From spectacular natural wonders and thrilling wildlife encounters to iconic rail journeys and epic treks, there are some travel experiences that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
But those big-ticket holidays often come with a sizeable price tag, and require a lot of planning and preparation. Capacity is often limited, with departure dates few and far between, and you may need to book well in advance. That’s why an escorted tour is such a fantastic way to visit those once-in-a-lifetime destinations, with all the hassle taken out of organising your trip.
Here are six of my favourite touring destinations to add to your travel bucket list..
The frozen continent of Antarctica is the world’s last true wilderness, a thrilling holiday destination and a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. Getting here isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap, but the rewards for those who make it here are immense: spectacular icebergs, jagged mountains, eerie abandoned whaling stations and vast penguin colonies. Although it’s possible to fly to Antarctica (depending on the weather), the vast majority of visitors explore the continent by ship.
Options range from no-frills expedition vessels to more luxurious cruise ships, and you will typically spend several days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, going ashore in Zodiacs (a type of small rigid inflatable boat) with your tour leader. Several of my featured escorted tour operators offer trips to Antarctica: adventure specialists Intrepid sit at the more affordable end of the market (although you’ll still be paying over £3,000 per person for a 10-night trip), while the likes of Abercrombie & Kent operate more high-end trips on board luxury expedition ships.
The legendary Inca city of Machu Picchu features on many a traveller’s bucket list, and the most breathtaking way to reach the ruins (quite literally) is by hiking the Inca Trail. The classic route is a challenging 4-day hike over steep mountain passes and ancient staircases, with spectacular scenery and Inca ruins en route. The trail tops out at a dizzying 4,215 metres above sea level, so a few days to acclimatise in Cuzco beforehand is highly recommended.
Adventure-focused escorted tour operators such as Exodus and Explore! offer a number of tours incorporating the Inca Trail, with porters to carry your camping gear and expert guides to ensure you make it to Machu Picchu in one piece. The Peruvian government only releases a limited number of Inca Trail permits each day to avoid overcrowding, so you need to book well in advance - if you want to hike the trail during the summer high season then you’ll need to book at least six months ahead to avoid disappointment.
Coming face to face with mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is an incredibly moving experience. These endangered apes are one of our closest cousins, and can only be found high up in the mountain forests of equatorial Africa. Follow in the footsteps of David Attenborough as you make your way through the undergrowth with your guide, until the moment of truth when you first spot a troop of these magnificent creatures.
There are several tour operators offering gorilla trekking trips to Uganda and Rwanda, travelling in small groups with expert trackers and guides. For a true bucket list experience, you could even combine your trip to see the gorillas with a more orthodox African safari. Tauck’s Earth Journey tours, in collaboration with BBC Earth, include a fantastic itinerary to Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, which takes in Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti plains, the Masai Mara and a gorilla trek in Rwanda, with a stay at the luxurious new One&Only Gorilla’s Nest resort.
The vast expanse of Russia, the world’s biggest country, stretches from the shores of the Baltic to the Sea of Japan. Travelling from one end of Russia to the other on the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the world’s most iconic journeys, taking in fascinating cities, endless taiga forest and remote villages. The train itself is part of the experience, giving you a unique insight into Russia’s rich culture and history, as well as the warm hospitality of the Russian people.
The classic Trans-Siberian route runs from Moscow to Vladivostok and takes 6 nights if you don’t get off the train, though arguably the more interesting route is the Trans-Mongolian branch that runs south from Irkutsk to Beijing. Whichever route you choose, there are some fascinating stops along the way, including the Eurasian crossroads of Yekaterinburg and the vast expanse of Lake Baikal. Group travel specialists On The Go Tours have a number of Trans-Siberian tours on both the classic and Trans-Mongolian routes, including an epic 18-day trip with stops in Ulaan Baatar, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg.
There is something magical about Tibet, a mountainous land of breathtaking vistas, fluttering prayer flags and shaggy-haired yaks. High altitude, underdeveloped infrastructure and government travel restrictions mean that Tibet remains well off the beaten track for most travellers, but this only adds to its appeal. Those who do make it here will discover beautiful turquoise lakes, atmospheric Buddhist monasteries and some of the friendliest, most hospitable people you are ever likely to meet.
Given the challenges of travelling to Tibet, there are some surprisingly good value tour options. Mercury Holidays offer an 11-night Treasures of Tibet tour starting at £1,599 per person including flights, combining time in Tibet with a visit to the famous panda sanctuary in Chengdu. Adventure specialists Intrepid are a great choice for a more in-depth tour of the Himalayan region, with a 15 night Tibet Uncovered itinerary that also includes a few days in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu.
You don’t have to travel halfway around the world for a bucket list experience, with one of the world’s most spectacular natural phenomena right on our doorstep in northern Europe. The Aurora Borealis, better known as the Northern Lights, is an ethereal light show that shimmers and ripples across the Arctic sky during the winter months. Although sightings can never be guaranteed, there are a number of destinations that will give you the best possible chance of glimpsing this mesmerising display.
A Northern Lights tour works well as a winter short break, with regular flights from the UK to a number of Scandinavian gateways. Options include Travelsphere’s Huskies and the Northern Lights tour, a 4-night adventure based in the Norwegian city of Tromso. Even if you don’t catch sight of the lights, you’ll enjoy activities including husky and reindeer sledding, plus the chance to meet the indigenous Sami people and learn about their culture. Another popular destination for hunting the Northern Lights is Iceland, and Collette’s 7-night Iceland’s Magical Northern Lights tour combines a nocturnal cruise off the coast of Reykjavik with visits to spectacular natural wonders such as Gulfoss waterfall and the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.
My list is just a taster of some of the incredible experiences on offer with an escorted tour holiday. Chances are you have your own travel bucket list of trips that you’ve always wanted to take, so why not have a look around the TourHound website for a tour to inspire you. Simply Search, Compare, Select.