Discovery is what travel is all about. And nothing sparks like a new journey. Along with some places that have just opened to travellers – Iran, the Balkans, the "Stans" – there are new ways of experiencing some old favourites, crafted by imaginative operators.
Cuba on a Harley-Davidson qualifies, or a cycling trip through Corsica or the Kimberley coastline aboard a French-accented luxury cruise ship.
Some of these new journeys involve difficult trips for hard core adventurers, but yesterday's wild frontiers – the Shan Hills of Burma, the lemur forests of Madagascar, the Silk Road through Uzbekistan – are fast becoming well trodden paths. Here are few suggestions to set you dreaming and planning.
WHAT French cruise line Ponant plans to begin operating cruises along the Kimberley coastline in 2017. Four 10-night voyages are scheduled between July and September 2017, sailing between Darwin and Broome. This will be the first vessel of this size and calibre to make regular cruises along this sinewy, sensational coastline since the much-loved Orion left Australia's waters several years ago.
There's a lot to like about Ponant's Italian-built expedition-style vessels, from the handsome cabins to the multiple lounge areas, the three bars, the expansive deck areas, the choice of buffet or a la carte restaurants and 24-hour room service menu.
The on-board naturalists are fantastic, with several Australians in the mix, and the 14 Zodiacs put passenger disembarking into express mode.
The maximum passenger load is around 250. The Ponant ships are also the world's youngest cruise fleet, they're some of the prettiest ships afloat and finally – raise glasses please – there's an open bar. Cheers!
MAKE IT HAPPEN July – September 2017, from $9700. See en.ponant.com
The Kimberley coastline. Photo: Ponant/Mick Fogg
BELMOND GRAND HIBERNIAN
WHAT In August, Ireland becomes the latest member of the luxury train league when the Belmond Grand Hibernian starts its run through the sceptred glories of the Emerald Isle with a choice of two, four or six-day itineraries.
The six-day Grand Tour of Ireland tacks on a jaunt into Northern Ireland to take in Belfast and the Giant's Causeway, but those in search of shamrocks and blarney should be happy enough with the four-day Legends and Loughs trip, a circuit from Dublin to Cork then up the west coast to Galway and Westport and back to Dublin, with luxury trimmings all the way.
The Hibernian accommodates just 40 guests in twin and double cabins, all with en suites. The decor throughout is throttled-back neo-Edwardian in a country-comfort taupe and cream, a far cry from the belle epoque extravagance that has been the hallmark of Belmond, whose standard bearer is the Venice-Simplon Orient Express.
MAKE IT HAPPEN From August 2016, from $5025. See railbookers.com.au.
Belmond Grand Hibernian
WHAT Reopened after 50 years, the Borders Railway runs from Edinburgh to Tweedbank. It's less than 50 kilometres, but glorious scenery, history and sheer delight punch the journey into heavyweight league.
The journey takes just under an hour and, since it's a commuter line, trains travel the line frequently. For the traveller, it works best as a hop-on, hop-off service, and there are some fascinating stops along the way.
Get off at Eskbank Station and catch a cab to Rosslyn Chapel, which played a starring role in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. From Galashiels there's the pretty hamlet of St Boswells, and Jedburgh, site of Mary, Queen of Scots' house. Alight at Tweedbank and it's just a short hop to Mellerstain, a superb Georgian mansion and possibly the only remaining complete building designed by Robert Adam.
From Tweedbank station, you can walk to Abbotsford House, the castellated home of Sir Walter Scott. The Border Rail also offers easy access to more than 2000 kilometres of hiking trails, with the long-distance Southern Upland Way as one of the stars.
Another gem is the Borders Abbeys Way, a 100-kilometre trail running through woodland beside the salmon-leaping Tweed, with crumbling abbeys alongside.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Daily service, from $30 return. See www.bordersrailway.co.uk.
From Laos to China
WHAT Pandaw is one Myanmar riverboat company that thinks outside the square and it's just announced a ripper journey for 2016, along the Mekong from Laos and up into the underbelly of China. The vessel is the 10-berth Laos Pandaw, the latest addition to the fleet.
From Vientiane, the Laos Pandaw will travel north along the Mekong up into Jinghong in southern Yunnan Province, a 14-day journey.
A better bet would be the 10-day trip starting from Luang Prabang. Along the way there are a few time-warped curiosities, such as the journey by car along the Old Mandalay Road in Kengtung State to the former colonial hill station of Loi Mwe, a visit to Aka hilltribe villages at Muang Long, the Menglun Botanical Garden and Mangfeilong Monastery in Yunnan before the vessel docks at Jinghong. The reverse journey is another option.
MAKE IT HAPPEN From February to April, later dates to be announced. From $9665 (14 days Vientiane to Yunnan Province). See www.pandaw.com/laos-china.
Laos Mekong cruise with Pandaw
VALLEY OF THE ASSASSINS
WHAT Most Iranian itineraries have a sameness to them, but this is an eye opener, through an Iran that delivers one punchy revelation after another.
After a couple of days in Tehran, the group travels north into the Alborz Mountains, along the Caspian Sea. This is a majestic and staunchly traditional quarter of Iran, punctuated by mountain villages of pastoralists who have driven their flocks of sheep and goats up into the cloud-hung summer pastures of the Talesh Highlands since the ink was still wet on the Book of Job, and who rigorously maintain the tradition of hospitality to strangers.
Highlights include the Lambesar and Alamut "assassins" castles, the huddled and highly photogenic mountain village of Masuleh, the town of Meshkinshahr, one of the most ancient cities in Iran from the Safavid period, and the city of Tabriz.
There's hiking, too, up to five hours a day, and camping a couple of nights, with Shahsavan nomads along the Azerbaijan border. The group trip in September is also available on other dates as a private trip.
MAKE IT HAPPEN September 15-28, and independent itineraries; $5764. See www.crooked-compass.com.
Tehran skyline in front of snow covered Alborz Mountains, Iran. Photo: iStock
NORTH COAST 500
WHAT Rugged and romantic in equal parts, this newly minted route is a natural for any list of the world's greatest drives.
Travelling in a loop from Inverness Castle, the North Coast 500 girdles the top third of Scotland, preferring the minor roads that snake along the coast.
The concept of a "500-miler" here defies belief, yet Scotland's sea and ice-sculpted coastline is the answer. The route weaves out and around the long fingers that reach into the sea and thus becomes a looping, swooping 830-kilometre adventure.
It's a less-visited Scotland. The route is designed to spread some love to the wallflower in the Scottish dance hall, and there's every reason to take a twirl.
It's heart-stoppingly beautiful, lavishly endowed with castles, sea stacks, sea-fretted beaches, lochs and Pictish trails, through a landscape that might have sprung from the pen of J. R. R. Tolkien.
MAKE IT HAPPEN See www.northcoast500.com.
Along the North Coast 500 the Grey Cairns of Camster. Photo: iStock
CUBA MOTORCYCLE TOUR
WHAT A trip to Cuba is not quite the dinner party conversation-stopper it once was.
Cuba with your hands on the bars of a Harley-Davidson, an 800cc BMW or a Suzuki VStrom is another kettle of fish.
This 13-day tour travels the length of Cuba, from Havana to Guantanamo, at the eastern end of the island and close to the infamous US-operated detention camp.
Tobacco plantations, the mausoleum of Che Guevara in Santa Clara, the Bay of Pigs museum, beaches and the World Heritage city of Trinidad feature on the itinerary. Count on four to six hours in the saddle a day, the occasional Cuba Libre cocktail, a touch of Hemingway and probably a few late-night salsa sessions.
Extreme Bike Tours specialises in tours in the Indian subcontinent, including a rugged and spectacular two-wheeled crossing of the Himalayas, and operating in remote locations makes it well equipped to handle whatever challenges Cuba throws its way.
MAKE IT HAPPEN March 6-18, 2016, later dates to be announced; $9133. See www.extremebiketours.com.
Cuba motorcycle tour Photo: Supplied
VATICAN BY TRAIN
WHAT Opened in September, this railway line connects the Vatican in Rome with Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer palace. The price is a mini-marvel, and the round-trip train ticket includes access to the Vatican museums, the Sistine chapel, the Vatican gardens and the botanical and architectural wonders of Castel Gandolfo.
Better still, train travellers get to jump the queue at the Sistine chapel with an audio tour, followed by a stroll around the formal gardens.
The train, which operates only on Saturdays, departs Vatican City's white marble railway station at 11am, crosses the Tiber River and chugs into the Alban Hills to Albano Laziale, the station for Castel Gandolfo, 30 kilometres south of the capital.
The train ticket includes a toy train tour of the Pontifical villas and their gardens, which feature a theatre built for the Emperor Domitian in the first century AD. Just after 5pm, the train leaves for the one-hour journey back to Vatican City.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Saturdays only, $60. See www.biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/musei/tickets
GOLDEN EAGLE FESTIVAL
WHAT Among the Kazakh people of the western Mongolian province of Bayan-Olgii in the mountainous Altai region, ancestral ways linger.
Some people still live in pie-shaped gers, herding sheep and goats and hunting rabbits, foxes and even wolves, with golden eagles, from horseback.
Every year, the most accomplished falconers come together on the outskirts of Olgii, the regional capital, to show off their skills.
Pack your best camera – the hawk eyes and fur-trimmed costumes of these hard men of the mountains mark them as a special breed, even in a land that specialises in the extraordinary. In 2017, luxury tour specialist Abercrombie & Kent will lead a group to the festival as part of a wider exploration of Mongolia.
As well as a private session with a falconer, highlights of the journey include nights camped out in gers, hiking in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, rides across the desert aboard a Bactrian camel and Kazakh cultural performances.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Late September 2017. See www.abercrombiekent.com.au.
Bayan-Ulgii Province in western Mongolia. Photo: Getty Images
HEART OF PERSIA
WHAT Iran is one Middle-Eastern country that combines fascination with safety and sanity for the culturally minded traveller, and this 14-day journey aboard the ultra-luxury Golden Eagle train plumbs the wonders of ancient Persia and modern Iran.
From Tehran, the train travels clockwise to take in Isfahan, Yazd, Persepolis and Kashan as well as the holy city of Mashad in the far east and Kerman, both rare on Iranian itineraries.
Decked out like a Faberge egg, the Golden Eagle is Russia's contribution to the luxury train league. This is the only fully en-suited train travelling through Russia and Central Asia, with proper beds, service befitting a posh hotel and caviar all the way.
Hotel facilities in most of Iran are some way short of five star. For any traveller looking to experience the wonders in stately style, the Golden Eagle is a promising alternative.
MAKE IT HAPPEN November 24, from $23,000. See www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com.
Isfahan, Iran Photo: iStock
TRAILS TO FREEDOM
WHAT In September 1943, four young Australian soldiers broke out of a prison camp north of Turin and walked across the Italian Alps, crossing five mountain passes and skirting the second-highest peak in the alps before reaching Switzerland and freedom.
The paths they took dated from medieval times, later rechristened by partisans as the "sentieri della liberta", the trails to freedom.
Once a year, starting from August 2015, Simon Tancred, of Hidden Italy walking tours, leads a maximum of 12 keen and fit walkers to follow in their footsteps.
From Biella in Italy's Piedmont region, the nine-day walk traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in the European Alps, along trails used by pilgrims, traders, herdsmen and hunters, with accommodation in medieval monasteries and mountain huts, as well as small hotels.
Expect simple but robust food, the slow food movement takes its stem cells from Piedmont. The walk is graded "5", which signifies a tough trek, but far easier than those four diggers had it.
MAKE IT HAPPEN August 22, 2017, $3200. See www.hiddenitaly.com.au.
EXPEDITION – SVANETI
WHAT Even by the lofty standards of isolation and ruggedness that apply in the Republic of Georgia, Svaneti is a world best left to its own devices.
At the top left-hand corner of this pocket-sized country, shielded from Russia by the towering peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, Svaneti is the wild child in the Georgian family.
They call this the land of 1000 towers and the stone fingers of fortified turrets spike the landscape, one for every 15 inhabitants. It feels like an invading army has just marched though wielding swords and mayhem, but in this case the invading army is nature, wild and wilful, bringing avalanches and wrenching the mountains apart with torturing force.
Majestic and sown with drama, Svaneti feels like a place that humans were never meant to live. It is also unbelievably lovely when spring, coming late to these high valleys, sets white cherry blossoms exploding across the hills and turns fields into yellow planes of buttercups.
Intrepid Travel has recently unveiled a 10-day trip from Tbilisi into this remote region, with a hike from the mountain fastness of Ushguli, said to be the highest inhabited town in Europe, along a lovely stream to the Shkhara Glacier as a highlight.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Several departures, in July, August, from $1695. See www.intrepidtravel.com.
Ushguli Caucasus Mountains, Georgia
PUGLIA – A SPECIAL WALKING & CULTURAL TOUR
WHAT For lovers of Italy in search of something different, Puglia is the go-to place. Even more so the sub region of Salento, the heel of the Italian boot, home to some of Italy's loveliest towns and villages, a dazzling coastline amply furnished with beaches and an architectural treasury that dates back to Greek days.
As well as rustic villages, you've got easy access to Lecce with its extravagant collection of baroque churches that wins it the title "Florence of the south".
To the north is Alberobello, famous for its conical trulli houses, and the glistening white towns of the Valle d'Itria.
World Expeditions has an 11-day guided walk that dallies through some of the villages and landscapes of this lovely corner of Italy. Leading the tour is Athena McAlpine, widow of the late Lord Alistair McAlpine and a passionate and authoritative voice on this corner of Italy that she now calls home.
Better still, four nights are spent at the wondrous Convento di Santa Maria Costantinopoli, the former ruined seaside monastery that the McAlpines lovingly restored.
MAKE IT HAPPEN September 19, $6290. See www.worldexpeditions.com.
Puglia. Photo: iStock
SHAKTI KUMAON VILLAGE WALK
WHAT Across India's north-western Kumaon region, the ridge lines rise and fall, increasing in size and vigour until they crest at the shining, snow-plated giants along the border with Tibet.
Against a backdrop of terraced hillsides, grunting oxen heave wooden ploughs and women with gold jewellery in their noses thresh rice in the mud-floored courtyards of their houses. Rooftops are splashed with splotches of drying chillis. Foreigners are a source of wide-eyed wonder to the village children.
In these hills, Shakti Himalaya has crafted the Kumaon Village Walk, a guided five-day stroll that winds between villages, through fields and forests of rhododendrons, oaks and deodars.
Shakti has been operating this walk for several years but recently the village houses that hikers use for overnight stays have been refreshed, redecorated and, in some cases, rebuilt. Houses have proper beds and plumbing, while preserving the simple charm bestowed by stone and hand-hewn timber.
It's a journey filled with human warmth as well as spectacle, culminating in a final, panting climb to watch the rising sun paint the spike of India's tallest peak, Nanda Devi, 7817 metres of ice and rock, cresting in the heavens.
MAKE IT HAPPEN October 1 – April 20, $3630. See shaktihimalaya.com
Shakti Kumaon Village Walk, India Photo: Shakti
WHISPERS THROUGH THE EMPTY QUARTER
WHAT Oman is one of the few Gulf states that has not lost touch with its roots. This is a wild province of the imagination, a place of date palm oases and desert castles hoisted on craggy outcrops, the home of frankincense and myrrh and souks where men with silver daggers in their waistbands haggle over goats.
Eco-awareness rates high. Oman's conservation-minded Sultan Qaboos Bin Said has established sanctuaries for the Arabian oryx, tahr and leopard.
In the south are beaches where turtles wade ashore to lay their eggs, now rigidly protected. From Muscat, Oman's capital, this new 10-day four-wheel drive trip heads into the lost-in-time landscape of the Hajar Mountains, through fortified villages, lush palmeries, through Jebel Shams, the "Grand Canyon of Oman", before heading into the towering dunescape of the Wahiba Sands and finally back to the coast at Salalah.
MAKE IT HAPPEN October 10, private departures on request, $6930. See www.crooked-compass.com.
The sand dunes of Rub al Khali in Oman. Photo: iStock
CLASSIC COLS OF CORSICA
WHAT For keen cyclists, the island of Corsica is about as sweet as life in the saddle gets and this new tour from UK cycling specialist Marmot Tours is an absolute honey.
From the entry point at Ajaccio, on the island's west coast, the route loops around to include all the landscapes that the island has to offer, taking in time-warped villages, Roman ruins, an ambrosial coastline, the starkly beautiful Desert des Agriates and narrow, cliff-hugging roads – and mountains.
Every day there's a choice of a "challenge" route, which piles an extra helping of distance and ascents onto the less rigorous "classic" route. Even so, the classic routes are no pushover at around 120 kilometres per day, with more than 1000 metres of climbing but, according to Marmot, any fit, regular cyclist with no mountain-climbing experience can do it. Maximum group size is 20 and there are two sag wagons if your legs have had enough.
MAKE IT HAPPEN May, September, $2280. See www.marmot-tours.co.uk.
Corsica Photo: Shutterstock
WHAT New to the Intrepid Travel portfolio in 2015, Tajikistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan are not for everyone. But if you prefer your travels served wild, your scenery raw and majestic and spiced with unpredictability, these jigsaw-piece countries between Uzbekistan, China and Afghanistan could be just the place.
Most of the population lives in river valleys that gutter the high peaks of the Pamir-Alay Mountains, the geography in this region and one of the world's least visited mountain ranges.
From Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, this 13-day trip heads south, joining the Pamir Highway at Osh to cross the border into Tajikistan on a spectacular journey that rises to 4655 metres to cross Ak-Baital Pass as it traces one of the Silk Road's many strands.
There are some long days of driving in this itinerary, along tortuous roads, but the mountain scenery makes it worthwhile and there's a peek across the border into Afghanistan.
MAKE IT HAPPEN May and September, from $3665. See www.intrepidtravel.com.
PADDLING RAJA AMPAT
WHAT An archipelago of 2500 islands and reefs strewn off West Papua Province, the islands that make up Indonesia's Raja Ampat have blown all previous counts of marine life out of the water.
Lavishly greened, the toothy limestone islands of Raja Ampat – "the four kings" – erupt from the sea, covered with thick rainforest and garnished with orchids. Where the islands meet the water they are ringed by the waves, which leaves the smaller islands looking like green muffins.
For diving and snorkelling, these islands are in a class all by themselves, and a new trip from Southern Sea Ventures brings them within reach of sea-kayakers.
The trip comes in two versions. The soft option is a 10-day live-aboard on a traditional Indonesian schooner with modestly luxurious cabins and lounges; the other is an 11-day camping and homestay trip.
The vessel carries tanks and gear for scuba diving, and the diving is off-the-wall superb. All trips are full for 2016 but round up a group of like-minded friends and Southern Sea Ventures can tailor a private trip.
MAKE IT HAPPEN October-November, from $6450 for the live-aboard trip, 2017. See www.southernseaventures.com .
Limestone islets and tropical lagoon in the Raja Ampat islands, West Papua. Photo: iStock
EXPEDITION – KOSOVO, ALBANIA & MACEDONIA
WHAT This is Europe's final frontier, at least one of the trio – Albania – kept under wraps by the acute paranoia of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. Intrepid Travel began operating this 15-day circuit in the summer of 2015 and still rates it an "expedition", which hints at the unpredictable nature of the journey. From Tirana, the Albanian capital, the tour skips north to Shkoder close to the border with Montenegro before heading inland to Kosovo and south through Macedonia.
In these rolling Balkan uplands is a peasant landscape of scalped mountains, lakes and expanses of grassland where shepherds stand guard over their flocks. This is one of the frontiers where Islam and Christianity rub shoulders, and Byzantine churches and minarets punctuate the skyline.
The people of these three countries are a wonderful asset for the tourism cause, both friendly and flattered that foreigners find something in their countries worth seeing.
MAKE IT HAPPEN June-September, from $2595. See www.intrepidtravel.com.
Valbona Valley, Albania
JAPAN WINTER DISCOVERY
WHAT Japan in winter draws thousands of Australian skiers and boarders but Insider Journeys has just come up with a cracking winter tour that capitalises on the chilly charms of Honshu and Hokkaido without a ski pole in your hands.
Beginning with a few days in Tokyo, the 14-day tour stitches together an onsen, a hot spring resort, in the Japan Alps, a hike to visit the Japanese macaques, the highly photogenic "snow monkeys", bathing in a hot spring at Yudanaka, temples and an icebreaker cruise among the creaking ice floes of the Okhotsk Sea.
In a variation on this tour at a slightly higher price, another tour in late January visits the Snow Festival in Sapporo, when the city's streets are taken over by a blinding array of architectural fantasies made from snow and ice, creating a never-never world that gets even better at night.
MAKE IT HAPPEN January 15, February 12, 2017, from $9900. See www.insiderjourneys.com.au.
Japanese snow monkeys Photo: iStock
Reviving the classics
GOLDEN EAGLE LUXURY TRAINS The golden age of rail travel is recreated with these sumptuous railway carriages, which marry the style of a classier era with the food and comforts of our own. There's an imaginative choice of routes – from Moscow to Vladivostok, across Mongolia and China, through the Balkans and threading the Silk Road. See www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com .
IN SHACKLETON'S FOOTSTEPS From Ushuaia in southern Argentina, Aurora Expeditions' late summer voyage retraces the voyage of this heroic polar explorer through the shifting ice pack and tubular bergs of the Weddell Sea, where his ship was crushed, then to Elephant Island and finally South Georgia, from where rescue was effected.See www.auroraexpeditions.com.au .
LEWIS AND CLARK The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06 opened the dark curtain that had shrouded the American West, marking a turning point in the history of the United States. Stephen Ambrose's historical tour takes small groups in their intrepid footsteps on a 12-day tour, with camping and canoeing to add the essential note of realism. See www.stephenambrosetours.com.
THE BURMA ROAD Hacked from the monsoonal rainforest of northern Burma during the 1930s, the Burma Road became an important supply route for the Allied forces in the war effort against Japan. Spice Trails has a 13-day cycle tour from Baoshan in China's southern Yunnan all the way to Mandalay. This fantastic journey takes cyclists through some of the least visited parts of Myanmar, home to many of the country's ethnic minorities. See www.spiceroads.com/tours/north_burma.
THE FLYING SCOTSMAN The world's most famous steam locomotive is back on track. After a multimillion-dollar refurbishment, this handsome green engine has been restored to its former glory and will be hauling passenger carriages on special tours across the UK. See www.flyingscotsman.org.uk.
Bar car on the Golden Eagle train.
Right at home: Five up-and-coming Australian adventures
THREE CAPES WALK Destined to become a classic, this walk begins with a boat ride to Denman's Cove, followed by a four-day, 46-kilometre cliff-hugging walk along the Tasman Peninsula. Numbers are restricted and overnight accommodation is in bunk rooms at architecturally crafted huts. See www.threecapestrack.com.au.
View to Tasman Island from the Blade, along the Three Capes Track. Photo: Andrew Bain
GREAT SOUTHERN RAIL Great Southern Rail has recently brought a touch of Louis Vuitton-style luxury to The Ghan and Indian Pacific trains with a Platinum Club carriage, featuring a daytime lounge/bar, and an evening banquet setting suitable for captain's dinners or larger groups. Platinum Service also includes transfers, larger cabins and in-cabin breakfasts. See greatsouthernrail.com.au.
MACQUARIE ISLAND Quite a few of those images of elephant seals, albatross and massed ranks of Adelie and royal penguins used to sell Antarctic trips were shot on Macquarie Island. Australia's own sub-Antarctic World Heritage island, this is mother nature with her hair down and the way to see it is on one of Ponant's expedition cruises. See www.en.ponant.com.
LARAPINTA CAMPS Running west from Alice Springs, the Larapinta Trail follows the backbone of the West MacDonnell Ranges through some of the most dramatic landscapes of central Australia. World Expeditions has recently extended its Larapinta Camps so that walkers spend every night in permanent camps with hot showers, comfy lounges and a heated dining shelter, where trail guides put on chef's hats and dish out a feast. See www.worldexpeditions.com/au.
DARLING RIVER RUN Cutting a slash across western New South Wales, the Darling River Road follows the course of the Darling from Bourke to Wentworth — a journey rich with memories of the time when the paddle steamers opened up the heart of NSW. Although the intervening years have cushioned some of the hardships, the journey along the Darling is still potent with a sense of adventure. See www.visitnsw.com.
Macquarie Island Photo: Ponant/Mick Fogg