Nature's Star Turns

The top ten stops on your natural world tour
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It was Emerson, that old transcendalist, who once noted that "nature and books belong to those who see them." But it's a big world out there now, and there's lots to see. Maybe a preface to Emerson's 19th-century observation would today be: Where do we start to see? And, what places,by their very existence, still have the power to change how we see?

I've pondered these questions, and have come up with some answers—ten answers, in the form of ten best bets for nature tours. For some, it's the sheer feeling of being deep inside a real wilderness, the sense that you may just be the first person on earth to set foot or paddle in one of the last truly rare places on earth. For others, it's those glorious megafauna, getting up close and personal with a creature—elephant, rhino, croc—with raw animal power. These are the draws for the perfect nature journey.

And keep in mind, as one trip outfitter advises: "Such travel demands strength, tolerance, flexibility and understanding." Learning of these locales is a vital first step; the second is finding an outfitter that fully respects the "tread lightly" concept—in which the landscape is more than just scenery, and the people who live there are more than servants.

Surely, if you want to guarantee seeing spectacular animals in a safe setting with no risk, your best bet is to find a large city zoo. But if you want to take the time to peer at wild animals in their natural habitat—and to interact whenever possible, with the locals who must live in some sort of harmony with those animals—then your visit will require commitment and patience. In opening the doors to these secrets, we also make you a deal: Our "Top Ten" list doesn't just offer the chance to truly see an exotic place or animal—but also presents the opportunity to be transformed by the experience of having done so.

1. Galapagos: The Cradle of Evolution
This is nirvana for the ecotourist, with endemic animals found nowhere else on earth. And without human predators, these unique creatures have become surprisingly tame. Law requires that a naturalist/guide accompany all tours; 98 percent of the country is protected in a national park and limits on the numbers of visitors have been set. By land or underwater, expect to see giant Galapagos tortoises, penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and scads of tropical fish, sea lions, and sharks. And all against a backdrop of volcanic islands rising from the chilly turquoise waters, including some that are still active, like Fernandina. The only way to island-hop is by live-aboard boat, which vary widely in size and comfort.

2. Great Barrier Reef: The World's Longest Coral Reef
Stretching for 1,200 miles off the coast of northeast Australia, the reef comes closest to shore along its northernmost reaches, beginning at Cairns. With 900 islands between the reef and coast, there is plenty of terrestrial territory to explore by foot. Only a couple dozen islands have accommodations but many have primitive camping, and all is protected inside a giant marine park. Big enough to provide a Whitman's Sampler of diving challenges, from novice to advanced. But much can be experienced from behind a mask and snorkel, especially on the shallow fringing reefs. Excellent coral health and a rich diversity of fish and inverts—like the giant clams—underwater; topside, hike over craggy island hills with ephemeral waterfalls and rainforests and exquisite vistas.

3. Fiji: Hawaii 50 Years Ago
Sea kayaking is the way to go here, especially in the sub-archipelagoes like the Yasawa chain with its compliment of 16 isolated coconut-palmed islands, simmering atop the tropical seas. No wonder they filmed Blue Lagoon on Viti Levu, about 30 miles away. Camp at night, or stay in rustic lodges serviced by outfitters. Eat and drink native, and learn that time is just an illusion, becoming only as real as your next paddle stroke. Bring along a snorkel and mask and dip into the gin-clear waters, corals, and Pacific tropicals down here in their own world under the looking glass.

Published: 25 Apr 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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