Winter travel has its advantages. Aside from the peak holiday-travel dates, airfares are low. You can trade cold and snow for warmth and sun. And even if you choose a place as frosty as where you came from, you’re likely to find yourself in the midst of winter festivities.
For this article, The Georgetowner decided to limit the number of destinations covered to six: one for each continent (not counting Antarctica). As different as they are, the vacation spots we came up with — Alaska, Machu Picchu, Istanbul, Cape Town, Hong Kong and New Zealand — share the qualities that make travel worth the time, expense and occasional inconvenience, even in the troubled times in which we live: natural and cultural riches, unforgettable settings and that “je ne sais quai” that makes you feel more intensely alive.
North America: Alaska
The Northern Lights in Alaska are something you never forget witnessing. What starts out possibly being a car-dealership spotlight across town turns into a writhing kaleidoscope of color, leaving those looking upon its beauty speechless. Cruising up the Inside Passage through magnificent glaciers and Gold Rush towns is fascinating; everything is gigantic in a way that makes humans feel downright small. Shoving off from the Homer Spit in a fishing charter isn’t particularly grand, but returning from sea with a cargo hold of halibut — while watching pods of whales, puffins and otters play beneath the snowcapped peaks and glaciers — is absolute magic. And meeting Alaskans is a bonus; the folks who have chosen to make Alaska their home are hearty folk, and they know how to tell stories. You’ll return from this trip with plenty of photos, footage and tall tales to share.
South America: Machu Picchu
Nestled high above the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the small settlement of Machu Picchu (in what is now Peru) served as the estate for Inca emperors for roughly a century. Despite its location near Cusco, the Spanish never found it. Reports of a fabulous ruined city in the Andes cloud forest began trickling out as early as the 1870s. But it wasn’t until 1911, when Yale historian Hiram Bingham (possibly the inspiration for Indiana Jones) was led there by a local guide, that the world found out about the so-called Lost City of the Incas. A trip there, even today, is not as much a vacation as it is an endurance test. The gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco sits at an elevation of 11,152 feet above sea level, so you should plan on spending two days acclimatizing. The actual hike, which takes 4 days, is easier. While the hike offers stunning views, nothing compares to looking down from Machu Picchu on virgin forest vistas. Note: Peruvian authorities continue to place restrictions on visits to Machu Picchu, so plan your trip sooner rather than later.
On the eastern edge of Europe — Asia is just across the magnificent Bosphorus Strait — the city formerly known as Constantinople is the largest in Turkey. Its incredible history under three empires, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, is displayed on a grand level. Meanwhile, the city’s modern lifestyle expresses a passion for food, shopping, entertainment and, of course, raki, Turkey’s sambuca-like national drink. First stop, Sultanahmet Square, where a number of obelisks reach for the sky to mark Constantinople’s Hippodrome. A few blocks away are the stunning Blue Mosque, named for the 20,000 Iznik-style tiles that line its interior, and the incomparable Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a Christian basilica, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) became a mosque when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. Other landmarks include the Topkapi Palace, the primary residence for the sultans, and the Basilica Cistern, a location in “From Russian with Love” and the Dan Brown novel “Inferno.”
Oceania: New Zealand
Do you consider yourself an adventure traveler? Then New Zealand’s South Island should be on your bucket list. Queenstown is the island’s main adventure hub, situated on the crystal-clear blue Lake Wakatipu. The town, reminiscent of a skiing village in the United States, has a number of outfits offering skydiving, bungee jumping and other high-adrenalin activities. Scenery bombards the senses on the trip to the island’s west coast, where you can take a cruise around the Milford Sound, ride a helicopter ride to the top of the Franz Josef Glacier or explore breathtaking coastal inlets and otherworldly rock formations in Punakaiki. Farther north, enjoy pristine beaches in Nelson, or hop over to Christchurch, which has come back strongly from a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in February 2011, or Dunedin, which offers not only Victorian and Edwardian architecture but colonies of albatrosses, seals and penguins.
Asia: Hong Kong
One of the most densely populated cities on earth, a human ant farm of more than seven million residents, Hong Kong — officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China — is an ethnic kaleidoscope of hustle and bustle. The tantalizing beat of this urban financial center, the gateway to China, will draw you in and make you a part of it no matter how brief the visit. A trip across the harbor in the Star Ferry, dinner at the Peninsula watching the laser show, having a suit made for you, people-watching in the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong — these are just a few of the reasons to jump ship here. Watching the massive octopus-like cranes load and unload the cargo destined for and coming from places around the globe is a mesmerizing reminder of the magnitude of Hong Kong’s port, busiest in the world from 1999 to 2004 (when it was overtaken by Shanghai).
Africa: Cape Town
Cape Town is at southern tip of the African continent, cradled by one of the most unique and spectacular mountain vistas in the world, Table Mountain. Visitors can take a gondola up to the flat surface of the mountaintop for an unforgettable view of the entire city and the sea beyond. A short boat ride from the harbor is Robben Island, the now-defunct prison where Nelson Mandela spent nearly thirty years of his life. Back at the harbor, the best of current-day South Africa is on display, with delicious waterfront cafes and open-air boutique markets. A daytrip out to the quaint Cape Dutch village of Stellenbosch, the center of South Africa’s breathtakingly beautiful and highly underrated wine region, will run down your camera batteries with its views and windswept architecture. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens is nestled at the eastern foot of Table Mountain, preserving the country’s unique flora and cultivating indigenous plants. Its Boomslang is a footbridge walkway into the tree canopy. South Africa still suffers from a great deal of poverty, so any conscientious traveler would do well to take a guided tour of Khayelitsha, a township that houses nearly 400,000 of the country’s displaced and underemployed citizens. The experience, while sobering, is also inspirational.