Isla Grande, Colombia

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

The last boat is getting ready to depart. The sunburned day-trippers climb aboard. The captain revs up the engine. Then they head off toward the mainland. But not you. You stand and wave as the wake waves rush to the beach. By the time the boat is out of sight, the water is calm, and you have a big smile on your face. You have an island (practically) to yourself.

You’re on Isla Grande, one of the Islas del Rosario (Rosario Islands) off the coast of Colombia. Most of the 27 islands are uninhabited. All of them are part of the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park, which was established to protect the country’s largest coral reef. The islands are full of white beaches and majagua trees; clear water, schools of fish, and that reef surround them. Since they’re only 45 kilometers southwest of Cartagena, it’s a popular trip for both locals and tourists.

But most people only visit the islands for the day. They arrive around 10 am and depart around 3 pm, leaving you plenty of time to leisurely explore. Swim over colorful angelfish, butterflyfish, and parrotfish as you snorkel in calm lagoons. Dive farther underwater to see sea turtles, octopuses, and barracudas. Go fishing for mackerel and grouper. Canoe around the mangrove-lined island. Hire a guide to take you to Laguna Encantada at night, when bioluminescent sea creatures light up the lagoon. And claim your spot on the fine, white sand to relax when the boats start to arrive.

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

Photo: Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

You can also relax in your beachfront room at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua. The hotel’s name combines the home’s original owner (a French painter in the 1950s) with the majestic trees that surround it. White walls, natural wood, and decorative wooden oars fill the interior of the stone bungalow. The living space extends outside with built-in couches with bright, aqua cushions and a hammock. The salty sea breeze keeps you cool. The sound of the waves keeps you calm. While the endless Caribbean Sea keeps you mesmerized.

The rest of the hotel is just as open and relaxing. The spa and the dining room are both open air. The breeze, the waves, and the view are never far away. Colombian coffee and tropical fruit are served for breakfast. A picnic lunch can be brought to the garden. Dinner features the catch of the day, possibly snapper, with coconut rice. While the dock is the perfect place to watch for shooting stars . . . especially when you don’t have to share it.

Isfjorden, Svalbard

Photo: Wilson44691 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wilson44691 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s late October, which means everyone is starting to think about the holidays. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and even Christmas are right around the corner. Pretty soon the baking, the shopping, and the decorating will begin. But your mind is on a different type of holiday. You’re thinking about the vacation type. Specifically, where to go after all those other holidays end.

For next year, you’re thinking big. Not anywhere you can drive. Not a quick trip to the Caribbean, though that does sound quite relaxing. Not even a multi-city tour of Europe. You’re thinking about a remote island, the midnight sun, polar bears and reindeer, and a cozy lodge in the middle of nowhere. Svalbard it is.

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world with a permanent population. The unincorporated Norwegian archipelago sits in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between mainland Europe and the North Pole. It was first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries. Coal miners and its first real settlement followed in the 20th century. It’s now an adventure-lover’s paradise, with seven national parks and 23 nature reserves. Glaciers cover 60 percent of the islands. Boats and snowmobiles are the primary modes of transportation; there are no roads between the villages. While polar bear sightings are so common that people carry rifles, just in case.

Photo: Basecamp Spitsbergen

Photo: Basecamp Spitsbergen

So don’t be alarmed when you board a boat in Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, and notice the captain is carrying a gun. You’re also given an immersion suit, to help you stay alive for one hour, should you land in the icy water. Your mind bounces between the two scenarios. Neither sounds like a pleasant way to die. But soon, you’re passing mountains and fjords. The sun reflects off the bright white snow. Northern fulmars swoop into the water and emerge with flopping capelins. Seals pop their heads above the water as they swim. And a whale is crossing the fjord up ahead.

When you finally reach Isfjorden, you’re welcomed with a warm apple drink and a roaring fire in the library. Isfjord Radio was once a radio station that connected Svalbard to the mainland and aided with sea navigation. Satellite communication rendered it unnecessary in the late 1970s. It was recently renovated into a modern hotel. The building looks basic on the outside, but inside you find squishy beds, wool and cashmere blankets, and fleece robes. Gourmet dinners feature local ingredients: cod, whale, and reindeer. While the view includes Isfjorden (Svalbard’s second-longest fjord), Alkhornet (a snow-covered mountain), and Nordre Isfjorden National Park (full of Atlantic puffins, Brünnich’s guillemots, and black-legged kittiwakes). Greenland is in the distance.

You spend the next few days hiking and riding boats through the fjord. You spot walruses, white arctic foxes, and Svalbard reindeer. You drink hot chocolate and sit in the sauna. And you eagerly anticipate your first polar bear sighting. Then this epic trip will be complete.

Atauro Island, East Timor

Photo: molly+ [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: molly+ [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Conservation, low-impact, local. Long before the term “ecotourism” was coined, places like Belize, Costa Rica, and the Galápagos Islands were trying to protect the environment while allowing visitors to enjoy the beautiful scenery. They became—and remain—some of the most sought-after vacation spots in the world. Now up-and-coming destinations are trying to follow their lead.

Until a few years ago, no one was traveling to East Timor. The Southeast Asian country makes up the eastern half of the island of Timor. The Portuguese first colonized it in the 18th century. The East Timorese people eventually declared independence in 1975, only to be invaded by the neighboring Indonesians. The brutal war that followed lasted more than 20 years and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Rebuilding is a long process, but they now get to decide how they want to do it.

Atauro Island is taking the ecotourism route. The island is located 25 kilometers north of the capital, Dili, across the Wetar Strait. It’s name means goat, for the large number of goats kept on the rugged island. It’s also home to lots of birds that live in the evergreen forests and marine animals that inhabit the vibrant coral reef surrounding the island.

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

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

After arriving on the ferry from Dili, head inland to hike sacred Mount Manucoco, Atauro Island’s highest point. You pass grasslands and traditional gardens, hillside villages and the dense forest, olive-headed lorikeets and bar-necked cockoo-doves before reaching the summit. From here, you can see steep slopes, eucalyptus forests, and crushed coral beaches. It’s beautiful and unspoiled.

Exhausted from the hike, you’re ready to cool off by the water. Ride a bike along the eastern coast from Vila Maumeta, the largest village, to North Point, on the tip of the island. Here the water is so clear that the reef is plainly visible. Ride a traditional outrigger to see pods of dolphins and migratory whales. Learn how to fish with a spear—your catch will be roasted over hot coals later. Go scuba diving in Manta Cove, where light passes through the underwater ridges, creating an amazing light show. Then find a perfect beach on the quiet western side of the island. The bright white coral sparkles like snow.

East Timor—and Atauro Island—is bound to change. As more and more people realize that the now-peaceful country has pristine reefs and stunning beaches, it will be added to must-visit lists. Hopefully those will be lists of the best ecotourism destinations.

Gevrey-Chambertin, France

Photo: Les Deux Chèvres

Photo: Les Deux Chèvres

It’s just after sunrise in Gevrey-Chambertin. Fog still hovers over the grape vines. Drops of water drip from the thick-skinned, practically black grapes. The leaves, which have turned red and gold, are starting to crinkle with the cooler fall temperatures. Church bells ring in the distance. While sunlight is just beginning to seep through the wooden shutters in your room. Good morning, Burgundy.

You’re staying at Les Deux Chèvres, a small hotel in the heart of wine country. Your room may have antique furniture, but a rainfall shower and an incredibly comfortable bed are the perfect modern touches. Stone walls, wooden beams, and a wine press have been meticulously restored throughout the property. A vintage chart details wine production over 100 years, beginning in 1863. Even the artwork focuses on the area’s precious Pinot Noir grape. Plus there are vineyard views in every direction.

There’s absolutely no rush this morning. You cross the gravel courtyard to the main building, where a continental breakfast is served. After eating buttery croissants, local cheese, and fresh fruit, you finish your coffee on the terrace and stare at the vines across the stone wall. Limestone hills stand in the distance. A wine maker lives next door. While you wonder what the acceptable time is to begin tasting the actual wine.

Photo: N. Preseault

Gevrey-Chambertin is part of the Côte de Nuits, a small area that produces some of Burgundy’s best wines. Of the region’s 33 Grand Crus—the highest wine classification—24 are produced in the Côte de Nuits and eight are found right in Gevrey-Chambertin. The Romans first planted vines here in the 1st century BC. Catholic monks established many of the vineyards during the Middle Ages. People around the world now covet the deep, fruit-flavored wine that can be cellared for more than 20 years.

You spend the next few days exploring Dijon and Beaune, while drinking as much wine as possible. Dijon is famous for its historical buildings—Medieval and Renaissance—and mustard. The smaller, walled city of Beaune is known for the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune (a Gothic hospital) and numerous tasting rooms, including the self-guided Marché aux Vins. In between them, the Route des Grands Crus is lined with little villages and endless vineyards. Make appointments for tastings in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Chambolle-Musigny, and Morey-Saint-Denis. The hard part will be deciding which Grand Crus to bring home.

Back at Les Deux Chèvres, you return to the terrace to relax with a glass of wine as the sun sets. Maybe a glass of white Burgundy after a day of intense Pinot Noirs. Later you walk into town for dinner at traditional Chez Guy or more modern Bistrot Lucien. You eat poached eggs à la meurette and beef cheeks that have been braising for hours, while you try not to drink your bottle of Premier Cru—the second-highest classification—right away. But it’s so hard to let it breathe. By the final glass, it’s just starting to really open. Your wine palate will never be the same.

Harbour Island, Bahamas

Photo: Larry Deack (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Larry Deack (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ready for a break? Summer feels like forever ago, while the holidays are still a ways away. You need something to look forward to now. Just a few days in the sun would hold you over until the festivities begin in late November. How about a quick trip to the Bahamas?

Harbour Island is just 50 miles from Nassau, though it feels worlds away. The three-mile-long island has colorful, colonial-style buildings, small hotels, turquoise water, and pink-sand beaches. After arriving at the North Eleuthera Airport, a 15-minutes water taxi brings you to Dunmore Town. The island’s only town was settled by English colonists from Nassau in the 17th century. It was named after a former governor of the Bahamas; he had a summer house on the island.

The island still looks like the ideal place to relax. You’re staying at Pink Sands, a resort near a bird sanctuary on the eastern side of the island. Your cottage, one of only 25, has a California king bed, teak furniture, and a large sitting area. An iPod is preloaded with island tunes. While the neutral color palette keeps your focus on what’s really important: the view of the beach.

Photo: Pink Sands Resort

Photo: Pink Sands Resort

But first, you need to find some lunch. You left home before the sun rose this morning, and the food on the airplane doesn’t really count as breakfast. So you’re starving, and the smell of nearby frying fish is making your mouth water. The Blue Bar serves smoked fish dip, conch fritters, and green curry fish sandwiches that quickly fill you up. By the time your second fruity rum drink arrives, you’re mellow and adjusting to island time.

The freshwater pool looks tempting, but you’re focused on the beach. That truly pink-sand beach. It gets its color from foraminifera, red and pink shelled amoeba that live in the coral reef just offshore. You spend the rest of the afternoon watching small waves lap against the sand, swimming in the bathtub-like water, and picking up little shells as you walk down the beach.

Later you’ll sip your third fruity cocktail—or is it your fourth?—during happy hour. You’ll eat grilled octopus salad and green tamarind black grouper at the open-air Garden Terrace for dinner. You’ll plan to play tennis, go bone fishing, and try paddleboarding tomorrow. You might even walk to Sea Grapes, where local bands play live music. But right now, you’re just going to enjoy the salty air, the warm sun, and the beautiful beach, since this is just what you needed.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Photo: PDH [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: PDH [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do your trips to the Midwest begin and end with Chicago? Well, that’s sad. No one is suggesting you plan a trip to St. Louis or Flint, Michigan. That would be crazy. But you could easily explore beyond the Windy City.

Take Milwaukee. German food and beer probably come to mind when—or if—you think about Wisconsin’s largest city. But it’s quietly become so much more than that. A lakefront trail, beautiful parks, and exciting museums line the waterfront. Distilleries, artisanal shops, and award-winning restaurants now mix with the sausage factories and the breweries. Hip hotels are changing old neighborhoods. Hipsters have moved in. And it’s just 90 miles from Chicago. This weekend, you’re heading north.

You arrive at the Iron Horse Hotel, in the trendy Fifth Ward neighborhood. The six-story, 100-year-old building was once a bedding warehouse. It’s been converted into a loft-style hotel with exposed brick walls and ducts, tattoo-inspired upholstery, and wooden posts. Dogs and bikers are welcomed with treats and covered parking.

Photo: Aparium Hotel Group

Photo: Aparium Hotel Group

There are also plenty of places to hang out. The Library has communal tables and heaps of work space for breakfast. The Yard is an outdoor patio beneath the Sixth Street Viaduct. Branded has talented mixologists and vintage decor. And Smyth turns food into works of art. You might not go far your first afternoon in the city, unless it’s to the nearby Harley-Davidson Museum to see hundreds of motorcycles from the company’s 110-year history.

The next morning, head north to Lakeshore State Park for views of the skyline and waterfront trails. Visit the Milwaukee Art Museum. The distinctive building seems to soar above Lake Michigan. Eat a decadent French lunch at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro on a bluff overlooking the water. The chef, a James Beard award winner, serves baked French onion soup, Prince Edward Island mussels, and cheese during the middle of the day. Then tour the Lakefront Brewery to taste the seasonal pumpkin and Oktoberfest lagers. A polka band is starting to play as you finish the tour.

Then you’re off to Walker’s Point. Clock Shadow Creamery offers tours, as well as cheese curds and ricotta. Nearby Purple Door Ice Cream serves flavors like whiskey and raspberry green tea. Your dinner reservation is at Braise, a farm-to-table restaurant where old bowling lanes have been turned into communal tables. And the night ends at Bryant’s with a brandy Old Fashioned. The city’s oldest cocktail bar was also named the best bar in America in 2013 by Esquire. It’s amazing you’ve overlooked Milwaukee this long.

Loango National Park, Gabon

Photo: Kurt Dundy [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Kurt Dundy [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

You’re slowly walking along a windswept, white-sand beach. St. Cathérine Beach, located where the rainforest meets the ocean, is deserted and nearly 100 kilometers long. Fiddler crabs scurry to get out of your way. Olive ridley sea turtles nest along the dunes. It looks like a gang of African forest buffalo are up ahead. While huge elephant footprints pool with salty water. You barely notice any of them, though. You’re staring at the crashing waves and the hippos that seem to be riding them. The surfing hippos.

Body-surfing hippos, that is. As the white-capped waves crash, the barrel-shaped, 2,000-plus-pound animals roll toward the shore with them. Then, using their stubby legs, they swim back out, trying to keep their snouts above the water, to do it again. And again. You’re mesmerized and completely unaware of the elephant footprints, the nesting sea turtles, and the buffalo that are getting closer.

These fascinating hippos—and everything else on the beach that you’re ignoring—are in Gabon. This Central Africa country sits on the Equator. It’s stable, relatively prosperous, and conservation-minded. In 2002, the president created 13 national parks, preserving 10 percent of the land in a country about the size of Colorado. Loango National Park is one of them.

Loango National Park has been called “Africa’s last Eden.” It’s full of vast savannas, untouched forests, dense mangroves, and pristine beaches. Besides elephants and buffalo, gorillas and leopards roam the land. Colorful parrots and fruit bats fly overhead. Killer and humpback whales, plus lots of dolphins, are seen just offshore. While tarpon congregate where the Iguéla Lagoon meets the Atlantic.

After spending the day on the beach, you return to the Loango Lodge on the Iguéla Lagoon a few kilometers inland. You relax on your bungalow’s terrace with a Régab beer. The animals are coming out to graze as the temperature drops and the sun starts to set. First red river hogs appear. Then buffalo. Finally an elephant strolls down the beach. Without any hippos in sight, you can finally appreciate the rest of the amazing animals in Gabon.