Galena, Illinois

Photo: Inn at Irish Hollow

Photo: Inn at Irish Hollow

Happy Thanksgiving! Hopefully your holiday plans include lots of food, family, and more food. Your festive decorations can wait until next weekend. Christmas shopping can start in December. This weekend—this long weekend, actually—should be about spending quality time together. Too many distractions? Then it’s time to start planning next year’s Thanksgiving getaway in the countryside.

Galena is 160 miles west of Chicago near the borders of Iowa and Wisconsin. The town, located along a tributary of the Mississippi River, boomed in the early 19th century when galena, a type of mineral, was mined. Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the U.S., later called Galena home. It’s now a sleepy town with a historic Main Street, red-brick buildings, and old-fashioned trolley tours. Just outside of town, you find winding back roads and a little country inn that’s the perfect place to spend the holiday.

The Inn at Irish Hollow looks like it’s been staged for a magazine shoot. The main building is a restored general store. The nearby cottages have creaky wooden floors, overstuffed furniture, and earthy colors. It sits on 500 acres that include a working farm, gardens, and orchards. While freshly fallen snow adds to the festive feeling.

Photo: Inn at Irish Hollow

Photo: Inn at Irish Hollow

When you arrive at Irish Hollow, move into your comfy cottage. The Stonewood Cottage already has a fire roaring in the limestone fireplace in between the sitting room and the bedroom. It also has a marble bathroom, a whirlpool tub, and a view of the snow-covered hillside from the screened-in porch. Walking sticks, snowshoes, and umbrellas are ready for whatever outdoor activities you choose. But you aren’t going anywhere tonight. Instead, you relax with a bottle of wine and a platter of cheese, meat, and freshly baked bread. You flip through a magazine, soak in the tub, and take a short nap. Then a simple supper—a crockpot full of Irish stew—is delivered for dinner. You fall asleep warm and happy.

In the morning, you’re ready to explore. Strap on the snowshoes to trek through the pasture, the gardens, and the frozen wetlands. Switch to cross-country skis when you want to follow the trails farther into the forest. Or go to the nearby Chestnut Mountain Resort, whose 19 downhill runs just opened for the season. Return to the inn to prepare for your Thanksgiving feast. The seven-course meal starts with garlic crostinis with fig and toasted walnut tapenade. Winter squash risotto, sweet-potato-and-caramelized-onion bisque, and a late-harvest garden salad follow. An herb-crusted roast turkey is the centerpiece. And don’t forget dessert: a warm apricot-pumpkin pie.

By going away for Thanksgiving, you’ve been able to spend quality time together, relax, and not focus on the next holiday. You played in the snow and ate a gourmet dinner. The only thing missing: dirty dishes at the end of the meal. But you may have found a new holiday tradition.

Avatoru, Rangiroa

Photo: Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa

Photo: Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa

What do you want for Christmas this year? Your mind may be on tomorrow’s turkey, pumpkin pie, and table setting, but everyone else seems to be looking farther ahead. They’re thinking about online deals and Black Friday sales. So you’re supposed to come up with a list of electronics, kitchen gadgets, and clothing. You don’t really need more pajamas, though. There’s only one thing you’re dreaming of this year. But it can’t go on a list. All you want for Christmas is a trip to the South Pacific.

You’re dreaming about the Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa on the northern side of Rangiroa. It’s everything you imagine a French Polynesian resort to be. Overwater bungalows stretch across a turquoise lagoon. More villas are tucked in between coconut trees onshore. Sun loungers and hammocks are spaced out on the beach. An eye-shaped infinity pool has a view of the reef. While an open-air restaurant sits on stilts at the edge of the water.

Rangiroa is the largest atoll in French Polynesia. Its huge lagoon is an enclosed coral ring surrounded by more than 400 islands, motus, and sandbars. Unlike the volcanic Tahitian islands, 350 kilometers to the north, Rangiroa is flat, barely above sea level. Its name means “vast sky” in Tuamotuan, for the uninterrupted views.

Photo: Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa

Photo: Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa

You’ve come to relax on Rangiroa, so you plan on doing practically nothing during your time here. Wake up to bright sunshine, singing birds, and the scent of Tahitian Gardenias. Relax in your jacuzzi before breakfast. Claim your spot on the beach. Spend the next few hours staring at the crystal-clear water, listening to the small waves wash against the shore, and watching white yachts pass through the lagoon. Snorkel among schools of angelfish and parrotfish. Kayak farther from shore to see the dark shadows of manta rays beneath you. Book a massage at the spa, if you’re still feeling tense from your long flight. Watch the sun set from the end of the pier. Then eat a seafood dinner at Te Poerava. Despite doing nothing, you’re exhausted.

After a few days of doing “nothing,” you begin to wonder what the rest of the lagoon looks like. Walk to the southeastern tip of the island to watch dolphins ride the strong current in the Tiputa Pass. Ride a bike to Avatoru, the main town. It’s single paved road is lined with churches, the town hall, and tiny shops. Continue to the Avatoru Pass, where sharks—hammerhead, lemon, and whitetip—congregate. Ride a boat to Les Sables Roses at the southern end of the atoll. The Pink Sands’ sandbars sparkle because of crunched red shells. Or head west to the Blue Lagoon, where white-coral beaches, swaying coconut trees, and the brightest, clearest water you’ve ever seen await. It’s a postcard-perfect setting and the best gift you’ve ever received.

Mir, Belarus

Photo: Olga Maximova 1975 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Olga Maximova 1975 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Europe is full of castles. They’re called châteaus in France, alcázars in Spain, and palaces in England. They have moats, dungeons, towers, and chapels. Kings and queens, princes and princesses lived there. Wars were fought over them. Celebrations lasted for days, sometimes even weeks. They bring history to life better than any textbook ever could. While depending on their location and style, they can be considered ominous, romantic, or even mysterious. But now, as some of the most popular attractions, they’re always crowded. At least in Western Europe. Travel to Eastern Europe, and you can have a castle practically to yourself.

Mir Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in central Belarus. It’s an easy day trip from the capital, Minsk, 85 kilometers north. In the 1520s, Duke Illinich built the Gothic castle’s five towers around the courtyard of a fortress. After the castle changed hands, a Radziwiłł prince added a residence and Renaissance details, including balconies and portals. An Italian garden was planted outside of the northern wall. An artificial lake was dug to the south. While a moat surrounded the walls.

The castle was damaged during the Napoleonic Wars, abandoned, and later rebuilt. The Germans invaded Mir during World War II and turned the castle into a ghetto for the town’s large Jewish population. After years of neglect under Soviet control, the castle is finally being repaired to its former glory.

After exploring the castle, walk around the rest of the charming town. Wander through the large Jewish cemetery. Mir yeshiva, now one of the largest Jewish learning centers in the world, was founded here in 1815. It was forced to relocate during World War I. Visit St. Nicholas’ Roman Catholic Church. The 17th-century church, which the Soviets partially destroyed, is also undergoing restoration. See Market Square, where the local market is set up and vendors sell handmade pottery. Then eat traditional Belarusian food—rye bread, draniki (potato pancakes), and kalduny (stuffed dumplings)—at Mirum Cafe.

Mir Castle may not be Europe’s largest or grandest castle. It certainly isn’t the most visited. But because of that, you can take your time, wander, and dream. The castle is yours.

Peter Island, British Virgin Islands

Photo: Peter Island Resort & Spa

Photo: Peter Island Resort & Spa

Winter arrived early this year. In the past week, temperatures dropped below freezing, a thin layer of snow covered the ground (slightly more in the Buffalo area), and the autumn leaves are now a wet mess. It’s not even December yet, and you’re already dreaming of escaping somewhere warm and sunny.

It’s 85 degrees on Peter Island right now. In just a few hours, you could be relaxing on this private island in the British Virgin Islands. You could be lounging on Deadman’s Beach in your swim trunks, watching the waves break against the white sand, listening to a steel-drum band, and sipping a pretty frozen cocktail.

Peter Island, which sits southwest of Tortola, is the largest private island in the British Virgin Islands. A small fort and slave pens sat on the island when it was part of the Dutch West Indies. A wealthy sailor later built a small resort on it. Today, much of the island remains pristine and wild; only 300 of the island’s nearly 2,000 acres have been developed. And with six beaches, there are plenty of spots to soak up the warm sunshine.

Photo: Peter Island Resort & Spa

Photo: Peter Island Resort & Spa

Cool down by swimming on Big Reef Bay after your morning run. The windward-facing beach has bigger waves and breezes than the rest of the island. Eat coconut-crusted French toast for breakfast—you’ve earned it after your run. Go snorkeling off White Bay. The quiet beach on the northern coast has a view of Norman Island. Hike around the undeveloped east end of the island. You have windblown Great Harbor all to yourself. But for a really private moment, go to secluded Honeymoon Beach for a picnic lunch. Enjoy a citrus drench facial or a fresh coconut rub at the spa. Sit in the beachside jacuzzi after your treatments. Watch the yachts glide between the islands from Little Deadman’s Beach. Then return to Deadman’s Bay for a cocktail and music later in the afternoon. The mile-long, crescent-shaped beach has shady palms and flags for beach service.

You have almost as many options for happy hour as you did for beaches. Relax in a cushioned chaise with a ginger lemonade and plantain chips at Drake’s Lounge as the sky starts to turn pink. Follow the Sunset Loop to the island’s northwestern tip and watch the sun set with a bottle of wine and a cheese plate. Or take that bottle of wine back to your room—you haven’t spent much time there yet—to enjoy the panoramic view from your balcony. It’s the perfect Caribbean room with a vaulted beam ceiling, louvered windows, and a pebble shower floor.

You could be back home bundled up, shoveling snow, and drinking hot chocolate. Okay, the hot chocolate doesn’t sound too bad, but the rest of it does. Instead, you’ve hopped between gorgeous beaches, enjoyed sunset cocktails, and are getting ready for a gourmet dinner at the open-air Tradewinds restaurant. Not a bad start to winter.

Ennedi Plateau, Chad

Photo: Dario Menasce at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Dario Menasce at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

African travel has drastically changed in the past few decades. For years, it was the North African countries—like Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco—that received most of the visitors, due to their close proximity to Europe. They were followed by  luxury accommodations in places like Mozambique and Kenya. Cape Town then became everyone’s favorite city. Now Namibia, Angola, and Gabon are attracting adventurous travelers. So what’s left? What hasn’t been cleaned up to appeal to Western tourists?

Chad receives very few visitors. The landlocked country in Central Africa is known for its poverty, violent coups, and corruption. The roads are poorly maintained. Hotels and restaurants are nonexistent. The heat is oppressive. While only extremely determined globetrotters have explored the rugged landscape. But those who have walk away with amazing stories.

The Ennedi Plateau, in northeastern Chad, is one of the country’s most unbelievable places. The massive sandstone wall is surrounded by the endless Sahara. The area is nearly impassable; four-wheel drive vehicles can only go so far. But within the rocks, there are deep valleys, rock formations, hidden pools of water, and interesting animals. Odd-shaped archways, many still unnamed, reach up to 100 feet high. Petroglyphs are etched on rocks like Niola Doa. Camels flock—by the hundreds—to Guelta d’Archei, a rare waterhole. While desert crocodiles, scimitar-horned oryx, and possibly Ennedi tigers live in the harsh environment.

For now, you can only look at photos of the amazing—truly amazing—Ennedi Plateau. Chad isn’t ready for an influx of tourists yet. Hopefully, one day, it will be. Just don’t make it too squeaky clean.

Flores, Guatemala

Photo: Las Lagunas

Photo: Las Lagunas

There’s still time to escape the upcoming Thanksgiving madness. You’ve been considering it for years. First, you stopped fighting with the turkey. Then homemade pies turned into store-bought pies. And eventually, you didn’t even need pies, since restaurants always serve mouth-watering desserts. So this year, instead of making a dinner reservation, make flight and hotel reservations instead.

The rainy season just ended in Guatemala. The humidity has subsided, the sky is clear, and everything is green right now. But it’s still quiet. The crowds won’t begin arriving until mid-December, when hotels will be booked solid until after the new year. Between the quick flight, the ideal weather, and the nonexistent crowds, Guatemala sounds like the perfect alternative to Thanksgiving.

Petén is the heart of the Mayan world. The country’s largest and northernmost department is bordered by Mexico and Belize. It’s home to ancient archaeological sites, colonial cities, an enormous rainforest, and fascinating animals. Plus, Las Lagunas, a small hotel on the edge of a private reserve.

Photo: Las Lagunas

Photo: Las Lagunas

Though only 10 minutes from the Santa Elena airport, Las Lagunas feels worlds away from everything. A wealthy conservationist built the lodge as a private getaway; over the years, it’s turned into so much more. It sits on the edge of the green Quexil Lagoon, which is surrounded by tall savanna grassland and the tropical rainforest. Your rustic wooden cabin stands on stilts along the shore. It has a deck with a jacuzzi and a view of Monkey Island, where howler monkeys are cared for. The infinity pool, the restaurant, and the bar all overlook the lake, which more than 250 bird species call home. While ocelots, margays, and wild pigs live in the surrounding 200 acres.

You could sit in the pool—or your jacuzzi—and wait for the wildlife to come to you, though you’ll probably spot more if you’re a little less lazy. See colorful toucans, loud parrots, and, if you look closely, snakes that blend into their surroundings as you kayak along the calm water. Visit Monkey Island, where you hear the howler monkeys long before you see them. Don’t worry, they’re friendly and will come down from the trees to greet you. Ride an ATV through the jungle, where your guide will point out long-tailed spider monkeys, white-nosed pizotes, and a tapir named Muñeca. Then travel to the colonial city of Flores, the grand Tikal ruins, and the quiet Yaxha archaeological site.

Back at Las Lagunas, you order a cocktail at the bar, settle into cushioned wicker furniture, and relax to watch the sun set. You almost forget about the holiday back home, until you start to smell calebacitas (stuffed pumpkins) wafting from Shultun, the hotel’s restaurant. The scent reminds you to be thankful, even though you may not be eating a traditional turkey dinner or even be home this year.

Vernazza, Italy

Photo: N. Preseault

Photo: N. Preseault

The summer crowds have finally dispersed from Cinque Terre. That’s right, it’s mid-autumn—inching toward December—and they’re just now gone. You can finally find a seat on the train, walk through the little towns without getting elbowed, and enjoy unobstructed views along the trail. Add ideal hiking weather—temperatures in the low 60s ensure you won’t be a sweaty mess at the end of the path—and it sounds like the perfect time to check out the Italian coastline that everyone dreams of visiting.

Cinque Terre is a picture-perfect section of the Italian Riviera in Northwest Italy. Brightly colored houses cling to the steep hillside on the dramatic coast. “The Five Lands” include Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare, from east to west. Fortified walls protected the little fishing villages and their castles from pirates and, later, the Turks in the Middle Ages. Flooding and mudslides are now the biggest threats.

After buying the Cinque Terre Card in La Spezia, board the Genova-bound train. Since the Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) is still closed between the first three towns—due to torrential rains in 2011—Corniglia is your first stop. The train station is, at least. To reach the village, you have to climb the Lardarina: 33 flights that include nearly 400 brick steps. Corniglia is the only one of the Cinque Terre villages without access to the sea. It sits high above the water, surrounded by terraced vineyards. When you arrive, make a miele di Corniglia (gelato with honey) your reward for the climb.

Photo: N. Preseault

Photo: N. Preseault

From Corniglia, follow the Sentiero Azzurro west toward Vernazza. This section of the trail, which many consider the most beautiful, passes by olive groves, grape vines, cacti, and rosemary. The rocky hillside is on your right, while the endless azure sea is to your left. You round corners to see the other villages and little beaches in the distance. Waves crash below you. While a sea breeze keeps you cool.

The view from the entire trail is gorgeous, but nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Vernazza. Peach- and canary-colored houses jut into the water. Doria Castle stands at the entrance of the harbor. The Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia’s octagonal bell tower overlooks Piazza Marconi and the little fishing boats bobbing in the water. After snapping way too many photos, you practically skip down the rest of the steps and onto Via Roma, the main street.

In Vernazza, you visit the stone Chapel of Santa Marta, relax on the little beach, and walk along the pier that protects the village from the strong sea. When you’re ready for a break—and a glass of chilled Sciacchetrà wine—climb the steps to Belforte for warm focaccia, garlicly mussels, trofie al pesto pasta, and a view of the Ligurian coast. You finally understand—truly understand—the Italian phrase “la dolce vita” on the Cinque Terre.