The 2012 Hot List

A month-by-month guide to this year's top travel spots, as chosen by the experts

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 1 Dec 2012, 12:48 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:56 BST

Welcome to the 2012 Hot List: a month-by-month guide to top travel spots, packed with tips and inspiration for even the most jaded globetrotter. Canvassing the opinion of more than 50 experts — from tour operators to travel journalists, tourist boards to guidebook writers — we've uncovered the year's must-see spots and must-do dates. And this year we're spoilt for choice… Fancy Burma in January? Croatia in May? And Ecuador in December?

Jan 2012: Burma

A heady blend of exotic Asian landscapes and rich colonial history, Burma is creating some of the biggest buzz for this year. The country has been off the travel map for years, ruled by the world's last military junta, but this all changed when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in late 2010. Once her National League for Democracy (NLD) party decided to lift its boycott on tourism, Burma (or Myanmar, as it is officially known) was quickly heralded the hottest emerging destination. But would bookings follow?

Over the years there have been premature declarations about a resurgence of tourism. But in recent months a number of leading operators have returned to the region. Mountain Kingdoms ended a 24-year hiatus when it restarted Burma tours in late 2011; Voyages Jules Vernes, Regent Holidays and Explore Worldwide are also featuring the country. And who can blame them? As well as the epic temples of Bagan, the former royal capital of Mandalay and the Buddhist monastery atop Mount Popa, there's the stunning Inle Lake, hill tribes, hidden temples and beautiful beaches.

Explore Worldwide returned to Burma in 2011 after a 16-year absence, and the 28 departures it originally offered all but sold out within a fortnight, according to managing director Ashley Toft. Like many operators, Explore is following the advice of human rights group Burma Campaign UK and the NLD, which have put their much-needed seal of approval on the reintroduction of tourism to the country, albeit with some conditions.

"Burma is a fascinating country offering great spiritual insights and a rich colonial heritage but travellers need to be aware it is ruled by a repressive, authoritarian regime," says Mark Henshall, regional editor, Frommer's Travel Guides. "The NLD advises travellers to come in solidarity with the people — either as individuals or in a small group — avoid cruises and hotels that may contribute directly to the junta, and wherever possible deal directly with ordinary Burmese."

Make sure you see the Luc Besson-directed film The Lady (released October 2011). Inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, this beautiful biopic pays tribute to Burma's democratic icon who was released, defiant, after almost 20 years under house arrest. 


North Korea: April 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung and there's never been a better time to visit Korea's enigmatic northern state. "Kim Il Sung, who passed away in 1994, is still president and viewed with an almost religious fervour," says Regent Holidays' marketing manager Alison White. "The centenary will be North Korea's biggest celebration in decades. Forget the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, the spectacle North Korea has in store will be the best Asia has ever seen!"

Bhutan: "Better flight connections, a wider choice of hotels, friendly people, culture and stunning mountains," says Neil Sealy, sales manager from Asia travel specialist Transindus.

Feb 2012: Northern Lights

Get ready for the biggest natural firework display in half a century. This year heralds the start of a 'solar maximum' — a peak in the sun's 11-year cycle that produces surges of electrically charged subatomic particles fuelling spectacular displays from Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights. NASA forecasts 2012 will see the most intense aurora activity in 50 years. Anyone who's seen this celestial light show, even a weak display, will tell you it's truly one of the great wonders of the world.

When charged solar particles collide with our planet's atmosphere, the energy produces coloured light: blue/red created by nitrogen particles; green/white by oxygen. The results are rarely similar, with displays ranging from smoky white trails, to ghostly green swirls and glowing red and blue undulating curtains of light. Some insist they've even heard the lights cracking, hissing or whistling although the physics doesn't back this up.

Operators are putting on a tantalising range of tours, but which offer the best experience? A rule of thumb is to stick close to the magnetic north, where activity is most visible, although auroral ovals can expand, allowing the solar fireworks to be seen as far south as Scotland. Some experts have even said that in 2012 the Aurora may even be seen from Rome — although light pollution and adverse weather conditions may mean visibility is severely hampered.

Meanwhile, Canada and the US generally experience the clearer, drier weather for perfect Aurora-spotting conditions. The north-western Canadian city of Yellow Knife offers near-guaranteed sightings and is home to a dedicated Aurora Village, while Fairbanks Alaska is perhaps the most established Aurora destination, with tours and 'warming huts' to help spectators endure the boreal freeze. 


Finland: The remote Finnish town of Nellim has little light pollution so the Aurora should be visible. 'Hunt' the lights with The Aurora Zone on snowmobiles or husky sleds. Five days from £1,375 per person. 

Iceland: On Iceland's Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Northern Lights-viewing can be combined with killer whale watching from February-March. Discover the World runs four-night trips from £850 per person. 

Norway: Alternatively, experience the lights from the Arctic Ocean, aboard the Hurtigruten, which cruises Norway's coast passing the North Cape and the geographical pole. Five-day tours start from £895 per person. 

March 2012: Indochina

Vietnam is firmly on the map for 2012, thanks to new non-stop connections with the nation's flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines. The only direct flights between the UK and the country launched on 8 December 2011, flying from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh to Gatwick, putting these exotic cities — as well as the country's beaches, mountains and rivers — within easier reach of the UK traveller.

"With the launch of Vietnam Airways flights plus a new coalition between International Rail and Vietnam Railways that enables travellers to plan rail travel throughout Vietnam from the UK, it's never been easier to get to, or around this fascinating country," says Liz Harper, from Footprint Travel Guides.

"Already a popular choice for independent travellers, the appeal of this beautiful Asian destination continues to grow. With its fascinating history, stunning coastlines, imperialist cities, bountiful paddy fields, and some of the most flavoursome food on the continent, what's not to like?"

Neighbouring Cambodia looks set to benefit from the increased regional attention — road and river tours combining the two countries are increasingly easy to arrange. With ?the opening of several new upmarket resorts, Cambodia is becoming a destination in its own right and is fast throwing off its backpacker image, launching a raft of new hotels this year. These range from Song Saa, an upmarket eco-resort set on the otherwise undeveloped Koh Rong archipelago, to The Plantation, in Phnom Penh — a cluster of converted 1940s colonial-style buildings set in tropical gardens.

Cambodia's stellar site, the jungle-fringed temple complex of Angkor Wat, is also being spruced up. Its 11th-century Baphuon temple recently reopened after a 50-year renovation project that archaeologists dubbed the world's largest 3D jigsaw puzzle. And a somewhat smaller renovation project is under way: Angkor's beloved Shinta Mani Hotel is being refurbished by Bill Bensley, an architect known as the 'king of exotic luxury resorts'. 


Thailand: "Phuket and Koh Samui are shaking off their grungy image with a handful of five-star openings," says Andrew Purvis, deputy editor of Ultratravel at Telegraph Media Group. He points to wellness retreat Arcanum in Phuket; Conrad Koh Samui; and Naka Island Resort & Spa — on Koh Naka Yai, a private island off Phuket. In the capital, meanwhile, the new St Regis Bangkok has the only Thai outlet of the Zuma Japanese restaurant chain.

Japan: Visitor numbers were hit following the earthquake/nuclear crisis last March. In response, the Japan Tourism Agency is endeavouring to offer 10,000 people free return flights to the country — in return for publishing their trips on social media. The agency is seeking £9m in government funding for the programme. And with the extra services that BA has put back on into Haneda, Tokyo is making a comeback. 

April 2012: Cities Our top five

1. Halifax
The centenary of the sinking of RMS Titanic will be marked on 15 April 2012. The Canadian city of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, played a crucial role in the recovery of passengers and crew, dispatching cable ships to the icy wreckage. The city buried 150 of the dead in local graveyards — the largest single burial site for Titanic. Halifax's unique role in Titanic's tragic story will be explored by a new exhibition at its Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, home to a collection of wooden artefacts from the 'unsinkable ship' plus tours of related city sites. 

2. Vienna
'The Kiss' is just one of the many reasons to visit Vienna's stellar art galleries, but there's much more to Gustav Klimt than his sparkling tribute to lovers. To mark the 150th anniversary of the art nouveau painter's birth in Vienna, the city plans to pay tribute to its visionary son in 2012 with a year-long programme of exhibitions, including a mega display of 400 Klimt drawings at the Wien Musuem, the largest collection of its kind in the world and the first time it's gone on display in its entirety. 

3.  Miami
With its Winter Music Conference, the Art Basel Miami Beach show, and the new Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts, Miami is fast becoming a destination for culture-hungry travellers. The new Frank Gehry-designed New World Centre is an innovative academy for symphony musicians within earshot of the surf. And it will soon be joined by Herzog de Muren's fantastic new Miami Art Gallery, which will further reposition Midtown Miami as a cultural hub between Europe, the US and the Latin world. 

4.  Stockholm
Sweden's sophisticated capital, spread over 14 islands and built around one of the world's best-preserved medieval city centres, ranks among Europe's most varied and green cities to visit. "It's recently been given the Hollywood seal of approval with the December 2011 release of author Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, further propelling it into the limelight," predicts Noel Josephides, managing director of Sunvil. Larsson's Millennium-themed tours are also available from the Stockholm City Museum. 

5.  Helsinki
"Finland is a place shaped by its geography and is expressive of it, clearly seen in its art nouveau- and modernist-flavoured capital, Helsinki, where you can shop for moose, reindeer, and bear salami," says Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler (US).

"It's also Europe's 2012 Design Capital and the home of design wizards such as Iittala and Marimekko." 

May 2012: Croatia

The coolest Adriatic country is set to join the EU in the summer of 2013, so be quick. "The country will undoubtedly get a lot more expensive after that, so it's worth going to enjoy its pristine coastline and national parks before then," says Rough Guide's publishing director Clare Currie.

Among our panel of experts, several flagged up Croatia as a value-for-money destination. "With the financial crisis expected to last for several more years, the 'big thing' for consumers in 2012 will remain keeping a close eye on holiday spending," says Claus Pederson, founder of holiday rentals website Campaya. "Beach holidays in resorts such as Zadar or Split offer great weather and seaside facilities while being considerably cheaper than their Mediterranean counterpart resorts. Renting a holiday home here means you don't have to eat out three times a day because you have your own kitchen/living room, and it's often cheaper to book a holiday home than a hotel room of the same standard."

For hedonists, Croatia's crop of boutique music festivals with boat and beach parties are beginning to dominate the summer festival season. The beach-front bacchanalia includes Electric Elephant, Garden Festival, Soundwave, Hideout and INmusic, to name just a few.

And with an ever-expanding range of hotels and villas, plus sailing holidays to suit everyone from the uninitiated to the saltiest sea dog, the country's going from strength to strength. This year even sees the launch of a sailing holiday for naturists, from cruise specialist eWaterways.  


Montenegro: "Go before they start saying Albania is the new Montenegro," says Nick Newbury, co-founder of tailor-made holiday specialist Original Travel. "The reality is that people have been visiting Montenegro as a tourist destination since the 1950s but the imminent opening of the Porto Montenegro luxury residential marina could turn this corner of the Med into a €10-per-cappuccino spot before you know it." 

Greece: "After a year in which the world saw Greece default on its national debt and riots in Athens, 2012 marks a new start for Greek tourism," says Noel Josephides, managing director of Sunvil. "Prices remain competitive, and Greece's appeal hasn't changed." The operator is a specialist in reaching out to lesser-known — but equally beautiful areas — such as the Peloponnese, off the southern mainland. 

June 2012: Bank Holiday bonanza

The 2012 bank holiday, to honour the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, won't quite be the bumper break of May 2011 but there's still time to cram some travel into the long weekend. The Whitsun Bank Holiday, usually in late May, will be postponed until Monday 4 June, and an extra Bank Holiday will be added on Tuesday 5 June, giving Brits four days off.

With the inevitable scrum to flee the country and return within four days arguably not worth the effort, this is the ideal time to take a domestic break. And our panellists suggest that while we may have tired of the phrase 'staycation' we're still hungry to discover less-travelled corners of the British Isles — and save some pennies while we're at it.

"In 2012 we'll keep travelling in the UK but will get wiser, opting for places like Cheshire, Shropshire, Essex, Rutland and mid-Wales… fewer people, no caravans, more space," says Time Out travel and books editor Chris Moss. "Devon and Cornwall, the Suffolk Coast and The Lakes — they're all travelled to death and packed with anxious weekenders."

The guidebook publishers almost unanimously flagged up the UK as a travel hot-spot for 2012 — many noting the Olympics would bring attention to our islands, but there were several suggestions for must-do destinations beyond the capital.

"A continuous and unique 850-mile 'All Wales Coast Path' running along the entire Welsh coastline is being created and will launch in May," says Mark Henshall, regional editor of Frommer's Travel Guides. "Parts of the trail are already in existence but the Welsh Assembly Government is linking it all together, creating parts of the path where needed. This will open up new areas, including Flintshire and Gwent. In time, the government expects the path to facilitate circular routes, allowing people to head inland and link to towns and villages, benefiting rural communities."

The Cotswolds got several votes, too (with the proviso you avoid the overly touristy bits). "It's quintessentially English, giving visitors the chance to combine beautiful countryside with picture-perfect villages and delicious local food, says Rough Guides' publishing director, Clare Currie. "The new Chiltern Mainline recently launched and offers a 20% faster service from Banbury to London, putting the Cotswolds just 50 minutes from the Olympic capital," she adds.

Jul 2012: Escaping the olympics

Can't face the whole Olympics circus? Then how about heading somewhere far from a city, stadium or satellite signal? We suggest getting back to nature — big nature — with an African safari. July is the dry season for many of the continent's big game destinations, when sparse vegetation makes animals easier to spot. Lodges across Africa are primed for business, so how about trying somewhere a little off the beaten track?

"Malawi has more momentum than anywhere else in Africa right now," says Chris McIntyre, managing director of Expert Africa. In July 2011, local operator Robin Pope opened a lodge there, Mkulumadzi, in Majete — a wildlife reserve that until recently was neglected, but is now a model of sustainable development. Majete is also on its way to becoming a Big Five park having reintroduced elephant, buffalo, and rhino over the past eight years. The plan to gradually usher predators into the park started in October with the introduction of eight leopards from South Africa's Kruger National Park — the penultimate step in the Majete restocking programme, which will culminate in the reintroduction of lion in 2012. In addition, the profile of Malawi's Lake of Stars music festival continues to rise, and there are various new internal flights across the country, making multi-centre itineraries that much easier.

Elsewhere, many operators are returning to Zimbabwe — where prices are still being kept low to attract tourists — and they are reporting that flights and transfers are now working well together.

However, given the concerns about the political regime, uncertainty remains about where money from tourism ends up.

A country that's seeing renewed interest is Mozambique. "Gorongosa, 1,500sq miles of prime national park, used to be known as the Serengeti of the South before civil war devastated Mozambique," says Nick Newbury, co-founder of Original Travel. "Gorongosa is now open for business again with just one place to stay within the park. But this will change; concessions have been granted, so expect many more camps and lodges."

The country also gets a vote from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), specifically for Guludo Beach Lodge in the Quirimbas National Park. "The lodge is a commercial operation run on fair trade principles; and its associated charity, the Nema Foundation, works with 16 local communities," says WTTC's media relations manager, Anja Eckervogt.


Olympic trek: "Missed out on Olympics tickets? Discover Adventure is offering a unique one-day, 26-mile London Stadia Trekathon, departing 1 September, that takes participants past many of the Olympics 2012 sporting venues. The registration fee is just £49 but the company is suggesting trekkers can heighten their sense of achievement by raising money for a charity of their choice at the same time.

Aug 2012: Europe by rail

We're championing an InterRail renaissance for summer 2012. The rail pass, which turns 40 this year, launched in 1972 as a Europe-wide train ticket for under-21s, costing £27.50 and covering 21 countries, from Ireland to Italy.

A green and serene way to see Europe, rail travel across the Continent is better than ever, with high-speed services and direct links from the UK to southern destinations. "As fewer students take gap years, because of increased tuition fees, the trend will be for shorter overland trips, and travellers will be looking for adventures without having to go round the world to find them," says Richard Hammond, founder of

"Cue an InterRailing renaissance. Shorter InterRail tickets are now available along with rail and sail journeys to the Med and overland to Istanbul and Marrakech."

Today, travellers of all ages can InterRail but the ticket still favours the young, with under-26s paying 40% less than older adults. A Global Pass costs from £153 and covers 30 countries, while a Single Country Pass costs from £30.

Rail and ferry travel with a hotel in Marrakech costs from £1,699 per person for 12 nights.

Sep 2012: Egypt

Violent confrontations in Cairo in November, Egypt is gradually picking itself up. Tourism to the country plummeted at the height of last year's protests but in recent months travellers have been returning to this beach and culture holiday hot-spot.

"Egypt had a difficult time last year and we're expecting a revival in early 2012," says section editor Rooksana Hossenally from Easyvoyage. "Tour operators, including big players such as Thomas Cook and Thomson, are cutting prices. With the peak holiday booking period usually in January, Egypt will be high on the list for Brits, especially for families."

With the situation ever-changing in Egypt, check FCO advice on where to go before booking, although most of the protests were centred in Cairo.


Jordan: "It's 200 years since Petra in Jordan was 'rediscovered' by Johann Burckhardt," says Gordon Steer, UK manager from World Expeditions. And thanks to the arrival of budget carriers such as BMI and EasyJet, prices have come down. There's also a whole raft of sustainable boltholes for the eco-friendly. 

Lebanon: "It has a parliamentary democracy and the greatest commitment to the civil rights of its people in the Middle East," says Donald Greig, publishing director of Bradt Travel Guides. "Tourism has been increasing and the fact it was unaffected by the Arab Spring puts it in a good position." 

Oct 2012: China

All eyes are on China this year as the country moves from being a place geared to independent travellers and backpackers to a holiday destination for all.

It's also driven by the fact the country is beginning to come into its own as one of the most important countries on the international tourism stage as interest in the BRIC — Brazil, Russia, India and China — economies increases.

The draw for British travellers is the scale of its relatively unknown regions to explore, giving it a mystery that's hard to match. Proving its mainstream appeal, even Royal Caribbean is offering cruises from Shanghai on board its Voyager of the Seas, a ship double the capacity of any other operating regularly out of China. Elsewhere — in a move that will be seen as a further barometer of China's mass-market potential — the world's largest Holiday Inn opens in Macau on the Cotai Strip.

The International Air Transport Association forecasts China will be the biggest contributor of new air travellers by 2014, and new routes are being launched this year to the destination. At the end of 2011, Qatar Airways and China Eastern significantly increased their services to China, making the country more accessible and affordable.

Finnair will be the first airline to launch a direct flight from Europe to Chongqing, a four-times-weekly service is due to start in May.

Rough Guides gives China the thumbs up, suggesting travellers should make for the mountainous south-west. "The region is home to big cities and tourist-friendly historic towns, but it still has plenty of remote corners," says publishing director Claire Currie.

"The area features the world's biggest sinkholes — vast limestone pits and cave systems. Many have only just been discovered and some remain unexplored. Head to Wulong, near Chongqing City, and Leye, in Guangxi Province, before the tour groups crowd these wonderfully dramatic features.


Borneo: "This is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth, renowned for its wildlife, marine life and national parks as well as the oldest rainforests," says Vladi Harris from activity holiday specialist HF Holidays. "Highlights on the world's third largest island include the Kota Kinabalu heritage trail, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Sabah Tea Plantation, and the 'Lost World' of the Danum Valley with canopy walkways and nature trails." There's also the spectacular Mount Kinabalu to climb — South-east Asia's tallest mountain at 4,095m. 

Nov 2012: Solar eclipse

The second of the year's astronomical spectaculars, the 2012 total solar eclipse is set to be more remarkable than usual, as there will be very few convenient observation points. The path of totality will extend thousands of miles from north-eastern Australia out across the South Pacific Ocean, ending around 500 miles west of the Chilean coast.

As the path barely makes landfall, this will not be an eclipse for the delectation of the masses but rather the exclusive preserve of the determined few who seek it out.

Why bother? If you haven't seen a total eclipse you might wonder what all the fuss is about. But, like the Northern Lights, ask anyone who has witnessed this natural phenomenon — when the moon passes in front of the sun, plunging parts of the planet into eery darkness — and they will almost certainly tell you it was one of their most memorable travel moments.

Undoubtedly the place to be for this year's eclipse is Australia, where operators are putting on a dazzling range of tours, taking in stellar Aussie sights such as the Great Barrier Reef and tropical North Queensland, both places that will be in the path of totality on the morning of 14 November.

As part of a 10-night holiday, Bridge and Wickers is offering a four-night cruise aboard a small ship that will anchor in a prime viewing position for the eclipse, before moving on to explore the very best of the Great Barrier Reef's coral gardens, including the spectacular Ribbon Reef No. 3 and Rachel Carson Reef. From £3,095 per person.

If you fancy being all at sea, Celebrity Cruises will be sailing its mammoth Millennium ship through the South Pacific for the event from £2,830 per person for 20 nights. 


USA: Not one but two major solar eclipses take place in 2012. The annular eclipse, when the moon passes in front of the sun but isn't large enough to totally obscure its light, takes place on 20 May. The place to be for this one is the Western US. Families can see the eclipse on a camping and activity tour of the region's top national parks. Bike through Zion National Park in Utah, take a Navajo guided tour of Monument Valley, visit the ghost town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed and ride a helicopter over the Grand Canyon. From £1,149 per person for 13 days with Inspired Breaks. 

Dec 2012: Ecuador

Ecuador is often seen as a staging post for travel to the archipelago made famous by Darwin but this is the year to go beyond the Galápagos Islands.

A region that looks set to get the attention it truly deserves is Ecuador's Mindo cloud forest, just a couple of hours from the capital, Quito. Part of a verdant, biodiverse arc between the rainforest and the high Andes, this region is record-breaking in its richness of endemic flora and fauna, which ranges from hummingbirds to orchids.

Since late last year, it's also been the home of a pioneering eco-retreat. The 22-suite Mashpi Lodge, set in the private Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve, was constructed using the latest sustainable building techniques and runs on hydroelectric power. It offers wildlife safaris led by local guides and expert naturalists. This minimalist lodge also has a sister property, the newly opened Casa Gangotena, in Quito's fast gentrifying, perfectly preserved colonial old town.

Further south, Ecuador's Amazon Basin is becoming increasingly known as a wildlife destination to challenge Peru and Brazil. "Conservation and environmental awareness are becoming more developed in this beautiful wilderness, populated with indigenous Quechua settlements and home to more than 600 species of birds, 630 species of fish and hundreds of species of amphibians and reptiles," says Lloyd Boutcher, director of bespoke adventure travel specialist Sunvil Traveller.

"Fly 25 minutes from Quito to Coca and then travel by canoe on the River Napo to stay at the Napo Wildlife Center on the shores of Anangucocha Lake in the Yasuni National Park; the 12-cabana lodge is entirely owned by the 140-strong Anangu tribe and supports 27 families."

And while Ecuador has long been the preserve of independent travellers who don't mind taking the rough with the smooth a growing number of smart hotels look set to entice well-heeled globetrotters from the comfort of their Galápagos cruise ships into the spectacular landscapes of the mainland and into Quito.


Peru: "Travel companies are finally latching on to Latin America's most exciting cuisine and promoting it with a range of new tours in 2012," says Andrew Purvis, deputy editor, Ultratravel at Telegraph Media Group.

"Ferran Adria [of El Bulli fame] was among the top chefs attending last year's Mistura: Lima Food Festival to learn about the bold combinations making Lima the capital of fusion. Ingredients from the Amazon and the Andes are given an Asian twist, while other dishes reflect Portuguese influences."

Colombia: "It's not one thing; it just keeps easing its way into travellers' psyches — and it's beautiful. The San Agustín region, the Pacific Coast and Medellín are my hot faves," says Time Out travel and books editor Chris Moss.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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