The world is a big place, a fact I’m reminded of on a nearly daily basis. With so much to see, do and experience it’s hard to know where to start, but so many people don’t look at travel in the way they should. They see travel as a race, as a way to tick off boxes, which sadly means they don’t get as much from the experience as they should. Because, ultimately, that’s what travel is – it’s the sum total of the experiences we enjoy, the people we meet and how all of this impacts who we are as people. Since travel is, I think, made up of the experiences, I thought I’d share a few favorite experiences that everyone should try at least once in their lives. Some are meaningful, others just a lot of fun and no matter what your interests are, it’s important to keep in mind that our travels are not monolithic constructs, but instead are the sum total of those experiences that mean the most to us.
Responsible Wildlife Experiences
I have an incredible soft spot for animals and wildlife and that love affair necessarily carries over to my travels. The problem is that so many animal experiences around the world aren’t just bad, they actually do harm to do the animals they’re showcasing. Even worse, it’s very difficult for tourists to know the difference between a responsible and harmful wildlife experience; I know that I’ve been duped more than once. Last year I asked sustainable tourism pro Diana Edelman to pen an article on my site about one specific animal activity – elephant rides – and in that post she shared why this activity is harmful, how to avoid them and how to engage meaningfully with these beautiful animals instead. That’s just one experience though, there are many more around the world that may look like fun, but actually do more harm than good. A few good things to keep in mind when considering a wildlife experience when you travel:
- If the animal in question is doing something against their nature, it means they’ve been “broken” in order to perform. You should not be able to snuggle with tigers or see a bear pedaling a bike; they have suffered mightily to get to that point.
- Vet the potential tour operators heavily and refer to independent third-party experts for advice.
- Just don’t do it. I know, feeding that monkey looks like fun and getting a kiss from a dolphin is on your bucket list, but maybe it’s time to time to reconsider what experiences you enjoy when you travel. If you truly love animals and are a conservationist, do some volunteer work at home, or consider trips to specialized animal research facilities like the Duke Lemur Center or even go on an African safari to get an animal encounter you’ll never forget. But ultimately these experiences should be about the wildlife and not you.
Drive Around Iceland
Iceland is not a large country, and yet it seems as if weeks or months could be spent exploring its wild regions without fear of boredom. I think it’s that compact expansiveness that surprises most first-time visitors; it’s a quirky fact that still shocks me. With so much to see and do in Iceland, it’s hard to know where to start, but one of the best ways to experience the country is from behind a steering wheel. Reykjavik is great and there’s plenty to see and do around the capital, but for that real Icelandic experience, rent a car, buy a map and start driving. The ideal of course would be to spend a couple of weeks tackling the Ring Road that encircles the island nation, taking drivers to just about every iconic and even lesser known areas in Iceland. Most of us don’t have that much time though, which is why last year I decided to tackle a small portion of the island over a couple of days, the Western region and specifically the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
It’s been called Iceland in miniature, land of sagas and even one of the earth’s mystical energy points, but no matter what you believe there’s no denying that driving around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland is one of the most beautiful driving experiences you’ll ever have. There are dozens of great stops, from small towns to quiet hideaways teeming with natural beauty. While all of these sites and stops were great, the drive itself was the star of the show for me. It was dramatic, more dramatic than I expected but not as daunting as I had feared. It doesn’t take long to circumnavigate the peninsula, but its larger than life quality will make you feel as if you had undertaken your own epic saga.
See the Pyramids
The first modern tourist destination, the wonders of Egypt have called to travelers around the world for generations. And with good reason, the monuments and sites so well preserved aren’t just nice to behold, they are world wonders in every sense of the term. Traveling through Egypt, the entire experience from Cairo to Aswan was much better than I had expected, but the real highlight of course was visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza. Located close to modern day Cairo, these massive monuments to power have been amazing visitors since the moment they were first built, popping up even in Ancient Greek and Roman travel guides of the day. Standing there immediately in front of them it was hard to mentally reconcile the fact that I was actually there. Having seen them in books, magazines and movies all of my life, it was hard to consider the fact that I was there at that moment in time. Since tourism is so low right now, there weren’t many other tourists around me, creating a special and rare moment of privacy, allowing for some introspection and time to fully grasp the importance of the moment.
Just the like visiting the pyramids, taking an African safari is one of the few classic travel experiences that shares a spot on almost everyone’s bucket list. And with good reason; a great African safari is an experience like non-other, not just for the wildlife viewed, but for the people met and the landscapes enjoyed as well. Brought to American pop culture by Theodore Roosevelt, the concept of safari has long been entrenched on the rolls of luxurious adventure experiences. While pith helmets and sherpas may be a thing of the past, there are many great opportunities throughout Africa to combine exciting wildlife experiences with the best luxury offerings in the world.
One of my favorites is a little unique – the Zambezi Queen riverboat in Namibia. Actually located on the Chobe River where four countries meet (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia) the luxury I found onboard this intimate ship was on a level all of its own. Add to that the best seat in the world for animal viewing and it’s a match made in heaven. Imagine sitting on the deck, glass of wine in hand as you watch a herd of elephants romp and play a few meters away. Look below you and a few feet away are massive hippos, a little grumpy but no less beautiful. And those are the passive experiences everyone sees just by staying on the ship. Add in the many land-based safaris the staff lead around the river and into Chobe National Park, and the diversity of wildlife sightings may just be the best in the world.
Sleeping in an Ice hotel
This may not interest everyone, but sleeping inside an ice hotel had been on my to-do list for a long time, which is why I was so happy to visit the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in northern Norway earlier this year. In 2000, the family who owned outdoor guiding services around the facility known as Sorrisniva decided to try something different. Sure, their position along the Alta River meant plenty of summer tourists and in the winter months they organized snowmobile tours, but the owner decided to go down a new path and built the first igloo hotel. Otherwise known as an ice hotel, the complex ice structure has been built, allowed to melt and then rebuilt every year since.
True to their promise, absolutely everything in the igloo hotel is made from ice, from the bar and chairs to the beds themselves. It’s strange really, walking through a structure made entirely of ice. The temperature inside is kept between minus 4-7 degrees Celsius, in order to preserve the walls of the hotel itself. So it’s chilly, but not as bad as one would otherwise think. But for some reason the hotel had an odd stillness to it, a place devoid of color and life, I felt like Superman entering his Fortress of Solitude. Curled up in warm reindeer-skin blankets, I slept the best I had in months that evening. The light inside never changes, there’s a complete absence of noise and a kind of eerie frozen in time element that made my rest in the igloo so complete and satisfying. I’m not sure if I need to sleep in an ice hotel again, but I’m still thrilled I had that one chance to fulfill a travel dream.
Black Forest Cake in the Black Forest
Food is an incredibly important part of the travel experience. No matter your personal preferences or habits, food will necessarily create some of the strongest memories you form when you travel. For me, that usually means trying as many local specialties as possible, and when I visited Freiburg next to Germany’s Black Forest, I couldn’t say no to the classic Black Forest Cake. We have all heard of Black Forest Cake, but while in Freiburg I had the opportunity to watch a baker assemble one for me. Special tart cherry kirsch from the Black Forest is the only acceptable ingredient to add to the layers of chocolate, whipped cream and cherries that make an authentic cake and it’s not just a stereotype, the cakes are still popular locally. The baker told me that families wouldn’t think of having an Easter dinner without one, although it’s certainly popular throughout the year. It’s just one of the many food treasures found in Germany, one of my favorite countries to explore through my taste buds.
I’ve long enjoyed taking a good cruise every now and then, but after experiencing my first river cruise in 2014, I knew I was hooked. River cruising is one of the hottest travel trends at the moment. People from all walks of life have discovered not just the ease and comfort of a good river cruise, but how much value they can add to the travel experience. As an independent traveler, I was a little nervous at first about not being able to maintain my freedom while onboard. I was thankfully very wrong, and every day I found myself exploring new towns and cities; many places I would never have seen had I not been on a river cruise. There’s also a lot to be said for the camaraderie found onboard these ships. Everyone is there for a reason, to get closer to new cultures and countries, to learn a lot and of course to have a good time. Their enthusiasm and knowledge improved my own trip, and encouraged me to do and try things I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. Cruises in general and river cruises in particular may not be how I travel on every trip, but I think doing one every now and then is a great way to get a different perspective and to enjoy a totally different style of travel.
As the owner of two Siberian Huskies, my first dogsledding experience a few years ago was something I had looked forward to for a long time. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to try this unique activity with several different responsible tourism providers, but a favorite (so far) may have been in Norway. Dogsledding is a very big deal in Alta, Norway; it’s from this outpost town where one of the world’s great dog sled races, the Finnmarksløpet, starts and ends every year. Thanks to that race, and the rugged terrain surrounding the city, there are dozens of professional mushers who live around town, many of whom also open their doors to visitors allowing them a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive their own team of champion race dogs. I joined one of those outfits, Holmen Husky, which has a strong tradition of sled tours and even something they call the Husky Hotel. I wasn’t there for the evening though, just for one of their famous trips through the snowy woods. As a Husky owner, part of me just wanted to play with the pups but unlike my sofa-lounging dogs at home, these are working dogs and all they wanted to do was run. And run they did, as I sat back in the sled the dogs took off, excited for their daily dose of much needed exercise. Unlike a snowmobile, a sled experience is almost completely silent, except for the huffs from the Huskies and the sound of the sled racing across the icy terrain. It’s a serene and beautiful experience, a way to be part of nature without feeling like you’re infringing upon it. It’s also the perfect introduction to Alta and the region’s traditions, so many of which seem to revolve around these amazing canine athletes.
Diving the Great Barrier Reef
One of the primary reasons why I wanted to visit Queensland was to experience the Great Barrier Reef. It’s long been on my own travel bucket list, and even though I’d visited Australia a couple of times before, I never made it to the Reef. Luckily, the years of anticipation were worth it and seeing one of the world’s truly great natural wonders was everything it promised to be and more. I experienced the reef in a few different ways several times throughout my trip, it’s just that big, but my favorite way to enjoy the mighty reef was through a scuba dive. This wasn’t just any scuba dive though, it was my first attempt and I was pretty nervous. I love snorkeling, but the thought of breathing underwater freaked me out to be honest. It was a mental hang-up and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to shake it. But there I was, at the Great Barrier Reef and I figured if I was going to try it anywhere, that was the place. And I’m so glad I set aside my fears and gave it a chance. I traveled out to the Reef with the company Cruise Whitsundays, and their team of expert divers were all used to first-timers like me and showed more patience than I’ve seen any tour operator show in recent memory. It was thanks to their insistence and instruction that I was able to literally take the plunge, my fears instantly vanishing as soon as I was underwater. I’ve snorkeled all over the world, but the Great Barrier Reef is without a doubt the best I’ve ever seen. The sheer abundance of fish and coral in every color of the rainbow was extraordinary and I could’ve spent hours exploring it to new depths while scuba diving. This is just one of those once in a lifetime experiences that aren’t only nice to do, I think they are important to do.
Kayaking Around Dubrovnik
The most visited city in Croatia, Dubrovnik never fails to disappoint, at least that’s been my experience. Sure, it can be busy at times but for me that has never detracted from the intrinsic beauty of the city – a town that seems trapped in a different era. The golden hues of the ancient stone and the astonishing views of the water and the red roofed buildings are all reasons to spend some extra time here and if you do, don’t miss the opportunity to see a different view of the city – from the water. Several companies operate kayak tours around the walled city of Dubrovnik, from a short paddle to all-day adventures. Setting out past the busy shipping lane, once I got close to the massive walls of the city I could see why no enemy ever invaded. Even though they were defensive in nature, one can’t also help but appreciate their beauty, especially on a beautiful day while you’re out getting some exercise. Little details that one would never notice inside the city suddenly become apparent from the kayak and for me, helped foster an even deeper love of the city. Plus it was just a lot of fun, so there’s that too.
Trekking to Machu Picchu
Apparently this was the year of iconic travel experiences as I found myself in the Andes Mountains of Peru, finally reaching one of the most famous sites in the world – Machu Picchu. Let me just say straight up that no, I didn’t do the four-day Inca Trail hike. I have massive problems with both my knees and spending four days in pain and suffering was not high on my to-do list. No, instead I visited the famous ancient city like thousands of others, by taking the luxury train to the weird mountain town of Aguas Calientes and then a short bus ride up to Machu Picchu itself. This new world wonder surprised me in a lot of ways, most notably how beautiful almost every part of it is in person. All we tend to see is that ONE iconic photo overlooking the long forgotten mountain outpost of the Inca, but there’s so much more to it than that one angle. Spending a few hours exploring it I developed an appreciation not only of how it looked, but the skill it took to design and build. There are many fantastic Inca sites to explore in Peru, but it’s really only at Machu Picchu that you begin to understand the true genius of this sadly long lost civilization.
What travel experiences would you add to this list?