Television producer and adventure enthusiast Mark Burnett, whose CBS reality show Survivor begins its 20th cycle from Samoa on Sept. 17 and whose new show Shark Tank airs Sundays on ABC, says anyone who goes on vacation with him for 10 days "will feel like they've been gone for six weeks" because of the full schedule. He's traveled to every continent except Antarctica and shares his travel highlights and tips with Kelly Carter for USA TODAY.
Q: Where you have been recently that you liked or were surprised by?
A: Samoa, where I spent much of the summer. It really is the idyllic South Pacific because it has the aquamarine/turquoise waters, those puffy clouds, immense waterfalls, white sands and no dangerous snakes or predators. One of the most surprising things was the people are just so happy. There are churches in even the smallest village and on Sundays everybody is in white, starched suits and hats walking to church with flowers in their hair and songs in their voices. It's romantic and very unspoiled. There is no high-rise and it really retains that special charm (of) the movie South Pacific. It has stunning beaches and from what I was told, the largest coconut plantations in the world. Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, lived out his life in Samoa and his home has been retained as a museum. It's quite a hard hike but you can hike up to the top of a mountain and his tomb sits at the top with a famous requiem that he wrote for himself way before he died: "Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill."
Q: What's the best place you've ever visited?
A: That's almost an impossible question. I've done nine Eco-Challenges, 20 Survivors and a pirate show. But what is it that I would go to tomorrow with Roma (he married actress Roma Downey in 2007) and the kids is camping in Bedouin tents in Wadi Rum, Jordan. It's a vast, grand desert surrounded by immense sheer rock faces. This is where David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia, where the seven pillars of (wisdom) are the seven mountains in a row. Think southeastern Utah. Drop that into Arabia with real sand and you start to get the idea of the ever-changing colors. Sometimes it's yellow, sometimes purple or red. I've never been closer to the stars. It's the echo from the sheer rock faces. If you yell, you hear your voice over and over and over. Sandstorms blow through. I've seen a sandstorm disappear into a slot canyon that is only six-feet wide. It's epic.
Q: What's the most surprising/unexpected placed you've ever visited?
A: I have two. One is Patagonia; the other is the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Near the town of Bariloche, which sits on the border of Argentina and Chile in northern Patagonia, is an unbelievable area. Within 25 miles you go from very low rainfall and swaying gold-colored grass chest-high with an old railroad where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid actually lived. If you go 25 miles west you immediately come across crystal-clear, fast-moving rivers. As you keep moving, the Andes are in front of you. Snow-capped, huge, 14,000-foot peaks. Within one short drive you can't believe it could have possibly happened. But it's because the prevailing winds are coming over from the west and the snow is dumped from the Andes. Twenty-five miles later there is almost no rainfall. It's just the beautiful golden grasses with gauchos herding their cattle. There's a mountain called Tronador that is absolutely epic. It's Switzerland in South America. That's surprising because you could be in the Wild West but with different mountain shapes. And suddenly you've got these verdant green and literally turquoise rivers so clear that it could be as if you were snorkeling in the Caribbean. You stand at the top of the Tronador, which is not that hard of a climb, you see across to Chile. You could be at the top of the Matterhorn but you're in South America.
The other surprise is Morocco and the Ait Bougmez Valley. It's ancient dwellings in a verdant valley and above it are the Atlas Mountains. What's incredible is during the winter the people in the valley trek over the Atlas and down to the Sahara desert to be warm and then when the summer comes they they trek back across those 13,000-foot peaks with their camels, their small children, their grandfathers, their goats. It's hundreds and hundreds of people traveling. Very close to there is one of the most magical places on earth to me, which is Marrakesh. Marrakesh is like a movie set. It's the narrow lanes of trading, the shops full of spices and carpets and silver. The height of the shop doorways in these narrow lanes is very high so the camels can come inside.
Q: What's your favorite vacation spot?
A: Africa. It's hard to beat, be it Botswana or Kenya. In Botswana in the Kalahari Desert there's a tented camp called Jack's Camp, which is like old Africa meets Ralph Lauren. The Oriental rugs, the old leather chairs — you feel like you've just jumped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. And having dinner outside at night in the dark you hear the thundering of the hooves of the zebra crossing the plains. You feel like you can reach out and touch them because they're so close. And the roar of the lions!
I very much like Kenya. It's hard to beat the Masai Mara (park reserve) and the idea of ballooning across it. I have a great time at Lewa (Wildlife Conservancy). There's more rhinos than you'll find anywhere. A great part for the children is you can ride horses with the giraffes and the zebra.
On par with Africa is Australia. In Far North Queensland, where you've got the Great Barrier Reef, which is a treasure on planet Earth and like snorkeling in the best aquarium. Within one short day you cross rain forest and you're suddenly in the Outback.
Q: Can you offer an inside tip or recommendation for your favorite vacation spot?
A: At Lewa, get a horse or camel and ride alongside the giraffes and zebra. In Far North Queensland, stay at Undara, which is probably the closest Outback you can really get. You sleep in old accordion-style railway carriages, which are no longer on a track. They've moved them into the Outback. Everything is themed around an old Victorian railway. You wake up in the morning to the loudest kookaburras and kangaroos standing by. Your breakfast — eggs, bacon, toast, coffee — is cooked over a fire every morning. There's no kitchen. It's full-on Jackaroo Australian-cowboy style.