January 7, 2012

10 Places to visit 2012 (12 PHOTOS)

Made your travel plans for 2012 yet? Here are 10 places you might want to consider.

In its new book Best in Travel 2012, Lonely Planet nominates its Top 10 countries, regions and cities for 2012. Similar lists are put together by National Geographic Traveler, Frommer’s Budget Travel and The New York Times.

But just how worthwhile are these lists?

Of the “41 places to go in 2011” nominated by The New York Times in January 2011, just two (Port Ghalib in Egypt and Erzerum in Turkey) are now off the radar, due to civil strife and earthquake respectively. So maybe the lists have some merit. But the reader is still left wondering what is the basis for the editors’ choices – are there any logical selection criteria or are the nominations due merely to a whim?

Furthermore, it’s worth asking how “independent” these lists are. Somehow, it seems more than just a coincidence that Istria in Croatia was nominated by Lonely Planet for 2011 and National Geographic Traveler for 2012, and that Lonely Planet’s pick of Syria in 2010 was echoed by The New York Times’ choice of Damascus in 2011 (a pretty unfortunate selection given subsequent events).

While these examples are not conclusive evidence of plagiarism, what is pretty certain is that each of these publications reads the others’ lists and then maybe builds upon them. But in the final analysis, whether or not you agree with these “best places” lists may be largely subjective.

For example, Jafas (Aucklanders) will be pleased to hear that one of Frommer’s top choices for 2012 is Fukuoka, a sister city of Auckland. And Aussies will no doubt be tickled lobster red by Lonely Planet’s choice of Darwin, a city fortuitously visited by President Obama on Nov 18, 2011. Here, then, is a look at some of the top picks for 2012:

1) Muscat, Oman

Move over, Dubai! The Sultanate of Oman has firmly staked its claim in the mega-construction stakes. And while both the National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet list Oman as one of their top picks for 2012, Lonely Planet’s nomination is for the Omani capital, Muscat, as one of the world’s Top 10 cities.

‘The Two Mosques’ (Lawati and Mutrah), on Mutrah Corniche in Muscat. — Photos by Graham Simmons
Greater Muscat, fortunately with a balmy climate from October through to May, is laid out along the coast like a string of pearls on a thread. But this “necklace” has a large number of gaps, each a space where there will one day (with any luck) be a new pearl.

From Seeb International Airport in the west to the fishing port of Quriyat in the east, the city stretches over 60km along the Gulf of Oman, the main centres being Qurm (an upmarket residential district), Mutrah (with a corniche fronting a superb natural harbour), Ruwi (the business district), and “Muscat proper”, on a smaller harbour flanked by twin fortresses.

Amongst Muscat’s newest mega-projects are The Wave, a giant resort development along no less than 7.3km of beachfront; the brand-new Royal Opera House Muscat, holding up to 1,100 patrons and which opened in Oct 2011; and the Muscat Grand Mall, a complex including an old Omani souq (market) linked to a 35,000sq m shopping mall, as well as office blocks, restaurants and other facilities. Not much older is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, with one of the world’s biggest carpets and the second biggest chandelier on the planet

2) Darwin, Australia

The Northern Territory tourism people went ape when they heard that Darwin had made it into Lonely Planet’s “Best 10 cities for 2012” list. Taking out four-page spreads in major Australian newspapers, the NT tourism authority came up with its own list of “Darwin’s Top 10 things to do”.

The tropical markets, Darwin Festival and indigenous art were among the attractions listed, but the laid-back new waterfront precinct surprisingly came in only at number eight on the list. Many would say that the waterfront precinct IS the new Darwin. A giant wave lagoon, manmade beach, boardwalk and esplanade lined with bars, coffee shops and outdoor cafés are just a few of the features of this precinct.

At long last, it seems that Darwin is making use of rather than trying to escape its balmy-to-unbearably-humid weather.

“Multicultural, freewheeling and vibrant – Darwin is now a hip city to visit,” said Meg Worby, one of the editors of Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2012. Others begged to differ. “Darwin one of the world’s top cities? You gotta be joking!” was one comment.

But with even Darwin’s formerly sleazy Mitchell Street backpacker strip having undergone a transformation with al fresco restaurants and rooftop gardens, maybe Lonely Planet is right, after all.

3) Ghana

A cheerful-looking food vendor
in Makola Market in Accra.
They said it could never happen – a peaceful democratic transition in West Africa. But the commentators were wrong. Ten years ago saw the swearing in as Prime Minister of the former Opposition leader John Kufuor, with the outgoing Prime Minister Jerry Rawlings unexpectedly gracious in defeat.

Returned yet again in 2004, Kufuor was replaced in 2009 by John Atta Mills, marking the second time in Ghana’s recent history that power was transferred from one elected leader to another. And that’s not all that’s different in Ghana, which features on Frommer’s Top Ten list for 2012. People are polite, kind and generous – and while there are indeed Ghanaian as well as Nigerian scammers, you’re unlikely to meet any of these characters in real life.

While the capital Accra can be hot and steamy, get out of town and you’ll be graced with a vista of seemingly-endless beaches stretching along the coast. In Cape Coast, formerly the capital of Ghana, Cape Coast Castle is a Unesco-designated World Heritage site converted into a museum that documents the sheer horror of the centuries-long slave trade.

Over the nearly 400 years of the slave trade, it is estimated that some 50 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to the Americas, with at least half this number dying during the voyage. The Castle was visited in 2009 by President Obama, who was just one in a long line of distinguished visitors.

4) Stockholm

One of Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 cities” for 2012, Stockholm is a glorious celebration of water, land and sky. To spend any part summer in this city is a rare privilege, one in which the visitor savours every minute of the long, near unending day. The short summer officially begins on solstice day, June 21, and with luck, might last the better part of 10 weeks.

In central Stockholm, Kungsträdgården Park is the venue of choice on a brilliant summer’s afternoon. Around the fountain, kids cavort in the shallow water, while others try their skills at the nearby bungy-jump. Others throng the bars that dot the rim of the park, including the American Bar, where everyone pretends to be a Hemingway or Theroux, their designer baseball caps being the only things that give them away.

But to really explore Stockholm’s unique setting, getting out into the Stockholm Archipelago is a “must”. Dotted with over 20,000 islands (OK, this count does include little skerries and half-submerged rocks), this is definitely one of the finest boat cruising passages in the world. Most of the islands boast one or more summer cottages, a welcome refuge for the residents of Stockholm, who annually gorge themselves on sunshine for these few short weeks.

5) Santiago

Pimientos en Plaza de Copiapó
Riding high on the success of the 2010 mine rescue near Copiapó, Chile has clawed its way up to respectability on the world stage. And Chile’s capital Santiago, so long a battleground between extreme left- and right-wing political forces, has reinvented itself.

Also featuring on Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 cities” list for 2012, Santiago proudly proclaims its status as the top place in this country of geographical extremes. At the Universidad de Santiago bus station, for example, Chile’s 12 regions feature on giant banners. But getting by bus to one of these twelve regions - Easter Island - might take quite some doing!

Many of the underground metro stations also feature giant murals of Chilean history and landscapes. Downtown, palm trees sway over a vibrant street-scene (as well as the ubiquitous McDonalds). But if the Big Mac is the price that Chile had to pay for a return to normalcy, then many might feel that it’s a price (just) worth paying.

6) Taiwan

Taiwan, one of Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 countries” list for 2012, is one of the most nature-blessed parts of Asia. This bonsai country, little more than half the size of Tasmania, has 258 mountains each over 3,000m high. Parts of the country look on a relief map like a giant green rollercoaster.

The Taiwanese capital Taipei is great for watching dragon-boat races and enjoying some of the world’s finest Chinese cuisine. But for some “green escapes”, try the following:

- Visit the Yehliu Seashore. Right on the northern ocean shore shoreline about two hours by road from Taipei, Yehliu Geo-Park is a stunning display of bizarre rock forms, which could have been sculpted by a Salvador Dalí on acid.

Some of the rocks look like the bulbous nose on a drunkard’s face. Others look like bloated, inverted golf clubs, while others totally defy description.

- Get an early start (7:08 am to be precise) and take an express train from Taipei Station to the east coast city of Hualien (a trip of about three hours); thence travel inland by regular bus to Taroko Gorge. No fewer than 27 of Taiwan’s highest mountains lie within Taroko National Park.

- Visit the laid-back holiday island of Lu Dao, or Green Island. From its start as a penal colony in 1895 right through until 2005, Lu Dao gained a reputation as the ultimate place of banishment, with its razor sharp beach lines and choppy seas making escape virtually impossible.

Naturally, where there are sharp beachlines there is likely to be a spectacular display of coral, too – and indeed the snorkelling just offshore is quite phenomenal.

7) Arunachal Pradesh

When Lonely Planet nominated the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as one its Top 10 Regions for 2012, it was really sticking its neck out. The problem is that due to the state’s proximity to the Chinese border, all visitors to Arunachal Pradesh still require an Inner Line Permit (ILP) on top of a regular Indian visa.

If you’re applying through your nearest Indian consulate, lodge your application AT LEAST three months in advance – and even then there is no guarantee of success. ILPs are valid for one of three recognised “circuits” - Bomdila, Dirang and Tawang in the east; Ziro and the capital Itanagar in Central Arunachal Pradesh; and Namdapha-Changlang in the west.

Cleaning butter lamps is a daily chore at Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh.
Of these, probably the most interesting is the eastern circuit, which includes Tawang Monastery – the world’s biggest Buddhist monastery after Lhasa’s Potala, and which was renovated by the Dalai Lama in 1997.

Other places of interest near Tawang include Zemithang, right up near the China/Bhutan border. En route to Zemithang and dominating a river valley, Gorsham Stupa is an extraordinary structure – a replica of the Kathmandu’s Swayambunath Temple.

8) Queenstown

When National Geographic Traveler chooses New Zealand as one of its top destinations for 2012 and Lonely Planet, then zeroes in on the Queenstown region, then who can argue?

What is it about Queenstown that stuns everyone? Maybe it’s the uniqueness of the setting: a beautiful lake totally ringed by mountains that are snow-capped nearly year-round. In 1986, the prestigious Condé Nast Traveler magazine voted Queenstown as one of the world’s Top Three destinations – and when former US President Bill Clinton flew in to Queenstown back in 1999, he was just as gobsmacked as are other visitors.

Queenstown’s facilities are constantly improving. For winter skiers, Cardrona Alpine Resort, between Queenstown and Wanaka, opened a new quad chairlift in 2011. And on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown’s famous steamship the TSS Earnslaw will turn 100 in October 2012. The birthday celebrations promise to be something really special.

Natural wonder: A Blue-eared Kingfisher snapped near the Menanggul River in Sabah.

9) Borneo

It was the Dutch who put the huge island of Borneo on the world map – and Lonely Planet who was astute enough to recommend it as one the Top 10 regions for 2012.

But with no fewer than three independent countries occupying the island, the range of possible visitor experiences is HUGE. As well as the world-renowned Camp Leakey orang-utan rehabilitation centre in southern Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), here are some other recommendations:

- In Indonesian Borneo, the town of Sambas (north of Pontianak, along a beach-lined road) is famous for its finely woven gold-thread textiles.

- Brunei’s Temburong National Park, in an eastern enclave of the country, has a treetop boardwalk offering a great introduction to the wonders of the rainforest.

- In Sarawak, the Mulu Caves are an outstanding attraction.

- Sabah’s Kinabatangan River is home to the rare Proboscis Monkey, while Sandakan hosts the the Sandakan Memorial Park, commemorating the infamous Sandakan-Ranau Death March of World War II.

But Borneo’s forests are now severely under threat. Demand for palm oil has seen vast swathes of rainforest cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. The time to see the natural wonders of this unique island is NOW, before industry wreaks its inexorable havoc.

An enthusiastic crew takes the oars at the Viking Ships Museum in Roskilde, Denmark.
10) Denmark

Lonely Planet has nominated Denmark as one of its Top 10 countries for 2012, while The New York Times placed the Danish capital Copenhagen on its 2010 list.

But while Denmark spends just slightly less than its Gross National Product on promoting Copenhagen and its Nyhavn Harbour as a destination, Denmark also has many other little-known maritime places well worth visiting, including Fyn Island and its capital Odense (birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen), and the superb new Viking Ships Museum at Rosskilde.

Denmark’s seafaring heritage deserves extensive exploration. We The Drowned, the prize-winning novel by Danish author Carsten Jensen, shot straight into the best-seller list when released in the US in February 2011. A reviewer in The Scotsman ranked the book alongside The Odyssey, Moby Dick and The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.

This blockbuster saga of nautical life on Ærø Island in southern Denmark stirs the sea that flows in the veins of every Dane. Sadly, even nautical giants like the Odense Steel Shipyard, which built the massive Maersk RoRo ships, are now closing due to Asian competition.

Fortunately, the highly-developed traditional Danish skills of building and repairing recreational boats and pleasure-craft are not set to die out any time soon.

And even if global warming causes sea levels to rise alarmingly, there will always be at least one Danish island – and one boat - in search of another.

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