Need inspiration for your travels in 2014? These 10 regions have captivated our travel experts with their natural beauty and cultural riches.
Green is the colour
Picking up national accolades in 2012 for being India’s cleanest state with the most innovative tourism project, Sikkim has set new benchmarks for responsible travel in the country. Checkbox sightseeing has rapidly made way for sustainable community-based tourism in less developed areas, while eco-friendly policies have lent new vigour to the virginal Himalayan wilderness that drapes the region’s mountains. Food-wise, there’s news too. Organic farming is the new mantra in Sikkim and is being promoted in a big way. Much of the produce available in local markets is already gunk-free, and the government proposes to convert Sikkim into a fully organic state very soon. And with a new airport scheduled to open near Gangtok in 2014, you can now shave off several hours of transit time and fly in directly from major Indian metros.
Beat the crowds and the resources juggernauts
The Kimberley is one of the most sparsely populated regions on the planet and one of the most starkly beautiful, carved by giant gorges, dimpled with deep, cool pools, and home to a coastline that could make Australian east-coasters weep. It’s also a region where Aboriginal culture rubs shoulders with exotic Asian influences, the rich come to spend their millions on world-class pearls, and celebrities fly in for a luxurious sojourn in the vast open spaces. For travellers, it’s always been a difficult nut to crack: croc-infested, almost impossible to travel around without a 4WD, and mostly inaccessible during the wet season (November to March). Yet the rewards are many. Explore the area now, before big business encroaches further.
Riding on a high
It’s only a matter of time before this rough-around-the-edges gentleman of the north gets the traveller attention it deserves. Yorkshire’s local athletes helped the county clock up more medals in the 2012 London Olympics than entire countries such as South Africa, Spain and even the 2016 hosts, Brazil. As if basking in Yorkshire’s glory, last year a poll revealed the North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate was the happiest place in Britain. Bradford has become the world’s first Unesco City of Film, a new state-of-the-art gallery in Wakefield is giving London a run for its money, and Yorkshire now has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other county outside London. In 2014, this welcoming region of rugged moorlands, heritage homes and cosy pubs will be able to hold its head even higher when the Tour de France begins its grand départ from Leeds.
4. Hokuriku, Japan
The crowds are coming…
Hokuriku, on Honshū’s west coast, bordered by the Sea of Japan and the magnificent Japan Alps, is saturated with culture, history and striking natural beauty. The city of Kanazawa is king, but is often overlooked by time-poor visitors who favour the more accessible sights to the east. That’s all about to change. In March 2015, the first of the long-anticipated Hokuriku shinkansen (bullet trains) will roll into town, slashing travel times from Tokyo and giving visitor numbers a meteoric boost. Kanazawa is second only to Kyoto for its population of authentic working geisha. Photogenic districts radiate from the site of the former Kanazawa Castle and Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s finest gardens. Rent a car and explore the dramatic scenery of the Noto Peninsula, or dissolve yourself in the sumptuous waters and incomparable ryokan of the Kaga Onsen area.
Say adiós to your Stetsons: 2014’s message to y’all is that the two extremes of the Texas image – yahooing cowboy country and oil-rich business districts – aren’t the only things cooking up on the multifaceted menu of Lone Star State diversions. For starters, the long-absent scent of greenery is galvanising Texas’ big cities, with Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park getting a 9.3-hectare enhancement, bedizened by hiking trails and promenades, and Fort Worth’s historic heart is being shaken up with a major new plaza (bye, bustling traffic). But oh, the food… Celebrity chefs have breathed new life into Texan tucker, fast food has gone gourmet and authentic Tex-Mex means corn from the Mexican plains for your tortillas and Chiapas beans for your coffee.
6. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Zambia
The falls are back in business
Not only will the raw power of the Victoria Falls blow you away visually, but the sound of its steady violent rumble and the spray that you’ll breathe in and taste – and that will leave you soaked – is an all-round sensory encounter with mother nature. Victoria Falls is shared by the tourist towns of Vic Falls (Zimbabwe side) and Livingstone (Zambia side). Leading into 2014, both were on top of their game after multibillion-dollar makeovers for their role as co-hosts of the 2013 General Assembly of the UN World Tourism Organization. While Zimbabwe may sound like a dicey proposition to many tourists, rest assured things are well and truly back to normal in the town of Vic Falls. Since the US dollar replaced the much-maligned Zimbabwean dollar, the economy has recovered from years of hyperinflation – making 2014 the best time to visit in 15 years. Meanwhile, the past decade has seen laid-back Livingstone take over the mantle as the falls’ premier tourist town.
Growing up gracefully
Some parts of this Spanish Mediterranean island fall squarely into the booze-and-football-chants kind of tourism but over the past few years Mallorca has been busy reinventing itself as somewhere altogether more genteel. Of course, when an island tries to reinvent itself, it helps if it’s breathtakingly beautiful, amazingly diverse and highly cultured. The energetic capital, Palma de Mallorca, is filled with art galleries and fabulous restaurants. The south and east coasts are the home of crystal white-sand beaches and shimmering blue waters that’ll leave you gasping. But it’s the northwest that most defies the clichés of Mallorca. Here the Serra de Tramuntana range, matted with olive groves, pine forests and ochre villages, tumbles almost sheer into a sapphire-coloured Mediterranean.
8. West Coast, New Zealand
Discover new ways into the wilderness
Hemmed in by the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps, the South Island’s remote and sparsely populated West Coast lays claim to three national parks and large tracts of three more, encompassed within a conservation estate covering nearly 90% of its land area. In 2014, the Department of Conservation will open two major cycling and hiking trails in co-operation with local partners, as part of the newly established New Zealand Cycle Trail network. The Cape Foulwind seal colony can be visited on a revitalised walkway, as can the mesmerising mirror lake of Matheson and Hokitika Gorge, a hidden jewel. New paths deftly cut through ancient forest link the villages of Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers to their glacier trailheads. Those who think they’ve seen it all should prepare for some enlivening surprises.
China’s next big thing
This province is a born star – scenically unparalleled and culturally rich, with remote corners still largely unseen. Until recent decades, the northwestern mountains were known only to the minority groups that called them home. Now, turning the birthplace of Mao Zedong into a destination is a Party priority and the province is flush with cash. A gleaming new network of high-speed trains, superhighways and regular direct flights have put Hunan’s cities in easy reach of every major city, domestic and abroad. Both the world’s new tallest skyscraper, Sky City (10m taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), and the first lines of the expansive Changsha Metro are due to be completed by 2014. This comfortable mix of old and new isn’t what you’d expect in China, which is exactly why you should go.
Get there before the word gets out
It would be pretty hard to be much more remote than these 62 islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, way out in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It takes an adventurous sort just to get to Tonga, but to venture to its central island group of Ha’apai, well… What we’re talking about here is lush, reef-fringed islands, swaying palm trees, tropical sunshine, breaching humpback whales, technicolour tropical fish, scintillating sea kayaking, and even a smoking volcano – all amid a sleepy, seductive Tongan outlook on life. Sooner or later, the word is going to get out and we reckon the time to go to Ha’apai is now, before the crowds catch on. When you get there, pat yourself on the back, be like the locals and put a big grin on your face…and don’t worry, be Ha’apai!
* Update, 13 January 2014. Category five Cyclone Ian has devastated the Kingdom of Tonga. A state of emergency has been called, thousands of homes have been flattened or impacted by water. New Zealand has already offered assistance, and more overseas aid may be called upon to help with relief and rebuilding operations. Travellers should seek advice about delaying and/or cancelling any planned travel to the region while the impact to infrastructure is assessed.