8 immersive bucket list experiences to try this year
26 February 2024
With the whole world at your fingertips it can be hard to narrow down to where you want to go above all other places. Perhaps you’re already so well travelled that you know exactly where to get your next guidebook for – in which case what are you waiting for? Get planning! But for many of us it’s a case of which of our bucket list destinations is the right one for us this year. Well, we hope that this article can give you a little nudge in the right direction. Taking you everywhere from the Azores to Uganda, read on to discover our top picks for the best destinations and experiences to be had in 2023.
Endless skies curve almost dome-like over vast savannahs scattered with predators and prey, whilst forests hide some of the world’s most endangered primates. All over the continent cities burst with culture and fine cuisine, and to top it all off you will find yourself greeted by warm and welcoming people wherever you turn… Africa is home to many bucket list destinations. Which one is yours?
Uganda – gorillas and more
It’s impossible to write an article of bucket list experiences without including a trek to the mountain gorillas. No matter how many times you see them on tv or read about them, nothing compares to seeing these giants in their natural habitat. Males recline resplendent and listen out for threats to their family, females cajole rowdy youngsters who gambol about exploring the limits of what their body can do and their elders-and-betters can tolerate…
Visiting the gorillas is also a crucial step in ensuring their protection – without tourists purchasing permits, the patrols protecting these primates and their forest homes from poachers couldn’t keep running and we’d be in danger of losing our wild population altogether.
Uganda also has fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities aside from its gorillas. As you trek through the forests to see them, keep your eyes peeled for golden monkeys and any number of rare and beautiful bird species. You can also plan your trip around seeing chimpanzees or head into the game parks to see lions lounging in trees, crocodiles lurking on muddy riverbanks or the rare shoebill stork tiptoeing through the wetlands.
If a trip to Uganda has always been on your bucket list, perhaps 2023 is the year to tick it off. Contact our local experts to plan your perfect trip.
Kenya – swap the Big 5 for birds
You know the drill – eat breakfast with a giraffe stealing your toast through the window, follow the drama of the Great Migration, take a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara… All of these are fabulous bucket list experiences, popular for a reason, and seeing the Big Five – rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo – in the wild is a magical experience. But what about Kenya’s smaller inhabitants?
Kenya’s birdlife is just as varied and beautiful as its mammalian wildlife. When you think of the country, no doubt an image of vast grassy plains springs to mind, but the topography is actually surprisingly varied, and with that comes many habitats for all kinds of birds. Exploring everywhere from grasslands to forested mountains and watering holes will provide you with ample opportunity to spot everything from tiny bee-eaters and mousebirds to buzzards and eagles. If there’s a particular bird that you’re keen to seek out, then mention it to our local experts and they will do what they can to make it happen.
Obviously whilst you explore the reserves and forests in search of our feathered friends, you will come across those stars of the safari stage – from the Big 5 to antelope and primates. Finish off your adventure through the African bush with a trip to the beach. It’s the done thing – but for good reason. After the early starts and travels that come hand in hand with seeking out wildlife, some time relaxing on sun-warmed white sands is hard to beat.
South Africa – the Rainbow Nation
This is the country that really does have it all. If you want to tick off lots of experiences within one set of borders, then hop on a flight to South Africa. The cities are filled with bustling markets, lovely hotels and restaurants at the forefront of the global culinary scene. The coastlines are wild and wonderful with warm and cold oceans meeting around the Cape of Good Hope just below Cape Town, meaning that the marine life is spectacular with whales, dolphins, sea lions, sharks and even penguins all sharing the fertile waters. Drivers navigating the coastal roads in the city have been known to screech to a halt in amazement as whales breach just metres off-shore – not many cities can boast of that!
The Big Five, as well as many of their rarer and equally interesting cohabitants, can all be found in the many game reserves in the north and east. Safari experiences are open to everyone whatever their budget, thanks to the Kruger National Park where you can self-drive on a day trip, spotting anything from warthogs and cheetahs to elephants and wild dogs.
The southeastern coastline, known as the Garden Route due to its lush greenery, is flanked by soaring, jagged mountains that separate it from desert landscapes, in turn home to ostriches, meerkats and ancient rock art. The west coast is just as glorious, with technicolour daisies exploding into life all over Namaqualand and the Cederberg in August.
And of course, there’s the winelands. Some of the finest New World wines herald from the vineyards of South Africa. Oenophiles will have the time of their lives, as will anyone who simply appreciates a nice glass without knowing the intricacies. It doesn’t get much better than sitting on the veranda of a pretty Cape Dutch farmhouse watching the sunset over rows of immaculate vines.
If South Africa is next on your travel bucket list, then get in touch with our local experts who can put together the perfect itinerary for you, whether you just want to wine and dine, go on a safari or experience the whole lot.
Known for its cities bursting with western culture and art, multiple iconic landscapes and beautiful languages, a surprising number of people feel after a city break or two and a lounge by a Mediterranean pool that they have “done” Europe. But there is so much still to discover… You could visit its shores for every holiday for the rest of your life and the surface would still only just be scratched.
The Azores, Portugal – the Hawaii of Europe
A volcanic archipelago jutting from the depths of a vast ocean… No we’re not talking about the Galapagos or Hawaii. We’re talking about somewhere far easier to reach, with spectacular marine wildlife, great food, a fascinating culture and hiking trails that meander through jaw dropping landscapes scattered with bubbling hot springs. Quite the list! Those in the know are already well aware of the joys a holiday in the Azores can bring, but for the uninitiated a treat is in store.
Getting to the Azores is pretty simple from the UK. Flights aren’t expensive and you have just one change in Portugal. Before you know it you’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a land built from basalt, with steep hillsides blanketed in almost jungle-like lushness. Hop on a boat and be escorted to whale watching territory by frolicking dolphins; get into your scuba or snorkelling gear and swim amongst shimmering shoals of fish and maybe even manta rays; hike along rugged trails meandering up hills and through forests and ease your aching muscles with a dip in a hot spring.
The hot springs are a draw in themselves – choose to relax in man-made pools filled with golden geothermal waters inland, or head to the coast where ladders and platforms give you easy access to inlets in the black basalt, where the sea meets a current of hot water spouting from beneath the surface.
A popular tourist attraction (but something our local experts would recommend nevertheless) is to try the local delicacy of food that has been cooked underground using the natural heat being pumped from the Earth’s mantle. If this isn’t for you, there are plenty of restaurants serving delicious fresh seafood and oenophiles might want to explore the remarkable UNESCO recognised vineyards chiselled out of the volcano foothills in patchwork terraces.
If the Azores sound like they’re for you, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with our fantastic local experts who can work with you to put together your perfect holiday.
Italy – Sicily and beyond
Hardly a lesser-known destination, but Italy has every right to be on our bucket list for 2023. Places like Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Venice need no introduction – all we’d say is we strongly recommend packing jumpers and an emergency umbrella and exploring off-season in autumn or winter when the summer crowds have dissipated. The weather is still often fair, but you’ll find yourself walking straight into the Colosseum without queuing and able to wander Venice’s labyrinth of canals rubbing shoulders with more locals than fellow tourists.
With the second series of The White Lotus drawing to a close, no doubt crowds will be flocking to the stunning shores of Sicily – particularly Taormina, Noto, Cefalù and Palermo. Feel free to join them! But if you still want to explore this beautiful island keeping away from the crowds then our local experts can help. For a cultural hit, head to Erice – a picturesque hilltop town with a cathedral, two castles, and not three, not four, but sixty churches. Plenty to explore and surrounded by beautiful scenery. It’s well worth spending a night or two here to make sure you can take it all in without feeling hurried.
If you want to be close to the azure coastline then Scopello is the place for you. A picture perfect hamlet sitting above the even more beautiful Tonnara di Scopello. A combination of manmade structures and natural rock formations, this beautiful cove has attracted the eye of photographers and film directors, and was always an extremely popular spot with the locals for sunbathing and swimming. These days the owners have privatised it and you have to pay an admission fee to get to the cove, but if you want a day sun worshipping and cooling off in the Mediterranean waters then it’s well worth it.
The Zingaro Nature Reserve is next on our list of Sicillian destinations. Thanks to locals protesting against the building of a major road, this pristine reserve allows you to get away from everything and enjoy true Mediterranean wilderness. Pack decent walking shoes and choose one of the many trails that crisscross the reserve through broom and olive trees, spotting birds, lizards and foxes whilst the ocean laps against the rocks below you. The coastal path is scattered with blue coves perfect for a refreshing dip or even a bit of a snorkel if you’re that way inclined. An ideal place to truly escape the crowds.
Take the effort out of planning your holiday to Italy and let our local experts deploy their experience in creating your perfect trip.
Spain – The Pyrenees beyond the Camino de Santiago
For many walkers, the Pyrenees have always had a kind of magnetic pull. The allure of the Camino de Santiago has enticed countless hikers from all over the world, but there is much more to this region than just its famous pilgrimage.
Stretching along the border between Spain and France, these mountains are home to some of Europe’s most precious wildlife. Our local experts can arrange your trip so that you are taken into the mountains with expert guides who greatly increase your chances of spotting the highlights of the region’s flora and fauna. About 50 brown bears dwell on the rugged slopes and if you are lucky you may even come across spoor or tracks if you find yourself hiking in the right area.
The bearded vulture is a recent conservation success story – keep your eyes peeled for a chance to see one wheeling on a thermal, though of course that could also be a vast golden eagle; another species that calls these mountains home. Closer to the ground, iconic Pyrenean chamois scamper up and down near vertical cliffs, by all appearances defying gravity, while bees and rare butterflies flit from flower to flower.
If you’re less interested in walking and more in culture (and perhaps a hint of luxury) then you may be drawn to the village of Canfranc, home to a glorious, grand railway station that until now has been plagued with bad luck. To cut a long story short, the timing of its creation was spectacularly bad. It took from 1853 to 1928 to blossom from idea to actuality, but this was followed by a financial crash, a civil war, the second world war (where it aided the Nazis trading gold for materials used for tank production, and paradoxically the Jews fleeing persecution), and finally Spain’s enthrallment under Franco, which severely limited international travel right up until the 1950s.
Now, however, it is finally being given some TLC. Over the past couple of years, a multimillion Euro project has been underway to preserve the grand facade whilst installing a luxury hotel behind it, and the hotel (at time of writing) is due to open its doors this December 2022. By 2026, the hope is that a new station being built behind the hotel will be fully operational and able to ferry passengers through the Somport tunnel into France.
If you want to explore this spectacular mountainous region with expert help, then get in touch with our local experts.
Oases, deserts, ancient ruins and hidden cities. This region of the world has been capturing the imaginations of film-makers for generations whether they’re creating daring adventures (Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia spring to mind) or sci-fi epics like Star Wars. Allow your imagination to be transported too with a trip to our top destinations…
Tunisia – a hidden gem
A member of the TravelLocal team recently visited Tunisia and hasn’t stopped telling everyone about it since she returned – “It’s like Morocco but without the chaos.” Now sometimes the chaos and otherness of a destination is what appeals, but if you feel like venturing off the beaten path, then perhaps Tunisia is where you should be looking to next.
With incredible historical sites to rival Jordan and Egypt, history and culture buffs will be in seventh heaven. To name only two highlights, the Roman amphitheatre at El Djem is well worth a visit whilst UNESCO World Heritage Site Dougga is the best preserved small Roman town in North Africa. Wander the winding streets past temples and bathhouses and finish your exploration at the theatre. Seating 3,500 people, it is still used to this day for the month-long Dougga festival in either July or August, where you can see music, dance and performances just as the Romans would have done all that time ago. Even if there is no show on whilst you visit, the views off the back of the stage take in rolling hills blanketed in olive groves and grain fields all the way to the horizon.
Aside from the many historical sites, the coastal villages of whitewashed walls and blue shutters provide a picture perfect backdrop to a relaxing seaside spell. Equally tranquil but further inland are desert oases and vast salt lakes, the latter used as a location in the Star Wars film franchise.
If you want to explore off the beaten path, then get in touch with our Tunisian local experts and they will work with you to show off their magical country with your interests at the centre of it all.
Jordan – highlights and off-season delights
It may be small, but sand-strewn Jordan is jam-packed with attractions and well worth a spot on your bucket list. Relics of bygone civilizations and the stark beauty of the desert landscapes combine to make a truly awe-inspiring destination which will leave a lasting impression. And whilst travelling in peak time is popular for a reason (balmy temperatures, swathes of spring flowers etc.) it can be just as thrilling exploring this magical country in its low seasons.
Dust off your inner-child’s desire to be Indiana Jones and explore the jaw-dropping archaeological sites left behind by both the Nabateans and Romans. Jerash is one of the best preserved Greco-Roman cities to be seen, earning it the nickname “Pompeii of the Middle East”. Take in the 2nd Century Hadrian’s Arch, the Forum’s oval colonnade and the extensive Corinthian columns of the Temple of Artemis.
Then there is the world-renowned ancient city of Petra, the capital of the Nabataean kingdom dating back to 300 B.C. It has captured the imagination of many travellers over the centuries and the buildings half built, half carved into the pink-red sandstone have led it to be known as the “Rose City”. The most iconic building, and the one that most likely springs to mind when you think of Petra, is the Treasury, but there are more than 500 structures making up the complex. Most of them are tombs and mausoleums but alongside the Treasury, the Temple is also well worth stopping by. Our local experts can help you get there when it’s at its quietest – usually very early in the morning or during the low season.
If you want to explore Jordan in the low seasons, then prepare for either extreme heat or cold. June to August are scorching but being a dry heat it is manageable and our local experts are still able to plan a spectacular trip, enjoying the sights early and stopping for shade and water frequently. It’s actually also a great time for taking in a bit of culture at the Jerash Festival – a celebration of Jordanian arts, food and culture. And for any astrology enthusiasts, the Perseid meteor shower puts on quite a show in the desert skies of Wadi Rum.
At the other extreme, you can travel in the winter months of December to February. It will be very cold, with biting winds swirling through the streets of Amman and ice and snow dusting the ruins of Petra and temperatures hovering a few degrees below zero. It can also be quite wet. However if this doesn’t put you off, then you will find the main tourist attractions very quiet. Heading towards Aqaba and the Dead Sea will bring warmer temperatures and, in February, the Aqaba Traditional Arts Festival.
A firm favourite with honeymooners, backpackers and seasoned culture vultures alike, Asia has something to offer everyone. Whether it’s your first time visiting the continent or you’re a seasoned explorer, read on to see whether you’ve considered these Asian adventures.
The Maldives – more than a honeymoon hotspot
Any mention of the Maldives brings to mind honeymooning couples lounging in luxury beach huts, sipping on cocktails and snorkelling through colourful shoals in the aquamarine waters. Lovely. But there is more to the Maldives than this and coming here doesn’t automatically mean a textbook romantic break.
Our local experts have put together a trip idea that shows you what is available beyond the luxury resorts. Travel by public ferry to the local island of Dhiffushi where, alongside snorkelling with turtles and sunset cruises to see dolphins (this is still a bucket list trip!), you can discover more about the local way of life, exploring the Mosque and the harbour where fishermen tend their boats. Another local island, Thulusdhoo, provides surfing opportunities and on most local islands you will find bikini beaches where you can sunbathe to your heart’s content.
If you’re wanting some foodie experiences, then try hedhikaa, a local tipple of sweet treats served alongside black tea. Our local experts can also arrange for you to dine on genuine Maldivian fare with a local family and are more than happy to take you to a local’s favourite spot, the Seagull Café in the heart of Malé – the perfect way to fuel up after exploring the capital.
If you want an alternative Maldivian getaway then don’t hesitate to send an enquiry to our local experts and they will be very happy to put together the perfect trip for you.
Sri Lanka – perfect for a different kind of safari holiday
Sri Lanka has had a bit of a rocky patch over the past year or two. However it is now out the other side and welcoming travellers with open arms, so if it’s on your bucket list then get packing!
Birders and wildlife lovers will be blown away by the variety on show in Sri Lanka’s wildernesses and our local experts are fantastic at planning a trip that takes you through all the best reserves whilst also showcasing the highlights of Sri Lankan culture such as the rock fortress of Sigiriya, the spectacular train journey from Kandy to Nanuoya and the Dambulla Cave Temple.
The national parks are second to none and if you only have time to visit one, our local experts recommend Wilpattu National Park. It’s by far the most scenic, but also much quieter than its famous counterpart, Yala.
Spot leopards lounging in the trees, Asian elephants feasting on the foliage, countless birds and potentially even the elusive sloth bear. If you go for a whole day’s safari then there’s every chance that you will even have the reserve to yourself for a couple of hours as most safari trucks come out for the morning then leave over lunch before returning for their afternoon game drives.
Cambodia – by boat and bike
Packed with culture and with fewer tourists than neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia is a treasure trove of jungles, waterfalls, ruined remnants of ancient civilisations and delicious food.
See the most authentic side of the country by staying with a local family in a town called Kratie on the Mekong Delta. This can be as off the beaten path as it gets – literally. Depending on the river height and the time of year, a boat can sometimes only get you so far, and you may find yourself walking along a beach before hopping on a bike for your final leg to your host’s home.
Of course, you don’t want to come all this way and not see the ancient jewels in Cambodia’s crown – the temple complexes of Angkor. But this doesn’t have to be as part of a throng of tourists pouring off a bus. Instead, get on a bike and take a different route in, starting off at Angkor Thom before taking in the Bayon Temple and finally arriving at the main complex containing the iconic Angkor Wat.
If you prefer boating to biking then there are still plenty of ways to tick this destination off your bucket list. Explore the floating villages of Tonle Sap, which rise and fall with the river levels, and discover how families have had to adapt their way of life to cope with living surrounded by water. Or set off into the flooded forests by kayak to take in the otherworldly atmosphere while looking for the beautiful birds and creatures that dwell here.
Speak to our local experts who can plan your perfect off the beaten track trip around Cambodia.
Stretching almost pole to pole, the American continent makes up most of the landmass in the world’s western hemisphere. It’s therefore safe to say that we won’t be able to cover much of it here, but we’ve pulled out a couple of highlights. Read on to find out what sets them apart and why these destinations should make it onto your 2023 bucket list.
Brazil – Go beyond the Carnival
A mind boggling 2 million people attend the Rio Carnival each day that it’s underway. So whilst it’s a bucket list experience for many, you don’t need us to tell you about it; it’s not a closely guarded secret. Nor do you need us to wax lyrical about how wonderful Rio de Janeiro is – the beach, the food, the views, the vibrancy. It is no doubt going to be the first stop on your journey through Brazil and our local experts highly recommend spending a good few days here if you can in order to take advantage of all its highlights.
But it is up to you what lens you would like to see this amazing city through, and that is where we and our local experts can help. Discover all about Brazil’s African legacy, starting off with a walking tour of the African Heritage Circuit which takes you to several places within Rio de Janeiro that have had particular impact on Brazil’s African population. To name just two, you will explore the Valongo Wharf where thousands of African people arrived as slaves in the 1800s, and the historic Pedra do Sal district which is now a hub for samba music and dancing but which once was a quilombo – a kind of refuge for runaway slaves.
Exploring beyond Rio, you can still theme your trip around African heritage, visiting coffee plantations and communities run by the descendants of those who fled slavery. It’s equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming, learning all about how the quilombo communities came into being and how they now thrive, guarding their unique culture and passing it down through the generations. Meet with a “griô” (meaning leader or keeper of knowledge) of Quilombo do Campinho da Independência in Paraty and enjoy learning about the history, art, music and food of this incredible matriarchal society whilst being surrounded by natural beauty.
This is just one small way of discovering Brazil and its intricately layered culture. You can also learn all about the communities that live in the Amazon whilst taking in its incredible beauty and bountiful flora and fauna. Or prioritise landscape and architecture over culture, taking in the otherworldly beauty of the turquoise pools in Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses or the beautiful white washed towns of the gold mining region of Minas Gerais. Or – this is a bucket list article after all – why not take in all of the above and more on an epic three week exploration of this South American gem. Get in touch with our local experts, and they can make it happen.
Peru – the Choquequirao Trail
The Inca Trail that takes you to the world famous Machu Picchu is a beautiful well-trodden path, and the clouds parting to reveal the ancient ruins clinging to the mountaintop is an awe inspiring experience. But if you’re a keen hiker after a bit of an adventure, the Inca Trail will probably fall a little short of expectation. What you’re after is the Choquequirao Trail.
Translating to “Cradle of Gold”, Choquequirao sprawls over 6 square kilometres and was built around the same time as Machu Picchu by the Incan Emperor Pachacuti and expanded by his son, Tupaq Inka Yupanki. While some of the site has been reclaimed by the jungle, around two thirds of it is still available to be explored and, unlike its famous sister city, you will only have to share its terraces and temples with a handful of other visitors. This is because (for now) there is no easy way to get there, and only the truly intrepid undertake the journey. It’s worth noting that you have to be an experienced hiker for this trail – there are no easy days where you can simply stroll along admiring the views. Every vista of forested hillsides and snow-capped peaks is very much earned and in total you will cover around 65km over four or five days.
If this trail sounds like it’s for you, then now is the time to pack your bags and lace on your boots. The Peruvian government have plans to put a cable car through the Apurimac Valley, taking the visitor numbers from 5,800 a year (that’s just a dozen per day) to a forecasted 200,000. This is still just a fraction of Machu Picchu’s 1.2 million annual visitors, so it will remain a little quieter, but for the true explorer there is no time like the present.
Costa Rica – Earth’s Garden of Eden
Two glorious coastlines, volcanoes shrouded in forests which are in turn bursting with some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife, and of course eco-credentials to turn the rest of the world green with envy… Costa Rica is a destination that seems to be getting a lot of things right. If ecotourism is what floats your boat, then it’s the place for you. Over 95% of its energy is produced by renewable sources (hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar and biomass to be precise) and the result is a veritable Garden of Eden.
Our local experts are bursting with ideas for what to do whilst visiting their country, but if you’re keen on wildlife then you’ll be delighted to hear that Costa Rica is home to over 500,000 species – that’s nearly 5% of the world’s wildlife all in one tiny country squeezed onto a stretch of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific.
Even if you’re not a wildlife boffin, everyone seems to love sloths… and Costa Rica has plenty of them! Feel free to pay a visit to a sanctuary, but you’ve got a good chance of spotting these sedate creatures simply by peering into the trees whilst you wander around town. Birders too will be constantly craning their necks due to the brightly coloured flashes drawing their eyes into the forest canopy, revealing everything from toucans to flamboyant green quetzals.
Whatever attracts you, be it the cloudforests, the coastline or the friendly and open-hearted culture, our experts in Costa Rica can plan you the perfect holiday. Simply get in touch to start planning.
Make it happen
If 2023 is the year that you plan to tick something off your bucket list, then our local experts are here to help. They have made ample trip ideas for inspiration but if there’s anything that isn’t there that you really want to experience, don’t hesitate to let them know. They specialise in tailor-made holidays and are ready and waiting to make your dream trip a reality.
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