Ready to pack your bags, but not sure where you want to go? Longing to travel, but stuck at home for the foreseeable future? Whether you’re in search of inspiration or have to settle for vicarious adventure, travel documentaries allow you to see the world from the comfort of your living room. We’ve put together this list of five documentaries that are guaranteed to inspire your wanderlust. All are currently available on Netflix Instant.
1. The Endless Summer
Bruce Brown’s 1966 documentary, which follows a couple of California surfers as they travel the world in search of the perfect wave, not only helped introduce the sport to millions of Americans but also offered a glimpse into distant locales that few were then able to visit, like Senegal, South Africa, and New Zealand. Over the years, it’s become a much-watched and celebrated classic (Surfer magazine declared it a “masterpiece”) among both surfers and non-surfers alike.
The Endless Summer is definitely the product of another era. Upon its re-release in 2014, NPR called it “a little amateurish, eye-rollingly hokey, and yet irresistibly endearing in its aw-shucks wholesome sincerity” and noted that the narration is occasionally “cringe-worthy,” especially some of the portrayals and comments about locals in Ghana and Senegal. Still, the stunning cinematography and beautiful scenery captured by the filmmakers make this iconic documentary about traveling the globe in search of the perfect wave well worth watching.
In 2010, Laura Dekker set sail in a 40-foot boat she christened “Guppy.” The 14-year-old Dutch teen’s goal was to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe. Maidentrip documents her 17-month solo voyage, as well as the controversy surrounding the journey (the Dutch government originally blocked her departure because of concerns about her age, until a court eventually ruled in her favor).
The viewer follows Dekker as she sails around the world, bearing armchair witness to her adventures, including stops at the Galapagos Islands, the 47 days she spent adrift in the Indian Ocean, and a treacherous navigation around the Cape of Good Hope. Dekker did much of the filming herself, and “the narrative tends towards the meditative and [her] personal growth,” wrote Susan Wloszczyna in a review for RogerEbert.com. The film is a travelogue, a coming of age story, and a look at how “to live one’s life to the fullest, to explore this great wide world around us, to discover the things that inspire the greatest passion in us,” as Kenji Fujishima said in a review for Slant Magazine.
3. Encounters at the End of the World
In this 2007 documentary, Werner Herzog travels to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, interviewing the people who work at this remote scientific outpost and capturing the beauty and vastness of one of the most remote and as-yet largely unspoiled places on earth. Like many of Herzog’s other films, Encounters at the End of the World is a look at both people and a place apart from the world most viewers know.
Unlike many other Herzog documentaries, like Little Dieter Needs to Fly (about an escapee from a Vietnamese prison camp), The White Diamond (about a man who built a helium balloon so he could fly over the Guyanan rain forest), and Grizzly Man (about Timothy Treadwell’s doomed fascination with Alaskan grizzly bears), there’s no one person at the heart of this story, which instead offers brief profiles of the people who choose to spend months isolated on an otherwise uninhabited continent. In Encounters at the End of the World, the landscape is the main attraction and it speaks for itself, though with some help from Herzog and his signature narration, of course. The film has a 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
4. 180° South
“Director Chris Malloy’s eco-tourist documentary could stoke your wanderlust to the point of no return,” wrote Colin Covert in his review of 180° South for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The 2010 film follows Jeff Johnson’s attempt to recreate the 1968 journey of Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins (founders of Patagonia and The North Face, respectively) from California to southern Chile. The 1968 trip took place in a VW bus, but Johnson and his companions decided to sail from Ventura, Calif., to Patagonia, with stops at the Galapagos and Easter Island on the way.
With plenty of shots of surfing, climbing, and other adventuring, the film appeals both to enthusiasts of those sports as well as those who fret about the human impact on our planet. Though Covert criticized the film for being a bit too much of a Patagonia promotional piece, this popular travel documentary may well inspire you to quit your job and go off on an adventure of your own.
5. The Epic of Everest
There’s no shortage of documentary films exploring the pull and peril of the world’s tallest mountain. But The Epic of Everest is the original, composed of footage shot with a hand-cranked camera during George Mallory’s and Andrew Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to summit Mount Everest.
This recently restored silent film is clearly a product of its time, complete with drama-filled title cards and a colonialist’s attitude toward the Tibetans whose culture is explored in the opening segment. But the footage of the ascent is hauntingly beautiful, especially as accompanied by a new, minimalist soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner. Distant images, which filmmaker John Noel shot with a telephoto lens from two miles away, show a row of tiny figures making their way toward the summit. It’s the last the world will see of Mallory and Irvine, who never returned from the mountain. The Epic of Everest has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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