Wild kingdom in the South Atlantic
On a rocky beach, hundreds of thousands of noisy king penguins gather in a mosaic of black-and-white dots across grassy tussocks. Among them, fur seal pups bark, two-tonne elephant seals galumph into the surf, and albatrosses patrol the air past slate-grey cliffs and glaciers edging into the ocean.
Welcome to South Georgia Island, a 160-kilometre-long expanse of peaks rising out of the South Atlantic almost 2,100 kilometres east of Ushuaia, Argentina. “It’s a complete sensory overload,” says Eric Wehrmeister, a Lindblad videographer on the National Geographic Explorer, one of the few passenger ships that visit this remote isle. South Georgia was the promised land for shipwrecked explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew, who, a hundred years ago, sailed 1,290 kilometres across one of Earth’s most inhospitable seas in a lifeboat to get help at a whaling station located here.
This British Overseas Territory is still reachable only by ship, and the five-day cruise from Ushuaia is strenuous, with summer temperatures hovering around -6 °C . But brave it and you’ll see mountains no human has climbed, rare whales—such as fin-blue hybrids—and inquisitive waist-high penguins in one of the only places that remain as wild as they were when explorers were still filling in blank spots on the map. —Kate Siber
Next great adventure
The last remaining Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan is distant by most standards. Flying in requires a plane nimble enough to navigate around mountain peaks and land in Paro Valley, the main tourist hub, where the number of hotels has tripled over the past decade as the once isolated country opens to more visitors. Then there is eastern Bhutan. This far-flung region remains largely unexplored by tourists. But the arduous two-day journey there by 4×4 delivers many rewards.
“You are the first foreigner we have seen in 22 years,” exclaims a surprised monk welcoming an American trekker to his mist-shrouded outpost near Mongar. In Lhuntse village, women display their vibrantly hued silk wares to Bhutanese traders, who travel here from the capital city of Thimphu in search of precious kushutara textiles. Family homestays fill in for hotels, offering travellers a place to sleep and dine on traditional dishes, includingema datsi, spicy chillies and cheese, often served with red rice. This is Bhutan at its most welcoming—the perfect adventure combination. —Costas Christ
All hail this African queen
In a part of the world not given to small gestures and bland landscapes, Botswana’s Okavango Delta still manages to leap out as a singularly unlikely miracle. A massive fan of water that gets its start in rivers percolating out of the deciduous forests of Angola’s highlands, the delta evaporates 320 kilometres later in the sands of the Kalahari Desert. This wilderness is one of the last places to see the Big Five of the traditional African safari: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. It so nearly wasn’t.
By the 1900s, European and American hunters had killed almost all of the area’s elephants, without which crucial channels in the delta silt up. But in the decades that followed, conservationists reversed the near collapse of this exquisitely balanced ecosystem and, in June 2014, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. Still, the designation will be meaningless unless the Angolan and Namibian governments also ensure that the rivers feeding the delta are protected.
The romantic intimacy of the delta is best explored in a guided mokoro(dugout canoe). Experienced this way, the Okavango is Venice with wildlife. The flash of a malachite kingfisher, the mocking shout of hippos, the cry of a hadada ibis—each is a reminder that without wilderness we are diminished, lonelier. We humans are a part of, not apart from, our rich, rare, and fragile world. —Alexandra Fuller
Under-the-radar South America
Low-profile Uruguay has received attention recently, thanks in part to the unconventional ways of José Mujica, its president from 2010 to 2015, who lived in a ramshackle house on a dirt road and donated much of his salary to charity. The attention is deserved: South America’s second smallest country, dwarfed by surrounding giants Brazil and Argentina, is an oasis of stability.
A fashion-fixated international crowd flocks to the beaches, luxury lodgings, and arts scene in Punta del Este. To the east, wetlands stretch up the Atlantic coast to Brazil, notably the Bañados del Este Biosphere Reserve, home to more than a hundred bird species. Then there’s 17th-century Colonia del Sacramento, a World Heritage Site for the fusion of Spanish and Portuguese architecture in its old town.
Montevideo, where about half of the nation’s 3.3 million people live, is “the calmest capital city in Latin America, whether you’re strolling along the Plata River or ducking into a boutique museum,” says novelist and filmmaker Carolina De Robertis. Highlights here include the colonial Old Town and the costume-filled Museo del Carnaval.
Uruguay may never emerge from the shadows of its neighbours, but for a land where banknotes feature artists and writers instead of generals and admirals, that may be a good thing. —Wayne Bernhardson
Start spreading the news about this famous skyline
If you think you know America’s most visited city, you may want to take a second look. Over the past year, the tallest office building (One World Trade Center) and tallest residential building (432 Park Avenue) in the western hemisphere have topped out, at 1,776 feet and 1,396 feet respectively, part of a crop of bold new skyscrapers that are transforming the celebrated New York skyline. Public spaces, too, have been revitalised, from the waterfronts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to the High Line and the new Whitney Museum on the west side. The view from One World Trade Center’s 102nd floor observatory? Stunning. The view from a helicopter? Utterly surprising, revealing hidden nooks, rooftop gardens, and everyday activity made novel with a different perspective. The grey-brown metropolis becomes quilted with white in winter; in spring, pockets of colour bloom. You almost can hear Frank Sinatra belting out, “I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York.” —George Steinmetz