Best Life-Changing Trips 2010
Trips from top tour operators created exclusively for T+L, and guaranteed to change your life.
A fight to the bottom of the world. A private expedition to see emperor penguins. A kite-skiing excursion across an icy horizon. A luxury tent camp atop a 200-foot icefall. This isn’t your average vacation. This is the trip of a lifetime.
While any trip to Antarctica is extraordinary, this one from Kensington Tours includes truly unique experiences. That’s because it—and 21 other dream trips—was crafted exclusively for Travel + Leisure by one of the world’s top outfitters. So whether you’re ready to plan your own dream trip or just looking for inspiration, these itineraries can’t help but inspire.
And more than ever, travelers are looking to be inspired by unique experiences, says travel agent Bonnie Brayham. People want trips that “expand horizons, remove you from your comfort zone, and prompt you to reevaluate what’s important in life.”
Sometimes, inspiration comes from the behind-the-scenes access that only a great tour operator can provide. On its trip to Kenya, for example, Micato Safaris introduces travelers to the current generation of the famous Leakey family studying the roots of civilization. Working alongside the Leakeys, visitors will spend the night in a research station where 3.5-million-year-old hominid fossils were recently discovered, then do their own digging in search of human origins.
For other travelers, the trip of a lifetime may be about experiencing a familiar location in a new way. On Butterfield & Robinson’s cycling tour of France’s Loire Valley, travelers bike past acres of the valley’s sunflower fields, dine at the home of renowned local chef Jean-Claude Rigollet, and overnight at the 15th-century Châteaux du Rivau, an estate where Joan of Arc was once a guest.
Since all 22 of our trips were planned exclusively for Travel + Leisure, they’re brimming with the kind of destinations and access that are next to impossible to find on the typical vacation itinerary. “For a trip of a lifetime, I always try to incorporate something unexpected,” says travel agent Peter Lloyd. “These are the moments that people love and remember.”
So whether you’re dreaming of food, philanthropy, culture, or adventure, read on: your trip of a lifetime awaits. —Nina Fedrizzi
Note: Subject to availability, all trip prices are per person based on double occupancy and may shift based on dates, group size, and other factors. International airfare is excluded except where noted. When booking, please ask for the T+L Trip of a Lifetime tour.
The American Southwest: Essential Canyon Country
The Operator: Off the Beaten Path
The Highlights: Escape the crowds in America’s iconic desert landscape. Start with a lesson in canyoneering—exploring the slot canyons of Utah’s Zion National Park by foot and rope—followed by a stay at the new Amangiri, near Lake Powell, in Utah. A three-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon includes hikes and gourmet food. Next, ascend for a rim-side dinner and visit remote Havasu Canyon. A night at the Aria Resort & Casino, in Las Vegas, caps off the trip. April–October; from $4,495 for 11 days. —Peter Frank
Alaska: Adventure in the Kenai Peninsula
The Operator: Austin-Lehman Adventures
The Highlights: On this action-packed wilderness trip, you’ll spot whales and porpoises from a kayak, watch icebergs calve with a glacier expert, hike to North America’s largest ice field, and pedal past wildflower-strewn meadows and valleys. Plus, a marine biologist will bring you behind the scenes at a sea-life rehab center. June 19–24; $2,998 for six days. —Peter Frank
Haiti: Help Heal a Nation
The Operator: Elevate Destinations
The Highlights: Assist in the earthquake recovery by rebuilding a boys’ home in Port-au-Prince or a school computer lab in Jacmel. Besides volunteering, you’ll visit waterfalls and white-sand beaches, hear musical performances, and meet metalworkers transforming oil drums into sculptures. March, August, and November; $1,600 for nine days (Port-au-Prince) or $2,000 for 15 days (Jacmel). —Peter Frank
Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, & Honduras: Unraveling the Maya’s Mysteries
The Operator: Overseas Adventure Travel
The Highlights: A four-country tour of pre-Columbian history and culture includes stops at Mayan sites Copán and Lamanai, plus a spine-tingling sunrise hike to Tikal outside of visiting hours. You’ll interact with locals at area markets that most tourists don’t see, zipline over Lake Atitlán, and fly a giant Guatemalan kite, a multihued construction handmade from tissue paper and flown to honor the dead. May 30; from $2,495 for 14 days, including airfare. —Peter Frank
Colombia: Rediscover Lost Cities
The Operator: Cox & Kings
The Highlights: A five-day exploration of Cartagena’s Old City, Spanish-colonial architecture, and buzzing neighborhoods—with a private villa decorated by Colombian fashion designer Hernán Zajar as your base—is only a prelude for the real showstopper: an expedition to the Lost City of the Sierra Nevada, founded in A.D. 800. Whereas most people hack through thick jungle to get there, you’ll chopper in and hike 90 minutes to the mountainside site, a series of 250 stone terraces still inhabited by indigenous tribes. Through December 2011; from $6,135 for five days. —Peter Frank
Ecuador: Travel to the Heart of the Amazon
The Operator: Tropic Journeys in Nature
The Highlights: Stay in an eco-lodge situated at the headwaters of the Amazon and run by the Huaorani, one of the most isolated ethnic groups on earth: first contacted by the outside world only 55 years ago, they speak a language that is unrelated to any other. You’ll learn to use a blowgun, hear their leader relate the tribe’s fight against oil exploration, and take a two-day meander down the Shiripuno River in kayaks, watching for tropical birds and monkeys. 703/879-1575; tropiceco.com; November–March; from $850 for five days. —Peter Frank
Patagonia: Luxury at the End of the World
The Operator: Blue Parallel
The Highlights: Expert guides and special access help tame Patagonia’s rugged landscape. On Península Valdés, watch sea lions and whales from your cliffside villa, which is stocked with limited-production Malbecs. Meet with a glaciologist before an ice-trekking excursion on Perito Moreno. In Ushuaia, you’ll stay in a lodge overlooking the Beagle Channel, which you’ll explore by paddle with a former canoeist from the Argentinean Olympic team. 800/256-5307; blueparallel.com; October–April; from $10,500 for seven days. —Peter Frank
France: Cycling and Châteaux in the Loire
The Operator: Butterfield & Robinson
The Highlights: Pedal through the gardens and sunflower fields of the Loire Valley, touring grands châteaux, tasting little-known wines such as Domaine de Noiré Chinon, and dining at the home of the renowned chef Jean-Claude Rigollet. Only B&R stays at the 15th-century Château du Rivau, where Joan of Arc was once a guest. May–September; from $6,795 for seven days. —Peter Frank
Italy: Walking Through Piedmont
The Operator: Country Walkers
The Highlights: Get to know the birthplace of the Slow Food movement on foot (average three to six miles per day). Participate in a tasting at the historic Marchesi di Barolo winery, visit with a local cheese maker, and go hunting for white truffles in Neive. Learn to cook traditional Piedmontese dishes such as truffle ravioli and vitello tonnato at a family-run restaurant, and then dine on your own creations. May–October; from $5,498 for eight days. —Peter Frank
Russia: Glimpse the Imperial Past
The Operator: Exeter International
The Highlights: See Russia like a Romanov, with access to buildings closed to most. In Moscow, view the Kremlin’s Faceted Chamber, where the czars held receptions, and go backstage at the circus. In St. Petersburg, explore the Hermitage and meet with a curator specializing in a genre of your choosing. In between are a caviar tasting and a seven-day luxury cruise up the Volga River. June–September; from $10,650 for 11 days. —Peter Frank
Turkey: Ancient and Modern Aegean
The Operator: Geographic Expeditions
The Highlights: Spend three days in Istanbul, then head to Termessos, one of Turkey’s most complete—and least visited—classical ruins, a mountainside fortress that resisted the armies of Alexander the Great. Afterward, board a gulet, a traditional wooden vessel, and sail the Turquoise Coast, with stops at sites where Greek and Roman myths originated. April–October; from $6,480 for 12 days. —Peter Frank
China: Secrets of Shangri-La
The Operator: WildChina
The Highlights: Tour the snowcapped mountain landscape of northwestern Yunnan province via a circuit of three secluded luxury lodges. Watch the sun set behind 19,000-foot peaks from your room, furnished with Tibetan art, rugs, and furniture, then meditate with a Tibetan master and hike ancient pilgrimage routes. 888/902-8808; wildchina.com; May 21–27 or September 24–30; from $1,985 for seven days. —Peter Frank
India: Celebrate Holi Week
The Operator: Banyan Tours & Travel
The Highlights: This greatest-hits tour is designed to coincide with Holi, the Hindu festival of color, which you will celebrate with the maharajah of Jodhpur. Add in the Taj Mahal, tiger viewing in Ranthambore National Park, and a game of elephant polo, plus sessions with a master chef, an art historian, and a respected jeweler. 866/401-3705; banyantours.com; through April 30; from $10,705 for 11 days. —Peter Frank
Japan: Kyoto Behind Closed Doors
The Operator: Wabi-Sabi Japan
The Highlights: Unravel the mysteries of the former imperial capital. A priest brings you to off-limits sections of an iconic temple in western Kyoto. Chef Tomoyuki Konagaya closes his restaurant to take you shopping in the Nishiki market, and shows you how to slice sashimi and vegetables. Afterward, you’ll be entertained at a geisha teahouse, and one of Japan’s best-regarded kimono artists will later host you in his home. 647/477-1711; wabi-sabijapan.com; March–May and September–November; from $4,750 for two days. —Peter Frank
Nepal: Finding the Character of the Country
The Operator: Myths & Mountains *
The Highlights: Founder Toni Neubauer has spent 26 years cultivating her contacts, so in addition to taking in shrines and gilded stupas and riding elephants, you will meet Nepal’s elite. Visit the traditional home of a unesco-honored architect; tour a library built by READ, the company’s philanthropic arm; and receive personal blessings from the Kumari of Patan, a young girl revered as a deity who is rarely seen by travelers. February 14–26 and November 26–December 9, or by request; from $2,995 for 13 days. —Peter Frank
* Denotes a Global Vision Awards winner.
Thailand: Live Long and Prosper
The Operator: Remote Lands
The Highlights: Participate in a “prolong life” ceremony at the 14th-century Wat Chiang Man, thought to be Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. This Buddhist ritual involving chanting monks is designed to bring you greater happiness. As if to prove that point, you’ll also board a yacht in the Mergui Archipelago, a little-known paradise prized for its white-sand beaches and fishermen known as “sea gypsies.” 646/415-8092; remotelands.com; year-round; from $8,000 for nine days. —Peter Frank
Botswana: Wild River and Wildlife
The Operator: andBeyond *
The Highlights: Pair three nights at andBeyond’s Matetsi Private Game Reserve, on the Zambezi—just upstream from thundering Victoria Falls—with three nights at the outfitter’s Xudum Okavango Delta Lodge. You’ll see game galore at both, but a climactic helicopter flight over the delta grants unparalleled views of animal herds, especially hippo and zebra. Year-round; from $3,861 for seven days. —Peter Frank
* Denotes a Global Vision Awards winner.
Egypt: Cairo and Nile Cruise
The Operator: Abercrombie & Kent *
The Highlights: A&K takes you places off-limits to everyone else: Cairo’s Antiquities Museum before it opens its doors; Nefertari’s Tomb; and the roof of Dendera Temple. Cruise the Nile on a new dahabieh, a traditional sailboat with six spacious suites, a dining lounge, and pool. September 19–October 2; from $8,830 for 14 days. —Peter Frank
* Denotes a Global Vision Awards winner.
Kenya: Digging up Humanity’s Roots
The Operator: Micato Safaris *
The Highlights: Trace our species’ beginnings with members of the Leakey family, the preeminent paleontologists. A series of adventures—dune surfing; tracking the Big Five—leads to a stay at a research station where 3.5-million-year-old hominid fossils were recently discovered. You’ll work alongside Louise Leakey and her mother, Meave, in their search for human origins. Year-round; from $19,700 for 10 days, including a donation to the Leakey Foundation. —Peter Frank
* Denotes a Global Vision Awards winner.
Madagascar: The Eighth Continent
The Operator: Journeys International
The Highlights: Explore this biodiverse island nation, where 80 percent of the plants and animals are endemic, and many are found nowhere else. Lemur, butterfly, and bird encounters are interspersed with visits to Malagasy communities and spice-scented islands. 800/255-8735; journeys.travel; October 7–20 or by request; from $4,845 for 14 days. —Peter Frank
Australia: Urban, Rural, and Tropical
The Operator: Black Tomato
The Highlights: Traverse Australia from urban to remote. Start in Sydney with an Opera House tour and a flight to a secret lunch location. Follow a night in the Blue Mountains with a wine tasting in Hunter Valley, then a plush bush-camp stay in Jervis Bay. Finally, hole up at the Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island, for diving and spa treatments. 877/815-1497; blacktomato.co.uk; November-March; from $7,749 for 12 days, including airfare. —Peter Frank
Antarctica: The Center of the Bottom of the World
The Operator: Kensington Tours
The Highlights: Kensington has coveted access to White Desert, a luxury tented camp set above a 200-foot icefall. After two nights in Cape Town and a G4 flight to an ice runway, guests select from a menu of try-and-top-this activities: exploring ice caves, walking on frozen waves, or meeting a colony of 12,000 penguins. December 8–17; from $24,900 for five days. —Peter Frank