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The Bucket List

Our travel experts pick the places you need to see at least once in a lifetime.
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

When one thinks of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, many things come to mind but none more so than an African safari. Combining nature with adventure, safaris have been popular for decades and were the overwhelming top choice of our panelists.

African Safari

This distinct style of travel has been popular since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, and the best operators still pay their respects to this grand tradition of luxury camps and first-rate guides, managing to combine five-star hospitality with the rawness of nature at its most dramatic. No amount of trips to the zoo will prepare you for the sight of vast herds of elephants, giraffes or zebras, the heart-pounding thrill of tracking a pride of lions on the hunt or the blink-and-you-missed-it speed of the cheetah. Between game-viewing excursions, travelers can relax by the pool or take a hot-air balloon ride, tackle big-game fishing, visit archaeological sites or climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Our panelists determined that an African safari combines aspects of almost all our categories, but they were split between walking, flying and driving safaris, and between South and East Africa. Wildlife safaris exist in Asia and even the United States, but nary a vote was cast for any of these. "We saw so many animals, I wondered where Noah shipwrecked his ark," says travel journalist Valarie D'Elia, who adds, "Accommodations range from fixed to tented camps. One thing is for certain—you are not roughing it." Lifestyle journalist Debbi K. Kickham flew around in an open-air, two-seat biplane "that was straight out of Out of Africa" and was so impressed with her tour guide "that I wanted to bring him home as the ultimate souvenir." Adventure travel journalist Tim Neville went on a walking safari, and says, "You can pretty much guarantee that every 20 minutes, you'll come across the coolest thing you've ever seen. I did. In a three-day trip I saw five black rhinos, their babies, elephants, hyenas, giraffes, baboons" and lions, leopards and cape buffalo. "It's easily one of the best ways to safely remind yourself that you aren't always at the top of the food chain."

An explosion of small luxury camps and protected private game reserves make today's high-end African safari offerings better than ever, with easily customized trips that allow travelers to piece together the continent's many highlights. Modern and ancient marvels received top billing in this category. From mind-boggling man-made structures such as the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu to breathtaking natural formations such as the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls, our panelists determined that man gives Mother Nature a run for her money when it comes to amazing sites.

The Great Wall of China

From vast temple complexes to palaces, ancient oddities such as Stonehenge to the modern phenomenon of the Eiffel Tower, the range of man-made wonders around the globe is staggering, but none is bigger or harder to comprehend than the Great Wall of China. Taking more than 2,000 years to complete, China's most famous site is longer than the distance from New York to Los Angeles. "It snakes through the barren hills of China for more than 4,000 miles," says D'Elia. "Dynasty after dynasty, generations of laborers toiled to build this masterpiece of earth, rocks and bricks. Many of them are buried within the walls they created; flesh and bones were used as filler in return for an honorable grave site. There's something in the air—a certain tranquility. It just begs you to contemplate its very existence."

"Everyone says the Great Wall of China is amazing, but you don't appreciate it fully until you walk for a stretch of its 4,000-mile length—it's almost impossible to comprehend the effort and energy it must have taken to build," says Leslie Overton of New York's Absolute Travel. Like much of the nation, the Wall and many grand hotels convenient to exploring it were spruced up for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

Honorable Mentions: While China's Wall amazed the most panelists, a few other man-made sites were close behind, including Machu Picchu in Peru, the statues at Easter Island, the ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, the Buddhist monument at Borobudur, Indonesia, the Pyramids at Giza and the Taj Mahal.

Built by the Incas, Machu Picchu shares the "how did they ever build this?" wow factor with many of its peers, especially given its remote location high in the Andes. Perhaps the most perplexing of all such wonders, the famous Moai statues on Easter Island, beg the question "why?" as well as "how?" No mere monument, this stunning work apparently came at the expense of its entire civilization. Boasting numerous pyramids and temples, Tikal amazed Leslie Weeden, Outside magazine's travel editor. "Talk about shrouded in mystery. What's so amazing about these ruins is that much of it remains unexcavated. You see monkeys leaping around on jungle-covered mounds and wonder what's under there," she says.

Borobudur, on the island of Java, is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, spanning a 3.7-acre area with more than 400 life-size images of Buddha, dating back to 800 A.D. Anchored by the famous "Great Pyramid," the Giza complex in Egypt also includes several other "lesser" pyramids, each one still amazing, generating countless theories on its still undetermined construction. "Perhaps an obvious choice, but there's nothing that can compare to standing at the base of Khufu [the Great Pyramid] and looking up at structures that were more ancient to Jesus—who saw them too—than Jesus is ancient to us," Tim Neville says. Built by the great Mogul emperor Shah Jahan to honor his late wife, the Taj Mahal has been the world's greatest monument to love and death for more than 300 years. "Like everyone else, I had seen a hundred pictures of the Taj Mahal. But it is one of those places that is truly magical when you're actually there," says Weeden.

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