10 Adventure Vacations for Explorers of All Ages
You don’t have to be an adrenaline junkie to shake things up. These adventure vacations offer just the right amount of excitement for travelers of all ages and abilities.
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Adventure vacations are a true thrill
Even though I’m a fan of adventure vacations, I never saw myself as the rock-climbing type. (Full disclosure: I am afraid of heights.) But on a recent trip to Midcoast Maine, I knew I would regret missing out on a totally killer view if I didn’t at least try to climb the rocky cliffs outside Camden. After my very patient instructor hooked me into a harness, I put my foot in the first outcropping, braced myself and went for it.
About halfway up my beginner climb, my breathing started to slow, and I began to see finding my next foothold as a sort of game. But the best part was the feeling when I reached the little ledge where I could stand and look at the shimmering lake below, knowing I had accomplished something that I thought was off the table for me. King of the world, baby! That feeling is at the heart of adventure vacations, even when you’re not doing anything as extreme as rock climbing, and there’s nothing else like it.
What is an adventure vacation, exactly?
The U.S.-based Adventure Travel Trade Association, of which I am a member, defines adventure travel as any tourist activity that includes physical activity, cultural exchange and connection with outdoor activities and nature. But what it really boils down to is that exhilarating feeling of taking on a challenge and experiencing travel from a point of view you’ve never seen before—whether it’s looking back at land from the seat of a kayak, peering down through a snorkel or scuba mask over a coral garden or flying above a rainforest on a zip line—that makes you feel truly alive.
Some of my most memorable and awe-inspiring experiences happened during adventure vacations, such as the time a baby bear swam up beside my kayak as it crossed the lake to catch up with its mother. The best part is, you don’t have to be an adrenaline junkie or in the best shape of your life to have an adventure. There’s something for everyone.
How we chose the best adventure vacations
We selected the adventures on this list based on my experiences as an adventure travel writer. Indeed, my favorite trip is somewhere on this list! But because you shouldn’t just take my word for it (and I, unfortunately, haven’t been everywhere just yet), I consulted recommendations and rankings put together by other travel groups, guides and fellow adventurers, vetting the best places to travel with the help of online user reviews and ratings, to ensure that you find the best experiences. There’s something here for just about every type of person ready to shake up their vacations a bit.
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Best for families
Go rafting on California’s American River
One of the country’s most popular white-water-rafting spots is having a great year, thanks to record snowfall feeding its rushing rapids in Northern California. My family loved our half-day rafting trip on the South Fork with guide company OARS through exciting but beginner-friendly Class II and III rapids with names like Satan’s Cesspool, Barking Dog and Hospital Bar. While these names are dramatic, the experience here is more exciting than scary.
The best place to catch beginner and family-friendly tours is around the small Sierra Nevada gold-mining towns of Lotus and Coloma, an hour’s drive east of Sacramento, or an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe. Kids as young as 8 can make these trips, and there are hotels and campgrounds located right on the river if older kids want to sneak in some tubing as well. There are also Class IV rapids nearby, but those are best saved for experienced rafters who know how to handle being thrown off the raft and into rocky areas with very strong currents.
Best for bike enthusiasts
Cycle through Western Ireland
One of my favorite scenic drives on the planet is the 1,500-mile-long Wild Atlantic Way on Ireland’s west coast. Its winding, quiet roads, craggy coastline and friendly pubs serving great locally caught seafood should be on everyone’s adventure-vacation bucket list. If you’re used to biking 30 to 40 miles at a stretch, try challenging yourself to a group bike tour covering some of the coastal roads running north from County Cork in the south to Donegal in the north. Great places to stop along the way include the Dingle Peninsula, with its breathtaking views; Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher; Galway and rugged Connemara, with their lively pubs and fresh seafood; and the quaint town of Westport, known for its folk and bluegrass music scene.
There are many bike tour operators highly rated on Tripadvisor and recommended by my fellow travel writers that specialize in this area. Two standouts include Cycling Safaris and Wild Atlantic Cycling Tours.
Best for multigenerational travel groups
Get up close with polar bears in Manitoba, Canada
Kids and active grandparents will both appreciate a polar-bear-tracking tour in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area in northern Canada. And the time for this is in the fall, when thousands of polar bears migrate to the area. A train or short flight from Winnipeg gets visitors close to the tundra in Manitoba, on the shores of Hudson Bay. In addition to climbing aboard special tundra buggies to get right near the bears, you can go dog sledding and see the Northern Lights here.
Prefer to go during the summer? That’s not polar bear season, but it is when Churchill plays host to beluga whales migrating through the area, which can be seen up close on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Tour operators such as Frontiers North offer packages for families and senior travel in both seasons that get multiple generations excited but don’t have the trekking found in other adventure vacations.
Best for snorkelers
Snorkel in Belize
Home to the world’s second-largest barrier reef, not to mention a world-class beach, Belize is the place to go if you love snorkeling. Its offshore islands or cayes (pronounced keys) are home to nearly 500 species of fish and 50 species of coral. When I was there, I snorkeled with sea turtles, rays, puffers and damselfish, and I was even swarmed with black-tipped sharks in the crystal-blue shallow waters of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve near the white sands of Ambergris Caye. It was colorful and magical, and I wasn’t ready to take off my fins until I was totally exhausted.
The charming resorts on this island (and others such as Caye Caulker) are just a short commuter-plane ride from Belize City. If you are here longer than a few days, make sure to book the three-hour boat ride to the famous Blue Hole, a bright blue, 400-foot-deep sinkhole surrounded by coral that is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Best for hikers
Walk the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in Japan
Hiking is the most popular adventure activity, according to a 2023 survey by the Adventure Travel Trade Association. And at the top of the bucket-list trips for hiking is the famous Kumano Kodo on Japan’s Kii Peninsula. It’s one of only two UNESCO-registered pilgrimage trekking routes in the world (the other is Spain’s Camino de Santiago) and 50 miles of beauty you’ll never forget.
Starting in Osaka, travelers walk these forested ancient trails in the mountains, taking in Kumano’s waterfalls, active monasteries and bright-red torii, or gates that mark the entrances to sacred Shinto shrines. Along the way, you’ll spend the night in small inns or onsen (thermal hot spring resorts) on the way to Ise, Japan’s most important shrine, where Buddhism originated in the sixth century.
Walk Japan, one of several companies leading these treks, comes highly recommended, and its pilgrimage tours are guided by Western academics who live in Japan. To fully enjoy this adventure vacation, however, travelers must be comfortable hiking up to 9 miles per day, including some shorter uphill climbs.
Best for thrill-seekers
Rock climb in Utah
Rock climbing is exhilarating but a little terrifying, especially since you are dependent on the skill of the person controlling your rope and harness. A good way to ease into this sport is with a Via Ferrata course. These preset aerial paths, which run along steep rock faces or mountains, are made of steel cabling that you can clip your harness into and big rungs that you use as handholds. Adventurers simply ascend or descend the rungs as they would a ladder, with a guide leading the way. It’s a great way for hikers capable of going at least 2 miles to get closer to the waterfalls, red-rock formations and dramatic views found in the American Southwest, before rappelling back to reality a few hours later.
While Via Ferrata offers many excellent courses around the western United States, some of the best routes can be found in the red-rocked slot canyons near Utah’s Zion National Park. To start, check out Utah Adventure Center’s Above Zion Via Ferrata course or Roam Outdoor Adventure Co.’s Via Ferrata tour. Hotels or Airstreams near Kanab, Utah, put you close to the action.
Best for families with teens
Zip line the rainforest in Costa Rica
If your kids tend to complain as they hike, as mine often do, switch to an adventure in the sky. Few teens can resist a good zip line, and Costa Rica has some of the best, including Sky Trek at Arenal Volcano National Park, about 15 miles from the city of La Fortuna. A sky tram takes you up the mountain, and a series of seven zip lines run over the canopy and lake, eventually taking you back to base at speeds of up to 40 mph. The sudden stops might be hard for people with neck and back problems, and it’s probably too much for younger kids, but it’s definitely on my family’s bucket list and something many of my travel-writer friends recommend.
Best of all, after a day of zip lining, parents can enjoy a soak in one of La Fortuna’s many thermal pools at area resorts, including the Royal Corin Thermal Water Spa & Resort. Tripadvisor reviewers love this spot for its amazing hospitality, thermal pools and volcano views.
Best for those seeking a cultural adventure
Take a river safari in Fiji
Many travelers never make it past Natadola Beach on Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu. But for those seeking a real cultural adventure in addition to paradise views, this half-day jet boat tour is just the ticket. While speeding inland 17 kilometers up the Sigatoka River valley, you’ll learn about the island’s legends and history (including its cannibal past) and enjoy a few daredevil boat maneuvers. Then you’ll disembark at one of several local villages for a kava ceremony, traditional Fijian lovo lunch cooked over hot coals, and meke dancing before returning to the Coral Coast.
No, this isn’t a particularly physical adventure apart from the traditional dancing. But getting away from the resorts and hotels and into the heart of Fiji’s villages makes this a unique experience to remember.
Best for travelers with a physical disability
Take a wheelchair-accessible safari in South Africa
Many African safaris claim to be accessible when, in truth, they are better for people with limited mobility than those in wheelchairs. Not so with Ximuwu Lodge (pronounced Shi-mu-wu) in Greater Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa. For starters, the lodge, located a short flight from Eastgate airport outside Hoedspruit, or a six-hour drive from Johannesburg, offers wheelchair-accessible airport transfer vehicles. And the Land Rovers you’ll take to track the Big Five—including leopards, lions and elephants—have wheelchair-friendly slide-out seats on the side. Even its underground hides, or viewing areas, located close to prime animal-gathering places are wheelchair-accessible.
The lodge’s founder, Patrick Suverein, was once in a wheelchair himself. He designed the lodge, its spa and two of its rooms to be fully accessible, providing roll-in showers, adjustable beds and the hoist out by the infinity pool, so everyone could take advantage of the safari experience and this type of adventure vacation.
Best for adventurers who hate crowds
Kayak around Crete
Kayaking is one of my favorite ways to adventure. It gets people of varying mobility levels off the tour bus and into nature, giving them access to views, beaches and other hidden gems they might not otherwise see. High on my wish list for kayaking? The Greek island of Crete. Rather than dealing with cruise crowds in Chania on the north side of the island, I’d prefer to fly into Heraklion and pick up a kayak tour in Matala, going from village to village, stopping at unspoiled beaches, ancient Minoan ruins or cliff-diving spots before lingering over seafood at a local taverna.
I’ve already begun doing my research and plan on using an operator such as the Northwest Passage that runs group kayak trips between several villages in southern Crete with guides. Itineraries for these adventure vacations are moderate, with paddling for part of the day and hikes to Roman catacombs, cliff jumping or hanging out on local beaches for the remainder, until it’s time for dinner. Personally, I think this is the best way to take in a little ancient history in the Mediterranean without being packed in with the cruise crowds.
- The Adventure Travel Trade Association is the largest global network of adventure travel leaders, with more than 30,000 tour operators, advisors, tourism boards, outdoor educators and travel media.
- Move United, an affiliate of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, helps individuals of all abilities find recreation and sports activities across the country.
- Frommer’s publishes more than 350 travel guidebooks, in addition to operating a travel website and hosting a radio show.