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Travel & Holiday

12 must-go places

A brand new year means 12 new months of travel opportunities. Here's a compilation of Life!'s top 12 destinations to visit this year.
The Straits Times - January 3, 2012
By: Huang Huifen and Nicholas Yong
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12 must-go places -- PHOTO: QUOTIENT TRAVELPLANNER

Fly to Laos in three hours

This year is Visit Laos Year 2012.

Hotels, restaurants and tour and attraction operators are expected to step up on service quality to prepare for the influx of tourists.

Getting there from Singapore takes less time too, thanks to Lao Airlines' new thrice- weekly direct flights from Singapore to the capital Vientiane.

Travel time is reduced from 6 1/2 hours (with a transit in Bangkok) to about three hours.

Laos' attractions include Vientiane's Pha That Luang shrine, the most important religious symbol of the Buddhist nation; the Unesco World Heritage site of Luang Prabang in north central Laos; and the Plain of Jars in Xiang Khouang province, north-east Laos, where thousands of funeral urns are believed to date back to the Iron Age.

Festivals take place almost every month including the country's New Year from April 14 to 16, which its citizens celebrate with big processions and merrymaking.

Best time to visit: November to January, when the weather is cool and dry. Temperatures range from 15 to 29 deg C, though it can plunge to freezing point in the highlands.

 

Pomp and pageantry in London

Whether you are into sports, culture or the royal family, London will be the epicentre of pomp and celebration this year.

Kicking off the festivities is the Queen's Diamond Jubilee (www.2012queensdiamondjubilee.com), as Queen Elizabeth II marks her 60th year as monarch over four days from June 2 to 5.

Events include the Queen cruising down Thames River on a royal barge on June 3 during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant and thousands of beacons being lit across the country.

From June 21 to Sept 9, leading international artists will gather for the London 2012 Festival (http://festival london2012.com).

There will be 1,000 performances and events, ranging from art, dance, music, theatre, fashion and film. Actress Cate Blanchett, novelist Toni Morrison and singer-songwriter Damon Albarn are among the celebrities who will take part in the UK's biggest-ever festival.

In visual art, the Tate Modern will showcase the works of the enfant terrible of contemporary art, Damien Hirst.

The National Portrait Gallery will put together the works of Lucian Freud, including his final, unfinished painting of his assistant and his dog.

The Olympic Games (http://www.london012.com) will be staged in London for the third time, from July 25 to Aug 12. Events will be held at the new venues in East London.

Best time to go: From June to September to catch all three major events.

 

Easier access to Bhutan

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has set an ambitious goal - to more than double the number of visitors to 100,000 this year.

It is making the relatively unexplored eastern region more accessible.

The region boasts a strong wool- weaving and bamboo-carving heritage, unique architecture and scenic passes overlooking the east Bhutan mountain range.

The journey to the east used to take three days by car, but national carrier Druk Air has started domestic flights that shorten the journey to just 30 minutes.

To attract tourists, new festivals have also been introduced, such as the Haa Summer Festival in July, when visitors to the alpine valley of Haa can immerse in the region's cultural activities and try food such as chilli stew with yak cheese.

Travelling to Bhutan will also be easier for Singaporeans. Druk Air is expected to launch a twice-weekly direct flight from here to the city of Paro in May, bypassing the one-night transit in Bangkok and cutting travel time from 13 to just five hours.

Best time to go: From March to May, and September to November when the weather is mild and you are more likely to get clear views of the Himalayan ranges.

 

Go Dutch with pretty blooms

Come April, horticultural fans will flock to the Dutch city of Venlo, population about 100,000, for an event that takes place once every 10 years.

From April 5 till Oct 7, Venlo, near the German border, will host the sixth edition of the Floriade World Horticultural Expo (www.floriade.com). It is the largest public event in the Netherlands and is considered one of the most prestigious horticultural shows in the world.

It will cover an area of 66ha and comprise five themed areas: Environment, Green Engine, Relax & Heal, Education & Innovation and World Show Stage.

First held in 1960, the Floriade was last held in 2002 in Haarlemmermeer and reportedly drew more than three million visitors.

Attractions include the Avenue of Garden Cultures, comprising 120 different tree species overlooking 15 gardens, and Villa Flora, the greenest office in the Netherlands and specially designed for Floriade 2012.

Each day will close with the Floriade Harvest Show, a 30-minute performance of music, theatre and dance by artists from Asia, Latin America and Africa, on the theme of harvest.

Best time to vist: April 5 to Oct 7, when the Floriade is held. During this time, the temperature averages between 5 and 23 deg C.

 

Uncover Myanmar's hidden gems

Tourism looks set to take off in reclusive Myanmar this year.

Paving the way was the release of democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who spent almost two decades under house arrest, and the thawing of relations between the international community and the country.

Myanmar is still lacking in tourism infrastructure but that may soon change as organisations such as the Asian Development Bank and Pacific Asia Travel Association consider ways to assist it.

Tourists who are interested in exploring the country before everyone else can look forward to hidden gems of sandy beaches, scenic river plains, towering mountains and Buddhist architecture, such as the 4,000 pagodas and stupas scattered across Bagan in the Mandalay region, or the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda that frames the skyline of Yangon.

Best time to go: From November to February, when there is least rain and the temperature is between 20 and 24 deg C.

 

Korea's isle of love

Here's a cheatsheet for those who have resolved to travel the world this year: Visit Yeosu in the south coast of South Korea.

The coastal city will host Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea (www.world-expo2012.com) from May 12 to Aug 12. More than 100 countries will set up pavilions in an area of 250,000 sq m to showcase their efforts in marine technology and conservation.

The main pavilion will take visitors into the marine world, while water and multimedia shows await at the Big-O.

Yeosu, a peninsula surrounded by 317 islands, is an attractive seaside destination. Manseongri Beach is the only black sand beach in Korea and Odongdo Island is nicknamed the Island of Love because of its popularity among couples.

Best time to visit: From May to early July, when the temperature is between 18 and 25 deg C. The end of July may get too crowded because it is the beginning of Korea's school holidays.

 

Bikers like taiwan

Cycling enthusiasts should head for Taiwan.

To cater to the increasing popularity of biking among its people, the government has constructed more bicycle tracks and integrated the public transportation system with biking routes all over Taiwan.

There are many cycling events and festivals that feature the scenic biking trails there.

Among the more popular trails are the Sun Moon Lake Bike Route and Danshui Bike Route where cyclists can ride along the river.

Even if you are not a cycling enthusiast, you can visit the villages of indigenous tribes as well as Taiwan's hot springs and colourful night markets.

Best time to visit: September to November, when the rates for hotels are not marked up and the weather is fairly warm and dry. Temperature ranges from 20 to 30 deg C.

 

Warsaw catches football fever

Poland and Ukraine, two countries that might not usually be on a Singaporean's radar, will soon be thrust into the limelight. They are jointly hosting the European Championships in June.

The first match kicks off June 8 in Warsaw, Poland, between Poland and Greece, while the final will be played in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 1.

Limited match tickets are still available from www.uefa.com, but even if you cannot get tickets, you can still soak up the matchday atmosphere in the host cities.

If you do not care for football, there is still plenty to see and do in host cities such as Kyiv, one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe. Attractions include the Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery, founded in 1077, and the Chernobyl Museum, dedicated to the 1986 nuclear accident.

Warsaw, home to 19th-century composer Fryderyk Chopin, also has much to offer. For example, there is Lazienki Krolewskie, a 17th-century park and palace complex, and the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Best time to go: June 8 to July 1 for the European Championships. The temperature averages 17 to 19 deg C then.

 

See Slovenia's capital of culture

 Maribor, Slovenia's second largest city, has been designated one of the European Capitals of Culture this year, along with Guimaraes in Portugal (www.maribor2012.info/en).

For one calendar year from Jan 14, the city will host a series of cultural events with a strong European theme. These will range from comic art exhibitions to musical performances to workshops for film-makers.

Once a part of the Ottoman Empire and then Yugoslavia, Maribor was first mentioned in historical records in the 13th century. Today, it offers everything from natural and historical sights to casinos and a thriving wine culture.

Activities include hiking or cycling up the Pohorje mountain ranges, which have waterfalls and peat moors. In the winter, go skiing at Mariborsko Pohorje, the largest ski resort in Slovenia.

The world's oldest living grapevine is in Maribor, along the Pristan embankment. It is more than 400 years old.

Maribor also hosts events such as the two-week Lent Festival (www.festival-lent.si/en/) in June which attracts theatre, opera, ballet performers and musicians from all over the world. Mimes, magicians and acrobats also perform.

Best time to go: May to September, when the weather is a bit drier and the temperature is between 9 and 22 deg C, if you want to hike and trek. If you want to avoid the peak season, September to October (from 5 to 20 deg C) is a good time to go.

 

Belfast remembers the Titanic

History buffs and fans of the movie Titanic (1997) take note - the Northern Irish capital of Belfast is marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury liner with a host of attractions and activities this year.

The Titanic, which went down in 1912 on its maiden crossing, was built in Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard.

And the centrepiece of the attractions will be the Titanic Belfast (www.titanicbelfast.com), a six-storey museum that opens on March 31.

Nine interactive galleries in the building will explore the sights and sounds of the Titanic, and tell the stories of the people of Belfast who built the ship.

Belfast will also have four days of events leading up to the centenary on April 12, including walks and tours to landmarks associated with the Titanic, and Titanic-themed boat tours.

Belfast also offers scenic sights such as Belfast Castle Estate, which has parkland and great views of the city, as well as the Unesco World Heritage Site that is the Giant's Causeway, formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

Best time to visit: End of March to April (temperatures from 3 to 21 deg C) when the Titanic centenary celebrations go into full swing.

 

Helsinki's grand designs

Design fans should head for Helsinki, which has been chosen as the Design Capital of the World in 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (www.icsid.org/).

The Finnish capital received the accolade for its accomplishments in innovative design and revitalising urban areas.

This year, it will host a year-long programme of 300 events, projects and initiatives, having kicked off with a New Year's Eve celebration in Senate Square.

One of the more impressive buildings to visit is the Temppeliaukion kirkko, or Temple Church, constructed in 1969 out of natural bedrock. At least 15 million people have visited it.

There is also the Kiasma, a contemporary art museum which opened in 1998. Designed by the American architect Steven Holl, it has attracted about three million visitors.

The allure of Helsinki, established in 1550, goes beyond architectural feats. Other attractions include Suomenlinna, a Unesco World Heritage site. This is a sea fortress built on six islands that date back to the 18th century.

And while Helsinki is not considered the most ideal place to view them, the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, most often seen between September and March, are also visible from there.

Best time to visit: End February to early April, the best time for winter sports and activities.

The temperature ranges from below zero to about 4 deg C. However, if you prefer a warmer holiday, visit between May and August, when it ranges from about 10 to 16 deg C.

 

Join the US campaign trail

The allure of the Stars and Stripes never grows old, despite a downturn in its global reputation and the domestic unrest created by a faltering economy.

And the weak US dollar - currently trading at about S$1.29 - means it is a good time to experience the colour and pageantry of an event that takes place every four years: the November presidential elections.

If you thought the two-week lead up to the General Elections in Singapore was intense, just consider that Republican candidates began campaigning for their party's nomination as early as March last year.

This year, candidates will criss- cross the country to pump hands and kiss babies in search of votes, as current Democratic incumbent Barack Obama seeks a second four-year term.

Some of the crucial battleground states include Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.

Other than the campaigning, there is a wide variety of attractions and activities across these states, from the beaches and amusement parks of Florida to the casinos of Las Vegas, and the lakes and rivers of Wisconsin.

Look out for presidential memorabilia. Some of the more memorable items from the last election include Post-It notes with Mr Obama's catchphrase 'Yes we can!' and even novelty condoms with his likeness.

Best time to go: September to November, when the presidential campaign begins to hot up. This coincides with the start of autumn, when temperatures begin to cool to about 12 deg C, depending on the state.

 

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