Go Farther, Spend Less

2009 Travel Awards


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Every year, we evaluate hundreds of wanderlust-inducing trips to produce a guide to the world’s greatest adventures. This time around, we solicited the aid of a new contributor: you. (The democratic spirit is strong right now.) By the hundreds, you told us where you’re planning to go and what matters most to you on any trip. You also made two things clear: (1) You have zero plans to stop exploring, recession be damned, but (2) that doesn’t mean you’d object to saving some cash. Fair enough—turn the page and you’ll find Trips of the Year that maximize value, plus dozens of strategies for the wallet-conscious nomad.

United States

Owyhee River
The Owyhee River (Courtesy of O.A.R.S.)

Dollars and sense: Get a Room

In the 12 months leading up to November 2008, 1,286 new hotels opened in the U.S., according to Smith Travel Research. Now those upstarts are struggling to fill rooms. In cities like Chicago (with 27 new hotels) and Phoenix (with 18), managers are drastically reducing prices: At press time, rooms at Chicago’s new Dana Hotel cost $175 instead of $350. Check industry blog for openings and discounts.



Paddle the Upper Owyhee
7 DAYS, $1,890
A good measure of the quality of a float trip is the difficulty in getting there. By those standards, it’s hard to beat River Odysseys West’s new expedition-style journey to the Class II Upper Owyhee. “The road’s crummy, there aren’t any shuttle services, and the portages are a bitch,” says ROW founder Peter Grubb. “But I’ve never been up there and seen another party.” From the Nevada put-in, on either the South or the East fork of the Owyhee (the East is the more striking canyon by far), each guest paddles his own inflatable kayak 50 miles through a basalt gorge to the confluence with the main Owyhee. (A 12-foot raft totes gear.) From there it’s another 30 miles to the take-out at Three Forks, in Oregon. The route goes through bighorn sheep country and passes abandoned stone pioneers’ cabins. Day four is reserved for two tough portages, but hard work makes Dutch-oven brownies taste better. Bonus: ROW’s new trip comes just in time for new federal legislation that, if passed, will add the desert canyon to the national Wild & Scenic Rivers registry, and protect an additional 570,000 acres of the area. Four departures in June and July;


Float the Tuolumne and Hike Yosemite
5 DAYS, $1,900
This new, amphibious itinerary from rafting specialists OARS starts fast and ends slow. First up: an 18-mile paddle through Class IV rapids on the Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River, Central California’s roiliest. From the take-out at Wards Ferry Bridge, it’s a 50-minute drive to the bar-equipped Evergreen Lodge, on the western edge of Yosemite National Park. The next four days are spent “glamping” on air mattresses on the lodge’s property and trekking to Yosemite classics like 8,842-foot Half Dome and wildflower-studded Tuolumne Meadows. Five trips between May and August; CASH TIP: Ask if there are any openings—or last-minute discounts—on the May trip, when the Tuolumne runs fastest.



Ride the Lewis River

5 DAYS, $1,200
Local mountain bikers have been riding southern Washington’s lush Gifford Pinchot National Forest since the mid-eighties. But it wasn’t until 2007 that the Forest Service opened this 2,138-square-mile forest—home to more than 700 miles of singletrack—to commercial trips. The first outfitter to take advantage: Moab, Utah–based cycling specialists Western Spirit, which debuted this five-day tour last July. The 100-mile haul starts near Mount Adams and traces a series of three subalpine lakes. “The old-growth cedars we ride through make the perfect canopy, keeping the trail surface tacky,” says Western Spirit owner Mark Sevenoff. Other highlights include postcard views of the Lewis River’s descent from the Cascades; nights spent camping and mauling grilled salmon (guides cook while you sip local beer); a trip-capping ride off the flanks of Mount St. Helens; and a price so low you’ll want to book a second date. Eight trips in July and August;


Explore ANWR

10 DAYS, $10,000
If any splurge is called for this year, it’s this journey into America’s still untapped, northernmost reaches from luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent. The trip starts in Fairbanks, from which bush planes fly eight guests to the North Slope of the Brooks Range. Too-loó-uk River Guides will paddle you on 14-foot rafts through 50 miles of the Marsh Fork of the Canning, a mostly lazy river that meanders through green valleys in the shadow of white peaks toward the Arctic Ocean. “You’ve got 5,000-foot peaks right off the river, treeless tundra, open hills and ridges,” says lead guide Juliette Boselli. Bring your waterproof hikers for day trips along the way, and carbo-load each night on fresh-baked breads in the dome-tented camp. Scramble up a small peak and you’ll spot Dall sheep, musk ox, eagles, and falcons. End the trip where the Canning meets the Beaufort Sea and fly out over the famous Porcupine caribou herds. Top of the world, Ma. Four departures between June and August;


Paddle to Wrangel

13 DAYS, FROM $5,500
See how close Alaska and Russia really are on Aurora Expeditions’ new trip from Nome, Alaska, across the Bering Sea, and along the Chukotka Peninsula, at Siberia’s northeastern tip. Your base is the 100-passenger Marina Svetaeva, but Aurora’s guides offer daylong sea-kayaking options along Chukotka’s rugged coast, where sea otters and harp seals play. And pending icepack levels in the Arctic Ocean, Aurora plans to explore Wrangel Island, home to hundreds of polar bears. “We hope to get the sea kayaks in the water around Wrangel and hike onshore,” says owner Greg Mortimer. August 6–18;


Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge
Comprising 16 cabins and a dining building, Alaska Wildland Adventures’ Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge is the only hotel within the boundaries of 700,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park. Fresh-caught salmon in the restaurant is nice, but the draw is thesetting: The lodge, which opens in July, sits on a pebble beach in 1,700-acre Pedersen Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary. And because Glacier is accessible only by boat, your stay comes with a cruise through humpback whale migratory waters. Doubles, $425, three-night minimum;


Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island (Weststock)

Dollars and sense: Shop Online

Think of as for active travel. The site launches in May as the world’s largest adventure search engine, cataloging more than 100,000 trips from outfitters all over the globe. Just plug in your destination and vacation dates, then compare hundreds of itineraries and prices.



Paddle Hudson Bay

8 DAYS, $3,500
The locals in Hudson Bay aren’t used to human visitors. “In 2007, a client was minding her business in her kayak when a 30-pound baby beluga whale jumped in her lap,” says Wally Daudrich, owner of Manitoba’s Lazy Bear Lodge, which will host paddlers on this Explorers’ Corner expedition. The trip starts with a floatplane ride from Churchill to the South Knife River. From there, paddle a sea kayak alongside Explorers’ Corner founder Olaf Malver for three days, sifting through mild whitewater chutes to the mouth of Hudson Bay. You’ll know you’ve arrived when belugas start nuzzling the boat. The next five days are spent here, paddling with the whales and eating caribou steak at the Lazy Bear. Departures in July and August; CASH TIP: Ask about the August trip, when the price falls $500 thanks to lower local airfares.


Bike Glacier and the Canadian Rockies

9 DAYS, FROM $3,700
Four national parks, two countries, endless high-alpine relief, and a menagerie of outsize wildlife. That’s what you’ll encounter on Backroads’ new 480-mile cycling trip, from West Glacier, Montana, to Jasper, Alberta. Twenty or so guests will spend nights in digs like Glacier National Park’s Many Glacier Hotel—rustic western luxury at its finest. But it’s the riding that shines. The trip starts on Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile asphalt snake charting an improbable course through the heart of Glacier National Park. With its expansive vistas, Going-to-the-Sun is a worthy bucket-list item for most cyclists, but on this trip the road is just the beginning. After crossing Glacier, guests pedal between 40 and 60 miles per day through Waterton Lakes, Jasper, and Banff national parks, while a support van totes gear. On the way, riders trace the Continental Divide and coast along the 143-mile Icefields Parkway, where three major river systems—and lots of elk and grizzlies—meet. Four trips between July and September; CASH TIP: Go with a partner and you’ll save the $890 additional fee Backroads charges single riders.


Nelsen Lodge

In ten years, Revelstoke Mountain Resort will be the world’s best ski destination. The place opened in December 2007 with one gondola and a quad accessing 1,500 acres. The master plan calls for 20 lifts, 10,000 acres, and 6,000 vertical feet—the most in North America. But there’s no need to wait. The month-old, modern Nelsen Lodge is just 60 feet from the gondola and offers post-slope relief in the form of a massive outdoor hot tub. Bonus: Glass walls offer views of the Selkirk and Monashee ranges. Thanks to an opening special that lasts through May, doubles start at $200;


Black Rock Resort

This three-month-old, 133-suite lodge rests on a rock promontory jutting over Barkley Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The location makes it prime real estate for three things: surfing Long Beach in summer (board rentals, Ucluelet’s Inner Rhythm Surf Co., 877-393-7873); curling up by the fire to watch the jaw-dropping storms that roll through in winter; and hiking into temperate rainforest on the eight-mile Wild Pacific Trail in any season. Doubles from $175;

Central America

Wind-aided paddling on Belize's barrier reef. (Courtesy of Island Expeditions)

Dollars and sense: Go with Pros

Next time you’re planning a trip to Mexico or Canada, look to an old favorite. Last November, low-cost, low-stress Southwest Airlines announced plans to partner with Volaris and WestJet to bring service to Canada later this year and to Mexico in 2010.



Kayak Lodge to Lodge

6 DAYS, $1,590
Some 450 sun-bleached cays dot Belize’s 180-mile-long barrier reef. The best way to explore them? Take this new, lodge-to-lodge sea-kayak trip with Belize City–based Island Expeditions. The six-day journey is divided between traveling with the currents over coral structures teeming with marine life and unwinding at three rustic lodges (think seaside cabanas and conch-fritter dinners). Expect to cover up to six miles of turquoise per day in IE’s unique, mast-and-sail-equipped sea kayaks. “There’s nothing like sailing your kayak at six knots, two feet above the reef flats,” says owner Tim Boys. Trips depart weekly from November to April; CASH TIP: Book late—IE offers $100 discounts on unfilled trips within a month of departure.

Surf the Gulf of Chiriquí

Don’t want to take out a second mortgage to reach Indonesia’s Mentawais? There’s a better way to plan your dream surf trip. In 2006, Panama-based Lost Coast Excursions started plying the Gulf of Chiriquí, on that country’s Pacific coast, in its 100-foot motor yacht, the Explorer. What the outfitter found was a Pacific paradise with dozens of empty reef and beach breaks. The Explorer accommodates up to 16 guests in shared rooms—bring ten or so buddies and you’ve got a blue-water epic, complete with surf guides, for less than the cost of a week in Aspen. Start recruiting now for next spring, when southern swells wrap up the coastline. Guests take a shuttle from Panama City to Puerto Mutis, board the Explorer, and hit the water before lunch. Charters available between December and August;

South America

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu (Danny Warren)

Dollars and Sense: Play the Travel Market

1. When the dollar is up (as it was at press time), book international trips with local operators. American outfitters often set prices on international trips up to a year in advance—and most stick to those prices, despite fluctuating exchange rates.
2. On trips closer to home, be flexible and book late. More and more trips are going unfilled, and more and more outfitters are putting trips on “distress inventory”—an industry term meaning deep discounts for latecomers. Call the outfitter one month before departure and ask if the trip is full. If it’s not, ask for a discount.



Trek the Big Empty

10 DAYS, $4,600
Guyana has the land mass of Idaho, a population of 770,000, and exactly one road passing through its rainforest-rich interior. Which is to say, the place is wild. This year, high-end operator Geographic Expeditions leads an exploratory trekking trip in the country. After landing in the capital, Georgetown, guests are whisked into the jungle. First stop: 741-foot Kaieteur Falls, one of the largest single-drop waterfalls in the world. “There are no signs, no handrails, and no people,” says Michael McCrystal, GeoEx’s associate director of operations, who scouted the trip last year. Guests then hop between lodges via bush plane and canoe. (One lodge, the Karanambu Ranch, houses a small clan of rescued giant river otters, in addition to visitors.) Local guides lead the way on four-hour jungle hikes and harpy-eagle-nest-finding missions, but, accordingto McCrystal, “if you want to take the machete and bust into the jungle, we can arrange that.” Year-round;



Torres Trek
7 DAYS, $2,280
Situated on the east side of Torres del Paine National Park, Adventure Life’s new EcoCamp—a series of wind-powered, fireplace-equipped domes—is your launchpad for four days of guided treks. Highlight: an 11-mile round-trip to the glacial lagoon at the base of the granite towers of Los Torres. Bonus highlight: Colchagua Valley cabernet back at the dining dome. Trips leave between October and April;

City on a Hill

9 DAYS, $4,000
Haute outfitter Austin-Lehman ups the ante on the classic Peruvian adventure by turning Machu Picchu into a starting block. After hiking seven miles of the Inca Trail and entering the big city via the Intipunku, or “Sun Gate,” you get the rest of the day to explore the ruins. Then it’s off to the Tinajani Canyon for two days of mountain biking through 100-foot rock spires. The trip wraps up on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where your sea kayak awaits. After a day of paddling to stark Taquile Island, you’ll be ready to crash at the Sonesta Posadas del Inca Hotel, in Puno. Four departures between April and October;

Andes to Amazon

12 OR 19 DAYS, $2,750 OR $4,600
Most Mountain Madness itineraries assume clients have high-altitude expertise. Not this one—though there’s serious peak bagging to be done if that’s your thing. The trip starts in the upper reaches of the Andes, where you’ll hike through 50 miles of high mountain passes and decide as a group whether or not to scale 18,600-foot Cuchillo 2. Next up: three days and 10,000 feet of jeep-supported mountain-bike descent to the Amazon basin. After dismounting, guests hop into three-man rafts and Huck Finn it through untamed Madidi National Park on the Class II Beni River. Keep your eyes peeled for giant river otters. June 10–21 or 10–28;

New Zealand and Australia

Crash at Phil's mom's!

We asked Phil Keoghan, host of CBS’s The Amazing Race, for tips on traveling in his home country. He sent us to his folks’ place. WTF?

“I always suggest people drive New Zealand—it’s 1,000 miles, top to bottom. You need at least ten days. Rent a camper van, get into the countryside, and stay with the locals. The bed-and-breakfasts are great. My parents run one out of Rolleston, just south of Christ­church [doubles, $60; gardenviewband­b­]. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve sent there.”

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound, New Zealand Milford Sound


That New Zealand is the place you fantasize about most is no surprise. But here’s what is: This is the year to stop drooling and go. With a historically favorable exchange rate (at press time, one U.S. dollar equaled just under two New Zealand bucks) and round-trip flights available for around $800, adventure in Middle Earth is suddenly on sale.



Heli-Fishing Heaven

11 DAYS, $4,475
A year ago, this trip would have cost about $2,000 more. With New Zealand’s top guides, you and your partners ride a chopper from Auckland to the private Poronui Ranch, a safari-style camp on the North Island, 16 miles away from the nearest road. Catch your fill of piggish trout on the Mohaka River, then fly to the South Island, where you’ll set up shop at a hut in the Minaret Peaks. Spend your days choppering between alpine streams where the water is vodka-clear and the browns are football-size. Trips run between October and March; CASH TIP: Four-day heli-fishing trips cost $2,680.

Do It All

8 DAYS, $2,300
“This is a really punchy trip,” says Andrew Fairfax, owner of Active New Zealand. “Punchy” is a Kiwi-ism for packing your days with adrenaline. To wit: On this whirlwind, called Tui Multisport, guests hike the Franz Josef Glacier, a World Heritage site; cycle Hollyford Valley; sea-kayak Milford Sound; and take a scenic flight to the Siberia Hut, one of the South Island’s many isolated mountain lodges. Departures between October and April;

South Island Singletrack

14 DAYS, $2,200
If the thought of riding the South Island tip to tail on century-old logging roads makes your heart pound, add this: You’ll take a helicopter ride over the Roaring Meg River, get dropped in the Pisa Range, and descend 20 miles through high country overlooking the Southern Alps. Sacred Rides’ new South Pacific Singletrack trip has everything: steep canyon descents, mountain traverses, and undulating cross-country pedaling. On a rest day, don crampons and pick your way through eight-mile-long Fox Glacier. End the day sipping local Monteith’s ale at a bed-and-breakfast. Departures in December, February and March;

Trek the Larapinta Trail
11 DAYS, $6,500
“Everybody thinks there’s not much out there,” says James Fuss, the Aussie guide who cooked up this new trip for Wilderness Travel. “But the Larapinta is one of the best desert treks in the world.” Fuss selected the most scenic sections of the historic 139-mile Lara­pinta Trail, in the Northern Territory, and condensed them. Guests follow the West MacDonnell Ranges, just as Aboriginal red ocher traders have done for thousands of years; gape at the massive night sky from luxurious bush camps; and eventually wind up at iconic Uluru (Ayers Rock). May 25–June 4; CASH TIP: Book now, with the U.S. dollar strong, and WT will lock in a discount that could reach up to $600.


Mongolia (Courtesy of REI Adventures)

Go Green

Ninety-one percent of you consider the environment when making travel plans. A few suggestions on how to travel responsibly:

1. OFFSET YOUR ADVENTURE: Starting this year, Australia-based Intrepid Travel, which operates on seven continents, will offset a select number of trips with the goal of going carbon-neutral by 2010. Our favorite: a 22-day Annapurna Circuit epic ($1,100;
2. LEND A HAND: UK-based Blue Ventures raises the conservation-trip bar with its new six-week journey to Leleuvia, Fiji, where guests scuba-dive to research reef health and work with local communities to establish a proposed marine park ($3,200; TRIP OF THE YEAR: ASIA

walk to kanchenjunga

16 DAYS, FROM $4,300
Pioneering adventure outfitter Mountain Travel Sobek celebrates its 40th anniversary with a series of back-of-beyond trips led by top guides. Our favorite: this northern-Sikkim trek, which ends at the base camp of 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga. After two nights in Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, a team of porters, 12 guests, and a seriously illustrious guide—Jamling Norgay, son of some guy named Tenzing—set off for ten days of trekking through remote high-alpine valleys near the Tibetan border. “It will be like hiking in Nepal in the sixties,” says Narendra Gurung, Sobek’s director of Asia operations. October 31–November 15;



Climb Live Volcanoes

21 DAYS, $2,800
By the end of KE Adventure Travel’s three-week Living Mountains journey, you’ll have trekked through remote Javanese villages and 15th-century stone temples. Fun stuff, but nothing compared with the trip’s primary thrill: watching the sun rise through clouds of gas and cinder from the summit of an active volcano. The voyage takes guests from Jakarta to eight feisty volcanoes on the islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok. Eight-hour treks—and a few nights of camping in Javanese leopard country—are offset by nights sipping Bali Hai beer in rustic island resorts. Departures in July and September;

Desert Solitaire

Explore Mongolia’s wildest scenery, from a lake about the size of Rhode Island to the Gobi Desert, where the mode of transport comes with two humps. Guests land in Ulan Bator and hightail it to 85-mile-long Lake Hövsgöl, known for its rich purple color. After four days of kayaking along shorelines, camping in traditional gers, and horse-trekking through 8,000-foot-high meadows in the nearby Khoridal Saridag range, it’s Gobi time. Between two-to-six-hour camel rides and trips to the iconic 2,500-foot-high singing dunes, unwind at the solar-powered Three Camel Lodge. Five departures between June and September;


[photo size="full"]1495826[/photo] [sidebar hed="Gimme Shelter"] At just under 3.5 pounds, Sierra Designs’ VAPOR LIGHT 2 is one of the lightest freestanding two-person tents on the market. But unlike most other ultralight tents, this spacious shelter actually comfortably sleeps two adults and, thanks to its sturdy pole structure, won’t crumple like an accordion in high winds. $330;


Safari for Less

8 DAYS, FROM $3,850

Want to save on a safari? Go in the off-season. On Wilderness Safaris’ new Summer Spectacular trip, guests visit iconic sites like Victoria Falls and Botswana’s Okavango Delta while staying in camps where plunge pools come standard. But the draw is your first stop, the Kalahari Desert. In the wet summer, from November to April, areas like Deception Valley teem with herds of springbok, which come to drink standing water. Lions and cheetahs aren’t far behind. Trips leave between December and April;