Where to go on holiday this year

Paul Croughton scours the globe to find you this year’s 10 greatest destinations

1. Cambodia

When you close your eyes and think of paradise, what do you see? An island hideaway, with white-sand beaches kissed by gin-clear waters? A place covered in virgin rainforest, bordered by tropical reefs? If so, what you’re thinking of is Song Saa, a private island resort in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand.

The 27 villas will open next month, with open-air showers, private verandas and pools, sunrise or sunset views and, in some cases, a private jetty where your speedboat transfer can dock. Fancy.

There’s the obligatory spa and wellness centre on its own island, as well as nature trails through the forest, kayaking, snorkelling with the resort’s marine biologists, and visits to local fishing villages. Or you could just sink into the vast white day beds, sip cocktails, and wonder what executive chef Neil Wager is going to knock you up for dinner, served in the restaurant on stilts in the ocean.

Cambodia has been on the up as a tourist destination for a number of years, as more and more of us have been drawn to a country that has so much to offer – beaches, adventure, exciting food, friendly people – but is still coming to terms with its potent, often tortured past. But it’s never before had anything like Song Saa: a high-end oasis of tranquillity which will, the owners hope, put Cambodia firmly on the luxury travel map. That said, it doesn’t come cheap. One night, fully inclusive of food, all drinks, transfers and activities, costs £430 per person.

Need to know: Cambodians are used to shaking tourists’ hands in the Western fashion, but you’ll win points by pressing your hands together in prayer and bowing when you meet locals. The best time to visit Cambodia is our winter, when it’s less humid, and while you can visit at any time of the year, it can get pretty hot and sticky from April to June. If you want to treat yourself to a night or two at Song Saa after exploring the rest of the country, you can fly from Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, in an hour, three times a week, for around £50.

Book it: Song Saa is £430 per person per night (00855-236 860 360,


2. Finland

If you were Professor Brian Cox you’d be very excited right now, because there’s something amazing happening in the Arctic. Those clever people at Nasa brighter this year than they have been for the last 50.

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is nature showing off: filling the night sky with swirls, streaks and arcs of colour, which glow and throb for anything from a minute or two to an hour. This happens when gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere collide with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. This year, due to the sun’s magnetic field around the equator rotating faster than at the poles, the light show is at its most vivid.

One of the best spots to see the Lights is in northern Finland. There are a number of places to pick from, but we like Nellim, a tiny village not far from the Russian border. Its Wilderness Lodge is a great base, with expert local guides who are often able to predict when and where the displays are most likely. But it’s not all standing around looking at the sky – there are snow-mobile safaris, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, or you can ride a sledge driven by teams of huskies through the snow-covered forests. But, if all that sounds too full-on, you can simply sit back in your cosy cabin at Luosto, another sleepy village in Finnish Lapland, and wait for the lights to come to you – it’s a few miles away from the Sodanklyä Geophysical Observatory, and on arrival at your spa hotel you’ll be given a gadget that the SGO use to tell you when the Lights emerge, so all you have to do is grab your coat and step outside.

Need to know: The Aurora season, when the Lights appear almost every night, is from September to April. Alternatively, you could book for the end of the year, as the 50-year high-point predicted by Nasa continues into next season.

Book it: The Aurora Zone (theaurora has a wide variety of breaks in Finland, including Nellim, and Luosto. Prices start at £1,045 for four nights, including return flights, cold-weather clothing and Aurora activities (

3. North East Thailand

You’ve probably been to Thailand, or, if you haven’t, you want to. Those islands, those beaches… everybody knows exactly what Thailand has to offer. Well, kind of. This year the Thai tourist board is doing its best to introduce visitors to an aspect of the country that many overlook: its abundant, and richly varied, wildlife and natural beauty.

And well it should: the country has hundreds of trekking trails to the north and north east, as well as great rafting and mountain biking opportunities. And one of the finest – and least travelled – areas to do all of this is in the Emerald Triangle. Toward the borders of Laos and Cambodia, and the Mekong river, it is an area of rich vegetation, and ruins from the Khmer empire.

A great starting point to explore this area is Thailand’s first national park, the Khao Yai, just three hours from Bangkok. Within its 2,000sq km, you can search for evidence of the last remaining Asian tigers, as well as leopards, civets, black bears, elephants, and hundreds of bird species. But we’re not asking you to spend all your time in the jungle – stop off for a few nights at the Kirimaya Spa, and try some of the local treatments, including Thai massage, a red-wine treatment to treat wrinkles (a form of medication we could really get behind) and a four-hour detox which includes massage, herbal steam showers, herb baths, body polishes and masks.

Need to know: In north eastern Thailand, you’ll be served a lot of sticky rice. Roll the rice between the fingers of your right hand, dip it in some sauce, and eat it without using cutlery or chopsticks. The best time to see Thailand is November to February, as it’s relatively dry and not too hot.

Book it: Black Tomato has a week exploring this part of Thailand, including flights, accommodation, activities and a guide, for £2,275 per person (0843-636 8058,


4. Slovenia

Slovenia is the stealth European destination of 2012. Bordering Croatia to the east, with Austrian influences to the north, and Italian to the south west, Slovenia isn’t huge, but it punches above its weight in terms of attractions. For us, this year is all about Maribor; not least because it’s the European Capital of Culture 2012. For Slovenians, who only celebrated 20 years of independence from the former Yugoslavia in 2011, this is an excuse to throw an enormous party.

There is a huge programme planned, with hundreds of special events (see for details). We especially like the sound of the music, wine and fashion festival. Outside of the Capital of Culture festivities, Maribor’s Lent festival in June accommodates 600,000 people and is a chaotic rush of more than 400 acts, including music, theatre and dancing, all fuelled by Slovenia’s surprisingly good wine. While most bars have good local wine lists, we’d recommend a visit to Rozmarin (0038-622 343 180, while you contemplate Maribor’s other secret identity – as a spa city. With the high mineral content of the water Maribor gives you plenty of places to repair the party damage.

Need to know: All visitors to Slovenia need to carry their passports with them – you can get fined if you don’t have it. And you’ll need to register with the police within three days of arriving. If you’re staying at a hotel, guesthouse or even a campsite, they will do that when you arrive.

Book it: The Habakuk hotel is one of the best in Maribor, £188 per night (0038-623 008100,

5. Vienna

Rome is romantic, New York’s New York and you’ll always have Paris, but the city break for those in the know this year is none of the above. It’s Vienna. The Austrian capital is one of the most cultured cities in Europe, but this year will be even more special, as 2012 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. As a pioneer of the modernist movement and founder of the Vienna Secession, he is a local hero best known for his sensuous painting The Kiss. To celebrate his birthday, 10 of Vienna’s best museums will be hosting exhibitions – highlights include the Belvedere, which has the world’s largest Klimt collection and are planning a show dedicated to his relationship with long-time collaborator, architect and designer Josef Hoffmann.

Vienna has way more than just museums however. The 7th district, in the heart of the city, is young and vibrant and is home to some of the most interesting and fashionable boutiques. Lucie Lamster-Thury, a former stylist from New York, set up Shopping with Lucie (shoppingwith in 2008, running tours that focus on creative designer stores and locally made accessories. Trips last three hours, and cost around £21.

The food rewards exploration too. Viennese cuisine is famous for dishes such as Wiener schnitzel and apfelstrudel, but a more modern spirit of cooking is increasingly evident. We particularly like the excellently named Holy-Moly! on the Badeschiff, a restaurant on a trendy moored boat on the Danube Canal, which serves award-winning food, such as spicy seafood soup, and sushi. There’s a club downstairs, too (

Need to know: The Klimt/Hoffmann exhibition runs at the Belvedere until 4 March. 150 Years Of Gustav Klimt is from 15 June–6 January 2013 ( Klimt Drawings runs at the Albertina from March 14–June 10 (

Book it: Bed down in either the 25 Hours hotel from £108 a night (, or the Daniel hotel (, from £76 a night. The 25 Hours has free Electra for guests to rent; the Daniel rents bikes (£4) and Vespas (£12) and is round the corner from the Belvedere Palace and museums.

6. Oman

Oman is becoming the go-to spot for sophistication in the sun in the Middle East. It’s less brash than Dubai and its capital, Muscat, has a touch more charm with fewer high rises than the UAE’s Abu Dhabi. Muscat, known for its souq (great for cashmere scarves), forts and museums, has some extraordinary hotels that are perfect for the style conscious – our favourites are the Chedi (ghmhotels. com, 00968-2452 4400), with its cool interiors, gorgeous spa, private beach and equally private art gallery; and the more Arabianstyled, but impressively vast Al Bustan Palace (00968-2479 9666), which has just the five pools, spectacular views, and was named as one of the world’s top hotels by Condé Nast Traveller magazine.

With the recent opening of Muscat’s spectacular new opera house and numerous festivals – such as the month-long Muscat Festival, starting at the end of January and the Salsa & Dance Festival (1-3 March), many travellers to Oman don’t get much further than its capital. But you should: if you’re travelling during our summer, head to the province of Dhofar, which is popular with Omanis because the Khareef (monsoon rains) create humidity, meaning the area becomes lush and green and, importantly, cool(er), with temperatures around 300C.

The area is famous for frankincense, as it’s one of the few places in the world where its trees grow. In-between, there are the Wahiba Sands, made famous by the explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the Forties, where you can stay in Bedouin-style tents, eating lamb on the campfire while you get neckache from gazing at stars, before taking in the rare Arabian Oryx antelope and camping on the beach on the Ras Madrakah peninsula.

Need to know: Oman is a Muslim country, so you will often be greeted with “As-salaam alaikum”, which means “Peace be with you”. The response is “Wa alaikum as-salaam”, which means “And with you peace.” Oman is coolest November to mid-March (19–30°C). The Khareef cools the south from mid June to late August (29–38°C). OMAN * including flights, B&B accommodation, some meals and a guide **for full terms and conditions go to

Book it: Abercrombie & Kent has a six-night explorer trip from £1,795 per person (0845-618 2200,

7. Panama

This year is a great time to visit Panama – the urban zones have been recently brought up to world-class city standards, but there are still nowhere like the tourist numbers you’ll find in neighbouring Costa Rica. Fly into Panama City then explore its split personality. There’s a cosmopolitan mix of bars and excellent restaurants in the thrusting modern district while the laid-back old town (Casco Viejo) now has a number of cool boutique hotels and local watering holes (it still maintains its romantic air thanks to its slightly dishevelled colonial buildings, which were featured in 2008’s Bond film Quantum Of Solace). On the outskirts of the city is the Panama Canal, one of the most amazing pieces of structural engineering in Central America.

Wait, come back – while that might not sound like your sort of tourist destination, its history is fascinating, and the excellent little museum there details all its trials and tribulations, explaining how 22,000 people died working on it over 10 years (panamacanalmuseum. org). It’s also surrounded by rainforest and a canal safari – where you’ll watch suspiciously as crocodiles sidle alongside your boat, and monkeys leap onto the roof – is a must.

But then, east or west? Caribbean or Pacific? The beaches of Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean side of Panama, are stunning – eat fresh fish cooked in spicy sauces, and snorkel among the starfish. The people are welcoming, and the living is easy. But you can’t stay too long – to the east is the San Blas archipelago, part of the Kuna Yala, an autonomous territory populated by the Kuna Indians. They do an impressive line in beaches too.

If you’re into wildlife, step right up. With more bird species than the US and Canada combined, 16,000 types of butterfly and an array of four-legged beasties, Panama has been on the must-visit list of National Geographic types for some time. Adrenaline junkies love it for its rainforest zip wires, jungle trekking, volcano climbs, and whale diving. The problem with Panama is trying to fit it all in.

Need to know: Due to the revenue the Canal generates, Panama hasn’t had to rely on tourism and the lack of charter flights means tourists are less common – so you get a warm welcome when you make the effort to visit. The dry season runs from December to April and is the best time to travel.

Book it: Last Frontiers has a 12-night trip from £3,739 per person (01296 -653 000,


8. Ukraine

You may be aware by now that this summer, Poland and Ukraine host the European Championship. And you’ll either be excited by this impending feast of football, or rolling your eyes with indifference. But modern football tournaments are far removed from the men-only image of European football in the Eighties. Huge fan zones spring up in city centres, with streets decked out in a rainbow of national colours. Not only that, but the last two tournaments I attended were notable for the amount of women tucking in, too. And, perhaps because of that, you’ll find strangers from all over the world actually talking to each other, and not just about the games. It’s most peculiar.

The England team are based in Krakow, in Poland, but all three of their group games are in Ukraine: two in Donetsk and one in Kiev. And as Kiev is hosting the final on 1 July, the buzz will continue here all summer. The Ukrainian capital comes alive when the sun glints on the golden domes of its churches. They have a rich history: the cathedral of St Sophia has mosaics and frescoes dating back to the 11th century, while the ancient mummified monks in the crypts of the Kiev Caves Monastery are just as memorable.

But don’t limit yourself to Kiev – Lviv is a beautiful place known as “the Florence of the East”. Its varied architecture, with renaissance, baroque, rococo and neoclassical styles all rubbing up next to each other, makes it a fascinating destination, and sitting with a coffee or beer in a town-square cafe, tucking into a bowl of borscht or nibbling on a pastry, while watching the world roll by, is a treat. In either city, you won’t need help finding somewhere to eat, drink or play.

Need to know: Euro 2012 runs from 8 June-1 July. The Ukrainians are a superstitious bunch – they consider yellow flowers to be bad luck, so never accept or give any when you’re in Kiev. And to really fit in, sit on your bags before you leave for the airport – it’s good luck, apparently.

Book it: To go to a game visit Thomson Sport from £694 (0845-121 2018, Or if you prefer to visit Kiev independently of the football celebrations, stay at the centrally positioned Boutique Hotel Vozdvyzhensky from £108 per person per night (0038-04453 19955,


9. Aisén, Chile

Patagonia is one of the most magnificent parts of the world. Its stark wilderness and bleak beauty is as breathtaking as any desert island, which is why southern Argentina is such a draw for tourists. But a quarter of Patagonia is in Chile, yet hardly anyone, comparatively, goes there. And of the people who do venture to Chilean Patagonia, hardly anyone goes to Aisén.

Aisén is the country’s least populated region, which means its glacial landscapes are largely untroubled by human settlements. Driving along the Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, is the ultimate wilderness road trip – just you, the valleys and a few soaring condors to keep you company. Don’t worry, you’re not on your own for long: each night you’ll stay in small, cosy lodges, where you can relax in a hot tub with a glass of excellent Chilean wine.

Sadly, though, Aisén has a shadow hanging over it. The Chilean government has approved a plan to dam two rivers there, and while the project would provide vital electricity to Santiago and the north of the country, the effect on the region will be devastating. Long before the rivers flood, and lines of electricity pylons snake across the previously untouched tundra, a vast workforce will be needed, which means thousands of labourers will descend on the little villages of Aisén, and schools, houses, hospitals, and roads will all need to be established. So if you want to witness this magnificent part of the world before it changes, 2012 may be your last chance.

Need to know: Summer runs from late October to March. Combine Patagonia with a trip to Easter Island, which sits in the Pacific, west of Chile.

Book it: Journey Latin America has a 13-day self-drive Aisén trip from £4,057 per person, including all flights and transfers, a 4×4 car and accommodation (020-8747 8315,


10. Burma

It’s not often you can say that you’ve been, or are going, somewhere that your friends have not, but the chances are you can say that about Burma, or Myanmar as it’s sometimes called. And if you like Thailand, but wish you could have seen it 20 years ago, before the villages put up neon signs to attract backpackers, Burma might be what you’re looking for.

Tourism to Burma was discouraged when the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the brutal military dictatorship that runs the country (her story is told in the filmThe Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh, in cinemas now). Since her release, however, her party, the National League for Democracy, has stated that small-scale tourism would be beneficial. It’s impossible to travel here without somehow giving money to the government – entry fees to various sites, airport departure tax and visa fees all go to the state – and it’s not always easy for travellers to know which guest houses are in the control of the militia. But a number of tour operators endeavour not to use military-owned hotels or facilities, and ensure that the local community benefits directly from their clients being there.

There are many areas to visit: the former colonial city of Yangon is fascinating, with its Victorian and Edwardian buildings and the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda; the jewel city of Mandalay with its gold-leaf-covered Buddha, and the nearby ancient cities of Ava, Sagaing and Amarapura. It’s also well worth exploring the floating markets on Inle Lake, or just relaxing on the pristine beaches in the south west.

Need to know: Burma can be a challenge, and the conditions for tourists are often unrefined. The best time to explore the whole country is November to March, when it is dry and cool; although the north can still be visited from July to September.

Book it: Transindus has a 13-day tour of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle from £2,495 (0844-879 3960,


Paul Croughton is deputy travel editor at The Sunday Time@PaulCroughton