Life is too short and the world too big to confine your travels to the well-worn paths. Whatever your dream adventure may be—climbing a high peak, rafting a wild river, or immersing yourself in an exotic culture—you can make it a reality with careful destination research and the right outfitter.
To whet your appetite, we’ve chosen seven classic and far-flung world destinations ripe with adventure opportunities, and we’ve recommended outfitters who can take you there. Rather than listing the companies with the lowest prices, we’ve selected operators who have regional expertise, make safety and conservation top priorities, and can provide an experience that is truly an adventure of a lifetime.
Africa: Climbing Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro
Of all the seven summits—the tallest mountains on each continent—Africa’s 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro may be the most attainable peak to bag. Most routes up the mountain are not technical, but altitude sickness, bad weather, and other difficulties keep 50 percent of those who attempt it from making the summit. However, by training in advance and climbing with an experienced outfitter, your chances of summiting increase dramatically.
“Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Stacia Zukroff, a Major Excursions leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club who led a trek to the summit this past winter. “The great thing about the climb is that anyone in reasonably good shape can do it—you don’t have to be a super star.”
Yet the relative ease of the climb doesn’t diminish Kilimanjaro’s awesome presence. The highest free-standing mountain in the world, Kilimanjaro soars 16,000 feet above the savannah of northeastern Tanzania. Once an active volcano, the mountain now has five distinct climate zones, making for dramatic changes in scenery as you hike. Treks climb from a rainy tropical forest belt filled with squawking monkeys and birds to a freezing, glaciated summit. “It’s like climbing from the equator to the artic in a matter of days,” says Damon Corkin, Manager of Kilimanjaro Programs for Thomson Safaris.
Thomson Safaris, a company that has made treks and safaris in Tanzania its sole business for the past 24 years, offers a Western Breach Route trek that ascends the mountain from its less-traveled western side. It’s the only route that passes through the mountain’s volcanic crater. After hiking along the Shira Ridge and scrambling up the steep face of the Western Breach, trekkers spend the night before summiting at 18,750 feet. The next morning, the group makes a final brief push for the summit. Thomson budgets nine days for the trek rather than the usual five or six allotted for most Kilimanjaro trips, giving climbers a longer time to acclimatize and a greater chance of summiting. The success rate is nearly 100 percent. Prices for the trek start at $5,090 per person and include round-trip airfare from Boston to Kilimanjaro. Add-on fares from other U.S. cities are available.
The World Outdoors’ eight-day trek approaches the summit from the popular Machame Route, which some say is Kilimanjaro’s most scenic. Treks start at $1,895 per person, not including airfare.
Getting there: Many U.S. flights stop in Amsterdam and connect to Kilimanjaro on the Dutch carrier KLM. January flights from Boston to Kilimanjaro International Airport cost about $1,500 round-trip, plus taxes.
When to go: It’s possible to climb Kilimanjaro any time of the year, but it’s best to avoid the rainy season, which runs from late March through May, and the short rains, which occur in November and last into December.
Asia: Trekking in Bhutan
The idea of trekking in the Himalayas conjures up images of jagged snow-capped peaks, monasteries bustling with red-robed monks, and a gentle people whose lives center around a spirituality long forgotten elsewhere. But, with warring rebels disrupting tourism in Nepal and Chinese suppression threatening Tibetan culture, finding Shangri-la is getting harder.
Enter Bhutan, a peaceful Himalayan kingdom south of Tibet, where the culture and environment remain relatively untouched by the outside world. A country the size of Switzerland with a population of about 750,000, Bhutan has made a concerted effort to protect its land and people, and has only been open to restricted tourism since 1974. Strict travel regulations and a hefty daily visitor fee keep visitation very low, with fewer than 9,000 tourists arriving in 2004.
If you do visit “The Land of the Thunder Dragon,” you’ll find these limitations to be a good thing, allowing you to see isolated villages and monasteries, nomadic yak herders living as they have for centuries, and a landscape unfettered by development and environmental damage. “Bhutan is one of the most pristine places on earth,” says Cathy Anne Taylor, a Mountain Travel Sobek guide with more than 15 years experience leading Himalaya trips. “Oftentimes you won’t see any other westerners.”
Two years after Bhutan opened to tourism, Mountain Travel Sobek became the first company to lead treks in the country. It now operates several Bhutan itineraries, including a trek to the base of Chomolhari. At 24,000 feet, it’s the most sacred mountain in Bhutan and home of the goddess Chomo. Led by Taylor, the trek begins in Paro with a warm-up hike to Taktsang Monastery, or the Tiger’s Nest, which is perched on a cliff 2,700 feet above the Paro Valley. On the 10-day trek that follows, participants have the opportunity to hike through thick rhododendron forests, cross high mountain passes, and interact with local yak-herding families. Rates for this well-appointed trek start at $4,550 per person, which includes Bhutan’s $200 per day visitor fee. Airfare is extra.
A leader in Himalayan travel, World Expeditions offers an 11-day “Bhutan: Dragon Kingdom” trip, an itinerary that combines visits to the Taktsang Monastery and other historic sites; and a seven-day trek from Paro to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. Prices start at $2,750 per person, including the $200 per day fee. Airfare is extra. Longer treks to Chomolhari and other destinations can also be booked.
Getting there: Most treks (including those mentioned above) begin in Paro. Druk Air, the only airline that serves Bhutan, offers flights from Bangkok, Thailand, for around $740 round-trip. November flights to Bangkok from the West Coast start around $600 round-trip, plus taxes.
When to go: April, October, and November are the best months to visit. Avoid the summer monsoon season, which runs from June through September.
Australia/New Zealand region: Exploring New Zealand’s South Island
Ask Kiwis (not the feathered kind) why anyone should fly halfway around the world just to get outdoors and they’ll tell you to come because New Zealand’s South Island is the adventure capital of the world. Although that sounds like national pride talking, the South Island—with nine national parks packed into an area the size of Illinois and natives that seem to have more adrenaline than blood in their veins—more than lives up to its reputation.
“You are surrounded by soul-searing natural splendor everywhere you go,” says New Zealand native Amanda Jones, a writer and photographer. And, with thrill-seeking Kiwis always looking for new ways to experience that splendor, there are more than enough adventure activities in the mountainous interior and along the coast to keep you busy for weeks. It’s impossible to experience it all on one visit, but a good outfitter can set you up on a multi-sport itinerary that takes you to some of the island’s top adventure destinations. You could do it cheaper on your own, but guides can take you places you’d never find yourself.
Hiking, or “tramping” as it’s known in New Zealand, should be a mandatory part of any New Zealand adventure tour. The New Zealand Department of Conservation designates six hiking routes on the island as “Great Walks,” but the 28-mile Routeburn Track, which connects Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Park, is the locals’ favorite and is less touristy than the more popular Milford Track. For more a rigorous excursion, you can climb in Mt. Cook National Park, where Sir Edmund Hilary trained before tackling Everest.
There’s plenty to do along the coast as well. One classic outing is kayaking through Milford Sound, a fjord on the southwestern coast where dolphins frolic in the water and sheer granite cliffs rise up thousands of feet to snow-capped peaks.
For a good taste of South Island’s smorgasbord of adventure activities, try Active New Zealand’s “Rimu” trip, which combines some of the island’s best hiking, sea kayaking, and biking into one 14-day romp. For the hiking portions of the trip, guides opt for more off-the-beaten-path routes, like Angelus Circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park and the Routeburn Track. Rates start at $2,499 per person, excluding airfare.
Hiking New Zealand’s 10-day “Secret South” trip includes kayaking in Milford Sound, hiking in Fiordland and Mt. Cook National Park (including a portion of the Routeburn Track), and an exploration of Catlins Coast. Rates start at $780 per person plus $14 per day for food and camping. There is an extra $58 fee for sea kayaking.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from the West Coast to Christchurch, the start point for most trips, making a stopover in Auckland en route. Round-trip airfare in January starts around $1,670, plus taxes.
When to go: The best weather for hiking occurs December through March, summertime in the Southern Hemisphere.
Antarctica: Cruising the Antarctic Peninsula
“If adventure is an opportunity to take risks while experiencing the rare and the extreme, then Antarctica should be at the top of everyone’s adventure list,” says Prisca Campbell of Quark Expeditions. “It is the coldest, windiest, and highest continent. But in the summer months of the Southern Hemisphere, it is warm and densely inhabited by animals and birds that can only be seen in their natural habitat by those willing to trek to the bottom of the globe.”
The easiest way to experience the continent is to travel by ship from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Antarctic Peninsula, an 800-mile-long arm of ice and rock that reaches out towards the tip of South America. Once you arrive in the Antarctic region, you may depart your ship and explore the Peninsula and its surrounding islands by Zodiac or kayak, on foot, or even by scuba diving.
“Easily one of the most stunning parts of the trip is passing through the Lemaire Channel, a one-mile wide channel flanked by sheer cliffs of ice and stone,” says Scott Kish, director of the National Geographic Society/Lindblad Alliance. Of course, viewing wildlife is also a highlight of any Antarctic trip. “The amount of wildlife that people traveling to Antarctica will see is amazing,” says Kish. Multiple penguin species, orcas, humpback whales, leopard and fur seals, and albatross are all possibilities.
Lindblad Expeditions runs a 15-day trip to the Peninsula aboard the recently christened National Geographic Endeavor, the flagship of a new alliance between Lindblad and National Geographic. Each departure features eight to 10 expert naturalists, historians, or biologists, including at least one from National Geographic. Boyd Matson, the original host of National Geographic Explorer, and Kim Heacox, author of Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge, are scheduled for upcoming trips. Double-occupancy rates start at $8,490 per person. Airfare to the trip’s starting point in Santiago, Chile, is extra (airfare from Santiago to Ushuaia is included).
Quark Expeditions, a company that specializes in polar travel, offers a similar itinerary on a choice of four vessels. Expedition team members include top experts in history, wildlife, and polar exploration. Double-occupancy rates start at $4,895 per person aboard the Orlova. Airfare to the trip’s starting point in Ushuaia, Argentina, is extra. In the fall of 2006, Quark will run two 14-day emperor penguin safaris to the Weddell Sea where you can see the stars of March of the Penguins in action. This is a real treat, because most Antarctica Peninsula expeditions do not allow you to see emperor penguins. Double-occupancy rates start at $11,995 per person
Getting there: LAN Airlines flies to both Santiago and Ushuaia from the U.S. Round-trip January flights, excluding taxes and fees, cost about $840 round-trip between Miami and Santiago and about $1,080 between Miami and Ushuaia.
When to go: Most trips run during Antarctica’s summer, November through March, with January and February offering the warmest temperatures and most hours of daylight.
South America: Wildlife watching on Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands
You don’t need to go to Antarctica to see penguins, travel back in time to witness prehistoric sea monsters, or go to Sea World to swim with sea lions. You can do all this, plus see dozens of animal species that cannot be found anywhere else, on a tour of the Galapagos Islands. Situated 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, this volcanic archipelago comprises 13 major islands and many more islets and reefs. Called “a little world within itself” by Charles Darwin, these islands are home to numerous beautiful and bizarre species of birds, mammals, and reptiles that are uniquely adapted to life on their isolated outposts.
One of first things you’ll notice when you visit is many animals approach humans without fear, having lost that instinct after millennia of living without predators. You’ll be able to get within feet of dancing blue-footed boobies, sea-faring iguanas, and frigate birds inflating their ruby throats.
“The Galapagos is nature at its very finest, and most visible,” says Mark Grantham, general manager of Galapagos Travel. “This is a place where you might well have to step off a trail to go around a nesting seabird because it sees no reason to move in your presence… where finches or mockingbirds may land on your head or shoulder… where playful sea lions frolic with you while you snorkel.”
Each island is unique and many species are endemic to only one or two islands, so you the more islands you fit in, the richer your experience. Get the most out of your visit by booking at least a week on a sea-based boat tour. You’ll spend your nights aboard the ship and days exploring the islands and snorkeling or kayaking in the sea. All trips include the services of at least one certified naturalist, a requirement by the government designed to help protect the Galapagos’ unique flora and fauna.
Ecoventura, a family-owned adventure company based in Ecuador, offers seven-day tours aboard the Eric, Flamingo, or Letty, all 20-passenger first-class motor yachts. Double occupancy rates start at $1,865 per person. Ships sail from San Cristobal and stop at Genovesa (Tower), Isabela, Fernandia, Santiago, Bartolome, Santa Cruz, and Espanola. Airfare, a $100 Galapagos National Park fee, Ecuador departure tax, and gratuities are extra. Shorter five-night trips are also available.
For a longer voyage and a chance to spend more time on more islands, try Galapagos Travel’s 11-day itinerary aboard chartered 16-passenger motor yachts. Sailing from Baltra, this photographer-oriented tour visits North Seymour, Espanola, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, Rabida, Genovesa (Tower), Bartolome, and South Plaza. Double occupancy rates start at $3,850 per person. Airfare, a $100 Galapagos National Park fee, Ecuador departure tax, and gratuities are extra.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from the U.S. to the Galapagos. From the U.S., first fly to Guayaquil or Quito. Round-trip fares from Miami in October start around $300, plus taxes. From mainland Ecuador, you can fly to either Baltra or San Cristobal in the Galapagos. Flights on TAME or Aerogal start at around $334 round-trip, plus taxes.
When to go: Located on the equator, the Galapagos is a year-round destination. The weather is slightly warmer and wetter December through May.
North America: Rafting Idaho’s Salmon River
Only by boat can you penetrate the heart of the largest national wilderness area in the lower 48 states, Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Your route: The Middle Fork of the Salmon River, one of the premier rivers for whitewater rafting in the world with 100 rapids over 100 miles. With no dams, no roads, and no motorized boats, this nationally designated Wild and Scenic River remains almost as untouched as it was when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the area almost 200 years ago.
“The river starts at around 6,000 feet in a thick alpine forest with narrow, technical rapids,” says Grant Porter, owner of the rafting outfit Middle Fork Rapid Transit. “Later, the river opens up into high sage desert—the river widens and the fishing is great. At mile 70 you’ll enter the Impassable Canyon. Here bighorn sheep scale the sheer granite walls while eagles ride the thermals above.”
Raft trips on the Middle Fork usually run five to six days, with each day bringing new challenges and ever-changing topography. A typical day starts out with breakfast on the river’s edge, followed by a few hours of rafting. Lunch brings you back onshore, with opportunities to hike, soak in one of the river’s natural hot springs, or examine Native American pictographs. After a few hours of afternoon rafting, you’ll make camp on the river’s sandy beach while your guides prepare dinner.
The aptly-named Middle Fork Rapid Transit only runs Middle Fork trips, so guests can be sure their guides know every twist and turn in the river. They’re also gourmet chefs. Rates for their six-day float start at $1,766 per person.
For a longer ride, O.A.R.S., one the top rafting companies in the country, offers a 12-day trip that combines six days on the Middle Fork with six days on the more placid Main branch of the Salmon. Prices start at $2,846 per person. Trips that only include the Middle Fork start at $1,783.
Getting there: Stanley, ID, the launching point for most Middle Fork trips, is about a three-hour drive from Boise.
When to go: Most outfitters offer trips from June through September. The river runs cold and high early in the season, becoming warmer and lower as the summer progresses. Late June through mid August is considered peak.
Europe: Island hopping along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast
Made up of more than 1,000 islands and home to multiple national parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast has a myriad of natural and cultural wonders to explore. Dubbed “the next Riviera” by GQ, the coastal and island gems of the Adriatic are finally being rediscovered by many travelers 10 years after the end of the Balkan war.
“All along the coast you can see villages with white houses and red-tiled roofs perched on the side of cliffs above the blue, blue water of the sea,” says Harvard grad student Anna Rudberg, who recently returned from a year abroad in Eastern Europe. “The water changes color depending on the weather and light, but sometimes it’s the most spectacular turquoise.”
On the mainland, you can visit the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik, a place called “paradise on earth” by George Bernard Shaw; and Split, an ancient Roman city with ruins dating to the third century A.D. You can travel by ferry to some of the bigger islands like Mlejt, the island where Ulysses stayed for seven years in the Odyssey; and Hvar, which has one of the best preserved towns in the region. However, the best (and sometimes only) way to explore the smaller islands, such as those of Kornati Islands National Park, is by sailboat or other small craft.
On Wilderness Travel’s 10-day “Sailing the Dalmatian Coast,” guests experience the best of the mainland and the islands by cruising port-to-port aboard the Nostalgija, an 82-foot sailing yacht. Trip highlights include tours of Dubrovnik and Split; stops on the islands of Mljet, Korcula, and Hvar; and visits to Krka and Kornati Islands national parks. Between stops, guest can hike, swim, and snorkel. Rates for 2006 departures start at $3,895 per person, excluding airfare and some meals.
Frugal travelers can opt for Intrepid Travel’s seven-day trip that takes in Dubrovnik, Split, and Krka National Park. Guests also travel by ferry to Mljet. Trips cost $825 per person, plus local payment of 100 euros. Airfare, meals, and museum admissions are additional.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Croatia, but you can easily connect to Dubrovnik or Split from major European gateways such as London or Frankfurt. Flights from New York in June 2006 start around $1,300 round-trip, plus taxes.
When to go: Take advantage of warm, sunny weather and lighter crowds by visiting in May, June, or September.