Winter Vacation Starts Here

16 globe-spanning destinations for holiday travel

September 29, 2015 9:00 am
Winter Vacation Starts Here

You work hard.

To provide. To improve. And to occasionally treat yourself and those close to you to an experience you’ll never forget.

So raise a glass to 2015 by ending the year right: herding your clan to the nearest airport and heading for sandier, snowier, more adventure-worthy pastures.

Consider this guide your rhyme and reason to all that.

Herein: 16 adventures spanning four hemispheres, six continents and every ecosystem imaginable.

Looking to catch some waves and get your bronze on? In there.

Want to carve up pristine slopes by day and stay in a snow-capped yurt by night? We got it.

Plus: dazzling hikes, a Japanese ryokan tour, the Northern Lights and more.

Your plane leaves in three months.

Ready to book? Head over to Hitlist for bottom-floor deals on all the destinations inside.

Aruba — with its T.G.I. Friday’s and seasonal flocks of half-baked coeds — can seem like a revision of the Texas Gulf Coast. But put some distance between yourself and the crowds and you’ll discover an island with a singular take on the Caribbean experience: breathtaking desert, exquisite beaches and an outsized love for watersports. Expert kite surfers head to the wind-whipped Boca Grandi, while novices in both disciplines will want to learn on the white sands of easy Eagle Beach. The island is rife with Marriotts and Hiltons; we prefer the boutique (adults-only) Bucuti.

The Musandam peninsula is one of the Middle East’s best-kept secrets, a spectacular desert landscape that’s somehow equal parts Norway (see: fjords) and Tatooine. Fly to Dubai, overnight at the Shangri-La, and then rent a 4X4 for the drive through the United Arab Emirates to this secluded corner of Oman. Rent a dhow and the sort of knowledgeable captain who knows how to find pods of dolphins, who will merrily swim alongside your low-slung boat. Khasab has plenty of unexceptional hotels, but if you’re looking for something more interesting, commit to climbing a couple mountain passes en route to the Six Senses at Zighy Bay: remote luxury at its best.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, is separated from its sister city, Livingstone, Zambia, by a sheet of falling water roughly twice the size of Niagara (it’s named for the British explorer who stole Mosi-oa-Tunya — “The Smoke That Thunders” — for his queen). On the Zimbabwe side, stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, a resort so Edwardian in its sensibility that afternoon tea is served in sight of the croquet lawn while elephants are cajoled off the property. In Zambia, trade European refinement for a more local experience at the River Club, where safaris are conducted both on the Zambezi River and in the surrounding wilderness, which is populated by giraffes, zebra, buffalo and the elusive white rhino.

Just because it’s a cliché of the French Polynesia experience doesn’t make swimming with rays any less spectacular. There’s no shortage of high-end hotels in Bora Bora, but our pick is the Four Seasons, not least because of its commitment to the private Lagoon Sanctuary, overseen by a marine biologist and held in partnership with the non-profit Pacific Eco-World initiative. Book an overwater villa and sign up for the resort’s bat ray-and-reef shark-feeding experience.

Dubbed “the finest walk in the world,” the Milford Track is a four-day, 33-mile journey into pristine South Island wilderness, with water so clean you can drink straight out of streams. Other N.Z. hikes will allow more flexibility — no camping is allowed here, with walkers obligated to cover a set distance daily and overnight in designated huts — but none is as iconic, diverse and compact. You’ll tramp through rainforest, under waterfalls and then up to snowy Mackinnon Pass before exiting, by boat, across Milford Sound: on a clear day, it’s spectacular. Choose between a guided or independent trek; only 90 hikers are allowed to set off every morning, so plan your trip well in advance.

The one-percenter’s Caribbean destination of choice, St. Bart’s is a small piece of the French Riviera transported to North American shores. Obviously, the residence of choice is your own superyacht; lacking that, we suggest the Flamands Villas at Cheval Blanc. At 400 square meters, it’s about 20 times your average New York City studio. Other ways it is unlike said studio: opens directly to the white-sand beach of the Baie des Flamands, has private rooms for working out and watching movies, and comes complete with a “dedicated Majordome [who] punctuates bountiful kind thoughts to adorn everyday life and to surprise guests.”

If you have a middle-school aged kid (or just want to dive into some of the best fantasy writing ever), pick up a copy of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and set course for these islands just above of the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian Sea. The swoonworthy landscape and unique light have drawn generations of artists in the summer — come winter, it’s even more dramatic, with storms of green, gold and red streaking across the night sky in a show of magic made material. When not scoping out the aurora, settle in for cozy dinners in fishermen cabins next to a companionable fire.

Bhutan has long been one of the world’s most inaccessible countries: most visitors are required to furnish a $250-per-day travel visa. If you’re going to do it, then, do it right — say, with the assistance of the custom-trip planning department at our favorite of the five-star brands, Aman. Its concierges will plan your trip, creating an itinerary that criss-crosses five valleys, and the five separate Aman locations there. We’d choose a 12-day tour, which begins in the capital city, at Amankora Thimphu, passes by monasteries and palaces, and concludes with meeting a monk at the pine-cloaked Amankora Paru.

Gstaad, Zermatt and St. Moritz get all the attention, but if you want to ski with your family more than schmooze at the bar, Arosa’s the spot. Novices will find plenty of blue and red runs here (with more challenging options for those who insist) and there’s plenty to entertain non-skiers as well: Arosa is home to our favorite Swiss lodge, the century-old Tschuggen Grand Hotel, which underwent a massive renovation courtesy of architects Mario Botta and Carlo Rampazzi in 2004. The all-season pool is to die for, the spa center pristine and the view from rooms with panoramic windows of the mountain peaks outside: staggering.

Winter is the best time of year to explore the hospitality concept known as the ryokan: roughly, a network of centuries-old Japanese boutique hotels. You’ll start your pan-island tour at Takinoya. Five onsen baths provide maximum chill-out opportunities, while elaborate, multi-course kaiseki dinners give you an elaborate introduction to Japan’s considerable gastronomy. Now, repeat this process — relax, chill, eat — for the next two weeks. That’s what you’ll get on a custom north-to-south itinerary (from Sapporo to bamboo-encircled Takafue) from Ryokan Collection, a venerable ryokan-hopping concierge service. Want a helicopter transfer between inns? English-language guide? They can do it.

Rio’s beaches are deservedly famous. You’ll find our favorite, little Arpoador, sandwiched between more famous neighbors Ipanema and Copacabana — but nobody ever mistook them for an undiscovered paradise. For that, you’ll have to head farther south, to Ilha Grande. Less sceney than Buzios and (much) easier to reach than Fernando do Noronha, Ilha Grande is off-the-map but not so far off you’ll be making friends with a weathered volleyball named Wilson. Save your hotel budget for the Fasano in Rio and book a room at a low-key posada (we like the Mara e Claude). Pass your days drinking at beachfront bars, snorkeling and kayaking. Repeat until sundown. More drinking. Repeat.

Ever want to drive into some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth and just disappear for a few days — all while knowing you’re completely supported in case of trouble? Quasar Expeditions can make that happen, with their self-drive Jeep safaris in the Patagonia. Tour Argentina’s Torres del Paine National Park and Los Glaciares in Chile. Drive through gorgeous valleys, fly-fish the region’s rivers, climb glaciers, ride a horse to access private lagoons … it’s here, and it’s all yours to explore.

If you’re coming from the U.S., chances are you’re going to land in Sydney — in which case we recommend getting over your jetlag at the just-opened Old Clare, constructed from the remains of two heritage buildings (the former Clare Hotel pub and the Carlton & United Breweries Administration Building) and featuring drop-dead gorgeous bathtubs (your wife/girlfriend/plus-one will likely be amenable to that). Once you’re rested, head due north, to Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays: the jumping-off point for exploring the Great Barrier Reef, or exploring your private infinity pools at the top-notch Qualia Resort’s Windward Pavilion.

If you’re kicking off an endless summer, there’s perhaps nowhere better to start than the Maldives, a series of low-lying Francophone islands in the Indian Ocean. The season doesn’t really start until mid-February, which gives you six weeks to get acclimated to life on the atolls, each with a distinct personality. We like the ease of North Male Atoll, which combines gorgeous surf with reasonable accommodations: everybody thinks of the Maldives as a five-star destination with a five-star pricetag, but here you can still find friendly hotels (with balcony/wifi/pool) for under $100 a night. Beat that.

Leave the kids at home for your stay at Kura Design Villas, the new boutique hotel perched on a coastal ridge overlooking Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline. Rainforest and ocean are equally proximal: for the former, you’ll explore one of the most biologically diverse spots on the planet, Corcovado National Park on the Osa peninsula; for the latter, swim, snorkel and dive alongside sea turtles, stingrays and whale sharks in the Caño Island Biological Reserve. Once you’ve had your fill of activities, retreat back to the hotel for some spa, infinity pool time and a break at Diabolitos Bar. If this isn’t the perfect tropical vacation, it doesn’t exist.

The stars and the moon play off of the thick, snow-packed ground as your guide leads the way with a lantern for you and 23 others. At about a half-mile you’ll reach the warm mountain yurt where you’ll dine on rack of lamb or wild venison for dinner. Deer Valley Resort made the right call buying Solitude Mountain Resort, a sort of locals spot that has received luxury love during the offseason, à la Deer Valley. And you were wise to pick this spot for your ski trip: because after this dinner and a night’s rest in your ski-in/ski-out rental, you’ll have 65 runs that receive over 500 inches of snow annually, the most in the area.