Rwanda, Namibia and Zimbabwe listed among the Best Travel Destinations Of 2019

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Photo credit: Getty Images

Figuring out how best to spend your travel dollars is the most delicious dilemma of a life well lived. What follows are the best suggestions for the year to come, based on intelligence collected, insiders consulted, and cultural, gastronomic, and geopolitical trends considered. Want to bathe in wellness? Try the Berkshires-or Bhutan. Want to leave the world behind? Head for Namibia-or Norway. Fancy some time travel? Get thee to Romania-or a secret bit of paradise in Panama.

Our 25 destinations include places near and far, hot and cold, laid-back and anything but. They all have noteworthy new hotels, and we provide the names of travel specialists who can help you book. Nothing like starting the New Year spoiled for choice.

Rwanda, Because It’s Now The Switzerland of Africa

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President Paul Kagame may have his detractors, but he has so steered his country that today it is known less for its 1994 genocide than for being safe, spotless, hilly, and high-end. The mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park have long been the main wildlife draw here, but now travelers can base themselves in lodges on par with the best in Kenya and Botswana. There’s Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate, a collection of
six podlike suites that look like bird’s nests suspended in the cloud forest; One&Only Gorilla’s Nest, which debuts later this year (and will have nine holes of golf in case you need to decompress after a face-to-face with a silverback); and Kwitonda Lodge, opening in August from Singita, the uber-luxe South African safari company.

Beyond the apes, Akagera National Park, the country’s only savannah park, is now officially a Big Five destination, and this month Magashi Camp opens, the park’s first luxury lodge, a joint venture of Wilderness Safaris and the NGO African Parks (of which Prince Harry is president). And on the edge of Nyungwe Forest National Park, you can now stay on a working tea plantation at One&Only Nyungwe House. Even Kigali, the capital, has its game on, with a creative scene worth exploring and a new boutique lodge, the Retreat.

NamibiaBecause It’s the Closest You’ll Get to Mars Without Leaving Earth

Photo credit: Michael Turek

There’s Namibia’s intense beauty: the red dune–framed salt pan of Sossusvlei; the stupendous rock formations of Damaraland; the mashup of desert and ocean along the Skeleton Coast, riddled with old shipwrecks. Just as moving is the desert-adapted wild-life (including lions and elephants). Because the country has a “free roaming” policy, you’re not likely to find clusters of animals as you do in the fenced parks of Kenya, Tanzania,or South Africa. They are out there in space-just as you are-and thus all the more thrilling to come upon.

And now there’s a crop of equally thrilling places to stay. Ten-cabin Shipwreck Lodge is the Skeleton Coast’s first beach camp. Coming this spring from Zannier Hotels (whose ethos is “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”) is Sonop, in the Namib desert, where you’ll wake up to the world’s tallest freestanding dunes. Many of the new lodges have partnered with conservation programs. Zannier’s Omaanda, near Windhoek, complements its game drives with visits to a hospital for abandoned rhinos and elephants, funded by the Jolie-Pitt Foundation.

Zimbabwe, Because It’s a Beauty Waking From a Bad Dream

Photo credit: Great Plains Conservation

After 30 years, the despot Robert Mugabe is gone. The dust has settled after last July’s elections (which controversially installed former Mugabe henchman Emmerson Mnangagwa, a.k.a. the Crocodile, as president), and Zimbabweans are hoping for better times. The country’s wildlife areas rival any in Africa, and there are new and newly refurbished camps to stay at.

ALSO READ: Four African Destinations make it to National Geographic Travelers’ Top 19 Cool list for 2019

Hwange, the country’s largest national park, is also one of Africa’s most abundant (thanks to the 70 boreholes drilled in the 1920s that guarantee water year-round). Wilderness Safaris’ Linkwasha is the epitome of safari luxury, and it’s in the best game area of the park: warring lion prides, packs of wild dogs, cheetahs, and herds of elephant and buffalo everywhere. For rustic charm, the Amalinda Collection’s new four-bed Khulu’s Private Retreat (attached to the 12-bed Khulu Bush Camp) at Hwange’s southern edge is the real thing. Sip a G&T while watching wild things on their way to water.

Also recommended is Camp Amalinda, which is in the Matopos area, one of the country’s most beautiful places: a dramatic granite outcrop that provides a spectacular “view of the world,” as CecilRhodes, who is buried here, put it. Elsewhere, the newest camp in Zambezi National Park, an hour’s drive from Victoria Falls, is Great Plains’ swank, colonial-style, four-tent Mpala Jena Camp. And in there remote southeast is rustic Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, where the bonus is meeting proprietor Clive Stockil, one of Africa’s greatest living conservationists.

Other places listed among the best travel hotspots for 2019 include:

Portugal, Because Now There’s Even More to Love

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There’s charming Lisbon, the wineries of the Douro Valley, the seaside towns of the Algarve. And now the Alentejo, where stylish Lisbonites go on private home holidays, has three magnetic new places to stay: São Lourenço do Barrocal, a centuries-old estate that is now a dreamy boutique resort (restored by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura); on the coast, the design-driven Sublime Comporta, its villas shaped like the area’s traditional rice storage buildings; and the just opened Quinta da Comporta, set between dunes and rice fields. Think the solitude and natural beauty of the Hamptons before they became hot.

Arles, Because The Art World Is Archiving

Photo credit: Chris Hellier

Swiss-born art collector and philanthropist Maja Hoffmann has invested a decade (and nearly $200 million) in laying the foundation for the city of Arles, France, which played muse to van Gogh and Gauguin, to become a new cultural hub. Her biggest project is Luma Arles, a 20-acre contemporary arts complex that includes a performance venue that launched last summer, and the crown jewel, a tower designed by Frank Gehry, which is slated to be completed in late 2019.

In anticipation of Arles’s ascent to art destination status, Hoffmann has opened a Michelin-starred restaurant, La Chassagnette, and the creatively decorated hotel L’Arlatan, which is set in a grand centuries-old townhouse.

Romania, Because Prince Charles Has Three Houses in the Countryside–And Charles Knows Country

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Bucharest is getting its first real luxury hotel this year (the Corinthia) and has a burgeoning food scene. But the real star is Romania’s countryside: Bukovina, with its painted monasteries; Maramures, with its wooden churches; and Transylvania, a.k.a., Dracula country-romantic reminders of what this continent looked like centuries ago. In an era of shrinking biodiversity, Romania’s Carpathian Mountains contain the largest swath of virgin forest in Europe; its meadows, which have never been sprayed with pesticides, are miraculously abundant in flora and fauna, with Europe’s largest populations of bears, wolves, and lynxes. Prince Charles, one of the country’s most vocal protectors, rhapsodized that here “man lives in harmony with nature.”

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You can go tracking with guides and otherwise geek out on the natural world, and because the hinter lands are unfenced, there is excellent horseback riding and cycling. When Charles is not around, you can stay at Zalanpatak, one of his meticulously restored homes (seven rooms, no phone or internet). Small, family-owned inns are becoming increasingly stylish, and even a tad modern (i.e., WiFi). Copsa Mare, a Saxon village at the edge of a vast forest, has four charming cottages suitable for two to eight guests; larger properties include Raven’s Nest, Sesuri, and Viscri 125. All will immerse you in local culture, customs, and cuisine.

Norway, Because It’s Like Having Valhalla All to Yourself

Photo credit: Steve King

Chiseled by glaciers into a vast multi-faceted gemstone, Norway’s craggy coastline, with its soaring fjords and snowcapped peaks, reaches all the way up to the Arctic Circle. The country is awash in oil money-and all the optimism it brings. Thoroughly modern Oslo has world class restaurants and hotels, but most of Norway’s delights lie outside the cities, with unique small hotels and converted farmsteads that give visitors a taste of the country’s uncommon hospitality-which, together with the scenery and outdoor pursuits (a Norwegian specialty)-will fix whatever ails you.

A sampler: In the western Sunnfjord region, known for its waterfalls, fishing, and kayaking, Amot Country Villa & Opera Farm is a sublimely renovated farmstead where traditional music and inventive cuisine feature prominently. Surrounded by the fjords of the Aurland region, 29/2 Aurland is owned by a young couple who have transformed this former farm into a sanctuary for foodies and nature lovers alike. There’s fly fishing and fjord skiing, but you can content yourself by simply strolling from one towering waterfall to another. For an Arctic adventure, there’s Manshausen Island Resort or Lyngen Lodge, an eight-room property with dramatic mountain and sea views and its own boat for whale watching and ferrying hikers, bikers, and skiers to parts (almost) unknown.

Moscow, Because The Falling Ruble Means Luxury is on Sale

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It’s safe to assume that Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Moscow has less to do with his charms than it does with the billions he has showered on the capital, restoring it to a level of grandeur not seen since the czars and giving all Russians a glittery distraction from, well, everything else. Chic boutiques and cafés have opened along storied Kuznetsky Most, which was recently joined by a network of pedestrianized streets, creating a quarter ripe for strolling, shopping,and people watching. Red Square now competes for attention with nearby Zaryadye Park, a 35-acre public space devoted to culture and entertainment designed by the team that created New York’s High Line. Diversions include footpaths through forest and tundra, a sweeping boomerang-shaped viewing platform that juts over the Moscow River, and a food court showcasing Russia’s regional fare. Even the most discriminating palate will be pleased by the city’s culinary offerings, which include caviar with a view of Red Square at elegant Beluga; farm- fresh produce and meat at sleek, airy Twins Garden; and a modern take on haute cuisine in the striking white dining room at Bolshoi. The ruble’s fall has affected even the city’s best hotels. At the newly refurbished Park Hyatt, a roomy Park Suite goes for $450, and similar values can be had at the Four Seasons and, for a feel of old Russia, the historic (and heavily gilded) Hotel Savoy.

Napa Valley, Because It’s Not Your Father’s Napa Now

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The region that put American wine on the map has a lot new going on. Forget mansion-size tasting rooms; there’s a crop of intimate places from small lot producers like Tom Garrett’s Dakota Shy and Favia Wines (from Screaming Eagle’s Andy Erick-son and his wife, Annie Favia). Casual dining is better than ever, with newcomers like Charter Oak, a shrine to open-fire cooking. Even Thomas Keller, fresh off renovating the French Laundry, is reportedly doing Mexican food in Yountville. And Calistoga Ranch is no longer the only place to stay in hot springs country: The five-room Francis House opened in August, and Four Seasons Resort & Residences arrives this summer.

Park City, Utah – Because There’s a Whole New Way to Go West

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There are few ski areas in North America where a morning flight can have you floating on dry champagne powder by early afternoon. That accessibility has long made Park City a favorite winter playground. Auberge Resorts’ Lodge at Blue Sky, on a3,500-acre ranch, will bring the mountains even closer: A helicopter can pick you up at the airport and have you skiing on untouched terrain before check-in. The 46-suite lodge debuts in May, and it will have daylong “teaser” heli-ski packages, which include meals in a fire-warmed yurt. Once open, it will have Amangiri-level service and warm and cold weather activities (for kids, too) and a range of lodgings. Our favorite: the 500-square-foot tents. Park City’s High West Distillery already has a tasting room and restaurant on-site, so you can toast your achievements.

The Berkshires, Because You No Longer Need to Go West For Wellness

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California and Arizona have traditionally been the favored spots for a serious mind-body reboot. Now this bucolic patch of Massachusetts, renowned for such cultural institutions as Tanglewood, Jacob’sPillow, and Mass MoCA, is picking up the wellness mantle. A hiker’s paradise with many miles of forested trails and five ski areas, it is already home to two destination retreats: the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge and Canyon Ranch Lenox. Next summer Miraval in the Berkshires, which has outposts in Tucson and Austin, comes toLenox too. This is big: There will be golf and Miraval’s signature equestrian therapy program, and, unlike Kripalu and Canyon Ranch, Miraval will serve alcohol. So much for ye olde New England Puritanism.

Cambodia, Because It’s Not Just About Temples Anymore

Photo credit: Krishna Adithya Prajogo

For decades Cambodia has been a quick hit trip to Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat tacked onto a longer stay in Thailand or Vietnam. But new lodgings are making the former Khmer Empire a destination in its own right. Set in a wilderness corridor between Bokor and Kirirom national parks, spectacular Shinta Mani Wild has 15 platform tents perched over a rushing river (the creation of uber–resort designer Bill Bensley). The property’s look is inspired by luxury safaris of a bygone era, but its mission is thoroughly modern: to provide employment and protect flora and fauna. You can help out on poaching patrol, go mountain biking, or hit the spa. Farther south are the Gulf of Thailand’s tranquil island resorts. The rustic-luxe villas at Song Saa Private Island Resort (a longtime favorite) are now being joined by more modernist digs on neighboring islands, including Alila Villas Koh Russey and Six Senses Krabey Island. For cruise fans, Aqua Expeditions has four-night river trips between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh aboard the deluxe Aqua Mekong (20 suites, floor-to-ceiling windows, outdoor pool). In the capital, the historic Raffles drips with French Colonial charm, while the towering new Rosewood hotel anchors the city firmly in the 21st century.

Bhutan, Because It’s Like Bali in the 1960s

Photo credit: Toni Neubauer

There are a handful of places with the right combination of intense natural beauty and cultural heritage to make them lodestars for Western seekers of physical and spiritual well-being. If Bali has been loved almost too much, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been focused, since it opened to the outside world in 1974, on providing high-end tourism at volume low enough to protect its culture and environment. But there’s change afoot. A new arrival terminal at Paro International Airport makes the journey less daunting, roads are being improved, and by mid-2019 the selection of wellness-focused luxury hotels will approach Bali’s. In addition to Aman and COMO–pioneers here–independent five-star retreats are opening, among them Bhutan Spirit Sanc­tuary, which employs Bhutanese doctors who serve as “well-being guides.” Six Senses will debut a circuit of five lodges in Paro, Thimphu,Punakha, Gangtey, and Bumthang, each with its own spa. By the end of 2019, adventure specialist and ­Beyond will have opened two camps as it expands out of Africa.

Andaman Islands, India – Because the Maldives Are Getting Crowded

Photo credit: James R.D. Scott

Sometimes it seems all the best beaches are overrun: by backpackers in Phuket, honeymooners in Bora Bora, in influencers in Tulum. Yet India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, long among the world’s top diving destinations, have somehow managed to avoid that fate. Nearly 600 isles, all but a few uninhabited, make up this archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. It’s a two- or three-hour flight from several mainland Indian cities, followed by a two-hour ferry from Port Blair to Havelock, the largest and most developed island. Of course, development is relative: The hostels, restaurants, and dive centers catering mostly to homegrown adventure tourists and honeymooners (and a smattering of foreign backpackers) are still outnumbered by betel nut plantations, overgrown mangroves, and immaculate beaches. But that’s about to change-thanks to the islands’ first true luxury hotels. First came Jalakara in 2016, the platonic ideal of the chic jungle hideaway, on the crown of a hill in the island’s rugged interior and thoughtfully accessorized with items procured by the British owners during their adventures all over India. And then, last April, India’s venerable Taj Hotels debuted a sumptuous resort with 50 stand-alone thatch roofed villas, Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, at Radhanagar Beach, a swath of sugary sand that often tops rankings of Asia’s best beaches. Strict government restrictions mean the islands are unlikely to go the way of the Maldives, but you should still get there ASAP-before everyone you follow on Instagram does.

Panama, Because You’ll Find a Jacques Cousteau Fantasy at Your Feet

Photo credit: Michael Turek

The islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí, 20 miles off Panama’s Pacific coast, have always been a bit of a secret, sparsely inhabited for centuries, if at all. The difference now? Brand new, high-end lodges committed to preserving the area’s unspoiled environment. Isla Palenque (of the Cayuga Collection brand) opened last July with eight casitas and a beach front villa estate on 400 acres of protected jungle. Its organic garden dictates the restaurant’s menu, lunch is sustainably caught by fishermen in nearby Boca Chica,and the island’s seven beaches mean you never have to share a patch of sand. In January the sustainable luxury bar gets raised further still with the opening of Islas Secas Reserve & Lodge, on the archipelago’s Jurassic-esque Isla Cavada. The property sleeps just 18 in nine tucked-away wooden villas, and everything has been engineered to leave as small an environmental footprint as possible: Ocean breezes do the cooling, water is treated, the sun powers everything. Divers and snorkelers can explore a wonderland of some 750 species of fish in the surrounding sea, and there are private marine safaris and deserted island excursions-with picnics-at their beck and call. Coming in 2020: a field station for the study of the humpback whales that migrate here each summer; guests will be able to geek out and partake in research.

Cabo’s East Side, Because It’s So Close Yet Feels So Surreally Far

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John Steinbeck loved the raw beauty of the Baja Peninsula’s little-visited east coast, on the Sea of Cortés: empty beaches, expanses of dune, sleepy villages, cardon cactus–studded landscapes, and barely a hotel in sight. But most travelers have long headed west from Los Cabos International Airport to the Pacific side’s boho-chic town of Todos Santos (now home to the sceney Hotel San Cristobal) and the many five-star pleasures in Cabo San Lucas: the grand stalwart One&Only Palmilla and the Resort at Pedregal (and, soon, a new Nobu).

But that flow is about to change direction. Viceroy, the Luxury Col­lection, and Montage all recently planted their flags on the peninsula’s east side, and Zadún, only the fourth Ritz-Carlton Reserve property in the world, opens this March on a secluded two-mile stretch of beach in San José del Cabo. Farther on, a bumpy dirt road brings you to the oasis that is Costa Palmas, home to the Four Seasons, which is slated to open next year, as well as a members-only beach club, a 250-slip marina, a yacht club, a golf course, and an 18-acre working organic farm. ( The first Amanin Mexico, the Amanvari, arrives in this gorgeous semi wilderness in 2020, with pavilions on stilts that resemble spaceships poised amid the sand and cacti.)

The promise (at last!) of infinity pools, world class spas, and gourmet restaurants may be what lures you here, but the calm, swimmable waters of the Sea of Cortés (parent alert: There is no undertow along this coast), the spectacular diving in Cabo Pulmo Marine National Park (Mexico’s premier marine sanctuary and protected reef), and the tiny village restaurants where the grandmas hand-toss tortillas are the reasons you’ll keep coming back.

Costa Rica, Because It’s a Little Bit Like Africa a Lot Closer to Home

Photo credit: Miles Photography

There seemed nothing new under the sun in Costa Rica,with its pura vida vibe, epic surf spots, and rainforests. But that was before Ofer Ketter, an adventure specialist and former first lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Felipe Artinano, an expert free diver and surfer, launched Origen Escapes,which offers trips that dramatically showcase the country’s undiscovered wild places. With access to CostaRica’s only hydroplane (and even a submarine), Origen will take you to untouched spots like the Venice of the Tropics, a wildlife-rich patch on the Caribbean coast; give you exclusive access to class III and IV rapids on one of the country’s wildest rivers; or let you swim with thousands of spinner dolphins.

The country’s newest lodging option has also been reimagined in the style of Africa’s luxe safari camps. Family- friendly Nayara Resort Spa & Gardens and its adults-only neighbor, Nayara Springs, in Arenal Volcano National Park, will open a third sister property in fall 2019, Nayara Tented Camp, on a hillside surrounded by jungle. Its 18 canvas-sided cabins have plunge pools fed by natural hot springs. You can lounge on a daybed and admire the view of one of the youngest active volcanoes in Central America, or scan the guarumo trees for monkeys and the elusive sloth. No jeep required.

Grenada, Because the Spice Island Has Found It’s Sweet Spot

Grenada was spared last year’s hurricanes, but that’s not the only reason it has become one of the hottest destinations in the Caribbean. Compared to its neighbors, it’s still relatively untouristed, though it’s just as endowed with beaches, culture, and many adventure options, from hiking waterfalls to scuba diving in an underwater sculpture gallery. Many direct flights add to the appeal, as does the new Silversands, a sleek, ultra modern resort (a rarity here) with 43 spacious suites-the smallest one 721 square feet-and the longest in infinity pool in the Caribbean. Elsewhere, the Calabash hotel recently underwent a renovation and earned entry into the coveted Relais & Châteaux club. There’s a bonus for the eco-conscious traveler: The government is banning all styrofoam imports and single-use plastics. (L.K.)

Puerto Rico, Because Going Is Helping (and It’s a Great Place to Go)

Photo credit: Gladys Vega

Puerto Rico’s destruction, as we all know, was catastrophic, and the island’s most remote areas are still recovering, more than a year after Hurricane Maria. The major highways and roads, however, are in good condition once again, the San Juan airport is fully operational, and the country plans to add 25 percent more hotel rooms by the end of 2019. Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, which was founded by Laurance Rockefeller 60 years ago, didn’t suffer any structural damage, but it has updated all 114 of its beach front rooms (think floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor showers; some have private plunge pools), as well as Su Casa, the five-bedroom villa where Amelia Earhart spent one of her last holidays. For several months last year the resort served as the main base of operations for the World Central Kitchen, helping provide millions of meals to the community. Through February it will be donating $10 per room to Flamboyan Arts Fund, an initiative founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will be reprising his role in Hamilton at the University of Puerto Rico in January. (L.K.)

Anguilla, Because the Place Billionaires Go to Be Beach Bums Is Back

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While Anguilla did find itself in the path of Hurricane Irma, its famed white beaches have been restored, and many of its restaurants (the island has some of the best in the region) have reopened. The Belmond Cap Juluca, on Maundays Bay, opened last month after a $121 million restoration, with 108 rooms and eight villas with private pools. As did CuisinArt Resort, over on Rendezvous Bay, with new interiors and a new chef. (Zemi Beach House reopened in February; Four Seasons did the same in March.) For a doubleheader, St. Martin is just a 20-minute boat ride away, and home to the ultra-luxurious Belmond La Samanna. Reopening December 10, the resort sits on 55 acres of tropical garden teeming with fuchsia bougainvillea and orange poinsettia trees, but it is most famous for its below-sea-level wine cellar, which holds 12,000 vintages. (L.K.)

HOUSE BEAUTIFUL

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the list, for passionate travelers, this is a one stop center for all reasons to travel. Rwanda is definitely for the great apes just like her neighbors Uganda and Congo. Though Uganda isn’t the Switzerland of Africa its still the pearl of Africa with the biggest number of the elusive mountain gorillas and much more to offer.

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