22 Vacations that Will Change Your Life
Cooking on the Amalfi Coast
Why come to Italy to learn what can be gleaned from cookbooks, videos, and nonstop food television? Well, first, it's the setting: seashell-colored towns clinging to granite cliffs, airy and expansive villas perched hundreds of feet above the sea, and a cosmopolitan culture that puts la dolce vita in luxury's lap. Can education come more beguilingly packaged?
Further, I'm after what I call the Italian DNA—a casually virtuoso approach to food and cooking that I'm hoping will rub off on me. So I've come to Positano on a culinary getaway that combines lessons like today's—in a local restaurant—with market tours, cheese and olive oil tastings, and even a snorkeling adventure below the surface of the sea that has sustained Positano and its people for millennia ...
Kayaking Mexico's Sea of Cortez
My sky blue kayak bobs in the Sea of Cortez. I stop paddling and stare across the surface of the water to the tawny peaks of Isla Carmen, which don't seem to be getting any closer. I look behind me at the Baja California Sur mainland, which looks equally distant. Here, in the middle of this great body of water, called "the world's aquarium" by that equally great adventurer, Jacques Cousteau, I feel outmatched. Like a fish with not much power in its tail.
I chose this trip to explore the uninhabited islands of Loreto Bay National Park because I dreamed of getting close to the creatures that call this place home—fish, dolphins, and whales. Using my own power to get far from shore and truly into their world was my goal. But I'm finding that I might have underestimated how hard it would be to get there from here ...
—Susan Hall Mahon
Setting Sail in Sausalito
"Grab the winch handle," says Peter Leib, my sailing instructor, as he takes the helm. I quickly move to the furling lines, and then clumsily look around.
Prior to today, I had never stepped foot on a sailboat, ogling them from afar in marinas and envying the culture's carefree glamour. But now I've traded fantasy for reality and signed up for a two-day introduction with Club Nautique, a Sausalito-based sailing school that has shepherded novices for more than 35 years.
My base of operations: Sausalito’s elegant and recently redesigned Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa, a glorious waterfront mansion from 1885 that puts sea captain’s homes to shame and arranged my foray into proper seafaring with Club Nautique as part of its Learn to Sail package ...
Going Wild on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
The view from my tiny floatplane window makes me gasp: Mountains bristling with cedar and spruce rise steeply from the margin of the dark sea. But it's not a gasp of wonder. I'm more about stilettos than salmon fishing, and that's some serious Canadian wilderness down there.
To be fair, while I'm freaking out about heading into a part of Vancouver Island only accessible by floatplane or boat, I will not exactly be roughing it. We're touching down at the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, a redoubtable destination known for putting the "glam" in glamping. Our group is met by a horse-drawn carriage, which transports us elegantly up a dirt road for check-in at Clayoquot's cedar-log lodge, poised right at water's edge ...
Getting Happy on Little Corn Island
You have to admire the ambition in selling a vacation experience called a "Happy Pack." Sure, we all want to get happy, but the concept is pretty subjective. For some, happiness lies in the quest to become a better person; others might crave nothing more profound than massages and cocktails. Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa in Nicaragua targets bliss-seekers of all kinds with a spectrum of activities, from private meditation classes to dedicated margarita and hammock time.
Intrigued by the alluring premise, I sign up for a three-day Happy Pack experience at this year-old resort on a tiny Caribbean island. Before I arrive, the resort's wellness director e-mails me about my goals for the retreat. I tell her that I'm seeking a more serene self (preferably one with a washboard stomach), and together we formulate a plan of attack: private yoga practice, meditation, a little snorkeling, and some spa treatments ...
Rebuilding in New Orleans, Louisiana
Jazz music emanates from everywhere: an open window, a car radio, a duo playing violin and guitar in the middle of the road. At first I wonder whether the notes are coming from inside my head, a soundtrack to how I always imagined New Orleans would be.
I hear the same tunes coming from a paint-covered boom box outside a weatherbeaten house in Algiers, a neighborhood still feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina nearly a decade after its destruction. I've arrived at this tarp-covered site to volunteer for Rebuilding Together New Orleans, which organizes helpers to repair storm-damaged houses ...
Learning to Surf in Costa Rica
“The three most important principles are look forward, relax, and stay low," says my instructor, seven-time Costa Rica national surfing champion Alvaro Solano Delgado. We're perched on a wooden platform on a hillside a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. After practicing my pop-up to surfer crouch a few times, Delgado deems me seaworthy. We load into the Vista Guapa Surf Camp truck and drive five minutes down to Jaco Beach for the real thing.
Once there, Delgado and his teenage nephew Titi unload a quiver of surfboards in varying sizes. "We'll walk out until the water is here," Delgado says, motioning to his chest, "and then we'll get on the board and paddle."
Gulp. Somehow, until we're paddling toward them, I haven't processed the size of the waves. Jaco is known for its beginner-friendly surf break, and I try to believe this despite the rushing walls of water coming at me ...
—Susan Hall Mahon
Cruising the Galapagos Islands
Is it my fifth day aboard the luxury Silver Galapagos expedition ship, the newest addition to the Silversea line, and my transformation is almost complete. As I swim through the waters of Champion Island, well insulated and buoyant in my wetsuit, I believe I am becoming part sea lion. Snorkeling once or twice a day, I am on the hunt as they are, chasing penguins and colorful fish. My ears stick out slightly, pushed down by the tight strap of my mask. (External ear flaps are one of the most obvious ways to distinguish a sea lion from a seal.)
Suddenly, a pod of sea lions greets me as its own, swimming toward me and peering straight into my eyes, then bending and twisting as they spiral down below me, only to pop back up by my side. What I do, they mimic: a twirl, a splash, a dive. I watch as one playfully picks up a starfish in its mouth and starts a game of sea lion Frisbee for which I now have a front-row seat ...
—Antonia van der Meer
Biking the Coast of Maine
After four days spent pedaling past tiny lobster shacks and towering lighthouses on our way through quiet fishing villages, it's the final ride of the trip. When we cross the finish line, our Discovery Bicycle Tours group members will scatter back to our home states. We have our heads, fingers, and noses buried in all three of our maps, periodically looking up to see if the signage is pointing us toward Bar Harbor.
We've taken a detour to avoid a busy highway and now we need to decide if we should reverse the morning's directions and retrace our trail. If only the GPS would work! Instead, a handsome man on a bike—barely out of breath—stops at our group. "Did you just come from Bar Harbor?" someone asks. "Can we get there from here?" "Yes, of course," he says. "Just take a right, and then it's all lefts." With his directions, the ride back is downhill—and I am nothing if not an excellent coaster ...
—Kristen Shelton Fielder
Snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef
I am in a 16-seater flying above the aquamarine waters of Belize, and already my life has changed: Being claustrophobic, I have always avoided anything much smaller than a jet for air travel, yet I'm feeling a mixture of peace and exhilaration in this tiny space with an outsized view of the Caribbean.
It's a short flight from Belize City to the country's largest island, Ambergris Caye, and I'm soon in a water taxi speeding to El Pescador, a colonial-style resort facing the big draw of Belize: its barrier reef. The world's second-largest (after Australia), it's home to some 500 species of fish, and I am here to swim among them ...
—Jennifer Brunnemer Slaton
Handing Over the Vacation Planning Reins to the Next Generation
"Ti' Punch?" It's a sultry evening on Martinique's Caribbean coast, our last. My 23-year-old son and I occupy the tiny balcony of a pink hotel overlooking the sea. We're using the dusky light to play gin rummy at a table that barely has room for the discard pile because of a portable box of booze, a bottle of cane syrup, a sticklike aerator called a bois lélé, limes, a knife, and two tumblers.
He's right: My glass is nearly empty. Adrian suspends his play to mix me another round of the drink that has symbolized—and fueled—our four days on this small island in the French West Indies. But he's doing more than making sure his mother's drink is freshened. Adrian has created this scene as part of a journey that was his alone to envision. And that's a change: As a single mother, I'd always worked hard to create trips that honored his boyish interests: fishing Canada's boundary waters, skateboarding California's back roads, lingering over exotic cars in Florida. I was the family's vacation guru, but the problem is, we mothers often just keep thinking we know what's best for our kids, long after they're adults. Maybe it was finally time to ask instead of assume.
A Girls’ Trip Awakens One Sister’s Love for the Sea
It's impossible to say no to a sea lion pup. Especially when he gazes right at you with his big brown eyes and a half-pitiful, half-hopeful tilt of his soft, sweet face. This is what I think to myself as I sit on the royal blue edge of our idling panga, a 22-foot outboard chariot that has skirted myself and my sister up the coastline of Mexico's Isla Espíritu Santo to a protected sea lion colony. Dangling my flipper-clad feet in the chilly Sea of Cortez, I wait for the rest of our crew to suit up in neoprene. The pup makes a dozen half-moon passes around my flippers, popping his face up every 20 seconds or so and begging me to join him for an underwater playdate with those eyes. Those irresistible eyes.
This is our second journey to the colony during our stay at Camp Cecil, a luxury tent resort on one of the island's tiny, unspoiled crescents of sand. We made our first attempt the day before, only to call off the swim at the last minute due to unusually strong winds and currents. Alan and Yovani have generously brought us back for another go and are patiently waiting for us to hop in, but Katherine, arms folded tightly across her chest and lower lip poking out like I haven't seen from my little sister since we were kids, remains rigidly glued to her seat inside the boat. I'm beginning to worry that swimming with the sea lions, the fundamental reason why we're in Baja in the first place, might not happen. Will temporary discomfort—the water feels awfully cold even on my wetsuit-covered ankles—stand in our way?
Bringing a Brother to a Sacred Family Place
The forecast predicts rain. Misty, windswept days that will hover in the high 50s, maybe stretch into the 60s before the sun dips back into the North Atlantic. It doesn't surprise me—the northwest coast of France being more fickle London than tipsy Riviera in mid-spring. I remind my brother, Patrick, to pack layers and an umbrella. Now he is no more going to bring an umbrella than I'm going to bring a bikini, but he's the youngest behind four sisters (I am the second), so I have to say it, and he has to hear it.
But even if my weather app had gotten the Normandy temps right, I'm not sure that I would have packed any differently. The landing beaches in my mind are gray and sober, a coastline that holds its history like a cloud that never really bursts. We are here to trace our family's footsteps.
Seeking the Sun in Mykonos & Delos, Greece
From the white, scallop-edged balcony at Mykonos Grand Hotel & Resort, I can see golden rays of sunlight streaming down from the sky, igniting the wispy edges of a plump cloud and warming the cobalt surf below. It's an ethereal scene—for a moment I wonder if Apollo himself might descend from that cloud and find a seat on the sandy beach.
After all, I'm staring at the island of Delos, birthplace of the god of light (and today's destination). I wander among the ruins of early Aegean civilization, the stark landscape punctured with rock walls. I stare up at the tall columns, what we're told was once the foundation of a grand home. I feel an electric charge that starts at my feet as I trace my fingers over some ancient Greek letters carved into sandstone.
On the way back to Mykonos, I sit next to a French woman; she says she's wearing SPF 50, but marvels at her rosy tinge from the sun. We dub this the "Mykonos glow"—bronzed by the gods ...
Encounter Wildlife Like You've Never Seen
Cruise the Nile
Immerse Yourself in Food and Wine
Book it: paladarytomar.com
Paladar y Tomar leads deeply immersive luxury food-and-wine-focused tours in Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, including itineraries with celebrated chefs Katie Button and Félix Meana. Prices vary based on itinerary
Book It: backroads.com
Cycle Greece's mythical island of Crete in Backroads's six-day journey among beaches, gorges, and ruins of great civilizations. From $4,098
Take Traditional Mexican Cooking Classes in Paradise
Book it: lavillabonita.com
Chef Ana Garcia's La Villa Bonita offers culinary-focused weeks in Mexico, including one based at a sumptuous villa on the trendy Oaxacan coast. From $2,600 per person (double occupancy)
Explore New Zealand's Majestic Landscape
Book It: oattravel.com
Explore New Zealand's dramatic, lush, and unforgettable North and South islands with Overseas Adventure Travel's 17-day Natural Wonders North & South adventure. From $5,695 (including international airfare).
Sip Wine and See Tango
Book it: zicasso.com
Zicasso's Wine and Tango Tour of Santiago and Buenos Aires promises eight days of delicious romance in Chile and Argentina. From $300 per person per day (inquire for a custom quote)
Sail the Greek Isles
Book It: expeditions.com
Sail into antiquity for 16 days off Malta and Sicily on the four-masted Sea Cloud with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. From $19,400.