Best holiday destinations
We are often asked what are the best holiday destinations in the world. It’s not an easy question to answer because everybody has their own opinion. In other words, it’s subjective.
However, I do have the benefit of more than 20 years of professional travel, during which time I’ve visited more than 80 countries. My fellow editor, David Wickers, was Chief Travel Correspondent for The Sunday Times and has even more experience.
So we think we are in a reasonably good position to tell you the top holiday destinations for 2014 and looking forward into 2015.
Of course, if you are planning a trip with children, you will have specific needs. In that case, I recommend you see our family holiday ideas or – depending on the ages of your kids – our editor’s tips for holidays with teenagers, toddlers or babies.
If you don’t have kids, you might want to skip to our suggested holidays for couples.
If you know when you want to travel, select a month to find our tips. And if you want a bit of fun, try our interactive travel quiz to find what kind of holidaymaker you are – and get personalised suggestions.
Please note that all the travel companies featured on this website are personally recommended by our editors.
Best beach holidays in Europe
It’s hard to beat the Med for sun, sand and summer fun. However, I’m not a big fan of the pile-‘em-high concrete package resorts. Instead, I prefer places where you can enjoy the natural beauty of the region, its great food and friendly people. It’s hard to beat Turkey for all three, a country where the standard of hotels has increased dramatically in recent years.
Another reliable destination is Croatia which has a long unspoilt coastline where you’ll find thousands of islands, some with lovely coves and good-value accommodation. Examples include the island of Hvar, a short ferry ride from Split. Its best hotels include The Riva and the Amfora.
If you want to get further off the beaten track, try neighbouring Montenegro, one of Europe’s fastest growing destinations, which crams mountains, lakes, national parks, historic cities and dozens of tiny beaches into a country half the size of Wales. Check out these excellent places to stay.
Greece offers simple summer pleasures in abundance: sun, great beaches, good cooking and warm seas. If you have children, try the fabulous Sani Resort on a lovely beach in Halkididi. For couples I like the small islands of Alonissos and Paxos.
Crete is the biggest island in Greece, but away from the busy resorts it still offers many untouched fishing villages and boutique hotels in remote rural locations. You could splash out on a stay at the stylish Daios Cove or enjoy the privacy of renting a villa at Pendamodi. If you want more detail, check out these extensive holiday ideas for Greece.
You can’t really go wrong with Italy. The much overlooked region of Le Marche has fabulous countryside and charming villas to rent. Another option is to go south to Puglia where you can could sleep in a luxury masseria or a traditional trullo with private pool. If you want classic style, try the Amalfi Coast.
Unfortunately, a lot of the Italian mainland has inferior beaches. But that’s definitely not the case on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia where you’ll find long stretches of sparkling white sand. Sardinia, in particular, has beaches to match those in the Caribbean. Try Forte Village in Sardinia and Verdura Golf & Spa Resort in Sicily. Or how about a “wellness weekend” at L’Albereta, a boutique hideaway in Lombardy. Discover more inspiration on our dedication page about holiday destinations in Italy.
Spain is one of Europe’s great beach destinations. I particularly like the coast of Catalonia because you have pretty coves, along with authentic fishing villages and a backdrop of mountains. However, if you are looking for long stretches of sandy dunes, you should head way down south to the Costa de la Luz. Most visitors make the mistake of overlooking Northern Spain. That’s a mistake, because this region offers unspoilt beaches, historic towns, mountains, rivers, rolling countryside and low prices. On the other hand, the season is relatively short. You may want to avoid early spring or late autumn.
The Spanish islands of Mallorca and Ibiza both have superb beaches along with great food and pristine countryside, but you will have to steer well clear of the budget package resorts. The “other” Balearic island of Menorca is a great place to unwind. It’s quieter than its neighbours and has some great villas so it’s ideal for families. See more holiday destinations in Spain.
The Canary Islands are only four hours flying time from Britain yet offer sunshine all year round. Lanzarote and Tenerife are two of the most popular islands, and it’s obvious why. You can enjoy a range of watersports, explore volcanoes and national parks, or simply soak up the long hours of sunshine. Find out more about where to go in the Canaries.
France has thousands of great holiday options right on our doorstep, from Paris to Nice. You’ll find some of the best beaches on the islands such as Corsica and the idyllic Ile de Ré on the Atlantic coast. There are also plenty of good-value options such as holiday parcs and self-catering apartments. See lots more options in our pick of the best holiday destinations in France.
Of course, you don’t need to go abroad to find beaches. There are many great holiday destinations in the UK. Check out this range of charming self-catering cottages in Devon and Cornwall, not forgetting the lovely county of Dorset which has a beautiful coastline and some great rental cottages. The Isle of Wight has enjoyed a revival recently as families rediscover its quaint charms, and find a new generation of smart accommodation. However, for the UK’s best beaches try the Scilly Isles.
Not all the best beaches are on the coast. How about the Italian Lakes where you’ll also discover stunning scenery, classic hotels and wonderful food? The best destinations include Lake Como, Lake Garda and the lesser known Lake Iseo.
Please also check out our tips for the best cheap holidays.
Long haul beach destinations
If you are prepared to fly for seven hours or more, you literally have a world of options. The coral sand beaches of the Maldives and the Seychelles are world beaters while Mauritius has some fabulous hotels. If you want to combine beach and city, take a look at Rio de Janeiro, Sydney or Cape Town – which in my opinion are amongst the most naturally beautiful cities in the world.
You’ll find some of the world’s best beach destinations in Asia. For pure tropical sands it’s hard to improve on Thailand, while Bali combines superb beaches with an alluring spirituality. Both Malaysia and Vietnam have amazing stretches of beaches, though you wouldn’t visit either without heading inland to enjoy the cultural treasures. Borneo is growing in popularity, not least because it’s beaches are at their best during our summer (unless many destinations in south east Asia) though here again you should not stick to the coast: see orangutans and visit tribal villages.
The Caribbean is often wrongly thought of as a winter sun destination, but in fact it works year round with many of the best deals in spring and early summer. It’s just a question of picking the island that is right for you. Do you want the busy social whirl of Barbados, the laidback charm of Jamaica or the languid vibe of a small island such as Tobago or Grenada. If you’re a diver, you can’t do much better than the Cayman Islands, while Cuba combines beach and a fascinating local culture.
In South America, Brazil has world-class sands, from Rio to the tropical beaches of Bahia in the north east. It’s a long flight to New Zealand but you’ll be rewarded with some of the world’s most extraordinary scenery, along with great wine, food and friendly people. Try this selection of bespoke holidays.
Best Africa destinations
For excitement and natural beauty, Africa is difficult to beat. This vast continent is not just about safaris – it’s a hugely varied, culturally rich, majestic and eye-popping series of experiences. In the north, Morocco is a country of cultural treasures, mountains and deserts only three hours flying time from the UK. See this selection of short breaks in Marrakech or these longer itineraries.
In spite of its recent problems, I remain a huge fan of Egypt. The capital Cairo is one of the world’s great cities, though you can avoid it altogether with a luxury cruise on the Nile, or a winter sun break on the Red Sea.
And of course there are safaris. In Africa you can choose from 30 different safari types in Kenya, including many sensibly-priced options, or go for the full-on luxury experience in Botswana. If you want to escape the crowds, head to the vast empty deserts and national parks of Namibia. Or if you’re feeling more adventurous, you could embark on a self-drive holiday in South Africa, which is easier than the might think.
West Africa offers great winter sun holidays. The beaches of The Gambia are only six hours flying time from the UK., or you could head a little further to the spectacular islands of Cape Verde – where Africa meets South America.
See our pick of the best holiday destinations in Africa.
Top Asia holiday destinations
Beaches, hot weather and a low cost of living are the main draws in south east Asia. Don’t forget also that you can find some of the world’s best food. The island of Koh Samui – for example – is one of Thailand’s most popular destinations not least because of its long sandy beaches, good nightlife and cheap diving.
Sri Lanka has excellent hotels, great service, spicy food and lots of sights from national parks and elephant sanctuaries to tea plantations and Buddhist temples. India is a glorious assault on all your senses, best seen in “small chunks”. How about a private tour in a chauffeur-driven car with TransIndus. Or kick back on a leisurely tour of Kerala.
Back in south east Asia, Burma is rapidly growing in popularity, and tour operators advise booking well in advance to ensure rooms at the better hotels. The country has an unreal dreamy atmosphere and charming people.
There are few holiday destinations more addictive than Cambodia. The beautiful jungle-clad temple complex of Angkor should be on everybody’s “bucket list”, while the country’s food, great hotels and beaches are all big draws.
Asia also has some astonishing cities. Tokyo combines the world’s most advanced technology with some of its oldest cultural rituals. Beijing is also a beguiling mix of old and new, while, Moscow offers unrivalled cultural pomp and grandeur as well as the political intrigues of the Kremlin. Combine it with a visit to St Petersburg.
If you don’t like flying, why not head to the Highlands of Scotland for a whisky tour or a wildlife tour of the island of Mull where you have a good chance of seeing Minke Whales, otters, seals and porpoises.
Rail is always a relaxing way to travel. Not many people know about the excellent state-owned luxury trains in Spain such as the Transcantábrico and La Robla. One of the classic rail journeys is across the Canadian Rockies on the Rocky Mountaineer.
In Portugal you could take a river cruise along the picturesque Douro Valley then spend a few days in the fascinating coastal city of Porto where you can tour the famous Port lodges. Find more great river cruise ideas in Europe including the Danube, Rhine, Seine and Rhône.
Another great way to see Canada is on a self-drive tour travelling from Calgary to Vancouver and visiting the Rockies, Banff and Jasper National Park along the way. After taking my last family holiday in Eastern Canada, I’m now a huge fan of Québec.
Oman is also a great destination for a self-drive tour – there is so such to see in this wonderful country including a pristine coastline, huge sand dunes, medieval forts and rustic souks. Combined it with the glitz of Dubai or the fast-emerging Abu Dhabi.
Adventure holiday destinations
South America sees relatively few visitors from the UK, but it’s growing fast as many adventurous holidaymakers realise its enormous potential. Argentina is one of the biggest draws, as it’s easy to put together a varied and spectacular itinerary including a tour of Buenos Aires, and visits to glaciers, wild pampas, beaches and waterfalls.
The island of the Galapagos are pristine and dramatically beautiful, but it is the close-up encounters with seals, giant tortoises, marine turtles and exotic birds that make you understand why many people rate is amongst their top destinations in the world.
Closer to home, Iceland is a fascinating country of mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and geysers – like a geography lesson come to life.
Trip of a lifetime? Top contenders include a cruise in Antarctica – the Earth’s most pristine wildernesses. Take a classic Antarctica cruise between November and March to get up close to whales, penguins and icebergs.
See more adventure holiday destinations.
Walking holidays come in various forms. You could take a self-guided hotel-to-hotel walking holiday with Inntravel where you luggage is transported to the next destination each day. Popular routes include the Costa Vicentina coastal walk in Portugal and the Lycian Way in Turkey.
Alternatively, take a walking holiday based at a single location. This involves less packing and is more relaxed. You can also opt for a walking holiday with your own guide with destinations including Morocco and India. Details here.
As cycling becomes increasingly popular, there are many new cycling holidays available. Saddle Skedaddle has trips for all fitness levels in the UK including road cycling and mountain bike weekends in the Lake District, Wales and the Cotswolds.
Summer in the Alps is great value, particularly for families. Head for Belle Plagne in France. Or get together with family or friends and rent a chateau in France with Oliver’s Travels. Examples include Chateau de Tille in the Loire Valley, which sleeps 16 and boasts a swimming pool, and tennis court.
In winter, ski holidays provide a great way to get active and experience the beauty of the mountains. One of the best value ways to hit the slopes is on a ski chalet holiday. For families, we recommend Esprit Ski.
This article was updated on 13 August 2014.