According to some interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar the world is supposed to end this year. Doomsday is set for Dec. 21, but that gives you nearly a year to see parts of the world you've been putting off. And if that dire prediction doesn't come true? You'll have been able to cross a few things off your bucket list. • This year's biggest event is likely to be the London Olympics, for which England has spent $14 billion on new stadiums and other improvements. Now that'll be something to see. • But there are plenty of other places to go and things to experience in the Year of the Dragon. Here are 15 suggestions of what to do with your vacation time, some near and some very far.
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Take your pick. The Olympics July 27-Aug. 12 where you'll see some of the world's best athletes compete at state-of-the-art venues or the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration June 2-5. Queen Elizabeth II's 60 years on the throne will be marked by a 1,000-boat flotilla on the Thames, a huge street picnic, a carriage procession ceremony and lots of people milling about on holiday. Probably even a protest or two. London is already an expensive destination so save your pounds, but the city will be at its best-dressed finest this summer. Oh, and there will be some Dickens-themed events to commemorate the British author's 200th birthday. For more information, go to www.visitlondon.com.
YEAR OF THE DRAGON
Chinese New Year is Jan. 23 and if you can't get it together to celebrate in China, consider San Francisco, which has one of the country's biggest celebrations. The annual parade, which has been in existence since just after the Gold Rush, is Feb. 11. San Francisco has the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Dragons seem to be a motif these days with the popularity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Travel to Stockholm and take a guided tour in English of sites in the book and movie. Go to www.stads museum.stockholm.se for more information.
While the powers that be tussle about where a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium might be located, the Miami Marlins debut their shiny $515 million home in the Little Havana neighborhood not far from downtown. Fans can sit in the air-conditioned, retractable-roof facility starting April 4 for the opener against the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. If spring training is your game and the Red Sox specifically, JetBlue Park debuts in Fort Myers with an outfield replica of Fenway Park's Green Monster. Tickets on the monster are just $15. The season begins March 3 and the Red Sox play the Rays at the new stadium on March 10 and 27. Major League Baseball's site, mlb.com, will lead you to tickets for all games.
HONORING THE TITANIC
Can't get enough Titanic lore? A new interactive visitors center in Belfast, Northern Ireland, honoring the White Star liner opens in late March, the 100th anniversary of the world's most legendary ship disaster. The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg, and more than 1,500 people died. The new center honors Belfast's shipbuilding history and the attraction includes a ride that re-creates the shipyards of the early 1900s. There is also underwater footage of the wreck. This year also marks the 15th anniversary of the Academy Award-winning movie Titanic and a 3-D version of the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet will be released in April. For more about the Belfast center, go to www.titanicbelfast.com.
Bentonville, Ark.? Really? Yes, go to the middle of the country to a community of 35,000 people this year to visit an art museum that has garnered a lot of buzz. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opened in November by Walmart heir Alice Walton, is being called the nation's most important new art museum in a generation. Some 440 pieces of artwork are displayed, with more in storage, and visitors can expect to see Revolutionary War figure portraits, renderings of early settlers and American Indians, plus works from the Civil War period. Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter from World War II is there, plus works by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Andy Warhol and Jenny Holzer. It's a small town but hotels and restaurants have sprung up to handle the visitors. Also, there's a new regional airport to make travel easier, too. Go to www.crystalbridges.org.
CAPITAL IN BLOOM
If you've always promised yourself that you'd go to Washington, D.C., to see the cherry blossoms, mark your calendar for March 20-April 27. This year's Cherry Blossom Festival will be especially grand since 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the planting of 3,000 flowering cherry trees, a gift from the Japanese government. For a list of activities, including the parade and the popular kite festival, go to www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.
ART IN VIENNA
You'll have four months to visit Vienna for a major retrospective of artist Gustav Klimt. "Klimt: The Wien Museum Collection" runs May 15-Sept. 16 at Wien Museum. While you're there, say "Happy Birthday!" The Austrian artist's birthday was 150 years ago this year and you'd be hard-pressed not to find a Klimt exhibit in Vienna. At least 10 museums are planning shows. His most famous painting, The Kiss, is in the permanent collection at Vienna's Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere. The Belvedere is also having a special Klimt exhibition this year. Find more information at www.austria.info/us (click on "art").
JAPAN FOR FREE
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster devastated Japan in many ways, not the least of which were the deaths of 20,000 people. Tourism from outside the country has dropped more than 60 percent, which is also creating economic hardship. To lure people back, the Japan National Tourist Board hopes to persuade the government to fund 10,000 free flights for foreign visitors this year. The multimillion-dollar program is still awaiting approval, but if it is okayed online applications for free travel will start to be assessed in April for summer trips. Keep track of the news at www.jnto.go.jp.
THE ROOTS THING
Is this the year that you go back to the motherland? If you've always wanted to visit the town where your grandmother was born or perhaps take your children to your own parents' hometowns, 2012 is as good a time as any. Do as much research as you can before you set out to find the church where your great-grandparents were married or the lake that your dad said he always swam in as a kid. There are lots of online genealogy sites, such as www.ancestry.com or www.familysearch.org, to help get you started. Or sit down with a family member and play like a reporter digging for information.
THE LIGHTED SKY
NASA is predicting that the northern lights will be their brightest in 50 years in 2012. In fact, the aurora borealis is likely to be visible from as far south as Rome, but obviously the best place to see the light show is from a perch in the north. Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, Alaska (think Barrow not Juneau), Canada and Russia are prime viewing spots. Tromso, Norway, is the town that beckons most aurora-chasers, and the best time to see this natural phenomenon is before April. Pack a heavy coat and lots of layers. For information, go to www.visittromso.no/en.
TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SKY
Venus will be passing between the sun and the Earth this year, causing a total eclipse that won't be repeated until 2117. The best place to see the solar eclipse is northern Australia. Sort of a long way to go for 2 minutes of total darkness in the middle of the day, but there's plenty to do Down Under. Cairns is touting itself as eclipse central on Nov. 14 where predictions have the sky going dark just after sunrise at 6:39 a.m. For more information, including a guide of what to do when the sun returns, go to www.eclipsecairns.com.
As the travel editor of Tampa Bay Times, I've taken some nifty trips over the years. All have been worth my while but the two I would urge you to repeat are Glacier National Park in Montana and the outdoor Christmas markets in and around Salzburg, Austria. Get on the phone this week and see if you can get summer or fall reservations at one of Glacier's lodges. My favorite is the Lake McDonald Lodge where the three-story lobby is supported by massive cedar logs and decorated with mounted big game and American Indian-inspired chandeliers. The Salzburg Christmas markets open at the end of November and continue until the holiday. If your spirit has been deflated, you'll be able to revive it among the stalls of ornaments and gingerbread. Seriously, it's like you're in a snow globe. While you are there, go on the Sound of Music tour and see the benches that Liesl jumped on when she was singing 16 Going on 17. Information: www.nps.gov/glac for Glacier; and www.salzburg.info/de.
NEW AT DISNEY
So you've been to the Mouse Trap so many times you can find your way around blindfolded? Well, a new hotel and the first phase of a Magic Kingdom expansion, both set to open this year, might spark new interest. The Art of Animation Resort will be in Disney's more affordable class of hotels, but the biggest innovation will be the 1,120 suites that can accommodate up to six people. In other words, great for families or when you've got to take a couple of friends to keep your kids company. The Finding Nemo wing will open in May with others to follow by the end of the year. Also, the first phase of the Fantasyland expansion opens later in the year. Look for a Little Mermaid ride plus Belle's Village complete with a castle, restaurant and more. For more information, go to www.disneyworld.disney.go.com.
ON THE HIGH SEAS
Despite the economy, there will be a handful of new cruise ships launched this year including the Carnival Breeze (3,690 passengers), June; Disney Fantasy (2,500 passengers), April; and Celebrity Reflection (3,030 passengers), November. You can expect the deals of the last few years to continue with two-for-one prices, free airfare and onboard credits to lure passengers. Remember, though, that the cruise lines make their money on your onboard expenditures and we haven't seen many deals on the poolside cocktails or shore excursions. Still, you can cruise for less now than in years past.
Floriade, the World Horticulture Exposition, is held every 10 years in the Netherlands, and this year it's Venlo's turn to host it. A 160-acre park with five floral and nature themes opens April 6 and runs through Oct. 7, so there is plenty of time to see what nature has wrought, tulips being just the start. Besides horticulture displays, there are music performances and plenty of food. Venlo is about 85 miles or a two-hour train trip from Amsterdam. For more information, go to www.floriade.com.
Sources: Lonely Planet, Frommer's, about.com, Associated Press, hostelbookers.com
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@ tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.