If you've ever thumbed through the pages of an adventure catalog you've seen them. Tanned, healthy-looking folk leaning casually against some ancient temple, wearing Cheshire cat grins and brightly colored hand-woven caps bought in some mountain village whose mother country -- never mind the village -- you've never heard of.
The people in these photos are adventure travel professionals. They work for, or in some cases, own, companies whose job it is to ferret out the finest, most exotic, challenging, cocktail party-worthy places in the world. Bring up Katmandu, and they'll stifle yawns.
Tell them about the giant boiling lakes of Dominica, and their eyebrows will remain firmly in place. They are, in short, the most ++ worldly, critical, informed, interesting, maddeningly fortunate of travelers.
We recently managed to track down several of these lucky souls and ask them a simple question. If you had one place in the world to spend a vacation, where would it be? We held our panel to just one rule: They weren't allowed to mention any destination served by their companies. Here's what they came up with:
Richard Bangs, president, Sobek Expeditions. Lifetime miles traveled: 1.8 million. Choice: Mauritius.
He says: "When I'm in Africa or Madagascar, I catch a flight east across the Indian Ocean to the island of Mauritius, which French poet Paul-Jean Toulet called 'the Garden which some God chose to rest on the sea.'
"The island is about the size and shape of Manhattan and would look a lot like it -- if Manhattan were bounded by one of the largest unbroken coral reefs in the world, packed with dramatic volcanoes, dripping in rain forest and governed by a people foresighted enough to carefully control tourism. I usually bunk at the Royal Palm Hotel in Grand Bay, a nice place with a beach for a front lawn. From there, I can stroll through the casuarina groves, swim in a perfect lagoon and never see another soul."
Marybeth Bond, director of public relations, Overseas Adventure Travel. Lifetime miles traveled: 819,000. Choice: Banff-to-Jasper highway, Alberta, Canada.
Her comments: "We fly into Calgary, hop the public bus into Banff, rent a car and start driving the 175 miles northwest to Jasper. It really doesn't matter where we end up, as long as it's in the mountains. We'll pitch our tent beneath the overhanging glacier at Kicking Horse Campground in Yoho National Park, or on the Columbia Icefields, or maybe stay a night or two in Banff, probably the only town in the world where elk are a traffic problem.
"But the nice thing about the Canadian Rockies is that getting in the back country is so easy -- you don't have to plan six months in advance like in Yosemite. Last time I was there, with my husband and 3-year-old daughter, we turned off the highway 20 miles south of Jasper and came upon Mount Edith Cavell, an 11,000-foot peak. We started hiking for the top early in the morning, and as the day warmed up, we could hear chunks of glacier fall down the valley beneath us. It sounded pretty, almost like music."
Leo Le Bon, honorary director, Mountain Travel. Lifetime miles traveled: "After 30 years, I cannot even begin to guess." Choice: Falkland Islands.
He says: "The toughest thing might be getting there. Since Argentina's boycott of the Falklands includes all travel, I catch the 18-hour Royal Air Force flight from London to the Falklands capital of Port Stanley, then take an island-hopper over to West Point Island, one of more than 400 islands in the archipelago.
"But however long it takes, it's worth it. The islands are beautifully desolate -- no trees grow there, you know -- there's a great abundance of penguins, albatross and sea lions. I stay at a cottage owned by Roddy Napier, a sheep-farming Brit whose grandfather settled here in 1820. Roddy and his wife rent a
four-person cottage for about $40 a night and can cook up a good 2-inch-thick mutton chop on occasion.
"Though the war has changed things in the Falklands, not everything has changed for the worse. I saw several beautiful beaches, fenced off to the public because of land mines, that had been resettled by Magellan penguins. These birds, it seems, are too light to trigger the land mines, and seem to enjoy themselves immensely."
Al Read, senior vice president, InnerAsia Expeditions. Lifetime miles traveled: 1.2 million. Choice: Chamonix, France.
His comments: "I fly into Geneva, Switzerland, then drive or take a bus a couple of hours to Chamonix. Thankfully, I don't speak a word of French, which allows me to concentrate on the three reasons I am there: adrenalin, wine and food. The adrenalin is hard to miss because Chamonix is perhaps the world's largest concentration of skiers, climbers and thrill-seekers. You can look up at any given moment and see a dozen hang gliders leaping off Mount Blanc, a dozen skiers parasailing off the other peaks. I find adrenalin in off-piste skiing [venturing beyond the normal bounds of a ski area, normally prohibited in the States, but popular in Chamonix], which can get pretty hairy with all the crevasses and avalanches. The wine and the food, though, taste a lot better afterward."