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Top 14 Trips for Once-in-a-Lifetime Experiences

Many travelers are looking for once-in-a-lifetime experiences after realizing the opportunity may not always be there. It’s being referred to as the “Greatest of All Trips,” aka GOAT. It’s all about that epic trip, checking things off a bucket list, or trying something you may not have considered before but are willing to do so now.

From getting so close to whales you can pet them to viewing the northern lights and venturing to remote corners of the Earth, consider booking one of these ultimate GOAT getaways.

Pet a Whale - Baja California Sur, Mexico Puerto Lopez Mateos, petting a gray whale
Credit: Puerto Lopez Mateos, petting a gray whale by © Izanbar - Dreamstime.com

Pet a Whale - Baja California Sur, Mexico

The gray whales that congregate in lagoons a couple of hours from La Paz (easily reached on a full-day tour with Baja Sur Tours) are famously known as the “Friendlies.” You’ve probably seen the videos and photos by now of people who visit them in the small boats called pangas. Some of the whales seem to seek out interaction, swimming directly to the boats and even bringing new calves with them, lifting them up as if to introduce them to humans while enjoying a nice head rub too. They can be seen between mid-January and mid-April before heading north to Alaska on their annual migration, but the optimal time is from mid-February through early March.

Swim with a Whale Shark - Palawan Island, Philippines Whale shark

Swim with a Whale Shark - Palawan Island, Philippines

There are multiple places where you can swim with whale sharks, including the Sea of Cortez near La Paz if you wanted to combine gray whale watching on the same trip. But, you might want to consider a vacation to Palawan Island in the Philippines. Not only is it surrounded by clear, warm aquamarine water where one can swim with whale sharks, but it boasts gorgeous lagoons, postcard-perfect beaches, and limestone cliffs.

Paddle Among Caimans After Dark in the Amazon - Yasuni National Park, Ecuador Caiman at night in the Ecuadoran Amazon
Credit: Caiman at night in the Ecuadoran Amazon by K.C. Dermody

Paddle Among Caimans After Dark in the Amazon - Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

To glimpse a unique culture sensitively and responsibly, and enjoy the opportunity to experience the lush Amazon rainforest and waterways where caimans and a wealth of wildlife can be spotted, consider a stay at an Ecuadoran eco-lodge in or near Yasuni National Park. Coca is a departure point, but your flight can be arranged to this remote area from Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. From there, you’ll head out in a canoe for a journey that will take you deep into the Amazon wilds. The lodges are run by indigenous tribes who help keep endangered traditions alive while providing an authentic insight into how people have lived here for centuries. It includes hikes into the jungle to view all sorts of wildlife like monkeys, parrots, and toucans. After dark, you can even paddle out into the water with your guide and spot everything from bats clinging to flooded tree stumps and caimans lurking in the shallow, swampy areas.

Go Waterfall Hopping - Iceland Skogafoss Waterfall in Iceland
Credit: Skogafoss Waterfall in Iceland by © Martinmark - Dreamstime.com

Go Waterfall Hopping - Iceland

A trip to Iceland is a bucket-list experience of its own, with the chance to experience some of the world’s greatest natural beauty, soak in hot springs, stroll black sand beaches, and more. The country is well-known for its many waterfalls, so what better way to enjoy a trip here than by waterfall-hopping? Along the stunning South Coast, one of the first major falls you’ll come to is Seljalandsfoss which plunges for over 200 feet – you can even walk behind the veil of water. Next up is Skogafoss, 82-feet-wide with a drop of 196 feet. Climb the stairs to view it from above then watch as its powerful cascade create a double rainbow on a sunny day. Gullfoss is right along the Golden Circle route, and if you head north, don’t miss Godafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods.” Kirkjufellsfoss is a one you’ve probably seen in images many times. Located on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, it has a dramatic Mount Kirkjufell backdrop.

See the Northern Lights from the Lofoten Islands - Norway Northern lights over Hamnoy village, Lofoten islands, Norway
Credit: Northern lights over Hamnoy village, Lofoten islands, Norway by © Narongsak Nagadhana - Dreamstime.com

See the Northern Lights from the Lofoten Islands - Norway

The Lofoten Islands in Norway have become world-famous for their breathtaking beauty and the area is also one of the best places on the planet for watching the northern lights with the magical colors reflected in the sea. Thanks to its location above the Arctic Circle, they can be seen anytime between September and March, but historically, March and October bring the greatest occurrence of solar activity. 

Hike the Inca Trail - Machu Picchu, Peru Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Peru
Credit: Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Peru by Bigstock.com

Hike the Inca Trail - Machu Picchu, Peru

The famous lost city of the Incas was unknown to most who lived outside the immediate area until Hiram Bingham’s discovery was published in the 1911 book Across South America. As Spanish colonists weren’t aware of its existence, much of the Incan architecture and design managed to remain well-preserved. While there are few who haven’t heard of it today, the site that features the often mist-enshrouded Huayna Picchu Mountain rising nearly 1,000 feet above stone ruins, terraces, and plazas is on most traveler’s bucket lists. For a life-changing experience, access it by an epic multi-day hike.

Sleep in a Haunted Castle - County Meath, Ireland Ross Castle
Credit: Ross Castle by ross-castle.com

Sleep in a Haunted Castle - County Meath, Ireland

If you’ve ever wanted to spend the night in an authentic, centuries-old castle, Ireland is the place to do it. Those who have an interest in the paranormal might want to consider a stay in one of the most haunted Irish castles available for overnights: Ross Castle. Built in 1563, it enjoys a secluded location on the shores of Lough Sheelin in County Meath. Not much has changed over the years and guests can even stay in the castle tower. Often referred to as a ghost hunter’s paradise, guests often mention waking up at various times during the night to the sounds of doors shutting on their own and the whispering of voices, even when no one else is there. A few have even felt the presence of something sitting right next to them in bed.

Antarctica Penguins in Antarctica
Credit: Penguins in Antarctica by Christopher Michel via Flickr

Antarctica

There are few adventurous travelers who don’t have Antarctica on their bucket lists. While getting there isn’t easy, it’s well worth the reward, with expedition cruises leaving from Ushuaia, the so-called end of the world in Argentine Patagonia. When you reach the waters of Orne Harbor you’ll be greeted by hundreds of squawking penguins, perhaps tending their young in a desolate landscape where iceberg peaks rise up to more than 300 feet out of the sea. Orca, humpback, minke whales, leopard and fur seals, cormorants, and albatross can all be spotted too.

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert - San Pedro de Atacama Milky Way in Atacama Desert, Chile
Credit: Milky Way in Atacama Desert, Chile by © Miguel Nunez - Dreamstime.com

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert - San Pedro de Atacama

The Atacama Desert spans over 41,000 miles and sits at 8,000 feet above sea level. One of the driest places in the world, it’s so harsh that humans are unable to inhabit it permanently, although that’s what draws so many scientists and adventurers. Astronomers come for its almost always cloud-free skies, with the dry air resulting in few distortions from atmosphere vapors. As such, there are observatories here like ALMA, the world’s largest radio telescope. The best way to explore it is with a local tour company or an all-inclusive hotel that offers tours.

Hear the Thundering Sounds of Iceberg Calving - Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska Margerie Glacier as seen on Glacier Bay Lodge's Glacier Tour
Credit: Margerie Glacier as seen on Glacier Bay Lodge's Glacier Tour by K.C. Dermody

Hear the Thundering Sounds of Iceberg Calving - Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Getting face-to-face with a glacier, witnessing the sight and thunderous sounds of iceberg calving is something everyone should experience at least once. Glacier National Park with its unrivaled scenic beauty and abundant wildlife is one of the best places to do it. A tour departing from Glacier Bay Lodge will put you surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks, turquoise water, and multiple glaciers, including Margerie, 250 feet high and nearly 21 miles long. Along the way, watch for everything from whales, sea lions, and sea otters to bald eagles, coastal brown bears, and mountain goats.

Take a Small-Ship Island Hopping Cruise - Croatia beautiful Korcula Island, the alleged birthplace of Marco Polo in Croatia
Credit: beautiful Korcula Island, the alleged birthplace of Marco Polo in Croatia by bigstock.com

Take a Small-Ship Island Hopping Cruise - Croatia

Croatia has become increasingly popular in recent years for its medieval cities, stunning scenery, and fine wine. It’s home to hundreds of island gems and a small-ship island-hopping cruise with Unforgettable Croatia is one of the best ways to experience it, with many bookended by two of its most popular cities, Dubrovnik and Split. Discover one of Europe’s most beautiful beaches on Brac Island, Zlati Rat, the historic landmarks and buzzing nightlife scene in Hvar, and wander through the storybook walled town of Korcula with its ramparts, gates, and towers. Mljet Island, about a third of which is covered by a national park, is home to dazzling emerald saltwater lakes. The options are practically endless.

Watch a Sunrise From Dune 45 - Namibia Sunrise at Dune 45, Namibia
Credit: Sunrise at Dune 45, Namibia by Bigstock.com

Watch a Sunrise From Dune 45 - Namibia

Namibia is renowned for its desert, with large swathes that are totally flat opening up the sky for incredible panoramic stargazing, but by visiting the famous giant sand dunes, Dune 45 in particular, you can catch one of the world’s most stunning sunrises. While it may not be the tallest in the Namib desert, it’s the favorite as visitors can climb the 262-tall-dune early in the morning to watch the sun come up. It’s a definite bucket-list experience that’s well worth the effort for the reward.

Bungee Jump - Queenstown, New Zealand Tourist braves the Ledge Bungy in Queensland
Credit: Tourist braves the Ledge Bungy in Queensland by bigstock.com

Bungee Jump - Queenstown, New Zealand

New Zealand is the country where bungee jumping was birthed, making it a must for thrill-seekers who want to try it for the first or the 100th time. You can do it from the Sky Tower in Auckland, but leaping from the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge where Kiwi AJ Hackett opened up the first commercial bungee jump is where you should really go. You’ll plummet more than 141 feet over the Kawarau River while enjoying the jaw-dropping mountain scenery the country is known for.

Witness the Mongolian Tradition of Hunting with Eagles - Mongolia Golden Eagle Hunter teaches her young daughter in Western Mongolia
Credit: Golden Eagle Hunter teaches her young daughter in Western Mongolia by © Dimaberkut - Dreamstime.com

Witness the Mongolian Tradition of Hunting with Eagles - Mongolia

In the westernmost province of Mongolia, Bayan-Olgii, the age-old craft of hunting with eagles is still practiced by the Kazakh people, and witnessing it is one of the top experiences in the entire country. You could even tag along on a hunt, but that’s only for the very adventurous and fit. It’s no easy feat and must be done in the cold of winter, from late October to March, with snow cover providing the best backdrop for spotting prey. You can experience it an easier way by taking part in the Golden Eagle Festival just before the season begins in October in the cultural center of Olgii. Watch skilled hunters and eagles showcase their skills, with the most impressive and successful receiving awards for the challenging effort.

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