Conflict, terrorism, social instability: the list of countries ‘not recommended’ for a vacation gets longer and for travellers the planet gets smaller. But all is not lost, here are four destinations for an adventurous experience in relative safety, at least for this year.
NORTHERN LIGHTS IN SWEDISH LAPLANDS
Sweden has always been known as a safe, well-governed country, and one of its biggest attractions for 2017 is certainly the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, dancing in the country’s clear night skies. This spectacular natural phenomenon is caused by the interaction of the ionosphere with the solar wind and so can never be predicted, but in Sweden, the Abisko National Park is one of the best locations in the world for witnessing it. The Park is very far north, 250 km above the Arctic Circle near the border with Norway. The country’s naturally dry climate coupled with the virtual absence of light pollution offers some of the most splendid views of the aurora borealis for at least 200 days a year. You can get to the Aurora Sky Station observatory at 900 metres above sea level at the summit of mount Nuolja by chairlift.
There you can dine on traditional local delicacies, accompanied perhaps by a fortifying drink and the fascinating stories and scientific explanations offered by experts on this beautiful spectacle while waiting for the aurora to make its appearance. And if the arctic cold doesn’t daunt you, you could spend a night at the Jukkasjärvi ice hotel, around a hundred kilometres south of the Abisko Park. Ice hotels are a truly surreal experience, sleeping between walls of ice at temperatures between minus 5 and 8 degrees with furniture carved out of the ice and a huge block of ice covered with soft, warm animal skins for a bed. Bathrooms and showers are in the heated portion of the Icehotel, which in any case offers the choice of warm or cold rooms. The heated rooms are chalet style. A word of advice: if you want to try the sub-zero experience, don’t unpack your bags just in case you change your mind halfway through the night, to move to a warm room. The ice rooms are unique works of design created at the start of the winter and furnished with equally unique ice furniture and carvings, all destined to melt away with the coming of spring.
ANTARTICA BY BOAT
Far from the world’s troubles, the white continent offers safety, adventure and panoramas that few can claim to have seen.
Voyaging aboard small cruise ships specially equipped to navigate the ice, no more than a hundred passengers at a time are brought into contact with this colourless world, suspended in a dreamlike dimension dominated by infinite shades of grey. Departing from Ushuaia it takes two days to cross the fearsome Drake Passage, accompanied by gliding albatrosses while sighting orcas, whales and rafts of penguins. Once in Antarctica, in the Weddell Sea the winds calm and the sea becomes an immense millpond, silently punctuated by the tips of colossal icebergs.
A short hop by helicopter takes you to land for a close encounter with the local fauna: seals, sea-lions and a myriad species of penguins and seabirds, accompanied by biologists and a Nat Geo Creative photographer like Sergion Pitamitz, who make indelible memories of the noisy interludes with the many species of penguins populating Antarctica, which naturally include the Emperor penguin, the largest, most fascinating of all made famous by the 2006 Oscar-winning film “March of the Penguins” by French director Luc Jacquet. On the return voyage to Ushuaia, the cruise pays a call on Deception Island, where whalers used to anchor in the bay formed by an ancient volcanic crater. The island today is uninhabited, but the tradition of bathing in the lagoon heated up to 70° by the underlying magma has certainly not been lost.
PHOTO SAFARI IN BOSTWANA
One of the few African states that can still be defined as stable, and that offers a sense of security despite the vastness of its territories and sheer isolation of the sites, Botswana’s real wealth lies in its parks and wildlife reserves, which manage to supplement the nation’s mining-based economy with the luxury tourism of exclusive safaris. For those who know Africa, Botswana is famed for the Delta of the Okavango, a river in itself a unique natural phenomenon. From its source in the mountains of central Angola it flows through Namibia, never reaching the sea but ending after 1600 km in a spectacular inland delta formed by a tectonic trough at the eastern reaches of the Kalahari Desert. A spectacle of rare beauty and interest, especially if seen from a light aircraft or by boat along the various channels. By boat you can visit some of the most interesting zones rich in African wildlife, which finds its perfect natural habitat in the delta. The Chobe National Park is another great destination, famed for its great herds of elephant, some numbering over 500 individuals.
Over 70% of Botswana consists of the great Kalahari Desert, home to the last of the San people, particularly in the Deception Valley region, a nomadic people of very ancient origins, who move through the territories to hunt and gather fruits, moving on as they exhaust the resources, to then return in an ongoing cycle.
Botswana has few tourist facilities, all small but of optimal level, very welcoming and with all modern comforts, even if they’re tented camps. The best way to travel is by light aircraft, to avoid long, uncomfortable road journeys. The best time of year to visit for a photo safari is the dry season, from March to August when the daytime climate is hot and dry and the nights can be quite cool. The Lonely Planet guide elected Botswana destination
of the year 2016, and it will always be a piece of real Africa, fascinating and relatively safe.
A TASTE OF CAMBODIA
The formation of a new government in 2006, after months of institutional stalemate, have laid the foundation for a period of relative peace and stability.
Of all south-east Asia, Cambodia is one of the richest countries in terms of history and breath-taking monuments.
An unmissable experience in 2017 could be watching the sunrise as it illuminates the spires of the temple of Angkor Wat, in a mystical atmosphere of silence and serenity, then going on to explore the ruins of Ta Phrom, the temple used as the set for Tomb Raider, immersed in the jungle and shrouded in mystery. Not far from Siem Reap, a great place for those of you looking for contact and empathy with the Khmer culture is Kompheim, a little village where you can take part in the daily activities of the local people, feeling at home as they explain their traditions and customs. With the help of a guide you can go to the market and buy all you need to make a meal to share with the family that opens their kitchen to you as they teach you how to prepare traditional Khmer dishes. You can never really say you’ve seen a place without visiting its market, or even a school: schools are where the future of a people is built, through educating the young, and taking part in a lesson, seeing the reactions of the children, can be illuminating. Or taking part in a meeting of the elders, hearing about the projects and works to assure the future of their village. Kompheim is a truly unforgettable experience. And you’re sure to be smitten by Cambodian cuisine, especially after meeting chef Kethana at the Sugar Palm restaurant, renowned for his personal interpretations of Cambodian recipes. Even Gordon Ramsey, the Master Chef himself, became one of his humble students to learn the art of traditional Khmer cuisine.