Top 10 Winter Sun Destinations

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For those living in the northern half of the United States — and at last count 124 million of us are residents in the Northeast and the Midwest alone — the ability to exchange snow for white sand is one of life’s most intense and enduring pleasures. Many years ago I lost count of the times I’ve watched a dismal landscape accelerate through a rain-streaked window at JFK to be replaced a few hours later by lush green grass and breeze-ruffled palm trees. This winter, COVID has curtailed our choices, but it is still possible to escape the cold and the dark. Many countries are extremely anxious to see American travelers return and are trying their best to find ways to welcome us back. After researching the current requirements and restrictions, I have identified 10 areas of the world where, with a little planning and a modicum of inconvenience, it is possible to enjoy a blissful respite from winter. Of course some risks still remain, but air travel is now widely considered to be safe if all sensible precautions are observed. And on arrival you will be able to relax on your terrace, perhaps swim in the ocean, and eat outside in the warm-scented air of the tropics.

British Virgin Islands


Most publicity photographs of the British Virgin Islands dwell on luminous white sand and azure sea, but looking back on my numerous visits there, another image invariably comes to mind. From the Ridge Road on Tortola, at an elevation of around 1,500 feet, there is a panoramic view across the glistening archipelago — four main islands and more than 50 islets and cays — that returns to haunt me on dark winter evenings. Often, I have stopped my car to gaze down at the dozens of yachts cruising along the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the principal marine highway of the Virgin Islands and one of the great sailing destinations of the world, and lingered for a quarter of an hour or more, enraptured by the splendor of the scene.

At the time of writing, the BVI are planning to reopen to American travelers on December 1. As with much of the Caribbean, tourism is a mainstay of the islands’ economy, and the financial damage has been severe, not least because the shutdown followed the catastrophic hurricanes of September 2017. One of the resorts that I recommended for many years, Peter Island, remains closed to this day. But other Harper properties like Rosewood Little Dix Bay, Guana Island and Necker Island have recovered and are ready to receive new guests.

Little Dix Bay underwent a complete renovation and now, by all accounts, is better than ever. For me, its situation on a gleaming crescent of white sand, with calm water ideal for a long, leisurely swim, will always set the resort apart. Necker Island was demolished by Hurricane Irma, but a substantial tranche of Richard Branson’s millions has been spent to good effect, and it is ideal once again for those willing to throw money to the trade winds for a sybaritic private island vacation with an extended group of family or friends. And of course, during the COVID pandemic, a chartered yacht is one of the best ways to take a holiday in a controlled and secure environment; the Andrew Harper Travel Office, in conjunction with our partner All Yachts Worldwide, will be happy to provide information about costs and availability.

Dominican Republic


Predictably, my first trip to the Dominican Republic took me to Punta Cana at the country’s eastern tip, the high-profile resort and residential development pioneered by the late fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. That initial visit was more than 25 years ago now, but the enclave remains an idyllic place in which to enjoy a traditional tropical vacation, surrounded by brightly painted buildings, manicured grounds and expanses of dazzling white sand. Today, I recommend Eden Roc Cap Cana, which comprises 65 accommodations ranging from Beachfront Suites to Ocean Villas. A five-minute drive away, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Punta Espada golf course is frequently cited as being among the best in the Caribbean. (Its rival for preeminence, Pete Dye’s famed Teeth of the Dog course, lies an hour by car to the southwest.)

In recent times, however, I have found myself drawn increasingly to the Dominican Republic’s unspoiled northern shore, first to The Peninsula House, a plantation-style guesthouse on the Samaná Peninsula, and then to Amanera, a jungle retreat of just 25 minimalist casitas set above the majestic crescent of Playa Grande. True, this area is harder to get to than Punta Cana, but there are direct flights from major U.S. cities to the airport at Puerta Plata, from where it is a 90-minute drive (or 20 minutes by helicopter) to the resort. For me, Amanera is essentially a place to relax and gaze at the ocean — in which passing whales can be spotted from mid-December to late March — but here, too, there is an internationally renowned golf course, Playa Grande, designed originally by Robert Trent Jones Sr., which offers no fewer than 10 ocean-facing holes.

At present, travel to the Dominican Republic is relatively easy. A negative COVID test is not required to enter the country, but selected travelers are tested upon arrival. All passengers must submit to a temperature check and fill out a health affidavit.

St. Barths


Along with Barbuda, Anguilla and the BVI, St. Barths was flattened by the two hurricanes of 2017. In comparison, the COVID crisis has been little more than a severe inconvenience. (At present, visitors are required to have a negative test that was taken within 72 hours of arrival. Those staying longer than seven days must take an additional test on the eighth day at their own expense.) One of the properties worst affected was Eden Rock – St Barths, one of my recommended resorts, set high on a promontory overlooking the Baie de St. Jean, at the heart of the action, close to the island’s capital, Gustavia. Part of the Oetker Collection, a hotel management company that includes such iconic properties as Le Bristol in Paris, Eden Rock has been fully restored and now offers the new Sand Bar restaurant under the supervision of star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

The people-watching on St. Barths can be extremely diverting when the superyachts come calling in high season, and a new social nexus will doubtless be provided by the reinvented Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf. But when I want to relax and hide away, I invariably head for one of the 22 secluded villas at Hôtel Le Toiny, overlooking the rugged coastline at the southeastern tip of the island. On one stay, I wandered from my bedroom to the plunge pool and back again for three days of uninterrupted indolence.

A disadvantage of St. Barths at present is that it is impossible to fly there direct from the United States. As the airport’s runway is only 2,170 feet long, it is suitable only for turboprop aircraft; even small private jets can bring you only as far than neighboring St. Martin. But this drawback fades into insignificance on arrival. With its red-roofed houses, rampant vegetation and postcard-perfect harbor, St. Barths is unquestionably the prettiest island in the Caribbean. And despite its reputation as a billionaires’ playground, it always seems a friendly place to me: stylish without being snooty. People often ask which is my favorite beach, and truly I have no idea. There are so many to choose from, each lovelier than the last. What more could you want from a tropical island?

Grenada


Grenada offers palm-fringed beaches, as well as a dramatic interior of emerald mountains laced with hiking trails and waterfalls. Its colorful capital, St. George’s, has a picturesque location straddling a ridge, sloping down to a natural harbor. Small manufacturers make fine artisanal chocolate, rum and nutmeg-based products — Grenada calls itself the “Spice Island” — often on former plantations dating back a century or three. And enigmatic petroglyphs decorating boulders and rock faces around the island remain as a testament to Grenada’s deeper history.

The island nation has somewhat strict entry rules, but they can be incorporated into a relaxing vacation. In addition to having a negative COVID test before arrival, visitors must spend a minimum of five days at an approved accommodation. Starting on day four, visitors can move about after a negative PCR test, or they can remain at their hotel for the duration of their stay.

Fortunately, remaining at Silversands, classified by Grenada as a “Pure Safe” hotel, is no great burden. I knew I would like the 43-room resort the moment we arrived. Beyond the airy lobby, a 330-foot infinity pool extends to the sea, the longest pool in the Caribbean, apparently. The resort lacks the bright colors I associate with Caribbean décor, opting instead for a stylish and more restrained Asian-inspired design. In our Penthouse Level King room, a bed and sofa faced a sweep of glass doors leading to a sea-view terrace. The spacious bath afforded similarly splendid views from its floor-to-ceiling window. I had a wonderful time lounging beside the almost ridiculously lengthy pool, and when I wanted a change of scenery, I decamped to a poolside daybed within the tranquil spa.

After spending a few days at the resort unwinding, I recommend an excursion or two, perhaps chartering a sailboat to snorkel around the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, and/or touring some of the islands’ flower-filled gardens or picturesque waterfalls.

Hawaii


The Hawaiian archipelago holds a unique place in the American travel imagination. It is at once an “exotic” place and as much of a U.S. state as New Jersey. Its volcanic landscapes often look like visions of archetypal paradise, and the surrounding ocean is home to a rich array of marine life, ranging from sea turtles to migrating humpback whales. The state kept teasing us mainlanders with ever-changing dates when it would reopen to tourism. At last, we can now travel there and not quarantine as long as we have a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival.

I must admit, I’ve returned to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island more times than strictly necessary for Hideaway Report purposes. Photos don’t do the 252-room resort justice. The design of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill doesn’t reveal itself until you experience it firsthand. The delightful indoor-outdoor feel of the building now seems familiar, but it was the Mauna Kea that started the trend. The beach, well-supplied with loungers and umbrellas, remains as enticing as ever, and playing the oceanfront golf course is always a pleasure. I also relish relaxing in the Copper Bar, a soaring indoor-outdoor space with sublime views of the coast.

All the hotels we currently recommend in Hawaii are similarly large, except for one hideaway on Maui. Those willing to forgo doorstep access to the beach will find tranquility at the 72-room Hotel Wailea, set amid 15 acres of mature tropical gardens (the resort’s beach club is five minutes away via a complimentary SUV transfer). The key to happiness is reserving an Ocean View Suite, which has unobstructed panoramas from a hillside. The view from the main restaurant’s lanai was also inspiring, both at sunset and at breakfast. And although the pool has no view, I very much enjoyed reclining beside it in one of the comfy cabanas. For travelers in search of a peaceful and plush retreat, and one less than an hour from Maui’s airport, the Hotel Wailea is a fine choice.

Baja, Mexico


Since the southern portion of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is a desert, the weather is reliably favorable for outdoor activities and dining. The stretch of coast between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo can feel overbuilt, but the region also includes a high concentration of superlative resorts. When ensconced at one of our recommended properties, I find it hard to want to be anywhere else. Even so, excursions are very worthwhile. Because tourists tend to confine themselves to a narrow belt, it’s surprisingly easy to escape them. On our last visit to southern Baja, we delighted in a hike amid the oasis-like freshwater pools dotting the boulder-strewn Sierra de la Laguna nature reserve. We even snorkeled with sea lions beneath the sea cliffs of Isla Espíritu Santo, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Of the properties I currently recommend in the area, the Auberge group’s 59-room Esperanza has the highest rating. Its beaches are well-suited for lounging, if not for swimming, which is better accomplished in its double-decker oceanview infinity pool. Spacious accommodations also have fine views of lawn and sea from broad terraces. But the crowning glory of the resort is its main restaurant, Cocina del Mar. On two fingers of rock extending into the sea, well-spaced candlelit tables are interspersed with flickering torches. The combination of surf, rock and fire feels at once primal and luxurious.

It’s also easy to picture myself returning to Rosewood’s 84-room Las Ventanas al Paraíso. Like Esperanza, Las Ventanas has doorstep access to superlative golf. Its beach is also not swimmable, but relaxing in one of the property’s beach cabanas, complete with its own plunge pool, feels deliciously indulgent. Even entry-level Junior Suites are almost 1,000 square feet and come with scenic terraces.

On my next trip, I look forward to trying out the brand-new 141-room Four Seasons Los Cabos at Costa Palmas, located north of Cabo Pulmo National Park on Baja’s East Cape, well outside the main tourist fray. All Mexican airports are currently open to Americans and no testing is necessary, though arriving passengers will be subject to health screenings, including temperature checks.

Costa Rica


As of this writing, Costa Rica is on the shortlist of countries I hope to revisit in the near future. The entry restrictions are not especially onerous; at press time, these included ample health insurance, but no testing requirement. The itinerary below combines a stay inland with a spell by the sea, exploring contrasting aspects of one of the world’s most spectacular ecosystems.

Start at the 46-bungalow Nayara Gardens, ideally located near Arenal Volcano National Park, a three-hour drive northwest of San José’s airport. (Families should also consider the new Nayara Tented Camp, and couples might prefer the adjacent adults-only Nayara Springs complex.) Reserve an air-conditioned Rainforest Villa, with exquisite hardwood floors, dark Balinese-style furnishings and soaring cane ceilings. I loved to start my mornings on the expansive terrace, watching hummingbirds dart by, the outline of the volcano just visible through the jungle. I especially enjoyed our guided hike along the hanging bridges of Mistico Park. The Arenal area can be touristy, which makes the otherwise splendid region an ideal choice right now, while visitor numbers are down.

From there, it’s another three hours west to one of Costa Rica’s plushest resorts, the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. Its main building occupies a narrow isthmus, and its 181 air-conditioned accommodations overlook the coast and/or tropical dry forest. This resort is quite large, but there’s something to be said for Four Seasons’ uniform high standards just at present. The well-positioned Cielo rooms are appealing, but of course, I love the suites. As soon as we saw the terrace of our huge Canopy Plunge Pool Suite, we ordered ourselves a room service lunch to take full advantage of it. Families can have even more privacy at one of the residences on the property. Indeed, this resort, with its four swimming pools, two beaches and seaview golf course, could hardly be better suited to a family vacation. It’s only about 45 minutes from the Four Seasons to the international airport at Liberia, from which it’s possible to fly nonstop back to the United States.

Ecuador


For those who require a brief retreat from the cares of the world, Ecuador is an ideal destination. This small country has an extraordinarily rich diversity of natural wonders that includes the Amazonian jungle, the temperate cloud forests of the Andean highlands and, of course, the Galápagos archipelago. In such places, contemporary worries seem far away. Currently, a COVID test must be taken 10 days prior to entering Ecuador — 96 hours before going to the Galápagos — and travelers must have a safe passage document and health insurance.

Most of the islands of the Galápagos remain unspoiled and uninhabited. Their situation allows an astonishing ecosystem to thrive, one that includes creatures as varied as sea lions, giant tortoises, marine iguanas and the only penguin species found in the tropics. Landscapes veer dramatically from moss-draped forest to cactus-speckled desert, often on the same small island.

Many people tour the Galápagos on a cruise, but a hotel base may suit some travelers better at present. Most recently, I stayed at the 12-room Pikaia Lodge, a sculpture-filled resort on the island of Santa Cruz, perched on a hilltop amid 75 acres that have been replanted with 9,000 native trees. Seeing giant tortoises was a highlight of our explorations near the hotel, but the real fun was had aboard the property’s yacht. We alighted on North Seymour Island, where red-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs skittered away across the black lava boulders and male blue-footed boobies danced, lifting one periwinkle foot after the other. Nearby, we snorkeled in clear shallow water as playful sea lions swirled around us.

The 24-room Mashpi Lodge makes an excellent companion property to Pikaia, having a similarly contemporary style but an utterly different setting in a cloud forest about three and a half hours northwest of Quito. Mashpi’s private 3,212-acre enclave is surrounded by a public reserve of 42,000 acres, part of one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots. We spent one blissful morning beside feeders that attracted dozens of iridescent hummingbirds, and an afternoon on a hike to an exquisite waterfall. And from an observation tower, just after sunrise, I could see the tops of nearby hills poking through the clouds below, like jungle islands in the sky.

French Polynesia


For nearly all of us, the past few months have been extremely stressful, so the prospect of a complete change of scene is even more alluring than usual. An eight-hour flight from Los Angeles, French Polynesia consists of 118 islands sprinkled across an area of ocean almost the size of continental Europe. Bora Bora, a 50-minute flight from Tahiti, is the embodiment of the South Pacific fantasy, and the physical beauty of its lush mountainous landscape has to be seen to be believed. Every possible paradisiacal cliché has been written about the place and, incredibly, most of them are true. Whenever I return and catch my first glimpse of the electric-turquoise water of the lagoon, I experience the same rush of exhilaration that I felt on my first visit back in the 1980s.

These days, my preferred resort is the Four Seasons Bora Bora, a property of 108 overwater bungalows and seven villas, set on a private motu (islet), all with panoramic views of the main island and 2,385-foot Mount Otemanu. An equally seductive alternative is provided by The Brando, a resort set on the private island of Tetiaroa, once owned by Marlon Brando, which lies a 20-minute flight north of Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. There, 35 one- to three-bedroom thatched beachfront villas come with private decks, plunge pools and outdoor tubs. The Brando is certainly not inexpensive, but it is one of those places that, if your budget permits, really are worth the considerable outlay. Aside from the luxurious accommodations and the delicious cuisine, for me much of the resort’s appeal derives from its pristine natural surroundings. The snorkeling is astonishing, and for those who would like to learn more about the environment, tours are offered to nearby research stations.

From the onset of the COVID pandemic, the authorities in French Polynesia have been conspicuously keen to protect their tourist industry, and all quarantine measures have now been lifted. Prior to boarding, travelers must submit proof of an approved negative RT-PCR test carried out within three days prior to their international air departure. Currently, a self-test, provided by French Polynesia, must be taken four days after arrival.

Kenya


Flying all the way to East Africa during a pandemic may not seem like a very sensible idea, but in fact it is not quite as crazy as it sounds. For a start, there is now a nonstop 15-hour flight from New York to Nairobi on Kenya Airways, which means it is no longer necessary to change planes at a European hub and incur the inevitable health risks. The Kenyan authorities are also desperate to lure American travelers back to the country — the economy is heavily dependent on tourism, which is also a major source of employment — so U.S. citizens are not required to quarantine and must only show proof of a negative PCR-based test conducted within 96 hours of arrival. Safari companies now strive to make their clients’ progress through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as seamless as possible, and then immediately transfer them to a game park, well away from Nairobi and potential sources of infection. Much of the time on safari is spent in the fresh air, taking game drives aboard open-sided vehicles or going on escorted walks in the bush. And of course it is usually possible to eat outside.

Wildlife areas, until recently synonymous with overtourism, are semi-deserted, and it is possible to see the majestic grasslands much as they were 30 years ago. In the Maasai Mara, I am particularly fond of Mara Plains Camp, an atmospheric property of just seven lavish tents set on raised decks and surrounded by the 35,000-acre Olare Motorogi Conservancy adjacent to the national reserve. Due to a constant source of water from the Mara River, this area has a huge population of animals year-round and the game viewing is seldom short of sensational. A contrasting experience is provided by Sirikoi, a sumptuous property of four tents, a two-bedroom cottage and a self-contained three-bedroom house, located in the Lewa Downs private conservancy, within sight of the snowcapped 17,057-foot peak of Mount Kenya. Even in these unprecedented circumstances, an East African vacation is a viable option, and by going on safari you can also help to sustain conservation efforts and community development projects that have been severely disrupted by the abrupt loss of funding.

The information in this article was correct at the time it went to press. However, for the latest information, please read 25 Destinations Open to Americans.

By Andrew Harper Editor Andrew Harper editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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