Looking for an out-of-the-ordinary destination for your summer vacation? Check out these 10 top trips, hand-picked by National Geographic Traveler editors as the best of summer 2011. Where do you want to go this summer? Share your travel plans—real or ideal—below. (See more trip ideas.)
1. Muskoka Cottage Country, Ontario, Canada
Photograph by Randy Craig, Getty Images
In Eastern Canada, “cottage country” covers any lake destination within easy driving distance for a quick weekend getaway. Central Ontario’s Muskoka district is close to Toronto—about two hours north via Highways 400 and 11—while still offering an unplugged pace that’s a world away from Canada’s largest city. The 2,500-square-mile natural playground includes 8,699 miles of shoreline; 17 historic towns and villages; and countless waterfalls and lakes bordered by the granite peaks of Algonquin Provincial Park to the east and the 30,000 islands of Georgian Bay Islands National Park to the west. Spend the day paddleboarding on Muskoka Lake or exploring the Riverwalk and shops of Canada’s waterfall capital, Bracebridge. For an old-school family vacation, head north to Peninsula Lake’s Pow-Wow Point Lodge, a 91-year-old, all-inclusive resort featuring simple summer pleasures like campfires, canoeing, and volleyball. Plan an August visit to catch Algonquin Park’s educational Thursday evening wolf howls starring—weather-permitting—the reclusive, inhabitant, four-pawed chorus.
Pictured here: Colorful deck chairs invite lingering at Kahshe Lake in Muskoka, Ontario.
2. Patagonia, Argentina
Photograph by Michael Truelove
Follow winter to the Southern Andes to experience cool summer adventures on the world’s highest mountain range outside of Asia. Mid-June to late September resorts in Argentina's Patagonia region (accessible via direct flights from Buenos Aries) offer beginner-to-expert downhill terrain; deep, dry powder; open bowl, glacier and gladed tree skiing; and snowboarding. Patagonia’s comparatively lower altitudes (3,300 foot-base elevation at Cerro Catedral versus 7,349 feet at Las Lenas, Argentina’s largest ski area) help first-time visitors avoid high-altitude sickness. Stay at the Correntoso Lake & River Hotel to enjoy snowcapped Patagonian Andes and glacial Lake Nahuel Huapí views, transportation to nearby Cerro Bayo ski resort, and guided horseback and snowshoe treks through neighboring Nahuel Huapí National Park. Constructed of local stone and beech, the luxury resort delivers après ski pampering in its tranquil indoor pool, herbal hamman, and spa. For double-black diamond skiers, Adventure outfitter Andes Cross customizes small heli-ski and free-ride backcountry tours in the remote reaches of northern Patagonia between El Calafate and Bariloche.
Pictured here: A skier jumps off a rock on Cerro Catedral.
3. San Juan Islands, Washington
Photograph by Phil Schermeister, National Geographic
Summer in Washington’s San Juan Islands is all about the weather, whales, and water. The Olympic Peninsula’s rain shadow effect (basically, the mountains block rain-producing weather systems) produces dry, clear, comfortable days on the archipelago’s four named islands—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Hike in Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of San Juan for shore-based orca whale watching or join a Sea Quest kayak tour for a porpoise-level view. Ferry hop to Lopez for leisurely biking, then spend the night on Orcas at Turtleback Farm Inn, a bucolic working farm bordering the 1,576-acre Turtleback Mountain Preserve. The islands are accessible via direct 30-to-45-minute flight from Seattle, or choose the drive-on Washington State Ferry to travel along the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway. The route follows traditional Coast Salish tribal canoe channels via marine highway from Anacortes to San Juan, then continues as two separate driving tours on San Juan and Orcas. Ferries are packed in summer, so arrive early and stay patient, especially on the eastbound ride back to reality.
Pictured here: Sunset warms the San Juan Islands, connected with the Washington State mainland by ferries.
4. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Photograph by Bruce Kluckhohn, Getty Images
A pedestrian-and-pedal-friendly downtown and welcoming Midwestern vibe make it easy for first-time visitors to quickly feel at home in Minneapolis. Snow can fall here from October to April, so the arrival of warm weather launches a full throttle, June-August celebration of arts, music, and cultural festivals (check out the Minneapolis Aquatennial, July 16-24); farmers markets (17); and fan-friendly Minnesota Twins baseball (played downtown at Target Field—ranked the top sports stadium in North America by ESPN The Magazine). Survey the vibrant scene from the new CRAVE restaurant rooftop patio near the State Theatre, then grab a bike at the nearest Nice Ride Minnesota kiosk ($5 plus trip fees) and cruise all or part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, a 50-mile urban trail loop. With 22 city lakes and the mighty Mississippi, playing on, in or near the water always is an option. Indoor activities center on the city’s 57 museums and the 4.2 million-square-foot Mall of America housing 520 plus stores and Nickelodeon Universe, the nation’s largest indoor family theme park.
Pictured here: Fans cheer on the Minnesota Twins at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.
5. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Photograph by Alaska Stock Images/National Geographic
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is pure Alaska on the rocks. Glaciers cover 27 percent of this 3.2-million-acre marine wilderness, World Heritage site, and UNESCO Biosphere Preserve, home to humpback whales, harbor porpoises, moose, black and brown bears, mountain goats, and mountain peaks topping 15,000 feet. Mid-May to September, cruise past deep fjords, coastal forests, and the main attractions—seven active tidewater glaciers calving glaciers into the bay. Though most visitors see the park topside from cruise ships, locally owned park concessionaire Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks offers guided and unguided daylong kayak adventures, as well as multi-day rentals for experienced backcountry campers who want to explore the 700-plus miles of shoreline. Additional overnight options include Glacier Bay Lodge (the only lodging in the park) and the adjacent walk-in campground in Bartlett Cove, plus rustic inns, lodges, and cabins ten miles away in Gustavus, Glacier’s tiny gateway town. Located about 65 miles northwest of Juneau, Glacier Bay National Park is accessible only by cruise ship, tour boat, or seaplane, or, new for 2011, via the Monday and Wednesday (May-September) Alaska Marine Highway System ferry to Gustavus.
Pictured here: Icebergs calved from Reid Glacier dwarf a visitor to Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.
6. Cardiff, Wales
Photograph by Keith Morris, Alamy
Historically a city of castles and coal, Wales’s capital is emerging as a modern sports-entertainment destination. Summer action centers on Cardiff Bay, once the world’s largest coal-exporting port, now a 500-acre freshwater lake with eight miles of waterfront. Surrounding diversions, part of Europe’s largest waterfront development, include shopping and dining at Mermaid Quay, rafting and kayaking at Cardiff International White Water, and windsurfing and powerboating on the bay. Celebrate the August bank holiday weekend (August 27-29) at the Cardiff Harbour Festival featuring tall ships, free activities, and, new for 2011, the Breitling Wingwalkers aerobatic formation team. From Mermaid Quay, take an Aquabus or water taxi up the River Taff or bike along the Taff Trail to Cardiff’s compact city center. Signature sites here include the free National Museum Cardiff (closed Mondays), iconic Cardiff Castle (host of the Grand Medieval Melee, August 13-14, the 150-store St. David’s (named Global Retail Leisure International’s 2010 international shopping center of the year), and Millennium Stadium, site of several London 2012 Olympic Games soccer matches and the Brit Speedway Grand Prix, June 25.
Pictured here: Visitors to the Senedd building in Cardiff Bay can look down into the National Assembly for Wales's debating chamber.
7. Stockholm Archipelago, Sweden
Photograph by Frank Chmura, Alamy
Nearly 25,000 islands—only a thousand of them inhabited—make up Stockholm’s maritime “garden on the rocks.” The vast archipelago stretches more than 62 miles from north to south over emerald waters best explored via kayak, canoe, sailboat, or classic white ferry. Sweden’s allemansrätt (right of public access to land) makes it possible to roam freely throughout the verdant inner archipelago and the rocky outer reaches. In return for being responsible environmental stewards, travelers can picnic on sandy white beaches, camp on rocky islets, hike in pine forests, swim in secluded coves, and go ashore on any open space—all under a cobalt blue sky that, June through early July, doesn’t darken until 10 p.m. The closest island, Fjäderholmarna, is about a 25-minute ferry ride from the docks at Slussen, Stockholm’s public transportation hub, where you also can hop an eco-friendly bus, tram, or metro to connect to archipelago restaurants, museums, parks, and nature preserves. Lodging options include pastel wooden cottages in the village of Vaxholm, spartan youth hostels, quaint inns, and chartered yachts moored at the Royal Swedish Yacht Club’s historic marina in Sandhamn, site of Sandhamn Race Week, July 2-4.
Pictured here: A waterside café in Gräddö has picture-perfect views of the Stockholm Archipelago.
8. Azores, Portugal
Photograph by Günter Gräfenhain, Huber/SIME
A remote location—about a thousand miles west of continental Portugal—has helped limit tourist traffic and development in this unspoiled North Atlantic archipelago. The nine major islands—connected by ferry service in summer, are home to green volcanic mountains, mineral hot springs, hydrangea-covered hills, rambling vineyards, white-washed seaside towns, cobblestone lanes, and traditional Flemish and Moorish windmills. Terceira (“the lilac island”) is known for its weaving tradition and 50 brightly painted imperios (empires), ornate chapels of the Holy Spirit. São Miguel, the biggest island, includes Ponta Delgada (the Azores' largest city), secluded black and white sand beaches, and natural steam vent ovens at Furnas Lake where Portuguese cozido (stew) is cooked in earthen pots buried along the volcanic shoreline. Faial, named “the blue island” for its abundant hydrangeas and blue-trimmed homes, features numerous grottoes, caves, churches, and museums, as well as the bustling Horta marina, a popular stopover point for transatlantic yachtsmen. May to September is the island-wide festival season with numerous religious processions and cultural events celebrating patron saints, the sea, and the local whaling heritage.
Pictured here: Vacationers relax at a seawater swimming pool on Santa Maria, the southernmost island in the Azores.
9. Roatan, Honduras
Photograph by Ivan Pisarenko, Archivolatino/Redux
Located about 30 miles north of the Honduran mainland, this divers’ dream destination is encircled by a living coral reef, extending directly from the shore. The shallow-water, reef eco-system is teeming with tropical marine life, making the underwater pageantry easily accessible to snorkelers and novice divers. No longer a best-kept Caribbean secret, the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands is working—through the grassroots Roatan Marine Park—to promote sustainable growth by fostering a sense of environmental responsibility among locals and visitors. At the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences, located on the grounds of the all-inclusive Anthony’s Key Resort, guests can participate in government-sanctioned recreational and educational dolphin programs. Options include snorkeling with more than a dozen bottlenose dolphins; unstructured, small-group dolphin dives 60 feet below the surface; and a six-day Dolphin Scuba Camp for kids ages 5-14. For the ultimate Roatan retreat, book an over-the-water, thatched-roof cabana at the secluded Mango Creek Lodge in Port Royal harbor on the island’s less-traveled East End. Spend the morning fishing on the saltwater flats or kayaking through the mangrove canals, then float back to your cabana’s private deck for some afternoon hammock time.
Pictured here: A diver swims with Caribbean reef sharks in the waters off Roatan Island.
10. Istria, Croatia
Photograph by Huber/SIME
More than 40 beaches on Istria’s 333-mile coast have earned a coveted Blue Flag for superior water quality and environmental management standards. While not as familiar to North Americans as Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, this densely forested peninsula at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea has been a popular summer hot spot since Austro-Hungarian Empire days. Head west and south for crystalline blue bays, tranquil coves, and white pebble and sandy shores bordered by fragrant pines. The Medulin Riviera, located near Istria’s southern tip, offers 49 miles of coastline, plus hilltop medieval villages and ancient ruins to explore. Just south of Medulin is rugged Cape Kamenjak, an edge-of-the-world nature reserve featuring sheer 70-foot cliffs, hidden coves, and flat stone outcroppings nature-made for sunbathing. The current is powerful here, so you may want to play it safe and watch the windsurfing and cliff-jumping action from the safety of the rocky shore. Make time to visit the regional capital Pula, home of the Pula Arena. This remarkably intact first-century Roman amphitheatre hosts numerous summer concerts and events, including the July 16-23 portion of the 58th Pula Film Festival.
Pictured here: A beautiful day brings sunseekers to the beach in Umag, a town on the coast of Istria.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.