Ten best: Close encounters with natural wonders

Watch polar bears in the Arctic. Spot bats with a Transylvanian count. Explore South Africa's floral kingdom. Mark Rowe offers his pick of the best wilderness holidays - on some you can even lend a hand


1. Make breakfast for a panda

Anyone hoping to see giant pandas in the wild in the way that, say, Sir David Attenboroughcrept up upon mountain gorillas in Rwanda, will be disappointed. Pandas are far too elusive and shy for that. The next best thing is to spend some time working with them at the Shaanxi Province Rescue and Breeding Research Center of Rare Wildlife near Xian in China. Volunteers get to spend at least one week with the pandas, monitoring their behaviour, preparing their bamboo breakfast, sweeping their pens and assisting with other tasks around the centre. You can also explore the nearby hills.

Why go? A chance to see one of the world's rarest and most enchanting creatures.

Contact: i-to-i (0800-011 1156; i-to-i.com) offers a four-week placement at the reserve for £1,595 per person, no single supplement, excluding international flights. Shorter placements are available.

2. Go bats in Transylvania

Forget clichés about Dracula: Transylvania is one of Europe's unspoilt beauty spots. Stay with Count Tibor Kalnoky, an environmentalist who has restored guesthouses in the village of Miclosoara and runs day trips to the countryside to watch multi-coloured bee-eaters, explore caves for pipistrelle bats, walk along remote river valleys where fire-bellied toads skip across your path, and stroll through wildflower meadows that recall the landscapes of pre-industrial Britain. You may even see a bear.

Why go? Spend a wildlife holiday with a real-life Transylvanian count who has a passion for bats...

Contact: Beyond the Forest (0845-3000 247; beyondtheforest.com) offers an eight-day package at Count Kalnoky's guesthouses from £748 per person, including international flights, transfers from Bucharest and all meals and trips.

3. Giant steps on the coastal way

Now that Northern Ireland has put a little distance between the present and its troubled past, nature-lovers are discovering one of the UK's most dramatic destinations, taking advantage of a network of recently opened long-distance walking trails along the coast. These include the Causeway Coast Way in the north, which passes the Giant's Causeway on its way from Portstewart to Ballycastle. Apart from spectacular coastal views, you'll see a wealth of flora and fauna. Wild flowers include birdsfoot trefoil (also known as "bacon and eggs" on account of its yellow and red hues), red campion, common orchids and kidney vetch.

Why go? Northern Ireland's coastal paths are definitely the routes less travelled - get there before word gets around.

Contact: An excellent guide to the Causeway Coast Way can be ordered from Northern Ireland's Countryside Access and Activities Network (028 9030 3930; waymarkedways.com).

4. Time out beyond the Hebrides

The archipelago of St Kilda, 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, offers the UK's most extraordinary natural experience. The population was evacuated in 1930 leaving a dramatic landscape where plants and birds have thrived without the disruption of man. St Kilda is home to Europe's most important seabird community and the world's largest colony of gannets, while the Soay sheep are a rare, primitive breed dating back to the Bronze Age. The island is managed by the National Trust, which has restored the deserted houses. It relies on volunteers, and the severe weather means there is always repair work to be done.

Why go? For sheer wilderness, spectacular coastal scenery and birdlife, St Kilda is in a class of its own.

Contact: The National Trust for Scotland (0131-243 9300; kilda.org.uk) offers two-week working holidays from £555.

5. Floral kingdom of the Cape

If it's plants you're in search of, head for South Africa. The country is home to more than 20,000 different plants, representing about 10 per cent of all the known plant species on earth. About 8,000 are concentrated on the small region of the Western Cape around the Fynbos, one of the world's six designated floral kingdoms. Among the highlights are the resplendent blossom plants, including 130 species of protea, which come in all shapes, sizes and colours. The Cape Floral Region, which includes Table Mountain, became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004.

Why go? A glorious floral spectacle.

Contact: Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek .co.uk) offers a 14-day botanical tour exploring South Africa's flora and fauna. The cost is from £2,750 per person including flights, accommodation and guides.

6. Take Antarctica by storm

Antarctica is becoming so popular that there is pressure to restrict the presence of large cruise ships. In contrast to these ice-strengthened vessels, a new range of Antarctic sailing holidays has recently started up. Once you've negotiated the playful Drake Passage (among the stormiest seas in the world), the yacht can nudge around the Antarctic Peninsula in ways that larger vessels cannot. You'll see vast colonies of penguins and seabirds, albatross trailing your yacht and Weddell seals basking on icebergs.

Why go? Explore one of our planet's best examples of nature's handiwork - but don't forget the seasickness tablets.

Contact: Peregrine Adventures (01635 872300; peregrine adventures.co.uk) offers 13-night tours of Antarctica, including five days of sailing on the Spirit of Sydney, a 60ft ocean racer, from £5,710 per person.

7. Polar bears in the Arctic Circle

The expanses of water and ice north of the Arctic Circle merit a visit in their own right. But the archipelago of Svalbard, 400 miles north of Norway and 800 miles from the North Pole, is home to around 5,000 polar bears, while the adult walruses on the beaches can weigh 1,500kg. The seabirds include puffins and little auks. Svalbard, and its largest island of Spitsbergen, can be explored on foot, by snowmobile or by boat.

Why go? Breathtaking scenery, mountains made from primordial rock and, in the polar bear, one of the few creatures unperturbed by humans.

Contact: Polar Quest (00 46 3131 333 1730; polar-quest.com) offers nine-day expeditions to Spitsbergen from £2,530 per person.

8. Track the elusive snow leopard

If there were an Olympic competition for elusiveness, the snow leopard would be short odds for gold. This endangered cat lives in the snowy mountains of central Asia. To see one would be incredibly fortunate, but by joining a wildlife trek through India's remote Zanskar region you improve your chances. At the very least, you may see footprints. The region has other wonders too, including frozen waterfalls.

Why go? Thrill of the hunt.

Contact: Explore (0870-333 4001; explore.co.uk) offers a 17-day Chadar Trek through Zanskar's frozen rivers. Prices from £1,699 per person, including flights, accommodation and some meals. For information on the snow leopard see snowleopard.org.

9. Count droppings in aid of science

Britain's native woods offer some of the most delightful nature encounters anywhere. Explore what makes our native woodlands tick with scientists on an Earthwatch project in Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. This 775-hectare estate is the subject of a conservation study to establish the effects of climate change. Tasks include watching badgers and estimating rabbit and deer numbers (best done by counting droppings), locating bats and monitoring voles and field mice.

Why go? An insight into Britain's native woods.

Contact: Earthwatch (01865 318831; earthwatch .org) offers six-day placements from £315 per person, no single supplement, which includes full board and lodging.

10. Ramble through upland Spain

The mountain village region of Las Alpujarras, on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, is one of the most comfortable bases for enjoying Spain's great outdoors. Explore the area from the villages of Portugos and Capiliera, walking through orchards of almond trees, cherries, olives and vines, set against the backdrop of the two highest peaks of mainland Spain, Veleta and Mulhacen.

Why go? Charming, quintessential Spanish experience.

Contact: Ramblers Holidays (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk) operates a Hiking in the Alpujarras break for one or two weeks, from £575 per person, including international flights and guided walks.

Prices are per person, based on two sharing except for the giant panda trip and the British woodlands expedition

The best birdwatching

Belize is evidence that beautiful birds are found in beautiful locations. You can see boat-billed herons, Technicolor toucans, frigate birds and many hummingbirds. One "hotspot" is the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, home to 260 species. You can also explore the rainforest by canoe, on horseback or on foot. Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.com) offers a 12-night trip from £2,202, including international flights.

The best wolf-spotting

Tracking grey wolves in Lamar valley is a new option on a tour of Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks: you may spot a pack in pursuit of prey. Guides will also point out moose and elk on the trips, which can take in Old Faithful geyser. Grizzly bears, whose numbers have risen significantly, can also be seen. Wildlife Worldwide (0845-130 6982; wildlifeworldwide.com) offers nine-day tracking tours of Yellowstone from £2,795, including flights.

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