Three wide open places begging to be explored

Dreaming of visiting wide open spaces? These three outdoor adventures are worth the wait.
Sailing with The Moorings in the British Virgin Islands. // photo George Kamper

by Josephine Matyas

When I close my eyes and take a deep breath, my mind travels to wild spaces, open spaces; spaces where the weather and the natural world help calm my internal compass.


CRUISING MY WAY around the British Virgin Islands (BVI), I can’t help but think how simple it is to craft a trip to out-of-the-way spaces and solitude, despite being so close to the pulse of tourism.

It’s all about where you decide to drop anchor.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they travel. A jungle trek is nirvana for an eco-adventurer. Someone with a checklist of Africa’s Big Five values wildlife over sleeping in late. And for the snorkeler who wants to float above coral reefs, but stay sheltered in their bubble, there’s the privacy of a charter yacht.

A crewed yacht is a world of relaxed flexibility; each day catering to the whims of the guests, pampered along by high thread-count linens in air-conditioned cabins, gourmet cuisine and on-board Wi-Fi. Charter yachts—like those offered by The Moorings—can easily explore the remote side of the tropics, finding tucked away, golden beaches lined by palm trees and snorkelling spots with nary another flipper in sight. It’s a pick-and-choose menu of experiences.

The BVI sit on a massive shelf at the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, dropping off precipitously on the Caribbean side. It’s a volcanic area and the 60 mainly uninhabited islands are the peaks of mountains and volcanoes. The waters are known for “open-line-of-sight sailing” with shorter expanses of open water, which makes it easy to hop between islands.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus moored here on his second voyage to the New World and they quickly became known as “the place on the way to everywhere” for the sheltered harbours that broke up the lengthy trade routes between Europe and South America. The quiet coves also attracted notorious pirates like Blackbeard and Calico Jack who prowled the “excellent hunting grounds” along the lucrative treasure route.

Within a few days we’ve found a dining rhythm: beginning mornings with fresh fruit and breakfast fixings; winding down at sunset with hors d’oeuvres and frosty tropical drinks on the fly bridge and dinner al fresco at a table set with flickering candles, a vase of lightly-scented flowers and plates of perfectly-grilled seafood. We carry post-dinner drinks to the foredeck, settling in to watch pinpricks of starlight pop out against an inky-black sky.

At Virgin Gorda we drop anchor, slide into the gin-clear waters and swim to shore. At The Baths National Park there’s a short hike winding between a jumble of granite boulders formed when volcanic lava erupted sky high millions of years ago. I stop to dangle my feet in the shallow grottos beside the path and soak in the breathtaking views mixing the enormous grey rocks with the deep blue and aquamarine of the sea.

The clear waters, the warm sunshine and my little home bobbing at its anchor calm and centre me as well as— no, better than—any day at the spa.

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A sunrise excursion in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve. // photo Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

MY DINING TABLE is topped with the red plaid fabric worn by Kenya’s Maasai warriors. It’s a daily reminder of the people, animals and the deep warm strength of the African savannah.

Like most wildlife spotting experiences, it’s an early morning start when there’s a soft tap at the door of my extravagantly appointed, riverside tent at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, a luxury property near Kenya’s world-renowned Maasai Mara Game Reserve. At its higher elevation, the Maasai Mara has wide, open grasslands and is the coolest of the country’s reserves, making it a wildlife-spotting bonanza.

The steaming mug of coffee that’s delivered to my door is the start of my Kenyan safari lesson: begin early and trust that quiet, patient observation rewards with payoffs.

The rough and rutted, 90-minute drive along dirt roads into the game reserve passes quickly. From the time we leave the gates of the resort we are enveloped in a visual feast of animal life: antelope, warthogs, zebra, giraffes, spotted hyenas, baboons and a large herd of elephants slowly foraging their morning meal. When we come upon a “journey” of giraffes, we cut the engine and watch as the lanky creatures pull leaves from the upper branches and languidly chew and chew until all is gone.

A flat tire on our 4WD jeep slows us down, but I take it as extra time to stop and reflect on the humble beauty of the pale green and yellow grasses of the savannah. A park ranger pulls up on a tractor to tell us that a pride of lions has been spotted not far away. Our guide plots the coordinates and—tire changed—we’re off. Lions are among the Big Five animals everyone yearns to see.

We find the pride of a dozen lounging under a tree; the adults with swollen bellies are napping after a feed, while a half-dozen cubs roll and tumble in the shade. Our guide parks a respectful distance away and we settle in to watch. The cubs are curious and come over to explore, flopping down in the shade under our open jeep. If I stop to think about it, it’s intimidating.

What if an irritated adult follows and decides we look just-a-little-too interesting? In this ancient and fragile place, you are constantly on the lookout for wildlife. It’s a tightrope strung between thrill and fear; the knowledge that creatures with the ability to kill roam at will (and may even be napping 10 metres away).

But back in the safety of Canada, it is all thrill; the memories wash over me, brought to life by the bright colours gracing my dining room table.

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Manu National Park in Peru’s Amazon rainforest is a haven for birdwatchers and nature lovers.

WHEN THE GUIDE suggests we start early, he means to spot wildlife, marvel as tropical birds fly overhead, breathe in the soil’s complex earthiness, you’d best be caffeine-charged and ready at the boat dock before the sun cracks the horizon. I set my alarm for 5 a.m.

In Manú National Park—the heart of Peru’s Amazon rainforest—mornings are the best time for exploring; it’s cooler and not quite as humid, so animals are more active. Rain or shine, we go; it’s the rainforest and at least 250-centimetres of moisture falls every year, splashing the ground with humidity and nourishing the flora and fauna.

The UNESCO-designated park is tricky to get to—by small plane over the Andes (or a 12-hour hair-raising drive) from Cusco, followed by a jungle riverboat ride. Manú competes with famous Machu Picchu, but annually the pristine park draws only about half the number of visitors that climb to the famous Inca ruins by noon each day.

For birders and nature lovers craving a remote experience, it’s a rainforest stew—a fragile and complex ecosystem of dark, earthy smells, gargantuan plant growth and humidity hanging in the air like a constant rain falling. The forest of Manú is virgin, old growth rainforest, much of it is unexplored and in its natural state, including tribes of indigenous peoples who choose to stay away from modern contact. This tropical rainforest is the most biodiverse zone on Earth, boasting a genetic diversity that blooms, flies, crawls and slithers like no other. This is the wilderness I crave.

On this morning, the mist hangs thick over the silty-brown Madre de Dios River as we motor downriver to the clay licks where the tropical birds start their day. The river banks are lined with bamboo, palms, kapok and fig trees. In this part of the Amazon more than 600 types of tree per square kilometre make up what may be the world’s largest tropical forest. We tumble from the boat onto a dodgy-looking dock that is missing more boards than are attached.

The clay licks are where flocks of parrots, parakeets, toucans and the endangered scarlet macaws congregate and feed in the early hours, putting on a daybreak show of colour and a cacophony of chirps, screeches and whistles.

The brown clay wall is soon covered with dozens of red and green macaws, birds found only in South America. The macaws are squawking and the humans are silent—quiet is the golden rule—to respect the birds’ natural pattern of behaviour.

Then there’s a sudden, raspy alarm call—perhaps an eagle sighted—and it’s a riot of red and green feathers as the flock heads for the safety of the rainforest canopy.

It’s during that early morning flurry of feathers that everything about this adventure comes into focus: learning and appreciation for how the relationship between forest and human existence starts small but can grow when nurtured.

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Clockwise from left: Red Howler Monkeys are one of the primate species visitors might spot; red and green macaws congregate in the park; the park is home to a wide variety of butterfly species. // photos Ernesto Benavides, Heinz Plenge/Promperu

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