FORBESLIFE: The 10 Coolest Places To Visit In 2015
The world is enormous. And getting bigger. Every serious traveler I know says their wish list grows longer, not shorter, every time they visit a new corner of the world.
So how to prioritize? What’s newly safe or newly uncovered? What’s right at that sweet spot between sleepy backwater and developed destination? What are new takes on places we thought we knew? What must we see right now, before it changes forever?
I put those questions to Owen Gaddis, a luxury travel manager at the super-high-end experiential travel-planning company Absolute Travel. He knows what he’s talking about, having adventured through glaciers in Chamonix, deserts in Oman, rain forests in Nicaragua and rugged coastal areas in Western Africa—and retained a soft spot for nice linens, plush robes and a great bottle of burgundy. Like all the planners at Absolute, Gaddis has extensive global connections, firsthand knowledge of destinations he books, and a mandate to learn just as much about his clients’ interests and customize trips accordingly.
Here’s his hot list for next year.
Aside from the new Eleven Experience property, Deplar Farm, opening in 2016, Gaddis says there’s a million other reasons Iceland tops his list (and has topped lists as the happiest place on earth). Largely uninhabited, Iceland is a place where trolls and fairies are rumored to wander the painted hills, jump the ice crevices, bathe in the natural hot springs and scale the misty cliffs. Somehow, once there, he notes, this seems entirely possible. “Traveling to Iceland is like being transported to a parallel world where every waking moment is filled with adventure, incredible landscapes, folklore and understated pleasures. It will make you believe in the magical again,” says Gaddis, adding that the country offers river rafting, fishing, diving snorkeling, surfing, caving and hiking.
By now, lots of us have gotten lost in the souks and relaxed in the riads of Marrakech. Absolute’s new itineraries showcase the country beyond shopping and design. Intrepid visitors can scale the sheer walls of the Todra Gorge for summit views of the rose valleys beyond; trek the Atlas Mountains, stopping at waterfalls and Berber villages as they climb (and then sleep in an opulent “tented suite” at Richard Branson’s luxurious Kasbah Tamadot); and head for the horizon to gloriously outfitted Bedouin tents rising from a sea of sand dunes in Erg Chebbi, the gateway to the Sahara. Along the way they speed down dunes on sand boards, zip line between mountain peaks, watch the sunset from camelback and perhaps learn the secrets of the desert from a local host over a cup of Maghrebi mint tea (a.k.a. Berber whiskey).
Vietnam Now: Seaplanes, Vespas and a New Aman Resort
From sleepy fishing villages to the rooftop discos of Saigon, age-old tradition meets cosmopolitan modernity in today’s Vietnam. Luxe new ways to explore what’s been a hip Asian destination for a decade-plus now: a recently launched seaplane experience over Halong Bay, which lets visitors take in the bay’s otherworldly limestone cliffs from a new perspective—that doesn’t require two days on a dodgy boat—and the brand-new Amanoi, Aman’s latest enclave of Aman-ness, on the dramatic cliffs of Nui Chua National Park on the country’s south central coast. Absolute’s trips may also include a nightlife tour of Saigon by Vespa and an opportunity to talk with a Vietnam War veteran.
America’s Serengeti: The American Prairie Reserve
In northeastern Montana, a major restoration effort is under way. Absolute is the only company to bring in guests to observe and assist—and it puts those guests up in high-end yurts, inspired by safari tents, at Kestrel Camp. The American Prairie Reserve is buying back private land, tearing down fences and undertaking one of the biggest conservation efforts of our time, with the goal of creating the largest national park in the Lower 48 and repopulating the abundance of bison, grizzlies, deer, beavers, elk and antelope that were described by Lewis and Clark.
For many in the U.S., Tasmania holds few associations beyond the famed devil. But for connoisseurs of the remote and the untouched, this lack of popularity is the Holy Grail. Travel innovators are beginning to take advantage of this diverse destination rich in stunning landscapes, a homegrown food culture, and wildlife adventures that rival the Galapagos, South Africa and New Zealand—combined. Absolute travelers can shuck the world’s freshest oysters; encounter platypus under the cloak of darkness with Craig Williams (a.k.a Bushy), Tasmania’s best (and quirkiest) guide; and follow the dramatic coastline in search of cloistered wineries and whiskey distilleries. There’s also a new boat tour intriguingly called the Tasmanian Seafood Seduction.
For curious travelers seeking their next big adventure, Gaddis recommends luxury travel in Colombia, where “you can savor this South American up-and-comer’s charisma, authenticity and jugo de lulo (trust us, just drink it).” JetBlue’s new-ish five-hour flight from New York to Cartagena made Colombia more accessible than ever, a stable government made it safe, and a new breed of hoteliers and operators are making it luxurious. The country encompasses everything from pristine Caribbean coastlines, picturesque cobblestone streets in Cartagena, the exotic Amazon rain forest, seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, the buzzing metropolis of Bogotá and some of the world’s most vivacious people. Plus, one of Absolute’s favorite inns, Hacienda Bambusa, in the Coffee Triangle, is reopening in 2015.
Japan: Past and Present
A new bullet train linking Tokyo to Kanazawa virtually eliminates the need for air travel, meaning visitors can easily see more of the country in one trip. Food is serious business here (and a serious draw), with Japan leading in innovation and quality—Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, never mind the sushi delicacies that can’t be found anywhere else. Finally, highly anticipated new properties will open in the coming year, including the exquisite Aman Tokyo—Gaddis says a single night’s stay is reason enough to visit. Meanwhile, in a country that thrives on innovation, now is the time to see historical landmarks and experience traditional practices before they are permanently altered or disappear entirely. The famous Tsukiji Fish Market, for instance, is about to be significantly scaled down and moved as Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Chilean luxury Patagonia has been growing in popularity in recent years, thanks to lavish lodges like the Singular, Tierra, Explora and others. But the Argentine side was long overlooked by all but the most adventurous. Absolute Travel has solved the luxury-travel conundrum by designing a new itinerary around the beautiful, untouched landscape of glaciers, crystal pools and jagged mountain peaks. After a couple nights at the remote luxury lodge Aguas Arriba near El Chalten, guests trek along trails past Cerro Fitz Roy, Glacier Torre and Cerro Torre, staying at custom tricked-out camping posts, an eco-friendly six-room mountain cabin and Estancia Cristina, a former sheep-shearing station that’s reachable only by boat and home to world-class fly-fishing and one of the best local culinary experiences.
Nepal, Above and Beyond
Long beloved as a trekking paradise, Nepal is slowly emerging as a luxury destination. Absolute directs visitors to immerse themselves in Nepal’s astounding beauty and diverse artistic traditions, watch the sun light up the world as it rises over the Himalayas, stroll bucolic mountain valleys, visit ceramic and textile workshops, explore impressive temples and monasteries, and take a leisurely boat ride on Lake Phewa, whose calm waters mirror the snowy peaks that tower above. Go now to stay at the newly opened wellness-focused Dwarika’s Resort before it’s discovered by the crowds.
Sri Lanka for Wildlife
Now that the country is at peace, Sri Lanka offers tremendous value but is still often overlooked. The Aman Resorts here are as pampering as those elsewhere, but for a fraction of the cost. Absolute also arranges insider experiences such as a tour of the secret gardens of Galle Fort with author Juliet Coombe. But the main draw, Gaddis says, is the wildlife: Elusive leopards, wild elephants, boar, sloth bears and dazzling bird life from peacocks to hornbills roam this surprisingly diverse island. “We can’t think of another country that has the variety of experiences that Sri Lanka does,” he adds. Yala National Park has been the longtime go-to, but he’s excited about the reopened Wilpattu National Park, which had been closed for years due to the civil war, and where, he says, many guests are able to enjoy their safari in private.
Getting There (or Anywhere)
The newly launched Absolute Air, directed by a million-mile-certified expert, helps clients use miles and points to book round-the-world tours in first and business class, charter customized private jets and save thousands of dollars on future flights with individualized award plans.