Hottest Travel Destinations of 2012
There's always someplace new on the horizon. From southern China to Arkansas, here are the must-see travel destinations of 2012.
Imagine lazing in a hammock on a remote beach in Panama, where boldface names like Angelina Jolie and Michael Jordan have been spotted. It’s a trip within reach—rustic-but-stylish hotels start at $99—and a country that’s remaking itself for 2012.
Discovering new destinations might seem next to impossible, but one of the wonders of travel is that there’s always someplace new on the horizon. And even when you think you know a place, there’s a hidden side ripe for exploration. To uncover 2012’s most exciting destinations, T+L crisscrossed the globe, bringing back everything from Toronto’s new hot spots to secluded resorts in northern Mozambique.
Some of our picks reflect travelers’ increasing thirst for adventure and desire to immerse themselves in local ways. “Our clients are interested in remote, off-the-beaten-path destinations that still retain their traditional culture,” says Scott Wiseman, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA.
Take Xishuangbanna, at the foot of the Himalayas in China’s southern Yunnan province. Though often overlooked in favor of Lijiang and Tibet, it’s home to an ethnically diverse population that still follows age-old customs—making it the place to get a cultural fix without the crowds. And a luxurious new Anantara resort means roughing it is not required.
Looking for something even more remote? It’s hard to top Corumbau in Brazil’s southern Bahia. The original inhabitants named it "far from everything" for good reason: a sojourn requires a bone-rattling, four-hour drive from the nearest airport. The rewards—deserted beaches, super-fresh seafood—make up for the journey.
For each destination, we’ve provided a breakdown of the kind of traveler it’s well suited to, the best time to go, and how to get there. Not all the destinations for 2012 are exotic and far-flung. Cutting-edge architecture and youthful creative energy are driving a renaissance in Guimarães, one of Portugal’s oldest cities.
Culture is also making over places such as Bentonville, AR, which Walmart heiress Alice Walton has graced with a free world-class museum of American art on 120 wooded acres.
Whether you’re a jet-setting sybarite, a design buff, or a thrill-seeking flashpacker, the places we’ve collected here will inspire you to make 2012 a year of new discoveries. —Jennifer Chen
Sri Lanka’s lush hill towns and pristine beaches have long appealed to a certain breed of worldly traveler, but the flare-ups of the country’s brutal on-again, off-again 26-year civil war kept all but the most devoted of them away. The conflict ended three years ago, and as a prolonged peace finally takes hold, this Indian Ocean island is on the cusp of a tourism boom.
Sri Lanka’s beach-lined southern coast, centered around the popular town of Bentota, is the country’s strongest draw—and big developers are moving in. The Minor Hotel Group chose the area to debut its sister brand to Anantara with last month’s launch of the 75-room Avani Bentota Resort & Spa (94-34/227-5353; doubles from $180) in a restored Geoffrey Bawa–designed building. A second Avani, a Six Senses resort, and a Shangri-La property are also in the works.
In the meantime, a handful of designers have opened boutique hotels, including the 15-room Villa Bentota (doubles from $224), the latest project from Sri Lankan tastemaker Shanth Fernando. Farther south, in Beliatta, Hong Kong decorator Niki Fairchild has turned a century-old house into the glamorous five-suite Maya (94-47/567-9025; doubles from $170).
In the northwest, an ambitious government scheme aims to transform the Kalpitiya peninsula into the country’s next big resort destination. Until those plans are realized, the laid-back Bar Reef Resort (94-777/352-200; doubles from $125) has airy cabanas and a quiet one-mile beach.
Perhaps the biggest peace dividend has been the reopening of the leopard- and elephant-filled Wilpattu National Park, in the northwest. Stay at the two-year-old Ulagalla Resort (doubles from $374), which has 20 thatched-roof bungalows on 58 acres an hour from the park. —Jennifer ChenThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Beach lovers with a yen for culture and wildlife.
How to Do It: Many international airlines fly to Colombo, though none directly from the States.
When to Go: Nov.–April
Exotic Factor: Foreign/Far-Flung
If all you know of Toronto is that it’s clean, safe, and able to double for New York City on film, then you haven’t been here in a while. The city has undergone a dramatic change in the past few years, led by remarkably hip restaurant, fashion, and nightlife scenes. Three locals give T+L their take on Toronto’s new style. —Jonathan Durbin
Cameron Bailey, Codirector of the Toronto International Film Festival
What characteristics would you identify as uniquely Torontonian?
We’re voracious cultural consumers. To be well-versed in both vintage dub reggae and different kinds of hot sauces from Asia is totally normal here.
Where do the film-industry players hang out during the festival?
The Hazelton Hotel’s One Restaurant (416/961-9600; dinner for two $250) is the hot spot. Locals like quieter places; Bar Italia (416/535-3621; dinner for two $95) is where director Atom Egoyan eats.
Has the city upped its style game?
Men’s style here used to be jeans and a lumberjack jacket. Now there are boutiques and tailor-made clothes.
The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 6–16).
Matt George, Owner of the Men’s Clothing Boutiques, Nomad, and the Speakeasy-Style Goodnight Bar
What would you say is changing the city’s sensibilities?
There’s a huge community of new immigrants. We’ve got the largest Indian, Pakistani, and West Indian populations outside of London, creating a melting pot of ideas.
What are your favorite restaurants?
I love Woodlot (647/342-6307; dinner for two $75) and the Harbord Room (dinner for two $125). They’re real Canadiana—traditional and contemporary food. My go-to sushi spot is Sushi Kaji (416/252-2166; dinner for two $220) in a suburban strip mall in Etobicoke.
Emily Haines, Lead Singer of the Canadian Rock Band Metric
What do you think is driving the city’s recent transformation?
Torontonians are great travelers. We’re aware of what’s happening internationally and bring these things back—but make them our own.
Where do you like to see music?
And for a drink afterward?
If I tell you then I won’t be able to go anymore! If forced, I’d say Communist’s Daughter (647/435-0103; drinks for two $12). They serve pickled eggs.
Metric’s as-yet-untitled fifth album will be out this spring.The Breakdown
Who It’S For: Film-industry types; foodies; tastemakers and fashionistas.
When To Go: April/Oct.
How To Do It: Fly in to Pearson International or the Toronto City airport.
Exotic Factor: Familiar
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
A string of 32 islands just south of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has long been an under-the-radar getaway for the jet-setting elite. But recent developments—including a $240 million airport set to open on St. Vincent next year—are making the region accessible to a broader audience. Built on volcanic black sand, the new Buccament Bay Resort (St. Vincent; 877/502-2022; doubles from $1,024, all-inclusive, three-night minimum) has 90 light-filled villas that gaze out on a secluded white-sand beach. Twenty miles south, tiny Mustique remains a playground for the likes of Mick Jagger and Tommy Hilfiger (and was a runner-up honeymoon pick for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge). A handful of new villas are now available to rent from the Mustique Company (villas from $7,000 per week), including the four-bedroom Mimosa, a contemporary affair with a pebbled infinity pool, private chef, and dedicated utility vehicle for exploring the isle. A more affordable option is the four-bedroom Liselund, on a hillside overlooking the sea. Nearby, the 44-year-old private-island resort of Petit St. Vincent (doubles from $1,050, all-inclusive) has reopened after a top-to-bottom makeover: 22 stone-walled, thatched-roof cottages are done up in earthy tones and driftwood palapas now line the beach. There’s also a waterside restaurant and a tree-house-style spa, where an open-air hot-stone massage is the perfect end to the day. —David SwansonThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Privacy-seeking island hoppers.
When to Go Nov.–Feb.
How to Do It: Fly into Barbados and catch a connecting flight to the islands.
Exotic Factor: Familiar/Foreign
A burst of cultural creativity and youthful energy is breathing new life into one of Portugal’s oldest cities. Here, how to make the most of your day there.
9 A.M.: Start the morning with breakfast on your private terrace overlooking the city at the hillside Pousada de Santa Marinha (351/253-415-969; doubles from $210), a ninth-century monastery turned hotel.
10 A.M.: Hike the six-mile Citânia de Briteiros, which leads to the dramatic ruins of an Iron Age settlement.
Noon: Don’t miss the small but high-quality selection of local products at Verde Inveja (351/ 253-554-020), including artisanal chocolates, traditional pottery, and soaps by the century-old Antiga Barbearia de Bairro.
1 P.M.: What Guimarães lacks in cutting-edge gastronomy it makes up for in well-executed traditional fare. About 20 minutes from town, the intimate São Gião (351/253-561-853; dinner for two $100) specializes in house-made foie gras; all manner of fish, roast meat, and game; and excellent Portuguese wines.
3 P.M.: For the latest in Portuguese music, theater, film, and art, take your pick between the Vila Flor Cultural Center (351/253-424-700), in an 18th-century palace downtown, and the new Center for Arts & Architecture Affairs, in the formerly industrial district of Rua Padre.
8 P.M.: Whether grilled, fried, or baked with bread crumbs, bacalhau (salt cod) is the dish to order at Histórico (351/915-429-700; dinner for two $65). Not a cod lover? The menu is also strong on other regional classics, such as cheese fondue and grilled octopus.
11 P.M.: Swing by the city’s oldest square, Largo da Oliveira—it’s full of lively cafés where locals gather to drink and people-watch until the wee hours. —Alexandra MarshallThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Travelers who like their old-world Europe with a contemporary spin.
When to Go: April–Aug.
How to Do It: Guimarães is a four-hour train ride from Lisbon Airport.
Exotic Factor: Foreign
Move over, Dubai: The capital of the United Arab Emirates is booming, with starchitect museums and high-design hotels on Saadiyat island and beyond remaking the skyline.
Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (2014): Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim will be the foundation’s largest location, and will recall Arabian wind towers and courtyards.
Louvre Abu Dhabi (2014): Created by Jean Nouvel, the floating domelike structure will showcase a range of international artwork on loan from the Paris flagship.
Zayed National Museum (2014): Five soaring, wing-shaped towers designed by London-based Foster & Partners will house an exhibition on the UAE.
St. Regis: Overlooking miles of white sand, the just-opened resort includes 377 spacious rooms and seven restaurants and lounges. stregis.com.
Park Hyatt: The new Park Hyatt is surrounded by an 18-hole golf course and a protected turtle-nesting habitat.
Rocco Forte Hotel: The wavy, blue-and-green glass building created by WS Atkins & Partners, of London, mirrors the colors of the gulf.
Yas Viceroy Hotel Made up of two steel-and-glass towers linked by a bridge, this futuristic hotel, built by Asymptote Architecture, is now part of the Viceroy chain.
Monte-Carlo Beach Club: Saadiyat’s first beach club has a spa, poolside cabanas, and gulf-front restaurants. —Vinita BharadwajThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Design junkies; business execs in need of downtime.
When to Go: Nov.–Feb.
How to Do It: Both American and Etihad Airlines fly direct from the U.S.
Exotic Factor: Foreign
Costa Navarino, Greece
Greece’s economy may have seen better days, but that hasn’t stopped the tourism industry from moving forward. Take the region of Messenia, the westernmost finger of the hand-shaped Peloponnese peninsula, filled with sun-drenched valleys, Byzantine churches, and sandy dunes that border the crystal-blue Ionian Sea. The area has remained virtually unknown to travelers, who have traditionally preferred the white-sand beaches of the Greek islands. But Costa Navarino, a new resort complex set on 2,500 acres, is aiming to change that, turning this low-profile stretch of coastline into Europe’s newest Riviera.
Costa Navarino is ambitious and international, with several hotel partners. Starwood opened a Westin resort and the Romanos, a Luxury Collection hotel, last year; a Banyan Tree is slated to debut in 2013. But it’s also intensely local. At the Starwood properties, more than 75 percent of the staff is from surrounding villages and guests are encouraged to spend an evening at the house of a Messenian family. The low-slung villas are made from native stone and have Greek art from the 17th century, and treatments at the 43,000-square-foot spa are based on 4,500-year-old recipes found at King Nestor’s palace nearby. With rates much lower than at similar hotels in Mykonos and Santorini, this quiet slice of the Peloponnese might just experience a Greek revival. Westin doubles from $276; Romanos doubles from $193. —Eleni N. GageThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Anyone who wants the next European beach escape.
When to Go: April–Oct.
How to Do It: Hop a 30-minute flight from Athens to nearby Kalamata airport.
Exotic Factor: Foreign
Yunnan is thronged with visitors both Chinese and international—but this untamed corner of the province at the foot of the Himalayas is still largely overlooked. With rain forests, Buddhist temples, tribal villages, and China’s last remaining wild elephants, it’s the place to get a cultural fix without the crowds.Stay
Xishuangbanna enjoyed a brief vogue with domestic travelers two decades ago, so it has some basic hotels. But the Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort & Spa (86-691/871-7777; doubles from $350) will set a new standard when it opens this spring. The province’s first luxury retreat faces the banks of the winding Luosuo River in the bucolic town of Menglun. The 103 rooms, some with private pools, will have gabled roofs and lotus motifs. The restaurant will showcase the indigenous cuisine.See
The local ethnic groups—Dai, Hani, Yi, and others—share Southeast Asian ancestry, making Xishuangbanna’s culture feel less Chinese and more a blend of Thai, Lao, and Burmese. Stroll through Manfeilong, a traditional Dai village, at dawn and you’ll hear the chants of Buddhist monks and watch the sun rise over an 11th-century pagoda. Visit plantations growing Yunnan’s coveted, smoky Pu-erh tea leaves. Nearby, the 2,200-acre Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden has more than 1,000 species, including fig trees, bamboo, and orchids.Experience
For a more immersive trip, Wild China leads treks through Dai market towns and verdant river valleys, and organizes stays with local families. Guests can extend their trip to follow the Mekong into northern Thailand. —Jennifer ChenThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Asia hands looking for the next cultural frontier.
When to Go: Oct.–June
How to Do It: Wild China’s five-day trek costs $1,590 per person.
Exotic Factor: Far-Flung
Southern Bahia, Brazil
The Pataxó people got it right when they named their Bahian village Corumbau—“far from everything.” It’s only about 30 miles from Porto Seguro airport, but the dirt roads make for a bumpy, four-hour drive. Yet the same venturesome Brazilians who turned nearby Trancoso from sleepy to chic are calling Corumbau and neighboring Caraíva the country’s next hot spots. And the helicopter takes just 20 minutes.
Corumbau: Once you finally get here from Porto Seguro—the most adventurous option requires a beach buggy, wooden raft, and dugout canoe—you may want nothing more than to lie on a beach, sipping an açai juice. But there’s plenty to keep you busy: snorkeling the pristine coral reef; mastering the local spearfishing technique; hiking through dense tropical forest. Clothing designer Renata Mellão’s Vila Naiá (55-11/3061-1872; doubles from $800, including meals) has eight sexy bungalows and suites, outfitted in bold fabrics and recycled driftwood and connected by boardwalks. A more secluded option is Fazenda São Francisco do Corumbau (55-11/3078-4411; doubles from $800, including meals), where 10 light-filled cabins face nine miles of deserted beach, and fresh seafood is matched with produce from the garden.
Caraíva: Six miles north of Corumbau is a town that’s the epitome of Brazil’s no-fuss beachside life. Wooden houses splashed in shades of mustard, lime, and peach line a tangled web of streets too sandy for cars; the chief mode of transport is mule. Show up for a 4 p.m. lunch of moqueca (fish stew) at the Boteco do Pará (55-73/9991-9804; lunch for two $40), whose tables are shaded by an almond tree. Hotels here are rustic; the best is Pousada Lagoa (55-73/3668-5059; doubles from $86), where five brightly painted bungalows are scattered across a lush garden. At the other extreme is Fazenda Caraíva (55-21/2225-9476; from $4,810, including breakfast and dinner), a three-bedroom villa designed by local architect Ricardo Salem. It sits on a forested promontory, drawing publicity-shy execs and celebrities. —Colin BarracloughThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Beach obsessives who want Brazil bragging rights.
When to Go: Oct.–April
Exotic Factor: Far-Flung
Hamburg has always been a cosmopolitan city, with the famously louche St. Pauli district (where the Beatles played some early club dates) rubbing up against the monied quarters built by shipping and banking fortunes. Despite a slew of sleek postwar glass towers, however, Hamburg has never been known for design. That’s bound to change with the HafenCity development, a hypermodern showpiece that’s rising on the city’s old docklands. The 388-acre mega-project is being built in phases (it’s not due for completion until 2025), but it’s already giving Hamburg a welcome jolt of architectural glitz, with a handful of new hotels, boutiques, and restaurants drawing in the style set. Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, where performances will start in 2014, is the star of the show, resembling an enormous ship passing through fog—a trick of treated glass that seems to bend and twist in the silvery light. The building looms over HafenCity’s completed, visitor-ready Am Sandtorkai/Dalmannkai quarter, an enclave of trophy apartments built over canals. Entering feels a bit like going back in time; you cross over a canal and through a series of enormous 19th-century brick warehouses. But beyond this historic ring, everything is brand-new and topsy-turvy, with nary a straight line in sight. The Marco Polo Tower, a luxury residential building, exemplifies the off-kilter aesthetic: a narrow-waisted, broad-shouldered structure with terraces angled so that the whole building seems to be wriggling away. HafenCity is so new you can still smell the construction dust, but it’s already shifting the city’s center of gravity.Stay
Book a corner unit with a view at the ultrahip, nautical-style 25hours Hotel HafenCity. 49-40/257-7770; doubles from $144.Eat
Carls serves French-accented German fare (lobster bisque; dill-scented haddock). 49-40/300-322-400; dinner for two $105.Shop
Witty Knitters sells Jutta Schweiger’s cashmere knits in an Alice in Wonderland setting. 49-40/211-117-911. —Ralph MartinThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Architecture geeks; urban renewalists; culture mavens.
When to Go: May–Nov.
How to Do It: United flies nonstop from Newark to Hamburg daily.
Exotic Factor: Foreign
Shedding its reputation as a sunny haven for shady characters, Panama is courting high fliers by giving everything an upgrade—hotels, museums, and even that famous canal.
The Beach Buzz: Solace seekers typically head to Panama’s Caribbean coast, leaving the Pacific beaches to the surfers. But boldface names—Angelina Jolie; Michael Jordan—have been spotted in the remote Pacific village of Pedasí, four hours from the capital. Most visitors stay at the rustic-but-stylish El Sitio Hotel (011-507/832-1010; doubles from $99) or in a beachfront loft at Villa Camilla Hotel & Resort (011-507/232-0171; doubles from $200).
The Passion Project: Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo will finally open this winter on Panama City’s Amador Causeway after a decade of fits and starts. Gehry—whose wife is Panamanian—was aided by industrial designer Bruce Mau and landscape architect Edwina von Gal in the $90 million project, a series of rain-forest-like gardens and biosphere galleries.
The Next Great Neighborhood: Panama City’s atmospheric Casco Antiguo (Old Town) is being scrubbed up for travelers lured by its 17th-century cathedral and crumbling mansions. The six-room Las Clementinas (011-507/228-7613; doubles from $250; dinner for two $50)—whose owner is a pioneer in the area’s preservation efforts—captures the colonial-chic vibe. Its restaurant serves Panamanian comfort food such as coconut-spiked risotto and ropa vieja.
The Luxury Boom: Five-star hotels are rising in Panama City to house business travelers and South Americans on weekend jaunts. The sail-shaped Trump Ocean Club (855/878–6700; doubles from $319) opened last year, as did Le Méridien (800/543-4300; doubles from $230). Also new: the South Beach–style Hotel Manrey (011-507/203-0000; doubles from $224).
The Big Dig: The Panama Canal is two years from completion of a $5.2 billion expansion that will double its capacity—just in time for its 100th birthday—and fit supersize cruise liners, such as Cunard’s flagship Queen Mary 2 and nine Princess Grand Class vessels. The 2004 Miraflores Visitor Center (011-507/276-8325), located canalside 30 minutes from downtown, sheds light on the project’s history. —David Kaufman
The Breakdown: Who It’s For: Graduates of Costa Rica and Belize.
When to Go: Dec.–April
How to Do It: American, Continental, Copa, and Delta all serve Panama City.
Exotic Factor: Foreign
Mozambique’s Northern Coast
This stretch of Indian Ocean coastline has upped the ante in recent years, with rustic-chic beach retreats giving way to polished lodges and ultra-luxe resorts to rival those of Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Vamizi Island Lodge: Lining a mile-long beach in the far northern Quirimbas, a ribbon of 32 coral islands near the Tanzanian border, Vamizi has 15 villas decked out with marble showers and ocean-view dining rooms. There’s no TV, but you can watch the samango monkeys and tropical birds that make Vamizi home. 44-1285/762-218; doubles from $590.
Ibo Island Lodge: Located in the cultural heart of the Quirimbas, Ibo’s trio of colonial-era mansions reflects the island’s centuries-old Arab, Indian, and Portuguese heritage. Wide verandas have hand-carved teak daybeds, while the nine rooms come dressed with Indian silk throws. The lodge takes guests on island-hopping dhow safaris. 27-21/702-0285; doubles from $730.
Azura at Quilalea Private Island: The nine coral stone-and-thatch bungalows of Azura, set on the southern end of the Quirimbas, look onto a protected deepwater bay where Portuguese and Arab traders once docked their dhows. 27-76/705-0599; doubles from $1,190.
Coral Lodge 15.41: This 10-villa property combines local woods and colorful African accents with plush amenities such as a seaside spa and an infinity pool. Perched on a peninsula a short boat ride from Ilha de Moçambique, the 16th-century Portuguese colonial capital, Coral Lodge arranges tours of the island’s ruins. 258-266/60003; doubles from $850.
Nuarro: Tucked into the lush dunes of the Baixo do Pinda peninsula, 100 miles north of Ilha de Moçambique, Nuarro’s 12 thatched-roof bungalows have sweeping bay views out front and a rugged panorama of bush and baobab forest. 258-82/301-4294; doubles from $590. —Douglas RogersThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Honeymooners; post-safari sybarites; private-island connoisseurs.
When to Go: May–Sept.
How to Do It: Your resort or tour operator can help with travel arrangements.
Exotic Factor: Far-Flung
Until now, Bentonville, Arkansas, has been famous for one thing: it’s the home of big-box retailer Walmart. But Alice Walton, youngest heir to the empire, is using a large share of her wealth—estimated by Forbes at $21 billion—to transform the region into a world-class cultural destination. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (479/418-5700), opened in November, is a showcase for Walton’s impressive collection—and an audacious gamble that a large-scale arts institution can thrive in the Ozarks.
To hedge her if-you-build-it-they-will-come bet, Walton hired architect Moshe Safdie to design the museum, set on 120 wooded acres just outside town. He created a series of gently curving pavilions hovering dramatically around and over ponds fed by natural springs. Walton also approached 21c Museum Hotels—which put Louisville, Kentucky, on the art-world map—about opening a property in town. (Designed by Deborah Berke, it’s due next January.) Her biggest investment may be the collection itself, bought at often eyebrow-raising prices and covering the full sweep of American art, from Colonial portraitists Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley to 19th-century masters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, with a splash of contemporary art (Andy Warhol; Roxy Paine; Jenny Holzer) thrown in.
The museum is already being touted by some as a countrified Guggenheim Bilbao—and Walton herself as a latter-day Morgan or Frick, digging deep into her pockets and dreaming big. This may be enough to attract culture seekers from around the country, if not the world. But there’s another enticement. In true Walmart spirit, they’re rolling back prices here, too: admission is free. —Stephen WallisThe Breakdown
Who It’s For: Art lovers willing to go off the beaten path.
When to Go: all year
How to Do It: Fly to Little Rock; Bentonville is a three-hour drive away.
Exotic Factor: familiar