Where will you travel in 2011? It’s a juicy thought that inspires endless midwinter reverie, and never more so than during a week of waist-high snow drifts and slushy intersections. At times like these, I dream about places where holiday lights coil around palm trees.
Travel makes an excellent New Year’s resolution, and it’s a lot more fun than losing 10 pounds. The best destination is wherever you’re longing to go, of course — but there’s no denying the advantages in any given year of certain ports of call, be they great values, endangered places, newly hip or greatly improved.
I still think fondly of shoe-buying sprees in Barcelona in the 1990s, when the peseta was absurdly cheap; of the grungy local vibe in pre-dot-com San Francisco; of the formerly sleepy towns of Italy’s now-mobbed Cinque Terre, where a dozen years ago you could wander romantic cliffside paths that today are fee-entry “parks.” My dad reminisces about Key West in the ’60s, when it was a funky, cheap-living Navy town. While those places remain wonderful, there’s no denying, in each one, that a certain advantageous moment has passed forever.
Here, then, are my top picks for travel in 2011. And here’s to tomorrow’s fond memories.
1. Jerusalem. Obvious, you say? Beloved and essential, yet too familiar to merit a space atop this list? Think again. Even if you know Jerusalem like a sixth borough, you might be surprised at how this ancient city has blossomed with new life over the past year or two. While Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Haifa got all the press in the “aughts,” Jerusalem has new reasons to assert itself as Israel’s premier destination, with a slate of novel sights and a fresh, youthful spirit.
You can feel that spirit in the chic new hotels sprouting up in west Jerusalem, where trendy boutiques and stylish bars are giving Tel Aviv a run for its hipster money. Near the city gates, Santiago Calatrava’s soaring Chords Bridge is the talk of the town: bracingly modern yet timeless, its curving white limbs — curved in a tribute to King David’s harp — add a new element to the ancient skyline.
Last summer, the Israel Museum unveiled a gorgeous renovation that builds on its architectural legacy, with new and reopened galleries showcasing the country’s finest collections of art, archaeology and Judaica. Then there’s the 5-year-old Holocaust History Museum at the Yad Vashem complex, whose exhibits atop a scenic bluff near Mount Herzl have always been a top draw; this is probably the most comprehensive and among the most thoughtful of all Holocaust museums, and a must-see.
2. Rio de Janeiro. Another perpetually wonderful destination, Brazil’s sexiest city has long suffered a crime-plagued reputation, which worsened in the last decade. But with the World Cup preparations under way, police and other government bureaus are getting serious about tourist safety — raiding some of the notorious “favela” slums, confronting drug gangs, and putting security where it’s most visible to make visitors feel safe.
Rio has come a long way from the early 2000s, when broad-daylight gunfire scared tourists off the fabled beaches. In anticipation of the visitor wave, the city now boasts a cleaned-up waterfront lined with cafés, as well as several stylish new hotels and restaurants to accommodate the crowd. There’s also improved access for the disabled to transportation, sights and beaches. Cute historic neighborhoods like Lapa or Santa Teresa, with their artisan stalls and sunny plazas, feel safer than ever to wander after dark, and this has lead to a nightlife renaissance. For the soccer-mad or those who’ve always nurtured a samba dream, this is the perfect year to join in a global, Brazilian-style party.
3. Tulûm and the Yucatan. As Brazil has gotten safer, Mexico has been sliding precipitously into drug violence, lawlessness and terrifying headlines. I have a lot of Mexican friends, and those who cross into Tijuana or Juarez say the reports are not exaggerated. But Mexico is a big country, and — as with Israel in times of strife — in the right location, war can feel light years away.
That place might well be the secluded, violence-free Yucatan peninsula, where sleepy, palm-fringed beach towns meet limpid, bathtub-warm Caribbean waters. A brilliant sun ensures temperatures in the 80s most days of winter, when hurricane season is officially over. Yet even during high season, Mexican resorts are suffering this year; bookings are way down, especially from news-rattled Americans. This year you can stay at a four-star beachside resort in the rustic, candlelit town of Tulûm for less than any time in recent memory.
4. Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. These ex-Yugoslav republics remain the bargain region of Europe, thanks to their exclusion from the pricey euro zone. While neighboring Slovenia is already on the euro, and Croatia’s insanely popular beach resorts now boast Western price tags, their former neighbors offer a mix of romantic European style with surprisingly cheap tabs.
You’ll have to deal with customs as you enter these non-EU nations, and once there, you’ll find a corner of Europe that is less touristic, less cosmopolitan and more traditional. From the gorgeous Hapsburg-era boulevards of Sarajevo to Belgrade’s throbbing nightlife and the stunning beaches of Kotor, this is a region with much to discover — without the crowds or hype. Take a phrasebook, be alert for overcharging — and enjoy a week’s worth of terrific food and wine for the price of one Manhattan splurge.
5. Japan. A singular culture where ancient temples and cutting-edge cities peacefully coexist, Japan is a fascinating, safe country with some of the world’s friendliest people. It also has a reputation for being unaffordable — and remote.
Both of those are far less true today than in years past. New air routes and expanded international flights make flying an easier, and more competitively priced, proposition for Americans. On the wallet side, Japan’s economic doldrums have spawned a wave of new budget eateries and hotels — and as always, tipping is unheard of.
Rates at traditional-style guesthouses can be surprisingly reasonable; for many Westerners, sleeping on futons and eating Japanese-style is a cultural highlight. The Japan Rail Pass, available at www.japanrail.com (purchase before arrival), is a bargain for those planning to hit multiple destinations, especially since it covers most of the fast new bullet trains (most of which, finally, are non-smoking). And the Japan Tourism website, www.jnto.go.jp, even offers a downloadable brochure listing all the free things to do around the country — from Tokyo’s Imperial Palace East Garden to Kyoto’s legendary Buddhist shrines, and the world’s only parasite museum.