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10 worldwide hot spots to visit in the new year

Included is New Zealand, land of ‘Lord of Rings’

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Here are our choices for 10 hot international destinations in the new year.


Sure, the Summer Olympics are coming Aug. 13-29, but we're more excited about the much-needed, long-lasting improvements to the city's transportation system.

Details: We can't really say whether Athens will be ready for the Games — and we can't say we're that concerned. The Games will go on, clogged subways, heinous traffic jams and all. We're happier that a difficult-to-navigate, traffic-filled city will become friendlier to tourists post-Olympics because of subway extensions and upgrades, new light rail and trolley systems, a new airport and better traffic management. What does it all mean to those who venture to the Grecian capital next fall and beyond? "You get more for your money, because you can do more in a day," said Peter Tarlow, an international travel security consultant.

Where to stay: During the Games, we suggest you sleep on a yacht — no joke — because that's about the only place left for lodging. Daily rates start at $750 for 12 people through Alpha Yachting (011-30-210-968-0486, www.alphayachting.com). During the non-trying times, stay at the renovated Grande Bretagne (Vasileos Georgiou A'1, 888-625-5144; from $372) with Acropolis views, or use the improved transportation to reside on the coast in Glyfada — 10 miles from downtown Athens — at the hotel Emmantina (33 Possidonos Ave., 011-30-210-898-0683; from $112).

Info: Athens 2004, www.athens2004.com; Greek National Tourist Organization, 212-421-5777, www.greektourism.com.

Great Exuma, Bahamas

Now that U.S. travelers are realizing there's more to the 700-island country than the well-worn resorts of Nassau and Freeport, tourism experts say the Exumas are North America's next warm-your-toes destination.

Details: Much of the 500-mile long Bahamian archipelago is pristine and untouched, with mainstream development isolated to the two towns for which the Bahamas are best known. But the Exumas are next on the growth list, thanks to the opening of the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay in January and a greater number of flights from the United States (the best connections are via Miami). Once you have one high-end hotel, others tend to follow, and already a number of boutique hotels and other properties have started jockeying for the best spots on the sand.

Where to stay: Rooms at the new Four Seasons (242-336-6800) are $495 a night. If that's too many clams to shell out, consider floating accommodations with a weeklong rental through Bahamas House Boats (242-336-2628, www.bahamahouseboats.com; from $1,750 weekly or $275 daily). Better yet, reserve one of seven pastel-hued cottages on a mile-wide island in the middle of the Exumas at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club (242-355-2024, www.stanielcay.com; from $110).

Info: Bahamas Tourist Office, 800-422-4262, www.bahamas.com.


Though east Africa is spectacular, some safari enthusiasts wave it off as over-visited, and acts of terrorism in Kenya last year frightened some travelers off. Peaceful Botswana, just north of South Africa, is attracting new attention.

Details: "Botswana is a shining light in Africa, and that hasn't gotten around yet. That's the beauty of it," said Julian Harrison, president of Premier Tours in Philadelphia and a frequent visitor. Elephants, lions and giraffes are among the wildlife spotted on the savannas, wetlands and salt pans of the relatively well-off country. You also might spy critters strolling by your lodge veranda or from the relative safety of a wooden platform in a tree. Most travelers visit the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta on Earth, teeming with birds, or Chobe National Park, with thousands of elephants gathering along the river.

Where to stay: Private mobile tents set up and transported by guides offer flush toilets, hot meals and protection against rambunctious critters. Custom Safaris (866-530-1982, www.customsafaris.com) can make the arrangements; plan to pay upward of $1,000 a night. Accommodations on package deals arranged through Premier Tours (800-545-1910, www.premiertours.com; from $4,195 per person for a 10-night trip, including flights, meals and activities) are in tented camps built on raised platforms.

Info: Embassy of Botswana, 202-244-4990; Tourism of Botswana, www.gov.bw/tourism.


With the benefits of both snowy mountains and sunny Black Sea resorts, the former communist nation is on the short list of for adventurous travelers to Europe. Just a handful of other Eastern European nations have the desirable geographical mix of mountains and beaches, with Bulgaria the most prepared for tourism.

Details: Wedged between Greece, Turkey and Romania, Bulgaria abandoned communism in 1989. Its capital, Sofia, is modernizing, the ski resorts of the Rila Mountains are affordable, and the countryside remains traditional and friendly. Sofia is a feast of historic churches, museums and tree-lined boulevards. It's also just a 10-mile bus ride from popular skiing and hiking area of Mount Vitosha to the south. The gorge town of Veliko Tarnovo and the fishing town of Nesebar appeal to history buffs.

Where to stay: Aside from family-run establishments, most hotels in downtown Sofia are still 1950s-style socialist high-rises. But newer hotels are starting to open, including Central Hotel (Blvd. Hristo Botev 52, 011-359-2-981-2364; from $120) and Hotel Maria Luisa (Blvd. Maria Luisa 29, 011-359-2-980-5577; from $90).

Info: Embassy of Bulgaria, 202-387-0174, www.bulgaria-embassy.org; Bulgarian Tourism, www.bulgariatravel.org.


With volcanoes, tropical beaches, rain forests and cobblestone towns, Ecuador has just about everything you'd want in a South American destination — all jammed into a friendly, easily navigable country the size of Nevada. Plus, the politics and economy are stable in this Pacific Coast country

that finally is starting to be recognized for more than its ownership of the Galapagos Islands.

Details: The no-hassle U.S. currency, the prevalence of English in the capital of Quito, a stable political climate and ease of transportation are putting Ecuador on the eco-tourist's map, said Atlanta travel consultant Pam Walker, a South American travel expert. Quito, though burdened with street crime in some areas, boasts sweeping valley vistas of the sleeping volcanoes and is a good base for trips to the Equatorial Line Monument, where latitude equals zero; the town of Otavalo, known for its Saturday morning market where locals dress in traditional costume; and the Avenue of Volcanoes, where the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, resides. Continuing south, the town of Cuenca has a cobblestoned town center with buildings dating to the 1600s, and the Ecuador Amazon Basin is the center of action for eco-travelers. And oh yes, don't forget the famed Galapagos, filled with endemic wildlife and plants that made Charles Darwin and natural selection famous.

Where to stay: Haciendas or eco-lodges are popular choices. In Otavalo, two hours from Quito, the Hacienda Pinsaqui (011-593-6-294-6116; from $98) sits at the base of a volcano, with centuries-old gardens. Near the border with Peru in the Amazon Basin, the Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve (011-593-4-228-5711; from $600 for a three-night stay) has been praised by ecologists for its environmental missions.

Info: Embassy of Ecuador, 202-234-7200, www.ecuador.org; Ecuador Ministry of Tourism, www.viveecuador.com.


First Belize was on everyone's Central American radar screen, then Costa Rica became the eco-tourist's darling. Now Honduras, with untouched rain forests, mountains and 400 miles of Caribbean coastline, is starting to get its due.

Details: Adventure seekers go to Honduras — tucked between Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua — to scuba dive or fish around the Bay Islands off the northern coast, to explore Pico Bonito National Park or to see the Mayan ruins of Copan, one of the top archaeological sites in Central America. Visitors marvel at the bird-watching and cloud forests of two seldom-visited national parks (La Muralla and Sierra de Agalta in the eastern part of the country) or the uninhabited tropical rain forests of the Mosquito Coast and the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, where about 80 percent of Honduras' species are protected. One word of caution: Street smarts are needed throughout the country.

Where to stay: The Bay Islands and wildlife such as jaguars and monkeys can be seen from the inland observation towers at the Lodge at Pico Bonito (888-428-0221; from $155), the nation's first eco-lodge. If you want to call the Bay Islands home for a few days, consider the town of Roatan, where the B&B at the Sante Wellness Center day spa (510-315-1238; $95) is on the beach.

Info: Honduras Institute of Tourism, 800-410-9608, www.hondurasinfo.hn.


In 1995, Montserrat went from being a posh Caribbean island reserved for the affluent to a mostly volcano-ravaged landscape that displaced more than half the island's population. However, the volcano sleeps now. Volcanophiles can tour the ruined regions, spy on the still-steaming volcano and relax on the parts of the island left unharmed.

Details: Before the Soufriere Hills erupted, Montserrat was a ritzy place to vacation. But only the northern part of the island, with rain forests and black-sand beaches, survived unscathed. The southern half, including the capital of Plymouth, is now monochromatically caked in thick ash and mud, "a bit like an old sepia-tinted photo," said Gillian Norton, chief scientist at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. Most everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. And that's not about to attract the big spenders anytime soon. Translation: A previously pricey Caribbean island is now rather affordable. The island is accessible only via hour-long ferry service or 15-minute helicopter rides from Antigua, 27 miles to the northeast. Most volcano-ruined sections can be entered between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. only, by government regulations.

Where to stay: The cottage-style Vue Pointe Hotel (664-491-5210; from $90) reopened Dec. 1 with views of the volcano. In 1999, out of reach of the volcano, the 18-room Tropical Mansion Suites (664-491-8767; from $119) debuted on the site of a historic sugar mill.

Info: Montserrat Tourist Board, 664-491-2230, www.visitmontserrat.com; Montserrat Aviation Services (for transport to the island), 664-491-2362; Montserrat Volcano Observatory, 664-491-5647, www.mvo.ms.

New Zealand

The island's other-worldly landscapes have drawn moviemakers to its countryside and shores, where a number of recent Hollywood flicks were filmed. Travelers who couldn't get enough of the scenes on the big screen are heading there in droves to see the real thing.

Details: With the aid of an RV rented in Auckland — New Zealanders and visitors on holiday are taking to them with zeal — you can head to Eastland to see the region where "Whale Rider" took place or go south to the farming province of Taranaki, where Tom Cruise's "Last Samurai" was recently filmed. But most cinema buffs are flocking to "Middle-earth" — the mythical home of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which has become a Kiwi marketing gem thanks to more than 150 film locations nationwide. The set for Hobbiton is in Matamata, while giant battle scenes were fought in Queenstown. And fans will recognize volcanic Mount Ruapehu as the caldron-like Mount Doom, where the evil Sauron called home. Even if you want to avoid the Hollywood-style marketing, New Zealand by motor home is fun, with many campgrounds, easy-to-navigate roads and a big social network of other RVers.

Home base: If you have the time, Explore New Zealand Holidays (011-64-3-366-6735, www.explorenewzealand.co.nz) has a three-week RV rental for the price of two weeks (from $359 a week) from April until October. Gateway Motor Home Hire (011-64-9-296-1652, www.motorhomehire.co.nz) rents RVs that sleep two to five people, with rates starting at $59 a day. Red Carpet Tours (011-64-9-410-6561) www.redcarpet-tours.com) runs tourists through different regions where "Lord of the Rings" scenes were filmed and shows them privately owned movie sets during two-week tours that include meals, lodging and local transport. From $2,578.

Info: New Zealand Tourism, 866-639-9325, www.newzealand.com.

Northern Manitoba

Two words — polar bears. The northern part of this central Canadian province — particularly the town of Churchill — is a prime place to spot Ursus maritimus, as well as other dramatic wildlife that can't be seen in many accessible places.

Details: The wildlife scene in Manitoba is unmatched, between frolicking polar bears in the fall and the 20,000 snow-white Beluga whales that flood the western Hudson Bay and Churchill River each summer. Combine that with stellar bird-watching, nature expeditions on the flowering tundra and a glimpse of the Northern Lights, and you have a wealth of eco-delights. Polar bears, though, are the biggest draw. The bears spend part of their year living on the ice of Hudson Bay, but between August and mid-November, when the ice disappears, they mosey onto land. There are about 1,400 polar bears in the area, accessible to visitors via "tundra buggy" tours.

Where to stay: The town of Churchill is close to several national parks and is accessible by train. The Aurora Inn (888-840-1344; $72) sees business pick up when the polar bears come out to play. The Bear Country Inn (204-675-8299; from $68) shows nature movies in its lobby, just in case your outdoor trek yielded disappointing results.

Info: Travel Manitoba, 800-665-0040, www.travelmanitoba.com; Churchill Northern Studies Centre, 204-675 2307.


Taiwan's traditional culture, temples and phenomenal national museum are catching the attention of Asiaphiles, despite the fact that political tensions with mainland China are increasing.

Details: Taiwan maintains it is an independent nation, but China disagrees, pointing hundreds of missiles in the direction of the self-governing island and threatening war. "That's what they say, but I would never hesitate to send anyone there," said Edith Cohen, an Albuquerque, N.M., travel consultant with an expertise in Taiwan. "Believe me, China is not going to do that." Prospective travelers should, of course, monitor the political situation, but if all remains calm, Taiwan is a destination in waiting. In the capital city of Taipei, the new National Palace Museum contains the world's largest collection of imperial Chinese artifacts, gathered from nationalists fleeing China in 1949. At the 12-mile-long Taroko Gorge and the resort town of Tienhsiang at its base, hot springs and hikes are the big draws. In the mountain resort of Alishan, it's popular to visit a 3,000-year-old tree that locals consider mystical. On the southwest coast, Tainan is replete with traditional temples.

Where to stay: Taipei is a good base for day or overnight trips to the outlying areas. One of the first hostels in the city, the Taiwan Hostel (6/F, No. 11, Lane 5, Linsen North Rd., 011-886-2-2395-2950; from $16), which is close to public transport, is a budget accommodation with a rooftop garden. The Agora Garden (87 Sung-Kao Rd., 011-886-2-8780-5168; from $220), in the business and entertainment district, has modern, luxury apartment-style rooms.

Info: Taiwan Visitors Association, 212-867-1632, www.taiwan.net.tw.