Dream destinations for 2014

Story highlights

CNN Travel staff picks its 2014 wish list

Trips range from heli-boarding in Europe to eating breakfast with giraffes in Africa

Lake Clark might be the most beautiful place you've never heard of

CNN  — 

When a big chunk of your job involves editing stories about other people’s incredible journeys, it doesn’t take long for the ol’ travel itch to flare up.

Wanderlust kicks in.

You spend hours fantasizing about the destinations you’d go if you had unlimited time and money.

In an effort to purge some of that desk-bound day dreaming, the CNN Travel crew put together its own 2014 dream vacation wish list:

Giraffe Manor (Kenya)

Having a giraffe – unscientifically the most beautiful creature on Earth – poke its head through a window to steal your breakfast is a breach of privacy you have to get used to at Kenya’s Giraffe Manor.

The 10-suite Nairobi hotel sits amid 140 acres of forest and has a family of endangered Rothschild giraffes as permanent residents.

Built in the 1930s, the hotel became home to a pair of Rothschilds in the 1970s.

Since then, several generations of giraffes have resided in the area and dedicated Giraffe Center was set up at the hotel by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife as a breeding ground.

What makes this vacation even better?

The hotel food those giraffes keep trying to steal is some of the best in the city.

Giraffe Manor, Langata Road, Nairobi, Kenya; +254 (0)732 812 896/897; open all year except April and May

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve (Alaska)

About 265 kilometers southwest of Anchorage, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is a wilderness filled with razor-sharp peaks, bear, caribou, salmon and the most majestic body of water you’ve probably never heard of.

Lake Clark itself is the milky-green love child of melting glaciers, the central feature of a landscape where three mountain ranges converge into a place so forbidding that few modern travelers will ever set foot in it, though ancient tribes have been inhabiting the area since the end of the last Ice Age.

From nearly every country in the world, visitors converge on Alaska’s touchstone national parks: Denali, Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords.

Together, these parks receive well more than a million visitors each summer.

With no roads leading into the park (visitors arrive by small aircraft), Lake Clark sees about 10,000 people.

“While in the back country it is not unusual to never see another back country party,” says the park’s website.

To rough it in style you can book a trip with Lake Clark Air & The Farm Lodge, which operates scheduled air service from Anchorage and one of the best places to stay outside of a tent.

Lake Clark Air & The Farm Lodge, Port Alsworth, Alaska; + 907 781 2208; day trips from Anchorage from $465; week-long trips (including fishing fly-outs, wildlife viewing, hiking) from $5,500 all-inclusive

Monastero Santa Rosa hotel and spa (Italy)

The nuns that once resided in this ancient monastery would spin in their graves if they saw the lavish hotel and spa it’s become today.

For the bored-of-everything traveler, the newly opened Monastero Santa Rosa sets a new standard of expectation, from centuries-old history and a clifftop setting to an extensive wine list and sublime infinity pool overlooking the Amalfi coast. The scene is completed with church bells ringing in the distance.

The 860-square-foot private Spa Suite has its own spa, lounge and dressing rooms. Though you might never want to leave the room, the hotel has rock saunas, pomegranate-infused foot spas and heated mosaic loungers in a vaulted Roman bath.

When the pampering gets old, you can hit the road for the Amalfi coast, stopping by little towns to shop for silk and leather goods.

Monastero Santa Rosa, Via Roma 2, Conca dei Marini, Italy; +39 089 832 1199; rooms start at €390 ($530) during low season

Ashikaga Flower Garden (Japan)

Space travel to James Cameron’s Pandora in “Avatar” would be ideal, but until that becomes possible, the Ashikaga Flower Park is a close second on the dream destinations list.

Eighty kilometers from Tokyo, the park offers an otherworldly experience – its 143-year-old wisteria looks nearly identical to “Avatar’s” spiritual Tree of Souls, with purple flowers cascading to the ground.

The fairy tale experience continues with vibrant wisteria trellises extending for a thousand square meters.

Others species, such as the rare Golden Chain, dangle in full bloom along dreamy tunnels.

Ashikaga Flower Park, 607 Hasama Town, Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan; +81 0284 91 4939

Avenue of the Baobabs (Madagascar)

Big, branchy and slightly bulbous, baobobs are what trees might have looked like had a six-year-old Salvador Dali designed them.

Two dozen of these surreal stems, that can grow 20 meters up and 10 meters wide, flank a road on the western side of Madagascar near the city of Morondava.

They’ve appeared out of what was lush forest, the smaller shrubs around them cleared by locals for firewood and charcoal production.

Trips to this road are available from local tour groups; the avenue has become one of Madagascar’s most popular attractions, protected by the local government.

As well as representing the importance of preserving this wildlife one-off – Madagascar is the fifth largest island in the world, close to the size of Texas, and contains several thousand species found nowhere else.

This is one of the world’s few “tourist attractions” (it even has a Tripadvisor entry) that remains free of turnstiles, ticket fees and usual add-ons that cheapen so many other “natural” sites.

Visit Mada Tours offers a nine-day “Adventure tour” around Madagascar, including the Avenue of the Baobobs, from $2,175 for two people

Heli-boarding (Switzerland)

Heli-boarding is the ultimate option if you’re into snowboarding.

There’s no need to waste time on a ski lift – just jump on a helicopter sit back and enjoy the view before the pilot drops you off atop a powder caked mountain that’s just begging to be shredded apart.

Heli-boarding isn’t as cost prohibitive as it sounds, with prices ranging between “Uh, my last name isn’t Gates” to “I think I can do that.”

In Switzerland, Snowmotions.com offers relatively affordable packages, with one-day adventures starting from CHF330 ($368) per person, including accommodation and transportation.

The window is short though, with trips only available in March and April each year. Guests can pick from five alpine areas – including one near St. Moritz – each with a variety of take off/landing points and descents to match your skill level.

São Tomé and Príncipe (Africa)

Only 20 tourists a week, according to available figures, rock up at this bi-island nation, the second smallest in Africa.

So what? Kabul probably gets even fewer.

But people don’t avoid São Tomé and Príncipe because it’s dangerous or a dump. They don’t go there because they don’t know where it is.

Unless they’re from São Tomé and Príncipe.

This little speck – or rather specks – off the west coast of Africa is a good candidate for the exotic paradise island of cliché.

For a start, people don’t actually “rock up” here – they wobble across on a cargo ship from Gabon or take an occasional flight from Portugal. Once on-island, there’s … not a lot to do.

Which is the whole point.

You can stay in the crumbling old colonial houses, go bird-watching in the thickly forested hills, drink some damn good coffee. But this is a place whose virtual national motto is “leve-leve” – take it easy.

“Hustle and bustle” is actually a swear word. (OK, not true but it should be.)

The national mood contrasts with the peerless, hip-thrusting style of dance in the clubs of the capital at night.

Oil has been discovered off São Tomé and Príncipe, so you’d better get there soon.

TAP Portugal is the only airline that flies directly to ST & P from outside Africa.

TAAG Angola Airlines flies there from Angola, Ghana and Cape Verde.

Old colonial plantations offer some of the most atmospheric accommodation.

Luxury surfing expedition (West Papua)

Unless you’re a hardcore surfer, chances are you’re not going to want to spend your whole vacation glued to a board in a barrel.

That’s what makes Tropicsurf’s West Papua surfing expedition so appealing for us non-pros.

Cruising through the waters in one of Southeast Asia’s least explored areas on a chartered luxury schooner, guests tailor their own itinerary balancing how much time they want to spend on the waves with all the culture, history and natural beauty on land that comes with a visit to West Papua.

Tropicsurf promises waves for all levels – longboard-friendly or fast and shallow for shortboarding – and says it’s extremely unusual to see another surfer in these parts.

Now about that schooner.

The Silolona has three air-conditioned king suites and two queen suites. It’s a 164-foot replica of an ancient Spice Island Phinisi and kitted out with every luxury. Proof: It was formerly operated by Aman Resorts.

For more info, check out Tropicsurf.net. Price on request only (very expensive)

Northern Lights gazing (Finland)

One of the most impressive places to bed down and gaze up at the Northern Lights is Hotel Kakslauttanen, above the Arctic Circle in Finland.

Though there are other hotels here, none are as appealing as these glass igloos. There are 20 of them, and if the skies are clear and all is aligned, they provide a hell of a show.

With all that glass, privacy is somewhat limited, so guests might want to avoid creating too much of their own show.

Hotel Kakslauttanen, 99830 Saariselkä, Lapland; +358 1666 7100; glass igloos from €177 ($230) per person, including breakfast and evening sauna

Hayman Island (Australia)

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the few spots in the world that leaves you thunderstruck at the awesome spectacle of nature – while giving you an excuse to finally learn to scuba dive.

Combine the urgency to experience the reef before ocean acidification destroys it with a stay on your own private island and you’ve got an adventure you’ll tell your grand kids about.

When renovations are complete in July 2014, the Great Barrier Reef’s One&Only Hayman Island will be a luxury getaway that rivals fellow One&Only properties, such as the Palm Dubai.

Guests take a seaplane flight to survey the area then decide where to dive.

Diving is possible year round and takes in ship wrecks, dolphins, turtles and more.

One&Only Hayman Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland; +61 (0)7 4940 1838