We can’t say what the future will bring, but nature will always be waiting. From animal encounters to epic walks, these open-air adventures offer 33 wild escapes for the year(s) ahead…
It might seem contrary to visit Yellowstone National Park in winter, when it’s mostly closed, but this is a special month – as wildlife watchers know. The thick snows of January and February put the park’s famous wolves in focus, their grey-black fur easier to spot against a white background. Winter tours follow the life-and-death antics of the packs of the Lamar Valley, while snowshoeing side-trips reveal the other side of life in the park: the tough winter ahead for the herds of elk, bison and pronghorn antelope.
In January, grey whales complete the longest migration by a mammal on Earth – around 12,000km – heading down the North American coast to arrive in the Sea of Cortez. Here they arrive to breed in the shallow waters of Magdalena Bay and the lagoons of Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio where panga boats take visitors out to observe them until April. It’s a remarkable encounter, with friendly whales often rubbing up against the hulls or feeling for the hands of visitors to encourage a quick scratch.
Forget those fly-and-flop preconceptions. Savvy travellers know that the Canary Islands are a revelation when explored on foot. Tenerife has nearly 1,000kms of trails to help you discover its particularly diverse landscapes. Think Mount Teide and lunar landscapes, white-washed villages, pine forests, rugged ravines and coastal views. With its mild winters, this is the ideal time to don walking boots and work up a decent appetite before enjoying the local gastronomy at night.
Chile’s Route of Parks is the ultimate road trip: 17 national parks split across 2,800km. It would require months and an affinity for dirt-road to drive it all, but even a couple of weeks on the Carretera Austral will plunge you into the most captivating scenery on the planet. In February, nights are warm, the summer crowds have thinned, and there’s still 13 good hours of daylight to scan for puma in Torres del Paine, soak in the grandeur of Grey Glacier, hike the wild steppe of Kawésqar, and kayak the sky-high fjords of San Rafael.
February is the last of the cool winter months here, before things start to heat up dramatically. It’s a great time for walking safaris in Satpura National Park and Pachmarhi Reserve, where you can get out of the Jeep and stalk the bush in small tender-footed groups. Sightings of sloth bears, leopards and wild dog are a possibility, even during this green period. Tigers, however, are less acclimatised to visitors, so if you demand that particular big cat fix, you’ll need to combine with a game drive in Pench NP.
Every year, as Ottawa’s Rideau Canal freezes over, the largest skating rink in the world opens to visitors (Jan–Feb). Some 7.8km of solid ice makes for a thrilling way to see the city, sliding from downtown to Dow’s Lake. It’s better to go later in the season, when all of its sections are frozen. And when you’re done with the ice, 61km of snowshoe trails amid the boreal forests, wandering moose and towering red oaks await the intrepid in nearby Gatineau Park.
Cherry blossom season is a moveable feast in Japan, drifting north over the first half of the year. You can have your first hanami (picnic) of the season under a blooming sakura tree in January on the southernmost isles of Okinawa, and your last in the far north of Hokkaido by May. Each region enjoys a brief flush of colour, usually lasting a month, yet the sculpted parks of Kyoto are something special. Mid-March sees branches bowing with blooms on the Philosopher’s Path; it’s even more beautiful when lit at night, while dining under a pink canopy in the teahouse gardens of Maruyama Park is a rite of passage.
Forget ancient ruins – 25 March is Greek Independence Day, and 2021 will mark 200 years since the start of the revolt against the Ottoman invaders. It’s a great excuse to visit the Peloponnese where it all started. Explore clan tower houses in the Mani Peninsula, where villages begin the celebrations a week early because that’s when their men marched off to fight; hike the Lousios gorge, which hid revolutionaries in its hanging monasteries; and stroll Venetian castles and neoclassical mansions in the Old Town of Nafplio, modern Greece’s original capital (1829-33).
Autumn (Mar–May) is by far the quietest season for ‘tramping’ those great wilds. By March, the trails have thinned out yet it’s only a few degrees cooler and the days are still long. Head to the South Island for multi-day hikes and stride empty shores and bush on Abel Tasman NP’s Coastal Track, escape to the peaceful beech forests of the Kepler Track in the Fiordlands, or scan for kiwi footprints on the remote paths of Stewart Island’s Rakiura Track.
Few realise what a prolific whale-watching hub the Azores is. Sperm whales feeding year-round on Atlantic giant squid are commonly spied by boat tours departing the islands of São Miguel, Faial and Pico, but April sees a flurry of activity here as blue, fin and sei whales migrate through these waters. When back on dry land, be sure to hit the islands’ trails, too, exploring lush volcano paths, vineyards and lava fields just as wildflowers start to cover the land.
Head to Leiden to explore the Netherlands’ Bollenstreek (bulb region) on two wheels. By April, the tulip season (late Mar–mid-May) is in full bloom and maps with pre-planned routes and trails threading the country lanes around fields can easily be picked up along with rental bikes. Finish at the famous Keukenhof, a giant park home to an estimated 7 million bulbs, for a grandstand finale.
April is the last chance in the season to catch the incredible mirror effect of Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats. The rainy season here typically runs from January to late spring, when water just pools on the hardened salt crust. It creates a reflective sheen that, when it meets the horizon, looks for all the world like you’re walking on clouds and stars. While there are no guarantees the weather will oblige, this shoulder month sees you escape the bulk of the busy period (Jan–Mar).
May is peak breeding season for the puffins of the Farne Islands, off the coast of Seahouses. Boats chug out for Staple and Inner Farne between May and July for sightings of this industrious seabird. Landings have been off-limits during the COVID-19 restrictions but boats still tour the surrounding waters. The chance to spy grey seals and bottlenose dolphins while looking out for some of the 100,000 seabirds that nest here is well worth it – and that’s before you’ve traipsed the beautiful coastal walk between Seahouses and Craster.
May is warm enough for you to feel the exoticism, but before the soaring temperatures of summer. Browse the souks, sharpening your haggling skills and stocking up on a year’s worth of gifts for friends and family. Travellers will have never been more welcome. Soak up the sights, sounds and aromas of Djemaa el-Fna at night, before retiring to a beautiful riad. When you’ve had enough of city life then take to the High Atlas for mountain treks (we love to stay at the Kasbah du Toubkal). If you’re then in need of some sea air, finish with Atlantic breezes at atmospheric Essaouira.
Strap your boots on! May is the best month to catch the first flushes of spring in the Picos of north-west Spain. Tours typically take in the alpine trails around the Liébana Valley, where carpets of Asturian daffodils paint the meadows yellow around Fuente Dé and hikes past the orchid-rich pastures of Pido reward with sightings of hundreds of dramatic sawfly orchids. Soak in medieval monasteries, fossil-ridden gorges and dizzying passes among some of Europe’s most diverse alpine flora.
Spring weather can be tricky in the Dolomites, with the high slopes often covered in snow until May. By mid-June, however, everything is open, including the mountain huts. Visit the sunny Trentino region for medieval villages and old Austro-Hungarian fortifications around Lake Garda, which is ideal for friendlier day walks. For a tougher challenge, make for Val di Fassa, where treks wind past the famous Marmolada Glacier, which reports warn could melt within 15 years. Do you need any more motivation?
June brings with it some special visitors to Hanifaru Bay in the Baa Atoll. This protected area sees scores of gentle whale sharks (the world’s biggest fish) and manta rays arrive to feed on the explosion of plankton in its waters, with visitors (in limited numbers) able to snorkel alongside these silent giants for some humbling encounters. Then, at night, head over to Vaadhoo Island where the shores sparkle with bioluminescence, mirroring the twinkling sky overhead. Magical.
In June, Borneo’s heavy rains have dissipated, and the trees of the Danum Valley are fruiting, luring the area’s 500 or so orangutan down from the upper canopy to feed. Lodges fill up fast during this period, but if you can stay overnight, waking to the dawn call of the gibbons or spying an orangutan is unforgettable. It’s a good time, too, for treks into the Maliau Basin where a lost world of remote communities, crashing falls and raw jungle await.
A series of viewing cabins in the forests of Vartius, along the eastern border with Russia, offer perfect social-distanced bear sightings away from the cramped hides. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows give spectacular views, and in June and July the sun barely sets, with orange skies bleeding into the smallest hours so you can photograph bears and wolverines deep into the night.
Train travel and Vietnam are inseparable. After all, slow travel is the privilege of a country 32 times longer than it is wide. What Vietnam hasn’t had until now is a boutique train, which is where the new 12-seat Vietage comes in. Sliding the rails 300km between the coastal cities of Da Nang and Quy Nhon in air-conditioned comfort across a gentle six hours of countryside rubbernecking is the only way to travel in summer.
Sometimes dubbed ‘Kingdom of the Ice Bear’, the Svalbard archipelago is said to have more polar bears than people. High up in the Arctic, July is the perfect month for an expedition cruise. The ice has melted enough for the ships to fully explore the inlets, bays and islands, and to divert in search of whales or walruses – and the midnight sun gives you more time to enjoy it all. Pack a good camera, binoculars and a sense of wonder.
Few realise you can see the Great Migration at different stages across the year, from January’s calving in the Serengeti to the early river crossings of the Mbalageti and Grumeti in June. But by August and September, the herds are bridging the crocodile-infested waters of the Mara, with a gauntlet of lions on the other side, meaning that the drama is at its highest. So too are bookings, however, so grab a place far in advance.
Accepted wisdom tells us that the wettest months (Aug–Oct) of ‘green season’ are a bad time to visit Costa Rica, but it’s just not true. Lower off-season prices and some unique sights make it a plus, especially on the Caribbean side of the island where it’s drier. Joining trips to see the green turtles of Tortuguero NP come ashore to lay their eggs and spying the first of the humpbacks drift by the waters off the country’s Southern Pacific Coast are well worth the odd short shower.
Make 2021 the year you finally conquer Central Asia. The best time to tour all the ‘Stans is early autumn, when it’s both cool in the mountains and not too blistering at lower altitudes. Other visitors will have trickled away by the end of the month as you hop between walled cities, barren steppe, and Silk Road caravanserai. From the majestic lakes and nomadic herdsmen of the Tien Shen ranges to the Timurid relics of ancient Samarkand, it’s an itinerary that’s millennia in the making.
Few regions are as well-equipped for walkers as the Tirol. September is the ideal month to tackle its 24,000km of Alpine trails, after the heat of July and August has died down. One of the more manageable challenges is the Innsbruck Trek, a series of pre-arranged day hikes around the five summits surrounding the picturesque Tirolean capital. Your luggage is delivered to every stop, lightening your load and freeing you up to visit scenic villages and Habsburg palaces in between.
The sight of 8 million fruit bats, each with a wingspan of up to a metre, arriving to feed on the musuku fruits of Zambia’s Kasanka NP is one of the great wonders of travel. The bats arrive in late October and by mid-December – puff! –they’re gone. Visitors arrive at dusk, when the entire colony heads out to feed and the sky turns black. Side-trips to spy the bizarre shoebill storks of the Bangweulu Wetlands and walking safaris among the ‘Big Five’ of South Luangwa NP are the icing on the cake.
The beginning of Ethiopia’s dry season (Oct–Jun) finds the highlands and ranges still beautifully lush. In the north, trekking among the Simien Mountains yields fantastic encounters with its grazing ‘bleeding heart’ gelada monkey, the only entirely terrestrial primate other than humans. To the south, the Bale Mountains reward with rare sightings of Ethiopian wolves, but the scenery is the star here, with its craggy volcanic ridges and the almost eerie cloud forest of Harenna. A green wonder.
The Arctic north of Norway affords front-row seats to the aurora (Sept–Apr); it’s just a matter of ‘how’ you see it. Cruises among the fjords between Bergen and Kirknes are so prolific that cruise operator Hurtigruten promise a free trip if you don’t see anything. The Nordland Railway affords aurora views from your carriage window as it sets off for Arctic Bodo from Trondheim. Or maybe just bed down in a glass-roofed lavvo (teepee) in the Lyngen Alps, outside Tromso, and let the sky do the work.
The start of dry season (Nov–Apr) is the perfect excuse to navigate the 7,000-plus islands of the Philippines. On Bohol, discover its bubble-like ‘Chocolate Hills’ and explore the jungle in search of the island’s native tarsier, the smallest primate in the world. Pay a visit to the island of Siquijor and its mysterious shaman, before finishing on Cebu where you can swim alongside millions of swirling silvery fish in the sardine run of Moalboal. And that’s just the beginning…
November brings with it cool winds and fewer visitors to the Nile, and by joining a traditional felucca sailboat cruise you may feel like you have you have Africa‘s longest river to yourself. Inch the ancient waters between the Pharoah-driven excesses of Luxor and Aswan, often with just you and a captain, and sleep on deck in the open air or at stops along the way. By this time, the new Grand Egyptian Museum may also finally be open (now due 2021), so you can maybe add Cairo’s newest wonder to those along the river.
Margaret River is famed for its biodiversity, with more than 2,500 species of wildflower blooming from September onward. Early November is your last chance to see them in their full glory and spot migrating humpback whales from the shore. The 135km Cape to Cape walk offers a chance do both, especially in the Boranup Karri Forest which has a rich array of flora and a great lookout point. Finish with a cellar-door tasting in one of the umpteen vineyards of Australia oldest wine-growing area.
On 4 December 2021, a total solar eclipse will black out the waters of the West Antarctic, forming a huge arc of darkness south of the Falkands. You couldn’t imagine a more dramatic scenario, though you’ll need an ice-strengthened ship to witness it. Luckily, there’s no shortage of cruises during the Antarctic summer, with trips from Ushuaia, Argentina, pit-stopping at vast penguin colonies, volcanic isles and great shelves of calving ice in the lead up to the big blackout.
Dry season in northern Colombia (Dec–Mar) is brings the best conditions for hikes to the mysterious remains of Teyuna (Ciudad Perdida), a jungle-clad city built around AD800 then ‘lost’ for centuries. Five-day treks are always accompanied by a guide as you pass Kogi villages and forests draped in lianas en route to the 1,200 steps that lead up to the ruins. It’s the perfect rugged finale to a few days amid the old-world cobbles and pastel churches of beautiful Cartagena.
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