These creative and rewarding holiday-time trips have been some of our readers’ favorites…with a little help from our WOW List of top travel specialists. Read on for inspiration for your next holiday getaway, because we all need a little joy, right?
Costa Rica: “The highlights for us were rappelling down multiple waterfalls, a wave runner/snorkeling experience, and a zipline…”
“We had been to Costa Rica before. but with Covid we decided it would be better to have the assistance of a travel specialist, even though we were knowledgeable about the country. Having a resource that was up-to-date on all of the Covid requirements, and that helped us with testing and ensured we had a safe and fun trip, was invaluable. Pierre was extremely mindful of our concerns and confirmed that all of our arrangements met with our requirements. Our flights completely changed as a result of Covid, and Pierre and his team immediately set to work changing literally all of our hotels and activities. The trip was with our two college-age children, and the highlights for us were rappelling down multiple waterfalls, a wave runner/snorkeling experience, and a zipline tour next to the Arenal volcano. All of the hotels we stayed at had amazing staff that not only were very focused on Covid protocols but were so kind and engaging, it just added to the trip. Pierre coordinated all of our transportation, which alleviated any potential stress with getting to our various locations. Thank you for making our trip spectacular!” —Julie Kelly
Florence and Rome: “The highlight of our tour was a truffle hunt, followed by lunch (made with our truffles) and wine tasting at a Tuscan vineyard…”
“We had a great experience with Jennifer and her staff. We planned a trip to Italy over Christmas and New Year’s 2021-2022. We were afraid Christmas and New Year’s day would be “dead days” with nothing open and nothing to do, but Jennifer was able to find us really interesting activities. On Christmas day we had a cooking class with a local chef and then sat down to Christmas lunch with her family, just outside of Florence. On New Year’s Day, we had a golf cart tour of Rome. She booked us walking tours in both Florence and Siena and our guides were outstanding. Finally, the highlight of our tour was a truffle hunt, followed by lunch (made with our truffles) and wine tasting at a Tuscan vineyard. We had one tour that went awry, but within minutes of contacting Jennifer’s staff, they had gotten us a full refund. Overall, great experience.” —Jennifer Rosenberg
The Galapagos Islands: “When you added the almost unbelievable geology and wildlife of the Galapagos Islands to the outstanding ship and crew, it was magic…”
“Without Allie there is no way we would have been able to correctly negotiate the shifting sands of COVID regulations in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands and for our return to the US. I mean this. Talk about value. It would have been a full-time job to get everything in order for all five of us (ranging in age from 18 to 53 years) and, likely, we would have failed to do it all correctly, getting turned back and losing our money.
Over the month prior to the trip, Allie sent weekly and then bi-weekly emails updating us on the requirements and forms, which kept changing. She made certain that both our driver and guide were fully vaccinated, and they both wore N95 or KF94s the entire time. She booked us at spectacular but smaller places, thereby avoiding crowded areas. The mild weather allowed most of our touring to take place outside. We were impressed with how organized, efficient and strict, but sensible, the Ecuadorians were regarding COVID safety.
When we had to swing through the Quito airport and get pre-Galapagos PCR testing, as well as when we went back for our rapid antigen test prior to our trip home, our guide and driver had it so dialed-in that we waited no more than 10 minutes, despite the long line of people. Again, talk about value! Who wants to spend an hour waiting in line at the airport clinic multiple times during the trip? Additionally, Allie emailed us repeatedly reminding us to email results to her and print them out at the hotel as well. Then Allie made sure to email our Galapagos PCR test results to the cruise ship and confirmed their receipt. All of this was crucial, as vaccination status, test results, and temperature checks came—at times—unexpectedly, and we had to be ready. All in all, despite the initial luggage delay, everything went seamlessly and, almost unbelievably, we all tested negative each time.
So… what are the can’t-miss parts of our trip?
1) The Galapagos cruise with Ecoventura (we were on the Theory)! Indescribable experience. Small ship—only 14 people on a 20-person ship. Our crew struck the perfect tone between high-level service and a more casual, friendly attitude, to match the young people on the boat. This was worth the price tag!! Trust me!! Our naturalists were top-notch. As a bunch of science nerds, we were impressed! Really! Perhaps most notable was that absolutely everyone, from Captain Peter on down to our panga drivers, was equally excited by the wildlife sightings. You could see the excitement on the staff’s faces as they ran to grab cameras and Go-Pros when a pod of pilot whales followed us or when penguins were sighted diving in front of us while snorkeling. Our captain took the ship two hours out of its way so that we could get a good view of the volcano that started erupting on Isabella, necessitating a longer nighttime navigation for him and his first mate. When you added the almost unbelievable geology and wildlife of the Galapagos Islands to the outstanding ship and crew, it was magic!
2) Otavalo and the Hacienda Cusín outside of Quito. The Hacienda is such a special place. Highlights include the buildings dating back to 1605, the horseback riding, and the private cooking class that they designed for us on their expansive back lawn. The surrounding area is beautiful, with San Pablo Lake and the Parque Condor, which houses injured birds of prey including the condor! We visited traditional indigenous weavers and Andean instrument musicians and craftsmen, as well as the lively and well-known Otavalo market. The experiences were unforgettable.” —Kristen MacLeod
Istanbul: “All of our activities were private and felt safe…”
“In January 2022 Karen and her team planned a perfect multigenerational trip to Istanbul for our family! We were met off the plane and moved swiftly through the airport with VIP service, then transferred to our vehicle. We were greeted with a welcome bag that included perfectly curated mini-guidebooks with information you would not be able to find on your own, covid-related items like extra masks and sanitizers, and little gifts which were so appreciated, especially by our ten-year-old. All of our activities were private and felt safe—from a cooking class to a river cruise on the Bosphorus (which I definitely recommend, to get an overview of the city when you arrive). We had the same driver each day in an immaculate vehicle equipped with wifi and always bottles of water. Our guide, Cenk, was fabulous, so knowledgeable and he knew all the hidden gems to take us to—even diverting from our planned itinerary once he got to know us and had a better idea of things we would enjoy. When we had a couple of covid-related challenges that required an immediate change, it was handled quickly and effectively by both Cenk and Karen’s office. Most of the trip was not that different from how it would have been pre-pandemic, other than the mask wearing. We found that most people (tourists and locals) wore masks both indoors and outdoors, which made us feel safer. In our short trip we were able to hit most of the highlights of the city without feeling rushed, thanks to Cenk. A couple of months before the trip we weren’t sure if we felt safe traveling to Istanbul at this stage in the pandemic, so I reached out to Wendy. Wendy suggested I speak with Karen, and I’m so glad I did!” —Lauren Schor
Norway: “We saw the Northern Lights three of the four nights, and the experience was illuminating!”
“We contacted Jan almost too late to put a trip together that would include the Northern Lights over the Christmas New Year’s holiday, but he put it all together seamlessly! Everything was like clockwork. All flowed together to visit three locations — Oslo, Alta in the Arctic Circle, and Stockholm. All hotels, restaurants, guides and drivers in the cities were spot on. Our experience in Alta was way beyond what we expected. Jan told us that in 30 years if his clients stayed in the Arctic Circle four nights, 100% of them saw the Lights. We saw the Lights 3 f the 4 nights, and the experience was illuminating! But we also had wonderful experiences during the day. Dog mushing was a highlight, as was snowshoeing and ice fishing and snowmobiling. Every person we dealt with was kind, warm, and made us feel relaxed and refreshed as we experienced these new to us activities. They all knew Jan and praised him highly. Jan is terrific.” —Lois Chess
Colombia: “A big highlight was our last day, when we took a private boat trip out to the Rosario Islands…”
“My family of two adults and three teens, ages 12 to 18, traveled to Colombia over New Year’s, spending seven days in Bogotá, Quindío (the coffee region), and Cartagena. Marc and Boris made great choices about which regions we should visit and for how long, what activities we should do, and where we should stay. They even got us into a wonderful boutique hacienda in the coffee region at a very busy time of year. All our tours and activities were fabulous. Juliana, an artist in Bogotá, shared her perspective on museums and the graffiti district. Camilo, a biologist and ornithologist, took us on a hike in the countryside and helped my husband with his birdwatching. Tavo is a musician who gave us a great perspective on Cartagena. A big highlight was our last day, when we took a private boat trip out to the Rosario Islands and spent time at a beach club. The kids got so much out of every day of the trip and continue to rave about it to everyone—a real accomplishment with teens. Thank you for suggesting Colombia as a destination in the first place and for setting us up with Marc and Boris. We all plan to return to Colombia and are evangelizing it as a destination for other Americans.” —Jarvis Weld
Mexico City, Puebla, and San Miguel de Allende: “We were always learning, exploring, and connecting with knowledgeable and fascinating local people.”
“There was no shortage of challenges to planning a last-minute Christmas trip to Mexico for me, my husband, and our 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old twin boys. The beaches were expensive and jam-packed. So Zach’s team suggested an itinerary to Mexico City and two truly magical colonial cities—Puebla and San Miguel de Allende—and the result was fantastic! They handled all the logistical details, so we didn’t have to worry about a thing. We are a very active family and always want to be doing and learning. They understood this and designed a wonderful itinerary that opened our eyes to this complex, beautiful, sophisticated, culturally rich country. From our private cooking class with a renowned chef in Puebla to our historical and cultural bike tour down Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma and through the Bosque de Chapultepec to our private tour through the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City—they opened the Museum just for us!—we were always learning, exploring, and connecting with knowledgeable and fascinating local people. The result was a trip that left us with great respect and affection for our southern neighbor and helped us see the history of our continent from a completely different perspective. This is truly the best of travel. We will be WOW Listers for life!” —Kristen MacLeod
Portugal: “It was very important to us to be able to experience Portugal’s wine regions, as it’s our favorite wine to drink at home…”
“Gonçalo Correia and his team crafted the trip of a lifetime for my new husband and I. We worked with Gonçalo while deep in wedding planning, and he was extremely patient and responsive with us throughout the entire process, making our 19-day December 26–January 13 Portugal honeymoon the light at the end of the tunnel. Goncalo was super kind and honest, letting us know what would be closed or perhaps unsafe to reach during the winter, but providing comparable options in other regions. We received the most well thought out and organized itinerary from him. It was the perfect balance of must-sees, off-the-beaten-path suggestions, and open days to relax and explore.
Over the course of the trip, we stayed at four properties, three of which were booked through Gonçalo (one was through my job as I work at a hotel company), and boy were we treated like royalty. The properties were not only extremely gorgeous and in prime locations, but we were upgraded to suites at each of them because they knew it was our honeymoon. We were also left various treats in our room on multiple occasions at each of the properties. To this day, we’re still talking about it!
It was very important to us to be able to experience Portugal’s wine regions as it’s our favorite wine to drink at home. Gonçalo arranged for three private tastings and tours for us, including a very special morning at Taylors in Porto. We slept in that morning and had 5 glasses of Port wine for breakfast. Can’t complain! :) To explore Lisbon and Porto, Gonçalo arranged for private tour guides to show us around in style. Ana and Tiago were quite possibly two of the nicest people we’ve met and they knew their stuff. By the end of our tours we felt like old friends. We experienced a sampling of the country, from Vidago all the way in the north, to most of the Algarve region in the south and Lisbon, Porto, Fatima, Sintra, and Coimbra in between. We will absolutely be consulting Gonçalo and his team again for years to come. —Danielle Berman
London: “There was even a small Christmas tree in our room…”
“It has become our practice to consult Wendy Perrin’s WOW List whenever we plan a trip. This time our goal was to spend Christmas in London. Although we had been to London several times, we know that the holidays can be a challenge due to closures on the holiday. We spoke with Jonathan about our previous visits to London and our desire to see and do something new. We had a hotel in mind that we had stayed in before, but Jonathan strongly advised us to select another hotel, The Stafford, and we are so happy we took his advice. It is a much smaller hotel than the one we were thinking of, and that proved to be a big factor in feeling like we were ‘going home’ at the end of each day of touring London. The hotel staff treated us royally, and the hotel was decorated beautifully for the holidays; there was even a small Christmas tree in our room. As we had already seen most of the highlights of London on previous visits, Jonathan suggested other tours we would not have thought of. One was a Charles Dickens walking tour; our guide was extremely knowledgeable and entertaining, and we now understand how London during Dickens’ time influenced his writing. Another highlight was a private “Behind the Glass” after-hours tour of the Churchill War Rooms. We had seen the War Rooms before, but nothing can compare with going there in the evening when it’s closed and actually going into the rooms that are not accessible to the public. These are experiences we would not have discovered on our own. Jonathan also executed a surprise ‘Wendy WOW Moment’ for us during our stay. It was a private tour and tasting in The Stafford’s amazing wine cellar, which was built in the 17th century and used as an air raid shelter during WWII! The master sommelier, Gino, gave us the tour and made the experience very special! Jonathan certainly added value to our holiday, and, given the short time frame of the trip, planned the perfect amount of activity while also allowing us plenty of time to explore London on our own and walk about enjoying the beauty of the lights and the amazing window displays and decorations everywhere.” —Susan Ketchum Philbrick
Antarctica: “It was the best trip we ever had…”
“Ashton planned the trip of a lifetime to Antarctica for us! It was my last continent, and I cried when I arrived and cried when it was over. I had thought I wanted to fly over the Drake Passage because I was terrified of getting seasick, but I’m really happy I listened to Ashton. He said that flying over the Drake can mean delays on either side because of weather, and unless you have flexibility in your schedule, it’s not advisable. He highly recommended a ship that has the best stabilizers to handle the Drake, has excellent naturalist guides, and would work for my 17-year-old. Also, my husband wasn’t as excited about Antarctica as I was and preferred more luxurious accommodations than the fly trips offer. So we kind of had to agree on the trade-off to make the trip happen: my bucket list vs. Marty’s desire to be more comfortable on a nicer boat. Ashton was perfect in assessing what everyone wanted. Marty now agrees it was the best trip we ever had, and we all want to come back on the longer trip, which would include South Georgia Island, where the king penguins are. I will also use Ashton again for the North Pole, hopefully soon.” —Tina Sarafa
African safari: “We learned so much about nature and the wild from all our guides…”
“We did an absolutely incredible three-week trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana from late December through mid-January. Julian listened to what we wanted and curated a wonderful itinerary with beautiful lodges, stunning game drives, very knowledgeable guides, impeccable service, and delicious food and drinks. And of course the stars of the trip were all the amazing animals.
We started in South Africa at Makweti Lodge, which is stunning and has just five suites. The staff couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming, always making sure we were having a great time. We also spent a few days in Cape Town and the neighboring wine region—gorgeous, with so much history and beauty! Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe was so majestic even at a fraction of its full flow. We visited three camps in Botswana, each unique and amazing. Seeing elephants, hippos and all kinds of antelope right next to the lodges was super cool. The Okavango Delta is not to be missed, even during the rainy season. Camp Shinde was another one of our favorite camps, with top-notch service and gem viewing. The Desert and Delta Safari went above and beyond, flying us from one camp to another via helicopter twice because the bush planes couldn’t reach some locations because of the heavy rains. It was an unexpected and very special treat—twice!
Traveling during Covid can be challenging, but every place we visited took all the right precautions and felt very safe. Being mostly outdoors greatly reduced our risk. Julian arranged for required Covid testing throughout the trip, making it super easy on us.” —Tina Hunt
Florence, Bologna, Rome: “In Florence we visited a noble family estate and cooked a five-course meal…”
“Italy can be overwhelming because there is so much to do, see, and eat, but Maria planned a spectacular trip to Florence, Bologna, and Rome for me, my teenagers, and my fiancé over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. In Florence we visited a noble family estate and cooked a five-course meal (and learned how to make tortelloni) with the family chef, had a tour of the wine cellar, and joined one of the family members for lunch. We learned of the family’s wing of art at the Uffizi, which we visited the next day. Meeting people who have a direct hand in the life and culture of Italy was special. In Rome, our food lovers’ adventure on Vespas with Toni was a complete standout. My 6′ 4″ son was mortified to ride on the Vespa—and got over that fear in one minute. We were a team of five Vespas! Don’t mess with us! As for Bologna, I am a dental surgeon and am really glad Maria recommended visiting the Teatro Medica at the University of Bologna with my kids. I am sure there is no way I could’ve arranged such a trip.” —Wendy Halpern
The Galapagos Islands: “If you like to snorkel, this trip will top anything you have done…”
“Ashton did an incredible job helping us plan our vacation of a lifetime to the Galapagos to celebrate our Dad’s 75th Birthday (and my 50th!). We can’t believe that all fifteen of us made it and were so grateful to Ashton for setting up all of our Covid testing (the rules of which changed 23 days before our departure!). We spent eight days aboard a sturdy and very comfortable catamaran that sleeps 16 passengers across eight passenger cabins. The ship has a crew of ten that provided amazing service. It was incredible to have the entire boat to ourselves. With no internet onboard, we spent real quality time relaxing together. My dad claims he spent more time with his grandkids on this trip than over the past 15 years combined!
We walked on young lava around volcanoes, hiked up mountains, kayaked in caves, saw tons and tons and tons of all sorts of iguanas, swam on deserted white-sand beaches, watched octopus in tide pools, walked next to giant land tortoises, and saw lots and lots of blue-footed boobies. Several of us are certified SCUBA divers and were a little upset before we got there that we wouldn’t be diving on this trip but, I have to say, the snorkels we did on this trip were more spectacular that any dives I have ever done, anywhere. We had penguins nibbling our fins, watched sea turtles noshing underwater and sea lions performing acrobatics in front of us—every single day. We saw rays and whales and sharks and eels and tons of colorful fish and starfish the size of hubcaps. If you like to snorkel, this trip will top anything you have done, I guarantee it!” —Colleen Grazioso
Oaxaca and Huatulco, Mexico: “Three nights in Oaxaca for its colonial and prehistoric attractions, then three nights at the beach in Huatulco…”
“Just before giving up my Mexico trip planning as impossible, I turned to Zachary to see if he could help with the logistics. Our family of four wanted to spend three nights in Oaxaca at Christmas for its colonial and prehistoric attractions, then three nights at the beach in Huatulco. Minimum-stay requirements of five or seven nights during the holidays presented obstacles. Plus, traveling from Oaxaca to Huatulco by mountain road would be long and treacherous. We could fly, but we would have to go through Mexico City, wasting a day. Zach drew on his relationships, avoided minimum stays, and secured well-located rooms for us in outstanding hotels: Quinta Real Oaxaca, an exquisite former convent, and Camino Real Huatulco, a beautifully designed seaside resort. To make it all work, he identified non-stop flights that were not readily accessible to us online. Best of all, he provided Gabriel, an outstanding guide in Oaxaca who is the alpha educator of choice for universities and Smithsonian visitors. We benefited from the depth of Gabriel’s knowledge of history, nature, art and architecture. Zach’s resources and persistence made it possible for our family to enjoy a wonderful holiday trip.” —Barbara Schoenfeld
Argentina: “It wasn’t something you can plan on your own—which is what made it so special.”
“Our family of five had an amazing trip to Argentina organized by Maita. We hiked on a glacier, got soaked on a boat that we rode into one of the Iguassu waterfalls, went bird watching in Iguassu with an ornithologist and nature photographer, and had a wonderful private boat experience on a quiet arm of one of the lakes in Bariloche. Maita’s team suggested great hotels and was able to obtain rates at some that were lower than those available online. They also booked a fantastic New Year’s Eve Party in Buenos Aires that we will long remember. And we had a fantastic surprise WOW Moment. I prefer not to specify what we did for our WOW Moment, since I wouldn’t want to spoil a possible future WOW Moment for someone else, but suffice it to say it was our favorite meal in Argentina. It wasn’t something you can plan on your own—which is what made it so special.” —Rita Solomon