We’ve gazed into our crystal ball and combed the globe. We’ve researched where new airline routes and train lines will launch, where the must-stay new hotels will open, where the art world and in-the-know foodies are headed, where cool festivals are happening …and we’ve pinpointed those spots where the time for visiting is now, if you want to beat the tourist crowds. These places should top your list in 2019.
Happy travels, and let us know what’s on your wish list this year!
China: New high-speed trains open up remote places
A fast-growing high-speed rail network is about to make swaths of rural China more accessible. High-speed train lines already opened this year along the Silk Road in northwestern China, in Yunnan province in the south, and linking Shanghai with rural Guizhou province (as well as linking Beijing with Hong Kong). These routes are set to expand further in 2019, bringing luxury digs to remote areas such as Dunhuang (near the Silk Road and notable for its carvings of Buddha at the nearby Mogao Caves and the towering Mingsha sand dunes) and Jiuzhaigo National Park (closed after an earthquake in 2017, this forested park is fully reopening to visitors in 2019). Better rail connections are sure to bring an onslaught of domestic tourists. To see these unspoiled places before traditional lifestyles change (which happens faster in China than just about anywhere else), go now.
Kenya: New flights make African safaris easier
A new non-stop flight between J.F.K. and Nairobi has changed the game for U.S. travelers wanting an East African safari. Flights used to require inconvenient plane changes in Europe or the Middle East and used to land in Nairobi at late hours, necessitating an overnight near the airport. Now, Kenya Airways’ 14.5-hour nonstop—on a comfortable Dreamliner—departs New York at noon and lands at NBO at 10:30 a.m. the next day, making it easy to continue on immediately to your lodge. Thanks to new non-stops between Nairobi and Victoria Falls, it’s also much easier to combine an East African safari with one of the foremost natural wonders of the world. Additionally, given the new non-stops between Vic Falls and Cape Town, you can now easily combine safaris in East Africa and South Africa with a break in Victoria Falls midway through. Here’s how Wendy and her family had a blast in Vic Falls last year.
Romania: European charm without the crowds or costs
Anyone who regrets not having gone to Croatia 20 years ago, Iceland ten years ago, or Portugal five years ago—before these countries were “discovered” and the masses arrived—should head for Romania now. It’s a beautiful country with charming rural villages, vibrant cities, talented artisans and craftspeople, a fascinating complex history, and unexpectedly stunning architecture (one of the world’s most lauded clusters of Art Nouveau buildings is in one of its small cities). Enjoy fairytale Europe without the hordes or the high prices.
Cuba: A new image and new 5-star hotels
Cuba is back on people’s radar. The country’s popularity had dipped last year, thanks to a U.S. State Department travel advisory—which has now been softened again—and thanks to President Trump’s administration seeming to tighten restrictions to the island country. The restrictions never actually changed, points out David Lee, WOW List Trusted Travel Expert for Cuba; they simply started to be enforced more strictly, but that didn’t impact travelers’ experiences. In fact, the cultural sights and interactions in which travelers are allowed to engage are still the same. And thanks to the recent opening of two 5-star hotels—the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana and the Ibero Star Grand Packard—travelers now have centrally located places to stay in Havana with rooftop pool decks, views of the sea, and amenities such as full-service spas, fully equipped gyms, and well-ventilated (and enclosed) cigar lounges. Go for the Habanos Festival, which brings together cigar aficionados from all over the globe in late February; the Havana World Music Festival, which draws musicians for impromptu jam sessions and special concerts in March; or the Havana Biennial, which attracts art lovers in May and June.
Tahiti and French Polynesia: Before it’s too late
If you’ve ever dreamt of that postcard-perfect overwater bungalow in French Polynesia, now is the time to book it. The sad truth is that the reefs off these islands are dying, as a result of warming waters and the use of non-reef-safe sunblock, and they won’t look the same for much longer. Luckily, it’s now easier to get there, thanks to new and improved flights with Air Tahiti Nui—which is replacing its older aircraft with Dreamliners—and the new FrenchBee, which is flying three times a week from San Francisco. Of course, with those new flights comes the possibility of the main islands getting overbooked and overcrowded. So venture to some of the farther-out islands, such as Tikehau (great for snorkeling, diving, and birding) and Huahine (where you’ll find rich culture, small B&Bs and hotels, and a local population working hard to avoid overexpansion). And don’t forget to bring reef-safe sunblock!
Wales: All the castles, none of the crowds
Probably everyone you know has been to England. And probably nobody you know has been to Wales. They’re missing out because it’s only a two-hour drive from several major international airports, or a 1:45 train ride from London—and it will surprise you. A full 25% of this tiny country is protected national parks, it boasts 641 castles (that’s more per square mile than anywhere else in the world), there’s a tower that leans farther than the one in Pisa, there are seven Michelin-starred restaurants (and plenty more culinary hot spots, both modern and traditional), and you can walk the entire border of the country on the Wales Coast Path. In fact, Wales might be the smartest value in the U.K. right now; it’s certainly the most underrated.
Zimbabwe: More bang for your safari buck
Since the ouster of Zimbabwe’s dictatorial president, Robert Mugabe, last year (after nearly four decades in power), travelers are feeling safer about the country. They’re venturing beyond Victoria Falls—the world’s largest waterfall, where Wendy took her family last year)—to the new lodges, camps, and safari circuits that are springing up all over. Renowned conservationists and filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert just opened Mpala Jena camp not far upstream from the Falls. In Hwange National Park—the country’s best protected wildlife reserve, dense with the big five—Verney’s Camp recently opened. And in a remote, still-very-wild part of the Lower Zambezi, Great Plains Conservation has created an expedition circuit for those who want to feel like African explorers of yesteryear.
Costa Rica: San Jose’s red hot food scene
When most people think of Costa Rica, they think of zip-lining, monkeys, and volcanoes. But what they should be thinking of right now is the burgeoning culinary scene in San Jose. Young Costa Rican chefs recently trained in Europe have been returning home to open restaurants that show off local ingredients in new ways—and few international travelers know about this yet. So instead of landing in San Jose and moving on as quickly as possible (as the majority of tourists do), spend a night exploring San Jose’s Barrio Escalante Food District. You’ll find up-and-coming restaurants such as farm-to-table Al Mercat (helmed by Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Jose González) and elegant Restaurante Silvestre, where the chef draws from the sea and organic farms to create contemporary twists on regional cuisine.
Italy: Blockbuster modern art exhibitions in historic spaces
Three greats of the modern art world will take center stage in Italy this winter, two of them in Milan. At the Palazzo Reale, “Picasso Metamorphosis” (through February 17) showcases more than 200 works by the modernist master, part of the two-year Picasso-Méditerranée project being mounted at dozens of art spaces across Europe. At the same time, the Museo delle Culture will be presenting the first-ever solo exhibition of controversial street artist Banksy (through April 14). Not only is “Banksy: A Visual Protest” the first time a museum has curated the muralist’s works, but it’s also completely unauthorized, without any input from Banksy. That’s not really surprising, since the artist’s identity remains a mystery—but considering his mischievous ways, it also won’t be surprising if he pops up in Milan in some unexpected way. Meanwhile, over in Rome, Andy Warhol gets the spotlight in an exhibition of more than 170 works at the Vittoriano (through February 3).
Contact Wendy to find the right Italy specialist to plan your best possible trip.
Mongolia: 20th anniversary of the Golden Eagle Festival
Mongolia’s Golden Eagle Festival—a Kazakh hunting tradition in the Altai Mountains held annually in early October—has been getting more and more attention, including a feature film documentary and a National Geographic photo contest win. It’s a festival in which the Kazakhs, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, show off their centuries-old tradition of hunting with trained eagles. When the festival was founded in 1999, there were just 40 families who still hunted with golden eagles, says Jalsa Urubshurow, the Mongolia expert on Wendy’s WOW List, who founded the Festival in an effort to bolster and bring attention to this disappearing heritage. Today, more than 400 families have eagles. Get to know them during the anniversary festival this coming October.
Ireland: Go west
Ireland’s popularity has skyrocketed of late, creating peak-season challenges for travelers seeking charming hotel rooms and private-access experiences in the most touristed parts. Inexplicably, too many people are ignoring the country’s west and northwest. That includes Counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo, and Donegal. These abound with scenic beauty, including a huge stretch of The Wild Atlantic Way, Connemara National Park, Glenveagh National Park, Slieve League (Ireland’s highest sea cliffs), and charming cities, towns, and villages such as Galway, Clifden, Cong, and Westport. Rest assured, you won’t have to forego sleeping in a castle—choose from Ashford Castle, Ballynahinch Castle, and Lough Eske Castle, to name a few—and you’ll find plenty of opportunity to share a pint and stories with the locals (in fact, you may not get a word in edgewise—but, then, that’s what you’re there for).
Chile and Peru: Two great places that (finally) go great together
Now that there are direct flights between Cusco, Peru, and Santiago, Chile, these two countries can be visited in a much more convenient combination trip, which simply wasn’t possible before. Now, if you’ve got two weeks, you can fully experience Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Cusco, and the wilds of Patagonia all in one go.
The Caribbean: Two overlooked islands are now on the map
Two islands that most people have never heard of are ready for prime time, thanks to architecturally unusual—and unprecedentedly luxe—new resorts. On Grenada, the just-opened Silversands hotel and villas spill over the hillside down to the beach, with a striking modern design that is hard to find elsewhere in the Caribbean. And on Dominica, the five-star Secret Bay—an all-villa, eco-and-wellness property—has just reopened with a brand new restaurant, spa, and six new villas with plunge pools, gourmet kitchens, outdoor showers, and other modern amenities. The volcanic island’s unspoilt rainforest is an adventurous hiker’s dream. Visit in February (when the islanders celebrate Carnival) or October (for the three-day World Creole Music Festival).
Bangkok: The new Basel?
Bangkok is making its claim on the art world with the first-ever Bangkok Art Biennale (now through February 3). The city-spanning extravaganza showcases more than 200 works in 20 locations that include historic temples (Wat Pho and Wat Arun, for example) and colonial buildings. The festival, whose theme is “Beyond Bliss,” features 75 international artists from 33 countries—a mix of up-and-coming creators as well as renowned headliners, including performance artist Marina Abramović, design duo Elmgreen & Dragset, and sculptor/installation artist Yayoi Kusama (whose eye-bending Infinity Mirror Rooms go viral every time she constructs one in a new city). The entire festival is free, and the juxtaposition of contemporary art in ancient structures provides a new perspective on an already storied city.
Australia’s Whitsunday Islands: The Great Barrier Reef just got closer
Thanks to the recent introduction of direct flights to Hamilton Island (in the heart of the Whitsundays) from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Cairns, these beautiful Australian islands are much easier to get to—a good reason to add them to an Australia itinerary before their accessibility leads to overpopularity. Also in 2019: The islands will be home to a new underwater art exhibition at Langford Reef and will host the inaugural Whitsundays Festival of Motoring (May 3–5, as part of the Queensland Rally Championship), the Great Whitehaven Beach Run (June 23), and Hamilton Island Race Week (Aug 17–24).
Bhutan: More keys to the Kingdom
Six Senses, the sustainable luxe resort brand, is due to open a whopping four properties in this Himalayan kingdom—in Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, and Bumthang—each constructed in exquisite harmony with its location. Also new to Paro: Spirit Sanctuary, a deluxe destination resort complete with workshops, day trips, and a spa. At the same time, rarely visited parts of the country have been growing easier to get to: Improvements to the road to Gasa will enable travelers to more easily get to Laya for festivals with the Layaps, an ethnically unique tribe, and the reopened southern jungle area of the Duars has become more accessible to adventure travelers.
Cambodia: Beyond Angkor Wat
The big news in Cambodia this year is the opening of Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury tented safari camp perched around 350 acres of now-protected river valley overlapping Cambodia’s three main national parks. In addition to the resort’s luxury angle (all 15 villas come with butlers), it has an eco slant: Its income supports the Wildlife Alliance and Flora & Fauna International, which are working to assist Cambodia’s notoriously underfunded National Parks service. Guests can join guided nature excursions through the jungle (on foot or by boat) or hit the spa and a bar overlooking a cascade. If you need some beach time after all that “roughing it,” head over to one of the buzzy five-star island resorts coming to the coast: Alila Koh Russey and Six Senses Krabey Island.
Turkey: It’s back
After the 2016 terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, tourism to Turkey went through a dry spell. But over the past several months, U.S. travelers have been taking advantage of the peaceful lull and going back in droves—and sharing reports with us of how safe they feel there and how much they love it. (Read their reviews here and here.) The timing is good also because your money will stretch far in Turkey right now: The U.S. dollar is very strong against the lira, and hotel rates are on average 20% lower than they were a few years ago. Go while it’s safe, affordable, and uncrowded.
Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.