Go Big or Go Home
After decades of scrimping, you’re ready for a full-bore, budget-be-damned adventure. Presenting outside’s Seven Wonders, our curated list of top-end expeditions.
Private Reserve: East Africa
You can find game drives in East Africa for as little as $600, but then you might end up in a conga line of Land Cruisers rolling past tourist-weary lions. So it’s worth ponying up for a place that’s committed to conservation, supports local communities, and, crucially, gets you away from the hordes. Take central Kenya's Segera. The lodge is located in the center of the 3,668-square-mile Laikipia Plateau, which has the country’s second-highest density of wildlife, and Segera caps the total number of guests in its eight private villas at 20. German owner Jochen Zeitz, a former CEO of Puma, is a bit eccentric—he has one of the world’s largest private collections of contemporary African art and owns a vintage Rolls Royce, which can be employed for customized safaris—but he also has serious conservation cred. Segera is the world headquarters for his Zeitz Foundation of Intercultural Ecosphere Safety, which certifies other eco-lodges around the globe.
Guests help with the foundation’s reforestation projects and interact with the nearby Masai, Samburu, Pokot, and Turkana communities, and all of Segera’s villas are completely solar-powered. Then there’s the main attraction: the wildlife. Guests can watch elephants migrate across the plateau before sunrise, see oryx, eland, impalas, and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles sprint across the plains from the timber-and-thatch villas’ elevated game-viewing platforms, or take night drives to spot cheetahs and the region’s famously skittish leopards. Villas from $970 per person per night.
The Art of Flight: British Columbia
You want your first heli-ski trip to combine great powder access with expert guides who will leave you trading stories over your après beers. Few outfits can match the terrain (1.2 million acres) and experience (the average guide has worked 21 winters) of Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in Blue River, B.C. Grab three of your best buddies and book the Private A-Star Package, which includes a chalet with its own helicopter, personal guide, and lower-lumbar massages to help you recover. The resort is a six-hour drive from Vancouver and is surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Monashee and Cariboo Mountains. From $64,890 for four people for seven days.
End of the Road: Antarctica
Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic brought the first nonscientists to Antarctica in 1966, and the New York–based outfitter remains your best bet for icy epics. Its three-week trips, based on the newly renovated 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer (private bathrooms!), are about as luxe as you can get. Lindblad employs ten naturalists and professional photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins, who offers tips on taking better photos. There are also 15 adventure-ready Zodiacs that can launch for impromptu leopard seal sighting explorations at the drop of a dime. From $20,740 per person for 24-day trip.
Days 1–2: Fly to Buenos Aires. Sip the best Mendoza reds. Feast on big Argentinean steaks.
Days 3–8: Board the Explorer in Ushuaia. Stop in the Falklands to see the jumping prowess of rockhopper penguins.
Days 9–13: Explore the beaches of South Georgia island and its 400,000-strong king penguin colony. Hike inland five miles to Shackleton’s gravesite.
Days 14–15: Cross the infamous Drake Passage, where waves can reach 35 feet. When the Southern Ocean is calm, watch unobstructed, hours-long sunsets.
Days 16–22: Antarctica. Get the camera ready for sights like the Lemaire Channel, which has vertical mainland cliffs rising hundreds of feet on one side and ice-covered islands on the other. Then head home.
Monsters Ball: Mongolia
Mongolia is an alternate universe where the rivers still hold 50-inch fish, horsemen hunt with golden eagles, and the alcohol of choice, airag, is fermented mare’s milk. Most outfitters offer trips focused on just one activity, but Pennsylvania-based Frontiers Travel allows you to combine fishing, horseback riding, and cultural immersion. Start with a stay at one of two felt-wool-and-canvas-wrapped ghers (yurts) on the country’s northern Eg River, a roughly two-and-a-half-hour helicopter flight from Ulan Bator, where you'll be served meals like khorkhog, a vegetable and mutton stew. It’s not exactly plush, but you won’t care when you hook into the ferocious taimen, a relative of the salmon that can grow to six feet long and likes to eat rodents. (The local fly pattern of choice is a mouse.)
When the fishing is done, join Mongolia’s nomads at the annual Eagle Hunting Festival, which takes place in the country’s far west during the first week of October. The journey takes four days, traveling over roadless tundra (with endless hiking opportunities); guests can crash in ghers in migrating herder camps along the way. Once there, you’ll ride into the Altai Mountains on tough Mongolian ponies with hunters who stalk wolves and foxes with the help of trained golden eagles. From $5,900 for six days fishing; from $4,000 for a nine-day trip to the Eagle Hunting festival.
Pacific Rim: Fiji
The South Pacific is as close as you’ll come to paradise: pristine beaches, temperatures that hover in the eighties year-round, and nearly crystal-clear water for afternoon dips. It’s also hard to reach, often involving two days of flights and long boat rides to escape the crowds. Which is why you should consider Namotu, a five-acre island in the far southwest of Fiji. It’s just 30 minutes from the largest (and most populated) island, Viti Levu, yet only allows a maximum of 29 guests. You have to book early (last year’s guests get first dibs on this year’s reservations), but the wait is worth it: the island is building two brand-new, two-person beachside bungalows and already has a luxurious villa with three bedrooms and a private pool and hot tub.
Nearby are pristine coral reefs, excellent deep-water snapper fishing, and seven of the South Pacific’s best surf breaks, including Swimming Pools, Wilkes Pass, and the world-famous Cloudbreak. The wave and water conditions are so perfect that Dave Kalama holds a stand-up-paddleboarding Kalama Kamp here in late October and Aussie kitesurfer Ben Wilson holds three Kite Week instructional camps in July and August. Try it on your own, fish for giant trevally or yellowfin tuna with a guide, grab a catamaran for a quick sail, or enjoy some of the region’s best snorkeling just offshore. From $2,375 for seven days.
Double Play: Machu Picchu
Plenty of South American trips let you tack on a visit to El Mercado. But you go with a large group up a crowded trail, take a photo with the grazing alpacas, and you’re done. The smarter alternative: do the Amazon, take a few rest days in Cusco, and then go with a local outfitter who does dedicated Machu Picchu trips the right way. Start with Rainforest Expeditions, which offers a nine-day Amazon epic from Puerto Maldonado designed by two Peruvian scientists who’ve conducted biological research in the area. The trip starts with a 45-minute boat ride down an Amazonian tributary to the country’s first eco-lodge, now owned by the indigenous Ese-Eja community. Then float five hours downriver to stunning Tambopata Research Center, a working science lab where jaguars still roam and experts from around the world come to study 15 species of macaw (from $2,647).
Back in Cusco, stay at the newly opened El Mercado, a former market turned boutique hotel (from $190), and reacclimate for the hike to Machu Picchu. The main route, the Inca Trail, sees up to 500 people per day. But Mountain Lodges of Peru will take you up the 32-mile Salkantay trail, which averages only 50. The seven-day trek takes guests to a string of four private lodges along the trail, each with outdoor Jacuzzis, goose-down comforters, and a local staff that will cook you delicacies like pachamanca, a dish of mutton, beef, chicken, and vegetables cooked by hot stones. Along the way, you’ll pass stunning vistas of the Cordillera Vilcabamba, the Incan ruins of Tarawasi, lowland bamboo forests, and high-alpine lakes. Save room on the camera, though: the only thing more thrilling than arriving at Machu Picchu is the view on day six from 8,974-foot Llactapata Pass, where you get your first breathtaking glimpse of the sacred 15th-century Incan ruin (from $2,690).
Southern Comfort: Patagonia
Patagonia is at the top of every adventurer’s list because of the classic hikes (like the 52-mile Paine Circuit), climbs (the Central Tower of Torres del Paine), and paddling (the fjords by sea kayak). And no lodge has better access to it all than Tierra Patagonia.
The 40-room glass-paneled structure is located on the black-sand shore of Sarmiento Lake, on the eastern edge of 370,000-acre Torres del Paine National Park. More than 13 world-class hikes are within two hours, like the Base Las Torres, a tough 11-mile trek that follows the Ascencio River to a sweeping view of Torres del Paine, and the nearly 2,000-foot ascent on the four-mile Mirador Ferrier that ends with long views to Grey Glacier. There’s also fly-fishing for 24-inch brown trout and the opportunity to ride into the Sierra Baguales with a local gaucho (the lodge is on a working estancia). Of course, this is Patagonia, and the weather can turn mean. Which is why there’s a glass-enclosed pool, a sauna, and an outdoor Jacuzzi in the Uma spa for downtime. From $2,050 per person for three nights, all-inclusive.
Next Up: Trekking Mongolia