Instead of the Mayan Riviera:
BOCAS DEL TORO
Hike a rainforest, snorkel where you sleep, or get lost in a bat cave.
The Maya remains one of Mexico’s mellowest beach retreats, but Panama is just as beautiful and laid-back, and notably more affordable. Spend a few nights in Panama City at the Trump Ocean Club, opening this spring (from $250; trumpoceanclub.com). Stroll the Cinta Costera, a leafy waterfront path, to the Colonial-era neighborhood of Casco Viejo and admire Frank Gehry’s handiwork at the unfinished BioMuseo (scheduled to open in 2012). Then hop one of Air Panama’s daily flights to Bocas del Toro, where you can check into one of Punta Caracol’s nine over-water bungalows (from $344; puntacaracol.com). The solar-powered cabins hug a mile-long coral-reefed coast where you can snorkel in the crystalline turquoise waters. Venture farther afield to ogle a stalactite- and stalagmite-coated bat cave on Colón Island, or devote a day to the Zapatillas Cays, where you can hike in the lush rainforest and lounge on white-sand beaches.
Instead of Dubai:
Ride camels, shop souks, and dine by candlelight on a dune.
This oil-rich Middle Eastern hub is giving UAE neighbor Dubai a run for its money. A Ferrari theme park opened last November; this year marks the arrival of Capital Gate, a leaning tower that will house a Hyatt; and a Guggenheim outpost is set to open in 2013. Check into a sleek room at the new Yas Hotel (from $217; theyashotel.com), then shop for local goods at the Iranian and Meena souks. Pay a visit to the Sheikh Zayed mosque, the only one in the city open to non-Muslims. Book a table for Friday’s indulgent bubbly brunch at Le Royal Méridien’s revolving restaurant, Al Fanar. When you’re ready to skip town, retreat to Anantara’s Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort (from $326; anantara.com), a sanctuary two hours from the city center. Book an hourlong Royal Hammam treatment (couples rooms are available) at the resort’s award-winning spa after a guided camel trek into the desert, or take advantage of the Dine By Design service, a dune-side candlelit dinner for two.
Instead of Costa Rica:
Visit active volcanoes, miniature geysers, and a boiling lake.
Dominica, a microscopic isle in the Lesser Antilles, is best for couples who prefer sea paddling and rugged hikes to swim-up bars and frozen margaritas. Trek on foot from Titou Gorge, through the colorful sulfur springs and miniature geysers in the Valley of Desolation, all the way to Boiling Lake, the second-largest hot spring in the world. Or let adventure-tour operator Extreme Dominica (extremedominica.com) school you in the art of canyoning, a hybrid of hiking, swimming, rappelling, and climbing. Scuba dive through the coral-covered tunnels at Douglas Point or into an inky abyss at L’Abym, sea-kayak along the rocky coastline, or wade into one of the island’s countless waterfalls. Retire for the evening to a tropical cottage at Jungle Bay Resort & Spa (from $229; junglebaydominica.com) or a simple, well-appointed room at the Rosalie Bay resort (from $185; rosaliebay.com), where a spa will be introduced this year. Another opening to look forward to is the Waitukubuli National Trail, a 115-mile path that takes two weeks to navigate and snakes past the country’s towering peaks and active volcanoes.
Instead of mainland Australia:
Spot Australian fur seals, and drink in the burgeoning wine scene.
Fly or sail—the Spirit of Tasmania’s ships leave daily for the nine-hour voyage—from Melbourne to Devonport and spend a few nights in one of eight ultramodern pavilions at the Moorilla manor (from $487; moorilla.com.au). Sample the estate’s Muse wine and Moo beer, and browse the collections at the recently opened Museum of Old and New Art. Then make the scenic three-hour drive up the east coast and check into a suite at the new Saffire Freycinet (from $1,225; saffire-freycinet.com.au): Each features rain showers for two, Eames and Herman Miller furnishings, and unobstructed views of the surrounding Hazards mountains. Hike and bike the trails of the Coles Bay Conservation Area, perfect your shucking technique at the oyster farm, and book a boat trip to Schouten Island to spot Australian fur seals and albatross.
Instead of Iceland:
Grab front-row seats to see the northern lights.
Opportunists might be tempted by Iceland’s troubled economy, but Sweden offers a similarly isolated, sub-zero experience at a manageable price. Fly to nearby Røros, Norway, and check in at Fjällnäs (from $440; fjallnasreserve.com), military barracks turned luxurious hotel. Navigate 60-plus surrounding peaks on skis or snowmobile, then enjoy a traditional kojtjärnen, a circulation-inducing ritual for body and scalp, at the Mii Gullo Spa. If you really want to feel like you’re at the end of the earth, point your compass north to Lapland, considered Europe’s last wilderness. About 124 miles north of the Arctic Circle is the quaint village of Jukkasjärvi, home to the world’s largest ice hotel (seasonally available, of course). Spring for one of the roomier “art suites” (from $510; icehotel.com)—one was Tron-themed last winter—where you will sleep on a bed of snow and ice made cozy with reindeer hides. After starting your day with a sauna session, try your hand at dogsledding or ice sculpting. Evenings should be spent staring at the night sky: This is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
Instead of South Africa:
Track wildebeests in the bush, and then retire to a luxury tent.
Thanks to the World Cup, South Africa spent 2010 in the spotlight. But to the north lies a country with just as much to offer. Tanzania boasts one of the continent’s most diverse natural environments; its wonder list includes Mount Kilimanjaro, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti National Park. Safari operator Lukula Selous (from $3,170 per person for three nights; selousproject.com) takes its name from British explorer F.C. Selous, and explore you will, on one of its intimate (two to eight people, max) journeys into the bush. Its private sanctuary occupies 300,000 acres in the vast Selous Game Reserve, where you can track elephants, wildebeests, and lions. At night, retire to a roomy tent outfitted with hurricane lamps and steamer trunks. After a few days in the wilderness, head to the beach; Precision Air has regular flights from Dar es Salaam to nearby Zanzibar. Once there, check into one of three oceanfront villas at Asilia’s Matemwe Retreat (from $479 per person; asiliaafrica.com), and sink your toes into the sand.
Instead of Tuscany:
Go for the finanziera (organ meat) and pasta, stay for the grappa.
Dubbed “Tuscany without the tourists,” this Italian region boasts some of the boot’s best food and wine. Let your stomach lead you to the homey La Sosta (39 0141 762538) in Montabone, where if you are not immediately won over by the charm of Luca the maître d’, you will be by his wife Iolanda’s agnolotti al plin (handmade pasta with fonduta cheese and truffles). Stop at San Marco in Canelli (39 0141 823544) for finanziera (organ meat) and tajarin (egg-yolk noodles with truffles gathered by owner Piercarlo). Or visit Piazza Duomo in Alba (39 0173 366167), where chef Enrico Crippa offers avant-garde, internationally influenced interpretations of Piedmont cuisine. Retire to a suite at the rustically elegant La Villa (from $280; lavillahotel.net), a restored seventeenth-century palazzo nestled among the verdant Monferrato countryside. Helpful owners Chris and Nicola Norton can coordinate visits to local wineries and grappa producer Berta.
Instead of Tahiti:
Try windsurfing, or be pampered poolside by a personal butler.
The initial problem with a trip to the Philippines is picking which corner to visit: The country comprises more than 7,000 islands. For sugar-white sand and sparkling lagoons, head to Pamalican and Boracay. The former is home to the elegant Amanpulo resort (from $750; amanresorts.com), and guests are flown straight there via turboprop plane from Manila. Each of the 40 casitas are modeled after traditional thatched huts; springing for one of the eleven lavish villas will afford you a private chef, butler, and pool. When you’re not lounging beachside, take a windsurfing lesson, fish for wahoos, or stroll the island’s perimeter—if you’re lucky, you will spot sea eagles and baby sharks. On the larger Boracay, book a room at Shangri-La’s recently opened Borocay Resort & Spa (from $363; shangri-la.com). Swim and snorkel at the hotel’s Banyugan and Punta Bunga beaches, and check into the CHI spa for a hilot, a Filipino healing massage. Scuba divers should also consider day trips to neighboring islands: Coron is famous for its shipwreck diving, and Culion, a former leper colony, is bordered by coral reefs.
Instead of Paris:
See a first-rate museum, and shop Portugal’s Champs-Élysées.
Portugal’s picturesque capital, legendarily built across seven hills alongside the Tagus River, has as much romantic appeal as the City of Lights. Book one of the six suites (three just opened in March) at the stunning Palacete Chafariz D’El Rei (from $240; chafarizdelrei.com), a nineteenth-century aristocratic mansion decked with period antiques. By day, admire the impressive collection at the Gulbenkian museum; shop the Chiado, Lisbon’s version of the Champs-Élysées; and stop for custard tarts at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Once night falls, choose between Michelin-starred restaurants: the opulent Tavares, the city’s oldest dining establishment, or Eleven, to experience the avant-garde culinary stylings of chef Joachim Koerper. Afterward, follow the crowd along the narrow, cobbled streets of the Bairro Alto, where bustling bars offer glasses of ginjinha and plenty of fado music.
Instead of Argentina:
Bike the rugged countryside, and devour fire-pit barbecue.
A surge of interest in Argentina means that many have already experienced the pulsing Buenos Aires and natural beauty of Patagonia. But nearby lies another, less-trodden country. Fly into the capital of Montevideo, rent a car, and drive along the southern coast to Colonia del Sacramento, a seventeenth-century town whose historic quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stay in one of the five rooms at the rustic La Vigna (from $120, lavigna.com.ar), where you can borrow bikes and explore the countryside. When you’re ready to head back east, check into an artist-designed suite at the sprawling (4,000 acres!) Estancia Vik (from $500; estanciavikjoseignacio.com). Lounge by the stone pool, take one of the Criollo horses for a ride, and dig into grilled meat galore at the parrillero, a tin-lined Uruguayan barbecue room complete with central fire pit. Finally, head for Punta del Este, a cosmopolitan stretch that has become a Miami-like retreat for the country’s jet set. Reserve an Isay Weinfeld–designed bungalow at the new property Las Piedras (from $600; laspiedrasfasano.com), and make a beeline for the popular La Barra and José Ignácio beaches.
Instead of Istanbul:
Museum-hop in the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.
Syria’s relations with the U.S. are finally warming, which means the road to Damascus is more welcoming than ever (assuming the country isn’t swept up in Egypt-like protests). The capital—more than 3,000 years old and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site—is staggeringly beautiful. Check into the lavishly decorated nineteenth-century mansion turned five-star boutique hotel Agenor (from $259; agenorhotel.com); each of the twelve rooms looks like something out of a Scheherazade story, with antique chandeliers, Oriental rugs, and basalt washbasins. Located on Straight Street, the hotel is steps away from the galleries, restaurants, and shops (don’t miss the Khan Mall) that crowd this Old Town thoroughfare. Spend hours browsing the collection—including the first alphabet on a stone tablet—at the massive National Museum; catch a concerto at the Dar Al-Assad for Culture and Arts; ogle the resplendent Umayyad mosque, which reportedly holds the head of John the Baptist in an ornate tomb; and end your day by browsing the treasures at the nearby Al-Hamidiyah souk (just be ready to bargain).