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20 tours of a lifetime

We take you on 20 of the world’s greatest journeys, each offering a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience

20 tours of a lifetime

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Hiking in the Pyrenees
By Rhiannon Batten

The GR10 is one of the classic European hiking trails: a 530-mile ramble through France that slices a serrated line from the Atlantic to Mediterranean, passing green valleys, wild meadows, high lakes and toothy rockfaces on its way. The whole thing takes around 50-60 days to walk but you don’t have to go the full distance to get a taste of the Pyrenean high life; you could do what a friend and I did and simply enjoy one momentous day on it.

We’d ventured to the Pic du Midi, a mountain-top observatory, and zigzagged across the Spanish border to gawp at the area’s distinctive half-timbered Basque farmhouses, or baserri. From here, we’d hoped to spend the best part of a week enjoying day-long hikes along and around the GR10. But torrential rain struck, scuppering our plans. On our last day, however, we woke to sunshine for the first time. Grabbing walking boots, we drove to Gavarnie. One of the prettiest villages along the GR10, it’s also the jumping-off point for one of its most spectacular sights: Cirque de Gavarnie.

Described rather breathlessly by Victor Hugo as ‘Nature’s Colosseum’, the Cirque is a 4,600ft-high, 2,920ft-wide rock bowl carved by ice. Part of the Parc National des Pyrenees, and the Pyrenees-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site, it forms a majestic backdrop to France’s highest waterfall (1,385ft in full flow) and the border between France and Spain. Above the Cirque is another geological marvel, a vast gap in the rock called the Brèche de Roland. From here, most hikers walk to the Refuge de la Brèche de Roland, just west of the Cirque, and spend a night there before either walking up to the neighbouring Brèche or tackling Spain’s Mont Perdu.

With only a day to explore, we stuck to the Cirque and the high meadows to its east. Leaving Gavarnie and its grand riverside houses behind (not to mention a run of tempting-looking pavement cafes), we cut uphill by a flourishing vegetable patch, following neat wooden signs to the Refuge de Pailha and on, after a circular detour through forest and meadow, to a dramatic ledge path; pressing ourselves against the rock to skirt a huge overhang. Though most day-trippers stroll to the bottom of the Cirque along the flat Plateau de la Prade, it’s worth climbing higher. Enter the Cirque from the rather claustrophobic entrance that we chose, and the grandeur of this epic natural amphitheatre is much more powerful.

Clambering down to the lowest point to soak up the widescreen scene before us, we lay on a wide patch of grass looking up at the Cirque as the light began to fade. If just one day along the GR10 could provide such a spectacle, a return trip was definitely in order, we agreed. Weather permitting, of course.

How to do it: Exodus runs 15-day group walking trips of the GR10, from £1,699 per person. www.exodus.co.uk

Additional information:
www.pyreneanway.com 
www.pyreneeshike.com 
www.geopyrenees.net
 

Train tours, Eastern Europe
By Charlotte Jones

My miniscule train compartment was shared with Katerina, a Ukrainian. She helped me complete my customs card, but when night fell we had a spat. She wanted the window closed; I wanted it open. I lost and the heat became excruciating. I was relieved to reach Kiev, whose bright Orthodox churches were a sight for sore eyes. Yet the country’s highlight was less orthodox: a daytrip to Chernobyl. In Kiev’s main square, I boarded a minibus and was whisked to this surreal Soviet city, devastated by a nuclear disaster in 1986.

Newly aware that train journeys should be taken inebriated, I armed myself with bottles of wine for my next trips: first to Lvov, then to Budapest — the latter a perfect marriage of east and west. Jovial Carpathian street dancing, lavish cakes and boats on the Danube during dramatic thunderstorms was in complete contrast to the Soviet-influenced communist-themed museum The House of Terror and Statue Park.

Now in the swing of public transport touring, I caught the train to Zagreb, Croatia’s sleepy capital. At the Dolac (market) locals were happy to pose for photos with their homegrown produce. Then it was on to Sarajevo where streets were perfumed by grilled meats and minarets serenaded inhabitants.

Unlike Mussolini in Italy, Tito failed to create an efficient railway. To escape Sarajevo, I had to board a bus to Mostar. Bus travel in the Balkans is a unique experience. Departures and routes are, without fail, erratic; drivers and passengers nicotine-dependent.

In Mostar I checked in at a family-run guesthouse where everyone was hospitable and the restaurant served huge portions of trout on silver platters and wine by the litre — an opulence that contrasted sharply with the bombed buildings: a stark reminder of civil war.

I arrived in Dubrovnik late, hungry and parched to learn my guesthouse was at the top of 100 stone steps. When I got there, the welcoming owners (an old couple) were waiting to reward my slow ascent with lemonade. I tried to buy their home-grown tomatoes but they gave them to me for free. Eating these overlooking the shimmering Adriatic and the old town’s marbled streets, my appetite, for train travel at least, was not abated.

How to do it: Seven nights from £539 per person. www.easterntrekker.com
Angkor Wat By Bike
By Rupert Parker

Even from a rudimentary tourist map it’s clear the size and scale of Angkor Wat is incredible. It sprawls over more than 74,000 acres, and even the closest of temples are often miles apart. I’d spent a frustrating first afternoon exploring the site and the neighbouring complex of Angkor Thom with a Cambodian guide. The monuments are impressive and the place is quiet, as it’s the rainy season, but my guide keeps hustling me back into his air-conditioned vehicle, anxious to move on, not giving me time to take it all in. The huge, sinister stone faces on the towers of the Bayon Temple smirk down on me. I itch to get away and spend time on my own and I vow to hire a bicycle the next day and do it myself.

So, next morning, I do just that. I’m on my bike, bright and early, sharing the road with ox-carts, Buddhist monks and a procession of ceremonial elephants. I’ve planned a circular route so I can take in at least four major sites and a few minor ruins. It’s easy to underestimate the distance and get lost, since it’s not well signed-posted and I find one bit of jungle looks much like another, and I don’t want to even think about a puncture.

The majestic ruins of the ancient Khmer kingdom of Angkor have long suffered from vandalism, war and weather. The jungle around the site has been cleared and reconstruction is the order of the day. I steel myself for the possible disappointment of biking around a chaotic building site. But I’m far from disappointed.

I visit the sprawling monastic complex of Preah Khan, the three-tiered temple mountains of Pre Rup, guarded by stone lions, and Banteay Kdei, with its beautifully carved dancing girls. Seeing them without a guide gives me time to pause and reflect, take in the atmosphere, and linger. And also a chance to catch my breath, since pedalling in the heat and humidity takes its toll. The jungle hems in the dirt track on both sides, giving a splendid sense of isolation, and then suddenly a monumental piece of masonry appears, looming out of the vegetation.

In my new role as the great white bicycle explorer, my final discovery ticks all the boxes. Ta Prohm has been deliberately left in the clutches of the living jungle. Giant serpentine roots, some as wide as tree trunks, split massive boulders in half and spill over the ramparts. Carved reliefs sprout lichen, moss and creeping plants, and many of the corridors are blocked by jumbled piles of stones. This really is a ruin, and you explore at your peril, expecting the roof to collapse at any moment. Not for nothing did Angelina Jolie shoot Tomb Raider here — it’s far better than anything Hollywood could dream up. At last, I glimpse some of the same excitement that French explorer Henri Moutot must have felt when he stumbled across Angkor in the 19th century.

How to do it: Kuoni offers four nights in Cambodia touring Angkor Wat from £1,621 per person based on two sharing. www.kuoni.co.uk

From commuter to Arctic explorer
By Flemmich Webb

As I jumped out of the tent in my long johns, banging a cooking pot to scare away the polar bear lumbering across the ice towards us, I wondered if it had been a good idea to answer an advert in the Metro newspaper calling for volunteers to join an Arctic expedition to the geomagnetic North Pole.

The company running the trip, Ice Warrior, headed by explorer Jim McNeill, had vowed to turn regular people into Arctic explorers, an idea that had leapt out of the paper and livened up my dull commute. Having once got lost for seven hours in the Lake District, I suspected Ice Warrior would have its work cut out.

But evidently the training weekends in the UK, Norway and Canada paid off. With the polar bear 60ft from the tent, one of us managed to fire a flare just in front of his nose and he scurried off.

A few days earlier, the team of nine (aged 23-48) had been dropped off by a small aircraft on sea ice in Flagler Bay, off the east coast of Ellesmere Island, the most northerly part of Canada. Greenland lay to the east but our goal was 150 miles to the north.

It was late March, and, although the sun never set, it offered little warmth. The cold was debilitating. In temperatures of -35C metal sticks to skin, plastic becomes brittle, and toes and fingers are constantly numb. Sea ice created an alien landscape: at times, glass smooth; at others, rough, chunky, twisted; and, in the sun, white — dazzling white with a deep blue core.

What followed was 20 days of exhausting pulk (sledge) dragging; each of us pulling along our own body-weight in food, fuel and equipment over and through a bewildering maze of ice. Some days we managed just three miles.

Blessed with relatively benign weather, we finally made it to Dobbin Bay and launched our final push for the Pole. After 10 hours of skiing, the GPS read 79.74°N 71.78°W — coordinates that indicated we’d arrived. I looked around. Here? Really? The barren rocky, snow-covered hillside couldn’t have been a more nondescript location.

Any sense of anti-climax was swiftly replaced by a deep feeling of achievement. We’d come so far: from expedition and Arctic novices to geomagnetic North Pole explorers. We hugged, and celebrated with hot chocolate and a round of high-calorie rehydrated meals.

I may not get the chance to experience the ethereal beauty of the Arctic again, but I’m glad I answered that advert
in the newspaper. Despite the bone-chilling cold, the daily exhaustion and the threat from inquisitive polar bears, travelling through one of the most challenging environments on the planet was a raw, primal experience that refreshed and reinvigorated the spirit. Needless to say, I gave up the commute not long afterwards.

How to do it: A range of Arctic trips are available through Ice Warrior from £1,250 per person. www.ice-warrior.com 

Borobodur and Prambanan
By Wayne Johnson

Spend significant time in South-east Asia and it’s easy to acquire what’s known as ‘temple fatigue’ — a dreaded condition whereby all its magnificent religious sites and buildings blur into one and begin to lose their uniqueness. I’d been living in the region for 10 years when I felt myself developing this sad condition, so I started to scrabble around looking for ways to off-set its symptoms.

A friend of mine suggested tackling it head-on by visiting Indonesia’s two most impressive temples: Buddhist Borobodur and Hindu Prambanan by bicycle from Yogyakarta — a novel approach that seemed like a great way to banish fatigue and up my fitness levels. Touted by Indonesians as one of the Wonders of the World, but increasingly forgotten by tourists, the ninth-century Borobodur Temple stands comparison with Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as one of the world’s most dramatic religious sites.

To my dismay, I was met with hundreds of hawkers and souvenir stands crowding the temple’s entrance. But once inside, my disappointment vanished; it was hard not to be amazed by this huge, intricately carved slab of rock rising abruptly from the central Java plain. It seemed somehow alien, as if carefully placed by an omnipotent hand.

Originally, devotees ascended the monument clockwise, with the lowest level representing Earth’s carnal desires and the summit nirvana. Ditching my wheels, I followed this ‘pilgrim’s walk’ for three miles, stopping often to admire the thousands of carved stone panels depicting millennia-old Javanese life.

At the top, I awaited my turn to touch the ‘lucky’ feet of one of the small Buddhas — each residing in its own bell-shaped stupa. Gazing out across the dusty plain below, my temple fatigue had lifted.

The next day, with my new-found enthusiasm for sacred architecture, I set out on the long but exhilarating ride to Prambanan. Not as well-known as Borobodur, but just as impressive, this sprawling Hindu temple complex, dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, was erected 50 years after its near neighbour. Its most striking feature is the soaring temple (Candi) to Shiva, decorated with images depicting the Hindu Ramayana, an epic tale of abduction, battles and monkey gods. The story is also brought to life nightly in a spectacular outdoor stage show with hundreds of human and animal performers. Here, I sat mesmerised as a winged chariot and a monkey army did battle, with the illuminated temple to Shiva as a backdrop.

From Yogyakarta, you can visit both sites in a day, but unless you’re fit for the Tour de France, stay overnight in a hotel or guesthouse before taking on the next temple. The pause will give you time and energy to soak up these sites’ epic beauty.

How to do it: Fourteen-day adventure tours of Indonesia, including Borobodur and Prambanan, from £1,699 per person. www.explore.co.uk

Rafting the Grand Canyon
By Karen Bowerman

I’m 6,000ft below ground level, it’s 40C, and the air is like a film of heat you cut through to breathe. But I’m shivering in a life jacket, wet with sweat and river water.
A few feet away, the sheer, vaulted walls of the Grand Canyon rise out of the Colorado River. I feel as if they’re moving in on us. Suddenly, the warm breeze drops and there’s the patter of water pummelling our raft: the rapid is coming.

Carmen, my fellow river runner, scans the current. We drift, almost aimlessly, towards it. Then, at the last minute, she spins the boat round. I face a watery wall that’s 5ft high, 6ft wide, and growing. It’s Tiger Wash: an ‘inconsequential’ rapid.

We soar over the first wave, ride the next with ease. Then they break over us. I’m thrown back by the force of the water, clinging on, half-exhilarated, half-terrified. The next moment, I’m in the water. It’s freezing. I come up, I presume, under the boat, as my head hits a hard surface, but I’m totally disorientated; flung around as if in some giant washing machine. For a second, I fear I might die.

I re-emerge downstream. A boat closes in; they throw me a rope and haul me aboard. We pull in at the next river beach and I’m wrapped in foil, so hot it burns.
“What was all that about,” a kayaker quips as he drags our raft onto the sand. “God help you at Lava!”

Lava Falls is the most spectacular rapid on the Colorado. Difficulty rating: 9/10, drop: 37ft; it still haunts my dreams. But there were 220 miles and 150 rapids before then and I was determined ‘the giant’ wasn’t going to dominate. For this was a 15-day adventure I’d waited 15 years for: the chance to take my own boat through the heart of the canyon.

It was a journey down a river, back in time past rocks half as old as Earth itself. The miles traced the millennia: red ochre-stained limestone, pink zoroaster granite, yellow bright angel shale and, in the inner gorge, two-billion-year-old black Vishnu schist; so smooth it looked wet.

Days passed. We hiked side canyons, camped on the sand, played cards into the night and woke to the smell of bacon. Then there was Lava. The big one. Waves crashed into each other in all directions; rocks rose, then disappeared. The river didn’t rumble, it roared. Everyone made it through, although one kayaker rolled six times. “Never underestimate the power of the river,” he said simply.

That night on the riverbank, Carmen eased her way into song. Gradually, we joined in. We were a group of bedraggled, sunburnt river runners, exhausted but jubilant. We’d challenged the canyon’s legendary rapids and survived.

How to do it: Permits for private rafting trips from the US National Park Service cost $1,000 (£607) for up to 16 people. www.nps.gov

London to Marrakech
By Richard Trillo

On a cool autumn afternoon, as the Eurostar ticks across the Kent countryside, the thought that I’m venturing further than Paris, to North Africa, seems implausibly romantic.

Expectations rise once we’ve navigated the familiar jumble of the Paris Metro and found our recliner seats on the Elipsos Trenhotel train to Madrid. It’s settle-and-observe time as we test the comfort of our seats (not bad), tune into the murmur of Castilian conversation and watch the lights of France flick by in the dark. There’s good food in the restaurant car, but we’ve spent a lot of money on these tickets, so we unpack our supermarket bags — half-baguettes to stuff with ham and wedges of Emmental, alongside a very nice Côtes du Rhône.
This so beats flying. We still feel the same 12 hours later as we sweep into Madrid, a little stiff and woolly-headed, but nothing that a day in the bright October air can’t fix. We find our hotel, close to the Puerta del Sol, and set off in pursuit of tapas, followed by a couple of hours in the Prado gallery. We’re mesmerised by galleries of Goyas and disconcerted by a close-up encounter with Hieronymous Bosch’s halluncinatory Garden of Earthly Delights.

Next morning, the Altaria train to Algeciras leaves from the quirky Atocha station; its ornamental jungles in the concourse bursting with tropical promise. We’re away to the south, skimming castles in La Mancha — Don Quixote country — into Ronda’s dramatic gorges.

By early afternoon, we’re on the sun-blasted foredeck of the ferry to Morocco, watching dolphins in the churning indigo seas of the Strait of Gibraltar.

Forty-eight hours out of London, the old city of Tangiers takes the trip to a new level. No matter how many times you visit, Morocco is always radically and gloriously different from Europe. Stepping out with determination up the alley to the Hotel Continental, we’re accosted by exactly the tumult of visual surprises, noisy offers and olfactory curiosities that we’d expected, but more jarring, funnier and faster than we recalled. On every side are swaddled ladies tucked into stalls overflowing with figs; people pushing wheelbarrows, smoking shishas, straddling donkeys, and demonstrating raucous CDs. Streetlights are illuminated around the harbour; the muezzins start to call from the mosques.

The ‘Marrakech Express’ is two trains: a morning service from Tangiers to Casablanca, creeping along the tracks through northern Morocco as pedestrians dodge out of the way; and then a longer, faster ride across the desert to Marrakech. In first class, just £25, we chat with a beautiful Moroccan woman and her African-American husband, returning from Washington DC to visit family.

The evening air of the Red City is saturated with pink dust and the glowing tail lights of thousands of taxis. Despite the rush, there’s a balmy tranquillity in the air and a disarmingly gentle mood.

We’d feared an endurance test; instead, this trip has been a breeze. As we gaze across the whirling, light-spangled city from the rooftop of the riad we’ve booked, we’ve a weekend ahead of us to explore the souks, palaces and gardens, eat from food stalls in Jemaa el Fna square and bargain for rugs, babouches and strange musical instruments. We grin. This is how travel’s meant to be.

How to do it: Rail/ferry travel with hotel in Marrakech: 12 nights from £1,699 per person. www.railbookers.com

Guatemala trek
By Marie Cleland

“Rule number one: Do not leave the camp after dark; hag-whars hunt nearby and I’ve heard one kill a wild pig in the night.” If our local guide Irving’s pronunciation had some of the group confused, the grizzly nature of his big-cat anecdote surely got the message across.

A motley band of hikers, we’d started our five-day jungle odyssey bumping along deeply rutted roads in a five-seater pick-up truck crammed with seven travellers, a cook, a guide and a driver. It would take us through remote forest to a Mayan city deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Unlike the country’s more accessible Mayan ruin, the touristy Tikal, the only other people in the forest were archaeologists and the guards that looked after their camps to stop looters.

Two hard days’ walk, during which we met vampire bats, spider monkeys and thirsty mosquitoes, brought us to the outskirts of El Mirador — built 2,000 years ago and abandoned 150 years later due to drought.

Before we settled into camp, we raced the setting sun to the top of El Tigre, one of the city’s pyramids; climbing rough-hewn steps to emerge above a canopy of trees. I’d craved this view: endless pristine rainforest — one of the last large areas of it left in Central America. Now I could see the ‘hills’ we’d marched across earlier (miles of buried buildings and temples), finding shafts cut into the sides by looters seeking precious artefacts; their entrances littered with broken pottery.

Fuelled by Indiana Jones fantasies we explored the city; Irving showing us ceremonial baths and a stunning stucco frieze depicting Mayan cosmology.

Before dawn the next day, we walked half an hour to La Danta, El Mirador’s largest pyramid, at 230ft high. Without realising it, we’d timed our trek for a full moon, and as it set — hanging for a few moments in line with the rising sun — we stood in perfect alignment in the middle: a sight to take the breath away.

The sounds of the waking forest soon filled our ears, bringing us back down to earth. When the conquistadores arrived, they thought the eerie, rasping noises came from monsters. We knew it to be two groups of howler monkeys, answering each one another’s calls. To me, they knew our walk of a lifetime was coming to an end — they were saying goodbye.

How to do it: Five-day trek from £250 per person, via Los Amigos Hostel, Flores Island. http://amigoshostel.com

Lost City Climb
By Chris Peacock

When US explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Peru’s jungle-covered ruins in 1911, he thought he’d found Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the last Incan king Manco Capac. But Machu Picchu turned out to be far more grand: the largest Incan settlement never to have been discovered, and plundered, by Spanish conquistadors.

The ruin’s unearthing raised more questions about the Incan Empire than it answered, and historians still ponder its purpose today. There’s no shortage of myths and theories, as I found in an afternoon tour of the complex, when my guide suggested this landscaped city of temples, terraced gardens and intricate masonry was built, occupied and abandoned all within 100 years.

Whether a citadel, sanctuary, an aristocratic estate, observatory or educational retreat for the Empire’s prized nustas (princess virgins) — three-quarters of the human remains excavated are female — there’s no denying the near cosmic beauty of this ruined city, set between two towering peaks, 4,000ft above the Urubamba River. But at the site’s entrance, confronted with scores of spluttering buses, tourists and hawkers, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

Once inside, however, navigating a narrow rocky pass, the classic postcard image of Machu Picchu far exceeded years of expectation. After a long, awestruck pause, absorbing the majesty of it all, our group made for the iconic Temple of the Sun — considered Machu Picchu’s finest masonry. Faced with its large granite stones, seamlessly slotted together, the significance this circular tower held for the Incas is almost palpable; our guide pointed to a window aligned for the June solstice, when the sun’s dawn rays stream in, illuminating the temple’s central stone.

We explore the city’s hallowed monuments: the Royal Tomb and Temple of the Three Windows; the Sacred Plaza and the Intihuatana Stone, each imbued with its own set of spiritual theories and staggering construction. Blocks weigh 50 tonnes but are so precisely sculpted and arranged that a sheet of paper won’t pass between their mortarless joints.

At dusk, we start our arduous climb to Intipunku (Sun Gate), the Inca entrance to Machu Picchu. Steps here are tough going; their steep inclines made all the more punishing due to the effects of high altitude. But standing at Machu Picchu’s highest temple, gazing into its panorama of canyon, forest and frosted peaks, it was worth depleted lungs and dizzy spells. And it’s somehow reassuring to know that the founding Incas, nearly 600 years ago, would have seen this same scene: a triumph of design and mastery of nature.

How to do it: Eleven-day tours from £2,945 per person. www.bales.com

Northern Ethiopia through a shattered windscreen
By Kate Nivison

“Quick, over here, madams,” gestured our guide. “A wedding is coming. I think they will allow.” Scrambling over the rough, hot, barren ground to an arch in the hewn rock wall, my companion and I peered down a passage that smelt like a catacomb. Sunlight in the inner courtyard caught flashes of white robes and red silk umbrellas with a backdrop of drumming and the tinkling of sistra. The wedding party suddenly emerged from the dark interior of Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour) clapping and singing joyously, all dressed in a spotless white, startling against the rose-tinged background of Ethiopia’s largest rock-hewn church.

Without our guide, Meky, we’d have missed the newlyweds, and many other wild experiences on this tour of the Ethiopian Highlands, including being dragged up the hill to Bet Giorgis, the most photogenic of Lalibela’s 13th-century churches. A deep buzz of chanting led us to a cleft in the rock walls so narrow that we had to peep in one at a time. We’d caught the end of an all-night vigil for one of the Virgin Mariam’s (Mary’s) many feast days. Possibly a temple maiden herself, I suspect Mariam would have felt at home in this holy hole, crammed with leaf-thin priests swaying on prayer sticks, dazed by incense and candle smoke.

The ‘descent into Hell’ was another Biblical fix — a pitch-dark, 100ft-long tunnel that led us gasping into yet another rocky, icon-hung interior. And as for the stormy crossing to Lake Tana’s island churches (two lifejackets between three of us), it made their gorgeous murals come alive, especially ‘Christ Calming the Waters of Galilee’ on what was clearly the lake outside. ‘No high laughing,’ warned a notice.

Having our windscreen broken on the way to the gelada baboons of the Simien Mountains was nothing really. We sat reflectively by the roadside, while an ancient ranger let me hold his Kalashnikov rifle. We’d seen the Blue Nile Falls; the old imperial capital of Gondar was next. Not a ‘grand tour’ in the traditional sense, but certainly a great alternative.

How to do it: Sixteen-day driving tour of Northern Ethiopia, from £3,690 per person. www.steppestravel.co.uk

Great tour V something different:

Asia
Great tour: China’s star sights.
Alternative: Trek Yunnan.
We choose: Get beyond stereotypes by hiking around Yunnan. Spend two weeks ticking off the Great Wall, Terracotta Army and Forbidden City for a great primer on Chinese culture, by all means, but Yunnan, bordering Tibet, offers wooden houses, mountain gorges, monasteries and cosy guesthouses.
How to do it: Two-week treks from £2,345 per person. www.keadventure.com

South America
Great tour: Classic overland.
Alternative: New, condensed transcontinental tour.
We choose: New, shorter tours — from Quito to Rio via Machu Picchu, Tierra del Fuego and Lake Titicaca cover plenty of ground in ‘only’ 83 days, timed to finish at Rio’s carnival. Aimed at travellers who want to pack in as many sights as possible, Oz-Bus now operates in various destinations, including South America.
How to do it: From £3,499 per person. www.oz-bus.com

Europe
Great tour: Hike the Camino de Santiago, Spain.
Alternative: Via Francigena.
We choose: The 1,180-mile Via Francigena trail, which has been drawing travellers since the 11th century, when pilgrims from Canterbury would journey to Rome on foot. The final, nine-day stretch, from Orvieto to Rome promises vineyards, archaeological sites and great food. And none of the scrum that can mar a trip along the Camino.
How to do it: Via Francigena hikes from £850 per person. www.utracks.com

Africa
Great tour: Follow East Africa’s wildebeest migration.
Alternative: Walking safari, Zambia.
We choose: Book the wildebeest migration with a company that knows how to make the experience special. Get it right and witness the movement of more than 1.4 million wildebeest, plus epic herds of zebra and adherent big cats, from the comfort of tented camps.
How to do it: One-week safaris in Kenya from £2,000 per person. www.tribes.co.uk

Asia
Great tour: Explore Burma.
Alternative: Japan by bike.
We choose: Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for an end to the 15-year unofficial boycott on tourism to Burma. To enjoy its pagodas, markets and forests responsibly, choose an operator offering accommodation in independent guesthouses and itineraries that benefit Burmese people.
How to do it: Two-week tour from £1,922 per person. www.explore.co.uk

Africa
Great tour: A Nile cruise.
Alternative: Egypt’s ancient attractions on horseback.
We choose: Both. Egypt’s majestic sights can be explored by competent riders, for a perspective most tourists never see. Combine a four-day Nile cruise with an exploration of the Egypt’s most famous archaeological sights, including the Giza pyramids, Sakkara and the Valley of the Kings — from the saddle.
How to do it: Seven-night riding/cruising trip from £966 per person. www.theridingcompany.com

Australasia
Great tour: New Zealand’s Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Alternative: The Rees-Dart Track.
We choose: For true escapism, the 47-mile Rees Dart Track. Far less busy than the popular Abel Coast Track, this four/five-day trekking circuit skirts rivers into Mount Aspiring National Park with Maori sites and access to the Dart Glacier.
How to do it: From Queenstown, travel to the trailhead with Info & Track (www.infotrack.co.nz), from NZ$100 (£51) return. For more information, visit www.doc.govt.nz

Europe
Great tour: Provence by 2CV.
Alternative: Denmark by bike.
We choose: Trundle past lavender fields and hilltop villages in an open-roofed 2CV, or ‘Deux Chevaux’ as they’re affectionately known. It’s not the fastest way to see the sights around Aix-en-Provence and the Luberon but that’s entirely the point and, thanks to the nostalgia factor, you can expect a warm reception from the locals.
How to do it: Four-day 2CV trips from €349 (£306) per person. www.vintageroadtrips.com

North America
Great tour: Ride the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
Alternative: Paddle Canada’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.
We choose: The 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, stretching across north-eastern US into Canada. The whitewater and flatwater trail takes seven weeks to finish, but it’s best to spend a week on one section, stopping at hotels, guesthouses or tent pitches.
How to do it: For routes, jumping-off points, canoe hire and places to stay, visit www.northernforestcanoetrail.org

South America
Great tour: Wildlife spotting on the Amazon.
Alternative: Chapada dos Veadeiros.
We choose: Chapada dos Veadeiros is home to a third of Brazil’s plant and animal species. The tourism industry here is in its infancy, so self-sufficiency is often vital. Wildlife is best explored away from big settlements, at lodges with good local guides, such as Pousada Uacari, in the Mamiraua Reserve.
How to do it: Eight-night Amazon trips from £2,675 per person. www.reefandrainforest.co.uk

 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)