Monday, January 04, 2010

Forty places to change your world

Clare Dight

Fishing boats at Lake Malawi. Peter Groendijk / Getty Images

From Doha, this year’s Arab Capital of Culture, to the wilds of Malawi, here is how to spend your time (and money) in the New Year.

Where did you unroll your beach towel last year? If all you took away from a two-week summer break was a tan, you simply weren’t trying hard enough. In 2009, seeking out new experiences rather than sun loungers, was high up on travellers’ wish lists. In fact, the world’s financial woes may have completed a process that the internet kick-started years ago: most of us no longer want an off-the-shelf package holiday. Instead, a trip starts weeks or months before departure, squirrelling around online to find the best deals and experiences that will be personally rewarding.

As Tom Hall, the travel editor of Lonely Planet puts it: “As people get better travelled, they are keen to do something that distinguishes their trip from their next-door neighbours.”

It’s a trend that’s recognised by Justin Francis, the managing director of, an online travel agent. Booking patterns have changed over the past 12 months away from beach holidays at classic sun spots such as Turkey, Francis says, to activity-based trips requiring more effort such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Top tip on what to avoid in 2010, then: the ghastly travel bore.“Travel is becoming less about ticking off lists of places and things, and more about fulfilment, rejuvenation and testing goals that are physical, emotional and spiritual,” he says.

The more discriminating tourist looks set to stay for the coming decade. Exodus has seen increased interest in its polar programme despite a hefty price of between US$4,800 (Dh17,630) and $40,000 (Dh147,000). Rob Dixon, the marketing manager at the specialist tour operator says that family holiday bookings to more remarkable destinations such as Namibia are also up for 2010. “People really want to take their children somewhere more stimulating than usual,” he explains.
With this in mind, destinations will have to work hard to convince potential holidaymakers that they can offer something unique and worthwhile, and Abu Dhabi – chosen as a hot destination for 2010 by Lonely Planet and Frommer’s travel guides – will be among them.With a new global advertising campaign, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority says it hopes to attract 10 per cent more hotel guests in 2010. Whether such an influx of guests will be enough to lend desperately needed atmosphere to new hotel restaurants, bars and lobbies remains to be seen.

The Middle East was the only region to record a growth in passenger numbers last year, up 10 per cent compared with a 3.1 per cent fall in air travel globally according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. If travellers elsewhere were cutting flights abroad in response to the economic downturn, locally, it seems, we bucked the trend. That’s assuming, of course, they were buying return tickets.

The museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Ryan Carter / The National

The national airline of the UAE, Etihad Airways, and its tour operator, Etihad Holidays, are optimistic that business will continue to expand. As the airline competes with more established Asian and European carriers, it is launching new routes to Japan from the end of March and destinations across the US are set to open up via Chicago and New York. These routes will help lure travellers from the UAE to these destinations. More established, short-haul destinations such as Beirut, Cairo, Amman and Damascus will surely increase in popularity according to Wayne Pearce, the chief strategy and planning officer at Etihad.

Best of all, holidaymakers who can be flexible with their dates should continue to enjoy lower prices, particularly if they can take advantage of discounts aimed at boosting sales on new and less popular routes, Pearce says. “Prices on the whole are significantly less than they have been in the past and that has been a function of the recession; that worldwide customers have had extremely good deals ... In 2010, there will be many opportunities for people to travel at an affordable rate.”

A view of the Bosphorus and the Yeni Mosque. Nicole Hill / The National

1 One of the world’s most interesting and lovely cities, Istanbul, has been crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2010 ( There will be a panoply of events both large and small to mark the occasion, but if you can’t get tickets – or summon the energy – to appreciate “World Puppets in Istanbul” (March 21 to 26), there’s always a boat trip along the Bosphorus to admire the city where east meets west.

2 Two very different capitals are celebrating two contrasting anniversaries in 2010. This year marks the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Nara, Japan’s first capital, known then as Heijo-kyo, in 710. Many of its surviving Buddhist temples and shrines such as Todai-ji have Unesco world heritage status and are holding special exhibitions to celebrate the city’s cultural and religious significance (

3 Brasília, the modern capital of Brazil turns 50 this year and remains the only 20th-century city to have been given cultural heritage designation by Unesco. It’s a destination that will appeal most to lovers of concrete, thanks to bold builidings such as the Santuário Dom Bosco and numerous works by the architect, Oscar Niemeyer. In spite of the city being home to government bureaucrats, it has a thriving arts and food scene. Dine well on fine fusion cuisine at ZUU a.Z.d.Z (

4 Thanks to swine flu, Mexico suffered more than most holiday destinations in 2009. This year, however, the country is hoping for a comeback, with hotel rates in Mexico City cut by up to 50 per cent. Two hundred years after the country declared independence from Spain, 2010 has been declared the “year of the nation” but, if the usual round of celebratory shows doesn’t appeal, time your visit for the spring equinox (March 20-21) when thousands gather at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza to witness the sun hit El Castillo pyramid in a peculiar light show.

5 Every two years foodies descend on Turin for the original Slow Food Festival, the Salone del Gusto, which celebrates the art of cooking and the enjoyment of local, often hand-produced food. This year’s show runs from October 21 to 25 ( and will welcome some 180,000 visitors determined to seek out tasty treats from around the world.

6 In spite of ongoing political tensions and sporadic violence, Beirut has enjoyed something of a tourism renaissance since parliamentary elections held in June last year passed off peacefully. Known for its cosmopolitan and lively party scene, designer shopping and fine restaurants, Lebanon’s capital just added a new attraction: the boutique Le Gray Hotel in the downtown Solidere district ( Next week another plush hotel, a Four Seasons, will open ( – proof that the city’s star looks set to keep rising.

7 Finally free from a bloody, 26-year civil war, the beautiful island nation of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean is hoping to attract more tourists this year than ever before. Some parts of the country are still deemed to be too dangerous for tourists to enter, but there is still plenty to enjoy from great surfing at Arugam Bay, admiring the temples of Anuradhapura, and leopard spotting in the Yala National Park.

8 If you can do without home comforts, sign up for a 10-day trek up Mount Damavand, a legendary 5,600m-high, snowcapped volcano in Iran with Explore for $1,800 (Dh6,600) per person, land-only (, departing from July to August. Starting with a tour of the sights of the capital, Tehran, the group ascends the Touchal mountains before a day’s acclimatisation at Damavand base camp and the attempt on the summit itself. For up-to-date travel advisories on Iran, visit

9 Classified as moderate in the exertion stakes, get fitter on a nine-day bike ride through Jordan taking in desert scenery and olive groves as well as the must-see sights of Petra and Wadi Rum. The soft of thigh can hitch a ride in a 4x4 should the going get too tough and relax by the Dead Sea. The trip costs $1,196 (Dh4,400) per person, land only and leaves from March to May, October to December. To book, visit

10 Guests at the new Banyan Tree al Wadi in Ras al Khaimah will gaze across the desert from their pool villas in the Wadi Khadeja, a 100-hectare private nature reserve. There are nature walks, falconry demonstrations, bird watching, bike rides and archery should the view of the dunes become too soporific. Book two nights and receive a complimentary night from $630 (Dh2,311) per night, including breakfast and taxes; offer valid on stays until February 28 (

11 President Obama’s charismatic presence on the world’s political stage has helped to make the US a hot destination for tourists once again. Hotel prices in New York and Vegas may have plunged but there are also other destinations vying for attention and 2010 could be the year for exploring further afield. Charleston, home of southern charm, and up-and-coming Portland, Oregon, are among those deserving a closer look.

12 The capital of Qatar, Doha, set its sights on becoming a must-visit destination for culture junkies at the end of 2008, when it unveiled the Museum of Islamic Art designed by IM Pei, now home to some 800 artworks and historical treasures. A local Tribeca Film Festival studded with Hollywood stars swiftly followed, so it’s not unexpected that in 2010, it’s Doha’s turn to hold the title Arab Capital of Culture as designated by Unesco. New attractions will include a cultural village for arts performances.

13 From late March, Etihad Airways begins flying direct to Tokyo, making 2010 a great year to explore Japan from the UAE. The high-rise capital now has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris – a total of 11 – and Japan has one of the most efficient rail networks in the world, so it’s easy to tour the country’s many other highlights, including Kyoto. A return flight from Abu Dhabi to Tokyo costs from $1,212 (Dh4,455) return, including taxes.

14 No longer loitering at the top of “world’s most expensive” lists, perennially hip London is cheaper than it has been for years thanks to the weak pound. While still stretching the concept of good value, shopaholics can spend what they saved at Selfridges department store at the soon-to-be reopened Savoy on the Strand. The art deco landmark has been given a $160m (Dh587m) facelift and costs a mere $560 (Dh2,053) per night, including breakfast (

15 Often overlooked and overshadowed by its larger and louder neighbours, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, economically impoverished Malawi has many riches to offer visitors keen to have a wild holiday. Try horseriding by Lake Malawi, crocodile and bird spotting on the Shire river at the Liwonde National Park or hiking up Mount Mulanje ( A double room at Nkhotakota Safari Lodge on the shores of Lake Malawi costs from $102 (Dh375) per day, full board (

16 Hardly short on cultural attractions, Rome is set to welcome yet another striking museum – the Maxxi – designed by Zaha Hadid, in the Italian capital’s Flaminio district. Dedicated to 21st century art and architecture, Anish Kapoor, Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter and Grazia Toderi are among those whose work will be displayed when it opens in the Spring.

17 - 18 Malaysia and Thailand have long wooed visitors from the UAE, thanks to relatively short flight times and the fact that they represent value for money. Etihad Airways ( currently flies twice a day to Bangkok with connections via Bangkok Airways, a codeshare partner, down to Koh Samui and Phuket; and it has plans to extend this network to Chiang Mai this year. Air Asia (, the low-cost carrier, now flies from Abu Dhabi to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

19 Once famous for high prices, Iceland is yet to recover after the financial meltdown it suffered last year, and now is still a good time to enjoy its landscapes and hospitality. To maximise fun and keep out cold, join Reykjavik’s street party for the Airwaves music festival which takes place in the long Arctic nights. Stay tuned to for news about the event in 2010.

20 The former British colony of Guyana once had a reputation for political instability but the small country is hoping to build a more positive future thanks to eco-tourism. Visitors should seek out the natural beauty of the Kaieteur National Park ( with its famous waterfalls dropping 250m over a cliff into the rainforest, and visit the Rupununi Savannas, shared by Amerinidian villagers and a spectacular array of exotic birds and wildlife. For more information, visit

21 From October 3 to 14, Delhi in India will host the 19th Commonwealth Games ( The city is busy smartening up its act – discouraging beggars, improving its metro rail system and reviving the commercial centre – in preparation for welcoming up to 100,000 sports fans. There are reports that some hotels may not be completed in time so book early to avoid a night out under the stars.

22 All eyes will be on South Africa when the Fifa World Cup kicks off on June 11, but it’s likely to be Cape Town that wins. Known as the Mother City, the coastal destination is a real gem, with art galleries and museums to showcase its multiethnic history, Table Mountain for nature enthusiasts and seafood for the rest. In keeping with the trendy vibe, a Hotel Missoni is due to open in the Spring ( Both Emirates ( and Etihad Airways ( fly to Cape Town daily from US$1,088 (Dh 3,995) return, including taxes.

23 Tunisia bucked the recessionary trend last year, and was one of the few spots that enjoyed growth in its tourism industry. It’s tipped to do well again this year as many travellers remain cautious about opening their wallets and much of Europe remains off-limits thanks to the strong euro. From July 15 until mid-August, 16km from Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, Carthage is the setting for the country’s biggest arts event that takes place in its Roman amphitheatre (

24 Costa Navarino, a $1.4bn (Dh5.3bn) resort has slowly been taking shape in the wilds of Messina in the Greek Peloponnese and the first hotels are due to open in May ( There is a emphasis on family fun with a Westin Resort being one of the first of 11 hotels to open in June. A double room costs from $490 (Dh1,795) per night, including breakfast and taxes ( Etihad Airways flies direct to Athens, two hours from the resort, from $650 (Dh2,385) return, including taxes (

25 There will be a total eclipse of the sun on July 11, but unfortunately it will be visible only if you are drifting somewhere in the South Pacific. The Moon’s shadow will strike land in the Cook Islands and Easter Island before disappearing off the coast of Chile. You will be able to see a partial eclipse elsewhere but for full smug points, sign up with Explore ( for a seven-day tour of Easter Island from Santiago de Chile, spending four days on Easter Island itself, with the services of an astronomer. The trip costs $6,290 (Dh23,100), per person, land only.

26 From February 12 to 28, the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games will make itself at home in Vancouver, taking to the slopes of Whistler for the alpine events ( If stamping your feet for warmth as you cheer on the athletes doesn’t appeal, visit later in the year to appreciate the city’s beaches, parks and mountains. You can go orca (killer whale) spotting off Canada’s coast around Vancouver Island during the spring and summer (

27 The luxurious Indian Maharajas’ Express train will slide out of its sidings in Mumbai for the first time next week, and promises to pamper its guests. At $800 (Dh2,940) per person, per night, full board, in a standard deluxe cabin, the ride isn’t cheap, but the experience promises to be memorable as the train takes in the highlights of Rajasthan, Kolkata, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and more (

28 Taking reservations from May, the W Retreat and Spa on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques will be hoping to attract a cool crowd to its trendy bars and white beaches. There are all the usual palm-fringed attractions of a luxury Caribbean hideaway, plus a restaurant claimed by the Michelin-starred chef, Alain Ducasse. If you tire of lounging, go kayaking or scuba diving in the bioluminescent bay. A double room costs from $490 (Dh1,800) room only, including taxes (

29 Polo fans will doubtless love Coworth Park in Ascot, a five-star hotel set in 80 hectares of Surrey parkland that’s due to be opened by the Dorchester from September. The Georgian house has one, two and three-bedroom suites, a subterranean spa, archery, and an equestrian centre providing stabling for up to 40 horses and polo fields for those keen for some stick and ball. A double room costs from $816 (Dh2,998) including taxes (

30 Le Royal Monceau, one of Paris’ great hotels, reopens its doors in the 8th Arrondissement, just minutes from the Arc de Triomphe, on May 15. Since it first opened in 1928, the hotel has welcomed the likes of Winston Churchill, President Eisenhower, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as modern celebrities such as Madonna. The new-look hotel, designed by Phillippe Starck will have 152 spacious rooms and suites, landscaped gardens, an indoor pool and a cohort of private butlers. A double room costs from $1,050 (Dh3,854) per night (

31 - 32 Hot on the heels of the reopening of La Mamounia in Marrakech last autumn, the city is soon to welcome two more luxurious retreats: the Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma ( away from the city centre in the lush Palmeraie oasis, and the Royal Mansour ( a collection of 53 traditional riads just inside the Medina. The Mandarin Oriental, due to open in the Spring, has an Ottoman-style spa, landscaped gardens and views of the Atlas Mountains; prices are yet to be confirmed. The Royal Mansour, which has riads for individual hire from $2,245 (Dh8,245) per night, promises the finest Moroccan craftsmanship. Both offer fantasy 1,001 Nights-style.

33 A year later than promised, the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building at 124 storeys and 818m high, is finally being inaugurated on January 4 ( to much fanfare. Fashion designer Giorgio Armani has chosen a few storeys of the towering glass edifice as the home of the first Hotel Armani (, with another tasteful emporium of taupe and grey, signed off by the master, expected to open in the centre of Milan later this year.

34 Spot the difference: the world’s tallest hotel tower, the Rose Rayhaan by Rotana, one of the hotel group’s new brand of alcohol-free resorts, is set to open on Sheikh Zayed Road, next to the DIFC metro station in Dubai next week. Small fry compared to the Burj Dubai at only 333m tall, the hotel will have 482 rooms on 72 floors. There’s an introductory rate of $131 (Dh480) per night, including taxes, for a double room (

35 The Waikato Trail, a 100km bike trail that winds its way through the bush, forests and along in the Waikato River on the North Island in New Zealand is due to be completed in October. Eventually, it will be one of seven trails covering around 300km of the country to encourage visitors to tour from sight to sight by bike ( The more adventurous can try thundering down the 42 Traverse, a hair-raising, 46km cycle trail passingthree volcanos in the Tongariro National Park (

36 The dust sheets come off the legendary Hotel Cipriani in Venice this year after a three-year renovation to spruce up its 95 rooms and suites. One of its restaurants, Cip’s Club, is well-known for panoramic views of St Mark’s Square and the wonderfully named Casanova Wellness Spa now includes a hammam and a new couples’ cabin for treatments à deux. The hotel is open from April to November this year; a double room costs from $854 (Dh3,136) per night, including breakfast and taxes (

37 Shanghai, China’s most high-tech and futuristic city, will be home to Expo 2010 from May 1 to October 31. So far, 192 countries have confirmed that they will show at the huge exhibition, which has the grand theme “Better City, Better Life”, with pavilions from as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Absorb lessons on sustainable living then sip a drink at a designer rooftop bar.

38 Newly independent Montenegro is the latest destination to be given the tag “the new Riviera” thanks in part to its starry past connections – Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe added glamour to the island of Sveti Stefan in the 1950s – as well as the more recent development of Porto Montenegro, a new marina-cum-resort for super yachts that has sprung up in an old naval base at Tivat. With pretty Venetian architecture and an unspoilt Adriatic coastline, it’s no wonder that both Banyan Tree and Four Seasons are developing hotels here. For more information, go to

39 The host of new rail links that opened across Europe at the end of last year, means that taking the train is no longer just for back-packing students. High-speed links have cut the times between Milan and Rome, Rome to Turin, and Rome and Milan to Naples in Italy aboard the Frecciarossa or Red Arrow (; and across the continent, travel times fell significantly on Thalys’ routes between Brussels and Amsterdam, Brussels and Cologne and Paris to Cologne ( Ticket prices are reasonable too.

40 Chopin is thought to have been born on March 1, 1810 in Warsaw, and the Polish capital will celebrate the bicentenary of the great composer with a series of concerts from February 22 to March 1. Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim will be among the many famous musicians accompanying the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century ( Tickets cost from $35 (Dh129) at Warsaw’s Frederyk Chopin Museum is also due to reopen in March just in time for the anniversary (


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