Destination Adventure: 15 Top Adventure Destination Ideas
Every year we make lists of top destinations for adventurous families. Every year is different as the tourist industry evolves and new destinations, ideas and services come online. Exciting purpose built attractions, more ingenious ways to explore nature’s gems, and innovations in accommodation, promotion and bookings. Below, after careful consideration, research and a little imagineering of our own you can find 15 more top adventure destination ideas. If you want to skip straight to the list then please do so now, otherwise read on to see some musings on current trends followed by ‘The List…’
Travel Titbits and Travel Trends
So what developments have we spotted in the last year? Well, in the UK we actually saw the sun in summer, the north of England put on a splendid cycling display with Le Grand Depart and with the sun on the rise again so were staycations. RyanAir got easier to use and air safety announcements got more interesting with the introduction of elves and pint size pilots (Thompson Tui). Free wifi got more prolific in airports and resorts while more apps flooded the market to make your travel easier (our new favourite is Strava.) Meanwhile The Pope started doing official visits in a Smart Car and in The Philippines on an adapted jeepney.
The family scene
Families in the UK continue to be penalised with fines for taking children out of school during term time. I was pleased to see that according to a World Travel Market Industry report 63 per cent of adults were officially ‘naughty’ and took the kids out anyway, for what I trust were active and educational experiences. According to the same report, almost two out of ten holidaymakers in the UK would vote for a party in an election if it included scrapping the policy in its manifesto.
Meanwhile tour firms who have realised the strength of pester power are putting kids first. Child passports and reward schemes, pint sized dressing gowns and even their own spa treatments are some of the developments we’ve noticed. And for pets too there has been an upgrade in service, with special beds and dogsitting services. In Slovenia we even found a pet hotel. And Greenlands Farm down the road from us has gone even further by opening a chicken hotel. Now that’s what I call taking the lead in the travel industry.
Our criteria for selection for this 15 Top Adventure Destinations is based on places we’ve discovered for ourselves, places our friends and followers have recommended and places we’ve heard about on the grapevine or that are part of the general zeitgeist. Sometimes they are offering something new, and sometimes, like The Philippines immediately below, they are making the list through events no one could have predicted. Anyway, here goes…
1 Cebu and Bohol, The Philippines
Holiday in The Philippines and make your travel matter
There are over seven thousand islands in The Philippines. So where do you even begin? It’s a bit of a sweet shop pick and mix to be honest. Each is varied and offers something a little different for the visitor. Siquijor has mysticism and legend. Luzon has volcanic marvels (an island within a lake on an island in a lake –confused? I am!) Meanwhile Boracay is recognised for having the best beach in the country, if not one of the best in the world. We spent a couple of weeks in Cebu and Bohol in the Central Visayas. This involved a long haul flight from the UK to Manila, and a domestic transfer to Cebu.
Cebu is a good base to go diving (some of the best dive sites in the country are on Cebu’s Mactan island.) You can also go swimming with whale sharks at Oslob from here, although it does require a very early morning start. It was Bohol that grabbed us though. From its perfect chocolate hills to its tarsiers we were all thoroughly engaged. It’s an adventurous destination and perfect for a family with very different interests and ages. We went bicycle zip wire riding, tree root climbing, snorkelling, messing about on boats and in caves and butterfly hunting in the local sanctuary.
Visiting The Philippines isn’t all hedonism though. The super typhoon that ripped through the islands a few year ago caused extensive damage in some places and the people are still trying to rebuild their lives. Our trip was in collaboration with Expedia’s ‘Travel That Matters‘ campaign. If you support this country by visiting, you are bringing money directly to people who really need it. How’s that for a holiday feel good factor?
Don’t be tempted to stay in your resort while in The Philippines. There is so much to offer and the people need your money. Jeepneys cost almost nothing yet are great fun to travel around on. Just jump on the back of one of these multicoloured vans and pass the fare down to the driver. Taxis are cheap too, but negotiate fees with the driver before setting out.
2 North Norway
Pedal into the midnight sun.
Northern Norway crept into my consciousness because people kept mentioning it. People we trust, like other cyclists and Lonely Planet. Even my window cleaner was singing its praises. Why? Because it’s wild. Because cars don’t hog the ‘twisty, turny’ roads that wind in and out of narrow fjords, over steep ridges and through a green and blue landscape. Because villages are traditional, numerous and well preserved. And because distances are small and days long. And after we were so impressed with The Faroes, I’m wondering if Norway may have a similarly homely yet rugged feel?
I had previously been put off biking in Norway for two reasons. I’d heard the tunnels linking towns were long dark and dangerous for cyclists (and often prohibited.) And then there’s the cost. But those who’ve biked there tell me that if you camp and shop wisely you can do it on a budget. And the tricky tunnels are mostly in the far north. The North Norway Tourist Board advised me on two parts of the coast that are perfect for an family biking journey with an island hopping theme. One is an area spanning north from Bronnoysund along the Helgeland Coast which offers reasonably flat access to some of the 14,000 islands and crosses the Arctic Circle. Along the way you can visit the Vega Archipelago on the UNESCO World Heritage List and Saltstraumen; which has the world’s strongest maelstrom – take a guided boat ride and feel the wind at 20 knots per second.
Another area ripe for biking is the Lofoten islands. Travelling north, the midnight sun will be your guide to stunning fjords, preserved fishing villages, arctic wildlife and historic archipelagos. (This area also has very good inland kayaking.) White sandy beaches, mountains and fishing cabins offer the cyclist some well earned rest. Look out for Syklist Velcommen signs along well marked trails for good sleeping opportunities.
If you’d like to travel round North Norway on foot then Wideroe’s Explore Norway ticket gives you unlimited travel in Northern Norway for two weeks for a single price. Or book one of the famous Hurtigruten trips; the four day package stops at 24 ports.
Enlightenment for tweens and teens
OK. Never thought I’d say this. But temples, shrines and graveyards are really fun for kids. Well they are in Japan anyway. Who would have thought my teenagers would be walking the line to see if they would find true love, writing their hopes and dreams on bamboo sticks to be burnt by a Buddhist monk, or trying to lift a heavyweight stone to check if enlightenment might be in the offing? If you go to Japan, you could do worse than planning a trip around the temples and shrines. Each is very different, many are interactive and some form the country’s most iconic sculptures. But maybe keep your theme to yourselves pre trip. If we’d have told the kids we were touring temples they’d have refused to leave the UK!
By the way, the shrines go from the sublime to the ridiculous. At the tiny shrine at the back of the car park in Tokyo’s Aqua City shopping centre we made an offering to the god of lost i-pods! Compare this with the breathless and breathtaking two and a half hour walk up the mountain through thousands of vermilion gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine or the joys of cycling in the streets of Old Kyoto.
Japan is famous for its bullet train and any trainspotters in the family will be in heaven. A road trip is another option if you can get your head around the Sat Nav. (See our post packed with tips for driving in Japan) Focus on two or three cities and seek out things the kids will like. Kyoto and Tokyo are two obvious destinations. In Kyoto you won’t have to go far to see some of Japan’s National treasures like Geisha (we spotted one real, one trainee and two lookie-likies in the Geisha district of Gion) You can pay to be dressed as a Geisha yourself in one of the many costume shops that also offer hair and make up and you can take part in one of the tea ceremonies. We really enjoyed our visit to the 1820 Shima Geisha House in Kanazawa; it is part tea room and part museum in one of Japan’s most authentic Geisha Districts.
If you splash out on one thing make it Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant. See our review here or check out the kids video diary. This extraordinary venue in Shinjuku packs literally hundreds of larger than life, neon robots into an all singing, all dancing show. Don’t’ bother ordering the food though, you won’t want to take your eyes off the floor. We also loved the Lock Up chain of restaurants where ghosts and ghouls come at you from behind bars while you are eating food straight out of test tubes.
4. Salisbury, England
The place for a history tour
We like to include UK destinations in our lists, especially those that we feel offer something new for kids and this time Salisbury is that destination. The Magna Carta celebrated its 800th year and you can see the best of the surviving documents in the new version of the Chapter House at the gothic Salisbury Cathedral. There’s an interactive exhibition and a new art trail with statues around the streets, produced by the company who created Wenlock for the Olympics.
Magna’d out? Then you should head directly to Stonehenge. The atmospheric stones are complemented by the interactive and comprehensive visitor experience. And if you are planning a visit June, why not do the Glastonbury Festival with its designated family fields and loads of activities for kids. Tickets sell out early so watch the website.
Tor’s Tour of the Tor offers guided visualisation around Stonehenge and other sacred sites. Tor Webster offers 7000 years of myth and legend in an engaging day, or even a week if you’d like to visit few sites. The kids will love him as he looks a bit like Hagrid although Tor describes himself as more of a ‘Glastronaut.’
5 Dubai and Yas Island, United Arab Emirates
Fun & Desert Sun in easy to get to Middle East
You would not believe how many people warned us that we might not like Dubai. But how we did! Families who want a bit of an adventure yet don’t like to get too far out of their comfort zone will love the experiences that this Middle East tourist hub offers. An overnight desert safari offered us the opportunity to go dune bashing in a 4wd, sleep under the stars and watch the sun come up over the dunes. A clutch of three world class waterparks (Atlantis the Palm, Yas Waterworld and Jumeirah) kept the kids happy. Meanwhile Stuart and I loved cycling the fairylit Dubai Marina and hopping on and off the traditional dhow boats to visit the souqs. Next time we go we hope to do a family skydive into the desert. Well, what’s good enough for the Crown Prince…
A short drive away and Yas Island offered us the fastest roller coaster in the world at Ferrari World. It also gave us the rare chance to cycle an F1 track (with hundreds of others) at Yas Marina. If you want a sunny escape with lots to do, then Dubai is only a handful of hours on a plane. And if you get the last flight of the day back you may find yourself on the Airbus 380. In my family I’m not sure if parents or kids enjoyed the experience more! Check out our 25 reasons we think Dubai is cool for families.
For families with small children Dubai’s Kidzania is a stimulating day out. The kids try out different careers in a series of workshops and studios while parents stand around wondering why their children get to have all the fun. (The Kidzania franchise has also opened at London’s Westfield as well as many other locations around the world.)
6 Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
The authentic Middle East
You can probably see Dubai glittering from space but some of the other Emirate states offer unexpected treasure, often without the bling of their flashy elder brother. I’ve been hearing about Sharjah a lot lately and feel it may start to feature in mainstream tourism in the coming years. It was named the Islamic Culture Capital for 2014 and before that the Culture Capital of the Arab World by UNESCO.
If you just want to chill, Al Majaz Waterfront is popular with families, for restaurants and cafes and the Sharjah Fountain. There’s also a water-themed Splash Park, and the new Maraya Art Park, featuring a sculpture park and a children’s art park. Sharjah is a dry state, so feels safer than other cities and you might enjoy the detox. It’s been working hard on its tourism offer for families lately and this will only grow with its major Heart of Sharjah development, expected to be completed in 2025.
With water on two sides and a big helping of desert in the middle, there are some great outdoor activities like adventuring into the desert on camel safaris or driving in on 4WD’s. Locals claim Sharjah is a more authentic tourist experience than Dubai and if you want a real local experience an organised programme means you can spend time with local families and do what they do.
You might consider visiting in February where the extraordinary nine day Festival of Light literally illuminates the city’s heritage.
7 Catalan Pyrenees, Catalonia, Spain
Five winter resorts in one go in Costa Brava Girona
Think of the Catalonia in Northern Spain and snow may not be the first thing to pop into your mind. But just an hour’s drive from Girona airport lie the awe inspiring Catalan Pyrenees; a sunny winter playground for skiers and boarders. Facilities for snow sport are so good here that Pirineu combined with Barcelona to bid for the Winter Olympics in 2022. But serious skiers are not the only ones to be embraced. Catalonia is all about the family; hotels are small and family owned and the slopes are full of kids. We skied at five resorts. Masella and La Molina near the town of Puigcerdá, capital of the La Cerdaña region, both offered high tech lifts and endless slopes. In addition to this Masella provided an exciting evening of floodlit night skiing and while in La Molina we had a ride in a piste basher. Valter 2000 provided another view of the Pyrenees while the charming resort of Val de Nuria offered a car free environment where the children rule over a huge snow park. And you get there on a mountain train.
Meanwhile the Nordic ski centre of Guils Fontanera offered us miles of track to go cross country skiing. We didn’t go miles though; it took us a while to get the hang of the sport.
A short drive from La Molina, in a small French enclave, you will find a restaurant serving traditional mountain dishes. Cal Cofa in Llivia doesn’t stand on ceremony; it is usually full of families and locals. But the food is amongst the best in Catalonia and it has a dedicated following. Book ahead; it gets busy.
8 Anchorage, Alaska
Watch the earth melt in Alaska’s accessible wilderness
There is no show on earth like a glacier cracking. And you can see this drama unfold from various locations with an Alaskan adventure. There are 50 glaciers within 50 miles of downtown Anchorage alone. Anchorage is a good base for an Alaskan trip; with five national parks within reach you can access a diverse range of habitats without feeling too overwhelmed by the country’s size and wilderness.
Winter or summer, a gentle start for your family adventure might be the Tony Knowles Coastal trail which stretches 11 miles from Cook Inlet and offers good views of Mount McKinley; North America’s tallest mountain. Bike or walk the trail and you might spot one of the country’s 1500 moose. Wildlife is part of the deal in Alaska. King salmon visibly surge up the creek and angling is a major tourist activity. There are eagles overhead and the bears come in black, brown and grizzly. Beluga whales can also regularly be spotted from the rocky cliffs.
An easy kayak trip is the seven mile long Eklutna Lake and Glacier. But a more novel experience is a ‘flightseeing tour’ from the world’s busiest float plane base; Lake Hood. You can access real wilderness on the peaks of the Alaska range and some of the planes are equipped with skis for landing on the glaciers. Real glacier fans can also go trekking with crampons and a guide, and it’s not as cold as you might imagine; summer temperatures can reach mid 20’s Celsius although winter can get down and dirty, as low as minus 15 Celsius. Wrap up and see the Northern Lights. Or tackle the 100 miles of ski trails. The Winter Fur Rendevous Festival in late February was named the world’s best Winter Carnival by National Geographic.
A Through the Lens Photography tour (Ttlalaska.com) offers guided wilderness photography excursions and workshops to help you with your aspirations to be Wildlife photographer of the year.
9 Belfast, Northern Ireland
Challenge the family to a Game of Thrones
Belfast is not a beach holiday. It is a gritty place, and when we visited had a nip in the air too. But then, it’s not as cold as Westeros. If you have older kids or adults in the family who watch the Game of Thrones, they may enjoy a tour of where the TV series is set. Sure, some of it is in Iceland, but much of it is filmed in Northern Ireland. The Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is shot is close to The King’s Road, Winterfell, The Wall and Dragonstone. A guided tour reveals the dramatic scenery used in the show.
While you are there, if you kind of like the dark stuff then the Titanic Museum gives you the whole history of the sinking of the infamous ship in an atmospheric and imaginative building. You can also tour the Crumlin Road Gaol which housed political prisoners until its closure in 1996. And if you still have a taste for history, take a guided or self guided tour of the wall that once divided the city or tick off its painted murals.
St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast is one of its most historic buildings and its foundation stone goes back to 1899. There’s a great audio tour you can rent and listen to so you can get your bearings and some history. How often have you cursed buying audio tour for each member of the family? In this cathedral you can buy one and plug two sets of headphones in.
Live like a movie legend in Jamaica
There are several options for recreating a movie experience for your family in Jamaica. Remember Cool Runnings? Well you too can feel like one of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios when steel rails blast you through the trees on a rainforest bobsled ride. If you are nervous about the kids you can connect up your sled and theirs. (Yeh, like they’re going to let you do that!!)
Or you could be Pirates of the Caribbean. Royalton White Sands Resort in Montego Bay has a five star pool and a splash pool where kids can dodge falling water buckets tipped by pirates. Beaches Boschobel has a 27,000 sq foot waterpark called Pirates Island. Or, if you can stomach the gimmick, then you can join the Pirates of The Caribbean galleon at Falmouth where you will be entertained by Jack Sparrow himself. (Johnny Depp couldn’t make it unfortunately but he sent a fun replacement.)
Or be Indiana Jones for week or two. This Caribbean island has some seriously good opportunities for young explorers. Our pick of them is YS Falls; a set of seven waterfalls in the foothills of Cockpit Country offering visitors the chance to swim in a spring fed pool, jump in on a rope swing, or fly over the water on a zipline. If you’ve still an appetite for water then you can hang out at one of Jamaica’s most famous attractions; Dunn’s River Falls. You can take a guided climb to the top at 600 ft. (Bring water shoes or you’ll have to pay to hire them.) You can also raft down one of the islands many rivers on a family bamboo raft – perhaps start with the Martha Brae near Falmouth. Children over six can also join you on a horse ride where you and the horse go swimming in the sea at Chukka’s beach.
The main reason to visit Jamaica is not the attractions but the people. Visit Jamaica’s ‘Meet the People’ programme gives you 700 chances to hook up with someone (or a whole family) who shares your interests. For free. Let a local show you their home.
11 Pilsen (Plzen), Czech Republic
Get cultured with the kids
Ever heard of Pilsen? I think you might have. It’s famous for it’s beer and if you’ve ever had a Pilsner Urquell lager then it may ring a bell. But this Czech Republic city has more than beer on offer, it was the European Capital of Culture for 2015 and it’s a wild card choice for a family weekend away.
Ever since we attended Iceland’s Children’s Culture Festival (Check it out in Feb) I have been interested in innovative festivals for kids and there’s loads going on this year for children in Pilsen. Start in the puppet museum where you can do the ‘expedition on a thread’ programme and if puppets grab your kids you can take them to the puppet theatre.
If they’re feeling brave then the ghost museum will stimulate their imaginations further. The alchemists from past centuries tried to discover the Philosopher’s stone in Pilsen’s cellars and today in one of the cellars you can (allegedly-not guaranteed in the ticket price) still find ghosts today. Then, if not too spooked, you can set out through the labyrinth of tunnels under the town. There are also historical re-enactment tours, special events and an International Film Festival for kids throughout this cultural year.
Take the kids on a Pilsner Urquell Brewery tour. It’s a walk through the evolution of beer. The over 18s get to taste the goods.
12 Kerala, India
Mess about in a houseboat
Kerala is famous for its houseboats. You’ve probably seen those iconic images of the holiday home in the eerie green lakes. Their more common name is kettuvallom which literally means a boat made by tying together pieces of wood. These boats once transported rice and coconut but now they more traditionally carry tourists. Why? Because the waters of Kerala are extraordinary. Four districts filled with lagoons, estuaries and 44 rivers. 900 km of backwater in total takes you inland to the green heart of Kerala. The network of waterways begins in Kollam, one of the oldest ports in the state. From Ashtamundi Lake a 10km system of canals and lakes winds northwards. In a week or two messing about on the waters of South India, you can also take in Alappuzha – the Venice of the East, meet skilled artisans of Alumkadavu or watch rare migratory birds on Pathiramanal.
There’s plenty to keep the kids entertained. You see snake boat races or enjoy a Kathakali dance performance. You can educate yourselves in the art of duck farming or watch Chinese fishing. You can watch locals spin coconut fibre into ropes and weave it into products. There are a few unusual treats for adults; many of the backwater resorts have traditional Ayurveda healing centres while some houseboats offer treatments on board.
If you rent a houseboat it is likely to be made without a single nail. You can discover the secrets of how boats are made in Kerala at the villages of Alumkadavuin in Kollam and Champakulum in Alappuzha.
While the kids sip on coconut, you could try the local brew of toddy, the fermented sweet drink of the region. Watch the locals climb the trees to tap them for it, and then enjoy it with steamed tapioca, or pearl spot cooked with masala in a plantain leaf.
13 Falkland Islands
Fly away to a birding and wildlife wonderland
At a recent World Travel Market I kept seeing man sized penguins waddling around and had to wonder where they came from as penguins clearly aren’t endemic to Docklands. In fact, they came from The Falklands Islands, (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas.)
But as those of us who lived through the Thatcher years will remember, our relationship with The Falklands is not without controversy. And spats between the Brits and the Argentinians about their ownership once even spilled into a Christmas Top Gear Special. But if you visit, the one thing you will be guaranteed is peace. Because these are some of the most unspoilt and untouched islands in the world and were studied by Darwin in his time.
If you can commit to the long journey, The Falklands is great for families as it is one of the few places left in the world where you can really experience wildlife close-up. John Swindell, who runs Antarctica Bound tours to the islands says for anyone interested in wildlife there is nowhere better. “The animals and birds have no fear of humans and do not feel threatened. Also, most of them are no threat to humans either, so children can enjoy the most unique experiences.” Some of the birdlife treats include the world’s most northerly King Penguin colony, as well as the world’s biggest Black-Browsed Albatross colony.
Ever seen an elephant seal? These enormous and eccentric looking creatures weighing up to two tons populate the beaches in The Falklands. You can sit on the sand with them all around you. But be careful when the alpha males decide to fight for the ladies. They can put on some show!
14 Athens, Greece
Wander the streets of the ancients
The Greeks are regularly listed as some of the top most unhappy people in the world. But you’re unlikely to have an unhappy time in tourist Athens. I’ve been to the city twice, and have always found the locals to be particularly friendly and welcoming.
Of course it’s a cliche to put the Acropolis at the top of any trip to Athens. But it does tend to dominate the tourist experience somewhat! This time around I had a great view of it from the balcony of restaurant ‘Dionysus Zonars by the Acropolis’ and even the scaffolding didn’t diminish its majesty. A valuable indoor addition to the Acropolis brand is the Acropolis Museum which is packed with sculpture taken from The Parthenon and Acropolis. Visit late afternoon for the best experience, when shafts of light look like the ancient columns in the restful gallery.
But I found the best thing to do in the city was just wander. It was full of small surprises, from the portrait painter who invited me in to drink wine in his studio, to the hordes of Acropolis cats and their feeders to a late night jazz bar filled with theatrical types. I also loved turning a corner and stumbling across the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
You can get a ride all the way in from the airport to the centre of town on the Metro. It is cheap and efficient, takes less than an hour and because you start at the terminal you have a chance of getting a seat. Once you are in Athens, it’s very cheap to make you way around by taxi. The drivers are full of engaging detail about their city. And the odd bit of moaning about how unhappy they are of course!
15 Lake District, England
One of England’s gems by bike boat bus and boot
Sometimes there is nothing sweeter than home sweet home. And so we end this list by recommending something on our doorstep. Not because we are tired of the world, but because it’s beautiful and I love it. I love it so much I once spent six months travelling around The Lake District on environmentally sustainable transport as the Lake District’s Poet in Motion. (You can see the launch of this unusual Poetry Residence on BBC North West tonight) and read more about my poetic adventures inspired by travel on bus, boat, rain, electric car and electric bike over on our sister blog, Poet in Motion.
I was blown away not just by the extraordinary range of transport on offer, from the atmospheric Windermere Lake Cruises to the open top bus that travels from North to South and back again in summer, but also by the range of natural thrills available to visitors, mostly accessible by public transport.
Rent a Twizy from one of several Lake District Hotels and strike out across the countryside in this almost silent electric car. It’s a fun ride, a bit like riding a go cart, and electricity is free within the rental price. And you can feel smug that you are saving the Lake District at the same time. Check out my video poem on the Twizy as superhero.