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Dream Trips

Dream destinations: Fantasy and reality

Colleen Clark  Feb 15, 2010

A sunset walk along the banks of the Seine. An oceanfront dinner under the stars in Oahu. A roaring fire in a St. Moritz chalet. Clichéd? Maybe. Romantic? You bet. But there are many getaways where the fantasy doesn't always live up to the reality: a Napa wine tasting crowded with drunken blowhards who roll up to the vineyard in their Hummers, a gondola ride through the Venetian canals ruined by traffic jams and foul fumes from the water, the blue vistas of Bali obstructed by rowdy Australians in Speedos. You get the drift.

We've separated the duds from the studs, by dispelling common myths of dream vacations while offering realistic alternatives. So whether you're looking for the cinematic allure of an iconic European getaway or the exoticism of a tropical island escape, here's how to avoid trouble in paradise.

Baring All in Bali

The fantasy: Barefoot bungalows on Bali's white-sand beaches of Kuta and Sanur. Rugged coastlines backed by emerald rice terraces. The arc and curl of graceful Legong dancers in ornate stone temples and other sensuous art forms add a layer of heady exoticism to this tropical island destination.

The reality: The broad stretches of sand fronting the Indian Ocean in Kuta and the calm waters rolling into Sanur helped put Bali on the tourism map. But now these beaches are overrun with relentless hawkers and rowdy Australian package tourists pounding swift successions of fruity cocktails.

Perfect match: The far-flung exoticism of Bali still simmers on the east coast, often referred to as Old Bali, where coconut groves fringe pristine beaches and couples wander amid the crumbling grandeur of ancient water palaces. You can get active by kayaking or sailing a traditional jukung on Lombok Strait (or limit your extracurricular activities to the bedroom of your beachfront hideaway). Splurge on one of the cliffside villas at Amankila, in Karangasem, which feature inlaid marble-and-wood floors, soaring cane ceilings, and your own veranda or infinity pool overlooking the sea.

Natural Attraction in the Caribbean Sea

The fantasy: Playing "me Tarzan, you Jane" in St. Lucia's famous open-air villas, with infinity pools clinging to cliffs above the sea. Tropical birds serenade your dinner under a twisting rain-forest canopy backlit with stars.

The reality: St. Lucia has such dramatic postcard views that you can understand why hotels often leave their rooms open to the sultry elements. But pineapple and papaya breakfasts robbed by greedy birds and bubble baths being dive-bombed by creepy crawlers are enough to make you think twice about allowing nature to get too close.

Perfect match: Hotels on Belize's Ambergris Caye have the same back-to-nature vibe, with thatched-roof casitas fronted by plunge pools and hammocks shaded by dense palms. But here, thanks to windows and shutters, nature stays where it belongs, in the great outdoors. Lay low in a seaside cabana at Matachica, a secluded beach resort north of San Pedro where the wild jungle meets the underwater playground of the Belize Barrier Reef.

Arabian Nights in Morocco

The fantasy: Getting lost in the magic of Marrakesh, pressed between stalls in the tight alleyways of the medina, where the air is redolent of spices and opulent riads beckon like exotic hideaways from the bustle outside.

The reality: Yes, that sultry tension still pulses beneath the city's crowded streets, but a Marrakesh "welcome" can be aggressive enough to kill the romance, with foreigners often harassed by an army of tireless touts. Unless your idea of true love is defending one another from the onslaught, it's best to book elsewhere.

Perfect match: We suggest you run for the hills — or the mountains, to be exact. Right outside Marrakesh, earthen Berber villages cling to the Atlas Mountains, which stretch for 1,500 miles through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Here, you'll be able to wander freely and experience the goodwill of the locals. Hole up in hotels that sit atop majestic vistas, like the Richard Branson-owned Kasbah Tamadot, where thousands of rose petals fill placid reflecting pools and 16 acres of manicured gardens adorn the foothills.

Cast Away in the Tropics

The fantasy: A get-away-from-it-all vacation in the Maldives, hiding out in a remote bungalow suspended on stilts over azure waters. You shift lazily from your plunge pool to your deck, out to the ocean for some snorkeling, and back again. No attractions, no nightclubs, nothing to distract you from each other.

The reality: When the Maldives are good, they're really good — but then there is the weather. Monsoons can keep you inside from May to October, and even during the dry season, a long stretch of rain turns the nothing-to-do aspects of the Maldives from a welcome plus to a claustrophobic minus. There are only so many spa treatments that can break up the monotony of waterlogged days.

Perfect match: The French Polynesian island of Moorea channels the desert-island vibe of the Maldives. Its secluded palm-covered islets, known as motu, offer the same lost-in-paradise atmosphere with less erratic weather and a dry season that coincides with prime honeymoon time and summer vacations (April–October). And if you do encounter rain, diversions are infinitely more accessible, from the bustling market of Papeete on Tahiti (just a 30-minute ferry ride away) to the endearingly quirky Tiki Village Theatre, where, in addition to watching traditional dances, you can renew your vows. Book one of the thatched-roof cottages at Dream Island, a boutique resort set under a canopy of ironwood trees and palms on a motu in the Moorea lagoon.

New England Hideout

The fantasy: An idyllic winter getaway at a quaint B&B in Vermont, with afternoon strolls through snowy forests, warming up by the fire with cocoa followed by hot baths in an antique claw-foot tub, and scenic drives through friendly mountain towns.

The reality: Sure, there is a forbidden-feeling sexiness to getting busy on four-poster quilt-and-lace-doily beds, but B&Bs can also mean forced socialization before your morning coffee with grumbling couples and nosy proprietors micromanaging your vacation. And the high season means you'll be fighting for dinner reservations, and road space, with the legions of other dewy-eyed couples on their country getaways.

Perfect match: Instead of treading the well-worn tourist path, hole up in an off-season seaside town like Kennebunkport, Maine. Take walks along deserted beaches, snowshoe across rolling hillsides, and cozy up over bowls of seafood bisque in eateries so quiet they feel like private dining rooms. Cuddle under the comforters at the White Barn Inn, a 26-room historic inn on the Kennebunk River with an award-winning restaurant in a restored barn.

La Dolce Vita in Italy

The fantasy: The cinematic romance of Venice: wandering hand in hand through the old-world elegance of La Serenissima's alleyways, cuddling on a gondola ride along the canals, dining by candlelight in ancient piazzas.

The reality: Your overpriced gondola will be stuck in a traffic jam of canned romance, likely because the gondoliers are too busy texting to watch where they're rowing. That candlelit dinner of scallops and tagliolini on a piazza will probably set you back twice the price of a meal elsewhere in Italy for food that's half as good. And what's that vaguely putrid smell wafting up from the canals come summer?

Perfect match: Although the magic of Venice often manages to outweigh its hassles, couples looking for la dolce vita should cross the boot and head down south to the Cilento Coast. Its sleepy coastal towns are the perfect setting for picnic lunches under the shade of Aleppo pines and nights spent noshing on freshly caught seafood on the waterfront to the lilting music of Italian lovers conversing at tables nearby. Reserve a room at the Palazzo Belmonte in Salerno, a former 17th-century hunting lodge perched among lemon trees on a bluff by the sea.

Vineyard Strolls in the Valley

The fantasy: You and your special someone cresting vine-laced hills in the Napa Valley on your way to an afternoon of tastings. Nighttimes spent over five-course feasts prepared from the bounty of surrounding farms. A see-where-the-day-takes-you, mellow country getaway.

The reality: High season in Napa will leave you and your lover bickering over directions in near bumper-to-bumper traffic. Tasting rooms are often overrun with pretentious windbags pontificating loudly about tannins and real estate deals. Dinner reservations are as hard to come by as a reasonably priced room.

Perfect match: Oregon's Willamette Valley feels like Napa before all the hoopla. Verdant farmland rolls by wineries flush with the region's famous pinot noir grapes. Known among winemakers as "the heartbreak grape" for difficulties in its cultivation, it produces some of the richest wines in the world when lovingly tended to. That's not a bad lesson to remember on quiet walks through rows of grapevines in the shadow of Mount Hood. Check into the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, one of the first luxury hotels in the valley, complete with fireplaces in every room and a 15,000-square-foot spa.

Dream destinations: Fantasy and reality
Hotel Kasbah Tamadot, Morocco / Image via


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