BHUTAN Trek to remote ancient monasteries in the Himalayas
DETAILS: The tiny, landlocked kingdom of Bhutan, having only allowed its first commercial tourists in 1974, fiercely guards its untrammeled culture and ecosystems. Yearly visitor quotas are strictly adhered to, and only organized groups are allowed. The mountainous terrain is festooned with dramatically perched Mahayana Buddhist temples. Chanting monks in deep maroon robes carry on ancient traditions and ritual dances in dreamlike monasteries. Sites to discover include Tamshing Lhakhang (Temple of the Good Message), established in 1501, and the National Library, stocked with Buddhist manuscripts. Another highlight is a horseback ride through pine forests to the Taktsang Monastery, clinging to a sheer 3,000-foot rock cliff that plunges into the valley below.
FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: ?If Shangri-la exists on earth, it is certainly located in Bhutan. This Himalayan Buddhist kingdom is absolutely unique, with a populace that reveres its king and preserves its cultural heritage. Visitors are charged an unusually high tariff, ensuring that the country is not overwhelmed by tourists. There are no cigarettes for sale in the entire country, nor plastic bags littering the landscape. The environment is pristine, and the scenery breathtaking. Your stay in this country is sheer heaven.?
--Dan Ware, Toto Tours
SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT TRIP: Chicago-based Toto Tours (800-565-1241) is the only gay company that offers trips to Bhutan. Their March 2009 Thunder Dragon tour offers a three-day trek.
HAWAII Hover above live volcanic lava flows
DETAILS: On the Big Island of Hawaii?s feral southeastern coast lies a rocky, primordial moonscape where you?d expect a dinosaur to amble by. Here the dramatic Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?s Kilauea vent has been spewing molten lava since 1983, destroying some local neighborhoods in the process. This is the abode of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, and although tourists flock to the coast to see the ooze of red-hot lava pumping into the Pacific under huge clouds of steam, the only way to view the actual crater of Kilauea is by (safely) hovering above it in a helicopter, with expert pilots narrating the inferno?s every move.
FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: ?My partner and I were thoroughly impressed. We ended up with some impressive shots of molten lava and magma tubes. This certainly was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.?
--Trevor and Shaun, Hawaii Gay Travel
SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT TRIP: Honolulu-based Hawaii Gay Travel (800-508-5996) can book helicopter tours as well as accommodations and activities throughout the islands year-round.
MONTANA Drive 2,000 head of cattle across the great West
DETAILS: Located 30 miles from Yellowstone National Park, the Lazy E-L is a working ranch with 12,000 acres of wide-open pasture and 2,000 head of cattle. Visitors reside in a comfy historic log lodge built in 1919 (augmented with amenities like hot showers, modern beds, and wine), with unobstructed views of the Beartooth Mountains rising over 12,000 feet beyond. A lively crew of wranglers, cowboys, and cowgirls help you learn the ropes of driving cattle to new feeding pastures, and of course there are cookouts, swimming holes, and campfire tales, plus plenty of childhood-fantasy fulfillment.
FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: ?Sometimes we saddle in the dark, ride out at dawn, gather the entire herd, and move them over the hills to the next basin all before 9 A.M. Horseback is the only way to do this -- just like my great-grandfather did over 100 years ago. What has changed on the Lazy E-L is that the cowboy culture is far more tolerant and open-minded than it was 100 or even 20 years ago. This is truly the Brokeback Mountain experience, minus the tents, canned beans, and tragedy.? --Aaron Kampfe, OutWest Global Adventures
SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT TRIP: Montana-based gay tour operator OutWest Global Adventures (800-743-0458) offers the weeklong ranch experience (for just 12 guests) five times each summer between June and September.
EASTER ISLAND Delve into the mystical sites of the lost Polynesian civilization of Rapa Nui
DETAILS: The amazingly remote Chilean outpost of Easter Island (over 2,000 miles from the nearest population center) stands out among the South Pacific?s great mysteries. Called Rapa Nui by its inhabitants, the speck of land is famous for its giant moai, the enormous humanoid volcanic rock statues estimated to have been created between the 9th and 12th centuries. Beyond exploring mind-boggling archaeological sites, you can bask on empty beaches, watch dancers covered in body paint, and climb the crater of an extinct volcano. You may even spot a cross-dresser?a cultural staple throughout queer-friendly Polynesia.
FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT: ?We hiked up the ever-steeper slope of the dormant Rano Raraku volcano past partially carved moai statues that have spent centuries half in the air and half buried in the ground, exactly as they were when the society that carved them met its demise. We reached a gap in the side of the caldera and walked through the gap to gaze at a lush pond in the middle. This peaceful moment was soon interrupted, however, when we heard an approaching noise, and suddenly 20 wild mustangs came galloping through the gap where we had just walked, on their way to their watering hole. A vivid moment to remember on one of the most remote inhabited islands on earth.? --Phil Sheldon, Hanns Ebensten Travel
SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT TRIP: Key West, Fla.-based Hanns Ebensten Travel (866-294-8174), the very first gay tour operator in the world, organizes an annual gay Easter Island trip; the next one happens March 7?12, 2009.