As dawn breaks over the savanna, your guide signals a stop. Through the trees ahead, you see the outline of something very big ambling through the underbrush. When the elephant—a 10-foot-tall, 12,000-pound bull—finally steps into the clearing and looks your way, your heart races, and for a moment, you remember how small you are. Then the giant continues on its way, and you on yours.
Welcome to a walking safari in Zambia, where your boots stand in for a Land Rover and all that separates you from rhinos, giraffes, lions, and hippos are the thin walls of a canvas tent. Sound rough? Then consider that, at day’s end, hot showers, ice-cold drinks, and feather beds await you in a luxurious mobile camp.
Related: Best Places to Travel in 2014
This is just one of the trips we’ve chosen for 2014, and it’s indicative of the qualities we believe make for good adventure travel: extraordinary experiences that challenge you without, well, depriving you.
That means a hike through Slovenia’s rugged Julian Alps that’s punctuated with stops to sip local Cabernets and nibble Bohinj cheese. Or a gear-grinding mountain bike journey through Italy’s mountains that pauses for a soak in 2,000-year-old Roman baths.
To find these hiking, walking, and biking trips, we tapped the expertise of more than 100 of the world’s top operators. In addition to sharing up-and-coming destinations, they filled us in on the state of adventure travel today. The world is a smaller place, with easier access to remote destinations; the business of adventure tourism is helping conserve endangered flora, fauna, and in some cases, local culture; and new standards of luxury mean that you can enjoy posh amenities from Morocco’s desert oases to the ice fields of southern Patagonia.
“For me,” says Wild Frontiers owner Jonny Bealby, “adventure travel is a trip that takes you out of your own comfortable world and puts you in a place that will surprise you, amaze you, educate you, perhaps even scare you, and ultimately provide an experience through which you will have grown as a person.”
You might eat your way through Shanghai’s bustling food markets and its most renowned chefs’ private kitchens, or head to the world’s last intact Buddhist kingdom—Bhutan—in search of the elusive snow leopard.
A little intimidating? Perhaps. Life changing? You betcha.
Rates quoted throughout are per person based on double occupancy.
Additional reporting by Amy Farley and Brooke Porter Katz