How valid are the annual travel hotlists? “Where to Go” cool lists seek to frame the travel year and shape our plans but are they arbitrary or authoritative? Shouldn’t there be more caveats?
Don’t you just love those “Where to Go in 2016” hotlists? My heart sinks when I read them, even if I write them. These are get-lost cool lists written by leading travel writers who purport to tell you the hippest, hottest places to visit next year. In your dreams. These travel hotlists can be amusingly arbitrary, composed according to a curious formula: remoteness + survival skills + random bizarre event = hipness.
The assumption is that survival school is real travel while holidays are for hedonistic wimps. But unless you’re a well-insulated travel writer or a seal-eating ski endurance masochist, you really don’t want to go to Greenland's Arctic Winter Games in Nuuk. If you want to be cold and miserable, you can stay at home more cheaply.
Remoteness is also important if you want to be the first foreigner the locals have seen since that wild-eyed travel journalist last stopped by the monastery in mist-shrouded Bhutan. The scribe probably startled the Buddhist monk at prayer, an encounter that left neither any wiser. Hey, it’s a story of sorts.
Other alleged hotspots are still scorching, with their citizens crawling out of war zones or reeling from terrorist attacks. With a tourism economy reduced to rubble, desperate destinations, such as Tunisia and Egypt, even Paris, clutch at our heartstrings and wallets. When is the right time to return?
Trusting travellers think that trusted writers have been there recently and researched their choices with you in mind. Readers: they flatter to deceive. The writers flatter your desire to be another person in another place, a cooler version of yourself. They feed your armchair desire to dance with wolves and sup with the devil. All the while you (and possibly the writer) are snug at home in a country cottage. At best, these “must-see” places reflect a mixture of travel one-upmanship and teasing armchair entertainment. Passed off as travel writer-y tips, these are also riffs on “I’ve got more passport stamps than you do.” Unless your heart thrills at these exotic choices, you are clearly not a hipster.
Unwittingly, these lists are misleading about the most important travel ratio: time and cost versus the pleasure factor. Is it really worth your while to travel so far, at such cost, for so little reward? What about the joys of Slow Travel, exploring in-depth and closer to home? If it’s your only proper holiday, will you risk it on a throwaway tip or do what you were planning to do, regardless? It’s a no-brainer - unless you’re an insecure hipster enslaved by travel trends. Surprisingly enough, hotlists often feature obscure places that few have any interest in (Kazakhstan, in my case).
Before re-mortgaging the house to embark on the hotlist trail, remember that most must-see places improve with time and are best seen after the big event, when the crowds have gone home. Conversely, as a boring rule of thumb, wherever was lovely last year is probably lovely this year.
As for the hotlists, hop on the hipster bandwagon but treat it as seasonal entertainment. My favourite lists are from National Geographic Traveller in its myriad editions. Choose between cruising the Danube, “the medieval version of Route 66” (according to National Geographic Traveler in the US) or Palau in the Pacific, “the Serengeti of the sea” (says Lonely Planet). Who are you to trust? Take your pick from the tips below, bearing in mind that it’s an utterly subjective game. Please note that no travel editors were killed in the compilation of this piece.
Backpackers on bankers’ salaries
Many of the hot lists seem designed for thrills-seeking backpackers on bankers’ salaries, surely a schizophrenic concept in itself. You know the sort of thing: “Flashpackers might fancy glamping and yoga in a lovingly crafted Versace yurt in Outer Mongolia, a place so out there, it’s definitely in.” To be fair, there are enough Californian start-up millionaires and devotees of the Burning Man festival to make yoga in a yurt a winner for daring dreamers in search of their poetic selves. As Leonard Cohen puts it, “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”
Cool destinations offer a competitive thrill, especially if you like to slaughter your own supper. It takes balls to eat balls. Among assorted world wildernesses, the list gurus pick Alaska and Greenland. But unless you are as gung-ho as Bear Grylls, avoid ballsy adventures that involve the consumption of said nether-regions. On a recent trip to Alaska with Bear Grylls, even President Obama stipulated that whatever weird food he was forced to eat should have no visible eyes, legs or dodgy parts. If Obama can avoid bears’ balls, so can you.
Bizarre Polar sports
Do you really want to go to the Arctic Winter Games in Greenland? Inuit games and ice hockey in gloomy Nuuk, a city colonised by convicts, mutinous soldiers and Moravian missionaries. Be honest, even if it’s on the hot list. Can it really compete with skiing in Courchevel or stuffing your face in a cosy Sussex inn? Apart from its barely-dead food (seal soup, whale blubber, raw caribou liver) I’m a fan of Greenland, but not Nuuk. Do a Northern Lights coastal cruise instead, with ice fjords and humpback whales. Greenland is a pricey, inaccessible place so why make it more painful than it needs to be.
Must-see remote spots
Travel snobbery guarantees that remote spots are always must-sees. Burma is so last year, darling. What about Bhutan, the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom? Or Nepal, recovering from devastating earthquakes? Is a relaxed UK visa programme really enough to tempt you to Kazakhstan? Me neither. Or Palau. Where’s that, you mutter? Obviously it’s a far-flung, inaccessible Pacific archipelago billed as “the Serengeti of the sea” so it should be high on your wish list according to the pundits. In travelspeak, Palau may be a “pristine paradise” and “diving hotspot” but it’s also deeply inaccessible, wildly expensive to reach, tricky to explore, and with limited accommodation.
Travel editors love milestones so trusting travellers are dispatched to Wroclaw for its stint as European Capital of Culture in 2016. Fine as far as it goes, except that Krakow is the real Polish beauty. So go to Krakow or, for better food but less inspired architecture, head to San Sebastian, the rival Capital of Culture. We are also directed to America for the Centenary of the National Parks Service. While it’s worthy to celebrate the safeguarding of Yosemite and Yellowstone, why rush to don your hiking boots now?
Back in Europe, Dublin’s Centenary of the Easter Rising, which led to independence from Britain, makes a more awkward commemoration for any guilty-minded old colonialists. In England, Stratford-upon-Avon prepares to record the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Will visiting chocolate-box Tudor in the Bard’s homeland make you feel any closer to the master playwright?
Unjoined-up cultural trails
The best cultural trails are unbeatable but can fall apart unless done with a guide. Colombia in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a case in point. Once beyond colonial Cartagena, the languorous literary trail peters out in one-horse towns. It’s less Magic Realism than dirty realism, with dusty trails and dodgy street food drowning out the literary epiphanies. Instead, with a guide, you get the sassy swagger of Cartagena and the hip-swinging spirit of small-town Colombia. For the edited cultural highlights, travel with a trusted tour operator, such as Journey Latin America.
Destinations ahead of the curve
Other “hot” destinations still lack the infrastructure that average holidaymakers expect. Most of us like comfortable beds and roads that reach places in an orderly fashion. Cuba is a case in point. Excitable travel journalists are advising holidaymakers to “visit Cuba now before it loses its soul.” Cuban tour operators and hoteliers laugh hysterically when I tell them this. “We’re not becoming American any time soon. Change is slow and the bureaucracy still ties visitors up in knots.” What’s more, the island’s leading hotelier informs me: “Cuba is fully-booked till mid-May. Visitors who want to come in high season will have to book a year in advance.” In short: unless you want to rough it, wait for a while or do Cuba on a cruise, as suggested by National Geographic Traveller UK.
Scorching hotspots to avoid
A scorchingly hot destination might make the hot list on the basis of an overblown press release. An airline’s overheated PR machine may blithely announce that a new flight to Timbuktu makes it sexier. It doesn’t: it’s the same impoverished outpost it was yesterday but with better access to a place that’s been degraded. And you can be sure there’s no mention of drought, floods, civil war, Sharia Law, the flight of the Christian population or the spate of Islamist terrorist attacks in Mali.
"Pity tourism" to ponder
This is a tough call. When tourists are targets, we vote with our feet. After the recent Paris attacks, we are being urged to return. The city has suffered a sharp decline in visitors, with hotel cancellations running at 50 percent. Yet despite the sowing of fear and suspicion, it’s still the same Paris we love. Uncowed, Parisians are proudly returning to the cafes with cries of: “We’re perverted infidels and drinking wine! Vive la Résistance!”
But `pity tourism’ doesn’t dispel the carnage caused by a nihilistic cult. Tourism can also be heartless: cancelled bookings in Paris mean filled beds in Venice. Nor is there a watertight case for returning to Paris tomorrow. Just the other day, a leading Parisian hotelier voiced his pessimism to me: “As a visitor, would I return to Paris soon? Maybe, but not with my children.” So, even for Paris, it’s a painfully slow walk back to world hotlist status.
Other countries tug our heartstrings too. We want to help Tunisia, a country that suffered recent terrorist attacks in both Tunis and the resort of Sousse. A beach massacre is as bad as it gets for tourism. Even for the most daring hot lists, Tunisia is too hot. The image of a swimmer-terrorist concealing a rifle under a beach parasol is still too raw. If your Government says it’s not safe, don’t go there.
Real travellers rule
Back in the real world, real travellers will continue to visit favourite, familiar places. Cities such as Venice, Vienna, Nice, San Francisco, Sydney and Barcelona are beloved for reasons beyond hipness. The same can be said for the enduring appeal of Provence, Tuscany, Lake Como, Mallorca and Rhodes. Switzerland, with its combination of cosy cities and elemental mountainscapes, will never fall out of fashion, especially when savoured slowly, by rail.
Winter sun destinations such as the Canaries and Florida will always have their fans. Feel free to mock the Canaries as “fly and flop” outposts for lizard-skinned pensioners and uncouth boozers. You obviously haven’t been recently. From walking festivals on Tenerife to Carnival on Gran Canaria, these vibrant islands offer volcanic landscape and culture beyond the beaches. With the right spin (and maybe a boutique bed on a wine estate) the Canaries can be as cool as anywhere else.
And what about those derided, sun-loving, safety-minded pensioners? Nowhere is safe but some places feel safer than others. Holidaymakers should not be mocked or made to feel unworthy for taking the safer, sunnier option. Leave the walk on the wild side to the travel writers. Only we have the balls to eat balls and to tell you how good they taste. And that you missed out, you wimp.
An East End food safari turns into a story of London immigration, a tale mostly told through street food. If this is `hanging out in the hood’, I’m all for it. Faux gangsterism aside, the journey from East End boozers to bagels and baltis is compelling food history.
How Swiss is Geneva? This sophisticated, French-speaking city seems at odds with much of Swiss-German Switzerland. Geneva has French brasseries aplenty and shuns country bumpkins. Is the city too earnest for its own good or is there a subversive streak in there somewhere?