Our experts reveal their top 20 picks for the year ahead, from the beaches of Turkey to the rain forests of Nicaragua.
1. Turkey’s Turquiose Coast
Sunshine-soaked and with a glittering blue seaboard, Turkey’s glorious “turquoise” coast wouldn’t normally rank as a newly rising star. The 300-mile loop of coastline that unfurls like an iridescent ribbon between Marmaris and Antalya has long been a favourite for holiday-makers, with UK visitors in particular flocking to its picture-perfect fishing villages and chic little bougainvillea-laden resorts. But over the last couple of years, following a wave of terror attacks and political unrest, things have taken a well-documented nosedive. Between 2014 and 2016 Turkey’s visitor numbers slumped from 42 million to 25 million. And now?
Maybe we’ve all simply had to accept that no country is guaranteed terror-proof. Maybe people have realised that the Syrian border is hundreds of miles from Turkey’s main tourist areas. Whatever the reason, tourism is back on the up, with the first half of 2017 showing a 28 per cent rise compared to the doldrums of 2016.
So there’s never been a better time – particularly with sterling strong against the lira – to steal a march on the returning crowds and enjoy the unique magic of this beautiful region. What’s more, and against all odds, a new Turkey specialist company, Fairlight Jones, has risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of the several much-loved small-scale operators that went bust during the crisis. Formed by members of the team behind former Turkey experts Exclusive Escapes, it offers a portfolio that includes brand-new luxury properties and enticing “Special Tester” offers.
Last May, when RwandAir launched direct flights from London Gatwick to Kigali, this small, safe and forward-looking nation in the heart of Africa suddenly became accessible. Slightly larger than Wales, Rwanda has moved on from the genocide of 1994 to become a welcoming English-speaking country that can teach us a lesson or two: the majority of its MPs are women, city buses offer free Wi-Fi, and plastic bags were banned a decade ago.
Almost everyone goes, of course, to admire its mountain gorillas, a conservation success story that sees trekkers paying $1,500 (£1,120) a head for an hour-long, close encounter. It’s a well-organised and, at times, strenuous experience, but Rwanda is by no means just about apes. Several enterprising Brits have jumped in, such as Steve Venton, who offers kayaking tours on lake Kivu and Oli Broom, who organises cycling adventures . And the quality of accommodation is rising.
Next year, luxury hotelier One&Only launches Nyungwe House, set amid the tea plantations of the mountainous south. While safari first-timers are better off in neighbouring Tanzania, veterans will appreciate the efforts being made to re-establish Akagera National Park. Perhaps the best reason to add Rwanda to your 2018 wishlist is that, with no jet lag, you only need a week or so to see its highlights. This is the year to say hello to a little nation that’s bringing a big smile to the face of Africa.
3. Andaman Islands
The sea is a dreamy shade of turquoise. Pure white sands fringe rainforest that is home to a rich profusion of wildlife… It all sounds suitably idyllic to be the Seychelles or Mauritius, but India’s remote Andaman archipelago ticks even more boxes of blissed-out delight.
Located in the Bay of Bengal, 850 miles east of the mainland, these 300 little-known islands are surrounded by fabulous coral (no commercial fishing has been allowed for 40 years) and are barely developed, with only a dozen open to tourism. Over the past 18 months or so the archipelago has become more accessible thanks to an increase in flights to the capital, Port Blair, from four of India’s major cities. So it’s now relatively easy to combine a cultural trip with a beautifully sequestered beach break, flying to the islands from Chennai (with the nearest mainland airport), Kolkata, Delhi or Bangalore.
Accommodation options are limited, but in March the Taj group will open a sensitively conceived beachside hotel here, bringing new levels of luxury. Set on Havelock Island, renowned for its dive sites and lush hinterland, the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa has a prime position on Radhanagar Beach, said to be one of the most serene – and pristine – beaches in Asia. Facilities are spot-on, with three restaurants and a signature Jiva spa, and the 75 rustic-chic villas offer five-star comfort. But it’s the activities that guests will particularly relish, from underwater photography to kayaking through mangrove forests and exploring reefs teeming with marine life.
4. Valletta, Malta
Malta’s 16th-century citadel capital, the Unesco World Heritage city of Valletta, is one of the European Capitals of Culture 2018. A melting pot of European influences since it was built by the Knights of St John following the Great Siege of 1565, Valletta has long packed a historical and artistic punch well above its weight. In 2018 this will be true in spades, with hundreds of events – art of all kinds, theatre, dance, opera and music, fireworks, food and fun – in Valletta and across the country.
Valletta itself is tiny, a perfect place to wander beneath painted wooden balconies and baroque facades, as well as a few edgier new constructions by Renzo Piano, architect of the London Shard. Preparation for this year has included extensive restoration, leaving fortifications and palazzi glowing. The tourist map has gained fortresses and museums, sparkling interiors (especially at St John’s Co-Cathedral) and a new National Art Gallery (Muza) due to open in the Auberge d’Italie later this year.
Historic homes have been converted into new boutique hotels such as The Coleridge, Ursulino, SU29 and The Saint John. More openings are coming, including luxury boutique Iniala Harbour House overlooking the Grand Harbour – where a spectacular sea pageant will play out on June 7.
From the Valletta 2018 opening week (Jan 14-21) onwards, national and international theatrical and art events will be popping up in venues both iconic and unexpected, while the islands reverberate with music from rock to baroque. The Maltese know how to party – and everyone is welcome at this year-long festa.
5. St Helena
Until four months ago, few had heard of St Helena. One of the world’s most-remote islands – more than 3,218 miles (2,000km) west of Africa – this British Overseas Territory was accessible only via the Royal Mail ship St Helena.
However, the October 2017 launch of a weekly Saturday flight from Johannesburg has slashed travel time from five days to just four hours.
The island’s isolation reaps rewards. Billed as the “Galapagos of the Atlantic”, its fern-clad forests, volcanic plains and rocky shores are home to 2,932 species, of which 502 are endemic. The star on land is the mottled St Helena plover – known locally as the wirebird – that scuttles among the scrub and can be spotted on a 4×4 tour offered by Aaron Legg.
But it’s beneath the waves that the majority of endemic species thrive – and with large swathes of St Helena’s marine environment unmapped, it provides a new frontier for experienced divers and competent snorkellers.
A total of 20 dive sites, including eight wrecks, are home to unique fish such as the St Helena wrasse, parrotfish, flounder and marmalade razorfish. Larger visitors include dolphins, devil rays and green and hawksbill turtles. The biggest are the migrating humpback whales that cruise offshore between June and December. Just as they are disappearing, the whale sharks turn up and stay until March. These gentle giants are the undisputed highlight of a trip to St Helena.
Travellers can stay at the new four-star Mantis hotel in the capital, Jamestown. Here Wi-Fi is still limited and expensive, offering travellers a rare chance to unplug. There are concerns the airport and the arrival of a submarine fibre-optic cable in 2020 will change that, so visit soon.
6. Picos de Europa, Spain
It is clearly absurd to describe a mountain range as “hidden from view”, but as far as the majority of British travellers are concerned, the Picos de Europa might as well be. Next year will see the centenary of the official opening of this national park, which makes it one of the oldest in Europe; it’s easily accessible via Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander, or the UK’s many flight connections into Bilbao; and yet we find ourselves more easily distracted by all the other things Spain is so good at (roasting-hot beaches, football, tapas, exotic Moorish architecture, etc).
However, anyone who loves the great outdoors should ensure they make tracks for the Picos in 2018. Yes, there’s that anniversary to mark, but far more importantly these shark’s-teeth limestone peaks, stretching over a 250 sq mile (647 sq km) chunk of Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León, deliver the perfect adventure playground. There’s canyoning, canoeing, mountain-biking, via ferrata – and even good old-fashioned walking, in the form of one of the great day hikes in Europe, the Garganta del Cares, which follows the course of a hydroelectric pipeline through some of the most dramatic scenery that will ever hit your eyes.
And after all that, you can drive 12 miles (19km) north of the park boundaries to the Asturian coast for your sea-kayaking, paddle-boarding, or lounging-around-on-the-beach fix.
It’s like the Italian Dolomites have been tethered to the coast of south Cornwall, with lashings of green cider thrown in. They’re called the “Peaks of Europe” for goodness sake: if they’re hiding from you, then they’re doing so in plain sight.
During Liverpool’s reign as the 2008 European Capital of Culture, the city showed off a regeneration that had been years in the making. But as the celebrations came to a head, with the 49ft (15m) mechanical spider La Princesse disappearing into the Queensway Tunnel beneath the Mersey, it was clear this was not a culmination, but a cue.
And Liverpool took it with gusto, ramping up a drive to transform a city with pride in its heritage to be excited about its future. The year ahead, 2018, now feels like a culmination.
The city has launched an “18 for 2018” campaign to showcase its refound swagger with a roster of world-leading events and exhibitions. From the arrival of the Terracotta Warriors at its World Museum, returning to UK shores for the first time in 10 years, to the introduction of a “fire festival” in March and April and the return of the Tall Ships Festival in May, Liverpool has a busy year ahead.
It’s set to be a big year for Prince Harry, and Botswana is where he camped out under the stars with Meghan. He first went there at the age of 13, since when its incomparable wildlife and unique wild places have continued to lure him back. As he says: “Africa is where I feel more like myself than anywhere else in the world” – so no wonder he took his bride-to-be to Meno a Kwena, a quirky, offbeat safari camp run by old Africa hand Hennie Rawlinson.
Its name translates as “Teeth of the Crocodile” and its nine luxurious en suite tents are perched on a cliff top from which you can watch elephants and zebras coming to drink at the Boteti river below without leaving your bedroom. Located around a two-hour drive from Maun airport, it is also an ideal springboard for longer trips into the Okavango Delta and Central Kalahari Game Reserve, mobile safaris in the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans national parks, scenic flights over the Makgadikgadi salt pans, close-up encounters with meerkat families and whole-day visits to Baines Baobabs.
Another of Harry’s favourite haunts is the Panhandle, the upper reaches of the Delta’s waterlands which, like him, you can explore on-board the Kubu Queen (kubuqueen.com), a double-decker houseboat based at Shakawe on the Okavango river. Alternatively, you may prefer to enjoy a more conventional taste of life under canvas at Selinda Explorers, the coolest, most affordable, small uber-luxury camp in Botswana. Hidden in a private wilderness almost the size of Greater London, its palm-tree islands and grassy floodplains teem with lions, leopards, wild dogs and elephants.
While many of us will travel thousands of miles to witness a new day dawning over the savannahs of Africa, “new dawns” of the political variety rarely seem to live up to their early promise. But in the case of Zimbabwe, the fall of President Robert Mugabe has been greeted around the world with optimism. Tourism, like many other sectors of the economy, has struggled in recent years. Fears about personal safety, often over-stated, and an unwillingness to support the Mugabe regime in any way have been a particular deterrent for travellers from the UK. But, as usual, it’s the people themselves who have really suffered.
Zimbabwe’s catalogue of natural attractions rivals the very best in Africa. While well-known draws include Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park and the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, frequent visitors also cite Mana Pools National Park (a Unesco World Heritage Site), the incredible rock formations of Matopos (grave of Cecil Rhodes), Lake Kariba (the world’s largest man-made lake), Nyanga National Park in the east and remote Gonarezhou National Park. The latter is popular with guests staying at nearby Singita Pamushana, a top-end safari lodge running some of the best conservation and community initiatives in rural Africa.
Zimbabwe is celebrated for the high quality of its safari guides, who have set the standard for training across the rest of the continent, and there are a wide range of accommodation options available from simple camps to five-star luxury abodes. At both ends of the spectrum, you can expect to pay up to a third less than the equivalent offering in Botswana or South Africa.
10. Moscow, Russia
Exactly 100 years ago, the soon-to-be exiled Russian writer Ivan Bunin was wandering sadly through the streets of Moscow, taking his leave of the city. War and revolution were annihilating the country he loved. Seeing the statue of Pushkin in Tverskaya Street, Bunin thought that the country’s greatest poet seemed to be saying: “Good Lord, how sad my Russia is!”
Whatever adjectives you’d apply to Russia today – meddlesome, resurgent, vast? – “sad” would be low on the list. Visiting at any time is extraordinary – but 2018 will be an especially amazing time to go. Moscow will be celebrating its 100th anniversary as Russia’s capital. And nationwide, the football World Cup is going to be a chance for the country to celebrate, swagger and demonstrate the tremendous warmth of Russian hospitality.
The staging will be loaded with political significance – one of the state-of-the-art stadiums is in Volgograd, the city that, as Stalingrad, turned the tide of the Second World War; another is in Kaliningrad, the strange enclave between Poland and Lithuania. But the opening game and final will be at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, so visitors will naturally gravitate there.
Huge changes in the past decade have increased the city’s allure. Red Square remains an awe-inspiring highlight, but public spaces like Gorky Park have been given family-friendly makeovers. While the need for Russian visas remains a frustrating obstacle for travellers (World Cup ticket holders will be spared this), Uber and Airbnb have made visiting much easier – and the food is good.