The world is full of fascinating locales, rich in history, nature and visual beauty. Make a New Year’s resolution to reward yourself by visiting and exploring a few, perhaps many, of them. To help you plan your 2014 travels, here is a list of some of the planet’s great places, broken out by month.
January – Tropical heat in winter
Deep in the Pacific, and south of the equator, are the 15 idyllic, tropical Cook Islands, with golden beaches and tall coconut trees.
Rarotonga, the main island, has a lush mountainous center and is ringed by a reef, which cradles a turquoise lagoon where you can spend hours snorkeling amidst a feast of multi-colored fish.
The Polynesian people are friendly, and the island has a delightful, small-town ambience (with virtually no multi-national businesses).
Scooters are the best way to travel and explore. The Cook Islands’ close association with New Zealand is reflected in the currency, wine and many visitors from that much larger island.
February – Antipodean warmth
Isolated in the wild southern ocean, Tasmania, Australia’s island state, is rimmed by sandy beaches and populated by bizarre creatures.
Near Hobart, a delightfully picturesque city, lies Port Arthur Historic Site, the penal colony established in 1833. Here, you can learn about the role of convicts in Australia’s history, and human capacity for cruelty. In one block, convicts weren’t allowed to speak and had to wear hoods whenever outside their tiny cells. The evening ghost tour visits the morgue where the guide, holding a skull, explains how inmate’s bodies were dissected to see if the criminal brain differed from a normal brain.
March – Avoid the peak summer
Dubai is a monument to excess — the world’s tallest building, an indoor ski hill (in simmering desert heat!), artificial islands and a seven-star hotel.
But a short drive into the Arabian desert will bring you to an oasis, the Al Maha Resort. Elegant villas with large canvas sails for roofs feature king-size beds, Arabian antiques and enormous bathtubs. Sprawling wooden decks and personal infinity pools offer long views over the desert of attractive sculpted ridges and rich shadowy ripples.
You can ride a camel or drive a Land Rover into the desert, which is home to exotic animals such as delicate Arabian gazelles and the romantic long-horned oryx.
April – Spring is best
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is one of the world’s architectural masterpieces and a powerful symbol of Cambodia. It has been a center for worship since it was founded in the early 1100s. It appears on the national flag and is the country’s main attraction.
Angkor Wat displays magnificent Khmer architecture with sandstone pillars, towers and bas-relief friezes depicting scenes from Hindu epics. Part of the sprawling Angkor World Heritage Site, the Wat is but one of about 100 temples. Jungle encroaches on the ancient structures and monkeys swing through the foliage.
May – Tulips in bloom
Amsterdam, the gateway to Europe, has an extensive canal system, like Venice. Take a boat tour or enjoy a long walk. The canals and bridges are picturesque. The streets are narrow and often cobblestoned. Bars and coffee houses abound. And the famous red-light district, located in the middle of the old town, cannot be avoided. Beware of bicycles, which constantly whiz past. Be sure to visit the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank house and Rijksmuseum. Pay a visit to the De Drie Fleschjes, a “brown” bar established in 1650. The bartender will pour you a jenever, a Dutch gin, full to the brim.
June – Blossoms and pubs
Cardiff is a great city. Cardiff Castle with its crenellated walls and colorful clock-tower sits right in the heart of town. The city is designed for pedestrians, and, being flat, it’s also perfect for cycling. Bicycles are available for free!
The downtown encompasses St. David’s Shopping Center and broad, open walkways that contrast with the surrounding narrow lanes, arcades and cobbled streets. Bilingual signs abound with long, tongue-twisting words. Cardiff Bay, a beautifully restored former dockland, includes plazas, a merry-go-round, the Wales Millennium Center, a spectacular opera house, and the Senedd, the National Assembly of Wales. Best of all, the Welsh are friendly and love music.
July – A Nordic country
Tallinn is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals with narrow cobblestone streets, church spires, medieval buildings, thick battlements and towers. The medieval Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was established in 1219. The ramparts of upper Town, which was for nobles, offer wonderful views onto the rooftops and spires of lower town, which was for merchants. Numerous museums, churches and other fascinating places dot the lower town, including the Passage of History with plaques in the sidewalk outlining Estonian history.
The Seaplane Harbour, a new, world-class maritime museum outside the Old Town, is a must-see.
August – Mediterranean summer
Santorini is a fiery jewel in the Cyclades Islands of Greece. The main town of Fira sits on a 300-meter cliff in a jumble of white-washed restaurants, bars, and hotels, dotted by the occasional dome-topped church.
Each morning, donkeys gently bray as they clip-clop down a zigzagging path to meet the cruise ships and fetch up tourists. You can visit Akrotiri, buried by a volcano 5,000 years ago and one of the world’s finest archaeological sites. Or visit the island of Nea Kameni, which is still an active volcano, where you can bathe in hot springs and peer into the "burning inferno."
September – It’s always summer on the equator
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
In the storied Galapagos Islands you can walk and snorkel among the most remarkable displays of nature on this planet. These isolated, arid volcanic islands sit astride the equator and are home to 150-year-old lumbering tortoises, prehistoric marine iguanas, glistening sea lions and the most unusual birds including blue-foot boobies, pelicans, frigate birds, elegant flamingos and, of course, the rather ordinary-looking finches, whose beaks allegedly helped Darwin decipher the processes of evolution. As a bonus, the animals, having no predators, are indifferent to humans, allowing you to get close and personal.
October – The dry season
You can hike to the top of the world’s tallest, most elegant sand dunes in the Sossusvlei region of Namibia in south-west Africa. The view is spectacular with one towering sand dune merging into another, and they are all red as though the earth is bleeding.
Sinuously ridges divide the enormous dunes into vast patches of velvet shadow and rippled crimson. Amazingly, this barren landscape is home to life. Ostrich, oryx and kudu wander here and there, ceaselessly searching for food. Beetles, spiders and snakes leave delicate, ephemeral patterns in the sand.
November – Good season for the southern hemisphere
Machu Picchu, Peru
Stone buildings, temples and terraces, overwhelming in their elegance and size, are arrayed high on the side of a precipitous mountain.
This is Machu Picchu, which Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine considers the world’s number one tourist attraction. The structures are built of chiselled boulders that fit perfectly without cement and are extraordinarily stable, an important feature in an earthquake-prone area. These amazing, silent stones are in perfect balance with their surroundings and are also aligned with the sun’s orbit. Abandoned by the Incas when the Spanish conquistadors invaded Peru, Machu Picchu remained hidden high in the Andes and was not rediscovered until 1911.
December – Good season for the southern hemisphere
Amazon Jungle, Peru
When your plane lands on a small grass airstrip in the dense Amazon forest, the smells are ripe and rich. The foliage is lush and alive with strange caws and chirps. Bugs buzz. And, it is hot, very hot.
A native canoe carries you up a fast-flowing Amazon tributary, deeper into the humid jungle to the Manu Wildlife Center. The guide will point out white egrets, toucans, blue-headed parrots, green ibis and red-and-green macaws. At night you will boat with a powerful spotlight catching the sinister eyes of caimans.