It’s usually around September—as the last flashes of summer fade into a breezy fall—when we start to brainstorm our annual travel to-do list for the following year. In that sense, this past autumn was no different than the last, except that it followed a summer of no travel, staying put at home, and finding solace wherever we could outdoors. What we had hoped would be a year of checking out new, emerging, and more intrepid destinations turned into many (MANY) months of staring into the pixelated abyss of endless Zoom calls and Instagram feeds instead. Needless to say, our prospecting for 2020 was wholly wrong since, well, nobody went anywhere.
So what does 2021 hold? Hope. Rather than qualifying the following destinations as must-sees-now, we’ve put together a list of destinations we hope to visit—or revisit—this coming year, or maybe the next, as we reemerge from our chrysalis, soon ready to fly. You’ll notice that much of our list is based in the United States, given that much of air travel will be determined by each country’s individual rules and reopenings. After landing on our top places to visit domestically, we turn our attention abroad. From our research, bucket lists, and ears to the ground, the following destinations are poised to rise from the ashes from the dumpster fire that has been this year. From classic spots worth a pair of fresh eyes to countries championing social and environmental justice, here’s our list of where we hope to go in 2021—and where we hope you’ll plan to visit too.
We know, it’s a bit of a buzzkill to start a dream-stoking list with a plea to stay home, but hear us out: We’re desperate to travel as much as you are, and with the end of the pandemic within reach, we have to hunker down only for a few more months (okay, maybe around six or seven) and do our part so that we keep our high-risk neighbors, our friends and families, and ourselves safe. In the meantime, there are gift cards to buy to help buoy our favorite restaurants through prolonged closures and hotel bonds to purchase to ensure that our favorite getaways will be ready to welcome us once global travel clicks back on. Order a crate of wine from your favorite vineyard (see Napa, below) and relax; we’re almost there.
We’ve split our list into domestic and international destinations, because realistically, we’ll be mostly relegated to Stateside destinations—at least for the first half of the year. But once we get the go-ahead for international travel (and we begin to revenge-travel to make up for last year’s dry spell), it’s still worth keeping these destinations high on your to-go roster.
Utah’s Rocky Mountains
Don’t give up on your ski season aspirations just yet. You may have to forfeit the traditional après-ski scene, but it’s still worth hitting the mountain for some socially distant downhill-ing. Salt Lake City’s newly renovated international airport is the gateway to no less than 11 resorts, and driving is always an option as well, making these slopes the most viable pick in America for both easy access and a breadth of alpine experiences. Powder Mountain and Park City Mountain each claim to be the biggest ski resort in the country, so wide open spaces won’t be an issue should you want to slalom mask-free. If you have your quarantining bubble in tow, try smaller Snowbasin, where six luxury day lodges can be reserved for full-service gourmet dining and drinking; it’s as though you’re the only ones on the mountain. Utah’s superior snowfall means that you’re likely to sneak in some serious powder through all of April at places like Alta if you’re hesitant to venture out now.
Napa & Sonoma, California
The constant presence of COVID in the news cycle partially blotted out the coverage of Northern California’s devastating wildfires earlier this year—a disaster that claimed the livelihoods of tons of individuals, especially in Napa and Sonoma where raging flames engulfed entire townships, institutional inns and restaurants, and prize-winning vineyards. It’ll take a significant amount of time to rebuild, but the new Four Seasons Napa Valley—wine country’s first resort on a working winery, set to open in 2021—is a harbinger of the good things to come as the area reestablishes itself as the country’s preeminent wine region.
The Great Lakes
Wide expanses of nothingness were the most ordered item on the travel menu last summer, filling the empty canyons and mountains of the American West with hordes of tourists from both coasts. They didn’t get the memo, however, that the Great Lakes offer serious amounts of solitude too. The boundary waters separating Canada and the United States promise vistas that rival the rocky outcrops of New England and the long strands of uninterrupted sand in California. Two national parks—Voyageurs in Minnesota and Isle Royale in Michigan—both feel like final frontiers, where campers can pitch their backcountry tents in the hushed acreages of pine and roving moose. For something more decidedly upmarket, try Wisconsin, where Wild Rice Retreat will open as a dedicated center for arts and wellness in March near the town of Bayfield, the gateway to the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. Go full five-star further south in Kohler, a town pulled straight off the pages of a Bavarian fairy tale; the lavish American Club comes complete with the region’s most swanked-out spa (think: Kohler, the luxury bath amenities manufacturer) and four tricked-out cabins.
When COVID came crashing down, Marcia Gordon, cofounder of African safari planner Extraordinary Journeys, moved back to her native Santa Fe and spun her business toward her home state, selling safari-style tours there instead. Turns out, New Mexico’s untamed expanses can be as captivating to the snap of the camera as the Serengeti. Beyond the herds of wild bison, the Land of Enchantment is also an important center for Indigenous life that long predates western settlement. Protected under a UNESCO mandate, many pueblo dwellings offer compelling insight into Mesoamerican traditions and design, much of which is still thriving today. Use Auberge Resorts Collection’s new Bishop’s Lodge, just outside Santa Fe, as your base to explore the vibrant City Different aboriginal art scene and beyond.
Florida’s soaring real estate prices are a testament to the fact that the state has seen an astonishing influx of newly minted citizens since the start of COVID—most from New York, escaping their cramped conditions to stay at home with plenty of private, sun-filled outdoor space instead. And perhaps most of them are here to stay, especially in Miami, which has shed its Golden Girls reputation for a more youthful, switched-on vibe as the new hotbed of the country’s arts scene and the crucible of Latin cultures. Weekenders needn’t look further than the Four Seasons Surfside, which has, in only three years, established itself as one of the best properties in the portfolio, rivaling its sister resorts in Italy and Asia. Like New York, Miami has a hotel for any and every traveler, and hot spots like Faena, The Miami Beach Edition, 1 Hotel South Beach, and the newly launched Life House Hotels’ four (yes, four) boutique properties in the city stand out.
Eagle eyes may notice that New York was one of our picks for 2020 as well; the City That Never Sleeps deserves another plug. More than half of the city’s restaurants could be gone forever by the time indoor dining resumes in earnest, and there are still several months to go before the lights of Broadway will flicker back on, but—if anything—New Yorkers are incredibly resilient, and we have no doubt that Gotham’s lively pulse will course down its concrete arteries again, ASAP. Several new hotels are primed to host the expected onslaught of weekenders once everything resumes. First, there’s Six Senses, trying its hand at its first North American property with an ambitious tower of suites and a rambling spa overlooking the High Line. And then there’s Aman, trying out not only its first urban property in America but offering its first portfolio of private residences when it swings open the doors to a freshly renovated Crown Building in Midtown. Also worth a mention is Life House’s new property in Bushwick, which will better diversify North Brooklyn’s boutique hotel offerings beyond Williamsburg.
Follow the almost-complete Empire State Trail out of the city; the 750-mile route—America’s longest state trail—will wind its way all the way up to the Canadian border, passing some of the best overnight options when you need a break from the Big Smoke, like Kenoza Hall in Sullivan County, Hasbrouck House in Stone Ridge, and the hotly anticipated Aurum, set to up the Catskills’ wellness quotient in late 2021 with dedicated Roman-themed baths and 36 luxurious rooms.
According to Evolve Vacation Rental, Denver has seen a 200 percent increase in booking queries—more than any other American city—for the coming year versus 2020, perhaps due to the destination’s inextricable link with its surrounding nature as travelers tempt their toes back into the urban environment after a year of quiet. Plus, Colorado’s capital is doubling down on its green initiatives, with ambitious plans to cloak rooftops and parking lots in “urban gardens,” to add 125 miles of bike lanes by 2023, and to have the city running on completely renewable electricity by the end of the decade. A spate of new hotels is slated to open in 2021, including Vib, Catbird, Rossonian, and The Rally. The aforementioned high-design yet quaint boutique behemoth Life House opened its doors in the Lower Highlands in late October, and at the end of the year, the city will swing the doors of the Denver Art Museum back open after an ambitious $150 million renovation.
… And the Road Trips You Missed Last Summer
Travel pundits were quick to anoint 2020 the Year of the Road Trip—a lemons-to-lemonade pivot that gave us some semblance of control over our coveted vacations. But the expected shift back to travel normalcy by late 2021 shouldn’t relegate overland drives to last year; there are plenty of American destinations still worth stringing together, especially the country’s smaller cities that missed out on tourism traffic as everyone headed out into the wilderness.
Try Indy to Cincy: Check out Indianapolis’s new Bottleworks District, a redeveloped section of downtown streets and warehouses that were once a part of the city’s Coca-Cola factory. Then, head through Louisville and Lexington to explore Kentucky’s thriving equestrian culture, not to mention the best bourbon distilleries in the world. Finally, hit up Cincinnati, where a new West End soccer stadium will continue to reinvigorate the downtown and the adjacent Over-the-Rhine neighborhood—so painfully cool it gives the best corners of Brooklyn runs for their money.
Or, go from Nashville to Asheville: Stop along the way in the Great Smoky Mountains, Dollywood, or Chattanooga, where Life House is completing the transformation of an old train terminal into a posh hotel. You’ve likely noticed our affinity for the newly minted hotel group, but that’s simply because it has managed to turn a bleak year in hospitality into a new model that reinvigorates small neighborhoods with high-design renovations of landmark homes, offering the well-heeled a place to rest their heads without the bustle and constant contact of a large, five-star resort. Black Tomato suggests packaging the entire endeavor with a stay at Blackberry Farm or Blackberry Mountain, and an exclusive gallery tour and music experience in the ’Noog.
The big question on everyone’s mind is: When can we travel abroad again? And, once we do, how will trips change in the latter part of 2021? Surely everyone will be keen to make up for lost time, and crowds will no doubt swell—our one wish, if we’ve learned anything from this year, is that there’s something special about enjoying a place slowly. Our international picks for 2021 are a mix of oldies but goodies, classic bucket list adventures, and the perfect destinations for exactly that: a more mindful approach to travel, during which visitors can deeply engage rather than simply be a tourist for a handful of days.
The Maritime Provinces, Canada
Though New Zealand made headlines at it impressively repelled the threat of COVID, our northern neighbors were quietly combating the virus’s onslaught with similar success, especially in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where Newfoundland, also an island, was able to easily shutter itself away from the world.
Often overlooked for farther lands, the Maritimes offers travelers much of what they’d expect to find along the fjords of Norway or pastures of Ireland, but much closer to home and for a fraction of the price. Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital, is getting its first luxury property in 2021; the Muir hotel will help lend the city’s new Queen’s Marque district its upmarket flair. Connect the dots with Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, the region’s first high-end stay where you can watch icebergs float down from Greenland in the early summer and whales puff through the lonely harbors.
Perhaps the best part of the region is its unflagging dedication to all things small-batch, which helps ensure that even when the tourism machine roars back on, visitors will still have the opportunity to indulge in the area’s finest attractions without the threat of crowds.
To say it’s been a lousy few years for the Caribbean would be an understatement. The wind up to the region’s high seasons has been plagued with, well, plague—first Zika and now COVID, not to mention the surge in hurricanes that has devastated several of the islands over the last few years. St. Barts will complete its post-storm transformation in the early spring when Le Guanahani, the island’s largest hotel, reopens as a Rosewood property. In the meantime, Turks and Caicos has emerged during the pandemic as a legitimate contender for the vacationing elite, with some of the best, socially distant villas in the area, and a dreamy renovation of Amanyara’s legendary resort pavilions. Its biggest drawcard? The island chain is only a single, easy flight from the continental U.S., while St. Barts and other perennial faves, like Anguilla, are two—albeit made easier by the efficiency and convenience of shuttle airline Tradewind.
St. Lucia, also a direct flight from the States, deserves an honorable mention for its diligence in controlling COVID. The island is almost fully dependent on tourism and has struck a commendable balance between allowing travelers in while nullifying spread of the virus. Opt for a stay at Sugar Beach, the island’s true hotel gem. Or lay your head at Jade Mountain, most famous for being the destination of many a celebrity honeymoon and designed with distance and airy spaces in mind—all of the modernist suites have a wall open to nature allowing island breezes to flow directly in.
For travelers needing to push an immediate eject button, there’s the island of Mustique in the Grenadines, which, since the start of the pandemic, has been relatively COVID-free. After a pre-departure swab and a test upon arrival, it’ll be as though you’ve leapt far into the future, where house parties are the norm. Bed down at The Cotton House, the island’s only hotel, set among the dozens of privately owned villas.
Riviera Nayarit, Mexico
Free of the predictability of Tulum and the overcrowded beaches of Cancun, the long strand of quiet sand and seaside villages that stretches north of Puerto Vallarta has a more grounded relationship with its environment and ancestry, rising up organically over time and embracing a genuine, laid-back feel. Both the hippie surf town of Sayulita and the village of Mexcaltitan have been designated and preserved as Pueblos Magicos by the government, enshrining their cultural significance. And as the region grows its international attention, so, too, have the world’s luxury hotel brands responded in kind, with the newly opened One&Only Mandarina joining the likes of the Four Seasons, St. Regis, Conrad, and W hotels—Ritz-Carlton plans to open one of its acclaimed Reserve properties here in 2022 as well.
Long the tourism pioneer in Central America, Costa Rica has firmly established itself as one of the world’s great eco-tourism hubs. It’s now leveraging its trailblazing attitude to be the first in the region to welcome tourists back with an open-door entry policy bolstered by a proficient network of hospitals on the ground. Pura Vida stalwarts Cayuga Collection and Nayara have been leading the charge, featuring their get-away-from-it-all properties, like Kura Boutique Hotel’s jungle villas and Nayara Tented Camp, each adorned with a private plunge pool. Cielo Lodge, opening in January, and Hacienda AltaGracia in the Auberge Resorts Collection round out the long-stay circuit. If you’re after more of a beach getaway with a little something extra, the opening of the Four Seasons Residences Prieta Bay at Four Seasons Papagayo ushered in resort vibes—with private, luxury rental-style bookings—to a destination more known for jungle adventure and glamping; we’re eager for the new Six Senses Papagayo to swing open its doors next year, adding another layer of luxury to the area.
This year felt like it was sponsored by Barilla and Ragu as we holed up in our homes and quickly wearied of baking bread. It’s made us miss Italy even more than usual, especially toward the start of the pandemic when it became the epicenter of Europe’s spread. In 2021, we’re eager to employ a bit of 2020’s distancing credo and spread ourselves out across the boot-shaped country, rather than clustering in its usual touristy haunts. Luxury travel planner Jack Ezon of Embark Beyond is already booking clients into the brand-new Castello di Reschio, which will redefine Umbria, and Casa di Langa, a new farm-to-table resort in truffle-filled Piemonte; and in Sicily, stay tuned for the opening of the Four Seasons Taormina at San Domenico Palace and the new Rocco Forte Hotel, Villa Igiea.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is ready to turn his kingdom into a go-to destination for luxury travelers, touting world-class hotels and a slew of archaeological wonders as oil becomes obsolete. And while this next-gen leap comes with a more modern and globalized point of view, the Middle Eastern nation has only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to its greatly lagging gender, sex, religious, and racial equality. The release of tourist visas (instead of pilgrim visas) was hotly anticipated before COVID, however, the extended pause on travel has allowed the country to further refine its offerings, like AlULA, its most significant archaeological treasure, which is poised to become the next Petra. Acclaimed hotel group Aman is launching its sister brand Janu—a more affordable, wellness-focused concept—with four international properties, one of which will be next to the coveted ruins. Book a guided tour with Wild Frontiers for a balanced perspective on this rapidly evolving destination, which includes stops in the ultra-modern cities of Riyadh and Jeddah—both come complete with the same high-end touchstones found in Doha or Dubai.
As premier safari operator Singita makes a concerted effort to strip away the trappings of colonial Britain embedded in its decor, so, too, is there an industry-wide attempt to break some of the vestigial bonds that have long kept the area’s wealth in specific hands. Teresa Sullivan of Mango Safaris cites Nomad Tanzania’s microloans project—which enables guides to purchase their own vehicles outright—as one of the most commendable steps in this direction. Nnko & Smith, a partnership between American safari operator Deeper Africa and a local Tanzanian guiding team, is also setting a new standard of putting tourism dollars directly in the hands of Africans; its first project is a brand-new route up to the top of Kilimanjaro that steers hikers clear of the usual crowds. Sullivan also notes that according to insider intel, only a few mobile camps will be set up in the Serengeti National Park during birthing season of the wildebeest migration. Act fast though: There’s still time to book one of the few remaining beds and be virtually alone as the hordes of animals drop their young.
Like Italy is to Europe, so, too, is there something wonderfully classic about Thailand’s hospitality—the perfect introduction to exploring Asia that has long captivated our imagination. The kingdom has announced visas and exemptions available to U.S. travelers for long-term stays of up to 90 days, and when its borders reopen, we’re heading straight to Bangkok, where the Capella Bangkok and the Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya are anchoring a new riverside district. After eating our way through the city’s signature street food, we’ll hit up the newest picks on Michelin’s 2021 dining list, which showcases Bangkok’s cosmopolitan scene.
Explore Southeast Asia
Beyond Thailand, the rest of Southeast Asia has also done incredibly well (relative to our corner of the world) in reducing the devastating spread of the coronavirus, even returning to semblances of normalcy while borders have been closed. Smiling Albino, known in the region for beating untrodden trails through some of the most compelling yet overlooked destinations in the region, has refreshed its itineraries in Vietnam, where Zannier Hotels has just opened its newest property, Bai San Ho, on the beaches of Phu Yen Province.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, InsideAsia Tours has developed several itineraries that explore the peninsular provinces (think: where the characters of Crazy Rich Asians and the chic men and women who inspired them go on holiday), as well as far-flung Borneo, where the mystical tribes of Sarawak meet the orangutan-filled primordial jungles of Sabah. The recent opening of One&Only Desaru Coast is the first of three new luxury stays that are set to elevate the county’s five-star offerings: The Park Hyatt and Conrad—both in capital city Kuala Lumpur—will debut in 2021.
As the call of Black Lives Matter resonated throughout the world, the movement saw significant groundswell in Australia, as Aboriginal communities campaigned to reestablish their rightful claim to the island continent. In the last few years, tenets of Indigenous life have begun to emerge in mainstream conversations—restaurants are using local ingredients, or “bush tucker,” to enhance their recipes; the contemporary art scene has readily embraced the output from Aboriginal artists; and even the travel industry has become a funnel, delivering funds to communities in need through cultural exchange. The four-day Wukalina Walk is a thoroughly upmarket trek along Tasmania’s lichen-red Bay of Fires, where guests can gain invaluable insight into local lore and traditions. Up in Queensland, Intrepid Travel offers a multiday tour of the hallowed Daintree tropical forest, where guests can take an Aboriginal painting class and listen to ancient creation myths. And in Western Australia, enjoy a day out in Francois Peron National Park—where the red sands of Uluru meet the turquoise sea—with Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures.
We have the U.K. on the brain—especially after bingeing Bridgerton and The Crown—and Scotland is the perfect way to triangulate old-world glamor with countryside estates and otherworldly landscapes. Take the Royal Scotsman, Belmond’s first luxury train route set to return to service through remote lochs and fjords, or check in to the Cameron House on Loch Lomond, which will reopen in April after a sensitive restoration. Edinburgh’s East End gets a boost with the unveiling of the new St James Quarter, as Red Carnation opens its first Scottish property, 100 Princes Street, across town. Direct flights reboot in the spring, when flyers will be reminded that a flight from the American Northeast is the same length as a cross-country haul.