“People used to tell Douglas Layton, owner of Explore Mesopotamia, that no traveler in their right mind would ever visit the place he raved about most—Iraq. His response, “But they’ll go to the other Iraq!” By that, he meant Iraqi Kurdistan, the temperate, gorgeous, and supremely friendly region in the north that couldn’t be more different from what most people imagine. Here, snowcapped peaks dive into rivers, green hillsides hide ancient ruins, and it is nearly impossible to visit a bazaar and not get invited for tea.
Base yourself on the banks of the Great Zab River at the new Rubar Resort (from $100), a 37-room boutique hotel about two hours north of the capital Erbil. From there you can take guided day hikes into the Zagros Mountains and Barzan nature area, the only preserve in the country; explore Bestoon Cave, to the south, which was once used by Neanderthals; and tube down the Zab. The area is much safer than Mosul, 50 miles to the west, but be prepared to pass through some heavily armed checkpoints, and you’ll want to avoid border towns.
Explore Mesopotamia can help you organize trips that include hotels, food, transfers, and a guide (from $250 a day).