By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor
The world is full of wonders—even when they’re hard to reach. While the pandemic has brought our journeys to a standstill, it has not quieted our curiosity. Now is the time to dream of your next journey, and lay the foundation for your next expedition.
Ahead of a new year—with the promise of a return to travel—we are eager to share our Best of the World list for 2021, filled with 25 amazing places to inspire future journeys and remind us why we love to travel (above, coral reefs in the Tasman Sea). Reported by the global editors of National Geographic Travel and framed by five categories (Family, Culture & History, Adventure, Sustainability, and Nature), these destinations on the rise speak of resilient communities, conservation success stories, and amazing opportunities for post-pandemic explorations.
We hope our list of the new year’s most important places will inspire you. Where are you dreaming of going in the years ahead? When travel returns how can we do it more sustainably? Let us know! We look forward to seeing you out in the world again soon.
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Best family journeys
Connecting with nature and First Nations in British Columbia: Canada’s westernmost province is home to more than 200 distinct nations. Amid the global reckoning on race, learning about Indigenous B.C. is a springboard for talking with kids about timely issues such as cultural appropriation and racial stereotypes. With a human history that spans some 10,000 years, Vancouver and Vancouver Island are accessible places for families to learn about Indigenous culture. The island alone has more than 45 Nations and the city offers some kid-friendly urban options, such as a 90-minute guided forest ramble in Stanley Park (pictured above). (See our full list of family journeys here.)
Culture & History
Discovering the once-forgotten in Tulsa: Greenwood Rising, the name of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” history center, aptly describes the groundswell of support to transform a key Oklahoma city’s neighborhood. Nearly a century ago, white mobs killed 300 Black people and destroyed nearly 35 blocks of homes and businesses there (pictured above, in 2018). To tell the story of the once-vibrant community, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is building Greenwood Rising (expected to open in fall) and is hosting speakers, concerts, and other special events. Greenwood “will be a place where people can come to learn, acknowledge implicit bias, and personally commit to enacting real change,” commission project director Phil Armstrong says. (See our other culture and history picks here.)
Where to hike a kingdom of ice? Along the turquoise Patagonian shores of Lake Argentino, the town of El Calafate gets its name from the thorny plant whose berries infuse cocktails and regional beers. However, its proximity to Los Glaciares National Park has placed the town on the tourist map as the gateway to the kingdom of ice in southern Argentine Patagonia. There, near the border with Chile, subantarctic forests preserve habitats for the guemal, puma, rhea, condor, and guanaco. But the park’s main draws are the nearly 300 glaciers, including three-mile-wide Perito Moreno (pictured above). (See our full adventure list here.)
More than 11 percent of Gabon is national parkland: Elephants and hippos lumber undisturbed on the white-sand beaches of Gabon—“Africa’s last Eden,” according to National Geographic explorer-in-residence Mike Fay. Not all of Gabon’s 13 national parks are readily accessible. But Loango National Park alone offers a variety of landscapes, vegetation, and wildlife, as possible encounters with critically endangered western lowland gorillas (pictured above). In Pongara, one of five national parks protecting important sea turtle habitat, the beachfront Pongara Lodge offers close-up views of nesting leatherbacks, migratory whales, and dolphins. (Check out the full list here, as well as 17 unforgettable African safaris.)
Wild beautiful places
In Yellowknife, northern lights shine 240 nights a year: The story of the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories (pictured above) reads like an adventure novel. Sitting at the edge of the Arctic, on the banks of the Great Slave Lake, and surrounded by wild taiga, the city of 20,000 came into being when gold was discovered there in the 1930s. In 1991, geologists found one of the Earth’s richest diamond deposits. The Dene people have stewarded this land for thousands of years. Today, in the face of global challenges like COVID-19, climate change, and environmental degradation, the Dene find freedom in the land, says Catherine Lafferty, a Yellowknives Dene Nation author. “Going out on the land is one way to find peace and solace, to reconnect and to heal,” says Lafferty. “The land helps us to remember what is important.” (See other other wild beautiful places here.)
To the sea: An epic walk
The stunning (and walkable) English coast: A colossal undertaking reaches fruition with the unveiling in 2021 of the world’s longest seafront walking trail. For nearly 2,800 miles, the England Coast Path (above, in Cornwall) zigzags around estuaries, inlets, and promontories. That rugged seascape—awash with secretive coves, windswept bluffs, and welcoming port towns—has been intrinsic to shaping the nation’s fortunes and character. And the new path aims to keep this landscape available to the people—and protect it for generations to come. (Here are our other amazing family adventures.)
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This Wednesday, Rob Kunzig covers the latest in science and the environment. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Rachael Bale on animals, Whitney Johnson on photography, and Debra Adams Simmons on history.
The last thought
Where could we even go? First off, the next three months may be the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But a look at the 75 countries open to American tourists right now may help you narrow your possibilities when things get better. Johanna Read offers a rundown on the nations and what they require from tourists. Read also delivers tips for (somewhat) safer travel. She notes, frustratingly (and realistically), that “the pandemic will continue to evolve, and plans will need to change accordingly.” Yes, after nine months, we know. (Above, Peru’s Machu Picchu is admitting no more than 30 percent of the tourists it did pre-pandemic.)