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Travel teaches us invaluable lessons we can’t learn in school. It expands our worldview. It pushes us to be better, stronger, more empathetic human beings. And these 17 places, in no particular order, are where that magic is going to happen this year. Some of them can be experienced in the lap of luxury, while others are for only the most adventurous souls. But all of them have the potential to be the best trip you’ve ever taken.
1. South Korea
Don’t let its northern neighbor scare you off: South Korea is full of adventurous travelers’ delights like national parks, mountains and islands. Ski resorts here are top-notch, as some are preparing to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. For a more urban feel, try Korean BBQ in Seoul or chill out in Busan, a coastal city.
Seoraksan National Park is the proud site of South Korea’s third-highest mountain. It also features hot springs, temples and jagged rock formations.
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Locals vacation on Jeju Island for its beaches, outdoor spas and spine-tingling lava tube tours.
Cable cars haul skiers at what is now Deogyusan Resort, where hot springs await after a day on the slopes.
Mauritius is delicious. This tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean offers up a low-key vibe and endless turquoise waters perfect for sports like wind and kitesurfing. You can also sample local rum and street food or explore churches, temples, mosques and lighthouses from Mauritius’ rich history as a colonial trade hub.
Le Morne Brabant is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site that serves as “an exceptional testimony to... resistance to slavery.” The mountain’s forbidding cliffs hid runaway slaves known as maroons, and their oral traditions live on.
It doesn’t get better than this.
This is the Seven Colored Earths in Chamarel, where naturally occurring sands of different colors form unique striped dunes.
Above is a shopping center in the capital of Port Louis. English, French, and Mauritian Creole are the most commonly spoken languages in Mauritius, while Hinduism and Christianity are the top two religions.
The world’s ninth-largest country is not just for Borat: Fans of architecture, city tours and wilderness explorations will feel right at home in this little-explored corner of the earth. Start in Almaty, the biggest city, for clothing markets and upscale restaurants. Then, venture out to the Tian Shan mountains and hike sacred forests where many modern fruit crops were first cultivated.
Astana has been called the “world’s weirdest capital city,” in part because it hardly existed 20 years ago. CNN reports the area was “an empty patch of land... best known as a former gulag prison camp for the wives of Soviet traitors” before it was declared the new capital in 1997, sparking the quick rise of a futuristic skyline.
Almaty’s wooden Ascension Cathedral was constructed without nails between 1904 and 1907, and is one of the only buildings in the city to survive a 1911 earthquake. Used for state and public purposes after the Russian Revolution, it was returned to the Russian Orthodox church in the 1990s.
Big Almaty Lake sits in the Tian Shan mountains. The western Tian Shan range stretches into China and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part for its biodiversity.
The city of Aktau, a hub for the oil industry, sits on the Caspian Sea and is a popular spot among locals for swimming.
This lush Mediterranean island sat under the rule of many ancient empires, and it shows: A trip here might include visits to a Byzantine monastery, a mosque or the tombs of high-ranking Hellenistic and Roman officials, which are part of a larger UNESCO world heritage site. Oh, and did we mention the island’s postcard-perfect beaches?
Limassol, Cyprus’ second-biggest city (and still a quaint one at that), has a lively bar and restaurant scene.
See remains of an ancient outdoor theater, villas and baths at Kourion, a former city-kingdom on the coast.
Did you know Latvia has white sand beaches? This Baltic Sea gem, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is full of little surprises and a slight Scandinavian flair. The capital, Riga, was named the European Capital of Culture in 2014, and roughly half of the country is made up of pristine, accessible natural ecosystems. Historical Old Towns, churches and castles abound.
Riga’s town hall square features the iconic House of the Blackheads, which was built in 1334, destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in 1999.
Above is the Gauja River, on the border between Estonia and Latvia. Its namesake national park holds more than 500 cultural and historical monuments.
Not a bad place to spend a summer’s day! Latvia sits across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, Sweden.
Kemeri National Park features a variety of wetlands, including the Great Kemeri Bog, which can be traversed by boardwalk.
Perched between Colombia and Peru on the Pacific, Ecuador has everything: mountains, beaches, rainforest, volcanos, hot springs, and the famous wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Once part of the Inca Empire, this dramatically beautiful land is steeped in both pre-Colombian and Spanish colonial culture and is perfect for cheap travelers, trek-happy adventurers and history lovers ― after all, Quito’s sprawling UNESCO-tapped city center is the colonial jewel of South America. (Bonus: Ecuador is on the dollar, so there’s no need to exchange currency.)
Above is a photo of Bartolome Island in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. The endemic species in this volcanic archipelago inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and both land and sea are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Chimborazo volcano is the highest mountain in Ecuador.
The historic center of Cuenca is yet another of Ecuador’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The town still subscribes to the rigid planning guidelines with which it was founded in 1557.
Quito’s Jesuit Church of the Society of Jesus, informally known as la Compañía, has enough gold leaf inside to wow the most jaded travelers. The stunning baroque church also has a charming number of hidden nods to the local culture, including symbols of suns that salute Inca history and indigenous faces and plants worked into the ornate interior designs.
This island nation ― not be confused with its equally awesome neighbor, American Samoa ― includes 10 islands brimming with volcanoes, waterfalls, rainforests, swimming holes and beaches. Journeying to a natural ocean blowhole or diving deep into a cave pool is just the beginning. Down-to-earth travelers will enjoy its lack of fancy resorts, too.
Swimmers hop into To Sua Ocean Trench, part of a larger area with natural rock pools and blowholes.
Perfect water awaits you on Upolu Island’s southwest coast.
Upolu Island has plenty of beachfront hotels and ecolodges to maximize your time on the warm white sand.
Uruguay doesn’t get as much attention as neighboring Argentina and Brazil, but this polished, progressive paradise on the Atlantic has a pinch of European flair and is well worth a visit. Experience gaucho culture on a ranch of rolling hills, take to the surf at Punta del Diablo, or party the night away in the clubs at Punta del Este.
Stroll the cosmopolitan streets of Montevideo, including the famous Plaza Independencia.
The resort town of Punta del Este is known as a place to party, but the public art deserves a hand, too.
Uruguay’s interior hills are rich in gaucho culture. Book a rural lodge and explore the beautiful countryside on horseback.
First-time visitors to Africa should start here, in the world’s oldest desert, to experience the thrill of feeling like the last tourist on Earth. Considering its vast selection of wildlife, national parks, shipwrecks and larger-than-life sand dunes, Namibia somehow remains awesomely uncrowded. Many cities and towns have a distinctly German feel ― complete with German restaurants and colonial architecture ― due to years under European rule.
Zebras drink at a waterhole in Etosha National Park, which offers various epic safaris.
Off-roaders sit ready to explore the desert’s massive sand dunes, which also make for a daring day hike.
Mayan ruins play a starring role in Guatemala. Deep in the jungle, Tikal National Park is a lush playground of plazas, temples and dwellings that are well over 1,000 years old. Equally gorgeous are Guatemala’s active volcanoes, cascading lagoons and the Caribbean-blue Lake Petén Itzá. Even with all these natural wonders, a historic hotel-museum tops the list of places to visit nationwide.
From the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D., Mayans inhabited what is now Tikal National Park. Current residents include jaguars, howler monkeys and more than 60 species of bats.
Parque Central is a popular outdoor gathering place in Antigua, a city in the highlands.
11. Papua New Guinea
One look at the water should make it, ahem, clear that this is a paradise. The U.S. State Department cautions that due to crime, an organized tour booked through a travel agency is the best way to explore this stunningly diverse and practically untouched country. (There’s little luxury involved, but it’s a trip of a lifetime.) Try a trekking tour along the rugged, mountainous Kokoda Track or journey to a sing-sing festival, at which Papua New Guineans display their many unique tribal cultures through music and dance.
White sand beaches and few interruptions are hallmarks of the New Ireland Province.
Capital Port Moresby is beautiful from the air, though its crime rate calls for sensible precautions. Infrastructure is virtually non-existent outside PNG’s major cities ― another reason to book a tour rather than traveling on your own.
Local tribes celebrate a sing-sing in the Highlands. Some 836 indigenous languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, most by fewer than a thousand speakers each.
Of course, Papua New Guinea boasts excellent snorkeling and diving.
12. Newfoundland, Canada
Why Newfoundland? Here, east coasters can kayak with icebergs without taking a long flight to Greenland or Alaska and beyond. Then there’s 18,000 miles of unspoiled coastline with some 200 walking trails, plus the 22 species of whales that pass through Newfoundland and Labrador between May and September. Add in dramatic, glacier-carved fjords, and this part of Canada is truly a dream for nature lovers who prefer their international travel over-easy.
Icebergs arrive from the Arctic each spring to places like Trinity Bay, above. Check the map of “Iceberg Alley,” then book a boat or kayak or car to experience them up close.
The Fort Amherst historical site in St. John’s honors Colonel William Amherst, who recaptured the area from the French in 1762.
Fall in Newfoundland is not too shabby. This is the Humber River in autumn.
Dracula’s homeland oozes eeriness and intrigue: The country has emerged from its Communist past to the delight of travelers who come to explore its medieval towns and ornate castles, including the one where fiction’s scariest bloodsucker once lived. Beyond the charming cobblestone streets, you’ll find adventurous alpine hikes through the towering Carpathian Mountains and all-inclusive beach resorts on the Black Sea coast.
Corvin Castle in Transylvania features about 50 rooms of medieval art. It’s known as the most impressive Gothic castle in the country.
It can take all day to drive the hairpin turns of Transfagarasan Road, which connects the provinces of Transylvania and Walachia through the mountains. Thanks to a gentle gradient, you can even bike it if you dare.
Even backpackers who have “seen it all” in Thailand and Cambodia will be awestruck in Laos. Stunning waterfalls, soaring mountains and blazing green rice fields are best enjoyed at the Laotian locals’ decidedly slow pace of life. Take a break from zip-lining and cave kayaking to join a yoga retreat or help out on an organic farm. The cuisine ― think sticky rice, papaya salad and fresh fish ― is worth savoring, too.
A hot air balloon flies over Vang Vieng, a jungle town and magnet for backpackers.
Terraced rice fields overlook a village in Mu Cang Chai.
Buddha Park in Vientiane is probably the most stunning sculpture park you’ll ever see.
“Untapped” may be the best way to describe this coastal country between Iran and Russia. Start in the capital of Baku, whose Old City has UNESCO world heritage status as a rare example of ancient architecture. Then, move out to explore quaint rural villages at the base of the Great Caucasus mountains. Former Peace Corps volunteers have set up a network of local homestays to help visitors enjoy the country’s outer fringes, where paved roads are scarce but the land is lush.
Baku mixes old architecture with glittering 21st-century towers on the Caspian Sea.
The Government House is just one of many historic monuments to see in Baku.
High in the mountains, Xinaliq is home to friendly shepherds who can point you in the right direction for adventurous hikes.
Croatia’s been a hot travel destination for a few years now, but don’t overlook its charming neighbor to the north. The snowy peaks of the Julian Alps are the dramatic backdrop for Slovenia’s storybook Lake Bled, while outdoor restaurants line the riverwalk in the friendly capital city Ljubljana and the sprawling Postojna Cave is a dramatic diversion. (Pro tip: You’ll likely save a few dollars by flying into Venice, Italy, rather than Ljubljana ― it’s not far over the border.)
The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation overlooks Ljubljana’s famous Triple Bridge, a lively spot at night.
A tour boat on the Ljubljanica River in Ljubljana.
The town of Piran is a “luminescent pearl” on the Adriatic Sea.
17. The Seychelles
Will and Kate honeymooned here, so you know the views are fit for royalty. This collection of around 115 islands in the Indian Ocean is basically a beach-y theme park, with inlets of every size and type. It could take weeks to see them all. Thank goodness there are both private island villas and casual B&Bs to stay in.
The beaches at Beau Vallon are some of the most highly trafficked in the Seychelles, but they’re still pleasantly low-key.
St. Pierre is the teensy-tiny islet of your wildest dreams. Seriously.
CLARIFICATION: Language has been updated to specify that while that quiver tree is representative of Namibia, it is not a singular symbol of the country.