The year that was

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

It’s been a busy year and it’s time to take stock. Here travel writer and enthusiast, Kaye Holland, shares her 2013 holiday highlights

 

Las Vegas

Las Vegas – the desert town that exploded from a dusty backwater into a fast moving global playground back in the 1930s – has gone decidedly upmarket in 2013. Sure the never ending buffets, free flowing drinks and lens friendly reproductions of the Egyptian Pyramids, Eiffel Tower et al are all still present and correct. But Sin City is also revelling in the luxurious side of life thanks to a new new breed of hip hotels (Aria anyone?), fine dining – here’s looking at your Hakkasan – designer cocktails and great golf. The anything can happen playground is also much easier to reach these days: there are direct flights to the flashy new McCarran International Airport, only a stone’s throw away from the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip. Just remember: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

 

Palm Springs

Staying in North America, Palm Springs (the hangout of the Rat Pack back in the 60s and 70s) proved to be a travel highlight in 2013 – the 75th anniversary of the decadent, desert oasis. Surrounded by the stunning San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains, Palm Springs stands for everything I love: hot weather, fabulous sun tanned bodies and some of the some of the swankiest hotels and bars on the planet.
No trip to Palm Springs would be complete without seeing the homes of the King of Cool and his Rat Pack cronies and taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the summit of San Jacinto. But the real reason you flock to Palm Springs is to drink designer cocktails and dance to fresh DJ spun tunes around kidney shaped pools until the wee hours. Sure, Palm Springs won’t suit everyone – you either get it or you don’t. But if you do, like me, you can’t wait to return.

 

Temecula


Temecula Valley may not have previously figured on your mental map –  the likes of LA, Anaheim and San Diego typically top the SoCal sightseeing agenda – but when you get there, it’s hard to see why not.
Only 90 miles southeast of LA and 60 miles north of San Diego, Temecula is Southern California’s premier wine growing region and a good place to disappear for a long, lazy weekend. You’ll find around 40 wineries free of crowds and mercifully, without Napa’s perturbing price tags – after all, the last person you want to be chatting to on your hols, is your bank manager.
Yet while vines and wines do dominate proceedings, Temecula Valley  isn’t just for oenophiles. Much of Temecula’s appeal lies in its heart stoppingly pretty old town – a beguiling place for camera clad tourists owing to its wooden boardwalks and unique shops.With so much on offer, it can only be a matter of time before Temecula becomes the next Napa so explore, enjoy and get there before everybody else does.

 

Rio de Janeiro

Rio has always been hot (in every sense of the word) but in 2013, the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City) positively sizzled. Pope Francis chose Rio for his first overseas tour in July 2013 while the world’s best footballers will be arriving in Rio in 2014, followed by the Olympic flame in 2016.
Despite staying out dancing until dawn in the dance halls of Lapa (Cariocas – aka Rio residents – know how to party and not just when Carnaval rolls round) I returned home energised and happy, convinced that there is no more enticing place on the planet than Rio de Janeiro. This is an intoxicating city of sun, samba, football, food, beaches and Bossa Nova, that truly justifies every word of the hype. And with interest (and prices) in Rio only set to rocket following the FIFA 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, now is a great time to go. Get it while it’s hot.

 

The Iguacu Falls

Confession time: I very nearly didn’t make it to the Iguacu Falls – being too busy topping up the tan on Rio’s Copacabana Beach, but boy am I glad I did.
The crashing cascades occupying an area more than 80m high and 3km wide have the wow factor and no other water falls in the world can compete. Little wonder then that Eleanor Roosevelt gasped “Poor little Niagara” when she came up close at Iguacu.The 275 falls (shared between Brazil and Argentina) are so bedazzling that it comes as no surprise to learn that Hollywood covets them for one blockbuster after another  – scenes from Miami Vice, Mr Magoo, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and The River were all shot here.
All told the spotlight will inevitably fall on Sao Paulo and Rio when the Olympic flame arrives in 2016, but do add the Iguacu Falls to any  Brazilian itinerary.

 

Ilha Grande


Just when I was beginning to think that the whole world had been completely Google mapped and Starbucksified, I stumbled across the Brazilian island of Ilha Grande – a two and hour half bus and boat trip away from Rio.
Far quieter and less developed than the rest of the Costa Verde, this pristine car free island is remnant of an older, miraculously unspoiled world. Yet while Ilha Grande may lack the crowds, it most definitely has the character.
The island retreat was once a pirate’s lair, then a leper colony and lastly a penitentiary, holding some of Brazil’s most violent criminals. For decades the island’s less than salubrious reputation deterred developers and consequently tourism is still in its infancy. Translation? A  visit – which involves a thrilling boat journey – remains a genuine adventure. There’s little internet access, no roaming phone signal, an absence of automobiles and ATMS, and a refreshing lack of Western hotel chains.

 

Paraty

Brazil’s Costa Verde coastline has plenty of places to entice travellers who manage to tear themselves away from Rio de Janeiro but, in my mind, peaceful Paraty – particularly the old colonial centre – is the state’s star attraction.
The colonial centre’s cobblestone streets (ladies, don’t even think about wearing heels) are closed to cars, making it an enchanting place to amble around. For Paraty isn’t about sightseeing, though museums do abound, but about wandering the backstreets, stopping for a sweet, strong coffee, eating a long, late lunch and, if you’re feeling flush, chillaxing in an elegant old town pousada. Our pick would be Pousada Ouro, whose high profile past guests include Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall and Tom Cruise. After dark, Paraty resembles something of a party town – barely a month goes by without some festival or other, filling the cobblestoned streets – and places such as Paraty 33, in the heart of the historic centre, are pumping on any given night.

Brandenburg


Brandenburg’s big headliner grabber maybe Berlin but the rest of the region has plenty to recommend too – particularly for history buffs – as I discovered in 2013. The state’s small towns, churches and series of low hills serve as a welcome antidote to the hustle and bustle of Berlin’s bewildering array of bars, museums and modern buildings.
For me, Potsdam – with its fabulous fountains, follies, palaces and gardens – was a particular standout. Most people associate Potsdam with the aftermath of the Second World War: Potsdam’s Schloss Celcilienhof is where the victorious Allies arrived on 2 August 1945 to work out details of the division of Germany and Europe.
But if you’re after a holiday not a history lesson, make a beeline for the buzzing Dutch quarter – teeming as it is with trendy shops and cafes. Or check out charming towns such as Wolfshagen and Wittenberg – both within easy reach of the  bright lights of Berlin.

Dubai

People, perhaps understandably given the emirate’s penchant for publicising its outlandish projects, have the wrong idea about Dubai – believing it to be all about  malls and modernity.
However scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside the skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the self proclaimed seven star hotel,) and the Emirates Towers sit historical sites such as Bastakia  and the creek – arguably the heart beat of Dubai.
Here you can watch abras and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries. For further local flavour, factor in a tour of Jumeirah Mosque (Dubai is after all an Islamic state even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia) before sauntering through the bustling souks.Bottom line? There’s awful lot to discover about Dubai beyond what you know from the glossy brochures.

 

Abu Dhabi

Dubai may have been confirmed as the host of the 2020 Expo but isn’t the only UAE city creating a buzz. Abu Dhabi – the country’s capital – is making a name for itself at the Gulf’s cultural hub. Sheikh Khalifa has signed up several star-chitects to oversee a plethora of prestigious projects including the  world’s largest Guggenheim gallery – and the only one in the Arab world – and the first ever branch of the world famous Parisian art museum, The Louvre.
But Abu Dhabi isn’t all about art. The more subdued Islamic state is also emerging as a sporting haven thanks to the success of the Formula 1TM Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – the only twilight race on the F1 calendar.
Yet while Abu Dhabi has spent more than US$100 billion on developments and events,  it has managed more successfully than most to modernise itself and remains significantly richer in local colour  than its bling-tastic brother.

 

What were your 2013 travel highlights? Let us know by posting a comment below!

 

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