How do you pick places for your bucket list? There’s nothing like a good story to inspire an adventure or an escape to an idyllic locale. We were raised on stories of fairytale worlds, tales of adventure and romance — why not experience a taste of them in real life?
Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
The Romantic Road, Bavaria, Germany
If you’ve ever dreamed of wandering into a fairytale, Neuschwanstein Castle may be as close as you’ll come in real life. Inspired by medieval knights’ castles and the grand operas of Wagner, what was once the private retreat of "Mad King Ludwig" is now host to over 1.3 million visitors a year. Its architecture has inspired Disney castles, and its setting is no less stunning. Perched on one of Europe’s prettiest gorges with a backdrop of forests, mountains, lakes and a waterfall, the views of the castle from nearby Mary’s Bridge are as spectacular as the views from the castle. For the full fairytale experience, you can even arrive by horse-drawn carriage.
However, the journey to the castle is also to be savoured. Neuschwanstein Castle and its sister site Hohenschwangau Castle are the pinnacle of the Romantic Road — a scenic drive loosely based on an medieval trade route stretching from Würzburg to the German Alps. Along the way, you’ll pass through historic walled cities and smaller villages and towns, each with its own charm and attractions. You can book a coach tour of the area or rent a car, or even hike or cycle sections of the route. You don’t have to have a royal budget — there are affordable hostels, guesthouses and bed & breakfasts along the way.
Forget Paris? This small town in the Alsace region of northeastern France is already turning a few heads. Thanks to its meticulously preserved heritage dating back more than 1000 years, Colmar looks like it could have been plucked from French folk tales. While the culture is distinctly Alsatian, the city still shows its medieval and Renaissance roots. It has been called "one of the most beautiful towns in the world", but it’s also famous for its wine and cuisine. Wine tours and cooking schools offer visitors a chance to savour the local flavour, and dance and music performances capture the area’s folklore.
If you’re thinking of a winter getaway, see the town at its best during the Christmas season. While artfully lit year round, the town sparkles with Christmas lights and festive decorations. Shop for gifts at the Christmas markets where you’ll find local specialties like jewelry and blown glass. Attend mass at one of the historic churches, and keep your eyes peeled for special concerts and performances. Don’t forget to sample some mulled wine and the many kinds of bredele (a traditional Christmas cookie).
Some dream of Venice and Rome, but your thoughts may wander to a villa beyond "the boot". Sicily isn’t just an island: this autonomous region in Italy has its own culture and stories. Over the centuries, many cultures have invaded and settled on the island, each leaving their mark — not to mention a variety of archaeological sites like the Greek Valley of the Temples and the Necropolis of Pantalica, an ancient burial ground last used in the 7th century B.C. Great thinkers, writers and artists have also shaped the personality of Sicily, and some attractions like grumbling Mount Etna have practically become the stuff of legends. Visitors will find no shortage of activities and sites to visit, from grand churches to castles and seaside resorts to major cities like Palmero and Catania.
Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the island’s famous wine and cuisine that earned it the nickname of "God’s Kitchen". You can’t go wrong with traditional seafood and pasta dishes, but be sure to save room for dessert. Cannoli has become synonymous with the island, but pastries, cakes, cookies and other sweets are worth a nosh.
Despite the ugly shadow of political unrest and war, popular tales like the Arabian Nights have inspired travellers to venture to the Middle East. Perhaps the quintessential "Lost City" is the rose-red caverns of Petra. Once an important stop along ancient trade routes, the city was lost to the western world after the 14th century. Legend has it that Petra was rediscovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss adventurer who tricked his way into the heavily guarded city.
You’ve likely seen photos of Petra, or seen it in films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but pictures can’t do justice to the towering caverns and colourful sandstone into which its buildings are carved. (The most iconic being the massive façade of the Treasury.) If you plan to take pictures, experts advise going during the morning or afternoon when the lighting is best. However, stick around in the evening for a night tour along candlelit paths through the city. While you’re in the area, visit the archaeological museums and the nearby Bedouin settlement to shop for some traditional crafts.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
If you dream of adventure, few experiences capture the imagination quite like an African safari — and the Serengeti is one of the best-known places to experience the wild. This UNESCO World Heritage site comprises 1.5 million hectares of woodland and savannah but it’s most famous for its herds of grazing animals, arguably the largest in the world. Of course, where there’s prey there are predators — and the park has more of both than any other safari site. In addition to "The Big Five" — lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo — the park is also home to diverse wildlife including more than 500 species of birds.
Experts advise to plan at least three days in the park to guarantee spotting the animals — but you don’t have to "rough it". In addition to campsites, the park also offers lodge accommodations and luxury camping. Book a tour with a local operator to head out on a safari or participate in a bush drive. You can even go by foot or see the park from above in a hot air balloon.
For more information, visit Tanzania National Parks.
Bay Islands & Hog Islands, Honduras
Is a secluded island your idea of a romantic setting? It may seem like every island escape has become packed with tourists, but there are still a few uncrowded paradises to be enjoyed. One of Lonely Planet’s best secret islands, the Bay Islands — Roatan, Utila and Guanaja — are nestled in pristine blue waters off the north coast of Honduras. Once home to pirates and brigands, today the islands are all about enjoying the laid-back tropical atmosphere and enjoying sandy beaches. The islands are also famous for diving as they border the unspoiled Mesoamerican barrier reef system — second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in size.
The Bay Islands offer not only a variety of resorts but vacation rentals as well. However, travellers seeking something a little more remote can hop over to the neighbouring Cayos Cochinos (the Hog Islands). Made up of two main islands and 11 coral cays, this archipelago has only one resort — The Plantation Beach Resort — but it’s possible to book a camping stay on one of the uninhabited islands too.
For more information, visit Bay Islands Tourism.
Can’t settle on one theme for your dream vacation? You don’t have to: New Zealand packs a lot of diversity into its two islands. It’s a long way from home, but a couple of weeks will give you plenty of time to enjoy the many contradictions the islands have to offer. Go from sandy beaches to glaciers and mountain peaks in the span of a few days, or explore inland lakes and lush rain forests. Feeling daring? Try white water rafting or bungee jumping — or swim with the dolphins. Balance some outdoor adventure with a stay in the country’s major cities, like Wellington and Auckland.
For foodies, both islands have world-class wine regions and tempting fresh cuisine — especially seafood and the local treat, lamingtons. Culture buffs can enjoy the Scottish flare of Dunedin, the country’s Maori culture and the many South Pacific influences. Movie buffs can tour the settings from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, or visit Cathedral Cove — most recently featured as part of Narnia in the film Prince Caspian.
Of course, there’s too much to see and do to fit it in a few paragraphs. For more information, visit New Zealand 100% Pure.
Additional sources: Lonely Planet, OpenTravel.com, UNESCO.org, Wikipedia
What’s your dream vacation? Share with us in the comments.