THRILL SEEKERS, MEET THE NEW CLASSICS: five largely undiscovered adventure destinations that are just as exciting as their better-known brethren.
BY ALL MEANS, climb the grand slopes of Mount Rainier and brave the famous swells of Oahu’s North Shore. Mountain bike in Moab and scuba dive off the Cayman Islands. Hike the mighty Appalachian Trail until your feet cry for mercy. For adventure seekers, restless souls, and keepers of bucket lists, these are places to pursue and to cherish. Just know that when you get there, you won’t have been the first -- and you certainly won’t be alone.
What separates those tried-and-true checklist-worthy meccas on the adventure circuit from a world’s supply of lesser-sung alternatives? Sure, quality plays into it. (Some playgrounds are just plain better than others.) So does geography. (Would the Grand Canyon be as grand if it were in northern Manitoba, Canada? Discuss.) And no doubt, a certain X factor plays its hand as well. But the biggest reason people continue to flock to the same places again and again is they simply don’t know what others exist.
American Way looked far and wide, kilometers high and leagues below, to find some of these “others.” What follow are five obvious rites of passage in the great outdoors that you may have already checked off paired with five exciting, challenging alternatives that you probably haven’t. All 10 locales will earn you high marks for bravery. But only five will win you points for originality.
OBJECTIVE: Surf a Swell Wave
THE OBVIOUS: The North Shore
Location:Oahu, Hawaii, 38 miles from Honolulu International Airport
Claim to Fame: Home of world-famous Sunset Beach, monster surf break Banzai Pipeline, and competitive surfing’s Vans Triple Crown -- the Reef Hawaiian Pro, the O’Neill World Cup of Surfing, and the Billabong Pipeline Masters
Crowd Control: The North Shore attracts about 2.5 million people annually (more than half of all overnight visitors to Oahu). Crowds spike during November and December, when the biggest waves and competitions arrive.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Bali
Location: Indonesia, about 6,000 miles from Honolulu International Airport
Claim to Fame: One of Southeast Asia’s primary tourist hubs and ground zero for some of the most reliably gnarly wave action on the planet
First, a disclaimer: Surf traffic may be heavier in Hawaii and California than deep in Indonesia, but no place with people this friendly, prices this cheap, water this warm, and waves this reliably perfect is exactly a secret these days. Indonesian surf -- famous for seemingly impossibly groomed tubes that peel flawlessly for hundreds of yards, a result of ground swells from Antarctica traveling unobstructed over half the world’s circumference -- has been steadily catching on with wave hunters ever since the surf-travel fad started hitting its stride. The trend is especially hot in Bali, with more than 30 easy-access, world-class wave sites within a one-hour drive from Kuta Beach.
“Travel to Bali for two weeks anytime between April and October and you’re virtually guaranteed to get one solid double-overhead swell and head-high sets at least every other day,” says Indo Surf and Lingo author Peter Neely, a seminal surfing authority in Indonesia. He also recommends venturing farther out, to the country’s stellar waves lining Java, Lombok, and Sumatra’s offshore Mentawai Islands. “Overall, Indonesia offers the best value for surfers anywhere in the world.”
Neely’s favorite sites in Bali include Uluwatu, a 500-yard-long classic coral reef on the island’s wave-battered south shore that features consistent four-to-ten-footers and an international mix of surfer dudes. For fewer crowds, head 30 minutes north of Kuta Beach to Berawa, a favorite spot with local surf instructors because of its fun batch of left and right sliders that break into safe deep water. Book a class or surfing trip with World Surfaris, Indonesia’s longest-running surf travel agent, which caters to all the big sites.
THE OBVIOUS: Mount Rainier
Location: 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington
Claim to Fame: Tallest mountain in Washington and the nation’s most popular training ground for big-ticket climbs on such mountains as McKinley, Aconcagua, and Everest
Crowd Control: Last year, more than 10,000 stoked climbers gathered at the base of Seattle’s 14,410-foot volcano with their ice axes and crampons. Never mind that barely half of them made it to the top -- that’s still a ton of high-fiving on the summit.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Mount Waddington
Location: British Columbia, Canada
Claim to Fame: British Columbia’s highest mountain, short-listed in the mountaineering bible Fifty Classic Climbs of North America
Hiding above and beyond the Cascades and the Canadian Rockies, in British Columbia’s far-less-trodden Coast Ranges, 13,175-foot Mount Waddington is about as off the radar as a bona fide “classic climb” site can get. The few savvy mountaineers who come here compare its icy flanks to Europe’s Mont Blanc, its sheer 5,000-foot vertical reliefs to the twice-as-high Himalayas, and its technical climbs to some of the most challenging big alpine rock routes in the world. So why shouldn’t this scare you away?
“The Northwest Ridge route up to the top of Mount Waddington’s marginally lower twin peak, the Northwest Summit, is one of the most stunningly beautiful, nontechnical climbs anyone with moderate mountaineering skills can do,” says Brian Jones, owner of British Columbia–based Canada West Mountain School. “And because people either don’t know about it or just assume that Waddington is way out of their league -- which the highly technical main summit routes probably are -- you have this place all to yourself.”
Climbing big mountains in the middle of nowhere requires a commitment, and the eight-day Waddington expedition in July led by Canada West (one of the only companies that leads trips there) is no exception. First, there’s the commute: a nine-hour van ride, or a one-hour charter flight, from Vancouver, plus a quick, breathtaking helicopter ride to base camp. Then, after a few days of practice glacier climbs and crevasse rescue procedures in the Waddington Range, the two-day ascent includes a 14-hour summit bid from high camp that starts at about three a.m. “From a mountaineering perspective, Mount Waddington is truly a spectacular hidden gem,” says Jones, who leads expeditions all over the world. “In the 20 years I’ve been guiding trips here, we’ve bumped into other groups on maybe two occasions. And that’s over an entire week.”
THE OBVIOUS: The Appalachian Trail
Location: Eastern United States, winding through 14 states for 2,175 miles (or approximately five million footsteps) between northern Georgia and central Maine
Claim to Fame: America’s first National Scenic Trail and the country’s holy grail of long-distance hikes
Crowd Control: Every spring, about 1,500 aspiring through hikers set off from the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain in Georgia, bound for the trail’s terminus, Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In a good year, around 25 percent of them go the distance.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Northern England’s Coast-to-Coast Trail (a.k.a. the C2C)
Location: Stretches 190 miles from the Irish Sea at St. Bee’s to the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay
Claim to Fame: One of Europe’s most cherished hikes and the best place we know of to realistically hoof across an entire nation in two weeks flat without wrecking your knees or your marriage
There’s a certain crazy romance to the idea of walking the length of an entire country -- just as there’s a certain nutty truth to comedian Steven Wright’s keen observation that “everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” The snag with crossing the United States is that you’ll need at least six months, several pairs of shoes, and pathological reserves of stamina and determination to do it. The solution? Find a more obligingly sized country to tromp across -- like the UK.
England is smaller than Louisiana, thinner than Florida, obsessed with public footpaths, and stuffed with timeless pastoral countryside that would still make Wordsworth wax poetic. It’s no surprise then that England is home to one of the loveliest, most manageable (and literal) cross-country rambles anywhere. Devised in the 1970s by legendary British hill walker and guidebook author A.W. Wainwright, the C2C traditionally begins with a toe dip in the Irish Sea on the western edge of Cumbria before rolling across three national parks -- England’s famous Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North Yorkshire Moors -- and finishing with a celebratory toe dip about 190 miles east in the North Sea.
“It’s a challenging but hugely rewarding walk, and it’s within range for anyone who’s reasonably fit,” says Rita Szollos, an adventure coordinator with Mountain Travel Sobek, which runs 16-day Coast-to-Coast trips throughout the summer led by seasoned English guides who know their way around a craggy peak, a foggy dale, and a soggy peat bog. “A great time to go is in September,” Szollos adds, “when the hills are coated in all colors of heather.”
OBJECTIVE: Dive to a Breathtaking Reef
THE OBVIOUS: Cayman Islands
Location: Western Caribbean, about 500 miles south of Miami
Claim to Fame: The Caribbean’s most hallowed scuba and snorkeling playground is home to about 300 dive sites, including Stingray City and Bloody Bay Wall (an old Jacques Cousteau favorite). Also, the U.S.S. Kittiwake is scheduled to be sunk this year off of Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach to form an artificial reef and a wreck dive site.
Crowd Control: Every year, thousands of hardcore scuba tourists and several thousand more leisure divers flock to the coral reefs and walls ringing the Cayman Islands, which are part of a submerged mountain range brimming with tropical marine life.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Dominica
Location: Eastern Caribbean, about 400 miles southeast of Puerto Rico
Claim to Fame: One of the most rugged and pristine outposts in the Caribbean -- both onshore and offshore
It’s been said that Dominica is one of the few places in the Caribbean that Columbus would still recognize. There are no hotel chains there. No casinos. No duty-free-shopping crowds, helicopter tours, or MTV-ready limbo contests. Blanketed in lush volcanic peaks and a UNESCO-protected rain forest, the island is a preserved sanctuary defined by rivers, waterfalls, 167 recorded bird species, the world’s second-largest boiling lake, and an award-winning eco-resort hiding somewhere in the trees. And as it turns out, it’s also one of the finest scuba-diving destinations that a fifteenth-century explorer -- or a twenty-first-century cruise ship -- could ever sail obliviously over.
“An increasing number of savvy divers are finding Dominica now, but it’s still harboring one of the most diverse and dramatic off-the-beaten-path underwater experiences in the Caribbean,” says Ty Sawyer, editor of Sport Diver magazine and editorial director of Islands Magazine. “Along the island’s west coast especially, there’s some incredible wall diving where the ocean suddenly drops about 3,000 feet literally right offshore. Scalewise, the coral gardens here are just off the charts, even by Caribbean standards. Think enormous sea fans, giant brain corals, huge barrel sponges -- all of it remarkably intact.”
Top-notch dive shops catering to all skill levels are concentrated on the island’s west coast, where a couple of marine reserves offer stunning drop-offs, rare marine life, and underwater geothermal features bubbling from submerged volcanic vents. In the south, Nature Island Dive runs trips to Scotts Head, one of Dominica’s most famous wall-dive areas. In the north, Cabrits Dive Centre is a Professional Association of Diving Instructors–certified five-star dive operation that leads scuba tours through volcanic coralscapes loaded with sea critters and steaming underwater fumaroles. When you get tired of breathing underwater, hop on a whale-watching boat. Dominica’s deep surrounding waters make it one of the best (and reliably present) sperm whale habitats in the Americas.
OBJECTIVE: Pedal the Trail of Trails
THE OBVIOUS: The Slickrock Bike Trail
Location: Moab, Utah, about 230 miles southeast of Salt Lake City
Claim to Fame:Moab’s premier mountain-biking Trail
Crowd Control: Sand Flats Recreation Area (a few miles outside Moab and home to the Slickrock Bike Trail) receives about 100,000 visitors annually, many of whom will be in helmets and Lycra pants.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Raccoon Mountain
Location: About 10 miles west of downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee
Claim to Fame: Chattanooga’s premier mountain-biking Trail
Maybe you haven’t heard, but it’s a good time to be a mountain biker in Chattanooga these days. Once a depressed industrial town tagged as having the worst air pollution in the United States by a 1969 Federal Air Quality Report, the mountain-fringed riverfront city has become a benchmark of urban revival and one of the most outdoor-friendly communities in the Southeast. It’s now become a haven for rock climbing, trail running, birding, backpacking, white-water rafting, hang gliding, road cycling, and, of course, mountain biking, one of the fastest-growing movements in the region.
“Our initiative is to build 100 miles of mountain-bike trail within a 10-minute drive of greater Chattanooga by 2010,” says Trey Commander, local chapter president of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA), a nonprofit dedicated to building and maintaining mountain-bike trails. “Traditionally, Chattanooga has been better known for road biking, with light traffic and great country roads. But there’s been an increasing trend toward off-road biking here because of what we’ve been building for people to ride.”
The crown jewel of Chattanooga’s 100- mile initiative is Raccoon Mountain, an extensive trail system of new single tracks perched above town at a Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir facility. “It’s the place that has really put us on the map as a mountain-biking destination,” Commander says. “On any given weekend, you’re likely to see more out-of-state plates here than local ones.” About 20 miles of gently graded wooded trail loop around the mountain’s upper section, offering views of downtown Chattanooga and the Tennessee River Gorge. SORBA hosts monthly rides around the city that visitors can join. Or you can rent some wheels and hook up with a local guide at Suck Creek Cycle, a longtime institution for the Chattanooga cycling crowd.