Dream trips for 2021: 20 holidays to make you happier

Sarah Baxter
·14-min read
Snorkeling in the Seychelles - Lucy Martin
Snorkeling in the Seychelles - Lucy Martin

Is it time to rewrite your bucket list? In the idler hours of this year, maybe you have had a think about your travels, about what your globetrotting dreams were before Covid, and what they might look like now; about how desperate you are to get away, and how that next trip – when it finally comes – is going to be bigger, better, more joyful and more thoughtful than ever. 

Because this annus horribilis has been nothing if not a clarifier. A chance to review our lives in general, and our holidays in particular. Maybe that must-take trip that has long been at the top of your wish list is still in pole position, only now it is in highlighter pen and underlined thrice, the imperative to do it never more urgent. Or maybe it has been replaced by something else, as you have discovered that, actually, different experiences matter more now. You still want to see the world’s most marvellous things, but the emphasis has shifted a little; you want to linger longer, feel more, drill down deeper into what matters most to you. 

I’ve found that my own wish list is sparser now, pared back to a few experiences that – as this year has made clear – I really do want to do before I die. Wheat separated from chaff. Or, rather, travels that sound merely great relegated below those that I think will truly stir my soul.

For starters, I want to hug a big tree; I want to hike deep into a Pacific North West forest, where moss fur-coats the branches and lichen hangs like lace, find a redwood that has been there forever and sit with it, soil and centuries in my nostrils. I also want to leap into the tropical blue somewhere to swim alongside a whale shark and be reminded of my insignificance as the leviathan glides by. And I want to walk out one midsummer morning and just keep going, until I reach this island’s northern edges (precise route still under consideration) – my ideal take on the now culturally embraced staycation.

Your bucket list will read quite differently to mine. But whatever experiences are on it, I’ll bet that – if you have the financial means – you will be hoping to tick a few of them off ASAP.

The Japanese town of Tsumago -  CHRISTIAN KOBER
The Japanese town of Tsumago - CHRISTIAN KOBER

So what might a new, tweaked bucket list look like? Many of the featured places might be similar, but there may be more emphasis on things that Covid has reminded us are important: space, nature, connection, mindful moments, feeling free. Also, our approach may change. A survey by luxury tour operator Original Travel (originaltravel.co.uk) found that 67 per cent of respondents were planning to travel “better” post-pandemic. This meant, they said, taking fewer “throwaway trips” and more well-planned ones (49 per cent), travelling more sustainably (32 per cent), taking fewer trips but going for longer (32 per cent) and travelling to support destinations that need tourism (27 per cent). 

Wish lists post-Covid are likely to include longer immersions in rejuvenating wildernesses, iconic experiences delivered in safe bubbles, adventures that indulge our newfound passions and trips that provide the all-important connection we’ve been sorely missing, immersing us in different cultures and philosophies, and giving back to the countries we visit – with 197 million travel industry jobs predicted to be lost due to Covid-19, goodness knows every country needs it.

Yes, it has been a grim year. But while our horizons have never been more ­limited, our desire to expand them – in more interesting, more authentic and more regenerative ways – has never been greater.

1. Hit the wide-open road: United States

Big skies, big spaces, open roads, outdoor adventures – the national parks of the US allow for natural social distancing, especially those of the American West. Driving through the lakes, plains and peaks of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, modern pioneers can reconnect with nature: delve into protected areas and explore indigenous culture. 

A 21-night Great American West self-drive holiday costs from £3,115pp including flights (0800 316 0194; bon-voyage.co.uk). 

2. Go for more than gorillas: Uganda

Tracking mountain gorillas features on many a traveller’s bucket list, and spending an awesome hour with them in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is special indeed. But linger longer: Uganda is more than these great apes and deserves more of your time. Combine Bwindi with cruises on the River Nile, Lake Albert and the hippo-filled Kazinga Channel, game drives in biodiverse Queen Elizabeth National Park, and treks amid waterfalls, crater lakes and the foothills of the Ruwenzori mountains.

A 16-day tailor-made Ultimate Uganda Safari costs from £16,819pp excluding flights (0027 11 809 4300; andbeyond.com).

Driving by Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda - Robert Harding
Driving by Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda - Robert Harding

3. Island hop offbeat: Taiwan

The idea of flitting between tropical isles has always had an allure. Taiwan ­probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind when you think of that idea, but this more unknown side of Asia – which excelled in its Covid-crushing strategy throughout 2020 – offers some wonderfully unique and offbeat hopping potential. Take the ferry over to tiny Liuqiu in the southwest, for some supreme snorkelling exploration; visit the 90-odd ­volcanic outcrops of the Penghu Archipelago, for beaches, banyan trees and historic houses; and sail to Lanyu (Orchid Island) to meet the indigenous Yami people and explore their rugged terrain.

A 14-night tailor-made Islands of Taiwan trip costs from £4,995pp including flights (020 7720 9285, bambootravel.co.uk).

4. Hike between icons: Switzerland

We’ve all enjoyed walking from our doorsteps in 2020. But give your legs something new to do by planning an iconic hike, such as walking from the Eiger to the Matterhorn. This route passes through the Swiss Alps’ most spectacular stretches. Walk to Reichenbach Falls, beneath the Jungfrau, down the Tolkien-inspiring Lauterbrunnen Valley, by glittering lake Oeschinensee, across the Gemmi Pass, into the Rhône vineyards and via the mighty Dom to reach Zermatt, staying at characterful guesthouses. 

A 14-night self-guided Eiger to the Matterhorn trip costs from £2,495pp excluding flights; June-October 2021 (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk).

Eiger to the Matterhorn, Switzerland
Eiger to the Matterhorn, Switzerland

5. Go back to the roots: Australia

A desire to reconnect with nature and traditions is a growing trend. Arguably the best place to do this is Australia, where indigenous tribes have lived in sync with the planet for 40,000 years. Start with welcome rituals and didgeridoo lessons in Bouddi National Park, then look for bushtucker at Uluru with an Anangu guide, see rock art in Arnhem Land (only accessible with permission from the original landowners) and gather shellfish with the Kuku Yalanji of the Daintree Rainforest.

A 17-day tailor-made Australia’s Aboriginal Culture trip costs from £9,830pp including flights (020 3582 4990; originaltravel.co.uk).

6. Up your chances of aurora: Sweden, Finland & Norway

Why waste time? Instead of flitting back and forth on multiple trips, tick all those Arctic must-dos off your wish list in one fantastic fell swoop. Ranging across the far north of Sweden, Norway and Finland, combine nights at the Icehotel, exploring by snowmobile, mushing your own ­huskies, jingling along by sleigh, dunking in ice pools, reheating in saunas and hanging out in lively Tromso, the world’s northernmost university town. And, always, be on the lookout for the northern lights: expert guides, focused searches and remote locations will up your chances of seeing the aurora play.

An eight-night Grand Aurora Tour costs from £3,580pp including flights (01670 785012; theaurorazone.com).

The IceHotel - Asaf Kliger
The IceHotel - Asaf Kliger

7. Understand the land: Ecuador

If Covid has made us more focused on how we interact with the natural world, consider an immersive trip to the Galápagos. Staying in small hotels on three islands, rather than cruising, you not only get the matchless animal encounters but better appreciate how the communities here live alongside the wildlife. Being land-based also means you can go wildlife-spotting early morning and early evening, when the light is good and the cruisers are still on-board.

A 14-day guided Gentle Walking Ecuador & Galapagos Safari costs from £5,785pp, including flights; Feb 22, Nov 29 2021 (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com).

8. Sail away on staycation: UK

While we’re all eager to spread our wings, it’s safe to say the staycation is here to stay. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay too close to home. From Portsmouth, the MS Hebridean Sky cruises to some of the UK and Ireland’s remotest outposts: dock at sunny Guernsey and Herm, and the laid-back Scillies; visit the historic Skelligs and Tory, Ireland’s most isolated inhabited isle; and explore a scatter of Scottish gems, from sacred Iona and abandoned St Kilda to the dazzling Outer Hebrides.

A 12-night Islands on the Edge II cruise costs from £5,795pp; July 14 2021 (020 7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk).

Beautiful St Kilda
Beautiful St Kilda

9. Combine classics: Canada

An autumnal trip to eastern Canada allows you to tick off classics in an offbeat way: find fall colours and titanic train rides in places most outsiders don’t go. The rail routes here are ­seldom used by tourists but provide lifelines to local communities. Board the First Nations-owned Tshiuetin Transportation Railway to roadless Schefferville, a true wilderness railway; travel with the Cree on the “Polar Bear Express” towards James Bay; and leaf-peep from the Abitibi Train as it surges via the lakes and forests of northwestern Quebec. 

A 14-day guided Labrador in the Fall trip costs from £3,585pp including flights; Oct 4 2021 (01766 512400; ffestiniogtravel.com).

10. Savour the Sacred Valley: Peru

Yes, 2021 might be the best year to see Machu Picchu: since it reopened in November, visitor numbers have been capped at just 675 per day. But Peru isn’t all about the over-loved “lost city”, as a new multi-sport bubble tour proves. Based in a private villa in the Sacred Valley (with private chef), make adventurous forays: e-bike via Inca sites, paddle on Lake Huaypo, raft the Apurimac River and hike the one-day Royal Inca Trail for the classic view of Machu Picchu, minus crowds.

An eight-day tailor-made In-Depth Cultural Exploration of The Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu costs from $4,740pp (£3,590) excluding flights (amazonas-explorer.com).

E-biking in the Sacred Valley of the Incas - James Cripps
E-biking in the Sacred Valley of the Incas - James Cripps

11. Make another pilgrimage: Italy

Covid may have convinced you that now is the time for a spiritual journey. With 2021 designated an official “Holy Year”, the Camino de Santiago might be busier than usual, so for a quieter pilgrimage, walk the Via Francigena instead. The Italian section of the Canterbury-Rome trail is just over 621 miles, with a glorious succession of vineyards, hill towns, riverbanks and regional delicacies en route. Bike fans could cycle it.

A 50-day self-guided Full Francigena hike costs from £4,311pp excluding flights (shorter sections available); a 24-day Francigena Cycle costs from £3,141pp (020 8875 5060; utracks.com).

12. Go wild at home: Scotland

No need to fly to the ends of the Earth to join a wilderness expedition – Scotland is quite wild enough. Hit the Highlands on a time-short, experience-saturated adventure designed by ex-British Army majors (but with luxury too). Bash about in Land Rover Defenders, climb Munros, abseil down crags, scramble along ridges and paddle across lochs by packraft, then kick back with Michelin-standard feasts and single malts around the fire at your mobile tented camp.

A four-night expedition costs from £3,000pp excluding flights; from spring 2021 (wildnis.co.uk).

Elephants in Botswana - Sofie Askew
Elephants in Botswana - Sofie Askew

13. Safari alone for less: Botswana

Botswana is famously expensive – not ideal, perhaps, for tough economic times. But a Drumbeat mobile safari makes it possible to still mount a bespoke wilderness expedition in the Okavango Delta at a reasonable cost. Camping is comfy-basic (think large tents with en suite loos, meals ­prepared over the campfire) but the experience is priceless. Your own bubble-friendly camp is set up in a new location each night; you have your own expert guide; and total flexibility to do what interests you. 

An eight-night tailor-made Best of Botswana safari costs from £2,805pp excluding flights (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk).

14. Give back in Indo-China: Cambodia

One of the few countries to which the FCDO has announced an air bridge, Cambodia is a favourite, thanks to the remarkable temples of Angkor. But pick the right trip and it’s also a place that will leave a lasting impact, and where tourism can have real benefits. Combine Angkor with Kirirom National Park (staying at a low-impact ecolodge). Then watch the Phare Circus (which helps disadvantaged youths) and build a house with an NGO in Siem Reap before gaining a better understanding of the country’s past on a private tour of the “killing fields”. 

A 14-day tailor-made Ed’s Impact Cambodia trip costs from £10,350pp excluding flights (01273 670001; selectiveasia.com). 

Laguna Cejar - Getty
Laguna Cejar - Getty

15. Add the expert view: Chile & Easter Island

Lockdown has inspired a surge in the desire to learn. Satisfy your curiosity by seeing icons with experts. For instance, journey to the Atacama and Easter Island with the world’s leading authority on rock art to understand more about the lunar-like desert’s geoglyphs and petroglyphs, the ancient Chinchorro mummies, the “ghost town” of Humberstone and the Pacific isle’s remote moai.

A 17-day guided Chile & Easter Island trip costs from £9,995pp including flights; Nov 6 2021, Feb 25 2022 (01722 713800; andantetravels.co.uk).

16. Dive into Eden: Seychelles

There’s paradise, like Praslin. Then there are the Outer Islands of the Seychelles, a remote scatter of pristine atolls, little-touched by human hands. Join a marine conservation safari to witness this masterwork of Mother Nature and contribute to conservation. Dive, snorkel and kayak off Alphonse Island, where there are more than 75 Aldabra ­tortoises but no phone signal. Then explore Cosmoledo, one of the world’s furthest-flung atolls, and Astove, home of the “Astove Wall”. 

A 14-night tailor-made Blue Safari trip costs from $16,800pp (£12,529) excluding flights; Jan-Apr, Oct-Dec 2021 (00 248 422 9030; bluesafari.com).

17. Sail the Silk Route: Croatia-Indonesia

After extended confinement within our own walls, what could be more liberating than a long, slow sail across the globe? Board the Golden Horizon for an odyssey along the maritime Silk Route. You will haul anchor in Split, pass through the Suez Canal, traverse the Arabian Sea, navigate around India and Sri Lanka, cross the Bay of Bengal, negotiate the Malacca Straits and finish on Bali. The aim is to use sail power 70 per cent of the time, upping the sustainability, and romance, of the voyage. 

A 77-day Maritime Silk Route cruise costs from £16,903pp excluding flights (shorter segments possible); Sept 23 2021 (0808 239 1012; tradewindvoyages.com).

The Melacca Straits Mosque - Getty
The Melacca Straits Mosque - Getty

18. Find true contentment: Japan

The pandemic has left many of us emotionally shaken. So perhaps solace might be found in exploring some of Japan’s philosophical concepts; ideas that will reveal more about the country’s culture and provide some nourishing souvenirs. Via inn stays, temple visits, forest bathes and walks along the old Nakasendo way, learn about wabi-sabi (the acceptance of imperfection), kizuna (the bond that connects people) and ikigai (your purpose in life). 

A 14-day tailor-made Ikigai and Paths to Happiness trip costs from £3,490pp excluding flights (0117 244 3380; insidejapantours.com).

19. Do that big ride: Zambia, Botswana, Namibia & South Africa

Discovered a new love of cycling? Indulge it on a mountain-bike epic: 1,000 miles, four countries, reaching almost 8,000ft, camping out in the wilds. Cycle from Livingstone to the Cape of Good Hope via the Kalahari and Sossusvlei, Fish River Canyon and the Cederbergs, stopping off for safaris en route. 

A 21-day guided Victoria Falls to Cape Town ride costs from £2,595pp excluding flights; March-November 2021 (01768 773966; keadventure.com).

 En route to Betta, Namibia - Picasa
En route to Betta, Namibia - Picasa

20. Hike longer in the Himalaya: Nepal

Why rush a classic? The trek to Everest Base Camp is one of the greats – but Mountain Kingdoms’ new version is greater. Instead of flying into Lukla to start hiking, you drive from Kathmandu to Dhap to follow the route used by early Everest pioneers, taking time to trek quieter trails through Solu’s Sherpa villages and up Pikey Peak (said to be Hillary’s favourite view of the world’s highest mountain), before reaching Namche Bazaar and joining the main base camp route.

A 24-day guided Long Trek to Everest Base Camp costs from £3,345pp including international flights; March 26, Nov 5 2021 (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com).