As the New Year sets in, life is filled with new energy and new hopes which inspires in the minds of people with an itchy foot where to travel in 2023. With hardly any Covid related restrictions in place, travel gurus forecast international travel to take preference over domestic. But the big question always strikes is where to go. Based on my extensive travel experience, I suggest the following: (Also read: Travel year-ender: Hottest Indian destinations in 2022)
As the bilateral relationship between the two countries is rapidly expanding, perhaps it’s the best time to visit down under, particularly when there are 22 direct weekly flights from Bengaluru and Delhi to Sydney and Melbourne.
Australia is a vast country and there is so much to see and experience, it’s impossible to cover all of them in one visit. So, beyond the big cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane on the east coast and Perth on the west front, I suggest something off-the-beaten-track but surely placed to offer an experience of a lifetime.
It’s to enjoy the natural beauty of Uluru, the largest monolith in the world. Located almost in the middle of the continent with a landscape characterized by vast plains of red soil, this sandstone formation is of unimaginable scale, taller than the iconic Eiffel Tower, jutting 348m from its barren surrounds. It has a circumference of 9.4 km covering a total area of 3.3 square km. Most interestingly it extends even further below ground to an amount unknown.
It’s hard to define its actual colour as it keeps continuously changing with time, becoming extraordinarily spectacular during sunrise and sunset. So early morning and late afternoon tours are the most popular activities for tourists, not to be ignored going around the rock either by foot or on a Segway for a close encounter. Camel rides are also available to inspire the feeling of being in a desert land.
Legend says the rock exists for as long as 40000 years, holding on to the ancestral spirits of local Anangu indigenous people. So, it’s very sacred to them, spiritually and culturally. However, like many other natural wonders of the world, this was also hidden from the rest of the world until European explorer William Gosse discovered it in 1873. Convenient domestic flight connections from all major Aussie cities and good quality staying and dining facilities ranks Uluru high on the bucket list of savvy travellers from around the world. The best time to visit is between April and October when the weather is pleasant, other times it can be hot.
If already down under, it’s worthwhile to stop for a few days in the neighbouring Kiwi Land which comprises two islands – the capital Wellington and big city Auckland in the North Island and pretty Christchurch and scenic Queenstown in the South drawing the majority of the tourism crowd. However, I again suggest a location here on the North Island, generally missed by the regular tourism radar but unquestionably extraordinary, different and pledged to pump heart. It’s Rotorua – the planet’s geothermal heartland which George Bernard Shaw after visiting in 1934 said, “I was pleased to get so close to hell and be able to return”.
He was referring to a ghostly landscape, gurgling with mud, hissing steam vents, nasty odours, and cavernous craters and collapsing lands that have aptly made the little town a haven for nature enthusiasts.
Dotted on the viciously volcanic “Pacific Rim of Fire”, it’s blessed with over 1200 geothermal spectacles each resulting from timeless outbursts of the huge amounts of turbulent energy from earth’s inner crust. Most of them are sectionalised into 5 main areas. Whakarewarewa is the biggest and home to the famous Pohutu geyser, which erupts almost every hour hurling spray up to 30m in the air. Hells Gate claims to be the sternest, Waiotapu seems to be the most colourful, Waimangu is the youngest while Orakei Korako, as proclaimed by Lonely Planet, is the finest in the world.
It’s also the heartland of the Maoris – the lands original settlers who migrated from Polynesia. Experiencing their age-old culture and traditions is an added attraction. Located three hours’ drive from Auckland, anytime is a good time to explore Rotorua.
While in the region, another destination worth visiting is New Caledonia which offers visitors a unique taste of France fused with Pacific odours. It’s a picturesque South Pacific Island discovered by British explorer James Cook in the late 17th century and held by the French since 1854.
The unique feeling of being in a French arena starts at the international airport in the capital Noumea when vocabularies like ‘Bonsoir Monsieur (Good Day Sir)’, ‘Wee (Yes), ‘Non (Non)’ and ‘Merci (Thank You)’ and so on greet ears. That feeling escalates when in town to find all billboards and street signage in French, roads occupied with Renaults and Peugeots, long sticks of baguettes displayed at the bakeries, aroma of garlic dominating in the food, well-groomed ladies walking with their dogs or giving way to a group of bike riders; we all know that the French love dogs and cycling.
A popular way of spending time in Noumea is to do nothing – just sit back and relax gazing at the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean from the balcony of an opulent hotel room or from a seaside café while sipping a latte. When bored, it’s okay to go to the sheltered bays for a swim, a sunbath or a trundle along the seaside under the shade of coconut trees. Or trying what the French love to do – play petanque with the locals, a sort of bowling game very popular in France.
Some other activities can be exploring the colourful local market in the morning at Port Moselle that shelters a modern marina, visiting 1887 built gothic Saint Joseph Cathedral and Tjibaou Cultural Centre which was opened in 1998 in recognition of the indigenous Melanesian Kanak culture, having a picnic at the Coconut Square, a popular spot for locals relaxing in the grass under the shades of century-old flame trees or if time permits enjoying a day trip to the nearby Amedee Island, 45 minutes by boat, to see the 150 year old, 56 m high stunning lighthouse that was built in France. The best time to visit is between April and October when the weather is pleasant, other times it can be hot.
Let’s fly a little far this time, up north to Southeast Europe to North Macedonia to see the birthplace of Albanian Catholic Saint Teresa, better known as Mother Teresa.
The highly revered missionary who lived most of her life in Kolkata was born in Skopje, now the capital of North Macedonia- a new country born in 1991 as one of the successor states of Yugoslavia.
As the Balkan War has settled, this historic destination has opened doors for visitors and has become a favoured place for admirers of Mother Teresa to be at her birth site, pay respect for all the humanitarian work she did, particularly for Kolkata’s poor and vulnerable and to learn more about the first part of her not so well-known early life by visiting the museum on site.
Living with the legacies of Alexander the Great, modern-day North Macedonia is a melting pot of Persian, Greek, Roman, Turkish, Serbian, and Soviet flavours. Rounded domes of Orthodox Christian churches share the skyline with towers of Muslim mosques, while limestone-crusted mountains rise over quiet villages and glittering lakes punctuate the wild countryside.
Skopje presents a mix of old and new. Split by the Vardar River, its one side is like an open air museum. The expansive arena is dotted with statues including one of Alexander the Great, colonnades, colossal buildings, manicured gardens and squares and riverfront cafes and restaurants. The other bank is the totally opposite – crowded but lively with bazaars, kebab shops and mosques displaying former Turkish characters. North Macedonia’s natural jewel is the sparkling Lake Ohrid, a popular escape to relax for a few days. Best time to visit is from June to September during European warmer months.
If the intention is to travel close to home, chilling out for a few days at Kuala Lumpur, the dazzling capital of Malaysia can be a great option for many. With direct flights from several Indian cities, this cosmopolitan, high-energy city is often touted as a confluence of the East and the West. Ranked as the 6th most-visited city in the world in 2019, it stands today as the nation’s cultural, financial, economic and political hub, displays a good mix of antiquity with ultra-modernism and offers a diverse range of things to do and see.
The architectural spread of the destination is a feast for the eyes. Dominated by the presence of 1998-built Petronas Twin Towers, the architectural ensemble includes British colonial influences, Asian traditions, Malay Islamic inspirations and 21st century designs. Most of the city’s British-era buildings were built towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These buildings were designed in a number of styles – Mughal, Moorish, Grecian-Spanish, Mock Tudor and Neo-Gothic or combining some of them. For an eye-catching experience the must-visits sites are the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the Old Railway Station, National Mosque, National Palace and the 421m tall KL Tower. These sites are all around the Bukit Bintang precinct where the city’s heart beats day and night. The city which remains hot and sultry throughout the year is great for shopaholics and foodies as well.
Regular Vietnam Airlines flights from Delhi to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam make legendary leader Ho Chi Minh’s land a rewarding destination to explore for a few days. First time visitors may spend time in Hanoi with a day trip to the world famous Halong Bay.
Like any Indian metropolis, the city’s lively atmosphere is full of crowd, chaos and cacophony. It’s perhaps one reason why travel connoisseurs love visiting this friendly city laid with gorgeous French colonial and traditional Vietnamese architecture and teeming with history, culture and friendliness.
The city’s attractions are endless, going through memoirs of Ho Chi Minh, whose life reads like a thriller, ranking at the top of any Hanoi itinerary. Other than his Mausoleum where his preserved body lies in a glass coffin inside a colossal granite structure and his humble home, called the House of Stilt, there are many museums in the city which narrate his exciting life. The French colonisers lived in Hanoi for almost 70 years and built Hanoi, as a modest replica of Paris. Their leftovers mark the older part of the city where mustard yellow European styled buildings fitted with green window shutters flank tree-lined avenues and boulevards. Amongst several, the most lens captured are the Beaux-style former French Presidential Palace, Hanoi Opera House, St Joseph’s Cathedral and the Metropole Hotel. Not to be missed in Hanoi is browsing through the shops in the old quarter and wandering around the Hoan Kiem Lake.
Sandip Hor is an Australia based international travel writer and photographer