Our travel experts pick the places you need to see at least once in a lifetime.
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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.
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."
Combining untracked terrain with the thrill of flying, heli-skiing emerged as the top vote-getter. Day-trippers can experience short samples of heli-skiing in places such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Park City, Utah; Portillo, Chile; New Zealand and Australia. But for the full experience, book a weeklong trip to a heli-skiing lodge, the best of which are in northwestern Canada and Alaska. "British Columbia is powder heaven, in a world of sprawling glaciers, peaks with giant vertical relief and plentiful spruce glades. Go with Canadian Mountain Holidays. They've been around a long time and are the gold standard of heli-skiing," says Kate Siber. "It might cost more than your mortgage payments—for months—but heli-skiing in British Columbia is a must for any skier," says Neville. "You ski deep, untracked powder through a natural setting nearly impossible to reach otherwise. It's like having your own million-dollar ski lift." Hard-core ski junkie and journalist Vicky Lowry recommends Alaska, where you can still ski old-fashioned lifts if the weather grounds the choppers, but all agree that whirlybirds take skiing to new heights.
If you don't like helicopters, Abramson suggests skiing an Olympic downhill run. "You can visit several resorts around the world that were used for Olympic alpine skiing events, but for a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, time it so you're there just before the Games. I went to Utah's Snowbasin in January 2002, and found the men's downhill in course conditions, with some gates and markings in place. It also made for excellent TV viewing when the pros attacked the same run a month later." Longtime ski writer Kim Fredericks suggested another spin on the aerial skiing experience: flying to the top of New Zealand's Tasman Glacier by ski plane, a winter version of a seaplane. "It's an 18-mile-long, wide-open snow field. You ski the two longest ski runs in the Southern Hemisphere, anywhere from 4.5 to 6.5 miles each." With a gourmet lunch in between, of course.
Honorable Mention: To many, skydiving defines the very concept of something you must try at least once. "Nothing elevates your confidence and heart rate more than jumping out of an airplane at 13,500 feet," says D'Elia. "With a tandem instructor giving me the necessary shove out of the airplane, I was suddenly part of an elite club of adrenaline junkies—and it was the most intense and amazing experience ever. As a result, I now separate everyone I meet into two categories: those who have skydived and those who haven't."
Many of the experiences and sites selected by our experts can be seen or done in less than a day. The flip side is entire vacations of the once-in-a-lifetime variety, lasting days or even weeks. African safaris took the top spot, but there were many other winners spanning the globe—and beyond.
Rent a Private Island
Nothing turns the traditional beach vacation on its head like renting a secluded island. Most private-island rentals include one or more luxurious homes, the service of maids and personal chefs, and abundant activities. "It's the ultimate escape," says Elaine Srnka, editor of Virtuoso Life. "From Musha Cay in the Bahamas to Peter or Necker in the British Virgin Islands, who doesn't dream of getting away from it all in high style?" Living the ultimate "Gilligan's Island" castaway experience softened even the panel's hard-core adventurers, such as Kate Siber. "The ultimate island, I think, is the Rania Experience in the Maldives. Spectacularly expensive, but it's pretty much the ultimate. You and 25 friends have the run of the complete staff, yacht, all activities. Rania actually combines two private experiences in one, and comes with a fully crewed yacht." Other notable rentals were Frégate and North Island, both in the Seychelles.
Transatlantic Crossing on the Queen Mary 2
Equipped with everything from a theater to a Todd English restaurant, the QM2 spares no expense in bringing back the glory of the gilded age of travel, but in a thoroughly modernized way, right down to the full spa and butler-equipped suites. The trip personifies travel for travel's sake: it's much slower than the alternatives, more expensive than even the most lavish first-class flight and, unlike cruises, there is nothing to see en route, proving that getting there is really half the fun.
"Don't ever confuse this with a cruise. This is 'a crossing,'" insists Valarie D'Elia. "You will be following in the watery path of millions of immigrants who crammed their belongings into steamer trunks, and later, glitzy Hollywood stars and notables who made this the fashionable way to travel overseas." Honorable Mention: Luxury travel agent Gary Mansour suggests traversing the Trans-Siberian Mongolian Railway in July, during Mongolia's renowned Naadam Festival.
The maiden flight of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic "airline" is still more than a year away, but bookings are brisk, and our experts are getting ready for the event with high-altitude weightless flights to inner space. Virgin Galactic promises the real thing, a longtime dream of many who watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. Virtuoso Life's Srnka says, "Anyone who's traveled to space says it's a life-changing experience, and here's your chance to touch the sky: For a mere $200,000, you'll go through three days of training for a chance to don your space suit and earn your astronaut wings. Then, you'll rocket to 360,000 feet at three times the speed of sound into the black of suborbital flight, where you'll float weightlessly for about four to five minutes before your spaceship begins its descent back to Earth." Travel agent Anne Morgan Scully, who is one of Virgin Galactic's approved agents, says, "This is an extraordinary journey into black space. You will have the ability to float in zero gravity and look back at Earth. My husband was a fighter pilot, so I understand man's love of flight and the journey to space."
Move over, Vietnam. For a must-see destination, Bhutan takes top honors. Bhutan only recently opened its doors to visitors, and has carefully regulated its tourism industry to prevent development. Unlike other Asian countries, Bhutan has kept visits high-quality and low-quantity, ensuring a very special experience for those who make the arduous trip. It has a handful of small luxury resorts from the Aman and COMO groups, which offer fantastic combinations of lodging, dining, sightseeing and activities. Bhutan is, according to Dan and Anne Miller, longtime publishers of Distinctive Destinations, "one of the most isolated and fascinating countries in the world. For centuries, Bhutan adopted a policy of self-imposed isolation. Natural wonders, priceless collections of religious art, unique architecture, stunning temples amid a profusion of prayer flags, and friendly people await the fortunate visitor."
Old Course, St Andrews
Not to impugn our panelists, but we didn't exactly need experts to make this choice. Virtually everyone who loves golf dreams of teeing up in the place where it all started. "I'll never be able to hit a line drive at the Elysian Fields [site of the first recorded baseball game in Hoboken, New Jersey], but I hope to play a round one day at the birthplace of golf," says Abramson. The best-kept secret in golf travel is the "Old Course in Reverse" package. Offered once a year, the multiday excursion gives you a round on the Old and a round on the original routing, which is done in reverse from the 18th tee to the first. Honorable Mentions: David Baum, editor and publisher of specialized golf travel newsletter Golf Odyssey, plays in New Zealand because of its fantastic courses and stunning beauty. "Popular belief is that it requires two weeks or more," says Baum. "We shattered this myth earlier this year when we outlined how one can experience the best of this golf paradise while only being out of the office a mere five days." Golf journalist Jeff Wallach voted for China's Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, one of the longest and highest courses in the world.