There’s a big reward waiting when you decide to slow down—you can finally go on those trips you’ve always dreamed of, without having to worry about a too-small allotment of vacation days. Whether you want to explore never-inhabited corners of the world or visit the cradle of civilization, if you have the time, we’ve got some ideas. These are the trips we editors fantasize about at our desks, and the ones you should take today.
See the world’s southernmost continent
During the fleeting austral summer, the 108-passenger icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov cruises the eastern coastline of Antarctica on a 37-day voyage of discovery that takes in the region’s natural wonders, including the creatures that call this icy corner of the world home. Departing from the Falkland Islands, the snug vessel drops anchor at spots first visited by legendarily intrepid explorers like Ernest Shackleton—the glaciers of the South Orkney Islands, the emperor penguin rookery of Kloa Point, and the awe-inspiring Amery Ice Shelf. As the ship navigates through pack ice in the Weddell Sea, you’ll sight blue whales from the bridge and see leopard seals lounging on floes, illumined by perpetual daylight. Take a Zodiac launch to an international research station, or, weather permitting, soar above frozen wonders in the ship’s helicopter. After dinner (appropriately hearty), listen to polar experts lecture on the singular wildlife, geology, and botany of the world’s coolest continent. Geographic Expeditions, 800/777-8183; www.geoex.com; departs Dec. 1, 2007; trips from $38,400.*
Take a luxury train trip to view the country’s highlights
The new 21-carriage Viceroy of India is an air-conditioned train with spacious sleeping quarters, two dining cars, a lounge, and even spa facilities—an eminently comfortable way to visit India’s greatest cultural centers. Starting in Mumbai, it takes you across the subcontinent, with stops in cities like Jaipur, Varanasi, and Delhi, where you’ll explore ancient temples and grand palaces. Expect a sunset visit to the Taj Mahal, a boat trip on the sacred Ganges, and a ride aboard a "toy train" to the classic hill station of Darjeeling, where orderly tea plantations are overlooked by snowy Himalayan peaks. Cox & Kings, 800/999-1758; www.coxandkingsusa.com; April and September departures, from $9,995 for a 15-day itinerary.
Sail to deserted islands in style
Explore the thousands of islands that make up this Indian Ocean nation on a 65-foot private motorized yacht designed to resemble a dhoni, a traditional sailing vessel. The mahogany boats are fully air-conditioned and have king-size beds, Frette sheets, and Bose entertainment centers. Members of the crew, which includes a butler, greet you at the Male airport before your leisurely voyage to an exclusive island resort in the Ari Atoll. There, you can board a dhoni daily and sail to white-sand islands to snorkel and picnic, learn how to navigate by compass, drop a line over the side for tasty snapper and grouper, wave at pods of dolphins as they play in the boat’s wake, or just nap in the sun on the foredeck. Dhoni Mighili, 011-960/664-4222; www.dhonimighili.com; from $900 per night.
Paddle alongside whales in Baja California
In isolated Magdalena Bay, off the southern Baja California peninsula, gray whales migrate every winter to calve in a vast lagoon sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by barrier islands. Here, visitors can go sea-kayaking in the company of a marine biologist to watch whales, sea lions, and dolphins. Nesting shorebirds are also on view, in the mangroves and high dunes of the Sonoran Desert wilderness. On Baja’s eastern coast, along the Sea of Cortés, unpeopled shorelines and azure coves are backed by the towering peaks of the Sierra de la Gigante. Scientists consider this international biosphere reserve an ideal spot for close encounters of the cetacean kind, and the kayaks provide an unrivaled "sea-level" observation platform. Snorkeling and hiking will fill your days; at night, you’ll sleep in tents pitched on sandy beaches under constellations undimmed by urban settlements. Sea Quest, 888/589-4253; www. sea-quest-kayak.com; from $1,199 for an eight-day itinerary.
Explore the Amazon and follow Incan trails
A motorized dugout canoe on the Madre de Dios River takes travelers to the Manu Wildlife Center, a private rain-forest camp within a 4.6-million-acre unesco biosphere reserve in the Peruvian Amazon. Climb a canopy platform to catch glimpses of brilliant macaws. Join naturalists on expeditions in search of giant otters and black spider monkeys. Then shift gears and head to another remarkable realm, on an invigorating four-day trek along lesser-known trails in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Bilingual guides lead this high-altitude walk through colonial Andean villages and untrammeled vales dominated by soaring mountains and ice-blue lakes. After visiting Incan ruins, including Phuyupatamarca and mist-shrouded Machu Picchu, linger overnight in the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel before returning to Cuzco. Latin Excursions, 866/626-3750; www.latinexcursions.com; from $6,775 for a 14-day itinerary.
Immerse yourself in imperial treasures
Begin in Moscow with a viewing of jeweled Easter eggs and regal ball gowns at the Kremlin, then journey back even further in time, to 12th-century Russia, with a driving tour through rustic Vladimir and Suzdal, in the Golden Ring. Once the home of 15 monasteries, Suzdal still has five—you can visit them all, and the town’s kremlin too. Finally, fly to St. Petersburg and don your finest apparel for one of the city’s most dazzling evenings, the Hermitage Ball, a charity benefit held on the summer solstice at the state museum’s grand Winter Palace. Galleries are open for guests to wander in at will; stars of the Mariinsky ballet company perform in the Neoclassical theater built by Catherine the Great; an operatic interlude and lavish banquet follow in the Jordan gallery. The trip includes three more White Nights (in June, the sun barely sets), when you can tour the magnificent monuments of this fabulous city. Exeter International, 800/633-1008; www.russiatours.com; from $10,150 for a 10-day itinerary. The Hermitage Ball, on June 22, is $1,300 extra per person.
Discover an authentic Iberia
Delve into Spanish culture on a guided insider tour that combines classical architecture, modern performances, and regional cuisine. Included are private lectures with an art historian in Madrid, a lesson at a flamenco academy in Seville, a cooking demonstration by one of Spain’s rising chefs in Ronda, and a sherry tasting with a wine expert in Jerez. You’ll see the country’s Moorish legacy on visits to Granada’s Alhambra and the Tarazona’s hidden masterpiece, Palacio de la Aljafería; at the Royal Palace in Madrid, you’ll have access to the Bailen wing (open by invitation only), the official residence of King Juan Carlos I. You’ll also have lunch at an Andalusian estate famous for its fighting bulls, and walk through Barcelona’s iconic architecture, such as Gaudí’s Parc Güell and church of La Sagrada Familia, before joining a curator at the Museu Picasso to view rare early works of the great modern master. Heritage Tours, 800/378-4555; www.htprivatetravel.com; 15 days from $38,000.
Bring food to a sacred temple and savor your own royal cuisine
While enjoying the luxury of the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, try out the daily classes at the hotel’s Lanna-style cooking school, focusing on the distinctive dishes of this northern city, a favored summer retreat of Thai royalty. Leave a fruit offering at the little spirit-house outside the traditional teak pavilion, then prepare curry noodle soup with chicken, and dry spiced pork with pickled garlic. Help harvest rice in the paddies surrounding the resort, then donate it to the monks at nearby Wat Pa Dara Piram, one of Chiang Mai’s more than 300 Buddhist temples. Rise early one morning to visit the "wet market" stalls crowded with spices. Take a riverboat to the Four Seasons’ tent camp in the Golden Triangle, where mahouts (drivers) teach guests how to ride friendly elephants along jungle trails. Four Seasons, 800/819-5053; www.fourseasons.com; packages from $685 per night (three-night minimum).
Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East
Follow in the steps of ancient traders
A custom-fitted Boeing 757 private jet allows you to retrace the silk roads and caravan routes of the world’s first merchant princes to magnificent Byzantine cities and remote Saharan outposts. Accompanied by seasoned Abercrombie & Kent guides, you’ll visit a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains; feast bedouin-style in the Jordanian desert; marvel at Petra, the lost city of Nabataean traders; sail the Bosporus; and wander the ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. You can explore the medieval medina in Fez; pretend you’re Lawrence of Arabia during a rest stop at Wadi Rum, a natural oasis; and enjoy a lavish evening at a private mansion on the island of Malta, once a strategic crossroads for crusading knights and Arab merchants. On board, you’ll find flat-bed sleeping quarters, an entertainment lounge, and five-course meals that highlight the local cuisines. Abercrombie & Kent, 800/554-7016; www.abercrombieandkent.com; April 18-May 5, 2008; from $70,000.
Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity
Through Habitat’s Global Village travel program, you can join a humanitarian-aid team in East Africa and build housing in a rural community. Uganda—which lies on the equator, with Lake Victoria forming part of its southern border—is one of the world’s least developed nations. Volunteers (no skills necessary) set up in a remote village, where they assist Habitat affiliates in digging foundations, laying handmade bricks, and installing window shutters, among other tasks. Visits to local schools and markets are also arranged. Conditions are generally primitive (sleeping bags and latrines), but the cultural exchange with your Ugandan hosts is priceless. After completing the construction project, your team spends a day watching hippos in Lake Mburo National Park, then heads for a white-water rafting trip on the Nile. Habitat for Humanity, 800/422-4828; www.habitat.org; Nov. 3-18, 2007; $1,500.