Where We’re Going in ’08: Back to Nature

080205_Lake%20Bohinj_Slovenia_Mark_GoddardF.JPG Madagascar and Micronesia are sooooooo yesterday. Today’s smartest escape artists are getting their nature fix in a whole new crop of destinations. Check ’em out.

Slovenia: It is probably Europe’s hottest destination at the moment. Spend some time in a few of the stunning parks here and you’ll quickly see why. But parks are just a part of the whole package. Slovenia has a slew of other amazing natural attractions, including a network of caves at Postojnksa Jama; Lake Bohinj (photo, right), where you can pedal a bike along tiny country roads and storybook villages; and the Soca River, whose blue-green waters run through an unspoiled national forest. Slovenia has its own version of the Swiss alps, and many think the peaks and valleys and lakes of the Triglavski National Park are even lovelier than the more famous ones to the west. The gem not to miss in the park is Lake Bled, a deliriously idyllic mountain lake complete with castle, an island, and a nearby village. What’s not to love?

The Northwest Yucatan, Mexico: Although they share the same peninsula, glitzy Cancun and this undeveloped corner of the Yucatan have little in common. While the former draws throngs of party animals, the latter attracts only a handful of animal lovers. Most of them come here to see the 146,000-acre Ria de Celestun Biosphere, a home to endangered ocelots, jaguars, and 320 species of birds. By far the best way to experience the biosphere is to stay in one of the 15 comfy palapa-capped cabanas at Eco Paraiso Xixim, which has three-night packages from $365. The resort’s guides will take you on a daytime boat tour to see the world’s largest population of pink flamingos, or a moonlit “safari” that focuses on crocodiles and other nocturnal creatures. From your home base you can also borrow bikes to explore the neighboring salt flats, sign on for fishing expeditions, or merely lounge on the private beach: a three-mile stretch backed by dunes and covered with seashells in every conceivable shape and size.

080205_flick_napali_coast_Matt_Wright.JPGHawaii: It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the travel industry that places of great natural beauty frequently end up becoming concrete jungles. Hawaii certainly has its share of urban blight, but all things considered the islands also encompass some of the world’s most beautiful real estate. A short list of the most revered natural wonders here would have to include the Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses 520 square miles of trails, volcanic rocks, stretches of dried lava, and the volcanoes Kilauea and Mauna Loa; and Kauai’s stunningly beautiful Na Pali Coast, (photo, right) where magical cliffs rise thousands of feet out of the sea like something out of a surrealist’s nature fantasy. Maui might have the lion’s share of wonders, starting with the Road to Hana, a 55-mile drive through a rainforest canopy, and 10,023-foot Haleakala Crater, where you get a 360-degree view that takes in the Big Island, Molokai, Lanai, and Kaho’olawe. Finally, there’s nothing quite like gliding along Maui’s west coast in a kayak. Maui Sea Kayaking can set you up nicely.

The Lake District, Britain: Britain as a whole takes a progressive approach to eco-tourism. Yet perhaps no destination has a cleaner, greener, or longer record for eco-tourism than the Lake District in northwest England. Remember, William Wordsworth and his Romantic ramble-loving friends virtually invented the “back to nature” holiday here at the turn of the 19th century. And the region’s titular lakes — along with those rhyme-inspiring peaks, vales, flowers, and waterfalls — continue to lure visitors. Lake District National Park is a logical starting point for contemporary escape artists. It is, after all, a place of superlatives. One of England’s oldest national parks, it is also the largest and contains both the country’s highest mountain and its deepest lake, all of which are best appreciated off-season when the crowds disperse. Intimate inns abound, such as White Moss House, which was long owned by Wordsworth’s descendents. For an earthier alternative, try Rainors Farm B&B. Ensuite guest rooms with full English or vegetarian breakfast start at £40. A yurt-style tent is also available for truly outdoorsy types.

080205_flickr_christian_dory_panama_Kuna.jpgPanama: The country’s peculiar shape — a long, thin undulating strip of land connecting the geographies of Central and South America — has blessed it with glorious stretches of coastline along two oceans, rich and varied flora and fauna, and the second-largest rainforest in the Western hemisphere, behind only the Amazon. Panama City and environs account for roughly half the total population (just over 3.2 million), so the rest of the country remains sparsely populated and very much untamed. What’s to see? Aside from the abundant rainforests, archipelagoes with smashing dive sites off both coasts, there’s the Gulf of Chriqui, which is loaded with mangroves. And, interestingly, Panamas is home to various indigenous peoples who still make their homes here. The Kuna (photo, right), who live on the San Blas Islands, are widely recognized for the vibrant swathes of mola, made and worn by the women. Come and stay at one of their rustic lodges for a true Robinson Crusoe outing. A handful of airlines — American, Copa, Continental, and Delta, among others — have direct flights to Panama City from Atlanta, Miami, Houston, and Newark.

The Northwest Passage, Canada: Trend watchers call it “climate tourism” or “catastrophe tourism.” In either case, the urge to see Mother Nature’s threatened wonders before they disappear is stronger than ever. And in 2008 — officially designated International Polar Year — the Northwest Passage through Canada’s icy Arctic waters is a fine place to begin. The region is served by several well-established cruise companies, among them Quark Expeditions and Peregrine Adventures. In summer, when the seas are navigable, both offer 12-night voyages priced from $4,200. Wonder what you will do during that time? Well, you won’t be indulging in the standard shipboard activities (expect naturalist-led lectures rather than shuffleboard tournaments). Moreover, itineraries depend on the vagaries of weather, and stops are seldom ports per se. On Arctic routes, some may be home to only a few hundred people; in other cases, the population might consist solely of seabirds. The upside is that the Great White North has a seemingly limitless supply of unspoiled scenery. There’s great white wildlife, too, including polar bears and beluga whales.

080205_Mount_Pilatus_Colin%20SoutarF.JPGSwitzerland: Not only does this tiny nation prove that good things come in small packages, it reminds us that appreciating nature doesn’t have to be a passive pursuit. Take Mount Pilatus, a 7000-foot peak just outside Lucerne easily reached by public transportation. Sure you can drink in those panoramic alpine views, but that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In winter, active types can enjoy Mother Nature by tackling snowshoe paths and sled runs. In warmer weather there are biking trails and moorland walks, mountain climbing and paragliding. Want more? Visit Pilatus Seilpark, a “rope park” complete with swinging ladders, suspended bridges, and sweeping vistas. It is one of many such venues now popping up around Switzerland. Since you may never want to leave, it’s good to know that the mountain also boasts two hotels, Hotel Pilatus-Kulm (built in 1890) or the more modern Hotel Bellevue. Overnight packages cost $118 and $150 per person per night respectively.

Kelly Lack, Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb, Shivani Vora

Photo Credits: (1) ©Istockphoto/ Mark Goddard; (2) Photo by Matt Wright; (3) Photo by Christian Dory; (4) ©Istockphoto/ Colin Soutar.

Also see:

Where We’re Going in ’08: Europe’s Rising Stars
Where We’re Going in ’08: Island Paradises
Where We’re Going in ’08: 7 Places Undiscovered by Americans
Where We’re Going in ’08: Hot Spots in Cold Places