The Top Ten Places to Visit in 2017

Toronto, Canada

2016 was a tough year for everyone but 2017 marks the Great White North’s 150th birthday and they’re inviting the world to celebrate with them. Canadians, along with the Dutch, are amongst the friendliest travellers I’ve met on my journeys. This generosity is being extended nationwide with the Discovery Pass that grants all visitors free entrance into any national park in 2017. July 1st is Canada Day and when the festivities really hit their climax. Dynamic Toronto will host street parades, a week of non stop parties, live music and a city full of friendly locals ready to welcome you to the biggest celebration of the year. 2016 will be a distant memory in no time at all.

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Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, has long laboured in the shadow cast by Copenhagen. This is all set to change in 2017 as the Viking-founded city becomes the European Capital of Culture. Old meets new in Aarhus: a walk through the city takes you from the 12th century cathedral through cobbled backstreets with multicoloured terraces to the striking, ultramodern Iceberg apartment complex. Summer’s the time to book your flights here, when the sun rises at 4:30am and doesn’t set until after 10pm. Try and plan your visit to coincide with either Aarhus Festuge, a 10 day arts and culture festival in August, or NorthSide, a three day electronic and guitar music extravaganza in June.

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Cienfuegos, Cuba

Any city whose name translates as ‘one hundred fires’ already has a headstart in my book. But 2017 may well be the last year that Cuba retains all of it’s shabby 1950’s charm and splendour. The trade embargo with America has been lifted and foreign investment is beginning to filter through. While Havana, Varadero and Trinidad are well-trodden now, Cienfuegos is a lesser-known crumbling majesty of grand, colonial buildings in all the colours of the rainbow. You won’t find many tourists here, so you can blend in with the locals and discover what the world was like before it was conquered by technology. Horse and carts still traverse the streets alongside classic Chevrolets and Corvettes; Cienfuegos is the closest thing to a time machine you’ll find this year.

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Marseille, France

France’s second-biggest city is in the midst of a renaissance. The Old Port has been renovated, modern museums and galleries are springing up in every corner and the gritty sparkle isn’t going anywhere. Often dismissed as the black sheep of the Provencal coastline, it’s easy to forget that Marseille is part of the Côte d’Azur and paved with 1500 years of history. I don’t class this lowly status as a bad thing though, it translates into cheaper prices and less Arab and Russian oligarchs. Once you’ve drunk enough anise-flavoured Pastis in the roadside bars, make the short drive to Les Calanques. Here, you can sunbathe, cliff jump and hike amongst 20km of limestone rocks rising from the brilliant turquoise Mediterranean waters.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

I can’t speak for you, but I’m going to Tbilisi in 2017. There’s a 17th century fortress, winding lanes, leafy squares, Soviet plazas and funky bars. There’s a burgeoning digital nomad scene too: location independent techsters are arriving in increasing numbers to take advantage of the cheap cost of living, low crime rates and fast internet. Everyone who returns talks of a country that considers eating as important as breathing: think dumplings packed with minced beef and soup, leavened bread stuffed with cheese and pork and all washed down with sparkling wine perfected over 7,000 years of production, making Georgia the birthplace of the fermented grape. In October, Tbilisi hosts  the Jazz Festival and Tbilisoba, which celebrates all things Georgian; pageants, martial arts, music and dancing. I’ll see you in October.

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Medellin, Colombia

1970’s Colombia might have been ruled by narcotraffickers, but today Medellin is the king. The former kidnap capital of the world has been transformed by progressive policies that earned it the crown of Most Innovative City and the World City Prize 2016.  The City of Eternal Spring is majestically situated in a valley of surrounding mountains and things are looking up. Crime has plummeted, tourism is flourishing and the government have finally agreed a peace deal with the FARC rebels. Visit the Museum of Antioquia to explore the works of Fernando Botero, South America’s most famous artist. Wander through the bustling markets of downtown, then take the cable car into the hillside pueblos before bar hopping around Parque Lleras alongside beautiful locals and fellow travellers.

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San Blas, Panama

After Medellin, I headed north to Cartagena and caught a boat to Panama, via the most idyllic tropical islands I’ve ever visited. The San Blas are a group of 365 or so islands, no one’s really sure as banks of sand disappear and reemerge every day. What we do know, though, is the sand is white and fine, the sea is bathwater warm and coconut palms provide welcome shade. I ate lobster, drunk rum and coke and saw reef sharks, stingrays and barracuda whilst snorkelling. The San Blas are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. They sing lullabies as they go about their daily duties and rely on the magic of shamans to ward off evil spirits. There were around 20,000 spread across the islands, but thousands leave for the mainland in search of work every year. Sail there soon, before this unique way of life is lost forever.

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Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei is a curious metropolis; equally ancient and modern, simultaneously traditional and futuristic. In a time where the rest of the world seems to be imploding, Taiwan remains a beacon of peace. Public transport is fast and cheap, there are street food stands on every corner and nature is knitted into the fabric of the city. Every couple of blocks, hundred-year-old trees, riverside paths and wooded hillsides appear as you’re walking. Any country that stands up to China gets my respect, and Taiwan has certainly done that. China still claims Taiwan as its own, referring to the country as Chinese Taipei. Taiwan, though, has established its own government and run its affairs as an autonomous state since 1988, and 2017’s the time to find out why China’s so desperate to keep hold of Taipei.

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Cadiz, Spain

After Barcelona, Cadiz is my favourite city in Spain. It remains off many tourists’ radars due to its poor transport links, the closest airport is in Jerez, a half hour train journey away. However, people are wising up to the charms of Europe’s oldest inhabited city, so now’s the time to beat the crowds. It’s a romantic jumble of Spanish streets where Atlantic waves crash against eroded sea walls. The beaches are decorated with sun worshippers and artisan ice cream while the taverns drown in cold beer and echo with the sounds of flamenco and frying fish. Recently, it’s emerged as one of the cheapest places in Spain to enrol in a language course. And if you need further convincing, accommodation, food and drink are all also half the price you’d pay in Barcelona.

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Chefchaouen, Morocco

Portland, Oregon was originally going to be number ten on the list, but I had to cut it, because Trump. America’s loss is the sparkling blue city of Morocco’s gain. And if you’ve taken my advice and gone to Cadiz, Chefchaouen is just a short ferry ride away. You’ll pass through the ancient port of Tangiers and from there it’s a bus journey to the Blue City. Chefchaouen is an otherworldly escape nestled in the Rif mountains. The distinctive palette of blue and white buildings provide the perfect backdrop for idle strolls or hillside hikes. The cuisine is as good as any you’ll find in the Arab world, which is handy as the world’s best hashish is grown in the surrounding fields, if that happens to be your thing. Get there now, before Trump tries to ban all forms of travel outside of America.

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Crashing the Cuban Marathon

“Six mojitos please.” It was 1:45am in Havana. Training for the marathon was not running smoothly. Alex, a derivatives trader with a penchant for Crossfit, and I rose at seven the next morning. We’d set an alarm but it wasn’t necessary. The area surrounding our apartment was equipped with what I like to call the big five: roosters, dogs, builders, continuous salsa music and a screaming baby. We downed two coffees, a ham and cheese toastie and half a pineapple each on our balcony. The sky was painted in the clearest blue and the early morning sun felt pleasant on the skin. I laced up my black Converse trainers as tightly as they would go. We hadn’t registered for the Cuban marathon, but we were running it anyway.

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Gentle trombone music soundtracked our walk to the starting line. They were practicing for a show that evening. One of the men told me the two things all Cubans can afford are dancing and flirting. So, they do a lot of both. I’d tried to live like a local the previous night, but now it was marathon time. We ordered three preparatory waters from a street vendor. Cuba operates a two-currency system, so you have to double check prices and watch your change. “16 pesos,” he said. “Is each bottle really 5 pesos 33 and a third?” Alex asked. “15 pesos,” the vendor nodded in defeat.

We entered Havana Viejo, the touristic centre, and passed three restaurants proclaiming they were Ernest Hemingway’s favourite hideout; he sounds like quite an indecisive man. Down at the Malecon, the famous wall that separates the city from the sea, we found our first sight of the race.

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The course consisted of a 21km loop, which the participants were running twice to achieve the necessary distance. We walked backwards, passing runners who were completing their first lap of this unique track. The cityscape of Havana is a time warp like no other; a crumbling majesty of grand colonial buildings in all the colours of the rainbow.

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We used the pedometer on Alex’s phone to walk 10km away from the finish line; the longest distance that our strict training regime of mojitos, daiquiris and cigars would allow us to complete. Here, we found a police motorcade surrounded by television cameras and reporters. The Cuban record holder, currently in first place, was about to pass by.

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We waited for the trailing pack to catch him up but no one appeared. There were 5,000 or so other runners, but the professionals clearly hadn’t turned up. Twenty minutes later, the second and third placed runners arrived. We waited till the police were looking the other way, then slipped onto the tarmac and joined the race in fourth and fifth. 

The first couple of kilometres were enjoyable. Exuberant Cubans cheering from the roadside spurred me on until my legs began to feel heavy. Alex, Crossfit strength beginning to show, edged ahead of me as the pleasant morning sun morphed into blazing midday heat. Rivulets of sweat were dripping down my face and my breathing was becoming increasingly erratic. I grabbed a bag of water from a roadside table, bit into it and splashed the liquid over my face and hair. 

The shouts were louder now, the finish line was approaching. I felt pangs of cramp and guilt at tricking the crowd into offering their support. They were cheering for a fraud; I’d completed less than a quarter of a marathon. Still, it seemed foolish not to raise my arms aloft and punch the air in celebration as I crossed the finish line.

Reporters gathered, asking where I was from, how long I’d been training for and how I felt after coming fifth. England, eighteen months and hungover. We were ushered into a holding area where two typically laid-back Cubans in high-vis jackets congratulated us and asked to see our numbers. We were both topless, without numbers or proof of entrance. I said they’d fallen off midway through the race, because of the heat. The taller man nodded and asked our names. We told him. The shorter one leafed through a couple of hundred sheets of A4, trying to find ours in a list of thousands of names. He gave up and his eyes fell upon my black Converse trainers. Puzzled and suspicious, he pointed them out to his colleague. The taller man looked me up and down. I was red-faced, carrying a limp and still short of breath.

“Look at him, he’s a mess. Give them the medals.”

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