The northern lights over Spitsbergen, Norway // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian Coast // © 2014 Thinkstock
Home to some of the most-visited destinations in the world, Europe is a treasure trove of history, culture and distinctive cuisine. With so much to offer, even seasoned travelers can find something new. Looking for inspired ideas? Consider these six European dream vacations for 2015.
Explore History Along the Dalmatian Coast
Situated along the Adriatic Sea and one of Croatia’s oldest regions, the Dalmatian Coast is quickly gaining a reputation as Europe’s next Riviera. The region’s scenic coastline features craggy bluffs, rolling vineyards, olive groves and lush forests, and its ancient towns feature well-preserved Slavic, Roman, Venetian and Greek architecture.
While the top destinations are Dubrovnik, Split and Sarajevo, Value World Tours’ Balkans and the Adriatic 2015 tour takes visitors to other worthy sights, including Mljet, an Adriatic island which is believed to be where the Greek hero Odysseus was held captive for seven years, and Hvar, home to Europe’s oldest public theater. Korcula, which some historians claim is the true birthplace of explorer Marco Polo, is another itinerary highlight.
Book this trip: Balkans & the Adriatic 2015; 16 days; from $1.799; Value World Tours
Chauffeured Tour of Ireland’s Castles
Ireland’s scenic landscape is known for the gorgeous castles that dot the countryside, and touring by car is the best way to take it all in. Among the more famous sights are Bunratty Castle, a 15th-century gem considered to be the most authentically restored castle in Ireland.
Other popular castles include Ashford Castle, a luxurious retreat located on the shores of Lough Corrib, and the five-star Dromoland Castle Hotel, one of Europe’s top luxury hotels. CIE Tours’ Deluxe and Castle Hotels With a Driver trip is a great way to explore the country in a hassle-free way, while also listening to in-depth narration and insider tips on the best watering holes.
Book this trip: Deluxe & Castle Hotels with a Driver; 9 days; from $1,284; CIE Tours
Private Garden Tours in the City of Lights
With more than 400 parks and gardens, Paris is Europe’s most-wooded capital, and wandering the city’s famed green spaces on Collette’s Gardens of the Loire tour is a unique way to learn about Parisian history. Relive the glory days of King Louis XIV in the Gardens of Versailles or see why the tranquil gardens at Giverny inspired Monet’s greatest works. See how different eras brought new techniques by visiting the Renaissance-style Chateau de Villandry and the medieval gardens at Bois Richeux.
Or, schedule a garden tour and discuss tricks of the trade with caretakers of some of France’s other well-known gardens, including the Chateau de Courances, the Andre Eve Rose Garden and Plessis Sasnieres.
Book this trip: Gardens of the Loire; 8 days; from $2.649; Collette
Ring in the New Year in a Viennese Palace
There’s no better way to get into the holiday spirit than with a cruise through picture-perfect landscapes in Germany, Austria and Hungary around Christmas time, when Europe is at its most festive. On Uniworld Cruises’ Grand Christmas and New Year’s Cruise, stroll through the quiet Medieval town of Regensburg, Germany, where you will enjoy midnight mass in the city’s Gothic cathedral.
Spend the rest of the holiday week enjoying horse-drawn wagon rides through the Bavarian Forest, meeting descendants of Habsburg royalty during a private reception and ringing in the New Year in a Viennese palace, where you can dance the night away.
Book this trip: Grand Christmas & New Year’s Cruise; 13 days; from $5,099; Uniworld Cruises
Ryder Cup Experience
Walk in the footsteps of championship golfers at famed “K Club.” Home to two championship courses — the Palmer Ryder Cup Course and the Palmer-designed Smurfit Course — Kildare Hotel and Golf Club is considered one of the finest golf resorts in the world, and it played host to the 2006 Ryder Cup and the European Open from 1995 to 2007. Guests can stay on-site at the luxurious Kildare Hotel or they can book the adjacent Straffan House, a 10-bedroom private mansion.
Book this trip: Ultimate Ryder Cup Experience; 3 nights; from $626; Kildare Hotel at K Club
Travel to the Icy Edge of the World
With the help of Hurtigruten, channel your inner Viking as you sail from Iceland across the Barents Sea to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago on the brand’s Climate Voyage. Along the way, visit Jan Mayen, one of the most isolated islands in the Northern Hemisphere. Once home to 16th-century Dutch whalers, this settlement — which is located more than 350 miles from Iceland and 620 miles from Norway — is now inhabited by just a handful of people who monitor a Norwegian weather station.
Visitors here are incredibly rare, making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Continuing north, travelers can attempt to cross the 80th parallel near Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island. Even a few decades ago, these waters would have been impassable, and today this is the only place in the world where open waters exist along the frozen edge of the Arctic Ocean.
Book this trip: Climate Voyage; 10 days; from $4,252; Hurtigruten