A meaningful trip yields more than just bragging rights. A true cultural immersion can help a traveler see the world in a different way, says Terry Dale, chief executive officer of the United States Tour Operators Association, which represents 45 companies operating around the globe. "It's a way to see things unique to other parts of a country. Many of the sites are life-changing, and to me that's what travel's all about." He shares some favorite cultural trips and immersive experiences with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Not every New York cultural experience has to be expensive. This free annual outdoor production in the park's Delacorte Theater offers a chance to see top-flight actors—Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sam Watterson, James Earl Jones and other notables have graced the stage. You're also likely to see stars in the audience because they often have a friend in the production. "To this day, it's highlight of my theater experience in the city," says Dale, who has lived in New York for 18 years. Tickets are distributed the day of the event and through a lottery.
Bucket list tip: Take a box dinner from your favorite restaurant or gourmet shop, and bring a blanket to spread on the lawn.
THE BUCKET LIST: More must-see destinations
This stunning ancient city carved from pink stone reveals itself dramatically. Visitors enter through a twisty mile-long gorge called the Siq, and round a corner to see the famed Treasury Building. "It's one of those moments you never forget," Dale says. "Anybody who has this inner Indiana Jones spirit has to be moved by the whole Petra experience. You sit there and feel small, but you know it's mankind and people who created it and it's still with us today."
Bucket list tip: Visitors who have mobility challenges should not be scared off from the site. It's quite easy to hire a horse-drawn carriage to take you into the site. "I wouldn't want anyone to feel it can't be done," Dale says.
Polar Bear Viewing, Churchill, Canada
When travelers think of a safari, their thoughts usually don't turn north. But this polar bear adventure offers a cultural immersion into an Arctic way of life, with a chance to view the bears in October and November as they migrate from summer to winter hunting grounds in Manitoba. "You see these mammoth white carnivores. It's an amazing visual feast," Dale says. "And while the polar bear is the lead player, it's also the snowy owls, the white foxes and the seals in the water."
Bucket list tip: While temperatures vary widely, they can easily dip well below freezing, which can play havoc on electronics. "Cameras and batteries react differently to the cold, so keep them close to your body to keep them warm. That way you can get your photos and selfies and won't be disappointed."
This archaeological wonder is just a few hours from Cancun, but is often overlooked. "It's one of those great Mayan centers, but really very easy to get to," Dale says. "It's an extraordinarily iconic site." He says when he visited he was struck by the structure's symbolism and symmetry. The pyramid has 365 steps, matching the number of the days in a year.
Bucket list tip: Try to visit during the spring equinox when the sun's rays create a shadow resembling a serpent. "If you're able to time it, the whole experience is magnified," Dale says.
Holi Festival in India
This ancient Hindu festival has gone global as more people enjoy the event's free-for-all spectacle of splashing bright paint and powdered colors on each other. "I don't think there's anything quite like it in the world," Dale says. "It's a bond that brings everyone together in a very playful spirited kind of way." Visitors don't have protected status, and are likely to be drawn into family groups and showered with color from cups, water pistols and even water balloons.
Bucket list tip: Make sure you're wearing something that you feel comfortable throwing out. "You shouldn't wear your designer clothing out on the street during Holi," Dale advises.
While it's a familiar image around the globe, there's no matching the experience of actually stepping on this ancient 4,000-mile barrier. "Pictures just can't capture the magnitude. They can't tell the story of how majestic the Great Wall is," Dale says. "You need to stand on it, feel the weight of the stone used and when you do, the whole world stands still and you're embedded in the wall itself."
Bucket list tip: At the Mutianyu Pass, north of Beijing, visitors can take a cable car ride to the wall, making the site accessible to all. Once on the top, travelers can stroll for about 45 minutes and then take a toboggan ride down.
These Pacific islands, which played a central role in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, are still one of the world's top places to see wildlife, Dale says. "Between the tortoises and the blue-footed boobies and all these other species, it's extraordinary to see them in this setting." He says the trip makes a great family vacation, allowing kids a chance to unplug and learn in a magical setting.
Bucket list tip: Don't forget to look beneath the surface and snorkel the waters just off shore. "There's a whole other world that's equally as magnificent as what's on the surface," Dale says.
Western Wall, Jerusalem
The tangible link to the ancient Jewish Temple is an unforgettable site of prayer and ceremony. Dale says he was moved watching the family celebrations on the site. "There were probably 50 different bar mitzvahs, weddings, all these different events at this one spot, celebrating love and family and commitment and a rite of passage," he says. "It's the human spirit that shines so great at the Western Wall."
Bucket list tip: Visit the Mount of Olives for the panoramic view. "It's beautiful, it's peaceful, it's tranquil," Dale says. "That's quite a nice contrast to what can be a frenetic experience at the Wall."
There's a reason that travelers have journeyed to the Vatican for more than a millennium. "It's a must-see destination, regardless of your religion. You can't help be moved by what happens there and its impact on daily lives," Dale says. There's the Sistine Chapel, of course, but other galleries of art and treasure are overwhelming, and equally moving. "It's like no other place."
Bucket list tip: All though the crowds can be massive, visitors shouldn't be scared away. Dale suggests taking it in bite-sized pieces, making several short visits. "Don't try to get there at 7 in the morning and stay until 8 at night," he says.
The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
This former home to the Tsars is now a palatial monument to art, making it one of the world's oldest and biggest museums with a collection said to number three million. "It's a great, great iconic destination. The collection is in a league of its own," Dale says. Many U.S. travelers combine a visit with a Baltic or river cruise, which often can arrange private tours.
Bucket list tip: During summer, the crowds can be overwhelming, so Dale suggests considering a fall or spring visit.