Alaska, Botswana and Katmandu Valley top this year's dream destinations

March 15, 2009|By Susan Spano | Susan Spano,Los Angeles Times

People always ask me how I decide where to go. I read, I see movies, I stare at maps, I dream.

In doing so, I arrived at these 10 places that are tops on my list for 2009. Some are old favorites that are newly affordable. Others have a particular reason to shine this year or suddenly are being talked about by well-traveled people I know. A few are raw, off-the-beaten-track destinations that I doubt can long remain untransformed by globalization.

Money's tight, so I know I won't get to them all. But tough times have forced travel providers to reduce prices, meaning that now might be the time to take the grand tour.


Botswana: Get a copy of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith, starring a "traditionally built" lady sleuth who tracks down clues in a little white van along the rutted roads of Botswana.

There are nine books in the series, with a new installment, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, out in April. Later this month, HBO will air a seven-part series based on the books filmed on location in Botswana.

The true beauty of these books is their setting: dry, land-locked Botswana with its vast, empty Kalahari Desert and wildlife-rich Okavango Delta.

Prime time to visit is from April to October, the dry season when elephants and lions congregate in Chobe National Park, Moremi Wildlife Reserve and the Linyanti Marshes. For information on these and other Botswana attractions, see


Alaska: America's 49th state has as much knockout scenery as all the lower 48 put together. And it's celebrating its 50th anniversary of statehood this year with events and travel deals on items as diverse as national park lodges and RV rentals, described at

Alaska touring options abound: taking the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, passing 20,320-foot Denali; kayaking around 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park; or staying at a fishing lodge where guides can help you catch a 50-pound salmon.

But my favorite way to see the great northern wonderland is the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System, which covers the nooks and crannies of the coast from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Wash.


Hawaii : Each of the Hawaiian Islands has its devotees, but for scenic diversity, big is best, if you ask me.

Five times as large as Maui, its nearest neighbor, the island of Hawaii has the highest mountain in the chain, snow-capped, 13,796-foot Mauna Kea; awesomely active Kilauea volcano; Hilo, the island's funky county seat; deep Waipio Valley; orchid farms; beaches; sugar mills; and Kona coffee.

Since the beginning of the year, airlines, tour companies and hotel chains serving Hawaii have been offering deals that make a Big Island visit too attractive to postpone. Check out and look for good rates from resort chains with lush properties near Kona International Airport on the island's beachy western coast.


Katmandu Valley : After a decade of political turmoil that kept travelers away, peace has broken out in Nepal.

The monarchy formally was abolished last year, leaving the landlocked Himalayan nation a struggling young democracy, dependent on tourism for development.

That's why I want to go back to Katmandu this year. Nepal needs encouragement.

Of course, my motives aren't purely altruistic. The temperate valley encircled by rice terraces has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the exquisitely restored town of Bhaktapur and the white-domed Boudhanath Temple, a center for displaced Tibetan Buddhists.

The U.S. State Department has issued a warning about Nepal, based on sporadic political unrest. But that hasn't stopped major tour companies from taking groups there. Information at


Malacca, Malaysia : It's OK if you have to check a map to find Malacca. Almost everybody does, which is what makes the city seem so exotic and elusive. It's on the western coast of the Malaysian peninsula, overlooking the fabled Strait of Malacca.

Malacca was founded in the 14th century by a prince from the island of Sumatra and settled by Chinese, Malaysians and Indians. In 1511, it was conquered by the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the English.

The cultural melange gave Old Malacca its singular, spicy Chinese-Malay cuisine and richly layered architecture. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a Dutch city hall, Chinese cemeteries and shophouses, a sultan's palace and St. Paul's Church, where St. Francis Xavier served as a missionary.

Best of all, Malacca remains off the beaten track, although it's an easy hop from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and southwestern Thailand. Go to 6

Scottish Borders : When the pound was worth $2 about a year ago, many people believed they could not afford to visit Britain ever again. Since then, the British currency has plummeted to a seven-year low, meaning now is the time to check out flights to Heathrow.

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