The world is big and the travel possibilities nearly endless. So each December, we look ahead and highlight destinations that will shine in the coming year. From a country that's looking to host the world in 2012 to a region celebrating the end of the world as we know it, these hot spots are worth a look when planning your travel adventures in the New Year.
England is preparing to take a great big bow on the world stage in 2012 as it hosts the Summer Olympic Games, celebrates the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and, just for good measure, throws in a bevy of additional attraction openings and festivities.
The Olympics kick off on July 27 and run, jump, and flip their way through August 12. The celebrations begin well in advance of the Summer Games, though. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Weekend takes place between June 2 and 5 and marks her 60th year as monarch. Events include the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, a procession of 1,000 boats on June 3; and a formal carriage procession through London on June 5. And cities around England, as well as the world, will be celebrating Charles Dickens' 200th birthday.
The end of the world or the dawn of a new era? These are just the sort of questions to ponder in the Mundo Maya, or the Mayan World, this year. Events in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico mark the end of the current Maya "Long Count," a 5,125-year calendar cycle, and usher in the dawning of a new age. Celebrations, themed tours, and ceremonies throughout the year offer a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the ancient archeological sites and modern culture of the Maya people. In Belize, Maya cultural festivities include traveling exhibitions, a solstice sleepover at Caracol, and a large festival on December 21, the estimated last day of the calendar.
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Even major cities need the occasional burst of serious renewal, and that's exactly what visitors will find in Los Angeles during 2012. Next summer will bring a much-needed splash of green to downtown with the opening of the new 16-acre Civic Park. The Natural History Museum is finishing up seven years of renovations and will debut new permanent exhibits and outdoor spaces throughout 2012. And NASA has announced it will retire the space shuttle Endeavor to the admission-free California Science Center in September. Throw in the opening of Universal Studios Hollywood's new Transformers mega-attraction, and you've truly got something new for every traveler.
If new and novel is on your travel wish list for 2012, consider Cuba. The recently loosened travel ban now allows religious organizations and institutions of higher learning to sponsor travel there. Since the new rules went into effect, dozens of travel companies have applied for licenses to run guided trips, and as more of them gain approval in 2012, the options for travelers should blossom.
For the foreseeable future, travel to Cuba seems likely to remain restricted to guided groups, basically guaranteeing that it will stay relatively expensive.
After a very rough 2011, Japan is paving the way to a better 2012 with major openings around the country and new air service from the U.S. With its tsunami recovery well underway and visitor numbers on the rise, the destination remains unusually affordable.
Big events include the May opening of Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest free-standing tower in the world (at over 2,000 feet tall) and the summer unveiling of Hikarie tower in Tokyo, which will be a cultural hub with theaters, galleries, and shops. And those looking for something offbeat but very Japanese can visit the new Cup Noodles Museum, where visitors can learn the history of the snack before heading to the workshop to make their own cup noodle.
A big boost in service should make that wide stretch of Pacific separating the mainland from the Islands of Aloha seem a little more hoppable in 2012.
In January, Hawaiian Airlines will add nonstop service from San Jose and year-round direct service from Oakland. Not to be outdone, Alaska Airlines will boost service and offer daily nonstop flights from Oakland or San Jose to Kauai or the Big Island starting in March. Hawaiian will then debut daily nonstop service between New York and Honolulu starting June 4, bringing welcomed new service to a route with otherwise limited nonstop options. And visitors who want to skip the flight altogether will have a new option starting in April, when Disney Cruise Line launches a new 15-night Hawaii cruise that departs from Los Angeles.
Not only is the city celebrating major new museum reopenings, but it will also host an impressive parade of big-name traveling shows, many showcasing European masterpieces. In May the Barnes Foundation will reopen, with its hundreds of works by impressionists, post-impressionists, and early modern masters. Also on the calendar this spring, the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent will reopen after extensive renovations.
Not one, but two major events geared toward international travelers make 2012 an ideal time to visit Korea. The World Expo will be held in the city of Yeosu from May 12 to August 12. More than 50 countries will be represented at the Expo. Featured attractions include a giant pipe organ that visitors can play using their smartphones and the Extreme Climate Experience, which has an immersive simulated Antarctic blizzard. And as if to dispel any questions as to why now is a good time to visit, the country is also in the last of its three-year-long Visit Korea Year, a promotion that brings greater access and better prices to foreign visitors
The country blooms its way through the duration of Floriade, the once-a-decade horticultural expo running from April to October 2012. Winter heats up starting in January with the Holland Dance Festival, a three-week series of more than 70 performances, 100 interactive workshops, and a massive dance parade. March 16 marks the opening of the 25th TEFAF art and antique fair. The event draws serious art buyers, but it's also a great way for non-collectors to get a glimpse at exceptional artworks not on the museum circuit.
Guimaraes, Portugal and Maribor, Slovenia
Each year, two European destinations—often regions that are under the radar of travelers—are honored for their cultural vibrancy. These capitals of culture celebrate with a year of special events, performances, and festivals.
This year, the Portuguese city of Guimaraes has earned European Capital of Culture status. In 2012 it will be a gathering place for music, film, photography, fine arts, dance, architecture, and street art. Six cities in Slovenia also share the European Capital of Culture title this year. Maribor, Murska Sobota, Novo Mesto, Ptuj, Slovenj Gradec, and Velenje will come together for festival concert series, folklore spectacles, international music competitions, puppetry, and even an exhibit about the comic strip in Slovenia.