Ribeira do Ferreiro waterfall, Flores island, Azores

5 wildly underrated natural escapes for 2023

From one of the best whale-watching spots in the world to a legendary desert landscape, these destinations spark new appreciation for the planet’s under-the-radar treasures.

Ribeira Grande on Flores Island is among dozens of waterfalls that plunge from the Azores’ green volcanic slopes.
Photograph by Marco Bottigelli, Getty Images

Wondering where to go next? You’re not the only one. After a frenetic return to travel, many are asking how to enjoy the rush of discovery without the crush of crowds. Our annual list of 25 inspiring and less visited destinations for the year ahead encompasses places filled with wonder, rewarding to travelers of all ages, and supportive of local communities and ecosystems. Reported by our global editors and framed by five categories (Nature, Family, Adventure, Culture, and Community), these destinations are under the radar, ahead of the curve, and ready for you to start exploring. 

Below are five wild escapes for nature-lovers in 2023. (Find the full Best of the World list here.)

Azores

These Atlantic islands are one of the best spots in the world for whale-watching

A land born of fire but now engulfed in green, the Azores is working to secure its future. This volcanic island chain in the middle of the Atlantic is an autonomous region of Portugal, located about a thousand miles off the nation’s coast.

“The Azores are nine islands with different habits and accents that change from island to island,” says National Geographic Explorer Miriam Cuesta Garcia, a marine biologist studying the nocturnal behavior of seabird hatchlings on Pico Island. “But the Azores have a unified vision for sustainability. They know they need to [protect] their unique environment, to remain the same even when changes occur.”

With four of its nine islands UNESCO biosphere reserves—and recognized by the World Wildlife Fund as an oasis for 28 whale and dolphin species—the Azores takes sustainable tourism seriously. It became the world’s first archipelago to be certified by EarthCheck, an Australia-based international advisory board and green tourism leader that conferred the award in 2019. 

The Portuguese territory is now focusing on conservation and biodiversity protection, air and water quality, and preservation of Indigenous heritage. For example, authorities are limiting the number of hikers per day to Mount Pico, the highest peak in Portugal, to ensure visitors enjoy Pico Island’s dramatic volcanic landscape for years to come.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The frontier legend of Texas comes to life in this desert park  

It’s located in the Lone Star State of legend, yet only 400,000 people visited Big Bend National Park pre-pandemic—nearly 10 times fewer visitors than Yellowstone received, reports Robert Draper, a National Geographic contributing writer. This remote and arid part of west Texas nurtures more cactus species than any other national park, as well as birds such as roadrunners and bright yellow Scott’s orioles, and mammals such as javelina. But encounters with wildlife seem different in the desert. 

“They remind you that life is at the same time precious and where you least expect to find it,” Draper writes. “Above all, life in the Chihuahuan Desert that comprises Big Bend’s 1,252-square-mile expanse is stubborn and easily misunderstood but also impossible to forget.”

(Road trip along the Rio Grande: A wild and troubled landscape.)

There’s more to Big Bend than nature. The Rio Grande forms a 118-mile border between Big Bend and Mexico, and various cultures span the riverine divide. Small towns outside the park form an archipelago of differing tastes and outlooks, from the Mexican border community of Ojinaga to Alpine’s dusty cowboys to edgy painters living in Marfa. These diverse inhabitants share one thing: the vast, far-flung vistas they call home.

Botswana

Conservation and community define the new safari  

The southern African country of Botswana continues to confront a series of threats to its expansive, wildlife-rich national parks and game reserves, ranging from poaching to overtourism. But new anti-poaching efforts, voluntourism, and community-based outreach are helping alleviate some of the pressure.

In the Tuli Block, a wilderness on Botswana’s eastern border that holds leopards, brown and spotted hyenas, and a large elephant population, rangers are installing advanced technology in the 270-square-mile Central Tuli Game Reserve. A Dutch organization called Smart Parks developed low-power sensors that transmit radio data back to a central station, alerting rangers to poachers and their vehicles or even tracking the movements of animals themselves.

(Venture into one of the world’s last great wildernesses.)

Botswana is also responding to a new generation of visitors. “Since COVID our millennial travelers have become more interested in meaningful human connection,” says National Geographic Explorer Koketso “Koki” Mookodi. “Expect to see more craft-based tours and village homestays being planned.”

Mookodi, the managing director of the Wild Bird Trust in Botswana, is establishing an education program in 10 remote villages in the Okavango Delta’s eastern section. Called Educator Expeditions, her program takes village teachers on safaris into the delta and shows them how to weave the environment and local culture into their lessons. “This is an opportunity to use nature as a blackboard,” Mookodi says. She hopes to expand the program to include foreign educators willing to volunteer with them as well.

Travelers can sign up for short courses at the African Guide Academy’s Kwapa Camp, a bush headquarters and guide training school. Options range from weeklong classes on animal print tracking and bush survival skills to a 28-day nature guide course that provides students with in-depth knowledge of the African wilderness.

Slovenia

Europe’s pioneer in sustainable tourism creates a gourmet cycling route

Widely recognized as a leader in sustainable tourism, Slovenia has already cooked up a number of eco-friendly tours under its seven-year-old, countrywide Green Scheme. Now it’s added a new item to the menu: the Slovenia Green Gourmet Route. This 11-day, 10-destination food trail is intended specifically for bicyclists.

“Bikers can reach a lot of remote [countryside] to discover that each [cow] pasture will produce a unique cheese,” says Jan Klovara, one of the trail’s developers. The route spans the country, from the capital, Ljubljana, through the Soča Valley, with its Alpine views, to the cave-studded Karst Plateau, and along the Drava and Sava Rivers.

(Rare goats thrive in this idyllic mountain village tucked away in Slovenia.)

Cyclists use the Slovenian train system to go point to point and their own pedal power to navigate bike-safe rural roads, before sitting down to dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in cities like Maribor, celebrated for its local cuisine. They can sample pršut (prosciutto) in Štanjel or sip vintages at a wine cellar in Brda, the grape-growing agricultural region known as the Slovene Tuscany. Visitors can follow the route or customize it to fit their own interests and appetites. Says Gourmet Route colleague Jana Apih, “It’s a tour designed for sustainability.”

Scottish Highlands

Rewilding gains momentum in this epic landscape

The windswept Scottish Highlands are celebrated for their austere beauty, but the sheep-scoured landscapes are in fact the result of human interference. In ancient times, Scotland’s glens and hills were covered by the great Caledonian Forest. Pine, rowan, and oak trees sheltered all kinds of now vanished wildlife, including wolves, bears, aurochs, and wild oxen. 

(Visit a wild and beautiful Scottish island owned by its residents.)

But centuries of logging and overgrazing devastated the ecosystem. Now a move to return the Highlands to its original woodlands, by reintroducing former flora and fauna in a process called “rewilding,” is gathering steam—with major strides to come in 2023.

(Scotland could become the first ‘rewilded’ nation. What does that mean?)

The nonprofit organization Trees for Life is opening a center in Dundreggan to educate the public on the concept of rewilding. Above Inverness, the 23,000-acre Alladale Wilderness Reserve has already planted nearly a million trees, runs a breeding program to reintroduce the native Scottish wildcat, and has a longer-term plan to bring back wolves. And most ambitiously, the Affric Highlands project will start restoring 500,000 acres stretching from Loch Ness to the west coast in a 30-year initiative that could make Scotland the planet’s first rewilded nation. 

Go with Nat Geo: Embark on an epic adventure through the secluded lochs and heather-draped hillsides of the Scottish Highlands.

(Discover 20 other amazing Best of the World destinations for 2023.)

Written by Andrew Nelson from contributions by the global editors of National Geographic Travel with additional reporting and research by Karen Carmichael.

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