"All I was told was to turn up at Heathrow Terminal 5, bring my swimwear and some glamorous evening wear, and we'd be away for a week," says Londoner Jennifer Phillips, who received a gift she will never forget last Christmas. "When I got there, my boyfriend was there in his linen suit with a little folder that he handed to me. In it were two business-class tickets to the Maldives." Her boyfriend had hired the honeymoon suite, only accessible by boat, at luxury resort Soneva Fushi. "It was definitely the most romantic present I have ever had," she says.
For many like Ms. Phillips, a trip that stays with you forever is a far more poignant and personal gift than an expensive designer item or hastily bought jewelry. It is a chance to create unique memories and experience cultures one would perhaps otherwise never have access to.
Last year, Arathi Cole's husband gave her a trip to Cambodia, organized by bespoke travel company Excursionist, for Christmas. "It was the most memorable gift I could have ever received," says Ms. Cole, of Santa Monica, Calif. "From a private tour of Angkor Wat at dawn to enjoying lunch at a local's house, the authentic experiences we shared are ones we will never forget."
And for some, it is a chance to live out a lifelong dream. Rima Rakhman bought her husband a trip to Rio de Janeiro last year for his 70th birthday. "Ever since seeing the movie 'Orpheo Negro,' my husband has dreamed of being in the midst of Carnival," says the Hollywood Beach, Calif., resident. "I got him special access to the Carnival as a birthday gift. Being there among the Samba schools, the colors, the music—that was an unforgettable experience. To say he liked the gift was an understatement."
From breaking bread with Berbers in Morocco to meditating in a Cambodian monastery, we pick the top experiences that will leave an impression long after touchdown.
If your idea of heaven is having your very own island in the Caribbean for the day without a soul in sight, Los Roques is where you can fulfill your ultimate escapist fantasy. Located in the clear turquoise waters off the coast of northern Venezuela, this archipelago of 350 islands is a protected national park, abundant with coral reefs, sea turtles and bird life.
On the largest island of Gran Roque, a peaceful, charming town with sandy streets and a pretty white beachside church, guests stay in one of a handful of well-run, chic posadas, where meals are included in the price. Each day, guests are taken by speedboat to a different secluded or empty island and set up with a large parasol for shade and an icebox packed with a delicious lunch (some of the bigger islands have cafés); otherwise, you are left to your own devices until the arranged pick-up time. This isn't a holiday for those who require being waited on hand and foot, nor for those who get restless after a half hour on the beach. However, if you want to play laird all day to your pure white strip of sand, with only a few pelicans for company, this is as close to paradise as it gets.
A seven-day holiday to Los Roques starts at €1,380 per person with Journey Latin America (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). The price includes a one-night stay in Caracas upon arrival, airport transfers, a return flight from Caracas to Los Roques and five nights at Posada Mediterraneo with full board. International flights are extra.
Taking in the aromatic spice markets, Berber villages and Moroccan haute cuisine, a three-day culinary adventure in Marrakech is not only a way to improve one's repertoire, but a chance to soak in some history and culture as well.
From a base at Winston Churchill's hotel of choice, the historic Mamounia, you can organize varied itineraries through luxury travel company Boutique Souk. For the foodie, there is a guided tour of the Medina, with a visit to the spice and food markets and a chance to try a tanjia—a local dish of marinated meat cooked in a clay pot. It finishes with a sunset visit to the open-air food market Jemaa el-Fna, where visitors can sample delicacies from sheep brains and snails to tripe (for the less adventurous, there are mint teas and sweetmeats). Day two starts with another trip to the markets, this time to find fresh vegetables, herbs, spices and meat for the day's lunch. Guests are then taken to a traditional riad for a cooking lesson, including preparation of a mezze of Moroccan salads and a tagine, such as chicken with preserved lemon. Afterward, on the riad's rooftop amid spectacular vistas, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor, washed down with local wines.
The final day is an excursion to the Ourika Valley, with a trip to a Berber mountain market. After stocking up on delicious spices, visitors take part in a bread-making course and eat lunch at a local farm. Finish the day with a dinner in a private room in the Mamounia's excellent restaurant, Le Marocain, feasting on dishes such as pigeon pastilla and couscous with spiced Merquez and sausages, while being serenaded by a Berber troupe.
Rooms at La Mamounia (mamounia.com) start at 6,000 Moroccan dirham, or about €535; culinary packages from Boutique Souk (boutiquesouk.com) start at €195 per person, based on a two-person minimum, and include guides, cooking schools, lunches and soft drinks, as well as a car and chauffeur throughout. Dinner at La Mamounia extra.
If your loved one's voyaging interests lie deeper than acquiring a few trinkets and a suntan, this Cambodian adventure may be your ticket to their heart. Organized by Excursionist, it includes the chance to meet with monks and stay in a monastery, dine next to a 1,000-year-old temple and explore Angkor Wat with an archeologist.
Beginning in Phnom Penh, with a stay at Raffles Hotel, the first few days are spent exploring the city's sites, including the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Then, guests travel to Angkor Wat, taking in spectacular aerial views of Prasat Kravan, Srah Srang, Pre Rup, Ta Som and East Mebon temples on the 45-minute flight. After meeting up with the archeologist guide, visitors take a cycling tour (bikes are provided) through the temple complex and north toward the south gate of Angkor Thom, to check out the centerpiece of this ancient city, the Bayon temple. The tour, which also takes in the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of Leper Kings, as well as the famous Ta Prohm temple, ends with a gentle boat ride from the south gate to the west gate of Angkor Thom, where guests are picked up and taken to the five-star Hôtel de la Paix in nearby Siem Reap.
The evening ends with a gourmet dinner under the stars, next one of the ancient temples, with performances from local dancers. The meal, cooked by chefs from Borei Angkor includes local specialities such as Ban hoaw, steamed rice vermicelli noodles with mint, crushed peanuts, pickled vegetables and deep-fried egg rolls; and Kralan, a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk.
The next day, ride in a traditional oxcart to a local monastery. Upon arrival, you will meet with the monks and then begin a course focused on Buddhist philosophy and monastic life. This is followed by a simple dinner and an overnight stay on authentic cots in the monastery. Rise at the crack of dawn to the stirring sound of the drums. After breakfast, you will be introduced to meditation before spending a half day practicing the ancient art in the monastery. The holiday ends with a three-night stay at luxury resort Song Saa (which will open in February), where you can unwind with meditation and yoga classes on this island retreat.
Excursionist (www.excursionist.com) offers its "Ultimate Cambodian Adventure" package from €12,145 for two people, which includes all breakfasts, a special dinner, internal flights and accommodation.
For those who wish to breathe in culture even when asleep, Aman at Summer Palace in Beijing is a retreat from the bustling city, steeped in history. Staying in century-old pavilions adjoining the summer hideaway for China's last royal family, visitors can take calligraphy classes or listen to performances of traditional music in pagodas around the property. However, the real reason for staying here comes when the sun sets and you are granted exclusive, torch-lit access to the palace, usually teeming with people during the day. Share a bottle of Champagne while overlooking the moonlit waters of Kunming Lake.
Over the next three days, explore Beijing and its surrounding areas at your leisure. For a slice of the old way of life in the city center, visit the Hutongs—mazes of courtyard residences based on Feng Shui principles—with lunch at one of the restaurants lining the ancient streets. Continue your tour with a leisurely walk around the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. For an insight into the contemporary art scene, take a day trip to the 798 district, an artists' colony on the outskirts of town where you can see painstaking sand paintings and elaborate street art. Escape from town with a guided tour of the Great Wall; take a picnic along and absorb this snaking piece of history in its full glory. A two-night stay in a one of the nearby private homes not only allows you to be up on the wall at sunrise, but also offers a chance to experience the quiet of rural life. The 90-minute flight to see the Terracotta Army in Xi'an is also worth the effort.
An all-inclusive five-night package, organized by bespoke tour operator Lightfoot Travel (www.lightfoottravel.com), costs €6,256 for two people. International flights extra.
If the thought of solitude, countryside retreats and self-improvement courses bring on an fearsome attack of ennui but you still crave a little peace and quiet, you don't have to leave the city to have an unharried adventure.
The trick is to find a peaceful hotel in a sublime destination. Romantic hideaway Santa Teresa hotel in Rio de Janeiro is situated in the leafy neighborhood of the same name, where crumbling colonial villas vie with street art. Situated above the city, with a view of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, most of the rooms are decked out in furniture by Brazilian designers; choose a suite with a secluded terrace.
It's a short drive to the lively area of Lapa or the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Get away from it all with a walk in the city's lush botanical gardens before immersing yourself in the local culture with a Samba class at the Carlinhos de Jesus dance school. End with drinks on Santa Teresa's candle-lit terrace, followed by a tasting menu of Brazilian dishes at the hotel's Térèze restaurant. Wash your meal down with local beers like Therezópolis and Bohemia.
After a few days exploring the nooks and crannies of the city, including Sugarloaf Mountain and the Oscar Niemeyer Museum, head to Grumari or Prainha beaches, within an hour's drive, or for a romantic getaway, try the car-free Paquetá Island, reachable by ferry.
Tours and excursions can be arranged through Santa Teresa (www.santateresahotel.com), where room rates start at €350 a night, plus taxes.