It may be on the other side of the world, but Australia remains one of our most popular holiday destinations, and the most favourable exchange rate for several years means that your money will go a lot further ‘down under’ in 2016. With our shared language and close cultural ties, the sense of ease and intimacy on arrival is immediate, but there is so much that is different, too. The climate, the dramatic landscapes and the sheer scale of Australia all tell us that we are very far from home. From parched red deserts to lush tropical rainforests, soft, white sandy beaches and warm, crystal-blue seas, the geographic diversity is astounding. And then, of course, there’s the unique wildlife; nowhere else on earth will you see kangaroos, koalas, wombats and emus in their native habitat, and there are those great natural spectacles, like the Great Barrier Reef, the largest structure made up of living organisms on the planet, and Uluru, rising majestically over Australia’s arid ‘Red Centre’. Explore the country’s biggest city, Sydney, famed for its magnificent harbour, watched over by the unmistakable outline of Sydney Opera House, and the world-famous Bondi Beach, and travel south to Melbourne, Australia’s charming cultural capital, perhaps taking an excursion to visit the penguins and koalas on nearby Phillip Island. On Australia’s Pacific coast you’ll find cosmopolitan Perth, one of the world’s most isolated major cities and the gateway to some of the country’s most prestigious wine-producing regions such as Swan Valley and Margaret River.
Known as the ‘Land of Ice and Fire,’ the rugged island nation of Iceland is characterised by its extraordinary geology, its volcanoes, geysers and glaciers, which have produced dramatic landscapes like nowhere else on Earth. Lying just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland experiences long hours of summer sunlight; indeed, the sun never sets in the far north in June, adding to the air of mystery that surrounds this spectacular country. In Iceland, elves, trolls, giants and other supernatural beings are more than mere fairy stories; it is said that more than half of Icelanders believe in the existence of the ‘Huldufolk,’ or ‘Hidden Folk,’ and construction projects have sometimes been halted to avoid disturbing rocks where these enigmatic creatures are supposed to reside.
Iceland is truly a land of wonders, with so much to see and do. Europe’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik is an energetic, stylish city with an array of intriguing museums, galleries, bars, restaurants and entertainment venues and offers the perfect base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. Outside the capital, relax in the steaming geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon, stand in awe before the immense Vatnajökull Glacier, marvel at the majestic Dettifoss Waterfall, discover the rich variety of birdlife along the coast, and, if you’re lucky, watch whales and dolphins swimming by.
A vast country of stunning and diverse natural beauty, home to countless opulent palaces, vibrant temples, colourful wildlife and entrancing cities filled with exotic wonders, India comes top of many world travellers’ wish-lists, and now UK passport holders can apply for their Indian tourist visas online, making the whole process quicker, easier and cheaper than ever before. The pound has also strengthened against the rupee, making India an even better value destination.
This spring, cricket fans from around the world will be arriving for the ICC World Twenty20 tournament, with matches being played in eight Indian cities, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be making their first official visit to the country so it’s a good time to experience the excitement and festivities that accompany these big events. The region known as India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ is the perfect choice for those new to the subcontinent, comprising world-famous highlights such as the bustling, dynamic capital, Delhi, the exquisite ‘monument to love’, the Taj Mahal, the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur and Ranthambore National Park, where Bengal tigers still roam. Meanwhile, those keen to explore a lesser-visited region of the country should head to the south, a land of fragrant spice plantations, lush tea gardens, colonial hill-stations and historic cities such as Chennai and Cochin. Where will your Indian odyssey begin?
British travellers will find Japan cheaper to visit in 2016 than it has been for years, thanks to a strong pound and a weakened yen, and even in Tokyo, long seen as an expensive destination, prices are much lower than you might expect, so now really is the perfect time to discover this remarkable country. Most international visitors arrive in the capital and this energetic city has so much to offer. The grand Imperial Palace makes a good starting point, while other highlights include the picturesque Meiji Shinto shrine complex and the Art Triangle Roppongi, a collection of three absorbing art museums. Getting around Japan is easy, with the famous ‘bullet train’ or Shinkansen, linking the main cities at speeds of up to 320km per hour, and in 2016 the network will be expanded to reach the northern island of Hokkaido.
Just 100km southwest of Tokyo, soaring, snow-capped Mount Fuji is a true icon of Japan. The almost perfectly symmetrical conical mountain – the highest in the country at 3,776 metres – has been reproduced in countless artworks, not to mention millions of tourist snapshots. Japan’s countryside is dotted with centuries-old castles, recalling the days of the Samurai, and one of the best examples is the UNESCO-listed Himeji Castle, 50km west of Kobe, considered a masterpiece of 17th-century architecture.
A more poignant and thought-provoking monument on UNESCO’s list can be found further west in the city of Hiroshima. The Genbaku Dome, or Hiroshima Peace Memorial, was the only building left standing when the atomic bomb was dropped here on August 6th 1945. Today, this skeletal ruin stands at the centre of a city centre park dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives that day, and is a powerful symbol of peace.
Now is the time to visit the intoxicating island nation of Cuba, before it changes for ever. One of the world’s few remaining communist states, Cuba has long been a secretive, isolated and tightly controlled country, but in 2015, diplomatic relations with the USA were finally restored, more than half a century after they were severed at the height of the Cold War, and as Cuba opens up to more international visitors, and international investment, it is likely to lose its unique, time-warp character over the coming years. Renowned for its vibrant Latin culture, its soulful music, its fine rums and cigars and its dramatic revolutionary history, Cuba is a remarkably beautiful country. Follow the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara and explore the enchanting capital, Havana, taking in landmarks such as the Capitolio – the seat of the government before the Cuban Revolution – the main square, Plaza de Armas and the 18th century Cathedral, or simply enjoy a relaxing stroll along the Malecon, the famous seafront promenade and watch the vintage tail-finned Oldsmobiles, DeSotos and Studebakers cruising by. Further afield, the picturesque Viñales Valley, the ‘Pearl of the South,’ Cienfuegos, and the colonial cities of Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus are all rewarding destinations.
National Parks of the USA
The USA’s National Park Service celebrates its centenary in 2016, making this year an ideal time to discover the scenic wonders of some of the nation’s 59 National Parks. The oldest of the parks, Yellowstone, located largely in Wyoming, was declared in 1872, and 13 more parks across the country were named before President Woodrow Wilson officially signed the National Park Service into law in 1916. Today, an enormous variety of landscapes, from Maine to Hawaii, are protected by the service, and these national parks are among the USA’s most popular tourist attractions. California alone is home to nine, including Yosemite, famed for its numerous waterfalls and giant sequoias and the incredible Death Valley National Park, the hottest and driest place in the US. In Arizona, take a peek over the edge of the breathtaking Grand Canyon, the 277-mile long geological marvel at the heart of Grand Canyon National Park and enjoy the extraordinary desert landscapes familiar from so many Western films in Arches and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Take a trip through the Everglades in Florida, keeping an eye out for the resident alligators or discover the ancient forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited park in the USA – which runs along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
The eyes of the world will be on Brazil this summer as the city of Rio de Janeiro plays host to the Olympic Games. It will certainly be an exciting time to visit, with events being held at venues across the city, including beautiful Copacabana Beach, where the beach volleyball matches will take place, the vast Barra Olympic Park and the renovated Maracaña Stadium – originally built for the 1950 Football World Cup – where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held. And away from the sport there is so much to see and do in this lively city. Ride the narrow gauge railway up to the top of Corcovado Mountain, crowned by the 30-metre high statue of Christ the Redeemer – named as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ and explore the Tijuca National Park, said to be the biggest urban rainforest in the world, home to numerous animal species, including marmosets and capuchin monkeys, and a variety of tropical birdlife. If you’re feeling less active, relax on Ipanema Beach and watch the world go by. West of Rio, on the border with Argentina, the spectacular Iguazu Falls – taller than Niagara and twice as wide – are a truly unforgettable sight.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, the Trans-Siberian is the ultimate railway adventure, spanning eight time zones and taking seven days to complete its 9258km-long journey between Moscow and the city of Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast, traversing a remote and starkly beautiful land that was once firmly closed to outsiders. With services departing from Moscow every other day, it is the longest rail journey in the world, and includes branch lines extending into Mongolia, China and North Korea; most Western travellers choose one of the two twice-weekly routes between Beijing and Moscow, officially known as the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. While it’s not a luxury train, cabins are perfectly comfortable and the top cabin categories feature en-suite facilities. Whichever route you take, you will be entranced by the wild and varied scenery, the seemingly endless steppes, birch forests, grasslands, lakes and mountains, stopping at intriguing, historic cities where foreigners are still a rare sight. The most popular line will take you from the Chinese capital into the remote, landlocked nation of Mongolia. Irkutsk, whose elegant 19th-century mansions, theatres, galleries and wide streets earned it the nickname ‘Paris of Siberia,’ is one of the highlights. In the city of Omsk, you will see the magnificent golden-domed Cathedral of the Assumption, carefully rebuilt a decade ago after the original was demolished by the communist authorities in the 1930s, while in Yekaterinburg, a visit to the Church on the Blood – erected on the site where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 – offers a fascinating insight into Russia’s turbulent history. Explore Kazan, the former Tatar capital on the banks of the Volga and finally the Russian capital Moscow. The Kremlin, Red Square and the incomparable St Basil’s Cathedral are just a few of the sights awaiting discovery.
Santiago de Compostela
For over a thousand years, generations of pilgrims have made their way along the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, through Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela and its magnificent cathedral, which houses the tomb of the Apostle St James. This was one of the most important pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages, and today thousands of visitors from around the world still make the journey; the Pope has declared 2016 a ‘Year of Mercy’, meaning that more pilgrims are expected to make the journey this year, with a rare opening of the cathedral’s ‘Holy Door’ and other special religious ceremonies. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Santiago de Compostela has been named, along with Wrocław in Poland, joint European Capital of Culture for 2016, so there will be even more to see and do in this fascinating city, with a wide variety of events planned throughout the year. In addition to the unmissable cathedral, the city is brimming with sights and attractions, fine squares, museums and art galleries, and is famous for its excellent restaurants serving a variety of regional cuisine. Local specialities include Galician octopus, steamed cockles, scallops and empanadas – fried pastries filled with beef, chicken or seafood. Santiago de Compostella also makes a perfect base for exploring the wider region of Galicia, which is one of the cheaper corners of Spain.
The rand has fallen by almost 30% against the pound since 2015, so UK visitors will find their money going a lot further in South Africa this year. This is one of the most exciting destinations on Earth, with more than 2,500km of dramatic coastline along the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, captivating cities filled with history and charm, diverse landscapes and a rich variety of flora and fauna. Heading out on safari in search of the ‘big five’ in world-famous reserves such as Kruger National Park or Mala Mala and coming face to face with these magnificent animals in their natural habitat is a truly magical and unforgettable experience. Along the coast, the Garden Route National Park, Knyasna Lagoon and Featherbed Nature Reserve offer more opportunities to spot South Africa’s wildlife and of course, no visit is complete without a call at the nation’s most appealing city, Cape Town. Stroll along the smart Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, perhaps stopping at one of the excellent restaurants and bars and enjoying a glass or two of fine Western Cape wine or hop aboard the cable car to the top of Table Mountain for superb views across the bay. Cape Town also makes a great base for further exploration of the region, including the nearby Cape of Good Hope and Boulders Beach, home to a colony of endangered African penguins.