While some vacations involve itinerate days packed with activities from dawn to dusk, others reflect the need for asylum — to venture into nature, away from the crowds, into stillness. Fleeing to the wonders of isolation can be remarkably regenerative. The simple act of exploring the outskirts can feel revolutionary. Whether it’s a placid pond in Massachusetts or a far-flung French estate, there are myriad alternatives to the traditional tourist destinations, many still preserving familiar luxuries of the city.
Renounce no worldly possessions in the extravagant accommodations of a former 12th-century monastery. Wander a bucolic mural of vibrant flowers in the gardens surrounding a breathtaking Irish mansion. Or become one with nature with dinner alfresco, feasting on a gourmet spread of locally grown produce at a scenic farm in Portugal’s Eastern Algarve. Read on for our top recommendations to ditch bright city lights for star-dusted country nights at some of the most charming countryside escapes.
Opulence in Ireland
The Emerald Isle is arguably the epitome of idyllic. Simply mentioning its name conjures images of a lone winding road carving across undulating waves of green countryside, the prismatic horizon speckled in alabaster sheep grazing peacefully in a distant hillside pasture. With dramatic coastal cliffs and sweeping vistas, it comes as no surprise that Ireland’s scenery was cited as the primary reason compelling travelers to visit. From the Cliffs of Moher to the Ring of Kerry, Kilkenny, and Killarney, Ireland boasts enough incredible national parks, peninsulas, and islands for a month-long vacation filled with the ultimate in scenic respite.
In the center of Ireland, at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, might be the most luxurious Regency mansion in the country. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like taking tea in the Gold Drawing Room, tacking up a horse before riding it from the stable, or wandering the library in period-appropriate attire, you can live out your Downton Abbey dream at Ballyfin Demense. Framed in Medieval towers, this romantic five-star estate emanates magnificence on a grand scale, with numerous formal dining and lounge areas fit for a king and queen. With only 20 staterooms, the mansion isn’t so large that it feels overwhelming, especially since there are so many smaller spaces for quiet reflection. Tour the in-house wine cellar, gather near the grand pianist in the lavish Saloon or browse over 5,000 volumes of books in a library warmed by log-burning fires. Then, find the library’s secret bookshelf passageway to the sunbathed glass Conservatory overlooking 614 acres of formal walled gardens like a Monet painting come to life.
A Formal French Fantasy
Gazing over its campestral rolling landscapes dotted with picturesque villages, the UNESCO-designated Dordogne looks as if it were plucked straight from a medieval fairytale. This quiet valley in the southwest of France is a latticework of winding rivers and secluded estates, and although an insider favorite with Europeans, still relatively unfamiliar to the average American tourist.
The Dordogne has all the pieces necessary for the perfect storybook escape. Appreciate the tranquil wonders of nature in some of France’s most celebrated formal gardens, from the geometric hedges and Alice in Wonderland rose gardens of the Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac to the curious maze of winding globular boxwoods at the Jardins Suspendus at Marqueyssac. Investigate the mysterious prehistoric cave paintings lurking beneath the placid countryside. Then, retreat to your warmly-lit guest quarters within a grandiose hilltop châteaux.
For the latter, the regal fortress of Château de la Treyne fits the bill perfectly. Perched atop a limestone cliff overlooking the meandering River Dordogne, this 14th-century marvel is a bona fide castle on a hill. Think towers, washed stonewalls and exposed beams, steep mansard roofs, gothic woodwork and heavy chamber doors. Each room is architecturally unique and designed with its own theme, like Prison Dorée. In contrast with its uninviting name, this two-bath master suite at the top of the square tower is bathed in warm yellow light, with giant windows overlooking perfectly-shaped topiaries of the formal French gardens below.
The restaurant is equally enchanting. Hear the sound of an elegant grand piano wafting through the opulent Louise XIII dining room as you savor elegant dishes crafted by Michelin-starred chef Stephane Andrieu, reimagining celebrated regional cuisine like black truffle foie gras, Quercy lamb and blue lobster from the Dordogne River. From scenic gardens to lavishly appointed accommodations and world-class cuisine, it’s impossible not to be captivated by this mythical Neverland tucked away in the peaceful French countryside.
An Exotic Oasis in Bhutan
Stretching from southwestern Bhutan all the way to the peaks of the Tibetan border is a place renowned for its remarkable landscapes and inexplicable aura of calm: the Paro Valley. Simply getting to this tucked-away retreat is a journey in itself, but the rewards are immense. Make sure to reserve a window seat on your flight for a stunning panorama of the majestic Himalayan range.
The gem of Paro Valley is Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. For an ornate complex of temples clinging to the edge of a sheer cliff nearly 3,000 feet in the air, spectacular is an understatement. Built in 1692, it’s the site where “second Buddha” Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for precisely three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Getting there requires a two-hour climb along a precarious cliff edge; walking sticks can be purchased in the parking lot, but you’ll have to supply your own determination.
For those who plan to conquer this rewarding ascent, we recommend staying at the Paro Lodge at Amankora. Derived from the Sanskrit word for peace, Amankora embraces clean, contemporary design, offering patrons the opportunity to appreciate the treasures of Bhutan from a stately eastern sanctuary beneath soaring Himalayan peaks.