Everyone has that one trip in their head, the dream vacation they're saving either money or time (or both) for. It's the kind of escape most people get to take only once every several years— if not once in their life. But when the expectations (and budget) are so high, it can be hard to decide exactly where to go. Of course, there are thousands of excursions to choose from, but we've narrowed the fantasy field down to a handful that offer active options as well as plenty of opportunities to relax and soak up the local flavor. All of these trips are virtually guaranteed to meet your "take me away from it all" urges. So grab your calendar, put your travel agent on speed dial, and get ready to make your vacation dreams come true.
Hit A World-Class Dive Spot
The wildlife-rich waters surrounding this chain of islands in Micronesia (it's a two-hour flight from Guam) make diving here a spectator sport. But there's also plenty to see without strapping on an oxygen tank. Shake off your jet lag by taking a kayak trip to Disney Lake. Top guide Ron Leidich, founder of Planet Blue Kayak Tours, or one of his naturalists will lead you on a daylong journey that involves paddling around Palau's famous Rock Islands and into a secluded lagoon you can access only at low tide—through a tunnel ($90; samstours.com). Once inside, you’ll abandon your boat and snorkel around the perimeter. You won't be able to help gaping at the Technicolor coral "forests" you'll be hovering over.
Although there are plenty of ways to explore these islands, the diving will really wow you. Sign up for an outing to the renowned Blue Holes with Fish 'n' Fins (from $130 for a two-tank dive; fishnfins.com). You're apt to see barracuda, turtles, and reef sharks as you descend anywhere from 45 to 120 feet down one of four openings that have formed in the barrier reef (you exit through a cavern).
Finally, you can't leave Palau without experiencing Jellyfish Lake. A 45-minute boat ride from the town of Koror, the landlocked lake is filled with millions of stingless jellyfish. You'll snorkel out into the water and float as the gelatinous creatures swim by you.
Details The beachfront Palau Pacific Resort, on Arakabesan Island, boasts unobstructed views of the sunset (from $350; palauppr.com).
Bliss Out At A Top Spa
If you crave relaxation, self-reflection, and a chance to nurture your body, book a stay at Miraval. The towering palms, cascading streams, and mountain views give this resort a Zen-like feel, but this isn't one of those sitaround- and-chill spas (unless that's what you prefer). There's an unbeatable array of activities, including yoga, horseback riding, mountain biking, and desert hiking, as well as relationship, nutrition, and health classes. An Olympic-size pool, a golf course, tennis courts, and a spa round out the list. The hardest decision you'll have to make is how to spend your day! Miraval is known for its diverse hiking program. Beginner routes are three to four miles long, while B- or C-level climbs cover five to 10 miles and gain anywhere from 400 to 2,000 feet in elevation. After sweating it out alfresco, it’s time to really reward yourself in the 35,000-square-foot spa. Try the Ultimate Ayurvedic Treatment, a massage followed by a Shirodhara ritual, in which the aesthetician pours a stream of warm oil on your forehead.
Details Miraval offers a variety of customizable packages, but rooms start at $535 per night, including meals, a $125 spa credit, and unlimited activities; miravalresort.com.
Head Into The Wild
This state is home to Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, and more than 100,000 glaciers. An actionpacked itinerary takes you to two national parks: Kenai Fjords on the Gulf of Alaska in the south and Denali to the north. Fly into Anchorage, then take the Alaska Railroad 126 miles down to the seaside town of Seward ($69; alaskarail road.com). Book Adventure Class service and you'll get to appreciate the vistas through domed glass ceilings. In Seward, gateway to the famous glaciers of Kenai Fjords, sign up for an excursion with the Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking Company ($375 for a daylong tour; sunnycove.com). You'll take a three-hour boat ride to Aialik Bay, where you'll transfer to a kayak and paddle for two and a half hours (amid crackling icebergs) to towering Holgate Glacier.
From Seward, make your way to Denali on the Park Connection Motorcoach ($135; alaskacoach.com). It's a 10- hour trip, but the spectacular wilderness is worth it. For a one-of-a-kind backcountry experience, splurge on a helihiking excursion with Era Helicopters ($450 for a halfday trip; eraflightseeing.com). A 15-minute flight transports you to a ridge overlooking the Alaska Range for a three-anda- half-hour guided hike.
Details The Seward Windsong Lodge is set on a scenic spot overlooking the Resurrection River ($129; sewardwindsong.com). In Denali, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is just a mile from the entrance to the park (from $269; princesslodges.com).
See Italy On Two Wheels
To heck with a tour bus—the best way to experience Tuscany is by bike. Pedal through the countryside by day, stopping to sample wines and gelato, then stroll around the picturesque towns come evening, ducking into trattorias for the best pasta you'll ever have. Forgo the hassle of organizing your own itinerary and book with a tour operator, like Ciclismo Classico, which specializes in biking and hiking excursions in Italy. Its six-day Assaggio Toscana trip includes one organized wine tasting (you can do others on your own), a cooking demonstration with a local chef, and an olive oil tasting at one of the region's famed presses.
The biking kicks off 25 miles south of Florence in San Donato. The route winds 150 miles through terraced hillsides, hugging the river Arno, to the Renaissance town of Arezzo before ending in the village of Cortona. The terrain is moderate, with plenty of rest stops, but plan to be on your bike for about 30 to 40 miles each day (you can opt for longer routes if you want more time in the saddle).
After an intense day on the road, it's nice to know you won’t be roughing it come nightfall. Instead you'll rest up in unique villas, like Fattoria degli Usignoli ("Farm of the Nightingales"), built by friars in the 1400s and perched 1,300 feet above sea level near San Donato. You'll spend another night at the trendy Vogue Hotel in Arezzo and two final nights in the Villa Marsili, within the town walls of Cortona.
Details The Assaggio Toscana trip starts at $3,195; ciclismoclassico.com.
Surf Down Under
With mountain ranges, volcanoes, lush rain forests, and sandy beaches, New Zealand is a fantasy playground. And with nearly 10,000 miles of coastline, you know the surf will always be up. Find all the good spots by registering for New Zealand Surf Tours' five-day surf safari. It's tailored to beginners, but the outfitter can direct advanced surfers to off-the-beaten-path locations to catch perfect swells.
You'll meet your guides in Auckland, New Zealand’s cosmopolitan center, then head north to the peninsula fittingly known as Northland. Whitesand beaches and cozy harbors dot the east side, while wilder dunes are found on the west. Your base will be in Shipwreck Bay at the northern tip of the country, where you'll stay at the school’s beachfront Ahipara Surf Lodge, which has six bedrooms and a pool. Days start as early as 6 a.m. with two-hour surfing sessions at different beaches within an hour's drive. You'll return to the lodge to eat, then swim, bike, or relax before heading back out for an afternoon session.
While the lure of the ocean is strong, set aside time to check out the city scene too. Auckland is urban, but you still get the feeling of being close to nature. Thrill seekers won't want to miss the Sky Jump—a 630-foot controlled leap (you're guided down by cables)—off the Sky Tower, the tallest tower in the southern hemisphere ($186; skyjump.co.nz). Too much adrenaline for you? From downtown, take the 10-minute Fullers Passenger Ferry ($9 round-trip; fullers.co.nz) to the village of Devonport, which is packed with cafés, boutiques, and art galleries.
Details New Zealand Surf Tours' five-day trips start at $530 (newzealandsurftours.com). In Auckland, stay in the heart of downtown at the SkyCity Grand Hotel. It has luxurious rooms, a day spa, and a heated lap pool (from $225; skycity auckland.co.nz).