Around this time of the year, like clockwork, we look up from our screens and keyboards in surprise that another year has almost passed by in the blink of an eye. Well, before 2020 comes around, make the most of what’s left of 2019 to plan your dream vacation, instead of scrambling to book last-minute long weekend trips.
How about going somewhere far flung and off the beaten path next year? Like the spectacular ancient Indian capital of Hampi, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where beautifully preserved ruins bring history to life before you. Or experience a vibrant cultural festival in Bhutan, the world’s happiest country.
For a hassle-free adventure to delve into the history, culture and landscape of these destinations – and more – luxury travel agency Scott Dunn has a series of small group Signature Departures for 2020. Here, their travel experts suss out the highlights of four bucket-list worthy itineraries for pampered jet setters.
ANCIENT ARCHITECTURE: DECCAN PLATEAU, INDIA
Step away from India’s touristy Golden Triangle circuit of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur to explore the awe-inspiring Deccan Plateau, which spans western and southern India, where there are hidden cave systems and ancient capitals to wander through.
Highlights include Hampi, a Unesco World Heritage site, which was once the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire, one of the most significant Hindu kingdoms in history. Scattered through the site are ruins of giant temples, lavish palaces and even elephant stables. Do not miss the 15th century Vittala Temple, one of the most extravagant remains at the site.
Do not miss the incredible Ellora Caves, one of the largest rock-cut temple complexes in the world, which are sacred to the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths. The carvings and paintings housed within these temples and monasteries are cultural gems that are not to be missed.
Over in Hyderabad, make your way to the old city and visit Mecca Masjid, which was completed in 1694 and can house over 10,000 people at once.
Then, kick back in one of the luxury beach resorts of Goa, amidst its idyllic soft white sand beaches. If you time your trip right, you can also attend the annual Goa Carnival (Feb 22–25) which has been celebrated since the 18th century. The boisterous procession features local royalty as well as dancers and performing troubadours.
CULTURE VULTURE: IRAN
Mystical Iran, the heart of the Persian civilisation, is one of the most beguiling countries to visit in modern times. Take a deep dive into its fascinating culture and traditions with a stay in Persepolis, the ancient Persian ceremonial capital, with ruins that showcase the Achaemenid style of architecture.
Then head to the Citadel of Rayen, which dates back to the 5th century CE, to explore this deserted mud-brick city which remains remarkable intact today. In the capital Tehran, the National Museum of Archaeology houses an excellent collection of artefacts as well as the world’s largest pink diamond.
To take the road less travelled, visit Northwest Iran to seek out some of the country’s most remote historical sites. The photogenic Imamzadeh Saleh mirrored shrine will wow with its intricately patterned mirrored tiles, while the cultural centre of Hamedan is where the tombs of cultural greats like the physician Avicenna and poet Baba Taher are located.
History buffs will certainly relish a stay in Kandovan, which is rumoured to be the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Stay at the Laleh Kandovan International Rocky Hotel, which features rooms cut into the rocks – the way the locals have lived for centuries.
FESTIVALS GALORE: BHUTAN
This tiny Himalayan kingdom has been on the radar of intrepid explorers for a while now, but there are still many ways to experience it in a new light. For starters, attend its vibrant, colourful festivals to gain insights into how this deeply traditional country keeps age-old practices alive.
The most exciting is the Punakha Drubchen (March 2–4), which takes place in the first month of the lunar year. It celebrates the country’s victory from a 17th-century Tibetan invasion. Performers re-enact the war through a series of dances and processions, while dressed in colourful regalia.
Then, enjoy the Tshechu Punakha Festival (March 5–7), which honours Padmasambhawa, the yogi-saint who is said to have introduced Tantric Buddhism to the region. The dances are performed by monks clad in intricate masks and brocade attire and features chants and the reading of Buddhist scripts.
Do also take time to savour leisurely walks through Bhutan’s famed verdant rice paddies, babbling brooks and picturesque forested mountains to truly understand why this abundance of nature makes it the world’s happiest country.
SURREAL LANDSCAPES: ATACAMA, CHILE AND BOLIVIA
If you’re going to travel halfway around the world to South America, you might as well make it worth your while by striking two countries off your bucket list at once. Immerse yourself in the otherworldly high-altitude landscape of the continent with a sojourn through Chile’s vast Atacama desert plateau and Bolivia’s jaw-dropping Salar de Uyuni white salt flats.
The Atacama, the world’s driest desert, is a wonder of nature, with its barren landscape sculpted into surreal forms over the millennia. At the Valley of the Moon, which has not received a drop of rain in over a century, you might feel like you are moonwalking through dunes and rock formations. By night, be sure to sign up for a stargazing experience – there’s no better place on the planet to contemplate the vast expanse of the universe and to pick out the various constellations across the Milky Way.
Then, cross the border to Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano where there are multi-coloured flamingo-inhabited lagoons to gawk at. At the famous Salar de Uyuni, you will realise why this area is called the world’s biggest mirror. During the wet season, the rains turn the endless expanse of salt flats into giant reflective surfaces where you can take some very impressive photographs for bragging rights on Instagram.