Best new travel destinations, hotels and travel experiences of 2016 named

Even travel writers get excited. Even those of us lucky enough to see the world for a living, to travel, to experience, to taste and to feel and call it a job – we still get excited about new discoveries.

The world, you see, is always changing. It always retains the power to surprise. There's a constant supply of new places to visit, new sights to see, new experiences to have. And even those places we as travellers know so well still beg to be seen with fresh eyes every visit, still have the intrigue to reveal something previously unknown.

For the past 12 months, the Traveller team has been scouring the globe in search of the new, the updated, the fascinating and the exciting. We've searched not just for destinations, but for the trends and the technological advancements that are changing the way we see the world today.

This year we've flown hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and touched down on every continent. We've slept in hotels and hostels, on mountaintops and by the sea. We've tasted foods both traditional and new. We've hiked, we've biked, we've driven and we've sailed. We've been inspired, we've been surprised, and we've been delighted.

From the luxury to the budget-friendly, from the unknown to the famous, from destinations far ashore to those on this big island we call home, these are the discoveries that have excited us most here at Traveller in 2016. - Ben Groundwater

BEST FINDS 2016

PLACES

BEST REGION

Basilicata, Italy

We all know about the Tuscan sun and the Venetian dream, but the next big thing in Italy could be far to the south, in the once-impoverished Basilicata region. One of only two Italian regions with coasts on two seas, Basilicata is headlined by the extraordinary troglodyte city (and now Hollywood favourite) of Matera, but it's also home to the country's largest national park, Pollino, which has alpine peaks up to 2267 metres in height and autumn slopes of brilliant shades. See discoverbasilicata.com

See also: Italy's best hidden beaches

BEST TOWN

Haapsalu, Estonia

It's said that Pyotr Tchaikovsky was so taken with Haapsalu that he was inspired to compose Swan Lake, and the classical charm of the Estonian fishing town hasn't wilted in the subsequent 150 years. The town centre is almost enclosed by a lagoon-like piece of the Baltic Sea (yes, usually covered in swans) and lorded over by an incongruously large castle. Ranged across the foot of the castle is a line of Scandinavian-style buildings containing restaurants with outdoor decks that literally spill into the main street. See visitestonia.com/en

See: One of the best regions to cycle in Europe

BEST DESERT

Sossusvlei, Namibia

Spectacular Sossusvlei, in the southern Namib, is deep desert, with some of the world's tallest dunes, painted vivid pink and orange. Meaning dead-end marsh, this is an extraordinary world of stony outcrops, severe clay pans and gobsmacking heat. Only those few creatures that have adapted can survive. The sculptural "star dunes", with their high iron content, change shape with the wind – a photographer's dream. Hard to get there, but worth it. See sossusvlei.org

See also: Taking 'the world's most luxurious train' through Namibia

BEST ISLAND

Madagascar

a group of ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) hugging each other while sitting on a trunk. SatDec31-cover - tra31-cover - Best Finds image supplied BEST COUNTRY: MADAGASCAR Credit: iStock

Photo: iStock

Deforestation has scarred much of the world's fourth biggest island, but it remains one of the planet's most compelling destinations. Madagascar's wildlife, including many species of lemur, and the cat-like foussa, is the big draw, with 92 per cent of its mammals found nowhere else. Landscapes, like the razor-sharp limestone forest in World Heritage-listed Tsingy National Park, the spirited, un-tourist weary Malagasy people, and the deeply rutted roads, make travelling here a real adventure. See worldexpeditions.com

See: The unforgettable badlands of Madagascar

BEST LESSER-KNOWN AUSTRALIAN BEACHES

Chalkies Beach and Bryan's Beach, Queensland

Escape the crowd: Tours run from Hamilton Island to the stunning and secluded Chalkies Beach.

Photo: Kara Rosenlund

When visiting Queensland's Whitsunday Islands or Tasmania's pristine Freycinet National Park, locals happily watch visitors flock in their thousands to the iconic Whitehaven Beach and Wineglass Bay – largely considered Australia's best beaches. But the lesser known and closely guarded Chalkies Beach (opposite Whitehaven Beach) and the glorious Bryan's Beach are not only just as magnificent (arguably more so), they're crowd-free too. Tours run to Chalkies Beach from Hamilton Island. Bryan's Beach (not far from Saffire, Freycinet) is harder to reach but oh so worth it. See hamiltonisland.com.au

See also: Australia's best beach named - and no one has ever heard of it

BEST GARDEN

Brief Garden, Sri Lanka

Just inland from Sri Lanka's resort town of Bentota, Brief Garden covers just two hectares yet it feels like a small world. Created by Bevis Bawa, brother of the island's famous architect Geoffrey Bawa, the garden's snaking paths, swooning tropical foliage and aromatic trees that drip voluptuously, make a wild kingdom, but there's style in the dark tunnel of cannonball trees that leads to classical amphitheatre and the stone staircase that rises through sculpted bamboo.

See also: Sri Lanka, the world's newest five-star destination

STAYS

BEST ACCOMMODATION

Solomon Islands

Tavanipupu Resort is a stunning getaway-from-it-all private island in Guadalcanal Province. After the short scenic flight from Honiara lands on a grass airstrip, you slide into Tavanipupu's pure romantic serenity, as Wills and Kate did in 2012. The ten spacious, free-standing bungalows are beautifully presented and with no phone, Wi-Fi or TV you are free to snorkel, fish, relax, take a sunset cruise or visit the traditional village across the channel. Room service? Sure, just bang your drum. tavanipupu.com

Read: Traveller's Tavanipupu full review

BEST NEW LUXURY LODGE

explora Valle Sagrado, Peru

SatDec31-cover - tra31-cover - Best Finds image supplied BEST NEW LUXURY EXPERIENCE explora Valle Sagrado

Luxury doesn't have to be about exquisite food and spa baths (although you'll find both here); luxury, too, can refer to experiences – and that's what Chilean company explora is all about. Their newest opening is explora Valle Sagrado, a sustainably designed 50-room lodge located in Peru's Sacred Valley. Although it's a delightful base, a stay here focuses on the outside rather than the inside, with 20 different styles of guided excursions spanning hiking, biking and road adventures. See explora.com

BEST FOODIE STAY

Brae, Birregurra, Victoria

On official lists of the world's and Australia's best restaurants, when Victoria's Brae restaurant launched its on-site accommodation, it needed to be good. What chef Dan Hunter and his wife and business partner Julianne Bagnato achieved with their six luxury suites, designed by Six Degrees Architects and Studio Round, is sublime. A simpatico extension of the fine dining Brae restaurant experience, these environmentally efficient villas are as much a statement of Hunter's personality and attention to detail as is his menu.

Recycled materials, local artworks and a great collection of vinyl records comprise a sumptuous crash pad to sleep off Hunter's amazing degustations, with waking up to the lush Otways countryside a sweet finale. See braerestaurant.com

Read: Traveller's full review of Brae's suites

BEST HOTEL

La Residence, Franschhoek, South Africa

There are good hotels, there are great hotels, and then there are places like La Residence in South Africa. This boutique property in the Cape wine country, set amid the vines just an hour from Cape Town, does everything right. The rooms are huge and opulently furnished. The staff are professional and greet you by name. And the small touches that make you feel like a star – the valet parking, the chauffer service into town, the open mini-bar, the a la carte breakfast, the sunset drinks – just keep on coming. See laresidence.co.za.

Read: Traveller's full La Residence review

BEST COUNTRY HOUSE

Lime Wood Hotel, Lyndhurst, UK

Surrounded by horse-cropped fields in a fold of the New Forest less than two hours from London, this retreat pulls out all the country stops – ivy-clad walls, meandering garden paths, crackling fires and snifters of brandy – and yet doesn't overindulge in stereotypes. The spa is resolutely contemporary, Laura Ashley is banished; the bar features pink leather chairs and the restaurant stylish Italian nosh. See limewoodhotel.co.uk

BEST AFRICAN LODGE

Phinda Mountain Lodge, South Africa

Phinda is a super-stylish &Beyond property, set on 14,000 hectares in the dramatic KwaZulu-Natal region. The decor is designer-bush – its spacious, light-filled suites are decorated with contemporary African artefacts, you have an outdoor shower and plunge pool on your deck and the airy dining room has wide-ranging views over the plains and mountains. The reserve is renowned for its cheetah sightings and it more than lives up to its reputation. See andbeyond.com

FOOD AND WINE

BEST FOOD

Korea

The Korean food scene is on the brink of fame. Asia's quite achiever finally began to get the recognition it deserves in 2016, with Michelin releasing its first "red guide" to Seoul's restaurants, and travellers flocking to see what the fuss is about. The country's fine-dining scene is taking off. However, most Koreans will tell you their food is best at its simplest: meat barbecued at the table; fried chicken served with beer; fresh-caught fish steamed to perfection. It's cheap, too. See visitkorea.or.kr

See: Korean street food - how to eat like a local in Seoul

BEST FOOD TOUR BY FOOT

You could be forgiven for thinking that Dubai wouldn't be much use for a walking food tour, but during the temperate winter months, Frying Pan Adventures offer just that. With various programmes taking in different ethnic foods around the historic creek and its surrounding neighbourhoods, the idea isn't so much to try Arabic food as to take part in the immigrant experience. Run by sisters Arva and Farida Ahmed, this is a chance to see and taste a side of Dubai you probably didn't know existed. See fryingpanadventures.com

BEST CELLAR DOOR EXPERIENCE

Heifer Station's new cellar door in a converted wool shed in Orange not only serves up great wine from its cool climate vineyard, but has opened a petting farm as well so kids can play while mum and dad imbibe. The bucolic winery will also set you up with a picnic among the vines and come back and collect you when you're done. Wine tasting with children has never been more appealing. See heiferstation.com

CRUISE

BEST ON-BOARD CRUISE EXPERIENCE

The Haven on NCL's Norwegian Epic

Book into the "ship within a ship" on Norwegian Epic and you can enjoy all the big-ship facilities – rock-climbing walls, waterparks, Broadway shows – while having exclusive access to The Haven's pool, sundeck, restaurant, lounge, bar and spa. The service there is top-notch and when the non-stop action gets a bit much, it's the perfect retreat. Ideal for multi-generational cruisers, The Haven is also on Norwegian Escape, Getaway, Breakaway, Gem, Jade, Jewel and Pearl. See ncl.com/au/en

BEST CRUISE SHORE EXCURSION

Private wine tour, Tuscany, Italy

Scenic Tuscany landscape with rolling hills and valleys in golden morning light, Val d'Orcia, Italy. SatDec31-cover - tra31-cover - Best Finds image supplied BEST SHORE EXCURSION Credit: iStock

Photo: iStock

For a taste of Tuscany away from the madding midsummer crowds, consider a private vineyard tour with sommelier Massimo Cenci. Massimo takes small groups on individually tailored itineraries that focus on the wines of five lesser-known Tuscan coastal regions. We visited two boutique vineyards – I Giusti e Zanza and Michele Satta – and enjoyed a wonderful long lunch at Osteria La Gattaiola in the tiny town of Fauglia between sampling sessions. A truly grand day out. Email massimocenci1969@gmail.com

See also: The ultimate food lovers' guide to Italy's best restaurants

BEST CRUISE SHIP

Star Clipper

If cruise ships ever begin to seem the same-same, then it's time to board one of this cruise company's fabulous ships such as Star Flyer for something akin to a 19th-century sailing experience – though without the weevils and hammocks. Expect polished mahogany and teakwood, gleaming brass work and, above all, 16 billowing white sails across four towering masts that bring thrilling romance back to the sailing experience. See starclippers.com/au

BEST ON-SHORE FEAST

Pulau Jaco, East Timor

Overseas lines that cruise the Kimberley have to make "technical stops" outside Australian waters. Silver Discoverer spends a day in the uninhabited island of Pulau Jaco in East Timor, within the Nino Konis Santana National Park. The crew sets up a fabulous barbecue and bar on the beach and just a couple of metres offshore colourful coral reefs swarm with tropical fish. So refreshing to plunge into the sea without worrying about being devoured by crocodiles. See silversea.com

BEST FEEL-GOOD SHORE EXCURSION

Cheung Kok, Cambodia

There's not a plastic bag to be seen in this picturesque Khmer eco-village. The community is supported by Amica, an international voluntary association that helped the villagers set up traditional handicraft businesses and retain a way of life that is hundreds of years old. Gorgeous children chase you along sandy streets and who can resist buying silk and cotton kramas (multi-purpose scarfs) when you've just seen them being hand-woven? See scenic.com.au

BEST ON-BOARD COOKING SCHOOL

Regent Seven Seas Explorer, Culinary Arts Kitchen

The uber-luxury line's first culinary school on its newest ship is, as you'd expect, top notch. It has 18 cooking stations, giant TV screens for close-up views of the action and fabulous sea views. Chef Noelle takes our group through the Mediterranean menu and with her expert help – and humorous comments – we produce three delicious dishes. The enjoyment factor is considerably heightened when you don't have to shop, prep, or wash up. See rssc.com

TRANSPORT

BEST ARRIVAL

Monaco by helicopter

To make a real entrance in Monaco, do it by air. One problem — this postage stamp principality doesn't have an airstrip. Instead, at Nice Airport you step into a sleek, black Monacair helicopter which zips out to sea before banking along the Mediterranean coast. Seven minutes later an enclave of apartments and glittering yacht harbours appears, and at the last moment a waterfront heli-pad. Price: €145 including a limo to whisk you to your hotel. Worth it. See monacoair.mc

See: 20 reasons to visit Monaco

BEST CAR FOR TOURING

The Fiat 500

In 1957, Italy was introduced to the Nuova 500, a car so excellent it was re-introduced 50 years later as the Fiat 500. It remains compact and excellent as a town car, particularly the "C" models with a retractable roof. Given that many roads in Europe were never designed for automobile traffic – try driving through an ancient Etruscan village for hair-raising proof – this is a dependable solution, as nimble in tight spots as a mouse. Looks good, too. See fiat.com.au

BEST AIRCRAFT

The A350

Shiny and new and offered on numerous new services to and from Australia in 2016, the A350 is revolutionising the route map with its long range capabilities. Airbus's newest is also relatively quiet, roomy and atmospherically flyer-friendly, offering some perceived advantages – according to many pundits – over its direct competitor, the B-787. Those include more individual space in economy and window shades.

The 787 has electronically dimming windows and a little less room in economy on most configurations, though it's still a fabulous aircraft. See airbus.com

See: Airbus A350 vs Boeing Dreamliner - which plane is best on a long haul?

BEST NON FOSSIL-FUELLED TRANSPORT

Camel power, South Australia. The remote reaches of the northern Flinders Ranges are tough, dry and unyielding on foot ... unless you have some powerful companions carrying hundreds of litres of water. Hiking with pack camels opens up this arid country in ways possible through no other form of transport. Camp can be made anywhere and far from roads, and exploration is limited only by the agility of the animals, which are surprisingly companionable hiking partners. See worldexpeditions.com/au

BEST DEPARTURE

Launceston Airport

Holding on to the holiday vibe a bit longer is easier at Launceston Airport after a $3.5 million transformation of the terminal that includes the best of local food and wine at this gateway to the north of the state. Watch planes come and go with an Oomph gourmet coffee in hand or sample the local Josef Chromy pinot on tap and an Ashgrove cheese board before boarding. See launcestonairport.com.au

BEST CYCLING DAY TOUR

Viator electric bike Gaudi tour, Barcelona, Spain

Riding an e-bike allows you to cover more distance than a regular bike and our enthusiastic guide, Alessandra, led four of us on a swooping tour around the striking buildings designed by Barcelona's famous architect Antoni Gaudi. She was incredibly well-informed about the city and her passion for Gaudi's works was inspiring. Highlights included viewing La Sagrada Familia from a quiet park, stopping at El Born Cultural Centre and visiting places we may never have discovered independently. See viator.com

BEST SCENIC FLIGHT

Bungle Bungle Adventurer, Western Australia

A flight of about two hours in a 14-seater plane from remote Kununurra gives a bird's eye view of land and water masses that are almost incomprehensibly vast. As we flew over Lake Argyle, massive cattle stations and the beehive-like Bungle Bungles, our pilot told us that the Argyle Diamond mine, famed for its rare pink diamonds, also produced an intriguing insider crime operation back in the 1980s. You'll have to go to hear the story. See aviair.com.au

KIT

BEST TRAVEL OUTFIT

Sassind travel capsule

If you've travelled through an international terminal in 2016, you've likely seen an avalanche of active wear that's escaped the gym to be the travel outfit of choice. You can hardly blame the wearer – it's stretchy, comfy and does double time as workout wear – should you ever work out on holiday. But will it get you an upgrade? Melbourne brand Sassind has simplified a woman's conundrum of balancing in-the-air comfort with on-the-ground style, via a range of co-ordinated basics in natural fibres that are not only comfy for long haul, but perfectly stylish. They are ethically produced, as well. See sassind.com

BEST APP

maps.me

It's not often we discover an app that truly changes the way we travel. By utilising GPS technology to provide real-time offline map navigation, maps.me has done away with the need for travellers to connect to Wi-Fi or to clock up huge data roaming charges while figuring out the way from A to B in Marseille, Manhattan and many other places. After the initial map download, which does require Wi-Fi or data, the free, worldwide app provides accurate navigation even when the device is in airplane mode. See maps.me

BEST SHOE

Athleisure

Hybrids of anything can turn out to be Frankenstein's monsters, such as the pizza-burger, or Madonna's accent. But some, like say, the cronut, turn out to be sheer genius. And the athleisure shoe falls into the latter category. A nifty combination of athletic and smart footwear, this is a shoe that can have you strolling kilometres of shops in fashion-conscious Milan without a disdainful glance in the direction of your feet, or going from a Montmartre walking tour to a trendy Parisian bar with stylish confidence. Many active shoe companies now make them; Merrell is a champ at it. See merrellaustralia.com.au

BEST CAMERA GEAR

EVO GP 3 Axis Handheld Gimbal

Action cameras like the GoPro give the wow factor to adventure holidays but the footage can be shaky and rough. Gimbals are hand-held motorised stabilisers that iron out the shakes in that hard-to-watch video for a pro grade result. Your panning shots, shots from fast moving boats or cars are transformed into silky smooth cinema productions. Several Go-Pro gimbals are available, none of them cheap, and the EVO is one of the best.

See evogimbals.com

CULTURE

BEST THEATRE

Shakespeare Theatre in Gdansk, Poland

You wouldn't expect to find a link to The Bard in Poland's historic Baltic port, but in the 17th-century, Gdansk hosted English actors in a theatre based on an Elizabethan London playhouse. Constructed on the same site, the Shakespeare Theatre is an imposing structure of black brick, with a bright timber interior and a retractable roof. Take a guided tour for fine rooftop views of the city, or catch a surtitled play within. See teatrszekspirowski.pl

BEST EXHIBITION

Exhibitionism

This Rolling Stones retrospective opened in London in 2016 to huge crowds. It is now in New York, and slated for an Australian visit in 2018. Exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, it offers music fans a staggering bounty of Stones artefacts: posters, guitars, art work, photographs, and even a recreation of their scummy 1960s London flat. The costumes are particularly fascinating, and a concert film in 3D is brilliantly done, with Jagger slobbering right in your face. See stonesexhibitionism.com

BEST ART MUSEUM

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), US

Yet another reason to visit San Francisco is to peruse the seven floors of the magnificently enhanced Museum of Modern Art. Designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, there's plenty of natural sunlight and vistas to enjoy moments of repose between viewing the greatest hits of modern art. The marriage of art, landscape and architecture is most impressive in the Alexander Calder Motion Lab where colourful mobiles gently twirl in front of a giant living wall. You'll need more than a day to see it all. See sfmoma.org

See: Inside San Francisco's new museum

MISCELLANEOUS

BEST SPA TREATMENT

The Goddess at Gwinganna, Queensland

Jodie Wagner's The Goddess at Gwinganna treatment, launched in 2016, is much more than just a spa treatment. Jodie is passionate about helping women rediscover their feminine essence and her two-hour sessions are all about reawakening that powerful force. She combines Ka Huna massage with hot stones, essential oils, chakra awareness and body reading, but it's her chanting and singing that takes the experience to a metamorphic level. Prepare to walk out a different person. See gwinganna.com

See: How the peace of Gwinganna keeps you coming back

BEST SERVICE

Ski valet at Falls Creek, Victoria

Victoria's largest alpine resort, Falls Creek is famed for its ski-in-ski-out environment. However this works only if there's enough of the white stuff around and if you have adequate experience to get down to a lift without breaking a limb. For absolute beginners, it simply doesn't work. Falls Creek's answer is Ski Valet, at the base of the Falls Express chair, where you can store hired gear overnight free of charge. It means you can move around the resort in comfortable footwear and is, especially, a blessing for families where beleaguered parents would otherwise be schlepping everyone's cumbersome equipment. See fallscreek.com.au; skifalls.com.au

BEST ANIMAL ENCOUNTER

Giraffe Manor, Nairobi

There are manors, and there are manors. There are beautiful old buildings set on perfectly manicured estates, where staff are attentive and there's a sense of classical opulence to the whole experience. And then there's Nairobi's Giraffe Manor, which is all of those things, plus giraffes. This is part hotel, part giraffe sanctuary, and guests come for one amazing experience: eating breakfast in the company of these beautiful, inquisitive creatures. See classicsafaricompany.com.au

See: Where giraffes stop in for breakfast, every day

BEST TOUR

By Prior Arrangement

Carol Prior has been entranced with Morocco since the 1970s and knows everyone connected with its tourism business. Her boutique company specialises in handcrafted itineraries, sometimes with a focus on interior design, food or architecture. Tours provide luxury without fuss and an insider look at a fascinating country through the eyes of engaging local guides. Great to see an expansion into France and the UK, too. See bypriorarrangement.com

CONTRIBUTORS

Andrew Bain, Andrea Black, John Borthwick, Michael Gebicki, Ben Groundwater, Julietta Jameson, Brian Johnston, Kristie Kellahan, Jamie Lafferty, Tatyana Leonov, Sally Macmillan, Jane Reddy, Tim Richards, Lance Richardson, Sheriden Rhodes, Daniel Scott, Alison Stewart, Sally Webb. mal chenu

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