Whether your idea of the trip of a lifetime involves climbing one of the most formidable peaks in the West, kayaking side-by-side with 50-foot whales, or cycling through the vineyards of Tuscany, you don’t have to spend your life’s savings to do it. In fact, it’s possible to plan amazing adventures in the world’s most exciting destinations for under $1,000.
Sea kayaking with whales in Alaska’s Inside Passage
Outfitter: Alaska Discovery
Price: $895 per person
Imagine paddling a sea kayak over dark, quiet waters, surrounded by thick evergreen forests and high mountains, when a whale the size of a Greyhound bus breaks the surface next to you, blowing a 10-foot spout in the air. It does not hurt you or disturb your tiny boat, but continues taking breaths, unconcerned about your presence in its realm. Sound like a once-in-a-lifetime event? For some, maybe, but not if you kayak during the summer months off Point Adolphus in the Inside Passage, where you’ll find the highest concentration of marine mammals in Alaska.
“I have seen whales from a boat but nothing compares to kayaking with them and hearing them sing from our tent,” says Jeff Eastmead, who visited the area on a three-day kayaking and camping trip with Alaska Discovery. John Baston, a guide for the company, explains that the area is an important summer feeding ground for “the most consistently cohesive pod of humpback whales in all of southeast Alaska, if not the entire north Pacific coastline.” There are also sea lions, porpoises, sea otters, and killer whales.
The area is tightly controlled to protect the wildlife, and Alaska Discovery, because of its record of stewardship, is one of the few outfitters permitted to run tours in the area. The company’s three-day “Whales of Point Adolphus” tour allows you to spend days kayaking with the whales and nights camping on an island in the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest left in the world, where you can, indeed, hear the whales breathing at night.
You’ll paddle at a leisurely pace of four to five miles a day so you can spend most of your time watching the wildlife, exploring the shoreline, or even fishing (if you have a pole and license). Beginners are welcome, but you should be in good shape so that you can manage paddling against strong currents.
The $895 tour includes guides, an orientation, kayaking and camping gear, a round-trip boat charter to and from Point Adolphus, and gourmet camping cuisine (which often includes freshly caught halibut or salmon). It’s recommended that guests stay the night prior to the trip at the Alaska Discovery Inn in Gustavus (the trip starting point) to avoid missing the tour’s early departure time. For more details, visit the Alaska Discovery website. Alaska Discovery is owned by Mountain Travel Sobek, a leading adventure travel company.
As for the best time to go, Baston says, “June is a delightful month for weather, but the whales are most dependable in July and August.” Gustavus, Alaska, can be reached by air taxi or an Alaska Airlines flight from Juneau.
NEXT >> Cycling in Tuscany
Cycling in Tuscany
Outfitter: World Expeditions
Price: $990 per person
Cycling may well be the ideal way to tour Tuscany. You’ll be able to see a lot, winding your way over the region’s hills, past vineyards and olive groves, and through medieval towns quicker than if you went on foot. And, you’ll still be able take in the relaxed pace of life—breathing in the scent of cypress trees and hearing the sounds of church bells—something you’d miss traveling by car or train.
Lots of companies operate bike tours in the region, and many of them are incredibly expensive, easily more than $500 a day. However, World Expeditions, one of the top adventure travel companies in the world, sells an eight-day self-guided Tuscany cycling tour for under $1,000.
The package covers accommodations and breakfasts at local B&Bs, daily luggage transfers, a 21-speed bicycle, bus and train transfers, a contact who can provide repairs and assistance if necessary, and an information kit containing detailed maps and sightseeing guides. You’ll follow the 183-mile itinerary at your own pace each day, stopping for meals and sightseeing wherever you like. B&B owners at your appointed accommodations will help point you on your way each morning.
You’ll start in Montecanti, famed for its 14th-century therapeutic spas, and then cycle through olive groves to Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, where you can view some of the artist’s drawings. After a train transfer the next day to Lucca, you’ll bike through towns near the Lake of Massaciuccoli until you reach Pisa. Over the following days, you get to take in the vineyards and rolling hills of Sienna and Chianti until your tour terminates in Florence.
The tour inclusions are noted above. You are responsible for covering lunch and dinner and sightseeing expenses. For more details, visit the World Expeditions website.
This tour commences on Saturdays between April 19 and July 1, and between August 26 and October 7. The tour schedule avoids most of July and August, summer’s heaviest tourist period, when prices and temperatures are at their highest.
The lowest average airfare we found from New York to Florence for travel between August and October is $564 round-trip (before taxes) on Austrian Airlines.
NEXT >> Biking the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park
Biking the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park
Outfitter: Magpie Adventures
Price: $215 to $835 per person
Named after an ancient kingdom in the biblical Holy Land, Moab, Utah, is something of a “Promised Land” for mountain bikers. Set amongst fiery red rock canyons between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Moab is the base camp for both beginner and expert mountain bikers planning to explore the region’s extensive network of trails.
Of these, the 84-mile-long White Rim Trail is the one ride not to miss. “The White Rim Trail is a desert classic,” says Maggie Wilson, co-owner and guide for Magpie Adventures. “It’s in Canyonlands National Park—one of the most beautiful places on earth—and it’s got all of the features a good trail should have: big downhills, challenging climbs, easy rolling terrain, and stunning views.” Located in the Island in the Sky district, a high mesa carved out by the Green and Colorado rivers that soars 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the surrounding area, the White Rim Trail follows a light-colored sandstone shelf that encircles the vertical red rock mesa walls.
Magpie Adventures, one of five mountain bike outfitters permitted to operate in the park, offers one-, three-, four-, and five-day tours of the 84-mile trail. “The terrain is compatible for experts to beginner mountain bikers who are in good physical condition and know how to ride a bicycle,” says Wilson. “We recommend beginners split the 84 miles into a four- or five-day trip. Fit riders can do it in three days, and very fit, avid cyclists enjoy our one-day trip.”
Maggie Wilson and Mike Holme, both veteran mountain bikers with more than a dozen years of guiding experience, are the sole owners and guides of Magpie Adventures. Their company’s small size allows them to give clients personalized service from the initial tour booking through the end of trip.
Depending on your tour length, you’ll bike a portion of the trail each day with Maggie or Mike while the other follows in a four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying the group’s gear and maintenance equipment. You’ll camp in reserved sites along the trail and eat freshly prepared meals made from organic locally raised produce and meats. Some afternoons you may have time for a hike to search for Native American ruins and petroglyphs or get a closer look at some of the park’s sandstone spires, arches, and canyons. “More than just providing a fun experience, we like to share knowledge about the desert ecosystem and rich cultural history. We educate people about the incredible value and fragility of Canyonlands’ resources,” says Wilson.
White Rim Trail tours range from $215 for the one-day ride to $835 for the five-day tour. Costs cover professional guide services, four-wheel-drive vehicle, round-trip transportation from Moab to the park, park entrance fees, and meals. You can rent camping gear and a mountain bike or bring your own. Bikes can be rented for $40 to $75 per day, depending on the type of bike selected. To learn more, visit the Magpie Adventures website.
The optimal times for mountain biking in the Moab area are mid-March through May, and September and October. During the exceedingly hot summer months, Wilson recommends finishing your ride by 11:00 a.m. to avoid heat exhaustion.
Moab is relatively isolated from major cities. From Salt Lake City (238 miles north) you can connect to the small Canyonlands Field via Salmon Air.
NEXT >> Diving Belize’s barrier reef and the Blue Hole
Diving Belize’s barrier reef and the Blue Hole
Outfitter: SunBreeze hotel and Aqua Dives
Price: $943 per person
The largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, Belize’s 185-mile-long barrier reef is second only to Australia’s, and a lot closer and cheaper for North American divers. Here you can experience more than 70 species of hard coral and 400 species of fish, plus three of the Caribbean’s four rare coral atolls and one of the most coveted dive sites on earth—the Blue Hole.
Ambergris Caye, a narrow, 25-mile-long island located a 20-minute flight from Belize City, is the most popular base for exploring the reefs. Many hotels and dive shops on this laid-back island sell dive packages, but the seven-night deal offered by the SunBreeze hotel and its on-site shop, Aqua Dives, is a particularly good value. For $805, the package covers seven nights’ accommodations, four local two-tank dives (with weights, belt, and tanks), one night dive, a snorkeling trip to Shark Ray Alley, and round-trip airport transfers.
Popular local reef sites such as Cypress Garden, Victoria Cavern, Mayan Princess, and Tackle Box Canyon can be reached by a short boat ride. “Groupers, barracudas, sting and eagle rays, turtles, and nurse sharks are commonly seen here, as well as reef sharks, dolphins, and manta rays from time to time,” says Julia Edwards, SunBreeze’s general manager.
For an extra $138, you can upgrade the night dive to a full-day excursion to the Blue Hole and two other sites in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. More than 400 feet deep and 1,000 feet across, the Blue Hole is an ancient limestone cave whose ceiling collapsed, forming a perfectly circular reef. Its depth in comparison to the reef around it produces its color, causing it to look like a deep blue iris staring out of the paler blue Caribbean. You’ll dive to a depth of 130 feet, where you can swim among the cavern’s massive stalactites and limestone pillars and catch a glimpse of some of region’s most fearsome fish: bull, reef, and hammerhead sharks.
The $805 base package price is good for visits between April 20 and December 20; peak-season stays cost an extra $100. For more information, go to the SunBreeze Hotel website.
The diving is good year-round, but you may want to avoid the peak hurricane months of August and September. Average round-trip fares from New York to Belize City start at $620 (before taxes) on Northwest Airlines for travel in November.
NEXT >> Climbing Mt. Rainier
Climbing Mt. Rainier
Outfitter: Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI)
Price: $795 per person
At 14,410 feet, Washington’s Mt. Rainier might only be the fifth-highest mountain in the lower 48, but it’s also the most extensively glaciated volcanic peak in the contiguous U.S. Rainier has a greater topographical prominence than K2, making it an ideal training ground for professional climbers planning Himalayan ascents, and one of the most desirable summits for amateur mountaineers to bag. It’s also one of the most treacherous mountains in the country, and half the climbers who attempt it have to turn back before reaching the summit.
However, with an experienced, safety-conscious guide, even beginners can make the summit. “You need no previous mountaineering experience to climb with our guide service,” says Tim O’Brien, who guides for RMI, the leading outfitter on the mountain. “As long as you are in the best shape of your life, you can reach the summit of Mt. Rainier.” With 38 years of experience on the mountain, RMI boasts a summit success rate of 85 percent and employs some of the top mountaineers in the world as guides, including Peter Whittaker and Ed Viesturs.
While the goal of RMI’s climbs is to reach the summit, safety is the company’s first priority, which is one reason why 3,000 of the 10,000 people who attempted Mt. Rainier last year went with RMI. “As a mother of three kids, safety is very important, and I chose RMI because safety is so ingrained in everything they do,” says Jonatha Wey, who made the summit with RMI on her first-ever technical climb in 2003.
RMI’s three-day climb begins with a full day of training at the company’s climbing school, where you’ll learn the basics of mountaineering and safety techniques such as self arrest (stopping yourself with an ice axe if you fall on an icy slope.) Here, instructors will monitor your progress to make sure you’re fit enough for the climb. The first day of the ascent, you’ll hike from 5,400 feet in the alpine zone to Camp Muir on the Muir Snowfield at 10,060 feet. Your summit bid begins at 1:00 a.m. the next morning, when cool temperatures make the ice firmer and easier to traverse. Most climbers reach the summit at Columbia Crest around 8:30 am, after trudging up the steep Disappointment Cleaver ridge, navigating around glacial crevasses, and walking across the steaming summit crater.
Rates for the three-day trip include instruction at the climbing school, guides, group equipment and technical hardware, and accommodations at Camp Muir. You’ll have to provide your own personal equipment and meals on the climb. If you don’t have mountaineering equipment, RMI will rent everything you need except socks and underwear for $400. You can also rent items like ice axes and crampons a la carte. Visit the RMI website for more information.
The climbing season runs from May through September, but conditions tend to be best in July and August. RMI base camp is located just outside Mount Rainier National Park in Ashford, Washington. The nearest major airport is in Seattle, and is a 70-mile drive.
NEXT >> Hill-tribe trekking in Vietnam
Hill-tribe trekking in Vietnam
Outfitter: Imaginative Traveller
Price: $955 per person
For many travelers today, “Vietnam” is not a war, but a vibrant, friendly country rich with adventure and cultural travel opportunities. Northern Vietnam, home to many of the country’s 54 ethnic minority groups and natural attractions like densely vegetated mountains and the ethereal Halong Bay, is the ideal destination for those seeking both.
U.K.-based Imaginative Traveller, which operates small-group adventure tours worldwide, runs the eight-day “Tribal Trails” trip that includes a mountain trek to remote tribal villages—where locals still live and dress according to traditional customs—and sea kayaking in Halong Bay. After a day spent exploring Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, you’ll head to the mountainous region of Mai Chau for a three-day trek to rarely-visited villages of White Tai and Hmong people. You’ll wander through terraced rice paddies, climb steep hills, and stay with local families.
“The families we stay with are not advertised in local travel stores. It is a special relationship made with us,” says Maxine Wheller, a former trip leader. “A locally-booked trek that a backpacker may be offered would be quite a touristy experience in a village set up to receive tourists.”
After returning to Hanoi, you’ll travel to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, for a two-day kayaking safari. Comprised of nearly 2,000 towering limestone pillars that rise out of the sea, Halong Bay is said to have been created by a dragon that thrashed its tail through the rocks. Exploring the bay by kayak, you’ll be able to visit isolated islands and caves that formed inside the limestone towers through erosion.
The tour costs $820 plus a local payment of $135, which covers a tour leader and local guides, airport transfer, local transportation, accommodations, the hill-tribe trek and sea kayaking, and some meals. For more details, visit the Imaginative Traveller website.
This trip runs year-round, but the drier, more temperate periods from late September to December and in March and April are the best times to go. January and February are cool and drizzly; summers are hot and wet.
For travel between September and December, average round-trip airfares from Los Angles to Hanoi start at $765 (before taxes) on Malaysia Airlines.
NEXT >> Rafting California’s Tuolumne River
Rafting California’s Tuolumne River
Outfitter: Echo Trips
Price: $215 to $525 per person
Tumbling down from the heights of Yosemite National Park and running into the heart of Californian Gold Country, the Tuolumne River boasts some of the wildest rapids in the country and some of the most rugged wilderness in the state. What’s more, it’s an easy drive from San Francisco, and, with a proper guide, it can be run safely by rafters of all experience levels in two or three days.
“I’ve been on about 10 other rivers, and keep on coming back to the Tuolumne because it’s superior (for me) to all the others,” says Ken Robin, who’s rafted on the Tuolumne at least 10 times with Echo River Trips. “It’s got Class IV rapids and much longer and more frequent rapids. When I’m able to catch it in the spring, it’s a wild, wild ride all the way down. It has the pristine beauty of a wilderness: no roads, buildings, gorgeous scenery, and incredibly pure water.”
Echo trips, one of the first outfitters to operate on the Tuolumne, runs one-, two-, and three-day trips down the river. It has a reputation for using excellent guides who know the river well and can also whip up tasty shoreside meals. Think fajitas and margaritas with freshly made salsa and guacamole. One-day trips run early in the season when the water is high and fast (some experience is recommended). Two- and three-day trips offer a more manageable pace and leisure time to explore the canyon.
Here’s Echo guide Zach Collier’s rundown of the multi-day rafting experience: “The river starts off with six long Class IV rapids in a row. More big rapids are scattered among the next few miles, until Clavey Falls, which is Class V at higher flows. We typically camp above Clavey Falls next to the Clavey River or at a big sandy beach a few miles below.”
“The next day starts with perhaps the best rapid of the trip, Gray’s Grindstone. It’s about half a mile long and pure fun. There are a number of great rapids below here on our way to the end of the trip. On three-day trips, people camp about two miles before the end at the North Fork of the Tuolumne River. It’s a popular stop because after a 45-minute hike up it, there is a great swimming spot with a natural waterslide and jumping rocks.”
Prices start at $215 for the one-day trip, $415 for the two-day trip, and $525 for three days. This covers transportation to and from the trip departure point, rafting equipment and group gear, experienced guides, and meals. You must bring your own camping gear. To learn more, visit the Echo Trips website.
Rafting season runs from April through September. April is cool, but it’s the best time to view wildflowers. The river runs high from late May through early June with snow melt from the mountains. Water levels drop and the rapids become tamer as the season progresses.
Groveland, the trip departure point, is a three-hour drive from San Francisco.
NEXT >> Hiking in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park
Hiking in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park
Outfitter: G.A.P Adventures
Price: $795 per person
Located at the far southern tip of South America, Chile’s Torres del Paine, often described as one of the most beautiful and rugged national parks on earth, has to be experienced in person to be comprehended. “I’ve lived, traveled, and worked in Latin America for six years, and this place is right at the top of the list,” says Ben Weiher, Operations Manager for G.A.P. “It feels like some other realm, something out of a Tolkien novel—absolutely magical.”
Rising abruptly from the Patagonia steppe, the glacier-cut Paine Massif attracts hikers and mountaineers from all over the world to trek and sometimes scale its severe granite peaks. The park’s most easily recognizable peaks are the 9,184-foot Torres (towers)—three spherical salmon-colored spires that jut up like crocodile teeth—and the 8,528-foot Cuernos (horns).
On G.A.P’s six-day trek, you’ll get to pass through some of the best scenery in the park, including the French Valley, the Silence Valley, and the Torres themselves. Along the way, you can spot some of the park’s unusual wildlife, such as guanacos (a relative of the llama), ostrich-like rheas, Andean condors, pink flamingos, and, if you’re very lucky, a puma. The trip also includes a trek to the electric blue Glacier Grey, which, during warm periods, dumps icebergs into Lago Grey with spectacular crashes.
The cost of the tour covers local guides, ground transportation, accommodations in simple hotels or campgrounds, and all meals in the park. For more details, visit the G.A.P Adventures website.
You should plan your trip for sometime during the Southern Hemisphere’s spring or summer, between November and March. January and February are considered peak. Round-trip January flights from Miami to the trip start point in Punta Arenas, Chile, start at $900 before taxes on Aerolineas Argentinas.
NEXT >> Hang-gliding school in the Outer Banks
Hang-gliding school in the Outer Banks
Outfitter: Kitty Hawk Kites
Price: $299 per person
On North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, getting airborne is easy and less expensive than you might think.
The world’s largest hang-gliding school, Kitty Hawk Kites, makes its home on the Outer Banks, a 130-mile stretch of sandy barrier islands that has ideal conditions for learning how to fly. “The Outer Banks is a good place for hand gliding for the same reasons it was a good place for the Wright Brothers to conduct their flight experiments. It has soft sand for easy landings and smooth coastal breezes,” says Bruce Weaver, an instructor for Kitty Hawk Kites with 19 years’ experience.
Novices can opt for a three-hour beginner lesson for $89, but the company’s “Sand and Sky” package, which includes three lessons and one tandem flight for $299, is a better option if you really want to advance.
Lessons take place at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the highest natural sand dune system in the East. Instructors teach you how to safely use the equipment and review the basics of taking off, flying, and landing. Then you climb to the top of the dunes and take a leap of faith. “Most students get up in the air their first lesson,” says Weaver. “You can fly a distance of 50 to 75 yards at a time, reaching heights of 10 to 15 feet off the ground.” And, if you don’t land on your feet, says Weaver, the soft sand will be easy on you.
Following the dune lessons, you’ll go on a tandem lesson from Currituck County Airport. A tow plane will carry you and an instructor to an elevation of 2,000 feet or higher, where you’ll be released for a 12- to 18-minute flight over Currituck Sound. The instructor will guide you, but you’re free to fly the glider yourself if you’re comfortable.
The “Sand and Sky” cost covers instruction, the tandem flight, and equipment use. Most students break up the lessons over two or three days. You can book this package year-round, but summer is the most popular season. Go to kittyhawk.com to learn more.
There are many accommodations options on the Outer Banks, but the nearby Nags Head Inn offers a good combination of quality and affordable rates. Summer prices start at $99 per night. Norfolk, the nearest major airport, is about 90 miles north of the Outer Banks.
NEXT >> “Walking” in Tasmania
“Walking” in Tasmania
Outfitter: Tasmanian Expeditions
Price: $979 per person
Australia gets its fair share of active travelers, but not so many venture south to the mainland’s wilder island cousin. But for adventure seekers, Tasmania, with its dense rainforests, windswept mountains, strange inhabitants like the Tasmanian devil, and World Heritage status protecting more than 40 percent of its land, is worth the extra effort it takes to get there.
“Walking” (Tassie-speak for hiking) is the best way to experience the island’s diverse landscape. The outfitter Tasmanian Expeditions runs guided multi-day tours through some of the island’s top national parks, including a six-day trek through the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair and Walls of Jerusalem national parks. “This is truly a great walk and one of my favorites,” says Jen Niland of Tasmanian Expeditions.
You’ll start the trip with two-and-a-half days of walking in Cradle Mountain National Park. You’ll hike around Dove Lake, where you’ll pass through a prehistoric-looking temperate rainforest, climb to the 5,068-foot summit of Cradle Mountain (weather permitting), and see some of the oldest living trees in the world on the King Billy Walk. Later, you’ll head to the more remote Walls of Jerusalem National Park, where you’ll explore alpine highlands and lakes set among dolerite mountains.
The trip costs $1,290 Australian dollars (about $979 USD), which includes guides, group camping equipment, park fees, ground transportation, cabin and tent accommodations, and meals. You must bring your own sleeping bag and backpack. For more information, go to the Tasmanian Expeditions website.
Trips depart from October through May, during Tasmania’s spring, summer, and fall. Note that weather in the alpine regions is unpredictable and can be cold, windy, and wet at any time.
Flights from Los Angeles to Hobart, Tasmania, start at $1,153 (before taxes) on Air Pacific for travel between October and April.