Top 10 of 20 Best Trips of 2011

Looking for an out-of-the-ordinary destination for your next vacation? Check out these 20 top trips, hand-picked by National Geographic Traveler editors as the best of 2011. Where do you want to go this year? Share your travel plans—real or ideal—below.
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Nearly half of Mongolia’s three million residents are nomads, and most of the rest live in Ulaanbaatar—the country's capital and largest city. The cultural, economic, and transportation hub on the Tuul River is the starting point for two-humped Bactrian camel treks and other exotic Gobi desert expeditions, but its ten museums, close proximity to national parks, and collection of imperial palaces and Buddhist monasteries qualify Ulaanbaatar as a destination rather than way station.
Wander through the Narantuul, a 2,500-vendor, open-air market; visit Gandan Monastery—Mongolia’s largest functioning Buddhist monastery—and the adjoining Megjid Janraisig and Kalachakra Temples; and view Stone and Bronze Age artifacts, sacred relics, and fossilized dinosaur bones and eggs found in the Gobi at the National and Natural History Museums. During the July 11-13 National Holiday, Ulaanbaatar hosts the nation’s largest Naadam Festival, a legendary cultural celebration featuring wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing competitions, plus traditional costumes and dance.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Croatia's 1,104-mile (1,776-kilometer) island-speckled Adriatic coast is a popular playground for sea kayakers, sailors, kite surfers, and divers. Additional water wonders await those willing to travel inland (a four-hour bus ride from the coast) to the mountainous, eastern Plitvice Lakes region, site of Croatia’s first and largest national park.

Nature's color wheel is in constant motion at 114-square-mile (296-square-kilometer) Plitvice Lakes National Park (above) where 16 terraced lakes, formed by natural travertine dams, change hues throughout the day from bright turquoise to gray depending on the angle of the sun's rays and mineral makeup of the water. Well-maintained wooden boardwalks and trails link the lakes to the park’s centerpiece cascades, the largest of which—Big Waterfall—plummets 256 feet (78 meters) into the valley below. Home to abundant wildlife, including 261 species of birds, the walker-friendly park is divided into Upper and Lower Lakes sections bridged by the Lake Kozjak ferry.
Sardinia, Italy

Glitterati flock by the yachtful to Sardinia’s serpentine northern Gallura coast, where exclusive Porto Cervo and Costa Smeralda are two favorite summer playgrounds. While a winding coastal drive—perfect for a red Ferrari roadster—offers dramatic Mediterranean views and a powerful adrenaline rush, the real rock stars of Italy’s second-largest island are the actual rocks, or more precisely, the prehistoric stone dwellings found in the mountainous interior.

Sardinia is home to more than 7,000 stone nuraghi towers, Bronze Age castles built between 1600 and 1100 B.C. Best known is Nuraghe Santu Antine near Torralba, a well-preserved nuraghic royal palace surrounded by the eerie remnants of a once thriving nuraghic village. To experience modern village life on an island where sheep outnumber humans by nearly three to one, check into Hotel Su Gologone in Oliena, where hearty guests can sign up to shadow a local shepherd for the day.

In Australia’s smallest state, remote rain forests, secluded beaches, and more than 200 vineyards are accessible by foot. Tasmania’s mild, maritime climate and compact size (comparable to West Virginia) make this heart-shaped island 150 miles (240 kilometers) off the Australian mainland a year-round destination for walkers and hikers of all ages, interests, and fitness levels.

Great Walks Tasmania features seven distinct, guided walking tours ranging from the moderate 14- to 18-mile (23- to 30-kilometer) Bay of Fires wilderness trek along the coastal rim of Mount William National Park to the gentler 12- to 28-mile (20- to 45-kilometer) gourmand’s ramble through Maria Island’s eucalyptus forest and pristine beaches. In 2011, Tasmania hosts the biennial Ten Days on the Island international arts celebration from March 25 to April 3, an event that features nearly 500 artists in 111 venues.
Fjord Norway

Western Norway, known as Fjord Norway, is home to the world’s largest concentration of the saltwater-filled, glaciated valleys. The iconic destination encompasses 1,646 miles (2,650 kilometers) of pristine coastline, glaciers, mountains, and cascading waterfalls, including the 2,148-foot (655-meter) Mardalsfossen, the world’s fourth highest. The region’s six National Tourist Routes offer easy driving access to bouldering, ice climbing, glacier walking, base jumping, caving, and year-round skiing.

Four UNESCO World Heritage sites are located here, including the deep-blue Geirangerfjord (above), considered one of the world’s most unspoiled fjords. Fjords are best experienced from water level, so hop a ferry, book a cruise, or rent a kayak for unobstructed views of the surrounding snow-covered peaks, steep mountainsides, and abundant wildlife. The midnight sun in June and July brings near round-the-clock daylight and the most visitors. Days are shorter in May and September, but the lighter tourist traffic makes for easy meandering from Kristiansand to Trondheim along the Fjord Coast Route.

A laid-back vibe, day trip-friendly dimensions (only 68,036 square miles/176,215 square kilometers), and lively beach scene make Uruguay a favorite getaway for the South American jet set.

The capital city, Montevideo, pulses to the rhythm of candombe, the thunderous Afro-Uruguayan, three-drum sound fueling spontaneous street parades, as well as the all-night Desfile de las Llamadas, the featured event of Montevideo Carnaval. In southwestern Uruguay, stroll the winding, cobblestone streets of Colonia del Sacramento’s 17th-century historic district—a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s only a 50-minute high-speed ferry ride from Buenos Aires—to explore the country’s Portuguese roots. Go west to the hilly interior to play gaucho at a luxury dude ranch or a more traditional working estancia, where tourists can trade labor for trail time. For sun and surf, hit the beaches of Punta del Este, the narrow peninsula dividing the waters of the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean.
Shimla, India

Visiting Shimla is equal parts journey and destination. For optimal snow-clad Himalayan views, chug back in time on the narrow-gauge Kalka Shimla Railway (above), one of three Indian lines on the World Heritage List. It passes through 102 tunnels, across 864 bridges, and up 4,659 feet (1,420 meters) to the Shimla Hill station in northern Himachal Pradesh. Colonialists built the engineering marvel in the late 19th century to service the Shimla Highlands, an escape for the British from the summer heat.

The colonial influence endures in Shimla’s architecture and ambience, particularly along the Mall, a bustling pedestrian marketplace and cultural hub featuring shops, restaurants, and the 123-year-old, neo-Gothic Gaiety Theatre renovated in 2009. Guided walking tours around Shimla and the surrounding seven hills include stops at historic temples, churches, palaces, and mansions, including the Viceregal Lodge, a baronial-style estate built high on Observatory Hill as a tribute to the empire.
Messinia Region, Greece

Widely known for its Kalamata olives—Messinia produces about 55,000 tons of mainly cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil annually—this road-less-trampled region on the southwest Peloponnesian coast features numerous World Heritage List archaeological sites, including Olympia, Mystras, and the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae.

Sun-drenched hills and valleys are dotted with stone houses, vaulted tombs from the Mycenaean era, Byzantine churches, and medieval castles (such as the castle of Methoni, above). Retreat to secluded bays, remote beaches, and protected lagoons, including Gialova, Greece’s southernmost major wetland and home to more than 270 bird species.

The latest chapter in Messinia’s 4,500-year history is being crafted by international shipping magnate Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, the visionary behind Costa Navarino, an energy-conscious resort that aims to be powered entirely by renewable resources. The luxury destination’s Navarino Dunes on the Ionian Sea opened in 2010. Initial sustainable elements include “living roofs” planted with native fauna and the world’s first large-scale geothermal heating and cooling installed beneath a golf course.

A lack of white sandy beaches and an overabundance of rainfall keep this mountainous island of tropical rain forests off typical Caribbean vacation itineraries—a plus for adventure seekers.

Perpetual geothermal and volcanic activity—there are seven active volcanoes—make 285-square-mile (739-square-kilometer) Dominica, located between Guadeloupe and Martinique, a paradise in progress. Venture into the rugged landscape Spiderman-style on an Extreme Dominica canyoneering tour, which takes visitors rappelling down pristine waterfalls, deep gorges, and volcanic bedrock canyons. The seven-mile round-trip hike from Titou Gorge to Boiling Lake, a vapor-covered cauldron that reaches 198º Fahrenheit (92º Celsius), is strenuous but worth the panoramic Caribbean views from atop 3,000-foot (914-meter) Morne Nicholls, as well as the chance to explore the Valley of Desolation’s brightly colored sulfur springs, mini-geysers, and bubbling mud pools. Recharge at the locally built and staffed Jungle Bay Resort & Spa. The 55-acre (22-hectare) tropical retreat features 35 secluded, hardwood cottages perched high atop posts beneath the jungle canopy.

Southern Africa’s youngest nation is well known for its vast windswept deserts—the inland Kalahari and the coastal Namib—so it’s no wonder that the country’s first conservation area (established in 1907) is named for the “place of dry water.”

Etosha National Park is a wildlife sanctuary in far northern Namibia centered on Etosha Pan, a 75-mile-long (120-kilometer-long) mineral lakebed. During the June to November dry season, large numbers of elephants, giraffes, black rhinos, lions, and other game are drawn to the park’s natural and manmade watering holes. During the rains, huge numbers of flamingos arrive to feed and breed. In addition to unsurpassed big game viewing, the nearly 8,494-square-mile (22,000-square-kilometer) preserve includes numerous lodging options ranging from rustic guest farms to luxury retreats. For more intimate game viewing, head about two hours south to Mundulea Nature Reserve. Guests at the privately owned nature reserve in the Otavi Mountains encounter antelopes, leopards, hyenas, and other resident game on daylong, guided bush treks.
The 11-20 are:
Laos | Kodiak Island, Alaska | Scottish Highlands | Tunisia | Palawan, Philippines | Black Sea Coast, Crimea | Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec | Shikoku, Japan | Papua New Guinea | Kurdistan, Iraq