Man overlooking Petra, Jordan (Shutterstock)
List 26 December

25 enriching travel experiences that will change your life

From saving a species to expanding your skills (and your mind), there’s always a good reason to get away – and if you can’t think of one, read on as we round up the trips that may change your life…

1: Travel alone

Setting off on a solo adventure in Turkey (Dreamstime)

Setting off on a solo adventure in Turkey (Dreamstime)

No compromises, no limitations, no back-up. Travelling by yourself can be daunting but empowering; there is no greater freedom. You’ll have to rely on your own wits, but you can do whatever you want – and you might discover more about yourself along the way.

Where? Newbie solos can play it safe in regions well set up for travellers: English-speaking Australia and New Zealand; laid-back South-East Asia; South America’s ‘gringo trail’. Frenetic India or lesser-trodden West Africa or Central Asia provide bigger challenges.

Take our advice: Stay open to other people – put that book down, choose a seat at the bar, strike up conversations. Who knows what might happen? But remember to have fun.

2: Travel with strangers

Taking a punt on people you don't know: A group climbing Kilimanjaro (Dreamstime)

Taking a punt on people you don't know: A group climbing Kilimanjaro (Dreamstime)

Our best friends don’t necessarily make our best travel companions – it can be more fun and less fractious to join like-minded strangers instead. So sign up for a small-group trip, especially one with a clear focus. Sharing a particular interest or goal – whether that’s a physical challenge or a shared love of opera – will help you and your new travel-mates bond. You may even make new friends for life.

Where? Small-group trips probe all corners of the globe; they’re especially useful for taking the hassle out of travel to remote or bureaucratic destinations. Enjoy the team spirit of a Kilimanjaro climb, the cheerful camaraderie of a hands-on Outback camping trip (perhaps overlanding across the Kimberley in rugged Western Australia) or the mutual appreciation of an expert-led art tour in Italy.

Take our advice: Be ready to compromise – if you accept a group trip won’t be 100% perfect, you’ll definitely enjoy it much more.

3: Take a self-propelled journey

Feel the freedom of travelling under you own steam on a walk along the South West Coast Path (Shutterstock)

Feel the freedom of travelling under you own steam on a walk along the South West Coast Path (Shutterstock)

You experience a place differently when you travel more slowly. Travelling on foot, by bike or in a kayak, you see more, soak up more; you can access out-of-the-way places, meet more local people. There’s also a sense of freedom in being in charge of your pace, detours and destination. It’s more the kind of travel associated with early explorers, with a sense of discovery to match.

Where? A continuous long-distance hike delivers a big buzz, so maybe try England’s spectacularly undulating South West Coast Path or Patagonia’s W Trek. Novice cyclists should consider a flat, traffic-free ride such as France’s château-dotted River Loire or New Zealand’s Otago Central Rail Trail, or maybe channel Canada’s early gold-rush prospectors by canoeing the Yukon River.

Take our advice: Look into companies that transport your luggage while you undertake your adventure, so you can travel lighter.

4: Go epic on your doorstep

Plot big adventures close to home: Camping on the shores of Dunvegan Loch, Scotland (Shutterstock)

Plot big adventures close to home: Camping on the shores of Dunvegan Loch, Scotland (Shutterstock)

You can enjoy world-class experiences without even leaving the country. Not only is there plenty of great stuff here, there are ways of making even the everyday seem like an adventure. Add a twist or head a little out of your comfort zone and even the streets you know best can blow your mind.

Where? Your doorstep. Wild camp atop the nearest hill, take a hike after dark, paddle your local river, cycle the edge of your county – micro-adventures are everywhere!

Take our advice: Try something you’ve never done before – maybe your first wild swim, 50km hike or nocturnal wildlife stakeout.

5: Do something after dark

Challenge your senses by exploring at night by participating in a night dive searching for manta rays, Hawaii (Shutterstock)

Challenge your senses by exploring at night by participating in a night dive searching for manta rays, Hawaii (Shutterstock)

Whether you’re on a walk, dive, drive or safari, everything feels di­fferent when the lights go out. Your senses become more alert, familiar objects feel alien, di­fferent animals come out to play and you get a new perspective. It can also be a little bit scary – but it’s no bad thing to spook yourself.

Where? Night safaris in African game parks yield a di­fferent crew of creatures. Good spots for night dives include Hawaii’s Kona coast (for manta rays) and the Maldives.

Take our advice: If you’re afraid, look for guided activities – for example, the Sierra Club leads evening hikes in LA’s Griffith Park.

6: Don’t just visit, engage

Become part of the community by staying in a ger with Mongolian Nomads (Shutterstock)

Become part of the community by staying in a ger with Mongolian Nomads (Shutterstock)

By getting involved with local life – whether that’s signing up as a volunteer or spending time in a family home – you’ll be viewed less as a tourist, more as a fellow human being. This means gaining a more authentic cultural insight; you won’t learn only about a destination’s landscapes and architecture but also about the people who make it tick.

Where? Volunteering opportunities are worldwide, but it pays to seek a cause you’re passionate about and a project where your presence is helpful. Alternatively, trek with Berbers in Morocco, stay in a ger with Mongolian nomads or book into a casa particular (homestay) in Cuba.

Take our advice: If staying with a family, know the local rules – what you should wear, how to eat. It’s respectful to know the social norms, such as the local word for ‘thank you’.

Life-changing travel moments

 Simon Reeve

“Glencoe in Scotland was my first real adventure after I left school. I’d never been anything like that distance on my own before. When I arrived it was too late in the day to go anywhere. But I thought I’d go for a quick hike. When I started my journey I was an insecure teenager. But the climb changed me. I passed hikers and climbers on the way. More than one eyebrow was raised. I reached the ridge in the dark, and stood there feeling euphoric and a bit brave. I made it down unscathed and spent a freezing night in the car, but I didn’t care. I was elated.”

Hilary Bradt 

“In 1964, I went to see a production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, but I’d muddled the dates and instead saw a new play called The Royal Hunt of the Sun, about the conquest of the Incas. I knew nothing about Peru but wanted to learn more. I found out that there were still Inca ruins there, so I took a job to earn money for a South America trip. Five years later, I stood gazing down on Machu Picchu; another five years on and I returned with my husband to write a backpacking guide to Peru that started Bradt Travel Guides.”

7: Join the crowd

Get caught up in festival fever by attending Holi in India (Shutterstock)

Get caught up in festival fever by attending Holi in India (Shutterstock)

While escaping from the masses is often a good thing, sometimes it’s better to join in. There’s nothing quite like being swept up in a great gathering – you’ll see the local people letting their hair down, performing old rituals, cooking up specialities and honouring their saints, relatives, spirits or samba bands. Noisy, hectic, messy mayhem? Quite possibly. Informative fun? Hell yeah!

Where? It’s best when you happen upon a local knees-up, but you might want to plan ahead to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time to ‘play mas’ (joining a masquerade band) at Trinidad Carnival, get paint-splattered at Holi in India or booze it up at Munich’s Oktoberfest.

Take our advice: Hook up with a local who can fill you in on the event dos and don’ts.

8: Eyeball an animal

Get up close to the most impressive species, such as polar bear in Svalbard (Shutterstock)

Get up close to the most impressive species, such as polar bear in Svalbard (Shutterstock)

Coming face to face with a big, beautiful, powerful creature will put you firmly in your place. Also, the best wildlife experiences often happen in the most beautiful spots. Prepare to feel awed, vulnerable and humbled – and maybe even question your responsibility to the planet.

Where? Head to Rwanda or Uganda to track mountain gorillas, spot tigers in India, look for jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal, cruise Svalbard for polar bears or snorkel with whale sharks in Western Australia.

Take our advice: Appreciate little critters, too – a good guide will point out smaller, equally enthralling wildlife wonders.

9: Make a personal pilgrimage

Follow your passion, whatever it may be, like these pilgrims  walking the Camino de Santiago, Spain (Dreamstime)

Follow your passion, whatever it may be, like these pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, Spain (Dreamstime)

For some, it’s saying a prayer in the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica. For others, it’s eating a peanut butter-and-bacon sandwich by Elvis’s Graceland grave. We all have our passions – follow yours.

Where? The Camino de Santiago is the classic pilgrimage trail, but you might find more spirituality on the UK’s St Cuthbert’s Way or the Via Francigena to Rome. Music fans might like to hit the Blues Highway from Nashville to New Orleans, while bookworms could follow in Phileas Fogg’s footsteps.

Take our advice: Don’t be dissuaded. If you really want to visit the childhood home of every Beatle, just go ahead and do it.

10: Learn something new

A sitar player in India (Shutterstock)

A sitar player in India (Shutterstock)

Studying while you’re overseas could change your life – maybe you’ll enjoy your PADI course so much that you’ll ditch your day job to become a diving instructor. Even if it doesn’t, it will give you new, potentially useful skills, whether they be conversational French, bread-making or salsa dancing. Chances are you’ll gain a deeper insight into everyday life, too.

Where? Learning a language in a country in which it’s spoken is more beneficial and fun – try Spanish lessons in Guatemala or a combination Portuguese-and-samba course in Brazil. Learn sitar-playing in India, cowboy skills in Montana or gelato-making in Italy.

Take our advice: Stay with a local family during your learning holiday, so you’re fully immersed in the language and culture.

11: Travel slowly

Relish rather than rush by planning a culinary break in Italy's Piedmont region (Dreamstime)

Relish rather than rush by planning a culinary break in Italy's Piedmont region (Dreamstime)

Heed the words of Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow, who writes: “The Slow philosophy is… about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.” Apply that to your travels: linger longer in one place rather than dashing from spot to spot; eat sustainably, regionally and seasonally; take the time to chat, absorb, walk and explore. It can lead to geographically limited but arguably more enlightening experiences.

Where? Plan a glorious culinary break in Italy’s Piedmont region, HQ of the Slow Food movement. Alternatively, cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage, walk between villages in the Indian Himalaya or hire a city apartment for a fortnight to blend in locally.

Take our advice: Trust in serendipity – put the guidebook and smartphone down for a while and just see where life takes you.

12: Seek out a spiritual place

Visit a site that will succour your soul, like the temples of Kyoto, Japan (Dreamstime)

Visit a site that will succour your soul, like the temples of Kyoto, Japan (Dreamstime)

‘Spiritual’ means di­fferent things to di­fferent people. It might mean worshipping a deity at a temple or even immersing yourself in the wilderness, so that you feel a connection to nature. Some places just have a way of seeping into your being; of making you ask new questions about yourself, about others, maybe even human existence as a whole.

Where? Choose a site filled with devotees, such as the ghats (riverside steps) of India’s holy city of Varanasi or the temples of Kyoto, Japan. Or seek the spirituality of nature on a stroll around Tibet’s Mount Kailash or a camp-out at Australia’s Uluru.

Take our advice: Remain respectful. Don’t cross off­-limits areas and ask if there is a dress code or if an o­ffering is required.

Life-changing travel moments 

Mark Carwardine

“I was just out of university and in California for the summer when I went on a whale-watching trip. For the first two hours, there was nothing – I didn’t see a thing. And then suddenly, without any warning at all, a grey whale – it must have been 40 foot long – leapt out of the water. I was 21 at the time, but I still remember it in slow-motion: this whale appearing out of nowhere and falling back into the water with a huge splash. I remember thinking: this is what I want to do with the rest of my life! It all came from that one moment.”

Jonathan & Angela Scott

Jonathon: “So what do the ‘Big Cat People’ do when they’re not tracking wildlife in Africa? We’re not divers but we love snorkelling. Angie, my wife, was born in Alexandria in Egypt but brought up on the coast of Tanzania. So, when we were in Tonga and our friend and fellow wildlife photographer Griet Van Malderen invited us to join her to swim with humpback whales, we were overjoyed.

“This was something Angie had always wanted to do, though I had a bit of a problem putting on a facemask because of my moustache – I basically swallowed a lot of ocean water. But we did have some unforgettable encounters. One moment in particular was absolutely sensational, and so different to the wildlife we normally encounter in the savannah – for both of us, it was life-changing.”

Angela: “I hadn’t been in the water for more than a few minutes when, looking down into the blue, this mother and calf materialised out of the depths towards me. It was as if time had slowed and all my senses were wrapped in that moment – one I will cherish forever. This photograph captures perfectly a kinder, more considerate and loving relationship between humans and their wild relatives.”

13: Go on a massive journey

Don't just settle for a quick getaway – extend your travels. Try exploring India by rail (Dreamstime)

Don't just settle for a quick getaway – extend your travels. Try exploring India by rail (Dreamstime)

A two-week trip provides a fantastic dose of otherness. So just imagine how much better it might be to go for longer: a month, six months, six years! Extended travelling doesn’t just mean covering more ground, it provokes an all-round attitude shift. You can ultimately move more slowly and take more detours; you’re also forced to cope with catastrophes and, at times, even boredom. Eventually, though, you will start to forget the stresses of home and sink into a different mindset. It’s the ultimate freedom.

Where? Everywhere! Maybe attempt a round-the-world trip, stopping off in Asia, Australia and the USA. Or perhaps focus on one region, such as India by rail, overlanding in South America or walking across the whole of Europe.

Take our advice: Don’t over-plan – things will always go awry in some way. Have a basic itinerary, but allow wiggle room for spontaneity and cock-ups.

14: Go far from anywhere

Travel somewhere truly off the grid like the Namib Desert (Dreamstime)

Travel somewhere truly off the grid like the Namib Desert (Dreamstime)

According to a 2018 Ofcom report, Brits spend an average of 24 hours a week on the internet. Just think how you could be spending that day. Take a digital detox by going completely off-grid; travel somewhere wild and remote to free yourself from the online world and enjoy engaging with the real world instead.

Where? Tourists aren’t allowed online in North Korea. Or feel your own insignificance in an enormous wilderness such as the Canadian Yukon, the high Himalaya, the Namib Desert or the Amazon.

Take our advice: You can find internet access in even the most unlikely places these days, so self-discipline may be required. At least disable social media and leave your phone for emergencies only.

15: Travel creatively

Turn your journey into a memorable piece of art, like making a video of a cycle trip across Asia (Shutterstock)

Turn your journey into a memorable piece of art, like making a video of a cycle trip across Asia (Shutterstock)

We all like taking holiday snaps, but how about taking your creativity a little further? Write a blog or travelogue, paint a picture, pen a song or make a video about your trip and it will force you to look at everything differently; to consider other angles and perspectives; to really look. Plus, you’ll have a unique souvenir at the end.

Where? Book a trip specifically focused on a creative pursuit, such as an art safari in Malawi or a travel-writing retreat in Spain. Or perhaps try making a short film of a long-distance cycle trip across Asia.

Take our advice: Don’t get hung up on quality, just create. Write, sketch or compose whatever comes into your head – you can edit it into perfection afterwards.

16: Be wowed by nature

Delight in the planet's most dazzling spectacles, such as the northern lights in Finland (Dreamstime)

Delight in the planet's most dazzling spectacles, such as the northern lights in Finland (Dreamstime)

For all humankind’s incredible inventions, there are many natural phenomena that knock them all for six. No movie special effect can match seeing first-hand the magical sky-dance of the aurora borealis (or aurora australis – if you’re in the southern hemisphere), the ethereal glow of bioluminescence, the flash and fury of a lightning storm or the rage of a tornado. Witnessing any one of these will make you bow down to Mother Nature.

Where? For aurora thrills, head to the light-pollution-free, less cloudy parts of the Arctic Circle – Abisko in Sweden, Finnish Lapland. For bioluminescence try visiting the lagoons in Puerto Rico and Tobago.

Take our advice: Increase your chances of sightings with planning and research: bioluminescence is brighter around a new moon; aurora regions issue forecasts predicting the likelihood of displays.

17: Follow an ancient trail

Feel the force of our forebears by cycling along the remains of the Berlin Wall (Shutterstock)

Feel the force of our forebears by cycling along the remains of the Berlin Wall (Shutterstock)

Tracing the routes of erstwhile explorers, emigrants, merchants, monarchs, pioneers and pilgrims offers a connection back to the past. Following their formative footsteps brings the history of the world to life, and can imbue your modern-day travels with greater meaning.

Where? Hike Hadrian’s Wall or the 15th-century paving slabs of Peru’s Inca Trail, or even cycle graffitied concrete remains along the Berlin Wall Trail. Plot an overland expedition along the Silk Road or from St Louis to the Pacific in the wake of Lewis and Clark, whose 1808 expedition first opened up the western USA. Or just bag a flight to the ultimate explorer homage: the South Pole.

Take our advice: Read up before you go, and know how to recognise a strip lynchet (earth terrace), Roman road, Neolithic tomb or a caravanserai (old inn).

18: Do something for the first time

Invigorate your travels by doing something for the first new, such as stand-up paddleboarding in Greece (Shutterstock)

Invigorate your travels by doing something for the first new, such as stand-up paddleboarding in Greece (Shutterstock)

Don’t go back to the same old places in the same old ways. Head to a country you’ve never visited, use a mode of transport you’ve never tried, eat a dish you can’t pronounce – and have the time of your life.

Where? The travelsphere is always dreaming up adventures. Try stand-up paddleboarding in the Greek Islands, fatbiking over the UAE’s dunes or using an app such as EatWith to join a dinner party in Paris.

Take our advice: These days it’s easy to find unique experiences. Follow local bloggers/ papers on social media to see what’s new.

Life-changing moments 

Kate Humble

“My most formative life-changing experience was going to South Africa in the late 1980s. I went to a township called Alexandra and walked around with a young black man who took me to meet his family. All I’d heard about apartheid South Africa was that black people hated white people and vice versa. What I discovered was that could not have been less true, and that human beings have an amazing capacity for joy, even in difficult circumstances. It made me think: don’t just believe what you read – go and experience it for yourself.”

Simon Calder

“To my wide-eyed amazement, the Woodcraft Folk organisation volunteered to take a six-year-old from the streets of Crawley to the wonders of Westmorland (Cumbria) for a week’s camping. After one day exploring a landscape carved by rivers and dry stone walls, I became lost amid brooding fells and stormy skies, and I learned travellers can rely on the kindness of strangers. Decades later, I have been lost and rescued many times. I am no better at lighting a fire from twigs than I was when I was six. But I am always thankful for the Woodcraft Folk.”

19: Scare yourself

Push your limits for the most memorable experiences – you could walk one of China's glass suspension bridges (Shutterstock)

Push your limits for the most memorable experiences – you could walk one of China's glass suspension bridges (Shutterstock)

Leaving your comfort zone is how you learn and grow – you’ll be surprised what you’re capable of. Travel encourages such boundary pushing, and can build confidence. Embrace it!

Where? Arachnophobes could sleep in a hammock in the Amazon. Heights-haters could walk across a glass suspension bridges in China. You could even cage dive with great whites off South Africa.

Take our advice: There’s no need to utterly terrify yourself – pick a challenge that will ultimately give you a buzz, not a coronary.

20: Sleep under the stars

Stare up at the heavens to reset your world view in Jordan's Wadi Rum (Dreamstime)

Stare up at the heavens to reset your world view in Jordan's Wadi Rum (Dreamstime)

There’s nothing like contemplating the huge, dark unknowableness of the universe for putting us in our place. It’s a reminder of how teeny-tiny we are. It’s also healthy to get away from light-polluted civilisation, not to mention how magical it is to lie back and be dazzled by a billion stars.

Where? Official International Dark Sky Reserves – such as Jasper in Canada or Namibia’s NamibRand – are a good start. Wild camp on Exmoor, spend a night with Bedouin in Jordan’s Wadi Rum or splash out on a five-star safari lodge that has four-poster beds you can wheel outside.

Take our advice: Download an astronomy app such as Night Sky to help you identify the stars. Consider coordinating your sleep-out with the next meteor shower.

21: Abandon your inhibitions

Go on – throw caution to the wind! Try an onsen in Japan where no clothes are allowed (Shutterstock)

Go on – throw caution to the wind! Try an onsen in Japan where no clothes are allowed (Shutterstock)

Us Brits can be a reserved bunch. But away from the social conventions and judging eyes of our brethren, why not loosen up a little? No one knows you, after all. So go for that skinny dip, shake your stuff at the local festival, sing like no one’s listening in that packed karaoke bar. Set yourself free!

Where? Swim naked on the azure-lapped beaches of the Greek isles. Steam in a Japanese onsen (clothing not allowed). Dance outrageously at a Rio Carnival bloco (street party), learn how to haka (war dance) in New Zealand or hit Havana’s salsa clubs.

Take our advice: While it’s good to let go, be sure not to break any laws at the same time. Not all beaches welcome birthday suits...

22: Save a species

Help conserve wildlife by paying them a visit: Look for elephants in Africa (Dreamstime)

Help conserve wildlife by paying them a visit: Look for elephants in Africa (Dreamstime)

The rallying cry of many conservation organisations is that animals are ‘worth more alive’. Prove that’s true by going to see the species that need help. Your presence – and pounds sterling – can help convince local communities and governments that there is value in protecting habitats. Tourism can be a powerful force in providing the kind of incentives that may turn hardened poachers into potential tour guides and threatened landscapes into national parks.

Where? Spotting turtles in Tortuguero, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, can have huge local benefits. One year of turtle-based tourism here can generate around US$6.5 million (£5m), says the World Wildlife Fund. Alternatively, spend your days looking for elephants in Africa. According to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a live elephant is worth US$22,966 (£17,750) a year to the local economy through eco-tourism.

Take our advice: Do your research and use guides and companies that offer sustainable and responsible animal interactions.

23: Travel for the greater good

Put your money where it's needed, when its needed: visit earthquake recovering Nepal (Dreamstime)

Put your money where it's needed, when its needed: visit earthquake recovering Nepal (Dreamstime)

After a natural disaster or terrorist attack, an entire country is often struck off the travel map. Sometimes the Foreign Office (FCO) warns against returning – and these warnings should be heeded when in effect. But sometimes it’s only media hype that keeps travellers away, which can leave local people dealing not only with the initial disaster but loss of livelihood, too. By visiting such places, you might have to cope with a less-than-perfect infrastructure but you’re also assured the warmest of welcomes.

Where? Dominica, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands hit by 2017’s devastating hurricanes; earthquake-recovering Nepal; rebounding Egypt and Tunisia, most of which is now off the FCO no-go list.

Take our advice: Don’t go back too soon – in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, your presence may be more of a hindrance.

Life-changing travel moments 

Nick Baker 

"On the Katmai peninsula in Alaska, a brown bear sauntered to within a couple of metres of me, gave a loud ‘harrumph’, as if utterly unimpressed by my presence, then strolled back to hooking salmon out of the river with his great paws. In that single moment, I not only felt more alive than I had ever done before, but my whole life and all the wildlife I’d experienced prior to this suddenly made sense. I finally understood what the true definition of ‘wild’ was, and also how it was missing from most of our lives.”

Michael Palin

“There was one voyage that changed the way that I looked at the world: going from Dubai to Mumbai on a dhow boat. It was in 1988, a time before sat nav and mobile phones, and as we made our way down the Gulf, through the Strait of Hormuz and across the Arabian Sea, we were entirely dependent on our crew of 16 Gujaratis, only one of whom spoke any English. But we struck up a rapport, and I was a different person after that journey. My guard was down and my fear of the unknown had begun to evaporate.”

25: And finally, travel more!

Get away as often as you can (Shutterstock)

Get away as often as you can (Shutterstock)

Nothing opens your mind, broadens your horizons and revives your body and soul quite like travel. Exposure to new sites, societies and experiences is formative in the best of ways, we believe, so do it as often as you can. Forgo buying designer shoes and fancy meals and save for trips instead – when you look back years later, you’ll surely have far fonder memories of your time spent abroad than of a half-forgotten pair of Gucci brogues. Find creative ways to carve out more time or money for travel, or simply squeeze in little microadventures where you can. Negotiate a four-day week, so you can set off on mini-breaks; stockpile holiday for a big trip; work out of a campervan while you’re on the road; or maybe housesit for locals when they go abroad. There’s always a way!

Where? Everywhere!

Take our advice: In between trips, be sure to travel vicariously – look out for news of various travel talks and events, watch the many TV travelogues that arrive on our screens every season and, of course, read Wanderlust!