The 10 best adventure holiday destinations

Thirty years ago – on November 12, 1988 – 28 people shuffled to the edge of a bridge outside Queenstown, New Zealand, and jumped. As they plunged towards the Kawarau River, with a rubber cord tied around their ankles, they were creating history. It was the world's first commercial bungy jump.

It seemed anything but a transformative moment. The jump's organiser, AJ Hackett Bungy, had been granted just a 30-day licence to operate from the Kawarau Bridge. Few expected the activity to succeed or prosper.

Today, more than 80,000 people bungy jump each year in New Zealand alone, and Queenstown is a place remade. From a ski town that, in the 1980s, mostly slumbered through summer, it has swelled into a town with adventure as its heartbeat.

That Kawarau day 30 years ago might easily be seen as the moment that adventure became a destination of its own. Queenstown's selection of adrenaline activities has since grown to encyclopaedic proportions – from abseiling to zip lining – while the town has also served as a virtual template for an ever-growing breed of towns and places that now exist off adventure's back.

Towns once known only to rock climbers, rafters or mountain bikers have become all-round adventure centres, broadening their appeal and raising adventure far beyond a travel niche.

A report by global research company Allied Market Research earlier this year estimated the worldwide value of adventure tourism in 2016 at about $450,000 million, a figure it tipped to triple by 2023.

On every continent there are now places that promote themselves as adventure capitals. Some, such as Bovec (Slovenia), Pucon (Chile) and Baños (Ecuador), are little known to the outside world, but others have become part of the adventure lexicon.

Here are 10 of our favourite adventure destinations.

1. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Queenstown, New Zealand

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THE ADVENTURES

In the self-styled adventure capital of the world, it's more a question of what can't you do? There's jet boating on various rivers (including the famous Shotover), easy access to three ski fields, the chance to hurtle across (and leap from) Lake Wakatipu in a motorised shark, skydiving, mountain biking, white-water rafting and boarding, zip lining, paragliding, canyon swings ... the list is as exhaustive as the activities are exhausting.

DON'T MISS

Bungee is still boss in Queenstown. There are now three jump sites, ranging from 43 metres at Kawarau Bridge to 134 metres at Nevis Bungy. The new Nevis Catapult, launched this month, is a bungy-style jump that propels people 150 metres across a ravine at 100 kilometres an hour, producing up to 3G of force, before they plummet towards the valley floor.

EASY DOES IT

Adrenaline isn't the only juice that flows here. Head to Gibbston Valley Winery for tastings in a wine cave, or Cardrona Distillery for a shot of award-winning gin (and lunch across the road at the atmospheric Cardrona Hotel). For the lazy view, ride the Skyline Gondola to a grand panorama over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

THE DETAILS

Queenstown is a year-round destination, with plenty of play in sun and snow. Bungy jumps cost from $190. See queenstownnz.co.nz, bungy.co.nz

THE RATING

5

2. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe

THE ADVENTURES

The world's largest waterfall – the Smoke that Thunders – is Africa's go-to adventure destination, with a list of activities almost as voluminous as the falls themselves. Try a 111-metre bungy jump or the equally gut-sinking gorge swing. Zip across the Zambezi River on a flying fox, skydive, cage dive among crocodiles, or river board the rapids of the Zambezi River.

DON'T MISS

White-water rafting is Victoria Falls' signature activity. Trips begin in Batoka Gorge, near the base of the waterfall, and run through up to 19 churning rapids on the river known to rafters as the "Slambezi". The rapids, which have suitably disturbing names such as Devil's Toilet Bowl and Gnashing Jaws of Death, are grade VI and V, the wildest you'll find on any commercial trip in the world. The inevitable spills from the raft will have you wondering about those crocodiles.

EASY DOES IT

View the waterfall from a multitude of lookout points or from above, in a helicopter. Days at Victoria Falls end best on a gentle Zambezi sunset dinner cruise.

THE DETAILS

The best time to raft the Zambezi is during low water – roughly August to December – when all rapids can be run. In high water, the first 10 rapids are unsafe and skipped. Day rafting trips cost about $160. See zambiatourism.com

THE RATING

5

3. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Moab, US

THE ADVENTURES

Set in the US's southwest deserts, between a pair of the country's most spectacular national parks, Moab's adventure menu starts with mountain biking, but ranges out to include canyoning, rafting the Colorado River (a churning look at the river before it enters the Grand Canyon), desert horseback rides, and hiring an all-terrain vehicle to climb and crawl across the slickrock formations at Sand Flats.

DON'T MISS

Put simply, Moab is mountain biking, headlined by the Slickrock Trail. This challenging 17-kilometre trail over bare slickrock – the local sandstone that's unexpectedly tacky for bike tyres – is arguably the world's most famous mountain-bike ride. For something purely scenic, ride the playground-like rock at Bartlett Wash and, if you're fearless and fast, the cliff-top exposure of Porcupine Rim beckons.

EASY DOES IT

Experience sunset at Delicate Arch, inside Arches National Park. In the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park, a day hike will bring you to the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers, where the waters meet in a distinct division of colour. Some of the world's clearest dinosaur footprints are found at the Copper Ridge Sauropod Tracksite north of town.

THE DETAILS

Summer and winter in Moab can be brutal, so come in spring or autumn. The town is filled with bike stores, with bike rental starting from around $60 a day. See discovermoab.com

THE RATING

4

4. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Chamonix, France

THE ADVENTURES

This evergreen alpine town is the start and finish point for Europe's most famous long-distance hike, the Tour du Mont Blanc. The runners' version, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, has turned Chamonix into trail-running central. Nearby Mieussy is considered the birthplace of paragliding, and skimming across the face of Mont Blanc attached to a paraglider has become one of Chamonix's prime experiences. Mont Blanc's summit also beckons, with mountain guides leading climbs to the top of the Alps' highest peak.

DON'T MISS

The Chamonix valley is home to four ski areas and 150 kilometres of ski runs, but the grandest adventure on snow is Vallée Blanche. This 20-kilometre, off-piste run from Mont Blanc's Aiguille du Midi cable-car station, 3842 metres above sea level, follows the Mer de Glace (France's longest glacier) 2700 metres down into Chamonix.

EASY DOES IT

Cable cars run like threads from the valley to points on the surrounding slopes, making views easy to come by – the 20-minute ride to Aiguille du Midi is the highest and most popular. The ice cave in Mer de Glace is the non-mountaineers' way to experience a glacier.

THE DETAILS

Chamonix beckons year-round. The Vallée Blanche season doesn't usually begin until January, when crevasses have been bridged by snow. Even then, crevasses remain a danger, so seek out a guide through the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. A guided run costs from about $145. See chamonix.com, chamonix-guides.eu

THE RATING

4

5. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Pokhara, Nepal

THE ADVENTURES

Long the trekking gateway into the Annapurnas, Nepal's second city is no longer content to be a sedate walkers' base. Mountain bikers have discovered the city, with trips ranging from quick descents on view-rich Sarangkot hill to multi-day epics around the Annapurna Circuit. Pokhara's Zip flyer is claimed as the world's longest (1800 metres), highest (600-metre vertical drop) and steepest zip line, and you can also bungy jump here.

DON'T MISS

With its Himalayan backdrop and stable thermals, Pokhara has become one of the world's premier paragliding destinations. The unique Pokhara paragliding experience is parahawking, a tandem flight accompanied by trained hawks and vultures.

EASY DOES IT

Pokhara is set on the beautiful Phewa Lake, where you can wander and dine at Lakeside, or hire a boat to get out on the water. The International Mountain Museum will bring you the mountains without the effort, unless you also want to scale its climbing wall.

THE DETAILS

Pokhara is at its clearest and best from around October to April – April is also typically rhododendron season, when the mountains beam with colour. A tandem parahawk flight costs about $300. See welcomenepal.com, parahawking.com

THE RATING

4

6. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Interlaken, Switzerland

THE ADVENTURES

Genteel Switzerland has a wild side, and it's generally found in Interlaken, where you can raft rapids in sight of the Eiger's North Face, bungy jump 134 metres from a cable car, canyon swing through Glacier Gorge, skydive from a helicopter, or ice climb inside the crevasse of a glacier.

DON'T MISS

Disappear into the gaps in the Alps on a canyoning trip. The gentle Saxeten canyon is a good introduction to canyoning, while the wilder Chli Schliere will have you leaping into pools, sliding down waterfall chutes, and abseiling through pummelling waterfalls.

EASY DOES IT

Take advantage of Interlaken's position between two lakes by taking a lake cruise, or rise to heights on the Jungfraujoch railway, which climbs to 3454 metres above sea level on Jungfrau mountain.

THE DETAILS

The canyoning season runs from May to October, which is also the best time for most of Interlaken's other activities – even the glacier ice climbing can be done through summer. A canyoning trip through Chli Schliere with Outdoor Interlaken costs $270. See www.interlaken.ch/en, outdoor-interlaken.ch

THE RATING

4

7. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Cairns, Australia

THE ADVENTURES

The ocean beckons most visitors, but if you prefer your water fresh and fast-flowing, the Tully River creates Australia's most famous rafting trip (and the venue for the 2019 World Rafting Championships). At Cairns' edge, Smithfield offers 60 kilometres of some of the finest rainforest mountain biking in the world. There's a 50-metre bungy jump, while a canyoning trip at Crystal Cascades combines abseiling with a zip line descent and a 10-metre leap into a natural pool.

DON'T MISS

Dive the underwater rainbow of the Great Barrier Reef. Live-aboard boats head to revered dive sites such as the Cod Hole, noted for its large potato cod, and the plunging walls (and sharks) of Osprey Reef. Day trips from the city can get you to the outer reef, pontoons or the shallow waters of sand cays.

EASY DOES IT

Skim across the top of the rainforest on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, then return on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Grab a swim at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, and find those big toothy reptiles on a Daintree River crocodile cruise.

THE DETAILS

The best visibility on the reef comes towards the end of the dry season, typically around September and October. Tully River rafting trips, departing Cairns, cost $214. See tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au

THE RATING

3

8. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Banff, Canada

THE ADVENTURES

Synonymous with adventure through its annual Mountain Film Festival, Banff drips with adrenaline possibilities. You can raft the Kicking Horse or Kananaskis Rivers, clip in to the Mt Norquay via ferrata, fly down a zip line, or take a guided winter ice walk into Johnston Canyon. Mountain bikers have about 200 kilometres of trails, including the headliners, Topp Notch and Star Wars.

DON'T MISS

While winter brings skiers to Banff's three ski fields, it also lures climbers with ice axes and crampons to the area's frozen waterfalls. Ice climbing is so popular in Banff that one local hostel has an ice-climbing wall, and there's a range of climbing courses on waterfalls at the likes of Johnston Canyon and the narrow gorge at King Creek.

EASY DOES IT

Take a dip at Banff Upper Hot Springs, ride the gondola to heady views on Sulphur Mountain, and drive the Bow Valley Parkway, often claimed as the finest wildlife-watching drive in Canada.

THE DETAILS

Banff is an evergreen, year-round destination. Ice climbing is possible from around December through March, with two-day courses with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures costing around $440. See banfflakelouise.com, yamnuska.com

THE RATING

3

9. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

THE ADVENTURES

Visitors starting coming to the town of La Fortuna to witness the power of volcanoes after the Arenal volcano erupted in 1968, wiping out several nearby villages. What arose from the lava was an adventure industry. Raft the grade III and IV rapids of the Rio Pacuare, go canyoning, and hike around the lava fields and to the summit of Arenal's neighbouring mountain, Cerro Chatto (it's illegal to climb Arenal).

DON'T MISS

Zip lining – buzzing along wires, attached by a harness – had its origins in Costa Rica, and there are several operations rigged up in La Fortuna. The most enticing offering is from Arenal Mundo Aventura, which has a course of wires that skims past the 70-metre-high La Fortuna waterfall. The Skytrek zip line comes with views of the volcano and Lake Arenal.

EASY DOES IT

La Fortuna is an easy place to simply chill. The presence of the volcano means plenty of hot springs for a soak, and for a treetop view of the rainforest there are the hanging bridges of Mistico Park, a private walking trail with a series of bridges suspended in the canopy.

THE DETAILS

The driest season in Arenal is typically from February to April, though there's never a guarantee of seeing the volcano clearly. Zip lining adventures across La Fortuna waterfall start from about $95. See visitcostarica.com, arenalmundoaventura.com

THE RATING

3

10. THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Yosemite National Park, USA

THE ADVENTURES

America's favourite national park isn't just a place to ogle mountains and waterfalls. Rock climbers revere it, and there's more than 1200 kilometres of hiking trails, including long sections of the epic John Muir and Pacific Crest trails. The signature hike is Half Dome, which has assisting chains fitted for the vertiginous final summit push. Rafters find grade III to IV rapids on the Merced River just outside the park (and gentler floats in the park), while Yosemite also has California's oldest ski field (Badger Pass), 150 kilometres of marked cross-country ski trails, and 18 kilometres of bike paths.

DON'T MISS

So many of the world's great rock-climbing feats have been achieved here, especially on El Capitan, the great prow of rock at the entrance to Yosemite Valley. Climbing instruction, from beginner through to multi-pitch lead climbing, is available through the Yosemite Mountaineering School. If you just want to soak up one of the world's most intoxicating climbing vibes, find a spot for your tent in Camp 4, Yosemite's rock-jock central.

EASY DOES IT

Join the vehicles circuiting through Yosemite Valley to get the greatest-hits views – Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls. Visit groves of giant sequoias – the world's largest trees – or get a sense of adventure without the effort by taking the stroll to the precipitous edge of Taft Point.

THE DETAILS

Summer ushers in most adventures around Yosemite. Beginner and intermediate rock-climbing courses start from $230. See nps.gov/yose

THE RATING

3

Q&A WITH HENRY VAN ASCH, CO-FOUNDER AJ HACKETT BUNGY NEW ZEALAND

When you did the first bungy jump in November 1988, was Queenstown what you'd call an adventure town?

Queenstown has always been a tourist town and great ski destination, but in summer it was a sleepy holiday town. By the late '80s, there was some rafting and jetboating, but it wasn't until we started Bungy – and from there, other adventure tourism experiences grew – that Queenstown became known as New Zealand's adventure capital.

Did you have any sense of what bungy jumping would create for Queenstown?

We had no idea it would become such a global sensation. Around the same time we launched Bungy, the backpacker buses started, which was a great fit. At first, Bungy provided a lot of fun to hardcore locals like us, but there was huge excitement coming from backpackers, which attracted international media who came to try it for themselves.

Queenstown now calls itself the "adventure capital of the world". Is the title justified?

Absolutely. Alongside our activities, Queenstown has exhilarating mountain biking, hiking, climbing, skiing, water sports, rafting, boating – however you want to play, you can do it year-round.

Did Queenstown become a model of sorts for other adventure towns around the world?

Yes. A lot of towns around the world have tried to do what Queenstown does – and many do it well – but none do it better. Queenstown's sister city, Aspen, is a great little adventure town, but it doesn't have that same raw adventure element.

What are the natural qualities that make for a good adventure town?

The landscape and climate – and the people. Kiwis are adventure seekers. We love adventure and sharing it. At Bungy, we've got a great crew of people sharing their love of our activities. We want people to live more and fear less – that's what we share with others.

Any under-the-radar adventure towns that will emerge in coming years?

Derby in Tasmania has some great mountain biking tracks I'd definitely be keen to check out.

SOFTEN THE BLOW: FIVE SOFT ADVENTURES

Not all adventures need to involve fear and screams. Some can be tame and terrific.

1. SANTIAGO BIKE TOUR

Urban bike tours are a great way to sneak under the skin of a big city, and guided rides through Chile's capital take in the morning markets or the parklands and architecture along the Mapocho River. See labicicletaverde.com

2. MAURITIUS UNDERSEA WALK

Fancy everything about diving, except the actual diving? Walk among the marine life instead, with oxygen fed into a helmet. See aquaventure.io

3. HALONG BAY KAYAK

Some of the tourist boats that fan out through the limestone shapes of Halong Bay carry kayaks, allowing you to splash away for an hour or two into caves and among floating villages. See worldexpeditions.com

4. QUEENSTOWN SEGWAY TOUR

Not every activity in this adventure capital is blood-curdling. Two-hour Segway tours will take you out of town, along the lakeshore and into the gorgeous Queenstown Gardens. See segwayonq.co.nz

5. E-BIKE IN TASMANIA

Pedal a  mountain e-bike along the tracks and beaches of Bangor, one of Tasmania's most history-rich farms, refuelling with oysters and wine. See tasmanianebikeadventures.com.au

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