Top 10 Luxury Adventures of the Year
The turn of the year is one of the grandest adventures on the calendar – or at least, it starts out that way, before the first day of the year becomes one of the grandest regrets on the calendar. Yet no matter what the stroke of 12 brings, it is no reason to let the exploits and excitements come to a halt; there are 364 strokes of 12 until you dust off the mistletoe again, and no reason not to spend as many of them as possible in mighty revelry.
With the help of our friends at Urban Daddy Jetset we've put together a list of ten of the top outrageous outings in which to glory throughout the year. Most, like the Songstam Circuit (pictured) come with a heap of luxury, some others with a bit of radiation, at least one with ropes and gags, but all of them with the kinds of good times you deserve no matter what day it is...
1. SONGSTAM CIRCUIT, CHINA
Rand-McNally will identify the black dot – and Google the red 'A' – in the northwest corner of Yunnan province as 'Shangri-La.' Of course that is a deception, the result of tourist board chicanery in 2001 which applied the name from the fictive valley in James Hilton's book Lost Horizon to what had been for centuries known as Zhongdian County. But that's not to say that there are no similarities between the two places, and not to say you shouldn't investigate them on the Songstam Circuit trip by Wild China.
There are three Songstam resorts in a spot so vertiginously jagged among the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween rivers that it looks like God's own Costco had a clearance sale on mountains. Home base for the six-day excursion will be the Songstam Shangri-La, which is looked over by the 300-year-old Songzanlin Monastery and where you'll meditate with a Tibetan Master and have an audience with a High Lama. Other days will see treks to the Songstam Benzilan Lodge where you'll take in the Dongzhulin Monastery, and the Songstam Meili Lodge sited on the edge of a bluff at 11,480 feet. Up there, you'll find the pilgrimage path to Mt. Kawagebo, and the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Baima National Reserve.
FYI – things are so rugged between the Shangri-La and Meili lodges in fact that even Google maps cannot find a way between the two. But that's how every grand adventure should be, and that's why there's Wild China. (Image by Thomas Ng)
2.SKI PUCÓN, CHILE
They zig, you zag. A favorite of our friends at Urban Daddy, while others are headed to the more considerate climes of Santa Barbara or Sharm el-Sheik during the summer break you can be headed to the Pucón Ski Center and the active volcano in Chile known as Villarrica. Where, of course, you'll ski. Well, eventually you'll ski (or snowboard, not that there's anything wrong with that). First you'll take the lift to its terminus, then embark on an ascent of the volcano face that will take from two to five hours depending on how possessed you are by the spirit of Sir Hillary.
And then, once there, you will ski. Well, eventually you'll ski – after taking in the sight of lava boiling through the winter solstice at 9,130 feet, the five lakes to the south, and the splendor of Villarrica National Park – then you'll blow through fresh powder. If you'd rather take baby steps to slaying that dragon, however, there are 20 groomed runs and backcountry skiing and snowshoeing on the lower slopes. Or there's a glass of Carmenere at the Gran Hotel Pucón Resort & Club – since you've gone your own way in making the trip at all, who says you can't have your après ski before?
3. SAL SALIS NINGALOO REEF, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
You can swim with whale sharks in various spots on the globe, but if you're going to do it then it is imperative that you do it. And that means hauling yourself all the way to a beautifully lonely strip of white sand dunes in Western Australia known as Ningaloo Reef, in the Cape Range National Park. The Sal Salis resort there bills itself as "an exclusive safari camp," but let's dispense with that word "camp" right now: there are no televisions or telephones, sure, but there are comfy beds in wood-framed 'tents,' 500-thread-count sheets, a pillow menu, and en-suite bathrooms with soft towels. There's no mini-bar, but there is a full-sized one. And a chef. And a library. And Red Kangaroos.
Now that you know you'll be taken care of otherwise, when it's time for an Indian Ocean dive you'll take a 6-person private charter to a calm stretch of blue, and there you'll be guided into a dance – not a swim – with the fishes. Whale sharks, just so you know, are the anti-Jaws, massive filter feeders whose only potential danger is an accidental smack from their tails. But if that happens, then you weren't keeping the right time...
If you want to change partners then Ningaloo Reef is also one of the best places to swim with Manta Rays, and there are more than 500 species of fish, 250 of coral and 600 of mollusc. Land-lubbers include Hawksbill, Green and Loggerhead Turtles, known to frequent the camp's doorstep. It is a long way to go, but if marine is your thing, you'll make a lot of friends when you get there...
4. PONOI RIVER, RUSSIA
If you want to say A River Runs Through It in Russian, it's a good bet to start with a Ponoi River trip from Frontiers Travel. A wide blue ribbon gently bending through the Kola Peninsula in the far north of western Russia, the Ponoi is for fly-fishing only (catch-and-release only, though) and overseen by the Ponoi River Company. Forty-two miles of river along both banks are reserved just for guests to cast for Atlantic Salmon, and wading, bank casting, or boat fishing are all on the menu, even if the fish aren't.
Since that length of liquid hunting ground could mean more walking than fishing, a Russian hovercraft is pressed into service to convey anglers to distant beats, and those further reaches have river tents with stoves. Home, on the other hand, will be the Ryabaga Guest House, a six-bedroom, six-bathroom lodge originally built for the owner of the Ponoi River Company. Yes, it has an entertainment center, Wi-Fi and a satellite telephone. Yes, it has a chef. Yes, it has its own doctor and medical clinic. And yes, it has a massage service "to ease aching shoulder muscles." And hey, Brad Pitt had one, so why shouldn't you...
5. CHERNOBYL, UKRAINE
Probably the radioactive equivalent of vacationing in the bedroom from Paranormal, this trip could haunt you for some time to come. The Ukraine is developing a state-sponsored tourist program that will explore Chernobyl – or at least, what's left of it after the reactor exploded in 1986 – but it still has a few things to sort out... like the leaking radiation from the iron and concrete enclosure. And the glowing water. And the three-eyed deer. This one is heavy on the adventure and light on just about everything else, but if you do the Ponoi River trip you're already in the neighborhood...
7. CRISTALBUBBLE, FRANCE
In all the people in all the travels in all the lands, we have never met anyone who spoke of any desire to sleep in a little bubble among the mighty outdoors. Obviously, we had never met the fiends behind France's BubbleTree, another pick by Urban Daddy and our winner for the 'Oh... really?' award. Each transparent, UV- and fire-resistant plastic CristalBubble is four meters in diameter and fitted with a wood floor, a quiet blower (to keep things both inflated and ventilated), and an entry lock a la the International Space Station.
The overnight feat could not be any plainer than it sounds: take one gorgeous milieu in either Corsica or five locations in the South of France, insert a bubble, and into that bubble insert a bed, a table, two chairs and two guests. Add a breakfast the next morning, and voila, you've got a Vermont B&B in its own to-go container.
If you like the experience so much that you'd like a bubble of your own, there are larger diameters available and BubbleTree makes BubbleRooms, BubbleLodges and a BubbleSpa. They come with a protective cover and a transport bag, and no end of worried spectators wondering, "What the... ?"
7. ULTIMATE NORTH-SOUTH ADVENTURE, AUSTRALIA
Australia is the new Africa when it comes to luxury safaris, but that country's Isak Dinesen will pen Out of Bamurru Plains from the leisure of a well appointed lodge. Akin to the Songstam Circuit sojourn, the Ultimate North-South Adventure connects the dots of three luxury lodges along Oz's central spine: Bamurru Plains in the north, Longitude 131 in the center, and Southern Lodge down below.
It starts in Bamurru Plains in the Northern Territory, which is a 20-minute flight from Darwin, Darwin itself being hours from anywhere. There you'll find your safari lodge on the edge of the Mary River floodplain and all the safari animals to go with it, including wallabies, wallaroos, dingos, estuarine crocodiles, egrets, ibis and plumed-whistling ducks. After a few days of that you'll head to Dawin for another safari, and then to Longitude 131 in the center of the island nation and a tour of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. A few more days of that will see you head to Kangaroo Island off of Adelaide and its much kinder climate inside and out, with 4-course dinners, beach fishing and clifftop walks.
Or for a more austere (but just as luxurious) and planted vision of genuine Australia, try the Bullo River Station in Top End. It puts the out back in Outback, and is much like Australia but without Kidman, Jackman and the singing...
8. ULTIME RÉALITÉ, FRANCE
For all those considered adventures about which you've said, "If I could be sure I wouldn't die, I'd love to...", there's the French company Ultime Réalité. Another pick of the folks over at Urban Daddy, Ultime will arrange a diversion into the kinds of trials you enjoy in movies, like kidnapping (e.g., Taken, pictured), drug running (simulated, we expect) in go-fast boats while being chased by customs, manhunts, spending a few days as a cadaver in a morgue, or anything else you can think up and fund.
The firm, probably run by a mysterious, impeccably dressed Frenchman who has a disconcerting way of saying "As you wish, monsieur," is geared to provide "the big thrill, the psychological shock, the jolt of adrenaline, the fear, the stress to teach you to surpass your psychological and physical limits." But not kill you. Because it's just a game. Mostly.
However, if being hogtied to a spar isn't your bag, even if it is on a yacht docked in Venice and even if your abductors have the most cultured BBC World accents, then Ultime Réalité can take you the other way: should you wish the company will arrange for you to live like a superstar, hounded by autograph seekers and papparazzi and all else, for as long as you can afford it.
9. MOTUO COUNTY, CHINA
When you don't want to play around with your adventure, there's Motuo County, China. The People's Republic has 2,100 counties (Shangri-La being one of them), and Motuo is the only one without any access road into or out of it. So back-of-beyond that even Tibetans refer to it as BFE, the legendary Brahmaputra River makes a short home here and the locale translated as "hidden lotus" is said to be Tibet's "purest and holiest region." Inhabitants are 10,000 Menba and Luoba ethnic peoples, and if you want to meet some for yourself you'll need to get a good map and an even better pair of boots.
10. LOVELY LOFOTEN, NORWAY
Perhaps toned down on the adventure scale, this one makes good sense for families bereft of skiers or snowboarders, and parents who don't want to see their kids irradiated at Cherynobyl, eaten by pandas in Motuo or kidnapped by Ultime Réalité. All right, some parents might like their kids kidnapped, but that's a conversation for another post.
Here for the whole nuclear unit is Lovely Lofoten by Ciclismo Classico, an eight-day trek through a Norwegian archipelago that curls above the limit of the Arctic Circle. There'll be fjords, Viking ships and museums, the midnight sun, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Nusfjord, kittwakes, fishing ports and all the seafood you could possibly want. Your final reward will be sight of the Maelstrom at the northwest tip of the island, called the world's strongest current. And maybe a Kraken...
And if the kids act up and you want to inject a little more chill into the polar cap, remember, Ultime Réalité works anywhere.