While the arrival of a new year often means diets and resolutions, it also means a slew of new vacation days. With their upcoming travels in mind, the members and editors of VirtualTourist.com (www.virtualtourist.com) have selected their "Top 10 Places off the beaten path".
Stretching 4,270 km (2,653 mi) along the Pacific Ocean, Chile's length and range of latitudes (from subtropical to subAntarctic) create incredible biodiversity and a variety of natural settings to see and enjoy. Most travelers planning to visit Chile will want to do so in the next few months, as this is the country's summer season, meaning temperate weather and a chance to explore areas of Chilean Patagonia that are difficult to traverse in other seasons.
Torres del Paine National Park is in splendid form during these months, and the region's famous winds are the most manageable they will be all year. However, there is no shortage of incredible spots to see in Chile year round, like the Atacama Desert, Santiago, and Valpariso. One of the most arid places in the world, the Atacama is an especially great site for avid starwatchers since the sky is completely clear about 340 days a year. Santiago, Chile's capital city, is a growing metropolis and located adjacent to fantastic vineyards. Valpariso, only 74 miles (120km) from Santiago on the coast, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its sloping hills filled with colorful homes and Chile's most vital port.
Since NASA has predicted that the winter season (October 2012 - April 2013) in the Northern Hemisphere will be the brightest northern lights display in 50 years, it makes sense that two of our destinations are spots to see this natural occurrence. Aurora Borealis, the scientific term for the northern lights, occurs when energetic particles are flung out from the sun and hit the magnetic field around Earth, and this year's conditions suggest some of the best sightings since 1958. As the phenomenon's name suggests, the display is most commonly seen in a zone within a certain radius of the North Pole, in an area including Iceland, northern Scandinavia, northern Canada, Alaska, and some parts of Siberia. Tromsø, located above the Arctic Circle, is known as "the capital of the Arctic" within Norway. With relatively mild winters and long winter nights, it is an ideal location for viewing the northern lights. However, a lack of storms does not mean you should pack light - the average temperature in Tromsø from January to April is about 31 degrees Fahrenheit (-0.55 Celsius), so remember your gloves or mittens. Also, make sure to avoid the full moon and places with lots of lights, as these will interfere with your viewing. During the daytime hours, visitors can check out the Arctic Cathedral, with its beautiful glass mosaic.
Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been added to many travelers' wish lists in the last year after the nation held elections and U.S. political leaders visited the Southeast Asian country. While the destination just recently appeared on the general public's radar, VirtualTourist members have been traveling and enjoying the country for years. In Yangon (also called Rangoon), visitors will find the Shwedagon Paya known to be the most sacred of all Burmese temples with a golden stupa that can be seen from miles away. Members did note that the complex is filled with things to do and see, and it can be a bit overwhelming so make sure to allow at least half a day to explore the site. Farther north, the Mandalay division showcases some of the country's other types of structures such as the teak temple and also hosts great views from atop Mandalay Hill. Members frequently visited the temples and pagodas of Bagan noting that the Shwesandaw Paya is the best viewpoint of the temples and sunsets in Bagan.
4. Sibiu, Romania
With exploring Eastern Europe becoming more mainstream, Romania is rapidly turning out to be a great destination for budget-conscious travelers. Bordering Hungary, the Ukraine, and the Black Sea, Romania contains some of Europe's most well-preserved medieval towns. VirtualTourist members will be hosting their annual member meeting this June in Sibiu, a township in historic Transylvania, with plans to explore the Old Saxon architecture of Brasov and the hilltop citadel of nearby Sighisoara. While staying in Sibiu, visitors should see the Bruckental Museum, the region's finest art museum, which has been operating since 1790. And yes, this is the land of Dracula, or at least the origin and inspiration for Bram Stoker's novel can be traced back here. Two castles that should not be missed are Bran, a Gothic fairytale structure near Brasov, and Corvinesti Castle, located in nearby Hunedoara. Multiple members are also planning on traveling south to visit Bucharest, Romania's capital, or seeing more of Eastern Europe, like Moldova, Budapest, or Slovakia.
5. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Every year, more VT members make the trek to experience the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. One of the most fragile environments on Earth, the islands, their national park and the marine biological reserve comprise the only province totally surrounded by water. Though the islands were removed from the UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger over two years ago, the ecosystem and its unique species are still fragile and undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ecuador has also taken steps to make traveling to the islands easier than ever: this year, new railway lines will link the capital of Quito with the coastal port of Guayaquil. In addition to visiting the Galapagos, VirtualTourist members also recommend visiting Cuenca, a colonial city famous for its architectural sites and variety of buildings and only a 2 hour and 50 minute drive from Guayaquil, the most common port of entry to the Galapagos.
The primary bastion of economic growth in mainland China, Shanghai is an interesting juxtaposition of historic buildings and booming growth, and it's never been easier to visit than now. Starting on January 1st of this year, visitors from 45 countries will be able to stay in Shanghai (as well as Beijing) for 72 hours without needing a visa. Start your three days at the Shanghai Museum, located on People's Square, and get an introduction to the city and China's fascinating history. A great comparison between old China and new Shanghai can be seen by strolling Dongtai Road's antiques shops, followed by a visit to Moganshan Road, the buzzing location of many Chinese contemporary art galleries. Lastly, don't forget to take in the skyline and light shows at night - the Pearl Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, and other towers in the Pudong district provide great views, as do the hotels across the river on the Bund.
7. Sri Lanka
The island of Sri Lanka has long been a fly-over country for most travelers, due to its extensive history of civil unrest, but it's time for this jungle isle to shine. After over four years of stability, it is becoming a popular destination for budget conscious travelers wanting to try something new in Southeast Asia. For travelers looking for a safari experience, Sri Lanka offers just as much amazing wildlife as Africa, but is much more budget-friendly. Wild elephants, leopards and spotted deer are just a sample of the mammals you can see in one of the island's fourteen national parks. Yala National Park, the most visited and second largest national park in the country, is vital for the conservation of Sri Lankan Elephants. Another site VirtualTourist members strongly recommend is Sigiriya, the ruins of the capital built by King Kassapa I in the 5th century. While the rock itself is quite a difficult climb, the site is surrounded with some very impressive urban planning techniques - members say a simple walk around the grounds is fulfilling and the view from the plateaus is exceptional.
For most nature lovers, Iceland is a fixture on their travel bucket lists as the island nation is filled with dramatic natural landscapes and unique features from hot springs to lava fields to glaciers. Many members comment that while some activities such as the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle Tour seem touristy when planning a trip, they are well worth the organized tours and crowds upon arrival. Members residing in Iceland strongly recommend Skaftafell National Park and Jökulsárlón, the island's largest glacier lagoon, which is situated between Skaftafell National Park and Höfn. Somewhat off the beaten path but undoubtedly worth the trip, Dettifoss in northern Iceland is an amazing sight and the most powerful waterfall in Europe. A unique natural occurrence that makes visiting Iceland this year a major priority is this year's Northern lights display, as Iceland is one of the best locations to view this phenomenon. Visiting ingvellir National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site, on a night before the end of March means your best chance to witness the lights.
9. Victoria Falls, Zambia
Traditionally, the majority of visitors to Africa's Victoria Falls have visited on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi River. However, with the unpredictable political situation in Zimbabwe, many travelers are now approaching the falls from the Zambian side. Although Livingstone, the town on the Zambian side of the river, is not nearly as developed as the Zimbabwean side, it still provides the same spectacular views of Victoria Falls. Mosi-O-Tunya National Park, which encompasses the falls on the Zambian side, provides an opportunity to see multiple spectacles in one day. In addition to the falls, visitors often spot antelope, zebras, giraffe, and even elephants crossing the Zambezi and walking freely through out the park. Lower Zambezi National Park, also on the Zambezi River, is known for both its incredible fishing and fantastic birdlife so it attracts hobbyists of all kinds. Zambia is also famous for its "walking safaris," where a game guide leads travelers deep into the bush with nothing but a few yards between them and an elephant or troop of baboons.
If you really want to venture off the beaten path, how about visiting the 7th continent? While Antarctic tourism can be traced back to the late 1950s when Chilean and Argentine ships took some fare-paying passengers to the South Shetland Islands, there wasn't a formal association for visitors or private-sector travelers until 1991. With this in mind, it's easy to conclude that a visit to Antarctica isn't just once in a lifetime, but it will most likely be a family first as well.
Visiting Antarctic destinations by ship is particularly popular with vessels commonly departing from Ushuaia, Argentina; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Bluff, New Zealand. The remote location, frozen landscape and unpredictable weather can make tourism operations in Antarctica a logistical challenge, but visiting the area is completely safe. It is important to take into account the sustainability of the landscape and the unique wildlife of the area, so it is suggested that travelers book through the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) which manages environmentally sound cruises to help protect and sustain Antarctica's environment. Each season brings different sights for visitors - in February (or late summer), whale sightings are at their best and receding pack ice allows ships to explore further south.