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Best of the World: six places to rediscover nature for 2022 and beyond

Now is the time of year when many of us plan an adventure for the year ahead. And with countless trips put on hold in recent months, there’s plenty of pent-up desire to set out and explore again — but where to go?

A golden-fronted woodpecker eats a papaya in the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.

Photograph by AWL Images
Published 18 Nov 2021, 13:25 GMT, Updated 19 Nov 2021, 14:48 GMT

If you’re looking for inspiration, editors from National Geographic Traveller titles around the world have picked the planet’s 35 most exciting destinations for travel in 2022. Five categories — Adventure, Culture and History, Nature, Family and Sustainability — frame unforgettable experiences that reveal the beauty and diversity of the world around us. The pandemic may have changed when, where, and how we travel, but there’s no doubt that we’re excited to pack our bags and hit the road again.

1. Belize

Get a front row seat to tropical wildlife

Nature scored a big win recently in the race to preserve one of the largest remaining tropical rainforests in the Americas. In April 2021, a coalition of conservation partners, led by the Nature Conservancy, purchased 236,000 acres of tropical forest in northwestern Belize to create the Belize Maya Forest Reserve. Along with saving some of the most biodiverse forest in the world from denuding and development, the new protected area, which is contiguous with the neighbouring Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area (RBCMA), closes a huge gap in a vital wildlife corridor that runs from southeast Mexico through Guatemala and into Belize.

The combined reserve, which protects nearly a tenth of Belize’s land area, safeguards and connects essential habitat for an amazing variety of endemic and endangered creatures, including the tapir, Belize’s national animal; black howler monkeys; more than 400 species of bird; and some of Central America’s largest surviving populations of jaguar. For now, ecotourism activities are based in the more established RBCMA, which has two rustic lodges and offers guided expeditions.

From National Geographic Travel US (Maryellen Kennedy Duckett)

Hollow rock is an iconic coastal formation on the north west of Lake Superior by the border of Minnesota.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Northern Minnesota 

Turn off the lights in dark-sky country

Thousands upon thousands of stars dazzle above northern Minnesota. This remote region bordering the Canadian province of Ontario has little to no light pollution, and residents are determined to keep it that way.

The Heart of the Continent Dark Sky Initiative is a cross-border effort to create one of the largest dark-sky destinations on the planet. Two of its biggest pieces are in Minnesota: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the world’s largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary at more than a million acres; and neighbouring Voyageurs National Park, the state’s first International Dark Sky Park. Both wild places received dark-sky certification in 2020 and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, which adjoins BWCAW, earned International Dark Sky Park status in early 2021.

“The preservation of darkness at places like Voyageurs National Park not only provides wondrous views and ecological benefits to wildlife,” says Christina Hausman Rhode, executive director of the nonprofit Voyageurs Conservancy, “but it also allows us a window to the past; to see the skies as they were hundreds of years ago, used for navigation and storytelling by peoples like the voyageurs of the fur trade and the Indigenous Ojibwe.”

From National Geographic Travel US (Maryellen Kennedy Duckett)

The Quiver Tree Forest in Keetmanshoop, Namibia, on a clear, starry night.

Photograph by AWL Images

3. Namibia

Point yourself to the next great safari destination

Namibia evokes images of deserts, immense dunes and parched mountains. But the Caprivi Strip, a narrow finger of land that juts out toward the east in the extreme north of the country, is a green, wildlife-rich territory, thanks to the presence of the Okavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi Rivers, which create the ideal habitat for numerous animal species.

During the second half of the 20th century, the area was the scene of intense military activity. Remote and difficult to access, it was the ideal corridor for various armed groups. After Namibia gained independence in 1990, peace — and wildlife driven away by fighting — gradually returned.

In the eastern section of the region, Nkasa Rupara National Park is a secret jewel. Recent years have seen the opening of a ranger station and tented lodge, which have made it more accessible to tourism, but it’s still seldom visited. Encompassed by the Kwando-Linyanti River system to the south, and by swamps and lagoons to the north, Nkasa Rupara is Namibia's largest protected wetland. It’s described as a ‘mini-Okavango’ as its floodwaters mirror Botswana’s more famous Okavango Delta. The park is home to the largest population of buffalo in Namibia, as well as lions, leopards and hyenas, as well as crocodiles and hippos in the river.

Mahango Game Park, in the west, is home to wetlands and mopane forests, as well as herds of elephants, hippos, crocodiles and nearly all Namibia's species of antelope, including the elusive semi-aquatic sitatunga.

From National Geographic Traveler Italy (Marco Cattaneo)

Ice formation on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Lake Baikal, Russia

Trail-build at the world’s biggest freshwater lake

Baikal is so vast and deep that locals regularly refer to it a sea. Covering around 12,200sq miles and with an average depth of 2,442ft, the massive lake is a natural wonder. It’s also in serious trouble. Despite being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, ongoing pollution, the recent weakening of government protections, and new threats, such as large-scale tourism development, caused the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) to deem the environmental World Heritage Outlook of Lake Baikal of ‘significant concern’ in 2020.

Visitors can help safeguard the lake and its wide array of landscapes — including tundra, steppe, boreal forest and virgin beaches — by volunteering with Great Baikal Trail (GBT), the nonprofit environmental group creating a hiking route around the lake. “Volunteering helps protect Lake Baikal nature by developing ecotourism infrastructure,” says Great Baikal Trail Association president Elena Chubakova.

Hiking the GBT is also a planet-friendly way to spot some of the 1,200 Lake Baikal plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth, such as the nerpa, the world’s only exclusively freshwater seal.

From National Geographic Traveler Russia (Victoria Meleshko)

A waterfall in Great Otway National Park, Victoria, Australia.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Victoria, Australia

Spot unique Australian wildlife along the Great Ocean Road

Green shoots of regeneration are appearing in Australia, where some 72,000sq miles were burned during the 2019-2020 bushfires, leading to the deaths of at least 34 people and more than a billion animals.

Playing its own role in these rejuvenation efforts, Wildlife Wonders, in Victoria’s Otways region, is a new sanctuary with a mission. Tucked away off the Great Ocean Road amid lush ancient forest and waterfalls, it’s the brainchild of Brian Massey — the landscape designer of New Zealand’s Hobbiton experience — who, alongside botanists, scientists, zoologists, and environmental specialists, has crafted a sinuous wooden path that winds through the refuge and blends seamlessly into the landscape.

Visitors can set off on 75-minute guided tours of the sylvan site, wandering through thickets of eucalypts and admiring the koalas, wallabies, and bandicoots that now call the sanctuary home. During a stop at the Research Base, guests can learn more about how the site provides a safe space for native species like the long-nosed potoroo, which often falls prey to invasive predators such as foxes and cats.

All profits from Wildlife Wonders go towards the Conservation Ecology Centre, which helps to fund several vital conservation projects in the Otways, including one that studies the movement of potoroos before, during, and after planned forest fires.

From National Geographic Traveller UK (Connor McGovern)

6. Kent, UK

Bison in the Kent countryside and rewilding success stories nationwide

When Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust set out to hire the UK’s first bison rangers in early 2021, more than 1,000 applications flooded in. Successful candidates Tom Gibbs and Donovan Wright have an exciting task ahead: in spring 2022, they’re managing the reintroduction of four European bison, bred by the European Endangered Species Programme, to Blean Woods near Canterbury, an ancient reserve of coppiced chestnut, birch and oak.

Hunted to extinction in Britain thousands of years ago, bison are forest architects: by rubbing against trunks and eating bark, they cause weak trees to tumble, allowing multiple plant and animal species to thrive. Once the hefty foursome has settled in, Donovan — who previously led Big Five walking safaris in Africa — will use his skills to help visitors approach them respectfully on foot. In the meantime, you can support the project by co-adopting a bison; in return, you’ll receive a photo, factsheet and cuddly toy.

Elsewhere in the UK, other rewilding projects are gathering pace. Besides the drama of Wales’ red kite feeding stations and the romance of Knepp Wildland in West Sussex — where visitors can watch storks, bats and deer, then snuggle down in cosy treehouses or tents — there are several beaver reintroduction sites to visit. Fans of BBC Two’s Springwatch will recognise Ladock’s Cornwall Beaver Project and Norfolk’s Wild Ken Hill, a mosaic of farmland and regenerated habitats. Both offer guided walks, and there are glamping safaris in the offing at Wild Ken Hill.

Meanwhile, in the Scottish Highlands, Dundreggan is taking shape. Once a depleted, overgrazed landscape, this remarkable 10,000-acre reforestation project runs Discovery Weeks for visitors wishing to study plants, wildlife tracks and birdsong. All-ability walking trails are being created and in early 2023, the new Dundreggan Rewilding Centre will open. The world’s first dedicated rewilding hub will host educational events and provide sustainable accommodation for paying conservation volunteers, helping revitalise a biodiversity-rich forest of juniper and pine.

From National Geographic Traveller UK (Emma Gregg)

Travel with Nat Geo: Discover these unique destinations and many more travelling with Nat Geo Expeditions. Check all our itineraries.

Read more from Best of the World: 35 incredible trips for 2022 and beyond

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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