WE ALL KNOW that getting away from it all is becoming harder to do. There was a time when travel to faraway lands meant taking the road less journeyed; now, that road is apt to include a restroom stop just after the Tour Bus from Hell has passed through – it just isn’t the same anymore. A week or two on a desert island is still plausible – especially if you own it – and remote mountaintop hideaways are always available to those in the know (or on the run). But unless you know Jho Low’s travel planner, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to ski Hokkaido, visit Machu Picchu, trek Lanzarote or explore the fabled ruins at Petra without running into someone you know, or from your dialect group. The options are still out there for people who place a premium on privacy: a quiet sojourn in French Polynesia, a wellness retreat in Iceland or a luxury jungle lodge in Belize, perhaps. But wandering even further offpiste to visit a remote archaeological site or go trekking with only Mother Nature for company may require help from a bespoke travel operator. Nonetheless, here are BT Weekend’s suggestions for under-the-radar travel in 2019:
“Ethiopia will be the next Peru,” says Jose Cortes, co-founder of luxury tour operator A2A Safaris (www.a2asafaris.com), which specialises in African safaris and countries throughout Latin America. This landlocked country in the Horn of Africa, mostly unspoiled by mass tourism, is home to ancient cultures, archaeological sites dating back millions of years, endangered wildlife and diverse landscapes. Mr Cortes adds, “In 2019 we will be pushing luxury tented camps and fly camping in remote areas in the Omo Valley (in the country’s southwestern corner, where several ancient tribes coexist), where our clients see no other tourists, just seven-to-eight tribes in a week.” Five nights at a luxury tented camp start at US$6,000 per person, including local flights and transfers.
The Bale Mountains in Ethiopia’s Highlands – about 400 km southeast of the capital Addis Ababa – have been compared to Switzerland and is the best place to see Ethiopian wolves, the most endangered carnivores on the planet. There are said to be fewer than 500 left in the wild, most of them in this region. Finally, the Danakil Depression in the north is a vast plain featuring alien landscapes and known for its active volcanoes, lava lakes, salt flats, acid and sulphur pools and camel caravans. It’s been called the hottest place on earth, with temperatures in January ranging between 24 C and 29 C (and 40 C or more in July).
The Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia comprises more than 10,000 sq km of bright white salt plains and rock formations, making it the world’s largest salt flat and a prime attraction for visitors in search of a surreal, otherworldly landscape. There are two distinct times to visit: the wet season between December and April when, after rain, the flats resemble a giant mirror lake, and the dry season during the rest of the year, when more of the altiplano is accessible. Despite the lack of hotels beyond Uyuni town, well-heeled visitors don’t have to slum it: a new hotel (www.kachilodge.com) featuring geodesic-like luxury domes opens this year while more retro-minded guests can stay in comfortable tents or refurbished airstream campers, and make daily excursions in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Accommodation includes the services of a chef too. Prices start at US$1,200 per person per night (including guide and excursions).
EASTERN HOKKAIDO, JAPAN
It can get pretty cold in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido but come wintertime, hordes of Singaporeans (and every other nationality) hit the ski slopes in Niseko and other popular resorts. Far fewer people head towards the Notsuke Peninsula, a 28 km-long sandspit in eastern Hokkaido that is home to a unique ecosystem. Visitors can go on snowshoe walks, horseback rides near the Shiretoko Mountains or commune with nature on Lake Akan, habitat of the endangered Red-crowned crane (or Tancho)– a bird that symbolises happiness and long life in Japanese culture. In the shallow waters around the lake’s edge is an interesting natural phenomenon: colonies of soft, green, perfectly spherical algae balls (or marimo) grow – the ones at Akan are the biggest in the world. Until early-April, there’s a chance to explore drift ice (ryuhyo), which originates in eastern Russia before floating across the Sea of Okhotsk and reaching the Shiretoko Peninsula in late January. “I’ve been wanting to see the cranes after watching a documentary on wild Japan,” says Singapore lawyer Susan Kong, who recently visited Notsuke with her family.
If you have an affinity for large, pyramid-shaped objects but have already been to Egypt, head instead to Puebla, a colonial city in central Mexico. On the outskirts is the Giant Pyramid of Cholula, otherwise known as Tlachihualtepetl, or “made-byhand-mountain”, in local dialect. This Aztec temple complex, built in four stages between the 3rd century B.C. and 9th century A.D. and measuring 450 m by 450m at its base, is the largest man-made structure in the world – although it may not look it, since most of it is buried underground. Late-16th-century Spanish colonialists put their stamp on it by building a church atop the structure. The protected status of the church prevents archaeologists from unearthing the rest of the pyramid. Further proof of Puebla’s rich past came just weeks ago when archaeologists announced the discovery – at the base of a much smaller pyramid – of sacrificial altars devoted to a pre-Hispanic deity known as Xipe Totec, or “the flayed lord”. Can the movie be far behind?
This is a good time of year to visit Matera, a highlight of any visit to southern Italy’s Basilicata region thanks to its dramatic setting, with buildings carved out of rock and its prehistoric, well-preserved cave-dwelling districts (known as Sassi). The city has also been declared (together with Plovdiv in Bulgaria) a European Capital of Culture for 2019 – which means more festivals and visitors. Highlights include ‘Ars Excavandi’, a contemporary look at the history and culture of subterranean architecture. The area, which is said to have been inhabited for centuries before being founded by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C., is ready for its closeup. Access to this region, located in the arch of Italy’s boot, is not easy (hence its ‘Secret Italy’ tag), but visitors will be rewarded with local charm, great regional cuisine and awe-inspiring scenery. After visiting the caves of Matera, you will appreciate going back to more comfortable digs – especially if it’s the Palazzo Margherita in nearby Bernalda, the luxury boutique hotel converted from a 19thcentury palazzo by filmmaker (and Godfather director) Francis Ford Coppola, whose grandfather hailed from this hilltop town.
When it comes to well-kept secrets, the Pantanal – the world’s largest tropical wetland – certainly qualifies as one. This roughly 180,000 sq km patch (most of it is in Brazil but it also extends to Bolivia and Paraguay) of savannah and waterways in the middle of South America is home to a stunning world of biodiversity, including the highest concentration of wildlife on the continent. Life in the Pantanal ebbs and flows together with the changing water levels: about 80 percent of the floodplains is under water during the rainy season, so the dry season between May and September is the best time to visit, although visitors can expect to spot spectacular birdlife any time of the year. Larger inhabitants include anteaters, howler and capuchin monkeys, anacondas and the continent’s apex predator, the jaguar. “Where solid walls and forest canopy in Amazonia hide a plethora of weird and wonderful creatures, the open skies and waterways of the Pantanal showcase its abundance of inhabitants,” says Claire Betts, Latin American specialist at A2A Safaris. Accommodation options range from traditional fazendas (working cattle ranches) to chartered boats.
Finland’s capital city is an up-and-comer that tops our list list as the city to visit in 2019. Helsinki has long had a reputation for good design and Scandinavian style, but sustainable tourism is the key to its current approach. “The destinations that can offer a sustainable experience to locals and visitors are the winning ones,” says Laura Aalto, CEO of Helsinki Marketing, a government-run agency that works to promote the city’s tourism agenda. The city’s civic approach to culture and architecture really sets it apart. “Right now, is an interesting moment where cities are looking to other cities to see how they address common issues of urban life: Helsinki has quite a few answers,” says Ms Aalto. Evidence of this can be seen in two recent high-profile civic projects: the Oodi central library, probably the most advanced library in the world – as befits a country with a 5.5 million population that borrows some 68 million books per year – and the Amos Rex museum, a contemporary art collection comprising an iconic 1930s building and a series of underground galleries converted from a parking garage. The city’s urban saunas, year-round festivals, a shoreline that is 130kms long and a buzzing culinary scene provide additional incentives.(www.myhelsinki.fi)
Peru in South America deserves more than one visit. After experiencing the likes of the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca or sampling the cuisine of Lima, it’s time to delve deeper – with an expert. Marisol Mosquera, founder of pioneering luxury tour operator Aracari Travel (www.aracari.com), a Peru and Bolivia specialist, will lead a customised 11-day cultural tour to lesser-known sections of northern Peru, including the world heritage site of Caral, built by one of the world’s earliest cultures. The trip takes in several of Peru’s most picturesque mountain towns and more ancient sites as well as two days in Huascaran National Park, where snow-capped peaks, glacial lakes and high-altitude hikes await. The itinerary includes a visit to Trujillo in northwestern Peru – a superb archaeological complex known for its well-preserved wall reliefs – and also the pre-Colombian mud-brick city of Chan Chan. Aracari provides access to normally out-of-bounds sections like where the pre-Inca relics are kept. The journey goes through cloud forests and Amazonian jungle, so nature lovers will have their fair share of flora and fauna to observe. Aracari also offers a deluxe Amazon extension to the tour – four-days aboard a kitted-out river boat.
Kenya is a core safari destination that has somehow slid down the tourism pecking order in recent years. Safety concerns and the ascendency of other destinations have taken some of the shine off, but it’s still hard to ignore as a wildlife wonderland. “In terms of core destinations like Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa, this is where we are seeing lots more active safaris like multi-day walking, fly camping, multi-day horseback rides,” says Jose Cortes of A2A Safaris. “Our clients are looking for more ‘expedition-type’ trips – they don’t just want to bounce around in game-drive vehicles anymore.” He adds, “People are looking at culture, conservation and more active safaris now – we have conservation-oriented trips that involve rhino and elephant relocation, giraffe collaring and joining anti-poaching patrols.” Mr Cortes is also an avid photographer who advocates cultural photography with tribes and doors-off helicopter safaris for those once-in-a-lifetime shots of wildlife in their natural habitat, such as flamingo-focused flights in northern (Turkana and Logipi lakes) and southern (Natron and Magadi lakes) Kenya.
An article in The Guardian newspaper in late-2017 raised eyebrows and attracted a decent amount of international interest when it featured an obscure restaurant in the Japanese countryside under the headline: Is this the best restaurant on the planet? Yanagiya, in a 170-year-old wooden building atop a small hill in the town of Mizunami, is about as far removed from an upscale dining venue as can be imagined, but it represents a foodie mecca of the highest order. It serves seasonal ingredients (especially game meats) cooked in a pit over an open fire. According to Masashi Yamada, youngest of three brothers who run this restaurant and a branch in Nagoya, 98 percent of the menu is the same as when his grandfather Yaeko Yamada started the restaurant just after the Second World War. Game meat (including wild boar, duck and venison) and seasonal vegetables are cooked over white-hot charcoal sticks, lightly brushed with a soy-ginger marinade and served to expectant diners sitting around the pit. “This is the best way to eat,” says Yamada and after a meal here, it’s hard to argue with that.
Second-city syndrome hasn’t adversely affected Cordoba, a historic colonial city surrounded by rolling hills in the heart of Argentina. Most first-time visitors to the country will spend a few days in the capital Buenos Aires before heading to Patagonia at the country’s southern tip or majestic Iguazu Falls on the border with Brazil, adding a wine tour in Mendoza province if time permits. But Cordoba is also a viable alternative if you’re looking for something different. Its status as an important university town and cultural centre gives it a dynamic vibe, and there’s plenty to keep you busy for a few days. A typical itinerary will include visits to museums, craft markets and stores selling handmade leather goods, as well as excursions to the countryside.
Spare time for a meal at a classic asado (wood-fired grill) restaurant and also at El Papagayo, a tiny modern Argentinian restaurant built into an alleyway between two colonial-era buildings. Owner-chef Javier Rodriguez moved back to his hometown a few years ago after stints in Europe and Singapore, hoping to up Cordoba’s culinary game – El Papagayo has won the title of best restaurant in Cordoba for four years running.
There’s been a surge in the past year from the Singapore market for trips to the Antarctic, thanks in part to a fly-cruise option that cuts out a stomach-churning two-day (or longer) crossing aboard a ship from the tip of South America. Visitors to the White Continent can opt instead to fly across the notorious Drake Passage from Punta Arenas in Chile to rendezvous with an expedition vessel.
Specialist operator Antarctica21 (www.antarctica21.com) offers three ships, five itineraries and 30 departures during the 2019/20 season. The continent’s desolate, otherworldly setting, home to whales, seals and penguins, has been compared with the lunar landscape – only whiter.