By Chris Leadbeater
Barcelona is out – try Valencia. Explore the museums of the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences.Credit:iStock
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Blame Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. It was, after all, the velvet-toned voiceover specialist and the guy from The Shining respectively who starred in 2007 buddy movie The Bucket List, helping to popularise the use of a term that seems, subsequently, to have become as ubiquitous as it is mildly irritating.
After all, who wants to think about their own demise when they are contemplating how to fulfil their ultimate travel dreams? Ambitions are meant to be aspirational, life-affirming; a source of hope, happiness and self-fulfilment.
But here we are, stuck with this stubborn piece of shorthand for “things you really want to achieve before you – to use the old euphemism – kick the bucket”. And as with so many concepts that, in this modern era, often come with a hashtag, it extends to the world of travel.
What was once a random bunch of desirable destinations and tours percolating in your head is now The Travel Bucket List – a series of adventures you should be getting through before Old Man Time comes wandering up the drive, wanting a word in your ear.
Avoid overcrowded Dubrovnik in Croatia and head to Split instead.Credit:iStock
What should be on it? Well, obviously, such matters are subjective – but you might want to include a dalliance or three with some of the planet’s great capital cities, a glimpse of ancient Egypt, a meeting or two with Uncle Sam, perhaps an odyssey into the high places and Inca legacies of South America, and a long cruise to somewhere distant and special. Antarctica? The Pyramids? Machu Picchu? St Petersburg? Route 66? Yes, that’s the idea.
But wait. Times change, moods swing, and what tended to be viable even a few years ago can suddenly be obsolete. For all the globe’s A-list landmarks and must-see places, the travel bucket list is not necessarily a permanent record carved in stone.
Amid the turbulence of our current century, what once seemed to be certainties can melt away as fast as polar sheet-ice.
Overtourism, climate crisis, war in Europe, instability in the Middle East – each of these has affected the “classic” travel bucket list in the last decade, and that’s before fashions, trends and the always-turning whirlpool of public opinion is taken into account.
So what should be on the travel bucket list (revised edition) in 2023 and beyond? Here’s our guide, in this ever-changing world, to what’s out and what’s in.
OUT: THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY, RUSSIA
IN: THE GLACIER EXPRESS, SWITZERLAND
There is little question that Russia’s foremost railway line is also the planet’s greatest possible endeavour by train. Though not necessarily the most luxurious of journeys down the tracks, the Trans-Siberian has no equal in either length or scope, chalking up 9289 kilometres (and the best part of two continents) as an epic linking of Moscow and Vladivostok.
Alas, for obvious war-related reasons, Russia is an impossible destination at present – and it may remain so for some time, even permanently for many travellers. So how to enjoy that same sense of rail-scale in a more affable country?
The Glacier Express – a perfect option to the Trans Siberian.
Switzerland may be the answer. The Glacier Express (glacierexpress.ch) will not carry you to the Far East, but it is quite the odyssey all the same (and all within the one timezone, unlike the Trans-Siberian).
At only 291 kilometres in length, the Glacier Express is nonetheless a feat of engineering that takes in 291 bridges and 91 tunnels (including the 16-kilometre Furka Tunnel) and gazes at mountains as mighty as the Matterhorn and Piz Bernina on its route between Zermatt and St Moritz.
Better still, you can ski at the end of it at any time of year – thanks to the “Matterhorn Glacier Paradise” (matterhorn paradise.ch) that awaits at the western buffers.
OUT: OPERA IN RUSSIA
IN: OPERA IN AUSTRIA
It is not just the Trans-Siberian that has fallen off the travel agenda thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its vanishing behind an invisible Iron Curtain of its own making.
Russian culture – of which there is much, and much of it is great – is also lost to Western tourists for the foreseeable future (understandably, the federal government’s Smart Traveller advisory website currently has the entire map of Russia coloured in do-not-travel red).
This includes two of the most celebrated bastions of opera and ballet – Moscow and the Bolshoi Theatre; St Petersburg and the Mariinsky.
Vienna’s grand Staatsoper.
A shame – and yet, not an insurmountable one. Vienna also has significant operatic heritage at its grand Staatsoper – and is a considerably more hospitable city in the current climate.
OUT: CRUISE TO ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
IN: CRUISE TO TALLINN, ESTONIA
Sorry to bang on about Russia again, but St Petersburg is one of the planet’s most elegant cities; a midnight-sun cornucopia of cafes, cathedrals and canals where the Hermitage holds court as arguably the globe’s most important art museum.
Its absence is particularly visible on cruise itineraries, where ships no longer venture all the way to the end of the Baltic Sea’s easternmost cul-de-sac.
On the other hand, St Petersburg is not the sea’s only major port of call. And while the waterfront capitals of the Baltic states – Tallinn in Estonia; Riga in Latvia – cannot match Russia’s second city for size, their cobbled centres and Art Nouveau echoes can be just as pretty.
Equally, any long Baltic cruise will also drop anchor in Stockholm and Helsinki – the kingpins of Sweden and Finland (supposedly the world’s happiest nation) respectively, where metropolitan fun always awaits.
OUT: MACHU PICCHU, PERU
IN: SAN AGUSTI, COLOMBIA
There is no doubting the glory of Peru’s most famous landmark. Machu Picchu is ranked as one of the “new” Seven Wonders of the World. It lives up to its billing on its Andean summit; a former royal estate that has lost none of its majesty.
Machu Picchu is out.Credit:iStock
But access to it is increasingly patchy. Worried about overtourism, the Peruvian authorities have controlled the level of footfall on the “Inca Trail” to the citadel since 2002 (via a pass system).
The pandemic shut it for eight months and, while the site is currently open, January and February brought a 25-day closure, as Peru was wracked by civil unrest.
Time to find a substitute until the journey is more reliable; the irony being that Colombia, so long a symbol of instability, may be the answer.
Certainly, it has as much Andean heritage. And mystery. High up in the mountains of the Huila department, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Agustin Archaeological Park is a giant question mark.
The carved statues here – tomb guardians with the features of jaguars, snakes and birds – were the creations of a civilisation which had vanished before the Spanish invaded. Their artistry is wonderful, even in anonymity. See colombia.travel
OUT: THE US ROAD TRIP
IN: THE FRENCH E-ROAD TRIP
The fly-drive tour is arguably the most iconic of any American holiday; a grand adventure through an ever-changing landscape of peaks and plains, cities and canyons, beachfront and backwoods.
But such wanderings don’t tend to be the most environmentally friendly of getaways. Route 66 is a full 4004 kilometres of petrol consumption – and that’s before you factor in those carbon-spewing flights out to Chicago, and home again from Los Angeles.
So is the road trip dead to anyone with an eco-conscience? Not at all. How about a leisurely ride down through France, heading south from the capital, picking up the Rhone Valley, then aiming for the Cote D’Azur?
It’s a return journey of around 1609 kilometres, but means little in the way of emissions if you take a train to Paris and pick up an electric car. See france.fr
OUT: PARIS, FRANCE
IN: LYON, FRANCE
The French capital, riven by unrest of late with a Rugby World Cup and an Olympics respectively to stage this year and next it is surely fair to say, has been “done”.
France’s second city, Lyon (en.lyon-france.com), by contrast, is still oddly under-appreciated even though it has a back-story openly connected to antiquity.
Place des Terreaux square in Lyon, France. Credit:iStock
There’s a glorious and still-functioning Roman theatre, a Notre Dame (de Fourviere) as splendid as its Parisian near-namesake, and a restaurant scene which – whisper it – eclipses the cafes and brasseries of Saint-Germain with the double Michelin-starred La Mere Brazier being especially acclaimed.
Better still, it boasts two major rivers – the Rhone and the Saone meet just south of its medieval centre – to Paris’s one. See lamerebrazier.fr
OUT: DUBROVNIK, CROATIA
IN: SPLIT, CROATIA
The ascent of Croatia’s most eulogised city over the last decade has been near-vertical. Dubrovnik attracted some 600,000 visitors in 2011.
By 2019, it was pulling in 1.5 million. Game Of Thrones played a significant part in this of course, its dramatic lens making the city’s honeyed medieval walls as big a star of the hit series as any of the cast.
Split waterfront in Dalmatia, Croatia.Credit:iStock
Yet there remains a feeling – one only paused by the pandemic – that such figures are too much for a city with a population of only 43,000. If you want to help ease this pressure while still exploring a Croatia awash with history and Adriatic charm, you might look north-west.
Some 241 kilometres north-west, in fact – to Split, where waterfront bars gaze at the Dalmatian island of Brac, and Diocletian’s Palace remembers the Roman emperor who called the city home, but without a crowd scene at every other street corner. See visitsplit.com
OUT: VENICE, ITALY
IN: VERONA, ITALY
The city category of the “loved to death” club has no more prominent member than La Serenissima – forever sinking under the weight of its own architectural magic along with the relentless expectations of 20 million tourists a year.
But Venice is by far not the only beautiful city in Italy, and you can do it a favour by seeking one of its counterparts, Verona, which like Venice, 120 kilometres away to the east, is also UNESCO World Heritage-listed.
Verona’s historical city centre with the Ponte Pietra bridge across the Adige river and Verona Cathedral.Credit:iStock
You have the same sense of medieval splendour in the 14th-century Ponte Scaligero (over the River Adige) and the same religious pomp in the Basilica di San Zeno – but you can swap mean old Shakespearean villain Iago for lovelorn Romeo and Juliet. See visitverona.it
If you fancy straying further afield, Lake Garda, just 24 kilometres to the west, is lovelier than the Adriatic.
OUT: BARCELONA, SPAIN
IN: VALENCIA, SPAIN
Is there anybody who hasn’t visited the Catalan capital since the 1992 Olympics kick-started its modern appeal? Perhaps, but those yet to pop in will be astounded at the weight of numbers on La Rambla, and around the Sagrada Familia.
Gothic architecture in Valencia.Credit:IStock
Better to aim further south-west, for Valencia. Spain’s third biggest city remains gloriously underrated.
Even if you cannot find anything to love in La Lonja de la Seda (its UNESCO World Heritage-listed medieval silk hall) or the museums of the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, you may fall for the sands of Playa de la Malvarrosa.
Or experience the madness of the annual Las Fallas festival during which a host of garish papier-mache sculptures are burned on the event’s wild last night. See visitvalencia.com
The second largest country in the Middle East seems to have been absent from holiday bucket lists forever; damned by a notoriety that has cast its many treasures into a sepia purgatory.
A generation of tourists once dreamed of hearing echoes of Persia in the temples of Persepolis and along the avenues of Tehran. But that dream is currently over.
How to replace it? Although there are significant cultural differences, there is a similar sense of scale and discovery to be found in Iran’s giant neighbour to the north-west.
Not necessarily in those parts of Turkey (goturkiye.com), on the Aegean, so well known to sun-seekers, but in the north and east of the country – up on the Black Sea – which remain a mystery to many.
OUT: THE HIMALAYAS
IN: THE ANDES
The problem of overtourism is not confined to European cities and Inca citadels. The photo which emerged in 2019 capturing a queue of climbers waiting to reach the top of Mount Everest, showed that even the roof of the world has issues with demand trumping supply.
The peaks of Nepal, China, India and Pakistan are rightly viewed as the foremost challenges for upwardly mobile adventurers.
While the vast majority of the planet’s 108 mountains with an elevation greater than 7200 metres are in the Himalayas or the adjacent (and pretty much contiguous) Karakoram range, plenty of alternative high-altitude challenges are available.
Not least of them are on Latin soil. Not only is Aconcagua the tallest mountain in Argentina (argentina.travel), the Andes and the whole of South America; at 6961 metres it is the tallest mountain outside Asia, but lacks the footfall endured by its Nepalese counterparts.
OUT: AMALFI, ITALY
IN: CALABRIA, ITALY
Is there any bigger travel cliche than a villa “on the hill just above Positano” in summer? Maybe. Maybe not. But if you want to try a less venerated stretch of Italian shoreline, Calabria, some 402 kilometres to the south, has all the mountainous scenery and lavish summer weather of Amalfi, yet far fewer tourists, and less of the holiday one-upmanship. See italia.it
OUT: PROVENCE, FRANCE
IN: EXTREMADURA, SPAIN
For Amalfi in August, read France’s southern superstar in July; the lavender fields awash with colour and perfume. But A Year In Provence was published in 1989, and 34 years is surely long enough for another delightfully rustic region to come to the fore. Spain might be a good place to look for such an enclave – particularly the south-west of the country, where Extremadura rubs a shoulder against Portugal. Here is an agricultural wonderland where tomatoes grow on the banks of the Guadiana, and Iberian pigs get fat on acorns in oak groves. Yet few tourists seem to notice. Time for somebody else’s soft-hued memoir? See spain.info
OUT: POLAR BEARS IN MANITOBA, CANADA
IN: BROWN BEARS IN SLOVAKIA
Climate change has not been kind to the polar bear, whose Arctic habitats are under threat. And it is unlikely to be of much help to the destinations which have built their tourism product around proximity to these great pale predators – such as the Canadian outpost of Churchill, where Manitoba grazes the chilly waters of Hudson Bay. Polar bears congregate here in October and November. Easier, perhaps – if you are not particular about your brand of bear – to keep to Europe, and the forests where paw prints abound. See slovakia.travel
OUT: SKIING IN THE EUROPEAN ALPS
IN: SKIING IN COLORADO, US
The first weeks of 2023 have been a warning shot fired at the European ski industry – especially some of the lower-altitude resorts in the French Alps, where snowfall has been thin on the ground, and the spectre of climate change hangs on the (warm) breeze. Whether now or in the future, there is a slippery safety in crossing the Atlantic to the American Rockies, where the major resorts generally haunt higher slopes. The likes of Aspen, Telluride and Breckenridge all sit at an icy elevation of 2400 metres or up. See colorado.com
Chinese tourists are being welcomed back to Australia with open arms but can Australian travellers be completely sure to experience a similar embrace in China, after all that’s been said and done? What better time for us to try mainland China’s more compact, if a little harassed, neighbour, Taiwan, a land of sophisticated cities, dazzling scenery and amazing cuisine. See eng.taiwan.net.tw
This week’s cover story originally appeared in the travel section of the Daily Telegraph UK and is reproduced with permission.
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