10 Alternatives to Bucket List Destinations

Once-in-a-lifetime trips are called that for a reason. For the years when time, money and/or logistics aren't in your favor, consider these 10 worthwhile alternatives.

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Quebec City Instead of Paris


The exchange rate is currently in favor of Canada, and you won’t encounter the same crowds in Quebec City as in Paris. What you will find, especially if you stay in the UNESCO-designated Old City, are cobblestone streets worthy of a French village and plenty of chances to practice your French. Even better, you won’t have to sacrifice amazing food, since Quebec City does justice to both French and French Canadian dining. Standouts include the award-winning Panache, which feels like the country French farmhouse of your dreams. Le Grafitti attracts more locals than tourists, and offers an updated approach to French (and Italian) dishes. Don't miss queuing up for crepes at Casse-Crêpe Breton and gorging on poutine at Le Chic Shack and Chez Ashton. Visit the recently opened Pierre Lassonde Pavilion at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec. The collections include more than 2,600 pieces of Inuit art and some of the finest paintings by regional artists. For shopping, Old City offers a plethora of one-of-a-kind boutiques. Pop into Charlevoix Pure Laine on the iconic Petit Champlain for hats, scarves and mittens made from the wool of Charlevoix sheep. Venture past Old City to explore the trendy Saint-Roch district and poke along Rue St. Jean. When it’s time to crash, spend a night at the historic Château Frontenac. At the very least, grab drinks at its 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar, named for the year and spot the city was founded. Or batten down at Auberge Saint-Antoine, (which also houses Panache) a converted 19th-century warehouse that exudes French rustic charm. You’ll forget you're not in Paris.

The Northern Lights in Reykjavik, Iceland Instead of Scandinavia

Norway, Sweden and Finland are often associated with the spectacular northern lights phenomena (aka the aurora borealis), but the airfare and long drives from the nearest airport make Northern Europe viewing more expensive and less accessible. Enter Reykjavik, just a six-hour flight from New York City, plus low fares on WOW Air and Norwegian Air make it more affordable than ever. The fact that Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world means you can even base yourself in the city to catch one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. While it’s never guaranteed you’ll see the light show, your chances increase between late September through early April. Grotta Lighthouse, about an hour walk, or 10-minute drive, from downtown, is one of your best bets for viewing the lights in Reykjavik proper. The Pearl is another option, home to a revolving restaurant and observation deck. Alternatively, numerous Northern Lights tours leave from the city: Elding offers a two-hour excursion, which includes a 20-minute boat ride to Videy Island. In the event you don't see any lights, the company will provide a free tour ticket good for two years.

The Biltmore Estate Instead of a European Castle

If a European trip isn’t in the budget, the U.S. boasts castles to rival Europe’s grand dames. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, was modeled after the French chateaus of the Loire Valley and is considered the largest privately owned manse in the country. Architect Richard Morris Hunt, whose other projects included The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Statue of Liberty, designed this National Historic Landmark. This epitome of Gilded Age homes contains 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and three kitchens, filled with centuries-old tapestries and Renoir paintings throughout. Since owner George Washington Vanderbilt III outfitted it with the era’s latest and greatest, it’s also one of the few 19th-century homes with central heating and plumbing, electricity, fire alarms, elevators and an early refrigeration system. The grandeur doesn’t stop inside; Fredrick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, brainstormed Biltmore’s grounds, from formal gardens to a 250-acre park. Explore the house at a leisurely pace on a self-guided tour, which provides access to three floors and the basement. Or take the guided Premium Biltmore House Tour, a private two-hour viewing that includes rooftop access. Unfortunately visitors can’t stay at Biltmore itself, but there are three hotels on the property as part of Biltmore Village.

The Egyptian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Instead of the Egyptian Pyramids

By all means the Pyramids at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, should remain a bucket list item. However, you’ll only be visiting a shell; the treasures within have long been looted or removed to world-class museums. Fortunately one of the world’s best collections can be found among 39 rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thanks in part to a 35-year archeological excavation. Highlights include mummies, jewelry and wooden tomb models.

But the main event is the Temple of Dendur, housed in a soaring, partially glass-enclosed wing. Roman emperor Caesar Augustus constructed the Temple around 15 B.C for the goddess Isis, a major deity in ancient Egypt. Part of a UNESCO campaign in the ‘60s to save it from floodwaters, the Egyptian government dismantled and shipped the Temple to the U.S. for preservation. President Lyndon B. Johnson later gifted it to the museum. Besides admiring the carved reliefs, keep an eye out for 19th-century graffiti that’s been left intact.

Overwater Bungalows in Jamaica Instead of the Maldives

French Polynesia and the Maldives possess the lion’s share of overwater bungalows, but the time and expense of getting to those islands is a deal-breaker for many. Don’t despair: they’re not the only places in the world to get the full overwater experience. Enter the brand-new bungalows at the five-star, all-inclusive Sandals Royal Caribbean Resort, one of the only real-deal overwater bungalows on this side of the world. This new addition to the Montego Bay resort includes 12 truly luxurious villas modeled after their Tahitian counterparts, with glass floors, giant soaking tubs and infinity pools to boot. While the spacious bungalows are removed from the rest of the resort, a private butler, 24-hour room service and dedicated water taxi ensure that you won’t feel like you’re stranded on a remote (if posh) retreat. Starting at $1,435 a night, it’s not cheap, but still a lot closer than the Maldives.

California Wine Country Instead of Italy's Wine Country

You could easily spend weeks exploring Italy’s many famed wine regions — Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto — but if that’s not in the budget, head to the best wine region in the U.S. California Wine Country, just north of San Francisco, consists of Napa and Sonoma Valleys, and offers a whopping 800-plus wineries between the two. Take note that many of the smaller wineries are reservation only, even in the slower seasons, and the larger ones may also require advance bookings for tours and special tastings. Many first-timers start in Napa, whose 12 wine regions produce many award-winning wines, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Chardonnay. Deciding where to start can be overwhelming, but you can’t go wrong by exploring the dozens of wineries along the quieter Silverado Trail, such as Clos Du Val, William Hill Estate Winery or Hagafen Cellars. Elsewhere in Napa, Robert Mondavi Winery, Castello di Amorosa and Grgich Hills Estate attract larger crowds, but the grounds and wines of all three are worth it. Sonoma tends to be less crowded and more laid back than Napa, and its 17 appellations produce everything from Merlot to Pinot Noir. Base yourself in charming Healdsburg. From there, head straight to Westside Road, a curving, bucolic stretch with one winery after another. Leave time for Gary Farrell Winery and Porter Creek Vineyards at the very least. Elsewhere in Sonoma, budget time to visit Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Jordan Vineyard & Winery and Scribe Winery to get a comprehensive taste of the best Sonoma has to offer.

A Wildlife Safari in Yellowstone National Park Instead of an African Safari

It’s not uncommon for an all-inclusive, higher-end African safari to run upwards of $1,000 a night (or more). True, there are more affordable options, but then you have to factor in the cost of flights, the hassle of vaccinations and visas, not to mention the time needed. If you’re not ready just yet for this major undertaking, consider going on what amounts to an American safari. Wildlife Expeditions, operated by non-profit Teton Science Schools, runs half, full and multiday trips to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Instead of lions, zebras and elephants, expert guides will track wolves, bears, elk, moose, bison and more. The weeklong Winter Wolves of Yellowstone is a sought-after option to spot retiring gray wolves in their native habitat. Along the way you might also see bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and golden eagles while traveling via safari-like vehicles. Expect to pay $3,300 a person for the week, but this includes comfortable lodging, meals and snacks.

The El Yunque Rainforest in Puerto Rico Instead of the Amazon Rainforest

As the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon’s merits don’t need to be touted. It’s home to about 10 percent of the world’s animal species, such as black spider monkeys, macaws and jaguars. But the time, cost and logistics of getting to the Amazon are not insignificant. Enter the El Yunque National Forest in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, less than an hour’s drive east from San Juan. Believe it or not, it’s not only a U.S. national forest, but it’s also the only tropical rainforest in America’s forest system. At 28,000 acres it can’t compare size-wise to the Amazon, but it contains plant life and animal species you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The flora includes 240 types of trees and 150 fern species, while its biodiversity encompasses the endangered Puerto Rican parrot, 11 bat species, and most notably, the indigenous coquí tree frog, Puerto Rico’s national symbol. One of the best ways to experience El Yunque is by hiking one or more of its 18 trails. However, leave the popular La Mina Waterfalls Trail to the tourist hordes, and opt instead for the challenging El Yunque Trail to the 3,496-foot peak. Don’t forget your camera or phone to capture miles of rolling green hills and the sparkling blue water just beyond.

Bungee Jumping From the Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, Arizona Instead of in New Zealand

Bungee jumping tourism started in New Zealand almost 30 years ago; since then, it’s remained a destination goal for adrenaline enthusiasts. Hope isn’t lost if your budget doesn’t cover a plane ticket to New Zealand this year, as the U.S. has worthwhile alternatives. The Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, Arizona, near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, regularly makes it onto lists for top bungee jumping sites. At 467 feet it’s not the tallest in the U.S., but it is among the handful that allow organized jumps. It also offers peerless views of the Colorado River and Marble Canyon, and is the closest you can get to pretending that you’re swan diving into the Grand Canyon. Bungee Expeditions organizes jumps from the Navajo Bridge for $250 a person.

Scuba Diving in Marathon Key, Florida Instead of the Great Barrier Reef

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Barrier Reef is not only the largest coral reef system in the world, but also the largest living organism; so great, in fact, that it can be viewed from space. Alas, time and money make this bucket list fave a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many scuba divers. If this is not the year, then consider the coral reef along the Florida Keys. It’s the only tropical reef system in the U.S. Atlantic, and the third largest reef in the world. Luckily, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects more than 6,000 types of marine critters, plants and objects. Divers in the know favor Sombrero Reef, off of Marathon in the Middle Keys, for its array of coral, tropical fish, barracuda, stingrays and sea turtles. Another area highlight is Thunderbolt, an intentionally sunken ship from the WWII era. Three decades of corals and sponges cover its surface, attracting angelfish, amberjack, goliath grouper and more.