Photo by Sam Scott
Words by Cathy Struthers
1. POLAR BEAR WATCHING, CANADA
The silence of your surroundings, the vastness of the landscape, the awesome beauty of the bears, polar bear watching is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience that will stay etched in your memory forever.
Northern Canada, near Churchill, is the best, and most accessible place, to guarantee a sighting and the start of the winter, October and November, are the best times to go. As you rumble your way across the vast tundra, or open plains, in a ‘tundra buggy’, the wilderness seems huge. Your first sighting of a polar bear will leave you speechless – just remind yourself to take the time to put your camera down and drink it all in – it’s all too easy to spend your whole time looking through a viewfinder trying to capture the whole awesome experience on film.
Insider tip: If you go in November, you can grab a budget domestic flight to Vancouver (try www.flyzoom.com) and combine bear watching with a sneaky week of snowsports in early season Whistler.
Book it: Fly independently to Winnepeg (fly to Toronto from Europe and then check out low cost Canadian airline Zoom for cheap connections to Winnepeg).
The eco-tourism Great Canadian Travel Company does the best deal, offering week-long packages that take you out to Churchill near Hudson Bay (about three hours) for four nights, with two full days with the bears on the Arctic tundra and a full day tour including dog sledding. Costs from £1150.00 per person.
2. GO EXTREME IN NEW ZEALAND
If you had to single out one place as adrenaline capital of the world, New Zealand would be it. Blessed with snow-capped mountains, lush valleys and whitewater gorges, the South Island in particular can’t be beaten for adventure sports.
If you go now, in Kiwi spring, you may even be lucky enough to catch the ski hills still open (although this season has been far from epic).
It’s hard not to fall dumbstruck as you cruise into Queenstown, a picture-perfect town with a chilled-out vibe and the best place to base yourself for adventure. From here you can rattle through the alphabet picking adventure sports: abseiling, bungee jumping… whitewater rafting, zorbing (rolling downhill in an inflatable sphere). If it makes you go ‘aaaargh!’, you can guarantee it’s on offer somewhere near Queenstown. Nearby Wanaka also makes a good (and breathtakingly beautiful) base for adrenaline junkies.
If you want to punctuate your outback adventure with a bit of luxury and slower pace, visit the sublime Fijordland Lodge (www.fiordlandlodge.co.nz), a large-scale log cabin overlooking serene Lake Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound. If you can tear yourself away from the wilderness views, try fly-fishing for a more leisurely-paced, middle-of-nowhere adventure.
Insider tip: Hike or bike to the wonderful, and affordable, Lochmara Lodge (www.lochmaralodge.co.nz) in Queen Charlotte Sound, accessible only by the Queen Charlotte Track or by boat. Spend the evening chilling in hammocks overlooking the water, then get up at dawn and sea kayak in the bay. Your paddle will be the only thing creating ripples on the whole of Queen Charlotte Sound, transforming your soul into that of a true adventurer.
Book it: For expert advice on planning your trip, when to go and how to get there, see www.newzealand.com.
3. GET G-FORCE IN NORWAY
Ok, so riding down a mountain is pretty exhilarating, but if the rush is wearing off, push your boundaries a little bit further and reach G-force speeds. If you really want to give your body and brain an adrenaline high, sign up for a ride on the Olympic bobsleigh in Lillehammer, Norway, where you’ll hurtle down a tunnel of ice at 60mph and reach forces of 5G.
Whether you opt for a ‘piloted’ Bobsleigh or a ‘self piloted’ Bob Skeleton (like lying on a tray), you’re guaranteed the mother of adrenaline rushes as endorphins engulf you as you rattle down the track. Once over, most people feel high as a kite, empowered and as though they can do anything.
Don’t miss: If the bob whets your appetite for adrenaline, there are plenty of other winter sports on offer, including skiing and snowmobile safaris.
Book it: SYS – The Ultimate Event Company organises two night packages from £695pp, including transfers, half board accommodation, bob ride and other activities such as skidoo rides. For details, see www.bobsleigh.gb.com.
4. MOUNTAIN BIKING IN MOAB
A land of intense red rocks, vast wilderness landscapes and awesome canyons, Utah epitomises the classic all-American adventure destination. Although most snowsports buffs will think of champagne powder when they think of Utah in winter, just a short hop away, a balmy Indian Summer often lingers well into November making it the perfect time to get on your bike and head for mountain biking mecca Moab.
Home of the famous Slickrock Trail, the biking trails here are legendary. The terrain is amazing and the surface incredible – no matter how steep your line you’ll stick to the sandstone rocks like spiderwoman.
If you fly to Las Vegas, you can hire a car, or grab a bus, through all five of Utah’s spectacular national parks and end up in Moab. don’t miss Bryce Canyon, a simply mind-blowing labyrinth of sandstone rocks that feels distinctly other-worldly. In the thick of winter, snow falls here and you can silently cross-country ski through the maze of monoliths.
Insider tip: For a real glimpse into the spirit and soul of Utah, book yourself on a five-day backcountry hike with in nearby Escalante Canyon with Escalante Canyon Outfitters (www.ecohike.com or 001 8883264453). Expedition leader and laid-back mountain man, Grant, knows the land, its geology and its history inside out and his enthusiasm is utterly infectious. After five days bushwhacking through remote red rock backcountry, wading up streams and plunging into natural pools, book into Boulder Mountain Ranch (www.boulderutah.com/bmr/ ), near where your tour ends. A working cattle ranch, whose owners Bob and Sioux Cochran are fitness enthusiasts, you’ll get a unique taste of cowboy hospitality, fantastic BBQ ribs and, if the cowgirl in you is itching to come out, a western horseback ride.
Book it: For information on Adventure Central visit www.discovermoab.com.
5. SURFING AND SNOWSPORTS IN ICELAND
Iceland is a crazy world of volcanoes, lava fields and glaciers. Icelanders believe in fairies and trolls and, if you lived here, you would too – every weird rock formation looks distinctly alive and magical.
One of the most amazing places you’ll ever ski or snowboard is the Snaefell glacier near Arnarstapi, a few hours drive from Reykjavik. If you can hold out until May, the Volvo-sponsored Iceland Park Project (IPP) sets up camp here and runs three weeks of chilled riding on the specially created (and pro-standard) terrain park. You’ll even get a luxury ride up the hill in Volvo’s handle-anything XC90.
When the swell’s working, the surfing near here is great and there is something very spiritual about the whole place. Snowboard in the morning, surf in the afternoon and party all night – that’s adventure Iceland style.
Insider tip: Temper the remote ruggedness of Iceland with a little luxury and pampering. After a few glacier sessions at Snaefell, head to Hotel Budir (www.budir.is) for a slap-up, if expensive, meal in boutique-style surroundings. Before you fly back from Reykjavik, chill out in the world-famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa for a few hours (www.bluelagoon.is) – it makes for the perfect pre-flight preparation.
Book it: Iceland is affordable if you fly with budget airline Iceland Express. See www.icelandexpress.com for details. See www.icelandparkproject.com for details of the park.
6. PARACHUTE TO THE NORTH POLE
If you’re telling your friends you’re off to the North Pole, you might as well go whole hog and make it sound really extreme…arrive by parachute.
It may sound hard core, but this adventure is actually aimed at novices and you’ll be given all your training before you leave the UK with full briefings on clothing requirements and cold climate do’s and don’ts. You won’t be alone either. Tandem skydiving (parachuting as a passenger) gives a complete experience of freefall but with the added confidence that a Master Skydiver is in full control.
Don’t miss: Acclimatisation at Ice Station Borneo in Katanga where you fly in to.
Book it: TheNorth Pole adventure takes place in April and can be tailored to novices or experienced skydivers. Contact High and Wild on +44 (0)1749 671 777 or www.highandwild.co.uk.
7. SILENCE IN SWITZERLAND
Experience the mountains as they should be – in all-pervading peace and tranquility. All too often a snowsports holiday is more lift lines and apres-ski than quiet contemplation of the splendour of the environment, but if you stay at Whitepod, an eco retreat in Switzerland you’ll get plenty of back to nature tranquility.
Perched high in the mountains, far from the madding crowds above Villars, Whitepod consists of seven dome-shaped ‘pods’, accessible only by snowshoe or skis and heated by wood-burning stoves.
The backcountry starts at the front door of your pod so you can find fresh tracks before anyone else is even up. All you can hear is the sound of your own breathing, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Book it: Whitepod (www.whitepod.com) costs from £190 euro for a double pod.
Get yourself to Geneva (Easyjet is a good bet for cheap flights) and Whitepod will transfer you to Villars, from where you ride the mountain train, then ski, hike or snowshoe into camp.
8. WHISTLER, CANADA
It consistently tops the people’s polls to take the title of ‘world’s best ski resort’ and there is something truly epic about Whistler/Blackcomb.
With the biggest ski area in North America (boasting more than 7,000 acres of skiable terrain), the most efficient lift system and a pumping apres-ski scene, it’s not surprising Whistler earns first place at the top of most snowsports fanatics’ most-wanted list. Less than two hours from Vancouver, Whistler is geared up for every ability, with awesome bowls that snowboarders will love, immaculately groomed corduroy pistes to keep carvers happy and endless backcountry that freeriders will go wild for. If you like the steeps, head for Blackcomb, if you prefer powder bowls, make tracks for Whistler. We love the 5.5km Peak to Creek run which drops more than 5,000 vertical feet with spectacular views of the Coastal Range and takes you through bowls, gladed areas and super-fun black diamond trails. And if you fancy a taste of the backcountry, without having to worry about safety, drop into Flute Bowl, which is patrolled on a regular basis but isn’t pisted.
With major investment and building already underway for the 2010 winter Olympics, get there before things go crazy ahead of the 2010 winter Olympics.
Insider tip: It’s hard to stop riding at Whistler so, if you’re maxing it on the slopes by day, head to the new spa at Four
Seasons Resort Whistler (www.fourseasons.com) early evening and splash out on an Apres-Ski massage and ease those aches away.
Book it: Save your cash for the accommodation and fly with budget airline Zoom (www.flyzoom.com). For more information, see www.whistlerblackcomb.com
9. SURFING IN ECUADOR
Ecuador is one of those rare countries that has it all – high mountain ruggedness, long sandy beaches, lush jungle and buckets of wildlife. It also has awesome waves with so many spots to choose from, you’ll guaranteed to find somewhere that’s perfect for your ability.
Although you can surf all year in equatorial Ecuador, the waves are best during European winter, from November to January.
In the province of Esmeraldas, head for Casa Blanca. In Manabí, San Matero and Río Chico are the best locations and, in Guayas, go to Montañita, considered to be the surfing capital of Ecuador. Montanita is a grinding right hand barrel that is not only one of Ecuador’s premier spots, but is also close to great beach breaks and long wrapping points. Ecuador gets both north and south swells and the winds are light or non-existent with light off-shores in the morning and tropical glassy conditions the rest of the day.
Insider tip: You’ve splashed out to come this far, so do everything you can to push the boat out that bit further and spend a few days on the glorious Galapagos islands. Bursting with incredible wildlife, stunning beaches and awesome watersports opportunities, a stay on these enchanting islands will linger long in your memory. You’ll probably be too busy diving with sharks, snorkelling with sea turtles and sea kayaking with sea lions, but if you do fancy a surf, there are some great, if heavy, spots for experienced waveriders. Most are just a short taxi ride from the main town – try Carola, El Canon, El Tongo and the Loberia.
Book it: For independent trips, fly to Guayaquil. Check out www.fesurf.org or www.wavehunters.com for destination and travel tips. For packages, try Pure Vacations (www.purevacations.com) which offers 14 day from £856pp, excluding flights.
10. DUNE BASHING IN NAMIBIA
Who needs snow to snowboard in winter? Head south to Namibia and do it in the sunshine on sand. Sand junkies say that THE spot for sandsports is Sossusvlei, where the dunes are so big (over 1,000ft), they are called sand mountains.
The 30 km coastal dune belt between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund is a dream playground for sky-divers, sand-boarders, skiers and quad-bikers, the dunes are part of the oldest and driest desert in the world, the Namib. The windswept waves of sand create spectacular sculptures and surreal shapes with peaks, valleys and sun-scorched colours.
If you fancy a spot of rock climbing while you’re there, head for the Spitzkoppe. This vast granite dome rises about 1000 m above the desert plains between Windhoek and Swakopmund, has an almost perpendicular slopes and is one of the great mountaineering opportunities in Africa.
Insider tip: Slow the pace of adventure with a balloon safari over the empty oceans of sand below.
Book it: Sunvil Travel (www.sunvil.co.uk/africa) offers all-inclusive packages to Namibia. If you want to book independently, see www.namibiatourism.com for advice on where to stay and how to get there.