20 Life-Changing Trips
There’s growing evidence that the Volunteer Vacations trend is blossoming into a bigger phenomena. A 2007 Travelocity survey found that 17.7 percent of respondents had taken a vacation that incorporated volunteering or philanthropy—a number that’s up 13 percent from the previous year and expected to rise even higher in 2008. But tour operators and travel companies, new and old, are one-upping that trend through new programs and products, tapping into the feel-good Zeitgeist and our collective desire for something more from our adventures abroad, and at home.
And that “something more” depends entirely on individual interests, causes, and world view. For some eco-conscious travelers, investigating the Incan environmental practices in Peru under the guidance of Charles Darwin’s grandson may be the trip of a lifetime. For others, a journey to Cambodia’s temples and then to its villages to meet the custodians of the sacred sites is rewarding.
But lest you think the movement is more medicine than pleasure, think again. Today, creative companies are mixing such traditionally appealing activities as biking and wine-tasting in France with classes on biodynamic viticulture in an attempt to broaden travelers horizons even further—and it’s working.
Even something as simple as supporting local economy by returning with a suitcase full of crafts purchased from a local artisan can having meaningful and lasting impact. Ultimately, travelers today are seeking a connection-be it with nature, destination, culture, people—in hopes of returning home with the ultimate souvenir: a memorable one-of-a-kind experience.
Galápagos and Peru with Abercrombie & Kent
Why We Love It: There’s a level of exclusive access and environmental respect we’ve come to rely on from Abercrombie & Kent, but this trip exceeds even our expectations. For T+L they’ve dreamed up a Galápagos tour timed to commemorate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150-year anniversary of The Origin of Species—and tapped his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, to lead the way. In Peru, your guides will include an expert investigating Incan environmental practices, and you’ll see art and textiles through the discerning eyes of locals who have amassed an impressive collection.
Where It Goes: After two days in Quito, you’ll board a 48-passenger cruise ship for seven days in the Galápagos. The Peru leg (seven more days) loops from Lima to Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, then back to Lima.
What You’ll Do: A tour of Quito’s colonial architecture zeroes in on Independence Square, the Archbishop’s Palace, and El Sagrario Church. Galápagos island-hopping begins on Santa Cruz, where sea turtles nest, then continues on to the red volcanic Rábida Island and its sea lion colonies and Galápagos hawks; La Cumbre Volcano, home to rare island species like flightless cormorants and Galápagos snakes; Black Turtle Cove and its saltwater inlets and mangrove swamps, accessible only by panga (motorized fishing boat); Isabela Island, for blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas; and back to Santa Cruz for a private tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station and a seat at the inauguration festivities for its new Darwin Facility. Peru highlights: the famous weekly art and crafts market in the colonial village of Pisac, in the Sacred Valley; lunch with the Lambarri-Orihuela family at their Huayoccari Hacienda, where you’ll see their renowned colonial- and folk-art holdings; a tour of Machu Picchu with archaeologist Alfredo Mormontoy; and a last stop in th
New Zealand with Mountain Travel Sobek
Why We Love It: This adventure-travel company slips clients into new destinations as noninvasively and inventively as they can—in small groups led by local guides at out-of-the-ordinary sights. For T+L, 40-year-old Mountain Travel Sobek has crafted an itinerary steeped in the 1,000-year-old cultural traditions and folklore of New Zealand’s first inhabitants—the Maori tribe. Maori guides are called upon throughout the journey, whether you’re hiking the grassy battlegrounds of Ruapekapeka, scene of the last conflict between British and Maori forces in the 1846 Northern War, or group-paddling a war canoe down hidden tribal waterways.
Where It Goes: From ancient settlements at the tip of the volcanic North Island to beaches, rivers, and glaciers, then all the way down to the peak-rimmed tourist center of Queenstown, on the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu.
What You’ll Do: Sit on Tokerau Beach (North Island) to watch tribesman Hekeneukumai Ngaiwi Puhipi Busby Kaumatua demonstrate how to make a traditional ocean canoe; detour north to Cape Reinga, the last stop made by Maori spirits of the dead on their way to the afterlife; and hike nearby through the lush Waipoa Forest to see Tane Mahuta, one of the world’s largest remaining ancient kauri trees, whose girth rivals that of America’s sequoia (45 feet). On the South Island, you’ll sail with the Maori-owned Whale Watch Kaikoura to see sperm whales up close; hike alongside the Arahura River, where you can stop to search for greenstone, a jade, found only on the South Island, that is sacred to the tribe for its symbolic role in peace agreements; and trek across the Franz Josef glacier with an expert on global warming’s impact on the region.
Where You’ll Stay: Highlights include two hotels with extensive green practices: the Hapuku Lodge, whose recycled-timber tree houses are 30 feet aboveground in a grov
Greater Yellowstone with Off the Beaten Path
Why We Love It: Off the Beaten Path’s strong relationships with area travel experts—the pioneering environmental activism of owners Bill and Pam Bryan and Cory Lawrence—mean that you’ll meet the best veteran tour guides in Yellowstone National Park, check in to the finest green hotels, and hook up with exclusive adventure operators. Responsible outfitters including Wildlife Expeditions, Hole Hiking Travel Experience Co., Barker-Ewing River Trips, and O.A.R.S. will customize your outings—and escort you to their secret stomping grounds for fishing, hiking, rafting, and more.
Where It Goes: This wilderness-and wildlife-focused trip begins in Bozeman, Montana; continues south to ranch land near tiny Cameron; leads you through the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park; and finishes up in Tetons-ringed Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
What You’ll Do: Take your pick of more activities than you can handle in three days at the sustainably managed Lodge at Sun Ranch, including horseback riding, bird-watching (look skyward for ferruginous hawks and long-billed curlews, two of 126 species on the property), and rafting or canoeing on nearby rivers. A hybrid car transports you to Yellowstone to explore the park with such expert naturalists as Mike Bryers, whose favorite spots after 27 years on the job are the thermal pools scattered throughout the 3,472 square miles of the park. (“They’re almost scenes from another planet,” he says.) You’ll also have the chance to ride the rapids down the Snake River; hike family-friendly trails in the foothills of Wyoming’s Gros Ventre Mountains; trek into Horseshoe Canyon and spend the night—or up the camping ante with a two-night kayaking, rafting, and fly-fishing trip on Jackson Lake. And come equipped for a safari-like trip to spy on the region’s impressive elk, grizzly, and wolf populations.
Where You’ll Stay: Opt
Southeast Asia with Elevate Destinations
Why We Love It: For travelers who still associate Southeast Asia with the Vietnam War, Elevate Destinations shows a rarely seen side of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, placing the conflict on the continuum of an ancient culture. The guiding notion of this T+L trip is to mix and mingle tours of breathtaking temples, like Angkor Wat, with experiences of daily life in villages that keep such temples alive. Dominique Callimanopulos founded her three-year-old company after seeing the world as a student and young professional revealed a disconnect between travelers and the places they are inspired to go. A portion of the trip’s cost goes to on-the-ground projects.
Where It Goes: Thailand: from Bangkok to the temple cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai; Laos: Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the village of Pak Beng; Cambodia: Siem Reap, site of Angkor Wat.
What You’ll Do: Learn traditional Thai dancing; visit a rarely mounted exhibit of indigenous crafts sponsored by Queen Sirikit’s foundation; take an ecotour of a “community forest” in Chiang Mai where tea and coffee crops have replaced illegal logging; and indulge in a traditional Thai massage. Cruise the Mekong River toward Luang Prabang, Laos, stopping to watch a hill tribe pickle rice into whiskey, and sample (or purchase) the results. Ride a tuk-tuk to Luang Prabang’s temples, including Wat Xieng Thong, known for its magnificent tree-of-life mosaic, and Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, with its five-tier roof; stop for a quick dip below the Kuang Si waterfall on the way to the Language Project Library, and in a nearby village, receive a blessing from elders in a traditional Baci ceremony. In Cambodia, visit Angkor Wat, then watch local fishermen ply the waters of Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. More highlights: a hike to Kbal Spean, where 900-year-old int
Safari in Kenya with Journeys by Design
Why We Love It: The U.K.’s Journeys by Design, a leader in custom African travel, has a stellar reputation as a responsible luxury-tour operator. Its close work with tribal communities makes travel rewarding for tourists and indigenous peoples alike—Masai and Samburu villages and guides are integral to this trip. The company sets aside a portion of revenues for local charities, renewable energy projects, and their own conservation and development projects in the areas they visit.
Where It Goes: From the border of Tanzania to the big-game–rich Great Rift Valley; north to the semi-arid Laikipia Plateau; and up to the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust in the Matthews Range.
What You’ll Do: Three days in, you’ll be riding camelback and walking through vast plains and tribal villages. The eight remaining days are yours to fill as you’d like. Highlights: moonlit bush dinners timed to catch wildlife at a watering hole; a picnic on Ol Lolokwe Mountain, believed by the Masai to be the residence of the gods; a hike through the forested Matthews Range, where leopards and thousands of once-threatened elephants roam; and a visit to the “singing wells,” to see a human chain of Samburu warriors descend into wells as deep as 32 feet, chanting ancient songs as they hand up vessels of water for their cattle.
Where You’ll Stay: In an open-air room with a private plunge pool at the eco-minded Shompole Lodge, a Masai-style room with stone walls and earthen ceilings at Tassia Lodge, and a luxury tent both en route to the Matthews Range and at the community-owned Sarara Tented Camp in the Namunyak Trust. Optional while there: a starry campout on wide sand luggas (dry riverbeds).
The Details: T+L Transformation Vacation by Journeys by Design, available on request; 212/568-7639;
Biking in Burgundy with Butterfield & Robinson
Why We Love It: Butterfield & Robinson sets the standard for customized biking trips, and here brings you close to a culture intimately tied to the land. Thanks to Beaune being the company’s European headquarters, you’ll get unusually special access to an area that’s a longtime B&R favorite.
Where It Goes: From Dijon, on a B&R custom-designed hybrid or racing bike adjusted for you, you’ll cycle to the village of Chambolle-Musigny and its 370 vineyard acres of Pinot Noir; then follow the Côte d’Or, a limestone escarpment stretching to the river Dheune, to the medieval city of Beaune; and head into the Ouche Valley—hilly enough to create thirst, and thick with wineries to slake it—before going back to Dijon.
What You’ll Do: Covering 25 miles each day, this trip is doable at your own pace. Stops are mostly about wine: you’ll tour wine caves with Domaine des Epeneaux owner and biodynamic-viticulture advocate Benjamin Leroux; visit the Grand Cru vineyard Le Montrachet; ride to the 12th-century castle of Chateauneuf; and picnic at Les Jardins de Barbirey, a private garden laid out in the early 1800’s. A walk through Beaune’s Old Town with historian Chantal Leroux pauses at shops stocking local L’Époisses cheese and truffle of Burgundy. Final touch: a lunch at a biofarm, Ferme de la Ruchotte, for a meal featuring locally grown vegetables and organic cheeses.
Where You’ll Stay: At the 18th-century Château André Ziltener; the historic Hôtel Le Cep, with views of Beaune’s Old Town; and a 12th-century monastery turned luxe country hotel, the Abbaye de la Bussière.
The Details: T+L Transformation Vacation by Butterfield & Robinson; May 31–June 5, 2009; 800/678-1147; www.butterfield.com/burgundytransformatio
U.S. & Canada: High Arctic with Geographic Expeditions
What and Where: Spend 14 days aboard the Akademik Ioffe, which sails from Ottawa to Bylot Island.
Why We Love It: Polar bears and walruses.
The Details: 800/777-8183; geoex.com; from $4,890 per person; August 2–15 and 13–26, 2009.
U.S. & Canada: New Orleans with the Sierra Club
What and Where: Restore a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina (which one will be decided the week before the trip).
Why We Love It: You can still help.
The Details:415/977-5522; outings.sierraclub.org; from $785 per person; fall 2009, call for specific dates.
U.S. & Canada: Hawaii with Field Guides
What and Where: Immersion bird-watching on three islands.
Why We Love It: Ornithologists guide you to species like the rare Oahu elepaio, then put you up in three-and four-star hotels.
The Details:800/728-4953; fieldguides.com; $4,375 per person; March 14–24, 2009
Mexico, Central & South America: Oaxaca and Puebla with CUESA
What and Where: A cuisine-rich tour with visits to heritage-food farms and markets overflowing with produce, flowers, and crafts.
Why We Love It: Oaxacan black mole is made under your nose, and you get to take home the recipe.
The Details: 415/291-3276; cuesa.org; $2,499 per person; February 28–March 8, 2009.
Mexico, Central & South America: Best of Honduras with MesoAmerica Travel
Mexico, Central & South America: Argentina with Toms Tours
What and Where: Work and play in Buenos Aires, Misiones, and Iguazú with Toms founder Blake Mycoskie or his team while handing out supercool casual shoes to barefoot kids.
Why We Love It: Every pair sold provides one child with new shoes.
The Details: 800/975-8667; tomsshoes.com; $1,800; call for departure dates.
Europe: Czech Republic with Earthwatch
What and Where: Channel your inner scientist in the Jizera Mountains to study air pollution and acid rain’s effect on the watershed.
Why We Love It: Because it’s better than Brita.
The Details: 800/776-0188; earthwatch.org; $2,746 per person; May 30–June 13, June 20–July 4, and July 11–25, 2009.
Europe: Cinque Terre with Country Walkers
What and Where: Smudge your carbon footprint in Italy with a week’s walk in the “Five Lands” of coastal Liguria.
Why We Love It: It takes your breath away.
The Details: 800/464-9255; countrywalkers.com; $3,648 per person; May–October.
Europe: Greece with Global Volunteers
What and Where: Teach conversational English to local children.
Why We Love It: Eight hours a day volunteering, 24 hours a day on a Greek island.
The Details: 800/487-1074; globalvolunteers.org; from $2,795 per person; program offered year-round.
Asia: Ultimate Gobi with Nomadic Expeditions
What and Where: A trip through the legendary Mongolian desert on camelback.
Why We Love It: It’s the best seat in the house.
The Details: 800/998-6634; nomadicexpeditions.com; $3,273 per person; May 27–June 8, August 12–24, 2009.
Asia: The Great Wall of China with RAW Travel
What and Where: Venture along a part of the wall most tour groups never reach.
Why We Love It: For the math: the trip costs only $402 if you first raise $4,480 for charity.
The Details: 61-3/9597-0210; rawtravel.com; $1,792 per person; May 16–26 and September 12–22, 2009.
Asia: Papua New Guinea with Asia Transpacific Journeys
What and Where: Attend Tumbuna Sing-Sing, the astonishing annual song-and-dance “challenge” among tribes wearing their proudest costumes and performing their most mesmerizing chants.
Why We Love It: It’s the only one on earth.
The Details: 800/642-2742; asiatranspacific.com; $7,395 per person; May 14–28, 2009.
Africa & Middle East: Egyptian Journey with G.A.P Adventures
What and Where: Walk (and drive) like an Egyptian from Cairo to Aswan for historic structures, teeming bazaars, and majestic temples.
Why We Love It: The Nile, the Pyramids, the Sphinx!
The Details:800/708-7761; gapadventures.com; $1,045 per person; year-round.
Africa & Middle East: Cameroon with Global Vision International
What and Where: Help conduct forest surveys designed to save the endangered Cross River gorilla.
Why We Love It: They’re all in the family.
The Details: 888/653-6028; gvi.co.uk; $1,765 per person; January 10–24 and April 7–21, 2009.