Adventure TravelsExtreme Vacations - Survival of the Fittest
It’s safe to say you’ve got high-end travel down to a science. You’ve danced on every table at Nikki Beach in St. Barth’s. You’re personally greeted by the doormen each time you sail through the lobby of Hôtel du Cap. You sit front row at every fashion show from New York to Paris to Milan, and can get last-minute reservations at Trois Mec with just a quick call. And while being pampered is fun and all, sometimes you crave excitement of a different variety: rough and rugged, adrenaline-fueled, extreme vacations.
Whether you’re scuba diving in Micronesia, trekking in Nepal or going full-out Bear Grylls in the Scottish Highlands with nothing but a backpack and a working knowledge of edible fungus, you love a good challenge. In fact, you thrive on instinct. Anyone can drink a fine bottle of Lafite and indulge in Beluga caviar. Not everyone can run a marathon in the Jordanian desert.
As they say, if you can’t take the heat… well, never mind. That just doesn’t apply to you.
TREKKING IN NEPAL
The Traveler: Darrell Hartman is a freelance writer based in New York. His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Town & Country, Afar, The Daily Beast and other publications. He is also co-founder of Jungles in Paris, a website devoted to geography and world culture.
The Place: Nar Phu, the Hidden Himalayan Valley
Tinkling yak bells, windblown empty spaces, staggering mountain peaks – the Himalayas are a world apart, and arguably the best place to walk among them is Nepal. Be advised, though: The storied Annapurna Circuit, a backpacker rite of passage since the ’70s, is now so popular that it’s being called the “Coca-Cola Circuit.” For true solitude and exclusivity, book a bespoke trek in neighboring Nar Phu Valley.
Once off-limits, this route has now been open to foreigners for a decade. It requires a special permit, which Epic Tomato – the upscale adventure company I went with – was only too happy to secure. The journey began with a time-saving helicopter ride from Kathmandu, followed by an evening of relaxed altitude acclimation in the hostelry town of Koto. Then upwards on foot, along a winding river gorge and onto a plateau studded with wind-bent junipers. Buddhist shrines and smoky teahouses mingled with swathes of stunning natural scenery. The final destination, Phu, is one of the highest and remotest towns on earth.
I slept in a top-notch sleeping bag and tent throughout the trip, and shouldered nothing more than my own small pack – hardy porters carried the rest, and the cook prepared fortifying meals of rice, fresh vegetables and lentil soup. The real indulgence here, pure and simple, is the place.
Motivations: I love mountains. I’d also just read Peter Matthiessens’s “The Snow Leopard,” which is set in Tibet, and I was totally mesmerized by the idea of these remote upper reaches that he depicts in the book – the Himalayas as high-altitude sanctuary, a place where the people and the landscape are integrated in this wonderful way. It seemed just about as far away from New York, where I live, as I could possibly get.
Challenge: The biggest challenge for me was the altitude. Hiking at 10,000–13,000 feet I got headaches and didn’t always sleep that well. Also, it was cold at night. But my guide from Epic Tomato, a seasoned mountaineer and Everest guide, addressed all these issues like a real pro. I should add that there are some narrow trails over deep gorges, but I don't have a huge problem with heights so these weren’t as much of a challenge for me as they might have been for others.
The Traveler: Maria is an NYC-based Upper East Side philanthropist, lawyer by trade and mother of three. A self-described matron who likes adventure, she’s anything but matronly to us with her passion for travel to unique places and lifelong love of scuba.
The Place: Truk, Micronesia
Never heard of Truk? Neither had our well-traveled staff until Maria let us in on the Holy Grail – a bucket list destination of hardcore scuba divers. This trip is nothing near luxurious, but rather defines remote adventure for a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Truk was the site of Operation Hailstone, a navy operative during February 1944, which intended to cripple supplies to the Japanese forces. There are dozens of ships that were sunk in the lagoon, abandoned and now used for wreck diving. It’s quite intense; there are small, confined places and old skulls throughout, along with some of the most beautiful wildlife. We stayed at the Blue Lagoon Resort and used their dive shop, aptly named the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop. We dove three days, three full tank dives (except the last day we did two because of dive table restrictions and flying), ranging from 60 to 130 feet. The further you descend, the less time you can stay on the dive. It lived up to its bucket list distinction.
Motivations: My children have been scuba diving on family vacations since they were young, even before they were technically allowed to dive, which at the time was the age of 12. As avid divers, our dive master knew we and our kids could handle it, so as young as 8–9 years old, they had tanks on their backs for what has developed into a lifelong love and reason for us to travel together. Truk, as I mentioned, is a dream destination for hardcore divers. This past year, we checked that one off for a memorable trip over the holidays.
Challenge: The biggest challenge for us was getting there and back. The itinerary was crazy from New York City. We took the nonstop Newark to Honolulu on United the day after Christmas this past year. We landed the same day in Honolulu because of the time change, and overnighted at the Trump Hotel because it was easy, and got on a plane the next day for another 12-hour, 4-stop flight to Truk (which is 15 hours ahead of NYC). We landed in Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia; Truk Lagoon is the name of where we dive and the reference all divers use. After an amazing three days, we then had the task of getting back. On New Year’s Day of 2014 at 11am we left, flew 11 hours with 3 stops on the way back, crossed the date line back to 2013 for 45 more minutes, celebrated a second New Year’s Eve and landed in Honolulu about 2am New Year’s Day, 9 hours in time before we left. Definitely took dedication to make the trip, but well worth it.
BEAR GRYLLS SURVIVAL ACADEMY, THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS
The Traveler: Gustavo is Managing Director at a major bank in Brazil, where he spends a significant amount of time during the year traveling for work. So where does one of Brazil’s most eligible bachelors go for vacation, besides visiting his many friends in New York? Naturally Scotland, with only a backpack to survive in the Scottish Highlands for a week.
The Place: The Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Sutherland is one of the most rugged and physically challenging terrains; this is not the comfort of Edinburgh or the cozy inns along the Whisky Trail. Mother Nature is in her full fury; you can experience four seasons in just one day.
This isn’t about adventure camping – here, camping is the equivalent of a five-star hotel compared to your Highlands accommodation. You’re led by former military types who are hardcore, and don’t allow crying – ever. As their course promises, you learn to fend for yourself, with self-defense and primal instinct training. And you get to learn how to build a fire, which is an invaluable survival skill. On food, don’t expect glamping. They start you out easy, with modest rations of what’s considered barely edible by gourmet standards. It’s all relative though. By the third day, you’re hunting and foraging for yourself, where I admit that we ate worms. I wish I could say they were tasty. By this point, you’re also building your own shelter and doing night navigation exercises. To say it’s intense is an understatement.
Motivations: I travel extensively for work, and I’m lucky to stay at high-end hotels like the Peninsula and the Four Seasons. I wanted to go somewhere where I could do something physically challenging, adventurous and clear my head. I’d never done anything like this before, but I loved it. I’m hooked, and am planning another trip with Bear Grylls.
Challenge: It’s both physically and mentally challenging to embark on a trip like this. The natural elements are tough; you’re never comfortable trudging chest-deep through rivers and futilely trying to stay warm in the freezing cold Scottish evenings. A pivotal point for me during the trip is when, after several days of treacherous conditions and physical challenges, I realized our guide, a former military guy like most of the Bear Grylls team, actually had a prosthetic leg. Definitely puts things in perspective and gets you motivated.
DEAD SEA ULTRA MARATHON, JORDAN
The Traveler: Andrejka works in finance at a major bank, having cut her teeth after Harvard at the Blackstone Group and for an investment group in Abu Dhabi. An avid runner who has several marathons under her belt, nowadays she navigates international travels from her home base in Texas with her young son.
The Place: The Dead Sea Ultra Marathon in Jordan. 50 kilometers? As if that wasn’t a challenge enough in even the most optimal terrain, drop it in the desert under the harsh, hot and dry conditions of what is the lowest point on earth. Its elevation, however, is not a reflection of how beautiful this area of the world is. For post-marathon celebrations, the Kempinski has a gorgeous resort in the area, where if you’re lucky, an oligarch or other royalty will arrange for a private fireworks show that you can watch as they explode over the Dead Sea with the twinkling lights of Israel in the near distance.
Motivations: I love to run; it’s the way that I have a chance to clear my head and challenge myself physically. At the time I ran the marathon, I was working in Abu Dhabi, which provided me the opportunity to travel to interesting place throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. The Jordan Ultra Marathon is arranged for charity, so the year I ran, it was for King Hussein’s Cancer Foundation.
Challenge: Well, besides training properly for a 50-kilometer run, running it in the desert means it’s even more important to stay hydrated. This wasn’t my first marathon, however, and surprisingly not my most challenging. I would say that Marathon des Sables in the Sahara dessert in Southern Morocco was tough. The Jordan Ultra Marathon was memorable though; it’s amazing what you can do when you set your mind to it.