It is the second week of the new year, with many people just back from leave. That can only mean one thing – it is time to plan your next getaway.

But the age-old saying still rings true: So many places to go, and so little time. So where should you head to?

We pick the top 10 destinations for 2013, ranging from familiar favourites to new hot spots.

For movie fans, Matamata in New Zealand, a key shooting location for The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit movies, is drawing tourists in the thousands.

There is also the historic port city of Marseille, the European Capital Of Culture for the year, with its beaches, historical sights and France’s newest national park, Parc National des Calanques.

And there is room for old favourites in our list too – South Korea, home of Gangnam Style, and Johor Baru, where three brand new theme parks have opened recently.

Matamata, New Zealand

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If you cannot get enough of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), then Matamata, New Zealand, is the place for you.

Key scenes from the movie, as well as the Lord Of The Rings (2001-2004) trilogy, were filmed there. The shooting locations have become highly popular tourist attractions, with interest revitalised by the release of The Hobbit last month.

The key attraction is the Hobbiton Movie Set (www.hobbitontours.com), the only surviving set from the movies. This features fictional locations such as Bag End and the Green Dragon Inn.

Hobbiton has seen more than 300,000 visitors since opening in 2002.

Tourism to Matamata and New Zealand can only increase once The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is released in December.

Best time to visit: March to April or October to November, during off-peak season and when the weather is mild.

How to get there: There are no direct flights to Matamata. It is a two-hour drive from Auckland, which is a 10-hour flight from Singapore. You can fly to Auckland via carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Jetstar.


Walt Disney World, USA

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With the US dollar close to an all-time low – US$1 currently gets you about S$1.22 – it is the perfect time to visit, or re-visit, Walt Disney World (www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/ ).

But it will not be the same old Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Fantasyland, a themed area in the Magic Kingdom theme park where you can meet the heroes and villains of your favourite Disney stories such as Dumbo and the Little Mermaid, underwent its largest ever expansion last year.

Labelled New Fantasyland, the original area has doubled in size from 4ha to 8ha. And this year, two phases of the expansion, The Enchanted Forest and Storybook Circus, will be completed, featuring brand new rides and interactive experiences.

A new attraction called Princess Fairytale Hall, where guests can meet Disney princesses, is also scheduled to open this year.

Best time to go: The least busy times include January to February and the end of April.

How to get there: You can fly to Orlando via carriers such as British Airways and Singapore Airlines.


Londonderry, Northern Ireland

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It was once a focal point of The Troubles, an almost four-decade-long period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. But today, the historic city of Londonderry, or Derry, has been designated the first UK City Of Culture for 2013 (www.cityofculture2013.com ).

The second largest city in Northern Ieland is marking the occasion with 140 events over the course of the year, which are expected to attract more than a million visitors. Three-quarters of the events will be free of charge.

These include the presentation of the Turner Prize, one of the art world’s most prestigious painting awards, and the Royal Ballet’s (above) first visit to Northern Ireland in more than two decades.

One of the finest examples of a walled city in Europe, Londonderry also has historic sights such as the 17th-century St Columb’s Cathedral and murals dating from The Troubles at Free Derry Corner.

Best time to visit: July to September, when temperatures range from 15 to 17 deg C.

How to get there: There are no direct flights to Londonderry from Singapore. It is a 90-minute flight from London, which is 14 hours from Singapore. Carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Qantas and British Airways service the route.


South Korea

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Boutiques, restaurants and cafes can be found in Rodeo Drive (above) and Garosu-gil or Tree-lined Street. Photo: Reuters

An old favourite among Singaporeans, South Korea’s international profile has never been higher, all thanks to Gangnam Style and the endless hordes of K-pop fans around the world.

And the country is seizing the moment, hastily setting up a literal monument to Psy, the man behind the iconic song and video. It consists of a plywood stage decorated with cutout silhouettes of Psy, located in, of course, the Gangnam district.

The government even has plans to open a visitor centre next year that could eventually include a life-size hologram of the singer and other K-pop stars.

South Korea is also hosting three sporting events this year – the Special Olympics Winter Games, the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games and the World Rowing Championship. Appropriately, the country is quietly becoming known as an outdoor recreation destination, with rivers, snow-capped mountains and more than 400 golf courses.

Best time to visit: September to November during autumn, April to May during spring.

How to get there: Seoul is a six-hour flight from Singapore. Carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Korean Air service the route.


Myanmar

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In December, Myanmar will host the South-east Asian Games in Naypyidaw, Yangon and Mandalay.

But that is not the only reason why it is on our list of places to visit.

Looking for vast lakes, centuries-old pagodas, beaches with white sand or even snow-capped mountains? Myanmar has them all.

More Singaporeans are heading to the once reclusive country to take in sights such as the historic Shwedagon Pagoda, the house of pro-democracy icon Aung Saan Suu Kyi and the historic city of Bagan. A Jetstar Asia spokesman says the budget airline carried 30 per cent more passengers between Singapore and Yangon last year, compared with 2011.

The government plans to develop tourism in the country and a hospitality and tourism conference in Yangon next month should help pave the way.

Do note that visas are required for all visitors, which can be obtained through the Myanmar embassy here (www.mesingapore.org.sg/visa.html ).

Best time to visit: November to February, just after the monsoon season, when the weather is cooler.

How to get there: Jetstar flies to Yangon daily. Other airlines such as SilkAir and Myanmar Airways also fly to Yangon.


Allahabad, India

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Many pilgrims congregate at Allahabad for the Maha Kumbh Mela festival.

It comes round every 12 years, and this year, Allahabad will once again host Maha Kumbh Mela, billed as the world’s largest religious festival (www.kumbhmelaallahabad.gov.in/english/index.html).

Between 70 and 80 million Hindu pilgrims will congregate in this city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The festival will take place on the banks of the Sangam, or the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.

The Mela alternates between the cities of Nasik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar every three years. The one celebrated at the Sangam in Allahabad is considered the largest and holiest.

Best time to visit: From Jan 27 till Feb 25, pilgrims start the festival by immersing themselves in the holy waters to purify themselves from sin. Thousands of holy men and women also attend, which partly accounts for the auspiciousness of this colourful festival.

How to get there: There are no direct flights to Allahabad from Singapore. You can take budget carrier Air India Regional there from New Delhi, which is a six- hour flight from Singapore. Airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Air India service the route.


Amsterdam, Netherlands

amsterdam.jpgAmsterdam is known for its tulips and canals and the city’s Canal Ring is 400 years old this year.

2013 will be a landmark year for Amsterdam as the Dutch capital celebrates a number of anniversaries.

These include the 400th anniversary of the construction of the city’s iconic Canal Ring, the 160th birthday of Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum’s 40th anniversary.

The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, which have both undergone significant renovations, will reopen in April and May, respectively. The former contains the largest collection of classical Dutch art, while the latter is devoted to the works of the 19th-century artist.

Throughout the year, there will be a series of celebratory concerts, exhibits and street festivals. Amsterdam itself is also famous for its annual festivals such as Queen’s Day and the Holland Festival, as well as its cafes and canals.

Best time to visit: April to September, when the days are longer and the temperatures are mild.

How to get there: Amsterdam is a 13-hour flight from Singapore. Airlines such as KLM and Singapore Airlines service the route.


Marseille, France

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The port city of Marseille. Photo: AFP

Known as an ethnic melting pot as well as the birthplace of iconic French footballer Zinedine Zidane, the port city of Marseille is also the European Capital Of Culture for 2013 (www.marseillecityofculture.eu/capital-of-culture.html ).

This will be marked by a series of cultural events throughout the year, including circuses, street entertainment, exhibitions and open-air concerts.

Many of Marseille’s museums have also been extensively renovated in time for its new role as Capital Of Culture. These include the Musee Cantini, which has a treasure trove of works by artists such as Pablo Picasso stored in a 17th-century town house.

Other attractions in Marseille include the Vieux Port or old harbour, the 19th-century Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica and the Stade Velodrome, home to French football team Olympique Marseille.

France’s newest national park, Parc National des Calanques, is located on the outskirts of the city. Covering 8,500ha of land and 43,500ha at sea, it is home to 90 archaeological sites and nearly 140 protected species of fauna and flora.

Best time to visit: June to August if you want to enjoy the beaches. April to May and September to October for milder temperatures and fewer tourists.

How to get there: There are no direct flights to Marseille. It is just over an hour’s flight from Paris, which is 14 hours from Singapore. Airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Air France service the route.


Johor Baru, Malaysia

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Families have good reason to head to Johor Baru. Make that four good reasons.

Three theme parks – Legoland Malaysia, Sanrio Hello Kitty Town and The Little Big Club – all opened in Johor late last year. The latter two are located within Puteri Harbour Family Theme Park, just 10 minutes’ drive from Legoland.

The Legoland Malaysia Water Theme Park is also slated to open in the second half of this year. Legoland Malaysia (www.legoland.com.my ) is the first Legoland in Asia and features seven themed areas with more than 40 interactive rides, shows and attractions.

Sanrio Hello Kitty Town (www.playtime.com.my/hello-kitty-town ) is also the first of its kind outside Japan. It consists of Hello Kitty-themed walk-through attractions, interactive activities and rides.

Best time to visit: Avoid weekends, public holidays and school holidays, when traffic is highest.

How to get there: Drive via the Second Link or take shuttle buses from locations such as the Singapore Flyer and Boon Lay MRT.


Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

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Con Dao Islands, Vietnam. Photo: Six Senses Resorts & Spas/CTC Travel

If you are looking for an alternative, lesser-known beach destination in the region, you could do worse than the Con Dao Islands in Vietnam.

A short flight from Ho Chi Minh City, the group of 16 islands was once used to intern political prisoners during the French colonial era. Today, it is best known for forested hills, white sandy beaches and extensive coral reefs

The islands are part of the Con Dao National Park, which is inhabited by endangered species such as the hawksbill turtle and the dugong. The main island of Con Son also hosts Six Senses Cao Dao, a luxury resort with 50 villas.

Mass tourism has yet to take root on the islands, partly due to their inaccessibility, but word of Con Dao’s beauty is spreading.

Best time to visit: November to April, during the dry season. From March to July, the seas are calmest.

How to get there: 45-minute flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Con Son depart every other day. Ho Chi Minh City is a two-hour flight from Singapore. Carriers such as Jetstar, Tiger and Vietnam Airlines service the route.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on January 6, 2012. For similar stories, go
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