30 alternative holiday destinations for 2020 I Times Expert Traveller

Discover far-flung islands, go whale watching, or witness grizzly bears roaming in the wild and shake up your travel plans with our incredible holiday destinations

1. Australasia

Responsible travel was on everybody’s radar in 2019, with our jet-set generation seeing clearly the environmental impact of our holidays. Woke travellers will increasingly focus their 2020 vision on reducing their carbon footprint, primarily by flying less frequently. This means travelling by rail more often and taking fewer-but-longer holidays each year.

With even the quickest flights Down Undertaking 17 hours each way, and with such a huge area to explore, Australia and New Zealand offer the best excuse for an extended vacation. While Australia’s mind-boggling distances might have less-environmentally-conscious travellers making a beeline to the nearest airport, Sydney on the east coast, Perth on the west, Darwin to the north, and Adelaide down south, are all connected by epic train journeys.

The Ghan train runs from the Northern Territory (brimming with aboriginal culture and Outback landscapes), through Australia’s Red Centre (allowing visits to spectacular Uluru and Kings Canyon), to the vineyards of South Australia. Meanwhile, the Indian Pacific covers 2,704 miles of rail track on its way from wild Western Australia (offering unspoiled reefs and one-of-a-kind wildlife experiences) to sophisticated Sydney. Boasting views of the iconic Blue Mountains en route, and 70 hours of unforgettable Australiana, this is the ultimate in slow travel experiences.

Includes three-night all-inclusive Gold Service Indian Pacific train journey

2. India

The Golden Triangle is the archetypal introduction to the highlights of northern India, its name referencing the trio of cities that make up its three corners: New Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra.

Covering some of the most iconic sights of India and the country’s quintessential colour and culture, the classic Golden Triangle overland tour includes India’s bustling, hectic capital, rolling hills dotted with holy cows, and rustic farmland stretching for miles in every direction.

Expect ocular exhaustion in vibrant Jaipur, known as the Pink City, after the entire town was painted terracotta pink to welcome Prince Albert in 1876. Its ornate architectural wonders are still salmon-coloured to this day, and its streets are packed with painted prophets and kaleidoscopic shoppers whose vivid saris compete with colourful mountains of spices, ruby-red chilies, and eye-popping market wares.

The big-ticket sight is, of course, the majestic Taj Mahal. The 17th century, ivory-white mausoleum — commissioned by the grief-stricken emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal — is truly a wonder of the world.

Includes all accommodation in comfortable hotels

3. The Mekong

Travelling overland around southeast Asia can be a daunting task for many tourists, not to mention a crowded, hot, sticky endeavour. The perfect way to explore the region — while still avoiding multiple flights — is by taking a Mekong River cruise.

As the third-longest river in Asia, the Mekong forms a natural highway for watercraft, flowing 2,703 miles from the Tibetan Plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, with the majority of Mekong River cruises plying the waters of the Lower Mekong and those latter countries.

Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam offer doubtless highlights, however, taking in the colonial architecture and blissful Buddhist vibes of Luang Prabang in Laos; the intricate relief sculptures that beautify the walls of the largest religious building on Earth, Angkor Wat, in Cambodia; and the vast subterranean network that constitutes Vietnam’s wartime Cu Chi Tunnels, among countless other unmissable sights.

Best of all, after days spent in the blazing sunshine exploring markets, historic sites, and temples strewn across viridescent vistas, you can retreat to the comfort of your luxury, air-conditioned vessel for your onward journey. Enjoy gourmet dinners, verdurous river views, and the comfort of your cabin before waking up to find you’ve already arrived at your next destination.

Includes return flights and’ four-star accommodation

4. The Norwegian fjords

Etched deep into northern Europe’s mountainous terrain, Norway’s dramatic, Unesco-recognised fjords were carved by glaciers during the Ice Age, leaving narrow, steep-sided sea inlets that offer an altogether different type of cruise experience.

Dramatic landscapes of precipitous granite, vertiginous waterfalls, blinding-blue waters, verdant farmlands, and pristine snow, make for some of the most celebrated scenery in all of Europe. In summer, visitors can marvel at the midnight sun, or cruise beneath the northern lights by winter.

Seven-night tour including bed and breakfast

5. Uzbekistan

The Silk Road’s romance is imbued in Uzbekistan’s world-class architecture and with new visa-free entry, the country is flourishing as an alternative summer holiday destination. Start in Tashkent, rich with museums and Soviet edifices, then Samarkand, the gilded former capital of the fearsome Tamerlane, where the Registan’s blue-tiled mosques are an ancient wonder of the world. Further west along the Silk Road is Bukhara and its nebulous calamine-hued lanes that colour-match the desert. Meanwhile, Khiva’s 1500 years-old Islamic architecture is so well-preserved it could easily be the backdrop of a blockbuster.

A small group, 11-day tour with everything included

6. Alaska

Whether sailing close to breaching humpback whales or spotting grizzly bears on a national park walking holiday, Alaska is a pristine celebration of our natural world. With daily direct flights from London to Seattle – the gateway to Alaska – this remote region is fast becoming a popular holiday destination. Feel truly alive cruising the Inner Passage during summer via wildwood islands and glassy inlets choked with glacial ice. Or, in winter, sense the freedom of uncrowded skiing piste or be mesmerised by an appearance of the elusive Northern Lights.

7. Costa Rica

The recent dedication of a 29th national park at Miravalles Volcano reinforces Costa Rica’s reputation as the world’s number one eco-paradise. It parades an exotic menagerie of everything from resplendent quetzal birds to red-eyed tree frogs. High on any bucket list should be the volcanic bubbling geysers and hot springs of Poas, while the parrots and macaws of Corcovado rainforest makes for Costa Rica’s best walking holiday. Dry season from December to April offers a warm winter sun escape to white-sand beaches.

15-day escorted tour including all flights and accomodation

8. Lapland

Lapland isn’t just a one-trick pony of children arriving on a day trip each December to see Santa and his little helpers. There’s an all-year-round adult version too, to this snowy Arctic realm draped across Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Daylight may be scarce in winter but around Ivalo in Finland you can strap on cross-country skis or skates to explore crisp pine forests and frozen lakes as the Northern Lights dance across the inky-black night sky. In summer, during the sunshine, the forests and tundra are flush with wild berries and reindeers – the perfect time to hike world-class trails like Swedish Lapland’s Kungsleden.

Eight-day Lapland holiday including a stay in a glass-roofed aurora cabin

9. Borneo

Borneo is the world’s third-largest island and the diversity of wildlife is matched only by the history and culture of the people. You’ll find orangutans and pygmy elephants, enjoy the sandy beaches of Kota Kinabalu, pause for thought at the monuments to Allied prisoners of the Second World War…our adventurous journey covers a lot of ground but delivers an expert view of Borneo and its people. Wildlife tourism here adds value to this colossal island’s forests that are under increasing pressure from deforestation. Experience the feel-good factor supporting Sabah’s spectacular Danum Valley, which safeguards 130 million-year-old rainforest where orangutan and proboscis-monkeys dwell – best seen during the drier months between March to December. Get active and dive the world-class Sipadan island’s vibrant corals or tackle the daunting Mount Kinabalu (4095m).

The best hotels in Borneo

10. Georgia

Georgia divides people. Many know nothing at all about this hidden gem of the Caucasus; those that do rate it as one of the top spots in the world. The mountain scenery is magnificent, the heritage fascinating, but it’s something else: The warmth of the welcome, matched only by the excellence of the wine – this is one of the world’s oldest wine-producing countries after all. It’s a bit of a mystery how Georgia isn’t higher on everybody’s bucket list  – it’s pretty much got everything. Not least, a legacy of wine production stretching back 8,000 years and chiselled mountain scenery sprinkled by ancient UNESCO-listed heritage, reflecting one of Christendom’s oldest countries. Start in Tbilisi. Its cobbled streets knit together a Persian and Russian fusion of ancient fortresses and basilica. Here, you might try Georgia’s famous Saperavi wine or khinkali dumplings on cosmopolitan Rustaveli Avenue. From Tbilisi head to the Black Sea waters of Batumi or take day trips into the wild Caucasus Mountains to the likes of the photogenic 6th-century Jarvi monastery.

This option is also available as a private tour

11. Jordan

Caressed by warm desert winds, the Middle East’s securest and friendliest holiday destination is a five-hour flight from London. Naturally, the mighty Rose city of Petra grabs top billing – hewn from inside a canyon by the Nabateans, and first referred to in 312BC. Less known is Jordan’s wild nature and opportunities to hike, with the forested canyons and mountainous jebels of the 650km-long Jordan Trail make for a testing walking holiday. Elsewhere, laze on the freakishly saline Dead Sea, 400metres below sea-level. Explore Wadi Rum’s Bedouin culture in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, and marvel at a multicolored aquarium of tropical fishes and corals diving in the Red Sea at Aqaba.

12-day escorted tour including flights and accommodation

12. Montenegro

Less than a three-hour flight from London, Europe’s new kid on the block is well within city break range. Its USP is a delightful juxtaposition of Balkans history and a sunny Adriatic coast ideal for winter sun. Mingle with the beautiful people at Porto Montenegro and Budva – both lively beach holiday hubs boasting wealthy marinas and watersports. Kotor, meanwhile, is so enriched with medieval masterpieces and Venetian palaces it offers a welcome alternative to overcrowded Venice. Inland, sense the transcendental calm of Montenegro’s iconic Black Lake amid dramatic alpine scenery and feel giddy peering into the mighty Tara Canyon from one of Europe’s highest arched bridges.

13.  Iceland

Combining the awe-inspiring scenery of Iceland with the magnificent wildlife that can be found just off-shore, a whale watching tour in Iceland is a feast of incredible sights. Go off the beaten track and marvel at the snow-capped Víknafjöll mountains, take a dip in geothermal pools, tour Dimmuborgir’s lava pillars, and admire Europe‘s most powerful waterfall in Dettifoss.

On whale-watching cruises you’ll have the chance to spot orcas, sperm whales, minkes and blue whales – as well as white-beaked dolphins – under the midnight sun. Keep your eyes on the sky, too, to catch a glimpse of a white-tailed eagle or the many other bird species that visit this incredible island pocked with fishing villages and natural wonders. Reward any sightings with soaking in the milky-blue waters of the Blue Lagoon.

Includes direct flights and plenty of activities

14. Canada

Explore some of Northern America’s most dramatic landscapes with a trip to Canada. Make time to see Banff National Park before hopping onboard the Rocky Mountaineer train which weaves its way through beautiful mountain passes, serene lake shores and dramatic river canyons.

Eight-night tour with two days on the Rocky Mountaineer

15. Singapore

Singapore has certainly got a touch of the space age about it: buildings shaped like chunky armadillos, blossoming flowers, giant surfboards, and energy-efficient office blocks towering over old Neo-Classical neighbourhoods. One degree north of the equator, it’s Edenic in its own way, with families of sea otters frolicking in lakes and yellow-plumed cockatiels adorning the two million trees planted in the last 45 years. The city looks best at ‘blue’ hour, just after sunset, when tropical light melts from pink to peach to lilac and indigo as a forest of neon and LED flickers into life.

We love this hotel in Singapore 

16. Brazil

While showier sibling Rio is a ‘city field’ beach resort, São Paulo is a true metropolis, thrumming with swanky fashion ateliers, art galleries, swish cocktail bars, pumping night clubs and the kind of hotels that grace coffee-table books. Spend a day wandering around the Museu de Arte de São Paulo for Manets and Modiglianis you never knew existed or Choque Cultural for cutting-edge street art. Eat a Japanese-Brazilian barbecue at the restaurant of the moment Charco, then soak up Caipirinhas in ‘starchitect’ designed bars in the Jardins neighbourhoods. Later, swing your hips in the samba clubs of Madalena – rootsy, wood-floored O do Borogodo whirls after midnight. Beaches? São Paulo has some Brazil’s best: try tiny Ubatuba or Ilhabela Island, each three hours’ drive away.

Includes stays in Brazil, Chile and Argentina

17. Bosnia

The Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, distils an affordable, walkable weekend of quaint churches, cobbles, baklava and a 15th-century bazaar. FlyBosina is launching the first direct flights from the UK in a decade (from Luton).

The best hotels in Bosnia

18. Slovenia

Ljubljana, with its leafy centre and eco-credentials, is one of Europe’s quirkiest – and best value – city breaks. Launched last summer, BA’s flights between Heathrow and Ljubljana will run again this year (July-August only).

The best hotels in Slovenia

19. Lombok, Indonesia

With more nature, less concrete and better beaches than big sister Bali, Lombok is going upmarket. When it comes in March, the secluded, template like Legian Sire will be the Indonesian idyll to beat (lhm-hotels.com;doubles from £95, B&B).

The best hotels in Lombok 

20. Rishikesh, India

As ‘the yoga capital of the world’ Rishikesh has long attracted hippies and Hindus (who believe a dip in the Ganges here takes you a step closer to enlightenment). Now, it’s turned five-star, with a new Tag and Roseate hotels and high-end yoga retreats.

The best hotels in Rishikesh

21. Loire Valley, France

Already done the Côte d’Azur and Provence? Get your next France fix in the Loire Valley, at an historic royal retreat southwest of Paris. Not only are there sensational new digs at the Château du Grand-Luc, which has hosted Mozart, Voltaire and Rousseau, but also (come spring) a new modern art museum for Fontevraud-l’Abbaye and, from March, health retreats at the Châteaux de la Motte Henry.

The best hotels in the Loire Valley

22. Sri Lanka

Overnight, this ravishingly beautiful island went from topping World’s Best Destinations’ lists to an FCO danger spot, following the Easter 2019 bombings. Yet its natural splendour still beckons: wild beaches; blue whales at sea, leopards in national parks; and those misty tea plantations Now the DCO has lifted its ban, new indie hotels are cropping up. And, if you fast, you can still get the place to yourself.

We love…

23. South Korea

Thanks to the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics, Japan’s seeing a huge influx of tourists – yet South Korea packs the same cherry blossom, ornate temples and glitzy cities without the crowds. Wondering how to do it? Fly into Seoul and allow at least two days to explore it: the capital combines rambling royal palaces, trendy shopping districts and neon-fronted karaoke bars. A high-speed train network will get you to almost everywhere else: to mountain-ringed Gyeongju, Korea’s Kyoto, full of ancient temples, royal tombs and palace ruins, to Andong, with its straw-thatched villages; and to seaside Busan, home to powdery beaches and ultra-fresh seafood. Got more time? Add the volcanic Jeju Island on to your itinerary – it’s a rugged yet-resorty postcard pin-up in the south.

Best hotels on Jeju Island

24. Cambodia

Travelling in Cambodia used to be dusty-bus-ride hell. No longer – thanks to flights into more Cambodian airports from other SE hubs. Train will now run through the heart of the country, too, making it easier to get around. And it’s still the best-value destination in Southeast Asia. Head to the Cardamom Mountains to spot wild gibbons and elephants around new tented camps, then take a train to Kampot for hills speckled with Buddha caves, and onwards to frenetic Phnom Penh, to wander around the Royal Palace and visit the sobering Killing Fields. It’s a 40-minute plane hop from there to Angkor Wat: stay at the gorgeous Avani Foreign Correspondents Club or the renovated Raffles.

25. Russia

Spanning two continents — from the Black Sea to the Bering Strait — Russia is the world’s largest country, so there’s far too much of it to cram into a single visit. Newcomers to this enormously varied destination should, therefore, focus first on its multifaceted cultural capital, St Petersburg. In the last hundred years, Russia’s second city has been renamed both Petrograd and then Leningrad before returning to its original moniker by popular vote, and it is, perhaps, the ideological and political shifts that these repeat baptisms imply that make St Petersburg (simply ‘Peter’ to the locals) such a fascinating slice of Russian life. With a stunning architectural mix of Western European and Russian styles, riddled with picturesque canals and waterways, the Venice of the North offers baroque royal palaces, neoclassical cathedrals, and the Hermitage — an art gallery boasting one of the world’s most significant collections. There’s a dizzying array of things to cram into each day, so you might be glad of the 19 hours of daylight come June and July.

Seven-day tour including travel on a high speed train

26. Japan

In timeless Japan, modern neon-lit cities sync seamlessly with verdant, mountainous countryside, bursting with hot springs and steeped in ancient history and culture. Similarly, the time-honoured national practice of hanami (flower viewing) is as popular with selfie-snapping tourists today as it was with the Japanese back in the eighth century, and the country’s world-famous cherry blossom season still sees locals picnicking and partying under these ephemeral blooms by day and night. Beginning on the southerly island of Okinawa in early February, these breath-taking blossoms gradually head north until Hokkaido is in full flower come the end of May. Peak season is late March when Tokyo, Kyoto and most of the main island is in bloom.

18-day tour including flights, accommodation and most meals

27. South Africa

With so much to do and see in South Africa — from Big Five safaris to world-class wine tasting tours, and from stunning city breaks to summer holiday sun and sea — it can be difficult to know where to base yourself. Why not then spend some of your trip on a luxury hotel on wheels? From the pretty, purple city of Pretoria, with its streets lined with violet-blooming jacaranda trees, the Blue Train travels either north to Limpopo Province — home to the legendary Kruger National Park — or nearly 1,000 miles south to cosmopolitan Cape Town. It’s one of the world’s most luxurious rail journeys and an essential trip for fans of slow travel who want to see South Africa’s rich culture and landscape roll past gold-tinted windows, like royalty and presidents past.

15-day tour including Johannesburg, Kruger Park and Cape Town

28. Switzerland

While we’re on the subject of epic train journeys, the Glacier Express offers a non-stop, eight-hour train ride from the elegant resort of St. Moritz to the alpine village of Zermatt, through some of Switzerland’s most show-stopping scenery. Known also for its glacial pace, this is reputedly the world’s slowest express train, but you’ll be glad to linger a little longer on this historic route, as it takes in breathtaking views of the Rhine Gorge (AKA ‘The Swiss Grand Canyon’) and the towering Matterhorn while rolling across vertiginous viaducts and spiralling tunnels that look like the twisted train-set imaginings of an eccentric child genius.

We love…

29. The Scottish Highlands

The UK is no slouch when it comes to great train journeys either, and the Jacobite steam locomotive — which runs 41-mile day trips along the West Highland Line, between Fort William and Mallaig — must cover the world’s best-known railway track. Seen by millions in the Harry Potter films, this is the actual route taken by the iconic Hogwart’s Express, with highlights including the real-world wonders of Loch Eil; the blue waters and white sandy beaches that fringe the chocolate-box village of Arisaig; and the now-world-famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, seen on screen in four Potter movies. So — whether you’re Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, or Gryffindor — children, big kids, and muggles alike will be spellbound by Scotland’s stunning scenery.

Four-day trip including three nights at a four-star castle

30. Antarctica

Setting foot ashore in the Antarctic for the first time is an incredible experience: so familiar, yet so far below the southern boundaries of most tourist maps. Antarctica is the only continent on Earth with no native population and — free from an evolutionary history of human predation — gentoo penguins use investigative beaks to tug at travellers’ trouser legs; colonies of chinstrap penguins huddle, unperturbed by tourists; and languid elephant seals roll in the surf. Cute Weddell seals make eyes at visitors, oblivious to potential human danger, even as they laze among the Brobdingnagian whale-bone vertebrae that lie strewn around the abandoned remains of 1920s whaling stations. With rules in place to limit tourist footfall, this ultimate alternative holiday destination is perfect for travellers that prefer small group excursions and offers one of the planet’s most exclusive experiences.