Savasi Island, Fiji

Photo: Savasi Island

Photo: Savasi Island

You have a fairly solid vacation routine at this point. After arriving at a new destination, you find your hotel and drop off your bags as quickly as possible. Then you’re off. You spend the rest of your time exploring, eating, shopping, hiking, museum hopping, or whatever you’re supposed to do there. You don’t slow down until you feel like you’ve conquered that place. Or you could at least write a guidebook about it. So you always feel a little guilty when you start planning a beach vacation.

You fly to the South Pacific without your usual arsenal of trip planners. No guidebook. No list of recommendations. No daily itinerary. You arrive in Fiji with just a hotel reservation and directions for how to get there. Your carry-on bag has never been this light before. Normally, you’d feel wholly unprepared, but with your luggage full of only bathing suits, sarongs, and suntan lotion, you couldn’t go far anyway.

Shortly after arriving on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, you realize you made the right decision. With green volcanic peaks, a deeply indented coastline leading to quiet coves, and brilliant turquoise water, Vanua Levu looks like the main island, Viti Levu, did 50 years ago. From the Savusavu Airport, you’re driven along the two-lane Hibiscus Highway and across a small causeway to Savasi Island. You’re welcomed with a lei, a coconut drink, and a view of the Koro Sea. You aren’t going anywhere.

Photo: Savasi Island

Photo: Savasi Island

The Savasi Island Villas are private, secluded, and absolutely beautiful. You pass massive banyan trees, iridescent peacocks, and glimpses of the water on the way to your room. The Blue Lagoon Bure One sits on a volcanic outcrop overlooking the sea. The high-ceilinged bedroom leads to the open living room, which itself leads to the terrace and the plunge pool. Between the view and the sound of the waves below you, you’re immediately content. Plus, with only eight villas, the hotel never feels crowded; you could go most of the day without seeing any of the other guests.

When you finally leave your villa, it’s only to find the beach. You spread out on a sun lounger, slather on suntan lotion, and just relax. You smell a mixture of lemony heliconias and salt air. You watch two kayakers silently paddle by and a proud fisherman return with Spanish mackerel. A pod of spinner dolphins plays out by the reef just beyond the snorkelers. You watch the sky and the water change colors as the sun starts to set. Then you move to the dining room, perched atop a limestone cliff, to eat dinner with another perfect panoramic view.

While, for once, you don’t think about what you could be doing: exploring the blowholes, planning a moonlight snorkel trip, learning to make banilolo (steamed coconut bread) during a cooking class, or visiting the market and the church back in Savusavu. You’re in the moment without a care or a plan or any guilt.

Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, Central African Republic

Photo: Sangha Lodge

Photo: Sangha Lodge

Are you an extreme traveler? No, not in the number of days you spend away from home or the amount of frequent flyer miles you’ve racked up. We’re talking about extreme destinations. The places that are forbidden (Saudi Arabia), recently war-torn (Afghanistan), or aren’t even on travelers’ radars (Tajikistan). If so, the Central African Republic is the place for you.

This landlocked country is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It’s full of vast savannas, dense tropical rainforests, an abundance of animals, and cultures untouched by modernity. But it’s also on every major travel warning list. The government is one of the least effective in the world. Religious fighting, cleansing, and displacement aren’t part of history yet. While human rights and HIV rates rule the headlines. When the country makes the headlines at all.

So very few people visit—or even dreaming of visiting—the Central African Republic. But the few who do usually head to the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in the southwestern tip of the country. It’s the home of African forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, African forest buffalo, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies. The nearly 7,000-square-kilometer park was established in 1990 to protect the area from poaching, logging, and mining. Surprisingly, it’s done well enough to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Photo: Damiano Luchetti (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Damiano Luchetti (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sangha Lodge is one of the few places to stay within the reserve. It sits along the banks of the Sangha River, a major tributary of the deep Congo River. The lodge’s seven bungalows have running water, flushing toilets, and mosquito nets covering the beds, while the bar serves cold Castel Beer and bottled water. These are all luxuries.

Not that guests spend much time at the lodge, anyway. They come to track western lowland gorillas—the smallest type of gorilla—through the rainforest with international researchers. They follow troops of loud grey-cheeked mangabeys on a jungle walk. They uncomfortably sit for hours on an elevated platform to hopefully catch a glimpse of an elusive African forest elephant. Then they spend a day with the Baka people, who live in mud huts, hunt for small animals with nets, collect medicinal plants, and sing around open fires.

Despite being in one of the most remote and untouched places in the world, sunset is still cocktail time at the lodge—or on a sundowner cruise. The group cuts the motor as the Sangha River narrows and drifts by African tulip and rubber trees. Goliath tigerfish dart through the water. Nocturnal galagos, pottos, and hammer-headed bats come out to play. While gin and tonics are passed around the boat. It almost feels like a normal vacation.

Lexington, Kentucky

Photo: Wes Blevins (shotup) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wes Blevins (shotup) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

College basketball season has begun. It’s time to pull out the old T-shirts, rearrange your schedule to watch top 25 matchups, and try to score tickets to rivalry games. But this year, you shouldn’t just sit on your couch and go to one or two home games. This is your excuse to follow your team—and check out another great American city in the process.

As the home of the first-ranked—and, currently, still undefeated—Kentucky Wildcats, Lexington sounds like a good place to start. Rupp Arena, the Wildcats’ home in downtown Lexington, is the largest indoor arena in the country. But with games against UCLA and Louisville coming up, don’t expect a half-empty arena. The sea of blue fans is cheering as if they’re already in the NCAA tournament.

It’s a slow drive to Lexington. But not because of bumper-to-bumper traffic. You take the back roads through Bluegrass Country. The two-lane road is surrounded by rolling hills and horse farms with Greek Revival-style mansions in the distance. This is also bourbon country, so you stop at a few distilleries outside of the city. Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve all offer tours and tastings. Then you visit the Kentucky Horse Park to see the museum and the Horses of the World Show. The beautiful animals are strong and graceful.

Photo: The Campbell House

Photo: The Campbell House

It’s late afternoon by the time you check in at the Campbell House. The historic hotel oozes Southern glamour with white columns and a grand, two-story lobby. But don’t worry, the old-world charm stays in the common areas; the rooms were recently renovated. You swim a few laps in the indoor pool, sip a bourbon cocktail by the gas fireplace in Bogart’s Lounge, and head downtown for dinner at Table Three Ten.

After breakfast tacos—with eggs and smoked brisket—at a restaurant called Country Club the next morning, start exploring the downtown area. Visit the historic sites: the Mary Todd Lincoln House, the Hunt-Morgan House, and the Headley-Whitney Museum. See the Kurt Vonnegut exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Go ice skating in Triangle Park. Then taste more bourbon, as well as rye, at the Town Branch Distillery, the first new distillery built in the city in 100 years. Just leave yourself plenty of time to get to the game tonight.

Great Abaco Island, Bahamas

Photo: Delphi Bahamas

Photo: Delphi Bahamas

December is exhausting! Between the tree trimmings, the open houses, and the cocktail parties, you’re drained. If you could only escape for a few days in the middle of the all the craziness, you’d return relaxed, recharged, and ready to listen to the repetitive festive music for the rest of the holiday season. The Bahamas aren’t that far way. . . .

But don’t go to Nassau. That would be as about as relaxing as your office party. For a real escape, go to the Abaco Islands. The Bahamas’ northernmost islands are known as the “Bahamas Out Islands.” The 120-mile-long chain is made of flat coral and limestone islands. Originally the Lucayans lived here, before Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution arrived in 1783. Today, the islands are known for their amazing fishing spots, deserted beaches, and small informal hotels.

The Delphi Club, on the main island of Great Abaco, is one of the small hotels. Actually, it feels more like a private house. A gorgeous, 18th-century plantation-style house. The lodge sits on a small hill overlooking Rolling Harbour and the vast Atlantic. The wrap-around verandas have panoramic views and a consistent sea breeze. The Great Room is elegant but not stuffy, with a long dining table, a fishing gallery, and an honesty bar. An infinity pool is outside. Beyond that, you find gardens full of bougainvillea and oleander, and an untouched forest. There is only one other house within a mile.

Photo: Delphi Bahamas

Photo: Delphi Bahamas

You spend the first day fishing with a guide. First, you go to the Marls, an area that covers more than 200 miles on the west side of the island. It’s famous for its bonefishing, but the morning is a little cloudy and windy—at least by island standards—making it difficult to see the silvery fish. It’s almost lunchtime before a fish bites in the seagrass. After a picnic lunch, you move to Cherokee Sound back on the east coast. The sky has cleared, the white-sand wading flats are sparkling, and the fish are biting. A 17-pound bonefish is the highlight of your day.

After such a great afternoon out in the water, you consider heading back the next day. But with only a few days on the island, you decide to sleep in. When you finally wake up, you swim laps in the pool. Two beautiful Bahama parrots watch you from a tree, while a Bahama woodstar sings in the distance. You walk along the one-and-a-half-mile beach, seeing more birds and plenty of crabs, but no people. You go kayaking just offshore, and then switch to snorkeling because the water is so clear. And you return to the club in time for a glass of chilled Meursault and canapés on the veranda before dinner.

As you eat a seafood feast for dinner in the Great Room later, you happily accept a second glass of wine. Bonefishing, swimming, and snorkeling were just what you needed. Now you can return to the holiday craziness with a big smile on your face.

Portland, Maine

Photo: Eventide Oyster Co.

Photo: Eventide Oyster Co.

Lobsters, steamers, crabs, clams, corn on the cob, and, don’t forget, blueberry pie. As you’re plotting your next trip to Maine, food—along with a flight, a hotel, and a rental car—is undoubtedly part of the plan. But Portland’s culinary scene has stretched far beyond the ingredients that make up a clam bake. So you might want to add restaurant reservations to your list, as well.

Maine’s largest city—one third of the state’s population lives here—sits at the mouth of the Fore River along Casco Bay. It’s long been visited for its historic harbor, which is filled with old fishing piers, cobblestone streets, and 19th-century brick buildings. But within New England, the city has also long been known for its delicious food. The Portland Farmers Market, held Wednesday morning in Monument Square, has been operating since 1768. Sea cucumbers are harvested and shipped as far away as Asia. Breweries fill the Old Port. While the city has the most restaurants per capita of any city in the entire country.

When you arrive in Portland, head to Eventide Oyster Co. for lunch. About 20—yes, 20!— types of oysters sit in ice atop the granite bar. Half of the oysters, including seaweedy Norumbegas and briny Pemaquids, come from Maine. The other half arrive from as far away as Washington State and the west coast of Canada. They’re served with traditional accoutrements, like cocktail sauce and red wine mignonette, or more inventive ones, such as kimchi and pickled ginger. Eat them with a cocktail that pairs well with their salty flavor. The Bubbly Mary, made with cava, works quite nicely.

Photo: Jen Dean, Fore Street Restaurant

Photo: Jen Dean, Fore Street Restaurant

After stuffing yourself with oysters—to compare as many as possible, of course—it’s a good thing you have a late dinner reservation. Fore Street is just a few blocks from Eventide. The open restaurant features a wood-burning oven, a soapstone hearth, and a James Beard award-winning chef. The menu changes daily, though it’s always locally sourced. Appetizers might include roasted Maine mussels with garlic almond butter and a charcuterie with stone ground mustard. Oven-roasted hake and turnspit-roasted rabbit might be included on the list of entrées. While handmade chocolates shouldn’t be overlooked for dessert.

Spend the next day wandering through the art galleries and the museums along Congress Street in the Arts District. Your dinner reservation tonight, at Vinland, is right in this area near the Portland Museum of Art and Congress Square Park. Vinland is known for its local, organic food and well-priced, eight-course tasting menu. Bites of beet chips with herbed chèvre and griddled corn bread with honey butter arrive first. They’re followed by a rich turnip soup. The seafood dishes feature black bass and monkfish, while the meat ones include raw beef, crispy skin chicken, and pork belly. Though once again completely full, you can’t put down the buckwheat sandwich cookie at the end of the meal.

Before your departure the next day, you drive south along the rocky coast. Despite a sea breeze that cuts right through your jacket, it’s still a beautiful day with bright sunshine, circling seagulls, and the sound of crashing waves. When you see the Lobster Shack at Two Lights, you decide to stop for lunch. You can’t leave Maine without eating any lobster. And the lobster options are endless here. A lobster roll, a lobster salad, and lobster stew all sound amazing. Or you could just go for the full lobster dinner. Regardless of what you select, it will be delicious, just like the rest of the food on this trip.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Photo: Boby Dimitrov from Sofia, Bulgaria (Downtown Sofia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Boby Dimitrov from Sofia, Bulgaria (Downtown Sofia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Since you started traveling to Europe, you’ve been slowly making your way east across the continent. London, Paris, and Barcelona were your first stops. Berlin and Venice followed. Then you finally saw Prague and Budapest during your last trip. So what’s the next great city you’ll explore?

Sofia should be at the top of your list. The capital of Bulgaria sits in the Sofia Valley at the foot of Mount Vitosha. It was first settled by the Thracians in the 5th BC. The Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Turks, and the Soviets later claimed the Balkan country. But since joining the European Union in 2007, Bulgarians, particularly the people who live in Sofia, have been quick to shed their communist past.

The city is full of yellow cobblestone streets, green parks, and domed churches. Start in the Oborishte. The center of the city has grand Neo-Renaissance and Viennese architecture. Visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the largest orthodox churches in the world. The Neo-Byzantine church was built in the late 19th century in memory of the soldiers who died fighting for independence during the Russo-Turkish War. It’s known for its multi-domed roof and massive, dimly lit interior.

Photo: Gergana (Urbnastyle) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Gergana (Urbnastyle) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Stroll to the nearby Central Mineral Baths. The baths are fed from the seven mineral springs that flow into the city. The striped building recently reopened as a museum and exhibition center. Wander through the National Archaeological Museum. The former mosque is home to Roman and Medieval artifacts, including a 4th-century burial mask. See the monuments, including the Monument to the Soviet Army, the Monument to the Tsar Liberator, and the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. They’re sources of pride and inspiration to current protestors.

Walk through Borisova Gradina, the city’s oldest park. The green space is full of stadiums, statues, flowers, and Lake Ariana. Stop at a café along the edge of the park for an espresso. Watch the fashion-obsessed crowd walk by from your little table. Then find a small restaurant to eat soup for lunch. Try a cold soup made of yogurt, cucumbers, and walnuts or a hot soup with tripe.

After lunch, head to the Boyana Church on the outskirts of the city. The small Bulgarian Orthodox church, built in the 14th century, has beautiful gardens, extensive murals, and rare Medieval artwork. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mount Vitosha and its hiking and skiing trails loom in the background. From here you can continue into the mountains or on to the next great city. Bucharest isn’t that far away.

Jamestown, Saint Helena

Photo: Mejuto (Software fotográfico) [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: Mejuto (Software fotográfico) [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

There’s land ahead! You’ve spent the last few days watching the dark water and the strong waves from the side of the ship. With no land in sight, you’ve been getting antsy. You’re ready to stretch your legs, see green grass, and talk to different people. Now the water is getting bluer. Mountains are up ahead. And fishing boats—a sure sign of civilization—are bobbing in the harbor. Welcome to Saint Helena.

Saint Helena is in the South Atlantic Ocean. It’s part of the British Overseas Territory Saint Helena, Ascension & Tristan da Cunha. The islands are hundreds of miles from one another and thousands of miles from Africa, the nearest land mass. The Portuguese first arrived on the uninhabited islands in 1502. The tropical, volcanic islands became an important stopover for ships traveling between Europe or Asia and South America. They’re also, unsurprisingly, some of the most remote islands in the world.

Jamestown, the small capital of Saint Helena, is buzzing with the ship’s arrival. Long-awaited supplies are being unloaded to the eager Saints, as the islanders call themselves. You pass the Cenotaph, which lists the names of the Saints who died in the two world wars, by the wharf and set off to explore.

Photo: Saint Helena Government

Photo: Saint Helena Government

Tour the Castle, the main government building, and peek in the chambers if the council is in session. Walk through the Castle Gardens. The park behind the Castle is filled with huge ficus trees and songbirds. Cross the street to St. James’ Church, the oldest Anglican church in the Southern Hemisphere. Wander through the Museum of Saint Helena to learn about the island’s political and natural history. Then climb Jacob’s Ladder. The 699 steps lead up the deep canyon to Half Tree Hollow and the rest of the island.

From here, head north to visit Heart-shaped Waterfall, named after the shape of the rock over which it falls. Go to the center of the island to see Plantation House, the gorgeous governor’s mansion. Don’t miss Jonathan and Myrtle, two of the Seychelles giant tortoises that live on the grounds. Longwood, the home where Napoléon Bonaparte died after being exiled to the island, is nearby. As is the island’s highest peak, Diana’s Peak. The national park is home to the Saint Helena plover, a humid cloud forest, and peaceful hiking trails.

More trails, as well as the island’s best swimming spot, are on the southern end of the island. Carefully hike along Sandy Bay’s cliffs to find Lot’s Wife Ponds. The natural tide pools have amazing views of volcanic structures, nesting masked boobies, and the endless Atlantic. Not too bad for the end of the world.