10 Best Bucket List Trips For Your Post-Pandemic Travels
We all know that leisure travel is coming back in a huge way, with jammed airports, limited availability in hot destinations, and record bookings for many travel companies.
But there’s more to the life-after-COVID travel phenomena than just pent-up demand. The nature of the way people will vacation has changed. The shutdown caused by the global pandemic was unprecedented and like nothing in our lifetime, but also served as a warning that you never know what’s coming next, from other diseases to natural disasters to the quickly worsening effects of climate change to war. The sense that “life is too short” and a new fatalism is one side effect of the pandemic. That in turn has led people to stop putting things off for the future, especially an uncertain future. For many people, life’s big trips have always been scheduled for “someday,” and increasingly, someday is now. People are putting a priority on once-in-a-lifetime experiential trips, or “Bucket List” travel, and after extensive interviews with some of the world’s top travel agents and outfitters and more than 30 years of personal experience on the topic, I’ve compiled this list for anyone who is wondering where to go next to experience something much more incredible than the typical vacation.
But everyone’s travel style is different, and if you have a passion for something like golf or skiing, one of those trips will be on you Bucket List, and if you don’t you won’t care. I’ve mixed things up here with a variety to try to cover something for everyone.
When appropriate, I also give specific recommendations for the best outfitters or specialty tour operator to make these dreams come true, but if you travel a lot and want it to be the best it can be, I always recommend using a good travel agent. I’ve written extensively on all the many reasons why this will make your trip better, safer and often cheaper, and you can read a lot more about these advantages here. If you do use a travel agent - and you should - you can pass on my specific recommendations and get the best of both worlds.
African Safari: For the most part, this list is in no particular order, but this is an exception, which is why I put if first. To me this the very epitome of the Bucket List concept, because unlike most of the others, I can’t imagine a personality that would not be wowed. It’s for everyone, and it is truly something you need to experience in your lifetime. I’ve had the good fortune to have been many times, and I would go again tomorrow, because for me it never gets old - it’s more than a once-in-a-lifetime trip - but at least once!
The classic is East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, but if I were planning your trip and you had never been, I would suggest South Africa, or South Africa and Botswana. South Africa has a lot more non-wildlife appeal, wine country, amazing food, beaches, golf, classic luxury trains, and Cape Town is one of the world’s great cities. Southern Africa is easier to get to and has better luxury safari lodges and much better luxury non-safari hotels and resorts. Botswana probably has the very best concertation of pure wildlife viewing and some of the best lodges of the eight marquee African safari countries I’ve visited. However, East Africa has two unique appeals, the annual great migration across the Serengeti, one of earth’s premier natural wonders, and proximity to Rwanda and its unique gorilla trekking. Gorillas are not found in the same places as all the other desirable African animals and for many travelers gorilla trekking (you have to go on foot to see them) is the single most amazing wildfire experience on earth, and a Bucket List trip in its own right. But it lasts only a day or two, so it is best combined with a conventional East African safari.
Do It Best: Micato Safaris is my pick for making this dream trip a dream come true - by a mile. Not only are they the best safari outfitter I know, but the best company of any kind in the entire travel industry I’ve experienced, and I’m not alone - Micato is the only 10-time winner of any World’s Best Award category from Travel + Leisure Magazine, all for World’s Best Safari Operator. This is a complex trip with a lot of moving parts and using Micato will alleviate all planning concerns and guarantee a great time (read more here). This is especially true if you add gorilla trekking, for which permits are strictly required, very limited, demand far exceeds supply, and insider connections help. Micato has those, I’ve seen it myself.
Easter Island, Chile: People ask me all the time what the best place I’ve ever been is, and it’s kind of stupid question that can’t have an answer in the apples to oranges world of travel. But on the rare occasion when I am asked what the most interesting place I’ve ever been is, I don’t hesitate to say Easter Island. It’s really like nothing else you can imagine, a very remote, almost magical tropical island out of King Kong, where the entire civilization vanished mysteriously, and despite years and years of scientific research, we still don’t know much about the culture, the people or why they vanished. We do know they left behind the mysterious Moai, towering stone statues whose movement over long distances and placement rivals the inconceivable construction of the pyramids in terms of “how on earth did they do that?” Easter Island is a widely overlooked once-in-a-lifetime trip (though I’d gladly go back) that is best done from Santiago, Chile, in turn a great overlooked weekend city destination with amazing food and wine.
Until very recently the best place to stay - by a wide margin - was Explora Rapa Nui. Explora is a personal favorite brand of mine, a Chilean-based group of world-class, eco-sensitive, all-inclusive adventure lodges in places like Patagonia, the Atacama Desert and Machu Pichhu that is justifiably renowned for the excellence of its full-time, in-house guide staff. They lead guests on a huge slate of daily outdoor adventures, all included in rates along with excellent food and wine. Explora Rapa Nui is still a great choice, but was joined just last month by the new Nayara Hangaroa. Nayara is a Columbian-owned luxury eco-lodge chain with half a dozen locations in Central and South America. I have not been to any but they have an excellent reputation.
Skiing Japan: If you don’t ski, Japan is still an awesome vacation destination, exceedingly rich in culture, history, natural wonders and arguably the very best food country on the planet. But if you ski, it’s even better, a no-brainer - they get more snow than any other place in the world, and it is dry, light perfect powder. There are a huge array of resorts, but I especially like the Nagano area, a Winter Olympics venue which has a far more local Japanese feel, with lots of traditional inns (ryokans) and hot spring towns (onsens). Nagano is also accessible by train from Tokyo, and relatively close to Kyoto, so it can be combined into an epic Japan trip.
For American skiers, the northern island of Hokkaido has been more popular, but that’s only because it is what the ski and outdoor magazines and films have covered with a close-minded focus. Hokkaido does get slightly more snow than Nagano, but the difference is irrelevant given that they both get twice as much snow (or more) as other top destinations like Utah and the Alps. Niseko is the biggest and most popular resort on Hokkaido, and has lots of big modern full-service hotels including a new ultra-luxe Ritz-Carlton Reserve. It makes for an easy turnkey ski vacation, but feels very Westernized, more like going to Whistler than Japan (think lots of burgers and tacos), and because it’s easy to fly directly to Sapporo (yet another Winter Olympics host), less conducive to combining with other highlights of Japan.
Do It Best: Scout Ski is a boutique ski travel planning service that covers the world but specializes in Japan, and specializes in the U.S, U.K., Australian and New Zealand markets, very good and very knowledgeable. Alpine Adventures is a larger full-service ski travel specialist that does a great job.
Golf in Scotland: The birthplace of the game and the Holy Grail for golfers. You can have a fantastic golf trip to Scotland without playing the vaunted Old Course at St. Andrews, but if you are talking Bucket List, you sort of have to do it, and once you are there, there are so many great courses immediately around the area - Muirfield, Kingsbarns, New Course, Dumbarnie Links, and more, that’s it’s a waste of travel time to try to zip around the country hitting all the top “must-plays.” Unless you are chartering helicopters there are just too many of them. I’d do an extended stay in St. Andrews and then tack on one other key stop, like the North/Highlands (Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart, Nairn, Brora); the Southwest/Ayrshire Coast (Royal Troon, Prestwick, Dundonald); Aberdeen (Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay); or for the adventurous, the Kintyre Peninsula (Machrihanish, Machrihanish Dunes) with a possible extension to Islay (Machrie).
Do It Best: Securing an Old Course tee time in advance is quite tricky but key to making the other pieces of the puzzle work, and the complex logistics and many moving parts of a Scottish dream golf trip are best left to very experienced pros. I recommenced Haversham & Baker and Perry Golf.
Tuscany: There are a lot of fantastic vacation destinations around the world, and you could make an argument for many other regions, but the reality is that Americans consistently dream of going to Italy more than any other country, and in Italy Tuscany is the 800-pound gorilla of wow factor. There are so many amazing hilltop villages and cities, large and small, each unique in character, plus all the vineyards (it’s where the Chianti region lies), plus the less visited coastal section, plus the gateway city of Florence, just so much to see and do - and eat - that it’s a place you could visit again and again without repeating. Sienna, Montalcino, Monteriggioni are all musts, but I love Lucca, often skipped over by tourists, the Maremma is for wine lovers, home of the vaunted Super Tuscans, and the list goes on and on.
Tuscany is just a fairy tale destination that consistently delivers on the promise of an amazing trip, and it is home to everything from mom-and-pop inns to a vast slate of world-class luxury hotels to a famously broad assortment of villa rentals. For this reason, it is one of the most broadly accessible destinations on this list, and can be done on a limited budget, with extremely deep pockets or everything in between. It’s hard to do a cheap African safari or dream golf trip to Scotland, but there’s a Tuscany for every traveler.
Do It Best: IC Bellagio is an Italy-based, Italy-focused, Italy-expert company that handles every aspect of Italy travel, from booking top tour guides and drivers to having connections with all the best hotels, villas, resorts, restaurants and attractions. I always suggest using an expert travel agent, and if you do they are probably just going to call IC Bellagio, and this is one of those rare instances where you can do it yourself.
Israel: With something for everyone, Israel is steeped in thousands of years of history, easy to navigate, and ideal for everyone from solo travelers to multi-generational families. If you are interested in religion, Jerusalem is the holiest city in the world - for Jews, Christians, and Muslims - home to the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. But Israel’s two biggest cities could not be more different - hipper sibling Tel Aviv is one of the coolest cities in the Mediterranean region, with world class nightlife, dining, and beaches. Both are very appealing, and outside these urban centers there’s a lot more, with gorgeous scenery, varied ecosystems, lots of historic ruins and outdoor activities. While many other countries - like the U.S. - have this mix of urban and natural attractions, you usually have to sacrifice something. But Israel is the size of New Jersey, making it not only possible but easy to explore in depth. The South features the harshly beautiful Negev Desert, the North lush Galilee, and waters include the Mediterranean, Red Sea and famously salty Dead Sea. This in turn means lots of beaches, plus excellent SCUBA diving, from ancient shipwrecks to undersea caverns. For more info, check out the government tourism site. I have not been myself, so Israel is currently tied with Bhutan atop on my own personal Bucket List.
Bhutan: Probably the least visited of the world’s “must-see” countries, Bhutan is often referred to as “The Last Shangri La,” or “Paradise Found.” It is the only Buddhist nation on earth, and gave the world the radical concept of using Gross National Happiness to measure its national success, instead of the more common money-driven metrics. It has been less than half a century since Bhutan first decided to allow tourism at all, and since then it has been tightly controlled to prevent overcrowding and over development, a policy known as “High Value, Low Volume.” It makes it an expensive place to visit, especially since they tacked on a $200 a night sustainability fee for foreign travelers. There is also a required minimum daily spend, which can be hotel, meals, tours guides and such, and a visa is required before you can buy plane tickets, which is important because you can only fly there on the national carriers (see the national tourism site for more info). The process is easier than it sounds if you go through a travel agent or tour operator, and Bhutan is home to many exceptional hotels, with multiple outposts of each of three top luxury brands, Aman, COMO and Six Senses.
In the last full year of pre-COVID travel, 2019, just over 300,000 travels visited Bhutan (in contrast, the city of Las Vegas alone saw over 30 million) making it the place to go for the person who has been everywhere. But I want to go for natural beauty, the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas, full of gorges and waterfalls, for the famously photogenic cliffside monasteries, to avoid crowding and pollution, and most of all, to hike. A big highlight is the new Trans Bhutan Trail, a 250-mile-long footpath linking Haa to Trashigang that has been eagerly awaited in the outdoors community and is expected to immediately become one of the world’s greatest walks. The trail was just opened by the King of Bhutan less than two weeks ago. Bhutan itself only just reopened to international travel on September 23 and is ready for visitors. I’m ready to be one of them!
Do It Right: Red Savannah, a luxury travel company specializing in tailor-made trips around the world, has a lot of Bhutan packages and just introduced three new itineraries (8,10 1 and 12 days) offering various tastes of the new hiking trail, and they can facilitate all travel arrangements and requirements.
Angkor Wat & Siem Reap, Cambodia: There is something compelling about ruins and ancient civilizations, especially for American travelers, who have little of these at home, with the notable exception of Native American cliff dwellings in the canyons of the Southwest - which are well worth visiting. Ruins are what drive so many travelers to journey to places like Machu Picchu, Greece, Egypt, Jordan and many other spots, but few destinations compare in scope to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The scale is mind blowing, much bigger than most people who have seen pictures expect, especially since so-called travel bloggers and influencers all take the same shot in one or two locations. Angkor Wat literally translates to City of Temples, and it is not one building, or even one group of buildings, but rather multiple sites spread over 154 square miles - seven times the size of Manhattan - containing roughly 1000 pieces of architecture. These in turn were built over a 500-year period from the 9th to 14th centuries, and there is a lot to see. Highlights include the namesake Angkor Wat temple, Angkor Thom (technically a different city of ruins), Ta Prohm, the overgrown jungle temple used to film the original Tomb Raider movie, Ta Som, Ta Nei, Preah Khan, Preah Ko, Pre Rup, East Mebon, and Banteay Srei, among other sites. Some of these are hidden gems, rarely visited by Western tourists and refreshingly empty alternatives to the overcrowded highlights. You could easily spend a week in the area, and that’s just ruins.
The gateway is the modern city of Siem Reap, which is fascinating in its own right, with tons of hotels, shopping, dining, and different touristic sights such as floating villages, cultural centers and even a pretty good golf course. The food is wonderful and even though there are luxury hotels here, Cambodia is an inexpensive place, and packages with park admission, guides and food are all great values. I recommend the Anantara Angkor Wat, an outpost of the Thailand-based global luxury chain Anantara, which combines a first rate, secluded resort that is home to excellent dining and its own cultural offerings with a variety of reasonably priced packages including lots of guided excursions.
Around the World Cruise: Personally, I’m not a cruise traveler, and this is not on my list, but the appeal is undeniable - in many ways it’s the bucket that holds the Bucket List. Many people absolutely love cruises, and there is no bigger, more epic trip than a global circumnavigation, a dream that goes back as far as humans have been taking to the sea. Along the way you see it all (not literally, but still a lot), typically visiting 25 to more than 60 countries, and many of the other Bucket List spots on this list: cruisegoers can take safaris, visit Tuscany, explore Angkor Wat and so on. Not every line offers around the world itineraries, but those that do tend to skew high end, which is nice because you are going to be on the ship a long time, like 100+ to 275 days. These trips should be planned a year or two in advance, and some lines offering them include Regent Seven Seas, Azamara, Viking, Royal Caribbean, Cunard, Silversea, Seaborne, MSC, Princess, Holland America and Oceania. Definitely call your travel agent for these.
Munich’s Oktoberfest: We have natural attractions, manmade ruins, sporting highlights, and epic journeys, so how about an event experience? For this it’s hard to beat Oktoberfest, which is quite literally the biggest party in the world. I’ve been twice and found it absolutely fascinating, would gladly return, and know people who make it an annual pilgrimage and have been many times. It is also full of surprises and far more than just a lot of beer drinking - it has been a major celebration for well over two centuries. Back on October 12, 1810 Bavaria’s Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, and in the process set a new gold standard for no-holds-barred wedding parties. The soiree was non-stop for five days, with an actual wedding at some point, plus city-wide celebrations, including a horse race. Locals loved the big party so much they decided to repeat it the following year, minus the wedding. And the next, and the next, until Oktoberfest evolved into the current 16-day spectacle of parades, rides, entertainment, food, culture, attractions and yes, lots of beer.
200-plus years of rehearsals have allowed Munich to perfect the world’s biggest bash, which runs like clockwork despite being of such epic proportions. Before COVID it drew around 6 million visitors in just over two weeks - far more than the combined populations of our third and fourth biggest cities, Chicago and Houston, and more tourists than visit the Grand Canyon in an entire year. On average close to 8 million giant liter steins, each close to three typical U.S. beers, are consumed. It always begins on a Saturday (in September not October!) with a citywide parade and symbolic transport of kegs from downtown to the festival park, where the Mayor taps the first one and proclaims Oktoberfest open. Opening weekend is the best time to visit for spectacle, and is also considerably less crowded than the final weekend (but things are least hectic during the week). It is aimed at Munich citizens all ages, not just adult drinkers, and the grounds occupy 100-acres with a State Fair feel. There are rides, games, displays, and more wurst and food stands than you could count, and the famous beer tents are just 17 of more than 600 vendors. That being said, the “tents” are actually temporary buildings that take months to erect, include high-capacity commercial kitchens, performance stages for bands, balconies, and enough bathrooms to cope - the largest hold over 10,000 drinkers. They are also reserved and ticketed, and the biggest mistake travelers make (thousands of them annually, unfortunately) is to show up expecting to get in. It is very, very important to plan ahead and do it right, including scarce flights, lodging and especially tent table tickets, so call your travel agent!
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