Photograph by Johnathan A. Esper, Getty Images
Dusk falls on a primeval landscape on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. A final relic from the world’s last ice age, this North Atlantic island nation is a world of knife-cut valleys, gargantuan fjords, monumental cliffs, black-sand beaches, thundering waterfalls, and silent white glaciers. Recent volcanic eruptions remind us that Iceland is still a country in the making, with changed landscapes that even Icelanders continue to discover.
Three years of financial recovery have made Iceland more affordable, with consumer prices now largely pegged to the euro. The country’s return to a humbler attitude stems from a thousand-year-old tradition of self-reliance—a tradition that has preserved one of the world’s oldest living languages and harnessed some of the cleanest energy on Earth.
Koh Lipe, Thailand
Photograph by Nicholas Pitt
The Perfect Beach
Thailand‘s sun-drenched jewel in the South Andaman Sea, Koh Lipe has recently risen to the top of intrepid beach lovers’ A-list of island paradises. Considered an alternative to the overexploited Koh Phi Phi (which gained fame as the setting for the film The Beach), Koh Lipe is accessible only by boat, with departure ports that include Krabi and the nearby Malaysian island of Langkawi.
Crystal waters and pristine reefs surround the island. Up to 25 percent of the world’s tropical fish species swim in the protected waters around Koh Lipe (the island is in Tarutao National Marine Park). Pattaya Beach may be the island’s most developed tourist spot, but head to quieter Sunrise Beach, where a now settled community of “sea gypsies,” the Chao Lei, live and fish. Take in the view from Castaway Resort’s “chill-out deck,” above.
Photograph by Jon Hicks, Corbis
The Comeback Kid
Dresden shone brightest in the 1700s, when the kings of Saxony spent their wealth to turn their capital into “Florence on the Elbe.” But in February 1945, two days of British and American bombing destroyed much of Dresden’s center and killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Nearly 70 years later, the city has been resurrected as one of Germany’s top tourist destinations. The landmark Frauenkirche (“church of our lady”), a baroque masterpiece designed by George Bähr, was rebuilt from rubble in 2005 (above). Today it towers above a carefully reconstructed historic center that is home to half a dozen world-class museums—from the Albertinum and the Old Masters Picture Gallery, with its Vermeers and Titians, to the oddly named but unforgettable German Hygiene Museum.
Photograph by Jose Fuste Raga, Corbis
On the Trail of Romance
Think Tuscany, but with a Habsburg past. The shady, rolling hills of Istria—Croatia’s northernmost peninsula—are becoming widely known for their truffles, Malvazija white wines, olive oil stancijas (estates), and crumbling hill towns. Cyclists can spin their spokes over some 2,000 miles of extensively maintained bike trails. Along the coast, sunny ocean views and impromptu opportunities for swimming and snorkeling abound.
The romantic town of Rovinj (above), a former Venetian vassal state, rises from the Adriatic like an estranged island of Venice. Pine-shaded Adriatic coves entice with a refreshing plunge. Evenings are capped off with Champagne cocktails at the Valentino Bar, a breezy boîte perched directly on the water and illuminated in vivid cerulean by underwater lights—not a bad spot to nurture your own inner Casanova.
Photograph by Jane Sweeney, Corbis
Lost No Longer
Tayrona National Park’s gorgeous beaches are a highlight of northern Colombia, home also to the famed Ciudad Perdida. The cleared mountaintop terraces of the “lost city” shine like a green grassy beacon declaring the country’s rebirth as a travel destination at the crossroads of the Caribbean and South America.
See more photos of North Colombia in our featured destination gallery.
Photograph by Last Refuge, Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
Africa’s Green and Fiery Heart
Perhaps nowhere on Earth is the dual creative and destructive nature of volcanoes more evident than in central Africa’s Virunga Volcanoes Massif. Straddling the borders between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the eight-volcano chain is one of Earth’s most active volcanic regions and a veritable salad bowl for mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and other wildlife. Landscapes in all three countries conjure visions of both Eden and hell.
In Congo, the swirling plume of the active Nyiragongo Volcano (above) beckons. Check on the security situation in the troubled country before going, but those who make the steep five-hour hike up Nyiragongo are rewarded with heady vistas of the world’s largest lava lake. Spend the night on the rim to fully experience the crater’s fiery light and sound spectacle.
Photograph by Günter Gräfenhain, Huber/SIME
The Creative Coast of Spain
The boats painted in yellow, crimson, and white that bob in the water could belong to any scraggy Mediterranean coast. The polar bear that guards them, however, means only one thing: Salvador Dalí’s home in Costa Brava. Dalí, one of art’s greatest eccentrics, came from this part of Catalonia, in northeasternSpain. His giant eggs, swan fountains, and melting clocks drew inspiration from this sunshine-laced wilderness.
The medieval city of Girona also overflows with creativity during its annual spring flower festival, the Temps de Flors. Surprising floral creations spill down cathedral steps and bloom-inspired art installations fill city squares and stone-walled courtyards. The fishing village of Calella de Palafrugell (above) charms with seaside restaurants and homes.
Photograph by Lianne Milton
American as Apple Pie
“I’ve been to Napa and Sonoma,” you hear people say, as if they were one and the same. Sure, Sonoma’s 300-plus wineries, like those of vine-centric Napa, offer peak wine tasting, from Ravenswood’s deep Zinfandels to Gloria Ferrer’s sophisticated sparklers. But if you’ve visited only the county’s wineries, come back to sample the astounding diversity that makes Sonoma one of America’s travel treasures.
Spend some time floating in an inner tube down the Russian River and walking amid ancient giants—one over 1,400 years old—at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Poke around the old Russian stockade at Fort Ross, which turns 200 in 2012, or the Spanish adobe mission, San Francisco Solano, in Sonoma town. Hunt for antiques along Petaluma’s downtown Victorian row, and dine on seasonal sake-steamed, aged abalone at Michelin-starred Cyrus in Healdsburg. And don’t miss a flaky, fruit-packed slice of Gravenstein pie from Mom’s Apple Pie, a roadside stop outside Sebastopol. It ranks up there with a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir as a real taste of Sonoma.
Photograph by Randy Craig, All Canada Photos/Alamy
Quintessential Cottage Country
Just two hours by car—but a world away—from powerhouse Toronto beats the heart of Ontario’s cottage country, Muskoka. Families have gathered here for generations to revel in true wilderness. The 2,500-square-mile area includes 8,699 miles of shoreline, 17 historic towns and villages, and innumerable waterfalls and lakes (like Kahshe Lake, above) framed by the peaks of Algonquin Provincial Park to the east and the isles of Georgian Bay Islands National Park to the west.
There’s plenty to do here but nothing you’d put on an agenda. Lounge with friends, barbecue everything, watch the night sky from the dock in the pitch black, play board games while listening to the rain. And run around barefoot all day.
Photograph by Reiner Harscher, laif/Redux
Patrick Leigh Fermor, the dashing philhellene who died last June, knew that to get under Greece’s skin you must stray from the instant gratifications of its seaside resorts. Traveling on foot across the gorges of Roumeli and mountains of Mani, Leigh Fermor discovered a land of fierce beauty where traditions run deep. Eventually, he settled in Kardamíli, a sleepy hamlet in the southern Peloponnese, which he hoped was “too inaccessible, with too little to do, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.”
Happily, he was right. While some islands have been scarred by unregulated development—and as the country grapples with the worst financial crisis in its modern history—Greece’s rugged mainland retains its unadulterated allure. Foraging for mushrooms in Epirus, watching pink pelicans take flight over Prespa Lake, listening to ethereal chanting in Meteora’s monasteries (such as the Roussanou Monastery, above)—there remain pockets of Greece where time stands still. You just have to know where to look
For more of National Geographics top travel picks for 2012 click here