The best travel finds of 2015

Best most improved city: Brisbane.

Best most improved city: Brisbane.

This is it. This is the reason travel is so great. This is why people love it so much, why it gets into your veins and becomes part of who you are: travel never gets old. It never becomes stale.

Want proof? We have been traversing the globe, covering hundreds of thousands of kilometres every year, and yet still we're constantly finding new sights, new attractions, new restaurants, new hotels, new gadgets, new destinations, and new experiences that excite and amaze us.

This year was no different. In 2015, our writers uncovered plenty of new places, while also rediscovering a few old ones. Our experiences ran the full gamut: we went boutique shopping in Hong Kong, dancing in Rio, dining in LA, motorbiking in China, and relaxing aboard cruise after cruise after cruise on the high seas.

We discovered the luxury of an infinity pool in Oman and we travelled by car, by train, by bike, by plane, and even on foot, in some of the most amazing destinations in the world.

These are the highlights of a huge collective year of travelling. They're the discoveries that have excited our team the most; they're the revelations that have reaffirmed our love of getting out there and seeing the world.

This is a look back, but in a way it's also a look forward, as all travellers begin to plan for another big year ahead. That's the great thing about travel: it never gets old.


Insider Tour APT

If you're on an APT Seine River cruise, sign up for the complementary Paris culinary tour with guide Flavia, whose flawless English matches her enthusiasm, producing an insider tour that's fun, informative and leaves you feeling you've done something special. Taste olives, pastries, cheese and fois gras in the Marais district, and finish over macaroons in a cafe in gorgeous Place des Vosges. 


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Still largely untouched by tourism in many areas, Sardinia is a Mediterranean gem of mountain towns, coastal villages, rugged hills and crystal clear waters. While Russian oligarchs and their entourages swan about the glamorous Costa Smeralda, much of the rest of the island retains its sleepy charm – towns such as Castelsardo, Tempio-Pausania, and even the capital, Cagliari, have plenty to offer those who step off the beaten path. 


Legoland Hotel, Orlando 

Located precisely 130 kid steps from the Legoland theme park, this new hotel opened to squeals of delight in May. Inside it's a Lego lover's paradise with 152 Lego-themed rooms, 2000 Lego models and workshops with Lego master builders. Little ones will love the kids-only breakfast buffet, the giant Lego pit in the lobby and the whoopee cushion carpets. Adults will love that hotel guests get exclusive early access to the park. 


PMQ, Hong Kong

Previously, the Police Married Quarters (hence the acronym), PMQ has recently been revitalised as a hub for 100 creative and design industries. The former residential units in Soho have been converted into studios, pop-ups and permanent shops selling one-off wares. Art exhibitions are regularly held and Michelin star chef Jason Atherton's latest restaurant and bar, Aberdeen Street Social is also on-site. PMQ is a great alternative the ubiquitous High Street brands that you can now find in any major city. 


Ko Plantation

Using only locally made ingredients, Ko Plantation is the signature cocktail at Fairmont Kea Lani Maui's Ko restaurant. This $US15 concoction of Maui-made rum, ginger, pineapple, lime and pure sugar cane could be the freshest-tasting tropical cocktail ever conceived. It suits the cuisine, Lifetime Achievement Award-winning chef Tylun Pung is an advocate for sourcing local produce and everything on the menu is inspired by sugar cane plantation-era workers' family recipes (Ko means sugar).


Poble Sec, Barcelona

I've always loved the centre of Barcelona, the buzzing, historic Gothic Quarter and neighbouring El Born. This year, however, I decided to stray from those well-worn tourist paths and discovered the suburb of Poble Sec. It's only two stops on the metro from Las Ramblas, and yet Poble Sec is a world unto itself, a bohemian, tourist-free neighbourhood filled with small bars, pedestrian streets, and – best of all – a host of restaurants run by famed chefs Ferran and Albert Adria. 


The Reverie, Saigon

Twelve different interior designers from Europe contributed to this glittering, high-rise paean to all things expensive and shiny. Yes, it's completely over the top and rather stylistically confused, but it's well situated in downtown Ho Chi Minh, the rooms are exceptionally comfortable, and the two-level spa and Royal Pavilion Chinese restaurant are standouts. 


The Borders Railway, Britain

Britain's longest new domestic railway for 100 years opened in September, a 48-kilometre route from Edinburgh into the picturesque Scottish Borders. The line heralds a new era of access for a region that's been largely overlooked by tourists. Now visitors can enjoy charming towns such as Melrose and Jedburgh, explore the area's impressive collection of 12th-century abbeys and bask in views that inspired writers such as Sir Walter Scott. 


Baba Nest, Sri Panwa Hotel, Phuket, Thailand

You can't dig your toes into sand when you drink up at this sleek eyrie. As the name suggests, the bar is perched on high, overlooking a string of islands floating in the Andaman Sea. Book a sunset spot to sink into its oversized floor cushions and order up on the cocktails. Don't forget your swimmers: the bar is surrounded by an infinity pool that seems to melt into the sky. 



With new music venues including The Triffid housed in a World War II hangar and American-style dive bars plus new alleyways in Fortitude Valley full of unique boutiques, cafes and bars, Brisbane has upped its game in 2015. Add to this the always impressive free exhibitions at GOMA and surely more storage-container-turned-unique-food-and-beverage-outlets than any other Australian city, and Brisbane could well be Australia's foremost cultural and culinary capital. 



Well-designed city walks, famous modern architecture, dozens of museums and art galleries, free public transport for visitors, swimming in the Rhine during summer, an excellent selection of restaurants – no wonder there's been a 44 per cent increase in river-cruise ships visiting Basel between 2011 and 2014. Its position on the borders of France and Germany and regular music and art festivals add to its many attractions. 


E.P and L.P, Los Angeles

The new multi-level E.P and L.P in West Hollywood offers a slice of Sydney's take on Asian cuisine in West Hollywood with owners, Australian DJ Grant Smillie and David Combes bringing over Longrain's executive chef, Louis Tikaram. While the rooftop bar offers sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills, downstairs is where you can feast on Tikaram's mix of Fijian, Chinese, Indian and Thai flavours. 


Sofitel Fiji  

At a resort well known for its family-friendly vibe,  where children weave hats  from coconut husks during Kids Club, new ground has been broken with the opening of the Waitui Private Beach Club at the Sofitel Fiji on Denarau. Set between the quaint chapel where holidaymakers exchange vows and the main resort  the elevated (but clearly  designated) space of curved pools, coconut palms, canvas cocoons and sun loungers extends to the volcanic sand beach and offer myriad spots to park with a good book. An open air gym, early morning yoga sessions and healthful menu sit nicely with the champagne bar and and sunset drinks and DJ after dark. 


Ihwa-dong, South Korea

A decade ago Seoul authorities considered demolishing this one-time slum village high on the slopes of Naksan, one of the four hills that surrounded the original royal heart of the city. Then the artists arrived. Now the district is awash with brilliant and clever murals – angel wings hover on walls; goldfish swim up steep stairways between streets. It's art as revival. 


LUXE City Guides mobile app

Stay abreast of the chic set as the pocket-sized LUXE Guides go mobile. Download the app, free, before you go, then trot through their suggested itineraries, or build your own from its savvy list of must-sees, essential eats and shopping nirvanas. Delightfully, you don't need to be online to read all its canny maps and no-punches-pulled guides (which means more moolah for your Bellini binges). 


The Timber Trail, NZ

Built on an old logging road near Lake Taupo, the newly opened Timber Trail is an 85km mountain-bike track that winds its way over two days of cycling through some of New Zealand's most stunning scenery. From the heights of Mount Pureora to the lows of forested valleys and huge suspension bridges, this is adventure on two wheels, and one that's accessible for most levels of riders. 


P&O's new Pantry

Begone days of lining up and piling plates with bain marie bounty before sitting down mess hall-style, on P&O's Eden and Aria, as well as Pacific Jewel, the buffet has been banished in favour of the Pantry. An international food market, it features eight food outlets including such delights as fish and chips, Mexican and a salad bar. The design is also a welcome development, you can choose to dine on sofas, high tables or banquettes among pot plants and room dividing shelves with decorative vases. It makes for a more intimate boutique-style dining experience. 


Mongolian ger stay

To spend a night with a nomadic family deep in the Mongolian wilderness is to enter another world entirely, one with no electricity or running water, where food has to be caught before it can be cooked, and where centuries-old rituals are played out on a daily basis. The hospitality is reliably warm, too – guests are greeted with a cup of salty, milky tea, fed traditional food, and given shelter in a style of home that hasn't changed for thousands of years. 


OT Chips

These cunning little audio add-ons drop into the liner of a ski or snowboard helmet and wirelessly pipe music with the sound quality you'd expect of better headphones. You can drive the controls wearing ski gloves, and an inbuilt microphone means you can take calls on the lifts or on the fly; they needn't even know you're not at the office.


Founded by former US ski team racers, Soul Poles manufactures ski and walking poles made out of bamboo, a material 25 per cent stronger than aluminium, that produces more oxygen and absorbs significantly more carbon dioxide than any other plant. The poles feature recycled plastic grips and are handmade at Soul Poles' workshop in Park City, Utah. If you're in the area, you can even help make your own. 


Wellington, NZ

Hearts beat faster in Wellington, and it's not just out of love for New Zealand's "coolest little capital". Coffee snobs, turn your eyes east: every cup is taken seriously in this town, from the cosy literary hang of Fidel's cafe (for Havana coffee) to Memphis Belle (home of Flight coffee). The city's many roasters have achieved cult status: big guns include Red Rabbit, Mojo and Caffe L'affare, or step out to Petone for nice guys Ripe's cold brew and drips. 


The Royal Livingstone, Zambia

The Royal Spa consists of five tented gazebos arranged along the banks of the Zambesi River, with the soothing roar of Victoria Falls as background music. (Better than Enya.) The tents are open on the river side to catch the mists of the falls and there's even a mirror placed under the bed so you have a view when you're face down. 


Salgueiro samba club, Rio de Janeiro

This is not a show – this is serious business. On a Saturday night at Salgueiro samba club in the heart of Rio, locals gather to practise and compete for the chance to take part in the famous carnival. The streets outside are filled with people cooking churrascos, playing guitars, dancing and singing. Inside the club there's performance after sweaty performance, hips swaying, feet tapping. It's serious but it's also a party like no other. 


Yindyamarra, Albury

As the Murray River winds past Albury, so does a relaxed trail along its banks that features the Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk, with works by Indigenous artists referencing the river and there's a podcast  to explain it all.  The trail is free. Atura Albury have a  package for two including bed, breakfast and hotel bikes and a snack pack to ride the trail.


Glam, Shanghai

Shanghai's storied Glamour Bar closed a year ago, but do not fear. The estimable Michelle Garnaut, who created M on the Bund, has parlayed Glamour into Glam, a sexy new space behind her main restaurant, with side-on views of the famous boulevard. There are 38 wines by the glass and a strong cocktail list, enhanced by food offerings such as Truffled Cheesy Toastie and a Folly Trolley of desserts. 


Weldborough Hotel, Tasmania

There's a dark, English-pub feel to the Weldborough Hotel, along the drive between Launceston and St Helens, but the flavours are as local as it gets. The isolated pub pours beer from every craft brewery in Tasmania – more than 30 at last count. There's also great camping out back, and one of Australia's newest mountain-bike trail networks near at hand – compelling reasons to stay and drink your way through Tassie's craft-brew scene. 


Zhaoxing, China

This gorgeous 2000-year-old Dong minority village, said to be the largest Dong village in China, snakes through a narrow, hidden valley in Guizhou province. Its pedestrian lanes run beside canals crowded by ancient dark-wood homes and drum towers, ending abruptly in the rice terraces that bookend the village. Chinese tourists know it's here, but the rest of the world is yet to discover Zhaoxing


Hotel Central Park, New York 

This new hotel debuted in August with impressive eco-credentials. Rooms feature reclaimed timber furniture, recycled leather headboards and window boxes full of plants. The heating and cooling systems are energy efficient and the hotel's exterior is covered in ivy. On arrival, guests are given a goodie bag of healthy, seasonal snacks and there's even an in-room yoga mat. Best of all – you're one block from Central Park. 


Shanghai Sidecar Tours

China's most exciting city is really thrilling when you see it from the sidecar of a replica 1938 BMW R71. Daily guided tours from 1-4 hours take you whizzing through the tree-lined streets of the French Concession – or to places tourists don't go. 


Ashford Castle, Ireland 

Red Carnation spent two years and $US75 million refurbishing this imposing 13th-century castle on Ireland's west coast. The result is a master-class in opulence, with 82 individually styled rooms and sumptuous public spaces awash with antiques and art. Impressive additions to the five-star property include a lavish spa complex, a 32-seat private cinema and an elegant billiards room. Venture into the castle's 140-hectare estate and you'll find fishing, falconry and golf. 


Palace of the Lost City, South Africa

This is the most opulent of Sun City's four hotels, a fantasy palace built with the Queen of Sheba in mind. The breakfast buffet in the hotel's Crystal Court is royal indeed, with chef-manned stations running the length of the majestic room, beneath a fountain of carved elephants. What's on offer, from hot roasts to waffles sprinkled with smarties, would keep a pride of hungry lions occupied all day. 


Amangalla, Sri Lanka

Even some guests at Aman's beautiful colonial hotel in Galle Fort don't know about the hidden spot upstairs where guests can relax in cane chairs with a drink and watch the sun set over the terracotta roofs of the fort. (Ask.) The view to the lighthouse and the ocean is sensational; the Arack Sours are zingy enough for you to kick on all night. 



River Countess cruises the Venetian Lagoon and Po River and dishes up food of remarkable quality. Breakfast and lunch buffets encourage gluttony, tasty pizzas by the slice are served on deck, and four-course evening menus, accompanied by good wines, highlight regional Italian cuisine such as spaghetti alla vongole (with clams) and chicken broth with tortellini. Very impressive. .


Crested Butte, Colorado 

While many make a pilgrimage to Vail and Aspen each year, they don't know one of the last great ski towns in the US is a few valleys away. Crested Butte has one of the ski world's most stunning apres ski locations – a perfectly restored 1860s-era street of eclectic bars and restaurants. But it's the skiing that'll get you coming back. It has 14 mountains over 4267 metres high, and some of North America's steepest in-bound terrain. 



There are 22 wine-producing regions in Hungary and most of the wine is consumed in Hungary because it's so good. The last two decades have seen significant growth – thanks to governmental support and young entrepreneurial vintners keen to share their wine with the world. Tokaj is the best-known region; Etyek-Buda is closest to Budapest; and if you're short on time stop in at one of Budapest's wine bars for a taster. Try Doblo, DiVino or Drop Shop. 


Clifton's Cafeteria, LA 

In 1931, Clifton's Cafeteria opened on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. Its bizarre kitschy interior resembled an artificial forest, the tables dotted along a succession of leafy terraces. After a four-year closure and renovation, Clifton's is back – with a modern twist. The ground-level cafeteria remains, serving contemporary cheap eats from specialised stations, and upstairs there's a cocktail bar centred on an enormous tree trunk. Raise a glass to the bison in the corner. 



This northwest state is a hidden US treasure. Landscapes from the Columbia River gorges to snow-topped Mount Hood volcano and Crater Lake National Park are awesome, and the coastal route along US Highway 101 is seldom short of windswept beaches, spectacular outlooks and adventures such as sand-dune bashing. Lovely towns Ashland, Eugene and Bend and the brewery-filled hipster heaven of booming, laidback Portland add urban variety. 


The Merrion, Dublin

Cosy around the drawing room fireplace of Dublin's choicest hotel and be treated to the most creative High Tea anywhere. The Merrion houses Dublin's largest private collection of 19th and 20th-century art and its daily "art tea" includes pastries that interpret the works, such as a scrumptious Battenberg cake based on a Sean Scully abstract, hanging on the wall as you sip fine Assam tea beneath it. 



Think Manchester is a grimy, downtrodden northern English city of industrial workers and Dickensian terraced houses? You've overlooked a Cool Britannia transformation that has brought chic apartments and restaurants to Manchester's warehouses, sleek trams to its streets, and impressive, scrubbed-down Victorian civic buildings that clash wonderfully with contemporary architecture. Add fine museums, fine dining and a hopping live-music scene and you're in for an urban treat. 


The Broad

Forget Hollywood, so long Disneyland – Los Angeles' latest cultural attraction is dedicated to the visual arts. The Broad (pronounced "brode") is situated within a spectacular new building opposite the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with natural light helping to illuminate the vast collection of postwar and contemporary works, including pieces by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Koons and Kruger. It's a fascinating journey through decades of stimulating art, and best of all it's free (though bookings are recommended). 


Viking Star 

This adults-only ship – launched in May 2015, the first of six to come from river cruise line giant Viking – boasts a "first at sea" snow-room in the spa and a pool cantilevered off the aft. Feedback from thousands of past river cruisers was taken into account when designing the 930-passenger ship and its itineraries – features include longer stays in port and fee-free specialty restaurants. 



What's better than a food truck? Six of them feeding the masses from the same spot in Thornbury, arguably Melbourne's hippest suburb. Welcome to Thornbury opened in August as a permanent food truck hub, with six trucks in operation each night on the former factory site. With seating, beach umbrellas and a licensed bar on the property, it's the place to grab a cheap bite and a beer on a warm summer's night. 



Mongolia, one of the world's most sparsely populated countries, offers the epitome of authentic travel experiences. You can meet nomads and together sip fermented horse milk before retiring to sleep in their ger. You can horse-ride alongside locals whose skills have been passed down from their forefathers. You can explore the mountains, valleys, lakes and desert plains for hours without encountering another soul. This landlocked country is raw, it's magnificent, it's a sprawling expanse of spectacular. 


Puri Mas, Lombok

Beach life and ballroom dancing? In Lombok, yes. Keen to share his love of ballroom dance and cultivate a community atmosphere, Puri Mas Resort owner Marcel de Rijk teaches children to dance (ballroom and traditional style) free of charge – as the Puri Mas "Friends of Dance" social dance project. Kids develop friendships and learn about cross-cultural respect – while guests are treated to an evening show by the performing youngsters every Monday night. 


Motorbike taxi, Paris 

Beat the traffic and cross Paris on a motorbike taxi – they take routes between the airports and railway stations via hotels and key sites. Hairnet, helmet and waterproof cape are provided and the bikes can accommodate a cabin-sized bag plus larger suitcase. Well worth the extra expense for the sheer thrill of the ride. 



You've drunk plenty of beer in Munich – but have you taken a bath? The German city's ' Muller'sche Volksbad public bathhouse sits on the banks of the River Isar. Its interior is pure art nouveau, with decorative arches and doorways framing its heated pools and steam rooms. On a chilly day, this is the perfect place to soak (there's even a cafe-bar) but, be aware, the German spa tradition is complete mixed-gender nudity. 


Bolinas, California 

Where? Precisely. Tell anyone you're going to Bolinas and you'll just get blank looks. But Bolinas is less than an hour's drive from San Francisco. Nestled on the tranquil northern Californian coastline, Bolinas personifies everything to love about northern California: redwoods, empty surf breaks, an eclectic community of artists, hermits, celebs and hippies; and its one bar, Smiley's, is the oldest saloon west of the San Andreas Fault. 


The Cookery Club, Britannia 

Britannia is big on food. As well as dining in 13 top-class restaurants and cafes, if you want to polish your cooking skills, you can join a class at The Cookery Club. The large, airy space on Deck 17 accommodates 12 sleek workstations for up to 24 students plus a dining area. P&O's Food Heroes (Marco Pierre White, Atul Kuchhar, James Martin, Eric Lanlard) present classes on select cruises. 


Alila Jabal Akhdar, Oman

Forget sea views and cityscapes. The infinity pool with the creme de la creme of views is located at Alila Jabal Akhdar hotel. Opened in 2014, the hotel's location is unrivalled. Nestled in the mountain peaks overlooking the Al Hajar range, the infinity pool is the place to soak up (excuse the pun) those dramatic panoramas. Fascinatingly, the hotel (pool, rooms and public areas) is crafted predominantly from hand-chipped stones from the surrounding mountains. 


SS Antoinette

Uniworld's SS Antoinette, the first of the company's three SuperShips, took interior decoration on river ships to a new level when it launched in 2011. One of its standout features is the indoor heated swimming pool. At 6 metres by 4 metres, it is significantly larger than pools on any other vessel on Europe's waterways and is surrounded by glass and mosaic-tiled walls. The massage room with panoramic windows is just next door. Deliciously decadent. 


Fitzroy, Melbourne

Step out of the city, the best street art in this town is happening on the inner-city walls of Fitzroy and Collingwood. Bright, bold and beautiful, it's all about the knock-out mural, with feted locals and international blockbusters making multi-storey statements. While the art's ever changing, consistent hot spots include Rose Street, Fitzroy and Easey Street, Collingwood. 


QT Falls Creek

QT Falls Creek just picked up its third consecutive title as Australia's Best Ski Boutique Hotel 2015 at the World Ski Awards in Austria.  The complex has an entertaining bar and inspired restaurant but the highlight is spaQ; a solution for all the aches and pains a skier might have or might have coming along: massages, body treatments, beauty treatments and more. 


Tiwi islands, NT

Art runs in the blood of Tiwi Islanders, whose little group of islands are just 80 kilometres from Darwin, yet way off the tourist radar. Take a day tour or stay longer to sense the silence and the natural surrounds that inspire the richly coloured screen-printed fabrics, ochre paintings, ironwood sculptures and delicate bark weavings by the islands' talented art communities. Three-day tours cost $2425 including art workshops, scenic flights and wilderness cruises. 


Brussels record stores

It mightn't have a reputation for being the edgiest city around, but for music fans Brussels has a surprisingly impressive array of record stores that stock everything from vintage jazz and blues to rare alternative and indie releases; places like Veals & Geeks, Doctor Vinyl, 72 Records and Elektrocution, all  have a huge range of new and used, official and bootleg records. 



Wine? From England? Are you sure? Absolutely. England and Wales are now home to more than 500 commercial vineyards, many producing wine so good, they're winning awards and being exported all over the world. The majority are clustered within the southern counties of Kent and Sussex, creating the intriguing possibility of an English wine tour. Check out Denbies' award-winning rose, Ridgeview's Champagne-beating sparkling and Chapel Down's citrusy chardonnay. 


Mughal Heritage Walk, Agra 

Admire the world's most famous monument to love from an entirely new perspective on this guided tour on the north bank of Agra's Yamuna River. Far from the Taj Mahal's clamorous crowds, it's an opportunity to visit local villages and explore the remnants of 16th-century Mughal monuments. At the same time you'll be helping local people derive an income from tourism and improve living standards and sanitation in the surrounding villages. 


Forrest, Victoria 

The Great Ocean Road has a hinterland too, and the best town in it is Forrest. Founded on timber cutting, Forrest almost went to ruin in 2003 when the last sawmill closed. Locals came up with a plan to save their town: build the best mountain bike trails in Australia to give tourists a reason to visit. While these days you'll find a brewery and restaurants in town, Forrest's still the same pretty little worker's village it's always been. 


The Stray Tiger, Raffles 

For over a century, drinkers at the luxurious Raffles Hotel in Singapore have shivered over the story of the tiger who was discovered beneath the hotel's billiard room in 1902. Now they have something with which to toast the terrifying memory: The Stray Tiger. Part of the hotel's Timeline series of cocktails based on historic events, it's a $S27 wild combination of white rum, Cointreau, vermouth, lime juice, absinthe and lemongrass foam. Chin chin! 


Vibe Hotel Canberra Airport

A little piece of New York's Guggenheim has come to Canberra. This gleaming glass edifice is a homage to the golden age of flying. Designed by Bates Smart, the building centres on a circular atrium, with a series of black and white rings connecting the rooms. I love the funky foyer, clad in gold panelling, like the set of a 1960s Bond film; you'll want a martini the moment you walk in the door. 



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