Travelers’ Choice: 20 Best Trips to Take
When travelers talk, Classic Journeys listens! You wouldn’t believe the fun and revealing conversations we have with guests while we plan together, travel with them or chat by phone mid-trip, and then when they’re fresh home and full of memories.
Now we’ve pulled their opinions, anecdotes and input together, and the result is Travelers’ Choice – a totally unscientific and happily personal selection of their top picks in an array of categories. It’s just the kind of word-of-mouth advice you look for from your travel peers when you start the process of choosing your next vacation!
Culture Capital: Prague, Vienna and Budapest
How many capitals can one empire have? For the Habsburgs, three was the magic number. Fueled by immense wealth, they were – and remain – centers of the arts, architecture, history and the good life. That they are close enough together to be perfect grace notes on a casually paced week in the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary makes them all the more appealing. “You feel like you are time-traveling,” which is as good a reason as any to add these three cities to your life list. Well, that and a slice of sacher torte in a sidewalk café.
Honorable Mention: Shanghai
After shopping Nanjing Road and strolling the Bund, head to peaceful Yuyuan Gardens, the serene 400-year-old antidote to the city’s dazzle, and the “water town” of Zhujiajiao with its willow-shaded canals.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Machu Picchu
Of the scores of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that Classic Journeys visit, the ultimate-of-ultimates is Machu Picchu. If you opt to approach on the last leg of the Inca Trail, you first see the site from above: “stupendous,” “almost incomprehensible,” “just wow.” The effect is equally as awesome when you make your ascent aboard a luxury train. Either way, your Peruvian trip will include parts of three days at the site. After waiting so long for this bucket-list moment, you just can’t have too much Machu Picchu.
Honorable Mention: Stonehenge
No crowds for you! Visit Stonehenge when it’s closed to the public for an intimate and reflective chance to feel the power of the megaliths.
Best Island: Cuba
“Nobody believes I snorkeled on the Bay of Pigs, but I have pix to prove it!” You’ll see: Cuba is unexpected and life-changing. Instead of the usual Caribbean life-is-a-resort experience, you make a deep dive into the real world to meet Cuban people like cigar-rollers, artists, coffee growers, and Afro-Caribbean dancers. You also explore 500 years of history from the sugar plantations of Trinidad to modern Havana where you still ride in mid-century tail-finned cars. Bonus points: While recent regulations shut down cruises and other travel companies, all Classic Journeys trips are good to go with departures through 2020.
Honorable Mention: Santorini
Think Santorini is only views of too-blue-to-be-true waters? Wait till you share a path with a barley farmer and his donkey, stroll in vineyards, and then settle on your terrace for a technicolor Aegean sunset.
Wine Region: Tuscany
Walks in ridiculously beautiful vineyards. A glass (or two) from a family’s favorite bottle along with lunch in their 15th century castle. The Tuscan sunset refracted through a ruby-red pour as you watch the spectacle from the terrace of your villa-hotel. “We never had wine for breakfast, but maybe only because we didn’t ask!” Better of course to stick to morning caffé to fuel days that include Florence, Portofino and the perched villages of the Cinque Terre. “And thanks for treating us to complimentary wine at every dinner.” No problemo. What better way to enjoy the wine that runs in the veins of Tuscany?
Honorable Mention: Bordeaux
A tasting at the celebrated vineyards of St. Emilion is only the start. You’ll hunt the truffles that complement the wine so well and get a private visit to a cave with 27,000-year-old paintings.
Beach Destination: Costa Rica
If life’s a beach, Costa Rica makes life worth living! Known as the world’s premier eco-destination, it also boasts fantastic sandy strands. Luxurious beachfront lodges make it super easy to split the difference between abundant nature and aquatic fun. “Spotting hummingbirds, crocodiles, macaws and capuchin monkeys is great, but monkeying around on the beach is a blast, too! Snorkeling, boogie boarding, kayaking, watching for dolphins and sea turtles, or just vegging out, the best of the beach is within easy reach.
Honorable Mention: Hawaii, the Big Island
The sight, the sound, the salty tang of the beaches is everywhere – as you explore a cooling volcanic caldera, visit a cowboy ranch in the highlands, and snorkel with sea turtles off the Kona Coast.
Family Destination: Morocco
“When I was a kid we camped in the backyard, but now my kids have camped in the Sahara. Priceless.” That tent, by the way, is in a luxury Berber encampment. You arrive on a camel, and it’s just one of the reasons this exotic vacation is a huge hit with all generations. With an entourage of local experts, you explore medieval medinas and see both sides of Marrakesh from the souks to a lavish private home. “Everything was new and different, but we never felt outside our comfort zones.” That’s a major win for any family getaway.
Honorable Mention: Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Zion
National Parking is the perfect family vacation, what with Zion’s slot canyons to explore, a mule ride through the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and a sunrise walk on the Grand Canyon’s rim.
US Destination: Alaska
Lots of tourists cruise to Alaska, but travelers who set foot and stay on the Kenai Peninsula agree that “this is America the way it really needs to be seen.” Moose, eagles and black bears are more than dots on a distant shore. Go for the wilderness – rafting on the gentle Kenai River, walking to the ice field at Exit Glacier. But also look forward to encounters with fauna know as the Alaskan people. There are local guides who can tell you about the gold rush and take you for a walk on the Iditarod trail, salmon fishermen in Homer, and artists who do their work on a farmstead overlooking Kachemak Bay.
Honorable Mention: Charleston
Charleston is a graciously languid, moss-draped beauty. Y’all will love it, especially when your local guides add a spin to South Carolina’s distinctive meld of history, climate and gentility.
Watersports Destination: Panama
“We thought all of Panama’s water was in the canal. Not so much!” There’s the Chagres River, where your dugout canoe glides between walls of rainforest to the village of the indigenous Embera tribe. Go whitewater rafting on the exciting Chiriqui river. Kayak from a desert island in a bay with mangroves, coral reefs and white sand beaches. Boat amid giant cargo and passenger ships on Gatun Lake that’s part of the canal. And all of that watery fun is on top of chances to see Panama’s amazing wildlife on jungle walks and zipline rides. For fun on the water, the isthmus is a must.
Honorable Mention: San Juan Islands
A blur in the waters of the Straits of Juan de Fuca becomes an orca, sounding beside you and your sea kayak. All by itself, the most amazing watersports moment of all time!
Adventure Destination: Iceland
The descendants of 9th century Vikings know a thing or two about how to get along in the wilds. Lucky you that they are your local guides on this visit to Iceland. (“I want to be with our guide Atli when the zombie apocalypse hits!”) Walks on glaciers and lava flows, exploring ice caves, checking in on puffins, chatting up shark fishermen are just part of it. “We saw tourists taking photos from observation points while we went right into the midst of it all. There’s nothing armchair about this trip!” Though a relaxing soak in hot tub at your luxury hotel is a pretty sweet way to recharge for a new day of adventures tomorrow.
Honorable Mention: New Zealand
Sailing on an America’s Cup yacht, hike the Hooker Valley Track, go mountain biking to a sheep ranch, take a jetboat safari on the Dart River…and that only scratches the wild fund you find in New Zealand!
Asian City: Luang Prabang
For a city that distills all of the bustle, ritual, mystery and natural history of Asia, look no further than Luang Prabang in Laos. A morning begins as Buddhist monks walk silently in the streets to collect alms. There’s an elephant sanctuary on the unspoiled Nam Khan River. The city’s raucous night market is a jangling jumble of crafts, street food and everyday local life you’ll never forget. “We loved the visits to Saigon, Hanoi and Siem Reap on our trip. But Luang Prabang summed up Southeast Asia perfectly for us.”
Honorable Mention: Kyoto
Once the imperial capital, Kyoto is the nightingale floors of Nijo Castle, the jewel-box perfection of a geisha-hosted dinner, and the intricate ritual of the tea ceremony. You will bow to its utter beauty.
Foodie Destination: Provence
Yes, that is you, tying on your apron, grabbing a handful of basil, and cooking alongside a Michelin-starred chef. It’s “nirvana for food-lovers”, but only one reason Provence wins top culinary kudos from guests. What about those markets with pyramids of produce? The award-winning olive oil pressed by your local guide Isabelle and tasted by you in all its peppery glory? The irresistible eau de croissant that pulls you to the heart of a village? A Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine-tasting here, a hilltop pique-nique there, and what do you know: you’re having the gustatory time of your life.
Honorable Mention: Nova Scotia
Your local Classic Journeys guide just happens to be Nova Scotia’s most famous chef. Expect a real taste of the province as you explore seaside villages, ride a lobster boat to a private island, and go whale watching!
Coastal Destination: Norway
Who says great coasts have to have ocean views? Norway’s fjords extend miles and miles inland from the sea to bring the waterfront experience deep inland. “A family-owned alpaca-farm lodge on the banks of a fjord? Perfect hotel, perfect blend of snow-capped mountains and water views!” Of course, there’s plenty of sea to see on visits to Oslo and Bergen, too. And the intersection of land and water gave birth to the Viking culture you learn about and Norway’s fishing net-to-table cuisine. The coast is clearly amazing in Norway.
Honorable Mention: Croatia
From Dubrovnik to Split, the Dalmatian Coast is an Adriatic tapestry of goat trails, private islands, vineyards and olive oil mills. In red-roofed villages, life has the slow, steady pace of the waves that lap the shores.
Hiking Destination: Chile
The test of a good hiking destination is how it keeps bringing you to a dead stop. Yes, you’re booted up and striking out, but in Chile the overwhelming beauty of the place makes you pause to ponder. Patagonia puts you in rolling meadows at the foot of the Torres del Paine crags. The trails lead to Salto Grande waterfall and a lake cluttered with ice floes freshly calved from Grey Glacier. On a working estancia, you’re glad for the appetite you worked up when you sit down to a classic gaucho barbecue. “Hiking in Chile exercised our imaginations like crazy!”
Wildlife Experience: Galápagos
The Big Five make Galápagos #1 for wildlife. The giant land tortoises, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, penguins and marine iguanas add up to an experience that had AFAR Magazine naming Classic Journeys island-based trip “The Best Wildlife Encounter in the World.” It’s a “happy shock to get so close to these animals,” an accomplishment made easy by the expert local naturalist/guides who are with you every walking, snorkeling, kayaking inch of the way. Staying in waterfront boutique hotels instead of a cruise ship means “no cabin fever for us!”
Honorable Mention: South Africa
Spot elephants, rhinoceros, buffalo, lions and leopards plus zebras and hippos on a concise safari that caps fascinating visits to Capetown and South Africa’s Winelands.
River Cruise: Danube
Why is the Danube the top pick river cruise? “Other passengers on our ship envied us for getting to go out with just our small group.” Those activities include events like lunch at a princely Slovakian “hunting cottage.” You wander in Austrian vineyards on the terraced slopes of the Wachau Valley and visit remarkably preserved Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. There’s a bike ride in a Viennese park, privately guided strolls in Vienna and Budapest, and amazing onshore dinners in top-rated restaurants. The unpack-once ease of cruising hits a new high on the Danube.
Honorable Mention: Douro
Our take on Portugal’s narrow Douro River offers a big, wide, wonderful week that include wine-tastings and private explorations of Porto and Salamanca for Classic Journeys guests only.
Off-the-Beaten-Track Destination: Bhutan
Go deep enough into the Himalayas, and you find yourself in a kingdom so tiny and quiet that there aren’t even traffic signals. “Bhutan took us to a higher plane—not just altitude, but very still and spiritual.” Your chances are remote of finding anywhere else like it, from the cliff-clinging Tiger’s Nest Monastery to valleys carpeted with rice paddies to gold-encrusted temples. In a land where they take time every morning for the ritual lighting of 108 butter lamps, you appreciate that “it’s a privilege to be so removed from the world.”
Honorable Mention: Chile (Easter Island, Atacama, & Vineyards)
Go to the ends of the earth to stare down Easter Island’s moai statues, the far-out climax to a Chilean trip that includes the Atacama Desert and vineyards at the foot of the Andes.
Romantic Destination: Amalfi
Cue the sighs of contentment. No place is oh-so-easy to love as Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It calls for multiple nights on Capri at the Grand Quisisana, one of the most gorgeous hotels on earth. “After the day-trippers went back to Naples, we had Capri practically to ourselves. Heaven!” And things only get dreamier as you revel in pastel Positano, go limoncello tasting, make your own pizza in a private kitchen in a cliffside home overlooking the sea, and…. Well, you get the idea: it’s easy to give your heart to glorious, glamorous Amalfi.
Honorable Mention: Barcelona & Costa Brava
The gracious avenues and fine restaurants of Barcelona, a dip in the sea at your private resort, medieval towns nestled in olive groves – Catalonia is shimmering, sensual and surprising.
Friendliest Destination: Ireland
No blarney. “The Irish people are as cordial as the day is long.” On the Emerald Isle those nice long days are full of boating on Killarney Lake, watching sheep dogs at work, country walks like you won’t believe, and maybe a wee nip at a distillery on the Dingle Peninsula. Guests give highest marks to local guide Donal. “He’s the perfect social lubricant,” and the friend of just about everyone you meet. Expect a hearty, sincere welcome in every manor house hotel and village pub where you set your happy feet.
Honorable Mention: Thailand
In the friendly “Land of Smiles,” the biggest grins belong to you as you cook with a chef in her kitchen, meet mountain villagers and mahouts, and enjoy the hospitality at resorts on Phuket and the Mae Pink River.
Mountain Destination: Swiss Alps
No need to climb every mountain to swoon for the Swiss Alps. The Bernese Oberland is a region where the peaks and valleys are all high points. You can walk on a glacier in your shirtsleeves, go for a llama trek in an alpine meadow, and eat in a revolving restaurant 9,000 above sea level and so cool it was the lair of a James Bond villain. “We loved getting a top-down, bottom-up look at Switzerland,” a great way to say that cruising on Lake Thun and eating homemade cheese on a down-in-the-valley dairy farm are memorable parts of the Swiss Alps experience, too.
Honorable Mention: Montana
What a Rocky Mountain high you get in Glacier National Park with a walk on the Highline Trail, a meeting with a Blackfeet tribesman, with a picnic on the Continental Divide and mountain goats, moose and more.
Most-Awarded Hotels: India
“Rajah-worthy is the best way to describe our hotels in India.” Indeed, how can one quibble with a luxury room with a view of the Taj Mahal? Your Relais & Chateaux retreat in Deogarh is a traditional mansion-style haveli at the edge of lake. And the Udaipur Obervilas is extravagantly palatial with a swarm of white domes that reflect in vast pools amid 30-acres of sculpted gardens. The hotels alone are worth the visit. But juxtaposed with your forays into rural villages and the bustling market streets with local guides, these properties elevate your experience beyond every expectation.
Honorable Mention: Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia
From the Metropole in Hanoi to the Raffles Grand at Angkor Wat, are decadent over-the-top trophy hotels of the highest order. And your luxury junk on Vietnam’s Halong Bay is a floating paradise.