15 Life-Changing Trips
From volunteering in South America to getting inside Southeast Asian culture, 15 transformative vacations to take now.
What’s your New Year’s resolution? Volunteering? Immersing yourself in another culture? Or simply getting outside more?
Whatever your focus, a vacation can be the perfect time to fulfill your promises to yourself. You won’t be alone: authentic experiences are becoming increasingly important to many travelers. Whether it’s helping others, understanding local cultures, or exploring the natural splendor of a rich ecosystem, your next journey could be the life-changing experience you’ve been looking for. To help, we reached out to our network of trusted tour operators to create custom itineraries that promise to transform.
You’ll find one of these opportunities in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, home to 20 percent of the city’s population-more than 1 million people. Voluntourism operator Hands Up Holidays offers travelers hands-on experiences in these overcrowded areas, teaching English or art or painting murals to brighten the neighborhood. But it’s not all work; the company balances the experience by offering walking and hiking expeditions along with accommodations in a boutique hotel.
Of course, life-changing experiences come in many forms-and getting inside a culture is one of them. We also tapped the pros at Asia Transpacific Journeys for a custom Travel + Leisure itinerary, and they came back with a tour to Vietnam that guarantees a heavy dose of cultural interaction. On this journey, you’ll explore lesser-known hill-tribe villages and markets of the northern highlands, and you’ll meet with locals—including relatives of the former royal family. You’ll also attend cooking classes with local chefs and attend dinners in private homes.
For some, the dream includes getting in touch with nature. Fortunately, the adventure-travel pros at Austin-Lehman created a trip just for us. You’ll go with them on a six-day trip to Glacier National Park, a one-million-acre expanse that runs along Canada’s border. Not only will you spend your days hiking through the park—where there’s a good chance of spotting bighorn sheep, black bears, and moose—you’ll also have an opportunity to see the glaciers before they disappear. (Experts give them another 20 or so years.)
Continue on for 15 very different trips, all full of transformational opportunities. Don’t wait for 2011; make 2010 the year that travel changes everything.
Volunteering: Rio De Janeiro
Why Go: Few travelers get to do more than scratch the surface of this city of disorienting contrasts, where a golden coastline and buzzing night-life districts abut gritty, overcrowded favelas—home to about 20 percent of Rio’s 6 million residents. This 10-day trip from U.K.-based operator Hands Up Holidays gives volunteers a deeper look at the city and a chance to make a difference.
The Trip: An experienced voluntourism outfitter, Hands Up Holidays excels at balancing unexpected sightseeing expeditions (sunset on Arpoador Beach; hiking in the wetlands of Marapendí; Portuguese-architecture walks) with four days of volunteering in the city’s favelas. Tours of the popular nightlife district Lapa and the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood, where a boutique hotel of the same name is your base, add a level of luxury to days spent in the favelas of Vila Canoas, Pereirão, and Rocinha. There, you’ll help residents paint street murals, or spend your time teaching English, art, and soccer (depending on your skills). Hands Up also takes volunteers to visit Project Morrinho, an arts and culture nonprofit, to see a replica of the famous “mini favela” that was built from bricks and other recycled materials by local youth and displayed at the 2007 Venice Biennale as a way to raise awareness of the city’s impoverished districts.
The Details: T+L Transformation Vacation by Hands Up Holidays; 201/984-5372; handsupholidays.com; Dec. 9–18, 2009, March 3–12 and June 9–18, 2010; from $3,250, double, excluding airfare.
Cultural Odyssey: Vietnam
Why Go: More than two decades after Vietnam embraced free-market principles, the pace of development here is dramatic. But even as new stores and restaurants open in the cities and luxury resorts line the coast, traditional Vietnamese culture remains just beneath the surface. Asia Transpacific Journeys, a 2009 T+L Global Vision Awards winner with over 20 years experience in the region, is the ultimate guide to the country’s history and culture.
The Trip: This journey takes you to some of Vietnam’s greatest landmarks—old Hanoi; the Perfume River—along with lesser-known places such as the hill-tribe villages and markets of the northern highlands. From exploring the royal palaces of Hue, the former imperial capital, to venturing into the Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi, Asia Transpacific will give you the full historical tour. But what makes this trip truly extraordinary is the opportunity to engage with residents and hear their perspective on the country: you’ll meet artisans and relatives of the former royal family, participate in a cooking class with local chefs, spend time with an American Vietnam War vet who has dedicated his life to removing land mines, and attend dinners and recitals in private houses. After 17 days in Vietnam, you can opt to continue to Rangoon, Burma, and the village of Twante to see the Asia Transpacific Foundation’s award-winning clay water-filter project first-hand.
The Details: T+L Transformation Vacation by Asia Transpacific Journeys; 800/642-2742; asiatranspacific.com; March 5–21, 2010; $5,395 per person, excluding airfare; $300 per day for Burma extension.
Eco Escape: Glacier National Park
Why Go: Next year, America’s fourth-largest national park—more than 1 million acres running along the Canadian border—celebrates its 100th anniversary. But this milestone isn’t the only reason to head there now: it’s estimated that the park’s glaciers will vanish by 2030 because of climate change. Austin-Lehman Adventures, voted the top tour operator by T+L readers in our 2009 World’s Best Awards, guides travelers through this evolving landscape—and helps them better understand the forces altering it.
The Trip: Accompanied by Austin-Lehman’s expert wilderness guides, you’ll spend six days in the park hiking through cedar forests, biking alongside alpine meadows and 10,000-foot-high mountains, and sleeping in timber lodges that date to 1913. Half-day walks pass through the Two Medicine area (site of the 30-foot-high Twin Falls and mountain-shadowed Two Medicine Lake) and the North Fork area, home to mountain lions, bighorn sheep, black bears, and moose. Austin-Lehman guides will teach you about the local ecosystem and how to travel light, while professional outdoor photographer Dennis Coello, who also joins the trip, will instruct you on how to shoot both the park’s wildlife and its panoramic vistas, including those iconic, millennia-old glaciers.
The Details: T+L Transformation Vacation by Austin-Lehman Adventures; 800/575-1540; austinlehman.com; July 25–30, Aug. 1–6, Aug. 8–13, and Aug. 15–20, 2010; $2,498 per person, excluding airfare.
The Operator: Habitat for Humanity (10 days)
The Trip: Build a house for a family in Kauai.
Highlight: Cabin accommodations in lush Kahili Mountain Park. 800/422-4828; habitat.org; Dec. 6–15, 2009; $1,510 per person.
Cultural Odyssey: Santa Fe and Taos
The Operator: Classic Journeys (5 days)
The Trip: An exploration of the pueblos in the American Southwest.
Highlight: See Anasazi cliff dwellings and adobe architecture. 800/200-3887; classicjourneys.com; May 30–June 4 and Sept. 19–24, 2010; $2,595 per person.
Eco Escape: Western Canada
The Operator: GAP Adventures (14 days)
The Trip: Take a greatest-hits tour of British Columbia and Alberta’s rugged wilderness.
Highlights: Stay in a tepee and a mountain lodge. 800/708-7761; gapadventures.com; July 11–24, Aug. 8–21, and Sept. 12–25, 2010; $2,699 per person.
Cultural Odyssey: Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize
The Operator: MesoAmerica Travel (14 days)
The Trip: Trek through national parks and pre-Columbian sites.
Highlight: See Mayan hieroglyphs at the Copán ruins in Honduras. 504/557-8447; mesoamericatravel.com; year-round; $2,550 per person.
Eco Escape: Peru’s Amazon River
The Operator: Earthwatch (15 days)
The Trip: Help scientists gather data via riverboat.
Highlight: Play researcher for a real-life conservation effort. 800/776-0188; earthwatch.org; Nov. 16–30, Dec. 4–18, 2009, and Jan. 1–23, 2010; from $3,750 per person.
The Operator: Pepy Tours (7 days)
The Trip: This itinerary (by tuk-tuk and bicycle) pairs voluntourism with stays at inns and lodges.
Highlight: A field trip to Angkor Wat with schoolchildren. 914/458-4262; pepytours.com; Dec. 27–Jan. 2, 2010; from $100 per person per day.
Cultural Odyssey: Provence
The Operator: Tauck Culturious (8 days)
The Trip: Southern France through the eyes of Cézanne and van Gogh.
Highlights: The Mediterranean views and a chance to sketch a masterpiece. 888/840-1852; culturious.com; year-round; $3,490 per person.
Eco Escape: Madagascar
The Operator: Geographic Expeditions (13 days)
The Trip: Journey to the world’s fourth-largest island for wildlife seen nowhere else.
Highlight: One word: lemurs. 800/777-8183; geoex.com; June–Oct., 2010; $7,300 per person.
The Operator: Micato Safaris (12–18 days)
The Trip: Spot lions, then plant trees at a community center in Nairobi.
Highlight: Learn how the center’s advisers save lives through AIDS education. Year-round; from $7,670 per person.
Cultural Odyssey: Japan
The Operator: Butterfield & Robinson (8 days)
The Trip: Bike rural Japan and meet bonsai tenders and kimono makers.
Highlights: Drink with a tea master and relax in an onsen. 866/551-9090; butterfield.com; May 12–19, May 26–June 2, and Sept. 30–Oct. 7, 2010; $9,459 per person.
Eco Escape: South India
The Operator: Sierra Club (15 days)
The Trip: Spend time birding and searching for the Bengal tiger.
Highlight: Talk tigers (and elephants and leopards) with Indian environmentalists. 415/977-5522; sierraclub.org; Jan. 10–25, 2010; from $4,975 per person.