From new air routes and hot hotel openings to hidden gems and the coolest destinations, Pól Ó Conghaile has the top travel news and tips for the new year.
Albania comes in from the cold
When 'Lonely Planet' talks, the travel world listens.
That's why tourist boards all over the world await its Top 10 lists with bated breath -- inclusion practically guarantees a bumper year.
Surprisingly, Albania (above) is 'Lonely Planet's No. 1 country to visit in 2011. "Since backpackers started coming to elusive Albania in the 1990s, tales have been told in 'keep it to yourself' whispers of azure beaches, confrontingly good cuisine, heritage sites, nightlife, affordable adventures and the possibility of old-style unplanned journeys complete with open-armed locals for whom travellers are still a novelty," gushes its Best in Travel 2011 guide.
Get there, before the rest of the world does.
Architecture comes to life
This year, self-catering is getting sexy. Alain de Botton, author of 'The Art of Travel', is one of the brains behind non-profit foundation Living Architecture, a holiday-lettings company commissioning leading European architects to design houses for rent in Suffolk, Kent, Norfolk and Devon.
The idea is simple. Instead of a shabby kennel built by the owner's cousin in Santa Ponza, you get to experience what it is like to live, eat and sleep in a cutting-edge space such as the Balancing Barn, a silver-tiled house cantilevered over the Suffolk landscape.
Details: The Barn has just opened for business, sleeping eight people at a cost of £625/ €728 for a four-night break. See living-architecture.co.uk.
Get set to de-tech
Is the internet making us stupid? It's certainly easy to argue the case. So much of our time is spent tripping from link to link, Googling, checking email, watching videos and posting Facebook and Twitter updates, it can feel as if we are plugged-in 24/7.
'De-teching', or opting out of the 24-hour work cycle, will be one of the key trends in 2011, according to marketing communications experts, JWT.
When it comes to holidays, that means no mobile phones, no email and no Facebook. More and more of us will use vacation time to log off and relax in the here and now.
Just like holidays used to be...
Rugby down under
One of the biggest sporting events of 2011 is the Rugby World Cup, which runs from September 9 to October 23 in New Zealand. The Land of the Long White Cloud knows how to capitalise on big events, and the REAL New Zealand Festival is being assembled to run alongside the rugby, with more than 300 events showcasing Kiwi arts, food, wine, heritage, culture and lifestyle. Highlights range from small-town oyster festivals to a big-time performance by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
Let's hope Brian O'Driscoll and co can give us something to celebrate back home, too.
Details: rugbyworldcup.com; nz2011.govt.nz/realnzfestival.
Luggage that weighs itself
In 2009, we had the check-in fee. In 2010, there were opportunistic baggage charge hikes during the summer holidays. What's in store for 2011?
"Baggage fees may increase slightly if we need them to," says Ryanair spokesperson Stephen McNamara.
With excess weight already charged at up to €20 per kilo, this could be the year in which passengers move beyond poacher jackets and portable scales to embrace self-weighing luggage.
Yes, really -- the founder of FlyLightLuggage.co.uk came up with the idea of built-in scales linked to a digital display in the handle on a Ryanair flight from Shannon.
The cases cost £79.99/€94.50 for a set of two (different sizes), plus postage.
Details: See ryanair.com; flylightluggage.co.uk.
We're used to this kind of thing in Dubai. But Singapore? Isn't that supposed to be a haven for restraint, taste and civil order in Southeast Asia? And yet it's here that the gob-smacking Marina Bay Sands Resort, an integrated 2,560-bedroom hotel, convention centre, casino and shopping centre, has sprung up.
Opening on a staggered basis since last June, Marina Bay's wow-feature is its SkyPark, which suspends a 150m infinity pool across the tops of three skyscrapers. Due to open in 2011 are two crystal pavilions housing exclusive nightclubs and a Louis Vuitton boutique, and a lotus-shaped Arts & Science Museum.
Bling is back, baby, with a bang.
The hot new hotels
Scanning the list of world hotel openings for 2011, you'd be forgiven for thinking the recession was already ancient history.
In London, the Dorchester Collection will open 45 Park Lane in Mayfair, a 45-bed boutique hotel with an exterior featuring eco-friendly aluminium 'fins' designed to harness solar power.
InterContinental makes its Malaysian debut in Kuala Lumpur this February; Kempinski launches Africa's first holistic health retreat at the Zamani Resort in Zanzibar, and New York gets its long-awaited Four Seasons Downtown and Flatiron hotels.
Finally, back to London, where Marriott has restored the sensational Victorian St Pancras Hotel.
The building, which Sir John Betjeman termed "too beautiful and too romantic to survive", opens in March.
Details: See dorchestercollection. com; nycgo.com; kempinski.com; marriott.com.
Mickey's latest toy
This month sees the launch of Disney's first new cruise ship in more than a decade.
Disney Dream, a 128,000-tonne mega-ship with capacity for up to 4,000 guests, debuts on January 26 -- and the on-board attractions are as fantastical as any Disney movie. They include a 765ft water-coaster, a lounge where the sun sets over the skyline of a different city every night, and virtual portholes in inside cabins, which give real-time views of the sea outside.
Younger cruisers can play in Tinker Bell's Fairy Forest and interact with larger-than-life characters from 'Toy Story' in Andy's Room.
A sister ship, Disney Fantasy, will launch in April 2012. Both have the same colour palette as Mickey Mouse.
Details: See disneycruise.disney. go.com.
Space: the final frontier
Could 2011 be the year in which space tourism finally takes off? A decade since Denis Tito became the first tourist in space, Virgin Galactic has achieved its first manned glide flight and plans to complete Spaceport America, the world’s first facility to launch commercial spacecraft, in the New Mexico desert this year (the runway is already finished). Boeing and SpaceX are developing similar projects, but Virgin Galactic has a clear lead in the space race, with some 380 ‘astronauts’ already forking out $200,000 (€151,900) each for their seats on SpaceShipTwo. It’s travel, Jim, but not as we know it.
Charting new territory
After five years in decline, Ireland's package-holiday market will be taking tentative steps towards expansion in 2011. Among the new developments, Panorama will be flying directly from Cork to Crete and Egypt, Topflight introduces a new charter from Knock to Verona, and Falcon will be flying from Dublin to Dalaman in Turkey and from Cork to Egypt.
Sunworld is featuring the Algarve and Madeira as spring-break destinations from Dublin, and among Sunway's new offerings for 2011 is Bali, where seven nights at the four-star Grand Hyatt are leading in at €1,205pp.
American Holidays will also introduce an Eagle Rider programme, allowing travellers to rent Harleys on hols in the US.
Details: panorama.ie; falcon holidays.ie, topflight.ie, sunworld. ie, sunway.ie.
9/11, 10 years on
It's hard to believe, but this September marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
And while the re-development of the World Trade Center site in New York has been slow, this impending anniversary appears to have fostered a new sense of momentum.
The Memorial Plaza, an eight-acre park fashioned around waterfalls cascading into the footprints of the Twin Towers, is scheduled to open on September 11.
A museum telling the story of 9/11 will follow in 2012, and World Trade Center One (the so-called Freedom Tower), which has just reached its 52nd floor, is on target to open in 2013.
Details: national911memorial. org; wtcprogress.com.
Tall ships in Waterford
It's always a special event when the tall ships come to town, and 2011 sees Waterford play harbour-master, with 23 ships from seven countries already lined up to moor at the historic heart of the city before the Tall Ships Race begins on July 3.
The accompanying festival will see 500,000 maritime fans (and up to 70 ships) descend on the quays for a programme of street theatre, fireworks, music and the Crews Parade, with 1,500 crew members singing and dancing on the streets.
The ships depart under parade of sail on July 3, gliding down the River Suir to Dunmore East.
London is due a bumper year in 2011, thanks in no small part to the first royal wedding in yonks when Prince William marries Kate Middleton on April 29.
January sees the opening of Heston Blumenthal's new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, a brand new W London on Leicester Square, and several tantalising exhibitions are on the way (Joan Miró is at the Tate Modern from April 18; Masterpieces of Royal Fabergé at Buckingham Palace from August 1).
Factor in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics (the White Water Centre opens at Lee Valley Park this spring) and the emergence of Renzo Piano's Shard as the EU's tallest building, and London will be swinging for some time to come.
Details: visitlondon.com; shard londonbridge.com.
The twin cities of Turku and Tallinn
Becoming European Capital of Culture proved a huge boost to Cork in 2005, and this year, Tallinn in Estonia and Turku in Finland will be aspiring towards similar dividends when they take on the title concurrently.
Tallinn will be hoping to rescue its reputation as one of Europe's most enchanting capitals, after stag-party tourism made it more famous for medieval lesbian strip shows than 14th-century churches, Art Deco patisseries and Peter the Great's Kadriorg Palace.
Turku, the one-time capital and oldest city in Finland, will just be hoping to put itself on the map.
Details: tallinn2011.ee; turku2011.fi.
Rising airfares are travellers' top concern for 2011, according to a TripAdvisor survey. And for good reason: airlines have been hacking back on routes and seats throughout the recession, leaving them primed to cash in on the slightest whiff of a recovery.
The average domestic airfare jumped 13pc in the second quarter of 2010 over the previous year, according to the US Department of Transportation, and Ryanair's most recent half-year results showed a 12pc rise in its average fare to €44.
The culprits? Lower capacity, increasing demand and higher oil prices.
"Rising fares are good news," says Ryanair's Stephen McNamara.
"It's a sign that the economy is strengthening again."
Details: tripadvisor.com; Ryanair.com.
Latin America, the new long-haul favourite
Brazil is on a roll. Set to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the country famous for samba, soccer and Amazonian scenery will explode onto the tourism scene in 2011.
Our tip? Praia da Pipa (pictured), a fishing village perched on cliffs overlooking Brazil's most beautiful beaches and the best surfing in South America. Also this year, Rock in Rio returns after a 10-year absence with a line-up including Coldplay, Snow Patrol and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the first of a new tranche of city-centre (as opposed to beachside) hotels opens in the city. One of the most anticipated, according to Rio's insider travel agency Dehouch, is Eike Batista's Gloria Palace Hotel.
Back home, The Travel Department launches a new 13-night tour of Brazil and Argentina in May (€2,349pp plus tax).
Details: embratur.gov.br; dehouche.com.
New Year, new routes
2011 sees Aer Lingus take on its first route in Turkey, with scheduled flights from Dublin to Izmir (pictured) kicking off on May 4.
The airline also has new routes from Dublin to Perpignan (from March 29) and Stuttgart (March 27), and from Cork to Palma de Mallorca (March 28).
Ryanair will be increasing its flights from Cork, Shannon and Knock to three new bases on the Canary Islands, while the new US Immigration and Customs pre-clearance facility at Dublin's T2 is an exciting prospect for transatlantic travel.
In May, US Airways launches a new direct flight from Dublin to Charlotte, NC.
Details: ryanair.com; aerlingus. com; dublinairport.com.
Ireland's hottest holiday
Staycations are here to stay, which is good news for a domestic tourism industry that saw visits plummet by 15.7pc in the first nine months of 2010.
So where's hot for home holidays?
We think 2011 will be the year the north west finally hits the big time. The new M3 and M4 motorways have shortened journey times from the east, the European Surfing Championships return to Bundoran in September, and the region has just been voted European Golf Destination of the Year 2011.
Throw in Inishowen, Yeats Country, Sligo town, the Slieve League Peninsula, Cavan's lakelands, Glenveagh National Park and hotels such as Harvey's Point, and a dose of northern exposure sounds very tempting indeed.
Details: discoverireland.ie/ northwest.
The pilgrim's path
Movies set in exotic locations can have a huge influence on tourism (think New Zealand after 'Lord of the Rings', or Tunisia after 'Star Wars'). That's why Spain is so excited about the release this April of 'The Way', starring Martin Sheen as an American doctor who embarks on the Camino de Santiago after the death of his son.
Along the ancient pilgrimage route, which traverses 800km in northern Spain, Sheen meets several other pilgrims in search of themselves (including an Irish writer played by James Nesbitt).
The cinematography is stunning, so expect specialist tour operators such as Explore.co.uk, MapTravel.ie and FollowThe Camino.com to make serious hay.
Details: spain.info; theway-themovie.com.
Dublin gets its first Biennale
This autumn, Dublin makes like Venice, staging its own Biennale from September 6 to October 31. 'Dublin Contemporary' is the most ambitious exhibition ever staged in Ireland, according to its organisers.
Taking inspiration from Joyce's 'Ulysses', it plans to treat the city as a gallery, with Irish and international artists mounting works across a host of landmark buildings, museums, galleries and non-art venues.
The theme is 'Silence', though the results will be anything but, forecast as they are to bring 150,000 visitors and €13.5 million into the capital.
Participating artists will be revealed in March for an event that it is hoped will take place every five years.
Details: See DublinContemp orary.com.