Travel ideas for friends and family: The ultimate gift

Is there a greater gift you can give than travel? Is there any more important present to bestow upon the person you love than the chance for them to see the world, to enjoy new experiences, to gain new friends, to have their life irrevocably altered through the act of adventure?

Surely not. This isn't some fleeting trinket we're talking about here, it's not something that can be swapped or returned. It's a way of life. To travel is to feel, to think, to wonder. This Christmas, there's nothing most of us would prefer to receive more in the world.

One question, however, does remain: where? If you've decided on travel as a gift, if you have the opportunity to dream up an adventure for the person who means most to you in the world, to send them somewhere they will love, where they can indulge their passions and be inspired anew, where would it be?

To celebrate Christmas this year, the Traveller team has indulged in a little fantasy. Our writers have pondered where to send the ones they love, with no expense spared. These are experiences tailored to those people we cherish, but they're also examples of the wide world of possibilities that the gift of travel reveals.

This is not something to be taken lightly. These are journeys that will change lives. They're trips to the Bolshoi ballet; cruises to the Antarctic; walks around Uluru. They're personal gifts of what we as travellers recognise are the most important things in the world: adventure, enjoyment, companionship, wonder, excitement, and lives well lived. - Ben Groundwater

Stepping into the unknown

By Louise Southerden

It happens every time. Boarding a flight, to anywhere, I feel the rush of possibility I felt the first time I travelled overseas alone.

You cross a threshold when you leave home soil. Step into the unknown. It doesn't matter if you've booked hotels, made reservations, arranged tours.

Just as an obituary is not a life, an itinerary is not a trip and even the most demanding schedules have room for unplanned encounters, unchaperoned moments and other cracks for the light of chance to shine through.

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That's one of the gifts of travel. Another is freedom, the opportunity to shrug off our lives back home, for a few days or forever, and face the world just as we are.

Travel gives us simplicity, by stripping life back to basics. You don't have to go trekking with everything you need in a pack on your back or spend two weeks alone in a cabin in Norway (though I highly recommend both). Just staying in a hotel can be simplifying (no cooking, no cleaning!).

And aren't the days so much longer when you're somewhere else? When time resumes its natural dimensions and there's suddenly enough of it to "waste" lingering over a coffee and writing notes in a journal, getting lost in the lanes of a strange city and embracing the magic of everyday life that passes us by at home?

Travel can give you a dose of human kindness or natural wildness when you need it most. And landscapes so grand they break your heart.

It can make us more at ease with the world and our place in it, even while that place shifts under our feet. Nothing lasts forever anyway. When you understand that, hotel rooms and departure lounges aren't so different from houses and driveways.

For all these reasons and more, travel is the greatest gift we can give ourselves – and our offspring. I don't have any of my own, but from the moment I held my newborn nephew in my arms 11½ years ago, I've been mentally bookmarking trips for him and his two younger siblings. Trips that would widen their eyes and impress upon them the bare beauty of the world.

Where to start? Perhaps with a road trip between Uluru and Alice Springs to show them what most of Australia looks like and meet some of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Or a homestay in Japan, a place at once otherworldly and, outside its megacities, incredibly earthy. Or a trek across the Mongolian steppe to remind them we all depend on nature, and each other, to survive.

In the meantime, this might be the year I slip three copies of Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt into their Christmas stockings.

Dancing dreams

By Terry Durack

In many ways my grandson, Thomas, is your typical 8-year-old. Batman, Spiderman, Lego, and computer games loom large in his life, and under his Christmas tree. But his two greatest passions – and this is a boy with serious passions – are a little less predictable. The first is any sort of Chinese dumpling, but especially har gau steamed prawn dumplings (I think I know where that came from), and the second is his Saturday morning ballet classes (I have no idea where that came from).

My daughter-in-law regularly sends me videos of him dancing and it's a delight to watch a kid who is usually tearing around at a million miles an hour, stand tall, focus, breathe and move with grace and poise.

I imagine he would be more than happy to be given the gift of a trip to Hong Kong to sample the greatest yum cha restaurants in the world, such as the elegant offerings of Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons, and the blow-your-tiny-mind deliciousness of dim sum at Yan Toh Heen at The Intercontinental. But if the brief for these Gifts of Travel is that they be of the greatest personal benefit to the person concerned, then it would have to be a trip to Moscow to watch the Bolshoi Ballet perform at the historic Bolshoi Theatre. Wouldn't it? I don't know how an eight-year-old's brain works, but if that's not going to inspire you to follow a dancing dream, then what in tights would?

It would be good timing, too, with the opulent, 191-year-old theatre coming out of an extensive $800 million renovation just five years ago. Besides, it's both a history lesson – the Bolshoi was begun by dancing master Filippo Beccari in 1773 as a dancing school for the Moscow Orphanage – and a chance to catch up on a little of Thom's own personal heritage – his great-grandfather was Russian, and his great-grandmother, Polish. How delicious for him to experience the sort of food his own father loved as a child at his grandmother's table; the vareniki, golubtsi, piroshki, pelmeni and borscht.

So it's about ballet, yes, but only as a springboard; a jete into the wider world. Really, it's about wanting to pass on the gift of travel, the curiosity and sense of possibility that will fuel a lifetime of adventures. I'm not sure how much we can stretch this Gift of Travel thing, but maybe it could extend to a stop-off in Hong Kong for a little serious dim sum action on the way back.

Ancient wonders

By Ute Junker

Even back in the day, as a youngster who eagerly tore the wrapping off presents hoping to uncover something large and shiny, I had the smarts to realise that travel is a gift. To me, travel was a magical experience, opening up a kaleidoscope of colourful images. The tumult of Delhi's streets, a confusion of marigold wreaths and beggars and hot pink saris; the dragons-in-the-mist seascapes of Halong Bay; the cobblestoned squares of Brussels: travel not only lays these panoramas in front of you, but invites you to step right into the middle of them.

These days, my attitude has changed. Just as I approach presents differently, moved more by the emotions in which they are wrapped than by whatever is inside the box, I have also realised that travel does more than just expose us to new sights and sounds and tastes. It also changes us, shaking us out of the internal ruts we often find ourselves stuck in.

As frenetically as we live our lives, wrestling with to-do lists that only ever seem to get longer, it is easy to forget a simple truth: as middle class Westerners in the early 21st century, we live lives that the grandest emperors of Rome or China would have envied. In terms of education, health, access to knowledge and everyday comforts, we are truly blessed. And travel helps remind us how lucky we truly are.

The quickest way to hit that re-set button, for me at least, is a spot of time travel. Whether it's a Mayan palace deep in the jungle, a Gothic cathedral on which generations of craftsmen toiled, or simply a walk along a Roman road on stones that were laid thousands of years ago, getting up close and personal with ancient relics puts my problems in perspective. So if I had the power, I would give all my loved ones a trip back in time this Christmas. The exact destination would depend on their interests but for those who have grappled with really big challenges this year, I'd choose a trip to Egypt, the oldest of the great civilisations. There are so many striking sights, from the Great Pyramid of Giza and the serene statues and soaring columns of the Karnak complex to the magnificent temple of Abu Simbel. If standing in front of these mighty monuments, built by people whose bones crumbled to dust thousands of years ago, doesn't deliver a dollop or two of awe, then nothing will.

Living la vita grasso

By Ben Groundwater

This Christmas, I'm giving my girlfriend Jess a bowling ball.

Not an actual bowling ball – in our house, any gift that seems to benefit the person giving it as much as the one on the receiving end is known as a "bowling ball". It's named in honour of the birthday present Homer Simpson once gave Marge (a bowling ball engraved with the word "Homer").

There have been plenty of bowling balls passed between Jess and me. The Thai cookbook she once bought me for my birthday? Bowling ball. She loves Thai food. The Japanese chef's knife I got for her? Total bowling ball. I use it as often as she does.

So we're going to Bologna. My Christmas gift to Jess is that we're heading to Italy's gastronomic capital, to a city that's been nicknamed La Grassa, or The Fat One. We're going to dine on tagliatelle al ragu, and tortellini en brodo, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and prosciutto, and all of those excellent, tasty, fatty things. We're going to drink wine, and sip negronis, and stroll warm evening streets. We're going to throw our hands in the air and argue and rant and love like locals do.

Never mind la dolce vita – we're going to live "la vita grasso": the fat life. And it's a total bowling ball. A fatty, delicious bowling ball.

Jess will love Bologna. Of that I have no doubt. She has a passion for food that's bordering on obsession. It doesn't matter if that food is expensive or cheap, whether it's served in a three-star fine-diner or a hole-in-the-wall dive – as long as it tastes good, she'll be there. This love of cuisine is the foundation upon which our relationship is built.

So yes, she'll enjoy Bologna. She'll love it with a deep, burning hunger. The Bolognese know how to do food like few other people on the planet. That's something she'll immediately appreciate.

Just as importantly, however, I will love Bologna. I will love the evenings of aperitivo, of sipping wine and nibbling mouth-watering snacks that have been delivered to our table for free. I will revel in the ridiculous amount of choice in Bolognese restaurants, from the smallest nonna-run trattorias to the fanciest fine-diners.

There's only one downside to this gift, which I'm thus far choosing to ignore. And that is that "the fat one" is not only a fitting sobriquet for Bologna itself, but also for anyone who allows themselves more than a few weeks of feeding their faces on its finest produce. As restraint isn't one of our better shared qualities, this bowling ball of a gift could well turn Jess and me into bowling balls ourselves.

But it has to be done. For her benefit, and mine. La vita grasso awaits.

A spirit of curiosity

By Catherine Marshall

My father gave me the greatest gift of all: an appetite for adventure. As a girl growing up in Johannesburg, I was well acquainted with the departure hall of Jan Smuts Airport (now OR Tambo); it was here that my family would regularly gather to farewell our mining engineer father as he set off on work expeditions near and wide: to Ecuador and Finland, Venezuela and Australia, America and Zimbabwe and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

But my father had possessed a spirit of curiosity long before he entered a profession that required one of him. As a young man just out of university, he and a friend had packed up his Mini Minor and driven all the way from Johannesburg to Uganda and back again, taking a barely navigable route via the Mozambican coast, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro en route, having the sort of adventure that would cement in him a deep and abiding love of travel. So rich were his stories, I felt as though I'd made that journey myself.

Our own family adventures, while intrepid and nourishing, were far more provincial: international travel was rare in those days, especially among South Africans living under the yoke of apartheid. But as we watched from the observation balcony as my father's planes took off, my heart would soar with the possibility of places yet unknown to me, of countries to which I would one day travel in the hope of mapping out a world that existed only in my imagination.

I still have the mementoes my father brought back with him: a copper necklace, a woollen poncho, a Japanese doll, a tiny statue of Buddha. But the most precious gift of all – the desire he evoked in me to explore the world – is a practice contained deep within me, and which I've had the privilege of enacting repeatedly in my years as a journalist and travel writer.

And it is this gift, more than any other – more than a first class plane ticket to my favourite destination, or a suite at a glossy resort – that I wish to bestow upon my own children. For travel is an education whose lessons can be neither bought nor traded; they can only be invited in. First, the seeds of curiosity and adventure must be firmly implanted, so that the recipient can conjure in their imagination a whole world; then they must go out and find it.

Banking great family memories

By Kerry van der Jagt

For the last decade, a framed photo of my husband and two teenage sons has stood on my writing desk, their beaming faces a reminder of the season we went to the United States in search of a white summer. It took a year of saving and months of meticulous research to put together the five-week, four state, 3000-kilometre road trip that would take us to some of the best national parks, canyons, forests and mountains in south-west US.

I told myself it was for fun and freedom, but there were other forces at play – a mother's concern as old as time itself: of childhood passing too quickly, of the desire to build a bank of memories and of the need to forge lasting relationships with soon-to-be-adult children. But mostly I just wanted to hit the pause button for a while. For me, this is the gift of travel

We witnessed sunrise at Bryce Canyon, where an army of knobbly rocks stood about like anxious meerkats, and sunset at Yosemite Valley, where my 14-year-old draped his lanky arm across my shoulder as the fading light hit the snow-draped El Capitan.

We hiked through Death Valley, just my 16-year-old and I, talking about nothing and everything, surrendering to chance and living in the moment.

And we skied our legs off. Down Mammoth Mountain under blue bird skies, goading and teasing as only families can, building courage – of heart and thought – learning about risks and looking out for each other. I'm the slowest skier – a tortoise in a family of hares – but on this mountain the boys waited for me to catch up, mindful of my safety (just like their father) and happier to share the experience than to go it alone. Unfamiliar terrain is an instant unifier.

And as if we hadn't received enough gifts already, December 25 at the Grand Canyon arrived in a flurry of snow, delivering cheers and a white Christmas.

Ten years on – those wide-eyed boys settled with careers and partners of their own – I'm dreaming of another white summer. In Antarctica. I've travelled to the White Planet before (for work), but to send my husband would be a gift beyond measure.

If money were no object we'd head south aboard National Geographic Orion with Lindblad Expeditions, where we'd kayak beside calving glaciers, waddle with penguins and take to the waters in Zodiacs, cruising between ice sculptures the colour of blue topaz.

Amid killer whales and leopard seals he'd see for himself why we must protect the world's polar regions, and finally, better understand what draws me to these wild places. In turn, I'd watch him fall for a place where only a fortunate few tread.

SEVEN OF THE BEST GIFTS TO TAKE OVERSEAS

KERRY VAN DER JAGT

THE ART LOVER

Saltwater Dreamtime is a Wollongong-based Torres Strait Islander artist who creates artworks that represent the sea. See saltwaterdreamtime.com

THE SUN-SEEKER

Remind distant friends about Australia's morning beach life with a photographic print from Aquabumps. See aquabumps.com. Toss in a tube of coloured zinc cream for authenticity.

THE SNOW BUNNY

Smitten Merino in Tasmania uses 100 per cent Australian super fine merino wool to create fashionable ponchos, active wear and knits. See smittenmerino.com

THE FOODIE

Nothing smells as Australian as native spices from Herbie's Spices. Try ground bush tomato or lemon pepper seasoning. See herbies.com.au

THE WINE LOVER

For celebratory bubbles without breaking the bank try the House of Arras Grand Vintage. See houseofarras.com.au. For a dry white try a chardonnay from Xanadu Wines in Margaret River See xanaduwines.com

THE BOOKWORM

Stan Grant's Talking to my Country is a must-read for anyone interested in Australia's Indigenous history. Kids will love Amazing Animals of Australia's National Parks by Gina M.Newton.

THE CHARITABLE ONE

A $50 donation to Child Fund Australia will provide a child with a solar lamp, so they can read, study and stay safe at night. See childfund.org.au

SEVEN PLACES TO GIVE BACK TO

CATHERINE MARSHALL

1. CUBA

Contribute to this long-isolated country's crippled economy on a cruise with Fathom, Carnival Corporation's new social impact brand. fathom.org

2. PERU

Give the gift of a smoke-free kitchen to Peruvians living without electricity during World Expeditions' solar lamp Christmas appeal; then hand-deliver them to these remote communities on a trek to Salcantay or Machu Picchu in 2017. wefchristmasappeal.gofundraise.com.au

3. SOUTH AFRICA

Help save an entire species by donating, fundraising or volunteering with The Australian Rhino Project, which aims to establish a herd of breeding rhinos in Australia using South African stock.

4. INDIA

Assist local women as they collect water or build a classroom for future generations as part of Trafalgar's new ME to WE social enterprise partnership. trafalgar.com/aus/metowe

5. AUSTRALIA

Foster cross-cultural understanding and learn about Indigenous history with the Olkola community on the Cape York during a trip offered by the Olkola community in partnership with Intrepid. intrepidtravel.com

6. THAILAND

Contribute to the welfare and conservation of Asian elephants by assisting a Biosphere Expeditions team of scientists with behavioural studies, bio-diversity monitoring and community capacity building. biosphere-expeditions.org/volunteeringinthailand

7. THE WORLD

Contribute to world peace by adopting the Credo of the Peaceful Traveller – and implementing it wherever in the world you go. iipt.org/credo.html

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