2019 is now officially over, thank goodness, and since this is the start of the New Year I thought I would share some of my top travel picks for 2020. Some are obvious choices, others a little more unexpected but all are amazing places to discover for one reason or another. Also, these are in NO PARTICULAR ORDER. I don’t want to see anyone complaining that one destination is ranked higher or lower than another one; they all have my love and admiration.
It’s been a few years since South Africa has been the star of travel media coverage, which is unfortunate. After making some incredible headway in travel and tourism, the nation took some steps backward making planning a trip there more challenging. What never changed are the many reasons to visit, which is why I’ve included it on my 2020 travel list. With new direct, non-stop options from the US and other points around the globe, getting to South Africa is easier than ever, and once you’re there you’ll be spoiled for choice. If you’re an urban explorer then cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town won’t disappoint thanks to their unique histories, great places to eat and, in Cape Town, the natural beauty that is found everywhere. It’s that nature though which draws most first-time tourists to South Africa, and getting out of the cities is absolutely essential for all visitors. The winelands are amongst the oldest in the world, and new hotels and restaurants are constantly popping up to cater to the oenologically minded. Safari however is arguably the most popular natural experience to enjoy, and there are seemingly countless ways to enjoy the country’s wildlife and at every budget level. South Africa really is the total travel package and is a trip no one soon forgets.
I feel as if I’m running the risk of talking about the National Parks too much, but I can’t believe that would ever be possible. Very accurately called America’s Best Idea, the 419 sites included in the National Park Service system aren’t only unparalleled in the country, but the world. Most people only consider the 61 major National Parks, but the entire system is much more expansive and if you do some research you’ll probably realize that there’s one closer to you than you may think.
For whatever reason, remote destinations fascinate me and I love visiting them perhaps more than even the largest cities in the world. I usually tend to visit Northern areas though when it’s cold outside, but cold doesn’t even begin to describe the Arctic temperatures I found in Rovaniemi, deep in Finnish Lapland. This huge region is mostly woods, lakes and streams, but it’s also home to Santa Claus. In what can only be described as a brilliant marketing move, years ago Rovaniemi lauded itself as the official home of Santa Claus, a moniker that stuck. You should visit Rovaniemi not only to see Santa Claus, but also to spend time outdoors whether it’s snowmobiling, mushing with sled dogs or spending the night in a remote cabin learning about the Finnish obsession with both sauna and nature.
It may seem silly to include the most popular tourist destination in the country on this list, but hear me out. Yes, the theme parks have added many new and fun features, but Orlando is on this list for everything there is to do outside of the parks. While visiting Orlando in 2019, I had the opportunity to explore more of the city itself, and I found some really lovely and fun spots everywhere I went. What might be most notable though is its food scene – much more dynamic than one would think. Home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country, the opportunities to enjoy authentic Vietnamese cuisine is nearly unparalleled in the country. More than Southeast Asian delicacies though, many creative chefs have opened their doors in recent years, creating what is a surprisingly varied, dynamic and delicious foodie experience.
Most people don’t associate Germany with islands but, as I learned this year there are some fairly incredible islands just off the coast of Germany, including Juist. To be clear, Americans may be surprised to learn about Germany’s islands, but they’ve been well known to European tourists for a long time, and with good reason. Juist in particular is a remarkably special place thanks in large part to the absence of any motorized vehicles That’s right, motorized transportation is not allowed on Juist, which means that the only way to get around is by bike, foot or horse-drawn carriage. Rather than be an annoyance, it’s a wonderful way to slow down and truly connect with the destination in a way that’s normally impossible to do. Add to that great food and beautiful beaches and this is one vacation spot for your travel to-do list.
Italy is a perennial favorite destination for tourists from around the world, but there’s a lot more to the country than the most popular spots like Rome, Florence and Venice. One of my favorite regions is one that I call quietly famous, Emilia-Romagna. Home to some of the world’s most favorite foods, this is one of the best places to visit if you like to eat. Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, lasagna, ragu sauce and much more all hail from this region. There’s much more to enjoy than food though, including learning about Emilia-Romagna’s impressive automotive history. Legendary manufacturers like Lamborghini, Ferrari and Ducati can all be found here, also offering unique tours options for visitors. If you’re like me though and enjoy a nice city to explore, there are a few to include, most notably Bologna. The largest city in the region, its history goes back to before the Romans and its university has been one of the most important in Europe for centuries. Yes, head to those famous cities in Italy but also be sure to explore other areas of the country, like Emilia-Romagna.
I was on Nevis to spend some time at the incredible Four Seasons Nevis – as idyllic a retreat as one come hope for. I discovered a lot more than a luxurious resort though, I very quickly became entranced by the island itself. Although Nevis is not a large island, the landscapes do vary widely but no matter where I found myself it was always beautiful. There are plenty of spots throughout the US, Mexico and Caribbean if all you want is a sunny beach. If you’re like me though and want an experience that feels unique, personalized and even adventurous, then Nevis is one of the best options. Thanks to the small size of both the island and the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, nothing feels prepackaged or formulaic because, well, it’s not. This is not your massive industrial-style resort experience, this is a calming and restorative travel experience that is unlike many others in the Caribbean.
An equal opportunity traveler, I enjoy mixing up how I experience the world, which is why I like the occasional cruise – including river cruises – to see new to me spots. Unlike their ocean-going cousins, river cruising is a much more individual and intimate experience. The ships are smaller, with anywhere from 100-200 people on board, and the access to the towns and cities along the rivers are much more convenient than deep-sea cruise ports. The most popular river cruises are found along the waterways of Europe, but you can find fun river cruises all around the world including in Egypt, Myanmar and China.
Hong Kong has sadly been in the news a lot lately for all the wrong reasons. In spite of those images we’ve all seen on TV though, it remains a fantastic destination to visit whether you have a day or a week. At first blush, Hong Kong seems little more than a flashy city full of people. But once you delve a little deeper, then you start to discover the real city that lies just beneath that shiny veneer. The best way to better understand Hong Kong is through the city’s favorite pastime, eating. Whether it’s 3-star Michelin restaurants, or some of the best dim sum in the world, you won’t walk away hungry or disappointed. Also be sure though to explore the city, visiting Lantau Island and even the newish PMQ, a cultural hub showcasing some of the best emerging creative minds in the city.
Let me just say straight up that no, I didn’t do the four-day Inca Trail hike. I have massive problems with both my knees and spending four days in pain and suffering was not high on my to-do list. No, instead I visited the famous ancient city like thousands of others, by taking the luxury train to the weird mountain town of Aguas Calientes and then a short bus ride up to Machu Picchu itself. This new world wonder surprised me in a lot of ways, most notably how beautiful almost every part of it is in person. All we tend to see is that ONE iconic photo overlooking the long forgotten mountain outpost of the Inca, but there’s so much more to it than that one angle. Spending a few hours exploring it I developed an appreciation not only of how it looked, but the skill it took to design and build. There are many fantastic Inca sites to explore in Peru, but it’s really only at Machu Picchu that you begin to understand the true genius of this sadly long lost civilization.
Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland
When I was planning my return to Ireland with Tourism Ireland, there was one experience I knew that I didn’t want to miss, a day living out my Game of Thrones fantasies in Northern Ireland. I’d seen photos of the special tour for quite a while, but it wasn’t until I found myself in County Down, Northern Ireland when I finally had the chance to participate. Winterfell Tours offers a number of different ways to learn more about the Game of Thrones filming locations, from spending a few hours at Winterfell, Castle Ward, to exploring more sites around the county. Game of Thrones isn’t for everyone, I get that. But this experience in Northern Ireland is so much more than visiting spots where they filmed the fantasy series. It’s about learning the history of the county and experiencing its gorgeous natural landscapes. If, along the way, you happen to meet a direwolf and throw an ax, then all the better.
My only regret with visiting Portugal is that it took me so long to first visit what is an extraordinary destination. It’s not that I avoided Portugal, far from it, but the stars just never aligned until I joined a river cruise through the Douro River just a few weeks ago. To be clear, Portugal is a very unique and distinct destination that is thankfully unlike any other spot in Europe. I think I thought it would be like Spain, but that’s certainly not true. The people are the nicest I’ve ever met in Europe, the food is incredible, the cities vibrant and alive and the natural beauty incomparable. Whether you decide to take a river cruise or explore on your own, just make sure to explore sooner rather than later.
I have spent a fair amount of time exploring Canada and almost never have I had a bad experience. But not all parts of the country get equal attention by international tourists, which is one reason why I want to highlight the provinces that comprise the Maritimes. Specifically, over the last several years I’ve had the great opportunity to explore two Maritime provinces, Newfoundland & Labrador and Nova Scotia. Made famous by the ultra-luxury hotel on Fogo Island, Newfoundland has had its fair share of press lately, but there’s so much more to the province than a nice hotel. Whether it’s St. John’s or taking a coastal road trip, the scenery, food and people will quickly endear you to the province. Many of those qualities aren’t endemic to Newfoundland though, they’re part of the overall Maritime experience, as I learned this year spending a week in Nova Scotia. Those same kind and very curious people made the trip remarkable, accentuated by natural wonders like the Bay of Fundy and a surprisingly high level of great food. So skip some of the more flashy provinces and instead plan to spend some time along the gorgeous Atlantic seaboard of Canada.
Ever since my first trip to Thailand many years ago, I have truly loved this part of the world. Also traveling around Laos and Myanmar, that love has only grown over the years and was expanded upon last year when I visited the Chinese side of the Golden Triangle in Xishuangbanna or just Banna. Thanks to its spot in extreme Southeastern China, Banna is completely unlike any other spot in the country. Located adjacent to the Golden Triangle, neighboring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are very close and, other the years, that’s meant a fluid border with a lot of cross-cultural sharing. Exploring more of the region, the buildings all look Thai, the smells are Thai – everything about the place screamed Chiang Mai instead of China. It was an odd sensation, one that I never expected but one that I dearly enjoyed.
So much of the travel love in Croatia seems to go to Dubrovnik, that I thought I should highlight a lesser-known area of the country – Istria. This region found in the northwest portion of the country is as unique an area as you can imagine. It’s actually shared by three countries, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, and has a rich history and culture all of its own. In fact, if you ask residents where they’re from, they’re most likely to say Istria first and Croatia second. There are many great towns and cities to visit here, but two I recommend are Rovinj and Pula. Each city has its own unique appeal and no matter what you do, make sure not leave Istria without sampling some of the famous olive oils and truffles cultivated around the peninsula.
Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada
Otherwise known as Nevada State Route 375, this is a 98-mile stretch of road that starts at the intersection of U.S. 93 and the Extraterrestrial Highway and continues west to the intersection of the Highway and U.S. 6. Thanks to the fact that Area 51 rests along the highway, this area has long been known for alien sightings and a fierce belief in life from other worlds visiting the remote Nevada desert. Over the years the road has developed into what it is today, one of the quirkiest but also one of the loneliest stretches of road in the country. Visitors should go to admire the desert landscapes, enjoy fantastic blueberry pie at the Little A’Le’Inn, visit (sort of) Area 51, and spend the night at a haunted hotel in Tonopah, Nevada.
I vacillated over whether or not to include Egypt, but I think that it’s such an important country to visit it simply has to be on this list. The first modern tourist destination, the wonders of Egypt have called to travelers around the world for generations. And with good reason, the monuments and sites so well preserved aren’t just nice to behold, they are world wonders in every sense of the term. Traveling through Egypt, the entire experience from Cairo to Aswan was much better than I had expected, but the real highlight of course was visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza. Located close to modern day Cairo, these massive monuments to power have been amazing visitors since the moment they were first built, popping up even in Ancient Greek and Roman travel guides of the day. Standing there immediately in front of them it was hard to mentally reconcile the fact that I was actually there. Having seen them in books, magazines and movies all of my life, it was hard to consider the fact that I was there at that moment in time. Since tourism is so low right now, there weren’t many other tourists around me, creating a special and rare moment of privacy, allowing for some introspection and time to fully grasp the importance of the moment.
The quirky island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean has a long and important history, but it’s one not many people actually know a lot about. Long considered by Europeans as a sunny getaway, others from around the world are learning about this small country not just for its beaches and turquoise blue waters, but also for its art, architecture, cities and incredible history.
I’ve explored a lot of my own country in recent years, travel experiences that I didn’t know I needed. These trips though were perhaps my most important of the year as they brought into focus the realities of the US in 2019. As it turns out, things aren’t nearly as bad as those of us who live along the coasts think and driving across America was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. While I have had the opportunity to visit many different parts of the country, the most memorable adventure was driving the entirety of Route 66. More than enjoying the kitschy appeal of decades long past, the most important aspect of the drive was meeting new people along the way. Turns out the country isn’t the seething cauldron of anger that the news media would have us believe, far from it. No, instead I found people living their lives just like anyone else, and also taking pride in the communities they call home. It’s important I think for everyone, American or not, to leave behind them the glittering cities along the coastal edges and instead delve deeper into the US, to learn what really makes us tick and to have a lot of fun along the way. Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque and many other cities are all fantastic places to spend some time exploring, and they’ll teach you more about what it means to be American along the way.
If any continent lures travelers with the promise of special moments, it’s Antarctica. Hard to reach, hard to travel around it’s one of the last few truly adventurous trips still available to us in the modern era. And my own trip to Antarctica did indeed deliver those unique moments in spades. Aside from the impossibly cute (and slightly dirty) penguins though, it’s the seemingly impenetrable landscapes that impressed me the most. After hiking up a snowy switchback path to the top of a hill, I was met with one of the most impressive scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The icy waters extended into the horizon and all I could see were vast quantities of rock, ice and water. It seemed to go on forever and I have never felt smaller in my entire life. Standing there on the bottom of the world, it was an important moment to help quantify the immensity of the planet. It’s a fact that we modern travelers tend to forget. In an age when I can hop on a nonstop flight and be in Hong Kong tomorrow, it seems as if the world has never been smaller. But we forget just how massive this beautiful planet is and how many unique experiences there are to be had.