The place: Cocoa Island, the Maldives
Why go now: These days, it takes more than high-thread-count sheets and 80-minute massages to impress the sybaritic spa guest. Flawless service, healthful yet inventive meals, and utter exclusivity are musts. This winter, Cocoa Island, the latest and most luxurious in the world’s private-island portfolio (96-044-1818; from $420), should top every spoiled traveler’s checklist. It’s hardly convenient (the Maldives are in the middle of the Indian Ocean), but it’s worth the trip for the empty beaches, crystal-clear waters, outstanding Shambhala spa, and, of course, the bragging rights.
Don’t miss: Try the Javanese Royal Lulur Bath—a two-hour indulgence that begins and ends with massage, with a body scrub and flower-filled bath in between. Or the Indian Head Massage—a full hour devoted to ironing out head, neck, and shoulder kinks.
Where to stay: Propped up on stilts, the 23 “Dhoni” rooms are designed to look like the traditional fishing boats of the same name.
Where to eat: The island’s only restaurant, Ufaa, offers an Indian- and Sri Lankan–influenced menu heavy on fresh local seafood.
FOR BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE
The place: Morro de São Paulo, Brazil
Why go now: In Brazil, beaches go in and out of fashion faster than you can say male thong. Right now, the most coveted strip of sand is in Morro de São Paulo, on the tiny island of Tinharé (a two-hour boat ride from Salvador). Young, affluent Brazilians vie for weekend invitations to this no-cars town, famous for its four gorgeous beaches and the deeply tanned, skimpily clad garotas who flock to them.
Don’t miss: First Beach is the surfer’s choice. Second Beach is the most popular party spot (most nights, the action begins at the clubs along the Rua Caminho da Praia, the larger of Morro’s two streets, and ends back at Second Beach the next morning in a sea of empty cocktail cups). Snorkelers and divers use Third Beach to explore Morro’s coral reefs and marine life; and Fourth Beach is the place to go for a dose of morning-after serenity.
Where to eat: Ponto de Encontro (Meeting Point), a new restaurant on the main street, serves up seafood, vegetarian meals, and a delectable baked chocolate-and-pear dessert (75-483-1058).
Where to stay: Book a room at the Pousada O Casarão, offering Colonial-style rooms and bungalows in the center of town (75-483-1022; from $60).
FOR CARIBBEAN CHIC
The place: Carlisle Bay, Antigua
Why go now: Most Caribbean accommodations fall into two categories: the sprawling resort and the tiny inn. So when a modest-size hotel with five-star service opens, it’s worth noting. The Carlisle Bay (268-484-0000; carlisle-bay.com; rooms start at $595 until December 19), opening next month, promises 88 spacious suites, a screening room, a library, and a full-service spa, as well as access to snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, windsurfing, deep-sea fishing, kite-surfing, and, of course, beach lounging. Conceived by the owner of London’s swank One Aldwych, Carlisle Bay hopes to attract the same roster of notables as its British sibling. Let’s hope Cher, a One Aldwych regular, still looks good in a bikini.
Where to eat: Carlisle Bay will feature two restaurants, East (Asian fare) and Indigo on the Beach (health-conscious food). Also check out Curtain Bluff (268-462-8400), whose kitchen is headed by Alain Ducasse protégé Cristophe Blatz.
FOR UNDERSEA ADVENTURES
The place: Palau
Why go now: It was Jacques Cousteau who first put this nation of more than 300 barely touched islands near the Philippines on the map when he ranked its diving among the best in the world. After last year’s sars scare and the general downturn in far-flung tourism, Palau’s relatively empty white beaches and royal-blue waters are emptier than ever.
Don’t miss: Palau’s mushroom-shaped Rock Islands are home to one of the world’s most diverse barrier reefs, populated by hundreds of species, including exotics like rays and 200-pound clams. There’s also a watery graveyard of downed World War II ships and planes off the island of Angaur.
Where to eat: Check out Fuji Restaurant (680-488-2774) for Palauan specialties like Mangrove crab, steamed fish, and all manner of sushi.
Where to stay: The beachfront Palau Pacific Resort (680-488-2600; palau.panpacific.com; from $225) has pretty views, comfortable rooms, and a dive center.
FOR WINTER GOLF
The place: Costa Rica
Why go now: Tropical jungles, ancient ruins, unspoiled beaches on two coasts, and adventure travel out the wazoo have put Costa Rica on every hip traveler’s checklist. Now there’s world-class golf too. Top designers like Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones Jr. have all built courses here, and the Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo, the country’s best golf resort to date, opens this winter.
Don’t miss: In addition to the Four Seasons course, tee it up at San José’s Meliá Cariari Country Club, a Tom and George Fazio classic long considered the best in Central America (506-293-3211). A short drive away lies the challenging and gorgeous Parque Valle del Sol (506-282-9222), with a 630-yard uphill par-five to finish.
Where to stay: The Four Seasons Resort at Peninsula Papagayo opens January 19 (800-332-3442; fourseasons.com; from $395). Until then, stay at the Los Sueños Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort; its Ted Robinson Jr. course is another worthy attraction (800-228-9290; marriott.com; from $185).
Where to eat: Pioneering nueva–Costa Rican cuisine, Restaurante Grano de Oro (506-255-3322) is numero uno in the capital of San José.