The New Year is here and with it a bounty of new travel experiences to be had. To help you plot out the best places to visit in 2015, Chicago talked to Deerfield-based travel agent Kathleen O’Connell of Frosch Travel. Named in September as one of Travel + Leisure’s A-List travel experts, O’Connell narrowed down her top three picks plus the best ways for Chicagoans to get there.
“Opened up just a few years ago [to tourism] and still untouched by modern technology, Myanmar is increasing in popularity,” says O’Connell. “To see Asia in that authentic way, the former Burma with its Buddhist culture is just breathtaking. And the people are warm and friendly.”
• What to do: “Tour the temples in Mandalay and see Inle Lake in Heho. In Yangon, take a walking tour of Chinatown with its shops, food stalls, and great architecture, and view the Bogyoke Market, which has local handicrafts and Burmese jade.” O’Connell also recommends observing the religious festivals and processions that happen daily down local streets—“a very powerful experience”—and eating and drinking the local specialities, which include many vegetarian options and tea. “There isn’t a Burmese restaurant in Chicago, so you’ll want to taste it all there.”
• Where to stay: “The Belmond Governor’s Residence in Yangon is a 1920s wood mansion with ponds and gardens. It’s also centrally located near the Shwedagon pagoda, the National Museum, and the Bogyoke Market.”
• When to go: The dry season from October to May, “when all the regions are available to tour.”
• How to get there: There are a number of options from Chicago to Asia with over 100 flights each week, but O’Connell recommends All Nippon Airways’ (ANA) direct flight into Narita, Tokyo. “From there, you only have to deal with one stop when you take the connecting flight into Yangon.”
“We’re really seeing Iceland soar in popularity,” says O’Connell. “The thermal springs are among the incredible sights, plus there are a wide array of price points—I’ve done budget and high end, and both can be done.”
• What to do: “In Reykjavík, head to the harbor for a very cool fishing experience with the local fishermen. On the boat, they will filet, cook and prepare you a dinner with the fish they just caught. You should also take a quick flight into Akureyri to see the Waterfall of the Gods (Godafoss) and to take a swim in the natural hot springs.”
• Where to stay: “Reykjavík’s Hotel Borg is centrally located and within walking distance to popular spots and good restaurants.”
• When to go: “June and July are really nice.”
• How to get there: “There are direct, overnight flights from JFK on Icelandair, so I would recommend flying to New York on a partner airline of Icelandair, and then taking the direct five-hour flight to Iceland.”
3. South Africa
“I know a lot of people are afraid to go to Africa right now with Ebola, however the areas that have Ebola are actually closer to London than they are to South Africa, which is my personal favorite destination. I adore the people here, the game drives, the wildlife, being out in the bush, and seeing the stars in the dark of night.”
• What to do: Beyond magical game drives, O’Connell has suggestions for mixing it up. “Arrange to do a helicopter tour of the third largest canyon in the world, the Blyde River Canyon, which has huge cliffs covered in moss and spectacular waterfalls. In Cape Town, I love Table Mountain, walking around the harbor, and trying the local food—there are lots of really good restaurants. There are also animal rehabilitation facilities that are very cool to visit, such as the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center.
• Where to stay: La Residence in the Franschhoek wine region outside of Cape Town, a 30-acre estate with breathtaking views, accommodations and stellar food. It’s a great way to end a safari experience because the wine tasting in this area is truly not to be missed for enthusiasts.”
• When to go: “Any month is great for South Africa depending on what you want. From May to September, it’s the dry season which means animals are easier to spot because there’s less vegetation obscuring views and animals converge around waterholes. Also, very little rain during these months means there are the fewer mosquitos.”
• How to get there: “Delta has direct flights from Atlanta, so fly from O’Hare to Atlanta and then direct on a 16.5 hour flight into Johannesburg.” Last year, Emirates also launched new direct flights from O’Hare to Dubai; from there, take an eight-hour flight to Johannesburg
Celebrate Elvis’ Birthday at the Peninsula Chicago Sky Rink
January 8 marks Elvis’ 80th birthday and the Peninsula Chicago is celebrating with a sky rink birthday party from 6 to 9 p.m. on the hotel’s rooftop skate rink. The party includes an Elvis costume contest, skating impersonator, ice bar with tequila cocktails, a menu of the King’s favorite foods, and, of course, ice skating ($10 for adults, $5 for kids).
Seven Trends That Will Shape Travel in 2015
Innovative hotel technology (think keyless rooms), vacations centered on health, ultra-affordable “poshtels,” loosened TSA restrictions—these are among the growing travel trends to look forward to this year. Smarter Travel has more.
Bald Eagle Season Along the Mississippi River
December through February marks bald eagle season along the Mississippi River, when it’s not uncommon to see 10-plus eagles in one tree! Head to Rock Island, Illinois, from January 9 to 11 for Bald Eagle Days ($5 for adults, $1 for kids), the biggest bald eagle event in the Midwest with live eagle programs, live bird of prey demonstrations, 100 display booths, and spotting scopes at the Sunset Marina. Find more bald eagle events at TravelMississippiRiver.org.
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