By Anisha Shah
WHY VISIT AN EMERGING DESTINATION?
It is becoming ever easier to travel to remote pockets of the globe. Every year, emerging destinations brimming with travel potential rise in popularity, without the crazy crowds and tourist traps. Places such as the Pacific Islands, Madagascar and Bhutan offer a world apart with otherworldly landscapes and surreal sights. More travelers are seeking out exciting, edgy and unusual corners of the globe and want to discover these before the masses. Rwanda, Serbia, Iran: Once off-limits, these are little known to the majority of the population, beyond their names. But they're awakening to their own riches and are now inviting travelers to step into their borders and discover the beauty. Perceptions are evolving, and while some destinations may have had a turbulent history, the only legacy they hope to leave is one of richness of history, culture and beauty. Those who visit are rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime experiences that consistently top travel wishlists.
SO WHAT'S HOT FOR 2015?
2015 is set to materialize abundant, exciting, emerging voyages. If you're new to emerging destinations, take inspiration and consider trying one on your future travels. They will distance you from maddening crowds, keep you immersed in a world apart, and may even guide you to some super spots to retreat. Tracking silverback mountain gorillas through Rwanda's volcanic jungle, bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the most highly coveted wildlife experiences for 2015. For the culturally inquisitive, Iran and Uzbekistan are emerging. Visitor numbers are rising in both the former Silk Road nations, drawn by the legacy of powerful empires, exotic ancient cities and enchanting landscapes. For beauty at the beach, you can almost guarantee entire castaway expanses in the far-flung atolls of the Pacific Islands, where ancient cultures closely guard their traditions. Nicaragua and Colombia are Latin America's wondrous off-the-beaten-path destinations for 2015, with jungles, lakes, buzzing cities and two sun-drenched coastlines. Luxury-lusters can indulge here too, with the recent and new high-end boutique openings at the vanguard of Latin American luxury. For authenticity in Africa, Livingstone's "Lake of Stars" makes a headline appearance as an undiscovered jewel. Lake Malawi stuns travelers with vast powder-sand beaches and luxury havens in a spot of authentic paradise, offering two countries in one: Malawi and Mozambique.
THE TOP 15 EMERGING FOR 2015
The sparkling, vast, tanzanite Lake Malawi was coined "Lake of Stars" by David Livingstone. Inspiring a string of superlatives, Africa's third-largest and second-deepest lake is home to a thousand cichlid species. At the southern end, the national park is a Unesco World Heritage site comparable to Galapagos.
You may not have heard of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands or Kiribati. Flights offer panoramas of leafy green islands; empty, windswept beaches; and dazzling waters. Swim among the South Pacific coral reefs in the best of the planet's pantheon of dive locations. Meet thousands of stingless jellyfish in Palau and giant rays in Micronesia's islands. The human inhabitants of the Pacific islands have survived centuries of isolation, and ancestral tribal traditions are fiercely guarded. The Marshall Islands are another gigantic grouping of Pacific islands, east of Micronesia. They appear as dazzling denizens of castaway wilderness in the deep blue ocean. Kiribati is a string of coral atolls scattered along 4,000 kilometers of the Pacific. Their remoteness is mind-boggling, drifting between Hawaii and Australia.
3. Churchill, Arctic Canada
It's an ethereal, otherworldly landscape of crystalline icebergs, like gigantic diamonds, jutting out of shimmering glassy seas amid a blinding whitewash of ice. Animal movement confuses the eye. The Canadian Arctic archipelago is home to 20 percent of the world's polar bear population. Expeditions are pure whimsy. Get close to polar bears in a tiny tundra buggy, protected as the bears jump up. Kayak among beluga whales and seals, and luxuriate in nature's son-et-lumiere phenomenon, the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). Churchill attracts thousands of visitors in autumn, when polar bears move back to settle on ice over Hudson Bay. It's one of few human settlements where polar bears live wild. Wilderness lodges built on the bear migration route are truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences. According to a recent study funded by the World Wildlife Fund, shrinking Arctic ice is driving polar bears to extinction. Now is the time to visit.
The Lone Star State has undergone a rebirth. Edgy and vibrant, beyond the cowboy boots and steaks, you can eat gourmet vegan and hike 120 state parks. As oil giants are moving in, cash injections are fuelling an electric music, art and gourmet scene.
With the adventures of Mowgli in India's jungle being adapted for the big screen next year, the introduction of a luxury cruise ship along the Ganges, and new hotel openings in offbeat locations, India remains a firm focus for 2015. Hyderabad, the "City of Pearls" and the capital of Andhra Pradesh, bathes in a rich royal history of opulence and elegance. The legacy remains today in the Old City, where enchanting bazaars, ornate mosques and private art museums vie for attention. The Gujarat remains the wild heart of India. Off the popular tourist trails, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi is surrounded by rural tribal villages, traditional textiles, unimpeded wildlife parks and sacred mountaintop temples. Witness here the daily beauty of rural India. Time your trip to one of the vibrant religious festivals for sheer Indian immersion.
The highlight of Rwanda is experiencing silverback mountain gorillas up close. At 250 kilograms, the gentle giants are wildly endearing, particularly after hiking through rainforest and volcanic jungle. The petite Central East African country personifies natural beauty. Multicolored villages crown undulating hills, every inch of land farmed for agriculture, while the culture screams of unity and forgiveness unlike anywhere on Earth, following the brutal genocide of '94. Kigali's Genocide Memorial Museum is unforgettable and uplifting. Hike Rwanda's Nyungwe National Park rainforest, tracking 11 monkey species, and recline in luxurious tea plantation surrounds at Nyungwe Forest Lodge. Picnic at Lake Kivu, one of Africa's Great Lakes, which sustains 2 million lakeside dwellers. Pick the perfect spot amid virgin lake islands, where African birds soar.
Mystery and oriental beauty charm Uzbekistan as the archaeological, architectural and cultural gem of Central Asia. Safer than troubled neighbors, Uzbekistan is literally emerging. Positioned at the crest of two rivers, the fascinating republic was a key link on the Silk Road. It is home to some of the oldest fabled towns in the world: Samarkand, with exquisite Islamic architecture, and Bukhara and Khiva, with dominant fortresses. The old ambiance of the Silk Road lives on in tea-houses and oriental bazaars, where traditional textiles gathers in a sense of the olden era. Capital Tashkent is a modern city steeped in history. The countryside scenes embody natural beauty with mountains, verdant valleys and the arid Aral Sea basin out west.
The 2015 Central American starlet, Nicaragua, is buzzing with planned boutique hotel openings, discrete tourism, and a landscape of mountains, volcanoes, lakes and brilliant beaches spanning two coastlines. With the oldest Spanish colonial history in the region, Nicaragua is rivaling its neighbors and stepping out. San Juan del Sur has long been the surfer's insider secret. Little Corn Island is a tiny pocket of paradise, where life is the essence of chill. Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America, is peppered with hundreds of tiny islands, "Las Isletas," easily navigable by boat. Then there are the colonial cities. Bohemian Leon bears the largest church in Central America, while Granada is a classic colonial city. Colorful churches, characterful houses and narrow alleyways are flanked by tiny cafes. Luxury abounds at Jicaro Island Ecolodge, on its own private island.
Glinting green rainforest, sapphire sea and mountain peaks swirl in the mist in the fourth-largest island in the world. Madagascar is Borneo meets Bora Bora. The fantastical otherworldly corner of the continent, 250 miles off the coast of mainland Africa, is untouched, so much so that it's considered the last remaining eco-paradise on Earth. Giant baobabs of the "Avenue of the Baobabs" grace images of Madagascar the world over. With a thousand endemic and unique species, such as the ring-tailed lemur, and striking African beaches, it is for everyone. Under-the-radar, undeveloped and undiscovered, this is a go-now destination. Surreal landscapes are inhabited by curious cultures, with 18 tribes very loyal to ancient customs. Witness the Famadihana festival, in which the tribe digs out the bones of ancestors and dances around the tombs to traditional music.
Emerging from the shadows of grittier, smoggier and congested China, Taiwan is a breath of fresh air. Team great value with gourmet gastronomy and you've struck gold. 2014 has seen record visitor numbers -- projected 9.5 million by year end. Next year is set to shatter that. Modern and bustling, yet unhurried, capital Taipei will be crowned 2016 World Design Capital. Eclectic traditions, intriguing temples and palaces and effortless landscapes add to its appeal. Shop affordably at every level, from night markets to high-end malls, partake in adventurous outdoor activities such as hiking and rock climbing, and engage in the vibrant cultural scene.
Bhutan has declared 2015 "Visit Bhutan Year" with events to celebrate the 60th birthday of the adored king. Nestled high in the Himalayas, the veritable Shangri-La is remote and hard to reach. The country's cautious tourism policy, guided by sustainability, closely observes visitor numbers. Greenery and wildlife ornament snow-capped plateaus. The air is pristinely clean. The Bhutanese are educated and effervescent. Spirituality is their way of life, evidenced by the smattering of Buddhist monasteries and citadel-styled dzongs. Tiger's Nest monastery, "Takshang Lakhang," is one of Bhutan's most sacred. It's a steep uphill climb to the striking building, which clings to a cliff face on a precarious perch.
This is both the original and the newcomer in the Caribbean. St. Kitts was originally famous for its larger hotels. But new properties are whisking the islands into a luxury category to rival the best. The development of a new state-of-the-art marina will bring added berths. And a luxurious new private airport terminal, the YU Lounge, offers an exclusive enclave for paying customers to retreat airside. This sets the scene for an exciting Caribbean renaissance.
Colombia has lost tourists in the past, deterred by security concerns. It once remained the closely guarded secret of backpackers. But things have turned around; as per the local saying, "the only risk is wanting to stay." Enjoy cool colonial cities such as Cartagena, lovingly restored, with its Unesco walled city, salsa and pirate history, and Caribbean beach towns like Santa Marta, with its rum, fun and access to the jungle, where you'll find the Lost City ("La Ciudad Perdida") and Tayrona National Park, top highlights. The latter is a stellar oasis off the beaten path. In contrast, major cities Medellin, Cali and Bogota have long attracted tourism for dance clubs, live music, food and ambiance.
The crossroads of culture and influence, Serbia lies at a crucial crux in the Balkans. Bordered by the Carpathian mountains and the Danube river, straddling Hungary, Romania, Croatia and Kosovo, its geography has caused it a troubled past. Serbia also spans civilizations, owing to its history of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman rule. The exoticism is infused in the delicious mélange of cultures, reflected in Serbia's cuisine, lifestyle and architecture today. The countryside is bejeweled with ancient monasteries and candlelit churches standing as silent sentinels over epochs of war. Watched over by biblical mountains and forests hugging its lands, Serbia plays host to a staggering collection of ecclesiastical and natural treasures. Capital Belgrade is an eclectic, underrated European city. It's best visited in spring and summer, when coffee shops and restaurants overflow in street gaiety. If time permits, stop by the prescribed countryside health spas for total rejuvenation.
Everything you think you know, forget it. Iran is an eye-opener like no other. Famed for the genuine warmth and welcome of friendly locals, Iran shatters its political image. Fascinating and enchanting, it's a vast, attractive nation of ancient Islamic architecture, prominent desert ruins, nomadic tribes, cosmopolitan cities, ancient towns and abundant Unesco World Heritage sites. Interest in Iran is surging since the election of President Rouhani, which loosened the chokehold on visas. Talk of the reinstallation of the British embassy in Tehran is placing it firmly on the emerging travel map. For the culturally inquisitive, Iran is a treasure trove of well-preserved historical sights, intriguing culture and mountains, desert and seas. Go skiing or hit the beach, explore exquisite mosques and magical madrassas, hear classic Persian poetry and eat splendid cuisine. Dress code does apply, and travel isn't advised according to several government websites.