Life's a tag: 2012's most surprising holiday destinations - and the best time to visit them
Sunday 29 January 2012
January: Deluxe detox
By Lisa Markwell
Whether you enjoy a trip to L'Albereta depends on whether you like lying on a sun lounger in a verdant landscape, eating rich food and drinking sparkling wine, enjoying all the cultural riches of Italy's Lombardy region. Or whether you prefer instead to sip vinegar, submit to the painful attentions of white-coated health operatives with hands of steel, and spend all day inside in a towelling robe.
The punchline is that at L'Albereta you can do both. But surprisingly, amazingly, the latter is how I am spending a four-day trip and, once over the shock, I love it.
As the month of detox, January sees a steady flow of clients to L'Albereta from nearby Milan and Venice (and as far as Russia and the UK). A family-run hotel, it has a world-class restaurant and an eco-chic gift shop. It also has opulent rooms and stunning surroundings – charming villages around Lake Iseo, stunning churches and seriously good vineyards – but that's for another visit.
I place myself in the care of Henri Chenot; well, his representatives at least. This Frenchman's method of vitalité involves a restricted diet and manual manipulation of the body to rid it of toxins, done with a vigour and attention to detail that gets results.
After a medical consultation (including full bioelectrical and body composition analysis to reveal what I don't know or gloss over), the day starts with – ooh, how lovely – a bubble bath (after a bracing glass of water with apple vinegar). I step in and spend 20 minutes with detoxifying foam up to my chin. Then I doze on a water bed, painted in detoxifying mud and wrapped in plastic, for a further 20 minutes. Next – rude awakening – I stand at one end of a tiled room and get hosed down with a high-pressure water jet. Tears well. Just a pair of paper knickers separates me from utter debasement and only the thought of an hour-long massage separates me from utter despair.
That's until I meet Angelo. Lying face-down in just those pants, hearing a strange thrumming machine start up, I feel mild panic. Then come the cups. The thrumming, the chinking of the glass cups and the weird "schlok" sound as my flesh is pulled into and released from the vacuuming glasses brings more tears, as toxins are manually squeezed out of me.
I am then taught how to breathe properly, as my poor system is not getting enough oxygen. There was me thinking I could at least manage breathing – but thanks to the charm and gentle insistence of my therapist, I learn the error of my ways and quickly feel the difference of flooding my body with the good stuff.
Next, lunch, where the twinkly eyed maitre'd asks, "Champagne?" and fills my glass with lemon-scented water. The dietician brings an intense beetroot risotto and an almond milk pudding with raspberries (plus the promise of a veal steak with spinach for dinner). And with that, I begin to relax, just a facial and a few swims away from bliss.
At the end, my stomach is flatter, my eyes brighter, my skin clearer and I have boundless energy. I've made friends with my body – and, as a bonus, found a corner of Italy that I want to know better.
Room rates at L'Albereta start from €195 (£165) per night (albereta.it). British Airways offers a seven-night fly-drive to Milan from £219pp for travel until 11 September. Price includes return flights from Heathrow and Avis car hire, (ba.com/milan)
More health hot spots
Cleanse mind, body and soul at Himalayan retreat Ananda. Set in the grounds of a Maharaja's palace in acres of forest high above the Ganges, this spa offers tailored programmes of diet, exercise and therapies (audleytravel.com)
Shed those pounds at The Residence on the Tunisian coast – the only residential spa programme that follows the controversial diet regime of the French doctor Pierre Dukan. Hydrotherapy, massage and medical consultations support the programme's tailored Dukan spa cuisine (seasons.co.uk)
Work out your health goals under the guidance of an Olympian-led fitness team at Grayshott, a spa set in a country estate outside London, formerly the home of Tennyson. Includes detox body wraps, hydrotherapy treatments plus gym and spa menu (wellbeingescapes.co.uk)
February: High life
By Andrew Buncombe
It's called World's End, and it is true that the earth does fall away, dramatically so. On a day when the skies are utterly clear, it's said that you can glimpse the Indian Ocean 50 miles away to the south at Hambantota. Even when they are not, you can stand invigorated and gaze down the near-sheer drop to the valley floor below. It is very special.
We've dashed up to Nuwara Eliya to see a friend, Juliet Coombe, a travel writer and author usually based in the coastal city of Galle, who is visiting Sri Lanka's highlands for a field trip. Since she wouldn't be at home, she said, why not come to the former British hill station (altitude: 6,128ft; nickname: Little England) and see her there. There'd be plenty to do: walking, riding, cycling, trips to the tea estates or else stuffing our faces with Sri Lanka's beautiful cuisine.
Five hours in a taxi from our beach-front hotel in the fishing town of Negombo, on a road that twists and turns through clouds and darkness, and we are there. On the first night, as the cold settles in, we have the best of both British and Sri Lankan traditions; catching up with our friend in front of a roaring fire, over a delicious bowl of black pork curry, washed down with a strong, dark, bottled stout.
The following morning we set off for one of the tea estates that still dominate the local economy and are responsible for Nuwara Eliya's existence. Compared, perhaps, with the estates in Darjeeling in India, these are not as steep or dramatic. But they are perfect for a gentle, easy stroll that does not tax the muscles too much, but are enough to sharpen the appetite.
That afternoon, as the monsoon rain settles in, we retreat to a simple restaurant in the town centre where a waiter heaps our plates of rice with three different curries. Afterwards, we eat sweet, sugary cakes from one of a line of bakeries – another lingering influence of the area's colonial history, along with its golf course and High Victorian architecture.
The next morning we decide to make our way towards Horton Plains, a national park that occupies a plateau at around 7,000ft and which is famed for its terrific walks. Go early, we've been told; by lunchtime that rain will be back and you will barely be able to see your hand in front of your face.
We set off on a five-mile circuit at a briskish pace and soon we have come to the famed look-out, said to have a drop of 4,000ft. We gingerly creep to the edge. Down below, we can clearly make out the tea estates and farm fields, flashing in the sunlight. They look a long way off.
Our decision not to linger too long is rewarded. Before our car has returned to Nuwara Eliya, the rain is back, water tumbling in sheets. In the town, people stand shivering beneath the awnings of the shops or dash about their business in plastic smocks. At the hotel, some guests are sitting down for a grand high tea with cream cakes and neat sandwiches, accompanied with large china pots of the local produce. It seems like a fine way to while away a rainy afternoon.
But not for us. By that evening we are already back at the beach, listening to the hustle of the waves. It has been an all-too-brief side trip – we did not even stop at the famed temple town of Kandy – but it has been a lot of fun.
For more: srilanka.travel
More subcontinental specials
Village Ways, the pioneering rural-community tourism organisation, is offering new tours in the Indian provinces of Kerala and Karnataka. Stay in the spice gardens, plantations and tropical backwaters of the south's most colourful region (villageways.com)
Take the Maharaja Express, a luxury train with butler service and a standard-setting sleeper size, with four rail journeys through northern India, covering such sights as the Taj Mahal as well as tiger safaris in Ranthambore National Park (coxandkings.co.uk)
Sublime Sri Lanka
Head to the broad beaches and calm waters of Sri Lanka's east coast for a trip that can take in the colonial capital of Trincomalee and, in some months, the chance to spot 12 species of migratory cetaceans (realholidays.com)
March: Family fun
By Laurence Earle
Like us, you may have missed it as you zig-zagged up the D902 to the mega-resorts of Val d'Isère and Tignes, the linked high-rise honeypots of France's Haute Tarentaise. Like us, you were probably focused on the vast ski area of the "Espace Killy", dreaming of those endless mogul fields – beloved by Brits since the 1930s – or of the infamous celeb-infused high jinks at Dicks Tea Bar. Like us, you probably didn't even see the sign to Sainte-Foy.
But in the three decades since your correspondent first came across this spectacular area of France's jagged Northern Alps, a growing band of discerning skiers has been making fresh tracks towards this relatively new mountain village (the first lifts opened in 1990), sunning itself in an idyllic spot, high above the Isère river – and for the past three years, now with young family in tow, we've joined them.
So why has Sainte-Foy become "our" resort? Our hosts at Venture Ski, the British company that pioneered luxury family-friendly breaks to these parts, call it "the best-kept secret in the French Alps" – but what has it got that its better-known neighbours don't? Well, it can't claim to rival the big boys in terms of ski area – sitting at 1,550m, Sainte-Foy has just 20 or so pistes and three black runs – and though it is famed locally for some of the best powder in the region, if you're looking simply to the chew up the miles, this is not the resort for you.
Instead, what Sainte-Foy has in abundance is old-fashioned charm – the kind that often seems to have disappeared from its brasher rivals, with their sky-high visitor numbers, poured concrete blocks and massive service infrastructure. Instead, this is skiing as it ought to be – a tiny village, nestling just below the treeline, with wooden chalets in traditional Savoyard style (no 1980s architectural excess here), near-empty pistes, non-existent queues, smiling lift-operators, picture-perfect mountain cafés, winding forest trails, and all the phenomenal natural beauty of the Vanoise National Park that surrounds it.
There are challenging runs to be sure, with lifts to the high point of the Col de l'Aiguille (2,620m) opening up a huge off-piste area (described by Ski Sunday's resident daredevil Ed Leigh, no less, as "on any powder hound's to-do list") but Sainte-Foy's real "best-kept secret" is that it is the perfect family resort; there simply could not be a safer, cosier, more child-oriented place to learn to ski – and with two junior downhillers of our own, it's this – plus the absurdly easy rail access from London to nearby Bourg-Saint-Maurice – which keeps this particular family coming back. Judging by the feedback from the other contented parents gathered around the open fire in our gloriously comfortable shared chalet, the word is getting out.
And, being within a half-hour's drive of Val, Tignes, La Rosière and Les Arcs, there are limitless piste-bashing opportunities nearby, with transfers happily provided by Venture Ski's drivers.
We enjoyed our days out – but were always happy to be coming home to our little secret village, and to our welcoming chalet with its hot baths, home-cooked meals and warmly heated pool. Really, who needs Dicks Tea Bar anyway?
More perfect family pistes
At Kinderhotels properties across Austria and the Alps, children as young as two can get out on the slopes. These pretty wooden-chalet-style hotels offer Nappy Courses and kids' clubs, with 60 hours of complimentary childcare plus activities that allow parents guilt-free time in the mountains (kinderhotels.com)
Hotel La Collina, set in the car-free Swiss mountain village of Saas Fee, has spacious family rooms and an on-site crèche and swimming pool, plus easy access to the village's toy train transport and ski school (familyski.co.uk)
Lap of luxury
Take a multi-activity family break to Swedish Lapland, staying at the iconic Ice Hotel or newer Treehotel (architect-designed treehouses). Go on husky-sled and snow-shoe safaris in the boreal forest, plus skiing, ice-fishing and camping in Sami tents (best-served.co.uk)
April: Green glamour
By Mike Higgins
Glamping, that verbal shunt of "glamour" and "camping", is not a pretty word. Which is a pity, because glamping has come to stand for an enormously welcome development in camping: comfort. Over the past decade, the lowly dome tent and clammy sleeping bag have been superseded by yurts, tepees and old-fashioned canvas tents pre-erected and lavishly appointed. I've stayed at a few of these places, and none has bettered Belle Tents in Cornwall – so much so that I've tempted my family and various friends down to this idyll four of the past five summers.
A mile or so outside Davidstow, the Belle Tents site sits at the end of a private, leafy lane. So striking are the tents – each like a circus big top in miniature – that it's a moment before you realise how few of them there are: just six sleeping tents arranged in pairs with a kitchen tent on a terraced and prettily planted gentle slope. A dozen of you could take the whole site. And all you need to bring with is bedding: each sleeping tent (between 12ft and 16ft in diameter) has a twin or double bed, a chest of drawers, raised and carpeted floor (let me repeat that – a tent with a flat, dry floor!). Arrive, pop the sheets on, flop down on the bed and bask in the light that streams through the striped canvas, while revelling in the fact that not only are you "staycationing" (and thus due a postcard of thanks from George Osborne), but you're not chewing up kerosene at 30,000ft (and therefore due a postcard from a polar bear). Next door in the kitchen tent you'll find a table and chairs, work surfaces, a two-ring gas hob, electric fridge, crockery and cutlery (bring a decent kitchen knife with you).
And what's not to like about North Cornwall? Well, the high-season holiday traffic on the bloody A39 for a start. But thankfully you needn't spend too long slogging along that road to get to some fine beaches. My favourite is Trebarwith Strand, 15 minutes away, just west of Tintagel. It hugs a dramatic cliff, and thanks to its geology has big rock pools and impressive caves to explore; the west-facing beach is battered by a formidable surf, too. There's a good pub above it, and a couple of decent ice-cream outlets. (While we're about it, I wouldn't bother with Tintagel – an Arthurian tourist trap, sadly.) Even closer to home is Bodmin Moor; the summer before last we spent a wonderful sunny afternoon at Bowithick on its northern edge, the kids flinging pony poo in the stream, the adults slumped on the picnic blanket. Bliss.
Belle Tents comes into its own in the evening. Hosts Dave and Laura make the tents themselves as their main living, and the bar tent is a monument to their talent: a double-height palace, with a wood-burner, bar, table football, large fridge and ramshackle charm. Light the candles, bring in the meat and fish from the enormous wood-fired grill next door and put the tables together for a big-top feast. If it's warm enough, Dave and Laura might pop round with their guitar and flute and get a sing-song going round the fire-pit.
Perhaps because the campsite is an offshoot to their tent-making business, Dave and Laura don't publicise their campsite much – it's a quiet, magical place, and good value too (you can book the whole site in a deal that works out at £38 per tent per night). And not a glamper in sight.
For more: belletentscamping.co.uk
More glamping sites
Into the wild
Spacious safari-style canvas lodges are offered at Wild Luxury's farm-stay campsite, located close to the sandy beaches of the North Norfolk coast. These decked tents sleep up to six and come with cosy bedrooms, flushing loos and fully equipped kitchens (wildluxury.co.uk)
A gypsy's life for me
Stay in a wooden bowtop gypsy caravan on Bouncers Farm, near Maldon, Essex. These painted wagons, set among a stand of apple trees in a 300-year-old copse, sleep two and come with bender tents/daybeds that double as extra bedrooms (operaintheorchard.co.uk)
Stay in the UK's original ecopod, a geodesic domed boutique retreat between Oban and Fort William on the Scottish west coast. Tents sleep two and come with sleek furnishings and hot tubs. (domesweetdome.co.uk)
May: Island retreat
By John Walsh
Gauguin came to Tahiti in 1891, looking for tropical simplicity and primitive native art. He was disappointed to find the capital, Papeete, too westernised, with too much French government bureaucracy and too much religion, both Catholic and Protestant. The modern traveller may feel similarly disappointed by the town: while the palm trees and pastel churches are lovely, there are too many banks, pizzerias, abandoned cars, graffiti, assorted rubbish.
This isn't the unspoilt jewel of the South Pacific you came to find. So where to go? You could fly for three hours to the Marquesa Islands, where Gauguin breathed his last in 1903. But Nuku Hiva has a reputation for cannibalism and while Hiva Oa offers simplicity, Polynesian tiki gods and carambola trees, there's little to amuse in the evenings beyond the hotel dining-room. You could explore the over-water bungalows, jetskis and themed nightlife of Bora Bora, the island of choice for US honeymooners.
Or you might slake your curiosity about that craggy silhouette you can see brooding in the morning light, just nine miles from Papeete. It's called Moorea.
Ferries from Papeete land at Vaiare, where you can hire a car, head north and circumnavigate the whole island in a day (it's only 40 miles round – you could do it by bicycle). Gradually a soft, seductive Polynesian serenity will settle on you. The encircling coral reef means the glassy Pacific ocean laps at your feet like a spaniel. Six jagged volcanic mountains turn, halfway down, into shaggy green slopes of rain forest, nature evolving from barbaric to benign before your eyes.
On the north side, beneath volcanic crags, two bays cut deeply into the shoreline – Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay. Both feature dazzlingly white beaches, mostly accessible through al fresco bars. Many serve seafood straight from the water (though you're more likely to be offered rotisserie chicken).
Bang in the centre of the island is the Belvedere lookout, a spectacular eminence accessible by car from either bay. Take in the view from the top, all the mountainous majesty and the steep declivity down to the water, and you start to think: jeez, this is utterly gorgeous.
As you drive, you find there's no Moorea Town, no centre, no shopping mall. As a result, you can find shops along the road, selling Polynesian sarongs, chemises and locally caught black pearls.
On my final day, I spend the morning hanging out with manta rays and sharks. The trainer treats the rays like pet dogs; you stand in the sea holding a handful of fish, just below the waterline, and the rays nuzzle you, inquisitively. Their flesh is the softest, clammiest skin – but you must avoid stroking their razor-sharp tails.
At lunchtime, I am invited to a picnic on a private island off the coast at Afareaitu. As a handful of locals play ukuleles, some brave souls dig down into the sandy loam, build a fire, plonk huge, foil-wrapped fish on the glowing embers and cover the whole thing with straw. When it is disinterred, everybody queues around the reeking pit and piles their plates high.
I can't join them – the fishy smell alone would make me retch. But I grab another beer, sit on the water's edge and watch kite-surfers come flying off the top of a wave, and I think, well, it is a bit touristy and the food's a bit pongy – but I can understand why, when James Michener was writing the book that turned into South Pacific, his fictional island of Bali Ha'i was based on Moorea. It's simply your perfect island come to yelping life.
For more: papeete.com/gethere.html
More island paradises
Koh Naka Yai
This private, speedboat-accessed island off Phuket in Thailand is home to the new Naka Island Resort & Spa, with 67 pool-villas set in tropical gardens and coconut groves, with a destination spa (luxurycollection.com)
With 7,100 islands, the Philippines doesn't lack castaway opportunities, but Ariara in the Palawan region offers a pioneering level of barefoot luxury. This 125-acre, reef-fringed island resort, complete with cottages, villas and a main lodge sleeping a total of 20 works as a hotel or exclusive let (ariaraisland.com)
While the world awaits the opening of The World archipelago in the Arabian Gulf, the One&Only resort at the most remote point of Dubai's palm-shaped archipelago offers opulent Moorish-style villas and a three-Michelin-starred restaurant (oneandonlyresorts.com)
June: Midnight sun
By Shaun Walker
Nowhere are the splendours and contradictions of Russia more openly displayed than in its former capital, the city of the Tsars and the city of Russia's revolutions. These days, St Petersburg is just a few hours on a high-speed train from Finland's orderly capital Helsinki, and at times it feels like a logical extension of Europe. At others, you feel you may as well be on a different planet.
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, who was determined to drag Russia kicking and screaming towards Europe, the city was meant to stand against the cruelty, squalor and sheer Eastern-ness of Moscow. The result is a city of Italian-built palaces set on Dutch canals, that is nevertheless unmistakably Russian.
There is no better time to visit than June. Known as the "White Nights", during the 10 days either side of the summer solstice on 21 June the sun does not set until around 1am, and an hour of twilight is all that remains of "night" before the sun rises again. The weak pinkish rays of the midnight sun have a magical effect on the rows of handsome imperial buildings and palaces, their reflections shimmering gently in the canals that crisscross the city.
Like camels storing sustenance in their humps for a gruelling journey ahead, Petersburgers fit a lot of fun into these few weeks of dreamy summertime. At any point of the day or night, you'll see bleary-eyed locals stumbling around looking mildly inebriated; the atmosphere is festive, a two-week party.
More sober entertainments also abound. A minimum of a full day is required for The Hermitage, one of the world's greatest art museums, housed inside one of the world's most splendid palaces: built for the Empress Elizabeth in the 18th century, the Winter Palace is breathtaking both for its opulence and its historical significance. In the room where the Bolsheviks arrested the Provisional Government in 1917, the clock is still stopped at the moment the arrest took place and a Soviet legend was born. Once gawping at the extraordinary interiors has been taken care of, there is the small matter of the art collection, which features everything from ancient Russian icons to 20th-century European masterpieces. In the evening, watch the legendary conductor Valery Gergiev take charge of his home orchestra, the Mariinsky, for an opera or ballet in the decaying sumptuousness of the hall where the Tsars took in a dose of culture.
Everywhere around the city there are conscript sailors, who in their blue-and-white vests and oversized hats look like strippergrams rather than part of one of the world's largest naval forces. New Holland, a triangular island in the centre of the city that has been a closed naval storage facility ever since Petersburg was founded, is now being redeveloped using Roman Abramovich's cash. Eventually it will be a hub for contemporary art, but for the next few summers the majestic red-brick buildings are open for strolls, general lounging and summer cocktails.
The winding canals and arrow-straight boulevards are perfect for meandering walks in the summer light. If you are feeling macabre, you could pack a copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and follow in the tracks of Raskolnikov, as he paces through the city and plans the murder of his victim. For something more upbeat, hop on one of the small boats that wind their way through the canals, and watch the city sweep by.
There are 100 different ways to pass the time during the White Nights. But sleeping is not one of them.
For more: visitrussia.org.uk
More northern highlights
Track snow leopards in Siberia's Altai Mountains, a remote region surrounded by the Russian steppe, bordered by Mongolia. Sightings are extremely rare and the terrain is harsh, but this camping-conservation summer holiday is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (biosphere-expeditions.org)
Beyond the sea
Go sea-kayaking and camping in the St Anna archipelago, one of Sweden's most beautiful water-sports spots – a wild landscape of undeveloped islands, rocks and skerries about 150km south-west of Stockholm (naturetravels.co.uk)
Better by design
Helsinki has been crowned World Design Capital this year, and 300 events are to run throughout the year, including an exhibition of designs by finalists of the prestigious international Index Award (wdchelsinki2012.fi)
July: Great outdoors
By Kate Simon
So, you made it to Europe this summer. All those good intentions about taking a staycation in Britain – still, there's too much risk of rain, isn't there? It's true, you chose one of the rainiest parts of Europe instead, the coast of Cantabria in northern Spain, but, hey, the sun's bound to be hotter than in Scarborough, right?
And the sun did come out today, your very first day, which bodes well. Though it's going down now. But that's all right, as it means it's time to open the wine (which you'd hoped would cost less over here, but that's the euro for you). What's more, you have your own terrace to drink it on.
Admittedly, the view could be better. Where there should be twinkling lights around a bay, you see your neighbours eating their tea. Maybe if you could have stretched to a private villa you'd have got the twinkling lights. But never mind that, you're staying in a mobile home, and it's great – a happy compromise between the backwoodsman in you and your need for creature comforts. And a laudably sober choice in these tough financial times.
After all, holidays aren't supposed to be all about what you stay in; they're about where you go, your spirit of adventure. You can do that even at a holiday park – especially when it's costing less than £150 a head for the week.
In any case, you've got three bedrooms, a shower, a loo, a sofa-bed, a dining table, a kitchen, a barbecue – what more do you need, aesthetics? Well, it doesn't look too bad either, thanks to all that wood veneer. Anyway, you won't be hanging around in there, as it's the location that counts. You're right on Noja beach, and Bilbao and Santander are just up the road.
But tomorrow you're going to have a rest. The kids can go and make some friends and leave you in peace. That's what holiday parks are for, after all. Get stuck in a villa and you have to hire nannies or you can forget about that snooze by the pool. You'll only have to stir if they insist on visiting the pool or the beach. It's the ultimate kids' club.
And the signs are looking good; the Dutch family next door has four (count 'em) children and they've already been circling, clutching footballs and tennis racquets. Who knows, perhaps you'll strike up a friendship across the decking with their parents. You've noticed they drive a Saab. It's one of three you've counted in your "street". Four of the neighbours drive BMWs, don't you know.
Anyway, that's for tomorrow. In a minute you will go and whisk up a flavour of your host nation. You'll chop up that chorizo you bought in the supermarket and those tomatoes that look so ugly they're bound to have come from a smallholding just down the road and taste delicious, and you'll mix it all up with some of the big bag of dried pasta you dug out from under all the luggage that took a blazing row to cram in the boot. So what if this is Spain and pasta's Italian. Relax, you're on holiday – you can always do paella tomorrow.
The writer stayed at Camping Playa Joyel in Noja, Spain, as a guest of Eurocamp (0844 406 0552, eurocamp.co.uk), which this summer offers seven nights from £1,053 for a three-bedroom mobile home with decking, sleeping four adults and four children, including a discount if booked by 22 February 2012. She travelled to Spain with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744, brittany-ferries.co.uk), which has return crossings to Santander for a car and four passengers from £217pp, including accommodation in an en-suite cabin.
More outdoorsy European breaks
A great one for families with teens: take a cycling trip in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland, crossing meadows, mountains, fording streams and vast ravines, with luggage transported on ahead. Accommodation is at characterful mountain hotels (inntravel.co.uk)
Take a family tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a new group holiday that uncovers the natural diversity of this overlooked country, with hiking, biking, rafting and excursions to sites that played a key role in its recent history, such as the Mostar bridge (exodus.co.uk)
Tots in tents
Young families can go on a fully supported 'mini campers' holiday, complete with kit such as Mamas & Papas buggies, cots and booster seats at a select range of family-friendly campsites in France. Campsites are chosen specifically for under-fours (canvasholidays.co.uk)
August: Arctic odyssey
By Sarah Barrell
A 19th-century spirit pervades cruises to the Arctic – though things are a little more civilised than when Sir John Franklin led his ill-fated expedition into the Northwest Passage: with polar ice melting earlier each spring and taking longer to re-freeze in autumn, shipping lanes have become easier to navigate and a tourist season is developing.
It's still pretty pioneering territory: just to get here involves a seven-hour air journey from Montreal to the Arctic city of Iqaluit, then north to Resolute Bay, one of Canada's most northerly commercial airports. From here I board the Inuit-managed, Russian-crewed Lyubov Orlova, one of only two sightseeing ships in the Northwest Passage during my visit (the other ran aground on pack ice).
But we are in safe hands. Our adventure is organised by Cruise North, a company set up by Dugald Wells, a former marine engineer with 30 years of Arctic experience. With local Inuit expedition leader Jason Annahatak in charge, our ship's Zodiac motorboats zip us over mercury-blue waters whose broken ice floe reveals bristly masses of snoozing bearded seals, for daily landings on wild, unnamed beaches. Here the expedition team, equipped with flares, claxons and rifles, sets up sentries on high ground so we can play Arctic explorer without fear of being eaten by polar bears. Mostly this involves gentle hikes to wind-blown headlands where we seek out meadows of shimmering cotton grass and forests of Arctic willow – towering displays of life by Arctic standards, though really they reach no more than a few inches above ground.
Fauna is a bigger matter. To our continued amazement, land excursions get us within a few feet of Arctic hares and giant lumbering musk ox – animals so unaccustomed to our species that they regard us with far less interest they we do them. We scout polar bears several times from the ship's deck, then approach carefully on the Zodiacs, one morning watching a young male consume a bloody breakfast of narwhal.
On Beechey Island we find the graves of four 19th-century seamen who perished during Franklin's fated mission. The remains of the food containers that finally did for them are still strewn about the shore. But further south on the Island of King William it's clear that then, like now, human life can thrive if you know how. In Gjoa Haven, a town of brightly painted prefab houses and dirt tracks, we are welcomed by the yelp and scuffle of tethered huskies. It is summer and while the living is by no means easy, hunting season has passed and school is out. Teenagers line the streets, hooning around on rusty all-terrain vehicles; young mothers compare newborn babies, concealed in the pouches of enormous parka jackets.
With unemployment almost as high as substance addiction in many remote Inuit communities, life is as tough as it ever was. But with tourist interest in the Arctic on the up, low-impact tours such as this, managed by local staff, could spell a glorious age of sustainable exploration for the Northwest Passage and its people.
The writer flew to Montreal with Canadian Affair (canadianaffair.com). Cruise North Expeditions (cruisenorth expeditions.com) offers eight-day tours of the Northwest Passage, sold via Frontier Canada (frontier-canada.co.uk) from £3,212pp. For more: uk.canada.travel
More enticing expeditions
Take an Arctic adventure closer to home with a summer cruise to the Spitsbergen Islands in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway. Geared to families, this trip teaches the basics of wildlife photography, goes polar-bear tracking and calls in at a research community studying boreal weather (discover-the-world.co.uk)
Visit Malaysian Borneo's most biodiverse regions, from the Bako National Park to the remote islands in the Anambas archipelago and the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre for orangutans on a 10-night tour (orionexpeditions.com)
Cruise the Mekong on the new boutique ship 'River Saigon', with just 30 staterooms, colonial-style design and a spa. This 14-night cruise takes in the sights of Vietnam before moving on to Cambodia's Siem Reap, for the temples of Angkor (uniworldrivercruises.co.uk)
September: African adventure
By Daniel Howden
Kigali offers a soft landing in East Africa. Coffee bars, wi-fi and pictures of gorillas are waiting for visitors who might otherwise expect the Rwandan capital to be haunted by its genocidal past. Yet the city's tourist-friendly modernity is a construct behind which a much more troubled country hides – a construct that slowly dissolves as you take in the "land of 1,000 hills" on a journey through the highlands to the shore of Lake Kivu.
It is possible to fly directly to Goma, but a three-hour road trip to the lake on the Rwanda-Democratic Republic of Congo border is a more thoughtful introduction to a part of the world that is made no less beautiful by its sometimes awful past.
The gaggle of taxi drivers parked outside the hilltop airport at Kigali are as laid-back as any you will find in Africa. Hints of the recent turmoil surface when choosing a language to haggle in (£100 one way is a good deal). Officially you should be speaking in English, adopted by the government in a conscious effort to break with Rwanda's Francophone past, but not everyone has found the shift so comfortable, and if you want to talk about more than the price of the ride, the conversation is likely to be in French.
The landscape of terraced slopes, veined with rust-red paths of trodden earth, tells its own story. After 800,000 died during the slaughter 18 years ago, Rwanda's population is now growing so fast it's straining to feed itself, and every clod of earth is needed to grow food.
Descending to the waterfront you will find that the border is not all that divides Gisenyi and Goma, the towns that lie on the same stretch of shore on the great horseshoe-shaped Kivu. While Gisenyi is known for its watersports and brewery, Goma is known for disasters. The town is overlooked by the volcanoes of the Virunga range and twice in living memory eruptions have sent lava pouring down the slopes. But Gomatraciens are nothing if not resilient, and once the lava solidified, residents carved new homes out of the rock, earning their home the moniker of the "town that refused to die".
To cross the border is to trace the footsteps of a million Rwandese who fled the same way in the wake of the genocide in 1994 – and traces of that past are visible in the UN peacekeepers and aid-agency outposts. It makes this an unlikely base to explore the Virungas and their most famous inhabitants, the mountain gorillas – yet the climb on deeply rutted roads out of Goma towards the rangers' station at Rumangabo takes you through a landscape of staggering natural beauty. The station acts as a gateway to Virunga National Park – the oldest and most embattled of its kind in Africa.
Since the park was put under new management four years ago, authorities have struggled to rehabilitate tourist attractions such as its volcano and gorilla treks, which drew visitors in the 1970s but which have had to be wrested from the control of rebel armies and illegal charcoal gangs. The battle between security concerns and natural spectacle tilted back in the park's favour late last year as one of its two active volcanoes, Nyamuragira, put on a show, sending lava showers hundreds of feet into the sky.
For the intrepid, Eastern Congo offers the chance to retrace a darker chapter of central Africa's past, take in the mixed picture of its present and be delivered into an incomparable natural spectacle.
For more: rwandatourism.com
More off-the-beaten-track Africa
Known as the Serengeti of the south before the civil war, Mozambique is fast becoming a destination of choice for beach and big-game. Its Gorongosa National Park has reopened for business and safaris can be paired with a trip to numerous new luxury eco-retreats on its mainland coast and Indian Ocean archipelagos (toescapeto.com)
Cape Verde islands
Want some late-summer sun? With African-Portuguese influence, these islands off the west coast of Africa offer average temperatures of 30C in September (capeverde.co.uk)
A rising safari star. Pioneering safari firm Robin Pope recently opened the Mkulumadzi lodge on a neglected area of the Majete reserve, which is set to become a Big Five park, having reintroduced rhinos, elephants, buffalos and leopards, with lions coming this year (expertafrica.com)
October: Cajun country
By Adam Jacques
It's a bright but wintry afternoon and I'm sat in a rickety wooden motor boat floating through a tiny bayou, 140 miles west of New Orleans. As our guide navigates his way through the swampland, I realise I'm distracted. I could be enjoying the sight of majestic white ibises circling above, but instead I find myself scanning the surface of the water for tell-tale ripples. The reason for my preoccupation is that I'm hoping to spot an alligator. There are more than two million of them in this state, yet for the past hour we've been scouring the shallow swampland around Lake Martin and discovered diddly-squat.
For many visitors to Louisiana it's the city of New Orleans that's the main draw, but there's more to Cajun country than the ramshackle jazz joints and Creole restaurants of the Big Easy.
Back at the bayou, a member of our party points to a spot several metres in front of the boat and cries: "Found one!" We glance ahead and I see a snout poking out of the brackish water. The body of an enormous beaver breaks the surface and paddles away from our wake towards the shoreline; we spend the next few minutes stalking its progress.
After a further day of touring through these wetland areas, there are still no gators (I'm told many are hibernating right now after a particularly cold spell), so I make a beeline for some of the charming, sleepy villages dotted around central Louisiana. The small town of Breaux Bridge – the self-titled Crawfish Capital of the World – is particularly worth a stop. It deserves its name as a culinary hot spot thanks to its mouthwatering jambalaya (a Creole version of paella) and hearty crawfish stews served in its taverns (try Pont Breaux's Cajun Restaurant).
Drive eastwards and you'll find a string of magnificent, restored plantation mansions. I'd read that these grand antebellum homes, which line the River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, formed the heartland of Louisiana's cotton and sugar trade pre-Civil War. Now, though, on a tour of the Houmas House Plantation (no chickpea-based dishes in evidence though the gumbo at the restaurant is rather good), I'm struck by the sanitised way the guide peddles tales of Southern gentleman plantation owners with not a mention of the embittered lives of the countless slaves that made up the bulk of the plantations' population.
No visit to this state would be complete without covering the final 60 miles south-east to the crumbling cemeteries, beautiful decaying Creole townhouses and raucous street bands of Sin City itself. I ignore the neon-bathed tourist trap of the French Quarter's Bourbon Street. Instead, after a wonderful upscale Creole dinner at Eat New Orleans, I head towards the collection of jazz, blues and rock joints on Frenchman Street; the Apple Barrel has such good acoustics that local bands even use this tiny venue for recording.
Several days later I head back out of the city, driving westwards towards the sprawling state of Texas. I may not have come eye-to-beady eye with a half-tonne gator, but taking a detour around the beautiful bayous and plantations lands that lie away from Creole capital is well worth the extra effort.
More American cultural capitals
The US declared war on Britain, a 'second war for independence', 200 years ago. The bicentenary is being commemorated at numerous sites, among the most significant being Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where 'The Star Spangled Banner' was written (visit1812.com)
My kind of town
Host of this year's G8 and Nato summits, Chicago is in the spotlight this year. Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House is gunning for World Heritage Site status, while the Art Institute will stage the first major retrospective of the late Roy Lichtenstein (explorechicago.org)
Ever since the arrival of Art Basel, Miami's cultural improvement has continued apace: 2011 saw the opening of Frank Gehry's New World Center, a home for world symphonias, joining the recently opened Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts (visitflorida.com)
November: Natural wonders
By Matthew Bell
My aunt never liked jelly. It was to do with growing up in the 1950s, and being forced to eat it. Only years later, when she tried it for herself, did she find that she loved it. Well, Argentina is sort of my jelly. I've been going for years – because I'm half-Argentinian – and though I've always enjoyed it, like my aunt, it took me a long time before I first tried it.
These days, though, I'm a believer. There's an old joke that says God created France and then, seeing it was too perfect, gave it the French. The "perfect" part is also true of Argentina – it has every landscape, but on steroids: mountains for skiing, miles of wild coast, a capital city part-modelled on Paris, and even a top wine-growing region, in Mendoza.
It's five times the size of France, a huge fillet steak of a country, stretching 2,268 miles from top to bottom, with Chile running down the side, like a rind of fat. You can fit Wales into it 144 times.
So the first rule is: allow plenty of time. Two weeks is a start. Getting to Buenos Aires from London takes about 13 hours, if you fly direct with British Airways, though cheapskates like me, seduced by Iberia's cut prices, will end up trapped in Madrid on the way there and back.
The second tip: don't bother with the pampas. It may be the famous heart of Argentina, the open space that produces the best beef, but once you've seen a flat, browning field edged by dykes, there isn't much else. Sure, hire a horse and gallop about for a day or two, or watch the storks fishing, but for real excitement, head to Argentina's extremities.
Start with the Andes, in the West, which runs the length of the Chilean border. San Martin de los Andes is an ideal base in the foothills: a quiet wood-cabin town on the shore of Lake Lacar full of good restaurants and cosy hotels. Take the ferry over the lake and trek into the forest to bathe in the hot thermal waters, the Termas de Queñi – it's just a stream in a wood, but hot as a bath. Set off early or you'll miss the boat home – I was lucky to hitch a ride home with the last ranger leaving the woods.
For mountains proper, catch a bus south to Bariloche, a bigger town on the banks of Lake Nahuel Huapi. It's a ski resort in winter, a hip student hang-out in summer. From here, head for the mighty Tronador, an extinct volcano and the highest peak in the region, at 3,740m. An 8:15am bus takes you to the base, then it's a day's hike to the top, where for 60 pesos (£8), you can sleep at the Otto Meiling Refuge, a red-painted hut overlooking the massive Castaño Overa Glacier. The meltwater that runs off creates a dramatic waterfall, while condors swoop lazily overhead.
For the finest water feature of all, head back to Buenos Aires, and catch a plane to the Iguazu Falls, up on the border with Brazil. After winding down through Brazil, the Iguazu river literally falls off a cliff, with spectacular results. It's South America's answer to Niagara, without the commercialisation. True, it's now a well-managed tourist attraction, but the setting is totally wild. Stay in the small town on the Argentinean side, Puerto Iguazu, and allow two days to see the falls, first from Argentina, then from the Brazilian side.
Round off any trip to Argentina with a weekend in Buenos Aires, where you can eat your body weight in beef, then dance off the calories at night. They call it the Paris of the south; actually, it's better.
For more: allaboutar.com
More of the Americas
Eco-lodge Mashpi is set to put the little-known Ecuadorian cloud forest firmly on the tourist map. Opening in April 2012, it is set in a private rainforest reserve that sits in the cloud forest, a unique tropical/subtropical zone below the Andes and above the Amazon, just two hours west of Quito (mashpilodge.com)
Tourist numbers have rocketed by 40 per cent in the past year and the country's Amazon region is back on the must-do list for active travellers, complete with community tourism projects that allow visitors to stay deep in the jungle with local tribes (meridian72.com)
This winter heralds the start of a solar maximum – the sun's 11-year cyclical peak that produces a frenzy of activity from the Aurora Borealis, brightest around the Arctic Circle at destinations such as Fairbanks, Alaska (travelalaska.com)
December: Adrenaline sports
By Robin Barton
Hobart's new North-South (cycle) Track uncoils straight from the parking lot near the summit of Mount Wellington. It sweeps past eucalypts so tightly that handlebars have gouged grooves in their hairy bark, wraps around volcanic rocks, and blasts through giant, fallen trunks.
But, following the wheel of my guide, Rob Potter, there's no time to glimpse Hobart through the trees as we descend the 10km to Glenorchy Bike Park in a northern suburb of Tasmania's capital city. "City" is perhaps stretching the definition: Hobart condenses the best features of, say, Vancouver, into a forest-fringed, coastal community of 200,000 "Taswegians", as locals are known to mainland Aussies. Down here, the ocean is gin-clear and the pristine air adds miles to your eyesight.
Though sunset sea-kayaking tours of its harbour are a popular way to end the day and locals prize the proximity of World Heritage wilderness, unlike neighbouring New Zealand, Hobart has never sold itself hard on adventure tourism. That's changing now: the North-South Track, which opened in December, is a 10.5km link for mountain bikers between South Hobart's cloud-covered peak and North Hobart, financed by the city council. More, hopefully, will follow.
And the state has a new mountain-bike guiding firm, VertigoMTB, launched by the ebullient Buck Gibson last October to help spread the word.
"Hobart will surprise so many people – it's no longer a backwater," says Gibson, with some justification. For the city has gained not only a beautiful addition to the lattice of unofficial tracks girdling Mount Wellington, it has also staked its place on the cultural map with one of the world's great modern-art galleries, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), the gift of art-loving millionaire gambler David Walsh to his hometown.
Most would agree Mona has done more than a humble bike trail to transform Hobart in one year, with its no-holds-barred, £65m collection of provocative contemporary art, antiquities and iconic Australian pieces displayed in a fantastic subterranean labyrinth. Add a clutch of world-class wineries nearby and a fast-evolving food scene, and Hobart seems an all-but-perfect weekend destination – were it not 10,000 miles away.
The solution is to combine a trip to Tasmania with a longer stay in Australia. Conveniently, Gibson hosts a Hobart Weekender, which includes a guided ride on the North-South Track, a visit to Mona and, quite possibly, a Cascade or two, the local beer. Breakfast on Jay Patey's sourdough at his Pigeon Hole café in West Hobart and dine at Garagistes, owned by the René Redzepi-influenced chef Luke Burgess and friends, and you've experienced the best of Hobart.
As we descend, the North-South Track becomes faster and dustier, dirt berms replacing rocks and logs. Lower down the mountain, the eucalyptus species change; more of the afternoon sun filters through smooth-skinned snowgums. I glimpse black cockatoos cracking seeds in the trees. A wallaby bounces into the bush. Riding back up, I'm assured, you get more time to look around – but I have an appointment with a Cascade to keep.
VertigoMTB Hobart Weekender includes use of a full-suspension mountain bike, entrance to Mona, and one night's stay at the Old Woolstore Apartment Hotel. From £535pp (vertigomtb.com.au)
More antipodean adventures
Oz the great
Take in Australia's epic landmass aboard the Southern Spirit, a six-day rail journey from Adelaide or Melbourne to Brisbane, or vice versa, covering 2,810km as it winds its way through South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland (greatsouthernrail.com.au)
Walk the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa 3,000km trail, from Cape Reinga on the North Island to Bluff on the South, taking in coastline, forests, volcanoes, mountain passes, river valleys and seven cities (teararoa.org.nz)
West is best
Western Australia's Kimberley region has a slew of luxury safari-style camps and ranches opening this year, all connected by the Kimberley Aerial Highway, which links 14 regional hot spots with light aircraft and bush airstrips (bridgeandwickers.co.uk)
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