Non-travellers may imagine that as years pass, it would grow increasingly difficult to unearth new and compelling destinations. Thankfully, the opposite is true, for one of the great paradoxes of travel is that the more of the planet you explore, the longer your list of future “must-do” trips grows.
As you consider holiday options for 2012, here are four destinations that I feel bear special consideration. Most sit on the cusp of massive change, and none make for easy travel, in the sipping-margaritas-under-windblown-palms sense. But remember, the origin of the word travel, which we now consider synonymous with pleasure, comes from the French travail (to toil, or labour). And therein lies another of travel's great paradoxes: The more challenging the trip, the more profound and enduring the experience. Besides (trust me on this), you'll be able to find a few good mojitos – or Red Panda Beers – along these dusty trails.
A last glimpse: Cuba
Cuba is a land of colour, of jazz and cigars and street parties, of friendly back roads and abandoned factories, of languid beaches and quirky villages. It is also a land of sadness (where doctors can earn less than beggars). There is simply no country geographically closer to Canada that offers such contrast, matching the rich cultures and lush environments of Asia or South America, at a fraction of the travel expense and effort.
And anyone who has travelled to Cuba realizes the current situation cannot last.
With the departure of Fidel Castro, and President Barack Obama's increasingly tolerant attitude toward the communist republic, change is rife in the Cuban air. Already new cars are flowing in, and when capitalism arrives full force, the upheaval will be massive, and unpredictable. Ask 10 Cubans today what the future holds and you'll get 10 different answers. You still have a chance to visit this nearby nation locked in the 1960s, but it won't last long.
Travel tip: Skip Cuba's famous all-inclusive resorts – these tiny bubbles of food, booze and frat-style party offer no hint of the soulful, elegant, romantic world waiting beyond.
Unlike any land you know: Myanmar
Burma – or Myanmar, as the country's military junta renamed the land in 1989 – remains unlike any place else on Earth, peppered with golden pagodas and ageless villages. Here, a centuries-old pace of life endures. The trappings of the 21st century – cellphones, international franchises, billboards – remain largely unknown. From white-sand beaches and crystal waters to the dense jungle of the interior mountains, Burma is one of the most beautiful countries, inhabited by impossibly accommodating and friendly people.
But for almost two decades, Noble Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has urged travellers to boycott her country, for fear their dollars only aided the ruling junta. (Aung San's National League for Democracy Party won a majority in the 1991 general elections, only to be declared illegal by the repressive junta. She spent 15 of the next 20 years under house arrest.) Now come hints of change. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the region a month ago. China is investing heavily. And following her recent release, Aung San has eased her stance on foreign travel, although she still cautions visitors to travel independently if possible.
No matter what lies in its future, a journey to Burma is an overload for the senses, the imagination and the heart.
Travel tip: If you do visit Burma with an organized group, only consider those with the highest credentials in ethical tourism, such as Intrepid Travel or Canada's own G-Adventures.
Closer to home: Yukon
The Yukon is our frontier. It is the land of the midnight sun, imbued with the spirit of the gold rush. Impossibly wild and vast, it is also impossibly misunderstood by most Canadians.
You can wear a T-shirt in summer! (Yes, it gets warm, if not downright hot.) The bugs are no worse than down here. (Okay, with a few exceptions on the open tundra, but not many.)
Europeans, particularly Germans, have already recognized the splendours of the North and are arriving en masse, in daily direct flights to Whitehorse all summer.
If you haven't been, treat yourself. Join a journey down a wild river. Visit Dawson for the legendary music festival. Drive the Dempster Highway during the blaze of fall colours. Head up in March for some wonderful dog-mushing. It is, truly, one of the wildest places on Earth; a land all Canadians should take pride in.
Travel tip: Bring airline-style eyeshades; sleeping in broad daylight – as you find all summer – can be difficult at first.
Unlikely, but unfathomable: North Korea
Don't expect comfort, or freedom in this bizarre rogue state, which admits fewer than 2,000 Westerners each year. Photography and interactions with locals are strictly controlled by official minders who accompany every visitor.
But if you can stomach the restrictions, a journey through North Korea offers a provocative (and unsettling) glimpse of a land where the Cold War endures, where the Internet is unknown and where televisions and radios are hardwired to receive only government frequencies. The country is home to scenic mountains and ancient cities, but above all, North Korea serves up a jarring challenge to every preconception we carry from home.
Travel tip: Avoid talking politics at all costs. Insulting the government – even unintentionally – is both highly offensive and illegal. It could land you in jail, and worse for your guide.
Special to The Globe and Mail