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10 Summer Trips That Will Change Your Life

Posted May 21, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Fred Leblanc)

Put down your juicy novel and get out of the poolside lounger. This summer we're pushing you out of your comfort zone. These 10 epic trips, from the Grand Canyon to Tanzania, take you to awe-inspiring settings, give you intimate encounters with majestic wildlife, and introduce you to people who live on next to nothing. By journey's end, you're sure to see the world with new eyes.

 

(Photo: Captain Barry King)

Sail a Schooner Along Maine's Coast

The Trip: The Maine Windjammer Association's weekend and weeklong cruises take you outside Wi-Fi and cell-phone range to help you kick your texting habit and reconnect with family. Under the guidance of a captain, you'll work as a team to sail one of the association's eight ships, many of which are National Historic Landmarks. It's an experience that feels a bit like summer camp, with incredible stargazing and the chance to see whales and porpoises as you navigate uninhabited islands, going ashore for campfires and beachcombing.

How It's Life-Changing: The wind, the tide, and your captain's whim dictate each day's schedule and destination, which forces you to let go of any control-freak tendencies and really relax. On the schooner Isaac H. Evans, fun activities (including hunting for pirate-themed treasure, hauling lobster traps, and cranking ice cream) have made some kids fall in love with sailing and return later as crew members.

 

Tash Rabat Yurts (Photo: Pieter Schepens via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Travel the Old Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

The Trip: This trip of a lifetime leads you through two countries that otherwise might not be on your travel radar. In Kyrgyzstan, Wild Frontiers Travel introduces you to locals and their ways of life on the mountainous Old Silk Road. Trek a challenging high-altitude pass, ride horses, and camp beneath the stars in traditional yurts. Then you'll fly to Uzbekistan to see the remains of an old caravanserai (roadside inn) along the Silk Road route. Browse a bazaar and meet silk weavers and knife makers still plying their wares in a city adorned with grand mosques and mausoleums.

How It's Life-Changing: Your perspective shifts when you spend time with the nomadic mountain people and gain insight into life as a shepherd or eagle hunter. Staying in yurts along your journey and living as a local brings you back to the basics. Feel a sense of accomplishment after tackling the Ton Pirival pass at an elevation of about 13,450 feet.

 

(Photo: Elevate Destinations)

Work with Kids in Haiti

The Trip: Hoards of emergency volunteers came and went after Haiti's catastrophic 2010 earthquake, but this Elevate Haiti volunteer project lives on. The 10-day experience on the island of Ile a Vache, a 30-minute boat ride from Port-au-Prince, allows you to help with long-term rebuilding. In a workshop similar to a summer camp, you'll boost kids' leadership skills and English fluency, teaching through sports, poetry reading, and other personal interests. You'll also work alongside locals to build a new school and spend time off exploring beaches and nearby islands.

How It's Life-Changing: For some, seeing one of the poorest countries in the world evokes pity. But Elevate Haiti volunteers see the need and feel a calling and a sense of responsibility to make a difference. So strong is the rapport among alumni that many of them keep in touch long after their projects are over.

 

(Photo: CaptainOates via flickr/CC Attribution)

Island Hop by Bicycle in Scotland's Outer Hebrides

The Trip: This 174-mile guided mountain-bike ride along the Hebridean Trail with Wilderness Scotland weaves its way across seven islands in a weeklong adventure off the remote northwest tip of the U.K. Blazed in 2012, the trail follows ancient wilderness paths and rolls into little villages where proud Gaelic-speaking islanders live steeped in tradition. You'll see the Callanish Stones, a prehistoric Stonehenge-like grouping of rock monoliths. You'll ride up to six hours a day for a week, hopping islands with your bike on a rigid inflatable boat. Post-pedal pints are part of the daily ritual.

How It's Life-Changing: The first couple of days can be a shock for leg muscles, but soon you realize you're no longer constantly watching for the support van to show up for a snack break. You've got this. Finishing it is a huge achievement that you owe to the cleansing island air, mesmerizing views, and camaraderie among riders.

 

(Photo: Felix E. Guerrero via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Practice Yoga at an Ashram in India

The Trip: For nourishing your soul and raising your consciousness, few spots can top the Himalayan Yog Ashram in the Himalayan foothills on the banks of the holy Ganges River. This ashram-stay program, suiting both beginners and yogis wanting to deepen their practice, follows a disciplined schedule of healthy meals, yoga, and meditation. More than a physical workout, the program is a holistic approach to an Indian yogic lifestyle, one that includes space and time for reading, reflecting, and hiking to the nearby waterfall. You can also choose a purification/detoxification or anti-stress program with relaxation and massage treatments as well as life-coaching sessions.

How It's Life-Changing: The heightened awareness you learn will help empower you to make changes and live more intentionally with joy. You experience how healthy eating makes a tremendous difference in body, mind, and soul.

 

Mongol Horse Trail (Photo: martin_vmorris via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Ride the Mongol Horse Trail

The Trip: It's said that Mongolians were the first to tame horses on the country's vast, treeless steppes where large herds roamed, and this summertime trip takes you there. Not for the faint of heart, In The Saddle's Mongol Horse Trail expedition leads you over steppes, into forests, and across rivers. As you walk and canter, you'll see sweeping views of a countryside where there are no fences, no tracks, and no power lines. The only signs of life are the local herdsmen you meet along the way. Camp along rivers, then load your luggage into the yak cart towed by one of the crew.

How It's Life-Changing: Riding for days without seeing anyone gives you time to unclutter your mind and find solitude. When you do come across a ger, a tent-like Mongolian home, and meet people with a simple lifestyle, it makes you evaluate what matters most in life.

 

(Photo: Winky via flickr/CC Attribution)

Kayak with Orcas in British Columbia

The Trip: Each year from mid-July through mid-September, hundreds of orcas return like clockwork to the Johnstone Strait off Vancouver Island to feast on salmon. Most tourists witness the spectacle from large tour boats, which foster a sense of security but also of separation. But in a kayak, you're among the pod at eye level. A hydrophone will allow you to hear the pod communicating just beneath the water's surface. You'll likely spot porpoises and bears, too, on Sea Kayak Adventures, Inc.'s four-day or six-day trips as you paddle, camp, and hike this wild coast.

How It's Life-Changing: When a whale or dolphin looks back at you, the closeness inspires a feeling of intimacy and oneness with the ocean. It's humbling to see a six-foot dorsal fin lift out of the water next to you before the massive creature dives and swims beneath your little boat.

 

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park (Photo: National Park Service)

Help Maintain Trails in Grand Canyon National Park

The Trip: While the summer tourists ride mules to the canyon floor or hover above in helicopters, you can see the Grand Canyon from an entirely different perspective: as a volunteer caretaker. American Conservation Experience runs Conservation Vacations that allow travelers to participate in environmental restoration projects usually reserved for AmeriCorps members. You'll work eight-hour days with your group to remove invasive species, repair fencing, and maintain the trails. There's plenty of time in the evening to explore the park or hang out at the group campsite with fellow volunteers.

How It's Life-Changing: You have access to awe-inspiring areas of the park that aren't on tourist maps, and after working to improve them, you appreciate this national landmark even more.

 

(Photo: La Escuela del Sol)

Avert a Midlife Crisis in Costa Rica

The Trip: In Costa Rica's adventure capital Montezuma, La Escuela del Sol is proof that it's never too late to pursue a passion and even make a career out of it. Here you can study fire dancing with a Cirque du Soleil artist. Or, train to be a certified yoga instructor, get your scuba certification, or earn college credit for Spanish classes. The school's surfing courses are popular, too. Stay in a private room or get into the campus vibe and be paired with a roommate.

How It's Life-Changing: At the end of your vacation in this tropical paradise, you return to the real world (or not) as an entirely new version of you. During your courses, you connect with others from different countries and professions who, like you, are at a crossroads in life and vowing to make a change.

 

Masai Mara Wildebeest (Photo: Wajahat Mahmood via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Help Conserve Wildlife in African Game Reserves

The Trip: On this 27-day Masai Mara Conservation and Wildlife Safari with Acacia Adventure Holidays, not only do you get to check off "Seeing the Great Migration" on your bucket list, but you also get to volunteer in Kenya's famous Masai Mara National Reserve during its peak. Spend the first 14 days helping out with lion research, collecting data, and learning about local conservation. During the second half, you'll head to Tanzania for game drives in the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater and stay on the island of Zanzibar.

How It's Life-Changing: Nothing can prepare you for an up-close experience with Africa's majestic wild animals. Whether you happen to witness the birth of a giraffe or the thundering of thousands of wildebeest, you never forget that feeling of connection to the natural world.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title  10 Summer Trips That Will Change Your Life.

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Hottest Summer Destinations for 2014

Posted April 23, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

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Turn up the heat on your vacation plans this summer in a destination that beckons with new and standout reasons to visit. Even the chilliest spots on this list will be hot this summer with new traveler-friendly events, openings, and airline service. Whether you're looking for some natural splendor, a 24-hour urban scene, or a simple patch of white-sand bliss, you'll be able to find it in these dazzling destinations.

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Brazil

Brazil is set to be the center of the sports universe this summer as host of the FIFA World Cup, which will welcome teams from 32 countries around the world. With more than 2.5 million tickets already in circulation for matches in cities around the country, the world will be cheering in Brazil between June 12 and July 13.

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Jamaica

Domestic low-cost giant Southwest has gotten its passport and is heading to the beach. This summer, it will launch its first international flights, with service to Jamaica from Atlanta, Baltimore, and Orlando starting in July. JetBlue is also expanding its Jamaica service just in time for summer, with new flights from Ft. Lauderdale to Montego Bay.

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Las Vegas, Nevada

Heat rises, and this summer, you can survey already-smoking-hot Las Vegas from on high in the city's latest supersized novelty, the High Roller Ferris wheel. Staking a claim as the world's tallest, the 550-foot-tall observation wheel supports 28 individual pods that can each hold up to 40 people. The views are most spectacular at night, when the Strip sparkles below. And, this being Vegas, you can buy your drinks at the bottom and bring them with you on your journey to the sky and back.

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Belgium

Last December, we named Belgium a destination to watch in 2014. And this August, it will become clear why, as the country—and the world—marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. More than 2 million travelers are expected to pay tribute at Belgium's many battle sites. The new Bastogne War Museum just opened last month and will host a variety of centennial events in the coming years.

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

In these ancient mountains that teem with constant springs of new life, a hundred years seems like both a blip and an eternity. This year, Rocky Mountain National Park turns 100 years old, and visitors can celebrate nature and conservation at its finest by taking part in picnics, night hikes, art exhibits, and more. Centennial events kick off in early September and stretch into 2015, so even if you miss the opening festivities, you'll still have plenty of time to join the celebration.

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Umea, Sweden

Umea brings a new twist to its Capital of Culture designation this summer with hundreds of cultural events and nearly 24-hour daylight around the summer solstice. Highlights of the summer season include U x U, a crowd-funded music festival, as well as an outdoor staging of Strauss' opera Elektra.

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Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta is looking to the future by celebrating the past this summer. Its modern reimagining of the classic streetcar will debut in late spring or early summer, with 12 stops connecting Centennial Olympic Park, downtown Atlanta, Georgia State University, and the historic Sweet Auburn District. And in May, downtown Atlanta's new National Center for Civil and Human Rights museum will welcome the public for the first time.

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Aruba

Along with Jamaica, Aruba will be one of Southwest's first international destinations. In July, the domestic-until-now low-cost carrier will kick off service between Aruba and Atlanta, Baltimore, and Orlando. And the timing is perfect—since Aruba sits outside the traditional "hurricane belt," Caribbean summer travel to this island is unlikely to be hampered by challenging weather.

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Glasgow, Scotland

Brazil isn't the only country that's got game this summer. Glasgow is gearing up to host the XX Commonwealth Games, an event that draws participants and spectators from a number of countries around the world. Featuring 17 events, including aquatics, gymnastics, triathlon, and table tennis, the XX Commonwealth Games kicks off on July 23 and runs through August 3.

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Panama

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama! The engineering marvel that inspired the palindrome turns 100 on August 15, and Panama is gearing up to celebrate. Throughout the year, a number of cruise lines are offering special canal crossings or partial crossings, and day tours by providers such as Panama Canal Tours will be offered all summer. The Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, which is visible from the entrance to the canal, will also likely open this summer. And the expansion project continues: By 2015, larger ships may be able to access the canal.

 

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Hottest Summer Destinations for 2014. 

 Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at at editor@smartertravel.com.

10 Best European Castles You Can Visit

Posted October 4, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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Sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister, Europe's best castles evoke a palpable sense of both melancholy and wonder. Their ancient stones brim with mystery and history—but not the stodgy old history of musty textbooks. Castles are the past brought to life, a visceral reminder that quests and battles and chivalry weren't always the exclusive province of fantasy novels. Go medieval on your next trip with a visit to one of these castles where ancient history is alive and well.


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Carreg Cenne Castle, Wales

Never trust any list of Europe's best castles that doesn't include at least one entry from Wales. Owing to its tumultuous history of war and rebellion, the Welsh countryside is home to more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Our favorite is Carreg Cennen, the only ruined stronghold to make this list. Actually, we like that Carreg Cennen has been in a ruinous state since 1462. Perched on a lonely limestone hilltop in Brecon Beacons National Park and often shrouded in mist, Carreg Cennen is easily the most evocative castle in the land. And while it may not be quite as popular as the larger Caerphilly Castle, Carreg Cennen will always be first in our hearts. It's open daily between April and October.


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Hohenwerfen Castle, Austria

Brooding high above Austria's Salzachtal Valley amid the dramatic peaks of the Berchtesgaden Alps, this stronghold has served alternately as a home to kings, archbishops, and prisoners (it was a state prison for a period of time) for more than 900 years. Today, Hohenwerfen Castle is a popular tourist draw and the site of Austria's foremost falconry center, where the royal hunting art is on full display with daily demonstrations.


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Predjama Castle, Slovenia

Predjama Castle is an easy sell to castle lovers. Most famous for being built into the side of a 400-foot cliff, it may also call to mind visions of Tolkien's Helm's Deep. But this real-world stronghold has the requisite dungeons, secret tunnels, and bloody history to make it a must-see on its own merits. Visit Predjama Castle during the annual medieval tournament, held each July, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


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Guedelon Castle, France

Who says the age of castles is over? Take a trip back in time at Guedelon Castle in Burgundy, France, where a team of 50 craftspeople and laborers are currently using 13th-century building techniques and technology (think: horses) to construct an authentic castle from scratch, deep within a secluded forest. Visitors are welcomed from mid-March to early November each year. The project has been running since 1997 and hopes to reach completion in the 2020s.


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Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

It might be the most photographed castle in the world, but there's still nothing quite like seeing Germany's fairy-tale castle in person. The brainchild of "Mad King Ludwig" (or, more generously, "The Fairy-Tale King"), Neuschwanstein has influenced everything from Disney attractions (note the similarity to Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle) to books and computer games. Take a tour of the castle grounds, but leave time for an off-site walk along the myriad nearby trails. That's where you'll find the most stunning views for photographs.


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Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

One of the most iconic castles in Europe, Scotland's Eilean Donan Castle is recognized the world over from its appearances on postcards and in movies like the original Highlander ("There can be only one!"). History buffs will appreciate Eilean Donan's rich past as a key site during the 1719 Jacobite Rising, and all will enjoy the stark beauty of its surroundings, where three great lochs meet at the foot of an impressive mountain range. Today nearly every part of the castle is accessible to the public for tours and exploration.


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Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

This ancestral home to a line of German emperors would fit in with the fantastical fortresses imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. At 2,805 feet above sea level, Hohenzollern Castle really is a castle in the clouds. The current fortress is actually the third to be built on the site (the first was destroyed in battle and the second fell into disrepair). Today it is a popular tourist attraction.


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Hunyad Castle, Romania

The imposing Hunyad Castle, which once imprisoned Vlad the Impaler (Bram Stoker's inspiration for Dracula), offers plenty for castle aficionados to sink their teeth into. Marked by myriad towers, multicolored roofs, and exaggerated stone carvings, this Gothic-Renaissance castle was fully and fancifully restored after decades of neglect. What we see today may or may not be authentic (some suggest that modern architects projected their own "wistful interpretations" of a Gothic castle onto the reconstruction), but either way, the end result is memorable.


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Edinburgh Castle, Germany

One of the best examples of a fully restored medieval fortress, Edinburgh Castle towers over Scotland's capital city from atop an extinct volcano called Castle Rock. It was built in the 12th century and has passed hands between the English and the Scots numerous times over the course of its bloody history. Today, it's open to the public year-round for tours and events.


Versailles, France

From its origin as an unassuming hunting lodge to its height as the royal court of France under Louis XIV, the Sun King's Chateau de Versailles is arguably the grandest castle in the world. No visit to Paris is complete without at least a day trip to see the gardens, canals, and gilded halls of Versailles.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Best European Castles You Can Visit.

Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email her at at editor@smartertravel.com.

Explore Loch Ness for Less

Posted June 1, 2009 by Kate Hamman

UK-ScotlandLochNessCastle-DEF It's rare to hear about Loch Ness without instantly thinking of its elusive monster, Nessie. And though exploring the lake on a boat cruise is definitely a fun and essential excursion, there are plenty of other reasons to enjoy your trip. While in lovely Loch Ness, you can also practice your step dance at a club known for its music, and then keep a watchful eye on the lake from the comfort of your hotel room.

Play
Jacobite: If you want to search for Nessie from the safety of a boat, Jacobite offers daily tours of the Loch, lasting from one to six hours. Some trips include stops at the historic Urquhart Castle. The one-hour Inspiration Cruise is the shortest and least expensive option; costing £11 (about $18 U.S.; check XE.com for current exchange rates) per adult.

Drink
Hootananny: After a long day on the water, you'll need to add a little stomp to your step at Hotananny's. This popular club features traditional Scottish music and contemporary hits every night. Here, you can choose from three individual venues in one place, including rock music at Mad Hatters, a lounge vibe at the Bothy Sofa Bar, and lively ceilidhs at the downstairs Ceilidh Cafe Bar. Entrance is free most evenings, and the pub serves a range of local organic ales and lagers, as well as whiskey.

Stay
Craigdarroch House Hotel: For crystal-clear views of Loch Ness, the Craigdarroch House Hotel is the only four-star property with rooms overlooking the water. This country-house hotel in Foyers is run by husband-and-wife team Elanor and Martin, who make your comfort their main priority. They've created an ambiance that takes you back to a different time, with deep wood paneling, antique furnishings, and high molded ceilings. Each room is en suite, and comes with a hospitality sweet tray upon check-in. Rooms start at £80 per person, and include a full Scottish breakfast.

To search for flights and compare prices to Inverness, which is home to Loch Ness’ nearest major airport, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Britian on View)


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