Best places to go: 19 travel destinations that could change your life

One of the most disconcerting, yet compelling, aspects of travel is its ability to slice away the cocoon of certainties in which we wrap ourselves. Certain destinations make us look differently at the world. Many visitors to India, for example, find themselves disoriented by the constant tide of life that washes over them; more raucous, more extreme, poorer yet richer than anything they have seen before.

Yet most of them return home saying the experience has changed them, for the better. India is not alone, of course. Any destination that lands you in an utterly alien environment, where you don't know the customs and can't communicate with the people, tests your ability to navigate through the basic tasks of daily life.

Travellers to remote parts of the Middle East or Asia often return enthusing about the kindness of strangers, and with a new sense of their own competence.

Removing yourself from a built environment gives you a new appreciation of the web of life that spans the planet. African safaris remind us that nature is bloodier than a Tarantino film. Trekking in the Himalayas, at least prior to the recent earthquakes, is a philosophical as well as a physical challenge, forcing to you to ponder what you really need to get through life.

Travel can also be about connection. Walking in the footsteps of vanished civilisations provides a new appreciation of what it means to be human. Closer to home, seeing this country through the eyes of its indigenous people will make you look differently at Australia. Now that, along with the trips over the following by Traveller's writers and editors, is what you call a life-changer.

Swim with something big

WHERE The ocean

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE Whether it's whale sharks off Ningaloo Reef, sea lions off Kangaroo Island, manta rays in Hawaii or great whites in South Africa, there's nothing quite like that first pang of surprise, and yes, fear, when you first see a huge shape moving in the water near you.

You'll never feel quite so vulnerable and out of your element (literally). It's a reminder that, while humans may be the dominant species on land, when it comes to the ocean, we're completely inadequate and insignificant. Once you overcome the initial shock of seeing such large creatures around you, you can adjust and enjoy the majesty and grace of these animals. You'll come away with a new appreciation for the beauty of life beneath the waves, and why it needs to be protected. See www.tourkangarooisland.com.au; www.westernaustralia.com; www.southafrica.net, www.gohawaii.com.

CRAIG PLATT

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See the Northern Lights

WHERE The Arctic Circle

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE There are plenty of places where you can feel small. Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or in front of Iguazu Falls, for example, and you'll feel very tiny. But catch the Northern Lights on a good night and you may get a sense that not only are you insignificant, but that the tiny blue orb we inhabit is just a tiny cog in a machine too big to comprehend.

The boring explanation for the lights is that solar wind blasts out from the sun, past us and into the endless black beyond. As it whips around our ozone layer, the magnetic poles draw "excited" protons down to earth. Depending on the time of year, viewing angle and composition of the atmosphere, they appear in different colours. Across the world, indigenous people have better, more romantic explanations for the lights, but no one would deny their magic. This is a chance to see the galaxy in action, doing what it did before life was kindled on our planet, and what it'll be doing long after life has been snuffed out. See www.nordnorge.com.

JAMIE LAFFERTY

A journey on a sub-continental overnight train

WHERE India

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE Your life hasn't been lived in all its glory until you've taken an overnight train in India, until you've battled your way through a crowded Indian train station, until you've fought your way up a platform, until you've struggled to figure out where you're supposed to be boarding, and then taken a step up into that train carriage and a step into another world.

This isn't just a train, you realise, but a microcosm of sub-continental life, a city all of its own, a moving metropolis buzzing with people and food, and conversation. There'll be a guy selling coffee roaming the corridors: "Coffeecoffeecoffee, coffeecoffeecoffee." He'll be there all night, followed closely by an ever-changing trail of local merchants selling their hot, tasty wares to the passengers who crowd around. You'll eat, you'll talk, you'll stare.

You'll see life differently after a night on an Indian train. Personal space will take on a whole new meaning once you've seen passengers squish up on their plastic-covered benches to allow room for others. Generosity will seem much more rewarding after the Indian family next to you insists you share their food. Sanitation will seem that little more important after you've tried the facilities. A night train ride in India is many things, but boring isn't one of them. See www.incredibleindia.org; www.indianrail.gov.in.

BEN GROUNDWATER

Trekking in the Everest region

WHERE Nepal

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE It's both a quaint concept, carrying your possessions on your back like an olde-worlde pilgrim, and an activity for the indulged Westerner. But a month trekking in the Everest region of Nepal, engulfed by its mighty peaks at every turn, is a reminder of how insignificant one is and, in a world of extraneous baggage, how little one needs.Starting from Jiri, to Lukla then onto Namche Bazaar for a few days of acclimatisation, it's far from easy. Hours are spent in silence, the altitude a test of mental and physical strength. But the only way is up and nimble porters heading in the other direction caution "slowly, slowly" as they pass. Just grit your teeth and get to that next tree or rock or bridge. It's a well-trodden route and yet it's pure relief when, arriving at a village ravenous and tired, the mountain people provide hot food and a bed where sleep in the thin air brings strange dreams. I'm the last one in the rag-tag group of people we've met along way to make it to our highest point, Gokyo Ri, at just over 5300 metres, after nearly a month of living by the "mind over matter" mantra. I've made it.

More than a decade on, the death toll from the recent earthquakes stands at more than 8000 and DFAT, for now, recommends reconsidering travel while relief efforts continue. Nepal Tourism, meanwhile, says it's open for business for its autumn trekking season. Its slogan, "once is not enough", resonates for those captivated by the mountains first time around.See www.welcomenepal.com.

JANE REDDY

A pilgrimage to Auschwitz

WHERE Poland

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE For a 20-year-old backpacker, Auschwitz was the moment that a booze-soaked rail trip around Europe became about something much bigger than the next beer stein. "Horror" isn't a strong enough word to describe the emotions that reach a confused crescendo while walking around the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.

The walls are lined with photographs of the victims, the sheer weight of black and white portraits indicating the scale of the mass butchery. Cabinets are full of items taken from those about to be industrially processed. One is full of spectacles, another full of human hair.

The surprisingly meticulous documentation of what happened in the small Polish town of Oswiecim during the Second World War means the barrage of stomach-churning information is relentless. The pain on the faces of the tour guides, who have the grim job of taking people through the camp every day, is visible.

The tours of Auschwitz offer as both a warning from the past and a lesson to look out for those warnings. It is history at its most chillingly brutal and a sledgehammer to force even the most shamefully uninterested visitor to take an interest in how the past affects the present. See www.en.auschwitz.org.

DAVID WHITLEY

Driving in the heart of Australia

WHERE The outback

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE There are few greater ways to know you're alive than negotiating the vast stretches of road in the Australian outback. They challenge you. They're often unmade, washed away, but always, always just … so … long. Get out of the car in the middle of nowhere and simply stand still and silent in the vastness. You'll soon know your place in the universe.

Those roads require you to rely on others. You must phone ahead so the folks in the next town will know if you're overdue and need help. And even the most independent may need to, at some point, accept help out there: a life lesson in the kindness of strangers. But moreover, the roads introduce you to the heart of Australia and often, its Indigenous people living in a way that challenges your preconceptions. The outback widens your understanding of what it is to be Australian.

Try outback NSW from Broken Hill up to Tibooburra, the dingo fence and Sturt National Park, then down to the Menindee Lakes. Or head to Mount Isa and out to Boulia for camel races and onto Birdsville to see the Simpson Desert in all its red glory. See tourism.australia.com, visitnsw.com, queensland.com.au.

JULIETTA JAMESON

Travel with children

WHERE Anywhere

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE Having children is probably the ultimate life changer for most, and travel with children comes close to a place on the life-altering podium. Do it right and it will make you a better person, because a holiday with kids is not solely about you; their comfort and happiness are a big part of the equation. You will be taken out of your comfort zone and into fresh experiences, and maybe discover new pleasures.

It might be a horse-riding holiday, or a day at Bali's Waterbom Park, or eating waffles with cinnamon whipped cream at Manhattan's Café Lalo. The delicate art of negotiating with small people with their own priorities is instructive. To see the world through a child's eyes is both rare and revealing, whether it's the meerkats in Dubbo Zoo or a vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal in Venice.

They will also teach you not too take yourself too seriously. When you're trekking in Nepal and your six-year-old child says, "Dad, there's a leech hanging from your forehead," and your family roars with unseemly laughter, that's a memory to treasure, and one they'll never let you forget.

MICHAEL GEBICKI

Visiting remote Aboriginal communities

WHERE Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE I grew up knowing I had Aboriginal ancestors (from both the Mindaribba and Awabakal tribes), but without role models I didn't develop any sense of cultural identity. As a young adult I tried to learn more – by watching Indigenous dancers, buying dot paintings, doing bush tucker tours – but I could never find the bridge to make a meaningful connection. That all changed when I signed up for a four-day sailing adventure to the Tiwi Islands, an island group 80km north of Darwin.

The Tiwi's isolation, together with self-imposed alcohol management plans, a rich sporting heritage (just mention the word AFL and you'll make friends for life), the generation of income through art, and the opportunity to maintain connection with country means the Tiwi Islanders have fared better than many mainland communities.

Visitors are instantly welcomed. Women will take you to collect long bums (a type of mollusc), children point out the safe swimming hole, artists invite you to watch them paint, and guides will take you to see Pukumani (burial) poles.

When connection to land is left intact, so, too, is Aboriginal sense of humour. Along with skin names, everyone has a nickname. There's Black Pit, Mr Bean, Barge Boy, Tea Bag and his sweet wife, Sugar. This is fully immersive Indigenous tourism at its best. See www.travelnt.com; www.tiwiadventures.com.au; www.sealink.com.au; www.saildarwin.com.au.

KERRY VAN DER JAGT

The Nile Valley

WHERE Egypt

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE No, aliens did not build the pyramids. It is, however, fair to say that the ancient Egyptians who built those pyramids an unimaginable 4500 years ago strike us as almost as indecipherable as an extraterrestrial would. It seems impossible to connect with people so far removed from us in time, people whose gods bore the heads of jackals and crocodiles, whose empire was ancient when the Roman republic was young.

When you explore the monuments of the Nile Valley, however, they suddenly feel much closer. Of the many mighty temples and towns filling the Nile Valley, from Luxor to Abu Simbel, few are more startling than the massive Karnak complex. Walk along the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leading to the main entrance, and something clicks. The only reason to build an avenue like this is to impress.

Suddenly, those mysterious Egyptians seem human, just another bunch of people keen to put on a good show. As you wander through the site, threading your way through the dense forest of columns inside the hypostyle hall, for instance, you can picture the people behind its creation: the gifted designers, the bureaucrats trying to find the money, the harried overseers trying to keep order in a dusty building site. Time telescopes. Suddenly, the disappearance of this one-mighty civilisation feels like a loss, a mournful reminder of the transience of human civilisation. See www.egypt.travelwww.smartraveller.gov.au.

UJ

A pilgrimage to Robben Island

WHERE Cape Town, South Africa

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE The miracle of South Africa's peaceful transition to democracy comes into ever-sharper focus as the high-speed ferry from Cape Town approaches the dock at Robben Island. Multi-racial passengers and staff chit chat as though they're on a school history excursion – which, in a sense, they are. This slip of land marooned in the ferocious Cape of Storms is an allegory for the events that shaped the rainbow nation: the ostracism of South Africa's majority, the brutality of apartheid, the resilience of those who fought to overcome it, and the courage it took to bridge an apparently inflexible divide.

This place, with its postage-stamp prison cells and cold shower blocks, its guides who were once incarcerated here, its taunting views of Table Bay – and certain freedom – stirs me on a deeply personal level: it's a reminder of the upbringing I was afforded in South Africa at the expense of my black compatriots, of the deep and abiding damage caused by such atrocity, and of the importance of always speaking up, no matter where in the world injustice occurs. See www.robben-island.org.za.

CATHERINE MARSHALL

A day on the beach at Positano

WHERE Italy

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE The beach at Positano will change you way you think about beaches, but the sweep of smooth grey pebbles that calls itself a beach here is not the reason are here. You are here to observe a virile culture undressed and at play, and the nation that gave the world Michelangelo, Ferraris and espresso machines knows exactly how to organise a beach.

At the back of the beach is a row of cafes and bars where you can sit beneath a vine-covered pergola with an icy lemon granita and watch the world go by. Book a table, because at midday, as if by silent consensus, the crowds rise and head for the restaurants. The foreshore is littered with flaccid inflatables and from every restaurant comes the happy sound of wine gurgling into glasses.

Beyond a certain age, Italians live to eat. "You never die at the table," they say, and there is great consolation in the thought that another helping of melanzane alla parmigiana will postpone death. The term that applies here is la dolce vita, the sweet life, the art of making life as pleasant as possible, the life-changing lesson that Positano offers the careful observer. See www.italia.it.

MG

Live in a foreign country

WHERE Overseas, anywhere

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE Never again will you see the world in the same way. Never will it be viewed through a prism of Australia as its core. The globe opens up once you've lived in a foreign country, once you've experienced another culture's way of working, way of eating, way of drinking, way of living. Everything looks different.

Maybe you'll be forced to learn a new language. Maybe you'll be forced to work your way through a barrage of local bureaucracy. Certainly, you'll be forced to embrace a foreign way of life that will clash with many of the things you think you've always known. Whether it's the classic "Aussie abroad" stint in the UK, or doing aid work in Africa, or teaching English in Central America, or living large in Dubai, or doing any number of jobs in any number of countries, the change in your life remains the same.

Spend time living in a foreign country and you'll have new friends, new obsessions, new opinions, new ideas, new loves, new hates, and a new outlook on the world at large. Everyone should do it.

BG

Experience life beyond the headlines

WHERE The Middle East

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE The standard backdrop for the Middle East in news bulletins is of tanks, screaming masses and men in epaulettes. The reality on the ground – save a few war zones – is about traffic jams, happily shouting friends and men in epaulettes (what's not to love about a good uniform?).

They do things big in the Middle East: the Great Pyramid of Gizas, Iran's Persepolis, the Sahara desert and the Empty Quarter, to name a few. Steer clear if you like orderly queues, traffic lights and 10pm bedtimes.

Men and women live in different spheres, pork and booze are largely off the menu, and if you're foreign, you're rich. Yes, there are camels and shisha (tobacco water pipes) and you will see belly dancers.

Yet there are also chic beach resorts, the sneaky late-night bars and saucy cabarets, the deep and abiding love of football (that's soccer). And while head scarves can polarise a nation, from Iran to Oman, the passion for fashion is alive and kicking, with the same obsession for black. Travelling in the Middle East requires sinking deep into a rich, cultural morass. Deep down, you'll realise, we all just want the good life. See www.smartraveller.gov.au.

BELINDA JACKSON

Stepping ashore on the frozen planet

WHERE Antarctica

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE I blame the whale tail. It was close to midnight and we'd gathered on the bow to watch the moon rise, its ethereal glow igniting the icebergs and turning them into a garden of sapphire sculptures. To our port side a slab of ice, the size of a football field, rocked and rolled, a playground for penguins that scrambled and slid like extras in Happy Feet.

In the distance a pod of killer whales surfaced as one, their dorsal fins rising and falling in a graceful waltz. Just as we thought it couldn't get any better a lone humpback approached, cocked an eye and flipped his tail, a V for Victory sign posted in the air like a triumphant teenager. Hunted almost to extinction, humpback numbers are now clawing their way back.

If ever I needed a reminder of the beauty of our oceans and the obligation we have to protect them, this was the sign. On a cruise to Antarctica life-changing moments happen constantly. You'll find them on the wings of albatross, in the puffy snuffles of a sleeping seal, in the groans of an iceberg graveyard, in the eyes of a penguin chick or in the casual flick of a whale's tail. expeditions.com; nationalgeographicexpeditions.com

KVDJ

The City of Light

WHERE Paris

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE Paris sets the high-water mark for urban pulchritude. What the city has to offer is serendipity, and the joy that comes with the unexpected. Although you might go armed with good intentions – galleries to see, the latest hot brasseries – Paris has other ideas. You will leave your hotel in the morning fired with a sense of purpose, but the queue at the Musee d'Orsay will put you off, so you'll wander across the Seine to the Tuileries, stroll into the Orangerie Museum and stand before Monet's Water Lilies slack of jaw and possibly teary, then drift along the quayside, passing the bouquinistes, the sellers of second-hand books and postcards, where you will be drawn by the smell of crepe suzette from a street seller, which will spoil the lunch you had planned at Le Pantruche.

Paris is one huge distraction, yet it is not the grand boulevards and the art that will bewitch you, it's the small moments. When you come down the escalator at Chatelet station to be serenaded by a string quartet playing Mozart, or stumble across the Berthillon ice-cream shop on Ile Saint-Louis on a hot afternoon, Paris has just given you a lesson. Carpe momentum. See www.en.parisinfo.com.

MG

Sail a catamaran through the Pacific

WHERE Society Islands, French Polynesia

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE There's nothing as liberating as shrinking your entire world down to a 14-metre piece of fibreglass and setting it free across the blue waters of French Polynesia's Society Islands. Whatever you have to contend with in your life back home, all that matters now is the wind and the tide that determines your path.

It's the freedom granted to the sailor that proves the difference from any other type of holiday. You'll always have absolute water frontage and unhindered views of the lagoon, and nothing beats the joy of jumping from your catamaran when you first open your eyes each morning.

There's a meditation, too, that comes from sitting out on deck with a glass of wine or a cold beer watching the sun set, then knowing you have nowhere to go but to sit here and wait for the sky to blacken and the stars to shoot across the clear Pacific sky. Or in lying on the deck with the wind filling your sails above as humpback whales breach all around you.

For total freedom you can charter your own catamaran and plot your own course through islands like Raitea, Tahaa, Huahine and Bora Bora – green mountainous islands set in huge, clear blue lagoons; or you can hire a local skipper to do all the ground work. But it matters little: no-one will tell you what to do here, or where to go; your floating hotel room goes where you want it to. See www.dreamyachtcharter.com.

CRAIG TANSLEY

In the footsteps of Charles Darwin

WHERE Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE The Galapagos Islands changed my life long before I stepped on their remote, rocky shores. From a young girl, more interested in tadpoles than Barbie dolls, to a university student studying biology, the oddities of the animal world called like the piper.

It took three decades after first reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species for me to make the long journey to the "Enchanted Islands", land of the most odd-bod creatures imaginable. A place where cormorants no longer fly, where iguanas swim in the sea, and penguins, normally associated with the chilly waters of Antarctica, waddle about like they are at a tropical resort.

Whether swimming with sea lions, getting bowled over by tortoises the size of washing machines, or walking across a freshly minted landscape forged by fire, the Galapagos Islands brings you to the edge of creation and then lets you peer inside. Even Darwin was compelled to write, "Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth."

Whenever I hear someone describe a place as "just like the Galapagos", I smile to myself. Not even close. See www.expeditions.com; www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com.

KVDJ

Safari on the Masai Mara

WHERE Kenya

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE We have become so accustomed to hiding away the unpalatable truths of what it means to exist within "the circle of life" that visiting a dairy farm can, for certain people, be a confronting experience. Those people should not visit the Masai Mara. For everybody else, getting up close and personal with the wildest animals in Africa is a humbling, exhilarating encounter.

Given that many of the best accommodations are tent camps scattered across the landscape, a normal night's sleep involves the sound of lions attacking a zebra. This is a place where the corpse of a springbok is something you strangely need to see, because it brings vultures and hyenas and countless other tiny creatures gathering around.

"Everything gets eaten here," a Masai guide might tell you, which is absolutely true. Darwinism – survival of the fittest – is a daily event on the plains, illustrated in unforgettable tableaux of life and death. Few places in the world show a food chain in such broad strokes, something you can understand in a single drive. Going on safari means more than getting photographs of elephants and hippos: it means enhancing your understanding of how nature works, in all its grizzly detail. See www.magicalkenya.com; www.smartraveller.gov.au.

LANCE RICHARDSON

A visit to the Colosseum

WHERE Rome

HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall: I've visited them all. But it's Rome's Colosseum that remains the most memorable. Nearly 2000 years old, it's still one of the biggest buildings in Rome, my first glimpse of it coming from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, which put its enormity and its place in the eternal city into stark perspective.

But seeing it up close and stepping inside is another experience entirely,  and a humbling one. In this place, emperors that shaped the history of the world came for the most brutal of "entertainments". Not only does the Colosseum help you realise the extraordinary achievements of the Romans, it renders the visit insignificant.

Yet, at the same time, the building's minor details – the gate numbers at the Colosseum's entry points that are just like those on modern stadiums – make your realise that your connection to the ancient Romans might not be as remote as you think. See www.coopculture.it; www.turismoroma.it/

CP

 

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