As of this month, we’ve been travelling together for 20 years! To celebrate, we’re sharing 20 unique travel experiences we’ve had — and they are (almost) all ones you can try yourself.
What will you find in our guide to unique travel experiences?
2. Unique Travel Experiences in Europe →
3. Unique Travel Experiences in the Middle East →
4. Unique Travel Experiences in North America →
People ALWAYS ask us about our favourite country, or the best city for travel, or where to find the best beaches. We decided, after 20 years, that it was high time to put our favourite travel destinations on the blog, so you can start making plans for your adventures.
But, when we sat down to brainstorm for this post, we really struggled. It turns out that making a list of favourite travel destinations is hard. After coming up blank for a while, we finally figured out why.
Travel is not about destinations. It’s about experiences.
When we think back on our travels, we don’t talk about how amazing such and such a country was, we remember moments.
“Hey, remember that time you jumped off a 30-foot rock arch in Sardinia? Remember when we met those girls in China who had never seen a foreigner before? Remember feeding peanuts to monkeys on the highway in Indonesia?”
Travel is not a series of glamorous hotels and beautiful beaches, it’s not a collection of pins on a map — travel is a series of memorable moments, all piled up into one long story.
Just like life, come to think of it!.
20 Unique Travel Experiences (That You Can Have Too!)
Unique Travel Experiences in Asia
1. Partying with Panda Bears
2013 – Chengdu, China
If you find yourself in China, don’t miss a trip to Chengdu’s Giant Panda Research Base. To be honest, on the way there, I was a little nervous. Would it be like the zoos back home, where sad-looking animals are trapped in too-small cages? Would the pandas be forced to perform for us, to act like entertainers?
We were surprised to find wide open enclosures where pandas could hide behind lush fans of bamboo if they chose. We were encouraged to be as quiet as possible and groups were separated to keep the noise to a minimum.
It was a little depressing to learn about the plight of wild pandas. But it was also an absolute thrill to be that close to real live giant panda bears and to learn more about the rescue and breeding program at the centre. It’s still our most amazing animal travel experience.
To get closer to Giant Pandas, try the Chengdu Panda Keeper Experience at Dujiangyan Panda Center. You’ll put in some volunteer work, like cleaning out enclosures and you’ll also get to feed and take a photo with these incredible creatures.
We still remember the adorable baby pandas playing in the nursery!
Visit Chengdu if you love panda bears.
Travel next to the big Buddha in Leshan, a Yangtze cruise from Chongqing, or hop on a cheap flight to Hong Kong.
(Don’t miss: Our 15 Reasons to Travel Slowly + How to Do It) →
2. Cycling All the Way to Heaven
2014 – Annamite Mountains, Vietnam
We climbed many mountains on our two-year cycling trip. The biggest and the most beautiful were the Annamites in northwestern Vietnam.
We cycled almost empty roads through tiny mountain villages where people lived in bamboo huts and wore traditional tribal costumes. After hours of ascent, we finally summited the infamous Pha Din pass, where Earth meeets Heaven. The descent was just as heavenly, taking us into valleys bursting with rice fields so green we couldn’t believe our eyes.
We still remember seeing a man emerge fully formed from a bank of earth. Really!
Visit the Annamites for a taste of untouristed, rural Vietnam. Don’t bother unless you can go by bicycle or motorbike.
Travel next to northern Laos or head north into China.
(Don’t miss: Your guide to the world’s best eco retreats) →
3. Mutiny on the Nam Ou River
2014 – Laos
When our overcrowded slow boat from the tiny town of Muang Khua to the tiny town of Nong Khiaw sprung a massive leak and almost sank, the captain had a mutiny on his hands. Though he managed to beach us before much more than our feet got wet, the 20-or-so now-stranded tourists refused to board again.
We demanded that he arrange for a second boat to haul half of us. Since that would mean the captain had to split his day’s earnings, he flat-out refused. We eventually came to an agreement, another boat came, and we were saved!
We still remember the captain trying to “fix” the boat by adding rocks under the floorboards to raise them!
Visit northern Laos for laid-back lazy villages and friendly local culture.
Travel next to Luang Prabang, one of the most romantic cities in the world.
4. Midnight Swimming in a Magical Sea
2014 – Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia
As if the island of Koh Ta Kiev in Cambodia — without running water, power, or any building more permanent than a bamboo hut — wasn’t already magical enough… we were thrilled to discover that the sea is phosphorescent!
Though it was, admittedly, a little freaky wading into the inky black ocean, once the water started to glow and sparkle at our touch, we were mesmerized.
Don’t miss our Cambodia itineraries which will help you plan a Cambodia trip suited to your travel style.
We still remember feeling like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as the water sparkled at our touch.
Visit Koh Ta Kiev for your own personal “stranded on a desert island” experience.
Travel next to the charming river city of Kampot.
5. Shaken & Stirred on the State Bus
2016 – Tamil Nadu, India
Sometimes travel experiences don’t have to be fun to count as our favourites. In fact, discomfort can make a travel experience even more memorable.
Such was the experience of travelling Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, by local bus. There’s no better way to become immersed in a local culture than boarding the public bus system. Talk about a crazy travel experience!
In India, we were rattled, shaken and almost broken by some of our bus rides. But we also got to discover what normal people eat, do to pass the time, and even where they pee during a long bus ride!
Find out more about our crazy bus journeys in Tamil Nadu.
We still remember snacking on a delicious bag of roasted peanuts with curry leaves from one of the many food vendors that ply their trade on Tamil Nadu’s busy bus routes.
Visit Tamil Nadu for a taste of India without the intensity of the north.
6. Exploring Inner Space
2016 – Ulpotha, Sri Lanka
We’re not really yoga retreat people, even though we love to do yoga. So we’d never been to a yoga retreat until Stephen was invited to teach at Ulpotha, an idyllic retreat in the jungles of central Sri Lanka.
There’s a lot to be said for withdrawing from the world, living outdoors, eating fresh cooked vegetarian meals, and practicing yoga twice a day.
We loved it so much, we hope to run our own retreat before another year goes by. Stay tuned.
We still remember waking up to the sound of monkeys jumping on the roof of our one-walled hut.
Visit Sri Lanka for all of our 19 top reasons to visit Sri Lanka.
Travel next to the Maldives, just a cheap flight from Sri Lanka.
7. Sailing to Our 51st Country!
2017 – Singapore
It was thrilling to realize, as we sailed on the ferry from Batam, Indonesia to Singapore that we would be getting off the boat in our 51st country. Arriving in a new country is always a special experience because everything changes in an instant.
Suddenly there is new food, new money, a new language and new customs. Singapore is such an iconic city that we couldn’t wait to get our first taste. Unfortunately, we only had a few hours to explore… we’ll have to go back soon.
We still remember it like it was just a few weeks ago!
Visit Singapore for amazing architecture and the world’s best shopping malls.
Travel next on a flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
Unique Travel Experiences in Europe
8. Getting Locked Inside an Ancient Monument
1997 – Pompeii, Italy
We were so enraptured by the dramatic history of Pompeii that we spent the entire day wandering its cobbled lanes and decrepit villas. I guess people don’t usually spend that long at Pompeii because nobody had told us what time the site would close.
When we finally returned to the entrance, well after dark, we discovered a locked gate, with us on the inside! We were just starting to imagine a cold night cuddled up with packs of wild dogs, when the night guard found us.
We still remember climbing into a closed villa to get a closer look at a vibrant fresco.
Visit Pompeii for history so palpable you get lost in it.
Travel next to the Amalfi Coast, Sicily, or Italy’s wonderful hill towns.
9. Ski Bumming in the Alps
1998 – Chamonix, France
Even in the late 1990s, a few thousand dollars didn’t go very far. After four months of backpacking, we had almost burned through our meagre savings.
While I went to Geneva to learn French (fail!), Stephen stayed in Chamonix to become a ski bum (obviously the better choice). After getting fired from his job in a ski shop (he couldn’t handle the technical terms in French), he became a bartender at a café part way up the mountain. He didn’t earn much but it was just enough to get him through one awesome ski season.
We still remember Stephen being airlifted off of Mont Blanc after dislocating his shoulder.
Visit Chamonix for stylish ski bumming.
Travel next to Geneva, Nice, or take a trip to Turin, our favourite Italian city.
10. Road Trip on the World’s Longest Beach
2001 – Portugal
It might not technically be the longest in the world but Portugal’s west coast is one endless stretch of perfect sandy beach. We spent several weeks driving and camping from Porto to Sagres. A perfect, blissful budget holiday.
We still remember endless trails of giant ants on the sandy forest floor.
Visit Portugal for beautiful beaches at a budget price.
Travel next to Lisbon to sample all the amazing food.
11. Fishing Under the Midnight Sun
2003 – Sortland, Norway
Back when we still occasionally ate fish, we were lucky enough to be invited out on a friend’s boat for a midnight fishing expedition.
It was late June and as the sun dipped down towards the horizon, our sleepy eyelids followed. For a just a moment, the sun hid below the horizon — and then popped right back up again.
As the sun came up, shortly after midnight, we felt re-energized as though we’d had a full night’s sleep. Being out on a boat under the midnight sun is very high on our list of best travel experiences.
We still remember our friend’s mom covered in blood as she gutted dozens of fresh fish.
Visit Northern Norway for 24-hour daylight and perfect, untouched coastline.
12. Free Camping Across the World’s Largest Archipelago
2013 – Archipelago Sea, Finland
Did you know that Finland has around 179,000 islands? No? Neither did we until we were cycling through the country and some local friends suggested we cycle the Finnish Archipelago. It became one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever had.
Finland has the “freedom to roam”, which means you can legally camp anywhere as long as you’re a reasonable distance from any building. With a system of free ferries connecting the main islands of the archipelago, we were able to cycle all the way from Turku to Åland, with food as our only expense. It was a truly idyllic summer travel experience!
We still remember bathing in lakes while living outdoors for weeks on end.
Visit the Finnish Archipelago for pristine islands and perfect lakes.
Travel next to Sweden by ferry from the Åland Islands.
(Related: If you want to explore Finland, check out this ultimate travel guide) →
13. Outdoor Adventures in Vampire Country
2017 – Transylvania, Romania
Transylvania has has many cultural and historical attractions, including some legendary castles, but we fell in love with its beautiful landscape.
Just outside Sibiu, we hiked up the snowy crest of Paltinis in early spring. Then we tackled the steep hillside that overlooks Brasov. Finally, we cycled for a day through the villages near Biertan, getting to experience what small town life in Romania.
Find out more about our cycling day trip in Transylvania.
We still remember eating a picnic lunch in the shelter of a sheep hut at the top of Paltinis.
Visit Romania for a slower pace of life and the great outdoors.
Travel next to the fabulous cities of Sofia and Plovdiv, in Bulgaria.
Unique Travel Experiences in the Middle East
14. Daredevil Driving in North Africa
2006 – Morocco
Between our life in London and our life in LA, we took a few months to travel through North Africa and the Middle East. Despite all the warnings about how dangerous driving in Morocco could be, and despite never having been to Africa before, we decided to rent a car and tour the country.
With hay trucks wider than the road, police check points every 50 km, completely chaotic traffic in Casablanca, and losing our passports in Chefchaouen, it became one epic road trip and fuelled our taste for adventure.
We still remember arriving at the Sahara only to find pouring rain and a flood so treacherous it had completely wiped out much of the town of Merzouga.
Visit Morocco for exotic sights and spices.
Travel next to experience the Canary Islands or take a ferry to Spain.
(Don’t miss: Our guide to cycling in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco) →
15. Sleeping Under a Blanket of Stars
2006 – Wadi Rum, Jordan
There have only been a handful of times when we’ve seen the night sky completely unadulterated by city lights. A couple of those were on our Intrepid Travel tour of the Middle East.
Only once have we slept in the open air, gazing up at the heavens so dense with stars that they formed an extra blanket for our sleepy heads. Waking up to the glorious sunrise over Wadi Rum’s pink sands was one of the best travel experiences of our lives.
We still remember the chicken and potatoes our guides roasted under the sand that night (nope, we didn’t eat the chicken but we did have potatoes!).
Visit Jordan for spectacular sand dunes and the drama of Petra.
Travel next to hop on a cheap flight to Dubai or Istanbul, since you can’t travel safely to most of Jordan’s neighbours right now.
16. Time Travel to an Ancient Semitic City
2006 – Palmyra, Syria
We’re sorry to say, this is the one travel experience from our list that you won’t be able to replicate any time soon. Before Syria was ravaged by war, we were lucky enough to explore this incredibly welcoming country. George Bush had already declared them the axis of evil, but the people we met were warm, welcoming, funny, and very grateful to us for visiting their country.
The ancient city of Palmyra sparked our imaginations and we were pulled back to an age when an onion was exotic and the Silk Road cities were on the cutting edge of globalization.
We still remember meeting a small boy who could sell postcards in seven languages, even though he rarely went to school.
Visit Palmyria for… you can’t visit Palmyra right now but we hope soon you’ll be able to go again.
Unique Travel Experiences in North America
17. Mini-Break at the World’s Most Romantic Campground
1997 & 2015 – Saltspring Island, British Columbia, Canada
When our relationship was new, like a shiny, bright coin, we took our first overnight trip together to the most romantic campground in the world.
At Ruckle Point Provincial Park, the campsites are perched on the edge of a heavenly channel where you can watch ferries glide back and forth between Vancouver and The Gulf Islands. Walking on the beach is pure paradise.
We returned in 2015 and the site is just as perfect as it was 20 years ago. It’s possibly our favourite travel experience of all time!
We still remember a German tourist asking if we had a “heavy knife” he could borrow. It took us a few minutes to figure out that he needed an axe.
Visit Saltspring Island for getting back to nature in a truly beautiful setting.
Travel next to Galiano Island or the Cowichan Valley on awesome Vancouver Island.
18. Marvelling at Moon Bows in the High Desert
2008 – Joshua Tree, California, US
One of our favourite places on Earth feels like a completely different planet. Joshua Tree National Park never fails to take our breath away and the local people are a fascinating breed, accustomed to surviving in wide open spaces and a brutal climate.
One night, after Chris T-T and Frank Turner played a show at Pappy & Harriet’s bar in Pioneertown (you must go there!) we all returned to our hotel and saw a miracle in the sky. A complete white halo encircled the moon… it was our first (and only) moonbow sighting.
We still remember an incredible day guerrilla filming this music video in Joshua Tree (watch until the end to see my embarrassing cameo).
Visit the High Desert for a trip to another planet.
Travel next to LA, San Diego, Palm Springs, or take a road trip on Route 66.
19. Rainy Road Trip on the World’s Most Beautiful Coast
2014 – US Route 101 from Port Angeles, WA to Los Angeles, CA
This was my first solo trip, just after we had finished our 2-year bike trip. Travelling by car seemed ridiculously fast at the time, so I only drove 50-100 km per day, leaving plenty of time for exploring the natural beauty of the American Pacific Coast.
Unfortunately, it was October, when rain is almost constant, at least north of San Francisco. I was so grateful to have the shelter of my car and a budget that stretched to adorable small inns when it was too wet to camp.
I still remember the thunderous sound of a giant redwood falling in the forest in the middle of the night. I thought it was an explosion until somebody cleared up the mystery for me the next day.
Visit the Pacific Coast Highway for supreme ocean views, wonderful hikes, and giant trees.
Travel next to San Francisco or head inland to Yosemite.
20. Cycling Our Favourite Summer City
2015 – Vancouver, BC
We’ve cycled in hundreds of cities across the globe but there’s no cycling city quite as fantastic as Vancouver in the summer. The classic Stanley Park route is a must-do, as is a cycle trip to Wreck Beach (Stephen’s fav beach in the world)!.
If you’re heading out west, plan to get out on two wheels. Cycling in Vancouver is one of those travel experiences we hope to enjoy again and again.
Grab our cycling guide to our three favourite bike routes in Vancouver.
We still remember the pure joy of cycling home from Stanley Park in the dark after seeing a concert there.
Visit Vancouver for our 17 favourite travel experiences in Vancouver.
Travel next to fabulous Vancouver Island, of course! Or take a trip to Whistler.
After 20 years of travel we’ve learned so much about the world and about ourselves. But the biggest lesson we learned is that, when you travel, there’s always something new to learn.
We hope this post has inspired you to try some of the travel experiences we’ve enjoyed or to go out and make your own adventures!