Most people toast their milestone birthdays with their closest family and friends. I celebrated my 30th birthday on December 18th, 2001 in the ‘yacht club’ dining room in one of the southernmost towns in Argentina with twenty people I had just met two hours before. All of us had just arrived the previous week from multi-week passages through the some of the world’s most dangerous stretches of open ocean in the world.
Ushuaia, Argentina has been a basecamp town for Southern Ocean whaling and Antarctic exploration since the late 20th century. It hasn’t changed much since, and still has the bare-knuckled feel of a frontier mining town where everyone in the bar is on the verge of the next big thing. I met people chasing impossible dreams that night for three hours who I will remember for the next thirty years. It was the best birthday of my life.
The next day five others and myself departed for the Antarctic Peninsula by sailboat to spend the next four months climbing every virgin mountain peak we could find. We were well past Cape Horn three days later when we celebrated Christmas dinner eating a butchered sheep’s leg lying sideways across the Drake Passage in a 40-knot gale. We spent New Year’s Eve in a protected cove rafted up to a British mountaineering expedition yacht toasting the midnight sunset with cheap Chilean space-bagged wine and a snowball fight unreachable by anything but a military rescue plane.
I’ve always been a dopamine junkie with two speeds: sleep and eleven. I was an ice hockey goalie all the way through college and looked forward to pucks flying by my head at 90 mph every day. After graduating I produced books and films on science and exploration that paid for a ten-year, non-stop ticket to five continents to scuba dive in ice caves, rappel into active volcanoes, and tag 14’ crocodiles from a 12’ canoe in the middle of the Amazon. I still do everything at the last minute for the thrill of it.
I’ve realized in my most recent decade that I’m also addicted to everything historic—architecture, vintage couture, French wine, hard top antique Mercedes, Hinckley sailboats, you name it. So when you combine history with adventure there aren’t many neurons left in me to fire up. Part of the rush is simple geography. When you grow up in a boring Philadelphia suburb is it any surprise that heli-skiing in Switzerland or trekking through the old-growth jungles of Belize ended up on my bucketlist?
Adventure travel comes with an extra juice where extraordinary human history has unfolded—which is exactly why I thought it was sane at the time to sail to Antarctica. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Antarctica was the Broadway stage of global exploration in the race to the South Pole. For children in Britain and Norway names like Shackleton, Scott, and Amudsen a hundred years later are still as iconic as Beckham and The Beatles. Today, the southernmost continent remains pristine and largely unexplored precisely because it still takes crossing a nasty ocean to get to. I got the chance to sail to Antarctica in a 44’ steel sailboat. What self-respecting dopamine junkie would pass that up?
So in celebration of where history and adventure converge here are our favorite global adventure travel destinations that will get your dopamine pulsing and remind you that history is a risk worth exploring:
1) Antarctic Peninsula
A library already exists chronicling the arc of human exploration that has unfolded in Antarctica. Legendary explorers like Roald Amudsen, Ernest Shackleton, and Robert Falcon Scott suffered insufferably to become household names in the early 20th century in the race for the South Pole. There are few parallels today to the challenges they endured.
Over a century later the best way to get to Antarctica is still by boat. There are some expedition outfits that can fly you in by plane to visit an Antarctic scientific outpost, but if you want to experience the southernmost continent the way the original explorers did you have no other option than to cross the Drake Passage around Cape Horn. For the landlocked this is the maritime equivalent of summiting Mount Everest. There’s nothing like seeing a 40’ wave barrel down on you that’s been traveling around the Southern Ocean for two thousand miles. On the other side is the planet’s most pristine polar wilderness that fewer people will ever see than attend the most exclusive Hollywood film festivals. It’s a trip you’ll be talking about for the rest of your life. As you can see I’m still telling my stories fourteen years later.
If I could convince my wife to come back with me to Antarctica here’s three operators I’m sure would be on the top of her list because you can sit in a hot tub with a glass of wine after exploring a penguin colony:
Cuba is the newest darling of American adventure travel and it’s about time. For those who don’t know their Caribbean geography, if you leave Key West in a sailboat at sunset you can be drinking café con leche in Havana the following morning. Diplomatic and travel relations are finally normalizing. Before you know it you might be taking your next legal vacation to the ‘Forbidden Island”.
I traveled to Cuba in the mid 1990s when it was still under Russian patrimony. I rented an old Soviet four-wheeler and drove the island from tip to tip. Everything you’ve ever heard about the Cuban cultural and economic time-capsule was true. Vintage Russian Lada taxis. Old Havana architecture. Hand-rolled cigars. Non-stop government surveillance. Not an American business brand in sight. My favorite part of the trip was staying up until 2:00 am every night in Havana vibrantly debating politics and the Cuban dominance of baseball over bottomless Cuba libres with a dozen of my new best friends. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the Cuban people aren’t some of the most gracious and generous in the world.
Now that Cuba is quickly becoming the newest adventure travel frontier everyone is jumping into the game. Here are two operators that have been organizing cultural and travel to the Forbidden Island long before my trip and know the lay of the land. Get there now while you can before it’s Americanized.
3) Stellenbosch, South Africa
The southernmost tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet is a tumultuous place where tumbling rocky cliffs meet thirty-foot waves that have been rolling around the world for thousands miles.
Seals love the place—and so do the predators that feed on them. I spent two months in 1997 scuba diving in and out of a submersible cage while taking some of the first photographs of a scientist tagging and interacting with Great White sharks in the wild. Every time I got back into the boat I was thankful to be alive.
Southern South Africa also has a microclimate and geology virtually identical to northern California—warm sunny days, cool nights, fog banks at just the right time of year, and just the right blend of minerals in the soil. I’m a wine a guy so when I discovered the white wines and warm breezes of Stellenbosch in the heart of the Cape’s wine country, I had discovered the perfect antidote to shark cage diving. Throw in the wine tasting trails, boutique hotels, and high-end resorts and you wouldn’t even know that you’re not in Napa until you pay your bill and realize you spent half the price.
For the persistently adventurous, you can book end your trip after cage diving with Great White sharks on the other end with a safari to one of South Africa’s many game preserves or national parks just a few hours away to go face to face with some of the world’s other greatest predators on land.
Here are a few Stellenbosch wine routes and vacation resorts you simply can’t miss:
There are some places on earth that just drew the long end of the straw when it comes to geography and climate. California would definitely be on that list. South Africa and France also come to mind. When everything a traveler could want falls within a single border— mountains, beaches, skiing, hot springs, rock climbing, wine country, deserts, rare wildlife—why would you even need a passport?
The sleeper on this list that is finally getting it’s due is Patagonia. Shared by Chile and Argentina and extending down to the southernmost point in South America (Cape Horn), Patagonia remains one of the last ragged, dust-road adventure frontiers in the world. Think North Dakota from a population standpoint. Throw in a few Switzerland and Himalayan mountain ranges. Add a touch of Greenland glaciers, Yellowstone National Park fly-fishing, and the best gaucho (cowboy) barbeques you’ll ever have, and you’ve got the makings of the best three-week, no cell phone vacation of your life.
I’ve been to Patagonia on four occasions, each time for four weeks or more. You could spend the next ten years of your life there and never explore all of the history, culture, and adventure it has to offer. If you are a fly-fisherman or rock climber in particular you can’t say you’ve done it all until you’ve checked Patagonia off your list. There’s a reason the iconic, eponymous adventure brand chose to call itself what it does.
If you want a plush basecamp for your next expedition the following places would be more than happy to oblige:
5) Southern Mexico
If you’re already planning your upcoming winter vacation, the odds are Mexico may not be on your list. If you read some of the media headlines, we wouldn’t blame you. The Mexican drug cartels’ currently preferred practice of getting even with their enemies according to the local newspapers is to carve off their faces, stitch them to soccer balls, and play a lively football game in their enemy’s mother’s front yard.
But don’t believe everything you read. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve spent almost two years collectively in Mexico on over a dozen different expeditions driving across every border crossing from Tijuana to the jungles of Chiapas bordering Guatemala. I was stopped by the police and military countless times, machine guns locked and loaded, my trucks searched, wondering whether this was where the next episode of ‘Locked Up Abroad’ would begin. In every instance without fail, I proceeded on my merry way with a smile and ‘Vaya con Dios’.
When the current stereotypes of Mexico fade what’s left is one of the most historic, dynamic, and enriching nations in the world. Southern Mexico in particular possesses a blend of native culture, Colonial architecture, and a focus on local, experiential travel that couldn’t be further away from the barbed-wire, mega resorts of Cancun and Acapulco. The Pacific beaches of Puerto Escondido and its neighboring villages are surfing meccas, and Oacaxa City boasts one of the most thriving arts scenes in central America.
For a four star historic downtown hotel steps from the central square you’ll also be paying less than what you’d shell out for a dumpy chain hotel by the average American airport.
But like all hidden treasures, they only remain hidden for so long. Don’t wait.