Where to go in 2017

Venture out of your comfort zone and journey to far-flung corners of the world. Stay in a fort-turned-hotel in Rajasthan in India or luxuriate in a therapeutic crude oil bath in Azerbaijan. The Sunday Times suggests travel destinations for 2017

Rajasthan forts, India
 

Desert adventures and impressive forts await in Jaisalmer, once a mediaeval trading centre in Rajasthan.

Amid the sand dunes of this north-western Indian state, travellers can try quad biking; jeep and camel safaris; and also motor-powered paragliding.

Jaisalmer is also known as the Golden City because of its yellow sandstone architecture. Located in the heart of the Thar desert, the city is dominated by the Jaisalmer Fort.

Within the fort are age-old havelis (homes) where families have lived for generations.

A good place to enjoy the desert's wild beauty is Suryagarh (preferredhotels.com/destinations/jaisalmer/suryagarh), a luxury hotel that is a 17-minute drive from the fort.

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It offers camel safaris and mountain bike excursions through undulating scrubland to secluded shady oases.

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Another notable fort in Rajasthan is the Mehrangarh Fort in the city of Jodhpur. This is one of India's oldest and largest forts; literary giant Rudyard Kipling wrote that it was "built by Titans and coloured by the morning sun".

No less impressive is the Junagarh Fort, with its facade of red sandstone, in the city of Bikaner.

Travel search engine Skyscanner highlights its "warren of ornately decorated rooms filled with mosaics, murals, carpets and curtains".

Beyond visiting forts, travellers can go a step further by staying in them.

Next month, Singapore-based international hotel group Alila Hotels and Resorts is opening a new property housed in a 230- year-old defence fort in Jaipur, the capital and largest city in Rajasthan.

Alila Fort Bishangarh (www.alilahotels.com/fortbishangarh) has been restored over seven years and transformed into a luxury resort. The ancient walls and structure, however, were left untouched.


Family-friendly trips to Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, South America
 


Take in the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu (above) in Peru or the majestic Iguazu Falls in Brazil. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF &BEYOND AND SKYSCANNER

Fiery, sexy and adventurous South America may not immediately come to mind when families with young children are planning vacations, but family-friendly itineraries are becoming more popular.

Luxury experiential travel firm &Beyond (www.andbeyond.com) recently started offering such tours in Peru and Ecuador.

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A Peru Family Adventure is a scenic seven-day journey that will take the family from the Peruvian capital of Lima into the Sacred Valley and onto a panoramic train to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu. The trip concludes at the Incan capital of Cusco.

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Besides sightseeing, children will meet villagers; feed llamas and alpacas; and enjoy outdoor activities such as horse-riding and river rafting.

Families who like wildlife and the outdoors can check out &Beyond's Magical Ecuador And The Galapagos itinerary. The seven-day tour covers the capital, Quito, and the Galapagos Islands.

In Quito, children will learn about the cultivation of cacao plants and indulge in chocolate- tasting sessions. In the Galapagos, they can snorkel with penguins, meet giant tortoises and build sandcastles on the white sandy beaches.

Brazil is another option, suggests travel search engine Skyscanner.

It is home to one of the world's most beautiful beaches - Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro - and the Iguazu Falls, the world's largest waterfall and one of the seven natural wonders of the world .

The only hotel located within the Iguazu National Park, the Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas (www.belmond.com), is a short stroll from the sensational waterfalls and offers amenities for children, including bathrobes, slippers, toys, DVDs and a kids' menu.


Cold in Antarctica, dark in Oregon and silence in North America
 


Get close to wildlife, icebergs and snow in Antarctica. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SKYSCANNER

Sparklingly isolated corners of the world refresh the senses.

To experience the planet's cold, dark and silent places, the traveller in the United States can be entranced by a solar eclipse in Oregon or explore a rainforest in Washington state. Then there is the allure of Antarctica.

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Late last year, news agencies reported that the Ross Sea in Antarctica will become the world's largest marine-protected area when an international pact comes into force later this year.

A total of 600,000 sq miles of the Southern Ocean will be protected from commercial fishing for 35 years.

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The agreement was inked by 24 countries which are members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

According to National Geographic writer Brian Clark Howard, the Ross Sea's nutrient-rich waters "are the most productive in the Antarctic, leading to huge plankton and krill blooms that support vast numbers of fish, seals, penguins and whales".

Antarctica cruises allow visitors to get up close with wildlife, icebergs and snow.

On Aug 21 this year, a total eclipse of the sun lasting about two minutes is expected in some parts of the US.

Among the darkened locations is the city of Madras in Oregon. It is planning a four-day SolarFest event (oregonsolarfest.com) with an array of activities - hot-air balloon rides, helicopter tours and camping under the stars - to occupy ticket- holders while waiting for the eclipse.

For silence, look to Emmy- winning acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton who claims to have discovered the quietest place in the US. The One Square Inch of Silence is inside the Hoh Rainforest of Washington state's Olympic National Park.

According to his website (onesquareinch.org), the exact location is marked by a small red stone placed on top of a moss-covered log at 47 degrees 51.959N, 123 degrees 52.221W, 678 feet above sea level.

Activists like him are pushing to make the Hoh Rainforest the world's first quiet zone, the BBC has reported.

Tour operators such as Evergreen Escapes (www.evergreenescapes.com) offer private overnight tours into the heart of the rainforest.

Apart from tracking down the One Square Inch of Silence, visitors can try different hiking trails that will take them through moss-laden woods, alpine meadows and glacier fields, before spending the night in a lodge in the park.


Old and new in Baku, Azerbaijan
 


The futuristic Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid, houses a museum and a 1,000-seat auditorium. PHOTO: TRIPADVISOR

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is an intriguing gem set between Asia and Europe.

With the country sharing borders with Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran, its biggest city, Baku, seems to amplify the heady mix of European and Oriental traditions.

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Baku may not be commonly found on the Singaporean bucket list, but travel planning and booking site TripAdvisor announced last month that the city has taken the top spot in Asia, in its Travellers’ Choice awards for destinations on the rise.

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The popularity of these up-and-coming places is measured by their year-on-year increase in positive TripAdvisor traveller ratings for accommodation, restaurants and attractions. The rise in booking interest is also factored in.

Baku’s must-visit landmarks span old and new.

Its mediaeval walled city, with its symbolic Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, is on the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites. The 12th- to 15th-century palace is “one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture”, according to Unesco.

Resting on one of the highest points in the city, the palace contains tombs and a bathhouse, among other heritage remnants.

Azerbaijani cuisine has Mediterranean influences, so visitors can expect eateries selling kebabs and baklava. Or they can linger in traditional tea rooms to enjoy a Turkish tea or coffee.

Outside the old city, contemporary architecture abounds.

TheFlameTowers–a trio of futuristic skyscrapers close to 200m high – are illuminated with LED lights. The tower complex contains a hotel, apartments and offices.

There is also the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid. The complex, which has an undulating, curvy aesthetic, houses a museum and 1,000-seat auditorium.

TripAdvisor highlights two other fascinating nuggets about Baku: One, bread is sacred. As a sign of respect, it is known to be hung from trees and walls instead of being thrown away when it goes stale.

Two, you can take a therapeutic bath in crude oil, known to the locals as naftalan oil. The thick, black grease is believed to contain health and healing properties.


Nature hot spot in Canada
 


Canada’s natural landmarks include the resort town of Whistler in British Columbia. PHOTO: TRIPADVISOR

If you even need a reason to visit the Niagara Falls, this year offers the best one: Canada celebrates its 150th birthday.

That is one reason the country ranks first on Lonely Planet's list of Best In Travel 2017. Canada also topped The New York Times list of 52 places to visit this year and appears in Conde Nast Traveler's recommendations of The Best Places To Travel In 2017.

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Visitors can expect a celebratory mood in the country for its year- long birthday party.

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A huge draw, especially for nature lovers, is the Canadian government's gift of free entry to all national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas all year. This is for all visitors and not just Canadians. Go to www.pc.gc.ca for more details.

Premium tour operator Insight Vacations suggests heading to Jasper National Park or Wood Buffalo National Park for a chance to see the northern lights.

In Yukon, in the north-west, a spectacular show of the northern lights takes place each autumn.

Certainly, autumn is a beautiful time and travel search engine Skyscanner suggests planning a visit during this season.

From leaf peeping in the scenic Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia to embarking on wine trails in Okanagan to a pumpkin festival in Wellington, Ontario, that promises many pumpkin-inspired dishes, there is a variety of activities for young and old in autumn.

As Canada is the second-largest country in the world after Russia, natural landmarks abound across its provinces, from Alberta's Rocky Mountains to British Columbia's Whistler.

Insight Vacations further highlights Ontario as a go-to province as it is home to the famed Niagara Falls - which it shares with the United States - and the national capital, Ottawa.

Ottawa has a dedicated 2017 Celebrations Ottawa website (www.ottawa2017.ca) and has planned major sporting events, free art exhibitions and performances, and a sold- out outdoor picnic on the Royal Alexandra Bridge.


Chill out on remote islands
 


The Kokomo Island resort will offer fishing expeditions, diving, snorkelling and kayaking when it opens in March. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KOKOMO ISLAND

Island holidays are often exotic and sometimes perfectly off-the-grid.

Among far-flung islands, Skellig Michael in Ireland is a bright star. Once under the radar, it grew popular after it was chosen for the closing scene of the 2015 Star Wars blockbuster, The Force Awakens.

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It was at this craggy outcrop that the heroine, Rey, finally found the reclusive Luke Skywalker.

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This island is apt as the character's intergalactic hideaway, for it was once a monastic outpost. Travel search engine Skyscanner says visitors can reach this isolated sliver of Ireland by "climbing over 500 steps" up a millennia-old stone stairway.

Beehive-shaped huts, where monks were said to have lived and prayed, cling to the cliff edges.

Closer home are the Andaman Islands, which Forbes magazine listed among The 10 Coolest Places To Go In 2017.

Specialist tour operator Red Savannah will launch an expedition to this Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal via catamaran next month.

The company's founder and chief executive, Mr George Morgan-Grenville, said in the Forbes article: "Opening up for the first time, the Andamans offer an extraordinary archipelago of about 300 palm-lined, white sand beaches that have hitherto been almost impossible to access."

Guests on its island-hopping cruise will step onto deserted beaches, enjoy fresh seafood and swim in the waters.

Meanwhile, third-party hotel booking website Small Luxury Hotels Of The World has signed several new island-based hotels and resorts that offer seafront escapes.

Some highlights are Sikelia in Italy, Kokomo Island in Fiji and Le Domaine Misincu in France.

Sikelia is located on the rugged and picturesque black volcanic island of Pantelleria. The resort's spa treatments incorporate the wellness properties of the nutrient-rich volcanic mud.

On the island, visitors can explore caves, wander through olive groves and sample wines from vineyards where Unesco Heritage Zibbibo muscat grapes are cultivated.

Le Domaine Misincu is a five-star eco-friendly luxury hotel in the region of Cap Corsica, which is due to open in June.

The seafront property will serve dishes made from fresh local produce and has been nicknamed "the island on the island" because its surrounding area has been well preserved through the years.

In Fiji, the Kokomo Island resort and its luxury villas are a personal passion project of Australian billionaire and property developer Lang Walker.

He hopes the resort will be a retreat for guests to disconnect from the modern world and reconnect with nature and their loved ones.

The property, due to open in March, offers fishing expeditions, diving, snorkelling and kayaking, and a supervised children's club.

Then there is El Nido, a Philippine municipality on Palawan Island that has emerged on travel planning and booking site TripAdvisor's Travellers' Choice awards for destinations on the rise.

El Nido is the "last frontier" of the Philippines and it is home to the "tourist-less" Nacpan Beach, according to TripAdvisor.

With more than 40 islands, El Nido visitors can island-hop, explore caves and coves, or just laze the days away under the sun.


History and nature in Lisbon and the Azores, Portugal
 


The Azores boasts a landscape of volcanoes, hot springs, towering cliffs and rugged craters. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SKYSCANNER

Portugal's capital city Lisbon exudes a new energy while its far- flung Azores islands are Edenic.

In Lisbon, once deteriorating enclaves have been reinvigorated while new museums are making an entrance.

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The mediaeval Mouraria neighbourhood, for instance, was once rundown, but has been flourishing since 2009, when it began to be gentrified.

Its mediaeval homes have been preserved and outdoor concerts are held on selected weekends, while authentic Portuguese food is offered in shops.

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According to insider city guide Lisbon Lux, other draws include a mini food market that sources food globally, and Intendente Square, where visitors can find "one of the most beautiful tiled facades in the city".

In October, a new Museum for Art, Architecture and Technology (www.maat.pt/en/about) opened on the Lisbon waterfront.

This year, a new Jewish museum will open in the Alfama district, home to the city's Jews during the Middle Ages.

Two hours by air from Lisbon, a completely different experience awaits visitors in the Azores, which has been touted "the next Iceland".

Travel publisher Lonely Planet, which highlighted the Azores on its Best In Travel 2017 Top Regions list, says the archipelago's natural assets resemble "an array of superlative sights pulled from other destinations".

Think "lush Hawaiian volcanoes, mediaeval Portuguese villages, gurgling Scandinavian hot springs, towering Irish cliffs and rugged Patagonian craters", it says.

In the Azores, travellers can watch whales or dolphins, scuba- dive amid a kaleidoscope of sea creatures, such as loggerhead turtles and devil rays, and enjoy stand-up paddle boarding.

For those who prefer their adventures on land, there are options aplenty. Descend into a lava tube, cycle or hike on beautiful trails, or paraglide from the rim of a crater into the Eden-esque landscape.


Safaris and parks in the Congo, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Rwanda, Africa
 


Experience a horse ride through the wilderness in Botswana before taking an aerial safari tour by helicopter. PHOTO: BELMOND

Savannas teeming with wildlife entice travellers in Africa.

Two African countries, Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have been singled out on Forbes magazine's list of The 10 Coolest Places To Go In 2017.

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Forbes highlighted Botswana for its elephant population - about 130,000, known to be the biggest in Africa - and its government's continued commitment towards its hunting ban. In effect since 2014, it was imposed after the decline of several wildlife species in the country.

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The safari camps in Botswana's Okavango Delta are some of the best accommodations to see these majestic animals.

In September, luxury safari lodge Belmond Eagle Island Lodge (www.belmondsafaris.com) opened in the Delta. It offers visitors a horse ride through the wilderness before whisking them away by private helicopter for an aerial safari.

The other "hot" safari country is the Congo, said Forbes. In particular, its Virunga National Park, where critically endangered mountain gorillas are thriving, is worth a visit.

The Unesco World Heritage Site and Africa's oldest national park is also home to okapi, which are related to giraffes, hippopotamuses, elephants and lions.

Gutsy visitors can climb the almost 3,500m-high Nyiragongo volcano in the park. At the top, they will enjoy a view of Nyiragongo lava lake, the world's largest.

Meanwhile, lifestyle magazine Conde Nast Traveler listed Zimbabwe as one of the destinations in its The Best Places To Travel In 2017 feature.

One of the country's biggest attractions is Hwange National Park, the country's largest game reserve, where buffaloes, zebras, giraffes and hyena can be spotted.

Admirers of the continent can also consider Rwanda, where eco- tourism operator Wilderness Safaris will be opening a hotel in an eroded volcanic cone.

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Bisate Lodge (www.wildernesssafaris.com), scheduled to open in June, is a short drive from the Volcanoes National Park, from where gorilla treks depart.

Besides seeing mountain gorillas, guests can take part in the hotel's reforestation efforts, explore lava tunnels and visit cultural villages.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'Oh, the far-out places you can go'. Print Edition | Subscribe