These eight adventure destinations from Africa to Australia to Antarctica will blow your mind with their untrammeled beauty.
Do you crave solitude and tranquility in a place where vast skies hang over views that stretch for miles, where crowds of people are unheard of?
If you’re done following the herd to the beach or ski slopes and really want to escape the modern world, you might consider exploring one of the world’s deserts. Bonus: It’s unlikely to rain.
A fifth of the Earth’s landmass is designated desert—places that receives less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) of precipitation a year.
From stargazing in Chile’s Atacama Desert to exploring the sand cathedrals of Chad, desert adventures can be had on every continent. Here are eight of the best:
Ancient Sands: Namib Desert
Barely changed in more than 2 million years, the 81,000 square kilometers of ever-shifting grit and sand that stretches from Angola through Namibia into South Africa make the Namib—translated as “Vast Place”—one of the world’s largest desert environments.
Coastal fog provides just enough life-giving moisture to plants and animals adapted to the harsh conditions.
This nine-night trip, led by an expert naturalist guide, ticks a lot of boxes. From trekking in the Sossusvlei—which claims to have the world’s highest sand dunes—to exploring the eerie shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast and tracking the desert-adapted black rhinoceros in the rugged Palmwag Concession, the Namib proves that emptiness needn’t mean a lack of adventure.
Namibia’s Desert and Coast, Wildlife Worldwide: 9 nights, from $7,528 per person
Tough Trip: Ennedi Desert
Northern Chad is probably not at the top of your vacation list; it’s difficult to get to, with little infrastructure and even less comfort. But the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Ennedi Massif, in the middle of the Sahara, is something to behold.
Wind and water have sculpted the sandstone plateau into extraordinary rock formations, including the stunning 120-meter-high Aloba Arch.
In the region’s south you’ll find the Ennedi’s desert ponds, or gueltas, home to desert crocodiles. Add local markets and chance encounters with the nomadic Tubu people and their camel caravans, and the region is ripe for exploration.
But glampers beware: The terrain is tough, and accommodation is seriously no-frills.
Sand Cathedrals and Camel Caravans, Chad: Steppes Travel, 15 nights, from $4,050 per person
Bespoke Beauty: Sahara Desert
If you can’t bear the thought of slumming in the sand, this lies at the other end of the comfort spectrum. With Black Tomato’s personalized “Blink” service, you can customize practically every detail of your trip to the Erg Chegaga sand dunes in Morocco’s southern Sahara region.
From the dinner menu to the décor of your tent, every detail is yours to dream up.
Your three nights could be spent sipping fine wines from fancy glassware, while daytime experiences may include bread-making or hot-air ballooning over the dunes.
Once your experience is over, the camp will be dismantled, with no trace left. The tailored experience was yours and yours alone.
Erg Chegaga Sand Dunes, Morocco: Black Tomato, 3 nights, from $11,822 per person
Picture Perfect: Antarctica
The driest, coldest continent on Earth is technically a 5.5-million-square-mile desert. Despite icy conditions, less rain falls in Antarctica than in the Sahara.
Travelers who make it this far south tend to visit only once, making a photography trip the ideal way to preserve those memories.
Cruising on the freshly refurbished Ocean Adventurer with a photography expert in tow, you’ll cross the Drake Passage, gaze at towering icebergs, and learn how to capture stunning scenery and unique wildlife, from penguin rookeries to minke whales.
A dip in the freezing waters is optional.
Photography Series: Antarctic Explorer, Peregrine Adventures, 11 days, from $7,895 per person
Explorers’ Footsteps: Lut Desert
Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo and 20th-century explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, this 220-kilometer hike across Iran’s Lut Desert is no walk in the park.
The 13-night expedition (including eight days of walking) takes you through terrain so hostile it’s incapable of sustaining flora or fauna. Following a route few people have undertaken, you’ll traverse the spines of sand dunes and dried lakes and stand in craters left by meteorites.
A word of caution: The Lut desert is a contender for one of the hottest places on Earth.
In 2005, satellites recorded a surface temperature of 70.7 °C (159.3F). All water carried is strictly for consumption—making wet wipes your sole bath time buddy.
Desert Stars and Solitude, Iran: Secret Compass, 13 nights from $4,999 per person
Clearest Skies: Atacama Desert
Trudging across the sand in blistering heat isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. For the pampered desert experience, head to Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
With its own open-air observatory, plus powerful telescope perched atop a nearby hill, you’re perfectly placed to experience one of the clearest skies in the Southern Hemisphere.
If you eventually tire of daytime spa treatments and the resort’s six outdoor pools—comprising far more water than the single millimeter of rain that falls here each year—the lodge offers more than 30 guided, sustainably minded desert excursions, including volcano climbs, mountain biking, and exploring ancient Inca ruins.
Spa and Star-Gazing, Chile: Pura Aventura, four nights, from $2,665 per person
Beyond Uluru: Simpson Desert
Appreciate Australia’s most famous natural landmark from the comfort of Longitude 131°, a luxury desert camp in the Simpson Desert, where the sacred sandstone is always in sight. Fifteen luxury tents, each with floor-to-ceiling windows and a fireplace, nestle in the bush, all with spectacular views of Uluru.
By day, take to the air, hit the saddle, or opt for the back of a camel to explore the Outback. At night, check out the Field of Light, where 50,000 spindles of light cover an area the size of seven football fields.
The exhibition by Bruce Munro has been so popular, it was recently extended through the end of 2020.
Don’t think about climbing the rock, however. While it’s not yet prohibited, the Anangu landowners of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park respectfully ask that tourists refrain from scaling the sacred monolith. An official ban on the climb will come into effect on Oct. 26, 2019.
Desert Luxury, Australia: Jacada Travel, 3 nights from $6,010 per person
Dune Living: Thar Desert
Covering 200,000 square kilometers, the Thar Desert, which stretches from northwest India into Pakistan, has the dubious accolade of being the world’s most densely populated desert, with 83 residents per square kilometer.
Put that into context, though—New York has 27,000 people crammed into the same amount of space—and you’re still going to have a pretty quiet time.
Just outside Jaisalmer, known as the Golden City, the Serai is a super-luxury camp consisting of 21 tents set on a vast private desert estate, a throwback to the royal caravans of the Rajput era.
Six boast their own walled gardens, while the jewel in the crown, the Royal Tented Suite, has its own pool, spa and separate dining and lounge tents.
If you can be bothered to do anything but laze, desert drives and culinary classes will help pass the time, while excursions into the desert citadel and to the World Heritage Site of Jaisalmer will give you a look at life in Rajasthan.
The Serai Thar Desert Experience, Jacada Travel, 3 nights from $3,220 per person
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.
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Photo credit: Off-limits to many overseas travelers for decades, Iran is finally opening to foreigners the hottest place on earth: the Lut Desert. Jerome Poulin / Bloomberg