Trips of a lifetime: 20 unforgettable places for 2019

We’ve curated a list of travel’s big hitters — from unique experiences and ancient wonders to epic natural attractions (in no particular order). Take a whirl through our trips of a lifetime.Thursday, 6 June 2019

By National Geographic Traveller

Want a knock-it-out-of-the-park experience? A destination that changes the way you see the world? An attraction that peels back layers of history? We sent writers across the globe to find the best out there. They visited the great plains of the Maasai Mara on safari; dove to the depths of the Great Barrier Reef, pulsing with a staggering diversity of marine life; discovered Japan’s unique experiences, including tea ceremonies, sushi lessons and geisha encounters; trekked across the epic Grand Canyon on a Rim-to-Rim hike; and accessed the Inner Circle of Stonehenge, one of the world’s most iconic prehistoric sites. Whether you climb Everest (that’s in there), set off on an Arctic expedition (ditto) or balloon above the otherworldly heights of Cappadocia (yep), we’ve got plenty of intrepid inspiration for your wish list. 

 

 

EXPERIENCES

1. Japan

Where else can you meditate with Buddhist monks, meet a geisha, master the art of matcha tea and learn to make sushi all in one trip? Tap into your inner Zen with Terahaku, a programme of stays at shrines and temples across Japan that launched last year. There’s also traditional ryokan accommodation, involving onsen soaks, seasonal cuisine and a futon bed over a tatami-matted floor to rest up on. Pilgrims can hike the Nakasendō, the ancient mountain route connecting Kyoto and Tokyo, while tipple-tasters can head to a 400-year-old junmai-gura sake brewery for a tour. And for more of the traditional at heart, try your hand at making washi paper, decorated with colourful cut-outs. When it comes to standout experiences, Japan certainly delivers.

Read more about Japan.

2. Maasai Mara

The golden plains of the Maasai Mara are like pages out of an African storybook. This wild corner of Kenya is not only home to the iconic annual Great Migration, but an abundance of wildlife encounters that’ll impress even the most discerning Afrophile. First, buckle up for a drive across the savannah to for sightings of hyenas, wildebeest, zebras, elephants and even the rare white rhino, before retiring back to a lodge that’s raising the conservation game and offering guests a real taste of Maasai culture. And then there’s the Kenyan sunset — considered one of the world’s most beautiful — best enjoyed with a drink in hand and worries temporarily forgotten. With this, and so much more, it’s hard not to fall in love with the hakuna matata way of life here.  

Read more about the Maasai Mara.

3. Havana

What happens when you combine live music, cigars and potent daiquiris? Everyone has a hell of a good time, that’s what. The Cuban capital may be a weathered beauty, but behind its peeling facades is a strong and fun-loving spirit that’s been seducing travellers for centuries. You want to live like the locals? Party like the habaneros? Well, listen up. First up, ditch the map and wander aimlessly around the plazas and boulevards of Old Havana: to catch sight of strumming musicians, to peer behind the colourful doorways, and to marvel at the antiquity, the rhythmic soundtrack and the heady whiff of tobacco and tantalising street food. Rent a ride in a vintage Chevrolet; eat in a paladar; and knock back cocktails as you dance in a salsa bar. And when it’s time to watch the sun set, head to the Malecon seaside promenade. Looking back towards the city from here, you’ll absolutely know you’re in Havana. 

4. Jerusalem

Make it to Jaffa Gate as the sun grazes the Old City’s 16th-century Ottoman walls to walk the Christian Quarter, home to the ‘holiest site in Christendom’: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Follow a convoy of pilgrims retracing Christ’s last journey along the Via Dolorosa and an assembly of 21st-century apostles. This route, dubbed the Way of the Sorrow, quickly comes alive with cries of market traders plying the juice of sun-soaked oranges, heady sticks of patchouli and hand-crafted pottery; a scene from today and millennia past. Into the Muslim Quarter, stop for a gritty Arabic coffee in one of the souks that line the ascent to Temple Mount, the massive masonry platform on which Jewish, Muslim and Christian lore converge. Then wend your way to the Western Wall, the holiest shrine in the Jewish world, where prayers are offered up in slips of paper, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are performed for the fortunate few. itraveljerusalem.com 

5. Everest

Climbing the world’s highest mountain is technical, complex and terrifying. An attempt on the summit is fraught with unimaginable danger. It’s thought around 600 people successfully summit the behemoth each year, yet a similar number fail to do the same. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first men to reach Everest’s peak on 29 May 1953 — an unfathomable feat with their modest equipment. Today’s climbers have the advantage of new technology, but cutting-edge gear aside, Everest can be unpredictable and unforgiving. Once the preserve of hardy professionals, Everest’s lower slopes now attract thousands every year attempting to reach base camp. Don’t be fooled by the commercialism of the route — you’ll be trekking for around eight hours a day at altitudes of 18,000ft. If you ever need a harsh reminder that Mother Nature’s in charge, then Everest’s your answer. 

6. Hawaii

It’s a rare visitor who doesn’t fall for the adventurous soul and natural drama of the 50th US state. Among Hawaii’s six main islands, there are soaring mountains that claw the landscape, golden beaches fringing the shoreline, tumbling waterfalls, thudding surf and misty greenery where adventure lurks almost everywhere. Spend days on the volcanic archipelago paddling behind turtles, snorkelling technicolour reefs and falling for the aloha charm. From Maui’s beach-blessed shoreline to Oahu’s epic surf and the wildlife-rich nature reserves of Molokai, few places capture the raw power of nature like Hawaii.

7. The Amazon 

Green, mostly pristine, but not, as many imagine, serene: there’s nowhere more loudly, vitally alive than the Amazon. An overnight stay on its shores marks visitors with the indelible memory of insects buzzing at power tool decibels. The best cruises allow for trips at dawn in small dugouts into the river’s narrower tributaries, through thick tunnels of jungle vegetation where jaguar and caiman prowl. Savvy local guides often know where to find pink dolphins and giant river otters. But for the most part, an Amazon River cruise isn’t about ticking off exotic species, it’s about slowing down and tuning in to nature’s most incredible broadcast. 

NATURAL ATTRACTIONS

8. Great Barrier Reef 

The largest reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,400 miles. It has around 900 islands and coral cays, more than 2,900 individual reefs, and provides a home for in excess of 1,500 species of fish. It’s the only living organism you can see from outer space. Zoom in to the surface where humpback whales playfully spurt out water as mothers teach their calves the way of the underwater world. Plunge below and earthy shades of coral are interspersed with flecks of blues, purples and reds. Turtles hide under crevasses as schools of fish dart through the reef, changing direction with a flick of the fin — the world’s largest coral reef system pulses with a staggering diversity of marine life. 

Read more about the Great Barrier Reef.

9. Grand Canyon

Rack up the miles on a Rim-to-Rim hike of Arizona’s Grand Canyon that includes an overnight stay in the gorge with stargazing, plus cooling waterfalls — a welcome surprise in one of the hottest, driest places on Earth. The US poet Harriet Monroe called it ‘the abode of gods’, adding that ‘it made a coward of me’. The Rim-to-Rim hike is one of America’s most spectacular adventures: 24 miles from the northern to the southern edge of the canyon. But it’s not for the faint-hearted. With roughly 5,000ft of ascent and descent, it’s the equivalent of walking from the bottom to the top of London’s The Shard five times, with nearly a marathon’s worth of hiking in between. But it offers solitude: less than 2% of visitors spend a night on the canyon floor. If you want the Grand Canyon minus the crowds, this is the way to do it.

10. The Arctic

This is terra incognita compared to the Antarctic: much of the high Arctic remains unmapped. The fabled Northwest Passage, the ice-choked route that claimed the 1845 Franklin expedition has, until recently, remained off the map for most tourists. Cruise ships are making cautious inroads, but this is still a place of isolation and wonder where, in summer, you can board a small ship to cross the magnetic pole with nothing in sight but a swirling green blanket of aurora. Shore excursions cross miniature boreal ‘forests’ of dwarf shrubs, mosses and lichens, bringing you within sniffing distance of Arctic fox, hare and musk ox that have barely, if ever, encountered humans — and within safe sight of polar bears. 

11. Iguazu Falls

This dramatic chain of waterfalls, strung 1.7 miles along the border between Brazil and Argentina, sends vivid rainbows shooting to the sky in a trippy technicolour mirage. How you want to witness this elemental drama is up to you. You could walk the boardwalk to the Argentinian Devil’s Throat — the highest section of the falls. Then there are adrenalin-pumping boat rides that get within metres of the ferocious falls. Hiking trails that weave through the rainforest and onto a suspended platform highlight Iguazu’s magnitude, but to truly grasp the incredible scope of the falls, duck in and out of the spray in a helicopter for the ride of your life. iguazuargentina.com

12. Bolivia

The world’s largest salt flats are fundamentally a whole lot of nothing — which is, paradoxically, why they’re so fascinating. Weird and surreal, you might just be convinced that Salar de Uyuni exists in a parallel universe. When its surface is coated in a drizzle of rain, the vast and empty white crust transforms into a mammoth, kaleidoscopic mirror, reflecting the sky and anything on the horizon, setting the stage for dozens of imagery illusions. This is geology at its most sublime: packed with 10 billion tonnes of sodium chloride, the flats sprawl at a dizzying Andean altitude of nearly 12,00ft, and are so extraordinarily flat that NASA chooses to calibrate satellite sensors here. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a major centre of salt extraction — even nearby hotels are crafted from its salt. 

ANCIENT WONDERS

13. Stonehenge

Worshipped by everyone from druids to pagans, partiers to pilgrims, the world’s most recognisable prehistoric site is all things to all people: druid church, alien landing site, a funereal monument constructed by Merlin, and curative pilgrimage spot. The legendary lintel-topped trilithons form a familiar silhouette, a 5,000-year-old place of mystery on which to project human ideals. The most recognisable of Europe’s thousand-plus stone circles, Stonehenge has become something of a universal symbol for stone-age man but it’s far from a dead icon. 

Read more about watching the sun rise over Stonehenge

14. Egyptian pyramids

A list of ancient wonders is nothing without Egypt’s pyramids, whose exact means of construction continues to remain a mystery and defy logic. Pharaohs commanded their creation between around 2630 BC and fourth century AD. The gargantuan tombs originally contained hidden chambers filled with treasures for the afterlife. Yet their peculiar geometry and inimitable shape and size continues to throw up questions; some conspirators argue that far from being the hand of the ancient Egyptians, they’re the work of spiritual beings; how else could such extraordinary precision have been achieved? Travellers from far and wide are drawn to Cairo’s city limits where the great pyramids of Giza tower over the desert. Some, you can explore via internal burial chamber tours, such as the Pyramid of Cheops and the Pyramid of Chephren, others, like the legendary limestone Sphinx, flaunt their ingenuity at first glance. All will leave you slack-jawed. 

15. The Parthenon

The largest of the three temples to crown Athens’ ‘sacred’ Acropolis rock, the Parthenon is widely seen as classic architecture’s most influential building. Its 46 Doric columns are instantly recognisible, rising up above the cobbled pedestrian streets of Plaka, the capital’s oldest residential quarter. Even given the three million tourists that visit annually, the Parthenon remains a breathtaking site, even more so at night when it glows with golden floodlights. In summer, during the Athens and Epidaurus Festival (5 June to 10 August 2019), classical concerts, ballet and opera are performed on the Acropolis’ southwest flank: arguably Europe’s most dramatic theatre setting. Pair your Parthenon visit with a trip to the sleek modern Acropolis Museum for a picture of the temple’s archaic and classical incarnations, with select temple treasures including incredibly preserved human statues, jewel-like mosaics and fierce-faced animal carvings. Even for those with little interest in the ancient world, this is a brilliant bit of time travel. odysseus.culture.gr  theacropolismuseum.gr 

16. Easter Island

There’s a heart-thudding sense of secrecy about Rapu Nui. Spin your globe to the blue mass of the Pacific Ocean and you’ll find this pinprick island, lying 2,300 miles from Chile. Extreme isolation is all part of its enchantment — this is the most remote island on Earth. And, of course, it is an island with many faces: 800 iconic giant moai statues with brooding expressions and hooked noses, carved out of volcanic rock by Polynesian settlers between the 11th and 14th centuries. Some of the fallen statues are submerged in the sea but inland, around Rano Raraku volcano, hundreds stand shoulder to shoulder, silhouetted across the sky. Much of the statues’ story remains a closed book. Why were they built? How were they built? And it’s exactly this absence that lends substance to the island’s allure. 

17. Borobudur Temple

This central Javanese landmark is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Built in the style of a mandala, the symbol of the Buddhist universe, walking the nine circular stacked platforms feels like an act of meditation. Exploration reveals more than 500 statues of Buddha, and carved stone reliefs depicting vivid scenes of cause and effect: an eighth- and ninth-century tableau of life lessons that ascend from teachings on human desire to the sky-scraping realm of the gods and nirvana. Nirvana or not, Indonesia’s most famous landmark can get busy. Stay overnight nearby to make a specially ticketed pre-dawn raid before opening time (6am), to best appreciate the misty marvel that British Lieutenant Governor Thomas Stamford Raffles must have experienced when he stumbled upon the temple in 1814.

Tip: Weekdays in the rainy season (November-March) see fewer tourists, but more mosquitos.  borobudurpark.com

18. Cappadocia

Picture a landscape of fairytale turrets crafted from rock, with winding chimneys and hidden cave dwellings. Add in some bobbing hot air balloons and striking blue skies and you’ve got the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, a region in Turkey’s Central Anatolia. These bizarre rock formations emanate a magnetic, magical vibe, but are very much the work of humans, who carved into the Goreme Valley a complex underground network of cave dwellings, places of worship, store houses and entire towns of honeycombed magnificence from around 1800 to 1200 BC. The valley was also home to Byzantine monastic communities, whose frescoes are still visible in cave chapels today. A hot air balloon ride above this fantastical region is a rite of passage for world travellers, while tours of Derinkuyu underground city, the Selime Monastery, and Goreme National Park will reveal the true wizardry and craftsmanship of Cappadocia’s first settlers. 

19. Pompeii

Brothels, loos, ornate bathing chambers, ruts in the road made by horse and carts, and election slogans daubed on walls: there’s nowhere like Pompeii — the most-visited archaeological site in the world — to illustrate the colour of Roman life in the first century AD. Most famed for being the city ‘frozen in time’, when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the plaster casts of the victims buried by the ashes are a highlight of a Pompeii tour, as is the world’s oldest surviving amphitheatre. pompeiisites.org  

20. Alhambra

From the intricate carvings on the ceilings and panels of its Palace of the Lions to the Generalife gardens, fragrant with citrus and jasmine flowers, this ninth-century fortress complex in the Spanish city of Granada is a soul-lifting example of Moorish architecture at its most lyrical. Get there as early as you can, and ensure your ticket includes entry to the 14th-century Palacio Nazaríes — all floral tiled floors and tapering columns, it’s the jewel in the Alhambra’s crown. alhambra.org  

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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