The new travel bucket list: The 10 best places travellers should visit now

Mongolian eagle hunters ride to the Golden Eagle Festival.
iStock via Getty Images

Mongolian eagle hunters ride to the Golden Eagle Festival.

The ends of the earth are much closer than they used to be. A booming tourism industry, the introduction of budget airfares and unprecedented levels of disposable income have turned us into inveterate journeyers​, able to access destinations unknown to our grandparents.

In fact, some hardcore travellers, in an age where travel has become a way of life, find themselves confronting a once unthinkable, very 21st-century dilemma: they are running out of destinations. 

Once you have scaled the sand dunes of Namibia, snorkelled with sea lions in the Galapagos and cycled through Myanmar, what's left to see? We put that question to our expert panel, a collection of travellers who have made a living out of exploring new frontiers.

What emerged is a hit list of 10 destinations that are still flying under the radar – the new bucket list – a collection of adventures grand enough to excite and inspire the most seasoned traveller.

From the steppes of Mongolia to rain-shrouded Polynesian islands, these destinations offer mystery and magic, a strong sense of place and the chance to wander way off the well-trodden tourist trails. And isn't that exactly what every traveller is really after?

MONGOLIA

Mongolia is "vast, remote and strikingly beautiful", according to Abercrombie & Kent's Sujata Rahman. It is also largely untouched by the passage of time. Beyond the capital Ulan Bator, "nomads still eke out a living on the steppe as they have for centuries, passing down age-old practices of horsemanship, herding and hunting", Rahman says. Sweeping steppes, stark deserts and clear lakes offer plenty of opportunities for hiking, camel-riding and horse-riding. The legendary hospitality of the locals is an attraction in its own right, as are colourful events such as the Naadam​ Festival and the Golden Eagle Festival.

NEED TO KNOW Look further afield than the much-visited South Gobi Desert. Other areas worth exploring include the Yol Valley National Park and the Flaming Cliffs, site of many dinosaur finds.

INSIDER TIP Many of Mongolia's landscapes are best explored on foot, so look for trips that allow plenty of hiking. 

MADAGASCAR

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Lemurs at Tsimbazaza Zoo Madagascar. Photo: REUTERS

Separated from Africa millions of years ago, Madagascar is the island where evolution went its own way. Many of its plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world, including 100 species and subspecies of lemur. Less well known is its striking scenery. 

"I love Madagascar's diverse landscapes," says World Expeditions' Sue Badyari. "Within a few days you can visit the sandstone rock formations at Isalo Massif and swim in natural pools, traverse the Via Ferrata​ –razor-sharp limestone pinnacles of the Grands Tsingy​ – as well as the spectacular granite rock valleys of Andringitra National Park and the humid cloud forest National Park of Ranomafana."

NEED TO KNOW Touring in Madagascar can be arduous, with long drives on poorly maintained roads. Outside the capital, Antananarivo, accommodation and service standards are basic.

INSIDER TIP One positive colonial legacy: in the old town of Antananarivo​, excellent French meals are available at bargain prices.

NUNAVUT, CANADA

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Walrus haul out on pack ice to rest and sunbathe in Nunavut. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

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Talk about the deep north. Canada's northern-most province, the icebound Nunavut, lies entirely above the Arctic Circle.

"Although we have been taking guests to the most remote parts of the world for almost 50 years, we only launched our first Nunavut expedition last year," says Lindblad Expeditions Jeremy Lindblad. "We take out Zodiacs, kayaks and even go hiking to see wildlife including polar bears, musk ox and narwhals."

Travelling by ship lets you range across the Arctic, as far afield as Greenland, where you can sail through the maze of icebergs known as the Ilulissat Icefjord. Highlights including visiting Baffin Island, meeting Inuit villagers, coming across ancient Norse artefacts and following in the footstep of explorer William Baffin, who discovered the gateway to the Northwest Passage, the Lancaster Sound. 

NEED TO KNOW When cruising the Arctic, be aware that itineraries are indicative only: conditions at sea determine what is possible on any given day.

INSIDER TIP Ellesmere Island, Canada's most northerly island, has a spectacular fjord-riven landscape, and is home to caribou and musk ox.

ETHIOPIA 

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One of 11 monolithic rock-cut churches in Lalibela. Photo: REUTERS

Here's something we bet you didn't know: some of the best trekking in Africa can be found in Ethiopia, in a region known as the Roof of Africa.

"The best treks in Ethiopia are in and around the Simien Mountains," says Badyari. "You walk through the small villages and terraced fields of the lower valleys before reaching a series of dramatic cliffs and escarpments." Along the way, expect to see plenty of wildlife, including gelada baboon, walia ibex and the Simien fox.  

Ethiopia's rich culture and history add to its allure. Travellers can visit temples older than the Parthenon, as well as the astonishing 12th-century rock churches at Lalibela.

NEED TO KNOW The remoteness and the altitude of the Simien Mountains means trekkers need to be fit.

INSIDER TIP The annual Timkat​ festival, held every January, is one of Ethiopia's holiest festivals, and one of its most colourful.

BANGLADESH

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Fishermen carry their catch from the shores of Bay of Bengal at Dublar Char in the Sundarbans. Photo: REUTERS

If you lean more towards the slow boat than the fast track, Bangladesh is the destination for you. Boat travel is the preferred mode of transport in this waterlogged country and, according to Tony Wheeler, offers a great opportunity "to watch life unfold in all its glory".

"There is an iconic river boat called The Rocket that I haven't been on yet," Wheeler says. "I want to go back and give that a try."

Bangladesh's other attractions include the world's largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, home to a population of Bengal tigers, and the ancient mosques and mausoleums at Bagerhat.

NEED TO KNOW The sale of alcohol is restricted in Bangladesh, an Islamic nation; the most common beverage you will find is local beer.

INSIDER TIP The Chittagong Hill Tracts are worth visiting for the hiking and for chances to encounter the dozen different ethnic groups that live there.

EL SALVADOR

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The Joya de Ceren archaeological site, a human settlement dating from the classical period between 300 and 950 BC, in San Juan Opico, northeast of San Salvador. Photo: REUTERS

El Salvador is unfairly overshadowed by neighbours such as Costa Rica, according to Thornton. "It has amazing diversity, from beautiful national parks and volcanoes to archaeological sites and colonial towns as well as pristine surf beaches," he says.

Take the Ruta de las Flores, or the Flower Route, a 36-kilometre winding trip through picturesque colonial towns in the Cordillera de Apaneca​ mountains famed for local food, galleries, handicrafts and stunning scenery.

"Suchitoto​ is the ultimate colonial town – think colourful houses and cobbled streets," says Intrepid's James Thornton. "Joya de Ceren​ is like the Pompeii of the Americas and the black sand beaches of El Tunco cannot be overlooked."

NEED TO KNOW El Salvador's cities can be dangerous, so keep your travel smarts and spend your time in the charming towns instead.

INSIDER TIP Delicious and dirt-cheap, the tortilla-based pupusas, made of maize dough filled with beans, cheese and pork, are a favourite snack.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA 

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The Rabaul Mask Festival in papa New Guinea.  Photo: GETTY IMAGES

This is seriously underrated as a holiday destination, says Thornton.

"There are some misconceptions and fears about safety, but they don't apply outside Port Moresby. The Rabaul​ region, in particular, is an untouched paradise, complete with tropical beaches, interesting history and some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world, from shipwrecks to colourful coral reefs."

The highlight of any trip to Papua New Guinea is meeting the locals. Tribal culture is still strong, with more than 800 languages spoken, and most villagers have several English speakers, so striking up friendships is surprisingly easy.

NEED TO KNOW Ensure your vaccinations are up to date, including Hepatitis A and B, and tetanus. Talk to your doctor about whether you should take anti-malarial medication.

INSIDER TIP The Rabaul Mask Festival, held every July, features elaborate masks and colourful song and dance performances.

CENTRAL ASIA

A visit to Central Asia is a trip back in time, according to Rahman.

"This area is steeped in antiquity, with a lasting legacy from ancient warriors and emperors," she says.

"Some of the oldest cities in the world are found here such as the legendary Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, each one boasting a glorious architectural legacy."

The most popular destinations in this patchwork of countries include Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, both rich in historic sites. Be aware that facilities tend towards the simple end of the scale. Further afield lie the wild mountain landscapes of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, where the capital city, Astana, is filled with hyper-modern architecture.

NEED TO KNOW Both men and women should dress conservatively. Shaking hands is only acceptable between men. 

INSIDER TIP Border crossings can be lengthy and challenging; travelling with an experienced operator can make this easier.  

BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO

The Sea of Cortez, which separates Mexico's Baja California peninsula from the mainland, was described by Jacques Cousteau as a living aquarium. The tropical waters teem with life. Angelfish and damselfish, starfish and stingrays are just the start.

"From sailing amid a pod of dolphins to snorkelling with balletic sea lions, adventure seekers can enjoy a range of wildlife encounters in this beautiful region," says Lindblad.

One of the highlights is a visit to one of the birthing lagoons used by California gray whales. "As experienced sailors in these waters, we often get to enjoy encounters with mothers and calves – an amazing experience," says Lindblad. 

NEED TO KNOW The gray whale migration takes place between December and April. 

INSIDER TIP Take some time to explore the area's beautiful islands, home to cactus forests and desert arroyos (creek beds). 

THE MARQUESAS, FRENCH POLYNESIA

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Tiki sculptures at The Marquesas islands, French Polynesia. Photo: Andoni Canela

If you thought everywhere in French Polynesia looked like the blue lagoon of Bora Bora, think again.

"The Marquesas are completely different," says Wheeler. "Here, it's not about the beaches; these brooding, mountainous green islands are way off the tourist trail."

The dramatic volcanic landscapes of the islands, with steep canyons, sheer cliffs and plummeting waterfalls, are perfect for hiking and riding. Culture vultures will be drawn by the legacy of the many artists who drew inspiration from the islands, from painter Paul Gauguin to writer Herman Melville and singer Jacques Brel.

For those not in a hurry, Wheeler suggests taking the two-week round trip to the Marquesas from Tahiti aboard the Aranui freighter. "I still haven't had a chance to do it, but it has always fascinated me," he says. "It is a working cargo ship, which makes it an interesting form of transport." 

NEED TO KNOW The Marquesas are 1500 kilometres from Tahiti, a flying time of almost four hours.

INSIDER TIP The Marquesas are known for the quality of traditional crafts such as carving, making this a great place to pick up a memento of your trip.

THE DESTINATIONS OF YOUR DREAMS

Passionate about art, music, history and adventure? Four travel experts share their top specialist bucket list experiences.

ART AND ARCHITECTURE - Kelly Ward, Martin Randall Travel

BIDAR, THE DECCAN​ India has a wealth of outstanding architecture, much of it largely unvisited by travellers.  The ruins at the Bahmani​ capital of Bidar​ are a standout, especially the triple-moated fort and the domed tombs of the Bahmani kings. 

BYZANTINE MONASTERIES, SERBIA Located in remote mountain valleys, the imposing medieval monasteries of Studenica​ and Sopoćani​ house some of the finest surviving Byzantine frescoes.

BAROQUE CHURCHES, BAVARIA Southern Germany's baroque and rococo churches are under-visited gems. None is more breathtaking than the Wieskirche​ in the foothills of the Alps, its plain white exterior concealing gloriously riotous interiors.

PERSEPOLIS, IRAN When Alexander the Great sacked the Persian capital Persepolis, it took 20,000 mules and 5000 camels to carry away the loot. Even in ruins, Persepolis remains a breathtaking wonder. 

CAVE PAINTINGS, SPAIN Twenty thousand years on, Altamira's​ prehistoric cave paintings still seem to quiver with life. Although the cave itself is closed to visitors, the superb facsimiles in a nearby cave – illuminated by handheld lamps – are a must-see. 

See martinrandall.com

MUSIC - Robert Veel, Academy Travel

LA SCALA, MILAN It's not just about the quality of the performances and the innovative productions: visiting the place where Verdi premiered many of his works is like visiting a sacred site. 

SCHUBERTIADE, SCHWARZENBERG​ Europe has wonderful summer festivals, but the delight of this Schubert festival is its intimacy. You can eat wurst on the lawn while listening to world-class performances.

WAGNER'S RING CYCLE People travel around the world to catch the latest productions of the Ring Cycle, 19 hours of German and Nordic mythology set to a sweeping score. There are always several productions to choose from.

ST MARKS, VENICE If your visit happens to coincide with one of the occasional musical performances in this amazing church, you are in for an unforgettable experience.

SCANDINAVIAN PERFORMANCE SPACES Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki have the most beautiful concert halls and opera houses. The astounding contemporary design is integral to the experience.

See academytravel.com.au

HISTORY - Andrew Millmore, Travel the World/Tauck

SUN ISLAND, BOLIVIA The legendary birthplace of the Incas lies on Lake Titicaca. Explore Incan ruins and the island's five villages before enjoying a lunch with a view to the snow-capped Andes.  

KHAJURAHO, INDIA One of the seven wonders of India, the city of Khajuraho holds the largest concentration of Hindu and Jain temples in the country. The 1000-year-old temples are covered with elaborate sculptures of deities, warriors and sensuous maidens. 

CAESAREA​ ISRAEL Over a period of just 12 years, King Herod transformed Caesarea into a grand city. Highlights include the spectacular Roman amphitheatre, the hippodrome that held 20,000 spectators and the remains of Herod's palace. 

EVORA, PORTUGAL With its Roman ruins, Moorish arcades, and a score of churches and monasteries, the medieval walled city of Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers a fascinating cultural tapestry. 

CODY, WYOMING The quintessential 1890s town, Cody is named for its famous founder, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. The Whitney Gallery of Western Art and the Draper Museum of Natural History give an authentic picture of the art and culture of the Wild West.

See traveltheworld.com.au

ADVENTURE - Tara Sena-Becker, STA Travel Australia

CLIMBING VOLCANOES IN NICARAGUA Hike up to the crater of one of Central America's most active volcanoes, Masaya, which belches smoke and sulphur, then unwind in the pretty colonial city of Granada.  

UNDERWATER FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES This archipelago of tropical islands offers amazing diving and snorkelling experiences. One of the most memorable is diving with the whale sharks at Donsol Bay. 

EXPLORING TIKAL, GUATEMALA Deep in the jungles of Guatemala, the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal​ once housed more than 90,000 people. 

HIKING THE COLCA CANYON, PERU Peru's Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and contains its own lush oasis. Hiking here also brings you face to face with pre-Incan cultures such as the Collagua and Cabana. 

SURFING IN CORNWALL, ENGLAND It may not be Hawaii, but England's north coast beaches have excellent surfing conditions. Don't forget to pack your wetsuit. 

See statravel.com.au

THE EVOLUTION OF THE BUCKET LIST

Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler explains how bucket lists have changed over the decades.

1970s "Travellers started rediscovering Indonesia in the late '60s; not just Bali, but also Jogjakarta and Sulawesi," says Wheeler. "Looking further afield, travelling to London, and exploring Europe from there, was still a rite of passage."

1980s Thailand's beautiful beaches were discovered back in the 1980s. More adventurous travellers were looking towards India. "The hippy trail started in the 1960s and just kept growing, as people realised how interesting a destination India is," Wheeler says.

1990s New Asian destinations caught our attention in the 90s. "I first visited Vietnam in 1991 when it was just reopening," Wheeler says. "You had to get permits for everything you did; it was a real hassle, but then things became easier and it really took off."

2000s In the new century, two destinations capturedtravellers' imagination: the icy wonders of Antarctic, and Dubai's skyscrapers in the desert. "They are completely contrasting destinations," says Wheeler. "One is about wilderness, the other is completely man-made."

2010s Bhutan's sky-high prices make it a destination you need to save for; however, Myanmar is much more accessible. "The country has been under the radar for decades," says Wheeler. "Everyone knew it was going to take off one day, and then finally it did."

Traveller.com.au

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