside installation featuring several large aeroplanes welded together with their tails buried in the ground to form 'Planehenge'.

7. POLAND


Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland. PHOTO: TEO CHENG WEE

Lonely Planet says: "Recession-defying Poland has superpowers - while the rest of Europe descended into the doldrums, visitor numbers here climbed and there's no end to the boom in sight as Wroc·aw prepares for a stint as European Capital of Culture 2016. Krakow will have a turn in the limelight too when the Pope arrives to celebrate World Youth Day, and new air routes to Krakow, Szczecin, Katowice, and Gdansk means this is a destination on the rise."

It wrote: "Wroc·aw, the historical capital of Silesia, already had plenty of reasons to preen. Its Old Town Hall, with gothic turrets firing off a custard-coloured exterior, is one of Poland's most beautiful buildings. And among beer gardens and soaring bell towers, Wroc·aw harbours a show-stopping 114m-long painting, the Panorama Rac·awicka. Highlights of the city's stint as one of 2016's European Capitals of Culture will be an artist-in-residence programme to promote artists across borders and world music days that combine influences across 50 different countries."

Life-changing Experience:

Plummet 135m into the Wieliczka Salt Mine for an unforgettable underground adventure. In this yawning Unesco-listed grotto, carvings grace walls and chandeliers drip from ceilings - all of them made out of salt. Beneath Krakow's Wawel Hill lies the rumoured lair of a slain dragon, while in the chalk tunnels of Che·m you'll learn of a legendary white bear, now the city's emblem.

Bizarre Sights:

Wroc·aw's gnomes commemorate the 1980s thanks to Orange Alternative movement, an anti-Communist group known for its absurdist style of protest - including graffiti and gnome-hat demonstrations. Today more than 300 gnome statues wave from street corners and twirl their beards beneath window panes.

8. URUGUAY


The main avenue of Montevideo, Uruguay. PHOTO: AFP

Lonely Planet says: "Squished between South America's two titans, Brazil and Argentina, this small country packs a big punch. What it lacks in size, Uruguay makes up for in peacefulness, hospitality and personality. An estimated three million foreign visitors will arrive in Uruguay next year - but it's a wonder it isn't more when you grasp what the 'Switzerland of America' has to offer."

It wrote: "Take Montevideo, which must be the safest capital in South America. When it comes to quality of life, Montevideo is unrivalled on the continent. It's small enough to get around, but big enough to have some great architecture and a superb restaurant scene. The beach-lined seafront is easily navigated by bike, as is the Old Town, with its array of grand 19th-century neoclassical buildings.

An hour's drive away lies gaucho (cowboy) country. Here, undulating pampas are dotted with working estancias (cattle ranches), many of which serve as guesthouses."

Life-changing Experience:

Uruguayans are the masters of the asado barbecue. One of the best places to sample Uruguayan beef is the Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo. This 19th-century wrought-iron market hall shelters a gaggle of steakhouses. Pull up a stool at any of the parrillas (steakhouses) and watch the weighty slabs of meat being cooked over hot coals on a grill, sink your teeth into a tasty morcilla (blood sausage).

Bizarre Sights:

In Punta del Este, you can't miss La Mano de Punta del Este (The Hand). This quirky iron and cement sculpture by Chilean artist Mario Irarrazabal was created for an art contest in 1982 and has been a 'Punta' fixture ever since. It's unsurprisingly selfie-friendly - thousands of visitors pose in front of its large digits, with the beach in the background.

9. GREENLAND


An Inuit village in Greenland. PHOTO: REUTERS

Lonely Planet says: "In March 2016, Greenland will host the Arctic Winter Games, the largest event of its kind ever, along with a festival of song, food and dance. What better time to visit this Arctic wonderland?"

It wrote: "In March 2016, Greenland (technically a territory of Denmark rather than an independent country, although one with a great deal of autonomy) will host the Arctic Winter Games, the largest event of its kind ever. Competitions range from snowshoeing to native games like pole-pushing (think reverse tug-of-war with a tree trunk). It's a quick four-hour flight from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland's main airport. And now there are also seasonal and yearly flights from Reykjavík in Iceland to Nuuk, Ilulissat, Kangerlussuaq, Kulusuk and Narsarsuaq."

Life-changing Experience:

Witness icebergs the size of the Empire State Building in the Ilulissat Icefjord, home to the northern hemisphere's most productive glacier. The town of Ilulissat, next to the glacier, is known as 'the iceberg capital of the world', and offers a huge number of iceberg-watching adventures. Kayak through the fjord's navy blue waters, soar above the glacier in a fixed-wing plane, or hike along the icy cliffs.

Current Craze:

Eating local. A new generation of young chefs, some of whom have trained abroad in Denmark or elsewhere, are making meals with the delicious, albeit limited, local ingredients. Think juniper-poached musk-ox fillets, razorbill with crowberries, kelp salad studded with reindeer bacon, bellflower gelee atop local honey ice cream.

10. FIJI


Tthe Overwater villa at the Laucala Island resort in Fiji. PHOTO: LAUCALA ISLAND

Lonely Planet says: "Pleasure-loving Fiji has recovered its equilibrium at last after a coup and constitutional crisis, and travellers will soon benefit from an upgrade to the country's Nadi International Airport."

It wrote: "After an uncertain decade, following the coup of Commodore 'Frank' Bainimarama in 2006, and the constitutional crisis of 2009, Fiji has reverted to its peaceful and pleasure-loving self. In late 2014, Bainimarama finally made good on the promise to hold democratic elections, winning the prime ministership and restoring something of constitutional normality (albeit to a situation he had played an important part in creating)."

Life-changing Experience:

It's hard to visit Fiji without being serenaded by warm and welcoming singers brandishing guitars or ukuleles. For a real peek into everyday life, get to a village church on a Sunday. Dress modestly (ask locals for advice on what's appropriate) and have spirits raised by the voices of a community singing traditional songs in harmony.

Current Craze:

Flyboarding. Essentially a jet-propelled, hand-controlled hoverboard, the flyboard allows you to skim above the waves, shoot high into the air, plunge into the swell, then do it all again. Try it at Bounty Island.

Bizarre Sights:

Vilavilairevo (fire walking) was originally performed only by the Sawau tribe of Beqa, an island off Viti Levu's southern coast, but now you'll probably catch a performance anywhere in Fiji. Traditionally, strict taboos dictated men's behaviour leading up to the ceremony and it was believed adherence to these protected them from burns.

ST's travel writer Lee Siew Hua picks her highlights from Lonely Planet's 2016 Top 10 list:

"The choice of the United States as a desirable destination for 2016 resonates fully with me. I lived in the US for a decade-plus and loved my summer road trips, when I'd experience the immensity of the country and linger in national parks, which celebrate their centennial next year.

"Walking in the cindery, other-worldly volcanic landscape of Hawaii, boating among the glaciers of Alaska where humpback whales can be spied, standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and realising that its wonder does not diminish on a second visit - and also popping into other parks defined by deserts, mountains or swamps - will stir the wandering gene in us.

"I enjoy the parks as much as America's exciting cities - especially Seattle, Chicago and New York. Parks and cities are worthy counterpoints on an itinerary.

"Japan and Australia, also on the Lonely Planet list, are already perennial favourites of Singaporeans. I have found that walking in less-explored places in Japan, including its far north, is a perfect way to enjoy the country, especially with an onsen and kaiseki feast at the end of each day's journey. Japan's cities, cuisine and lifestyle always have a fresh lustre on each visit as well.

"Australia has new aboriginal tours, apart from its abundance of outdoorsy sites. From luscious lunches amid wineries in secluded valleys to entering a steel cage to gaze at a Great White Shark, which I once tried, with beating heart and pure amazement, Australia has activities galore for the traveller."

For Lonely Planet's side list of "New Openings in 2016", Singapore got a mention:

It wrote: "Singapore boasts several world-class museums, but if you only have time to see one in 2016, make it the National Gallery Singapore. Occupying two of central Singapore's most historical buildings - the former City Hall and Supreme Court - the enormous gallery space, unveiled during the city-state's 50th birthday celebrations in November 2015, will showcase South-east Asian art from the 19th century to the present day.

 

"After admiring the thousand-odd artworks in the painstakingly restored colonial courtrooms and council chambers, don't miss the fifth-floor rooftop garden with its superb views across the Padang towards Marina Bay."

Read The Straits Times's web specials and latest news on the National Gallery Singapore: