Best new adventure trips of 2009

— -- Exploration of new and little-known places is one of the hallmarks of adventure, which is what makes these 10 new trips stand out from the rest. Read on to find out how you can visit emerging destinations with veteran explorers and experience some classic destinations in new ways.

The Wilds of Assynt, ScotlandProvider: Wilderness Scotland Length: Seven days Price: $1,091

Not very many places in Western Europe can still be accurately called "wild," but Assynt in northwest Scotland, a region of finger-shaped lochs, table-top mountains, and empty beaches, promises a remoteness hard to find on the mainland of the Continent. Assynt is part of the North West Highlands UNESCO Geopark, which was designated to protect the area's geological features, including three-billion-year-old rocks.

"Assynt is among the least populated regions in all of Europe," says Stevie Christie, director of the award-winning Wilderness Scotland. "In Assynt, you will enjoy true wilderness and everything that comes with that including prolific wildlife such as golden eagles and red deer stags; all day hikes where you won't see another person; and a freedom and freshness that you don't find elsewhere."

After scouting the region for more than 10 years, Christie has designed a hiking tour that takes visitors to some of Assynt's most beautiful and untouched places. Hiking an average of seven hours a day at a moderate pace, you'll climb hills like the small but visually impressive Stac Pollaidh, and Suliven, a pillar-shaped peak known as Scotland's "Sugar Loaf." Along the coast, you'll walk past sea stacks (vertical rock columns) and along sandy beaches and have the option to go sea kayaking. One trip highlight comes early on: a boat tour of the Summer Isles, a mostly uninhabited archipelago where you can often spot dolphins and whales. "[This] is a fantastic addition to a regular hiking trip as you get to explore the islands, as well as enjoy unusual vantage points of the mountains you will hike up during the trip," says Christie.

Trip planning: Departures are scheduled for June 13, August 8, and September 26. Rates include accommodations, daily breakfast and lunch plus dinner on the first and last night of the trip, ground transportation, the boat trip, and a guide and driver. Most dinners, alcohol, and airfare are extra. Round-trip late September airfare from Newark to Edinburgh, starts at $846, including taxes, through Hotwire. From Edinburgh, you can take a Megabus coach to the trip start point in Inverness for as little as £1.

Snorkeling and Kayaking the Philippines' Isles of PalawanProvider: Wilderness Travel Length: 13 days Price: $4,495

While on his quest to circumnavigate the world, Ferdinand Magellan and some of his men were killed in a battle on a Pacific island. His remaining comrades fled on ship and nearly starved until they landed on Palawan, a remote tropical island rich with banana and coconut trees, yams, and other crops tended by friendly islanders. The voyage's chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, called Palawan "the Land of Promise," and indeed, after replenishing themselves on the island, the explorers were able to successfully complete their circling of the globe.

Today, the island and the other 1,760 islets that make up the Philippines' Palawan archipelago are seen as a promised land for naturalists. All are part of the Coral Triangle, the most biologically diverse marine habitat on earth. Next spring, adventure outfitter Wilderness Travel will run two-week kayaking and snorkeling tours of islands, putting travelers in close contact with many of region's most exciting marine animals. Marine biologist Lee Goldman leads the trips, providing tour goers with scientific insight into the ecosystems they visit.

In the Bay of Donsol, you'll spend two days tracking and swimming with whale sharks, the world's largest fish. "The coastal fishing village of Donsol is known to have the largest numbers of recorded sightings of whale sharks in the world. Our departures are timed to coincide with the highest concentrations that occur in spring," says Molly Casey of Wilderness Travel. Later you'll kayak among the towering karst-limestone islands of the El Nido Marine Reserve, snorkel inside caves, explore coral reefs home to more than 800 species of fish, and paddle along white sand beaches lined coconut palms. The wildlife experience culminates with a snorkeling trip around Dimakya Island, where you have the chance to swim with dugongs (sea cows), a marine mammal similar to a manatee that spends its days grazing on sea grass.

Trip planning: 2009 departures include March 14, April 4, and May 4. The package price includes accommodations, airport transfers, all land and sea transportation, entrance fees, kayaking equipment, all meals plus beer and wine at campsites, and guides. Accommodations range from eco-resorts, including the award-winning Lagen Island Resort, to deluxe beach camping. You must bring your own snorkeling equipment. Airfare is also extra. Round-trip March airfare from Los Angeles to Manila, starts at $933, including taxes, on Asiana Airlines. Internal flights within the Philippines can be purchased through Wilderness Travel for $495.

Discover ColombiaProvider: Big Five Tours & Expeditions Length: Six days Price: $1,880

Colombia has long had a reputation as one of the world's most dangerous destinations, and has been avoided by most travelers for decades. In the past five years, however, the country has quietly been getting its act together, putting in place stronger security measures and creating tourism programs to help it emerge onto the world travel scene. A few foreign tour companies are beginning to run trips to Colombia for intrepid travelers eager to be among the first wave to experience what the country has to offer: beautiful colonial cities, a vibrant culture, undeveloped Pacific and Caribbean beaches, and green hills where some of the world's best coffee grows.

Next year, the custom luxury adventure company Big Five Tours & Expeditions, based in Stuart, Florida, will begin offering a six-day program in Colombia with a special emphasis on culture and coffee. The journey starts in Bogota with a guided tour of the city's historic heart. Here you'll see historic sites like the Casa de Narino, the president's palace; the richly adorned Iglesia De San Ignacio, which was constructed in 1635; and the Plaza de Bolivar, Old Bogota's central square. You'll also take the cable car up Mount Monserrate, which offers expansive views of the city.

Later you'll venture into the "Coffee Zone," a land of verdant hills and valleys in the Central Andes. "Much of the country's lifestyles and traditions are centered around coffee, so this part of the journey helps our guests really connect with Colombians," says Deborah Kilcollins of Big Five Tours. Based out of the luxurious Sazagua boutique hotel in Pereira, you'll learn about coffee traditions through visiting coffee plantations, touring the towns that developed around coffee growing, and possibly even attending the national coffee pageant in the city of Armenia. You'll also have time for hiking in Corcora Valley, where 160-foot wax palm trees tower like skyscrapers over the coffee bushes.

Trip planning: This trip can be arranged at any time. Prices are per person based on double occupancy and include accommodations, ground transportation, daily breakfast and one lunch, guides, and entrance fees. Dinners, most lunches, and airfare are extra. Round-trip May airfare from Los Angeles to Bogota, starts at $568, including taxes, through Delta.

Kayak in God's Pocket, British ColumbiaProvider: Sea Kayak Adventures Length: Six days Price: $1,895

Sea Kayak Adventures has a great itinerary for veteran sea kayakers seeking for a new destination to explore or beginners who want to try a multi-day excursion without having to rough it: A six-day trip in British Columbia's God's Pocket Marine Provincial Park based out of an island resort in the middle of the park. Not only will you get to experience a spectacular region seldom visited by other kayakers—at the end of a good paddle you can unwind with a yoga session and a hot shower followed by a made-from-scratch meal in the comfy God's Pocket Resort to which the company has exclusive access.

"The lodge is a jewel and it is the only structure allowed in God's Pocket Provincial Park," says Nancy Mertz, co-owner of Sea Kayak Adventures. "This virtually uninhabited island chain provides sheltered kayaking next to nutrient-laden currents where salmon gather in huge numbers. The salmon are eagerly sought after by the northern resident subspecies of orca, bald eagles, and seals. Not a trip goes by that we don't see humpback and minke whales, dall's porpoises, and sea otters. As we kayak along our emerald isles and rocky points, we can look across the Queen Charlotte Strait to the snow-capped peaks of the BC Coastal Range—just spectacular. So we have incredible scenery right in the heart of spectacular wildlife and yet are close to shelter from the elements if need be."

During the trip, you'll kayak for about four hours each day with a break for lunch in between. In the afternoon you'll have time for hiking on the island and a yoga class before a happy hour on the resort's sun deck and then dinner. If you want a break from paddling for a day you can hang out at the resort or, if you're scuba certified, go diving with the lodge's host, who is also a dive master. "Jacques Cousteau named this area the world's best cold water scuba dive site," says Mertz.

Trip planning: This trip departs June 29. Other God's Pocket trips not including yoga begin every Monday between July 6 and August 3. Prices include transfers to God's Pocket Resort, lodging, meals, kayaking equipment and instruction, yoga, and guides. Transportation to the trip start location in Point Hardy, British Columbia, is extra. Round-trip June airfare from Los Angeles to Vancouver, starts at $451, including taxes, on US Airways. From Vancouver, it's an eight-hour drive to Port Hardy.

West Africa's Voodoo TrailProvider: G.A.P Adventures Length: 16 days Price: $2,399

In West Africa's Gulf of Guinea Coast, the spirits of the dead inhabit the living, true love can be made from ingredients purchased at the market, and battles are fought with riddles. Here, voodoo isn't a black art practiced in back alleys—it's a way of life for millions of people. On a unique cultural tour run by G.A.P Adventures in Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso, you'll immerse yourself in the animistic beliefs and practices of Western Africa for a travel experience unlike any other.

On G.A.P's two-week "Voodoo Trail," you'll experience things few Westerners get the chance to, including divination ceremonies, visits with tribal royalty, and animal sacrifices. Starting in Togo's capital of Lome, tour a voodoo market and watch merchants selling ingredients to make love potions and other elixirs. In Ganvie, a Beninese village built on stilts in the middle of a lake, the local soothsayer demonstrates how he prophesizes the future. While in the Yoruba kingdom of Ketou, meet His Majesty the Oba (king) and his royal court, and witness the Dancing Masks of Egun, a ceremony in which cult members believe themselves to transform into their dead ancestors. At the fetish of Dankoli in the north of Benin, watch pilgrims pray and make sacrifices of goats and chickens to their god.

In the country of Burkina Faso, attend a storytelling competition in a Gurunsi village and watch elders test the young with riddles. Later, meet the shy Lobi people, whose men still carry bows and arrows and women wear lip disks. The trip ends in the rural capital of Ouagadougou, where locals perform a kind of street theater involving wooden masks and mythic themes.

Trip planning: In 2009, this trip departs September 26, November 14, and December 26. Prices include accommodations, some meals, activities, ground transportation, and guides. Some meals and airfare are extra. Late-September airfare from New York to Lome, Togo, and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, back to New York starts at $1,491, including taxes, through Orbitz.

Laos Multi Sport Provider: BikeHike Adventures Length: 13 days Price: $2,299

With only 10% the population of Thailand and Vietnam and far fewer visitors, the little-known Southeast Asian country of Laos remains both wilder and far less touristy than its more popular neighbors. The landlocked nation has no beaches or worldly metropolises—a downfall for a certain segment of travelers—but that means it's easier for those who do come to enjoy what Laos does offer: some of Asia's most authentic cultural and natural experiences.

"Laos is still relatively untouched compared to Thailand and Vietnam, which is more appealing to many adventure travelers," says Trish Sare, director of BikeHike Adventures, which launches its first itinerary in Laos next year. "The people are still innocent [to mass tourism], so travelers get authentic experiences with the ethnic communities."

BikeHike's trip takes travelers to Laos' north, where you'll explore its remote hills and villages by foot, bike, and kayak. Around the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, you'll ride elephants and mountain bike to some of the area's many waterfalls and villages. "The local people are thrilled to see us, especially because we are on bicycles, and they ride up beside us all of the time," says Sare. "We often get invited into local homes to taste local delicacies."

Heading further north, you'll kayak down the Nam Ou River. "The Nam Ou River winds through the mountains and is covered in thick, lush forest," says Sare. "Life on the river is abundant with fishermen in small wooden boats, women washing clothes, and happy children playing in the river. There are many great opportunities along the river for interaction with the local people." On several treks to visit hill tribes like the Hmong and Khamu minorities, you'll stay in homes with locals and learn about their farming practices, religious beliefs, and family life.

Trip planning: Departures include January 18, February 15, March 29, April 19, May 17, September 6, October 11, and November 22. Rates cover accommodations, most meals, ground transportation, activities and equipment, and guides. Airfare is extra. Round-trip April airfare from Los Angeles to Bangkok, Thailand starts at $1,066, including taxes, on Asiana Airlines. From Bangkok, you can fly to Luang Prabang for about $360 plus taxes on Bangkok Airways.

Family Desert Adventure in Copper Canyon, MexicoProvider: REI Adventures Length: Nine days Price: $1,999 ($1,699 for kids)

With its deep canyons, red and gold painted deserts, and fascinating Native American and Western culture, the American Southwest has long been a popular destination. However, few Americans realize that this landscape and a similar culture extends across the border and deep into Mexico, where it gets even more interesting. Even fewer people actually visit. If you go to the heart of Mexico's wild northwest, Copper Canyon, you'll discover a sprawling canyon system four times larger than the Grand Canyon, a Native Mexican culture still practicing ancient traditions which were long abandoned by Native Americans, and few trappings of mass tourism.

REI Adventures' new Copper Canyon trip, which was designed specifically with families in mind, showcases many of the region's highlights through a variety of activities. The journey begins with a train trip into the canyon on the famous Chihuahua al Pacifico line. "'El Chepe' is an awe-inspiring rail journey over bridges, through tunnels, and incredible canyon scenery," says Maureen Seeley of REI Adventures. "In less than 180 miles we gain nearly 8,000 feet while passing through coastal shrub, pine forest, and high desert."

Inside the canyon area—which is composed of not one but six separate gorges—you'll ride on horseback to a waterfall, hike along the rim of Urique Canyon (which is more than a mile deep), and go mountain biking through white rock pinnacles known as the Valley of the Monks. You'll also have the chance to interact with the native people. "The cultural experience is that of the indigenous Tarahumara tribe who still practice a traditional lifestyle, inhabiting natural shelters such as caves or cliff overhangs, as well as small cabins of wood or stone," says Seeley. "We take the opportunity to visit a local boarding school for a brief look into the lives of modern day Tarahumaran kids."

Trip planning: Departures include June 27, July 18, and August 1. The trip price is $1,999 ($1,699 for children ages eight to 17) for REI members; nonmembers pay $2,249. If you're not already a member it's worthwhile to get a lifetime membership as it only costs $20. Prices include accommodations, meals, activities, ground transportation, and guides. Airfare is extra. Late-June airfare from Los Angeles to Los Mochis, and Chihuahua, back to Los Angeles starts at $706, including taxes, through Orbitz.

Stay at the Only Lodge in Kenai Fjords National Park Provider: Alaska Wildland Adventures Length: Four days Price: $1,275

With its massive tidewater glaciers that tumble into the sea and mile-deep fjords cruised by porpoises and whales, Kenai Fjords National Park is one of Alaska's most popular wilderness areas. However, most people only spend a few hours in the park—often visiting by boat and never even setting foot on land. The main reason: the majority of visitors have to stay a boat ride away in Seward, as park accommodations have been limited to four rustic cabins maintained by the park service.

That will change this spring when veteran Alaska outfitter Alaska Wildland Adventures opens Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, the first and only lodge in Kenai Fjords National Park. Together with the Native people that own the land on which the lodge was built, Alaska Wildland Adventures overcame the challenges of building comfortable, eco-friendly accommodations in a spruce forest on a remote boat-access-only lagoon. Thanks to their efforts, guests will be able to easily explore this remote locale without compromising comfort.

"The seacoast offers miles of pristine pebble beachfront for strolling, framed against the spectacular backdrop of Pedersen Glacier," says Marketing Director Heather Dudick. "Otters and seals are often visible amid the sparkling glacial ice of the lagoon, while black bears are often seen—from a safe distance—lounging around in grassy meadows. The Kenai Mountains, rising up from the sea, are home to nimble Dall sheep and mountain goats."

A trip to the lodge begins with a marine wildlife and glacier cruise from Seward that brings you upclose to the park's fjords and tidewater glaciers. While at the lodge, you'll work with guides to plan daily activities suitable to your abilities, like guided hiking, sea kayaking, and coastal explorations by motorized skiff. You might go on a full-day trek one day and then take a relaxing wildlife boat cruise to see whales and sea birds the next. In the evenings, listen to local experts give interpretive presentations or peruse the lodge's natural history library. Stay in a private heated cabin and enjoy hearty gourmet meals in the lodge dining room.

Trip planning: This trip can be arranged most dates between May 31 and September 10. Prices include accommodations, water taxi transfers from Seward, all meals, activities, and guides. Some optional activities, alcohol, and airfare are extra. Round-trip July airfare from Seattle to Anchorage, starts at $503, including taxes, through Continental. From Anchorage you can rent a car and drive three hours to Seward, where you'll depart via small boat cruise to the lodge.

India Wildlife Safari: Leopards, Tigers, and BearsProvider: Wild Planet Adventures Length: 19 days Price: $7,598

Anyone who's ever read Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book can tell you that Africa isn't the only place in world where you can go on safari to see big game animals. Home to rare species such as Bengal tigers, Indian rhinos, red pandas, and clouded leopards, India is a top destination for wildlife lovers. And now, seeing these sometimes elusive species just got a whole lot easier thanks to a new India itinerary launched by Wild Planet Adventures (WPA), a wildlife specialist known for going to extraordinary lengths to give its clients the best and most unique wildlife viewing experiences possible.

"[In India] we don't just visit one or even two national parks, but rather five separate parks and wildlife areas," says Company Director Josh Cohen. "We've chosen these areas because they are either the single best place in India to see certain animals or, when put together, they allow the traveler to be exposed to a wider variety of ecosystems than other tours, and therefore a wider variety of wildlife."

The first stop on this cross-country adventure is Siana in northwest India, where you'll ride in jeeps and on camel back to spot leopards, striped hyenas, and other predators. In the desert oasis of Bharatpur near Delhi, you can see 400 bird species and mammals like golden jackals, jungle cats, and wild boars. Heading south to Kanha National Park, the setting for The Jungle Book, elephants will carry you through forest and grasslands to catch a glimpse of Bengal tigers, sloth bears, and, if you're lucky, the chausingha, an elusive four-horned antelope. To get to the last two parks you'll fly east to the remote state of Assam. Here WPA is the only tour company to offer a raft safari in Nameri National Park, which provides great views of animals that gather at the water's edge to drink, including black bears, elephants, and Indian bison. The trip is capped off with a rhino safari in Kaziranga National Park, where you can watch water buffalo, Gangetic dolphins, and, of course, rhinos.

Trip planning: Departure dates include December 20, 2008, and January 19, February 16, March 16, April 6, November 2, and December 21, 2009. Rates cover all accommodations, meals, activities, guides, and domestic flights and ground transportation. Airfare is extra. Round-trip April airfare from Los Angeles to Delhi starts at $1,372, including taxes, on American.

Explore the Ancient Balkans in AlbaniaProvider: Mountain Travel Sobek Length: 12 days Price: $3,595

One of the best ways to feel like an explorer on vacation is to tag along with a real one. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, longtime pioneer of new adventure destinations Mountain Travel Sobek asked its top guides to create new trips exploring destinations they found intriguing. For his trip, company cofounder and trip leader John Yost chose the newly emerging Balkan destination of Albania."Tourism in this remote corner of the Mediterranean is in its infancy," says Yost. "It will inevitably grow and transform this raw gemstone into a finely polished jewel. I want to be there before that happens, to be on the cutting edge of adventure travel …."

Those willing to join Yost will discover little-known ancient ruins, ornate mosques and Orthodox churches, villages where day-to-day life has remained almost unchanged for centuries, and isolated mountains ripe for adventure.

After arriving in Saranda, Albania, via a ferry from the Greek island of Corfu, you'll explore Butrint National Park, which protects an ancient city that dates back to the 4th century B.C. You'll visit excavations on site which show the remains of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine societies. In the city of Gjirokastra, which is perched 1,000 feet above sea level between the Gjere Mountains and Drinos River, you'll see an Ottoman fortress and a 17th-century Sufi monastery still in operation, among other sites. Then, you'll spend five days walking in the Albanian countryside, following a footpath hiked by the English poet Lord Byron for part of the way. You'll pass through Fausta Antigonese (where a battle between King Philip of Macedonia and the Romans took place), tour Byzantine churches, witness life in rural villages, and even stop for a dip in natural hot springs along the way.

Trip planning: Departures are scheduled for June 8 and September 20. Prices include accommodations, all meals, ground and boat transportation, sightseeing and activities, guides, and basic travel medical insurance. Airfare is extra. Round-trip June airfare from New York to the trip start point in Corfu, Greece, starts at $1,454, including taxes, on Olympic Airlines.

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