Its food delights the senses, its forests and seas teem with life, and its cities fizz with culture and creativity – in short, Asia Pacific has it all. Lonely Planet’s travel experts have explored this vast region’s highlands, islands and everything in between to find the best places to visit this year.
From primate-filled jungles to mirage-like lagoons, their recommendations reflect a part of the world increasingly determined to protect its most prized possessions at the same time as it charges whole-heartedly into the future.
Experience it for yourself on a trip to one of these unforgettable destinations.
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- Margaret River & Southern WA, Australia
Take one look at Meelup Beach and you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life: the West Australian bush parts to reveal ocean the hue of a Bombay Sapphire bottle, which is typical of the coastline stretching from Margaret River to the state’s south. Beyond the sand, some of the country’s slickest wineries, breweries and restaurants lie between tracts of tall-tree forest and kangaroo-dotted farmland.
Locals have long felt their turf rivals the east coast travel trail; now, 17-hour direct flights from London to capital city Perth put it at Europe’s fingertips. Adding to the argument are coveted food and culture-amped festivals, from Gourmet Escape to Truffle Kerfuffle and Taste Great Southern. There’s also amazing surf, whales aplenty and DIY coastal hikes with paved sections, improving accessibility for all.
2. Shikoku, Japan
‘88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku’ pilgrims may have been journeying around Japan’s fourth largest island for 1200 years, but this somewhat off-the-beaten-path haven is finally being discovered by non-Japanese visitors, with an increasing number of international flights winging into the main cities of Takamatsu and Matsuyama.
The popular island of Naoshima in the Inland Sea, along with 11 other blossoming art-focused islands, is hosting its Setouchi Triennale Arts Festival through November 2019, and the magnetism of Naoshima is rubbing off on mainland Shikoku, too. Visitors are exploring attractions such as the ‘hidden’ Iya Valley, the Naruto whirlpools, Kōchi City’s castle and Hirome markets, Matsuyama’s Dōgo Onsen and also climbing the holy Shinto peak of Ishizuchi-san. Some are even walking the 1400km 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage.
3. Bay of Islands & Northland, New Zealand
Endless extraordinary surf beaches, myriad islands and forests of giant trees are the hallmarks of the northernmost part of New Zealand (Aotearoa) – but that’s only part of the story. Northland is the cradle of the country’s culture and history – both for the indigenous Māori people and for the European settlers who followed them.
The two formally came together with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, and 2020 sees the 180th anniversary of that key nation-building event. Expect extra gusto at the annual festivities at Waitangi on February 6 – New Zealand’s national day – including the opening of a brand new museum devoted to the Māori Battalion who fought in the World Wars.
Although it missed an Oscar nod, Singapore was one of the brightest stars in the 2018 movie blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, and the Lion City is hipper and hotter than ever. 2019 offers a chance to participate in the city’s bicentennial – marking 200 years since the founding of modern Singapore – but also to celebrate more than 700 years of Singapore’s rich, diverse history.
Here, food is an obsession, whatever your budget. Take your pick from S$2 plate of Michelin-starred hawker chicken rice to superlative fine dining at Odette, newly crowned number one on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Make advance reservations and be prepared to queue. Changi Airport’s recently unveiled futuristic Jewel will leave architecture lovers gobsmacked, as will the meticulous renovation of iconic heritage slumber pad Raffles Hotel when it reopens in August. All in all, Singapore is ready to roar.
5. The Cook Islands
A visit to the Cook Islands, 15 tiny islets, far-flung over a swathe of the deep-blue, breezy Pacific Ocean, is bound to rejuvenate even the most jaded. And locals on the main island, Rarotonga, are welcoming visitors off an increasing number of international flights to their Polynesian paradise.
Although life in the Cooks is laid-back in the extreme, there are a plethora of outdoor adventures to enjoy, and a kaleidoscope of sea life awaits snorkellers to its pristine coral reefs. A 45-minute flight north of Rarotonga reveals the jewel of Aitutaki, its idyllic turquoise lagoon often lauded as ‘the most beautiful lagoon in the world’, while heading further afield in the Cooks takes you to places where few have been before.
6. Central Vietnam
Bookended by the kinetic energy of Ho Chi Minh City and the (slightly) more relaxed historic ambience of Hanoi, central Vietnam is one of the country’s most diverse regions.
Hue’s vibrant cuisine showcases the city’s imperial legacy, while south in Hoi An’s storied laneways, local dishes include fragrant cao lầu noodles. Seafood stars in nearby Danang, and the city alongside the Han River is becoming one of Vietnam’s most exciting urban destinations. International air links with many Asian cities provide easy access to attractions like the Golden Bridge at nearby Ba Na Hills, while exploring the world-beating caves and rugged river and jungle wilderness of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is essential for adventurous and intrepid travellers.
Vibrant jungles concealing secret waterfalls, a fantasia of fish fluttering along coral highways, dazzling beaches without a footprint on them and locals offering you a cup of calming kava – these are the things about Fiji everyone hopes will never change.
There is real concern, however, that this nation will be able to retain its assets through climate change. Sustainability has become a priority. From solar-powered resorts that serve locally harvested food to coral reef restoration projects and limited plastic usage, this vulnerable island nation has moved headlong into eco-tourism. October 10, 2020, will mark the island nation’s 50th year of independence, called ‘Fiji Day’. Expect at least one week of festivities including lovo (traditional pit ovens), meke (fire dancing), and ukulele music.
8. Palawan, Philippines
Long known as the Philippines’ last frontier, Palawan has ridden a slew of media accolades to the cusp of international superstardom. Fortunately, it’s not there yet. These are the heady days when new air routes and upgraded roads make it easier than ever to explore the dramatic seascapes and wildlife-laden jungles of the slender 400km-long main island (also called Palawan) before it inevitably becomes more developed.
The crown jewel is El Nido, where skyscraping karst formations rise out of blue water in Bacuit Bay. New rules restrict visitor numbers at signature sights like Big Lagoon on Miniloc Island, while a ban on single-use plastic bottles on tour boats is helping to tackle marine pollution. El Nido too busy for you? Head south to backpacker haven Port Barton or up-and-coming San Vicente, which has a brand-new airport.
Blazing into the future, Beijing is changing fast as the new decade approaches. In a bid to battle the smog, an eco-friendly bike-sharing scheme has launched, and the rapidly expanding subway is expected to reduce traffic congestion. High-speed links will soon race passengers to the extraordinary, Zaha Hadid-designed, starfish-shaped Beijing Daxing International, the world’s largest airport, which is slated to open later this year, as well as the shiny new Universal Studios, opening in 2021, and venues hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.
But Beijing is modernising without sacrificing a jot of history, feted in all its dizzying splendour at sights like the colossal Forbidden City, the biggest palace complex in the world, the Lama Temple, the visible-from-space Great Wall and the narrow, ancient alleys of the hútòngs, where Beijingers now party in some of the city’s hippest bars.
Most visitors come to Cambodia for the iconic Angkor Wat and this hasn’t changed in a millennium. However, elsewhere the travel landscape is changing fast: the skyline of the capital, Phnom Penh, is on the up, bringing sky bars and designer dining; the Southern Islands are generating a beach buzz thanks to new boutique and luxury resorts like Six Senses and Alila Villas; colonial-era vestiges are under restoration in Battambang and Kampot; and in remote areas like Koh Kong and Mondulkiri, wildlife spotting is drawing visitors off-the-beaten track. For fast-track travel, new airlines are making connections between Siem Reap and the South Coast smoother, with hydrofoils whisking people to the islands.
But in the end, it comes down to the Cambodian people, who are marking two decades of peace and wasting no time in celebrating and sharing their culture. It is this spirit that leaves an indelible imprint on the soul.