Reading the expedition diaries of certain eccentric explorers—Captain James Cook, Richard Francis Burton, Ernest Shackleton, and Henry Morton Stanley, to name a few—it's possible to catch the same fever of discovery. This fall five top-of-the-line outfitters are offering a similar sense of discovery and adventure—albeit sometimes cosseted in the relative comfort of a Land Rover, armed with a Sony digital camera rather than a Purdy shotgun, and without the mutinous entourage. And while relatively few outposts have ignored the techno revolution (cell phones in the Sahara, Internet access in Antarctica), modern times have not yet eliminated the drama and heart-stopping wonderment of surveying an alien landscape for the first time.
The following expeditions create intimate itineraries to challenge clients physically and intellectually, with expert guides to shed light on foreign culture, art, and natural history; and even if you prefer a leisurely spin on pancake-flat roads, they are guaranteed to be the ones less traveled.
Antarctica and Beyond
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing recounts the insane conditions faced by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, who sailed 800 miles in an open whaleboat to rescue the stranded crew of his ill-fated ship. Of course Susanne Methvin, who contributed to the Time Life series Nature Travel, and expedition leader Dave German don't come anywhere near duplicating that trip during Mountain Travel-Sobek's 26-day cruise "In the realm of Shackleton: Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands." But even while the voyage takes place during the austral summer, when 20-hour days means maximum sunshine, they do recommend seasickness remedies, polypropylene underwear, polarfleece vests, and rubber boots for wet landings. Onboard the 298-foot Mariya Yermolova, a former Russian research vessel, the staterooms are spartan, more in keeping with a tramp steamer than a cruise ship. (No pool, no shuffleboard, no midnight buffets.) But you trade twin berths and quick showers for black-browed albatross and gentoo rookeries, defunct whaling stations, elephant and fur seal colonies in the Falklands and South Georgia—one of the few places on earth to walk along a beach mobbed with king penguins. "This is a dream trip for me," raves Methvin. "You can't believe the number of birds we're going to encounter." On Zodiac excursions with the ship's naturalists, you can also expect close encounters with minke and humpback whales. After visiting Shackleton's grave at Grytviken, the ship retraces his 1914 route through the Weddell Sea. Returning via the Drake Passage and Cape Horn to South America, passengers see more sub-Antarctic wildlife, glacial rivers, and rural estancias during a three-day extension to Patagonia's Tierra del Fuego.
Nov. 25-Dec. 20, with Patagonia through Dec. 23 (maximum 35). $6,945-$8,895 double occupancy (including airfare). Add $599 for Patagonia. 800-227-2384; 510-527-8100; fax 510-525-7710; www.mtsobek.com.
On the Road to Morocco
You can look forward to working up a sweat under Morocco's cloudless skies, especially when pedaling one of Butterfield & Robinson's 24-speed, front-suspension Cannondale hybrid bikes through the Draa Valley oasis. After all, this is the sub-Sahara, and during October the temperature hovers in the 80s. "It's easy to dehydrate," says Kathy Stewart, a B&R program director. "The sun doesn't feel as hot as Manhattan in August, but it does beat down." Memoirs of a Geisha author Arthur Golden was a recent participant on the ten-day trek. "This is where you'll see amazing traditional architecture, pedaling past the kasbahs and ksours," says B&R's trip researcher Charlie Scott. There's an average of 20 to 30 miles of biking daily; that is, when you're not ascending 1,000 feet on a High Atlas mountain trail to a remote Berber village or riding camels through the dunes of M'hamid. This expedition crams all four areas of Morocco into one journey, so you cover a lot of ground. Transferring by Land Rover from Ouarzazate (a former Foreign Legion post), crossing the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, biking along the Atlantic coast at Essaouria, strolling the medina of Marrakech, you'll witness vastly different landscapes. After bilingual guides Jean-Louis Doss and David McDougall finish prowling the provinces with you, B&R's man-about-town, Mohammed Bouskri (who has served as a personal guide for President Jimmy Carter as well as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston), shows you an insider's Marrakech, including Yves Saint Laurent's famously beautiful Jardins Majorelle and the Djemma el F'na, where snake charmers, storytellers, and holy-water salesmen hold court.
Butterfield & Robinson
There are spaces available for: Oct. 16-25, Oct. 23Nov. 1, Oct. 30Nov. 8; but you would be better off looking to early 2001 (maximum 24). $3,975 per person (airfare not included).800-678-1147; 416-864-1354; fax 416-864-0541; www.butterfield.com. All bike rides escorted by Land Rovers.
Out of Africa
Don't expect to simply sit in an air-conditioned mini-van and wait for game to stroll in front of your camera during Abercrombie & Kent's 13-day walking safari. According to A&K's Julian Camm, you should be fit, not have major heart problems, "or need a zimmerframe (walker) to get around." The average hike is about three miles, but when you're on a level playing field with elephants, lions, and hyenas, you want to stay on your toes. Although nights near Kilimanjaro can be chilly, expect the mercury to soar to around 85 at the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater during the October dry season. Your guides, Pascal Nguye and Joseph Kitia—an instructor at Tanzania's Natural Resources Institute and the Mweka College of African Wildlife Management—will also take you trekking on the high-country trails of Mount Meru and through the acacia woodlands of Tarangire National Park. A former game warden, Kitia has experience leading anti-poaching patrols, which makes him the ideal leader for a walk on the wild side. And while you stay in two traditional game lodges, most nights are spent in private tented camps, dining East Africastyle on coconut soup, molo lamb, and magugu goat. Rhinos grazing in the tussock grass of Olmoti Crater and a hot-air balloon ride at the crack of dawn on the Serengeti Plain are experiences that you will never forget.
Abercrombie & Kent
Oct. 9-21 (maximum 12). $4,580 per person (airfare not included).800-323-7308; 630-954-2944; fax 630-954-3324; www.abercrombiekent.com.
Closer To Home
"Highlife Weekend" and "Classic New Mexico Walk" are two trips lumped into one. This eight-day excursion gives you backstage passes to Santa Fe's art scene before launching you into the austere landscape that inspires much of New Mexico's creative output. You'll be entertained at the studio of local painter Jo Sherwood, watch a Southwestern cooking demo by Texas chef Marji Martin of Lola's Restaurant, and then join art-glass dealer Judy Youens for a dinner party at home. After a whirl around the 400-year-old city's galleries and museums, head out of town for a 2.5-mile morning jaunt through Bandelier National Monument to view 11th-century Anasazi cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, followed by a six-mile afternoon ramble in the Jemez Mountains' Frijoles Canyon. "We have both striders and strollers on this trip," says manager Guy Walker. "So some will make it to the bottom of a canyon carved by the Rio Grande; others will stick to the top of the gorge. But everyone gets a chance to see the region's brilliant rock formations and quaking aspens, which turn golden this time of year." You'll also stretch your legs on the 4.5-mile Borrego "Bear Wallow" Windsor Trail, with additional hikes to Chimney Rock and Box Canyon, both of which appear in New Mexico transplant Georgia O'Keeffe's work. After paying homage at the artist's Ghost Ranch studio, you head for the Big Arsenic Trail, where the Rio Grande and Red River meet in the Guadaloupe Mountains; then visit 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo. The trip winds down in the village of Chimayo—noted for its red chilies and miraculous santuario—to visit Centinela Traditional Arts, owned by seventh-generation handloom weavers Lisa and Irvin Trujillo, whose vivid rugs have found a home in the Smithsonian's permanent collection.
Oct. 13-20 and 2027 (maximum 16). $2,445 per person (airfare not included). 800-249-4620; fax 401-849-5878; www.thewayfarers.com.
On Top of The World
Of all the trips, Geographic Expeditions' 21 days in the Himalayan terai, or lowlands, is the toughest. You have to be less than delicate about personal hygiene during five-hour drives on pothole-strewn mountain roads and in Bhutanese guesthouses, where a small curtain separates your cot from the toilet fed by a passing stream. "The touring in Bhutan is definitely rough," states GE guide Sanjay Saxena. "I wouldn't call this an easy or luxurious trip, but it's a small price to pay to see endangered species like the one-horned rhino and black-necked cranes." Among the hardy who have made the trek are Paul A. Allaire, CEO of Xerox Corporation, and Dr. Robert A.F. Thurman, president ofTibet House. Until you've adapted to the high altitude (up to 12,000 feet), five miles of walking (the first three days only) may seem like a forced march. But in the course of this trip you'll visit the Annapurna massif, Buddhist temples, Hindu shrines, and ride elephants on a game safari at Tiger Tops Tented Camp in southern Nepal. "We've invented the 'O.M.G.' club," says Saxena. "It includes everyone who's gone on this trip, spent day after day thinking the sights can't be topped, and then stop dead in their tracks again to say 'Oh-my-God.' " After traversing the Seti River, one of Nepal's unspoiled waterways, in inflatable rafts and bagging photos of Bengalese tigers and gharial crocodiles in Royal Chitwan National Park, you'll fly past (not over) Mount Everest to Bhutan's isolated Phobjika Valley, where GE guides and a local naturalist take you through Black Mountains Nature Reserve, a pristine habitat for red panda, Himalayan black bear, and the black-necked cranes that migrate from Tibet to nest here during winter months.
Nov. 4-24 (maximum 16). $4,095$4,395 (airfare not included). 800-777-8183; 415-922-0448; www.geoex.com.
Shane Mitchell contributes to Travel & Leisure, Saveur, and The London Telegraph. This is her first article for Departures.