The feeling of waking up in a new environment, marvelling at the natural, cultural and artistic riches of foreign lands, and connecting with and learning from individuals or communities so vastly different from (or somewhat similar to) us — travel is precious in one or all of these ways.

Not everyone loves to explore new destinations all the time, of course; some have favourite cities that they keep returning to while others have constraints such as having young children in tow that make navigating unfamiliar territory a tad more challenging. And let’s not forget, there are new experiences and things to try, whether you’ve been to that place once or far too many times.

Some, or perhaps all of us sometimes, yearn for an extraordinary escape that few have experienced. These are places that are not on the typical Asian tourist radar, somewhat rugged and may not necessarily have outstanding infrastructure for pampering visitors, and generally more expensive due to comparatively limited access — but definitely has the recipe for a memorable journey.

So if you are faced with the perennial question of what new place to venture to this year, here are a few under-the-radar destinations to consider.

Tapeka Point at Russell, one of the main towns at Bay of Islands in Northland

Tapeka Point near Russell offers stupendous vistas of the Northland’s celebrated Bay of Islands. Image credit:

Northland, New Zealand
New Zealand needs no introduction where tourism is concerned — this land of enrapturing nature, cultural heritage and fine gastronomy has captured many around the world and is especially appealing to Singaporeans as a family and self-drive destination. And it offers plenty, even for repeat visitors. While the South Island has for many years been the hook, some travellers now prefer to initiate their Kiwi adventures with the charms and pampering of the North Island. Not as well-known though is the northern-most part of North Island, an easy two- to four-hour drive from Auckland, but that’s all set to change in the coming years. Northland, in essence, is the answer to every nature lover’s dream, with pristine land and aquatic environments that can fascinate to no end. There are luxurious properties, from the raved-about Kauri Cliffs to the highly-anticipated Helena Bay Lodge opening in late 2016 to stunning villas overlooking the Bay of Islands. With tourist arrivals steadily increasing in the last two years and possibly a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama in May, there’s no better time to head north.

La Candelaria district in Bogota, Colombia

Bogotá’s La Candelaria district is home to old churches and key museums and public buildings. Image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Pedro Szekely, 2012)

There’s no denying this understated South American gem is on a roll. Bogotá emerged winner of South America’s Leading City Break Destination 2015 at the World Travel Awards last October; the country has gotten a lot more accessible with dozens of new international and domestic air routes in operation while the El Dorado International Airport recently activated a new air traffic control tower; there are now five Columbian restaurants on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 including Criterión, which won the highest climber award last year. The vibrant capital has more to crow about, such as luxury accommodation options — W Bogotá opened just over a year ago and has not stopped winning compliments, while Four Seasons is turning the heat on its competitors with the launch of Casa Medina last October and its second property the Four Seasons Hotel Bogotá this April. Look past the characterful metropolis with its plethora of architecture, museums, gastronomy and panoramic viewpoints, and you’ll be drawn into a land of coffee, Latin music and dance, Caribbean and Pacific beaches and Amazonian lungs. Cartagena, Medellín and Cali beckon, but squeeze in time also for the likes of Yopal and Valledupar.

Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

The Roman theatre in Plovdiv, dating back to the second century AD, was excavated about four decades ago. Image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Steffen Boelaars, 2011)

Plovdiv, Bulgaria
The second-largest city of Bulgaria is poised to finally step out of the shadows of capital Sofia. Already, it has solid credentials: Plovdiv is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in Europe as well as the eighth-oldest in the world according to the Telegraph, with rich edifices and artefacts that bear testament to its heritage. It has also been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019 (together with Matera) and crowned the Balkan Capital of Culture 2015 last month for its outstanding tourism push. Come late April, Plovdiv is set for another feather in the cap as it transforms into the world capital of wine. The prestigious Concours Mondial de Bruxelles is not only expected to attract a panel of over 320 professional experts representing more than 50 nationalities but also herald a new era of limelight for Plovdiv, which was selected as host city over established wine destinations in France, Spain, Australia and Argentina. Planned excavations to the Bishop’s Basilica or Great Basilica and Nebet Tepe — the hill where civilisation first started — will commence this year, adding more treasures to the revered Archaeological Museum.

Naqsh-e Rustam in Iran

Persian kings including Darius I were laid to rest in colossal, rock-cut tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam, near the ancient city of Persepolis in Iran. Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Christiaan Triebert, 2010)

Even before international sanctions against Iran were lifted, the world had been slowly awakening to the tourism allure of this Middle-Eastern country. Iran boasts a total of 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites, with seven inscribed this decade alone; a luxury train linking Europe and Iran made its inaugural journey in November 2014, with all 62 places snapped up within three weeks; European and American media have in recent months also hailed Iran as a tourist hotspot in 2016. Tehran, its capital, shines with an ensemble of compelling museums, blend of ancient and modern architecture, rich flavours of Persian cuisine and celebrated traditions such as intricate carpentry; the glorious Alborz mountains under 2 hours’ drive away is carpeted by powder for nearly five months each year will surely satisfy any winterlust. Esfahan, with its overwhelming Imam Square and gorgeous Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and poetry capital Shiraz resonate romance, while the magnificent Persepolis and desert beauty Yazd which sits along the ancient Silk Road, serve as fascinating windows into the past. If the balmy weather excites you, flock north to the shores of the Caspian Sea, Iran’s Riviera, where you will find sandy beaches and turquoise waters.

Looking down to South Africa from the Sani Pass

The Sani Pass rises over 1,300 metres to reach an altitude of 2,876 metres. Image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Andrew Ashton, 2009)

If you’re seeking an exotic destination coupled with adventure and time on the road, it may be time to look up the Roof of Africa. Lesotho, the (comparatively) tiny African country enveloped by South Africa with a minimum elevation of 1,400 metres, is a rugged altitudinous beauty that has certainly gone unnoticed for too long. This nature and adventure mecca offers loads of adrenaline-inducing activities including the world’s longest single-drop abseil at the Maletsunyane waterfall in Semonkong, mountain-biking the Drakensberg, hiking or horse-trekking through the mountain villages on Basotho ponies, and skiing and snowboarding beneath the Mahlasela Pass. Yet, it also presents highly-authentic cultural opportunities with its wealth of San art and Ha Baroana rock paintings and friendly ethnic community. This year, the several-year project to asphalt the Sani Pass — a challenging 40-kilometre journey from South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal province via 4x4s — is expected to be completed. With the Sani Pass revamp, not only will that drink at the highest pub in the continent become more accessible, but the country’s tourism goal of being the Switzerland of Africa is also another step closer.

Go to Quotient’s 2016 Travel Picks round-up

Winter in New Zealand - road lined with snow-covered trees