I’ve been a travel writer and editor for more than two decades, first working in an office on travel guides, finding the very best places around the globe to send writers, and then traveling myself to write about destinations around the world. Sometimes I’m focused on what’s trendy (hello, Dubai!) and other times I’m exploring iconic locales such as U.S. national parks. All of it’s fun, but not every town, city, or beach would be my first choice for a vacation and when it’s time to travel with my friends and family, I’m pretty picky. I’ve discovered that when I want a guaranteed perfect getaway, these are the spots I keep returning to again and again.
A few quick caveats: I haven’t included places where I visit family regularly, even though I love them, so you won’t find Colorado or California on this list or spots I have lived near and visit easily, including New York City, the Jersey Shore, or Washington, D.C.—even though they’re close to my heart. Instead, these are the “worth a special trip” choices I visit without any reason at all other than I love them.
South Africa is my proof that you should never say “a once in a lifetime trip,” but instead “a first in a lifetime” visit. When I first visited the Rainbow Nation nearly two decades ago, I thought it would be a one time only adventure, an affordable bucket list tick like these trips that would be one amazing trip I’d never repeat. But then Cape Town dazzled me with its mix of cosmopolitan city center and spectacular natural surroundings, the wine region seduced me with what seems like the best of France and Italy combined, and the safaris were beyond anything I had imagined—Jurassic Park worthy, eye-popping views of herds of elephants, prides of lion, towering giraffes, and dazzles of zebra all roaming free in Kruger National Park. In fact, I loved it so much I went back again the next year, and explored funky Johannesburg and then tropical Durban and the Indian Ocean Coast. On another trip, I combined South Africa with a stop at Victoria Falls, and then again with a visit to Botswana, and then Zimbabwe, and then Zambia. South Africa became the place I always want to return to; I’ve now visited Africa a dozen times, including trips with my husband, daughter, and friends. There’s a famous African proverb, “Out of Africa, always something new,” and I can’t wait to return to see what else the country has to offer.
Courtesy Melissa Klurman
From the tip of the Eiffel Tower to the bottom of the Seine River, I have been enamored of the City of Light since I first spied it on a family trip when I was a teenager with three cars of relatives on a convoy from my uncle’s home in Germany. It wasn’t romantic, but it was memorable. So much so, that I’ve since returned half a dozen times, including on my honeymoon when I explored not only the blockbusters like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, but also the petite Isle St Louis, the residential island just beyond Notre Dame, and the stunning stained-glass of the small Sainte-Chapelle. Paris has become where I celebrate anniversaries and special birthdays for both myself and my family, always exploring a combination of notable locations and hidden gems. Each time, I discover something new; to quote Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina: “Paris is always a good idea.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Puerto Rico is my favorite island; it delivers in droves for care-free vacations filled with a distinctive culture, beautiful beaches, and fascinating history. I love that although it feels like I’ve traveled to a completely unique location, it only takes three hours to fly from the NYC-area, and since it’s a commonwealth of the United States, I’m technically still “home,” which means not having to exchange money, sign up for a foreign phone plan, or worry about travel insurance. I’ve been traveling to the aptly named “Island of Enchantment” for almost three decades and have always discovered something new to love including San Juan’s urban beaches, luxe hotels, historic forts, cobblestone streets, and great food and drinks (including the pina colada, which was invented here); Rincon’s laid-back surfer vibe; the rainforest of El Yunque; and the bioluminescent waters in Vieques, Fajardo, and Ponce. And the weather is almost always sunny on the island, one of the reasons Puerto Rico is one of the most popular summer destinations.
Courtesy Melissa Klurman
As much as I love exotic destinations and far off adventures, when I sat down to think about where I go the most often, Orlando was at the top of my list. Although I was 30 the first time I visited, the whimsy and wonder of Disney and Universal completely delighted me. And seeing the world has actually made me appreciate the effort, details, and insider Disney secrets like these that have gone into creating spots such as international showcases at Epcot and the safari and wildlife enclosures at Animal Kingdom even more. And most of all, I love how the Magic Kingdom can make the grumpiest toddler or seen-it-all teenager giggle with glee. When my family needs a break from the grind of the every day, the Happiest Place on Earth definitely delivers. And Orlando is also one of my favorite places to give back; it’s where I discovered Give Kids the World, a non-profit that provides a week-long free Orlando vacation for seriously ill children and their families. The morning I spent scooping ice cream for breakfast here was as exhilarating as the highest roller coaster.
Courtesy Melissa Klurman
If you like to eat, love food, and don’t feel the need to count calories when you’re on vacation, then you will adore Italy the way I do. From Rome to Florence to Milan to Venice, I’ve eaten it all on multiple trips—pasta, pizza, truffles, wine, gelato—and loved every delicious second. Which is not to say that I don’t also have a fondness for the incredible Renaissance art and architecture, the stunning waterways of Venice, the mastery of the Sistine Chapel, and in every way, la dolce vita, the sweet life, of Italy. I’ve also found Italy to be one of the most family-friendly destinations in Europe, with plenty to amaze every member of the family, and affordable, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Twice in the past five years, I’ve flown Emirates from New York to Milan for around $400 per person (yes, round trip!). For Spring Break, it was actually less than going to the Caribbean, especially when you considered the well-priced country hotels and efficient and affordable trains. From Milan, we hopped on the railway to explore the country, zipping from the Coliseum in Rome to the Duomo in Florence to the fabulous floating gondolas of Venice. In between, we learned how to make pasta on a farm in Tuscany, watched blown glass appear from sand and fire in Murano, and ventured deep into the catacombs of the Appian Way outside of Rome. Every moment is one I look forward to repeating again in the future.
I hate playing favorites, so I’m happy to make room on my list for future contenders. Currently in contention are the sun-kissed shores of Maui, which my family has visited twice; Ireland, which so impressed me with its friendliness and beautiful countryside on my first visit ever last spring that I returned within six months; and Thailand which I’m gearing up to visit for the second time in three years. There are so many new places to explore and rediscover!
Next, read on to find out the six countries that changed another travel writer for the better.