People always ask me how I decide where to go.
I read, I see movies, I stare at maps, I dream.
And in doing so, I arrived at these 10 places that are tops on my list for 2009. Some are old favorites that are newly affordable. Others have a special reason to shine this year or are suddenly being talked about by well-traveled people I know. A few are raw, off-the-beaten-track destinations that I doubt can long remain un-transformed by globalization.
FOR THE RECORD:
Travel wish lists: An article in the Feb. 8 Travel section about travel wish lists credited Frederic Chopin as the composer of "Claire de Lune." Claude Debussy was the composer. —
Money's tight, so I know I won't get to them all. On the other hand, tough times have forced travel providers to reduce prices, meaning that now may be the time to take the grand tour.
If you disagree with my choices or have other ideas, let us know by writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See Rome and die, they say. But it would be a sad thing to kick the bucket without having been to Alaska.
America's 49th state has as much knockout scenery as all the lower 48 put together. And it's celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with special events and travel deals on items as diverse as national park lodges and RV rentals, described at www.travelalaska.com.
Alaska touring options abound: taking the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, passing 20,320-foot Denali; kayaking around 3.3-million acre Glacier Bay National Park; or staying at a fishing lodge where guides can help you catch a 50-pound salmon.
But my favorite way to see the great northern wonderland is the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System, which covers the nooks and crannies of the coast from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Wash.
Four routes are described at www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs, including the 600-mile Inside Passage, which weaves through a maze of coastal islands. The facilities are spartan compared with a cruise ship, but the fellowship and scenery are unparalleled.
Get a copy of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," by mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith, starring a "traditionally built" lady sleuth who tracks down clues in a little white van along the rutted roads of Botswana.
There are now nine books in the series, with a new installment, "Tea Time for the Traditionally Built," out in April. In March, HBO will air a seven-part series based on the books filmed on location in Botswana.
The true beauty of these books is their setting: dry, land-locked Botswana with its vast, empty Kalahari Desert and wildlife-rich Okavango Delta.
Prime time to visit is from April to October, the dry season when elephants and lions congregate in Chobe National Park, Moremi Wildlife Reserve and the Linyanti Marshes. For information on these and other Botswana attractions, see www.botswanatourism.co.bw.
To track down settings used in Smith's mysteries, check www.alexandermccallsmith.co.uk.
Each of the Hawaiian Islands has its devotees, but for scenic diversity, big is best, if you ask me.
Five times as large as Maui, its nearest neighbor, the island of Hawaii has the highest mountain in the chain, snow-capped, 13,796-foot Mauna Kea; awesomely active Kilauea volcano; Hilo, the island's funky county seat; the breathtakingly scenic Saddle Road; historic Parker Ranch; deep Waipio Valley; orchid farms; beaches; sugar mills; and Kona coffee.
Since the beginning of the year, airlines, tour companies and hotel chains serving Hawaii have been offering deals that make a Big Island visit too attractive to postpone.
Check out www.gohawaii.com and look for good rates from resort chains with lush properties near Kona International Airport on the island's beachy western coast.
After a decade of political turmoil that kept travelers away, peace has broken out in Nepal.
The monarchy was formally abolished last year, leaving the little landlocked Himalayan nation a struggling young democracy, dependent on tourism for development.
That's why I want to go back to Katmandu this year. Nepal needs encouragement.
Of course, my motives aren't purely altruistic. The temperate valley encircled by rice terraces has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the exquisitely restored town of Bhaktapur; white-domed Boudhanath Temple, a center for displaced Tibetan Buddhists; eerie, shrine-filled Palace Square in Katmandu; and the Hindu ghats at Pashupatinath.
Katmandu also has attractively priced hotels, the colorful old hippie neighborhood of Thamel, world-class shopping, all the cuisines of Asia and warm, winning people.
From the centrally located valley, bus and van tours are available to Pokhara in the Annapurnas, Mt. Everest and Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
The U.S. State Department has issued a warning about Nepal, based on sporadic political unrest. But that hasn't stopped major tour companies, including Myths and Mountains and Geographic Expeditions, from taking tour groups there.
It's OK if you have to check a map to find Malacca. Almost everybody does, which is what makes the city seem so exotic and elusive.
It's on the western coast of the Malaysian peninsula, overlooking the fabled Strait of Malacca.
Malacca was founded in the 14th century by a prince from the island of Sumatra and settled by Chinese, Malaysians and Indians.
In 1511, it was conquered by the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the English. By the 19th century, nearby Singapore had eclipsed it in importance.
The cultural mélange gave Old Malacca its singular, spicy Chinese-Malay cuisine and richly layered architecture. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a Portuguese-era fortress, a Dutch city hall, Chinese cemeteries and shop houses, a sultan's palace and St. Paul's Church, where St. Francis Xavier served as a missionary.
Best of all, Malacca remains off the beaten track, though it's an easy hop from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the beaches of southwestern Thailand.
When the pound was worth $2 about a year ago, many people believed they could never again afford to visit Britain. Since then, the British currency has plummeted to a seven-year low, meaning now is the time to check out flights to Heathrow.
London's cool, 250-year-old Kew Gardens is blooming, and Shakespeare still haunts Stratford-upon-Avon. But I'm putting my money on Scotland, especially the border country, an easy drive south of Edinburgh. The region, beloved by Sir Walter Scott, who lived at Abbotsford House near the town of Melrose, is still as gloriously wild and woolly as when it was a lair for outlaws, known as reivers.
The Borders, drained by the meandering River Tweed and bounded on the east by the rocky Berwickshire coast, is wide-open territory for walkers, bikers and equestrians. Established routes, including the South Upland Way and Berwickshire Coastal Path, cross lonely upland moors, skirt cliffs along the North Sea, wander through dark forests and pass fortress-like peel towers.
Meanwhile, there's succor for travelers in old market towns -- Hawick and Peebles come to mind -- and at historic estates such as Traquair House. There, bed-and-breakfast guests can sleep down the hall from the chamber where Mary Queen of Scots stayed in 1566.
Some trips you actually take; others you take only in your mind, which may be the case with Syria. The U.S. State Department says it harbors terrorist organizations and notes that it has been the scene of anti-American demonstrations.
So why does everyone I know who's been there -- including archaeologists and foreign correspondents -- say that Syrians are friendly to Americans and that tourists have not been the targets of violence?
They also say it's a Middle Eastern idyll, at the heart of the ancient cradle of civilization. Syrian cuisine, highlighted by hundreds of varieties of mezes, or appetizers, must be tasted to be believed, and the country's souks or marketplaces teem with treasures. Best of all, isolation has left it untrammeled and intense. I don't know how long that will last, so I want to go now.
My dream Syria tour would take in the capital Damascus with its Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites; the ruins of ancient Palmyra, where legendary Queen Zenobia mounted a rebellion against Rome in the 3rd century; Aleppo, a Silk Road trading mecca with a seven-mile-long covered souk, citadel and nearby Simeon, the Stylite monastery where the ascetic early-Christian saint lived atop a pillar for 37 years.
Utah Highway 12
Highway 12 gets my vote for most scenic road in the U.S., though few people know about it. Plus, it's in south-central Utah, where prices for just about everything are relatively low. Put it all together and you get a great, affordable Wild West vacation.
East of Bryce Canyon National Park, it takes a 120-mile bend across the rugged Colorado Plateau, which descends toward the Grand Canyon in a series of majestic cliffs known as the Grand Staircase. That geological feature gave its name to the region's 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The scenery along the way is one long hymn to the American West, including lonely little ranching communities such as Tropic and Cannonville, the weird sandstone chimneys of Kodachrome Basin State Park and 10,188-foot Powell Point.
From Head of the Rocks just north of the dusty town of Escalante, you can see the vast, impregnable Kaiparowits Plateau, lonely Henry Mountains and 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold. Then the highway climbs over Boulder Mountain to the pleasant town of Torrey at the threshold of Capitol Reef National Park.
Take a tent or a camper if you don't mind roughing it; otherwise book a comfy room at Ruby's Inn near Bryce or the historic Lodge at Red River Ranch west of Torrey.
Info: www.utah.com/byways/high way_12.htm.
Valparaíso has stuck in my mind ever since I visited it briefly about 10 years ago. I never got back, but figure that now may be the time to nab a South American cruise bargain or discounted air fare from Lan (www.lan.com).
The Pacific Rim seaport on the coast of Chile was mentioned in Herman Melville's " Moby Dick" and thrived as a stopover for California Gold Rushers who preferred the harrowing nautical route around the Strait of Magellan to the long, tough overland trail across the American mainland.
Situated on steep, earthquake-prone hillsides overlooking the apparently endless South Pacific, it has a transit system that features Portuguese-style funiculars and a compellingly seedy air. Cruise ships have begun to dock there, which I hope won't ruin it.
Valparaíso sightseers can take in South America's oldest stock exchange and La Sebastiana, the eccentrically decorated home of Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda.
Travelers drawn to newly accessible and relatively budget-priced Eastern European cities tend to give Warsaw the cold shoulder, chiefly because it's a modern metropolis that had to struggle back to life after near-total destruction by the Germans in World War II.
Its Old Town was painstakingly restored post-war and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a 15th century town hall, market square, royal castle and cathedral.
There's little left of the Warsaw ghetto, leveled in the aftermath of the 1943 uprising, a desperate house-to-house battle waged by a handful of sick and starving Jews who had managed to avoid deportation to the Treblinka gas chambers. A visit to Warsaw is incomplete without paying homage to the doomed insurgents at Nozyk Synagogue, the single Jewish house of worship that escaped demolition at the hands of the Germans.
On a much happier note, Warsaw was the home of Frédéric Chopin. In preparation for the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth next year, Warsaw is remodeling its Chopin Museum and the manor house where he was born. I'm listening to "Claire de Lune" and planning a trip to Warsaw before throngs of Chopin-lovers get there next year.
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