The Bucket List
Our travel experts pick the places you need to see at least once in a lifetime.
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008
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Whether you see it on foot, by helicopter or on a raft through the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon can't be beat, according to our panelists. "Rafting the Grand gives you all the thrill of the scariest roller coaster amid the best scenery in North America," says USA Today's online travel editor, Ben Abramson. While any glance at the Canyon is better than none, many visitors make the mistake of thinking it's something that can be seen from a scenic overlook. The canyon is a mile deep and nearly 300 miles long, and rafting its length takes more than a week. The best way to see it, other than from the river, is through a combination of views from the rim, flights above it and journeys into it. Honorable Mentions: The picks ran the gamut from oceans to mountains to astronomical phenomena. Nature's fury even got respect, with stray votes for Mts. Vesuvius and Krakatoa. But close behind the Grand Canyon were Victoria Falls in Africa, Torres del Paine in Chile and the Northern Lights.
On the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, Victoria Falls is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall on Earth, but its impressive height and width comprise what most experts consider the largest single falls, with an enormous volume of water crashing into mist, hence its local name: "The Smoke That Thunders." Torres del Paine are unusual rock spires jutting up above the already spectacular landscape of Patagonia, and are so impressive a feature that Chile named an entire national park after them. "From the aquamarine glacial waters at its base to the fog that clings to its windswept horns, the Torres del Paine seem otherworldly and magical," says Absolute Travel's Sasha Lehman, while Outside magazine's Leslie Weeden calls them "the most beautiful mountains on earth."
In the northern hemisphere, where nature's atmospheric light display is known as aurora borealis, it's more intense than the aurora australis of the world's southern regions. Our discerning judges prefer the north, and particularly recommended viewing the phenomenon from Alaska. Some experiences can be life changing and/or life affirming. Our panelists picked the top warm and cold weather excursions, from the relaxing to the heart pounding.
Fun with Fish
From sharks to whales to salmon, our panelists embraced aquatic adventures involving wildlife. Taken as a whole, these votes dwarfed every other contender, although few panelists could agree on which single experience is best.
Swimming with the salmon on Vancouver Island, Canada, was a top pick. "You float gently downstream as the salmon whip past you upstream in a mating frenzy. Unforgettable," says writer Cleo Paskal. Kate Siber and Debbi Kickham both voted for shark diving. "I scared the pants off myself, but it couldn't have been cooler seeing these giant predators in their natural habitat," says Siber, who recommends Fiji for the activity. "We were not in cages—I repeat—we were not in cages. It was a thrill to be face-to-face with the amazing creatures. I've done it twice and can't wait to do it again. It is, fins down, a most remarkable experience," says Kickham, who chose Bora-Bora.
Another popular choice was swimming with whale sharks. For those whose taste does not run to frolicking with man-eaters, this safer alternative is no less thrilling according to Siber, who says it is best off of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. "These are the largest fish in the world and they're benign. Just don't get in the way of their tail when they want to leave."
Several panelists suggested getting on the water, rather than in the water, as a way to interact with wildlife. Sea kayaking in Alaska, amid humpback whales and killer whales, not to mention glaciers, was a popular choice. Tim Neville votes for kayaking in the nature-rich Galapagos Islands. "There is no better way to savor the landscape than paddling along with mating sea turtles, startled sharks—and we snorkeled with sea lions."
Whale watching was the tamest variation offered, and is readily available from the coast of Maine to Maui, but while some whale cruises entail hours spent in search of a sighting, Ben Abramson recommends the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, at which "you may see dozens of belugas before you even leave the dock, and countless other marine mammals along the way, including the blue whale, the world's largest animal. Literally not a dull moment the entire time."
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