Looking for an out-of-the-ordinary destination for your next vacation? Check out these 20 top trips, hand-picked by National Geographic Traveler editors as the best of 2011. Where do you want to go this year? Share your travel plans—real or ideal—below.
Photograph by Ted Wood, Getty Images
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.
Wander through the Narantuul, a 2,500-vendor, open-air market; visit Gandan Monastery—Mongolia’s largest functioning Buddhist monastery—and the adjoining Megjid Janraisig and Kalachakra Temples; and view Stone and Bronze Age artifacts, sacred relics, and fossilized dinosaur bones and eggs found in the Gobi at the National and Natural History Museums. During the July 11-13 National Holiday, Ulaanbaatar hosts the nation’s largest Naadam Festival, a legendary cultural celebration featuring wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing competitions, plus traditional costumes and dance.
Pictured here: Huge golden Buddha at Gandan Monastery
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Photograph by Hans Madej, laif/ReduxCroatia'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.
Nature's color wheel is in constant motion at 114-square-mile (296-square-kilometer) Plitvice Lakes National Park (above) where 16 terraced lakes, formed by natural travertine dams, change hues throughout the day from bright turquoise to gray depending on the angle of the sun's rays and mineral makeup of the water. Well-maintained wooden boardwalks and trails link the lakes to the park’s centerpiece cascades, the largest of which—Big Waterfall—plummets 256 feet (78 meters) into the valley below. Home to abundant wildlife, including 261 species of birds, the walker-friendly park is divided into Upper and Lower Lakes sections bridged by the Lake Kozjak ferry.
Photograph by Christina Anzenberger-Fink, Anzenberger Redux
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.
Sardinia is home to more than 7,000 stone nuraghi towers, Bronze Age castles built between 1600 and 1100 B.C. Best known is Nuraghe Santu Antine near Torralba, a well-preserved nuraghic royal palace surrounded by the eerie remnants of a once thriving nuraghic village. To experience modern village life on an island where sheep outnumber humans by nearly three to one, check into Hotel Su Gologone in Oliena, where hearty guests can sign up to shadow a local shepherd for the day.
Photograph by Bennett Barthelemy, Getty Images
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.
Great Walks Tasmania features seven distinct, guided walking tours ranging from the moderate 14- to 18-mile (23- to 30-kilometer) Bay of Fires wilderness trek along the coastal rim of Mount William National Park to the gentler 12- to 28-mile (20- to 45-kilometer) gourmand’s ramble through Maria Island’s eucalyptus forest and pristine beaches. In 2011, Tasmania hosts the biennial Ten Days on the Island international arts celebration from March 25 to April 3, an event that features nearly 500 artists in 111 venues.
Pictured here: A climber in Bicheno, Tasmania
Photograph by Peter Adams, JAI/AuroraWestern 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.
Four UNESCO World Heritage sites are located here, including the deep-blue Geirangerfjord (above), considered one of the world’s most unspoiled fjords. Fjords are best experienced from water level, so hop a ferry, book a cruise, or rent a kayak for unobstructed views of the surrounding snow-covered peaks, steep mountainsides, and abundant wildlife. The midnight sun in June and July brings near round-the-clock daylight and the most visitors. Days are shorter in May and September, but the lighter tourist traffic makes for easy meandering from Kristiansand to Trondheim along the Fjord Coast Route.
Photograph by Kevin Moloney, The New York TimesA 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.
The capital city, Montevideo, pulses to the rhythm of candombe, the thunderous Afro-Uruguayan, three-drum sound fueling spontaneous street parades, as well as the all-night Desfile de las Llamadas, the featured event of Montevideo Carnaval. In southwestern Uruguay, stroll the winding, cobblestone streets of Colonia del Sacramento’s 17th-century historic district—a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s only a 50-minute high-speed ferry ride from Buenos Aires—to explore the country’s Portuguese roots. Go west to the hilly interior to play gaucho at a luxury dude ranch or a more traditional working estancia, where tourists can trade labor for trail time. For sun and surf, hit the beaches of Punta del Este, the narrow peninsula dividing the waters of the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean.
Pictured here: A hand sculpture on Playa Brava, a beach on Punta del Este
Photograph by David Gee 5, Alamy
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.
The colonial influence endures in Shimla’s architecture and ambience, particularly along the Mall, a bustling pedestrian marketplace and cultural hub featuring shops, restaurants, and the 123-year-old, neo-Gothic Gaiety Theatre renovated in 2009. Guided walking tours around Shimla and the surrounding seven hills include stops at historic temples, churches, palaces, and mansions, including the Viceregal Lodge, a baronial-style estate built high on Observatory Hill as a tribute to the empire.
Messinia Region, Greece
Photograph by Yiannis Tsouratzis, IML Image Group
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.
Sun-drenched hills and valleys are dotted with stone houses, vaulted tombs from the Mycenaean era, Byzantine churches, and medieval castles (such as the castle of Methoni, above). Retreat to secluded bays, remote beaches, and protected lagoons, including Gialova, Greece’s southernmost major wetland and home to more than 270 bird species.
The latest chapter in Messinia’s 4,500-year history is being crafted by international shipping magnate Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, the visionary behind Costa Navarino, an energy-conscious resort that aims to be powered entirely by renewable resources. The luxury destination’s Navarino Dunes on the Ionian Sea opened in 2010. Initial sustainable elements include “living roofs” planted with native fauna and the world’s first large-scale geothermal heating and cooling installed beneath a golf course.
Photograph by Justin Foulkes, The Travel Library/Photolibrary
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.
Perpetual geothermal and volcanic activity—there are seven active volcanoes—make 285-square-mile (739-square-kilometer) Dominica, located between Guadeloupe and Martinique, a paradise in progress. Venture into the rugged landscape Spiderman-style on an Extreme Dominica canyoneering tour, which takes visitors rappelling down pristine waterfalls, deep gorges, and volcanic bedrock canyons. The seven-mile round-trip hike from Titou Gorge to Boiling Lake, a vapor-covered cauldron that reaches 198º Fahrenheit (92º Celsius), is strenuous but worth the panoramic Caribbean views from atop 3,000-foot (914-meter) Morne Nicholls, as well as the chance to explore the Valley of Desolation’s brightly colored sulfur springs, mini-geysers, and bubbling mud pools. Recharge at the locally built and staffed Jungle Bay Resort & Spa. The 55-acre (22-hectare) tropical retreat features 35 secluded, hardwood cottages perched high atop posts beneath the jungle canopy.
Pictured here: Victoria Falls, Dominica
Photograph by Mark Vincent Mueller, My Shot
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.”
Etosha National Park is a wildlife sanctuary in far northern Namibia centered on Etosha Pan, a 75-mile-long (120-kilometer-long) mineral lakebed. During the June to November dry season, large numbers of elephants, giraffes, black rhinos, lions, and other game are drawn to the park’s natural and manmade watering holes. During the rains, huge numbers of flamingos arrive to feed and breed. In addition to unsurpassed big game viewing, the nearly 8,494-square-mile (22,000-square-kilometer) preserve includes numerous lodging options ranging from rustic guest farms to luxury retreats. For more intimate game viewing, head about two hours south to Mundulea Nature Reserve. Guests at the privately owned nature reserve in the Otavi Mountains encounter antelopes, leopards, hyenas, and other resident game on daylong, guided bush treks.
Photograph by Pavon Aldo, SIME
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.
The dry season (November to April) is the best time to embark on a guided hiking tour of the rugged terrain (about 70 percent of the country is mountainous) to view the exotic, endemic wildlife, including leopard cats, Javan mongooses, goat antelopes, and Malayan sun bears. Sign on with Gibbon Experience for low-impact, high-flying travel deep into the remote, northern Bokeo Nature Reserve, home of the rare black-cheeked crested gibbons. Treks begin in neighboring Thailand and cross the Mekong into Laos by boat. Guests lodge in five canopy-level tree houses linked by an intricate network of zip lines and stewarded by a local guide representing one of Bokeo Province’s 400 villages.
Pictured here: An outdoor restaurant along the Mekong River in Pakse, Laos
Kodiak Island, Alaska
Photograph by Don Pitcher, Alaska Stock Images
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.
The city of Kodiak—the first capital of Russian America—serves as the staging point for seaplane and boat trips throughout the nearly 5,000-square-mile (12,949 square-kilometer) Kodiak Island Archipelago. Though steeped in Russian Orthodox and native Alutiiq history, the area is best known for the estimated 3,500 massive Kodiak brown bears (above) roaming the archipelago, primarily in the 1.9-million-acre (769,000-hectare) Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.
The months of July, August, and September are prime bear-viewing times, so plan ahead to join a guided backcountry tour. Trained biologist Harry Dodge and his wife, Brigid, lead small group treks from their Uyak Bay wilderness lodge via Kodiak Treks, an Adventure Green Alaska (AGA) gold-level sustainable tourism-certified outfitter.
Photograph by Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images
Fierce Bronze Age warriors, Vikings, and Gaelic-speaking clans all have called the rugged Highlands 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.
Cairngorms National Park—the United Kingdom’s largest thanks to the incorporation of Highland Perthshire—offers recreation at every speed, from hiking in Leanachan forest to kayaking in Loch Insh and the Insh Marshes Nature Reserve. At Nevis Range—Scotland's highest ski area and site of the 2011 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup (June 4)—experienced bikers can take the U.K.’s only mountain gondola, which rises 2,132 feet (650 meters) up the slopes of Aonach Mor, to ride the 3.4-mile (5.5 kilometer) single-track Nevis Red Route down.
To experience more traditional sports like caber toss, tug-of-war, and piping competitions, cheer on the tartan-clad participants during Highland Games (above), held throughout the region from May to mid-September.
Photograph by Schmid Reinhard, SIME/4Corners ImagesWith 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. Pictured here is a Roman ampitheater in El Jem, Mahdia, Tunisia.
In Tunisia’s sunbaked Matmâta region, explore the troglodyte lunar landscape (featured in the first Star Wars movie) and float—or walk, if the water has evaporated in summer—in the Chott El Djerid salt lake. June through September, hop aboard the historic Red Lizard train (Lézard Rouge) in Metlaoui for a 90-minute round-trip excursion through the Atlas Mountains. The narrow mining track winds through towering rock canyons and across barren flatlands to Seldja Gorge. Saharan expeditions include camel and dune buggy rides and camping in traditional Bedouin tents.
The eight-day Sahara Desert Trek led by adventure outfitter Exodus includes a five-day walking tour from the Sahara gateway Douz to the oasis village of Ksar Ghilane. One of North Africa’s best preserved Roman
archaeological sites is Dougga, a window into life over 17 centuries in an indigenous Numidian city.
Editor's note: In January 2011, a state of emergency was declared in Tunisia after anti-government protests erupted in violence.
Photograph by JS Callahan, Tropicalpix/AlamyPalawan’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.
On the main island (also named Palawan) near Sabang, hike the three-mile (five-kilometer) Monkey Trail to Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park's navigable underground river. The five-mile (eight-kilometer) coastal rain forest route is home to long-tailed macaques, blue-naped parrots, and other indigenous wildlife. In the province’s northern Calamianes islands, Coron Island is considered one of the world’s top scuba diving destinations, offering World War II-vintage wreck diving and snorkeling in calm, crystalline waters. Nearby Culion Island, a former leper colony surrounded by sea grass beds and coral reefs, is an emerging ecotourism destination worth a day trip.
Black Sea Coast, Crimea
Photograph by Gregor Lengler, laif/ReduxThe 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.
Beyond the stress-reducing mineral spas, palm trees, vineyards, bike trails, and secluded beaches, the coast is a significant cultural crossroads blending ancient Greek and Roman, Byzantine, Russian, Tatar, and modern Crimean history and architecture. Visit the terrestrial and underwater ruins at the ancient city of Khersoness (4th-12th century B.C.), the neo-Gothic Swallow's Nest castle perched 130 feet (40 meters) above the sea near Yalta, and the Livadia Palace near Yalta—home of the last of the Russian tsars and site of the Big Three’s (Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin) 1945 Yalta Conference.
Pictured here: Visitors inside the church at Livadia Palace
Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec
Photograph by Hemis/AlamyThe 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.
Summer (June-September) activities include kayaking, canyoning, hiking, sailing, and horseback riding. Winter on the Gaspé brings every imaginable cold weather adventure from downhill skiing and snowmobiling to ice climbing and dog sledding. Drive the 550-mile (885-kilometer) Grand Tour loop (north or south at the Route 132 split in Sainte-Flavie) for a coastal overview of the peninsula, or choose one of Gaspésie Tourism’scustom routes focused on specialty interests like gardens, lighthouses, or paleontology.
Pictured here: A northern gannet colony
Photograph by Christian Kober, AlamyMountain-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.
Save time—and your knees—by covering the steep route via bus and riding the train up Mount Koya, the pilgrimage’s traditional start and end point. Many Shikoku temples offer basic lodging for visiting pilgrims or o-henro-san. Affordable, traditional accommodations also are available at Shikoku’s rustic to luxurious ryokans, traditional, tatami mat Japanese guest houses. The island’s upscale Yamatoyabesso ryokan is located in Dogo Onsen, an ancient hot springs area welcoming nobility and artists to its therapeutic waters since the sixth century. Shikoku remains a thriving folk art center for weavers, washi (paper) makers, and candle makers.
Pictured here: Traditional Jizo statues dressed in red bibs at a Mount Koya cemetery
Papua New Guinea
Photograph by Jodi Cobb, National GeographicPapua 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.
Solo travel can be challenging, so it’s best to sign on with an experienced guide to explore isolated highland villages, secluded Bismarck Sea wreck-diving sites, and Sepik River Sacred Houses. Join the August Asia Transpacific Journey small group Mount Hagen Sing-Sing trip for an insider’s view of Papua New Guinea’s signature entertainment spectacle: a raucous celebration of dance, arts, and culture attracting competitors from more than a hundred tribes, including the Huli wigmen (above).
Photograph by Lonely Planet Images, AlamyConsidered 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, snowcapped 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.
Experienced guides such as Hinterland Travel and Kurdistan Adventures lead 8- to 16-day cultural tours. Highlights include Erbil’s historic citadel and Grand Mosque, the ruins of Salahaddin’s Fortress in Shaqlawa, and the Jarmo Neolithic village archaeological site (7,000 B.C.) located in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Some itineraries include excursions into Kurdish ethnic regions in eastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq.
Pictured here: Dalal Bridge in Zakho, Iraq