In 2018, some countries will celebrate big milestones in style. Elsewhere, certain regions are opening up to visitors with an array of new tours and experiences. And, due to recent political developments, there’s a decidedly optimistic mood surrounding other countries, making them more accessible and more appealing than ever before.
The Taranaki region, New Zealand
It’s been dubbed the greatest day walk in the world, but the North Island’s crater-strewn Tongariro Alpine Crossing has a rival. The Pouakai Crossing is a vigorous yet rewarding eight-hour tramp around another venerable volcano, the dormant Mount Taranaki. He (yes, ‘he — Taranaki is sentient for the Maori) sits in haughty isolation by the Tasman Sea on the North Island’s little-trodden west coast.
The hike may not have the sulphurous fumaroles or Martian terrain of Tongariro, but volcanic drama is still in evidence in the long-cooled layers of lava streams splurging down Taranki’s cone. Then there’s church-organ-like cliff formations, a ‘Goblin Forest’ spongy with mosses and liverworts, and tussocky wetlands rich in rare native birds. And — unlike the Tongariro Crossing — you won’t see many fellow trampers: 30 people here constitutes a crowd.
Long overlooked, the Taranaki region as a whole is opening up to foreign visitors. Stay in New Plymouth, the region’s hub town, which is an endearing mix of surf beaches, contemporary art galleries, Maori heritage museums, flower-festooned parks, and intimate, independent restaurants. Then, in the nearby Egmont National Park surrounding Mount Taranaki, you’ll find walking and cycling tracks to suit every family member’s ability.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio isn’t exactly a wallflower. This coastal megacity is, after all, the kind of place where bodybuilders flock to work out in public on the outdoor gyms lining the beaches. Minuscule bikinis are the norm on Copacabana and Ipanema. In the samba clubs of the Lapa District, you can easily spot out-of-towners: they’re the ones dancing a little less gregariously. All this fizzing confidence seems to reach fever pitch at Carnaval, the two-week-long celebration of Mardi Gras that goes under the modest alias of ‘the biggest party on the planet.’
But there’s a subtler, more cultural side to the city, too, and there are more options for exploring this side of Rio’s personality than ever before.
For example, it’s possible to slip behind the scenes of Rio’s carnival through guided visits to a samba school’s warehouse. Available all year round, these private tours allow you a glimpse into the work that goes into creating the fantastical floats and exuberant costumes — real passion projects for those involved. Depending on the timing of your visit, you might see sketches of potential costume ideas, or last year’s floats being stripped back down to their undercarriages — and possibly meet technicians and artists at work.
You can also take graffiti-themed tours of the city, which introduce you to its visual language. Guides are part of Rio’s street art community, and they’ll explain about the complex political nuances and interplay of meanings behind many of the murals you’ll see. Look out, for example, for depictions of angels and rats — symbols, respectively, for favela residents and the ‘ruling class.’
Bunaken Marine Park, Indonesia
Bali tends to be Indonesia’s posterchild thanks to its beachside resorts, modish bars and hillside temples — but that’s just one facet of the country. Covering an area larger than Europe, the archipelago has thousands more islands, but only a handful of visitors set foot on them each year. It’s best to explore them now, before Indonesia’s burgeoning travel industry begins to pull in larger crowds.
Indonesia sits in the middle of the coral triangle, an ecoregion that stretches from Malaysia to the Solomon Islands. It’s the world’s nexus for marine biodiversity — so much so that it’s nicknamed the ‘Amazon of the Seas’ by scientists. You can snorkel and dive from most islands but for some of the best experiences, head to the Bunaken Marine Park, a cluster of five islands off the northeast coast of Sulawesi.
There are more than 50 dive sites around the islands where you can drift-dive across crevasses, canyons and overhangs festooned with coral. Giant barrel sponges dot the seabed, their wide mouths gaping upwards, and gorgonians sway in the currents like miniature trees. You might see reef sharks, barracuda or turtles, and closer to the sea floor, the kaleidoscopic peacock mantis shrimp or an otherworldly nudibranch.
There’s little choice over where to stay, but luckily at the Siladen Resort & Spa you couldn’t want for more. On Siladen Island, 22 wooden villas are dotted among tropical gardens, some built right on the beach. It’s not top-class luxury but there’s a five-star PADI school, spa and pool that leads straight onto a flaxen-sand beach. Across the water is Manado Tua, a volcanic island right on the horizon — at dusk you can watch the sun set behind its perfect cone.
With the recent changes in its political landscape, Zimbabwe is expected to become increasingly popular over the next few years. 2018 is a good time to plan a safari to the country before its parks and reserves, which have remained under-the-radar compared to many other safari destinations, get busy.
Hwange National Park — just a three-hour drive from Victoria Falls — is the largest, oldest and best-known of Zimbabwe’s wildlife areas. You can explore its wide-open grasslands on game drives in search of the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant). You may also encounter cheetah, spotted hyena, and wild dog, which all prowl the plains on the hunt for grazing herds of Burchell’s zebra and antelope.
Some of the safari companies here, such as Imvelo, also run projects supporting the local communities and conservation. These range from anti-poaching movements to digging bore holes for remote villages, building new schools, and improving health care. You can visit some of their projects to learn more about their work.
The remote Mana Pools National Park is fed by the Zambezi River. Four oxbow lakes left behind by the Zambezi hold water even in the dry season, attracting bull elephant, hippo and buffalo, as well as birdlife such as purple-banded sunbirds and racket-tailed rollers.
Walking safaris are Mana Pools’ main draw. These bring out the passion and knowledge of Zimbabwe’s guides, which are some of the most qualified and experienced in Africa. As you follow your guide though the bush, they’ll pick up on bird calls, animal tracks, and explain the subtleties of the local ecosystem.
On the night of 12th March, 2018, the beaches will glow with the light of a thousand barbecues, the tempo of sega beats quickening throughout the evening as Mauritians celebrate 50 years of independence. This golden anniversary has brought into focus the island’s history, which is a complex clashing of colonial powers — the island passed between the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British before gaining independence in 1968.
If you’re not there to join the celebrations in March, further events are due to be announced throughout 2018. It’s the ideal time to look away from the beaches and explore the island’s cultural legacy.
You could visit Eureka, a 19th-century Creole mansion. This time capsule for the island’s plantation history wouldn’t look out of place in America’s Deep South. Château de Labourdonnais, a grand neoclassical edifice of white pillars and polished wood, offers rum tastings and tours of its traditional distillery.
Mauritius is roughly the size of London, so you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice much beach time in order to explore — you can be back with your toes in the sand by the end of the day. Some visitors linger along the coast in one of the luxurious properties that sprawl its shoreline. The Oberoi Mauritius, for example, has an in-house astronomer, while at the Shanti Maurice you can try more than 180 types of rum in their beach shack.
Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of Audley Travel. Audley Travel is a tour operator offering tailor-made trips around the world.