Thursday 5 December 2019

10 amazing trips for 2020 - from 'Arctic cocooning' to training with a ninja

Want to splash on an epic trip next year? Give yourself the gift of travel with Pól Ó Conghaile’s bucket-list picks

Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, Barga
Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, Barga
HaliPuu Levi winter hammock. Photo: Samuel Taipale
Cruising with Scenic Crystal in the Rhine Gorge
Jemma el Fna, Marrakech. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Walking the Empire State Trail Walkway Over the Hudson State Historical Park
ANiemeyer Museum of Contemporary Arts, Rio De Janeiro. Photo: Deposit
The Trans-Siberian Railway. Photo: Deposit
View of small rural villages at Jebel Akhdar Mountain in Oman. Photo: Deposit
Two pilgrims look at the Miño river in Caminha, Portugal. Photo by Xurxo Lobato/Getty Images)
Train like a Ninja with Black Tomato
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

From a Portuguese camino to ninja training in Japan and ‘Arctic cocooning’ in Finland, we've got 10 terrific trips for 2020...

1. Cocoon yourself in Finland

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HaliPuu Levi winter hammock. Photo: Samuel Taipale

Finnair flies direct to Helsinki, with a straightforward connection to Lapland, so why don’t more of us visit? OK, the prices are… well, Nordic. But Finland is the happiest place on earth, according to the UN’s 2019 World Happiness Report, and next summer the capital will host the first Helsinki Biennial, bringing contemporary art to the city in a sustainable way.

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Further north, in Finnish Lapland, wellness is going to the next level with wilderness retreats like Beana Laponia and Levin Iglut’s glass igloos, while over in Swedish Lapland there’s the Arctic Bath Hotel — a timber structure floating in the Lule River, due to open in February. Think of Breathing Retreats, or Sami traditions like ‘Arctic cocooning’, where guests are wrapped in insulated hammocks in forests while a specialist guide takes them through mindful breathing practices (yes, really). It’s a far cry from crowded Santa visits… and we haven’t even mentioned the Northern Lights.

How: Fly to Finland with Finnair (finnair.com). Scott Dunn has three- and four-night trips to Finnish Lapland including flights from around €1,740pp (scottdunn.com). Sunvil offers sustainable stays with Helsinki’s Kamp Hotels; three nights’ B&B costs from €805pp with flights (sunvil.co.uk).

2. Walk Portugal’s coastal camino

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Two pilgrims look at the Miño river in Caminha, Portugal. Photo by Xurxo Lobato/Getty Images)

Not all caminos begin and end in Spain, you know. The Portuguese Coastal Camino, or Caminho da Costa, links the cities of Porto and Santiago de Compostela with a breathtaking, 262km walking trail. It’s one of the spider’s web of pilgrimage routes that spread across Spain, France and Portugal in medieval times, and today takes hikers by beautiful beaches, rolling countryside and historical towns like Vila do Conde, Viana do Castelo, Baiona and Vigo, before joining the traditional Portuguese Way to Santiago.

Walking over 12 days, you’ll also cross the Minho River by boat from Caminha to La Guarda in Galicia, trek through the heart of the Rías Baixas (the place to refresh with copious Albariño wine tastings), stay in pretty fishing villages and gobble up delicious food before finishing in Santiago. The trail can also be cycled, if you prefer.

How: Irish tour operator Adventure Holidays (adventure-holidays.ie) does walking packages. A self-guided, 14-day coastal camino including three-star accommodation and daily luggage transfers costs from €919pp (excluding flights). See also caminoways.com and followthecamino.com.

3. Train with a ninja in Japan

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Train like a Ninja with Black Tomato

All eyes were on the Rugby World Cup in Japan this year. Next year, they’ll be on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo... or on you, when you unleash your new ninja skills on the nation.

Tour operator Black Tomato specialises in unusual, tailor-made (and pricey) holidays, and its ‘Tokyo & Japan: Learn the Way of the Ninja’ itinerary promises an insider experience in the Land of the Rising Sun. Adventures include the chance to learn the art of ninja, or shinobi — covert agents and mercenaries in feudal Japan who have become folkloric figures said to have mastered everything from invisibility to walking on water.

A master sensei session in Tokyo includes not just martial arts but techniques like ‘stealthy steps’ and the chance to handle throwing stars. By the time you come home, you’ll also have trained with sumo wrestlers, travelled on bullet trains, bathed in an onsen, taken a ramen masterclass in Kyoto… and more.

How: The 10-night trip, including stays at the five-star Aman in Tokyo, Hakone Ginyu in Hakone National Park, and Ritz-Carlton in Kyoto, costs from £9,000/€10,425pp excluding flights (blacktomato.com).

4. Make photography magic in Morocco

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Jemma el Fna, Marrakech. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Sick of taking crummy smartphone photos? Here’s a chance to take your digital photography game up a gear — a guided tour ranging from the mosques and markets of Marrakech to the fishing port of Essaouira. TD Active teams up with Dublin Photography School for the three-day trips, this one guided by award-winning landscape and fine art snapper Stewart Kenny.

The focus is on learning and developing documentary, street and landscape skills (from beginner to advanced) and the comfort of a group and guide will make it a lot easier to shoot in hyper-energetic hawking zones like Djemaa El Fna or the medinas. Solo travel bookings are up 40pc this year, the company says, and you’ll also get plenty of time to munch your way through Morocco’s food scene, take a camel ride, see the desert of Agafay, and visit the Atlas Mountains village of Imlil.

How: Three-night packages start from €799pp with tdactiveholidays.ie, including flights from Dublin. A sister company of Travel Department, TD Active also does photography trips to Jordan, Transylvania and Lake Garda in Italy.

5. Swoon over fall foliage in… Tuscany

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Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, Barga

Think of fall foliage, and New England springs to mind. So do crowds.

Why not escape the leaf peepers with an alternative autumnal trip, travelling to the Tuscan countryside in Italy? Late September and October see the tourist tides recede, and beech and chestnut trees burst into colour in Casentino Forest National Park (parcoforestecasentinesi.it), home to over 800km of paths framed by forests, vineyards and olive farms.

Stay at the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, Barga, overlooking the Serchio Valley, and strike out for wineries, seasonal food festivals, charming hilltop oases like Cortona and Lucignano, or the walled town of Lucca less than an hour away. As for tourist hotspots, you could spend a day in Florence or nab a selfie at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

How: Fly to Pisa with Ryanair (ryanair.com) or Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com). The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa (marriott.it) is a 75km drive away, with doubles from around €180 per night.

6. Tell it to the mountains in Oman

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View of small rural villages at Jebel Akhdar Mountain in Oman. Photo: Deposit

My father and I once drove a Toyota Land Cruiser into Oman’s Hajar Mountains. We learned a lot about each other that day. As the roads got smaller, the surfaces turned to gravel and the zigzags threaded ever upwards, we grew steadily less comfy in each other’s company. Our wheels came perilously close to precipitous edges. We cursed, worried and rejoiced at dramatic views that presented themselves along the way. Eventually, we emerged in one piece (not a bad way to fracture-test a father-son relationship).

The Hajar Mountains have since nudged their way onto the tourist radar but, like Oman itself, remain a niche proposition. This sultanate is not as showy as some of its Gulf neighbours, and its jagged peaks, set 2,000m above sea level, combine dramatic gorge and wadi views with 30-degree summer weather and pleasant evenings (a nice contrast to, say, Dubai). Toss in a five-star stay at the Anantara Al Jabal Akhdar Resort, with infinity pool, spa and nearby hiking, mountain biking and climbing, and you might even be tempted to bring your dad…

How: Fly to Muscat via Dubai with Emirates (emirates.ie). Travel Local offers an eight-day ‘Oman: Secret Summer’ trip from around €1,520pp, including a night in Muscat, six nights’ half-board at the Anantara Al Jabal Akhdar Resort, transfers, excursions and a local guide; flights extra (travellocal.com).

7. See Brazil’s best buildings in Rio

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ANiemeyer Museum of Contemporary Arts, Rio De Janeiro. Photo: Deposit

Brazil is all about soccer, samba and seafronts, right? Well, yes, but also — buildings. Beautiful buildings. Take a break from the Copacabana to check out UNESCO’s first World Capital of Architecture for 2020. Highlights range from the saucer-shaped Contemporary Art Museum to Santiago Calatrava’s Museum of Tomorrow (powered by solar panels), from the Maracanã Stadium to the Renaissance-style National Museum of Fine Arts.

The city will be hosting themed events, but it’s not all modern stuff — the Old Cathedral and Christ the Redeemer are must-sees too. The Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City) has a lot up its sleeve. After that, back to the beach with you.

How: Tropical Sky has a 10-night ‘Best of Brazil and the Amazon’ small group tour including three nights in Rio, a day tour of the city and a stay in the Amazon, from €3,799pp including flights from Dublin (tropicalsky.ie).

8. Take the Trans-Sib

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The Trans-Siberian Railway. Photo: Deposit

Escape flight shaming with the ultimate old-school train journey — Russia’s iconic Trans-Siberian. All trains share a line via Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Yekaterinburg. From there, you can continue to Vladivostok or Beijing; the latter takes you via the Mongolian steppes, Gobi Desert and Great Wall of China.

The basics? Decide whether to travel in the heat of summer or snow of winter (or some time in between) and whether to take a DIY trip on a budget or splash out on a luxury version. Tour operator Luxury Gold, for instance, offers a 22-day Russian itinerary including top-notch hotels, VIP transfers, private visits to places like the Hermitage and Bolshoi, and an 11-night Trans-Sib sojourn on the swanky Golden Eagle train. You might want to lie down when you see the price, however (below). Either way, the landscapes are awesome.

How: You can buy tickets at Russian train stations — expect to pay from €485 to €805 for the Vladivostok journey, depending on travel class, but you may find it easier through an agency such as Real Russia (realrussia.co.uk). Don’t forget your flights, visas and any overnights in Moscow; there’s a brilliant guide online at seat61.com/Trans-Siberian. Luxury Gold’s 22-day ‘Remarkable Russia with Trans-Siberian’ journey is priced from around €17,740pp (luxurygold.com).

9. Walk the Empire State Trail

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Walking the Empire State Trail Walkway Over the Hudson State Historical Park

You’ve trekked the skyscraper-lined canyons of Manhattan; why not skip the city for your next Stateside hike?

The Empire State Trail already exists in separate sections — by the end of 2020, it will be a continuous, 1,210km route stretching from The Battery in New York City to Canada, and from Buffalo in the west of New York State to Albany in the east.

The result will be the longest multi-use trail in the US, taking in everything from leafy parks to places like Poughkeepsie, Sleepy Hollow and Saratoga Springs. The trail is mostly on old rail and towpaths, though you can link to other regional routes like the Appalachian Trail and Adirondack and Catskill Parks.

Hiking, biking and cross-country skiing are all options… you can walk or cycle for a few days, or just dip in and out for a couple of hours (on the Hudson Valley Greenway, for instance). Autumn is a vibrant time to visit.

How: Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and United (united.com) fly to New York’s JFK airport and nearby Newark, New Jersey. Check out the Empire State Trail’s progress on ny.gov/programs/empire-state-trail and find places to stay on iloveny.com or ptny.org

10. Float down the river with Beethoven

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Cruising with Scenic Crystal in the Rhine Gorge

It’s not very rock ’n’ roll, but river cruising is catching on with Irish holidaymakers. Ships are smaller than their ocean-going counterparts, which means they can dock close to the centre of cities on waterways — and a boutique-style set-up means fewer fellow passengers and more intimate dining and entertainment options.

River cruisers do tend to be older than your average holidaymaker, but a new generation of ships (most notably U by Uniworld) have been pitching for younger cruisers, with everything from hip city tours to onboard DJs.

For a splash, try Scenic, a tour operator offering a luxury, ‘micro-adventuring’ approach to sailings. An eight-day trip along the Rhine next April includes wine and meals, private transfers and VIP experiences — a private concert in Vienna, for example, to mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, and a walking tour of Bonn, one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities to visit in 2020.

How: River cruises are widely available in Ireland, from Uniworld (uniworld.ie) and Sunway (sunway.ie), among others. Scenic’s eight-day sailing from Amsterdam to Basel costs from around €2,745pp (scenic.co.uk).

NB: All prices subject to change/availability. This feature originally appeared in the Irish Independent's Mistletoe Magazine, on November 22, 2019.

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