Your essential guide to the most spectacular trips on the globe for 2008. All 25 adventures are innovative, exploratory, action-filled, and guaranteed to change your life.
Gabon: The First Tourist to Animal Planet
With its 2008 trip, Journeys International writes a fitting end to Gabon’s eco-success story, bringing some of the first tours to the nation’s newly established parks. “It’s the greatest concentrations of undisturbed wildlife anywhere in Africa,” reported explorer J. Michael Fay in 2002. After scouting out the terrain last year, Journeys founder Will Weber was stunned by Ivindo, a roadless national park that houses buffalo, crocodiles, and the Langoué Bai Research Camp—all a three-hour trek from the nearest village. In Lopé National Park, guests divide their time between the laid-back bungalow comfort of the Lopé Hotel and Mikongo Camp, where scientists study gorillas, chimps, and black colobus monkeys.
- Outfitter: Journeys International (www.journeys.travel)
- Price: $7,595
- Length: 15 days
- Departs: January
Mali: Time for Timbuktu
Mali is this year’s Mozambique, an underappreciated African nation deemed ready—and ridiculously cool—by the travel vanguard. The landlocked Saharan state sits at an ancient crossroads, producing a startling mix of North and West Africa in music and architecture. Absolute Travel’s newly developed trip launches this winter. Its focus: customization. The outfitter can arrange a concert and personal meeting with singer Oumou Sangare, the “songbird of Wassoulou,” or a private viewing of Timbuktu’s famous gold-scripted ancient Arabic texts. You’ll trek through villages and famous markets and see nomadic Tuareg—the “blue men of the desert”—dressed in indigo robes and turbans leading camel caravans. In Le Ndomo, an artisan center that specializes in bogolan, a cloth dyed with river mud and plant extracts, craftsmen show you how to make your own piece of mud cloth to take home. In Bandiagara, treks along fantastic sandstone escarpments reveal the elaborate rock art of Mali’s Dogon people; the villagers themselves will perform a traditional Dogon mask dance in your honor. At the trip’s final stop in Timbuktu, the city’s history as a flourishing Islamic center is evident in the ancient texts housed in the archives and the great 13th-century Djingareyber mosque.
- Outfitter: Absolute Travel (www.absolutetravel.com)
- Price: $4,960
- Length: 12 days
- Departs: Year-round
Namibia: Lions, Lodges, and Bikes
The choice is yours: Sit in a jeep for ten days on a wildlife drive-by, or set out on foot and bicycle into the little-explored Namibian backcountry. Butterfield & Robinson’s new tour is the first to pair challenging desert biking with hiking to astoundingly remote, high-end game camps. As trip planner Brad Crockett explains, “Guests see a region of the world still radiating a prehistoric existence.” A trip standout is the sunrise hike to the dunes of Sossusvlei, situated in one of the planet’s oldest and driest ecosystems, followed by a 40-mile (64-kilometer) bike ride on a road through shifting sands. “You’re biking in places where literally no one has ridden,” Crockett says. “Locals will think we’re nuts.” To reach the farther-flung destinations on this ambitious itinerary—and to get top-down views of the starkly gorgeous topography—guests travel on small private planes.
- Outfitter: Butterfield & Robinson (www.butterfield.com)
- Price: $11,995
- Length: Ten days
- Departs: September
South Africa: The Plush Bush Trek
A proper walking tour is coming to South Africa. In March the Wayfarers—our top-ten hiking outfitter—launches its first foray into the bush, combining the British company’s boots-on-the-ground credo (safari treks, dinners with locals) and its well-honed sense of civility (stays in historic manors, winery tours). “I don’t think anyone else does what we’re doing: a very personalized trip with lots of local insight,” says owner Malle Hague, who was born in Botswana and educated in South Africa. The expansive itinerary begins with exploratory hikes in the lush nature preserves of Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain, with panoramas of the city. A morning visit to a Cape township opens a window to local life, and ranger-led treks through Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve—a South African Natural Heritage site with open-air galleries of remarkably preserved rock art—give expert context to prehistoric paintings and engravings. From there travelers hike the Cederberg Mountains and the plains of the Great Karoo, visit exclusive wineries in Franschhoek, and fly via private charter to Madikwe Game Reserve, a 290-square-mile (751-square-kilometer) Big Five park bordering Botswana.
- Outfitter: The Wayfarers (www.thewayfarers.com)
- Price: $7,895
- Length: 12 days
- Departs: March
Japan: The Rising Sun, Pre-Pokemon
Next fall Wilderness Travel tries its hand at time travel. The outfitter’s 13-day trip to Shikoku, the archipelago’s fourth largest island, will crisscross rural roads in search of Japan before the Harajuku Girls and the wild tangle of Tokyo. Shikoku, with its hidden valleys and striking inland sea, is the ideal region to experience on foot, says Wilderness Travel’s Barbara Banks. You’ll explore Shikoku’s Iya Valley, which was thrust into the spotlight by Australian author Alex Kerr in his 1994 book, Lost Japan (he is the first foreigner to win Japan’s prestigious Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize); the area is considered one of Japan’s three hidden regions. Spend time among the thatch-roof farmhouses, monasteries, and fishing villages. A safe haven for the Heike Clan during civil wars in the 12th century, Iya’s tall peaks and deep gorges are today home to tiny hamlets where residents struggle to preserve traditional ways despite increasing economic pressure to move to the cities. There are reminders of a bygone Japan everywhere: Four of the country’s only remaining castles hark back to the samurai era, and Shikoku’s 88 Sacred Temples have famously drawn pilgrims for a thousand years.
- Outfitter: Wilderness Travel (www.wildernesstravel.com)
- Price: $4,550
- Length: 13 days
- Departs: October
Myanmar: A Nation Preserved in Amber
Known as Burma before a long-standing military junta came to power in 1989, Myanmar is a country stuck in the moment: a pagoda-dotted landscape peopled with Buddhist monks clad in lungis (sarongs) and covered in thanaka paste to protect their skin from the sun. Myanmar has opened and closed its doors to international travelers for the past two decades, so tourism—one of the few businesses from which locals can profit—is limited. With its 2008 trip, Country Walkers is the sole operator offering a trekking-only itinerary exclusively within the state. Traveling with care, says guide Rachel Baker, helps ensure that your dollars benefit the local people, not the regime. A top-rated trekking outfitter, Country Walkers arranges trip logistics through privately owned local hotels, restaurants, and transportation companies. The ten-day trip includes stops in remote villages and monasteries reachable only by foot, enlisting local guides from Yangon (Rangoon) to facilitate visits to areas that are otherwise inaccessible. You’ll be invited into villagers’ homes to participate in Buddhist rituals, share a cup of tea or a meal, and try your hand at weaving or carving. Some parts of the country have only recently been opened to tourists, including the high hills and jungles surrounding Inle Lake, where fishermen work the tranquil, glassy waters. You’ll travel by flat-bottom fishing boats to floating gardens and lakeside inns, and climb to ancient monasteries and empty temple ruins.
- Outfitter: Country Walkers (www.countrywalkers.com)
- Price: $3,898
- Length: Ten days
- Departs: February, December
Tajikistan + Afghanistan: Expedition: Wakhan Corridor
The Wakhan Corridor is one of the wildest landscapes on the planet: A 200-mile-long (322-kilometer-long) valley splitting the Pamir Mountains and the Hindu Kush, where few Westerners have traveled since Marco Polo passed through in the 13th century. “It’s a true adventure in the old-fashioned, swashbuckling sense of the word,” says Geographic Expeditions’ Afghanistan and Silk Road regional director, Kristina Tuohey, who notes that the Wakhan has been largely immune to the region’s political and military upheavals. Beginning in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, Geo Ex’s groups of 16 people or fewer move south on foot to the Tajik-Afghan border, continuing east through the snowy Pamirs to Sarhad-e Broghil. In the ten days of hiking that follow, you’ll trace Marco Polo’s route through a wildlife-rich valley inhabited by Siberian ibex, snow leopards, gray wolves, Marco Polo sheep, and yaks. You’ll also likely encounter members of the tiny, hospitable Afghan Kyrgyz nomad community—a rapidly dwindling ancient culture that survives long winters by trading with the Wakhi ethnic minority on the Pakistan side of the Pamir, crossing back and forth by horse caravan over rippling mountain passes. The primary focus of the hike, however, is the sweeping vivid-blue skies, snow-covered slopes, pastoral ranges, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be one of the handful of outsiders to traverse this lonely stretch. The turnaround is Afghanistan’s eastern outpost, at the mountainous border with China.
- Outfitter: Geographic Expeditions (www.geoex.com)
- Price: $8,565
- Length: 21 days
- Departs: July
Thailand: Snorkeling the Asian Aquarium
The Mergui Archipelago, a 200-island barrier reef system in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Myanmar, was closed to travelers until 1997. Next March the ecology experts at World Wildlife Fund Travel enter the fray with a tour of one of its least visited sites: the dazzling Tenasserim coastal rain forest. Guests join top marine conservationists aboard the 15-passenger Mermaid 1 for an insider’s look at one of WWF’s Global 200, a ranking of conservation priorities around the globe. “The sea life is dense and imperiled,” says Debra Eliezer, director of WWF Travel. “Guests will be among the few to ever see it.” On the first day of snorkeling off Great Swinton Island, travelers tour underwater gardens blooming with massive table and basket corals, home to grouper, saddleback clownfish, and cuttlefish; lunch is accompanied by a presentation on coral biology. Other shallow-water habitats host colorful anemone clownfish, cardinalfish, and hawksbill turtles. On larger islands hikers trek empty beaches and forests in the company of monitor lizards and long-tailed macaques. The entire exploration of these Southeast Asian waters—a mosh pit for the flora and fauna of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—is done in comfort: Mermaid 1′s cabins are air-conditioned and equipped with DVD players and private bathrooms. Sightings of the traditional Moken people, sea gypsies who live in small boats the majority of the year, are an above-water complement to the undersea bonanza.
- Outfitter: WWF Travel (www.worldwildlife.org/travel)
- Price: $6,800
- Length: 15 days
- Departs: March
Tibet: Bikes on the Roof of the World
It’s the cycling trip of a lifetime: Lhasa to Kathmandu on two wheels. On the 22-day trip with GAP Adventures, our top-rated do-it-all outfitter, long climbs up Himalaya mountain passes and high-adrenaline descents are mixed with easier rides past glacial streams and tiny mountain villages. Lest you feel intimidated by the idea of a bike tour through the world’s highest mountain range, there’s ample opportunity to navigate sections by jeep or foot, all rides are supported, and cycling days are interspersed with rest stops and cultural excursions. In Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city, join hundreds of devotees on a visit to the Tashilhunpo monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama (spiritual adviser to the Dalai Lama), where pilgrims feed lamps with yak butter and pay respects to the gold-plated statue of the future Buddha. From there it’s a few days’ ride along Friendship Highway through Qomolangma Nature Preserve to Everest Base Camp—a Himalayan crossing that GAP Adventures’ Kira Zack calls a cyclist’s ultimate ticket to bragging rights.
- Outfitter: GAP Adventures (www.gapadventures.com)
- Price: $2,695 (bikes not included)
- Length: 22 days
- Departs: May, June, July
France: A Private Tour de France (It’s Scandal Free!)
Who needs the foundering Tour de France anyway? Form your own peloton on REI Adventures’ new fully supported bike trip to marquee stops on the Tour: the Alps, Provence, and the Pyrenees. No other company hits all three in one tour. “With big and famous mountains every day, three different amazing regions in France, and time in the evening to taste the local wine, we know we have a winner,” says Jonathan Irish, who designed the trip for REI Adventures. The itinerary, adds Irish, is based on what he and his cycling friends deem their “dream ride on two wheels.” A challenge for serious riders and prime for moderate cyclists who want something to train for, the nine-day ride tackles, among other things, the 21 switchbacks on the leg-burning ascent of Alp d’Huez and a marathon climb to the 8,677-foot (2,645-meter) summit of Col du Galibier, home to a monument to Tour de France founder Henri Desgranges. With former pro cyclists as guides, the trip is infused with rich Tour and regional history; in the Pyrenees you’ll stay at a hotel dedicated to cycling great Laurent Fignon in the shadow of several famous Tour climbs. Carbon-fiber Eddy Merckx CHM road bikes are provided for your use. And if you want to skip a day in the saddle, you don’t have to worry about losing the yellow jersey.
- Outfitter: REI Adventures (www.rei.com/adventures)
- Price: $3,599
- Length: Nine days
- Departs: June, August, September
Norway: An Arctic Safari You Can Eat
This winter Borton Overseas launches a new trip into the singular Arctic wilderness of far northeastern Norway, on the border of both Russia and Finland. Laced with forests and fjords, this is reindeer and northern lights country—and major red king crab territory. In frigid waters the giant crustaceans can grow up to six feet (2 meters) wide and weigh up to 25 pounds (11 kilograms). Since 1960, when Soviet scientists first introduced the species to the Barents Sea near the Norwegian border, millions of them have migrated west. The crabs have few natural enemies, and environmentalists have grown anxious over their rapid spread, advocating for higher fishing quotas to help control numbers. Given the king’s status as a prized shellfish, crab safaris have become the latest draw for gourmet eco-adventurers. On Borton’s tour of the Finnmark region, travelers take a morning snowmobile ride out to the fjord, where large holes are drilled in the ice in the winter months. Certified scuba divers can join the pros as they plunge to the seafloor and catch lunch; back in the warmth of a cozy restaurant, the kings are served, along with a lecture and presentation by a local crab specialist. Other highlights of the seven-day expedition include an afternoon running a dogsled team, a snowshoeing excursion, and a stay in the Kirkenes SnowHotel—a stylish ice abode rebuilt every year. No need to fear the cold: There’s a snow bar for hot toddies and an Arctic taxi that takes guests to the sauna on demand.
- Outfitter: Borton Overseas (www.bortonoverseas.com)
- Price: $2,902
- Length: Seven days
- Departs: December-March
Scotland: Sea Kayaking From Loch to Loch
“Our friends in Glasgow let us in on a paddling secret: the west coast of Scotland and the Inner Hebrides,” reports Olaf Malver, founder of Explorers’ Corner. “We were won over immediately. It’s one of the best kayaking destinations on the planet.” On the six-day circuit around Scotland and its little-known satellite isles, days of loch-hopping are paired with evening pub crawls and nights in traditional, family-owned coastal inns. The remote waterways are typically traversed only by expert local paddlers, but Malver has cherry-picked the calmest passages, granting access to the less experienced. The trip takes kayakers through the cobalt blue Sound of Arisaig—where golden eagle and whale sightings are common—along the Isles of Rum and Eigg, and to a landing on Eilean Shona, or Beautiful Island, a green gem spectacularly set at the entrance to Loch Moidart. Each day’s journey includes six to eight hours of paddling past gray seal colonies, sandy beaches, and historic lochs (including Loch nan Uamh, or Loch of the Cave, where Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have landed in his 18th-century efforts to claim the thrones of Scotland and England). En route you’ll hike through castle ruins and roam small villages. Optional side trips include a visit to a Scotch whisky distillery and a 12-and-a-half-mile (20-kilometer) paddle up Loch Shiel to Glenfinnan, famous for the magic railway viaduct featured in the Harry Potter films.
- Outfitter: Explorers’ Corner (www.explorerscorner.com)
- Price: $3,690
- Length: Eight days
- Departs: June, September
Switzerland: Haute Glaciology
A newly expanded UNESCO World Heritage site, the Swiss Alps’s Aletsch Glacier is the largest ice field in Europe and a barometer for glacial retreat throughout the world. On Mountain Travel Sobek’s first ever glacier-focused trip, you’ll get a rare chance to strap on crampons, cross the high ice field, and witness the impressive uplift and compression that formed this striking natural treasure. Starting in the small village of Ulrichen, mountain guide Cain Olsen—who calls Valcamonica in the Italian Alps his home—leads a strenuous eight-day trek over the region’s glistening ice and sheer passes carved by glacial movement. To acclimatize on the first day of trekking, hikers take a mellow climb to 7,680 feet (2,341 meters) to look out over the RhÃ´ne Glacier, the source of the historic river of the same name. The next few days are spent traversing rock and ice on winding trails with views of the southern range of the Alps and iconic peaks like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc; at night, guests bed down in Alpine huts and mountain lodges. Elevation tops out just shy of 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) on the climb to the Oberaarjoch Hut, which offers a terrific panorama of the dark, shark-fin peak of Finsteraarhorn (at 14,002 feet [4,268 meters], the highest mountain in the Bernese Alps). The journey culminates with a crossing of the Aletsch Glacier, surrounded by a rugged amphitheater of 13,000-foot (3,962-meter) peaks, U-shaped valleys, cirques, and glacial moraines. According to Sobek program director Anne Wood, guests will return “in awe of the magnificent beauty of these giant fields of ice” and ready to take action to slow a changing climate that could possibly eliminate the Aletsch by the end of this century.
- Outfitter: Mountain Travel Sobek (www.mtsobek.com)
- Price: $3,695
- Length: Nine days
- Departs: July, August, September
Chile: King of Easter Island
Overlooking the full expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Explora’s new Posada de Mike Rapu brings high-class hospitality to the remotest inhabited island on Earth. Built using indigenous materials (rauli wood and pizarra stone), all rooms have a view of the sunrise; the Jacuzzi, swimming pool, and glass-walled restaurant reward you for a day’s exploration. This tiny island—15 miles (24 kilometers) at its longest and seven and a half miles (12 kilometers) wide—has always packed big mystery; its enigmatic moai, those trademark stone statues, stand sentinel along the rugged coastlines. From the posada, bilingual guides lead daily treks to ancient sites. Offshore, Mike Rapu Diving Center leads scuba tours of the island’s lesser known icons: volcanic caverns, bridges, and corals populated by some 130 species of fish, many of them endemic. High-visibility waters (upwards of 120 feet [37 meters]) ensure that you’ll see plenty, including a handful of submerged moai.
- Outfitter: Explora (www.explora.com)
- Price: $1,794, including all meals and daily guided exploration
- Length: Three nights
- Departs: Year-round
El Salvador: Adventure Academy
For Access Trips—an innovative, six-year-old outfitter—combining adventure travel with top-of-the-line sports coaching comes naturally. Company co-founder Alain Chuard is a former World Cup snowboarder, and trip leaders include a World Cup mountain biker and a champion surfer. Their newest multisport classroom: off-the-radar El Salvador, where clients will be the only ones on the beach for surf lessons and on rolling trails for rides. Resident mountain-biking champ Roy Beers meets groups in San Salvador and leads them to a hotel along the white-sand beaches of the Costa del Sol, just yards from a beginner surf break. The next three days are divided between surfing and wakeboarding and, after retreating to the edges of El Imposible National Park, riding little-trafficked trail circuits through jungle and bamboo.
- Outfitter: Access Trips (www.accesstrips.com)
- Price: $1,450
- Length: Seven days
- Departs: Year-round
Panama: Central America Confidential
“Panama is what Costa Rica was ten years ago,” says Austin-Lehman Adventures trip planner Richard G. Edwards. “It’s only beginning to blossom as an adventure destination.” Your first stop on Lehman’s new lodge-to-lodge tour: the open spaces of El Valle de AntÃ³n, in the western mountains, and El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, a sophisticated, minimalist break from ubiquitous thatch, set on the caldera of an extinct volcano and on a snaking network of bike trails. From there it’s a short shuttle to 3,000 feet (914 meters) above sea level and the cloud forest of Boquete and Finca Lerida, a colonial ranch and coffee plantation, where resplendent quetzals and sabrewings squawk a soundtrack to forest hikes. The final three days are spent on the Caribbean beaches and cerulean bays of the Bocas del Toro archipelago, home to two national park gems. Tranquilo Bay, an ecolodge of eight private cabanas perched on the island of Bastimentos, is your seaside base camp.
- Outfitter: Austin-Lehman Adventures (www.austinlehman.com)
- Price: $2,990
- Length: Nine days
- Departs: Year-round
Peru: A Peruvian Game of High-Low
O.A.R.S., our top-rated paddling outfitter, has created an expedition brilliant in its simplicity, hitting the ultimate highs (Machu Picchu) and lows (deep canyon whitewater) of Peru’s storied landscape. From Cusco you’ll embark on a four-day rafting trip down the ApurÃmac, the glacier-fed source of the Amazon. River otters and tropical Andean birds keep watch as you face Class IV rapids threading narrow gorges. The final multisport leg is a trans-Andean trek across the Cordillera Vilcabamba on Inca trails, using the new Mountain Lodges of Peru. “The mountain drama blows people away—not only seeing the glaciers but hearing them calving,” says O.A.R.S. president George Wendt. Unlike the main Inca Trail, traversed by up to 500 people a day, the Camino Salcantay is little touristed, with an average of 30 hikers each day. Intrigued? Check out “Machu Picchu, the Cool Way” photo gallery and adventure guide for a test run.
- Outfitter: O.A.R.S. (www.oars.com)
- Price: $4,295
- Length: 16 days
- Departs: June, August
Alaska: Into the Last Frontier
This year the Nature Conservancy has partnered with outfitter Abercrombie & Kent to lead visitors to Earth’s most endangered landscapes. First stop in 2008: Alaska. “With shifting seasons and thinner ice, both wildlife and native people face uncertain futures,” says Sarah Leonard, associate director of philanthropy of the Nature Conservancy’s Alaska branch. “Guests see firsthand how the conservancy is studying the susceptibility and adaptability of key species and identifying solutions that may offer them—and, ultimately, native Alaskan people—hope for long-term survival.” Tripgoers travel in the intimate Abercrombie & Kent way: private flights across Cook Inlet and luxury lodges in secluded locations on Prince of Wales Island and Redoubt Bay, a prime location for bear-watching and a critical habitat area for resident and migratory birds. Guided kayak and hiking trips are accompanied by Nature Conservancy staffers, who muse on the complicated task of preserving some of the country’s last true wilderness. The trip’s signature day starts with an expedition into the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s dazzling range of icy lakes, salmon-filled rivers, wetlands, tundra, boreal forest, and mountains, and ends with a bush-flight landing on one of three glaciers. In the evening guests dine with the Nature Conservancy’s Alaska program leaders on a menu befitting the top-rated luxury outfitter (pan-seared sea scallops) and discuss how melting sea ice and eroding coastlines are affecting Alaska’s communities. Seven percent of your trip costs go directly to on-the-ground conservation in Alaska.
- Outfitter: The Nature Conservancy/Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com/tnc)
- Price: $9,712
- Length: Six days
- Departs: August
California: The Grand Yosemite Traverse
On this eight-day, 57-mile (92-kilometer) trans-Sierra backpacking tour, which crosses the whole of Yosemite National Park from south to north, Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides has done all the logistical work for you. “You start at one point, end at another, and never see the same terrain on any given day,” says owner and guide Ian Elman. “Plus, it has the most bang for your buck.” The trip, however, is not for beginners: You’ll cover about nine miles (14 kilometers) a day at elevations nearing 11,000 feet (3,353 meters). The hike starts at a remote trailhead in the Ansel Adams Wilderness at Yosemite’s south end and includes a second-day traverse of Post Peak Pass into the park. You’ll camp at glassy alpine lakes, ascend Half Dome—the park’s crown jewel—and climb uphill along the John Muir Trail to Cathedral Lakes, a region lined with dramatic glaciated granite peaks. The trek finishes at Tuolumne Meadows, an undulating, flower-filled subalpine system surrounded by domes. A Saturday-to-Sunday trip that Elman calls “logistically tidy,” the grand traverse includes all gear and food (Elman makes a mean bananas flambé). And on the ride home, you’ll tour Yosemite Valley’s famous front-country sites like El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.
- Outfitter: Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (www.symg.com)
- Price: $1,695
- Length: Eight days
- Departs: September
Canada: Play Polar Bear Slug Bug
Scientists believe that global warming could drive polar bears to extinction sometime this century—a fact not lost on Wildland Tours. The Canada-based outfitter’s first-ever polar bear tracking trip in distant regions of Labrador will depart next spring aboard the restored Dutch fishing vessel Wanderbird. Venturing from Nain to Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve—Canada’s newest—and onto the recently established Inuit territory of Nunatsiavut, the outfitter will team up with local Inuit for homestays and sit-downs with elders to discuss climate change and the plight of the world’s largest carnivores. Last year Parks Canada biologists tagged a whopping 123 polar bears during a survey of the area; on this trip, guests will perform their own count, with park staff on hand. Zodiac landings allow for hikes in what Wanderbird captain Rick Miles calls the wildest scenery on the Atlantic coast: Fjords reach their fingers in from the crashing ocean and mountain peaks rise to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), the vast span of it all occupied by whales, wolves, and golden eagles. “It’s a long way away from what you see on TV—the scenery is magnificent,” says Miles. Aboard the ship, six varnished-wood cabins with private baths, two spacious salons, and an observation deck with teak steamer chairs make for cushy counting.
- Outfitter: Wildland Tours/Wanderbird Cruises (www.wildlands.com)
- Price: $4,900
- Length: 11 days
- Departs: July, August
Hawaii: Tending to the Garden of Eden
The promise of “undiscovered Hawaii” has, since the building boom of the 1960s and ’70s, been as elusive as a fashionable Hawaiian shirt. But next year Sierra Club Outings will introduce a lucky few to the real thing: Kaho’olawe, an uninhabited volcanic islet seven miles (11 kilometers) southwest of Maui. A United States Navy bombing target dating back to World War II, Kaho’olawe was returned to the locals only in the 1990s and is still closed to the public. Its caretaker, the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), has been charged with restoring the island culturally (rebuilding a series of rain koa shrines) and environmentally (planting native species to establish a Hawaiian dryland forest). As a Sierra Club voluntourist, you’ll spend your days alongside KIRC members, planting indigenous species to stem erosion, and your nights in a bayside Quonset hut with views of islands adrift in the cobalt seas. “You see vast fields of volcanic dirt,” says trip leader Jill McIntire. “And that’s why we’re there: to restore vegetation and make a lasting impact on this big red island.” The bonus to your effort: a weeklong window into a paradise that few will ever see. Kaho’olawe, a 12,800-acre (5,180-hectare) refuge, is the only major island in the Pacific that archaeologists have surveyed from coast to coast, with an inventory of nearly 3,000 historic sites. You’ll be schooled in native customs and Hawaii’s early history, including a lesson on navigating by a Polynesian star circle, a traditional astronomy chart laid out in rocks and conch shells. Back at base camp you can explore a private beach and the waters offshore. “Marine life uses the island as a breeding ground,” says McIntire. “We’ve got a resident pod of spinner dolphins that we watch return home each night.” For a taste of modern Hawaii after living with the ancients, you’ll head back to Maui for three days of snorkeling and well-deserved R&R.
- Outfitter: Sierra Club Outings (www.sierraclub.org)
- Price: $995
- Length: Nine days
- Departs: March
Antarctica: Carbon Neutral When It Counts
With an environmental focus rivaling the new and improved Al Gore, Natural Habitat Adventures is a pioneer in sustainable travel. Starting this year, its land-based trips and office operations will be completely carbon neutral (an outfitter first). And in 2008 Habitat will offer the first carbon-neutral voyage to Antarctica. “Our hope is that we can motivate other companies to offset their emissions,” says Habitat’s Matt Kareus. “And when airlines and cruise lines follow suit, it will make a difference.” Natural Habitat Adventures is the official travel provider for World Wildlife Fund, so a percentage of your trip cost goes to WWF. What, you ask, is in it for you? Stops at South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. With millions of king penguins and peaks covered in blue glaciers, the wild islands are altruism’s just reward.
- Outfitter: Natural Habitat Adventures (www.nathab.com)
- Price: $11,400
- Length: 20 days
- Departs: February
Fiji: A Quest Called Tribe
The lure of life as a Pacific islander is as timeworn as it is elusive (umbrellaed rum drinks and a Bob Marley soundtrack do not qualify). Enter Earthwatch Institute, our third highest rated outfitter overall, whose new archaeological expedition to the Fijian island of Viti Levu takes immersion travel to the extreme. On Rove Peninsula, fringed by a mangrove forest on one side and blooming coral reefs on the other, Bourewa Beach is the site of the earliest human settlement in Fiji. Working with a team of researchers and local university students, you’ll excavate sites for provocative evidence of prehistoric life, including greenstone tools and intricately carved pottery. “So little is known about the Lapita people—the archaeologists are in the very early stages of their research—that you actually have an amazing chance of discovering something new and exciting in the field,” says Earthwatch program manager Kimberly Ciano. While working the site you’ll stay with villagers (a dose of Fijian hospitality isn’t complete without a calming bowl of evening kava). After a turn as Indiana Jones, follow your new friends to the best snorkeling spots or on an exploration of paradise on horseback.
- Outfitter: Earthwatch Institute (www.earthwatch.org)
- Price: $2,649
- Length: 15 days
- Departs: January
New Zealand: Lodge to Lodge in Middle Earth
At the top of New Zealand’s South Island, the Queen Charlotte Track winds 44 miles (71 kilometers) through quintessential Kiwi country: secluded beaches speckled with tiny blue penguins, rocky waterfalls hidden behind thick rain forest canopies, and native bushland occupied by foraging wild pigs (descendants of those released by Captain James Cook). In 1770 Cook sailed into Ship Cove, the beginning of the Queen Charlotte Track. Today you can hike the trail in boutique comfort with Wilderness Guides, whose new multiday trek through Marlborough Sounds treats small groups (eight people or less) to private stays in upscale inns. Co-owner Juliet Gibbons, a native of the Sounds, has scouted all lodges and, at day’s end, expertly prepares local fare—blue cod, Marlborough mussels, wild salmon, and New Zealand lamb. On day one you’ll hike nine miles (14 kilometers) to the just completed No Road Inn, accessible by boat and set on the only private land on Endeavour Inlet. You’ll traverse the coast and climb to ridgeline panoramas over Kenepuru and Queen Charlotte Sounds, drinking in views of sunken river valleys, curving bays, and offshore islands. You’ll also get your share of bird life, including fantails, bellbirds, and vividly colored kakarikis (New Zealand parrots). At Lochmara Lodge Eco Retreat, set on a bay of the same name, you’ll learn about kakariki conservation—over a glass of local Pinot Noir.
- Outfitter: Wilderness Guides (www.wildernessguidesnz.com)
- Price: $1,060
- Length: Four days
- Departs: October-April
Oceania: The Oceania Full Monty
The macro display of attractions in Micronesia and Melanesia has baffled outfitters and tourists trying to see it all. Until now. Zegrahm & Eco Expeditions’ exclusive new itinerary hits the water world’s full range of options in the Western South Pacific. Traveling from Papua New Guinea, the Clipper Odyssey—a 110-passenger ship ideal for small-scale exploration—sails the rugged tropical coastlines of Palau and the Yap Islands, where locals voyage between atolls in outrigger canoes, steering by the sun and stars. “Yap’s traditional villages are reached only by the sea and remain nearly untouched by tourism,” says Casey Marker, marketing director for Zegrahm & Eco Expeditions. In the equatorial seas, divers cruise 80-degree (27-degree Celsius) waters in the company of blue-banded surgeonfish, butterflyfish, and squaretail mullet. Underwater grottoes filled with grouper await snorkelers in the Marshall Bennetts. Five years ago the outfitter made the first ever visit by an international passenger vessel to the Tsoi Islands; next year islanders welcome guests back with performances by the village choir. While there, seek out the megapode, a distinct—and threatened—Australasian ground bird, which piles earth a foot high to incubate its eggs. The Clipper Odyssey’s final ports of call include coral atolls surrounded by bottlenose dolphins, islets inhabited by sea turtles, and Koror, the capital of Palau. From there you can hike through pristine forest to snorkel in Jellyfish Lake, where, happily, the massive jellyfish have evolved through biological isolation to nonstinging status.
- Outfitter: Zegrahm & Eco Expeditions (www.zeco.com)
- Price: $8,380
- Length: 16 days
- Departs: May