Winters loom long, dark and, often, bone-achingly brutal in the northern reaches of North America. And snowbirds of the feathered and human variety know to head south for relief from plunging temperatures and a freeze on alfresco fun.
But why stop your own vacation migration at standby destinations such as Florida and Mexico? Swap hemispheres and seasons for a true summertime escape from Old Man Winter that adds something exotic to the equation.
“It’s about people just wanting a new experience,” said Margaret Labar, manager of One Stop Travel in Orlando, Fla., about the popularity of southern hemisphere travel destinations during North America’s winter months. “People are looking to get away from the norm.”
And the Southern Hemisphere is loaded with out-of-the-box haunts that offer all the luxuries of North American and European resorts.
Whether you’re looking to luxuriate on a South American beach that’s a bonafide supermodel breeding ground, or go on safari to South Africa, we’ve sussed out the most indulgent destinations for slipping out of the cold and into something entirely more agreeable.
With daily nonstop flights to capital cities such as Buenos Aires, Santiago and Sao Paolo from most major American airports, South America is easy to reach from the continental United States.
For a beach experience so stylish and sexy it puts South Beach to shame, set your sights on Uruguay. Punta del Este (less than an hour by plane from Buenos Aires in nearby Argentina) has been called many things: the St. Tropez, the Hamptons and the Monte Carlo of South America. There are Brazilian and Argentinean supermodels galore during the peak summer months (December to February).
And from this place, the money does ooze—not only in the flashy casino at the uber-luxe Conrad Hotel, but in the beautiful harbor, too, where you can tap your toes to the rhythm of bobbing yachts while enjoying fresh seafood washed down with medio y medio, Uruguay’s national drink.
“Punta is very seasonal. In the summer you have three times the people than in the off season, it’s like everything explodes,” said Montevideo resident Franco Vidiella. “Everything you see here is over-produced—from the women, with their beautiful clothes and tans, to the cars and the clubs.”
For more beauty on the beach, head a few hundred miles north of Punta del Este to the beaches of Florianopolis on the island of Santa Catarina in Southern Brazil.
Floripa, as Brazilians call this California-esque coastal enclave, is as renowned throughout Latin America for its golden beaches as it is for the golden-haired bombshells that abound—Germans, Polish and Italians colonized the South of Brazil, explaining the Giselle Bündchen look-a-like phenomenon that’s unmissable on the beaches here.
“Floripa is recognized as a top-end beach place in Brazil,” says Sao Paolo tourism executive Francisco Costa Neto. “They have some great seafood there, too, so it’s really the best of both worlds.”
The eastern beaches, particularly Praia Mole, draw international surfers and gorgeous groupies for good waves in a strut-your-stuff atmosphere, while the southern beaches, popular with Santa Catarina locals, are emptier due to the colder water, rocky shoreline and more remote access (many require hiking in).
Ponta dos Ganchos, an hour north of Santa Catarina, features 20 oceanfront bungalows on an isolated peninsula. With private saunas and plunge pools, it's Floripa’s most indulgent place to stay.
For a Brazilian island experience even farther removed from the mainland masses, set your sights on otherworldly Fernando de Noronha, an archipelago of 21 volcanic islands located roughly 215 miles off the northeast coast of Brazil and accessed by flights from Recife.
“It’s very Turks and Caicos. It’s unbelievable,” said Costa Neto about the area, “It’s probably one of the most amazing places in Brazil.”
Some 70 percent of the archipelago is designated national marine park, and the diving in Fernando de Noronha is considered the best in Brazil. Eight luxury bungalows at Pousada Maravilha were built to blend with the natural surroundings, but submerged mountain ridges jutting from the cerulean sea make this place seem from another planet.
Back on the South American mainland in Chile, the famed Lakes District has serpentine rivers, hauntingly beautiful waterfalls and twelve major lakes, all bound by snowy peaks and dormant volcanoes. Fairy-tale villages conjure Switzerland in South America, and the dry season—November to April—is an idyllic time to visit. Surrounded by acres of gardens, the sublime Hotel Atumalal near the town of Pucón overlooks LagoVillarica and claims to be a ‘Bauhaus Palace in the wilderness’ designed by famed Chilean architect Jorge Elton.
And the last stop in South America is Los Llanos, the rugged prairie lands of Venezuela’s wild west. Dubbed one of the world’s richest tropical grasslands by the Nature Conservancy, the Llanos’ ecosystem revolves around the mighty Orinoco River, which nurtures abundant bird, fish, reptile and mammal life, including crocodiles, pythons, pumas and capybaras (semi-aquatic mammals that look like overgrown guinea pigs). This region is veritable cowboy country, and whether you’re making a river crossing or bumping down the road in a 4x4, your path is likely to be interrupted by herding cattle.
“The sunsets and sunrises in the Llanos are absolutely gorgeous because there are no mountains,” said Zulay Stempel, owner of Tiempo Libre Tours in Caracas, “The skies are all bright oranges and pinks. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“Especially when you come from a big city with so many problems and congestion ... you think ‘how did anyone ever get here?’” said Stempel. (These days, the answer to this logistics question is frequent flights and buses from Caracas to the main Llanos villages of Apure and Barinas.)
In keeping with the region’s rugged allure, most lodging in the Llanos is rustic, with several family-run pousadas along the Orinoco. Hato el Cedral has air-conditioned cabins on a working cattle ranch, and runs excursions into the grasslands.
The southern hemisphere safari continues in South Africa, where the Eastern Cape is the latest buzz destination for intrepid wildlife enthusiasts keen to escape the crowds at well-tracked game parks such as Kruger National Park.
Hundred of miles of largely untouched coastline along the Eastern Cape pairs with inland wildlife reserves. And happily, luxury doesn’t get lost in the off-the-beaten-path shuffle. Our lodging pick is Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, an over-the-top Relais & Chateaux property with private plunge pools and wildlife viewing decks in the main lodge’s nine suites. The surrounding habitat is home to lions, cheetahs and leopards.
In Zambia, Victoria Falls is consistently ranked among the world’s natural wonders. Located along the Zambezi River on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the falls are perhaps most aptly and poetically described by a Zambian tribe that called them ‘the smoke that thunders.’ At the end of the wet season, in April and May, the curtain of water stretching more than a mile long and plunging 100 meters deep is at its most wild. Sometimes the spray is so thick that it’s impossible to discern the falls themselves. During the dry months, when the river is at its lowest, you can walk along the lip of the falls and peer down the cascade. There are miles of hikes in the area suitable for all abilities, and if you bring your passport you can cross the bridge into Zimbabwe.
“I had no idea that the falls were so enormous and that the drop was so far,” said Beth Krauklis of Orlando, Fla., who visited in September of 2007. “When you’re head-on with the falls, it’s almost the same sensation as being at the Grand Canyon—you can’t imagine how it was made, it’s so much bigger than us.”
The River Club, roughly 11 miles upstream from the falls, offers luxury thatched ‘chalets’ overlooking the Zambezi River. At night, you can often hear lions roaring in the nearby national park, and hippos lurk at the river’s edge.
Australia and New Zealand
Located three blissfully remote miles off the coast of Northern Queensland in Australia, between Cairns and Townsville, the private paradise of Bedarra Island ups the Down Under ante when it comes to exclusivity. Modern villas wrought from glass and wood peek from the rainforest, and tumbled granite boulders on the beach contrast with the surreal sapphire of the Coral Sea. Daytrippers aren’t allowed on the island, leaving this far-flung slice of paradise to you and a maximum of 31 other privileged guests.
In New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds, on the north end of the South Island, the good life goes down as easily as the wine region’s renowned Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. Rent a canoe or kayak from an outfitter in Nelson to explore the area’s waterways (cheeky seals and dolphins will likely approach your vessel), or hike or mountain bike through native forests along the Queen Charlotte Track. The Lodge at Paratiho Farms, a Relais & Chateaux property in Nelson, offers six dream-inducing suites on a 2,000-acre working sheep farm where the cuisine—sourced locally, for the most part—is some of New Zealand’s finest.
Farther south on the South Island, along the shores of crystalline Lake Wakatipu, is Queenstown, a snowboarding and skiing Mecca that maintains its adrenaline-junkie status in the summer months. There’s river rafting, canyoning and bungee jumping, if you’re so inclined. Great golf courses abound. And three minutes north of Queenstown lies an escape like none other—the Blanket Bay Lodge, where guests often choose to arrive by helicopter for a true escape from it all.
Wrought from native New Zealand timber and stone and sitting on a lakeshore that bristles with trout and the reflection of the majestic Southern Alps, the lodge is all about solitude in stunning surroundings. And from a perch overlooking the mirror-like lake, with the warm southern sun upon you, the chill of the Northern Hemisphere winter feels precisely half a world away.