As part of our semi-annual look at trending destinations, we identified a number of buzzworthy places around the globe and then polled you, our readers, to get your assessment of them. Some of them—such as Puebla, Mexico; Hainan, China; and the Asian nation of Myanmar—can truly be considered emerging destinations, while others such the Douro region of Portugal, overwhelmingly the top vote-getter in our poll, are gaining new or renewed interest among agents and their clients. Presented here—in no strict order—are the top 10, based on your responses.
Douro River Valley, Portugal
The wine region of Portugal’s Douro River Valley has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and it’s not hard to see why: The River Valley has lots of castles and monasteries and other historical sites to explore along the waterway.
For those not interested in history, the valley also has plenty of vineyards with some of the world’s most popular wines. (Winemaking in this region dates back 2,000 years—in fact, both Port wine and Portugal were named after the city of Porto on the Douro.)
It goes without saying that a cruise is a great way to experience the valley. Next year, AmaWaterways is hosting a 12-day wine tour on the AmaVida that includes a seven-night cruise through the Douro River Valley that begins and ends in Porto. Highlights include winery visits and tastings, a chance to visit the Portuguese pilgrimage site Nossa Senhora dos Remedios (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies) and the centuries-old Alpendurada Monastery.
In Porto, art and architecture fans will want to explore the city’s Baroque churches and an iron bridge built by Gustave Eiffel. The Serralves Museum specializes in international contemporary art in an edgy minimalist building. Porto also has an excellent Museum of Modern Art.
After sightseeing, relax at a Cais de Gaia riverfront café or grab a snack at the Confeitaria Tavi, a local hangout with a seaside terrace. Since this is Porto, a glass of Port wine is absolutely in order: Visit any of the wine shops behind the riverfront for an authentic experience. Sandeman Cellars is a good pick for a tour and tasting, or go up the hill to Taylor’s Port Cellars.
Be sure to stop at a local restaurant for some traditional dishes such as bacalhau, a fresh unsalted cod.
Black Sea Region
With the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, all eyes are on both the city and the Black Sea region, which includes Turkey, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia in addition to Russia.
Hotel developers are taking note as well: The Sheraton Samsun Hotel, for example, will open in the coming year right on the Black Sea coast with 200 guest rooms and 20 suites, all with water views. At 29 stories, it will be the tallest building in the city and will have a rooftop bar and lounge for looking out over the sea.
Hilton, meanwhile, will open its debut hotel in Georgia’s coastal city of Batumi, also with a rooftop bar overlooking the Black Sea. The property will be close to such attractions as Batumi Beach and the Seaside Park, as well as an on-site retail unit, casino and health club, all directly linked to the hotel via a walkway.
Of course, not everyone wants to stay on the shores of a major body of water, and cruise fans should look into exploring the Black Sea by boat. Black Sea itineraries can include trekking in the Caucasus Mountains, exploring World War II history in Yalta, shopping in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or relaxing at a Crimean coastline beach. Good to know: Many of these cruises begin and end in Istanbul, or sail between Istanbul and Piraeus (Athens), Greece.
Ships can visit 17 cruise ports along the coast. Nearly 50 cruise lines now serve the region, according to Cruise Black Sea. The Port of Yalta will welcome 98 cruise ship calls this year, according to Crimea’s Committee on Transport and Communications.
In Puebla, Mexico, Popocatepetl Volcano looms high over Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies Church).
Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico, is a far cry from the tequila-soaked, bikini-clad beaches that travelers may often associate with Mexico. It is a city well known by the avid traveler. Its graffiti murals are local artistic expressions, it still hosts live bull fights, and its most famous ambassador is mole poblano (that heavenly mixture of chocolate and chilies). But to the tourist who only knows Cancun, Ixtapa and Los Cabos, Puebla is literally a whole new world. This is why it is a must for anyone’s visit to Mexico.
Tiny colonial streets are flanked with candy stores, clothing shops and taco stands. Outdoor markets offer everything from candied peaches to peanuts to grasshoppers with chilies and garlic, and there are at least three indoor food markets that sell everything from chicken doused in mole, to cemitas, which are fat sandwiches stuffed with meat, avocado and Oaxaca cheese.
Hotel options are limited, but that’s the beauty of Puebla. You will be hard pressed to find more than a few other Americans. La Purificadora is one of the best luxury boutique hotels in the city. The hotel plays with the boundaries of indoor and outdoor, as much of the hotel is open-air and is decorated with slate, stone and wood. Bright purple chairs in the lobby accent the subdued, natural tones.
Be sure to visit the terrace, which overlooks the San Francisco cathedral, and has an above-ground, all-glass infinity pool. (The best views are at night, when the cathedral glows warmly. If you’re lucky, you’ll see fireworks bursting in the distance.) Order a cocktail and breathe in the balmy air. You’re in Puebla. No need to worry tonight; there’s always mañana.
One of the other great landmarks in Puebla is the Popocatepetl Volcano, an active volcano that lazily watches over the city. In the evenings it is easy to see the heavy cloud of smoke that hangs over the mouth of the volcano. As the sun sets behind the beast, it is even more magnificent.
On Playa Manzanillo, Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, Nicaragua’s first luxury resort, could raise the country’s tourism profile.
Nicaragua, Central America
Nicaragua is quickly gaining steam as one of the best destinations in Central America. Tourism there saw a huge increase in 2012 and INTUR, the destination’s tourism board, is spending twice as much money on marketing Nicaraguan tourism as it did last year.
Surfing—and adventure travel in general—is the main reason this hot spot will continue to make a great Central American vacation. But Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, the destination’s first luxury resort that opened earlier this year, could be the reason why it may become the hottest getaway in all of Latin America. Among the rooms are 16 one- and two-bedroom Beach Villas, beginning in size at 881 square feet with nine-foot ceilings and walls of glass, facing the gently rolling surf of Playa Manzanillo.
With stone walls and gardens providing privacy, the white-stucco, red-tile-roofed Beach Villas exude the ambiance of luxurious vacation homes. Mukul’s “carefree luxury” philosophy is embodied by each villa’s spacious “barefoot chic” indoor-outdoor setting, complete with swimming pool, wraparound deck, outdoor-lounging palapa, and secluded garden with an outdoor shower.
Also, Dina Joseph Hodgson, director of promotion and marketing for INTUR, and other members of the tourism institute, recently told us that the destination will be home to a new Wyndham Hotels and Resorts property by next year, while Hyatt Hotels and Resorts plans to set up shop in the country within the next two years. Both hotels are expected to be located in Managua, the nation’s capital.
The beaches of Nicaragua, especially those on the country’s Pacific coast, are known for impressive surf and unexploited beauty. The most popular destination for surfers from around the world is a 37-mile stretch of beaches called San Juan del Sur. This region on the southwest coast of the country was a stop on the Quiksilver Crossing in 2003, a worldwide quest in search of “the perfect wave.” Maderas, a secluded beach beloved by locals and visitors alike, is one of the surfing community’s best-kept secrets.
Pilgrims worship at Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese people. Relics of the past four Buddhas are enshrined within.
For American travelers, Myanmar has been on the radar as an emerging destination for the past couple of years, but as of 2013 it is trending hot. Having been plagued by political turmoil, the country has not been a viable option for the U.S. market. Its isolation has also left it remarkably untouched, unlike its other Southeast Asian neighbors.
The latest proof of this tourism boom is the announcement by The Peninsula Hotels of a luxury hotel project in Yangon (Rangoon). To be located inside the former Burma Railway Building on Bogyoke Aung San Road near Scott’s Market, The Peninsula Yangong will anchor a mixed-use development. In renovating the landmark building, close attention will be paid to preserving the colonial architecture.
Last year, the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with the destination following a series of political and economic reforms in the country. While Myanmar is still far from the more heavily trafficked countries in the region, there is an ever-increasing tourism presence in the country, reflected in its slew of high-end boutique hotels and cultural landmarks.
Myanmar sits at the northern border of Thailand, making it an easy add-on destination to stays in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
There’s a new international Riviera sweeping the globe, and it’s found off the southern coast of China. Hainan Island is the smallest province in China. The most well-known city on the island is Sanya, which is now home to a string of ultra-high-end hotels. Some of these resorts include Anantara Sanya Resort & Spa, Raffles Hainan, Mandarin Oriental Sanya, Banyan Tree Sanya and InterContinental Sanya Resort.
In 2016, Kerzner International Holdings will bring its famous Atlantis product to Sanya as well. The massive resort will have an Aquaventure Waterpark, exotic marine exhibits and dining experiences.
According to a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council, Hainan is on track to become one of the world’s leading tourist destinations by 2021. The report shows that tourism expenditure in Hainan will be roughly equivalent to that of Singapore today and the industry will support as many jobs as in Malaysia and Italy.
The Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti in Tanzania includes 12 suites that each have a plunge pool, and five villas with private swimming pools.
With cities full of bustling energy and endless plains that serve as a highway for the magnificent Great Migration of wildebeest and zebras, Tanzania is emerging from its shell as a hidden African gem to become a major tourism destination. A safari in the Serengeti should be on every traveler’s bucket list, and the Singita hotels offer top-notch luxury in the most remote parts of the country. (There is even an option for mobile camping in the plains.)
Tanzania has invested heavily in tourism over the past few years, and tour operators have taken note: Extraordinary Journeys and Abercrombie & Kent are offering new and expanded itineraries to the country, for example.
The country’s hospitality scene is also booming, with significant interest from major brands: In December last year, following a rebrand and an extensive upgrade, Four Seasons made its debut in Tanzania with the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti. The Lodge is the first Four Seasons in Sub-Saharan Africa, and two additional properties are planned for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and a beach resort on Zanzibar. What makes it distinct? The Four Seasons is larger than many of the other lodges in the Serengeti, and as such has a greater range of room options. Its 12 suites all have plunge pools, while the five free-standing villas all have private swimming pools.
Right around the same time, Singita Mara River Tented Camp opened in the Lamai Triangle, the northernmost tip of the Serengeti National Park. The camp is a contemporary take on the classic East African safari, and has tents surrounded by 98,000 acres of untouched wilderness.
Looking ahead, Hyatt has announced two new hotels in Tanzania: A Hyatt Regency is scheduled to open in the northern tourist capital of Arusha, and a Park Hyatt will debut on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar. Hyatt already has a presence in Tanzania, of course: The former Kempinski Kilimanjaro Hotel became the Hyatt Regency Dar es Salaam, The Kilimanjaro.
Buck Island Reef National Monument in St. Croix is a haven for sailing enthusiasts, snorkelers and scuba divers.
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Croix recently saw a romance tourism increase as a result of the February 11, 2013 airing of ABC’s hit romance reality series, The Bachelor, filmed entirely on St. Croix. The episode features a special “group date” and three “one-on-one dates” on this Caribbean island, with the historic resort, The Buccaneer, as backdrop. In fact, earlier this year, the hotel unveiled the Beach House on Whistle Point as an additional accommodation option for guests, well-suited for family reunions, wedding parties and corporate retreats.
Guests at the Beach House have access to all of Buccaneer’s resort services and amenities. Just a leisurely stroll from the 340-acre resort and surrounded by sea and gardens, the Beach House comprises a two-bedroom main house with a full kitchen and living room; a master suite villa with a sitting area and bedroom; a two-bedroom cottage, and a one-bedroom cottage with a kitchen.
In January last year, Divi Carina Bay All Inclusive Beach Resort & Casino became the first all-inclusive resort on St. Croix. Amenities include four restaurants, four bars, two swimming pools, tennis courts, a watersports center, an activities coordinator, spa, fitness center and Internet access, as well as a casino.
The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), St. Croix offers a romantic setting with its white-sand beaches, blue waters and charming towns that have retained their 18th-century architectural treasures. The latter includes Fort Christiansvaern, Estate Whim Plantation Museum and Spratt Hall. It also has reefs and wrecks for divers to explore (including Buck Island, one of only three underwater national monuments in the U.S.), championship golf, St. George Village Botanical Gardens, St. Croix Heritage Trail and Cruzan Rum Distillery.
The increasing flights by Seaborne Airlines have made getting there much easier. In March, Seaborne cleared a new milestone with the recent certification by the Federal Aviation Administration of the Saab 340B aircraft. Nonstop flights on the Saab 340B began April 1 between the St. Croix Henry E. Rohlson (STX), St. Thomas Cyril E. King (STT) and Tortola Terrance B. Lettsome (EIS) airports and Luis Muñoz Marín Airport (SJU) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A new route between SJU and Melville Hall Airport (DOM) in Dominica also launched the same day.
Samana, Dominican Republic
On Travel Agent’s first visit, about five years ago, to what was then an unknown island in the northeast of the Dominican Republic, local representatives told us about their resort plans for 2011. We found it hard to imagine penthouse suites and oceanfront villas in this remote setting, but took their word for it.
When we returned in April of 2011, several impressive resorts had turned Samana into an attractive proposition for American travelers. Our favorite is the 87-unit Balcones del Atlantico, a RockResort. The resort had opened just a week before we arrived. The design of the rooms is modern chic with a lot of black and white in contrast to the traditional bright Caribbean colors.
Also worth keeping on agents’ radars is the El Portillo Beach Club, which opened to its owners in 2011. Although most of the 156 apartments will be entered in a rental pool, they are not expected to be ready for booking until 2014. Of the more than 42 acres of land for the project, 23 were set apart for the El Portillo Airport, and the remaining 19 constitute a stretch of nearly a quarter-mile of beachfront. A fresh-water spring flows from the mountains to the sea, creating a lagoon that serves as the centerpiece of the project.
There will be three types of designs to choose from: Beach Villas, Beach Island and Beach Lagoon, all with terrific views of the water. They, however, come in different sizes, with the Beach Villas being the most spacious. The common areas will include a Beach Club with a swimming pool, a spa, a restaurant, bars, a deli, water sports and a children’s playground. A nearby farm will offer horseback riding for adults and children, tennis courts, bicycle trails and more.
It’s not just the resorts, however, that make Samana poised to emerge big time. The island is also close to the popular Puerto Plata, and JetBlue Airways launched direct flights from JFK in New York to the four-year-old Juan Bosch Airport in Samana one year ago. The island has already drawn wealthy Dominicans, Europeans and Canadians.
The recipe for success when it comes to being a dominant weddings and honeymoon destination is pretty simple: Make sure you are in the Caribbean and make sure your destination is featured on either ABC’s The Bachelor (as was St. Croix), or its equally successful spin-off The Bachelorette.
Curacao is the latest Caribbean island to feel the positive ramifications of being featured on The Bachelorette in 2012 as scores and scores of U.S. honeymooners have been making their way there in 2013. Popular all-inclusive chain AMResorts, in fact, opened a new resort in Curacao in December of 2012 in the form of the Sunscape Curaçao Resort, Spa & Casino.
Previously Princess Beach Resort and Casino – Curacao, a member of the Lionstone family of hotels, Sunscape Curacao Resort, Spa & Casino received modifications to bring the property up to the brand’s standards. Renovations included guest rooms, new decor in the five restaurants and spa, as well as enhancements to the theater, ballroom, wedding chapel and fitness center.
Another resort that is sure to impress in Curacao is the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort, formerly known as Hyatt Regency Curacao Golf Resort, Spa and Marina. It opened under the new name in January. As the latest installment to join the Benchmark Hospitality International family, a partner of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, the resort is the focal point of the 1,500-acre Santa Barbara Plantation community.
The 350-room beachfront resort features Old Quarry by Pete Dye, the island’s only 18-hole championship golf course; Atabei Spa, an eco-friendly holistic retreat inspired by the island’s ancient traditions and rituals, as well as a full-service marina.
Just 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, the island of Curacao offers an eclectic mix of history and culture. With a Dutch influence and European flair, the island is known for its sophistication, ecotourism and pristine diving conditions.