More than two-thirds of Americans (approximately 70%) take vacations annually. After 18 months of severe impact from COVID-19, pent up demand has led to record bookings for many higher-end tour operators and travel companies for 2022, when many consumers hope for normalcy, or at least safety, while traveling.
One lesson we have learned from the pandemic is that the future is unpredictable, and anything can happen. Hopefully this will be the last major pandemic, but it certainly was not the first, and who knows what other natural disasters lay ahead? The effects of the coronavirus on travel are not just cancellations and postponements, but for many, a new realization that life is short, and dreams should not be put off. For most of us, there are regular vacations and “someday” vacations, as in “someday I’ll go to Australia and New Zealand for four weeks,” or “someday I’ll go to the Superbowl.”
Many expert travel agents and advisors I’ve talked to have told me about a discernible shift in attitudes among their clients, who are re-prioritizing their travel lists, and moving “someday” to “as soon as possible.” If all goes well (fingers crossed!) 2022 is going to be a big year for dream trips. But where to go or what to do is only half of the equation, and for many kinds of travel, especially these more niche fantasy trips, you need someone to organize it who knows what they are doing. Anyone who wants to take a luxury ski trip to Vail can reserve a suite at the Four Seasons there, hire a private instructor and have the concierge book dinner reservations, but a once in a lifetime ski trip to the world’s best snow – in Japan – is lot more confusing with a lot more moving parts and knowledge required – and more disappointing if you get it wrong.
So, based on extensive personal and travel industry experience garnered over the past quarter century, I’ve compiled this list of trips and experts to help you out – especially if you are one of the millions who has had to bump planned trips and are chomping at the bit to get back out there.
African Safari With Micato Safaris: This one is first on my list on purpose, and from here on the entries are in no particular order. That’s because while the term “Bucket List” gets thrown around a lot in the travel industry, often loosely, if there is one true example of a Bucket List trip just about anyone would love, it’s an African wildlife viewing safari. Obviously if you don’t ski or play golf or love art, even the world’s best ski, golf or museum trip wouldn’t be for you, but having done just about every kind of travel, and having been on African safaris many times in eight different countries, it is hard for me to imagine anyone who would not be blown away. You can have amazing trips in Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere, but if are going just one time, I think a combo of South Africa and Botswana is hard to beat.
But if you want to the best possible trip anywhere in Africa, you need to go with the best possible outfitter. In the safari business that is an easy and obvious pick. Simply put, Micato Safaris is the best travel outfitter of any kind, in any genre, that I have ever traveled with, and I’ve traveled with many of the most acclaimed names in the industry. I’ve seen them open doors that no one else can open, again and again. High-end safaris have boomed in popularity, but the very best lodges typically have just three to twelve accommodations and are sought out by travelers from all over the world. Micato has long had the best relationships and done the most business with these lodges and when things are tight, if anyone can get a choice room, it’s them. But I’m hardly the only one who feels this way – Micato recently won #1 World’s Best Safari Outfitter from Travel + Leisure Magazine for an unprecedented 10th time, something no tour operator of any kind in any category has ever come close to doing. If you are ready for the trip of a lifetime, this is it.
Turkey, Greece or Sardinia Bike & Cruise With DuVine: Killing two birds with one stone makes two great trips out of one vacation, but it’s even better if you can triple up. So, if you enjoy cycling, which saw an enormous surge during the pandemic and is a great way to see a place at the perfect pace, why not combine it with a deluxe sailing trip and a visit to an iconic once in a lifetime type destination? That’s exactly what you get by doing a cycling trip that uses a small ship as a moveable hotel and visits the gorgeous islands of Greece, exotic Turkey or the most unique Italian island, Sardinia.
DuVine is a well-respected cycling and multi-sport tour operator based in Boston that has a unique collection of Cycle + Sail Bike Tours, which basically offer a private yacht experience where you depart in the morning for a guided riding tour and special VIP attractions, returning to your private mooring for a swim before dining on deck, then island hopping and doing it all again the next day. For example, the Greece trip sails the Aegean from Athens to Rhodes, visiting lesser-known, uncrowded islands along the way, taking in top ruins and attractions, serving up the classics of Greek cuisine, and local wines, with virtually everything included, even open bar onboard. The trips depart from Bodrum, Turkey with an optional pre-trip extension to Istanbul, one of the world’s most fascinating cities. This trip uses a gulet, a traditional wooden sailing vessel from this region, with a crew of five. The Turkey and Sardinia trips are equally enthralling, and very unique twists on the active travel paradigm.
Skiing The Dolomites With Dolomite Mountains: Bigger is not always better, but when it comes to skiing, size does matter, and the interconnected resorts of the Dolomiti Superski pass comprise the largest ski area in the world you can ski entirely on lifts and trails – around 900 of them! – without having to transfer. This system not only connects many charming towns, including Val Gardena, Alta Badia and Cortina, host of the 2026 Winter Olympics, but also is set entirely within a UNESCO World Heritage Site many believe to be the most beautiful mountains on earth. There are a slew of amazing hotels at every price point, from mid-range to 5-Star, but unlike most ski destinations, just about all of them are ski-in/ski-out. Ski options include World Cup courses, terrain for all abilities, town to town and hut to hut skiing, and what is widely considered one of the greatest days in skiing, an epic tour known as the Sellaronda that circumnavigates the Sella massif, all in-bounds with lifts. Finally, this is Italy, perennially the top dream choice for American travelers, with all the great food, wine and welcome you expect. I wrote much more in detail about why the Dolomites is one of the world’s best ski vacations here.
Many of the best travel agents I know use a local company called Dolomite Mountains to handle their clients, so I used them and was very impressed. The company offers both scheduled group “ski safari” tours and totally private custom vacations for various budgets. In either case you get local expertise, highly trained and certified mountain guides, and insider access to the best hotels and restaurants. You can choose from hotel-based trips to skiing from rifugio to rifugio, staying in the gourmet-driven high mountain lodges the area is known for. But why not mix? In addition, ski touring (aka alpine touring or AT skiing) grew exponentially in the pandemic and years preceding it, and the Dolomites are arguably the best place in Europe to ski tour, so Dolomite Mountains has strong programs for those who want to go under their own power as well.
Natural Wonders of South America With Explora: The Chilean family that launched Explora did so to showcase the amazing landscapes, activities and gastronomy of their country, and in the past couple of decades they have done an amazing job, growing the collection to include Argentina, Bolivia and Peru as well. In each case the exceptional model is the same: build a luxurious but extremely eco-friendly lodge, staff it with expert local guides and make it all-inclusive with a focus on outdoor adventures, local cuisine and free flowing South American wines. Every Explora property offers a huge slate of half and full day guided excursions including hikes, bike rides, horseback, water-based trips and more, with many offerings to choose from daily. As the name suggests, the idea is to explore some of the most beautiful places on earth.
Explora’s most famous lodge is at Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, the most famous destination in Bucket List Patagonia, but they also have a lodge in Argentinean Patagonia and are about to debut (December) the only lodge in a brand-new Patagonia National Park in Chile. A favorite of mine is the lodge in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth and just a spectacular setting, but my all-time favorite is Easter Island, literally the most interesting place I have ever been, home to the moai statues and a famously enigmatic lost civilization. One of the most popular lodges is in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, full of ruins and attractions, most notably Machu Picchu. There are a couple of other lodges, as well as specialty moveable luxe camping trips called Travesias, but basically if you take the most desirable wonders of South America, Patagonia, Atacama, Easter Island and Machu Picchu, Explora has a location at each with the best guides you can find.
Polar Expedition Cruise With Ponant: You cannot visit every continent without getting to Antarctica, the “White Continent,” where you can witness amazingly shaped ice floes and icebergs, penguins, seals and whales, while retracing the steps of fabled explorers with expert naturalists and historians as your guide. Other travelers dream of setting foot on the North Pole, and for many wildlife buffs, the polar bear is the hardest “must see” to experience. You can do both of these on one trip, and especially in these rugged destinations that are literally at the ends of the earth, it’s key to go with someone who knows what they are doing.
A top choice would be Ponant, a venerable French company specializing in expedition cruising. Ponant combines the musts for these trips, such as a first-rate ice hardened vessel, with 5-star service, creature comforts and exquisite French cuisine. Ponant has eleven boutique ships in its fleet but one specifically for the Poles, the Le Commandant-Charcot, the first ever hybrid-electric polar exploration ship. But it skimps on emissions, not features, and is rated Polar Class 2, second most heavy duty on the international 7-point scale and defined as capable of “Year-round operation in moderate multi-year ice conditions,” as opposed to lighter duty seasonal craft. It has two standout restaurants, full spa, and rooms and suites more reminiscent of a private luxury yacht than cruise ship – there’s even an indoor swimming pool. The Le Commandant-Charcot spends November-March in Antarctica, while the Arctic season runs April-September. A standout itinerary example for 2022 includes visiting the Geographic North Pole, at a latitude of 90° North, covered by year-round ice floe and 435 miles from land. This trip offers hiking, Zodiac trips and wildlife viewing of polar bears, Arctic foxes, and reindeer, and includes roundtrip transfers from Paris to the departure spot on Norway’s Spitsbergen peninsula.
Luxury Train Journeys With Belmond: The company formerly known as Orient-Express may have changed its name to Belmond, but the famous trains it operates are as grand as ever, and no one in the world is better known for serving up the golden age of rail travel. These trains are a perfect re-introduction to travel, with private staterooms, plenty of space and amazing on-board food and drink, plus expert sightseeing along the way. The company’s top of the line for luxury is the Royal Scotsman, offering bigger, swankier rooms and a variety of multi-day sightseeing explorations of Scotland. The most famous train is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a meticulously restored 1920s Art Deco icon, with all 17 carriages boasting a unique history. The short and sweet classic journey is the one-night route to and from London and Venice via Paris, but other itineraries crisscross Europe, with journeys between beautiful and historic cities including Paris, Venice, Prague, Vienna and Budapest.
The real highlight, offered just once a year, is the recreation of the original 5-night journey between Paris and Istanbul, with overnight stops in Budapest and Bucharest plus daytime excursions in Sinaia and Varna. This year Belmond added five new boarding points in Rome, Florence, Geneva, Brussels and Amsterdam plus three new Grand Suites, bringing the total to six. These feature private bathrooms with showers, double beds, living area with underfloor heating, private transfers to and from the train, in-suite dining and a personal 24-hour cabin steward serving free-flowing champagne. Belmond’s Andean Explorer offers a two-night South American rail journey in Peru’s Andean highlands, from Cusco (gateway to Machu Picchu) to Arequipa. In Asia, the Eastern & Oriental Express focuses on three-night trips between Bangkok and Singapore or two-nights from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. All of these train journeys are easily combined with unforgettable “regular” vacations at one or both ends and can often be coupled with standout Belmond hotels such as the famed Cipriani in Venice, Cadogan in London or Monasterio in Cusco Two other Belmond trains, the British Pullman in England and the Hiram Bingham in Peru do just day trips.
Biking Tuscany, Burgundy Or Provence With Butterfield & Robinson: If you are into cycling, the classic epic “once in a lifetime” destinations are these three regions in Italy and France, with Tuscany leading the way. Butterfield & Robinson isn’t just the 5-star standard for guided cycling trips, they invented the entire category back in 1966, and for more than half century have been improving the model. From expert guides to VIP experiences along the way (visits to top wineries not open to the public, private museum tours, etc.) to carefully pre-checking routes that have been selected for maximum enjoyment and minimum traffic to make sure there are no changes or last minute construction, they have the logistic dialed in. But most importantly, because they have been doing these torus in the most popular destinations longer than anyone else, they get the block of rooms reserved at the best hotels when no one else can. This is especially important in places like Tuscany where they might take every accommodation in a luxury boutique hotel because they have been doing this with the same owner for decades. From the minute you arrive to the last day, everything is taken care of, the best lodging, best meals, luggage seamlessly disappears from your room in the morning and is in your room at the next hotel when you arrive.
I’ve done several trips with B&R around the world including two of these classics, Tuscany and Burgundy, and they are both among my fondest memories. But if you are into cycling and have already knocked these spots off, there are myriad other standouts – Japan was exceptional, the Basque region of Spain is wonderful, they offer Ireland, another popular trip, the coast of Portugal, the Loire Valley and many more. These are all places that have regularly scheduled group departures, so you can just sign onto a planned trip, but more than half of B&R’s business is privates. If you want to spend the extra money, you can do any of these (and some that places that don’t have group trips) whenever you want and with just your group. Either way, for those who love cycling these ae the trips of a lifetime, and t it was founder George Butterfield who coined the very accurate expression, “Slow Down to See the World.”
Golf In The British Isles With Haversham & Baker: If you love golf, there is no place more Bucket List than Scotland and Ireland, and most would put St. Andrews at the top of that “someday” list. Having been to the best courses, hotels and restaurants of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales many times, all over the place, I’d give the slight edge on quality of golf to Scotland and the edge on quality of overall trip to Ireland, which as the better hotels, food and weather. But you could take three or four trips to Scotland and another three or four to Ireland and argue that all are the best golf trip ever, that’s how many great courses and towns there are – many of which are hidden gems. For the golf fan this part of the world smiley cannot be beat. There are also a lot of good tour operators who can handle your needs in this region, and I’ve traveled with a few including Perry Golf, who does an excellent job. I haven’t traveled with Garmany Golf, but I know one of their executives and they have a very good reputation.
The reason I suggest Haversham & Baker for this particular dream trip is that they handle only the British Isles and Spain. I’ve known founder Sam Baker a long time, and since staring the company 30 years ago, his belief has been strongly that it is better to stay in your lane than be a jack of all trades and master of none. He rightly points out that many outfitters claiming to be Scottish specialists also handle Thailand and Scottsdale, and that many proffer off the rack itineraries. Haversham & Baker begins each trip planning with a client conversation, and builds from what you want, what your budget allows, what importance you put on food and lodging, and has focused since their start on what Sam calls “the good life,” which he describes as “the belief that your time off the course during an overseas golf trip is just as important to the overall experience as your time on it.” Many American travelers are obsessed with and driven by the course rankings of the major golf magazines, but these in turn are heavily subjective and put a lot of emphasis on things like tournaments hosted rather than course quality, and “shot value” (aka difficulty) rather than fun. For example, Golf Digest’s number one in the world is Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, and from an architecture perspective I agree completely, it’s fabulous, but it is also extremely difficult and best suited for the (low) single digit handicapper. Average golfers will suffer, and it may not be the best choice. Thanks to being a repeat host of the Open Championship (aka British Open), Scotland’s Royal Troon somehow sits at 49, but there are dozens of better courses in Scotland and Ireland. Imagine a food ranking that puts truffles as the world’s best food. If you don’t like truffles, that hardly helps. If you haven’t been to the Old Country and you want the best trip possible – for you – get help from someone who knows.
Skiing Japan With Scout Ski: If you are an avid skier, you probably love powder, and if you love powder, there is no better place on earth to go than Japan. If you love food and culture, there are few better places in the world to go than Japan. That’s why Japan is the ultimate Bucket List ski trip, and it had been exploding in popularity for years before COVID closed the country off. This winter probably is too soon to go, but next winter looks just right, and the ski season there runs about a month ahead of ours (if you did not know that it’s a perfect example why you should not be self-reliant in planning great trips). December, considered early in North America is excellent, and prime skiing runs through February (buy whatever you do, avoid the two weeks around Chinese New Year’s – another self-planning pitfall). The main reason to go is the snow, far more than anyplace else – Japan has recorded the highest snowfall total on earth, and in a “good” year the top resorts get (far) more than twice what the best of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado get in a “great” winter. On top of that, most Japanese skiers greatly prefer groomers, so unbroken powder can be found directly under lifts after lunch, unheard of in the States. You don’t have to go looking for freshies, they are everywhere. So is killer food and the uniquely Japanese experience of staying in a ryokan (traditional inn) and hitting the onsen (naturally fed thermal baths). But these are extremely hard trip to plan solo, and most Americans take the default of heading straight to Niseko, the country’s largest, best known – and most westernized – ski resort, and booking a room in the Hilton or Ritz-Carlton. In Niseko you hear more English than Japanese and it’s easier to find tacos than tonkatsu. You get great snow, but big crowds and little of the experience of being in Japan.
To me the better route is one of the less touristy area, and there are plenty to choose from, and no one outside of Japan knows the country’s skiing like Sarah Plaskitt, founder and owner of Scout Ski. Sarah is Australian, spends a month or two each winter in Japan skiing, exploring and cultivating relationships, and crafts customized itineraries at all sorts of price points that ooze inside info. Sara set up a trip for me to Hokkaido and Niseko and nearby resorts and threw in a lot of local flair to make it less like going to Whistler, but it was even better when she helped me visit Nagano for a week. Japan has hosted the Winter Olympics twice, once on Hokkaido, the northernmost island, and once in Nagano, a region a couple of hours by train from Tokyo, full of deep powder, smaller (but still big) ski mountains, and hot springs towns. It is here that you will find the onsens, the ryokans, almost exclusively Japanese cuisine, and virtually zero lift lines serving in-bounds, easy to find snow. The region is also extremely easy to combine with a weekend at either end in Tokyo (or Kyoto) sort of a must if you have not been to Japan. I’ve been to Japan half a dozen times, Tokyo is one of the world’s most enthralling cities, the skiing is off the charts and I can’t wait to go back.
Ultimate Italy With IC Bellagio: Italy! It’s the dream destination of choice for Americans, but there are soooo many different ways to do it. Fantasize about being George Clooney going villa to villa around Bellagio and Lake Como on a vintage speedboat? Want to explore the hill towns of Tuscany, family heritage in Sicily, the world class wine regions of Piedmont? Want to dive deeply into the art of Venice and Florence or the unbeatable gastronomy of Emilia Romagna? Want to drive a rental Ferrari/Maserati/Lamborghini along the epically jaw dropping roads of the Amalfi Coast and Liguria? Want to finally see the pastel fishing towns of the Cinque Terre and the harbor at Portofino that you have seen in framed prints so many times all over the world? Want to toss three coins in the fountain in Rome or shop the Quadrilatero dellla Moda in Milan, arguably the world’s most fashionable neighborhood?
Whatever your Italy is, it is better experienced with special insider access, in-depth local knowledge and the kind of expert guidance you can hardly imagine is available, but it is, and that’s from IC Bellagio. The company is the local provider of choice for Virtuoso, the world’s top consortium of luxury travel agents and advisers, so if you go to a great travel agency and want to book a dream trip to Italy, they are probably going to in turn use IC Bellagio. So, if you have a travel agent, you should still use them because then you get two layers of expert advice, but if you don’t, you can go direct. Having been to Italy more than a dozen times, most recently two weeks ago, I totally get why people love it so much, and it’s just too good to screw up.