Must-see travel hotspots for 2012
Published 22/01/2012 | 06:00
Looking for some holiday inspiration? Here are our top tips for where to go in the year ahead
Normandy for value
In these difficult times, travellers are looking, above all, for good value and security.
The country that is likely to benefit most -- apart from Ireland, perhaps -- is France, and nowhere more so than Normandy. It has some of the best beaches and most beautiful countryside in France.
There are sophisticated resorts (Deauville and Trouville), scenic ports (Honfleur and Barfleur) and seaside villages (Etretat and Pourville), and there is the wild and rocky west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula.
There are world-class art galleries in Rouen and Le Havre, and excellent ones in Dieppe and Honfleur -- not to mention Monet's garden and a string of other associations with the Impressionists.
There are great medieval churches and cathedrals in Fécamp, Rouen and Mont St Michel (pictured). And don't forget the Bayeux Tapestry, the cheese, the cider, the Calvados, the golf, the sailing, William the Conqueror, the Normandy landings ...
You can take the car there on the ferry from €200 return (irish ferries.ie). If you are searching for value and variety in 2012, look no further.
The great interest in London's current Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in the National Gallery, 'Painter at the Court of Milan', has raised the profile of this northern Italian city enormously. And rightly so.
It has art galleries and museums to compete with Florence and Venice, superb food, and friendly people - not something you would expect from the capital of fashionistas.
If you're inspired by Da Vinci, some of his greatest work can be seen here.
Continuing on the arty theme, devotees of the dazzling, sensuous forms depicted by Gustav Klimt should make a pilgrimage to Vienna this year to join celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of an artist who was a founding father of the radically modernist Viennese Secessionist movement.
The Austrian capital -- which at the time Klimt was painting was the centre of a vast empire -- is the permanent home to the largest collection of Klimt's works in the world, including 'The Kiss' and the 'Beethoven Frieze'.
Over the coming 12 months, a host of galleries and museums will be staging special exhibitions highlighting paintings and drawings not usually on display.
There will also be re-evaluations of the artist's life and significance, and fresh insights into the society and culture -- the late 19th-century twilight years of the Habsburg Empire -- that formed the backdrop to his creations.
For further information see klimt2012.info/en.
Here we go ... Poland and Ukraine
In June, Ireland's footballers head to central Europe. In between games, visiting fans should explore the two countries that are staging Euro 2012.
In Poland, the atmospheric medieval city of Kraków, where our boys will be based, needs no introduction, but other, lesser-known treasures include the Hanseatic port city of Gdansk, and Wroclaw, known as the 'Venice of the North'.
In Ukraine, in addition to the gold-domed splendours of the capital, Kiev, and Odessa on the Black Sea, the western city of Lviv offers art and culture and old-world Gothic and Renaissance charm.
For more information see poland.travel/en-gb and travel toukraine.org.
Cádiz for the bicentenary
The fortified city of Cádiz is a lesser-known Andalusian destination, despite having a fascinating history and being perfectly placed for jaunts to the unspoilt Costa de la Luz.
Visit in 2012 and residents will be celebrating the city's bicentenary with parades and historical re-enactments.
Cádiz also has a celebrated carnival and long maritime tradition: it welcomes the Tall Ships Regatta on July 26.
Hire a car and head to the nearby sherry bodegas of Jerez. Further south is hip, Moorish Tarifa, reached via beaches -- including the windsurfer hang-out of Los Caños de Meca -- and lovely whitewashed villages such as Vejer de la Frontera.
In northern Portugal, Guimarães has been chosen as a European Capital of Culture for 2012.
Situated in the beautiful Minho region, an hour from Porto, the city has a Unesco-listed medieval centre, a hilltop palace, a museum and keep and a buzzy atmosphere.
Next year, expect a varied programme of art, cinema, dance and theatre, plus spontaneous events in unlikely public spaces.
Note, too, that Portugal is one of western Europe's most affordable destinations and a great place to combine culture with beach life.
One of the least explored countries in Europe, Albania appeared in 'Lonely Planet's' list of top destinations for 2011, usually a harbinger of much greater visitor numbers.
With miles of beautiful Ionian coastline, Roman ruins and a low cost of living, it is only a matter of time before the country follows the same path as nearby Croatia and Greece.
One regular reader explored the area in the autumn, travelling around independently at the age of 83. In a letter he advised people to go now before the country changed beyond all recognition.
Skiing in Austria
France may be getting most of the snow, but it is Austria (and to a lesser extent Italy) that you should turn to for value on a skiing holiday.
The high-profile French resorts seem expensive by comparison, as resort owners seem unwilling to lower prices despite the wider economic downturn.
However, the likes of Mayrhofen, Soll and Schladming in Austria offer real value on and off the slopes.
Add to this the great skiing and the famous après-ski (St Anton's infamous MooserWirt on-the-slopes bar opened as a hotel this month), and it is no wonder that Austria is poised to outstrip France as the destination of choice for skiers for the first time since the 1970s.
Britain at its best
It looks as though more of us will be holidaying in Britain this year, so book early to get the pick of self-catering accommodation.
Two new set-ups with interesting camping and designer-inspired properties around the country are Canopy & Stars (0044 127 539 5447; canopyandstars.co.uk) and Living Architecture (living-architecture. co.uk).
Center Parcs (0044 844 826 7723; centerparcs.co.uk), meanwhile, is upping its game with the opening in January of luxury treehouse villas at Longleat Adventure Park in Wiltshire.
Even if you haven't got Olympics tickets, there's plenty to see in London this summer. The London 2012 Festival runs from June 21 to September 9 and is selling itself as the UK's biggest ever festival of dance, music, theatre, visual arts and film (festival.london2012.com).
The Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations reach a peak on the weekend of June 2-5, when a flotilla of up to a thousand boats will sail down the Thames.
Accommodation in London will be expensive, but onefinestay.com can arrange stays in private homes, while the Camping and Caravanning Club has three event campsites, open in July and August, with pitches from £30 (€36) a night (2012camping.co.uk).
On the road in the US
'Hit the road, Jack' is a tip given to many visitors wanting to get under the skin of the US. You can expect to hear it even more often next year, following the release of the film by Walter Salles of Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation novel 'On the Road'.
Steven Spielberg's biopic 'Lincoln', starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the president and due for release towards the end of 2012, will continue the interest in battlefield tours generated by the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865).
The tourist boards of "the Capital Region" (bit.ly/seittF), Washington DC (washington.org/ civil-war/home) and Virginia (virginiacivilwar.org) all have Civil War-themed events and itineraries.
Spring sunshine: Morocco and Jordan
Don't write off the Middle East and North Africa as tourist destinations. Jordan, which has so far been spared the conflicts of neighbouring countries, contains the 9,000-year-old Nabatean city of Petra, as well as a spectacular Roman site at Jerash -- and current advice is that there are "no specific threats to the safety of foreign visitors".
Morocco, too, has remained largely calm in recent months, and is at its most captivating in spring sunshine. Locals are hoping to attract more visitors with affordable hotel deals.
For an excellent range of stylish accommodation in Marrakesh, Fes, Essaouira (don't miss the goat-filled trees nearby), the Atlas Mountains and the desert, see the Morocco section of i-escape.com.
Prices start at about €90 a night for a double room, and several riads and hotels are offering discounts of up to 20pc.
Zambia's national parks have a fraction of the visitor traffic of the more popular East African safari areas.
Best for game viewing is the lovely South Luangwa National Park, where many guides are trained to lead small groups on walking safaris -- an exciting way to see both game and landscape.
Sanctuary Retreats (sanctuary retreats.com) has some of the country's best guides, and its newest camp, Zebra Plains, is set by a river in a remote region of the park.
Next stop Hanoi
The recent launch of the first direct flights between Britain and Vietnam will spur on more travellers to visit a part of Asia that still has the ring of the exotic about it.
Using Gatwick as its British base, Vietnam Airlines is flying directly to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, considerably simplifying the journey to the country and the neighbouring states of Cambodia and Laos.
With its lush landscapes, dramatic temple complexes, scenic river journeys, tropical beaches and lingering reminders of the period of French rule, the Indo-China region has been attracting a growing number of Irish visitors since opening up to tourists some two decades ago.
That trend is likely to continue, and facilities and hotels -- there are now appealing boutique-style properties in each of the countries -- have moved with the times accordingly.
What's more, while the flights themselves knock a hole in the budget, once there the costs remain reasonable.
Think you've done Asia? Seen enough temples to last a lifetime? Think again.
It's early days, but Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to drop her objection to tourism to her country, coupled with the newly released Luc Besson film, 'The Lady', means Burma's star could go far in the 2012 travel firmament.
From the seductive capital Yangon (where noise-polluting scooters and horn-honking are banned) and the mist-cloaked forests of the Irrawaddy, to the beguiling Inle Lake and stupa- studded Bagan (best viewed from a hot-air balloon at dawn), and not forgetting the grins and handshakes here, there and everywhere, Burma is Asia as it once was.
Northern Lights crescendo
For centuries, the Inuit tribes of the Arctic regarded the dancing ribbons of light that stretched across the night sky throughout the long winter months as the work of mischievous sky-dwellers, or ghostly visitations from the spirits of unmarried women.
Today, we know this wondrous display of nature at its balletic best as the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights: a celestial phenomenon caused by charged solar particles colliding with Earth's atmosphere, in an event that peaks in activity every 11 years.
Traditionally, Arctic climes are the best place from which to view the lights. Astronomers have caused much excitement, however, with their predictions that the current solar cycle is likely to reach a spectacular zenith in the next year or so.
If their calculations are correct, a series of solar flares could be unleashed upon the Earth to rival those of 1958, when the Northern Lights were spotted as far south as Mexico.
If they're right, and this really is the best opportunity to see the lights in more than a generation, then in addition to the customary viewing spots of northern Scandinavia, Canada and Russia, the aurora's distinctive green and gold streamers could easily be visible in the skies above Ireland, and possibly much farther beyond.
Going places on social media
Last year was all about travel apps; 2012 will be the year of social media. Social sites and user-generated content are nothing new, of course, but using your contacts from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ to influence your travel research is going to be a big trend next year.
The buzzword is 'personalisation'. TripAdvisor was one of the first to cash in on this, by plugging users' Facebook profiles into their friends' TripAdvisor searches.
Search for a hotel or destination, and rather than just getting a list of faceless reviews from people that you may have nothing in common with, you'll see if any of your friends have been there.
It's a way of getting recommendations, online, from people you know.
The latest travel start-ups are all about personalisation. Sites such as trippy.com and gogobot.com let users ask questions using their Facebook or Twitter accounts, and then build travel itineraries using their friends' recommendations.
Inbed.me, which launched last month, allows you to check who is staying in a particular place before you book by connecting with Facebook and seeing if any of your friends will be nearby.
Although not travel-specific, Quora.com is part-social network, part-forum. You can ask a travel question and get all sorts of answers -- anything from hotel recommendations to tips on travelling with children.
Twitter, too, can be used to plan a holiday, with searches for hashtags. Search for #parishotels, for example, and you'll see who's tweeting about them.
More traditional companies are doing it, too. KLM, for example, will next year allow passengers to pick who they sit next to by using Facebook or LinkedIn profiles.
So here's your New Year's resolution: if you're not already one of the 800 million Facebook or 300 million Twitter users, 2012 is the time to start.