Trips of a Lifetime

A monk at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Thailand. Photo by <a href="http://www.frommers.com/community/user_gallery_detail.html?plckPhotoID=61f45d4d-5dcc-4e9e-af2b-c8e987f9f240&plckGalleryID=c0482941-0d2d-4cca-b8c4-809ee9e20c72" target="_blank">dkosta/Frommers.com Community</a> Photo by Frommers.com Community
By Frommer's Staff

We all take simple vacations, but when was the last time you traveled somewhere that changed who you are and how you see the world?

These 14 places, while not always easy to reach, inspire travelers to rethink -- and perhaps better appreciate -- the world around us.

Photo Caption: A monk at Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo by dkosta/Frommers.com Community
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Bungalows over the water in Bora Bora, French Polynesia. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Nothing says "ultimate honeymoon" like Bora Bora. Lush mountains slope down to a lagoon striped with bands of clear water ranging from deep blue-green to neon-turquoise. Around the lagoon, palm-fringed atolls and coral reefs trace a wispy pentagon, and everywhere, suspended boardwalks lead like tentacles to overwater bungalows for newlyweds and other romantics. Too perfect a tropical getaway to be a secret, Bora Bora is nevertheless remote and expensive enough that the island's luxurious mystique has remained intact.

Less touristy and even more stunning is Moorea -- inspiration for the mythical island of Bali Ha'i in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, made popular by the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Once you behold its beauty in person, you may find it hard to believe the scenery isn't computer-generated: Jagged mountain contours are so dramatically faceted as to seem man-made, and the dense vegetation blanketing every surface of the island has the soft, rich look of green velvet. If the landscape isn't dreamy enough, visitors can learn the art of growing black pearls or traditional tattooing at Moorea's Tiki Theatre Village, a reconstructed Polynesian village. Or visit a vanilla plantation in cliff-bounded Opunohu Valley. Or simply make friends with local residents, who still have time to stop and chat with inquisitive visitors.

Photo Caption: Overwater bungalows in Bora Bora, French Polynesia
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Hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Three volcanoes created the hauntingly beautiful landscape of Cappadocia, in central Turkey, 515km (320 miles) southeast of Istanbul. The first eruption spread delicate tufa, which wind and water sculpted into ever-evolving domes, hollows, clefts, and cones. Later eruptions scattered harder lava. Now, as the soft underbelly erodes, huge boulders teeter upon slender tufa towers known as "fairy chimneys." Locals still burrow homes into the soft rock, as they have since the Paleolithic era. Some have opened these singular dwellings as guest houses, extending genuine hospitality to travelers about to venture to the region's top sights.

South of Nevsehir are Derinkuyu and Kaymakli -- two of the most impressive underground cities dug by invaders as early as 2000 B.C. as they traversed this crucial crossroads between the East and the West. From the Christian era, the Goreme Open Air Museum encompasses 30 painted churches from the 2nd century A.D. near Goreme. More recent additions to the landscape are the medieval caravansaries, such as the Agzikarahan (now a carpet market), where traveling merchants lodged as they traveled the Silk Road in the 13th century. Now a carpet market, Agzikarahan draws today's weary travelers for a glass of tea, some haggling, and a glimpse of Ottoman architecture at its height.

Photo Caption: Hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey
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Hverir thermal field near Reykjahlíð, Iceland. Photo by Frommers.com Community
The terrain of Iceland, among the world's most dynamic and otherworldly, is still in the process of being created before your eyes. The earth steams and bubbles. Volcanoes rise like islands in a sea of sand. Lava cracks and cools into thousands of never-before-seen shapes. Waterfalls drop from heath-covered mountains with spiked ridges and snowcapped peaks. Cows, sheep, and ponies graze on velvety green pastures. Daylight never ends in summer, with alternating periods of rain and sunshine, marble skies, and heavy mists made for romantics who know that only on a misty day can you see forever.

And then there are the Icelanders: 100% literate, with Europe
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The Tiger's Nest Monastery near Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Frommers.com Community
The captivating kingdom of Bhutan, rooted in the traditions and beliefs of a fast-disappearing Buddhist universe, opened its doors warily to the outside world only little more than a quarter-century ago. Those who trickled in found a place like no other. Its mountain landscapes, with holy peaks unclimbed to avoid disturbing the gods, are as pristine as its primeval forests, a naturalist's dream. Roads are few and precipitous, but at almost every turn there is something to see: traditional half-timbered farmhouses in sheltered valleys, arresting fortress monasteries on hilltops, rare animals and birds, and groves of blooming trees and earthbound flowers.

Valleys are colorful (sometimes raucous) places, suffused with the scent of butter lamps and enlivened by flocks of unruly novices, disputatious monks, and altars piled high with offerings from the rural poor, who come to spin prayer wheels, finger beads, or seek advice.

Never colonized by Western powers, Bhutan remains deeply independent, the last Tibetan Buddhist monarchy not swallowed up by China, to the north, or India, to the south. Despite the arrival of the country's first luxury spa resorts, one visits Bhutan on Bhutanese terms, in limited numbers, for immersion in an encompassing Buddhism that touches everything.

Photo Caption: The Tiger's Nest Monastery near Paro, Bhutan
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View of Machu Picchu in Peru's Sacred Valley. Photo by Sarah Haden
The Inca Trail footpath is an ancient Andean passage from Cusco, capital of the Incan empire, through the Sacred Valley, to the 15th-century ruins of the civilization's crown jewel, Machu Picchu. Cleared from centuries of thick forest growth since historian Hiram Bingham introduced it to the world in 1911, this fabled lost city of the Incas defiantly guards its mystique.

Did it serve as a citadel? An astronomical observatory? A ceremonial city or sacred retreat for the emperor? Why did the Incas construct, inhabit, and then deliberately abandon it in less than a century? How did the Spanish conquistadors miss it? Whatever its intended purpose, Machu Picchu remains the world's greatest example of landscape art, sitting gracefully like a proud saddle between two enormous Andean peaks.

Visitors come to run their hands over the massive, smoothly cut stone, which fit together seamlessly without mortar. Other travelers make it a point to experience daybreak, when the light creeps over Machu Picchu's jagged silhouette and slowly, with great drama, illuminates the ruins row by row, building by building. Most spectacular is the winter solstice sunrise, when sunrays stream through the Temple of the Sun window, setting the stone at the center of the temple ablaze.

Photo Caption: View of Machu Picchu in Peru's Sacred Valley.
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Climbing one of the tallest dunes at sunrise in the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia. Photo by Frommers.com Community
"Surreal" is the word most often used to describe the textured landscapes of Namib-Naukluft Park in Namibia. Its purple gravel plains are carpeted in soft green grass after the rains. Golden dunes rise up from the sea. The iconic Sossusvlei dunes, a series of burnt-red and deep-orange pyramids, tower some 300m (984 ft.) above the white clay pan into which the Tsauchab River has its annual petit mort (little death).

A little larger than Switzerland, the planet's oldest desert and fourth-largest conservation land is best experienced by car, with the windows open and the hot wind in your hair. It's not a wildlife destination per se, but step away from the gravel roads and you'll encounter some of nature's more interesting species, cleverly adapted to these hyper-arid conditions.

Head south from Windhoek, the capital, and spend the night at one of the fabulous safari camps in Namib Rand, the private reserve adjacent to the park, just an hour from Sossusvlei. Then head east to the lesser-known but equally captivating Naukluft Mountains, source of the Tsauchab's waters, where crystal streams fill jade-green rock pools. Finally return via the black boulders of the Juiseb Canyon to Swakopmund, where you can follow the dunes south to Sandwich Harbor for the refreshing sight of water teeming with flamingos and pelicans.

Photo Caption: Climbing one of the tallest dunes at sunrise in the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia
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Lions resting on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Botswana's Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve is a world where edible beasts -- zebras, giraffe, warthogs, antelopes -- are forever on alert, as lions, leopards, or packs of wild dogs lie in wait to take them down for dinner. This spectacular environment is arguably the best place on the planet for an intimate view of wildlife in action.

A fan-shaped oasis in a country that is 80% desert, the delta draws hordes of animals for a drink of its life-giving waters. After the summer rains, the delta is ravaged by water from Angola in the north, transforming it into another world, soaked with life and charged with the beauty of abundance. Visitors get to watch the flood plains of the world's largest inland delta miraculously fill up. Waterways dotted with islands and clogged by reed beds provide a network of navigable channels where visitors are poled around in dugout canoes. While basking in luxurious lodges and top-end safari drives, visitors await that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch predators take down their prey.

Photo Caption: Lions resting on the Okavango Delta in Botswana
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Terracotta warriors in Xian, China. Photo by Jodi Bratch
A train crossing of China's Silk Road takes you through a cultural journey from the Far East to the Mideast, from modern Chinese megacities through an ancient arid desert plateau to stunning mountains. For an ideal 10-day trip, you can follow the ancient trade route used from the 1st century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. starting in Xian, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Along the way, travelers can make stops at the official end of the Great Wall at Jiayu Guan, the Mogao Buddhist caves near Dunhuang, the aforementioned desert basin of Turpan, and the provincial capital Urumqi -- an ideal base for a day trip to Heavenly Lake.

Time your travels so you hit Kashgar -- the end of the line -- on a Sunday, when its bustling market comes to life. Or, opt for a five-hour drive to the even more impressive Sunday market in Khotan, the largest in Central Asia.

Photo caption: Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian, China.
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The French Valley of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Torres del Paine is the crown jewel of Chile's national park system. Lakes of milky greens and blues ("paine" is the Tehuelche word for "blue"), gentle valleys, and frigid hanging glaciers captivate hikers who come to walk the park's circuit of well-maintained trails -- but nothing has more power to impress and compel than the Paine Massif -- a series of jagged peaks thrown up from the earth 3 million years ago.

This being Patagonia, weather conditions are also impressive and instantly changeable, from warm sunny pauses to screaming winds that can prevent anyone from walking exactly upright. The best time of year for hiking is late December through February, when weather conditions are at their most mild and daylight is longest, but intrepid travelers visit year-round.

Photo caption: The French Valley of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile
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A large stone moai statue in Rapa Nui on Easter Island. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Whether you call it Rapa Nui (as do its Polynesian inhabitants) or Isla de Pascua (as do Chileans), Easter Island is synonymous with those giant carved heads known as moai. We know how they were made. We know where they were made and how they were transported across the island. We just don't know why -- and that's the great mystery. Theories abound, but possibly the most well-reasoned one is that the 12 Rapanui tribes carved ever-bigger versions of the original smaller moai to boast of their virility, strength, and power in a low-tech arms race that led to the eventual deforestation of the island and the decimation of its ecosystem. The population is estimated to have peaked at 15,000. By the time Dutch explorers first saw the island on Easter Sunday in 1722 (thus the Westernized name), the population had dwindled to just under 3,000 people, all facing starvation.

Fast forward to today, and you'll discover an island and a people who have proudly recaptured their heritage. Since it's the most remote inhabited island in the world (it's in the South Pacific more than a five-hour flight from Santiago), we recommend spending a week here, giving you time to explore the island at a leisurely pace and to recharge in its balmy climes. Be sure to visit Rano Raraku, the volcanic peak that served as the quarry (aka the "Nursery") for the famed statues, where you'll find moai complete or in process scattered about the slope.

Photo caption: A large stone moai statue on Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island
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Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Why travel so far to look at a large red rock? Because it will send a shiver up your spine. Because it may move you to tears. Up close, Uluru is more magnificent than you can imagine. Immense and overwhelming, this area has what's described as a "spirit of place" here.

In photos (which never do it justice), "The Rock" looks smooth and even, but the reality is much more interesting -- dappled with holes and overhangs, with curtains of stone draping its sides, creating little coves hiding water holes and Aboriginal rock art. Depending on the angle and intensity of the sun, the color changes from pink to a deep wine red. And if you are lucky enough to be visiting when it rains, you will see a sight like no other. Here, rain brings everyone outside to see the spectacle of waterfalls created off the massive rock.

But don't think a visit to Uluru is just about snapping a few photos. You can walk around the Rock, climb it (although we say don't; even the local Anangu people consider it too dangerous), fly over it, ride a camel to it, circle it on a Harley-Davidson, trek through the nearby Olgas, and dine under the stars while you learn about them. Of the many ways to explore it, one of the best is to join Aboriginal people on guided walks. Just do yourself one favor: Plan to spend at least two days here, if not three. -- Lee Mylne

Photo Caption: In 1985, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was returned to its Aboriginal owners, known as the Anangu, who manage the property jointly with the Australian government.
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A tree overgrowing the ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo by Frommers.com Community
In 1861, it was just a mysterious hulk of laterite and sandstone blocks, shrouded in roots and vines, in the Cambodian jungle. Today, the ancient city of Angkor -- capital of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th to the 15th century -- is Cambodia's chief tourism attraction, a breathtaking sprawl of temples and shrines that covers 400 sq. km (154 sq. miles).

Part of the complex is Angkor Thom -- or "the great city" in Khmer and is famed for its fantastic 45m (148-ft.) central temple, Bayon and nearby Baphuon. The vast area of Angkor Thom, over a mile on one side, is dotted with many temples and features; don't miss the elaborate reliefs on the Bayon's first floor gallery or of the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants. The Angkor Thom Gates, particularly the south gate, are good examples of the angelic carving of the Jayavarman head, a motif you will find throughout the temple sites. The bridge spanning the moat before the south entrance is lined with the gods and monsters said to have been in competition to churn the proverbial sea of milk that would cause creation of the world. The line of statues with the gate in the background is a classic Angkor scene.
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The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo by Markel Redondo
Most vacations aren't exactly life-altering, but a surprising number of people who trek the Camino de Santiago come away from the experience feeling fundamentally changed. While it is physically a long and arduous walk over a 500-mile course, most of the labor is more … metaphysical. It's a spiritual journey that emulates the path walked in the year 950 by a French monk to visit the remains of the Apostle St. James in remote Santiago de Compostela. He described his journey in what is considered to be the first travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus.

One thousand years later, pilgrims are still tracing his footsteps, starting in Navarre and ending in Galicia, usually after a solid month of walking, for the full effect. But it's also possible to undertake only sections of the journey, depending on your time allowances. You choose your own path.

Photo Caption: The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain
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Rice paddies in Sapa, Vietnam. Photo by Frommers.com Community
The Vietnamese capital Hanoi is the home base for exploring northern Vietnam. Book an overnight train to the high mountains and rice terraces of Sapa, an old French colonial hill station that you can use as a base for easy hikes of nearby villages. The diverse ethnic hill tribes gather in town under the gaze of the old Mission Church to trade goods (to other Vietnamese) and souvenirs (to tourists). Or head 62 miles out to Bac Ha on Sundays for another bustling market. If you miss that one, hire a guide to take you to Coc Ly, which holds a colorful market on Tuesdays -- you get the picture.

Head due east from Hanoi to catch the light playing on the arching rock formations of Halong Bay -- it's never the same, painting rich colors on a stunning landscape, and the bay attracts many artists and photographers.

Photo Caption: Rice paddies in Sapa, Vietnam
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