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A batch of don't-miss destinations

February 04, 2007|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

WHERE to go this year? As always, countless places beckon. What follows is admittedly a biased list, gleaned mostly from travel by myself and colleagues, with a tilt toward what's new:

1. China

See Beijing before the 2008 Summer Olympics, when prices will soar. Meanwhile, you benefit as the city spruces up for the Games and the country adds new air service.

In March, United Airlines hopes to launch nonstop service to Beijing from Washington, D.C. Other airlines also are adding flights to China.

The country has hundreds of hotel projects in the works, including more than 20 expected to open over the next year in Beijing. Many major U.S. chains are expanding there.

If you're swinging down to Hong Kong, consider a side trip to bustling Macao, which rivals Las Vegas as a world gambling capital. And unlike Las Vegas, Macao is steeped in hundreds of years of multicultural history.

A downside: China continues to draw criticism from human-rights activists.

2. Hawaii

Waikiki's long overdue redo is underway, with the $535-million Waikiki Beach Walk contributing an arcade, outdoor stage, shops and restaurants.

Other reasons to revisit this vacation favorite are renovated hotels, the new Pacific Aviation Museum and upcoming ferry service between Honolulu and neighbor islands. Best of all: You don't need a passport.

The new Superferry is expected to begin running daily from Honolulu to Kahului, Maui, and Nawiliwili, Kauai, in July.

3. Seattle

OK, so it rains a lot. Duck under Alexander Calder's monumental 1971 "Eagle" at a new sculpture park along the waterfront. Or hide out in any number of hipster hotels and, come May, the expanded Seattle Art Museum.

Take a cruise to Alaska -- there are more departures from Seattle than ever -- or hop on the monorail, which reopened in November after a months-long shutdown.

4. Thailand

There's much to discover and rediscover in Thailand, where the beach resort of Phuket has bounced back from the deadly 2004 tsunami, Bangkok has opened trendy nightspots, backpacker haven Chiang Mai is going stylishly upscale and eco-tourism is taking off.

As an added bonus, King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 80th birthday this year is inspiring special celebrations and travel packages that focus on his cultural and conservation projects.

5. New Orleans

Tourist touchstones such as the Ritz-Carlton and Commander's Palace have finally reopened in this wounded city, which, as last year's Jazz & Heritage Festival proved, can still throw a heck of a party. Besides fun, food and music, you'll find volunteer opportunities to help New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina.

6. Guatemala

A less-trammeled alternative to Belize and Costa Rica for eco-tourists. Visitors will find not only jungles, Maya ruins and volcanoes but also new luxury hotels and the picturesque colonial city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

7. The Baltics

Tired of having your pockets picked by Europe's expensive euro?

Cheaper, charming alternatives lie to the east, where relatively unspoiled Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia serve up intriguing history, diverse shopping and boutique hotels for less than $200 per night.

Cruisers have already discovered the Baltics, among the fastest-growing destinations, so book your cabin soon.

8. Nepal

A peace accord has put this Himalayan kingdom back on the map of trekkers and other adventurers after a decade of Maoist insurgency and the 2001 slayings of most of the royal family by the crown prince.

The touristy Thamel area of the capital, Katmandu, is a great place to buy bargain carpets and handicrafts. The city's historic Palace Square Mt. Everest, which you don't have to climb to appreciate; you can book a small-plane tour.

A caveat: As of the Travel section deadline Tuesday, the State Department had a travel warning on Nepal, citing security.

9. Dubai

It's not just crazily ambitious blueprints and the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel; there's a lot to see and do in this small Mideast emirate, especially for luxury travelers.

Dubai has high-end shopping malls, indoor ski resorts, artificial islands shaped like palm trees and other exotica. An ever-growing list of cruises stops here. But travelers with more money than time may prefer to arrive on Emirates Airline, arguably the world's fanciest, which pampers premium fliers with lie-flat massage seats, a la carte dining and other perks.

10. Spain

You'll be hearing a lot about this sunny European destination this summer as Valencia, boasting a revamped marina and a new opera house designed by Santiago Calatrava, hosts the America's Cup yacht regatta.

But much is happening elsewhere in Spain too: new hotels, cutting-edge architecture and more convenient air service from Madrid, which is becoming a hub for Europe's low-cost carriers.

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