- Raft the Grand Canyon Arizona, USA
Why the Grand Canyon? To see the great gorge from a completely different – and rare – angle. Looking down on the squiggle of the Colorado River from a mile up on the rocky rim, it seems impossible that this river could have carved the gargantuan Grand Canyon.
Of course, it’s had about two billion years to do so, slowly slicing through the black-red-orange-purple strata to create one of the natural wonders of the world. And this is why seeing the canyon from water level is the best way to appreciate it – the experience offers a far more intimate encounter than peering in from the top, as well as a close up of all that glorious geology.
The official launch point for a full run is Lees Ferry, at the north-east of Grand Canyon National Park; the end is at Lake Mead, 443km further on. En route are side canyons, Puebloan sites, swiming holes and sandy beaches, not to mention plenty of wild water.
So, all good – it’s just getting authorisation to enter that’s the problem. There’s a ‘weighted lotteryʼ system, with a waiting list of several years, to secure a private rafting permit.
Fortunately, commercial tour-op trips – which range from one-day to three-week floats – are available, but even these need booking in advance if you want to guarantee your rendezvous with all this ancient rock.
How to tick it off your bucket list: The best time to raft the Colorado is May to October, so book your trip then. Overall, the river is graded a IV (intermediate), with many I to III rapids, plus some Vs.
- See the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Italy
Why the Sistine Chapel? Massive art, small crowds. Damn Michelangelo for not picking a bigger room! The 40m long by 13m wide box, squished into the Vatican Museum complex is woefully inadequate for the 25,000-odd people who now traipse through here every day.
Yes, the iconic ceiling, and particularly the altar wall’s Last Judgement, are probably the most impressive paintings you’ll ever see – but that’s only if you can see them, over the heads of the rest of humanity.
Fortunately, there is another way. It’s possible to book private tours of the site, which take small groups into Vatican rooms usually off limits, and finish in the Sistine Chapel for an after-hours viewing of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, without all the other people.
How to tick it off your bucket list: Advance booking is essential, so don’t delay in organising your visit to the Sistine Chapel.
- Sleep at Everest Base Camp, Nepal
Why Everest Base Camp? To complete an epic trek, then snooze with the summiteers. The trek to Everest Base Camp – a breathtaking 14-day out-and-back into Sagarmatha NP to the foot of the world’s highest mountain – is a classic.
But while the teahouse hospitality and Himalaya views en route are magnificent, most treks are not actually allowed to stay at Everest Base Camp – it requires specific permission. Most hikers visit their 5,340m goal for a ‘been there’ photo op, then descend to nearby Gorak Shep to sleep.
However, a few special departures do offer the chance to overnight at the iconic camp. Also, these trips may be timed to coincide with peak summit-attempt season, when groups of climbers are also in residence.
It’s a unique opportunity, to both sleep in the shadow of the mighty mountain and to speak to the brave/mad souls making their final preparations; you might even see teams setting off up the notorious Khumbu Ice Fall, the start of their push for the top.
How to tick it off your bucket list: Summiteers usually arrive at Base Camp April/May, so plan your trip accordingly. keep yourself healthy, too, as trekkers with illnesses will not be allowed to stay at Base Camp to avoid potentially infecting the climbers.
- Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru
Why Machu Picchu? It’s more satisfying than the train, and there are lots of options. It’s virtually impossible to make a bucket list that doesn’t include Machu Picchu. A secret city, never found by those pesky conquistadores, perched in the mountains, swirled by mists and mysteries – it’s the stuff of travel legend.
The trouble is, when you’ve seen so many, many photos of the Inca citadel, there’s a danger it’ll be a bit of a let-down. And that’s one reason why, if you can, you should go on foot. The city deserves the slow build, the accumulated excitement, that trekking there provides.
Also, deciding to lace up doesn’t mean you have to hit the Inca Trail. There are plenty of alternatives to the classic: you can hike via the much less-visited ruins of Choquequirao; head along the dramatic and diverse Salkantay Trail (with posh lodges en route); or tackle the tough Vilcabamba Traverse.
How to tick it off your list: Hikes vary in length, altitude and difficulty, so you’ll need to acclimatise before setting off. Remember, dry season (the best time to go) is April to October. You also need a permit for the Inca Trail. Only a limited number are released each year and they sell out quick.
- Hike the Milford Track, New Zealand
Why the Milford Track? Complete one of New Zealand’s Great(est) Walks in great style. New Zealand has nine official Great Walks (with a new one recently opened), and the Milford Track is arguably the greatest of the lot.
This four-day, 53.5km hike from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound slices through the splendour of Fiordland National Park, taking in lakes, waterfalls, ice fields, forest and plenty of pioneer history, and tops out at the panoramic Mackinnon Pass (1,154m).
In the peak summer trekking months (November to April), it’s always oversubscribed; camping is not permitted and numbers are limited by the bunk-space available in the three DOC lodges en route. That is, unless you opt for an upgrade. Ultimate Hikes operates a series of private lodges (with both dorms and doubles) that enable hikers to tramp the track, with a guide, in a little more comfort.
You still have to carry your own bag, but – unlike those in the DOC huts – you get hot showers, duvets, drying rooms and hairdryers; breakfasts, lunches and three-course dinners are cooked up for you; each lodge even has a well-stocked bar. Cheers to that: a great hike, indeed.
How to tick it off your list: Make sure you’re prepared fitness wise before the October to April hiking season commences, and whenever you go, prepare your packs for all weather conditions.
- Sleep under the stars in NamibRand, Namibia
Why the NamibRand? To experience some of the world’s best celestial sights. Sure, leave the big city and you can see stars almost anywhere. But the experience will be extra heavenly if you travel somewhere very dark, very clear and very remote.
Namibia’s vast NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of only a few gold-certified Dark Sky Reserves. Simply, it has some of the world’s best dark skies. There are no towns or settlements inside it, or even nearby – Namibia is one of the planet’s most sparsely populated countries. And the dry climate means cloudless skies are the norm.
By day, explore NamibRand’s ochre-hued wilderness of dunes, mountains and plains, looking for oryx and Hartmann’s zebra. Then, after a blazing sunset, it’s time to turn your eyes skyward.
How to tick it off your list: It may seem difficult to get to the desert, but the reserve is around 375km from Windhoek. So, you can always start from the capital, and find your way to the reserve.
- Swim with turtles in Ningaloo, Western Australia
Why Ningaloo Reef? To take a dip with endangered species. Western Oz’s Ningaloo Reef isn’t as big as the Great Barrier, on the opposite coast.
But it’s still attracts around 500 species of fish; best of all, in parts it lays only 100m offshore, making its underwater riches extremely accessible – the snorkelling is superb, too.
How to tick it off your list: Three of the world’s seven species of marine turtles nest on beaches and islands near Ningaloo between November and April: green (listed as endangered), hawksbill (critically endangered) and loggerhead (vulnerable).
However, turtles swim offshore year-round, their lumpen on-land movements transformed into a graceful ballet once they’re in the water. Good spots include Shark Bay, the Muiron Islands and Turtle Bay on Dirk Hartog Island.
- Visit an endangered tribe in the Amazon, Ecuador
Two young girls form huaorani tribe in the amazon rainforest, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador (Dreamstime)
Two young girls form huaorani tribe in the amazon rainforest, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador (Dreamstime)
Why the Ecuadorian Amazon? To glimpse a unique culture, but to do it sensitively and responsibly. Understandably, many struggling minority tribes don’t want to be gawped at by tourists passing through – the arrow-firing Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands being a case in point.
But for some such groups, tourism is providing a cultural lifeline, and travellers staying at lodges or booking tours owned and run by the tribes themselves are helping to keep endangered traditions alive (and protect their much-threatened environment from developers), while also giving visitors an authentic insight into how the peoples have existed for centuries: everybody wins.
The indigenous peoples of Ecuador’s Oriente seem to have mastered this kind of community eco-tourism; there are several well-regarded options. For example, the Cofán – one of the oldest Amazonian tribes have been running community-based ecotourism in northern Ecuador since 1978.
Trips here include canoeing and piranha fishing, sleeping in traditional thatched huts and trekking into the wildlife-dense rainforest with Cofán guides – with optional overnight camping trip for the adventurous minded.
How to tick it off your list: Trips to the Cofán community at Zabalo depart from Lago Agrio
- Spot a snow leopard in Ladakh, India
Why Ladakh? Few have seen this endangered cat. There are thought to be just 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. Coupled with the fact that these charismatic big cats tend to live in cold, inhospitable, rocky clifftops at altitudes above 3,000m, they’re not that easy to spot.
This makes a sighting very special, and most trips that venture into their domain – largely Tibet, the Himalaya and the ’Stans – make it clear that you’d be fortunate to see even a paw-print. However, in recent years Ladakh’s Hemis National Park has gained a reputation as the world’s snow leopard capital, with hundreds of leopards, and as time passes, local guides gain an ever better understanding of their habits.
There are still no guarantees, but in Hemis’s Husing, Tarbuns and Rumbak Valleys, sightings are relatively common; Husing is on a well-known snow leopard corridor. Visit in winter, when the snow brings the cats to lower ground and, with the help of local knowledge, trained trackers and spotting scopes, you might be in luck.
How to tick it off your list: Flights connect Delhi to regional hub Leh, which is 40km from Hemis NP. There are six villages in the park; accommodation is in homestays or camping.
- Descend into a volcano, Iceland
Why Iceland? For a unique descent into the Earth’s belly. To inject some Jules Verne adventure into your bucket list you need to head to Iceland. It’s a strange, singular place; a newborn babe in geological terms, you can virtually see it being formed before your eyes – the land groans, hisses and spews.
This makes delving beneath the surface quite exciting indeed, though something that’s been easy to achieve since 2012, when commercial tours began plunging into Thrihnukagigur volcano.
Clipped on to what’s essentially a window-cleaner’s lift, you’re slowly lowered 120m into another world – a magma chamber uniquely drained of its magma. Lights reveal a cavern of many colours – bruise purples, sulphur yellows, blood reds.
Water drip-drips from above, while breaking into song demonstrates the excellent acoustics. It is wonderful, and very weird. Thrihnukagigur is dormant, last erupting over 4,000 years ago. There’s no sign that it’s about to spring into life, but tours are only announced on a year-by-year basis because, well, you never know…
How to tick it off your list: Tours run 10 May to 31 October, so book your trip accordingly.
- Visit St Helena, South Atlantic
Why St Helena? Even though the Royal Mail Ship departed on its last trip to St Helena last year, it’s still not too late to visit this far-flung isle. With an airport now on the island, it is now arguably easier than ever to visit.
The South Atlantic speck is a crumple of glorious geomorphology – small, but riven with deep gullies, gulches and volcanic after-effects, and swept with semi-tropical lushness.
The waters are brim-full of dolphins; the skies wheel with myriad birds. Make the most of the large congregation of whale sharks by snorkelling alongside these gentle giants from January to March.
But it’s the human story that is most fascinating – less than 5,000 people live on this lonely isle, in settlements little changed since Georgian times. Explore it all by foot by walking some of the Post Box walks, which vary in difficulty but all offer views of the most scenic and untouched parts of the island. You will get a log book and a stamp at the end to prove you’ve completed them. Or go on a historic ramble to get to know Napoleon’s influence on the isle.
How to tick it off your list: Plan your trip’s dates based on your biggest interests – here’s what to do when in St Helena, and a few more essential things to do. Do your research before you book, too – as the isle’s Post Box walks vary in difficulty, and even the easier ones can be tricky.
- Sleep on a private isle in Scotland
Why? Who doesn’t fancy an island to themselves? Sadly, most of us don’t have a Branson-sized budget – but that doesn’t mean you can’t claim your own patch of sea-lapped solitude.
Thanks to the fact that Scotland has almost 800 islands, as well as a favourable attitude to wild camping, it’s possible to tick this must-do off the list without spending a penny. Tiny Tanera Beag, the second-largest of the 20-odd north-western Summer Isles, has never been inhabited – though you might be joined by a few sheep, occasionally brought here to graze.
You can sea kayak from the mainland, over Badentarbet Bay and around larger (inhabited) Tanera Mor to reach Tanera Beag. Once you’ve hauled ashore, look out for seals in the lagoon by Eilean Flada Mor, climb to the island’s 83m high-point for views over the nearby rock stacks and skerries, and pitch your tent amid the heather to feel like a laird for the night.
How to tick it off your list: Achiltibuie, on the coast of Wester Ross & Sutherland, is the best access point. Tanera Mor is three km offshore; Tanera Beag is just beyond. Plan to visit in spring, summer or autumn.
- Visit Antarctica
Whale in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica (Dreamstime)
Whale in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica (Dreamstime)
Why Antarctica? Antarctica is a land of grand voyages. Powerful, dangerous, but undeniably exciting. The chance to venture where so few others have visited is perhaps the very reason it tops so many wish lists.
To visit a place even less well known to travellers, embark on a cruise into the Weddell Sea to the east. The crashing icebergs, vast ice floes and often unpredictable and treacherous conditions will show you what real adventure looks and feels like.
Spot a variety of wildlife including impressive baleen whales just under the surface and colonies of penguins and seals clustered on the thick ice on top.
How to tick it off your list: Weddell Sea voyages are limited to just a few a year. If you want to go, you need to be organised and plan well in advance.
- Climb Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Why Kilimanjaro? It’s travel’s greatest trekking summit – and it could well be losing its snows. Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro deserves to be on every travel bucket list.
No other mountain manages to combine such a wealth of wow-factors to tick all those boxes: it’s an aesthetically awesome monolith poking out of the African plains; it’s a tough but achievable challenge; at 5,895m, it’s the roof of a continent; it’s a climatological oddity, proving snow can sit virtually on the equator. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
But just to add an extra bit of tock to all those ticks, doom-sayers predict that those snows might be gone in just a few decades – all the more reason to tackle Kili quickly.
How to tick it off your list: Kilimanjaro cannot be climbed independently. Choose a longer trip to allow more time for acclimatisation and increase your chances of success.
- Tour Havana in a classic car, Cuba
Why classic Havana? Hop in an iconic vintage motor before they get scrapped. It’s all change in Cuba. A gentle thaw in relations with their big neighbours to the north means that some travel to the island has become (slightly) easier for American citizens and some trade restrictions have been lifted. And with 2019 marking the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, there’s never been a better time to visit.
For now, Cuba remains quite unique, with an intoxicating je ne sais quoi that’s strong of culture and loose of hips. Perhaps the most iconic Cuba image, though, is of a classic 1950s car bumping down a Havana backstreet.
While you can, take a tour in a vintage motor, listening to its retro roar as you glide by the capital’s crumbly grandeur.
How to tick it off your list: You can’t self-drive a classic car, but several companies offer tours with driver/guides. Do some Havana reading to make sure you’re prepared for your journey, too.
- Cuddle a whale in Baja California, Mexico
Why Baja California? Closer encounters with massive mammals. You can see whales in lots of places, but there are few spots where you can actually give one a hug. From December to April grey whales gather in Baja California’s San Ignacio Lagoon to mate, calve, nurture their young and – so it seems – have a jolly old time with the weird human creatures that sail out to see them.
Despite having been hunted to near extinction, these greys bear no grudge; indeed, they bump into boats and surface within touching distance, inviting pats and strokes. However, there’s only a short window of opportunity to see the greys here each year, with February, March and April the best months, and good trips sell out far – often years – in advance.
How to tick it off your list: Activity varies by month, so time your visit perfectly. In February you see more breaching adults; calves grow more confident in March to April, approaching boats more frequently.
- Capture the Northern Lights on camera
Why the Northern Lights? To record a spectacular photo of the Northern Lights that you saw. In this age of instant images and selfies, it’s not good enough anymore to just see the planet’s most spectacular light show – to hopefully be in the right place at the right time – now you have to snap a frame-worthy photo of it too.
One way to increase your chances of filling that memory card is to join an aurora photography tour. You’ll not only get tips from pros on how to snap the show – sharpening up those DSLR skills for those future travels – but they’ll also be attuned to where those spectral waves are most likely to start pulsing through the night.
Your daylight hours will then be spent exploring the wild Arctic terrains that best yield luminous results – Finland, Norway, Sweden or Canada.
How to tick it off your list: October to November and February to March are the best times to see the Northern Lights. Remember that dark skies yield better displays, you’re best off avoiding the full moon, and you’ll have to be flexible during your trip. The Aurora Borealis may not appear on the night of your schedule tour, but they could be out in full-force the next night – so be prepared to change your plans at a moment’s notice.
- See an eclipse in Argentina, Antarctica or Australia
Why the eclipse? To be in the best place when the world goes weird. Total eclipses – when the moon blocks out the sun, basking the earth in an eerie glow – happen roughly every 18 months. But you need to be in the right place, ideally somewhere in the path of the solar maximum, to fully appreciate the effect, and you’d have to wait an average of 375 years to see two total eclipses from the same spot.
Sometimes being in the path of an eclipse is simple. On 21 August 2017, the total eclipse swung right across the middle of the USA, visible in states such as Wyoming, Nebraska and South Carolina; its point of greatest eclipse just north-west of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where totality lasted for over two minutes.
Sometimes, though, it’s a bit trickier – the eclipse in March 2015 was best viewed in the snowy wilderness of Svalbard. Part of the battle is securing a place on a good, expert-led eclipse-watching trip: these specialist departures can fill up well in advance.
How to tick it off your list: The next total solar eclipse is due on 14 December 2020, visible in Chile and parts of Argentina. 26 May 2021 will be the next lunar eclipse, visible from Australia. There is also a total eclipse in Antarctica in December 2021. Cloud cover will affect the quality of eclipse-viewing; if possible, check forecasts and head for clearer skies. The NASA Eclipse site is a mine of information.
- Leaf-peep on the Appalachian Trail, USA
Why New Hampshire? You’ll get to see fall colours without the other people. The idea of visiting New England in autumn, wending between comely white clapboard houses, verges lined with pumpkins and forested hillsides completely aflame, is a romantic notion. Now add in hiked prices and all the other cars and coaches trying to get to the same scenic lookout, and it isn’t quite so dreamy.
Arguably the best way to appreciate the glorious death of New England’s trees is to stride among it, camping out each night. So, why not combine a smidgen of the Appalachian Trail – the East Coast’s seriously long long-distance hike, bucket list-worthy in itself – to see the leaves without the crowds.
The 70km stretch between New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the Vermont border is particularly renowned for its fabulous fall foliage – think maples smouldering crimson, dogwoods turning purple and birch trees burning gold.
How to tick it off your list: Fall colours usually start to appear in New England from mid-September. Shelters and campsites along the trail are basic.
- Drive through Glacier National Park, USA
Why Glacier National Park? A rare, time sensitive chance to see retreating ice from a capricious drive, that’s why. The Going-to-the-Sun Road somehow carves an 80km-long furrow through the mountains of north-west Montana. It’s also notoriously difficult to clear of winter snows. Portions of it remain open year-round, but the very earliest in the season that the entire length might be accessible is mid-June.
Then, by late September, parts are off-limits all over again, leaving a brief window for a traverse. It’s worth trying though: the road slices through the parks most dramatic sections, with hair-raising hairpins and a haul over 2,026m Logan Pass.
- See a spirit bear in British Columbia, Canada
Why British Columbia? These rare bears roam only here. Even for a country big on big empty, Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest takes some beating. What the GBR does have, though, is lots of lovely wildlife: grey wolves, grizzlies, cougars, orca, sea otters, humpback whales and, uniquely, Kermode – or spirit – bears.
These unusual ursines are black bears with a recessive gene, which renders about 10% of them creamy-pale. Like spirits, though, they’re tricky to spot – fewer than 400 are thought to exist.
But if you head to the right part of this roadless, fjord-cut, river-riven rainforest, you might be in luck. The area around Klemtu is a known Kermode hang-out, and lodges accessible only by floatplane have guides expert in tracking them down.
How to tick it off your list: The best time to visit is late August to mid-October, when returning salmon tempt bears to the rivers.
- Ride the Trans-Siberian, Russia-China
Why the Trans-Siberian? To take the slow route across Siberia. What’s the old adage? It’s better to travel than to arrive? Could have been written for the Trans-Siberian train journey.
If you were that desperate to get between Moscow and Beijing (the route of the network’s Trans-Mongolian branch, arguably the most interesting), you could fly it in under eight hours. But no, it’s this six-night, 7,621km train that is slow travel at its most atmospheric, an unhurried spooling of endless birch trees, Lake Baikal shimmer, grassy steppe, Gobi Desert, yurt camps, camel herds and station-traders selling sweets and sausages.
The train provides a cosy confinement within that vastness, where your cabin-mates could be Buddhist monks or Russian businessmen, where vodka flows freely and the hot-water samovar is always steaming, ready to make a brew.
How to tick it off your list: Make note of where you want to stop off. Remember, there is no hop-on hop-off option; to make stopovers, you must buy separate tickets for each leg.
- Raft the Zambezi River, Zambia
Why the Zambezi River? Run the great river, while you can. The Zambezi is one of the world’s most iconic waterways, slicing its way through south-eastern Africa and famously plunging over Victoria Falls.