Travel can change your life. It’s a simple premise, but one that we forget in today’s smash-and-grab culture of instant everything available anytime. We travel to seek new experiences and see things we never imagined. Sometimes we are transformed in the process.
Best Life asked 20 globe-trotters about the one trip that changed each of their lives the most. The results surprised us. They ranged from the classics (forging a family bond with s’mores over a campfire in Shenandoah National Park) to adrenaline-spiking adventures (diving with great white sharks in Australia) to purely sensual indulgences (eating toro sashimi, the choicest fatty tuna, in Tokyo’s fish market) to altruistic enterprises (volunteering in a hospital in Nigeria).
These are the trips that will touch you on the inside—magical locations where puzzle pieces that have been floating around in your head for years may suddenly fall into place. These are the places that when you leave, they go with you. Read on for tips from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Buzz Aldrin and Timothy Ferriss, and finish off your bucket list with this definitive list of the essential 50 Things You Must Do Before You Die!
Anthony Bourdain, host, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN
Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is the biggest wholesale seafood market in the world—a football-stadium-size space filled with 400 types of seafood and sea creatures in electric colors and exotic shapes. It’s like you’ve suddenly arrived on Mars and it’s inhabited by sea creatures. You see people sitting around looking at pieces of tuna on light boxes as if they were jewels, and then paying $300 a pound wholesale. It completely turns upside down everything you thought you knew about food, and shows how beautiful, strange, and luxurious it can be. It’s as if you’ve only been aware of three colors your entire life, and suddenly you’re introduced to 12 more.
Best Life Tip: “Get there by 4:30 a.m.,” says Bourdain, “and don’t wear flip-flops.
How to Do it Right: Arrange a private escort through your hotel’s concierge.
Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen
I’ve seen my share of impossibly blue skies, sparkling glaciers, and sawtooth peaks, but I learned the most important rule of the mountains when I was a first-year guide on Mt. Rainier, where I worked after graduating from the University of Washington. The senior guides, Phil Erschler, Eric Simonson, and George Dunn, taught me to climb conservatively and always prepare for something that might happen. I’ve now had the good fortune to help close to 800 people reach Rainier’s summit. Seeing energy and joy radiate across their faces at that moment inspires me.
Best Life Tip: “Don’t just think about bagging a peak,” says Viesturs. “Enjoy the climb itself.” That advice could apply to life itself. Make your life last longer with this science-backed list of 100 Ways to Live to Be 100!
How to Do it Right: Viesturs has guided with Rainier Mountaineering Inc.
Josh Bernstein, Explorer and Author
Face it: We’re not as tough as we used to be. Most of us no longer know how to build a shelter, hunt an animal, or even make a fire. But there’s a place where people can relearn forgotten wilderness skills and, in the process, reignite their primal fires. In 1988, I went as a student to Boulder Outdoor Survival School, in Boulder, Utah, and it changed my life. Twenty years later, I owned the company. I’m passionate about BOSS because of what it does for people: Primitive skills restore our connection to the wilderness and our humanity. Once you have an experience that proves to yourself that you can be self-sufficient, you realize that everything else you face in life–in the outdoors or the boardroom–can be done.
Best Life Tip: “The longer courses are the most powerful life-changing experiences,” says Bernstein. “If you can afford to take 28 days off, do it. You won’t be the same afterward.”
How to Do it Right: Visit the Boulder Outdoor Survival School website.
G. Love, front man for the band G-Love & Special Sauce, has toured all over the world.
I grew up in cities where the only jobs for teenagers were in kitchens, cooking or washing dishes. But when I was 17, I got a job through the Student Conservation Association to build and repair trails in Yellowstone National Park. It was a magical summer. There were six of us, all total strangers, and we hiked 14 miles into the Montana backcountry and camped in bear country for a month. It was hard labor: hauling logs, building bridges, and constructing “check steps.” The woods provided a lot of time to think and write and filled my heart with love and inspiration. I had my guitar there too. Sitting around the campfire and playing for people, practicing my songwriting–even though it was a small and captive audience—that’s really where I came of age musically. One day I scrambled to the top of Electric Peak with two of the others. I felt like I could see the entire park. I found an elk horn bleached white by the sun. “Should we take it?” someone asked. Twenty years later, whenever I take my 7-year-old into the woods for a camping trip, I wonder if that horn will still be there waiting for us when we make it to the top.
Best Life Tip: To summit 10,969-foot Electric Peak, plan for a three- to seven-day summer trip. Enter through the park’s northern entrance at Gardiner and make Sportsman’s Lake your base camp. And to feel 17 again, click here 12 Instantly Effective Age Erasers.
How to Do it Right: Student Conservation Association offers conservation internships.
Donovan Webster, author of The Burma Road, has traveled to more than 100 countries.
Don’t do the Grand Canyon as a half trip; take the whole 18-day monster. And do it the way it was originally explored…in a wooden dory, not in some big, slow raft. You move with the current of the river and are gently reminded about the pace of geological time—although several boiling rapids will truly frighten you. All the while, you’re eating well and seeing one of the world’s great natural wonders. It helped me learn to slow down and go with the flow. At night, you can hike into side canyons and see Native American rock art before returning to camp and falling asleep on a sandbar with the whisper of the river in your ears.
Tip: Go in January or February. There may be snow on the canyon’s lip, but the interior will be warm.
How to Do it Right: Sign up for a trip at this website.
Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder of Lindblad Expeditions, which specializes in eco-travel.
Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are the most magical place on earth to visit with children. I’ve been everywhere on safari, but there’s no other place where you can directly interact with wildlife like you can in the Galapagos. Kids are tactile, and the animals here are ancient and exotic, like lava lizards, giant tortoises, and blue-footed boobies. It’s the only place on earth where a mockingbird might untie your shoelaces. Whatever your age, it brings out the kid in you.
Best Life Tip: “The animals aren’t tame—they’ve just figured out that humans aren’t a threat to them, and thus they are curious,” says Lindblad. Still, we wonder if even the turtles turned their heads when an Oscar winner dropped by. To read more about Leonardo DiCaprio’s near-death experience, click here.
Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health
In July 1989, when I was 39, I went to a missionary hospital in Eku, a remote part of Nigeria, believing that I might be able help a great number of people because of my Western training in internal medicine. Once I arrived, I realized how naive I had been. There was very little I could do for many of the patients because the medical facilities and labs were lacking resources. I began wondering why I was there. A few days into this trip, I diagnosed a young farmer with tuberculosis and had to perform a risky procedure I’d never done before. He seemed to respond, but I still felt gloomy about being there. When I checked on the patient the next day, he looked at me and said, “I have a sense that you are wondering why you are here. I know why. You came here for me.” I realized how wrong I had been. He was right. Helping just one person, even for a short time, was reason enough.
Best Life Tip: No matter your age or career, a volunteer experience will make you a better person. Be cognizant about just how challenging it will be to suddenly find yourself in a different environment and culture.
How to Do it Right: Check with your church to see if any missionary opportunities are available. Or check with Doctors Without Borders, which sends medical and nonmedical volunteers to more than 60 countries. To volunteer closer to home, contact the Red Cross for local opportunities.
Bill Bryson, author of A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country, estimates that he has visited 50 countries.
As a midlife challenge, I tried to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail that twists from Georgia to Maine. I learned that you don’t always succeed at what you want to do, even when you try really hard. I learned an appreciation of the great outdoors in America, and that there is a parallel world of wilderness right there, existing alongside us. The other thing you get from it is a real appreciation for small pleasures such as fresh food, a comfortable bed, and a hot shower.
Best Life Tip: “If you’re doing one small part, do the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee,” says Bryson. “The views from several of the mountaintops are incredible; you can see for miles and miles. If you want to do the whole thing, you will need four months. My advice: Pack as light as you possibly can.” For your own “midlife challenge,” don’t miss these incredibly rewarding 40 Things You Should Do in Your 40s!
How to Do it Right: Head to this site for more information.
Mark Jenkins, National Geographic writer and the author of A Man’s Life
Bhutan is the most environmentally progressive country on the planet. Guided by ancient Buddhist precepts that demand humans to protect and preserve the natural world, more than 50 percent of this small Himalayan kingdom is covered with virgin old-growth. King Wangchuck has banned logging, mining, mountaineering, and even flower picking, and replaced the western god of GDP with GNH: gross national happiness. Listening to the monks chant inside the massive Trongsa Monastery, you can feel the rightness of Bhutan’s vision.
Best Life Tip: “Talk to the monks,” says Jenkins. “They are shy, but one of them will speak English and can give you a glimpse into the stark, deeply disciplined spiritual life.”
How to Do it Right: Independent travel is prohibited in Bhutan; you must go with a guide service. The price is $200 a day ($65 of which goes directly to education and the environment), which includes everything: transportation, hotel, and food. Contact Lhomen Tours and Trekking.
Buzz Aldrin, aviator and astronaut
When I was in the Air Force after the Korean War, one of the officers I was stationed with got me hooked on scuba diving. I’ve always been interested in the unknown; people obviously focus on my trip to the moon, which was a magnificently desolate place. It symbolized such an achievement of mankind to be able to go there with machines, and to take humans there was a triumph of design and commitment. It was gray, lifeless, and foreboding, and the sun was so bright you couldn’t see stars. But a more magnificent, beautiful place to visit is the Gulf of Aqaba, located at the northern tip of the Red Sea. The water is almost 6,000 feet deep and has a high salt content, which promotes the growth of reefs that explode with firework-bright coral.
Best Life Tip: Book a dive to the Topaz Garden, where you can spot angelfish, moray eels, and stingrays, and see some of the Red Sea’s healthiest coral. Aqua Sport is a dive outfitter in Eilat with 45 years’ experience. For more stories to tell your grandkids, click here for the awe-inspiring 25 Adventures Every Man Should Have Before They Die.
How to Do it Right: Fly to Eilat, on Israel’s southern-most tip, and stay at the beachfront Herod’s Palace Hotel.
Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and host of The Tim Ferriss Podcast
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the birthplace of the tango, 99 percent of the shows are what the locals call “tango for exportation.” But at La Viruta, a real-deal milonga (tango dance hall), you can witness mind-blowing unchoreographed tango, often between complete strangers. Tango is the purest form of body chemistry on the planet, outside of sex, and La Viruta transformed me from being a nondancer to a maestro who could spin a partner 32 times in one minute. You’ll also find the most beautiful women in South America here (sorry, Medellín).
Best Life Tip: “Take classes at La Viruta, ideally with Horacio Godoy,” says Ferriss. “Always move counterclockwise around the dance floor and never step backward.”
How to Do it Right: Book a room at Hotel Alvear. Take a taxi to Armenia 1366, where La Viruta is located in the basement of the Armenia Cultural Center.
Wesley Clark, retired Army general and former Rhodes Scholar
As a West Point cadet, I read about the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident in an unlikely place: a Soviet Union newspaper in Moscow in 1964. “Americans are so wrong to be bombing over there,” the state-sanctioned tour guide chided. The Department of the Army had approved my 10-day visit and I’d studied Russian intensively. In addition to seeing the sites, I also met a lot of young people–just ordinary Russians living in a totalitarian state where terrible things had happened. The strength of the propaganda there was incredible. It convinced me to dedicate my life to bringing peace to the world, as opposed to studying physics or math.
Best Life Tip: Learn as much of the language as you can—it truly breaks down barriers.
How to Do it Right: Obviously, you can’t go to the Soviet Union circa 1964, but you will see a different perspective if you vist the newly-opened Cuba, or Iran, China, or one of these 5 Mysterious Places You Have to See to Believe!
Ken Burns, the award-winning documentary filmmaker best known for The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, and The War, has visited all 50 states.
My documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea was influenced by a childhood memory. When I was growing up, my dad had very little time for my younger brother and me. At one point, he took just me camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and it was the best moment of my life. We woke up before sunrise and drove to Fort Royal, Virginia, which is at the northern end of the park. We talked about science and my mother, who was dying of cancer. We stayed in a cabin owned by the National Park Service, and took endlessly long, Everest-type hikes (though in retrospect, they were probably only a couple of miles long) down wooded paths to catch bright-orange salamanders. Several years ago, I took my then 14-year-old daughter to Shenandoah along the same route; she listened with great intensity when I told her what the trip had meant to me. When you have that type of connection with a place, its beauty can take on mythic proportions.
Best Life Tip: Don’t skip Skyline Drive, which runs down the spine of the mountains. It’s crowded with cars in fall, so plan to visit in spring instead, when wildflowers bloom in a sweeping riot of color.
How to Do it Right: Amenities have been upgraded since the 1960s, but the beauty of the park remains just as it was years ago. Visit this site to reserve a cabin.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, ‘the world’s greatest explorer’
I was in the Omani Army in the Dhofar region, fighting Marxist terrorists from 1968 to 1970. Being in these remote mountains fired my desire to travel to far-off places. I found the hospitality and warmth of the Bedouin tribes so inspiring that I realized I wanted to meet people from all over the world, and so I became an explorer.
Best Life Tip: “Learn some basic Arabic and stock up on Anthisan, the best anti-itch cream.” Or if that sounds like a bit too much, instead stay in one of The 10 Most Jaw-Dropping Luxury Hotels in the World!
How to Do it Right: Geographic Expeditions leads guided trips to Oman to hike in the mountains of Salalah, explore the ancient pirate seaports along the Arabian Sea coast, and trek in the sandy fringes of the Empty Quarter, where majestic sand dunes ripple to the horizon. Alternatively, you can fly via Muscat to Salalah.
Philippe Cousteau Jr., co-founder of conservation organization EarthEcho International, has scuba dived in all four oceans.
South Australia’s Southern Neptune Islands are home to the world’s best dive sites for great white sharks. Despite the media hype, sharks aren’t mindless killers. Being in a shark cage, eyeball-to-eyeball with a sleek 15-foot great white, will change your perception of nature and humankind’s place in it. It gives you a true appreciation for the wonder, grace, and beauty of these creatures.
Best Life Tip: “Dive with Rodney Fox, a shark-attack survivor turned shark conservationist,” says Cousteau Jr. “There isn’t anyone in the world who understands these magnificent animals better than he does.”
How to Do it Right: Fly into Port Lincoln South Australia and meet the boat for a seven-hour trip to the Neptune Islands.
Geoffrey Kent, chairman and CEO of luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, grew up in Kenya and has traveled to 106 countries.
Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the best places to come face-to-face with endangered mountain gorillas. There are only about 600 remaining worldwide, and half of them are here, protected in a huge primeval forest. They share 98 percent of our DNA, and to look into their eyes is an awe-inspiring experience. The first time I did this, almost 40 years ago, I immediately understood my human responsibility to help protect them.
Best Life Tip: For the ultimate gorillas-in-the-mist experience, stay inside the park at the Gorilla Forest Camp—a luxury tented resort overlooking the rainforest.
How to Do it Right: Fly into Bwindi via a two-hour charter flight from Entebbe International Airport in Uganda.
Tommy Chong, actor and author of Cheech & Chong
It was 1968, and I had just been fired from my job for failing to get a green card. I’m from Vancouver, but I was living in Detroit with my mistress (now my wife, Shelby) and my daughter, Precious, who was 6 months old. We went to see I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, a movie about a man in Venice Beach who falls in love with a hippie girl who bakes pot brownies. It inspired us to escape the corporate world. So I found a drive-away car service (you pick up a person’s car and bring it to him after he has moved). We piled into the car and set off for Venice Beach. One of the first nights there, someone tapped on our apartment window and a hand reached up, holding a joint. I took a puff and something magical happened. I committed right then to becoming a hippie.
Best Life Tip: Most drive-away services require a $350 refundable deposit these days, but the first tank of gas is free. And to escape the pressures of your coprorate job, find relief here with the instantly relaxing 10 Ways to Beat Stress in 10 Minutes or Less.
How to Do it Right: Get details right here.
Sanjay Gupta, MD, CNN chief medical correspondent and neurosurgeon + Shaun White, professional snowboarder and skateboarder
Editor’s note: Both men picked genocide memorials in Rwanda.
Dr. Gupta: In April 1994, thousands of Tutsis gathered inside a small church where Rwanda’s Ntarama Genocide Memorial now stands, thinking it was a place of sanctuary. Instead, the Hutu militia slaughtered them. The church remains largely untouched from that day. Skeletons cover the floor. Some skulls still have spikes sticking out of them. Often, genocide in Africa can seem so distant, so far away. On the TV news, reporters often say, “I’m so-and-so, coming to you from 6,000 miles away.” As a viewer, you immediately disengage because you think, What’s this got to do with me? What I realized is that there’s more tying us together than tearing us apart. I’ve since incorporated that lesson into my reports. “I just met an amazing woman some of you will relate to,” I might say instead.
White: I was traveling to Rwanda with an organization called Right to Play, and we visited the genocide memorial in Kigali on the first day. It was one of the heaviest places I have been. When I compete in a contest, there are normally 20,000 to 30,000 people in the crowd, which feels like a lot. At this spot, there are more than 250,000 people buried.
Their Best Life Tips:
“Smile,” advises Dr. Gupta. “A man told me, ‘This is a miserable place. A smile is never returned.’ I could see that there were many children, but very few adults, so I decided to smile at as many kids as I could. I stayed nine extra days. Kids always want to smile. They may not have figured you out yet, but they will always smile right back at you. It comes so easily to them.” And “go with friends,” says White. “You are going to need to speak to someone once you leave.”
How to Do it Right: Fly to London, then to Nairobi, Kenya, and then head to Rwanda on the Rwandair Express. Stay in Kigali to see the memorial White visited; the other memorial is located about 20 miles south of Kigali and accessible by car and bus. The Hotel Novotel Kigali Umubano is clean and centrally located.
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked, the basis of the Netflix series of the same name.
Years ago, I spent a week working at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. It’s a “grass farm”—a term I didn’t get (who eats grass?) until Joel Salatin, the farmer, got me down on my belly in a pasture to meet the grasses that are the keystone species of his ingenious operation. He grows a half dozen different animal species in a balletic rotation, so that the cattle eat the grass one day, the chickens eat maggots from the cow pies the next day, and then six weeks later, after the grass has blazed with fresh growth (thanks to the cut cattle hair and chicken manure fertilization), it’s ready to do it all over again. Watching this process was life changing: Most of us assume the human relationship to nature to be “zero sum,” that is, for us to get what we want from nature, nature must be diminished, so feeding ourselves is a process of subtraction. Not on Joel’s farm. His system creates more soil, more fertility, and more biodiversity. It’s the most encouraging thing I’ve witnessed in 25 years writing about the environment. It suggests a model of how we might provide for our needs while actually improving nature.
Best Life Tip: “Execute a chicken,” says Pollan. “It sounds intense—and it is—but killing a chicken is a profound experience that immediately makes you appreciate where your food comes from.”
How to Do it Right: The Polyface Farm offers a series of tours and apprenticeships. Find a similar farmer near you by visiting Eat Wild. And speaking of eating right, stop the damaging effects of aging with these delicious and fully-organic 25 Foods That Keep You Young Forever!