Beat the rush: Europe’s new hot spots

Europe
Cave exploration along the rugged and remote coast of Karpathos Island, Greece. Picture: Travis Burke
Cave exploration along the rugged and remote coast of Karpathos Island, Greece. Picture: Travis Burke

If you’ve seen the sights of London, Paris and Rome, snapped the white houses of Santorini, partied in Mykonos, spent your life savings on a coffee in Venice and jostled with the crowds of Dubrovnik, you might be wondering what’s left to do in Europe.

The answer is a mix of hip new destinations and re-emerging old favourites, one-of-a-kind tours, exciting luxury hotel launches and highly anticipated exhibitions. Here is our guide to the coolest new trends in European holidays to make you think about your next trip.

GETTING AWAY FROM THE CROWD

This year the place to be was Matera, as the once impoverished city in Italy, famous for its cave dwellers of the Sassi, was firmly put back on the map as the European Capital of Culture, a title it shared with Plovdiv in Bulgaria. And Aussies have been flocking to Matera — according to Booking.com, Bari, its nearest airport, was one of the fastest-growing destinations of the year. (Action scenes for the next James Bond movie have been filmed there, too.)

Now the cities prepare to hand over their titles to two more destinations — Rijeka in Croatia and Galway in Ireland. While both are already in countries popular with Australian travellers, they have until now, lost out to their more famous siblings Dubrovnik and Dublin. But that’s set to change as the port city of Rijeka, which sits on Croatia’s northern border, prepares to launch its festivities. It has already opened a Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and is building a new city museum. Events kick off with its famed Rijeka Carnival in February.

As Dubrovnik continues to suffer from over-tourism — last year a record-breaking 1.27 million tourists visited the city, an increase of 8 per cent from 2017 — Rijeka promises a different Croatian experience. It’s also a good base from which to explore the beautiful neighbouring Kvarner region.

Over on the west coast of Ireland, the charming harbour city Galway is planning a year of cultural events based around the concept of “making waves”, with an opening ceremony also slated for February. Famed for its excellent cuisine, arts and film festivals and lively pub music scene, Galway is a gem waiting to shine.

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HOT DESTINATION: THE BALKANS

As travellers continue to search for the next big thing, they are starting to spread into the lesser-visited regions of the Balkans, looking for similar experiences to popular Croatia, at a much lower cost and with far fewer tourists. Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro are all seeing an increase in visitors, keen to see the as yet unspoilt landscapes. According to data from Allianz, Montenegro saw a 23 per cent increase in Aussie visitors this year. One of the main attractions is these areas are quieter and considerably cheaper, Webjet Exclusives general manager Brendan Sawyers says.

“The Balkans are growing significantly as their appeal reaches travellers looking for something different and also those looking to maximise their travel budget,” he says. Webjet’s 17-day Spectacular Balkans small group tour takes in Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia for $4999 including return flights.

Tourist in kayak on the lake, Matka Canyon, Macedonia
Kayaking in the Matka Canyon, Macedonia Picture: Alamy

CATCHING THE TRAIN

In Europe, the coolest way of getting around is a train. Thanks to the rise of conscious travelling and flygskam or “flight shame”, European rail travel is seeing a resurgence and train lines are revamping their sleeper services to cater to the growing demand. Austria’s state railway, OBB, recently launched Nightjet trains and the Swedish government announced it was investing in overnight services across Europe.

In the UK the new Caledonian Sleeper Service runs trains with double beds from London to Scotland. “Train travel is the new cruising,” says Lyn Tan from Rail Europe, explaining travellers are drawn to the “unpack once” way of journeying across countries in style.

Meanwhile luxury train travel continues to surge in popularity, with new routes being added all over the continent. Cruise Express reports a significant increase in demand for its rail and sail packages, such as its 26-night British Isles Rail and Sail tour aboard a heritage steam train, followed by a cruise around the nation, from $13,990 including airfares from Australia.

A new train journey for next year is the nine-day Heart of Spain between Santiago de Compostela and Seville, which takes in six UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Aranjuez, Avila, Cordoba, Toledo and Santiago de Compostela — on the luxury Al Andalus. Priced from $12,598 flights excluded.

And for those wanting something truly bespoke and unrepeatable, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains has just launched a private charter service, where you can rent the whole train for your special journey — at a cost, of course.

Al Andalus Train.

IOS GROWS UP

You might equate Ios with backpacker bars, but like the rest of the Greek islands, it’s shrugging off its budget past and heading firmly up-market. This summer saw the launch of Calilo, the island’s first super-luxury accommodation — a secluded five-star hotel and spa that promises a totally different experience to its busy neighbours Santorini and Mykonos. Its 27 suites, with private pools, private ponds and waterfalls, are set in a 445ha valley overlooking the beautiful Papas beach, considered to be one of the best in Greece. Vassiliki Petridou and husband Angelos Michalopoulos, of sustainable tourism company LuxurIOS, were determined to save the island from overdevelopment, so purchased a quarter of it, promising to develop only 1 per cent. Ios, which is 45 minutes by ferry from Santorini, is said to be the resting place of Homer and is also home to Skarkos, the oldest known prehistoric settlement dating from the Bronze Age. Suites start from $560.

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THE TURKISH RIVIERA RETURNS TO LIFE

Another region once part of the Aussie backpacking trail is the Turkish Riviera, or Turquoise Coast, which is making a comeback after tourists deserted it in recent years due to terrorism and political turmoil. But now the Bodrum Peninsula is once again the place to be with slick new developments along the coast. Ian Schrager’s Bodrum Edition launched last year with 108 rooms, from $239 a night, and the stunning Six Senses Kaplankaya also recently opened with 141 rooms and private villas from $279 a night, a signature spa and wellness centre and three restaurants.

Meanwhile the popular boutique resort Caresse Resort and Spa, which has a private beach, fleet of yachts, infinity pools and hammam has also opened Turkey’s first Buddha Bar. Rooms from $401.

Luxury in Bodrum at Caresse. Picture: Marriott

TAKING A TOUR WITH MEANING

It’s not all about the next big destination — it is also about how you see it. The demand for unique experiences continues to grow, as travellers search for unusual and meaningful travel around Europe. One such trip is the newly-launched walking tour The Crow’s Flight through Slovenia, following the route taken by Aussie war hero Ralph Churches who led more than 100 prisoners of war to safety in the largest escape across Europe. Ralph’s son Neil is celebrating the historic 75th anniversary of the escape with The Greatest Escape tour from Maribor, $5345.

For something a little less energetic, European river cruises are increasingly creating one-off experiences to add to their tours, such as APT’s Andre Rieu Magnificent Europe cruise which includes a performance by the maestro in Cologne. It’s part of a 15-day cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest in May, for $9895 a person including flights, when booked by 30 November.

TRAVELLING FOR ART

One of the biggest highlights of any European trip is a visit to its many wonderful galleries. And there are several significant anniversaries in the art world that mean extra-special exhibitions and events across the region. The Louvre in Paris is opening its much-anticipated Leonardo da Vinci exhibition from October to February to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. Next year also marks the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, with the biggest exhibition appearing in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale from March.

Over in Vienna, next year is the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth and the world capital of music is celebrating all year long. Although Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, he lived and rose to fame in Vienna, where he died in 1827. The city is staging various Beethoven concerts and his Fidelio opera and his apartments have been extended into a larger museum.

The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper)- Vienna Austria
Take in the The Vienna State Opera. Picture: Alamy

WHERE TO STAY: THE HOTTEST NEW HOTELS

LONDON

Everyone is talking about newly opened The Biltmore Mayfair, the first UK property from the Hilton hotel group’s luxury division. Located in prestigious Grosvenor Square, near Bond St and Hyde Park, it has 308 rooms, 57 suites and a restaurant by Jason Atherton. Rooms from $573.

Also opening this month is The Prince Akatoki, a Japanese minimalist hotel near Marble Arch, with 82 rooms and a restaurant. Rooms from $510 a night.

The funky Standard chain just opened its first hotel outside the US in King’s Cross with 266 rooms, from $267.

Have a drink at The Standard, Hotel, London. Picture: Standard Hotels

And the next to open is Page 8 in St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square, with 138 rooms and a coffee house that aims to connect guests. Rooms start from $500 a night.

PARIS

Eagerly anticipated J.K. Place Paris is being converted out of the former European Consulate in Rue de Lille, on the Seine, opposite Boulevard Saint-Germain. The uber-chic boutique hotel, which opens soon, will have 30 rooms, an indoor pool and Sisley Apa. Room rate TBA.

ROME

The big launch is Rocco Forte’s new Hotel de la Ville on the top of the Spanish Steps. With 104 rooms and a glamorous rooftop bar, the palazzo is all sumptuous fabric and marble bathrooms. Rooms from $545 a night.

Presidential Suite at the Hotel de la Ville, Rome, Italy. Picture: Rocco Forte Hotels

SPAIN

Nobu Hotel Barcelona opens this month on Avenida de Roma, with 259 rooms, its famous Nobu Restaurant and a Japanese-inspired tapas bar. Rooms from $366.

PORTUGAL

The long-awaited launch of the Longevity Health and Wellness Hotel in Alvor on the Algarve has finally arrived. This super-deluxe health retreat is all about getting fit and well in style. Rooms from $305 a night.

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