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Hot travel destinations for 2015

Interest in rail travel is growing. The iconic California Zephyr runs from Chicago to San Francisco.<252><137>This undated image provided by Amtrak shows the California Zephyr train near Truckee, Calif. The California Zephyr starts in Emeryville, Calif., near San Francisco, en route to Reno, Nev., a 236-mile journey that offers beautiful views as well as history. It crosses the Sierra Nevada mountain range and follows the same course as the historic Transcontinental Railroad, a 19th century engineering feat that bolstered the nation’s western expansion. The Zephyr’s ultimate destination is Chicago, a 51-hour trip from Emeryville. (AP Photo/Amtrak, Phil Gosney) <252><137>
Interest in rail travel is growing. The iconic California Zephyr runs from Chicago to San Francisco.<252><137>This undated image provided by Amtrak shows the California Zephyr train near Truckee, Calif. The California Zephyr starts in Emeryville, Calif., near San Francisco, en route to Reno, Nev., a 236-mile journey that offers beautiful views as well as history. It crosses the Sierra Nevada mountain range and follows the same course as the historic Transcontinental Railroad, a 19th century engineering feat that bolstered the nation’s western expansion. The Zephyr’s ultimate destination is Chicago, a 51-hour trip from Emeryville. (AP Photo/Amtrak, Phil Gosney) <252><137> Amtrak

Where are you going?

Not now, I mean, but when your vacation days roll around this year?

Me? I’ve got the bucket list, but it’s hard to make definite plans. Because as recent history reminds us, it all depends. On weather. On disease. On civil unrest. On the strength of the dollar, on your job, on your health. Oh, and there’s also the question of your dog’s health or the flash sale you might just stumble upon at the last minute.

Who knows where you’re going? You may not yet, but now that the new year has arrived, experts are crunching data, taking surveys and giving us their predictions of the “it” destinations of 2015. These people see trends.

There are a lot of possibilities here for the latest and greatest places and experiences to discover. Here’s what came out in the mix.

South of the border, redux

“If ever there was a clear No. 1 destination trending for 2015, it is Central and South America,” says Scott Wiseman, president of U.S. operations for Cox & Kings, a luxury travel company founded in 1758.

Wiseman cites Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua and Panama as the most popular among his well-heeled clientele. All boast tourism improvements, like new infrastructure, new hotels, and more stable and visitor-friendly governments.

Yet the development and the increase in tourism haven’t eclipsed the real draws of these countries: their unique cultures, traditions and natural beauty. Wiseman cites this part of the world’s wealth of “truly authentic, off-the-beaten-path experiences” — something high on the list of traveler demands these days.

Two more often-mentioned southern standouts for next year: Brazil is not only getting a lot of free advertising from hosting professional soccer’s World Cup last summer, but it has invested in new facilities and upscale hotels, too.

Between now and the 2016 Summer Olympics, which will be hosted by Rio de Janeiro, budget travel guru Arthur Frommer predicts, there’ll be “some great discounts on hotels, including the 400 new hotels that will be operational before the Olympics.”

Frommer also listed Argentina as “a dream destination [that] has been made affordable” — as in 30 percent cheaper than usual.

Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of Argentina’s plummeting currency. This immense country has big and sophisticated Buenos Aires, as well as the very big and very primal Amazon rain forest. You may be there to capitalize on its economic misfortunate, but you will also spend money. So your conscience can break even.

Where cruises are heading

Cruise lines are going in many new directions this year — literally and figuratively. First, let’s talk about the literal ones.

Europe is rocking, as far as cruisers are concerned. The demand continues to grow for itineraries there — deep water or coastal, plus river journeys. Exotic destinations are also on the rise.

While China and Southeast Asia aren’t quite on Europe’s heels (sterns? waterways?) yet, interest has surged over the past two or three years, and cruise lines are setting up home ports for at least one or two ships in the region.

For the first time, China and Southeast Asia are among the top 10 destinations in Cruise Holidays’ annual Cruise Trends report. The in-depth forecast is based on bookings already made for the new year by its 1,300 cruise-focused travel agents in North America.

The Caribbean still accounts for half of all cruise business but has felt the pressure of increasing destination competition and is scurrying to keep its appeal. In conjunction with some of the big lines, governments are developing new ports of call and new cruise terminal facilities better suited to today’s mega ships and the mega crowds that fill them.

River cruising continues to be the fastest-growing segment of the business. And as travelers realize that river cruises can provide safety and adventure, an interest in more exotic destinations has sparked development of itineraries in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. New ships are being built to fit these culturally rich destinations — and to do it with five-star amenities.

Among the new luxury river-cruise ships are the Belmond Orcaella (formerly Orient Express) and the 42-passenger Sanctuary Ananda, both plying the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, and Aqua Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia.

River-ocean cruises

Travelers who love cruises have had to DIY in the past, scheduling and booking back-to-back ocean/river cruises — involving two ships and maybe some travel getting from one to the other. Cruise lines have begun to pay attention, and some with smaller ships able to sail both open seas and rivers have begun offering these hybrid itineraries. The cruises are longer, by necessity, mostly at least 10 to 14 days.

Seabourn’s 450-passenger Quest incorporates multiple days on the Amazon River into some of its Caribbean and South American itineraries. In Europe, it includes a stretch on the Seine and the Neva in Russia.

The luxury line Silversea also offers Amazon River adventures on the Whisper’s 17-day Caribbean route. An 11-day Silver Cloud cruise from Stockholm to London combines the Baltic with time on the Thames.

Celebrity Cruises is the first big-ship line to partner with the competition — the river cruise lines — for a combination river/open water experience.

On some of its sailings on the Mediterranean and Baltic seas and other popular European deep waters, Celebrity offers travelers the option, through its Celebrity Experience tour program, of river cruises on iconic Continental waterways — the Danube, the Rhine, the Rhone, the Seine.

It works with Amras Cruises, an agency specializing in river cruises, for the small-ship details, but a Celebrity representative accompanies passengers on the river. The packages require passengers to transfer between big- and small-ship ports — with the flights, airport transfers and other logistics included in the price.

One final and suitably odd variation on the combination theme: Viking River Cruises is going what you might call mainstream — with mainstream meaning deep water.

This year, it will debut its new venture, Viking Ocean Cruises, with three 950-passenger seaworthy ships joining its fleet of 53 river vessels. Viking Star will be the first, with voyages in Scandinavia, the Baltic and the western and eastern Mediterranean.

All this may be just the beginning of a sea change in cruising. When Richard Branson revealed in December that Virgin Cruises was indeed going to become a reality and ships were already under construction, he said: “We plan to shake up the cruise industry and deliver a holiday that customers will absolutely love.”

Soul revival

Yes, this trend isn’t going anywhere. More people are looking for journeys that will take them inward as well as out into gorgeous and remote settings, and — for better or worse — many of these holy, mystical or spiritual journeys are getting easier to experience.

Nepal, Machu Picchu in Peru and Myanmar are all experiencing double-digit increases in visitors. These places have been on bucket lists for travelers in the past, but until now were accessible to only the hardiest of explorers.

Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, is a good example. New projects and developments on land as well as on the Irrawaddy River have increased the range of accommodations, transportation and activities. The new Kempinski Hotel Nay Pyi Taw opened just in time for President Barack Obama’s visit in November. And Hilton has opened two of the six properties it has planned for the country.

Several high-end river cruises — the Sanctuary Ananda, Belmond Orcaella and the AmaPura — can help make a once-in-a-lifetime trip possible for a broader range of travelers.

Hot on the rails

Rail vacations are often perceived as romantic, comfortable, convenient, scenic and authentic, all of which makes them increasingly popular as a way to experience new destinations. There’s also been a significant rise in so-called multimodal travel — booking trips that include both air and rail segments.

“We are seeing a growing interest in rail vacations,” says Todd Powell, CEO and co-founder of Vacations By Rail (www.vacationsbyrail.com), the most comprehensive provider of global rail travel and tours. He says the biggest draw for travelers is an “iconic route or train,” like the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco or VIA Rail Canada’s route across that country.

“Once travelers understand the relaxing experience a train vacation provides, they are eager to try different and often more exotic vacations, such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express or the Trans-Siberian Railway,” Powell says.

As demand grows, so, too, do the destination and route options for travelers because countries have been working hard on their railroads. That’s especially true for developing countries and emerging tourist destinations like China and Turkey, which have made rail transportation a priority with big and expensive projects.

A case in point is the just-completed Marmaray Tunnel, part of a project launched by the Turkish government in 2004. The 8.5-mile rail tunnel, the deepest of its kind, passes under the Bosphorus, one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world.

The Marmaray has been called a vital link on the modern Silk Road, providing seamless rail transport from Turkey to China. It has already provided an amazing new luxury train option for travelers: the Jewels of Persia route from Budapest to Tehran aboard the private Golden Eagle Danube Express.

Covering a breathtaking sweep of history and culture and passing places Western travelers rarely visit, the 14-day journey includes stops at the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sighisoara in Romania, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, as well as Istanbul and the otherworldly Cappadocia region in Turkey, and into some of Iran’s oldest towns and most important archaeological sites before reaching Tehran.

Also new is Eurostar’s service between Geneva and Lille in northern France. A new route from Britain to the Provence region of France, with stops in Lyon, Avignon and Marseille, will begin in May. Debuting late this year is Eurostar’s next-generation train, the e320, which can reach up to 200 mph.

Vacations by Rail recently presented its 2015 Rail Travel Outlook and a roundup of historic train offerings, new train routes and advice on booking and rail travel in general.

Its listings include the Shongololo Express, which follows Dr. David Livingstone’s path — including where the 19th-century Scottish missionary first glimpsed the Victoria Falls. The 15-day tour travels through Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa and is a showcase of history, wildlife and scenery.

It passes through the Selous Game Reserve, Africa’s largest, and descends into the Rift Valley, passing spectacular scenery as the train negotiates the tunnels, switchbacks and viaducts of the escarpment. There’s even a bush walk at the Chisimba Falls and an overnight stay at the colonial Victoria Falls Hotel.

The train continues south through Botswana to the Madikwe Game Reserve for a two-night stay and a sampling of the vineyards of South Africa before ending at cosmopolitan Cape Town.

On the home front, Amtrak is reviving round-trip daily service between Chicago and Rockford, Ill., in late 2015. This historic rail line was discontinued more than 30 years ago, but the vintage station in Rockford remains and will no doubt get a facelift, too.

Some see this small victory (it’s scenic, but just 90 minutes long or so) as a foot in the door to bigger possibilities — among them talk of restoring train service into Las Vegas.

Top cruise destinations for 2015

Cruise Holiday’s predictions, based on 2015 bookings made by its 1,300-agent network in the first eight months of 2014:

Top general cruise destinations

1. Caribbean/Bahamas: 50.5 percent

2. Europe deep-water cruises (includes Mediterranean, Baltic, Scandinavian and Greek Isle itineraries): 12 percent

3. Alaska: 7.8 percent

4. European rivers: 6.7 percent

5. Bermuda: 4.2 percent

Top river-cruise destinations (and the waterways sailed to get you there, depending on the length of a cruise)

1. Amsterdam, The Rhine: 41.2 percent

2. Budapest, Hungary, The Danube: 36.6 percent

3. Basel, Switzerland, The Rhine: 17.3 percent

4. Paris, France, the Seine, the Rhone: 15.9 percent

5. Prague, Czech Republic, Main/Danube, Elbe: 8 percent; and Nuremberg, Germany, Main and Danube: 8 percent

Top river cruise destinations outside Europe

1. Two destinations tied for top honors: Beijing, China, and Shanghai, China. (In Beijing, the actual cruise port is in Tianjin, about 30 minutes away using the high-speed train service that departs from the port terminal. Also, Beijing isn’t on the Yangtze, though it is often the start or endpoint for many river cruises. Usually, you’ll need to take a short-hop flight to the boat.)

2. Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong River, Vietnam

3. Another tie, this time with two Myanmar locations: Mandalay, Myanmar, Irrawaddy River; and Pyay, Myanmar, Irrawaddy

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