Travel Picks: Top 10 places off the beaten path

Fri Jan 25, 2013 7:38am EST

LONDON, Jan 25 (Reuters) - While the arrival of a new year
often means diets and resolutions, it also means a slew of new
vacation days. With their upcoming travels in mind, the members
and editors of VirtualTourist.com (www.virtualtourist.com) have
selected their "Top 10 Places off the beaten path". Reuters has
not endorsed this list: 

1.  Chile
    Stretching 4,270 km (2,653 mi) along the Pacific Ocean,
Chile's length and range of latitudes (from subtropical to
subAntarctic) create incredible biodiversity and a variety of
natural settings to see and enjoy. Most travelers planning to
visit Chile will want to do so in the next few months, as this
is the country's summer season, meaning temperate weather and a
chance to explore areas of Chilean Patagonia that are difficult
to traverse in other seasons.
    Torres del Paine National Park is in splendid form during
these months, and the region's famous winds are the most
manageable they will be all year. However, there is no shortage
of incredible spots to see in Chile year round, like the Atacama
Desert, Santiago, and Valpariso. One of the most arid places in
the world, the Atacama is an especially great site for avid
starwatchers since the sky is completely clear about 340 days a
year. Santiago, Chile's capital city, is a growing metropolis
and located adjacent to fantastic vineyards. Valpariso, only 74
miles (120km) from Santiago on the coast, is a UNESCO World
Heritage Site known for its sloping hills filled with colorful
homes and Chile's most vital port.
2. Norway
   Since NASA has predicted that the winter season (October 2012
- April 2013) in the Northern Hemisphere will be the brightest
northern lights display in 50 years, it makes sense that two of
our destinations are spots to see this natural occurrence.
Aurora Borealis, the scientific term for the northern lights,
occurs when energetic particles are flung out from the sun and
hit the magnetic field around Earth, and this year's conditions
suggest some of the best sightings since 1958. As the
phenomenon's name suggests, the display is most commonly seen in
a zone within a certain radius of the North Pole, in an area
including Iceland, northern Scandinavia, northern Canada,
Alaska, and some parts of Siberia. Tromsø, located above the
Arctic Circle, is known as "the capital of the Arctic" within
Norway. With relatively mild winters and long winter nights, it
is an ideal location for viewing the northern lights. However, a
lack of storms does not mean you should pack light - the average
temperature in Tromsø from January to April is about 31 degrees
Fahrenheit (-0.55 Celsius), so remember your gloves or mittens.
Also, make sure to avoid the full moon and places with lots of
lights, as these will interfere with your viewing. During the
daytime hours, visitors can check out the Arctic Cathedral, with
its beautiful glass mosaic.
3.  Myanmar
    Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been added to many
travelers' wish lists in the last year after the nation held
elections and U.S. political leaders visited the Southeast Asian
country. While the destination just recently appeared on the
general public's radar, VirtualTourist members have been
traveling and enjoying the country for years. In Yangon (also
called Rangoon), visitors will find the Shwedagon Paya known to
be the most sacred of all Burmese temples with a golden stupa
that can be seen from miles away. Members did note that the
complex is filled with things to do and see, and it can be a bit
overwhelming so make sure to allow at least half a day to
explore the site. Farther north, the Mandalay division showcases
some of the country's other types of structures such as the teak
temple and also hosts great views from atop Mandalay Hill.
Members frequently visited the temples and pagodas of Bagan
noting that the Shwesandaw Paya is the best viewpoint of the
temples and sunsets in Bagan.
4.  Sibiu, Romania
    With exploring Eastern Europe becoming more mainstream,
Romania is rapidly turning out to be a great destination for
budget-conscious travelers. Bordering Hungary, the Ukraine, and
the Black Sea, Romania contains some of Europe's most
well-preserved medieval towns. VirtualTourist members will be
hosting their annual member meeting this June in Sibiu, a
township in historic Transylvania, with plans to explore the Old
Saxon architecture of Brasov and the hilltop citadel of nearby
Sighisoara. While staying in Sibiu, visitors should see the
Bruckental Museum, the region's finest art museum, which has
been operating since 1790. And yes, this is the land of Dracula,
or at least the origin and inspiration for Bram Stoker's novel
can be traced back here. Two castles that should not be missed
are Bran, a Gothic fairytale structure near Brasov, and
Corvinesti Castle, located in nearby Hunedoara. Multiple members
are also planning on traveling south to visit Bucharest,
Romania's capital, or seeing more of Eastern Europe, like
Moldova, Budapest, or Slovakia.
5.  Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
    Every year, more VT members make the trek to experience the
Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. One of the most
fragile environments on Earth, the islands, their national park
and the marine biological reserve comprise the only province
totally surrounded by water. Though the islands were removed
from the UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger over two
years ago, the ecosystem and its unique species are still
fragile and undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ecuador
has also taken steps to make traveling to the islands easier
than ever: this year, new railway lines will link the capital of
Quito with the coastal port of Guayaquil. In addition to
visiting the Galapagos, VirtualTourist members also recommend
visiting Cuenca, a colonial city famous for its architectural
sites and variety of buildings and only a 2 hour and 50 minute
drive from Guayaquil, the most common port of entry to the
Galapagos.
6.  Shanghai, China
    The primary bastion of economic growth in mainland China,
Shanghai is an interesting juxtaposition of historic buildings
and booming growth, and it's never been easier to visit than
now. Starting on January 1st of this year, visitors from 45
countries will be able to stay in Shanghai (as well as Beijing)
for 72 hours without needing a visa. Start your three days at
the Shanghai Museum, located on People's Square, and get an
introduction to the city and China's fascinating history. A
great comparison between old China and new Shanghai can be seen
by strolling Dongtai Road's antiques shops, followed by a visit
to Moganshan Road, the buzzing location of many Chinese
contemporary art galleries. Lastly, don't forget to take in the
skyline and light shows at night - the Pearl Tower, Shanghai
World Financial Center, and other towers in the Pudong district
provide great views, as do the hotels across the river on the
Bund.
7.  Sri Lanka
    The island of Sri Lanka has long been a fly-over country for
most travelers, due to its extensive history of civil unrest,
but it's time for this jungle isle to shine. After over four
years of stability, it is becoming a popular destination for
budget conscious travelers wanting to try something new in
Southeast Asia. For travelers looking for a safari experience,
Sri Lanka offers just as much amazing wildlife as Africa, but is
much more budget-friendly. Wild elephants, leopards and spotted
deer are just a sample of the mammals you can see in one of the
island's fourteen national parks. 
Yala National Park, the most visited and second largest national
park in the country, is vital for the conservation of Sri Lankan
Elephants. Another site VirtualTourist members strongly
recommend is Sigiriya, the ruins of the capital built by King
Kassapa I in the 5th century. While the rock itself is quite a
difficult climb, the site is surrounded with some very
impressive urban planning techniques - members say a simple walk
around the grounds is fulfilling and the view from the plateaus
is exceptional.
8.  Iceland
    For most nature lovers, Iceland is a fixture on their travel
bucket lists as the island nation is filled with dramatic
natural landscapes and unique features from hot springs to lava
fields to glaciers. Many members comment that while some
activities such as the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle Tour
seem touristy when planning a trip, they are well worth the
organized tours and crowds upon arrival. Members residing in
Iceland strongly recommend Skaftafell National Park and
Jökulsárlón, the island's largest glacier lagoon, which is
situated between Skaftafell National Park and Höfn. Somewhat off
the beaten path but undoubtedly worth the trip, Dettifoss in
northern Iceland is an amazing sight and the most powerful
waterfall in Europe. A unique natural occurrence that makes
visiting Iceland this year a major priority is this year's
Northern lights display, as Iceland is one of the best locations
to view this phenomenon. Visiting ingvellir National Park, a
UNESCO Heritage Site, on a night before the end of March means
your best chance to witness the lights.
9.  Victoria Falls, Zambia
    Traditionally, the majority of visitors to Africa's Victoria
Falls have visited on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi River.
However, with the unpredictable political situation in Zimbabwe,
many travelers are now approaching the falls from the Zambian
side. Although Livingstone, the town on the Zambian side of the
river, is not nearly as developed as the Zimbabwean side, it
still provides the same spectacular views of Victoria Falls.
Mosi-O-Tunya National Park, which encompasses the falls on the
Zambian side, provides an opportunity to see multiple spectacles
in one day. In addition to the falls, visitors often spot
antelope, zebras, giraffe, and even elephants crossing the
Zambezi and walking freely through out the park. Lower Zambezi
National Park, also on the Zambezi River, is known for both its
incredible fishing and fantastic birdlife so it attracts
hobbyists of all kinds. Zambia is also famous for its "walking
safaris," where a game guide leads travelers deep into the bush
with nothing but a few yards between them and an elephant or
troop of baboons.
10. Antarctica
    If you really want to venture off the beaten path, how about
visiting the 7th continent? While Antarctic tourism can be
traced back to the late 1950s when Chilean and Argentine ships
took some fare-paying passengers to the South Shetland Islands,
there wasn't a formal association for visitors or private-sector
travelers until 1991. With this in mind, it's easy to conclude
that a visit to Antarctica isn't just once in a lifetime, but it
will most likely be a family first as well.
    Visiting Antarctic destinations by ship is particularly
popular with vessels commonly departing from Ushuaia, Argentina;
Punta Arenas, Chile; and Bluff, New Zealand. The remote
location, frozen landscape and unpredictable weather can make
tourism operations in Antarctica a logistical challenge, but
visiting the area is completely safe. It is important to take
into account the sustainability of the landscape and the unique
wildlife of the area, so it is suggested that travelers book
through the International Association of Antarctica Tour
Operators (IAATO) which manages environmentally sound cruises to
help protect and sustain Antarctica's environment. Each season
brings different sights for visitors - in February (or late
summer), whale sightings are at their best and receding pack ice
allows ships to explore further south.

 (Editing by Paul Casciato)
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