Monday, January 3, 2011

20 Best Trips of 2011

According to National Geographic, these are the the top choices if you're looking for out of the ordinary trips this year.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Nearly half of Mongolia’s three million residents are nomads, and most of the rest live in Ulaanbaatar—the country's capital and largest city. The cultural, economic, and transportation hub on the Tuul River is the starting point for two-humped Bactrian camel treks and other exotic Gobi desert expeditions, but its ten museums, close proximity to national parks, and collection of imperial palaces and Buddhist monasteries qualify Ulaanbaatar as a destination rather than way station.

Plitvikes Lake, Croatia

Croatia's 1,104-mile (1,776-kilometer) island-speckled Adriatic coast is a popular playground for sea kayakers, sailors, kite surfers, and divers. Additional water wonders await those willing to travel inland (a four-hour bus ride from the coast) to the mountainous, eastern Plitvice Lakes region, site of Croatia’s first and largest national park.

Sardinia, Italy

Glitterati flock by the yachtful to Sardinia's serpentine northern Gallura coast, where exclusive Porto Cervo and Costa Smeralda are two favorite summer playgrounds. While a winding coastal drive—perfect for a red Ferrari roadster—offers dramatic Mediterranean views and a powerful adrenaline rush, the real rock stars of Italy's second-largest island are the actual rocks, or more precisely, the prehistoric stone dwellings found in the mountainous interior.


In Australia’s smallest state, remote rain forests, secluded beaches, and more than 200 vineyards are accessible by foot. Tasmania’s mild, maritime climate and compact size (comparable to West Virginia) make this heart-shaped island 150 miles (240 kilometers) off the Australian mainland a year-round destination for walkers and hikers of all ages, interests, and fitness levels.

Fjord, Norway

Western Norway, known as Fjord, Norway is home to the world’s largest concentration of the saltwater-filled, glaciated valleys. The iconic destination encompasses 1,646 miles (2,650 kilometers) of pristine coastline, glaciers, mountains, and cascading waterfalls, including the 2,148-foot (655-meter) Mardalsfossen, the world’s fourth highest. The region’s six National Tourist Routes offer easy driving access to bouldering, ice climbing, glacier walking, base jumping, caving, and year-round skiing.


A laid-back vibe, day trip-friendly dimensions (only 68,036 square miles/176,215 square kilometers), and lively beach scene make Uruguay a favorite getaway for the South American jet set.

Shimla, India

Visiting Shimla is equal parts journey and destination. For optimal snow-clad Himalayan views, chug back in time on the narrow-gauge Kalka Shimla Railway (above), one of three Indian lines on the World Heritage List. It passes through 102 tunnels, across 864 bridges, and up 4,659 feet (1,420 meters) to the Shimla Hill station in northern Himachal Pradesh. Colonialists built the engineering marvel in the late 19th century to service the Shimla Highlands, an escape for the British from the summer heat.

Messinia Region, Greece

Widely known for its Kalamata olives—Messinia produces about 55,000 tons of mainly cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil annually—this road-less-trampled region on the southwest Peloponnesian coast features numerous World Heritage List archaeological sites, including Olympia, Mystras, and the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae.


A lack of white sandy beaches and an overabundance of rainfall keep this mountainous island of tropical rain forests off typical Caribbean vacation itineraries—a plus for adventure seekers.


Southern Africa’s youngest nation is well known for its vast windswept deserts—the inland Kalahari and the coastal Namib—so it’s no wonder that the country’s first conservation area (established in 1907) is named for the “place of dry water.”


Laos is the only landlocked Southeast Asian country, yet water—more than 50 inches (130 centimeters) of rain falls annually in the northern provinces and the Mekong River flows through nearly 1,140 miles (1,835 kilometers) of Lao territory—shapes the borders, crops, culture, and daily life in this emerging ecotourism destination.

Kodiak Island, Alaska

Alaska’s Emerald Island is the nation’s second largest after Hawaii, but its landscape—a Last Frontier in microcosm—and accessible location (about an hour from Anchorage by air) make it a manageable destination for wading boot-first into the state’s natural and cultural wonders.

Scottish Highlands

Fierce Bronze Age warriors, Vikings, and Gaelic-speaking clans all have called the rugged Highland's home. Today, the primeval landscape north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault attracts outdoor enthusiasts drawn to the mist-shrouded mountains, shimmering lochs, sheer cliffs, and sandy beaches.


With 713 miles (1,148 kilometers) of gentle Mediterranean coastline, Roman ruins and fortified casbahs, and glowing ribbons of Saharan dunes, Africa’s northernmost country offers adventure for all ages.

Palawan, Philippines (Yay!)

Palawan's limestone karst cliffs, coral atolls, mangrove forests, sugar-white sandy beaches, and extensive fringing reefs create one of the Philippines' most biodiverse terrestrial and marine environments. Designated as a fish and wildlife sanctuary in 1967, the Philippines' largest (in total land area) province encompasses nearly 1,240 miles (1,995 kilometers) of coastline stretching across 1,768 islands.

Black Sea Coast, Crimea

The Black Sea coast of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula remains a mystery to most North American travelers. With its subtropical climate, underwater grottos, South Shore seaside resorts (including Yalta, Simeiz, Alushta, Koreiz, and Gurzuf), Russian imperial palaces, and dramatic white limestone backdrops, this former “Russian Riviera” of the Soviet era attracts savvy European visitors searching for a less crowded, close-to-home Mediterranean alternative.

Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec

The 11,714-square-mile (30,340-square-kilometer) Gaspé (Gaspésie) Peninsula is Quebec’s wind-and-sea-sculpted continuation of the Appalachian range. Divided into five natural areas—the Coast, Land's End, the Bay of Chaleur, the Valley, and the Upper Gaspé—the peninsula contains six wildlife sanctuaries, 25 of Quebec’s highest peaks, and four national parks. Remote Bonaventure Island and Percé Rock National Park are the summer nesting home of 250,000 birds and site of legendary Rocher-Percé, the haunting limestone arch rising from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Shikoku, Japan 

Mountain-ringed Shikoku—the smallest and least visited of Japan’s four main islands—is best known for its "walk of life," the 88-Buddhist-temple pilgrimage retracing the footsteps of the eighth-century monk and scholar Kōbō Daishi. Completing the 745-mile-plus (1,200-kilometer-plus) island-wide circuit on foot is an intense physical and spiritual workout that can take a month or more.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea's rugged mountain terrain and remote island location (east of Indonesia and north of Australia) have created a protective cultural and ecological buffer of sorts against the outside world. More than 800 languages, 1,000 distinct cultures, and an unparalleled range of biodiversity are represented in this tropical archipelago where seashells were currency until 1933.

Kurdistan, Iraq

Considered an oasis of peace and stability in a historically volatile region, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northeastern Iraq is drawing a growing stream of curious Western visitors to its ancient cities, snow capped mountains, and bustling bazaars. The 2010 expansion of Erbil International Airport—located in the provincial capital and main commercial center—has improved access to the region and helped fuel tourist infrastructure development. Recent advances include construction of several new luxury and business hotels and additional escorted small group tours focused on Kurdish ethnic heritage and historic sites.

So what are your travel plans this year?

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