The phrase "adventure travel" has a bit of an image problem. For many, it conjures only images of summiting mountains, diving into underwater caverns, and, well, aching muscles. But when we asked ourselves what kinds of adventures belong on everyone's travel list, we cast a much wider net. Yes, we can get you underwater—snorkeling among corals off Belize, anyone? But we also think it's mighty adventurous to sign up for cooking lessons in the land that practically invented eating—Tuscany. Or mastering the dance in a Buenos Aires tango hall. Of course, if you insist on some good old-fashioned adrenaline pumping, we'll direct you to some expert hang gliding instructors in Los Angeles. All eight of our can't-miss adventures have one thing in common—you'll arrive back home with a heckuva story to tell.
With knockout beaches on Ambergris Caye, Caye Kaulker, and Placenia, plus inland jungles, 600 species of birds (think toucans and motmots), and Mayan ruins, Belize is paradise for landlubbers. But nothing beats exploring the blue sea and getting up-close-and-personal with the underwater residents on a snorkeling adventure. A visit to the five-square-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve with a good outfitter will include all snorkeling gear and the chance to hobnob with colorful coral, angelfish, grunts, snappers, rays, nurse sharks (it's okay, they're harmless!), and maybe even a manatee from June to September.
Get started: Raggamuffin Tours offers day trips to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and other packages, including overnights on a sailboat.
River cruises are routinely touted as the "next big thing." And there's a reason for that. While Europe's long, winding, history-drenched rivers aren't exactly a secret, it's true that cruise lines are adding more river cruises each year. And cruising in a small, intimate ship on an iconic European river like the Danube, the Seine, or the Rhine means you're making frequent stops at charming little towns and even big cities like Paris, whose Port de Grenelle dock is walking distance from the Eiffel Tower. Add gourmet meals, local wines, and guided tours and you've got a dream trip in the making. The season runs from March to September, with a high season (read: more expensive) in May, June, and July.
Get started: Viking River Cruises offers sails on the Rhine, the Seine, the Danube, and the Rhône, as well as the Volga.
Think a close encounter with lions, elephants, zebra, rhinos, and hippos is out of your reach? Think again. Sure, they don't come cheap, but it's possible to have a full safari experience (including airfare, lodging, meals, and game-viewing drives) for under $2,500. A quality tour will give you time to spot animals in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Lake Naivasha, and Kigio Wildlife Camp, and guarantee window seats on drives through preserves with an experienced English-speaking guide.
Get started: Gate 1 Travel offers a number of package tours to Kenya from major U.S. airports.
We know, at first glance it's likely that you're not too keen on jumping off a cliff and letting a sail on an aluminum frame help you waft safely back to earth. But we're here to tell you it's a lot easier—and infinitely more fun—than you might think. In fact, of all the photo-worthy stunts attempt on vacation, hang gliding with the help of a qualified tandem partner is completely safe. While you may have heard that gliding over Rio is the ultimate glide (and it is), there are opportunities to fly right here in the U.S. Los Angeles, with its mid-size mountain ranges and stretches of beach, makes a terrific backdrop for a float. Learn to hang glide on the sand, and when you're ready to take the plunge, sign up for a tandem ride, in which you share the glider with a licensed pilot.
Get started: Windsports offers beginners' training on the beach, tandem glides from mountains, and, if you're really bitten by the hang gliding bug, pilot training.
Anyone who has tucked into a plate of fresh pasta or seafood—or, for that matter, just about any dish—in Tuscany knows that ohmygosh moment when you wonder, how on earth do they do this? It's time to take the leap: Sign up for a cooking class with an expert in Tuscan cuisine. It may not sound quite as adventurous as hang gliding or snorkeling, but consider this: You're pushing the envelope of your abilities and that plate of hand-made pasta you put in front of your guests at the next dinner party may impress them more than any adventure travel story ever could. There are a number of opportunities to immerse yourself in Italian cuisine both in Florence and in outlying areas, where you find yourself learning to craft bruschetta, gnocchi, and even tiramisu while surrounded by olive trees, vineyards, and rolling farmland.
Get started: Toscana Mia offers hands-on culinary training in a relaxed, friendly environment in either Florence or the Chianti countryside.
Argentina's cultural life may be defined by dance more than that of any other country. Visit a tango salon, or milonga, and you'll see extraordinary demonstrations of this seductive, mysterious dance, whose rapid turns and inherent drama were inspired by Argentine gangsters. But aside from the flamboyant styles of tango on display, there is also the opportunity for you, as a visitor, to learn a more subdued—and manageable—version of the dance. C'mon, we know you've thought about it: Arrive at a milonga early in the evening and you can usually participate in an affordable group lesson. (Experienced dancers won't show up till midnight.) If you're up for it, dress the part: That means dress shoes, suits, and dresses. Ready for even more adventure? Once you've mastered the basic moves, dance with a stranger.
Get started: Academia Nacional de Tango (11/4345-6968) offers evening lessons.
Most experienced travelers are eager to find ways to make their world a better place, and there's no better way to indulge your Peace Corps fantasies—without the long-term commitment—than by signing up for a volunteer vacation. Book a trip with an experienced tour operator and make a difference by working with underprivileged children, teaching, or participating in a construction project. Examples of ongoing volunteer vacation opportunities include teaching arts and crafts to children in orphanages in India and assisting with food and water safety and building or renovating infrastructure on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
Get started: GVI is a tour operator specializing in volunteer opportunities. It offers packages that can include working with children, construction projects, and wildlife conservation.
There's never been a better time in human history to find a route to your roots. Heritage travel is big business, with Ireland leading the way with more than 120,000 overseas visitors per year. (One in nine Americans, including President Obama, have some Irish heritage.) Aer Lingus offers a "Discover Your Roots" tour that includes a night in Dublin, an hour-long consultation with an Irish genealogy specialist, and vouchers for car rentals to get you to your hometown. Similarly, African Americans have explored West Africa with the help of Palace Travel's Discover Senegal package; Chinese Americans have booked customized trips through Explore China Tours, and Italian Americans turn to the Pallante Center for Italian Research for genealogical research. Sure, results vary, but for some people a walk back into their family history is the greatest adventure they could take.
Get started: Read "Find Your Roots in Ireland" for a BT writer's narrative of tracing her family's history on the Emerald Isle, plus tips for exploring other ethnic backgrounds.