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25 Wild Horizons: The Best Trips for 2006

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Adventure travel that will set your heart pounding, open your eyes, and force you to look again at what surrounds you. Because, in the end, a trip of a lifetime isn’t about thread counts, umbrella cocktails, or bragging rights. It’s about discovering that there’s more to the world””and yourself””than you knew.

Skip to: East, South, West, North

EAST

Indochina’s Waterworld
Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam
Outfitter: Explorers’ Corner (www.explorerscorner.com), Editor’s Pick
Length: 16 days
Price: $3,800
First Ever

Mick O’Shea has logged first kayaking descents down 18 different rivers in Southeast Asia, including a first ever full kayaking exploration of the Mekong River from source to sea. Next September he leads a brand-new Explorers’ Corner trip to Ha Long Bay, the Xépian wetlands, and the Mekong River in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. “Needless to say, Mick knows his way around Indochina,” says Explorers’ Corner owner Olaf Malver. “We asked him to create an itinerary that includes his favorite paddling locations in one diverse trip, and he came back with a proposal that simply blew us away.”

O’Shea’s 16-day excursion begins with the exotic lagoons and islets of UNESCO World Heritage site Ha Long Bay before visiting Laos’s Louangphrabang: an unspoiled French colonial city with teakwood houses and rows of ancient Buddhist temples. Paddlers then swap boats for elephants to enter the freshwater marshes of the Xépian wetlands and commence a three-day journey down the Mekong River deep into Cambodia. The Mekong carries kayakers past Khone Falls, the mightiest cascade in Southeast Asia, and into one of few remaining habitats of the rare Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin, and the itinerary finishes with a paddle into the Angkor Wat temple complex””a first descent of its own sort. “As far as we know, we will be the first group ever to visit this incredible sight by kayak,” says Malver.

Pick This If: You’re seeking an under-the-radar tour of Southeast Asia led by its pre-eminent modern-day explorer.

Departs: September

Seeking Out Blanks on the Map
Pakistan
Outfitter: World Expeditions (www.worldexpeditions.net)
Length: 33 days
Price: $5,890

Next summer, after a five-year hiatus, World Expeditions returns to Pakistan with a journey deep inside the Karakoram Range to 23,064-foot (7,030-meter) Spantik. “Only about a hundred people have ever summited Spantik,” says World Expeditions’ Brad Atwal. “It’s one of the few blank spots left on the globe.” Big-mountain experience is a must; expedition members will participate in all aspects of setting the route and planning a summit bid. After a three-day approach and several days of acclimatizing, two guides and 20 Pakistani high-altitude porters will lead climbers up the mountain, breaking trail up steep snow slopes to the summit. There, tremendous panoramas of the surrounding peaks and glaciers await-360-degree views take in the rugged, unexplored region where two of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, the Karakoram and Himalaya, collide.

The World Expeditions trip will be led by British mountaineer Simon Yates, climbing partner of Joe Simpson in the best-selling book Touching the Void. For inspiration, ask him about his first ascents in Patagonia, his climbs up Pakistan’s other peaks, and his famously harrowing experience on the west face of Peru’s Siula Grande. “Participants will feel like true explorers, which is tough to do in today’s world,” says Atwal. “This is a perceived off-limits destination with a challenging objective in a part of Pakistan that few have explored before.”

Pick This If: You’ve watched your Touching the Void DVD more than five times.

Departs: July

Mekong River First Rafting Descent
China
Outfitter: Mountain Travel Sobek (www.mtsobek.com)
Length: 15 days
Price: $4,990

Nearly half of the fabled Mekong’s 2,700-plus miles (4,345 kilometers) flow through China, and no commercial rafting company has yet guided clients down any of them. Next year, Mountain Travel Sobek will be first, floating the upper Mekong as part of their continuing work with the Nature Conservancy to help locals create sustainable industries. Crowned by glacier-covered mountains, the high-walled gorge of the upper Mekong is practically uncharted-and a lack of shoreline and fast-running, cold-water rapids adds to the Class IV-V challenge.

The run begins in China’s Yunnan province, primarily Tibetan in history and tradition, and a vivid cultural backdrop is evident from the start: A Buddhist monastery overlooks the put-in at the village of Xidan, where prayer flags flutter over the waters. Downstream, paddlers will mix river camping with village stays in traditional rammed-earth homes. The rafting trip culminates with a passage through Moon Gorge, a narrow 50-foot-wide (15-meter) chasm full of Class III-IV rapids lined by steep walls and towering mountains above. But the physical adventure, says guide Jim Norton, is just a slice of the big-picture objective: to help build a locally owned and run tourism economy that’s self-supporting and culturally sensitive. “What we’re ultimately trying to do,” says Norton, “is make ourselves obsolete.”

Pick This If: You crave uncharted white water and a sustainable global economy, too.

Departs: March

Song of the South
India
Outfitter: Alpine Ascents International (www.alpineascents.com)
Length: 21 days
Price: $4,400
DIY Potential

“In northern India, the major destinations””Taj Mahal, Rajasthan””are all clustered near Delhi,” says Gordon Janow, program director for Alpine Ascents International. “But in the south, there aren’t huge sites lined up one after the next; they’re harder to reach. You might wind up hiking through the jungle to reach the temples.” Jungle jaunts are just a part of Alpine Ascents’ new 21-day tour of southern India, where the nation’s finest Hindu temple architecture lies alongside dense virgin forests that contain some of its most impressive wildlife: elephants, tigers, crested hawk eagles, and more. “It’s very Kiplingesque,” says Janow. “It’s an incredible feeling to get lost in there, where there are no people or buildings and where it’s hard to imagine developed life outside.”

Moving at a slow pace, you’ll cover several hundred miles from the state of Tamil Nadu to Kerala, pausing in small towns to hike through ruins and witness temple ceremonies in which Brahman priests swing flaming candelabra. You’ll also trek through the jungles of Periyar Sanctuary, where elephants have worn paths through the wilderness and a 75-foot (23-meter) tower hovers within the blooming canopy, offering views of langurs, water buffalo, wild boars, and the few remaining tigers below. The trip closes with a two-day boat ride down the palm-fringed canals of Kerala and a stay at an exclusive ayurvedic center, where you can rejuvenate with meditation, yoga sessions, and 3,000-year-old traditional herbal treatments.

Pick This If: You’d rather bushwhack than ride a tour bus.

Departs: October

Trekking With Kazakh Eagle Hunters
Mongolia
Outfitter: Sierra Club Outings (www.sierraclub.org/outings)
Length: 17 days
Price: $3,695
DIY Potential

Everyone’s clamoring to visit Mongolia””the Gobi’s Flaming Cliffs, shimmering Lake Hövsg&oulm;l””but next summer, Sierra Club Outings plans to go deeper, to the Altai-Sayan Montane Forests eco-region in far western Mongolia. There, they’ll explore snow leopard and lynx territory in the Tavan Bogd (“Five Saints”) mountain range, where the 14,350-foot (4,374-meter), triple-divide peak of Nairamdal separates Mongolia, China, and Russia, and where local Kazakhs famously continue the traditional sport of hunting with trained eagles.

A support staff of Mongolian interpreters and guides facilitates travel through the region; baggage is transported by shuttle, so you can hike at elevation with only a daypack. Nights are spent camping and visiting with local families in their gers (yurtlike homes) where you’ll experience that uniquely flavored (think fizzy, boozy yogurt) emblem of Mongolian hospitality: airag, or fermented mare’s milk. As you trek through the undulating terrain of the Tavan Bogd, you’ll observe the life of a people living on a true frontier: Wind turbines charge television batteries, and satellite dishes are mounted atop family gers. “In the middle of nowhere, these people are caught between a very old nomadic life and what’s going on in the world today,” says Kern Hildebrand, veteran Sierra Club Mongolia guide. “We’re very excited to spend time with them.”

Pick This If: You’ve caught the Mongolia bug but want to go where others haven’t.

Departs: August

Dead Sea to Red Sea by Bike
Jordan
Outfitter: Exodus Travels (www.exodus.co.uk)
Length: 9 days
Price: $1,060

The pink-and-white sandstone landscape of Jordan’s Wadi Rum served as headquarters for Lawrence of Arabia and Prince Feisal during the planning stages of their legendary 1917 attack on Al ‘Aqabah. Now, an international climbing camp has replaced the guerrillas’ canvas tents and, thanks to British outfitter Exodus Travels’ new week-long, van-supported cycling tour of Jordan, mountain bikes, not camels, are the preferred mode of transport. Averaging 26 miles (42 kilometer) a day for five days on tarmac and unpaved roads, the Exodus trip is the first to trace the historic trading route from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. “This isn’t an area that is widely used as a biking destination,” says Exodus’ Andrew Appleyard, a trained archaeologist who recently returned from the trip. “And we like that.”

Starting in the capital of Amman, cyclists wend their way south past carefully restored sixth-century Byzantine mosaics and 2,631-foot (802-meter) Mount Nebo, believed to be Moses’ burial site, before cruising down to the Dead Sea. After pausing for a dip in the sea’s buoyant waters, the tour continues along its eastern shore toward the startling canyon city of Petra, the Arab capital in Hellenistic and Roman times that was more recently featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Often called the eighth wonder of the world, Petra was carved directly from rusty red-and-yellow sandstone and boasts intricate houses, tombs, and a centerpiece treasury. From there, the journey heads south toward Al ‘Aqabah and, after a long day of biking to Wadõ Rum, ends with a night under the stars in a desert camp flanked by the dry river bed’s signature soaring cliffs.

Pick This If: You’d enjoy pedaling in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia.

Departs: Year-round, beginning in February

Calling All Stans
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Outfitter: Eco-Expeditions (www.zeco.com)
Length: 18 days
Price: $8,980

Central Asia’s five Stans are home to some of the most legendary mountain ranges on the planet: the glacier-clad Pamirs, the jagged Tian Shan. In 2006, Eco-Expeditions pioneers a new trip to these five former Soviet republics, beginning on the steppes of Kazakhstan and moving west toward the Caspian Sea shoreline in Turkmenistan. “The ethnic groups and cultures that make up these places are incredibly diverse,” says Spencer Lee, spokesperson for Eco-Expeditions. “And the whole area is really just now opening up to the West.”

Half the thrill of the excursion is witnessing cultural treasures that few Westerners have seen since Marco Polo: in Kyrgyzstan, Saka petroglyphs that date back to the Bronze Age; in Kazakhstan, the Zenkov Cathedral, a wooden masterpiece built entirely without nails; in Tajikistan, early Persian ruins at Bunjikath; in Uzbekistan, the massive Bibi Khanym mosque, crown jewel of the Silk Road trading city of Samarqand; and in Turkmenistan, the brilliantly woven carpets (a regional specialty) in Asþgabat. The other half of the fun? Being among the first to check out the region’s untrammeled natural landscapes””hiking to Kyrgyzstan’s Ala-Archa Gorge, searching for rare snow leopards along Kazakhstan’s Aksu River, and blissing out on unparalleled mountain views in Tajikistan, “the Nepal of the Stans.”

Pick This If: You won the Central Asia geography bee but have yet to go there yourself.

Departs: May, September

SOUTH

Grand Desert Crossing
The Sahara
Outfitter: Geographic Expeditions (www.geoex.com), Editor’s Pick
Length: 30 days
Price: $9,995

Because the Sahara stretches more than 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometer) east-to-west, most desert-traversing expeditions cross along shorter, north-to-south routes””the desert is, after all, only 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometer) at its widest longitudinal point. Not Geographic Expeditions. In 2006 the outfitter offers a 30-day epic that takes in all of the desert’s landscapes and cultures from Egypt through Libya and Algeria to Morocco. “It’s a real desert camping experience, one that follows the path that Alexander the Great took in 332 B.C.,” says Jim Sano, president of Geographic Expeditions. “We’ll explore archaeological ruins, desert oases””the major thing, of course, is the traverse east to west over the Sahara. We’ll travel the entire route by four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser, which has never before been offered by a U.S. outfitter.”

The expedition route passes through the date palms surrounding Siwa, one of few places in Egypt dominated by Berber culture, before crossing into the signature black volcanic terrain of Libya’s Waw Al-Kabir. You’ll enter Algeria at Ghat, stop at Tamanrasset (the cultural center of the Tuareg people) and drive across the Ahaggar plateau and up the Ziz Oued valley to your final destination, Fes. But even trip designer Carolyn McIntyre acknowledges that there’s an improvisational element to this exploratory itinerary. “One never knows what’s going to happen with the Sahara weather. And though travel will often be on flat desert terrain, the Land Cruisers could on occasion get stuck,” says McIntyre. “It’s a tougher trip than others because we don’t know where we’re going to end up each day. But that’s part of the excitement, isn’t it?”

Pick This If: You’re after the thrill of being along on a Seven Pillars of Wisdom-scale epic.

Departs: October

Giants of the Ocean
Australia
Outfitter: Wilderness Travel (www.wildernesstravel.com)
Length: 11 days
Price: $3,895

Every April and May, off the coast of Western Australia, dozens of elusive whale sharks gather at Ningaloo Reef to feast on plankton and other small fish. “Ningaloo is the absolute best place in the world to see whale sharks, and very few Americans know about it,” says Barbara Banks, director of new trip development for Wilderness Travel, a Berkeley, California-based outfitter that is putting together a 2006 trip to the region. “It’s the only easily accessible place on Earth where the animals return at a predictable time.” An important point, since scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science recently used a satellite tagging experiment to show that whale sharks””the ocean’s largest fish at 30 feet (9 meters) in length””show few predictable travel habits.

Luckily you won’t have to worry about tracking them in the enchanting shallows of Ningaloo Reef. At nearly 200 miles (322 kilometers) long, the reef harbors a gleaming white-sand lagoon and is flanked by blooming coral gardens (more than 250 species are on record) that are, in places, just a hundred yards from shore. You’ll snorkel alongside whale sharks as they suck down massive amounts of plankton and krill (no Jaws paranoia here; the sharks are filter-feeders). When not in the water, you’ll spend afternoons hiking past lagoons filled with native honeyeaters and long-billed black cockatoos and gaping at bizarre rock formations that house some of the largest stromatolite fossils in the world.

Pick This If: You want your swimming with giant sharks to be cage free.

Departs: April

The Moon and Six Pence
Easter Island, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Island, Tahiti
Outfitter: Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com)
Length: 7 to 18 days
Price: $3,990

On the South Pacific’s Pitcairn Island, population around 50, live the descendants of the mutineers from the infamous HMS Bounty, including citizens who bear the surname of captain’s mate Fletcher Christian. Next April, Lindblad Expeditions will send its newly christened MS National Geographic Endeavour to the island as a part of a six-month journey through the South Pacific, offering passengers the chance to see what Captain Bligh missed by not going native like his crew. Starting on Easter Island and cruising by Tahiti and Fiji to Papua New Guinea, the Endeavour is part of a partnership between Lindblad and the National Geographic Society; Society experts, such as acclaimed geneticist Spencer Wells, and photographers will join guests aboard the ship, using it as a base for conducting cutting-edge research.

You don’t have to sign on for the full six months to ship out: The Endeavour’s South Pacific tour is broken into five distinct itineraries, one as short as seven days. Passengers aboard the first, 19-day segment will start by exploring the iconic, prehistoric moai statues of Easter Island, spending two days among the isolated isle’s archaeological burial sites and craggy lava fields. Throughout the trip, naturalists will keep watch for birds endemic to the region, including the vividly colored Stephen’s lorikeet and the flightless Henderson rail (two of four bird species found only on Henderson Island, an uninhabited UNESCO World Heritage site where experts and guests disembark for observational day hikes). Other stops include Mangareva, famous for snorkeling, diving, and iridescent black pearls; Raroia, where Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki balsa raft made landfall in 1947; and Papeete, where the museums house Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin.

Pick This If: You have a bit of noble savage in you.

Departs: April

A Revolution You Can Dance To
Madagascar
Outfitter: Blue Ventures (www.blueventures.org)
Length: 6 weeks
Price: $2,900

Founded by three young Britons””Alasdair Harris, Rob Conway, and Tom Savage””Blue Ventures runs dive expeditions from far-flung Andavadoaka, Madagascar, where the nonprofit organization has spent the past two years helping to create a protected marine area for the region’s expansive network of barrier and fringing coral reefs. Because of population increases and local fishing pressures, the area’s delicate and little studied marine ecosystems are under considerable threat. “Farther south along the same barrier reef, the underwater life has been completely decimated,” says Savage. “We aim to develop management plans that will protect the region’s unique marine ecosystems and the local communities that rely on them.”

Dazzling Andavadoaka, rarely visited by tourists, is about as far off the map as you can get. According to Savage, the site is a two-hour drive from the nearest large town, “depending on flat tires and getting stuck.” As a Blue Ventures volunteer, you’ll learn to dive and conduct research on the coral reefs with Malagasy locals, measuring fish populations, examining bleaching effects on the reef, and monitoring mangrove swamp ecology, all against an exquisite backdrop of wild palms, blue lagoons, and white-sand beaches. On a 5:30 a.m. research dive, you’ll run into pods of dolphins and swarms of butterfly fish, as well as fishermen who will already be out on the water in their pirogues. Cultural exchange is a hallmark of the Andavadoaka experience: You’re likely to find yourself caught up in an impromptu Malagasy dancing lesson or teaching English to locals. Expedition costs vary by qualifications; shorter-term commitments are available.

Pick This If: You have a passion for marine biology and zeal for emerging places.

Departs: Year-round, on a rolling basis

Total Eclipse
Ghana
Outfitter: Tusker Trail (www.tusker.com)
Length: 9 days
Price: $3,980

“With any eclipse experience, totality is the best part,” says Tusker Trail founder Eddie Frank, who will lead the outfitter’s solar eclipse expedition to Ghana in March. What he means: The solar corona, the scintillating aura that surrounds the sun, is only visible to the naked eye during a total solar eclipse, when the moon completely blocks the sun’s light. “It will only last for about two minutes,” says Frank, “but the light is like just after the sun goes down. The birds start nesting because they think it’s the end of the day. It’s a fantastic natural event.”

Tusker specializes in guiding climbs of Mount Kilimanjaro but has also run successful eclipse excursions to Zambia and Australia. South Africa-born, Frank has led a whopping 26 Kili summit bids and has a flair for the celestial: In 1983 he helped NASA astronomer Laurance Doyle, Ph.D., discover an ancient stone observatory in northern Kenya. Along with Doyle and native guide Paul Agboglo, an expert on Ghanaian history and culture, Frank will lead the nine-day expedition along Ghana’s coast and into the interior, exploring local villages, volcanic lakes, and rain forests. The trip culminates at an eclipse viewing site atop a 670-foot (204-meter) hill. There, joined by elders from the nearby village of Abutia Teti, you’ll have 360-degree views of the twilight-tinged horizon. “The Abutia Teti tribes attach a lot of significance to eclipses,” says Frank. “The tribe’s traditional healer, who will be with us on the hilltop, saw the last eclipse that was visible in Ghana””during World War II.”

Pick This If: You’ve never seen a solar eclipse. You should.

Departs: March

Spring Skiing In the Andes
Chile
Outfitter: Whitney & Smith Legendary Expeditions (www.legendaryex.com)
Length: 21 days
Price: $4,500

Along the western foot of the Andes runs a string of perfect volcanic cones virtually undiscovered by backcountry skiers. And each October in Chile, springtime brings clear skies and dreamy hike-up, ski-down corn snow to these snowcapped summits. Next year, Patagonia destination specialist Whitney & Smith offers a three-week ski touring expedition to five of the rugged peaks along this chain, setting out from Santiago and heading south to the 8,725-foot (2,659-meter) Osorno, Chile’s Mount Fuji. “In some instances, you’ll access the snow by horse, with your skis tied to the back,” says co-founder Jane Whitney, who scouted the route this fall.

Whitney is careful to add that the itinerary isn’t for the faint of heart: Participants must be able to climb and ski at least 4,600 vertical feet (1,402 meters) each day. The trip begins with five days at Las Mulas, a secluded mountain ranch south of Santiago, from which you’ll ascend the first peak, Nevado Longaví (10,600 feet or 3,231 meters). Then, you’ll continue south to Manzanares, home to Chile’s famous monkey-puzzle forests, and up for the views atop Lonquimay Volcano (9,480 feet or 2,890 meters), which last erupted in 1988. In between summitting 10,040-foot (3,060 meter) Llaima, still-active Villarrica, and Osorno, you’ll drop down to tiny villages and soak in the hot springs near Chilean adventure-capital Pucón. And if the weather doesn’t hold up for skiing on any given day-volcanoes tend to generate their own weather. After all, hiking, mountain biking, and fly-fishing the Lake District’s glassy waters ain’t a bad plan B.

Pick This If: Tahoe, Whistler, and Jackson are all old hat.

Departs: October

WEST

Coast-to-Coast Volcano-Hopping
Nicaragua
Outfitter: GAP Adventures (www.gapadventures.com), Editor’s Pick
Length: 15 days
Price: $1,075
DIY Potential

Nicaragua is so hot right now, but few norteamericanos seem to know it: The country remains virtually untouched by the U.S. travel market, perhaps because most travelers recognize Nicaragua only as the other half of the Iran-Contra Affair. These days, though, the political climate has stabilized, and the future’s looking more hopeful. Canada-based outfitter GAP Adventures introduced a new itinerary to the country this July. “Nicaragua still doesn’t have as much in the way of tourist infrastructure as the rest of Central America,” says GAP spokesperson Jeff Russill. “But that makes travel there the real thing.”

GAP’s groundbreaking trip starts in the capital, Managua, and continues to the Spanish colonial city of Granada, perched on the northwest shore of Lago de Nicaragua. You’ll climb several of the region’s stunning volcanoes, visit a live smoker in Volcán Masaya Parque Nacional, and journey to Isla de Ometepe, considered the world’s largest volcanic island situated in a lake. The surrounding waters of Lago de Nicaragua are home to some of the only freshwater-adapted sharks on the planet, bull sharks. Along the way, ˆ la carte activities let you play as hard as you like: hiking, biking, and surfing at the horseshoe-shaped cove of San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast or snorkeling off the deserted flour-sand beaches of former Caribbean pirate hideouts. You’re unlikely to discover any buried bullion, but you’ll be among the first to dig up Nicaragua’s natural treasures.

Pick This If: You’re an early adopter with a magma habit.

Departs: Year-round

Putting Your Whole Self In
New Mexico
Outfitter: Santa Fe Mountain Adventures (www.santafemountainadventures.com)
Length: 5 days
Price: $1,200
DIY Potential

“The color up there is different,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said of the wildflowers and red-hued mountains of New Mexico. After her arrival in Santa Fe in 1929, O’Keeffe famously found inspiration by roaming the mountainous desert landscape. These days, the soulful still goes hand-in-hand with the outdoors at Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, a brand-new outfit that started operating in the area in May. “We’re doing a beloved outdoor destination in a new way, combining active elements with holistic components such as an adventure spa program,” says director Janine Sieja. “We’ve found that, more and more, people want to fulfill spiritual as well as physical goals.”

SFMA is an “adventure concierge” service, the latest buzz in adventure travel. Essentially, you tell them how you want to spend your days, and they make it happen: You can raft down the Rio Grande in the morning, hike among the Native American sites at Bandelier National Monument in the afternoon, and end the day with a desert sage massage. Local guides will lead you to hidden canyons and the best rivers for catching cutthroat trout, and Sieja will show you Ravens Ridge, her favorite hike, with incredible views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. “People can enjoy an adventure outdoors that’s also cultural and reward themselves with good food and a great place to stay,” says CAO (chief adventure officer) Owen Perillo. “In some way, they change their lifestyle-maybe it’s a new sport, maybe it’s taking up yoga or meditation. This place gives people techniques to be better balanced in the rest of their lives.”

Pick This If: You want all the perks of a deluxe Southwest adventure, without any planning.

Departs: Year-round

Swiss Family Robinson
Costa Rica
Outfitter: Backroads (www.backroads.com)
Length: 6 days
Price: $3,198
DIY Potential

Next year, Berkeley, California-based Backroads offers a new multisport itinerary to Costa Rica’s Península de Osa, where inland jungle collides with the Pacific and the country’s first national park, Corcovado, was created in 1975. The six-day trip sets base camp at La Paloma Lodge, a jumping-off point for customized activities such as hikes among Corcovado’s famous scarlet macaws, rain forest treks (at night, with night-vision goggles), sea kayaking the calm blue of Drake Bahía, and cruising out to Isla del Caño, a pre-Columbian Indian burial ground that is one of Costa Rica’s few remaining indigenous areas. “We’re responding to an emerging trend in outdoorsy family travel. It’s for those people who are interested in active travel with their family, but want to do it without having to move around,” says Tom Hale, founder and president of Backroads.

The Península de Osa’s biodiversity is extraordinary””with more than 500 species of trees its arboreal diversity is the greatest in all of Central America. And while you’ll access these lush forests in comfort (La Paloma has a pool overlooking the Pacific, solar-heated showers, and open-air balconies hung with hammocks), you won’t ever forget you’re in the wild-Drake Bahía just got electricity this year. In addition to meeting tapirs and sea turtles, kids can play organized soccer games with local youth groups. “Costa Rica offers so much in terms of nature and wildlife, but there’s also a lot in terms of people,” says trip leader Pam Fritz. “We’d like the kids to get a sense of that.”

Pick This If: Your family vacation requires more oomph than a station wagon can deliver.

Departs: June, July, August

Pick Your Own Line
Washington
Outfitter: Mountain Madness (www.mountainmadness.com)
Length: 12 days
Price: $2,195

There’s a reason that Washington’s North Cascades are called the North American Alps: Like the great European mountains, the range’s hanging glaciers, jagged profiles, and long rock routes make it an enviable training ground for climbers who are learning to plan and lead remote expeditions. That’s why Seattle-based mountaineering school Mountain Madness has chosen the North Cascades’ Picket Range for a course designed to do just that. “On an expedition-style trip, you earn every step and you’re rewarded with beautiful glacier views,” says trip leader Matt Schonwald. “The Pickets are one of the last wild places left in the lower 48. Our chances of running into even a few other people are slim to none.”

The Pickets’ huge variety of climbs, from glacier ascents to 1,500-foot (457-meter) rock routes, makes the expedition customizable to a variety of abilities. But a high level of fitness and the willingness to carry a heavy load are a must. Even the initial approach, a 17-mile (27-kilometer), two-day push over glacier and through dense brush, is hard work. Guide-to-student ratios will be either one to one or two to one, guaranteeing lots of expert attention as you practice navigation, route finding, leading, and multipitch ice climbing. You’ll also add a bevy of other skills to your wilderness tool kit: camping, bivvying, and, if you’re lucky, Schonwald’s backcountry recipe for tasty pad thai.

Pick This If: You’re a weekend craghound ready to hit the big time.

Departs: July

Appian Wayfarers
Italy
Outfitter: H2Outfitters (www.h2outfitters.com)
Length: 7 days
Price: $3,450
DIY Potential

Not long after the Romans started making maps, the first peregrinatores (“tourists”) began exploring the ancient world. Plutarch called these early travelers “globe-trotters who…traverse unknown cities, sail new seas, but are at home everywhere” and their journeys took them first to the shores of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Next spring, Maine-based H2Outfitters offers modern-day peregrinatores a chance to explore this same southern Mediterranean coastline by sea kayak in what is now Parco Nazionale del Cilento e Vallo di Diano, a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Though sea kayaking is a major part of the trip, we want to show people that there’s more to visiting Amalfi than the paddling,” says H2Outfitters co-founder and “director of fun” Jeff Cooper, who holds a degree in classical archaeology. “These are places that Ulysses and Cicero visited, places that are loaded with history, and we’ll be staying in local inns nestled right in their midst.”

The Cilento park features hidden grottoes, protected coves, and well-preserved Greek and Roman ruins. You’ll explore them all by both sea and land as you cruise the cerulean coast, moving between the villages of Casal Velino and Pioppi and stopping along the way to hike up old shepherd trails into the dramatic volcanic landscape. Every intriguing geological feature along the coast has its own backstory: Rocky cliffs recall the mermaid Leucosia’s dive into the deep blue for Odysseus and a hike up Monte Vecchio affords sun-drenched mountaintop panoramas of Paestum, an ancient Greek city. In the honeycombed caves of Castelcivita, you’ll also see evidence that Amalfi’s status as a cultural hub extends even further back, to prehistoric times, when early humans carved snug passageways as part of their subterranean lifestyle. Apparently, before Plutarch, the ancient Italians didn’t get out much.

Pick This If: Your ideal Roman Holiday includes oars and Vibram soles.

Departs: April

Ring Around the Rosa
Switzerland
Outfitter: Distant Journeys (www.distantjourneys.com)
Length: 10 days
Price: $2,525
DIY Potential

Around the Monte Rosa massif””on the Swiss-Italian border and anchor to one of the Alps’ most heavily glaciated regions””the weather is often unpredictable, and demanding terrain keeps the trails vacant. That’s a plus for hikers up for a challenge. Maine-based Distant Journeys’ circular hiking itinerary features “places that you will never see unless you put in that effort and time,” says co-owner and guide Andrea Ellison Mulla. The outfitter specializes in challenging European hiking trips, and this one rates a “strenuous-plus” for its steepness and remoteness. “Sometimes it feels as though we’re hiking our own private route,” says Mulla.

Starting in the town of Valtournache on the Italian Matterhorn, the inn-to-inn route first moves through the undertouristed Aosta and Piedmont regions of northern Italy. On a typical day, you’ll climb 3,000 feet (914 meter) through open pastures to panoramic mountain passes. Throughout the trip, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn stand sentinel over stone farmhouses, wildflower-strewn meadows, and precipitous drops into deep, verdant valleys. All your gear will be carried and you’ll bed down each night at a family-run village inn. Once you cross the border into Switzerland, you’ll have ample opportunity to unwind with the easy charms of Swiss mountain life-fondue and raclette, cable cars, all-pedestrian villages-as you circle through the western Valais’ resort towns of Saas-Fee and GrÅ chen.

Pick This If: You don’t mind earning your views and your fondue.

Departs: July

Out-of-Bounds Oaxaca
Mexico
Outfitter: Austin-Lehman Adventures (www.austinlehman.com)
Length: 8 days
Price: $2,598
DIY Potential

The city of Oaxaca, famous for vibrant outdoor markets and alluring colonial architecture, has long been one of Mexico’s richest destinations in terms of culture. But Austin-Lehman Adventures’ freshly retooled itinerary to Oaxaca for next year emphasizes time spent outside of town. On a week-long romp through the Sierra Mixteca uplands to the northwest and the pine-covered peaks of the Sierra Norte to the northeast, the trip takes in cultural sites that speckle the surrounding hills and mountains, places like the ancient Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban and the celebrated weaving community of Teotitl”¡n del Valle.

Austin-Lehman’s itinerary includes a stop in Tierra Colorada, where trekkers follow a local Mixteca guide into the 1,312-foot-deep (400-meter) Morelos River canyon. There hide the small town of Santiago Apoala and a swimming-hole aficionado’s delight: the freshwater pools fed by the 300-foot (91-meter) falls of Cola de Serpiente. In the Sierra Norte, you’ll spend a half-day at 10,500 feet (3,200 meter) in a hummingbird-filled pine and oak forest, where agave plants grow 30 feet (9 meter) tall. A hike over the ridge to the village of Benito Juarez feels like a walk in the clouds; on a clear day you can see 18,855-foot (5,747-meter) Pico de Orizaba, the highest summit in Mexico. There’s also a day spent sampling countryside farmers markets by bike and the chance to perfect your guacamole at hands-on cooking classes.

Pick This If: You’d prefer to stretch your legs before cramming your stomach with mole.

Departs: April, October, December

NORTH

Path of the Explorers
Greenland
Outfitter: Black Feather (www.blackfeather.com), Editor’s Pick
Length: 15 days
Price: $6,995

Far above the Arctic Circle, a huge protected fjord system slices into eastern Greenland, cutting west toward the ice sheet that blankets nearly 80 percent of the island. Named for English whaler William Scoresby, who first mapped the area in 1822, the Scoresby Sund fjords’ inside edges are lined with calving tidewater glaciers that pepper the surrounding waters with massive floating icebergs. The area has long been irresistible to explorers. Norwegian Carl Ryder investigated the Scoresby Sund fjord system in the early 1890s and Dane Ejnar Mikkelsen rallied for a settlement in the area in 1924. And in 2006, northern destination expert Black Feather offers modern-day adventurers a chance to test the Scoresby Sund waters for themselves.

On a five-day paddle from the ice cap at Hjornedal, you’ll travel northeast up a series of interconnected fjords to Sorte Island, following the path of explorers past. Scoresby Sund is home to snowy owls, peregrine falcons, white-tailed eagles, and killer whales, all frequent companions as you glide through the red rock canyons typical of the Rodefjord and past the sheer mountain walls of the Ofjord. Elusive narwhals, a rare Arctic whale with a long, spiraled tusk, swim through both of these channels, and you’ll have a good chance of spotting their unicornlike tusks as you paddle. Long days in the boat are broken up by onshore hikes to lake valleys and high promontories. At day’s end, you’ll camp alongside the sod huts and stone remains of pre-European Inuit civilizations, the first humans to witness the area’s wonders.

Pick This If: You’re convinced the great age of polar exploration lives on.

Departs: August

Reindeer Games in the High Arctic
Sweden
Outfitter: Crossing Latitudes (www.crossinglatitudes.com)
Length: 9 days
Price: $2,500

The native Sami people, more commonly known as Laplanders, have been reindeer packing and trekking the distant lakes and highlands of the Scandinavian Arctic for thousands of years. With the help of local guides, Scandinavia specialist Crossing Latitudes, run by husband-and-wife team Tim and Lena Conlan, offers a handful of hikers the chance to accompany these nomadic tribes on their travels across the Swedish tundra. No other outfitter does anything like this unheralded trip, which provides travelers a peerless opportunity to experience the Arctic through both cultural immersion and outdoor adventure.

Reindeer carry the bulk of the expedition gear, a mode of portage that’s close to the land and environmentally low-impact (the reindeer feed on lichen that grows abundantly on mountain slopes). The route moves through Laponia, a UNESCO World Heritage site about a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, and some of the most unspoiled national parks in Sweden, including Stora Sjofallets (“Great Waterfalls”) where wolverines, moose, and mountain foxes range the rolling hills. Groups learn how to catch reindeer (with a lasso, Sami cowboy-style) and anglers can fly-fish for Arctic char and trout alongside the Sami in alpine lakes and streams. Impromptu lessons on Sami traditions””knifemaking, storytelling, seasoning your freshly caught dinner with native plants””all come just before dessert: handpicked blueberries and cloudberries.

Pick This If: You’ve always wondered how people live up there.

Departs: August

Cruising Polar Scientist Territory
Norway
Outfitter: Peregrine Adventures (www.peregrineadventures.com)
Length: 10 days
Price: $2,890

Move over Antarctica, there’s another polar player in town. Spitsbergen, an island 690 nautical miles (1,278 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle and smack in the middle of the alpine meadows, fjords, and ice plateaus of the Svalbard archipelago, is experiencing a boom””at least two outfitters are introducing trips to this region of the Scandinavian High Arctic in 2006. But it was Peregrine Adventures that started the trend last year, sending its Voyager, a former sonar research vessel, to the islands. The Voyager sails again next year, offering a high-tech base camp for Zodiac excursions to see polar bears, walrus, and bearded seals and for a visit to the remote scientific station of Ny Å’lesund, home of the northernmost post office on the globe.

Traveling aboard the Voyager allows passengers to see the Arctic through a scientist’s eyes; an accompanying faculty of historians, ornithologists, and marine biologists provides expertise on the wildlife you’ll witness from atop the ship’s bridge. For intrepid paddlers, the Voyager also takes along kayaks and dry suits. There’s good reason to make haste to this uniquely polar spot: This past July, researchers at Ny Ã¥lesund sported T-shirts and Bermuda shorts as they recorded the highest local temperatures in history.

Pick This If: You’d prefer to see the Arctic through well-trained eyes.

Departs: June, July, August

Serengeti of the North
Canada
Outfitter: Natural Habitat Adventures (www.nathab.com)
Length: 9 days
Price: $3,295

On the western shores of Hudson Bay, where the Arctic tundra, southern boreal forest, and Canada’s western plains converge, the mouth of Manitoba’s Churchill River is a crossroads for Arctic wildlife: migrating caribou, snowy owls, polar bears, and the beluga whales who come to molt each year. Manitoba outfitter Natural Habitat Adventures has been visiting the hub for 17 years, but next year it’s adding a new element to what director Ben Bressler calls its northern wildlife safari: a chance to jump right in and snorkel with the belugas. Since belugas that summer in Hudson Bay estuaries migrate north into the open bay come autumn, the Churchill River mouth, summer home to thousands of the whales, is one of few places in the world where you can hang out with a large (and characteristically playful) beluga population.

After traveling north from Winnipeg by sleeper train, the trip begins in the town of Churchill, the jumping-off point for hiking and tracking animals via Zodiac and tundra buggy. On the Churchill River, you’ll have an intimate fish-eye view of the whales feeding on capelin, scratching themselves on the shallow gravel riverbed, and singing their characteristic song, a medley composed of equal parts chirping, whistling, and clucking. On land you’ll watch from Natural Habitat’s mobile Tundra Lodge as polar bears mosey around with their cubs, and you’ll visit Inuit museums and the historic Fort Prince of Wales, where the Hudson’s Bay Company established its original trading post to the northwest in 1689, long before it occurred to anyone that diving into a river to swim with whales might be fun.

Pick This If: You’re seeking an uncommon wildlife encounter in an even wilder place.

Departs: July

SPACE

Boldly Go
Earth Orbit
Outfitter: Space Adventures, Ltd. (www.spaceadventures.com)
Length: Variable
Price: $200,000 to $100 million

Remember Sputnik and Mercury? Well the Space Race is back, but this time, you could be the ultimate winner. In first place, for now, is Space Adventures, Ltd. with a star-studded roster of former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin, and the title of being the only private outfit to have actually flown “space tourists” to the International Space Station. In second: Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, whose mission is to bring affordable spaceflight to the masses by 2008. Virgin Galactic pledges to drop the price for orbital flight to $200,000-not cheap but certainly less exorbitant than the $20 million that Space Adventures currently charges.

Assuming you can’t afford to fly outright, you have two options for next year: Take one of Space Adventures suborbital adventures (flying in a jet to the limit of the atmosphere costs $100,000) or start saving in hopes that Virgin Galactic will make good on its promise to bring real spaceflight within range. With the success of recent test flights, it might not be such a bad bet. But Space Adventures has already upped the ante: They’ll fly you to the moon in 2008 for a cool $100 million.

Pick This If: Your credit line, like the sky, knows no limit.