By Margaret Loftus
Sri Lanka: Ceylon Rising
New this year
Peace has finally come to Sri Lanka after a quarter century of intermittent civil war, making the island’s pristine nature reserves and trove of cultural marvels more accessible than ever. A fourth-generation Tamil guide shows you what you’ve been missing: The ancient city of Polonnaruwa with the massive carved Buddha images at Gal Vihara; the tropical modernist architecture of native son Geoffrey Bawa; and the former rebel stronghold of Trincomalee, prized for its strategic harbor and stunning beaches. Remote Lands: “Sri Lanka Reborn in Peace,” 7 days; $3,600.
India: Cats and Culture Combo
New this year
One of ten special expeditions planned to commemorate the operator’s 25th anniversary, this one-off itinerary with the company’s founders is part tiger safari, led by leading conservationist Amit Sankhala, and part survey of Indian culture. You’ll learn about Indian musical styles in Rajasthan and be welcomed into the home of a family in the Blue City of Jodhpur for lunch. Wildland Adventures: “Tigers and Travels Through India,” 18 days; $5,995.
China: Old-World Tradition
This insider tour is an immersion into a rural culture that’s fast disappearing, from the traditional peoples of Longsheng, known for their longevity, to the Huizhou-style houses of Nanping, built in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Big Five: “China: Captivating Visions & Timeless Horizons,” 15 days; $5,490.
Myanmar: Biking Burma
Biking is a way of life in Myanmar and undoubtedly the best way to soak up its lush countryside and encounter the gracious Burmese people. Pedal through ancient villages that seem right out of an Indiana Jones movie, stopping to visit hillside temples and meet with artisans such as traditional silk weavers and lacquerware craftsmen. A river cruise down the Ayeyarwady, lined with stupas, monasteries, and nunneries, provides a respite. Butterfield & Robinson: “Myanmar Biking,” 9 days; $7,495.
China, Nepal: Capturing the Himalaya
Chase the light with nature photographer Lewis Kemper on this overland journey from Tibet’s “forbidden city” of Lhasa to Everest Base Camp. Along the way, Kemper shares his tips on how best to shoot the lively bazaars, timeless monasteries, colorful prayer flags, and majestic peaks. Destination Himalaya: “Photographer’s Tibet: To the Roof of the World,” 16 days; $5,400.
Vietnam: Kid-Friendly Orient
New this year; family-friendly
Bookended by Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, this private family excursion is action-packed with quintessential Vietnamese experiences. Trek in bio-diverse Hoang Lien National Park, meet members of the Zay hill tribes in the Black Hmong villages, cruise through the limestone peaks of Halong Bay, and dine with descendants of the royal family in Hue. Horizon & Co.: “Vietnam Family Adventure,” 14 days; $3,598.
Pakistan: Hindu Kush Adventure
British writer turned tour operator Jonny Bealby began taking intrepid travelers to Pakistan nearly ten years ago after living with the indigenous Kalash, a pagan community in the Hindu Kush. He returns every year to guide what has become his company’s signature trip, from Islamabad northwest to Chitral and the Kalash villages, to the spectacular mountainscapes of Shandur Pass, Hunza, and Skardu. Geraldine Sharpe Newton, who has traveled with the outfitter eight times, says, “It’s very humbling to see people who lead their lives so detached from ours—and with so much less.” Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel: “Hindu Kush Adventure,” 17 days; $3,195.
Thailand: Lending a Hand
New this year; good value; volunteer opportunity
Known to travelers for its beaches, Phuket is also home to some of the country’s neediest children, many of whom lost parents in the 2004 tsunami. Spend a day pitching in at a school near Kuraburi where they learn life skills. Then stay with a local family in Ban Talae Nok to see how the community is developing artisan cooperatives as a means of recovery. Finally, head north to the rolling hills of Chiang Mai for a hike through the countryside to visit hill tribes. Planeterra Foundation: “Volunteer with Children in Phuket,” 13 days; $1,249.
Russia: Siberian White Water
New this year; physically challenging
Join Russian river pro Vladimir Gavrilov for this 166-mile white-water expedition on the Kaa-Khem River—the Motherland’s version of the Middle Fork of the Salmon—deep in Siberia’s Sayany Region. Raft class III to IV rapids by day, camp in the taiga forest by night, and brace yourself for the Mel’zeyskiy Cascade, a section of river ten miles long with more than 30 rapids. ECHO River Trips: “Rafting Siberia’s Kaa-Khem River,” 15 days; $5,660.
Mongolia: Climbing the Steppes
While you might cover more of Mongolia’s vast landscape in a jeep, traveling on foot makes for a far richer experience. This trek, led by Australian adventurer and writer Tim Cope and accompanied by Mongolian artist Tseren Enebish, follows the migratory route of the nomadic Khotont people in the glacier-capped Kharkhiraa and Tsaast Uul mountains—refuge of the elusive snow leopard. World Expeditions: “Mongolia in the Footsteps of the Nomad,” 18 days; $4,560.
Indonesia: Sumatra Quest
New this year; good value; volunteer opportunity
True to its name, the outfitter offers trips that are heavier on culture shock than coddling. Enter the island of Sumatra, where you’ll stay in a traditional Batak Karo village, climb the active Sibayak Volcano, and camp among the orangutans in the rain forest of Gunung Leuser National Park. Spend two days in Banda Aceh, an area recovering from civil war and devastation by the 2004 tsunami; at a nonprofit learning center, you can help local kids practice their English. Intrepid Travel: “Sumatran Highlights,”15 days; $1,825.
Lebanon, Syria: Western Civ Survey
Stomping grounds of successive groups of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans, Lebanon and Syria are littered with the ruins of structures built by former rulers. This operator has curated a collection of the most intriguing sites, from the ancient city of Palmyra to the Roman temples of Baalbek, for a private driving tour that lets you soak up the splendor at your own pace. Diversions include a tour of Aleppo and a visit to Chateau Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest operating winery and a legacy of the Phoenicians, one of the oldest wine cultures in the world. Cox & Kings: “Empires Past,” 13 days; $6,795.
Indonesia: Beyond Bali
Most visitors to Indonesia never venture past Bali. This itinerary shows off what they’ve been missing in the rest of this richly diverse country, including a three-day stint aboard a schooner scouting for dragons around Komodo island; watching the sun rise at the Borobudur temple archaeological site; and a visit to Prambanan, one of the grandest Hindu temples in Southeast Asia. Journeys International: “Adventures with Apes, Arts & Dragons,” 12 days; $4,475.
These guided tours are part of National Geographic Traveler‘s 50 Tours of a Lifetime for 2011 for the outfitters’ commitment to authenticity, immersion, sustainability, and connection.