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Top 20: Trips of a Lifetime

Discover the top 20 Trips of a Lifetime – we’ve curated a list of the knock-out places and experiences that should be on your jetsetting horizon. The pins on our map span all seven continents, and include everything from epic adventures like driving the Great Ocean Road to sites such as Machu Picchu

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1. Yellowstone

In spring, bison move along the Madison River into the Hebgen Basin of West Yellowstone and feast on rich grasses. They give birth on the edge of lodgepole pine forests amongst a lattice of red willow branches that are preparing to bud after a long winter. It’s estimated that there were up to 60 million roaming the plains before European settlement; there are just 5,000 left — a sobering thought when you see these shaggy-haired creatures in the wild.

2. Mexico

The bloodthirsty rites, rich cosmologies and towering edifices of the once mighty Maya civilisation are the stuff of legend. At Chichén Itzá, there’s the sacrificial Platform of the Skulls, with its blood-curdling friezes of warring cadavers and stacked heads. Then there’s Ek’ Balam, decorated with intricate, symbol-laden friezes moulded in stucco; Uxmal’s well-preserved carvings on the Pyramid of the Magician and the Governor’s Palace; Cobá’s pyramid, which is one of the tallest in the region; and Calakmul — one of the trickiest sites to reach, but arguably the most atmospheric. Read more…

3. Great Ocean Road

This classic Australian road trip stretches west of Melbourne, throwing in much of what is great about Oz on the way. First come the beach towns whose backdrop is lush eucalyptus forest laced with walking trails. The last leg of the Great Ocean Road is wild in a different way. The postcard-friendly rock formations — Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge — are reeled out, as the Southern Ocean gives them a brutal pounding. But it’s what’s in the water that’s truly spellbinding. From the clifftops at Warrnambool, you can often spot southern right whales emerging from the ocean swells.

4. Kilimanjaro

The Rongai route is the only one of Kilimanjaro’s six ascents that starts from the north. The first few days of the climb follow a similar pattern: an early start, then a few hours of hiking before arriving at the next camp. Most of the hiking is long but not steep, but during the summit you ascend more than 3,000ft in seven hours — a huge distance, considering the mountain is just shy of 20,000ft high. At Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s highest point, the ground is blissfully flat — it’s a volcanic crater rim — and glaciers and clouds lay beneath you as you walk towards ‘that sign’, which tells you you’ve reached 19,341ft. Read more…

5. Iceland

With a landscape packed with volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields and hot springs, Iceland is a paradise for nature nuts. We’ve totted up the top nine activities for nature nuts, including descending 400ft into Þríhnúkagígur’s magma chamber — inside, the volcano is a hollowed-out vision of colour and enormity; heading out whale watching off the coast of Húsavík; seeing the Northern Lights on a snowcat; snorkelling the gap between two continental plates; and splashing around in the thermally heated waters of the Blue Lagoon.

6. Antarctica

There are no guarantees in Antarctica: what you see, where you go and what you do is dictated by the ice, the weather and pure luck. And when luck is on your side, try sea kayaking — there’s something about experiencing the ocean that only paddling can offer. It offers an intimacy with the water, a chance to humble yourself to the wilderness. Circumnavigate an iceberg as a flock of penguins porpoise and pop like spinning wheels; and take in the vibrant shades of black, white, grey and blue above the waterline.

7. Taj Mahal

The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj as ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’. This isn’t just a monument built by love; it’s a monument to a man’s towering, inconsolable grief. Over 350 years have passed since Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built a mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In the Deccan Plateau, where the emperor was fighting a campaign, his wife died in childbirth. His hair turned grey overnight. And his love can now be seen in the white minarets, balconies, onion domes and golden finials that sing to each other against a pale sky. 

8. Rocky Mountaineer

This two-day route from Vancouver to Banff is called the First Passage to the West because it encompasses locations associated with the early settlement of western Canada. Places along this route have rugged, evocative names. At Hell’s Gate, 200 million gallons of water churn between the rocks of the steep canyon every minute. Scuzzy Creek, meanwhile, is named after a steamboat that transported supplies during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Cisco’s name comes from a First Nations’ term for the dangerous waters of the Fraser River: it’s the location of the longest single-span bridge on the line — a sun-bleached structure that stretches 425ft.

9. Victoria Falls

A visit to the world’s largest waterfall doesn’t have to mean just admiring it from afar — tackle its challenging rapids on a wild whitewater trip across the Zambezi. Victoria Falls plummets toward the river from over 300ft above adrenalin-seekers who take on 10 rapids along a six-mile stretch, each more perilous than the last. Cling to your raft as you tackle Between Two Worlds, which takes you under the Victoria Falls Bridge — a structure that marks the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Towering walls of cold, thrashing water engulf rafters as they jounce on the river with the boat almost sideways, gliding past crocodiles sunbathing on giant basalt boulders.

10. New York

Nobody knows New York like a New Yorker. Brandon Fay, general manager of Trattoria Dell’Arte and host of Cooking with Brandon on CBS, says the best thing about living in New York ordering pizza whenever you want — even in a blizzard. Cynthia von Buhler, a nightlife impresario who is currently hosting The Illuminati Ball, says her perfect Sunday is heading to Maison Kayser for an almond croissant, walking around Central Park and ordering a drink at Angel’s Share, an East Village speakeasy. David Burr Gerrard, author of Short Century and The Epiphany Machine, who was born and bred in Queens adds, “Tourists forget that Queens exists. They miss some of the best food in the world.”

11. Camino de Santiago

Walking the 560-mile Camino de Santiago is more than a simple hike across Spain. For many, it’s a spiritual exercise that binds its pilgrims together. Since the 12th century, travellers have walked the way of St James to the cathedral in Santiago, believing it would absolve them of their sins. The travel is slow, the challenges are humbling and the path is shared with many others, but the camino represents a different kind of adventure; a way of travel lost to the modern world but one increasingly valued by the curious, restless, religious, nostalgic and heavy-hearted. 

12. Bhutan

This remote, lofty Himalayan kingdom remains one of the region’s least-visited countries. A journey through its peaceful alpine forests and valleys offers a window into a uniquely preserved Buddhist culture. You don’t have to travel far to feel the faith in Bhutan — religious conventions still wield a strong influence over life here. The country is peppered with thousands of monuments and monasteries, while handmade chorten (stupas) crowd remote caves, bald-headed monks pray in temples, and clusters of white prayer flags mounted on poles dance on windy mountains. Read more…

13. Angkor Wat

When day breaks above the central lotus-bud towers — representing Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, and its neighbouring smaller peaks — it becomes clear why Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most visited historical sites (2.5 million people came here in 2017) and a source of fierce national pride in Cambodia. If you have only one chance to visit this ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, head here straight after the sun comes up — then spend a moment in quiet contemplation of this place that was not just a temple, but a living imperial city.

14. Machu Picchu

A tour of this dramatic New Wonder of the World reveals palaces, houses, temples, ceramic ‘factories’, storerooms — over 200 structures are split into a lower and upper part, separating farming from residential areas with a large square between the two. The famed Inca site itself is a staggering feat of engineering — the irrigation is typical of how the Incas mastered the land to suit their agricultural needs. The importance of astronomy, meanwhile, is evident at the main sights, where the sun and stars interact with the buildings. 

15. Rwanda

Born throughout Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains are critically endangered mountain gorillas. Don’t miss a close encounter with the Susa family, a group of gorillas that were first habituated by the legendary conservationist Dian Fossey. She’s a household name in Rwanda, but perhaps more famous in the West for being portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the 1988 film, Gorillas in the Mist. On a gorilla safari, you’ll get to see these creatures up close as they loll and laze in the grass, hug each other, feed their babies, and chew on sticks.

16. Fiji

Take a deep dive off Fiji for a technicolour adventure. Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, is known as the ‘soft coral capital of the world’ — and its Coral Coast is a 50 mile stretch of the island’s southern side. During the drier months (April-September) visibility underwater is optimum, currents are gentle and there’s a chance to see more than 1,500 species of marine life. With 100ft-plus visibility, take in the vivid stripes and spots of the surrounding species (clownfish, eclipse butterflyfish, threespot angelfish, moon wrasse). There’s a beauty to this kind of resort diving  — no hassle, zero gear, no qualifications needed.

17. Petra

Head to this UNESCO World Heritage site in the desert canyons of southern Jordan, where monuments carved into rose-red mountains have stood the test of time for thousands of years. One of the most well-known is the magnificent 2,000-year-old Treasury. But Petra is more than this famous facade — there’s also the High Place of Sacrifice, which opens up to a panorama some 500ft above the valley; the Theatre that once accommodated as many as 8,500 spectators; and much more. There are few places on earth where history surrounds you so completely.

18. Naples

The best place to learn the art of slinging pizza is at the source — head to Naples (where the Margherita was invented in 1889) to master this classic Italian dish with local pizzaiolos. Last December, UNESCO awarded pizza making in Naples World Heritage status, so what better reason to try a Pizza Experience class at Pizzeria al 22? Pizzaiolos qualified in teaching this centuries-old art show you how to make dough by swirling dry ingredients into a bowl of water, separate spheres of dough into individual pies and stretch and spin these balls before topping them with fresh ingredients — tomatoes from Vesuvius, hard cheese, mozzarella, basil, oil.

19. Great Wall of China

From Simatai to Jiankou, we reveal the best sections of the wall to visit. For example, the joy of the Mutianyu section is that it’s just a two-hour drive from Beijing and isn’t heaving with visitors. It also grants a prime snapshot of the Wall’s magnificence. Or try Badaling — it’s been the backdrop to state visits by the likes of Nixon, Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev, and this section’s grandiosity was harnessed for the cycling road race and a TV audience of billions at the 2008 Olympics.

20. Christ the Redeemer

A snapshot from 12 October 1931 reveals this colossal 125ft soapstone statue of Jesus Christ towering above Rio de Janeiro for the first time sans-scaffolding. Before lifts were added in 2003, tourists climbed more than 200 steps to reach the base of the holy structure. As the world’s largest art deco sculpture, it welcomes nearly two million visitors every year, including, just recently, Red Bull wingsuit skydiver Carlos Briceno, who flew to within handshaking distance of the beatific Brazilian icon.

The Trips of a Lifetime 2018 guide is distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)