In 2015, Quotient handpicks destinations beyond the trodden territories — places we hope will inspire travellers to reconnect with nature, immerse in culture and even see the world from different perspectives!
Altai Mountains, Mongolia: Stretched across the borders of Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the Altai Mountains boasts large tracts of pristine wilderness, with beautiful lakes, glaciers glistening under the sun, narrow gorges, rolling valleys and snow-capped peaks. The area is largely untouched by man, except for the presence of several nomadic tribes and small groups of adventurous tourists in the know. Here, one can spend days trekking across the mountains, including the five sacred peaks of Tavan Bogd with altitudes soaring beyond 4,000 metres. Experience the nomadic way of life living in Mongolian yurts, discover ancient petroglyphs, interact with the Kazakh and Uriankhai people, and go riding on horses or camels on the grassy plains. Not to be missed is the Golden Eagle Festival, a spectacle of parades and competitions where the locals show up in grand traditional costumes with their trained hunting eagles. With rich traditions and beautiful nature untouched by man, the Altai Mountains are best enjoyed now before the rest of the world catches on.
Baku, Azerbaijan: An oil-rich country in the Caucasus, Baku is using its wealth to reinvent itself with swanky, fanciful new buildings that may well give Dubai a run for its money. Among the architectural feats decorating its modern skyline are the Flame Towers, the tallest skyscrapers in the country that are lit up as giant LED flames at night, the flowing curves of the Heydar Aliyev Center designed by acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid, and the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum resembling a giant rug. Vestiges of its past from the Soviet era and Shirvanshah dynasty are still highly evident in the older parts of the city. The Inner City, in particular, boasts a collection of ancient fortifications including the famed Maiden’s Tower and Palace of the Shirvan Shah, earning itself a spot on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. After making a name for itself from hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, Baku is set to make a mark on the international stage again as the host of the inaugural European Games this 2015.
Community-based ecotourism in Chambok, Cambodia: Get close to nature and experience rural living while doing your part to help the local community at the same time in Chambok, situated at the fringe of the Kirirom National Park two hours away from Phnom Penh. Set in a cluster of nine villages, the Chambok ecotourism site was created as a means to support the farming community and protect the surrounding forest. Here, one can experience an authentic village homestay, enjoy home-cooked Cambodian fare prepared by the village women, and explore the natural sights in the surroundings. Also hike through the forest inhabited by around 300 different species of birds, visit a bat cave, or take a dip at the foot of a 40-metre-high waterfall. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Chambok offers a tranquil and unique experience that gives added meaning to travelling.
Dark Sky Parks: Humans have had a deep fascination with the night sky for millennia. We heard of Neolithic inhabitants who built complex stone monuments that integrated elements to track the cycles of sun, moon and stars and we don’t blame them for their curiosity. Nowadays, a slice of sky peppered with stars and galaxies is a luxury indeed! But 2015, designated the International Year of Light, is an exciting year for all Milky Way nerds, who can flock to some of the latest recruits into the International Dark-Sky Association’s growing list of reserves. Stargazers, prepare for stellar views at places such as Ireland’s Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve on the Iveragh Peninsula. Its location, between the Kerry Mountains and Atlantic Ocean provides natural protection against light pollution from other Irish cities and assures visitors clear and night skies with the Aurora Borealis, meteors and Milky Way. Other astronomical spectacles are awaiting in Germany’s Westhavelland International Dark Sky Reserve, located approximately 100 kilometres west of Berlin, where you can be the lucky witness of rare displays of the Northern Lights and the Milky Way, as well as zodiacal light (a faint diffuse white glow) and gegenschein (a faint brightening of the zodiacal light at midnight) seen between mid-May and mid-July.
Einstein: It’s not often that a personality headlines our A-Z, but we found ourselves gravitating to the man whose theory of relativity is a fundamental pillar of physics. In 2015, the world commemorates 100 years of Albert Einstein completing the general theory of relativity. And as it turned out, the scientist was quite a nomad. Born in Ulm, Germany, Einstein lived in various places including Bern, where the Einsteinhaus is a significant tourist attraction, Zurich, Prague and New Jersey. He held Swiss citizenship for over a decade and was even offered the presidency of the State of Israel — for the record, he declined — and died a U.S. national. This year, however, make your way to Berlin, for it was here that Einstein wrapped up and published the all-important scientific theory. The German capital also celebrates 25 years of German reunification in 2015 with an October event at the Brandenburg Gate; additionally, there are a number of highlights such as the reopening of the Berlinische Galerie and the Botticelli Renaissance starting late September examining Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli’s influence on Modernism.
Faroe Islands: Few places are as impressive in their isolation and rawness as this archipelago comprising 18 craggy islands, flung into the far reaches of the North Atlantic, roughly between Iceland and Norway. For many, Faroe Islands is perhaps a seemingly ‘Tolkienesque’ destination, where the grass is always green and sheep graze nonchalantly on windswept pastures. Truthfully so, this patch of land in the middle of nowhere, is a setting of mystery and charm, peculiarly at the mercy of currents of the Gulf Stream, which make the climate so moodily beautiful. Yet, this weather fickleness does not — in any way — make the islands lose their appeal, for the Faroes are oft-coated in wonderful light which gaily plays in tandem with the rain, fog, mist or sunlight.
On 20th March 2015, at precisely 9.41am local time, the spirited traveller can experience another unique phenomenon on the islands: the total solar eclipse. The celestial event, which will gather locals and tourists alike to celebrate two momentous minutes of complete darkness, is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a great prologue of a trip to the Faroes. If this triggers your taste for landscapes, which seem to be shaped by Norse gods, further explore places such as Tórshavn, one of the smallest capitals in the world, where you will discover grass-roof restored timber houses and an active cultural scene (Faroese folk dances and festivals happen throughout the year). Deeper in the heart of the islands, embrace the idyllic beauty of sleepy villages such as Gjógv, with its sea-filled gorges, and the remote Mykines, featuring a cluster of bright-coloured houses, old turf-roofed stone church and heart-warming colonies of puffins.
Greenland: Covering about 80% of the country, the Greenland Ice Sheet or Sermersuaq is the second-largest body of ice in the world after Antarctica and one of the greatest last wildernesses, etched with thousands of fjords and mighty glaciers. As much as Greenland is an iceberg paradise lusted for its spectacular natural beauty, the fast-melting Sermersuaq — the sheet is estimated to lose about 500 cubic kilometres of ice annually — represents one of global warming’s most disturbing phenomena and compels tourists to face up to ecological threats even as they admire the sublime frozen environs. This year is never a better time to sharpen your climate change senses and get the right attitude afoot with an exploration of Greenland and immersive towns such as Nuuk, the country’s stylish capital, Ilulissat where the soundtrack of the mighty ‘bergs cracking and reverberating in the frigid Arctic waters need no introduction, and Narsarsuaq, the window to a fascinating world of Norse Viking sagas. Your journey will be padded with highlights that go beyond icy spectacles to include Inuit culture, thrilling encounters with wildlife such as humpback whales, Arctic wolves and muskoxen, and even newer New Nordic cuisine.
Hill of Crosses, Lithuania: In Lithuania, historic architecture and hefty castles seem to murmur a bygone era while towns carpeted by cobblestone streets persuade the itinerant to explore slowly, by foot. But there is something more surprising about this Baltic gem with a unique old-world vibe. Countless pilgrimages have been made to the land of rivers and lakes for a sole purpose: to visit the mecca of Lithuania or the Hill of Crosses. This intricate site located near the city of Siauliai features about 100,000 crosses which have been brought by pilgrims over nearly two centuries — a tradition that began after an uprising against the Russian tsar. The hill, bristling with crosses, shrines and carvings of all sizes and shapes is a powerful symbol of Christianity and a testament to religious devotion, which is deeply engrained in the country’s identity. In addition to its spiritual and historic heritage, Lithuania is a country of continuous modernisation, with 2015 marking its entry into the Eurozone (yes, you can now use euros there). Located south of Latvia on the east of the Baltic Sea, this beautiful country offers everything from traditional celebrations to hearty fare to vibrant city life. Vilnius, its capital, is an enclave for artists, while the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Curonian Spit is a fragile ecosystem of pine groves and pearly sand dunes.
Italian wave: Milan will no doubt capture attention on the international stage as the host of the Expo Milano 2015, but we’re betting our Ferragamo shoes and Bottega Veneta bags that the fashion capital will not be the only Italian city to lure eyeballs and DSLR-toting tourists over the course of the year. The Holy Shroud, viewable only a few times each century (about once every 10 years or more), goes on display at the Turin Cathedral from 19th April to 24th June. To cap that, Pope Francis will make a pilgrimage to Torino on 21st June to venerate the Shroud and honour Saint John Bosco (Don Bosco) on the occasion of 200 years of his birth. Celebrate your privileged status — or drown your sorrows if you didn’t manage to view the controversial burial cloth of Jesus Christ — farther afield in Piedmont, the wine region famed for its Barolo, Barbaresco and Moscato. The inscription of the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato landscapes — covering the key wine terroir of Piedmont and encompassing other non-wine related historic symbols such as the Castello di Grinzane Cavour, host venue of the annual white truffle auction — as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014 gives us less reason not to go.
Jura, France: If wine and cheese are a match made in Heaven, Jura may well be a slice of paradise. This French department in the Franche-Comté region named after the Jura Mountains straddling France and Switzerland, is the birthplace of a unique wine first produced by nuns, and Louis Pasteur, who of course discovered how to eliminate bacteria from milk; it was where Louis Vuitton set off in 1835 to Paris in search of his fortune. In Jura, you can still hop into traditional Romany caravans pulled by horses, visit unique museums, devour Comté cheese, chill out by or enjoy a swim in one of the lovely water bodies in the Le Pays des Lacs (lake region), tackle via ferratas or indulge in modern alpine pursuits in the dreamlike wintry Haut Jura landscape.
But, don’t forget the wine. Every February, the Percée du Vin Jaune is held to unveil and relish its first tasting of the latest vintage of “yellow wine” made from the Savagnin grape; aged at least six years three months, the dry wine possessing a blend of fruity, floral and spicy notes evaporates by nearly 40% and is bottled in clavelins with a capacity of 0.62 litres. Sparkling wine enthusiasts will be delighted to know that Jura has one of the seven Crémant designations in France (eight when Savoie’s bubbly enter the market from end 2015) with the Crémant de Jura being increasingly exported.
Kiruna, Sweden: Located in the province of Lapland, the northernmost town in Sweden is subject to a harsh climate year-round, with lengthy enduring winters, which many a time give no sign of sunshine. Despite its brutal temperatures, Kiruna is a beautiful town of contrasts, where historical culture intertwines with high technology, attracting audacious travellers to chase the magical Northern Lights, discover the ancient Sami reindeer herding culture, hike in pristine mountains and visit the world’s largest underground mine. Alas, the town ‘decided’ to pack its bags and migrate 3 kilometres to the east, after fissures created by iron-ore mining weakened the earth beneath. The massive relocation has commenced and a new town square is already under way while various key buildings will be dismantled and re-established piece by piece in their new home, just like a game of Lego at a jaw-dropping scale. The process is considered one of “the most democratic moves in history” and will take about two decades to complete, but as the town moves into the execution phase of literally reinventing itself, we wholeheartedly agree “the time is now” to visit Kiruna.
Leipzig, Germany: Once a powerhouse in the medieval coffee trade, Leipzig, the largest city in Saxony, is known to have written history a few times; once as a leading commercial hub under the Holy Roman Empire, and later on, in a peaceful revolution that triggered the end of the German Democratic Republic. In the past, Leipzig was also a key-player during the Protestant Reformation and saw Martin Luther King’s (who lived in nearby Wittenberg) works been printed and distributed there. But throughout time, this multifaceted city has also been home to some of the world’s greatest composers, such as Wagner, Schumann, Bach and Mendelssohn; in 1989, it was actually Leipzig that first instigated the fall of communism in Germany. The City of Heroes, as known by many, is however under constant change. These days, it emerges as a new cultural mecca and proudly enters into the realm of all things cool through a sprawling art and musical scene. What’s more, in 2015, the city will be donned in festive attire to celebrate the millennia of its first documented mention, through a myriad of highlights including the Longest Civic Festival, the Street Theatre Festival, and the “1,000 years of Leipzig” festival week.
Madagascar: Following several years of political upheaval in the past decade, Madagascar is looking to increase tourist arrivals again with the establishment of a new constitutional government in 2014. Tourism infrastructure is still being developed, but the sheer biodiversity on the world’s fourth-largest island draws a select group of travellers looking to experience nature at its best. An isolated island off the coast of Africa, Madagascar is brimming with rare plant and animal species, with more than 85% of its native species not found anywhere else on earth. The island is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites with several more listed as potential sites. Warranting particular attention are the threatened Rainforests of the Atsinanana, one of the three inscribed sites on the island and comprising six national parks, where illegal logging has threatened the numerous fossa, lemurs and other endemic species residing in the forests. Besides the thriving wildlife, Madagascar also has a number of historical sites, a rich native culture, diving sites and opportunities for whale-watching.
Nunavut, Canada: The largest yet least-populated province of Canada, Nunavut is located in the frigid far north where few have set foot on. Home to a small community of friendly and hospitable Inuit and numerous Arctic animals, Nunavut is a year-long winter wonderland unknown to many. Here, a slew of outdoor activities abound: try dogsledding, cruise among icebergs to neighbouring islands, kayak along icy waterways, catch the Midnight Sun, and go wildlife watching at the surrounding sea and ice floes inhabited by polar bears, narwhals, muskoxen, beluga whales, walruses and caribou. Also get to know the Inuit people through museum visits and various festivals celebrating the traditional arts of this unique culture that includes Inuit throat-singing, acrobatic performances, indigenous artwork and handicrafts. Tourism in Nunavut is still in the developing stage with the place only accessible by air and sea, but the allure of wintry landscapes and outdoor fun might very well make it the next hyped-about Northern Lights destination.
Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica: Costa Rica’s southern-most peninsula with a distinctive ‘excavator bucket’ jutting westward out into the Pacific Ocean, Osa Peninsula is proof that goodness comes in small packages. This tiny chunk of Mother Earth dominated by the Corcovado National Park, which has been labelled by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth”, is home to about 2.5% of the total biodiversity on the planet. Indeed, the credentials according to Osa Conservation are staggering — 323 endemic species of plants and vertebrates, over 10,000 insects and 463 species of birds. Rapid infrastructure development and tourism growth, simplistic agricultural practices and illegal or unregulated hunting have impacted habitats and reduced populations of animals including jaguars, springing conservationists into more fervent action in recent years. At the same time, the peninsula is increasingly getting attention from intrepid camps from around the world, particularly those with a taste for luxury. This year, a new residential marina project involving heavyweight developer Sinergo Development Group will offer 50 homes to well-heeled boat owners with a luxury hotel to follow, while the Costa Rica itinerary of the newly-launched National Geographic Private Expeditions includes a jaunt with naturalists in Osa Peninsula. Sounds like it will only get more crowded.
Pilsen, Czech Republic: Featuring puppet shows, street parades, a hair-raising tightrope-walking performance and more, Pilsen has a string of exciting events lined up for its big break as a European Capital of Culture this year (the other is Mons in Belgium). The fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic, Pilsen is an industrial town best known as the birthplace of Pilsner Urquell Beer and Skoda. Beer lovers can gain insight into the production process at the brewery, and sample the world-famous beer straight from the oak barrels in its cellar. Pilsen also has a charming historical centre that has been carefully preserved, with St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral among its most famous attractions. Known for having the tallest church spire in the country, the cathedral officially kicked off the year of festivities as it rang its bells for the first time in 70 years at the opening ceremony held recently on 17th January. Along with a youthful student population, Pilsen looks set for a vibrant year of activities ahead.
Quito, Ecuador: Quito proves that being on top of the world does not necessarily mean isolation. A bustling city situated on a plateau at about 2,850 metres, the capital city of Ecuador not only holds the honour of the world’s highest capital city, but also for being one of the lucky few situated at the Middle of the World. A city still in development, Quito is a mix of old and new, with shopping malls springing up in recent years, but it’s still best known for its historical quarter. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quito’s old town is a maze of grand churches and colonial-style buildings from the Spanish Occupation. Also a pride of the city is the Middle of the World monument erected north of the capital, demarcating the earth’s equator that cuts through the area. Quito’s close proximity to numerous volcanoes and indigenous villages adds a welcome dose of rugged charm and cultural immersion to your trip here, and it is also the perfect gateway to amazing Ecuadorian treasures including the Galápagos, Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest. No prizes for guessing why the area has started to emerge as an ideal retirement home for expats.
Russia’s waterways: Vladimir Putin’s country may have been in the limelight for the wrong reasons in 2014 leading to a slump in its popularity with foreign tourists, but there’s no denying the allure of Russia as a leisure destination. Pending no further political and military provocation in 2015, those who have held back from visiting the nation will find themselves hungry for Russian goodness and those who really do visit, will relish a less-crowded environment and a more appreciative tourism industry. And while you are at it, how about a different approach to seeing Russia? Instead of travelling overland or via air, we daresay even first-time travellers from this part of the world to Russia will derive pleasure from exploring its mighty rivers that stream into the surrounding seas. The greatest waterway in Russia, the Volga, is also Europe’s longest and presents a window of opportunity to gems such as Yaroslav, once the second-largest Russian city after Moscow; Nizhny Novgorod, an important industrial centre famous for its ties with the writer Maxim Gorky and the father of the hydrogen bomb Andrei Sakharov; and Volgograd (better known as Stalingrad), the site of a fierce, months-long battle during World War II in which the Russians prevailed despite being hopelessly outnumbered. Also outstanding is the Volga-Baltic Waterway and its tributaries that makes it possible to meander from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Cruise season is from May to October and a water journey typically takes between one week and three weeks.
Silk Road: Once treaded by merchant caravans bearing spices, gems and silk, the 2,000-year-old fabled Silk Road was an important bridge for trade and cultural exchange between Europe and Asia. Having joined the UNESCO World Heritage ranks last year, the allure of this historic route is at a resurgence; it appeals to many, from adventurers eager to retrace the footsteps of intrepid Venetian Marco Polo who was lured by Central Asia’s meld of soaring mountains, infinite deserts and surreal-looking steppes, to hardworking historians to tourists after bragging rights. Today, the Silk Road can still be a challenge to traverse, as this long, remote area still maintains the old-world vibe. The section is about 5,000 kilometres long and includes 33 historical sites along the route, 22 in China, eight in Kazakhstan and three in Kyrgyzstan. From palaces to pagodas in cities to ruins in remote, inaccessible deserts, the ‘new’ Silk Road is evidently a challenging journey of discovery.
Tunis, Tunisia: Tunisia is unlikely to be the first country that comes to mind when one should think of Africa, but the city makes for a nice alternative to the typical African safaris and is far away from Ebola-hit regions. After years of violence and social unrest, Tunis is finally looking to settle down with the appointment of the country’s first freely-elected president following a watershed presidential election in late 2014. With gleaming skyscrapers juxtaposed against a maze of crumbling ancient buildings in the old town (Medina), the capital of Tunisia at the tip of North Africa still channels an old-world feel even as the country makes progress towards a new age of peace and modernity. Blessed with a rich culture and history, the city is most famous for its UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Medina with more than 700 monuments dating back to 12th-century Muslim dynasties, and the roman ruins of the ancient city of Carthage nearby. With resilience and renewed optimism, Tunis looks set to work its charm on tourists in the coming years.
Underwater art: Unlike your typical art galleries, museums are now taking art to a different level, literally. Covered in moss and corals, life-size statues of a bookshelf, a Volkswagon Beetle, and crowds of people modelled after the likeness of actual living individuals stand in silence 2.7 to 6 metres below the Caribbean. Resembling a modern day Atlantis, the Cancun Underwater Museum in Mexico is a fascinating sight. Sunk into the ocean, the more than 400 statues by founder Jason deCaires Taylor and other artists take on an ethereal, other-worldly feel. The British artist, who specialises in underwater sculptures, has most of his works housed in the Caribbean Sea at Cancun and the Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park. Besides the obvious artistic beauty and boost to tourism, the museums also play a role in conservation, with the statues serving as breeding grounds for marine animals. The crystal-clear, warm waters of the Caribbean Sea provide optimal conditions for visitors to admire the underwater beauty by diving or riding in a glass-bottom boat.
Vienna’s Ringstrasse turns 150: In the Austrian capital, being bourgeois is not a mere fad. The ritual of coffee and torte is, well, still deferentially served by a maître d’ who elegantly dons an impeccable white shirt and a black tie, and it’s no myth that locals are fantastic waltz dancers. Welcome to the imperial capital of Austria, which for decades has dwelled in the fin-de-siècle prestige, boasting Hapsburg-era houses, Baroque palaces, museums teeming with Rembrandts, Klimts and Vermeers, and perfectly-manicured parks. Today, however, in Vienna a new wind of change is blowing as cutting-edge architecture constantly pops up, while dozens of new galleries urge art aficionados to do a never-ending cultural zigzag. And 2015 is an even greater year to venture into the city which was once the crossroads of Central Europe! This year marks the 150th anniversary of Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard opened by Emperor Franz Joseph in May 1865. Laden with sights, parks and monuments, Ringstrasse will be the venue of important events happening throughout the year, from ceremonious balls to live opera concerts, marathons, festivals and weeks dedicated to art.
Wild Wild West experience, USA: Alas, long gone are those days when children would dream of becoming real cowboys, riding frantically on endless prairies, wind in their hair! That feeling of freedom combined with beautiful landscapes of mountain ranges, and cold rivers murmuring in the distance, is something that will make us nostalgic well into adulthood. But fret not, as the American cowboy is still alive and ready to welcome adventurers. All you have to do is dust off your boots and put on that classic pair of jeans to unleash the Western superhero in you. At Mustang Monument outside Wells, Nevada, you will feel part main character in the famous “Once Upon a Time in the West” and part transported into a fantasy world featuring glamorous teepees, camp fires and traditional folk dances. Surrounded by red canyons, the sustainable resort and preserve offers the opportunity to learn more about wild Mustang horses, go on safaris and horseback riding excursions in the American wilderness, soak up the serene life of a beautiful corner of the world and even learn lassoing from a cowboy. Over in Mosca, Colorado, at the Nature Conservancy’s Zapata Ranch located on the eastern wall of the San Luis Valley and bordering the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, you will learn about bison, land conservation, renewable ranch practices and will observe how classic traditions are being preserved as America’s heritage. As the ranch stretches through evergreen forests, verdant meadows, wetlands and sand dunes, visitors will partake in a hands-on and truly gratifying cowboy experience.
Xe Pian, Laos: Laos still has some way to go to realise its tourism potential, but it looks set to shake off its nascent status with a renewed emphasis on infrastructure development and hospitality excellence. Authorities launched last July “The Mark” certification to boost hygiene standards of dining establishments and two significant developments in 2015 — gearing up for the launch of the Asean Economic Community or AEC on 31st December and, should the country’s lobbying be successful, the Plain of Jars emerging as the third UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos after Luang Prabang and Vat Phou — will spur greater effort into sprucing up the country as an investment-worthy market and eminent leisure destination in Southeast Asia. Get set to explore more of Laos’ flora and fauna over the next few years as tourism infrastructure improves and more travellers know about the natural beauty of this developing nation. We recommend starting in Xe Pian National Protected Area (NPA), one of the country’s most important nature reserves and the NPA with the highest number of bird species, seven of which are not found elsewhere in Laos. Within this sprawling forestry and wetlands scattered over the Champasak and Attapeu provinces, visitors will have the opportunity to spot the Asian elephant, tiger, Asiatic black bear, yellow-checked crested gibbon, Irrawaddy dolphin, giant ibis, sarus crane, red headed vulture, among others.
Pakse, situated along the famed Mekong, is also a premier cruising locale and the gateway to Vat Phou and Bolaven Plateau, the coffee capital, which makes a trip to Xe Pian all the more worthwhile.
Yemeni slice of peace: Far from the fighting and unrest in Yemen and Somalia is the desert island of Socotra out in the Indian Ocean. Despite being surrounded by water, the climate at Socotra is surprisingly arid, giving rise to more than 800 species of rare, odd-looking vegetation that dot the limestone and mountainous landscape. From trees with bulbous trunks to the mushroom-like Dragon’s Blood Tree that oozes red sap when cut, about a third of the island’s flora and fauna can only be found in Socotra. Inhabited by mostly indigenous tribes, the island lacks luxurious tourist facilities, but offers breath-taking landscapes like those out of sci-fi movies plus a slew of outdoor activities such as surfing, wildlife watching, fishing, scuba diving and camel rides. For those concerned about entering Yemen, which is often the main point of entry to the island, it is possible to fly direct to Socotra from Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.
Zermatt, Switzerland: Picture this: a car-free village, where Matterhorn peak looms large and white behind you, puncturing the vivid-blue Alpine sky. The sun glimmers on the powdery slopes and as you sit at a table on a balmy terrace, skiers swoosh and glide up and down on this iconic mountain, so popular that you can see it portrayed on everything from postcards to souvenirs. In Zermatt, everything is defined by altitude, by the vertical. The enormity of it all makes travellers speechless in the face of nature’s grandness, and, oh, what a feat is it to stand on the roof of the world! Surely, British climber Edward Whymper shared the same thought and leap of heart in 1865, when he reached the peak of Matterhorn together with his rope team. Today, that epochal triumph is still deeply engrained in Zermatt’s collective memory and basically the entire village’s history is cemented based on the event. This year, one-and-a-half centuries later, the village pays homage to the first ascent and celebrates with a series of festivities — and much glitz and glamour — which will keep both skiers and gourmands entertained.