The Final Frontiers: Best Holiday Destinations off the Beaten Track
When you’ve had enough of bumping into your neighbours by the pool or seeing familiar faces on the flight, it might be time to plan more exotic travels. But how do you balance a sense of curiosity with a desire for some degree of comfort – and even safety? The following countries have emerged as exciting new hot spots where you can be guaranteed an adventure with very little risk – particularly of meeting your neighbours!
North Korea brings a whole new meaning to the concept of “rogue state,” with its provocative nuclear weapons programme and isolationist state, but its very covertness and backwardness are what make it appealing as a travel destination. The capital, Pyongyang, has several sites worth visiting, including the Tower of the Juche Idea, the Chollima Statue and the Mansudae Grand Monument, but its real charm lies in the glimpses of real life you may catch if you can convince your guide to walk between sights rather than drive. Amble around Moran Hill, for example, and you will see locals picnicking, playing music, and relaxing on sunny afternoons. If you have the time and money to charter an internal flight, you will not be disappointed by Paekdusan (Mount Paekdu), on the Chinese-Korean border, the highest mountain in the country and a stunning geological phenomenon.
Fewer than 2,000 Westerners are admitted to North Korea every year, and acceptance is purely on its government’s terms, so you will have to accept that you will be accompanied by two government-approved local guides at all times and have no independence during your trip. But the opportunity to visit a country that is still waging the cold war, where modern technology has made no inroads, and where nobody questions the state’s authority, is too good to miss.
With the staging of national elections signalling a new political stability, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is on the hidden hot-list right now. Despite borders with the more tourist-savvy Thailand and India, Myanmar does not have a highly developed tourism industry, which just adds to its attraction. The people are exceptionally welcoming and mannerly, but you can expect to cause some excitement when visiting, particularly in more remote villages, as foreign travellers are not a common phenomenon.
The temples of the Bagan plain are easily as impressive as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and far less thronged. Believed to date from the 11th and 13th centuries, the ruins of around 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries show how the ancient kingdom managed to unite the country’s diverse regions at the height of its powers. The Shwedagon Paya is the most sacred temple, with its golden stupa visible from miles away. Give yourself at least half a day to explore the site, as the range and scale of the complex can be overwhelming.
Walk the 1,200-metre teak footbridge across the Taungthaman Lake or cruise to Mandalay by riverboat. The Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea offer 1,930 km of coastline for you to explore. Bus trips from Yangon take up to 20 hours, but if you commit to the trek, the golden sands of Ngapali Beach (pictured below) are definitely worth it. The resort of Chaungtha and the beautiful Ngwe Saung Beach are more easily accessible from Yangon.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Though no longer on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador are one of the planet’s most fragile environments and a trip to explore its unique species will certainly make you think differently about the world. The islands have become much easier to visit too, with new railway lines connecting the Ecuadorian capital Quito to the port of Guayaquil, from where most boats to the Galapagos depart.
When you arrive on the islands, 1,000 km from the mainland, you’ll feel as if you’ve entered a different world, where giant tortoises, land iguanas, penguins, sea lions, and other exotic wildlife act as if humans were nothing more than a minor irritant. Despite their image as an uninhabited utopia, the Galapagos have some 30,000 residents, so they are surprisingly well developed as a sustainable tourist destination. These islands have undoubtedly gained a mythical status due to their relationship with Charles Darwin, but they remain one of the few places on Earth where the effects of human civilisation are barely visible.
While you’re in the area, you should also visit Cuenca, a colonial city famous for its architectural sites and buildings, which is less than a three-hour drive by rental car from Guayaquil.
With the most of the Mediterranean about as off-the-beaten track as Disney World, Montenegro comes as a pleasant surprise. With golden beaches flanked by sapphire seas, rugged peaks, plunging canyons, graceful architecture, ancient towns, and a balmy climate, Montenegro should be thronged by holiday-makers, and, although coastal resorts do get pretty crowded in peak season, adventurous travellers can easily escape to the wild mountains of the north, where wolves and bears still hide out.
Explore historic walled towns including Budva, Kotor, Stari Bar, and Herceg Novi, and sleepy seaside hamlets, where it’s easy to find accommodation. A country of mystery and spectacle, Montenegro offers magical wildernesses dotted with gems such as the Bay of Kotor and the idyllic beaches of its Riviera. The craggy interior is well worth investigating too, particularly given the development of new hiking and biking trails and a continually improving infrastructure.
Brought to its knees by the 2004 tsunami and battered by civil war from 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka has long been off the radar for even the most adventurous travellers. After four years of stability and substantial investment in the tourism industry, however, visitor numbers are starting to rise. It’s not an expensive place to stay, and low-cost flights are available from Bangkok, making Sri Lanka one of the best-value holiday hot spots right now, so book your car hire from Colombo Airport and get ready to explore.
For safaris, Sri Lanka is a far more budget-friendly option than Africa, with just as much incredible wildlife. Expect to see wild elephants, leopards, deer, and a host of other big game in any of the island’s 14 national parks. The most visited is Yala, an invaluable hub for the conservation of Sri Lankan elephants. You should also visit Sigiriya, a ruined city built as the island’s capital by King Kassapa I in the 5th century. Getting to the site involves a strenuous climb, but the impressive layout and stunning views make the effort worthwhile.
When it comes to visiting Colombia, many countries advise extreme caution or even avoiding the country altogether, but there is no need to miss out on one of the most unspoiled countries in South America. Following decades of civil unrest, Colombia is now safe to visit, as long as you use your common sense. Don’t take cabs late at night, keep out of unsavoury areas in the big cities, and keep your expensive gadgets out of sight, and you can get on with enjoying one of South America’s gems.
The country’s sheer variety will amaze you, offering modern cities, beautiful beaches, jungle treks, Amazon safaris, and hiking in the Sierra Nevada, among its many delights. For sun worshippers, Colombia has spectacular, pristine beaches along its 1,700km Caribbean coastline and its additional 1,448 km of Pacific coast. Colombia’s personality is most apparent in its mountains and in the cities of Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali. You will find the mountain infrastructure good, the Spanish easy to understand, and the people upbeat and friendly. Life is slower on the sultry Caribbean coast, where everything functions at a more relaxed pace.