When it comes to once-in-a-lifetime wilderness experiences, extreme activities are only one end of the spectrum. In fact, when we asked our Alliance partners for their top wilderness picks, we discovered a fresh perspective on adventure travel. Wilderness adventure may involve activities you’ve never done before, but it’s also about access—both to remote and untouched landscapes and to the exceptionally knowledgeable guides who take us there. Our travel partners are discerning in their choice of guides, seeking only experts with “a talent for captivating storytelling and a strong, resilient character,” says Wynandt Verster of &Beyond. With Andrew Harper Alliance partners, whether you’re on safari in the Nepalese jungle, fly-fishing in remote areas of Colorado or foraging for elusive black truffles in Tuscany, you’re assured of exclusive access and bespoke service reserved for the uncommon traveler. The combination makes for truly unparalleled adventure for all ages and abilities.
While Nepal is most commonly associated with Mount Everest, its southern reaches hold an unexpected secret: Chitwan National Park. Home to the one-horned rhinoceros and Bengal tiger, this World Heritage site consists of tropical and subtropical forests that also hide leopards, sloth bears, crocodiles and more than 300 bird species. The trip is best suited for “active, energetic travelers,” says Verster, as the park is explored on foot and by 4WD vehicle, with the added option for safari treks atop an elephant.
Of course, a trip to Nepal would not be complete without a glimpse of the world’s tallest mountain, so &Beyond’s Nepalese Mountain Tour & Jungle Safari begins with a flight around Mount Everest. This is the only place on earth where you can see both the top of the world and the heart of the jungle on the same trip.
Iceland’s highlands offer extraordinary scenery, and perhaps the most unique way of viewing it is via a luxury “mobile hotel.” Ásta Ólafsdóttir of Nine Worlds, travel specialists in Iceland and Greenland, explains: “The mobile hotel offers eight double rooms with en-suite bathroom and shower,” plus an accompanying restaurant and chef. Because it’s mobile, the caravan can travel to remote and uninhabited locales “where you are the king of your own world,” says Ólafsdóttir.
While the scenery is the star, one of the highlights is “‘hearing’ the silence,” says Ólafsdóttir. “The fresh air, the peace, the space, the whole experience seems to have a healing effect.” Your handpicked guides are passionate about Iceland and its natural attractions, and “they know about the secret areas where our guests can be completely alone,” she says. Each trip is customized, and day-trips away from the mobile hotel, via super truck or helicopter, can be arranged for those who wish to forge even further into the countryside.
As a bonus, the experience can be done year-round, Ólafsdóttir says. “In summertime, you will enjoy staying under the midnight sun spoiled by the songs of the wild birds. In wintertime, you have the chance of seeing the magical auroras or experiencing complete darkness with a star-filled sky above.”
Melting ice has opened up areas of the Arctic that were previously inaccessible. In response, Lindblad Expeditions has created a first-of-its-kind exploratory itinerary. True to its name, the Epic 80°N: Exploring Greenland, Baffin & Ellesmere Islands Tour features 24 days of adventure aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Arctic wildlife highlights include polar bears, narwhals, beluga whales, walrus, ringed seals, arctic foxes and the 800-pound musk oxen.
Guests hike and kayak among expanses of massive ice and tundra with an expedition team that is “the best in the world,” says Jacinta McEvoy of Lindblad Expeditions. “They are the ones who write the books; they are the locals; they are the experts that knowledgeable explorers want to travel with again and again.” While the expedition requires good health, the company takes care to offer excursion opportunities for travelers of all abilities. After witnessing the wonders of the Arctic, many guests “call these expeditions their best travel experience ever,” says McEvoy.
When it comes to truffle hunting, there’s only one Mauro, who makes his living rooting out the pungent and valuable fungi in the forest groves of Tuscany. “Our guests are the only ones he takes with him,” says Zaira De Biasio of Borgo Santo Pietro. “Unlike many truffle hunts, our truffles are not planted beforehand and ‘found’ by dogs afterward. They grow naturally and abundantly in private woodland protected from public truffle hunters.”
Suitable for anyone who is reasonably active, truffle hunting allows visitors to “immerse themselves in Tuscany at a sensory level,” says De Biasio. Guests can pull a truffle from the earth and later have it shaved over warm buttery pasta they’ve made themselves in the kitchens of Borgo Santo Pietro.
While the white-sand beaches of the Society Islands hold immense appeal, guests aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin also have access to an infrequently visited side of Tahiti. Archaeologist and Polynesian scholar Mark Eddowes leads a unique hiking tour into the upland rain forest of Moorea, one of the most striking islands in French Polynesia. Guests follow shady trails within the forest to learn about the ancient uses of trees and flora in traditional canoes and houses, ti’i (tiki) figures and ancient medicines. Eddowes has taken part in the excavation and restoration of archaeological sites in this area since the 1980s. En route, he shares his insight into the lives of the ancient Tahitians—their habitation sites, agricultural practices, stone tools and ancient temples, or marae, of which he is a recognized expert. While the tour is recommended for guests in good physical condition, those who stay aboard also benefit from Mark’s lectures and his reputation as an engaging raconteur.
Note: The Trails of the Ancients Trek is offered as a four-hour shore excursion from the m/s Paul Gauguin.
With an increase in land-based tourism, cruising in the Galápagos is no longer the only way to explore the islands. However, as 98 percent of the archipelago is guarded by the Galápagos National Park, most tours are formulaic and times of visits are highly regulated. “What ultimately determines the quality of a Galápagos experience is the choice of where you stay and how your trip is designed,” says Stephanie Bonham-Carter of Galapagos Safari Camp.
“As a destination, Galápagos is simply an exceptional experience,” she says. “Nowhere else is wildlife so at ease in such close proximity with visitors, and the sheer power of nature so humbling.”
Galapagos Safari Camp focuses on customized exploration across all ages and abilities, matching guides with guests’ needs. It offers what Bonham-Carter calls “appropriate luxury” in a natural environment—a design that allows visitors to be as close to nature as possible throughout their stay. She recounts the story of a young couple that came up for breakfast “and told us how terrified they were at night as they felt their tent moving and loud grunting outside. The husband plucked up the courage to explore and found a couple of tortoises mating right under their tent.” Now that is an encounter you simply can’t get in a hotel room.
Bonham-Carter describes adventure in the Galápagos as simple but transformative: watching blue-footed boobies dive or dance, swimming with tropical fish among sharks, discovering a carpenter finch using a small stick as a tool to feed, stopping in your tracks to wait for a giant tortoise to cross the road. As she reverently puts it, “The communion that takes place with nature can reach spiritual levels.”
“It’s hard to take a bad picture of a grizzly bear that is 10 feet away—or closer,” says Marc Télio of Entrée Destinations. “There is nothing like standing next to a grizzly face-to-face." It’s one of his top-listed backcountry experiences in both Canada and Alaska. Télio recalls one trip when he was standing in the middle of the river fishing “and out of nowhere a massive bear jumped off the shoreline and rushed at me. These bears can run faster than a quarter horse, so no point in running from him. He stopped right in front of me and skewered a huge salmon swimming at my feet.”
Depending on the time of year, the terrain and the species, bear viewing may be done on foot, from a small vehicle or via boat. Throughout, guides play an important role in the experience, says Télio. One of his favorites, Phil Timpany, “literally wrote the book on safety and co-existence with these powerful animals,” Télio explains. “Phil is a fabulous storyteller, a gentleman and a natural guide. He used to be a hunter and became a conservationist, and he now protects enormous sections of land abundant with grizzlies.”
Anyone can go bear viewing, as it typically isn’t dependent upon physical ability. However, climbing in and out of helicopters and small planes is necessary to reach backcountry locations, and of course, a healthy respect for Mother Nature is essential.
Owner Linda Hodgson of Smith Fork Ranch in Crawford, Colorado knows she has something special in the 300-acre family-owned property, situated within the Gunnison National Forest. Because ranch guides have exclusive guiding rights within Gunnison, Smith Fork Ranch offers outdoor adventures you really can’t get anywhere else.
Limited to four guests, the ranch’s backcountry fly-fishing trip takes you on horseback into one of the most pristine areas in the forest, a region frequented by a mere handful of humans in any given summer. Anglers fish the ponds and streams of Gunnison and the West Elk Wilderness for trout, including a rare A-strain of Colorado cutthroat found in only two locales in the state. Elk, deer and eagles are commonly seen en route, along with the occasional brown bear. The remote, rugged mountain trails are best suited for “folks with adventurous attitudes,” says Hodgson, and intermediate riding skills. The adventure is interrupted only for a gourmet streamside lunch and engaging conversation.
At an elevation of 8,700 feet, Dunton Hot Springs is a restored ghost town located in the San Juan Mountains of the Colorado Rockies. When it comes to wintertime activities, Dunton’s Edoardo Rossi says heli-skiing tops his list.
“One of the great things with heli-skiing at Dunton,” says Rossi, “is that you don’t have to drive anywhere.” The helicopters arrive directly on-property to pick you up, a rarity in the United States, according to Rossi. “So you get up in the morning, have breakfast, put on your gear, get on a helicopter,” he says. It’s that easy. After an epic day of skiing in and around Telluride, you return to Dunton for a soak in the natural hot springs, a cocktail, dinner and conversation. Then do it all again the next day. “Pretty amazing!” he says. We agree!