Our places to go in 2017 are destinations that we think you should travel to this year – because they need you. These are places with breathtaking landscapes, friendly locals, fantastic food, a fascinating culture, and all the rest. They’re also places that deserve more tourists.
It’s the season of ‘places to go in 2017’ lists and I’m finding most of them to be quite dull to be honest. We don’t make a habit of publishing these lists every year. Only when we feel inspired – or are going out of our mind with boredom seeing the same places on every list for the same reasons.
I know there are a lot of great reasons to go to Canada but free national parks should not be one of them. National Parks by their very nature (sic) should be free, people. Nor is the fact that some filthy rich UK or US company has a new tour a reason to go that place. Go to the place, but be a responsible traveller and go on your own and do tours with local companies when you get there.
So the team here in the Grantourismo office thought we’d compile our own list of places to go in 2017. And because our Siem Reap street was full of tuk tuk drivers sleeping in their hammocks at the time, when they should have been trundling tourists around the temples, we decided to take a different approach and use different criteria.
We messaged our Grantourismo correspondents across the globe and asked them where they were, was it crowded with shouty tour groups with selfie sticks knocking pieces of ancient statues, and if not, why not, and should we do something to change that. So while I gathered the data and tallied the scores, Terence went and made a frittata with chorizo and caramelised onions for lunch. Drum roll… our list of Places to Go in 2017 – because these places need you.
Places to Go in 2017 – Because These Places Need You
Six months ago I wrote that Yangon was having its moment and that you needed to get there now. I gushed over the shimmering gold 2,500-year old Shwedagon Pagoda with its gilded bell-shaped stupas, the shy Burmese people with their big beautiful smiles, the street food, colourful markets, colonial architecture, the wonderful cuisine (mohinga!), cool restaurants like Rangoon Tea House, and an emerging art scene. And that was only Yangon. Then there’s Bagan, with its majestic temples; enchanting Inle Lake for its colourful markets and floating vegetable farms; Mandalay, which has a walled palace, myriad pagodas, an impressive bamboo bridge, marvellous food – and best of all, an epic train journey from Yangon to Mandalay. Yet, bewilderingly, my favourite Southeast Asian country after Cambodia experienced a drop in tourist numbers last year. So why didn’t you go? More and more of the country is opening up to tourists, visa rules are being relaxed at land border crossings, and there are more frequent domestic flights. Make sure you get there this year and if you don’t, I want to know why.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
As regular readers know, I’m smitten with Cambodia, and especially our home, Siem Reap. So much so that we host culinary tours and writing and photography retreats here so we can share it with others and I craft bespoke itineraries to help people get the best out of their time here. What’s not to love? Siem Reap is the departure point for Angkor Archaeological Park, home to spectacular Angkor Wat and other splendid archaeological ruins. The Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and its colourful floating villages are close by, which you can experience by bike and boat. Even more temples are a pleasant tuk tuk trundle away, like petite Banteay Srei with its exquisite carvings, while there are more remote, lesser-visited temples such as atmospheric Beng Mealea set within forest and sprawling Preah Vihear perched on a mountain overlooking a valley. Riverside Battambang with its colonial architecture, growing art scene and charming villages is 3-hour drive away, while Banteay Chhmar, the location of a dilapidated temple with never-ending walls of bas-reliefs and local homestays, is a great overnight excursion from Siem Reap. As for Temple Town, there are superb restaurants, cafes and bars, fab shopping and an emerging art scene. What many visitors don’t realise is that Siem Reap remains the poorest province in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries. Most visitors arrive in the cooler ‘winter; high season months and businesses suffer the rest of the year. People, keep coming, but come during low season to inject badly needed funds into the economy, enjoy the temples without crowds, and soak up the lush monsoonal landscapes.
Off the Beaten Track Indonesia
Okay, so go to Bali first, because the food scene has remarkably improved – we ate at some outstanding restaurants on a recent trip – and it is possible to experience Bali like a local, as we discovered at one of Bali’s most popular tourist sights, Tanah Lot. There are also parts of Bali that get very few tourists. So do spend time in Bali, but then get a flight to another far lesser visited island. Many don’t realise that Indonesia is an archipelago of 17,508 islands – Java, Sumatra, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Sulawesi, the Maluku islands, and more – which see a tiny fraction of the tourists that Bali gets. We loved Java, home to the largest Buddhist temple in the world, Borobudur; Prambanan, another handsome set of stupendous temples; pristine jungle and countryside carved by rivers and shaped by rice terraces. Yogyakarta is a very cool city with compelling old neighbourhoods, good street food, a colourful market, and street art. So why not start there and see how many islands you can get to. Ready, get set, and… go!
Poor old Jordan’s tourism numbers are right down due to a decline in tourism across the region. Jordan is virtually surrounded by countries in turmoil – Syria, Iraq and Egypt – the Jordan remains a haven of calm in an increasingly volatile Middle East. Stability aside, Jordan boasts some of the most diverse and most spectacular landscapes on the planet. An hour out of the capital Amman, the Evason Ma’in resort and Six Senses Spa is located in a lush oasis surrounded by scorched mountains and rugged gorges. The hot springs cascade into the natural spa pool and the restaurant serves delicious organic cuisine. Nearby, a clifftop Panorama lookout offers views of the sunset over the Dead Sea and moonlit meals with the faraway lights of Jerusalem flickering in the distance. A short drive away on the Dead Sea-Aqaba Highway, romantic candle-lit Feynan Eco-Lodge, Jordan’s first eco-accommodation, is located in the 320-square-kilometre Dana Biosphere Reserve, home to 800 plant species and a huge variety of wildlife, including the rare Nubian ibex. Guests can do hikes to spot animal- and bird-life, see Byzantine ruins, or drink tea with local Bedouin. Further down the highway, near seaside Aqaba, travellers can go glamping in Bedouin goat hair tents in the 720-square-kilometre reserve of Wadi Rum, famous for its copper sands, vast desert landscapes, wild camels, and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. And then there’s Petra, which needs no introduction. New this year: the Jordan Travel, a 600-kilometre walking trail from north to south, which can be done in 36 days or can divided into eight 4-7 day hikes.
Like Jordan, tourism numbers to Morocco dropped slightly in 2016 and 2015, after decades of growth, due to unrest in nearby Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Start your trip in Marrakech for its chic riads, wonderful shopping in the labyrinthine souqs, and fantastic food, then hire a car and drive. Kick off your road trip in Essaouira, long a secret escape of affluent Moroccans and European expats. Lying on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Essaouira has long sandy beaches, a charming walled town, and laidback way of life. The main activities include strolling the seaside promenade, losing yourself in the narrow old town alleyways, and browsing the fascinating art galleries and small shops selling bold-coloured carpets, lacquered wooden boxes, and leather ottomans. Punctuate these with leisurely lunches by the water, where you should feast on fresh seafood. Local specialties include sea urchins, oysters, shrimps, and fish, which you can wash down with crisp Moroccan white wines. Le Chalet de la Plage is right on the sand with ocean vistas while the quirky Chez Sam is at the port, where faded blue boats bob in the water right outside the window. After dark, climb up the steep stairs to the rooftop terrace at Taros in the heart of town for cocktails under the moonlight while you plan your route. For the most spectacular scenery, we recommend you drive to the desert. First head south along the coast to Agadir and then inland to Taroudant, Ourzazate via Ait Ben Haddou, Zagora, to Mhamid or Merzouga.
Masai Mara, Kenya
In December, animal conservations declared cheetahs endangered with an estimated 7,100 of the big cats remaining in the wild. African lions were put on the endangered list in 2015. Kenya actually has the world’s largest number of endangered species in the world. Its Masai Mara National Park lost a dozen endangered black rhinos to poachers in the last two years and there are just 200 lions in the park. With fears that the Masai Mara won’t be around for many more years, due to the decline in wildlife numbers among other environmental issues, make this the year you head to Kenya to see ‘the big five’, inject some money into the local economy, and hopefully help save these animals from extinction. The figure of the towering Masai warrior, resplendent in colourful robes and beads, is the symbol most associated with Kenya, so let a handsome Masai be your guide. At the Sarova Mara lodge, where accommodation is in luxurious tents, guests can do a number of wildlife and cultural experiences with the hotel’s Maasai guides, including nature walks, safaris on foot, and village visits, which were a highlight for us. Guests are welcomed by Masai tribesmen with a demonstration of the ‘adamu’ jumping dance for which they are famous and on a village stroll, you can learn firsthand about local customs, traditions and rituals, get a peek inside a home, and do some shopping at an outdoor market where the tribes-people sell the beautiful beads they create. Click through to National Geographic to read more about the Big Cats Initiative to save our feline friends from extinction.
Mexico has been getting some bad press recently due to protests in Mexico City and Guadalajara due to a stagnant economy and an increase in petrol prices. The weak peso may not be good for locals, but it’s good for you, making Mexico, already an affordable destination, even cheaper. We love Mexico City, but if you want to avoid the protests in Mexico City, and might be wise for now, head to the captivating colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, a few hours north. Cobblestone streets are graced by restored courtyard houses with bougainvillea filled gardens, that look like they’ve been plucked from the pages of a glossy design book. Once settled into a colourful hacienda, you can enrol in a cooking class, silver jewellery making workshop or painting classes, which are the most popular things to do in this arty little city. San Miguel is crammed with atmospheric cafés and beautiful restaurants, but the locals and tourists alike love the town’s famed street food. Try the busy, generations-old taco stand at 8 Calle Mesones, which opens in the late afternoon. Local families stop by well into the night in flashy 4WDs to pick up orders of the beloved tacos al pastor, salivating as the staff slice juicy meat off the vertical spit before slathering it with green chilli sauce. In the evenings, join the locals for a saunter around the leafy main square to listen to mariachi music or enjoy exuberant performances of folkloric dance outside the cathedral.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Impacted by a recession in neighbouring Brazil, the Argentine economy needs a boost so get down to Latin America’s most cosmopolitan capital and spend some money. We love Buenos Aires – for its beautiful architecture, fine food and wine, and its people. Porteños, as Buenos Aires local residents are called, are passionate people, mad about politics, football and tango. When they’re not debating politics in a smoky bar, in a stadium barracking for their home team, or strutting cheek to cheek in a dance hall, they are outdoors in a sunny park, picnicking, strolling and sunbathing. Well-to-do Palermo is home to a cluster of glorious parks called the Bosques de Palermo (Palermo Woods), which have pretty rose gardens and serene lakes. Nearby, streets are lined with Art Deco residences, colonial mansions, stylish cafés, bars and restaurants, designer boutiques, and décor shops. Palermo Soho has a fabulous weekend market, as do the fashionable neighbourhoods like Recoleta and San Telmo, where you’ll find vintage clothes, silver jewellery and antiques. For fine leather and handicrafts, head to the Sunday La Feria de Matadores, a market and fair where locals dance the tango and enjoy the traditional barbecue. In the evening, dine at a classic parilla (steakhouse), such as La Dorita, where you can savour a 400g cut of bife de lomo washed down with Malbec, the native Argentine wine.
This time last year, Lonely Planet named Kotor, Montenegro, a miniature version of Dubrovnik over the border in Croatia, the top city in the world to visit. It surprised many who had never even heard of this gem where we spent a couple of weeks back in 2010. But in mid-2016, just as the summer season was kicking off, Kotor’s streets became crime scenes no thanks to rival drug gangs. Special forces were called in to clean things up and it’s now safe to return. Kotor’s star attraction is the beautifully preserved Stari Grad, a walled old town with marble-tiled squares, handsome stone houses and winding lanes that are car-free, making the compact town a delight to amble. Wander Craftsmen Street, which was lined with goldsmiths, stonemasons and blacksmiths during the Middle Ages. It’s now home to shops specialising in traditional embroidered blouses, antique kilims and delicate handmade model boats. Exit through the northern River Gate and stroll halfway across the bridge for jaw-dropping views above Stari Grad to the lofty mountains. Hike up to San Giovanni’s Castle for gob-smacking vistas of the magnificent waterway that locals call ‘the Mediterranean’s fjords’. Celebrate with a slice of traditional lemon and almond Dobrotska Torta cake at Café Forza on the main square of Stari Grad. From a table outside you can take in the elegant buildings, including the Prince’s Palace, Bizanti Palace, and Venetian Arsenal and wonder why Kotor was off the radar for so long.
What places are you dreaming of going to in 2017? And does the fact that a country needs more tourists impact your decision to travel there?