Take your next vacation to extremes at these luxurious outdoor outposts.
THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS Maybe snorkeling alongside turtles and reef sharks while sea lions kiss your mask isn’t your idea of a good time. It’s possible that walking among blue-footed boobies, mating albatross, hatching Galapagos gulls, and courting frigate birds leaves you cold. But if not, the Eclipse, a 210-foot luxury expedition vessel, will introduce you to these wonders in style. With captivating nightly lectures by four onboard naturalists, a pool, and a bartender who makes the best margaritas at sea, you’ll be hard pressed to leave the ship for the two daily expeditions. (And you won’t always have to: Majestic whales and dolphins swim alongside the boat at dawn, and the blazing Southern Cross and Milky Way dazzle the sky at night.) The 48-passenger Eclipse features the largest cabins of all the Galapagos luxury liners; its seven-night cruises leave from the Ecuadorian island of Baltra. Most passengers are already plotting their next trip halfway through the journey.
$3,600/person, meals and island tour included;
GALWAY, IRELAND There are few more magical isles than Ireland—and one of its most enchanting settings is Ashford Castle, located near the Western coast just north of Galway. Dating from the 13th century, the castle, with its rich tapestries and monumentalfireplaces, sprawls over more than 300 acres. Its majestically appointed guest rooms overlook Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second largest lake.
Still, there is nothing archaic about Ashford. With its full-service spa and gym, nine-hole golf course, and—should the two-hour drive from the Shannon airport overwhelm you—helipad, you’ll be treated like modern-day royalty.
But don’t get too comfortable, since Ashford is known for its full menu of outdoorsy pursuits. If you fancy yourself an equestrian, take to the stables for horseback or trap riding through grounds made famous by the 1951 film The Quiet Man. Experience the thrill of the chase at the country’s only falconry school, where guests can experience a simulated hunt on a “Hawk Walk” or join in on an actual hunting session. You’ll also have the opportunity to handle and release birds (ask for the one that grabs tennis balls from unsuspecting players below). If you’re still not tired, hone your hunting skills with clay pigeon shooting. And finally, if you feel like catching your own dinner, make sure to sign up for the hotel’s renowned fly-fishing school. (Although, frankly, a room-service feast prepared by Ashford’s Michelin-starred chef is hard to beat.)
Starting at $531/night;
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND The Four Seasons has a well-earned reputation for its decadent properties, but one of its most breathtaking is located in Chiang Mai, a plane ride north of Bangkok. Set among rice paddies, the hotel’s pool has a view of buffalo plowing the fields, and an attentive staff who spritz you with Evian water, defog your sunglasses, and dole out fresh watermelon juice. But save that for the afternoon, because you wouldn’t want to miss the morning’s activities: A private yoga lesson in a pagoda set on the rice paddies; nearby elephant trekking; and the chance to learn how to cook Thai food. The lesson begins with a dawn stroll through the local food market and ends with a resplendent lunch prepared in an open, hillside kitchen that would bring Martha Stewart to her knees.
Even people who eschew massages won’t want to miss out on the spa, an oasis of orchids there the pampering includes a foot bath in rose-petal water and a golf-cart ride back to your room, lest you be too relaxed to stumble the few feet without assistance.
$550/night for a terrace-view pavillion;