Trips of a lifetime: Secrets from our readers

From cruising Arctic waters to driving across America, Nat Geo readers reveal their most inspiring escapes.

At National Geographic, we delight in advising people on where to go next. But our readers are a worldly crowd, too, as likely to hop a boat to Arctic waters as they are to hang with locals in rural India.

In our travel newsletter, we asked our community which trips made the biggest impressions on them. Turns out, Nat Geo readers find the people they meet on the road matter as much as the joys of fording the rivers of the American West or visiting the castles of Europe. Their responses suggest their interests and itineraries are as inspiring as the world itself.

Here’s our own list of where to go, what to know, and how to see the world in the year ahead.

Rafting through the Grand Canyon

More than six million tourists visit the Grand Canyon each year, but only about 20,000 of them get to see its variegated rock cliffs and dramatic, hardscrabble scenery from the water. Reader Scott Fuller is among them, and he gets such a thrill rafting on the Colorado River there that he’s done it more than a dozen times. “I call it the best day of my life, 16 times in a row,” he says. “There’s spectacular scenery, excitement, and camaraderie.”

Travel tips: To see the canyon from the river, visitors can take a guided trip lasting from one to 18 days, but reservations often fill up a year or more in advance. Rafting season lasts from April to October. The National Park Service lists a number of river trips.

Castles, coastlines, and wine in Slovenia

Tiny Slovenia, nestled between the Alps and the Adriatic, charmed reader Leonarda Gaige with its combination of city pleasures and bucolic countryside. She says its cobblestoned capital, Ljubljana, “had the feel of Paris, Venice, Rome, and London all in one place.” Besides reveling in the riverside cafes, pedestrian bridges, and art nouveau buildings, Gaige also fell for the nearby Maribor wine region and coastal Piran.

Travel tips: It’s a heart-pumping walk (or quick funicular ride) to Ljubljana’s 15th-century hilltop castle, with its small history museum and stellar vistas of orange-roofed buildings below. But the rest of the green-minded capital can be easily explored on two wheels via the BicikeLJ bike share system.

Icy wonders in Svalbard, Norway

Tucked between Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard islands’ otherworldly beauty encompasses deep fjords, glinting sheets of ice, and snow-capped mountains (get a feel for this wintry realm in our illustrated travelogue). Reader Martin Fromer has taken small-vessel cruises to the region several times. “It’s as if you’re touching the end of the globe,” he says. “The dominant elements are sky, sea, ice, wind, and clouds.”

Travel tips: Svalbard means “cold coasts” in Norwegian, an apt name for this Arctic archipelago that’s blanketed in snow much of the year—and where polar bears outnumber humans. Abundant wildlife, which also includes walruses and whales, is best spotted by boat.

<p>The Uro people of <a href="" target="_blank">Peru’s</a> Lake Titicaca have rooted their communities over time, gradually connecting their reed boathouses and bringing in soil from the mainland to build strings of arable islands.</p>

Lake Titicaca, Peru

The Uro people of Peru’s Lake Titicaca have rooted their communities over time, gradually connecting their reed boathouses and bringing in soil from the mainland to build strings of arable islands.

Photograph by George Steinmetz

A great American road trip

An ambitious cross-country drive zooms large in the American imagination. Reader Bonnie Muller dreamed of one for years before, in 2011, she and her husband took off on an 18-night car odyssey from Virginia to California and back again. Their stops included Utah’s Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Big Sur. “It was pretty close to a perfect trip, but we still laugh about the mishaps,” she says. They included a surprise snowstorm in Colorado and an all-night drive through Tennessee and Virginia.

Travel tips: Investigate visits to natural wonders across the U.S. with the National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks. Though it’s a bit too large to stuff into a suitcase, the book makes trip planning a pleasure with maps, dazzling photos, and details on science like the geology of the Grand Canyon and the flora and fauna of Virginia’s Shenandoah.

Parks and cobblestones in Québec City

Québec City was founded by French traders in 1608, and its cobbled old section is the only fortified city in North America. No wonder reader Bill Purvis, an avid photographer, enjoyed taking shots of the French-Canadian capital’s antique stone buildings and colorful gardens on a summer 2019 trip. “The seasons are so marked in Canada, and the trees and flowers were all in bloom,” he says. “It’s just a beautiful walled city.”

Travel tips: A UNESCO World Heritage site, Old Québec stars narrow lanes with mansard-roofed cottages and storied sites such as Le Monastère des Augustines, a 17th-century monastery with a museum of religious artifacts and a wellness-focused hotel. Start in the upper town with dazzling views of the St. Lawrence River from the Terrasse Dufferin, then head to the lower city via the steep L’Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Steps), or, in winter, by toboggan slide.

Hiking from Geneva to Rome

In medieval times, the Via Francigena trail wound from Canterbury, England, to Rome, Italy, attracting pilgrims and penitents. For the past three years, 72-year-old reader Gretel Schuck has walked the section between Geneva and Rome, staying in hostels along the way. “It doesn’t have cars flying by, but it does have age-old buildings and ancient views,” she says. “I love the idea of walking on a path that has been followed for thousands of years.”

Travel tips: Travelers can tackle the 1,300-mile route in sections by foot, horseback, or bicycle. A free smart phone app uses GPS to navigate and offers downloadable maps for when you’re off the grid (a common occurrence in more isolated villages in England, France, Switzerland, and Italy). Notable sites on the route: the cliffs of Dover, the Alps, and picturesque Italian cities like Lucca and peaceful, lakeside Bolsena, with its hilltop castello.

A Jain temple and a warm welcome in India

Often, it’s the folks you meet along the road that make travel memorable. That was the case for reader Guus Giesbergen, who, on a trip to India, was as impressed by the Ranakpur temple complex as he was by the area’s affable locals. He and his wife, Anjana, stuck around the Rajasthan region and got to know its residents. “We shared food, took walks together, and helped with daily chores,” he says. “We took time to relate to daily life.”

Travel tips: Ranakpur’s temples were built in the 15th century for worshippers of the Jain religion. The main attraction, the marble Chaumukha Mandir, holds 1,444 jaw-droppingly intricate carved pillars (look for multiple elephants and way-larger-than-life nymphs). It’s located on the road between Udaipur and Jodhpur and best accessed by car.

Wildlife watching in a Thai jungle

Lizards, colorful birds, and elephants populate Eastern Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park, which drew reader Tord S. Eriksson and his wife to check into the onsite Baan Maka Nature Lodge. “The different houses for rent were a bit like Swiss chalets in a bona fide jungle,” he says. The Erikssons took guided ATV tours of the lush, 1,810-square-mile park. “We had close encounters with storks and monkeys,” he says.

Travel tips: More than 400 bird species, including seven types of hornbills and the rare ratchet-tailed treepie, show up at Kaeng Krachen. Numerous guided tours taking them in can be booked on the park’s website.

Seals and tortoises in the Galápagos

Home to one of the highest levels of endemic species on earth, the islands made famous by Charles Darwin are located off the coast of Ecuador. On a recent trip with friends, readers Sindy and Joe Micho visited Peru and the Galápagos. “The animals in the wilds of the Galápagos were awe-inspiring,” says Sindy. “A young seal played near us while [we were] snorkeling, and it was the experience of a lifetime!”

Travel tips: National Geographic Journey’s 10-day Galápagos Voyage includes a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where several endemic species of giant tortoise live, and encounters with marine iguanas on Isla Fernandina.

Mekong magic in Laos

On a 2013 trip through Southeast Asia, reader Linda Hightower and a friend spent a magical Christmas Day outside Luang Prabang, Laos. After taking a small boat up the Mekong River, the pair set off on foot through the jungle. “We wandered into tiny villages where there were no tourists,” she says. “Everywhere we went, people were busy: men building a toilet, a woman fermenting alcohol while her drunk rooster staggered around.” Related: Discover why Laos is the world’s next great foodie destination.

Travel tips: A UNESCO World Heritage site, dreamy Luang Prabang blends French colonial buildings and Lao Buddhist temples. Each evening, a bustling night market features vendors selling local textiles, paper crafts, and Mekong seaweed snacks.

Connecting with crafters and cooks in Peru

On a trip around Peru, meetups with crafters and village people wowed Colleen McQuaid and her husband, Jim Smith. “We had a private lunch at a home in the hills of Cusco and traveled to a village where the women weave in the traditional style,” says McQuaid. The journey ignited a deeper passion for exploration: Since then, McQuaid and Smith have visited Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan.

Travel tips: On the eight-day National Geographic Expeditions tour Peru: Land of the Inca, travelers can learn about traditional Andean weaving in the Sacred Valley and overnight at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only accommodation adjacent to legendary Machu Picchu. Related: Here’s why every foodie you know is heading to Peru.

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Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Instagram.

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