As dawn breaks over the savanna, your guide signals a stop. Through the trees ahead, you see the outline of something very big ambling through the underbrush. When the elephant-a 10-foot-tall, 12,000-pound bull-finally steps into the clearing and looks your way, your heart races, and for a moment, you remember how small you are. Then the giant continues on its way, and you on yours.
Welcome to a walking safari in Zambia, where your boots stand in for a Land Rover and all that separates you from rhinos, giraffes, lions, and hippos are the thin walls of a canvas tent. Sound rough? Then consider that, at day's end, hot showers, ice-cold drinks, and feather beds await you in a luxurious mobile camp.
This is just one of the trips we've chosen for 2014, and it's indicative of the qualities we believe make for good adventure travel: extraordinary experiences that challenge you without, well, depriving you.
That means a hike through Slovenia's rugged Julian Alps that's punctuated with stops to sip local Cabernets and nibble Bohinj cheese. Or a gear-grinding mountain bike journey through Italy's mountains that pauses for a soak in 2,000-year-old Roman baths.
To find these hiking, walking, and biking trips, we tapped the expertise of more than 100 of the world's top operators. In addition to sharing up-and-coming destinations, they filled us in on the state of adventure travel today. The world is a smaller place, with easier access to remote destinations; the business of adventure tourism is helping conserve endangered flora, fauna, and in some cases, local culture; and new standards of luxury mean that you can enjoy posh amenities from Morocco's desert oases to the ice fields of southern Patagonia.
"For me," says Wild Frontiers owner Jonny Bealby, "adventure travel is a trip that takes you out of your own comfortable world and puts you in a place that will surprise you, amaze you, educate you, perhaps even scare you, and ultimately provide an experience through which you will have grown as a person."
You might eat your way through Shanghai's bustling food markets and its most renowned chefs' private kitchens, or head to the world's last intact Buddhist kingdom-Bhutan-in search of the elusive snow leopard.
A little intimidating? Perhaps. Life changing? You betcha.
Rates quoted throughout are per person based on double occupancy.
Additional reporting by Amy Farley and Brooke Porter Katz
For the full list of the best adventure travel destinations, click here.
Rising Star: Sri Lanka
On the rebound from a quarter-century of civil war and the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka is coming into its own as an adventure destination. People have long been drawn here for the rich culture: Sri Lanka has eight unesco World Heritage sites, including the fifth-century city of Sigiriya. Now they're discovering the incredible wildlife, including some of the world's best whale-watching. Operators ranging from Abercrombie & Kent to Natural World Safaris showcase tea plantations, religious festivals, leopard tracking, and the annual elephant migration in Minneriya National Park. Nights are spent in stylish hotels.
Book It: Abercrombie & Kent; 13 days from $6,195. Natural World Safaris; 14 days from $4,358.
Ancient Ruins: Turkey, Fourth Century B.C.
A G Adventures catamaran excursion off Turkey's Aegean coast sails alongside the rock tombs at Dalyan, carved into the cliffs by the Lycians. 10 days from $1,899.
For the Beer Geek: Belgium
Ciclismo Classico taps two of Belgium's proud traditions-cycling and brewing-on a 326-mile tour that winds past fairy-tale castles, charming canals, and historic breweries, with ample tasting opportunities. Nine days from $4,495.
Distance: 41 miles, or four hours, per day.
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