Bright lights and big cities: inspiring plans for the year

Need inspiration for your holidays in 2014? From city breaks to family getaways to adventure destinations, Isabel Conway has 10 of the best at home and abroad.




IS THERE anything cosier at this time of year than snuggling up with the holiday brochures and travel magazines imagining a tropical paradise of blue skies and white sands?

Perhaps a stellar African safari or an Ashram-styled boot camp to benefit mind and body in the year ahead, a bike trip through ancient Burmese villages, swimming with sea lions, that budget-friendly new motor home delivery drive across the US. The possibilities are endless.

Travel is back and post-bailout brighter horizons beckon.

Holiday bargains are out there and early booking carrots, child free places, substantial final cost savings, accommodation upgrades etc, are worth checking out.

Spain and Portugal, perennial favourites, are tipped as leading package holiday performers again in 2014, delivering great value and ticking all the boxes, especially for family holidays.

The Greek islands and Turkey are keenly priced with gorgeous scenery, authentic accommodation and food.

More hotel and apartment resorts worldwide are realising the importance of value-added facilities and amenities to make holidays an all embracing family experience.

Here’s my top ten wish list for 2014.

Italy’s boot unbuttoned

“Grazie Mille Signor O’Leary” is the catch cry down Puglia way. The low-cost airline will open up the heel of Italy’s boot to Irish travellers with flights ex-Dublin to Bari starting in April.

Italy’s largest producer of olive oil and wine, Puglia is often likened to Tuscany back in the eighties before the region became famous. Now it is Puglia’s turn for discovery.

The heel of the Italian boot dips into both Adriatic and Ionian coastlines, their hidden coves and sandy beaches and lofty Baroque inland towns.

Discovery Puglia, an Ireland-based company (www.discoverypuglia.com, 01-879170517) is a nice match with the new four-times-a-week Ryanair flights (priced at €30-€60 one way). From food and wine tours to family-friendly or escorted and tailor-made trips, all are devised by Puglia natives with insider knowledge of a beautiful region.

A four-day wine tasting odyssey from €350 includes visits to local wineries and oil mills, while gourmet cookery classes and food tasting are featured in five day breaks from €700.

World War 1 battlefield remembrance

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 with four years of commemoration and events at key locations around the world.

Visits to battlefields, war cemeteries and important towns like Ypres in Flanders, Belgium, can be combined with an exploration of historic Arras and Cambrai in northern France. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought in the Great War and 45,000 died, including those ‘known only to God’ in unmarked graves.

Tours, walks, cycle trips, drives, in groups or individually, museum visits, special events — take your pick.

Camino Ways (www.caminoways.com, 01-5252886) specialise in interesting walks all over Europe and have a 9-day Great War journey across the battlefields of Northern France and the Somme from €799pps. See also www.visitypres.be and www.visitflanders.co.uk/discover/flandersfields and www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com.

P&O ferries (www.poferries.com) operate 23 daily sailings from Dover to Calais. There are flights with Aer Lingus and Ryanair — check out regular connecting train services.

Cruising down the river

Enjoy another pace of life in the slow lane of Europe’s mighty rivers, gliding straight into the heart of majestic cities and quirky towns, by way of the romantic Rhine, glorious Main, enchanting Danube among the waterways.

River cruising has seen a big jump in popularity of late because journeys are relatively short, taking in many sights and cities. It’s a luxurious and intimate experience as the quota of passengers is small compared to ocean cruises.

Uniworld ‘boutique’ ships offer cruises along Europe’s rivers and coastlines, into Russia and exotic Vietnam, Cambodia and China.

The cruises are all inclusive with flights, transfers, gourmet cuisine and selected top wines plus shore excursions led by local experts. ‘’Enchanting Danube” covers nine cities, including Budapest, Vienna, Munich and Passau. Prices start at €3,586pp inclusive of an early booking discount. See www.uniworld.ie, 01-7753805.

The Wild Atlantic Way

Tipped as comparable to California’s Pacific Coast Highway drive and Australia’s Great Ocean Road it is virtually on our doorstep.

Stretching from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale, Co Cork, the Wild Atlantic way is a 2,500 km coastal drive, full of twists and turns, offering immense views with 156 discovery points along the way.

Marvel at dramatic cliffs and stunning seascapes, watch the sunset, meet the locals and become a proper tourist in your own country.

Start the adventure at your own pace, from the ocean edge in Donegal, driving all the way down the full length of the Atlantic coast in one trip. Or accomplish the longest coastal road trip in the world in stages. Remember, not all the signs are up yet!

The complete signposting should be in place by March. See www.failteireland.ie/wildatlanticway

The YouTube video will make you want to start now.

Family adventure in the wilds of Sweden

Family holidays should be about bonding and shared memories, not just taking the kids abroad and hardly seeing them except for handouts for amusement park rides and ice cream. Become a modern day Swiss family Robinson, building and then piloting your own timber raft together down a river in the wilds of Sweden. Then embark on a eco-friendly adventure through the pristine Swedish wilderness, camping, canoeing and experiencing an elk safari.

Adventure Holidays (www.adventure-holidays.ie, 01-2590133) is a new Irish adventure travel dedicated company offering a range of family trips.

Rafting in Sweden, inclusive of food, car rental and direct flights ex-Ireland, costs from €1,080 for adults and €620 per child. They organise worldwide activity and cultural trips for teens, solo and over 55s travellers.

Explore Ecuador

Ecuador is a hidden gem of South America and now benefits from one of the most spectacular railway routes on earth linking its historic capitol Quito, a UNESCO World heritage site high in the Andes, with the lowland costal port of Guayaquil, passing the ecologically spectacular ‘cloud forest’ downwards to orchid-bursting sub-tropical lowlands.

Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, immortalised by Charles Darwin with its endemic species rides high as a ‘once in a lifetime’ travellers experience.

Irish luxury South America specialist Nuevo Mundo (www.nuevomundo.ie) offers a 7 nights cruise to the unique Galapagos with a 3 night stay in Quito, inclusive of international flights and return flights from mainland Ecuador to Galapagos from €4,190.

A nine day Quito and unforgettable Andean excursion, including 3 nights at Napo Wildlife Centre on the Amazon, with specialists in tailor-made holidays Journey Latin America (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) costs from £2,529 per person, including international and domestic flights. Also see www.ecuador.travel

The ultimate safari in tiny Malawi

Africa’s unique wildlife is under increasing threat. Widespread poaching, which has severely reduced elephant and rhino stocks in previously wildlife-rich countries, has resulted in dire warnings from leading conservationists.

Get to Malawi quick, advises Lonely Planet who have ranked Malawi no 5 in the top ten countries of the world to visit in 2014.

Malawi’s parks and game reserves, decimated in the past by poaching, are thriving once more, offering extended walking safaris and superb opportunities for enjoying all of the ‘big five’ away from mass safari tourism.

A 12-day tour of Malawi highlights in 2014 includes visits to a tea estate, emphasis on the culture and people, superb mountain scenery, birding, horse riding, hippo watching and big game viewing at spectacular Liwonde national park followed by a couple of days relaxation at the Makuzi lakeside beach.

See Irish luxury Africa specialists www.adamsandbutler.com, 01-2889355, who specialise in off-the-beaten-track safaris.

Malaga comes of age

Malaga, a great short trip destination, used to be by-passed by tourists heading down the Costa Del Sol.

Today the capital of Andalusia epitomises Spanish cool, culture and sun kissed evenings.

Malaga boasts 300 days of sunshine per annum and has over 20 museums, including a new fine arts museum opening in 2014.

You can while away a morning enjoying the city sights and top up your tan at one of seven nearby beaches.

A short stroll takes you back into the city centre to elegant pedestrian shopping streets and laneways crammed with lively tapas bars.

Malaga is on both Aer Lingus and Ryanair routes from Dublin all year round and during weekends ex-Cork, with new summer flights in 2014 ex-Shannon by both carriers.

A three-night February break, including flights and hotel accommodation, costs from €190 ex-Dublin with Cassidy Travel, while from Cork 3 nights in June begins at €266.

See www.cassidytravel.ie/spain/mainland-spain/malaga/holidays.

Also see your travel agent and check out the Irish Travel Agents Association website www.itaa.ie and the official site for Malaga www.visitacostadelsol.com

Authentic Thailand

You can become a elephant owner for a day, engaging in local mahout life as you learn to care for healthy and happy elephants far away from Phuket’s familiar mass tourism strip.

Visitors are taught how to clean, feed and look after Thailand’s sacred animals, take a dip in a jungle lake with them, even dare to scrub their leathery hides and learn mahout-style elephant riding skills.

Less than an hour’s drive from Phuket international airport on the edges of Khao Sok National Park lies stunning Sarojin resort (see www.sarojin.com). Two people sharing a luxury bungalow leading to the beach with a buffet champagne breakfast included, popular with honeymooners, pay approx €150 per night.

In 2014 Sarojin, one of Thailand’s most beautifully situated hideaways will launch added “day in the life of a local” experiences.

Guests can respectfully shadow local people including a fisherman, a farmer and a monk. These tours are designed towards promoting responsible tourism through authentic encounters with the local community who also benefit financially from the enterprise.

Viva Las Vegas

No matter what they tell you, fabulous Vegas is all things to everyone.

Resist its sometimes bizarre, trashy, gambling loaded charms if you can but remember that a mere 27 kms from the Las Vegas skyline of Eiffel Tower, Egyptian pyramid, Statue of Liberty and Roman Forum — all on one block — lies the real Nevada and the remote Red Rock Canyon wilderness.

Back in town, 2014 heralds a brand new Wet and Wild Experience for the kids.

As usual more ‘wow’ attractions from child-friendly amusements to adult entertainment like the zip line that soars above the desert city are opening all the time and the skyline changes regularly.

Las Vegas, including flights ex-Ireland and two other destinations are keenly priced for 2014.

Five star hotel rooms are cheap — I booked the plush Palms for under €40 a night last summer — the city excels in free entertainment and much of that is discounted.

See www.americanholidays.com who have good deals (3 nights in San Francisco, 3 in Los Angeles and 4 nights in Las Vegas, accommodation, internal flights ex-Dublin from €1,299).

Enjoy a fun starry night down Fairmont Street, the heart of ‘old’ Vegas, with free entertainment, the nearby Mob Museum (www.mobmuseum.org) and the Neon museum (www.neonmuseum.org). For more information see www.visitusa.ie

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