Perhaps the most rewarding for the discerning adventurer are those smaller nooks of ravishing beauty, many reachable only by car or boat or trail. On world maps, these gorgeous villages and towns are marked only by the teeniest pinprick, assuming they appear at all. None are a secret, exactly, but their very size—often held in check by their physical remoteness—can make them tricky to reach all the same.
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
Český Krumlov is but a speck on the map: a vermilion-roofed hamlet cradled in a carpet of green, nestled in an S-shaped loop of the Vltava River in Southern Bohemia. And it’s been a paragon of idyllic small-town life for centuries. Admire the wealth of Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque architecture, the best examples of which are found in its impressive castle. Take in its old-world charm, which comes in a package of tangled streets, cobblestone alleys, and buildings coated with peeling paints of pale yellows, greens, and pinks.
Santa Maddalena, Italy
this little mountainous village in the Dolomites—flanked by jagged, snow-capped peaks, and green rolling hills—is the stuff of alpine dreams. South Tyrol, the region the town calls home, refers to the southern part of Austria and gives the historical context for why signs here read in German, Italian, and the local language of Ladin. The food you’ll find in the handful of restaurants is a similar cultural mix, and this scenic inland town is also a skier’s paradise come winter. It’s not teeming with nightlife. It doesn’t have many hotels. Stay a few days, go on a few of the hikes that are only a short ride away, and immerse yourself in the beautiful quiet.
Known primarily for its ski resorts, the Rocky Mountain hideaway that is Banff feels magical whether or not there’s powder on the ground. Along with being the access point to the national park of the same name—which, in and of itself, is one of the most beautiful places in Canada—Banff is a masterclass in pairing a stacked itinerary with near-perfect mountain views. Hit the slopes, traverse the national park, spot bears and elk sliding across alpine lakes, or soak in hot springs—and, once you’re all tuckered out, top it all off by checking into a world-famous hillside hotel that looks more like a castle more than it does a casual place to stay.
St Ives, Cornwall, United Kingdom
This former fishing village has blossomed into a bite-sized capital of culture, with an acclaimed arts festival each September and a Tate gallery all its own. But those are just the headline acts. Four golden sand beaches line the headland, with Atlantic breakers on one side and sheltered turquoise waters on the other. The harbor-side “downalong” neighborhood is an enchanting labyrinth of higgledy-piggledy cottages, boutique craft stores, and lots and lots of artist studios. St Ives, you see, has something that no architect can dream up, that no urban planner can commission: a natural light of such majesty that people cross oceans for it. It’s what’s been drawing creative types to the town for almost a century, from blockbuster names like Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth to amateur enthusiasts wielding their first set of watercolors.
Wanaka, New Zealand
Flying into Queenstown airport over the Southern Alps, always try to snag the window seat. The airport that serves Queenstown and Wanaka is set dead center in this desert range, which in the winter are more spectacular than their northern namesakes. Overshadowed by adventure-sporty Queenstown, tiny Wanaka is the real gem of this region. The quiet streets of downtown are set next to a majestic mountain lake, where families picnic and tourists swim in the shadow of the grand peaks that shine almost pink against the blue sky. For the grandest view of the city, climb up the world’s tallest waterfall via ferrata at Wildwire Wanaka’s Lord of the Rungs. Here, you’ll traverse metal rungs nearly 1,300 feet up the side of a cliff, with a cascading waterfall just in front of you.
Port Douglas, Australia
Humid, breezy Port Douglas could easily double as the Caribbean, where mountains shine five shades of green and cascade into dreamy blue waters. This town might be on the mainland, but it still operates on island time (set to a chorus of English you’re not completely familiar with). Intermingling with wealthy vacationers you’ll find backpackers and dive bums shouldered up at the Ironbar Saloon, preparing to hike the Daintree Rainforest or dive the Great Barrier Reef. And once you’re ready to move along, the hour-long drive to Cairns along the Captain Cook Highway is a stunning, tropical version of the Pacific Coast Highway.