The Wonder List

Life-changing trips: 17 places that can reshape your world

Griffin Shea, for CNNUpdated 27th November 2015
(CNN) — Some journeys are life changing because of their timing: Driving off to college or going on honeymoon are experiences people carry with them forever.
Other trips are great firsts, like leaving the country for the first time, crossing the ocean or hiking up a mountain. And some are trips planned because it's time for a change.
Here are some travel experiences that can give a new perspective on life, a fresh appreciation for the planet or just a chance to join in a giant celebration that lifts the spirits:

1. Denali National Park (Alaska)

The 92-mile road that runs through Denali National Park journeys across a subarctic landscape unparalleled in North America.
Golden eagles fly overhead, caribou climb ridges and grizzlies lumber across the tundra.
Crowned by the mountain that gave the park its name, the protected wilderness stretches over six million acres, an area the size of a small European country, like say, Macedonia.
It's hard to get lost on the only road through the park, and the campsites are so popular that the park set up a reservation system.
But it's easy to lose yourself in a landscape untouched by the passage of time, in a space so big that anyone would feel small.

2. Istanbul

Turkey sits in a rough neighborhood, with sectarian and political battles in so many countries next door.
Despite all that, Istanbul is a joyous reminder that it doesn't have to be that way. Layers of the past quite literally peel away at the Hagia Sophi. The Blue Mosque welcomes visitors with a welcoming picture of Islam.
Alongside the city's historic core, contemporary architecture and art, vibrant nightlife and modern cuisine live happily together.

3. Bagan, Myanmar

Temple time travel: Myanmar's ancient Buddhist complex at Bagan.
One thousand years ago, this city ruled a Southeast Asian kingdom that showed its wealth by building 10,000 Buddhist temples along the Irrawaddy River. More than 2,000 remain.
Unlike in Cambodia, where giant groups come to explore Angkor Wat, Bagan remains a quiet experience where locals in sandalwood makeup and longyis show off the sights.
At sunset, small bands of fellow travelers scale the temples' terraces to watch the sky light up hundreds of spires.
There are no mega-hotels, no big resorts, just a slip in time to an Asia that no longer exists in many other places.

4. Sailing the Caribbean

Like living with pirates, but without the looting and bloodshed.
Hiring a private sailing yacht is easier than it sounds, made worthwhile with quiet days on the open sea and stops at islands that can still feel newly discovered.
Many provide excellent food (and drink), and the beauty of having the entire ship is being able to customize the itinerary.

5. Holi festival (India)

Rainbow riot: India's Holi festival is now a global phenomenon
In spring, the Hindu festival of colors explodes in the Indian temple towns of Mathura and Vrindavan. The free for all of powder and colored water leaves everyone looking like human jelly beans.
The festival has spread around the world (Mauritius really enjoys it) but retains special significance here at the spot revered as Krishna's birthplace.
It's a celebration of spring, but to truly take part means embracing the holiday's spirit of forgiveness -- of others and oneself.

6. Great Barrier Reef (Australia)

Diving or snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef makes the world seem even bigger than it already does.
The 2,900 reefs that form the Great Barrier comprise billions upon billions of tiny living creatures, coral, which together have built something visible from space.
Even novice snorkelers can experience what look like alien life forms up close. It's something to do sooner rather than later. The authority that manages the reef says warming ocean waters have caused huge swaths of coral to bleach out.
This is expected to get worse every year, making the reef a visible reminder of the Earth's fragility.

7. Paris

Romance and art and fashion and food. These things Paris offers all year, but they're showcased at the Salon du Chocolat.
Each fall, the world's best chocolatiers, confectioners and cocoa experts celebrate tastes and creations that can't be found anywhere else.
This year included a six-meter-high chocolate bear, music and dance from cocoa-producing countries and a fashion show of designs either made from or inspired by chocolate.
Can't make it to Paris? The Salon is so successful that it's started traveling to other countries.

8. Kyoto, Japan

Moments of mindfulness: Kyoto's temples of calm.
Japan's sleek high-speed trains and LED-lit streets take a back seat in Kyoto, the old imperial capital of pagodas and temples, where a tea ceremony can last for hours.
Casual visitors can contemplate life's mysteries while strolling along the Philosopher's Path, which runs under cherry trees and near shrines and temples.
Really embracing mindfulness and meditation means going on a retreat at one of the Zen temples, like Shunkoin.
The temple runs guesthouses and hosts regular talks in English on Zen and mindfulness. Not to worry about being too cut off from the world. One of the monks is an active tweeter.

9. Chicago

Travelers who stick to the American coasts miss out on Midwest Chicago's amazing architecture, jazz clubs and ethnic festivals every weekend all summer.
An even better reason to visit: it's the training ground for the country's funniest people.
Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and more others than it's possible to list here all learned comedy in Chicago.
The Second City theater (where all three of the above learned improv) offers classes to anyone who wants to sign up.
A full course lasts eight weeks, but if that's too long for a vacation, there are drop-in classes and intensive sessions for even short visits. They also take seriously the idea that laughter can change your life, with courses on improv for anxiety or for adults with autism.

10. Drakensberg, South Africa

If the Drakensberg ran its own Instagram feed, every photo would be tagged #nofilter.
The otherworldly landscape evoked by its Afrikaans name, Dragon Mountains, needs no digital assistance.
Jagged escarpments, sheer cliffs and snowy winter peaks are a storybook setting that "Hobbit" director Peter Jackson would love.
The Zulu name Quathlamba, or Battlement of Spears, sums up the actual look of the mountains.
People have admired their mystical quality for thousands of years, evidenced in the collection of San rock art hidden away in caves and shelters throughout the region.
Some date back 4,000 years and are accessible only to serious climbers. Others are near well-trod paths that the average hiker can easily manage.
This is Africa's largest collection of rock art, a window into how our ancient ancestors experienced life and nature.

11. Buenos Aires

Turning heads as well as pages: Buenos Aires bookstore El Ateneo Grand Splendid.
With its reputation for tango, fine wine and steaks, many people overlook Buenos Aires's other appeal: books.
The Argentine capital is a haven for word nerds (sexy ones at that), with more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world.
It's impossible to visit even a fraction of them, but the famous El Ateneo Grand Splendid captures the reverence granted to books. Housed inside an ornate old theater, El Ateneo is a shrine to the written word.
The seating has been replaced by shelves, but the theater boxes are now nooks for a sample read before buying.

12. Forbidden City (Beijing)

Touring a capital's old palace can feel like part of a travel checklist, a sight to be seen and ticked off.
The Forbidden City, formally known as the Palace Museum, is different.
Both the largest and most visited palace complex in the world, it operates on a scale that's hard to imagine without actually walking through its many pathways and penetrating the layers upon layers of grandeur.
A center of power for nearly five centuries, China has invested heavily in re-establishing it as a symbol of the country's historic might and prestige.
The two main gates are almost a kilometer apart, with 74 hectares enclosed by a 10-meter wall and surrounded by a 52-meter moat.
More than 15 million people, most of them Chinese tourists, visit each year to see the museum's treasures of architecture, art and calligraphy. Every stop inside is a lesson in ambition.

13. U.S. Highway 1 up the Pacific Coast

There are few more iconic American travel experiences than a road trip, and few more spectacular roads to choose than U.S. Highway 1 up the California coast.
Parts of the route are instantly familiar from movies and commercials.
Sharp twists, dramatic cliffs and powerful bridges make for an exhilarating drive without a chase scene or a romantic romp. The full drive runs nearly 600 miles from San Diego to north of San Francisco.
Don't plan to race through it. There are a lot of stops along the way. The mountains crash into the Pacific at Big Sur, artsy Carmel invites leisurely walks and Hearst Castle is a study in opulence.

14. New Orleans Jazz Fest

Music makers: The New Orleans Jazz Festival is a celebration of life's pleasures.
Nowhere is New Orleans' food and music on finer display than at the Jazz Festival, which pulls in big-name performers and small-town gospel choirs with equal enthusiasm.
Food areas spill out across the grounds with boiled crawfish and softshell crabs, gumbo and strawberry lemonade. It can be a bit gluttonous, for the stomach and the ears, in the best way.
The Jazz Fest is really about celebrating life's pleasures and overcoming its obstacles.

15. Wimbledon (London)

As the oldest, and arguably most prestigious, of tennis's Grand Slam tournaments, Wimbledon is undoubtedly one of the world's great sporting events.
With its fiercely maintained traditions -- freshly cut grass courts, players dressed all in white, ivy covered walls -- Wimbledon is an exemplar of a certain type of old school Britishness.
Yes, some of the pomp can be silly.
But there's no argument against strawberries and cream or a glass of Pimm's. For tennis lovers, this is heaven. Even for those with a passing interest in a sport, Wimbledon is a way of giving a nod to old traditions, sort of playing at Downton Abbey, while exploring the many vibrant kinds of modern Britishness that London offers.

16. Gorilla trekking (Rwanda)

The trek into Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park isn't for everyone.
It can be tough hiking through the rainforest, up and down steep mountain slopes, sometimes on slippery trails.
Still, only about 700 mountain gorillas are still alive anywhere, and meeting them can changes the very idea of what it means to be human. Just 10 gorilla groups in Rwanda are habituated to humans, so they're the only ones tourists can visit.
Groups of visitors are necessarily small, so this is a trip to plan well in advance. The virtue of the small group is that everyone gets a chance to look in a gorilla's expressive eyes, to watch them play with their young and to wonder how different we really are from them.

17. Bali, Indonesia

Warm nights: Bali offers escape.
The island's name is synonymous with "tropical paradise," and with good reason. Bali has long been a refuge for artists and writers seeking inspiration, which it offers in abundance.
Stunning scenery, excellent food, nightlife and quiet retreats -- Bali is the real deal. Even though it's well visited by tourists, this is still a place of escape.
Whether camping out in a backpacker lodge or a week in a resort, Bali gives visitors a chance to recalibrate by showing its own example of how to live.
Griffin Shea is a writer and traveler based in South Africa.
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