Virtuoso Life January 2020 B-Side Bets: For Every On-Repeat Destination, There’s a Place Less Traveled and Just as Cool

B-Side Bets: For Every On-Repeat Destination, There’s a Place Less Traveled and Just as Cool

Glacier Bay National Park is a go-to for fjords, forests, and wildlife. 
Glacier Bay National Park is a go-to for fjords, forests, and wildlife. 
Photo by Sorincolac/Getty Images
There’s a reason the classics are the classics. We love the romance and filtered light of Venice, Kyoto’s temples and gardens, and that view of Machu Picchu. But with chart-topping popularity comes the strain of overcrowding: stress on fragile environments, landmarks, and local infrastructure – and an annoying lack of elbow room. Seasoned travelers know how best to see the favorites, visiting in the off-season, taking two wheels, and hiking hidden trails. Here, a fresh look at ten crowd-pleasers, contrasted with less-explored counterparts that are just as fascinating and fun – proof that when it comes to where to go next, there’s always a new hit to discover.

Play It Again: Alaskan Adventure 

The Last Frontier’s network of waterways carved by glaciers millions of year ago tops expedition-cruise to-do lists. Sprawling across 3.3 million acres, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is the place to find fjords and forests, not to mention whales, porpoises, sea lions, and bald eagles. “Take a Lindblad Expeditions cruise to get up close and personal, or a Natural Habitat Adventures trip to view the amazing grizzlies on the Kenai Peninsula,” says Angela Wallace, a Virtuoso travel agency owner.

Up Next: Norway’s Fjords

“From the fjords to Svalbard, Norway cruises reveal majestic scenery and charming port towns,” says Jenny Westermann, a Virtuoso agency owner. Photo fodder: the country’s southwestern coastal region, where deep blue inlets cut into mountains to form the country’s famous inlets. A cruise or kayak into Geirangerfjord, a 62-mile-long behemoth of 5,000-foot gneiss walls and waterfalls, is essential, as is sailing through the 127-mile-long Sognefjord, which crosses three preservation areas. Norway’s small towns make good springboards for outdoor adventures and visits to see medieval wood-stave churches around Bergen, and to Haugesund, homeland of Norway’s Viking kings, who ruled the country between ad 800 and 1066. 

Go: A 15-day Nordic cruise on Hurtigruten’s 530-passenger Fridtjof Nansen sails round-trip from Hamburg and glides through Geirangerfjord, continuing to brightly colored wooden villages such as Trondheim. Departures: Multiple dates, April 1 through June 10.
Cala d’Or’s beach on Mallorca.
Cala d’Or’s beach on Mallorca.
Photo by Balate Dorin/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: Mykonos Beaches

The party crowd descends on Mykonos every summer – as do scores of cruise ships. This is the Platonic ideal of Grecian glam: The windmills, painted doors, and bougainvillea-draped corners of whitewashed Mykonos town, with its cobblestoned streets, underscore the Greek good looks that have made the Aegean island a perennial favorite. Cerulean seas lap at the island’s more than 40 beaches. At some, such as Paradise Beach, the party never stops, while travelers looking for the quieter side of Mykonos should unroll their towels at serene Panormos for reading and napping sans nce-nce music. Even within such a hot location, you can find plenty of hidden gems and tucked-away tables, says Rachelle Kontos, a Virtuoso travel advisor. “I suggest visiting Kiki’s, a taverna in Agios Sostis, which uses no electricity and serves up delicious homemade cooking. You can drink a complimentary glass of rosé and enjoy the view of the beach while waiting for your meal.”

Up Next: Mellow on Mallorca 

For a less-trafficked, idyllic beach scene, Jenny Westermann recommends Mallorca. On this largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands, about 120 miles off the country’s eastern coast, sites such as the Royal Palace of La Almudaina draw visitors, and people meet at the San Juan Gastronomic Market for snacks and drinks at stalls and bars. The capital of Palma thrums with dance clubs, while more than 200 beaches offer a chance to lounge and swim during the island’s 300-plus sunny days per year. For cooler air and sheer-sided mountain views, hike in the Tramuntana range, along the island’s northern coast.

Go: The new Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s eight-day Barcelona-to-Palma de Mallorca cruise takes travelers around the Balearic Islands aboard the 298-passenger Evrima. Shore excursions over three days in Mallorca have cruisers hiking in the Tramuntana range and tasting local olive oils. Departure: June 14.
A Bengal tiger at Bandhavgarh National Park, India.
A Bengal tiger at Bandhavgarh National Park, India.
Photo by Henk Bogaard/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: Kenya’s "Big Five" Bounty

Kenya reliably delivers the African safari of daydreams, with its vast savanna and majestic wildlife. The variety of landscapes shines here, from the grassy plains and gentle hills of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, home to the great wildebeest and zebra migration between June and October, to safaris in Amboseli National Park with Mount Kilimanjaro as the backdrop. Daily game drives reveal the “big five” (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo), as well as gazelles, hippos, giraffes, and warthogs. Joshua Bush, a Virtuoso agency owner, recommends off-season stays (March through May and October through December) for more-intimate treks, and visiting conservancies, which are privately run, for more-flexible game viewing than public parks can offer. “The Mara North Conservancy is a personal favorite,” he says.

Up Next: Wild for India 

Travelers have long flocked to India for the Taj Mahal, the Amber Fort, and Humayun’s Tomb. But it’s also a rising wildlife destination, says Kemi Wells, a Virtuoso advisor. While elephants, rhinos, reptiles, and 1,300 bird species draw visitors, it’s the regal Bengal tiger that makes India a safari star. “India has one of the biggest and safest tiger habitats around the world,” Wells says. Of the country’s 50 sanctuaries, Bandhavgarh National Park has one of the highest densities of tigers in the 40 square miles of the park open for tours, and the 514-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage site Sundarbans National Park counts around 100 Bengals. If you can stand the heat, visit between March and June, when the striped cats seek out pools of water to cool down, making them much easier to spot.

Go: Take in three of India’s top wildlife spots on Remote Lands’ private 12-day trip from Delhi to Mumbai. Safari outings and game drives in Panna, Bandhavgarh, and Kanha national parks help travelers spot Bengal tigers, sloth bears, Indian bison and wolves, barking deer, and more. Departures: Any day through 2020.
Takayama turns magical in the winter. 
Takayama turns magical in the winter. 
Photo by TwilightShow/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: Kyoto’s Traditions

As the cultural and historical heart of Japan, Kyoto’s big – and busy – draws are its astounding number of gardens, temples, and shrines. The gleaming Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple) is a must here, as is Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a shrine with wildly photogenic orange torii gates. Try kaiseki for dinner, perhaps in Kyoto’s famous geisha district of Gion. The multicourse meal consists of precisely prepared seasonal dishes. For a new way to get to all the sites, go on two wheels, says Virtuoso agency executive Charlotte Harris: “The city is mostly flat, roads are well maintained, and there are plenty of places to rent a bicycle.”

Up Next: Takayama’s Mountain Air

Sometimes called “Little Kyoto,” the mountain village of Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture distills the essence of old Japan. The narrow streets of its Sanmachi Suji historic district are lined with wooden merchant houses dating to the Edo period (1603 to 1867). They brim with cafés, shops, and restaurants, where Virtuoso agency owner Claudia Rossi Hudson recommends dining on miso soup and local Hida beef. Takayama is a major sake-producing region, and sake breweries are scattered around the neighborhood. During the city’s festivals each April and October, gilded floats parade through the streets. In winter, a dusting of snow renders the alpine town a snow-globe scene.

Go: Backroads’ eight-day walking and hiking journey in Japan takes in both Kyoto and Takayama. During the two-day Takayama leg, travelers walk a seventh-century road past shrines and temples, sample sake at a private tasting, and soak in natural hot springs at a ryokan. Departures: Multiple dates, April 29 through November 9.
The Kuélap fortress predates Machu Picchu by almost 1,000 years. 
The Kuélap fortress predates Machu Picchu by almost 1,000 years. 
Photo by Peter Bocklandt/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Machu Picchu Pilgrimage 

Shrouded in mystery – and often in mist – at 7,972 feet in Peru’s Andes, the sprawling fifteenth-century Incan citadel induces awe with its temples, terraces, and huge blocks of stone. Many arrive via train from Cuzco, about 70 miles away, or stay the night in nearby Aguas Calientes. Hardier types can hoof it for several days along the breath-capturing Inca Trail. Even better: Hike the lesser-known Salkantay and Lares routes, says Cristina Buaas, a Virtuoso agency owner. The UNESCO World Heritage site enforces strict visitation rules, including advance-ticket purchase, set entrance times, and mandatory guides. July and August are busy, as are Sundays, when Cuzco Province residents can visit the site for free.

Up Next: Kuélap Exploration 

The fortress of Kuélap, which sits at 9,842 feet in northern Peru, predates Machu Picchu by nearly a millennium. “It’s hard to believe the Kuélap ruins, and the whole region of Chachapoyas, have remained so untouched,” says travel advisor Geordie McDonald. “More bromeliad flowers grow on the trees than people visit each day.” Overlooking the Utcubamba Valley, some 400 ruins spread over more than 1,100 acres here. Until recently, the walled complex was a four-hour hike or bumpy 90-minute bus ride from the village of Nuevo Tingo, but a cable car that opened in 2017 streamlines the ascent to 20 minutes.

Go: Climb to Kuélap with an expert guide and walk in the footsteps of the pre-Incan Chachapoya civilization on a private five-day tour of northern Peru with tour operator Big Five Tours & Expeditions. Departures: Any day through 2020.
Okanagan Lake provides breezes for vines and views for visitors.
Okanagan Lake provides breezes for vines and views for visitors.
Photo by Albert Pego/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: Vintage Napa Valley 

More than 400 wineries pack Napa’s 30-mile-long valley, with renowned labels
such as Stag’s Leap pouring the area’s prized cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays. Travelers come to worship at the prix-fixe altar of The French Laundry and other Michelin-starred restaurants. Fall is golden, literally, when leaves change and wineries’ crush season arrives. Virtuoso agency director Anthony Goldman recommends getting off the main highway with a biking tour through the Napa Valley and adjacent Sonoma County. “By day, pedal through vineyards, sip on world-class wine, and enjoy fabulous Californian fare; by night, bed down at some of the region’s premier hotels, including one of my favorites, Solage, an Auberge Resort, in Calistoga,” he says.

Up Next: Okanagan Valley Vineyards

“Imagine Napa Valley with a 90-mile lake down the middle,” says Jill Anglehart- Hamilton, a Virtuoso travel advisor, adding that, in some ways, the Okanagan Valley feels like Napa did 40 years ago. The valley stretches about 125 miles between the Washington State border and Armstrong, British Columbia, punctuated with laid-back towns and crystal lakes with vineyards rising from their shores. Headliners are the pinot noirs and rieslings, but innovative boutique wineries, such as CedarCreek, offer robust reds, crisp rosés, and even ice wine. “Don’t miss Mission Hill Winery, where Prince William and Kate visited on a recent trip to Canada,” Hamilton advises. Summer brings alfresco dining and sandy lakeside beaches, while for active travelers, winter competes as the best time to go: Skiers and snowboarders can hit the fresh powder at nearby alpine resorts one day, and warm up during winetastings the next.

Go: Delve into the Okanagan terroir with Luxury Gold. The tour company’s 16-day Canadian adventure includes wine-paired dinners around British Columbia and Alberta, and two days in the Okanagan Valley with winery visits. Departures: June 26 and July 2.
The Great Barrier Reef’s extensive coral system.
The Great Barrier Reef’s extensive coral system.
Photo by Cosmity/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: Great Barrier Reef Diving

For divers and snorkelers, the world’s largest and longest coral reef system is underwater heaven. Off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the fragile system spans more than 1,400 miles and teems with marine life, including sea turtles, giant clams, manta rays, and clown fish. For unrivaled access, agency director Anthony Goldman recommends staying at Qualia, Great Barrier Reef. “Qualia flies guests to snorkel points by helicopter or seaplane, with sensational aerial views of Heart Reef, Whitehaven Beach, and the Whitsunday Passage,” he says.

Up Next: Electric Blue in Ningaloo

Halfway up Australia’s west coast, the 186-mile-long Ningaloo Reef sits close to shore – only a few hundred feet away in some places – but is beautifully secluded, says advisor Kemi Wells. That means uncrowded encounters with turtles, manta rays, humpback whales, and 500 species of fish. What really sets the reef apart, however, are the elusive whale sharks that assemble here in large numbers – more than any other place in the world – from March through August. Launch from the towns of Exmouth or Coral Bay to kayak, swim with whale sharks, or take a scenic flight over the remote Indian Ocean reef.

Go: Monograms’ eight-day Australia adventure kicks off with three days in Sydney, then hops across the continent to Exmouth for three days of boating, sea kayaking, and snorkeling on Ningaloo Reef. Visit April through June for the best shot at swimming with whale sharks or July through September to spy humpbacks. Departures: Any day, March 27 through September 24.
Stone walls and dramatic coastline in Biarritz.
Stone walls and dramatic coastline in Biarritz.
Photo by Changered/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: French Riviera Glam 

The stretch of southern France’s Mediterranean coast is European glitz writ large
and has attracted renowned artists and the upper crust for centuries. Travelers arrive en masse during July and August to bronze at swanky beach clubs in Saint-Tropez, channel 007 in Monte-Carlo, and dine at Michelin-starred restaurants in Menton and Nice. “Rent a car to explore at your own speed, and ask your hotel’s concierge to book the best tables at fabulous regional restaurants,” Kemi Wells says. September here is especially magical, when summer’s frenzy wanes, but the sun still shines on the fabled coast.

Up Next: Under-the-Radar Biarritz

Napoleon III and his wife, Eugénie, shined a spotlight on this French seaside resort on the Basque coast when they arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. Globe-trotters still come for the coastal scenery and Basque pintxos and wine, Angela Wallace says. These days surfers also stop here, to test their skills on the Atlantic waves that pound Biarritz’s sandy beaches. Try Basque specialties and seafood at Crampotte 30, one of several dozen small fishermen’s huts in the old port, and pick up a pair of candy-colored espadrilles, summer shoes with Basque roots. At the boutique Les Sandales d’Eugénie, customize your own with ribbons and ties.

Go: Six days of private touring in Basque Country with Artisans of Leisure include a seaside sojourn in Biarritz at the Hôtel du Palais (reopening this summer following a renovation), as well as Spanish stopovers – Bilbao, San Sebastián, and the vineyards of La Rioja. Departures: Any day through 2020.
Homegrown fun: Snow polo in Saint Moritz.
Homegrown fun: Snow polo in Saint Moritz.
Photo by Stockwerk/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: Saint Moritz Sparkle

As posh alpine resorts go, Saint Moritz in Switzerland’s Engadin Valley hits every mark. It has welcomed the Winter Olympics twice, and its modern and traditional restaurants and endlessly flowing Champagne draw an après set from around the globe. For off-piste action, the boutiques along Via Serlas can occupy an afternoon – and create a good-size credit-limit dent. The last weekend in January brings snow polo – a sport born here – on the frozen lake. Avoid traffic on nausea-inducing alpine roads, Charlotte Harris says, and arrive aboard the Glacier Express or the Bernina Express, which travel along a UNESCO World Heritage railway line.

Up Next: Steep Slopes in Kitzbühel

Forty miles southwest of Salzburg, the Austrian village of Kitzbühel is known for its punishing January downhill ski race, the Streif, on the mountain of Hahnenkamm. “When the snow is good, the skiing is fantastic, and avid skiers can try their hand at the Streif course,” says Jen Connelly of tour operator Alpine Adventures. She also notes that, at other times, Kitzbühel’s snow coverage can be patchy and runs icy. In those cases, the streets of the Tyrolean town are waiting. “Kitzbühel’s thirteenth-century village center is incredibly picturesque, and the city has maintained the architecture,” she says. Browse the boutiques and warm up in mountain huts and bars, such as the popular Londoner, which has poured drinks for thirsty crowds since 1976. Also in January, the Snow Polo World Cup plays out, second in size and prestige only to the Saint Moritz tournament, and just as sensational.

Go: Carve down Kitzbühel’s adrenaline-boosting Hahnenkamm with Alpine Adventures. Eight-day custom ski trips include five-star accommodations in the village, ski or snowboard rentals, and lift tickets for six days. Departures: Any day through March 31.
Opt for step-gabled architecture eating in Bruges.
Opt for step-gabled architecture eating in Bruges.
Photo by KavalenkavaVolha/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Play It Again: Venetian Variety 

Built on 118 islands, the floating city in northern Italy sees around 20 million visitors each year – meaning summer can be downright uncomfortable. Recent floods have only added to the city’s environmental stress. Well-trod but iconic activities include a gondola ride through the canals and a photo in the Piazza San Marco. But the warren of tiny lanes and dead-end alleyways lead over arched bridges and into small piazzas and quieter neighborhoods where the “real” Venice awaits. Another way to get to know the city? “Find your people,” says Eva Braiman, a Virtuoso travel advisor. “My daughter and I visited the Jewish Ghetto, founded in 1516, and met some of the only 450 Jews who live in Venice today.”

Up Next: Beeline for Bruges 

For waterways, cultural stimulation, and postcard serenity – without the crowds of La Serenissima – Kemi Wells steers travelers to the Belgian city of Bruges. Step-gabled houses from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries front pretty canals here, and cultural attractions run the gamut from tongue-in-cheek (the Frietmuseum, dedicated to french fries, Belgium’s beloved snack) to classical (the Groeningemuseum showcases six centuries of Belgian and Flemish masters’ work). Even the imposing Church of Our Lady houses treasures, including a Michelangelo sculpture. Hop aboard a boat tour of the town’s swan-filled canals crossed by stone bridges. And be sure to stop at one of the many chocolate shops to taste the city’s official sweet, Brugsch swaentje, a chocolate-covered praline embossed with a swan.

Go: AmaWaterways’ eight-day springtime sailings through the Netherlands and Belgium (aboard one of three ships) weave in a Bruges visit during a call in Ghent. It’s a chance to explore the city’s quiet squares, canals, and gardens in full bloom. Departures: Multiple dates, March 20 through May 1. 

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