Above: Queen Elizabeth II greets well-wishers in Liverpool last summer. Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee will be celebrated in May and June. Buckingham Palace photo
Below: A rendering of the Fantasyland expansion at Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park. Walt Disney World photo
Think of top travel destinations for this year and London has to be close to the top of the list. It’s as though the stars have aligned to shine on this world-class city as it prepares for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II will be observed in 2012, marking 60 years of her ascension to the British throne. The Diamond Jubilee Pageant will be at Windsor Castle on May 10–12 and features performances from dancers and musicians, military and equestrian groups. A four-day holiday (June 2–5) will be packed with special events, including a River Thames flotilla of up to 1,000 boats, a BBC Concert at Buckingham Palace, and a formal carriage procession by Her Majesty to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a special service.
Only Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, has been on the throne longer than Her Majesty. For details on the upcoming jubilee and other information concerning the British monarchy, visit www.royal.gov.uk.
The games will kick off with the opening ceremony on July 27. The event showcases not just the city, but all of Great Britain.
The 70-day Olympic Torch Relay will start at Land’s End, Cornwall, on the morning of May 19 and travel an estimated 8,000 miles around the United Kingdom, giving more than 1,000 communities a moment to shine. See www.london2012.com for details.
In addition, London’s outstanding cultural offerings are the focus for the London 2012 Festival, June 21–Sept. 9.
Five decades ago, Orlando’s suburbs were wetlands, citrus farms, and scrub brush. Today, Walt Disney World Resort spreads over more than 30,500 acres and is a beacon attracting visitors to central Florida from all over the world.
Theme parks are the major draw here. In addition to Disney, Universal Orlando Resort provides two parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area that opened in 2010. Legoland Florida opened in 2011. SeaWorld, which unveiled a new Shamu show and a Discovery Cove addition called The Grand Reef last year, completes the list of major parks.
Sun worshippers find beaches nearby. There are dining and entertainment districts in several of the theme parks, and downtown Orlando has art galleries, museums, and nightclubs.
One of the pluses to Orlando is frequent visitors almost always have something new to experience. In 2012, for example, Disney will open a portion of its Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom theme park called Storybook Circus. The park’s largest expansion to date will nearly double the size of Fantasyland. There will be a new home for Ariel, new ways to interact with favorite Disney princesses, an exciting new family coaster, a double dose of Dumbo, and more.
Universal Orlando Resort is set to roll out a Despicable Me attraction, as well as a high-definition Spider-Man experience in 2012.
Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, has become a modern magnet for nightlife, beginning after breathtaking sunsets and continuing into daybreak. Last year, Reykjavik received the honorary title of 2011 World Festival and Event City from the International Festivals & Events Association. The city is the home of around 30 festivals annually.
By day, the lure here includes active volcanoes, thousands of glaciers, geothermal swimming pools, thundering waterfalls, river and sea fishing, or horseback riding on shaggy-maned giants across lava plains situated amid white-capped, mile-high mountains.
Iceland is America’s closest European neighbor (less than a five-hour plane ride from the East Coast). Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon is a supernatural looking blue-green-tinted body of heated seawater with an international reputation for healing eczema and psoriasis.
Winter visitors ski during the day and soak at night in Olympic-sized hot tubs lined up next to one another.
In fact, travel to Iceland by North Americans is up more than 50 percent from January to August 2011, according to the Iceland Tourist Board.
Tourism to our Caribbean neighbor is slowly opening up for U.S. citizens. In 2012, Insight Cuba, through General Tours’ World Traveler program, will offer several itineraries immersed in the idea of cultural exchange through the people-to-people travel experience.
From an extended weekend in Havana to a nine-day experience of Cuban music and art, the tours allow Americans an in-depth island experience. Cuban hosts lead the tours that include meals, hotel accommodations, transfers, and more. You visit with students at the Vocational Art School or participate in a discussion about U.S.-Cuban relations at the Cuban Institute of Friendship for the People.
These Cuban tours are limited to 16 people and will be offered through August 2012. The traveler who seeks a different experience may enjoy these people-to-people tours of Cuba.
If you put any stock into the Maya calendar, it’s time to visit the places on our travel bucket lists as it’s predicted by the ancients that the world will come to an end Dec. 21, 2012.
Aspects of the Maya culture and their highly developed civilization remain a mystery, including what the ending of the Long Count calendar signifies. Many towers, temples, and pyramids built thousands of years ago remain with some of the most visited and intriguing sites on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Chief among them is Chichen Itza, where at Equinox, the shadows at sunset cast a shadow of a serpent writhing down the Kukulcan Pyramid steps.
Ruins exist in other South American countries, including Belize, where several sites in northern and western Belize were built by the Mayas in the middle of dense rainforests.
In case the prediction will be true, why not go out in style? The Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort at Mexico’s Riviera Maya last year was named a Five Diamond hotel by AAA.
Whether you are moved to visit one of these five destinations or have another place in mind you’d like to experience, travel has the power to change how we view our world. This year, make a resolution to experience a new place.
Tom Crosby is vice president of communications for AAA Carolinas. He is based in Charlotte, N.C. Deborah Reinhardt, managing editor for AAA Midwest Traveler and AAA Southern Traveler magazines also contributed to this article.