The Jimmy B. travel hot spots for 2016: Calgary, Portugal, New Zealand, Orlando, Toronto and more

Such a big world. So many great places to go.
The Internet is filled (well, not quite) with year-end stories that look ahead to great places to visit in 2016. I’ve found some nice suggestions from folks such as Frommer’s and Conde Nast, as well as Lonely Planet, which singled out Quebec City.
But they’re not me, so I’ve come up with my own suggestions of cool places to check out in the New Year. Happy travels to all!

calgarybikeshotCALGARY The city has quietly become a hotspot for cutting edge cuisine, as evidenced by the recent naming of Pigeonhole as Canada’s top restaurant by the folks at En Route magazine. You’ll find plenty of other great places to dine, including Model Milk and CHARCUT, whose owners also have opened Charbar in the up-and-coming East Village area of town. Trot over the bridge to the trendy Inglewood area for great food and bars, as well as a fabulous gallery run by the Esker Foundation. Kensington is another fun and lively area close to downtown. The Kensington Riverside Inn is Calgary’s only Relais and Chateaux hotel property. The city’s economy has taken a hit with worldwide oil prices being down so far, but the resulting drop in the Canadian dollar makes this increasingly sophisticated city a great value, especially for Canadians looking for a staycation or for Americans seeking value.

IMG_7525ST. VINCENT They’re building a massive new airport to attract big planes filled with North American and European tourists. I can’t blame them from an economic standpoint, but I’d hate to see the island lost its authentic charm. So my suggestion is to go now before it goes too crazy, which is probably what a lot of folks are thinking about Cuba these days. I quite enjoyed my time at the low-key, colourful Beachcombers Hotel, where there’s a small pool and a nice restaurant just steps from the beach. The Young Island Resort is quite close by and offers a bit of a South Seas feel. Being on an island, it’s also very quiet and safe. Be sure to try a nice hike or a visit to one of the island’s many waterfalls, such as Dark View Falls. You’ll find beautiful and endangered St. Vincent parrots at the island’s Botanical Garden, not to mention exotic plants galore. Movie fans will enjoy a trip to Wallilabou, where they filmed a good deal of the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. Be sure to take an overnight or day trip to Bequia, one of the islands in the Grenadines. It’s a bucolic spot with a couple of sensational beaches and a very laid-back feel. The Bequia Beach Hotel is a marvellous, high-end spot on a nice stretch of sand.

NEW ZEALAND This country (and Australia) is hot right now with the drop in the dollar. Sure, it costs more to fly there than it does to France or England. But the value of the NZ dollar (slighty below the Canadian loonie, and isn’t that a nice thing) and the incredible array of things to do (beaches, wine, mountains, cities, hikes and more) make this a great value. Make sure you visit both the south (think Switzerland or Scotland in terms of scenery) and the north (California or even, at times, a Hawaiian or South Pacific feel). I loved Bay of Islands in the north and rented a fantastic apartment, known locally as a “bach,” on Coopers Beach, located on Doubtless Bay Auckland is a wonderful, dynamic city. And don’t miss the short ferry ride from Auckland to Waiheke Island, one of my favourite places in the country. If you’re in Queenstown on the South Island, be sure to tour the wineries of Otago for some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. Adventure lovers should make a bee-line for the Skippers Canyon jet boat rides, which are reachable by a scary-looking road but make for a great thrill on the water. For information: http://www.newzealand.com/int/

PHOENIX I hadn’t spent much time downtown until early in 2015, when I discovered some very cool hotels and bars in the middle of the revitalized, growing downtown. The Hotel Palomar Phoenix, a Kimpton hotel, is a sleek, boutique property in the heart of the action. Just a few steps away is my favourite bar of 2015, Bitter and Twisted, with a fab décor and classic cocktails done up by bartenders who know their business. The nearby Arts District has wonderful food, funky bookstores, galleries and great coffee and gelato spots. And don’t forget the walkability and great food and hotel scene in Scottsdale, including the magnificent Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North, but also the fun, 1960’s style Hotel Valley Ho, one of the coolest hotels in the state.

PORTUGAL/AZORES This is another country I somehow hadn’t visited until 2015. But I’ve already made plans to go back this coming fall. Lisbon is a wonderful city filled with small, beautiful squares and hilltop fortresses and winding streets filled with glorious, affordable cafes. Check out the views from the Mundial Hotel’s rooftop patio. And be sure to check out Castelo Sao Jorge. Lisbon is quite close to some fantastic beaches, where you can dine on fresh seafood while you gaze out at the Atlantic Ocean. Also nearby are the hilltop castles and villas of Sintra, one of the most magical places in Europe. Portugal uses the Euro, which is trading well above the Canadian dollar. But you can still get a good meal at a nice restaurant for $10 or $15 Canadian, and you’ll find very good bottles of Portuguese wine for as little as $5. As much as I enjoyed Lisbon, I really loved the beauty and tranquility of The Azores, a collection of islands in the Atlantic that belong to Portugal. Sao Jorge has amazing waterfront and hilltop hikes, as well as excellent cheese and tasty seafood. The island of Sao Miguel features more great hikes and, even better, natural hot springs where you can soak your tired bones after a long day on the trail. Check out the hot springs and the other-worldly gardens at the Terra Nostra hotel in Furnas on Sao Miguel.

ORLANDO This is another city that is definitely shrugging off its boring past and embracing a dynamic future. The downtown has made enormous strides and is now a destination in itself, with the wonderful, new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, new hotels like the trendy Aloft brand and truly fabulous restaurants such as SOCO, where they mix Florida ingredients and give things an Asian twist. I don’t think much of the new Ferris Wheel, as you don’t see much except shopping centres and small lakes when you’re at the top. But the nearby town of Winter Park is a true gem, with a very walkable and beautiful downtown that’s filled with parks, lively shops, world-class museums and more. Be sure to take a boat ride on the canals and lakes around Winter Park. The Alfond Inn is a lovely, boutique property in Winter Park where they say Paul McCartney sometimes stays. Also, get up close and personal with alligators and other wildlife on a nature tour with the folks at Boggy Creek Air Boat Rides. And be sure to explore the fine (and inexpensive) Asian food in the bustling Mills 50 area of town.

TORONTO AND SOUTHWEST ONTARIO I’m a bit biased as I live here. But Toronto will most definitely be on the map in 2016 as it hosts the NBA All-Star Game (be prepared for way too much Drake) in February, marking the first time the game invented by a Canadian has had its all-star contest held outside the U.S. Not enough? The T-Dot also is hosting the World Cup of Hockey in September and the Grey Cup in November. The city’s restaurant scene has exploded, and there could be a couple new hotels in the works for 2016, including Hotel X on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. Folks heading to Toronto should take some time and explore the southwest part of Ontario, where you’ll find great food in places like Twisted Lemon in Cayuga, fantastic craft breweries such as Toboggan in London and Refined Fool in Sarnia and wonderful wineries like Burning Kiln. Not to mention beaches that stretch on forever on Lake Huron and Lake Erie and great towns such as Grand Bend and Port Stanley.

Fernando_de_Noronha_-_Pernambuco_-_Brasil(5)BRAZIL I wouldn’t want to be one of the athletes taking part in the sailing at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, given all those reports of sewage and such in the water. But I suspect many of the cosmetic problems in town will be cleaned up in time for the Games, which is usually the case with most host countries. I mean, geez, they were still hammering seats together in Athens a few days before the beginning of the 2004 Summer Olympics, one of six Olympics I covered for the Toronto Star. I’ve never been to Brazil, but I’d like to go sometime and explore some lesser-known areas. I mean, sure, it’d be great to see the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf, but I’m more interested in visiting the exotic-looking island of Fernando de Noronha (see photo).

skelligmichaelIRELAND – This is always a popular spot for travel, but having the country featured in the Star Wars The Force Awakens movie should give it a shot in the arm. The final scene in the movie (with a popular character from Star Wars’ past) takes place on an off-shore island called Skellig Michael, site of an ancient monastery and perhaps one of the most uniquely beautiful places you’ll ever see. Of course, there’s always those great pubs and the gorgeous coastline and wonderful, lively cities such as Dublin, Belfast and Galway, a personal favourite. Be sure to also get off the proverbial beaten track. Most tour buses will take you to the Cliffs of Moher, which are magnificent. But only a few folks find their way north to Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe and a place likely to have 1/100th the number of tourists as Moher. Treat your honey to a night at the sleek (and, in many parts, very pink) G Hotel in Galway, or try the sumptuous Merchant Hotel in Belfast, housed in a former bank building.

IMG_1673JAPAN This is another country seeking to use the Olympics (the 2020 Summer Games will be in Tokyo) to burnish their tourism credentials and provide an economic boost. It’s a country that’s rife with contradiction and filled with such beauty. The same goes for Tokyo, where you can find stunning, serene temples surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens but then walk two blocks and be surrounded by blinking, never-ending neon. And don’t even get me started on the weird but fascinating world of cos play, where young people (mostly girls) dress up in all sorts of bizarre costumes, including Little Bo Peep. On the other hand, the food in Japan is exceptional, and beautifully presented. I like Tokyo but I really enjoy Kyoto, where you’ll find exquisite temples and some nice, walkable areas. For splurge hotels, try the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, where they filmed a good deal of the movie “Lost in Translation.” For a more relaxing and very Japanese experience, try the Hoshinoya Kyoto, which is reached by a short ferry ride up a small river. Super romantic.

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