From tropical island hideaways to rainforests, lost cities and hipster ’hoods – we’ve got it covered. Here are Virgin Money’s top destinations for 2017…
1. For tropical islands and spectacular beaches…
Image from Y.Shimizu/JNTO
The people of Okinawa, a chain of semi-tropical islands located between the southern tip of Japan and Taiwan, live longer than anyone else in the world. And when you reach this gorgeous, little-known region of Japan, you’ll have some idea why – it’s a calm, tranquil destination that generates a sense of inner calm, with its magnificent beaches, dozens of islands to be explored, and healthy, fresh and seasonal food and drink. For an urban buzz, the lively city of Naha hits the spot, but you haven’t come all this way to not get away from it all. So take a boat to the postcard-perfect shores of the Kerama Islands, soak in the crystal-clear blue waters, and relax.
2. For wine cellars and river cruises…
Image from Associação de Turismo do Porto e Norte
Portugal’s second city charms visitors at every turn: the cobbled streets of its medieval centre, the hand-painted ceramic tiles of São Bento train station, the traditional port wine cellars on the banks of the River Douro, and the cutting-edge street art and world class cultural complexes. Oh, and did we mention the Portuguese custard tarts? Don’t miss Livraria Lello, one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops, and the 18th century Clérigos Tower, a Unesco world heritage site. Porto is also a great base for exploring northern Portugal – the historic capital of Guimarães and the beaches of Viana do Castelo are easily day-trippable.
3. For bluegrass bands and candied yams…
Image from SeanPavonePhoto
Nashville lives up to its longstanding nickname: Music City. Its historic district is home to dozens of venues offering southern-style live music – country, bluegrass and folk – every night of the week, while the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Ryman Auditorium are must-visits for anybody interested in the history of American popular music. But Nashville offers more than just tunes – it’s also home to dream-worthy meals of delicious southern soul food, served at the likes of Arnold’s Country Kitchen. All that fried catfish, candied yams and pecan pie will set you up nicely for a glorious hike in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains national park.
4. For souqs and sea turtles…
While other Gulf cities lure visitors through high-rise glitz and glamour, Muscat prefers to let its natural beauty do the talking. The charmingly low-key Omani capital spreads out along the coastline and the jagged grey peaks of the al-Hajar mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to its low-rise skyline of white sandstone buildings and minarets. In addition to world-class restaurants and some of the best hotels in the region, Muscat offers picturesque, tranquil beaches – and if you visit between July and October there’s a chance you’ll catch the heartwarming annual sea turtle migration.
5. For island adventures and incredible wildlife
Image from Beverley Milner
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
A thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, you’ll find one of the most magical places on Earth. The Galápagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – and while you may not quite reach such intellectual heights, you’ll understand why this volcanic archipelago changed the way he understood the world. They are home to remarkable wildlife you simply can’t find anywhere else – the flightless cormorant, the Galápagos tortoise and Darwin’s finches, to name but a few – and its biodiversity is remarkably intact. To ensure it stays that way it’s important to travel responsibly – on a walking tour your footprints remain light as you discover amazing beaches, astounding marine life, cactus forests, volcanic craters, and the kind of magnificent wildlife to make David Attenborough purr.
6. For golden temples and traditional tea houses…
Image from itacud
After decades of isolation, Myanmar (Burma) has opened up to visitors – and the secret is well and truly out. This is an extraordinarily beautiful country dotted with shining hilltop pagodas, colourful giant Buddhas and magnificent archeological sites, all waiting to be discovered. After you’ve taken a trip back in time on an Irrawaddy River cruise, visited the temples and monasteries of the ancient city of Bagan and luxuriated on some of the finest beaches in south-east Asia, you should make some time for the bustling, fast-changing metropolis of Yangon. Here, a decidedly 21st-century breed of restaurants, bars and shops are pairing global fashion and food trends with traditional Burmese culture and hospitality.
7. For wine and hidden beaches
Image from Ivo Pervan
Pelješac peninsula, Croatia
Croatia has been firmly on the tourist radar for a long time now, but while Dubrovnik and Istria draw top billing (and huge crowds), the Pelješac (pronounced ‘Pellyshatz’) peninsula in southern Dalmatia is still pleasingly undiscovered. Surrounded on all sides by the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic, which are gloriously warm in summer, this ruggedly beautiful stretch of land is dotted with vineyards, many growing grapes that are unique to the region. You can happily spend lazy afternoons making your way between tasting sessions at wonderful wineries where you’ll be met with a warm welcome, freshly-opened bottles and platters of the local produce. In between some serious bouts of gluttonous indulgence you’ll head to quiet inlets where you can swim and relax in peace. Make sure to visit the islands of Mljet and Korčula too – these beauties lie just off the tip of the peninsula and are home to exquisite, ancient towns.
8. For peace and paradise…
Image from lanternworks
São Tomé and Príncipe
It’s not easy to get to São Tomé and Príncipe, but if you make the effort you’ll be handsomely rewarded – this pair of remote islands off the west coast of central Africa are tiny yet perfectly formed. With their lush rainforests, dramatic volcanoes and abundant wildlife, not to mention delightful Portuguese colonial architecture and an enviably unhurried approach to life, São Tomé and Príncipe are perfect for adventurous travellers looking for their own patch of paradise. Birdwatchers and scuba divers are particularly well catered for, but it’s also a great destination for sitting on the beach and perfecting the noble art of doing absolutely nothing.
9. For whale watching and epic road trips…
Image from Barrett & MacKay Photo
The most easterly place in North America, the island of Newfoundland boasts some of the continent’s most spectacular landscapes. From rugged coastal trails dotted with lighthouses to rustic fishing villages and gigantic icebergs floating by the shore, this island will amaze and enchant fans of the great outdoors. The largest city, St John, is a draw in its own right, with quirky culture, colourful architecture and bucketloads of Newfie (as the locals are called) hospitality. The local cuisine is another surprise highlight: think hearty, satisfying and fish-heavy comfort food.
10. For spectacular snorkelling and Franco-Caribbean culture…
Imagine the beaches, sunshine and laidback charm of the Caribbean crossed with the culture, cuisine and joie de vivre of France. That’s Guadeloupe in a nutshell. These twin islands, an overseas territory of France, have been drawing French tourists for years – but at last the rest of the world has woken up to this tropical wonder (thanks in no small part to BBC show Death in Paradise, which was filmed here). Across Guadeloupe’s two islands, Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, you’ll find unspoilt beaches, pristine coral reefs, tropical rainforests and fantastic resorts. The islands’ towns exude old world French charm and the local cuisine, which combines French culinary techniques with Creole ingredients, packs a spicy punch.