Ten Great Adventure Travel Destinations For 2011

Top adventure travel destinations for 2011With another holiday season behind us at last, it is time to start looking to the year ahead and firming up our travel plans. If you haven’t already made your preparations for 2011, and you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous this year, then perhaps we can suggest a few destinations that might meet your needs.

Last year, when we shared our list of top adventure travel destinations it was populated with a few countries that are commonly recognized as offering outstanding experiences for the adventure traveler. Places such as Nepal, Tibet, and Peru, which are widely considered to be classics of this type of travel. For this year’s list, those places have been sent to the Adventure Travel Hall of Fame, making room for some up and coming destinations to get some much needed recognition.

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the top adventure travel destinations for 2011.

The United States
This may seem like an odd pick to begin the list with, but hear me out before dismissing it. The U.S. is one big, diverse place, with plenty to offer any traveler, let alone those looking for adventure. No matter what your outdoor pursuit or adrenaline inducing addiction, you’ll find an excellent place to pursue it here in the States. Enjoy mountain climbing? Then head to Colorado where you’ll find 53 peaks in excess of 14,000 feet in that state alone. Is mountain biking your thing? Then make the journey to Moab, Utah, home to some of the best trails in the world. Into kayaking? Great! What’s your flavor? Whitewater? Flat water? Sea kayaking? It doesn’t matter, you can do it all right here in the U.S., where there are plenty of forests, deserts, mountains, and rivers to roam. If you’re coming from abroad, you may be surprised, and a little overwhelmed, with all the options. And if you’re from the U.S., perhaps you’ll be reminded of the magic of domestic travel too.

Ethiopia
Top adventure travel desinations for 2011Africa has always held a certain allure for the adventure traveler, with many headed to Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa for the classic safari experience. But there are plenty of other fantastic destinations on the continent that are worth exploring as well, most of which have a lot less tourism traffic. Take Ethiopia for example. The country is rich in history and culture and offers plenty of options for the active traveler as well. I recommend trekking the Simien Mountains, where you’ll encounter packs of rock climbing baboons en route to the medieval fortress of Gondar or make the journey to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Stop by the holy city of Lalibela as well, where you’ll be treated to the amazing site of a series of churches carved from the rock. [Photo credit: Justin Clements via WikiMedia]

Argentina
For travelers looking to go to extremes, it is tough to beat Argentina. The country offers visitors plenty to see and do while exploring a diverse number of unique landscapes. For instance, visitors can go to the Iguazu Falls region to take in the tropical rain forests and then travel south to Tierra del Fuego for a taste of the Antarctic. Backpackers and climbers will find plenty to love in the incomparable Patagonia district and paddlers will be thrilled with the whitewater options as well. The truly adventurous can test their mettle on the 22,841-foot tall Aconcaqua, the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalaya.

Croatia
Over the past decade, Eastern Europe has gone from a very well kept secret to a popular destination for those seeking unique cultures, lavish history, and fantastic art. But the region has plenty to offer the adventure traveler as well, with Croatia leading the pack as the best destination for adrenaline junkies. Travelers who enjoy being on the water will love sea kayaking and sailing on the Adriatic Sea, while those who prefer to be under it, will love to dive the various ship wrecks that are just off the coast. Moving further inland, paddlers will find crystal clear rivers to run, replete with plenty of whitewater while trekkers and backpackers will enjoy the mountain trails that offer breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Head to Ucka Mountain for a hike through dense forests that eventually give way to a spectacular view of Kvarner Bay.

New Zealand
Top adventure travel destinations for 2011New Zealand earned a spot on our list last year, but it is such a great adventure destination that it deserves another nod for 2011 as well. For many travelers, New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world thanks to its amazingly diverse terrain, which gives rise to some of the best mountain biking, paddling, and climbing options found anywhere. It is also home to what is quite possibly the greatest hike in the world in the form of the Milford Track, a 33 mile trail that runs through the heart of Fiordland National Park while surrounded by some of the best scenery on the planet. The winter months bring great skiing and snowboarding options as well, with Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano cone on the North Island, being amongst the most popular destinations. [Photo credit: Wikikiwiman via WikiMedia]

India
Another large and geographically diverse country, India can lure adventure travelers with a host of options. Want to spend some time on the beach or go diving and snorkeling? Then head to Goa for plenty of aquatic fun. Prefer a mountain trek? Then make your way to the remote northern region to gain access to the High Himalaya, along with its quaint mountain villages and Buddhist culture. For a different kind of hike head to the famed Valley of Flowers to experience more than 300 species of the colorful plants in one location. And for a truly unique adventure, explore the massive Thar Desert on the back of a camel.

Guyana
Often overlooked in favor of more well known South American destinations, Guyana is a great choice for adventure travelers looking to escape the crowds and get off the beaten path. Highlights include jungle canopy tours of the Iwokrama Rainforest Reserve and a visit to the 741-foot tall Kaieteur Falls, which is billed as the tallest sheer drop waterfall in the world. But no trip to Guyana is complete without a trek through the Rupununi region in the southern part of the country. This remote and isolated wetlands area is home to a dizzying array of wildlife including giant river otters, black caiman, anteaters, jaguars, tapirs, anacondas and more. Birdwatchers will find the place especially alluring with hundreds of unique species on display.

Botswana
Top adventure travel destinations for 2011Another destination that returns from our list in 2010 is Botswana, which offers its own take on the classic safari experience. Each year, seasonal rainfalls in Angola drain into the Okavango Delta, swelling it to three times its normal size. This conveniently occurs during the dry season, which means that the region draws vast numbers of animals in search of water. Visitors can take in this spectacular migration in a traditional safari vehicle of course, but the more adventurous will elect to go with a guide on foot or in a dugout canoe. Those two options allow you to get much closer to the wildlife, which include elephants, giraffes, hippos, lions, cheetahs, and so much more. And when you tire of watching animals, head to the Kalahari for a wonderful trek through the desert and a cultural experience with the famed Bushmen that inhabit that region.

Turkey
Straddling the border between Europe and Asia, Turkey has long held an allure for travelers of all types. It is yet another destination with a rich culture and history, and it shows in the variety of ancient ruins and unique structures that dot the landscapes. Trekkers who make their way to Turkey may be overwhelmed with all the options, with the Cappadocia region being the most popular thanks to its low degree of difficulty and unusual landscapes. Those looking for more of a challenge will want to check out the Taurus or Kackar Mountains, which offer much wilder terrain and higher altitudes to contend with as well. Mountaineers will find a variety of peaks to tackle, including the famed Mt. Ararat, the reputed final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Backpackers will love the 300+ mile long Lycian Way, which wanders along the beautiful Mediterranean coast. Sea kayaking, diving, and snorkeling in the waters of the Med will round out a very active visit.

The North Pole
Obviously not a country, but the North Pole is certainly a worthy destination for any adventure traveler, albeit one that requires deep pockets to reach. Make no mistake, going to the top of the world is an expensive proposition, but if you have the cash to do it, there are multiple ways to get there. The easiest way to reach 90º north is by taking a cruise through the Arctic Ocean aboard an icebreaker ship. But for truly adventurous travelers, the only acceptable way to reach the Pole is on skis. A number of adventure travel companies offer “last degree” guided expeditions that travel through the arctic on foot before culminating at the northernmost point on the planet, a place that only a few very lucky people ever have the opportunity to see. [Photo credit: NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Lab]

There you have it. Ten great destinations that will fill your travel itinerary with plenty of adventure in the year ahead. Enjoy!

Top ten hostels in Europe

Staying in a hostel in Europe is a rite of passage for budget-conscious travelers making their way around the continent. This is particularly the case for budget-conscious younger travelers. Here are ten hostels across Europe that either receive particularly high user-review grades or are notorious enough in one or another way to be noteworthy.

St. Christopher’s at the Winston, Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Winston presents itself as “an interactive museum of modern art.” However it refers to itself, it is without question one of the most dynamic budget hotels in Europe, with a few hostel-style dormitory rooms on offer. It’s got a restaurant on the premises and a nearby nightclub, and is aesthetically far more exciting that your average hostel.

Långholmen, Stockholm, Sweden. Ever wanted to spend the night in a prison? OK, a former prison? Långholmen is a rehabbed prison located just a stone’s throw from Stockholm’s supercool Södermalm nabe. Fantastic, and not as austere as you might expect.

Good Bye Lenin, Krakow, Poland. Tucked away in a corner of Krakow’s history-rich Kazimierz neighborhood, Good Bye Lenin replays the aesthetics of Polish socialism in a cheery, friendly space. Very atmospheric and fun.

Balmers, Interlaken, Switzerland. In operation for over a century now, family-run Balmers is Switzerland’s oldest hostel. Balmers offers dormitory rooms, private rooms, and tent accommodations. And lots of fresh air, obviously.

Meininger, London, United Kingdom. The Meininger chain of hostels can be found mostly in big cities across Germany and Austria. The London outpost, though not particularly British in spirit, is a welcome, well-scrubbed addition to London’s dreary hostel scene.Oops! Hostel, Paris, France. Far more stylish than your average hostel, Oops! injects a blast of fun energy in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Hotel interiors wizard Philippe Maidenberg is responsible for Oops!’s fresh interior design.

Hostel Archi Rossi, Florence, Italy. One of the best loved hostels in Florence, Hostel Archi Rossi offers free wi-fi, free breakfast, and complimentary walking tours of Florence. Archi Rossi is very close to the Santa Maria Novella train station, too.

Kadir’s Tree Houses, Olympos, Turkey. Near Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, Kadir’s Tree Houses is a sprawling complex of bungalows, cabins, dormitory rooms, and campground. Kadir’s provides a great range of services (laundry and a travel agency, to name but two) and also includes both breakfast and dinner in its nightly rate.

The Pink Palace, Corfu, Greece. One of Europe’s most notorious party hostels, the Pink Palace is a garish temple of hedonism, just possibly the best place in the world to play spin the bottle in five languages. Woohoo!

Hotel 4 Youth, Berlin, Germany. There are two Hotels 4 Youth in Berlin. The branch on Schönhauser Allee gets especially high marks. 133 beds, conical pillows, and a few nice extras (seminar rooms, a pool room) make this a top Berlin hostel. Location in hip, bohemian Prenzlauer Berg is also a big plus.

(Image: foilman / Flickr)

Top Ten Reasons that Road Trips Rock

Yesterday, Annie posted a top ten list about why road trips suck. I was shocked and appalled, to say the least. After reading her piece and discussing it with folks on Twitter, I deduced that Annie didn’t really hate road trips. She hated long car rides. There’s a distinction and it’s an important one. Road trips make the journey the adventure. The act of being in the car, seeing the sights and not having to rush becomes your trip. The destination is secondary. Long car rides are just attempts at saving money or avoiding a confrontation with your fear of flying. They’re utilitarian and should not be confused with what you and I consider a true road trip. Road trips should be celebrated. To all of you whimsical travelers who have ever made a mix tape specifically for a road trip (and still nostalgically listen to it today as an iTunes playlist), this one’s for you. 1. Time Doesn’t Matter – Who cares when you get to the destination? You’re with your friends, you’re on vacation and you chose to drive for a reason. Enjoy the scenery. Moon the car next to you. Play License Plate Bingo. Cherish those moments in the car because they will breed the inside jokes that you repeat not just on that trip, but for the rest of your life. It’s not about killing time. That’s murder.

2. Pit Stops – Cracker Barrel. Waffle House. Truck stop diners. Gas station convenience stores. These are a road tripper’s oases. All foods are viable options on the road. I’ve seen vegetarians eat meat and justify it with the “I was on a road trip” excuse. Relish that fast food burger. Enjoy a side of pancakes with your omelet (Perkins, I’m looking at you). Buy chips and cookies and candy that you would never think to eat at home and bring them back to the car to eat on the road. You’re on a road trip. You can eat anything you want!

3. Instant Gratification – Ever been excited to go on a trip only to sit at the airport for five hours? Ever had a vacation delayed because you missed a flight? Road trips can’t be delayed. Traffic? Who cares (see #1)? Are you in the car? Congratulations, your vacation has started.

4. Look at That! – If you’re sitting on a plane, you’re only scenery options are the tiny screen in front of you or, if the person in front of you has reclined, some dandruff and a bald spot. Not exactly riveting entertainment. On a road trip, you never know what you’re going to see next. It could be an amusing sign, a classic car or even a sheep herder who needs to play through. Keep your camera handy because road trips are human safaris!

5. Pranks – Sure, at some point the laughter will die down and your car will become a moving nap box. This is the perfect time to mess whoever passed out. Draw a penis on his face. Scream at the top of your lungs and swerve to trick her into thinking you’re about to be in an accident. Call his mother and tell her he’s dead. OK, that last one may go a bit too far but you catch my drift.

6. Music – Road trips need soundtracks. Mix tapes may have given way to MP3 players, but the effect is the same: sing-alongs! If everyone on the trip brings their iPod, you’ll have music for days. And, if they die (or you get sick of listening to your friends Backstreet Boys “classic mix”), the radio is a viable and underrated option. Radio gets a bad rap, but listening to local stations is a road trip tradition. Blast that country music in the South, listen to some bizarre Christian talk show or find the Top 40 station that every town has and harmonize with Rihanna. Because Rihanna is awesome.

7. Detours – Have you ever asked your pilot to make an unscheduled stop along the way? The FAA frowns on that. But if you’re road tripping and see something like, oh, I don’t know, a hedge maze, you can make an executive decision to get lost in some shrubbery. There are countless amazing destinations just waiting to be stumbled upon. The world’s largest ball of twine is going to call out to you some day. Will you answer?

8. Souvenirs – Road trips generate the best makeshift souvenirs. A menu from a dilapidated diner can easily be slipped into a purse and added to a scrapbook later. Trucker hats from rest stops with innuendo-filled names make great keepsakes (I own a Kum & Go hat that a friend purchased for me on a road trip). One man’s schlock is another man’s memento.

9. Friends Both New & Old – Who needs hotels when you can stay with friends? Road trips are a great excuse to call up old friends to ask if you can stay the night when you pass through town. Or, if people are willing, to stay with friends of friends who are willing to put you up. If you announce on Twitter or Facebook that you need a place to stay en route, you’ll be surprised who volunteers their couch or air mattress. We’re only strangers until we say hello.

10. Bonding – The older you get, the harder it is to spend real quality time with the people you care about. Work will demand more of your attention. Family will become a bigger priority. And the time you have to share with friends will diminish. A road trip is a great opportunity to really be ourselves, relive old glories and create new memories that will sustain us through those dull days at the office. Road trips heighten emotions. Jokes are funnier. Laughs are heartier. And the farts stink more if you lock the windows.

Road trips are less about the destination than the journey. It’s cliché, I know. But if all you cared about was getting from Point A to Point B, you wouldn’t call it a road trip. You’d call it driving. A road trip is its own special category of travel. Enjoy each and every moment of it. And then avoid your tripmates for a few weeks when you get home. You’ll be sick of them by then.

The ten toughest castles in the world

Castles make a pretty backdrop to any vacation. They conjure up images of brave knights and damsels in distress, but the reality was less romantic. Castles were fortifications built to defend important cities, ports, fords, or mountain passes. The best military minds in the world devised ways to destroy them, when they weren’t figuring out better ways to build them. Here are ten castles that proved almost too tough to take. Some took centuries before they fell, or cost the lives of hundreds of attackers. A few never fell at all.

Crac de Chevaliers
One of the best preserved Crusader castles in the Middle East, it protected the pass from the lowlands of Lebanon through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and into the rich Orontes river valley of Syria. It’s on the Syrian side of the border but its turrets afford fine views of Lebanon. Originally an Arab castle that was taken by the French during the First Crusade in 1099, it became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, a knightly order that protected pilgrims in the Holy Land. They protected themselves too, by strengthening the castle and putting up walls that were up to 100 feet thick. It withstood more than one siege and even the great Saladin couldn’t take it. It eventually fell back into Muslim hands in 1271 but remained the model for castle builders in Europe.

Masada
Facing the world’s biggest empire with only a ragtag group of dedicated fighters? Go to the middle of the desert, find a sheer mesa, and hold up in it. That’s what the Sicarii, Jewish resistance fighters, did when they rebelled against the Roman Empire in the first century AD. The location was perfect. The mesa had already been fortified by King Herod as a refuge in case of rebellion, but the Sicarii rebels got it instead. Sheer cliffs rise 300 feet (90 meters) above the desert at their lowest point, and in spots tower up to 1,300 feet (400 meters). The only way up are three winding paths that are exposed to arrows and rocks coming from above. The Romans, in their typical efficiency, built a rampart up the entire way so they could roll up battering rams to breach the walls. The Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than surrender. The Roman camps and walls used to cut Masada off from the rest of the world are still plainly visible.

Numancia
The Celts in Spain faced the same problem the Sicarii did. How to defeat the Roman Empire? Numancia was one tribe’s answer. This hillfort at the headwaters of the Duero River held out for twenty years until the inevitable end came. The defenders had run out of food and had been reduced to cannibalism. Like the Sicarii, the Celts chose death before dishonor and most of them committed mass suicide in 133 BC. Spain became a Roman province. Today you can see reconstructions of the fort and Roman siege techniques at the site’s musuem.

Osaka
The samurai were brave warriors ready to face death, but even they must have thought twice about attacking this castle. Completed in 1598, it was the base of operations for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who made peace between Japan’s many warring factions by beating them into submission. It took 200,000 soldiers more than a year to take this place in 1615, and when you look at this photo of the bare face of the ramparts you can see why. The castle combines form and function and is beautiful as well as impregnable.

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Walls of Constantinople
OK, this isn’t technically a castle, but the massive walls of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) protected the capital of Byzantium for more than a thousand years. Byzantium was the eastern half of the Roman Empire and survived long after Rome fell. The Bulgars, Slavs, and Turks all failed to take the massive double land walls and moat. It took the invention of cannon to finally destroy them. The Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 AD had a giant cannon that could shoot a 1,200 lb. stone ball a mile, backed up by an army that may have numbered as many as 200,000 men. The city still held out two months before falling and becoming the new Ottoman capital.

Sacsayhuaman

The Incas were master builders. Unlike most cultures, they didn’t build with regular blocks, but instead used irregularly shaped stones that fit together so precisely that not even a knife can be pushed through the cracks. Believe me, I tried. In the highlands around Cuzco, Peru, they built a series of temples and the giant fortress of Sacsayhuaman to protect them. The fortress has triple walls almost 20 feet (six meters) tall constructed in a jagged outline so the defenders could throw stones and spears at the attacking force from three sides instead of just one. It was finished sometime in the early 1500s, just in time for the Spanish to invade. The conquistadors were only able to take it after a fierce fight and the loss of Francisco Pizarro’s younger brother Juan.

Malta

Located smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean at one of its narrowest points, whoever controlled Malta controlled trade. This, of course, led to lots of wars. Malta changed hands countless times, but one of its biggest battles came in 1565 when the Ottomans tried to take the island from the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights were ready with not just one castle but three. The Ottomans had an estimated 20,000-50,000 troops. Barely 500 knights and 5,600 helpers stood in their path, but they had the castles. The Ottomans landed and started a heavy bombardment with a large number of artillery on the first fort on their list, Fort St. Elmo. The castle was reduced to rubble but its 600 defenders went down fighting. The Turks lost more than 4,000. The attack then focused on Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the Turks ground up their army against the walls. After losing at least a third of their force, they called it a day and retreated. Cannonballs from the bombardment can still be seen in the fields.

Burg Eltz
This castle has the distinction of still being the home of the same family that owned it in the 12th century. Built upon a 70 meter (220 ft.) high crag next to an important trade route, it was perfectly positioned to assert power. A river flows around three sides of the crag, making it almost impossible to take. The castle is an architectural jewel and much of the fifteenth-century interior is preserved. Burg Eltz has one of the best settings of all the castles in this list. The primeval Eltz forest encloses the castle on all sides, and several historic villages are nearby. Because of its commanding position and the political skill of its owners, it was only attacked once. In 1331, Archbishop Baldwin of Luxembourg tried to extend his territory by attacking the castle with catapults and an early cannon. After more than two years of bombardment, the archbishop admitted defeat and went back to Luxembourg.

Carcassonne

The high walls that ring this strategic town did what many French castles could not–resist the English throughout the Hundred Years War. The Romans had a fort on this hilltop in 100 BC and some of the original stones can still be seen in the walls. Later it was a stronghold of the Cathars, a Christian sect that was destroyed in a crusade led
by the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort, who killed anyone who he found in Cathar-controlled territory, whether they were Cathars or not. He’s the origin of the saying, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.” In 1209 he took Carcassonne, but the city stood firm against later sieges, including a long and determined one by the English. Nowadays it’s a perfect view of Gothic spires and imposing medieval walls.

Bamburgh
This Northumbrian stronghold is like many of the castles on this list in that the present structure covers up centuries of history. Bamburgh was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and there was a castle here from the 6th century AD. It survived a number of sieges and that’s hardly surprising when you see it standing proud on a little peninsula jutting out into the North Sea. A massive gatehouse and walls protect the landward side. In 1095, the owner Robert de Mowbray was captured by the attacking Normans but his wife took over the defense and continued to push back their assaults. She finally gave in when the Normans threatened to blind Robert. The castle fell again in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses when it became the first English castle to surrender because of an artillery bombardment. Modern technology succeeded where generations of swordsmen failed.

Museum Junkie: London’s Science Museum turns 100

London’s Science Museum turns 100 this year, and as part of the centeniary celebrations they’re asking for your input on the world’s most important invention.

Their list comes from ten important inventions they have in their museum, like the first x-ray machine developed in 1895, or the Model T Ford that first came off the production line in 1908, or the V2 rocket pictured here, first launched against London by the Nazis in 1944.

Personally. I’d vote for something the techies at the museum didn’t think of–agriculture. Yeah, that was a while ago, but agriculture provided a surplus that allowed some people to do things other than gather food, such as invent all this other stuff. No agriculture, no complex civilization, no technology, and no Gadling. Now there’s a scary thought.

The Science Museum has a massive collection of machines, devices, and widgets for every conceivable purpose. There are a lot of interactive displays, including a mockup of a Japanese supermarket where you can experience an earthquake. It’s one of the best places to take kids in London, along with the Natural History Museum with its weird deep sea fish and animatronic T-Rex. If you want to waste some time at work, take their “What dinosaur are you?” quiz. Apparantly I’m a Baryonyx.

With all this talk about inventions, what about travel? What are the most important inventions for people on the road? The backpack? The airplane? The Internet? Passports? What’s your vote for the most important invention for travelers?