For nature lovers, nothing’s better than travelling the world to see some of its natural wonders: amazing animals, beautiful birds, giant whales, spectacular forests. But it’s a big world out there — where do you find the best nature vacations?
It’s a good question, so drawing on my own travels and people like Lonely Planet and the World Wildlife Fund, I’ve come up with a list of what I consider the top destinations around the globe for wildlife lovers — and happily, most are great destinations for baby boomer travellers. So here they are, in reverse order: the world’s 10 best nature vacations.
10. Whale watching in Quebec
You can go whale watching in many parts of the world, but there’s one special place where you can see an amazing variety of whales without travelling to the ends of the earth. That’s the St. Lawrence River, near Quebec City in Canada. The deep waters of the St. Lawrence are feeding grounds for 13 different whale species during the summer, from the charismatic white belugas to the giant blue whale, the largest creature on earth.
The hot spot for whale watching is a town named Tadoussac, about three hour from Quebec City. The relatively small tour boats get you fairly close to the whales, though strict guidelines protect them from being harassed. In fact, you can often see the resident beluga whales from the river bank.
When to do it The whale season runs from May to October, but the action is hottest in August. Bring warm clothes: it gets cold out on the water.
9. Borneo, the land of the hornbill
The island of Borneo is one of the most exotic places on earth, and it’s home to some of the most exotic wildlife. The star of the show is the orang-utan, the solitary “man of the forest”, but Borneo is home to 222 mammals, including specialties like the tiny sun bear and mouse deer, plus the comical proboscis monkey, with its big belly and bulbous nose. It also has 420 bird species, including the iconic hornbill — the island’s poster bird — and other exotic creatures, like the monitor lizard.
Borneo is mostly owned by Indonesia and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. Wildlife tours are easy to book on both sides of the border; you can stay in a jungle lodge, take a boat tour, or visit the Borneo natives in their longhouses (see an account of my visit here). Orang-utans are hard to see in the wild, but you can see them at sanctuaries like the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre in Sarawak and the Sepilok Sanctuary in Sabah. But wherever you go, you’re walking one of the oldest rainforests in the world.
When to see it Borneo’s dry season is from June to September; however, it’s still possible to have a good visit during the fall and winter, since the rain is usually short-lived.
8. The brown bears of Alaska
The image of a huge brown bear snagging a writhing salmon out of the river, or sparring with a rival on a lush riverbank, is one of the most famous pictures in nature photography. And it’s a great show each summer as Alaska’s brown bears congregate to mate, fight and fatten up for the long winter. In early summer they take to the meadows to eat protein-rich plants, but in late summer things get serious as the salmon run brings a rich food source for them to feast on, turning the salmon’s fat into stores they can use during their hibernation.
It’s possible to see the bears on boat tours along the Alaskan coast, or in places like Kodiak Island. But the serious photographers go to places like the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, which has the highest concentration of bears. However, the more remote locations require you to fly in by float plane and do some strenuous hiking to reach the hot spots, and permits are required — book early since they’re limited.
When to see it You can go in June and July to see the bears interacting and feeding on plants and shellfish, or visit in August and September to see them fight over the fat salmon (though you might have to fight for a viewing spot too).
7. Polar bears and northern lights in Churchill
Churchill, Manitoba is the only place on earth where you can reliably see polar bears up close – sometimes within a few feet. Each fall many of the estimated 1,000 bears in the area gather here, on the shores of Hudson’s Bay, waiting to venture onto the sea ice for their winter seal hunting. (This is happening later these days due to global warming.)
Tour companies take wildlife watchers out to see them in huge tundra buggies, and the bears sometimes come right up to the windows (luckily, the tourists sit high above the ground). The area is also good for birdwatching, whale watching (in summer), and even for seeing the spectacular northern lights. Polar bears and the northern lights in one trip: what’s not to like?
When to see it Polar bears can be seen during the summer, but October and November are the best months to see them. Bring warm clothes, and book well ahead – the town gets very busy.
6. World-class birding in Costa Rica
To North American birders content with a couple of hundred bird species, Costa Rica is a revelation. The country boasts almost 800 resident or seasonal species, spread over an amazing variety of habitats — a birder’s dream. What’s more, it’s rich in colourful, exotic species such as toucans, parrots, caracaras, honey creepers, and the king of them all, the resplendent quetzal (seen here), with its long, emerald green train that flows behind it when it flies.
Different parts of the country offer different birding opportunities. There’s the humid Caribbean slope; the mountain towns (including the famous Monteverde, with its cloud forest); the dry forests of Guanacaste; and the area around the Osa Peninsula in the south. It’s easy to organize a birding trip that takes in several. And there are great eco-lodges, like Selva Verde on the Caribbean side, that cater to birders — and baby boomers. (Note: Panama, right next door, has a similar wealth of bird life, with less competition.)
When to see it Costa Rica’s dry season is from December to late April: the birding is great and the weather is hot. There are still lots of birds to see during summer rainy season too, if you don’t mind getting wet.
5. Looking for lemurs in Madagascar
This is truly one of the world’s natural treasures, and one of the world’s best nature vacations. Madagascar is home to about 200,000 species, 150,000 of which are found nowhere else. Places like Ranomafana National Park offer a good look at some of the island’s wildlife, including its famous lemurs: Madagascar has 60 lemur species. There are also 260 species of birds, including rarities like the Madagascar lovebird and Madagascar cuckoo-falcon.
The island is also famous for its amazing, colour-shifting chameleons and strange animals like the tomato frog, Madagascar flying fox and the cat-like fossa. Then there’s the plant life, which includes 1,000 species of orchids and the oddly shaped baobab trees. And it’s best to see it now: Madagascar’s wilderness has been under attack for decades, and may not be there forever unless serious changes are made,
When to see it Travel is best from June to December, the dry season, when baby lemurs are born and humpback whales visit the coastlines
4. The treasures of the Amazon
It’s hard to overlook a forest that touches eight countries and makes up 40 percent of South America. The Amazon is the world’s biggest rainforest and the lungs of the earth. It’s also a treasure house of plants, birds and animals that any wildlife lover should see. There are more than 400 animal species, including monkeys, sloths, capybaras, anteaters, poison dart frogs (seen here) and the king of the forest, the jaguar. For birders, there are 1,500 species, including a rainbow of parrots, like the beautiful scarlet macaws seen at top, and the almost extinct harpy eagle (though you likely won’t see that one).
Rainforest animals can be elusive, so it’s necessary to take a tour with an experienced guide if you want to really see the birds and animals of the Amazon. Many companies offer them, usually based from a jungle lodge. Many tours include a canoe trip on the river, which is a good way to see wildlife. Night walks are also good for seeing nocturnal species. Don’t forget the plant life: as well as 16,000 tree species, the Amazon is full of amazing plants, including the world’s biggest collection of orchids.
When to see it Weather varies across the rainforest, but the dry season runs roughly from July to November. However, you may see more wildlife in rainy season since there is more fruit.
3. The lost world of the Galapagos
As I found out in person this year, the Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s great places for viewing wildlife, much of which you won’t see anywhere else. Fur seals sleep on park benches, blue-footed boobies dive bomb the shorelines looking for fish, and the famous Galapagos penguins and marine iguanas are easily seen in some areas. There’s also the legendary giant tortoises, and the finches that inspired Charles Darwin to conceive his theory of evolution.
The Galapagos are also a great place if you like sea life. Most tours include snorkelling or scuba diving, and it’s easy to see sharks, rays, sea turtles and many varieties of fish. Most amazingly, the Galapagos wildlife is not afraid of humans, so it’s possible to get quite close to birds, animals and fish. Nesting birds let you walk right up, and sea lions famously join visitors for a swim. For more details, read my guide to the Galapagos.
When to see it Any time of year is good. December to May is warmer but wetter, and there’s lots of wildlife; June to November is cooler, but the colder water brings lots of fish and more seabirds.
2. Antarctica: wildlife at the end of the earth
Photos of the giant penguin colonies of Antarctica have almost become a cliché, but they’re just a hint of what the southern continent has to offer. The seas, shorelines and skies all yield an amazing variety of wildlife. Besides the six varieties of penguins, from tiny rockhoppers to huge emperors, there are six species of seals and lots of whales, including humpbacks, minke whales and orcas. Then there are the birds, from aggressive skuas to wandering albatrosses and giant petrels, with three-metre (10-foot) wingspans.
One of the best things about the Antarctic wildlife is that it’s pretty easy to see. Small-ship tours take you right up onto the beaches among the seal and penguin colonies. However, the penguins aren’t shy about swimming right up to large ships: I saw a lot of wildlife in four days on a full-sized Princess cruise ship. There are also yacht cruises, and I’ve even seen high-priced land expeditions advertised. Generally, the animals have little fear of humans – they must know how much we paid to get there.
When to see it Antarctic summer runs from November to March; it’s inaccessible in the southern winter. December and January are high season, but you may see more whales and penguin chicks in February and March
1. The great migration of the Serengeti Plains
Here it is, number one: the migration of the Serengeti, one of the great sights on planet earth. Four thousands of years, the great herds of the Serengeti have made an annual trek, following the rains from north to south in spring to find fresh grazing, and then back again in the fall. More than a million wildebeest, 200,000 zebras and many thousands of gazelles take part in what is the world’s biggest land migration. They’re followed by lions, cheetahs, leopards, jackals and other predators.
The migration winds through a number of parks and reserves in Tanzania and Kenya: the Serengeti boasts two World Heritage sites and two biosphere reserves. Some of the most dramatic sights occur when the animals cross crocodile-infested rivers (above). And each year 90,000 wildlife lovers come to see the show, many in the famous Serengeti National Park. Visitors can stay in the park, or drive in, and view the animals from Land Rovers or special vehicles.
When to see it From January to March the herds are in Tanzania, moving through the southern Serengeti before the spring rains. From August to October they are in the north, moving into southern Kenya. Either times is good for a visit.
There they are, my list of the world’s 10 best nature vacations. As usual, there are others that could certainly make the list, but there’s no arguing that any of these would be a great experience — the trip of a lifetime, for most people. Even if you manage one or two, it’s likely to stay with you forever.
We’re lucky to be able to visit these places and see these creatures, not least because they have managed to survive the onslaught of human development. And on the good side, our interest in them often generates income that keeps them from being lost. However, it’s important that we use them wisely. Make sure the tour companies you choose operate responsibly, so the next generation gets to see these treasures too.
Brown bear photo by United States Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons; Serengeti photo by Swanepoel at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons