Best Adventure Travel Destinations 2014
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
Rising Star: Sri Lanka
On the rebound from a quarter-century of civil war and the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka is coming into its own as an adventure destination. People have long been drawn here for the rich culture: Sri Lanka has eight unesco World Heritage sites, including the fifth-century city of Sigiriya. Now they’re discovering the incredible wildlife, including some of the world’s best whale-watching. Operators ranging from Abercrombie & Kent to Natural World Safaris showcase tea plantations, religious festivals, leopard tracking, and the annual elephant migration in Minneriya National Park. Nights are spent in stylish hotels.
Ancient Ruins: Turkey, Fourth Century B.C.
A G Adventures catamaran excursion off Turkey’s Aegean coast sails alongside the rock tombs at Dalyan, carved into the cliffs by the Lycians. 10 days from $1,899.
For the Beer Geek: Belgium
Ciclismo Classico taps two of Belgium’s proud traditions—cycling and brewing—on a 326-mile tour that winds past fairy-tale castles, charming canals, and historic breweries, with ample tasting opportunities. Nine days from $4,495.
Distance: 41 miles, or four hours, per day.
For the Tree Hugger: The Carolinas
The Backroads approach to Appalachia balances days pedaling through Southern landscapes—the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway and Transylvania County hill country—with overnights in Asheville and at former pro cyclist George Hincapie’s Hotel Domestique near Greenville, South Carolina. Five days from $2,698.
Distance: 27–57 miles, or two to five hours, per day; lots of big, rolling hills.
For the Wildlife Lover: Namibia
Spot wildlife, hike the world’s tallest sand dune, and meet Himba tribesmen on a beginner-friendly mountain biking safari from H&I Adventures. You’ll ride to the starkly beautiful Skeleton Coast and inland watering holes frequented by elephants, lions, and endangered black rhinos. 12 days from $3,910.
Distance: 28 miles, or three hours, per day on dirt tracks.
Cultural Immersion: Papua New Guinea
Where: Visit coastal fjords, the Western Highlands, and active volcanoes in this island nation where more than 700 languages are spoken.
The People: Much of the journey is dedicated to witnessing the everyday life of villagers, including Baining fire-dancers.
The Experience: Participate in a moo-moo feast (pig roast); learn about local customs such as mat-making and tribal tattooing.
Oceania Expeditions; 11 days from $9,875.
For the Nomad: Morocco
The latest from DuVine Cycling & Adventures is a varied trip, with stops at Marrakesh’s souk, Berber villages in the High Atlas Mountains, and Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot. On the last night, you’ll wheel across the desert to a remote, starlit oasis. Six days from $6,995.
Distance: 24–36 miles, or about four hours, per day.
Walking and Hiking: Italy
A new itinerary from CW Adventures spotlights Tuscany’s little-visited Maremma region, home to ancient hilltop towns and sleepy fishing villages. You’ll stay at family-run villas and a seaside resort, sip Bianco di Pitigliano wines, and soak in millennia-old thermal baths. Seven days from $4,498.
Distance: Four to seven miles per day; van transfers available.
Rising Star: Patagonia
Though its attractions for serious trekkers and climbers remain undiminished, this region east of the Andes is now enticing a new set of travelers: those who prefer 500-thread-count sheets to drafty tents. A handful of luxury lodges have opened—most recently Awasi Patagonia—and tour operators are adding itineraries for comfort seekers. GeoEx explores Chile’s Chacabuco Valley, the towering O’Higgins Glacier, and Argentina’s Lago del Desierto. Santiago Adventures also takes in both sides of the border, with backcountry 4 x 4 rides and stays at Chile’s Singular Patagonia and Eolo Patagonia’s Spirit, in Argentina.
Ancient Ruins: Ethiopia, Fourth Century A.D.
Cox & Kings brings the country’s Orthodox Christian heritage to life, with visits to religious sites such as Axum, the reputed home of the Ark of the Covenant. 12 days from $3,620.
For the Oenophile: France
Butterfield & Robinson introduces riders to several of France’s legendary appellations on this casual sip-and-spin, which meanders through Alsace’s Riesling vineyards and into the estates of Champagne. Seven days from $6,795.
Distance: 22 miles, or three to six hours, per day.
Cultural Immersion: China
Where: Eat your way through the culinary landscape of the Middle Kingdom—Beijing, Chengdu, Hangzhou, and Shanghai.
The People: Well-known Chinese chefs open up their restaurant kitchens to lead private cooking classes.
The Experience: Pick up ingredients in bustling markets before cooking Peking duck, dumplings, dim sum, and other classic regional dishes.
Gourmet on Tour; 12 days from $1,980.
Walking and Hiking: New Zealand
The latest tour by VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations is a highlight reel of South Island landscapes, from the soaring mountains of Nelson Lakes National Park to the pristine beaches along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. Nine days from $3,595.
Distance: Two to six miles, or one to five hours, per day, with van shuttles.
Camping in Style: India
In India, the Ultimate Travelling Camp (six days from $3,505) has a series of stylish mobile tents throughout the country that allow travelers to experience everything from the monasteries of Ladakh to the lush hills of Nagaland, on the border with Burma.
Rising Star: Georgia
Set in the South Caucasus at the juncture of Europe and Asia, Georgia is both rich in history and contemporary culture. “The capital, Tbilisi, has transparent glass bridges, but if you head to Svaneti, high in the mountains, the houses still have medieval watch-towers,” says Wild Frontiers marketing manager Michael Pullman. Ker & Downey recently introduced a trip that includes visits to ancient mountaintop monasteries and one of the world’s oldest wine-growing regions. Depending on the season, you can also go downhill skiing or take day hikes through alpine meadows filled with wildflowers.
Ancient Ruins: Argentina, 11th Century A.D.
Southern Explorations’ tour of northwestern Argentina stops at the 75-acre, pre-Columbian hillside ruins of Quilmes, reachable by a remote gravel road. 12 days from $4,195.
For the High-Altitude Junkie: Switzerland and Italy
A new itinerary from the mountain biking pros at Sacred Rides takes on the Alpine topography along the Swiss-Italian border, with incredible village-to-village rides over high-elevation passes. Ease sore muscles at a 2,000-year-old spa where ancient Romans—and, later, Leonardo da Vinci—soaked. Eight days from $2,560.
Distance: 16 miles, or five to six hours, per day on mountain tracks.
Cultural Immersion: Arizona and New Mexico
Where: This Southwest desert tour explores the civilizations of Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly.
The People: Navajo and Puebloan guides lead tours of historic ruins and contemporary Native American communities.
The Experience: Hikes over tribal lands are paired with drives to the Hubbell Trading Post and the “Sky City” pueblo, built on a 367-foot-high mesa.
Off the Beaten Path; seven days from $2,595.
Walking and Hiking: Slovenia
Glacial lakes, medieval castles, Alpine vistas—Boundless Journeys shows you the best of the rugged, crowd-free Julian Alps. Fuel up on traditional farmhouse meals of venison, žlikrofi (potato ravioli), or štruklji (ricotta-stuffed dough). Eight days from $3,995.
Distance: Four to eight hours per day, with elevation gains of 1,000 to 3,000 feet.
Camping in Style: Colorado
Use one of the eight luxury tents at Colorado’s Dunton River Camp at Cresto Ranch (more than $1,000 per night) as a well-appointed base for hiking, horseback riding, and fly-fishing in the Rockies.
Rising Star: Iceland
This otherworldly island has long been known for its geysers, glaciers, and dramatic coastline. But until recently, countryside hotels were few and far between. Travelers can now stay in stylish properties beyond Reykjavík, including the chic, geothermally powered Ion Hotel, set on a lava field. And the Stracta Hótel opened in Hella, the first in a chain of 10 well-appointed lodges that will dot the island’s Ring Road. Meanwhile, tour operators such as REI Adventures and Kensington Tours are adding winter itineraries that include caving in ancient lava tubes, walking on glaciers, and viewing the northern lights.
Ancient Ruins: Peru, 15th Century A.D.
Raft, bike, and then trek the Lares Trail—a quieter, higher-elevation alternative to the Inca Trail—on a Journeys International trip to Machu Picchu. 12 days from $3,175.
Cultural Immersion: Australia
Where: Cicada Lodge offers all-inclusive stays in the Northern Territory, home to Nitmiluk National Park and its towering sandstone canyons.
The People: Showcasing Aboriginal traditions, the lodge is entirely owned and operated by the indigenous Jawoyn people.
The Experience: You can take art classes, four-wheel-drive bush tours, and helicopter rides to 20,000-year-old rock-art sites.
Cicada Lodge; from $653 per night.
Walking and Hiking: Zambia
Experience African wildlife at close range with Zambia-based Robin Pope Safaris, whose intimate walking excursions follow the Mupamadzi River through South Luangwa National Park. Each day ends with cold drinks and hot showers at a luxurious mobile camp. Eight days from $4,650.
Distance: Six miles, or four hours, per day.
Rising Star: Bhutan
Though it opened to outsiders in 1974, Bhutan didn’t start receiving luxury travelers until about a decade ago, when high-end hotels began opening in the bigger cities of Paro and Thimphu. Strict tourism regulations are still in place (in 2012, there were only about 100,000 arrivals), but properties such as Uma by Como, Punakha are luring people off the beaten track to central Bhutan. Six Senses is building five intimate spa lodges set to open in 2016, much like the circuit from Amanresorts. Big Five Tours & Expeditions just launched a trip to central Bhutan, where travelers may spot the endangered black-necked crane.
Camping in Style: Kenya
The best way to slip into the wild? With only a canvas wall between you and the great outdoors—the king-size beds and en suite bathrooms are a bonus. Once available only for group bookings, the seven elegantly redesigned tents of Richard’s River Camp (more than $1,000 per night), in Kenya, are now open to individuals, offering access to the great migrations of the Masai Mara National Reserve, but set on a serene conservancy just outside the park.
Expert Advice: Cari Gray
Founder of Gray & Co., a custom tour operator with a focus on adventure.
On My Radar: Colombia, which has entered an era of political stability—and is full of people who are welcoming to travelers. It has a friendly cycling culture and amazing hikes. You can also explore the country’s colonial cities, salt mines, and more. We have cycling trips around Armenia and Medellín, with a stop in Cartagena, of course. The country is very close to the U.S., which makes it appealing.
I Never Leave Home Without: Maui Jim polarized sunglasses; a Nikon D5000 with my go-to 18–200 mm lens; and La Roche-Posay Anthelios sunscreen.
Most Memorable Adventure: My latest was in Western Australia, biking past kangaroos and through eucalyptus forests, swimming in the Indian Ocean, and visiting the vineyards of Margaret River Valley. We run biking trips in the area. Kangaroo sightings are guaranteed!
On My Bucket List: Heli-skiing in British Columbia.
Expert Advice: Michael Lorentz
Partner and CEO of Passage to Africa and veteran safari guide.
On My Radar: Uganda. People go for the excellent gorilla safaris, but there’s so much more to see and do in the country’s other parks, from Big Five game viewing to meeting the indigenous Batwa communities. It’s engaging and authentic—you don’t feel like you’re in a well-oiled tourist machine.
I Never Leave Home Without: My Canon EOS-1D X camera; Swarovski binoculars; a bar of good dark chocolate; and a kikoi, which doubles as a sarong and a scarf.
Destination on the Rise: We’re seeing a surge of interest in Namibia, which will definitely be helped by the opening in August of the new Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp from Wilderness Safaris, set in the country’s remote northwest.
Favorite Souvenir: Three simple stainless-steel bracelets that I wear every day. Each one comes from a different tribe—the Kara, the Hamar, and the Dasenech—in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley.
Expert Advice: Tom Marchant
On My Radar: The Mergui Archipelago, in Burma’s far southern Tenasserim region. It’s made up of more than 200 islands with dense jungle, pure white sand, and crystal-clear waters. You can snorkel coral reefs and explore the rare wildlife of mangrove swamps.
I Never Leave Home Without: An old-school notebook. I love gadgets, but nothing beats scribbling down your thoughts and findings at the end of the day. And a novel by an author from the place I am visiting, because literature evokes a strong sense of connection.
Favorite Souvenir: My Russian shapka (fur hat), from when I lived in Moscow. It brings back so many memories of a formative year of my life.
Where I’m Going Next: Bayan-Ölgiy—Mongolia’s westernmost province, on the borders of Russia and China. Traditions such as hunting for food and fur with golden eagles are still very much alive.
Expert Advice: Peter Walker
Founder of Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures, a trekking/hiking tour operator.
On My Radar: The Balkan states of Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, for their incredible landscapes, cuisines, and history. They’re the full package.
Go-to Gear: Our company is outfitted in Mammut clothing. The products are the perfect mix of quality, function, and simplicity.
Most Memorable Adventure: A downhill-skiing traverse of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco: great terrain, extraordinary people, and superb food. We are offering it as a trekking tour in October.