Best of travel in 2009: castles to cuisine

Discover the places and innovations across the globe that have made their mark in the past year, as named by Travel + Leisure.

EXPLORE Tallinn, Estonia

Built by marauding Teutonic knights in the 13th century, the Estonian capital's rickety old town feels as if it's straight out of a medieval fairytale, bursting with castles, turrets, cathedrals and cobblestone streets. Set on the Gulf of Finland, Tallinn is far enough away from a well-worn tourist trail that includes Riga, Krakow and Prague, but attracts just enough travellers to keep a stylish cafe, restaurant and shopping scene energised. See tourism.tallinn.ee.


DREAM Heathrow's Terminal 5

It was a nightmare when it opened too early, now it's a dream. Light, bright, modern and beautifully laid out, this is the terminal by which all others should be judged. Highlights include the Gordon Ramsay restaurant Plane Food, where you can pick up a three-course plane picnic for about $24 that comes packed in a smart, insulated cabin bag. See terminal5.ba.com.

STAY Temple Tree, Langkawi Island, Malaysia

Australian Narelle McMurtrie has created a hotel prototype that can be used to fund charities. A spin-off from her successful Bon Ton Resort on Langkawi Island in Malaysia, Temple Tree is a rambling collection of old Malay mansions pulled from different corners of the country and reassembled. Open and ready for business, Temple Tree is now being re-titled by McMurtrie under cat and dog charity LASSie. See bontonresort.com.

DINE Asador Etxebarri, Spain

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Dish of the year? A hot contender is Asador Etxebarri's bowl of earthy, baked purple congo potato with smoky, creamy egg yolk, capped with shaved white Alba truffle. Both prince and pauper in one. The wood-fired brasa (grill) is the star of the show at this extraordinary rustic restaurant nestled in the Basque mountains between San Sebastian and Bilbao. Chef Victor Arguinzoniz restored this 18th-century stone building in the village square 20 years ago. His octogenarian father grows most of the vegetables, while his wife, Patricia, runs front-of-house. See asadoretxebarri.com.

ECO Green Tomato Cars

Green Tomato Cars, a British outfit, is now serving Sydney (and soon Melbourne) with convincing environmental credentials. The company operates a fleet of Toyota Prius hybrid chauffeur-driven hire cars that emit 60 per cent fewer greenhouse gases than conventional vehicles. The cars' emissions are double-offset through payments to Climate Care, which invests in renewable energy and emission-reduction projects in countries such as Uganda. See greentomatocars.com.au.

Need someone to help look after the kids on your European sojourn so you can really have a break? Think about hiring a British-based nanny for a week or two. Holiday Nanny's staff are referenced and experienced. They can fly to meet you at your holiday destination and help both parents and kids enjoy their break. See holidaynanny.org.

SHOP Merci, Paris

Marie-France and Bernard Cohen have changed the face of modern retailing with the opening of Merci, their beguiling new Parisian concept store. Spread over a vast 1500 square metres, Merci is a furniture store, fashion boutique, haberdashery, florist, cafe, perfumery and bookshop all rolled into one, with many of its very chic goods donated and recycled. What makes Merci truly special, however, is the fact that all profits are donated to charity. See merci-merci.com.

DISCOVERY The Talisman Hotel De Charme, Cairo

Downtown Cairo's chaotic Talaat Harb Street is an unlikely location for the city's best (actually, only) boutique digs. The 24-room property is tucked away in an atmospheric old low-rise and the location (walking distance to the Nile, the Egyptian Museum and a short cab ride to the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar) couldn't be better. Neither could the friendly service, the gorgeously appointed, restful interiors or the proper butter croissants for breakfast. See talisman-hotel.com.

NEW One & Only, Cape Town

Just in time for next year's football World Cup comes this bold, almost grandiose 131-room city resort. Located at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, this is the first South African property by Johannesburg-born hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, known for his lavish resorts in the Maldives, Mauritius, Dubai and the Bahamas. Along with the seven-storey main building featuring Gordon Ramsay's Maze and Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous Nobu, the key feature is two man-made islands with luxury villas around an artificial lagoon with views of Table Mountain. See oneandonlyresorts.com.

SAVE Gluttons Bay Food Centre, Singapore

Our tummies love Singapore's recently renovated Gluttons Bay Food Centre, a small open-air hawker centre next to the Esplanade Theatre complex. Founder K.F. Seetoh hand-picked a dozen or so of his favourite stalls so tourists and locals alike could enjoy some of Singapore's finest street food. Highlights include Kampong Wok's nasi lemak and Boon Tat's sambal mussels. See makansutra.com.

DISCOVERY 21st Century Museum, Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, with its beautifully preserved samurai and geisha districts, is an increasingly attractive option for discerning visitors, especially since the opening of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Some may quibble about the quality of the art on display but there is no dispute about the imposing beauty of the circular, glass-encased design of the 112-metre-diameter building. See kanazawa21.jp/en.

Next: destinations on the radar

South Africa

Twenty years after Nelson Mandela's release, this vibrant yet still troubled nation will host the world's biggest sporting event in nine cities across a land roughly the size of Texas. The football World Cup 2010 has spurred a massive investment in infrastructure, with sparkling new stadiums, airports, hotels and roads. Aside from the 32 competing teams on the fields, the world will be watching to see just how many goals the South Africans have managed to achieve in the post-apartheid era. southafrica.net.

Kenya

Kenya has overcome 2007's political unrest to once again emerge as an essential destination. On offer are unrivalled Masai Mara game drives, intriguing local food and one-off experiences of hospitality — such as a personal tour of village nightlife by the son of the local chief. Kenyans are selfless hosts and rewarding company — passionate about their country, their culture and their place in Africa — and rightly so. magicalkenya.com.

Berlin

The German capital's charismatic eastern quarter is undergoing an ostalgie renaissance inspired by a perennial fascination with the era of the German Democratic Republic's East Berlin. Otherwise known as “soviet-chic”, a wave of bars, restaurants and hotels featuring communist-era furniture and kitsch propaganda art have been opening in the trendy Mitte and Friedrichshain neighbourhoods. visitberlin.de.

Sri Lanka

The secessionist war that racked this tiny island nation for three decades is finally over and Sri Lanka has wasted no time enlisting tourism as its saviour. A new slogan, Sri Lanka, Small Miracle, was launched a month after the government declared the Tamil insurgency finished and already tourist numbers are edging up from last year's figures. Previously, visitors had to content themselves with stunning west coast beaches, charming colonial streetscapes and the ruins of ancient civilisations. Now the north and east coasts are effectively open to tourism, Sri Lanka has double the appeal. www.srilankatourism.org.

Istanbul

The global spotlight will settle on Istanbul in 2010, when it assumes its year-long reign as a European Capital of Culture. The EU initiative aims to encourage Europeans to “discover the glory, interest and culture of different parts of Europe”, though such a fillip seems unnecessary for such a many-splendoured city. The axis of Europe and Asia, and the cradle of empires, Istanbul is one of the world's most fascinating metropolises. tourismturkey.org.

Libya

As its apparently rehabilitated leader, Muammar Gaddafi, enjoys being feted rather than feared, his cloistered nation is also making tentative contact with the outside world. The easing of Libya's once stringent visa regulations will make it simpler for foreigners to explore this captivating Mediterranean nation, with almost 2000 kilometres of near-empty beaches, some of the world's most intact Roman ruins and a huge swathe of Sahara desert oases and adventures on offer. www.libyan-tourism.com.

Each month The Sun-Herald Travel brings you an exclusive bonus extract from Travel + Leisure magazine. The October edition is the fourth-anniversary issue and features stories on a gourmet walking safari in South Africa and chic and cheap stays in New York. Today we bring you an extract of T+L's annual report, a look at the magazine's finds of the past 12 months. Each month Travel + Leisure has the best travel photography and writing from around the world. The magazine's correspondents travel independently and do not accept free travel. See www.travelandleisure.com.au.

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