What Was Your Best Active Vacation Ever
December 11, 2010 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Help me find another "active vacation of a lifetime". I'm not talking about "that was a great vacation" -- I want to know about trips you took that really took it to another level.

I'm looking for next year's trip. I've done a bunch of really great trips already, including three "changed-my-life-amazing" trips. The three that really blew me away were a snorkeling/kayaking/camping trip in Palau's rock islands learning about marine critters, rafting down the grand canyon, (and for its sheer overwhelming beauty) visiting the Maldives.

What active, outdoorsy, adventuresome vacations did you completely love?

I typed a whole paragraph about what I like to do, but then figured this is about finding out what vacations were YOUR best, to open my eyes to some new possibilities maybe.

I understand that your travel companions can make or break a trip, so examples of trips that were awesome irrespective of who you were with would be most helpful.

Found a jillion "where should I go on vacation" threads, but none like this - please direct me if I missed a good one.

posted by bluesky78987 to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
I spent a week one time driving to from one waterfall to another in eastern San Luis Potosi Mexico, camping each night at a different one. Place -names that spring to mind are Puente de Dios, Tamasopo, Micos, and the grandaddy of them all, Cascadas de Tamul, which was about a 4-hour boat ride from the small town we camped at. We also went to Edward James' sculpture/house, Las Posas, in Xilitla, though we had to camp on the side of the road there. There are also several springs, which are basically rivers issuing forth from the side of cliffs in the area, I forget their names though. One was just north of Aquismon, and had a great camping area, though it was pretty popular on the weekend that we were there.

We went in the rainy season (late June) and got dumped on nearly every afternoon, but it was worth it to see Tamul at high flow.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:36 PM on December 11, 2010

This year I went to Namibia and stayed at an amazing place, Mundulea park near Otavi mountains - this was incredible. It's not a budget option - more mid range.. It was just the two of us, plus our guide, Bruno, an amazing man with decades of experience (worked as a nat geo photographer for ten years), with incredible tracking skills. Bruno could - and did - answer any question about Namibia - social, political, ecological, historical, geological - that I could throw at him (and I threw a lot!), and his food was fantastic too. The animals at Mundulea are not habituated to humans like in the other parks, this is real wild stuff, really amazing.

This was unlike any place I've stayed. It's not an eco resort, you always have the sense that you are a guest in the animal's home. Bruno cares first and foremost about the animals; his goal is to restore the land to what it would have been like before humans were widespread in Namibia.

There was no fixed itinerary. One day he took us to some caves, one day the highest hills in the reserve, etc etc. We were the only people there (!) so it was just us and him.

Sure, I didn't see as much big game as in the national park, etosha, but again these were really wild animals, and I wasn't in a care, I was right there looking at them. Incredible. I'll never forget it; the sound of a leopard grunting as it walks by your camp at night... wow.

website here
posted by smoke at 6:40 PM on December 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

I spent two weeks on the Gulf of Aqaba coast of the Sinai Peninsula getting certified for SCUBA diving. During one dive, we were just practicing buoyancy, just sitting there under water trying to get our BCDs just right so that we wouldn't sink or rise. It was kind of a mindless task, and I kind of spaced out for a minute. When I looked up and realized we had been surrounded by THOUSANDS of small (and thankfully harmless) jellyfish. Looking up at them with the sun coming down through the water, I swear, I heard a trumpet blast in my ear, it was the most wonderful surprise I'd ever seen in nature.
posted by holterbarbour at 6:46 PM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

This August, friends and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and went on safari in Tanzania. The climb took a week and was, by far, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It was also one of the most rewarding. There are a few different routes and we chose the more difficult one (Machame) because it was reportedly the most scenic. At least once a day I thought I wasn't going to make it. The climb is more of a hike and you don't have to be a mountaineer to do it (I wasn't) -- we had only one day of scrambling, but the altitude was quite challenging, especially at the top where you're climbing in scree in the dark and people are being stretchered down the mountain around you.

Then to go to the Serengeti and Lake Manyara and see the zebras, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, wildebeasts, lions, cheetahs, and leopards roaming just feet away from us was incredible and humbling. I told my two-year-old niece I was going to visit Babar.

It's hard to put into words, but I came back a changed person. Since I returned, I've been on a nonstop tear, doing things I'd sort of thought about for years. I think the challenge snapped me out of a rut and made me appreciate the little things and gave me some momentum to improve other larger things. Nothing like a 7-day climb to make you appreciate very simple conveniences like running water and make you think you can tackle larger challenges you've been unconsciously shying away from.
posted by *s at 7:08 PM on December 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

Loved three weeks in Peru topped off by a week in the Galapagos. The hiking and the light in Peru were extraordinary.
posted by mozhet at 7:11 PM on December 11, 2010

I'm going to preface this by saying that I'm not much of a sporty person - my ideal trip involves lots of art, culture, history, and great food. Climbing Kilimanjaro I could take or leave.

But here are my two greatest trips, from a standpoint that I think would be useful to you (my all-time greatest trip was backpacking around India alone for two months, but that's not a realistic trip for many people to take).

1. Ten days in Southern Italy, summer. This was actually in the midst of the 2004 heat waves, and it was still AMAZING. Very simple and laid back - flew into Rome, spent a few days exploring and eating, then rented a house in Positano, from which we could visit a lot of different places along the Amalfi coast. Everything from hanging on the beach to Pompeii to Greco-Roman temples to medieval cathedrals. It was unfortunately too hot for much in the way of outdoorsy/sporty stuff, though it's there to be done.

2. A month in Peru (though if I had it to do over again I'd do two weeks), late autumn (May/June). Machu Picchu of course, as well as lots of hiking and Inca ruins. Cusco is incredible. Here there are a lot more sporty stuff - I felt sort of bad that I wasn't up to horseback rides, multi-day treks through the Andes, mountain biking, rafting, etc. The Inca Trail specifically seems like it would be up your alley.
posted by Sara C. at 7:15 PM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go backpacking (a.k.a. "tramping") in Fiordland, New Zealand. I don't believe there is anywhere more beautiful in the world. The Milford Track has, with some justification, been called the finest walk in the world, but there are many other gorgeous and less frequented options as well.
posted by unsub at 8:03 PM on December 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Working my passage as a deckhand on a yacht in the South Pacific. I just did the stretch from Rarotonga to a tiny island I needed to go to anyway, but you could spend months doing this, just sailing from island to island.
posted by lollusc at 8:06 PM on December 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I quit my computer job and prepared for my CDL, then drove around 48 states of the US in a 70' rig for a year, getting paid as I went. Meeting a wide variety of people everywhere I went. Pretty amazing stuff. Life changing for sure.
posted by herox at 8:08 PM on December 11, 2010

I went dogsledding for a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. This was through an Outward Bound course. I'd done a lot of hiking and camping already, but I knew essentially nothing about dogsleds or winter traveling. It was hands down the most physically taxing thing I've ever done. Every day was 16-18 hours of pretty much nonstop hard labor: pushing the sled up hills, pulling/digging the sled out of the slush, chipping ice off the sled runners, disentangling the sled from bushes, going ahead on skis to break a trail for the sled through the waist deep snow, manhandling the dogs, feeding the dogs, breaking up fights between the dogs, splitting wood, chopping through two feet of lake ice to get water, chipping the ice off your boots, changing your shirt inside your tiny sleeping bag, etc. etc.

On top of all this was the cold: this was in early January in northern Minnesota, and it got down to 30 below zero a couple nights. When it gets that cold, everything becomes a struggle. You have to wear gloves all the time or you'll get frostbite, if you sit still too long you start to go numb, everything is covered in ice; it took me almost half an hour to get my boots on one morning because the rubber was so stiff from the cold. You take off your coat and you can feel the life being sucked away from you, and fast.

I would do it again in a heartbeat. No question. It was an incredible experience, absolutely like nothing else, and I really had a blast the whole time through. The silence, the stillness, the clearness of the air, the colors of the snow. You stop still and the loudest sound you hear is the blood in your ears; you take off your hat and the sweat in your hair starts to freeze. I'm not going to say the woods spoke to me, because they didn't; quite to the contrary, their indifference was absolutely palpable, pressing down on me every time I stumbled or did something wrong, an unavoidable reminder of just how tiny and fragile I really am.

So, yeah, I learned some things. Did it change my life? Damned if I know. But without a doubt it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:58 PM on December 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you've got money to burn...Antarctica. Penguins! Whales! Icebergs! There is absolutely nothing like it.
posted by naoko at 10:00 PM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I did a month-long scuba divemaster course in Thailand. When I went, I was somewhat out of shape and feeling kind of bad about some stuff that had happened at work. I ended up getting much fitter in such a short space of time due to the physically demanding nature of the course. And I ended up gaining a lot of self-confidence from passing and getting my certification in the end. But the best part was the sheer beauty of what I saw underwater during my (usually) two dives a day. Leopard sharks, sea turtles, and all kinds of beautiful fish and corals. It was incredibly meditative and life-changing to get to be part of that world even for just a short time.

My good friend went on a trekking trip across Mexico for two weeks and came back a very different person. When she left on the trip she was an uptight and controlling (though lovely!) person who never had a hair out of place. When she came back she was much more relaxed and able to go with the flow in life. She had fallen in love with the trip guide out there and if the feeling had been mutual she said she would have quit her big corporate job and moved out there to be with him in a heartbeat. Her transformation lead her to make some other big decisions in her life that left her a lot happier in the longer term.
posted by hazyjane at 1:39 AM on December 12, 2010

Tall ship sailing with the Jubilee Sailing Trust. Amazing experience, met such a mix of cool people - from other people who were my (quite-young-at-the-time) age through to Laura who was still sailing at the age of 84. Lord Nelson is spending the winter in the Canaries while Tenacious is in the Caribbean, and they'll both be in Europe for the summer next year. Sailing with them led me to completely change my career :)

Also had an amazing time in Fiordland, like someone above, although I went kayaking rather than hiking, and it was part of a larger life-changing trip. I'd love to go back to Doubtful Sound, and to do some of the tramping tracks in the region one day.
posted by Lebannen at 2:37 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't done it yet, but like pretty much every other foreigner in Japan, I'd like to do the Shikoku Pilgrimage. There have been several books written on doing the hike. From what I understand, the hike, from begining to end, takes something like 4 or 5 weeks, and is pretty exhausting. On the other hand, there is a long tradition of people in Shikoku taking care of the pilgrims, and it's quite common (from what I've heard) for hikers to suddenly be given random things, like a small bag of oranges, to bottles of water, to encourage them on their way.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:10 AM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I followed the Tour de France around in the Alps for a while in 2004. It was a van-supported tour, but you can DIY it too. What's cool is that you get to ride the same mountain roads they're riding, then pick a spot and stand close enough to touch them while they ride by. Kind of like going to a ball game and getting to hit against the starting pitchers a couple times before the game starts, then taking your seats along the first base line.

On the bucket list for me: going point to point on the open ocean (like LA to Hawaii, for example) in a small sailboat; self-supported sea kayaking trip; some portion of one of our long hiking trails (Great Divide, AT or PCT); pretty much any of Aaron Teasdale's adventures.
posted by richyoung at 8:33 AM on December 12, 2010

Moab. Mountian biking. Rock Climbing. Hiking. Rafting the Colorado River. Jaw dropping scenery. Beer at the Moab Brewery.
posted by dzot at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These all sound really great! Keep them coming!
posted by bluesky78987 at 9:00 AM on December 12, 2010


I spent month there a few years ago and every single stop, every activity, was singularly amazing. Diving at Sipadan and seeing thirty or forty turtles on each dive. Seeing orangutans in the old in a park outside of Kuching. Watching a troop of proboscis monkeys come out from the rainforest to feed on mangroves at dusk. And hiking through Deer Cave, in Mulu National Park, which at that time was the largest cave opening in the world. Missed out on climbing Mt. Kinabalu but have heard that it's excellent.
posted by fso at 9:23 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I spent two weeks in Libya last year which was the most amazing experience I've had. Can't tell from your profile is you're a US citizen, but if you are this is one of the rare times it will work against you.

There are tens of thousands of rock paintings and carvings scattered through the Sahara, and the desert itself is a captivating mixture of dreamy and lethal. Tripoli is cosmopolitan, with all the expense and choice that does with that, but once you move away from northern coast you are travelling through a world that seems much older and slower and deeper than what we are used to in the west.

On top of all that, the two Roman sites of Leptis Magna and Sabratha will blow. your. mind. if you have any interest in history. Libya is an extraordinary mixture of divergent cultures over an ancient timeframe. See it if there's any way you can. Feel free to MeMail if you need more detail.
posted by StephenF at 11:26 AM on December 12, 2010

Tramping in New Zealand is pretty impressive - you could start with the Routeburn, Kepler, or Milford Tracks. Descriptions.
posted by agfa8x at 11:40 AM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ngorongoro crater and truck safari in the Serengeti. We went with an outfit called Guerba and it was all kinds of awesome.

You should really see giraffes running full speed across a great plain while you're here.
posted by duckus at 1:37 PM on December 12, 2010

Go to Tuva. It's like the Old West in ways. Stunningly beautiful. One way to get there is via the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow, also a cool experience.

Try to get to stay in a yurt, under the stars.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:44 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

As far as staying in America, it's hard to see much more of an "authentic experience" than going to Burningman as a participant.
posted by talldean at 7:29 AM on December 13, 2010

I love this thread, and personally want to try more of this sort of thing.

I don't have any personal anecdotes, but I did want to point out National Geographics 100 Best Adventures in the United States.
posted by I am the Walrus at 7:39 AM on December 14, 2010

I do this for a living (lucky me) - that is, design award-winning adventure travel itineraries. Part of my job is testing out some of the itineraries and over the years, I've been fortunate enough to have been able to have amazing experiences that most people can only dream of. Below are just a handful of opportunities I've had in my travels to all 7 continents and nearly 70 countries:

* Traveled across the India's Thar Desert by camel, meeting nomadic villagers along the way. Once I crossed over a dune, and under a lone tree, a waiter in a tuxedo was waiting for me with a glass of ice cold champagne. At night, luxurious tented camps were set up and waiting for us while staff prepared unbelievable culinary feasts. But most of all, I loved being able to meet people who had never met a foreigner before (much less an American Filipina), sharing laughs and stories. My camel hated me, I hated the camel and could barely walk after 3 days on top of a camel, but wow. Just wow.

* Traveling by canoe upriver to hang out with former cannibals - Iban headhunters in remote headwaters of the Borneo jungle. The water was low, so we had to hike upriver with the canoe on our shoulders for a long, long while. Leeches and mosquitos the size of helicopters. Backbreaking, sweaty. Spending a week with reminders of dead people (ie human shrunken heads and necklaces made out of human teeth) with nightly dancing fueled by potent rice wine made for an unforgettable experience.

* Seconding white water rafting for a week in the Grand Canyon. Jumping over waterfalls, toilet seats perched on towering cliffs while eagles dive-bombed you, soaking in natural made jacuzzis in gorgeous canyons, waking up at 3 am to find your sleeping spot under the stars on a beach is quickly being swallowed up by released dam water (and scrambling up a cliff in the pitch black to save your life), hiking til your heart and lungs are about to burst, riding the "horns" of the raft through Class 3 / 4 rapids - thrilling.

* Surviving the Drake Passage on an expedition to Antarctica (if it's calm, it's the Drake Lake, if it's not, it's the Drake Shake) - three days of pure hell of the worst waters I've ever seen (we had to strap ourselves into bed so we wouldn't fly off), sliding down an icy mountain on a dining room tray while penguins glared at us, soaking in the warmish waters of the hot springs of Deception Bay while my hair and eyelashes froze.

* Sea kayaking from island to island in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand, getting trapped in a sea cave one day when the tides rose too fast and thinking I was going to drown, creating floating lit candles decorated with gorgeous tropical flowers and letting them go among karst limestone caves, the flickering lights competing with bioluminescent algae that glittered with each splash, camping under the stars and eating freshly caught fish over campfires.

That's just a few of the things you can do...
posted by HeyAllie at 11:59 AM on December 14, 2010 [10 favorites]

Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of California, north of Los Angeles, has some really neat sea caves. I went on a weekend trip, where we camped out one night, and kayaked two days. I hiked, too, and only saw part of the island. Not knowing enough about the tides and the caves, I wouldn't have ventured in on my own, so the tour was great (I think there are other tour outfits operating on the Channel Islands, that's just the one I used). Not life-changing, but really interesting, and do-able on a weekend.

Staying in Denali National Park was amazing, though not life-changing (I think - it's been a while). When we went, there was limited access to stay over in the park, so staying there was something special (not sure if this has changed since then). Hanging out dogsled champions and general rugged outdoors folks who cooked great meals, lead us on fantastic hikes, and told us amazing stories of Alaska (like the first four white men to hike to the peak of Denali/McKinley, who took donuts, hot chocolate, and a 14-foot spruce pole). Just staying in the park is expensive, but very accessible (if you plan ahead).

Traveling to Russia was life-changing, though we did nothing harrowing. Growing up in the US, I had a lot of ideas about Russia, but visiting it was incredible. We spent significant time in St. Petersburg and Moscow, drastically different places, and we had drastically different tour guides. Knowing no Russian, we did OK on our own, but having a guide who knew the areas, and had some personal history was fantastic. St. Petersburg is so full of old, historic structures, many maintained in fantastic shape. Compare it to Moscow, the modern city of ever-present gridlock, where we had a non-native guide, who could tell us things of Russia and Russians that the nationals and life-long residents probably wouldn't mention. It also cast a different light on our first tour guide, who was almost careful to not speak too much ill of either the USSR or the present Russia.

Big game parks in Africa are amazing. We were lucky enough to get into one soon after it had opened, so they were still figuring out how they wanted to run things, and it wasn't yet as full as it might be. It was rather posh, and an interesting comparison to another place we stayed, that was older and the guides had a different feel about them. It was there I was reminded to stop looking at things through my camera, trying to capture everything, and just enjoy the fact that there were hundreds of water buffalo ahead of us, stomping and snorting in the dark around a watering hole.

In that same trip, we visited South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the contrast was stark. South Africa was stable and well put-together (from what we saw of it), compared to the very rural feel of Zimbabwe around Victoria Falls, a major tourist location. The idea that there could be a black market for currency exchange baffled me.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:41 PM on December 16, 2010

After having spent the winter snowbound in a cabin on a mountain doing not much beyond working at a restaurant and playing cribbage and chess, I biked across the U.S. with exactly zero training. If you can ride a bike, you can go for a bike tour.

A good rule of thumb is that an hour by car is a day by bike.
posted by aniola at 1:20 PM on December 17, 2010

Spending a week hiking in Dogon country, Mali, was one of the most memorable, incredible trips of my lifetime. Stunningly gorgeous scenery (people built cave homes high in the cliffs which rise out of the desert of Dogon country), sleeping on rooftops in the desert, swimming in watering holes in the desert, learning about a fascinating culture. Of all my adventures, I would probably rate this the most memorable.

Visiting Angkor Wat also stands out for me.
posted by semacd at 6:45 AM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

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