What places are calling your name for 2012? Whatever your mood, Traveler magazine has a recommendation for you—from the romantic hills of Croatia to the perfect beach in Thailand.
Photograph by Johnathan A. Esper, Getty Images
Dusk falls on a primeval landscape on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. A final relic from the world’s last ice age, this North Atlantic island nation is a world of knife-cut valleys, gargantuan fjords, monumental cliffs, black-sand beaches, thundering waterfalls, and silent white glaciers. Recent volcanic eruptions remind us that Iceland is still a country in the making, with changed landscapes that even Icelanders continue to discover.
Three years of financial recovery have made Iceland more affordable, with consumer prices now largely pegged to the euro. The country’s return to a humbler attitude stems from a thousand-year-old tradition of self-reliance—a tradition that has preserved one of the world’s oldest living languages and harnessed some of the cleanest energy on Earth.
Koh Lipe, Thailand
Photograph by Nicholas Pitt
The Perfect Beach
Thailand's sun-drenched jewel in the South Andaman Sea, Koh Lipe has recently risen to the top of intrepid beach lovers’ A-list of island paradises. Considered an alternative to the overexploited Koh Phi Phi (which gained fame as the setting for the film The Beach), Koh Lipe is accessible only by boat, with departure ports that include Krabi and the nearby Malaysian island of Langkawi.
Crystal waters and pristine reefs surround the island. Up to 25 percent of the world’s tropical fish species swim in the protected waters around Koh Lipe (the island is in Tarutao National Marine Park). Pattaya Beach may be the island’s most developed tourist spot, but head to quieter Sunrise Beach, where a now settled community of “sea gypsies,” the Chao Lei, live and fish. Take in the view from Castaway Resort's "chill-out deck," above.
Photograph by Jon Hicks, Corbis
The Comeback Kid
Dresden shone brightest in the 1700s, when the kings of Saxony spent their wealth to turn their capital into “Florence on the Elbe.” But in February 1945, two days of British and American bombing destroyed much of Dresden’s center and killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Nearly 70 years later, the city has been resurrected as one of Germany’s top tourist destinations. The landmark Frauenkirche (“church of our lady”), a baroque masterpiece designed by George Bähr, was rebuilt from rubble in 2005 (above). Today it towers above a carefully reconstructed historic center that is home to half a dozen world-class museums—from the Albertinum and the Old Masters Picture Gallery, with its Vermeers and Titians, to the oddly named but unforgettable German Hygiene Museum.
See more photos of Dresden in our featured destination gallery.
Photograph by Jose Fuste Raga, Corbis
On the Trail of Romance
Think Tuscany, but with a Habsburg past. The shady, rolling hills of Istria—Croatia’s northernmost peninsula—are becoming widely known for their truffles, Malvazija white wines, olive oil stancijas (estates), and crumbling hill towns. Cyclists can spin their spokes over some 2,000 miles of extensively maintained bike trails. Along the coast, sunny ocean views and impromptu opportunities for swimming and snorkeling abound.
The romantic town of Rovinj (above), a former Venetian vassal state, rises from the Adriatic like an estranged island of Venice. Pine-shaded Adriatic coves entice with a refreshing plunge. Evenings are capped off with Champagne cocktails at the Valentino Bar, a breezy boîte perched directly on the water and illuminated in vivid cerulean by underwater lights—not a bad spot to nurture your own inner Casanova.
Photograph by Jane Sweeney, Corbis
Lost No Longer
Tayrona National Park's gorgeous beaches are a highlight of northern Colombia, home also to the famed Ciudad Perdida. The cleared mountaintop terraces of the "lost city" shine like a green grassy beacon declaring the country’s rebirth as a travel destination at the crossroads of the Caribbean and South America.
See more photos of North Colombia in our featured destination gallery.
Photograph by Last Refuge, Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
Africa's Green and Fiery Heart
Perhaps nowhere on Earth is the dual creative and destructive nature of volcanoes more evident than in central Africa’s Virunga Volcanoes Massif. Straddling the borders between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the eight-volcano chain is one of Earth’s most active volcanic regions and a veritable salad bowl for mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and other wildlife. Landscapes in all three countries conjure visions of both Eden and hell.
In Congo, the swirling plume of the active Nyiragongo Volcano (above) beckons. Check on the security situation in the troubled country before going, but those who make the steep five-hour hike up Nyiragongo are rewarded with heady vistas of the world’s largest lava lake. Spend the night on the rim to fully experience the crater’s fiery light and sound spectacle.
Photograph by Günter Gräfenhain, Huber/SIME
The Creative Coast of Spain
The boats painted in yellow, crimson, and white that bob in the water could belong to any scraggy Mediterranean coast. The polar bear that guards them, however, means only one thing: Salvador Dalí’s home in Costa Brava. Dalí, one of art’s greatest eccentrics, came from this part of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain. His giant eggs, swan fountains, and melting clocks drew inspiration from this sunshine-laced wilderness.
The medieval city of Girona also overflows with creativity during its annual spring flower festival, the Temps de Flors. Surprising floral creations spill down cathedral steps and bloom-inspired art installations fill city squares and stone-walled courtyards. The fishing village of Calella de Palafrugell (above) charms with seaside restaurants and homes.
See more photos of Costa Brava in our featured destination gallery.
Photograph by Lianne Milton
American as Apple Pie
“I’ve been to Napa and Sonoma,” you hear people say, as if they were one and the same. Sure, Sonoma’s 300-plus wineries, like those of vine-centric Napa, offer peak wine tasting, from Ravenswood’s deep Zinfandels to Gloria Ferrer’s sophisticated sparklers. But if you’ve visited only the county’s wineries, come back to sample the astounding diversity that makes Sonoma one of America’s travel treasures.
Spend some time floating in an inner tube down the Russian River and walking amid ancient giants—one over 1,400 years old—at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Poke around the old Russian stockade at Fort Ross, which turns 200 in 2012, or the Spanish adobe mission, San Francisco Solano, in Sonoma town. Hunt for antiques along Petaluma’s downtown Victorian row, and dine on seasonal sake-steamed, aged abalone at Michelin-starred Cyrus in Healdsburg. And don’t miss a flaky, fruit-packed slice of Gravenstein pie from Mom’s Apple Pie, a roadside stop outside Sebastopol. It ranks up there with a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir as a real taste of Sonoma.
Photograph by Randy Craig, All Canada Photos/Alamy
Quintessential Cottage Country
Just two hours by car—but a world away—from powerhouse Toronto beats the heart of Ontario’s cottage country, Muskoka. Families have gathered here for generations to revel in true wilderness. The 2,500-square-mile area includes 8,699 miles of shoreline, 17 historic towns and villages, and innumerable waterfalls and lakes (like Kahshe Lake, above) framed by the peaks of Algonquin Provincial Park to the east and the isles of Georgian Bay Islands National Park to the west.
There’s plenty to do here but nothing you’d put on an agenda. Lounge with friends, barbecue everything, watch the night sky from the dock in the pitch black, play board games while listening to the rain. And run around barefoot all day.
Photograph by Guenter Standl, laif/Redux
While neighboring oil-rich countries on the Arabian Peninsula are building skyscrapers and convention centers, Oman is erecting an opera house and planting desert gardens amid capital city Muscat’s white stone buildings. Sultan Qaboos sparked the country’s modern renaissance with his rise to power in 1970—adding scores of new schools and hospitals and increasing the miles of paved road from six to over 3,700.
Many of Oman’s delights cater to the elite luxury traveler. The ritziest hotel in Muscat offers a helicopter landing pad out back. Pleasure yachts anchor off the coast; it can be easy to forget the sea is Arabian, not Mediterranean. Muscat's Park Inn, pictured here, has a roof terrace view to rival any.
See more photos of Oman in our featured destination gallery.
Photograph by Dagmar Schwelle, laif/Redux
Faster, Higher, Stronger
In Olympic-ready London, a new landmark (City Hall) meets old (Tower Bridge) along the Thames. The last time London hosted the Olympics, in 1948, locals subsisted on rations, there was no budget for new sports venues, and many competitors slept in military huts in Richmond Park. Britain may be entering another age of austerity, but nearly $15 billion has been spent on sprucing up the capital for the 2012 Olympics.
Many sporting events have already sold out, but there will be hundreds of free cultural events to enjoy throughout the summer. The London 2012 Festival will turn the whole country into a living stage, from a multilingual bonanza of Shakespeare productions at Stratford-upon-Avon to a soccer-inspired art installation deep in a Scottish forest. David Hockney, Leona Lewis, and Philip Glass are among the heavyweights headlining in London.
Photograph by Diego Lezama, Getty Images
Modern Maya World
Every year countless travelers visit the ruins of once great Maya cities: Chichén Itzá (Mexico), Tikal (Guatemala), Caracol (Belize), and Copán (Honduras). The pyramids and stelae are well worth seeing, especially at jungle-shrouded Tikal (above), but here’s the thing: Maya civilization isn’t long gone. Its apogee may have passed, but millions of Maya people and their culture remain alive and well, most vibrantly in Guatemala’s Western Highlands.
The most alluring place in Maya Guatemala is Chichicastenango, a walkable town about three hours by road from Guatemala City where more than 95 percent of the people are indigenous. Each Thursday and Sunday, Maya vendors carry their goods on their backs at dawn to Chichi’s market, selling brilliantly hued textiles, fearsome wooden masks, golden and purple maize, necklaces, and produce arranged in Escher-like patterns. Smoke from grills perfumes the narrow aisles, and so many women briskly pat stone-ground tortillas into shape that it sounds like a standing ovation.
Photograph by Andrea Alborno, SIME
Jolly Good Times in Hill Country
The first thing that strikes you is the climate. Damp and bracingly cool, this place doesn’t fit your image of Sri Lanka, the lush island nation—formerly known as Ceylon—that hangs like a teardrop off the tip of southern India.
Nuwara Eliya (pronounced nyur-RAIL-ya) is a colonial-era resort town in Sri Lanka’s stunning hill country. This mountainous, mist-draped realm has long been popular with backpackers and other adventurers for its tea plantations (above) and rain forest preserves, known as the Central Highlands, which recently were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
See more photos of Sri Lanka in our featured destination gallery.
Photograph by Reiner Harscher, laif/Redux
Patrick Leigh Fermor, the dashing philhellene who died last June, knew that to get under Greece’s skin you must stray from the instant gratifications of its seaside resorts. Traveling on foot across the gorges of Roumeli and mountains of Mani, Leigh Fermor discovered a land of fierce beauty where traditions run deep. Eventually, he settled in Kardamíli, a sleepy hamlet in the southern Peloponnese, which he hoped was “too inaccessible, with too little to do, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.”
Happily, he was right. While some islands have been scarred by unregulated development—and as the country grapples with the worst financial crisis in its modern history—Greece’s rugged mainland retains its unadulterated allure. Foraging for mushrooms in Epirus, watching pink pelicans take flight over Prespa Lake, listening to ethereal chanting in Meteora’s monasteries (such as the Roussanou Monastery, above)—there remain pockets of Greece where time stands still. You just have to know where to look.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Photograph by Chris Hill, Corbis
A Capital City of Titanic Ambition
Finding yourself in the company of a chef from the R.M.S. Titanic is just one of the surprises that Belfast has to offer. "Barney" leads the Belfast Bred walking tour on an ingredient hunt, tracking the culinary heritage of the Northern Irish city that built the Titanic. The centennial of her maiden voyage—April 10, 2012—gives Barney the chance to share Belfast’s pride in the “floating palace” and show off a capital that is redefining itself in the eyes of the world.
Sections of the city have undergone regeneration since Belfast emerged from the Troubles, the three decades of violence that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Titanic’s birthplace on the River Lagan is now called the Titanic Quarter (above). A $152.1-million attraction opens in April with audiovisual exhibits, underwater footage of the wreck, and a ride that re-creates a trip through the shipyards of 1911 to tell the passenger liner’s story. The glossy venue overlooks the Harland and Wolff slipways where the Titanic set sail to Southampton to begin her fateful voyage to New York.
Photograph by Thomas Linkel, laif/Redux
A violent struggle created this world, according to Maori mythology: Indigenous New Zealanders say Sky Father and Earth Mother were ripped from each other’s arms to make room for mountains, forests, and oceans. Around Rotorua, a Maori heartland and home of the mineral-rimmed Champagne Pool (above), it’s easy to believe the struggle continues, as the eerie landscape bubbles and churns like some primordial stew. Geysers erupt, mud boils, and steam seeps from cliffs and sidewalks, leaving a sulfurous scent in the air.
In a land where adrenaline lovers ride rockets suspended on wires and roll downhill inside giant plastic balls, biking seems one of the saner ways to plunge into a landscape that compels exploration: hot springs, glaciers, rain forests, and volcanoes, encircled by nearly 10,000 miles of coastline, packed into a country barely bigger than Colorado. New Zealand is made for journeys, physical and spiritual.
Photograph by Sergio Pitamitz, Corbis
As a bridge between continents, Panama, 51 miles sea-to-sea at its midpoint, only looks slight. The Panama Canal, which capitalized on the Central American country’s slim waistline to become a literal nexus of global trade, will expand with two new sets of locks, one on the Pacific side of the canal and one on the Atlantic, designed for massive, 13,000-container cargo ships, due to be completed in 2014. World traders occupy gleaming new hotels that modernize the colonial capital.
In Panama, nature and indigenous culture are abundant. The canal-bordering tropical lowlands of Soberanía National Park ring with the cries of howler monkeys and the chatter of toucans. The cool, flower-filled highland town of Boquete sits in the shadow of the country’s tallest volcano. Embera women paint their bodies and create elaborate neckpieces (above). At the offshore Coiba National Park, where a maximum of only 40 overnight visitors are allowed, divers share the pristine waters with scientific researchers and whale sharks.
Photograph by Andre Klotz
The Next Foodie Frontier
There are plenty of reasons to visit Peru: to explore ancient ruins at Machu Picchu, spot some of the world’s rarest birds, or trek some of Earth’s deepest canyons. Yet, once you’re on the ground and hungry, you may find those experiences mere appetizers to the main event: food. From the rain forests of the northeast to the arid high plateau that runs like a spine through the south, Peru is blessed with incredible biodiversity—a bounty that is clearly reflected on its plates.
Peruvians have long been vocally (and justifiably) proud of their homeland’s cooking, but suddenly, the rest of the world seems to be taking note, too. In 2008, the country’s leading chef, Gastón Acurio, founded Mistura, a Lima-based food festival that has since become the leading annual culinary event in South America. Acurio's La Mar restaurant, above, is a lunch-only cevicheria in Lima.
Photograph by Brad Feinknopf
Extreme Metropolitan Makeover
Three rivers. One reinvented city. On all counts, the Steel City’s transformation over the past quarter century qualifies as revolutionary. Its mourning for its industrial past long concluded, this western Pennsylvania city changed jobs and reclaimed its major assets: a natural setting that rivals Lisbon and San Francisco, a wealth of fine art and architecture, and a quirky sense of humor.
Pittsburgh’s century-wide swath of architectural styles persuaded British film director Christopher Nolan to use downtown as a stand-in for Gotham City in this summer’s Dark Knight Rises. Sustainable design has transformed Victorian landmarks like the glass-domed Phipps Conservatory and created contemporary ones like the swooping waterfront convention center (above).
Photograph by Hamid Sardar, Corbis
If you yearn for a connection to the wild, you will find it here. Hovsgol is the northernmost of Mongolia’s 21 provinces, shadowing Russia’s border and sharing the great Siberian taiga (subarctic coniferous forest). Lichens in bright greens and oranges color 10,000-foot passes, while sacred rivers, rumored to never freeze, feed lakes framed by snow-tipped mountains.
Hovsgol is just now opening its arms to travelers who come to catch and release taimen, giant salmonid “river wolves” that stalk Hovsgol’s waterways. Others come to ride Mongolian ponies in search of the Tsaatan, small bands of nomadic reindeer herders (above) who live in encampments and follow shamanistic beliefs.
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Do you have what it takes to win? Submit your best shots today and find out.