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Great Travel Getaways for 2020
THE WORLD SUFFERED a heavy dose of reality in 2019, staggering from the effects of civil strife, climate change and the power of Mother Nature. No corner on Earth was spared, it seems, from signs of the impending apocalypse. Wildfires, deadly storms and rising sea levels, together with demonstrations in Hongkong, political instability in Latin America and uncertainty caused by Brexit turned go-to places into no-go places. Given the fragile state of our ecology, rational thinking demands that we seek to improve the human condition in 2020. There's no guarantee that the start of a new decade will be any better, so the theme for our travel recommendations this year revolves around recovery, rejuvenation and yes, getting away from it all.
At the Global Wellness Summit in Singapore last year - moved here from Hongkong due to pro-democracy protests - it was noted that 1.3 billion people travel each year and 46 percent of all travellers go to just 100 destinations. That means chronic over-tourism in many places, but less chance of overcrowding elsewhere. Remember, the pursuit of happiness sometimes requires venturing beyond our comfort zones to destinations - both physical and spiritual - that challenge and inspire.
KALARI KOVILAKOM, KERALA, INDIA
For many wellness buffs, a weekend spa getaway to detox and chill just doesn't cut it anymore. Instead, they're seeking something more transformational, including a total lifestyle change. That's where Kalari Kovilakom comes in. This Ayurvedic retreat, housed in a former palace on large grounds in the Kerala village of Kollengode, is the archetypal anti-resort - as in anti-stress and anti-aging. Guests check in for a two-week minimum (a month is preferable) and go through a customised detox programme, based on ancient Ayurvedic therapies. The first phase may cause some discomfort because it involves purging toxins from the body, but your room will be a welcome sanctuary. The all-in rate (from S$10,000 per person for 14 days) includes medical consultations, vegetarian meals, massages and herb-based treatments, plus yoga and meditation sessions. Coffee, tobacco, sugar and social media are all verboten - as is leaving the premises during the stay. "It is not easy going," says Luciana Eng, a Paris-based fan of Kalari Kovilakom. "You're constantly hungry the first few days and not sure if you will last the two weeks but after 10 days, you don't want to go back into the real world." (www.cghearthayurveda.com)
KOYASAN TEMPLE STAY, JAPAN
You don't have to be a devout Buddhist to appreciate a shukubo (temple) stay in Koyasan, a mountainous region and World Heritage Site in south-eastern Japan about 140 km from Kyoto. Respecting the ancient traditions of Shingon Buddhism - introduced in Japan 1,200 years ago - will suffice. Mount Koya is home to over 50 temples, most of which offer simple lodgings to pilgrims and tourists seeking enlightenment - and essential subject matter for their Instagram accounts. Observing the daily rituals of the religion such as meditation and chanting, along with other aspects of an esoteric lifestyle, in an environment conducive to quiet reflection and slow pulse rates, will help to banish the cares of the outside world - at least for a day or two. Temple cuisine and temple tours, or longer hikes along ancient pilgrimage trails, will add to the sense of tranquillity. Popular temples include Okunoin, site of Shingon founder Kobo Daishi's mausoleum, where the 2km-long approach is lined with 200,000 tombstones - making it the largest graveyard in Japan. Naturally, night tours are encouraged. (www.shukubo.net)
SKELLIG MICHAEL ISLAND AND SHEEN FALLS LODGE, IRELAND
Luke Skywalker and related Jedi warriors notwithstanding, Skellig Michael Island, a remote and rugged speck a few kilometres off the southwestern coast of County Kerry in Ireland, has a human population of zero. This craggy twin-pinnacled rock is home to thousands of Atlantic puffins and other seabirds - but only during the more hospitable summer months (when filming for recent Star Wars episodes took place). During the summer, visitors to Skellig Michael are allowed to make the hour-long boat crossing from Portmagee village, spending a couple of hours exploring the 54-acre island and the remains of a Gaelic Christian monastery that dates to the 6th century. Tours to this rocky outcrop are governed by fickle weather conditions and are notoriously difficult to book, but the small town of Kenmare offers a major form of consolation - and we're not talking about Guinness or the pub food the town is known for. Just outside town is Sheen Falls Lodge, a classy country house estate set in 300 acres and a perfect base for exploring this part of Ireland. Come prepared for long riverside walks, luxury spa treatments, excellent trout and salmon fishing and - this being Ireland - a fair bit of rain.
RIJEKA AND OPATIJA, CROATIA
Rijeka, a port city on Croatia's Adriatic coast, can look forward to its 15 minutes in 2020. This shipbuilding town, onetime trading post and hub of alternative cool has been designated - along with Galway in Ireland - European City of Culture, with the codeshare element designed to highlight similarities as well as differences among European societies. Spruced-up sites and a full slate of cultural events awaits visitors although in truth, the city's Austro-Hungarian architecture, Italianinfluenced cuisine and annual carnival, held between late-January and early-March, have long been regular crowd-pullers. Rijeka's proximity to the picturesque coastal resort of Opatija - a star performer for Croatian tourism and the wellness industry - is another reason to visit these parts. The former fishing village was transformed into a health resort for wealthy European tourists in the 19th century and still ranks high on the spa scale. Opulent villas and trendy boutique hotels with mouth-watering views dot hillsides overlooking the sea, while gastronomes will enjoy sampling the chef-driven, seafoodcentric restaurants on offer.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a highland town and former colonial outpost in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, is the launch pad for a tour of one of the most unexplored parts of the country, if not the world. Its appeal lies in its vast cultural diversity, exemplified by the various indigenous ethnic Mayan Indian groups that inhabit the villages around San Cristóbal. Villagers are identified by the specific costumes they wear, as well as the language they speak. In the Tzotzil Maya villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, visitors will gain some insight into the area's pagan roots and colourful woven textiles.
Near the border with Guatemala, the colonial town of Comitan yields additional treasures. Of primary interest are the Lagunas de Montebello, dozens of lakes surrounded by pine forest and site of two Maya ruins, and El Chiflon, a series of scenic waterfalls. If your budget allows, charter flights can be arranged at the local airport for an aerial view of the lakes and onward to a visit to the archaeological site of Bonampak. Some 200 kms northeast of San Cristóbal are the well-preserved ruins of Palenque, a Maya city state featuring over 1000 elaborate limestone structures - including palaces, temples and tombs - that date from between 100 B.C. and 750 A.D.
ZAKOUMA NATIONAL PARK, CHAD
If way-off-the-radar safaris appeal to your sense of adventure, then Chad might be the place for you. This land-locked country and former French colony in north-central Africa, known more for its poverty and political unrest, has bucked the trend in recent years - at least where managing its wildlife resources is concerned. Zakouma National Park is a shining example, reversing dramatic declines in animal populations to a point where the park, located within a unique ecozone just south of the Sahara and north of fertile rainforest regions, is now a flourishing wildlife haven.
"Chad is not a typical safari destination but Zakouma has the most abundant wildlife and birdlife I have ever experienced," says Jose Cortes, safari junkie and co-founder of luxury tour operator A2A Safaris (www. a2asafaris.com). "Seasoned travellers are now looking for a deeper purpose when they travel," he says. "In our case we are doing more and more conservation-oriented trips, working with NGOs in Africa and Latin America. Trips where wilderness areas and wildlife are the main beneficiaries will be a huge trend going forward."
The season runs from January to April and lodging in Zakouma (860 kms from the capital N'Djamena and accessible via charter flights) is extremely limited, with only 100 guests per season at the park's Camp Nomade. (www.africanparks.org)
VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is perhaps the most beautiful national park in Africa - and also its most troubled. Civil unrest, rampant poaching and large-scale habitat loss from farming have threatened the park's (Africa's oldest) diverse wildlife, including rare mountain gorillas. The DRC's section of the Virunga mountains - which also straddle Uganda and Rwanda - is currently open to visitors. "It is the best and also least expensive mountain gorilla experience on the continent, plus you have the bonus of sleeping on the rim of an active volcano - Mount Nyiragongo," says A2A's Mr Cortes. The volcano (3,470 m) is just westof the border with Rwanda and features a spectacular lava lake within its crater. Major eruptions occur every few decades but for now, visitors can trek to the top, spend a night in mountainside cabins, and marvel at the magma show. The best months for clear views of the mountains are March to May and October to December.
PUNA DESERT, ARGENTINA
Way up in the far northwest of Argentina, in the vast high plateau known as the Puna, flatlands and mountain ridges alternate with impressive regularity, creating a variety of otherworldly landscapes amid a kaleidoscope of colours. This is the least-visited part of the South American altiplano, replete with lava fields, gleaming-white salt pans and multihued lagoons. The green valleys and desolate, mountain-studded deserts are reminiscent of an extreme version of the equally remote Atacama region in neighbouring Chile. The Puna, a region the size of England, was once inhabited by Incas and optimistic miners. Now, visitors in four-wheel-drives congregate in Salta, a colonial town in the foothills of the Andes, before heading out on epic off-road drives to explore the region. A fully-guided expedition can cover 2,000 km and reach altitudes of 5,000 metres or more, taking in ghost towns and surreal sights along the way. The wet season in January and February will hamper progress, so the best time to go is between March and October.
SOUTH GEORGIA, SUB-ANTARCTICA
Now that Antarctica enthusiasts have the option to get there by plane, eschewing the discomfort of a voyage across the not-sofriendly Drake Passage, tourists are flocking to the White Continent in ever-growing numbers. More than 40,000 people visited the Antarctic peninsula last year, while less than 8,000 visited South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. This British Overseas Territory is located in the southern Atlantic Ocean, 2,000 km away from Ushuaia in Argentina or a two-day voyage from The Falkland Islands - which pretty much puts it in the middle of nowhere. "Antarctica is already a mainstream destination and has lost some of its lustre," says tour operator Jose Cortes. "For me the best part of the entire Antarctic/sub-Antarctic region is South Georgia, not only because of its wildlife and birdlife but also because of its rich history." Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried at Grytviken, a former whaling station there, and while no one lives on the island any longer (apart from researchers in the summer), visitors will encounter millions of penguins, seabirds and fur seals. Expedition ships operate from October to May, and a typical voyage lasts about three weeks.
DESARU COAST, MALAYSIA
Closer to home, things are looking up for Desaru, a once-sleepy 1980s-era resort destination along Malaysia's south-eastern coast, just a 100-km drive from Singapore. Bolstered by an ambitious US$1.1 billion government-backed initiative, the area has undergone a major upgrade - and transformed into the Desaru Coast integrated resort. A slew of high-end hotels has opened in the past year, the latest of which - by luxury group One & Only - is scheduled to open at the end of March. Thousand-dollar-a-night pool villas, anyone? The resort's 1,600-hectares features 17 km of beachfront, championship golf courses, a water-based adventure theme park, conference centre and various familyfriendly facilities (with more to come). It took big bucks and a major effort, but Desaru Coast has positioned itself as a direct competitor to Resorts World Sentosa and a viable option for regional vacationers looking for an easy escape from the stresses of the big city.