Choosing the world’s next big travel destinations is never an easy feat, especially when there’s seemingly so little left of the globe to discover. But when our editors got into a room to hash out our top picks for 2008, we realized that we could have done a Top 13 this year, as all eyes will be on Beijing (when it hosts the Summer Olympic Games), and there’s never been a better time to visit Quebec City (which celebrates its 400th birthday in 2008) or Liverpool (the year’s European Capital of Culture).
In the end, the ten destinations that rank among our Top 10 Places to Go in 2008 include renascent cities like New Orleans and emerging countries like Bhutan that are fast becoming the world’s next travel hotspots.
Get there now, before the crowds do ... in 2009.
Cradled by the majestic Himalayas in a remote corner of Southern Asia, the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” has long held steadfast to its rich culture and Buddhist heritage. Though an isolated locale and high tourist entry tariffs (of up to $200 per person per night) keep crowds at bay, these factors have also permitted this last Shangri-La to keep its traditions intact. And, while the Kingdom of Bhutan is charging ahead into the 21st century (thanks largely to the advent of hydroelectric power), they consider happiness a better gauge of accomplishment, with a nationwide poll in 2002 reporting only 3 percent of the population feeling down. If the lush valleys and snowcapped mountains, ancient temples and monasteries, and expansive markets full of cheerful locals haven’t lured you to Bhutan yet, reconsider in 2008, when the 101st anniversary of the country’s monarchy will be commemorated by a year-long celebration.
Though Greenland promoters prefer to avoid using the term “catastrophe tourism” to describe its surging popularity, new weekly flights from Baltimore (late-June through early August in 2008) have indeed made this Danish province the most accessible place to bear first-hand witness to the inconvenient truths of climate change. The five-hour flight lands in Kangerlussuaq, a jumping off point for musk oxen safaris, cultural tours of Inuit settlements, and day trips to the foot of a melting 250-foot high polar icecap. While endangered polar bears are rarely sighted these days, the midnight sun practically guarantees encounters with reindeer, seals, and the narwhal whale, with its nine-foot horn. Fauna-sightings notwithstanding, it's the Arctic island's Ilulissat ice fjord, which has retreated six miles in just a few years, and Warming Island, which is thought to have been part of mainland Greenland until the connecting ice thawed, that tend to leave visitors dumbstruck.
The cheapest capital in Western Europe (according to the 2007 Mercer Consulting survey) is worth a visit not only for its affordability — a huge plus when considering the anemic exchange rate of the U.S. dollar against the euro these days — but for its dramatic hillside villages, fashionable cobblestone enclaves, and innovative cuisine. No longer just a stopover on the road to Porto, the capital of Portugal is fast becoming Europe’s next “it” city, which means crowds and inflated prices are bound to follow. Visit in 2008 before the buzz signals the hordes, and bask in the medieval streets of the Alfama district, hip boutiques of the Bairro Alto, and the trendy waterfront bars and restaurants in the Docas area. It may be the last year you'll enjoy any solitude in the peak summer season.
Safely removed from decades of civil war, Mozambique is poised to become Africa’s next big tourist destination. The country’s recent economic success is finally permitting its natural assets — 1,500 miles of unspoiled tropical shoreline, clear blue seas, and pristine reef-fringed archipelagos — to shine. Upscale, eco-friendly properties like Azura at Gabriel’s (azura-retreats.com) are opening along the Bazaruto and Quirimbas archipelagos, the government is pouring money into restoring the million-acre Gorongosa National Park, and tour operators are organizing diving excursions to introduce visitors to the area’s endangered sea cows, whale sharks, and Staghorn coral. It’s been a long haul for this former Portuguese colony, but there’s no question that the nation is a rising star in the travel world. Go now before the masses descend.
5. New Orleans
Many have already returned to New Orleans since Katrina, but recent events give every indication that 2008 is poised to be the best year the city has seen since the hurricane. Combine a rebuilding boom with powerhouse couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie moving in to the French Quarter and a revitalized Canal Street beckoning musicians and ramblers back to its pretty riverside promenade, and you've got the makings of a fully revitalized city. Plus, with the some of the nation’s most-beloved festivals getting underway in the first part of the year (Mardi Gras in February and Jazz Fest in late April–early May) it’s easy to make the Big Easy a must this year to listen to the best live music around, sample superb Creole cuisine, embrance the fun-loving local attitude, and herald the rebirth of one of the country’s most storied and fascinating cities.
6. Okanagan Valley
Move over Napa and Sonoma: Oenophiles looking for a taste of the next best thing are taking their palates north, to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. A four-hour drive northwest of Spokane, the Okanagan Valley boasts a cool and dry summer climate ideal for traditional grape harvesting, and frosty winters, which vintners use to their advantage to produce Canada’s famed ice wine. With landscapes dotted with verdant fields, cascading hillsides, and ample lakes, the area makes for a great wine-country getaway; Cedar Creek (www.cedarcreek.bc.ca) and Kettle Valley (www.kettlevalleywinery.com) are among our favorite vineyards here. When you're not tasting the valley's bounty, you can also benefit from the region's golf courses, world-class ski resorts, Okanagan Lake resorts, hiking trails, and even opt to be a race car driver for a day at The Okanagan Racing Experience (www.okracingexperience.com).
Long thought of as just a pit stop en route to the Galapagos, the capital of Ecuador is finally coming into its own, thanks to a burgeoning culinary and nightlife scene, new attractions ranging from botanical gardens to cultural heritage museums, and the opening of several luxury hotels. A study in contrasts, Quito’s unique architectural juxtaposition melds modern glass skyscrapers with the charms of its Old Town, which, having completed a seven-year, $200 million restoration, is at the heart of the city’s regeneration. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (30 years ago, as of 2008), colonial mansions and churches dating back half a millennia are now flaunting their facelifts. A distinctive geography also puts Quito above much of South America (literally!): At an elevation of some 9,200 feet, and encircled by Andean peaks and volcanic craters, the city’s heights helps counter its sizzling just-below-the-equator location, resulting in pleasantly mild year-round temperatures hovering in the 70s.
With Eastern Europe's popularity growing by leaps and bounds, Slovenia is now enjoying a newfound moment in the tourism spotlight. Chock full of the same medieval towns and quaint villages that made the Czech Republic — namely Prague — a household name, Slovenia’s charms can be enjoyed for a fraction of the price of its trail-blazing predecessor and arguably offer more value to boot. Sharing borders with Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, and the Adriatic Sea, activities like winemaking are popular in Slovenian shore towns, while further north, Lake Bled, a glacial water body situated in the Alps, is a popular winter sports destination. A trip to the nation’s capital of Ljubljana reveals ornate row houses, picturesque rivers, and iconic castles and bridges, and is an easy transfer from many European airports. Though Slovenia was one of the first Eastern European countries to adopt the Euro, their hesitance to adapt to modern times has made its Venetian-era squares and tiny Alpine cities a fantastic bargain for the buck.
One of the last remaining "undiscovered" Caribbean islands, Tobago has long been overshadowed by its better-known sister island of Trinidad. A powershift may be in the making as of 2008, however, as Tobago's pink-sand beaches and serene waters became accessible for the first time by direct flights from New York and Atlanta on Delta Air Lines in December 2007. The new flights allow visitors to bypass Trinidad altogether to reach Tobago's secluded and romantic shores, where an unpretentious, slow-paced, and eco-friendly atmosphere prevails, relatively free of tourists and overdevelopment — for now. Get a head start on the tourist crowd by visiting the "Galapagos of the West Indies” next year and discover some of the region’s best dive sites (three wrecks are located offshore), nesting grounds for leatherback turtles, and one of the oldest protected rainforests in the Western Hemisphere. When not communing with nature, two championship 18-hole golf courses, duty-free shopping, and seafood restaurants (think lobster, crab, and conch) are bound to make the trek worthwhile.
While 40 percent of this North African nation is swathed in arid Sahara desert, the remainder is blanketed by fertile soil and hemmed in by over 600 miles of Mediterranean coastline. No wonder it garnered alot of (often unwanted) attention over the centuries from some of the world’s greatest civilizations. See what all the fuss was about next year, by visiting the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage and historic sites like the coliseum at El Jem (arguably the finest example of its kind outside of Rome). When not taking in archaeological gems, you can can relax and rejuvenate at one of several beach resorts; venture through the Sahara on camelback or 4x4; or opt to camp out in class in the desert’s midst at luxurious up-and-coming properties like the Pansea Ksar Ghilane (www.pansea.com), which boasts mirage-in-the-desert amenities like massage treatments, a swimming pool, and air-conditioned linen tents. Indeed, if there's one place on our list that packs the ultimate vacation into its borders — what with culture, beaches, adventure travel, and luxury camping — this is it.