If you’re anything like me, you might enjoy visiting places you already know and love.
Or maybe you have the soul of an explorer…
Perhaps it’s simply our imagination, but isn’t there something thrilling about leaving the first footprints in the sand, seeing a rainforest for the first time or experiencing a brand new feeling? (This would partly account for the huge popularity of experiential travel.)
Let’s face it, travel these days ranges from complicated to impossible, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dream/think/plan our next adventure!
Why do we need unusual holidays, unique vacation destinations and adventure travel to strange places?
Too often, travel disintegrates into a copycat game of poking a camera through a herd of other cameras and as solo travelers, this is particularly irksome.
But when you mention beautiful places, people want to visit. We’re like that. We congregate — until we get fed up with the crowds or the familiarity and want to set off on our own.
Isn’t there anyplace we can still feel (however illusory the feeling) like explorers of nature or of the human condition, places foreign or unusual enough to transport us, even for a moment? Places for which there aren’t a million Google images and blog posts, where we can have authentic travel experiences?
Actually, yes and no.
Most places have been Instagrammed to death. But some have suffered more than others and here’s the good news: while your chosen destination may not be pristine, there are plenty that have managed to escape overtourism or transformation.
Usually this is because they are: a) too expensive, b) too distant or c) too difficult to reach. People still visit them, but not as many and not as often.
Even if a destination is highly popular, your experience there could be quite novel. We can’t hope to undiscover the discovered, but perhaps we can see it differently, or see a different part of it! Remember, there are many ways to look at a place…
Below I’ll provide you with ideas of unique travel destinations and experiences and unusual trips, where you can feel, even if for a short while, that you’re on a road to discovery.
TRAVEL TO REMOTE AREAS
As solo travelers, we sometimes think we have to avoid remote places: not so. By remote I don’t necessarily mean walking along for a week in a deserted forest, but many destinations are far enough from the crowds to provide that feeling of solitude.
It’s easier to get to Iceland than Greenland, the Greek Islands are far more frequented than the Outer Hebrides, and nipping into the Saharan fringes of Morocco is more feasible than getting to the dunes of southern Algeria. That is one reason why places like Greenland, the Outer Hebrides or Algeria aren’t overcrowded. Plus, they make for unusual vacation spots, don’t you think?
The more remote, the more unusual; not necessarily better – just different. My most recent semi-remote journey, to Lake Song-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, reminded me how wonderful (and occasionally frustrating) it was to be cut off from the world for a few days. I’d definitely qualify Kyrgyzstan as one of the unique travel destinations that remain in the world.
POLAR TRAVEL TO THE ARCTIC AND ANTARCTIC
Another remote region not yet overrun by crowds is the Far North, the polar areas that are isolated enough for any but the hardiest and most adventurous (and yes, the wealthiest).
Think of riding an icebreaker in the Arctic or watching the Northern Lights in Iceland or Lapland, or even cruising to Antarctica. These places are growing in popularity but still remain exceptional for the vast majority, often because of the cost. Would the Poles not qualify as out of the ordinary travel destinations?
FOOD TRAVEL AND CULINARY TOURISM
Many of us allow our tastebuds to guide out travels and enjoy what is known as food tourism, taking off to Japan to find the best sushi, Lyon for the best escargots or Spain for the perfect tortilla or the best wine chateaux in Bordeaux.
Going somewhere just for food or drink is gaining traction, whether to sample specialties or learn about culinary culture and history. I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day salt harvesting in Brittany and cooking in Tuscany.
That said, most people don’t travel specifically for food, so culinary hotspots could easily make for unusual holiday destinations.
SPINE-TINGLING GHOST TRAVEL
If you’re the kind of traveler who likes the occasional tingle in her spine, traveling to haunted places may be just the thrill you need.
Most destinations have an otherworldly backstory and their exploration by mere mortals make them quirky places to visit. (A fun thing I did while in Dublin was to explore its ghoulish sights is with this entertaining ghost tour by bus.)
And it’s not hard to find destinations with ghostly associations — an increasing number of cities are coming forward with eerie offerings that include cemeteries, lantern-led walking tours, mortuaries, witch walks, prisons, asylums, sanatoria, old castles and fortresses, haunted hotels, and even ghost towns.
With all these unusual experiences, you’re bound to find something to give you that little shiver.
SPIRITUAL TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
Giving your travels a spiritual element will definitely set you apart from the crowds and are ideal solo travel experiences.
For many, travel itself is a quest, often a spiritual one, an act of seeking a place of comfort and understanding for the soul. Finding such comfort is often the goal of travel to the Ganges River in India; Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka; or walking the Camino de Santiago. The world is full of spiritual places and travel to sacred sites can be a voyage of its own, not to mention you’ll discover unique places in the world.
ART EXPERIENCES AND TRAVEL
Most of us love a bit of culture, and some of us travel to a destination because of its art.
Would you consider going somewhere specifically to…
- See a play or an opera? To Broadway or the East End, or La Scala in Milan
- Visit a location for a museum? Like the Prado in Madrid or the Louvre in Paris?
- Enjoy some glorious gardens, like those at Versailles or tucked away behind a chateau in the Loire?
I admit street art is one of the reasons that pushes me towards certain cities… but I deeply love art and wouldn’t dream of a trip without some sort of art experience. Cities with great murals (check these out in Lyon, France) are definitely cool places to travel.
Those of us who love music are quite capable of chasing it around the world and paying homage to extraordinary sites that honor those high notes. From Graceland to Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris to London’s Abbey Road, you can tour the world looking for music-related venues that will tug you down memory lane until you’re back in your teens again.
Next time you’re California Dreamin’, why not stand at the historic corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco, once the home of such eternal stars as Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane?
Or perhaps your musical tastes lie elsewhere: by experiencing tango in Argentina, for example, flamenco at the Feria de Sevilla, fado in Portugal, or classical music in Austria, where I’ve sat through wonderful Mozart quartets in tiny venues on quiet little side streets. To me, each of these are unique destinations, not in themselves, but in what they offer.
Movie tourism to sites where filming has taken place — or location tourism — can be hugely enjoyable if it reminds you of a movie you’ve loved. Haven’t you ever wondered about James Bond’s exotic islands or Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4? (If you’re in London, there’s nothing so fun as a good Harry Potter walking tour!)
It’s a bit like standing on the sidewalk stars in Hollywood — knowing the rich and famous might have stood on that very same spot you’re standing on.
One of my most memorable “straight out of the movies” adventures was to Morocco – it has its own film industry and is a wonderful backdrop for many movies including The Man Who Would Be King, Jewel of the Nile, The Bourne Ultimatum, Sex and the City 2, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Mummy and many many more. Or visit the Atlas Film Studio in the southern city of Ouarzazate: it is the world’s largest. Morocco is just that kind of place.
Istanbul is a visual feast wherever you look, so it has unsurprisingly been the location for many films, including several James Bonds plus The Accidental Spy, Topkapi, Midnight Express and The International. Outside Istanbul, Turkey has often been substituted for nearby countries, for example Iran, where filming freely would be nearly impossible.
It’s not quite the same as being in a movie, but it is a bit like being behind the scenes. This makes each of these locations unique places to visit.
Taking a course is something we may often do but — how about taking an unusual course? You’ll find everything from marbling in Istanbul to learning to use a longbow in the UK. How about a vegan cooking class in Thailand? Many people go to Bangkok to learn Thai cooking but by adding a vegan twist, you’re doing something fewer people do.
Conversely you could take a popular course — but in a distinctive venue, say a yurt or a chateau or a mud hut. Educational travel is definitely something that can lead you into motivating travel experiences.
BUCKET LIST: UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Often it’s fun to follow a list when we travel and visit places that are worth seeing but that aren’t always typical – a unique travel experience or an unusual destination that we know must be special if it is protected.
UNESCO has listings in 167 countries so chances are, there will be one or more wherever you go. Some are cultural, some are natural, and a few are both. Either way, this is your chance to enjoy an unusual trip where you probably won’t run into your next door neighbor.
Entire cities in Central Asia, sub-Antarctic islands in New Zealand, highlands in Sri Lanka, national parks in South America… all of them unique travel ideas you might not otherwise have considered.
BEST TRAVEL EXPERIENCES IN NATURE
To me this is the most emotional and moving of travels, the times in which I can feel most at one with my surroundings. Walking through forests populated only by animals, stepping across windswept sand or hearing the crunch of snow in the silence are experiences unusual enough to satisfy any explorer or adventurer DNA you might be carrying.
Wildlife travel can take you to unique places in the world, from observing gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda to watching whales off Vancouver Island or looking for primates in Borneo. Still on my bucket list is a visit to the lemurs of Madagascar, a dream I still hope to accomplish. You could also try unusual accommodation in nature — glamping in an upmarket camp, staying in a treehouse or ice hotel… the choices are limitless.
But a word of caution: while nature can deliver the sublime meditative experience, it can also serve up wildlife, hurricanes and other life-threatening “experiences”. It is, after all, nature. And you, too, can damage it, so remember to leave no trace if you have the privilege of visiting a unique destination of this type.
UNUSUAL MODES OF TRANSPORTATION (OR NONE AT ALL)
Sometimes the uniqueness is more about how you travel than where you go, especially if getting there is most of the fun and you’re using unusual transportation. Of course you can drive or fly but what if you could take a dogsled or ride a camel to get where you’re going? Wouldn’t that be a memorable experience? What about a journey on foot? Or a magnificent rail journey?
Getting somewhere can be half the fun — if you’re not going to the ends of the earth, taking a road trip could replace your flight just this once.
Perhaps you’re a history buff and you seek to understand past civilizations.
You’ll go to Rome but rather than throwing pennies into the Trevi Fountain, you’ll be spending your time at the Colosseum and Forum. Or follow the Templar Trail through France. For something even less frequented, the extraordinary ruins of Volubilis in Morocco are superb, uncrowded and absolutely gorgeous.
I’m a great fan of historical travels, which might make me a bit of an unusual tourist.
LUXURY TRAVEL EXPERIENCES
This may seem like a longer shot but you could avoid crowds and experience something new by upping your luxury quotient. Investing in unique luxury travel experiences can be expensive but there are workarounds:
- You can visit off-season, where you’ll find quirky places to stay at half the price.
- You can stay less time: rather than ten days in a budget location, why not 3-4 in the lap of luxury?
- You can stay next door: some luxurious destinations have cheaper alternatives nearby. If you’re headed to wallet-draining Montecarlo, why not cross into Beausoleil, on the French side of the border, with French prices?
- You can choose a less expensive place for your luxury stay — South America or the Far East instead of Europe, for example.
SPACE TOURISM – IT’S NOT THAT OUTLANDISH ANYMORE
What could be more unusual or off the beaten path than leaving the planet altogether?
Until very recently, private space flight was science fiction, more fanciful flight of the imagination than of body, certainly not anything we’d see in our lifetimes.
This changed in April 2001, when the world’s first space tourist, an American businessman, spent a week on the International Space Station (at a modest cost of US$20 million).
Now, space tourism – the final frontier — is fast becoming a reality, although still only for the select few. If you have enough money, you can simply buy a ticket…
STAR GAZING: TRAVEL FROM THE EARTH UP
If gazing into space seems more your style than boarding a rocket ship to get there, you can certainly do that too, but that requires traveling where the skies are extremely clear and there is no light pollution.
A tourism industry is growing around star gazing, with clear-skied countries and regions making astronomy an integral part of their attraction: think the Andean foothills in Chile, the Sonora Desert (for now at least), Scotland, New Zealand, the Galapagos and many more.
So while heading into the darkness might not be the obvious choice, it will certainly make for the most unusual travel experiences.
This type of travel can feed into a number of human feelings, from fear, to atonement or curiosity or even selfishness. This is not an indulgent type of travel but if undertaken with the proper respect and purpose, can be quite meaningful and will certainly make for unusual trips.
- Disaster tourism banks on the misery of others. In this case people flock to the sites of floods, hurricanes or other natural disasters, an increasingly popular type of travel and one which I absolutely do not recommend.
- Dark tourism can involve travel to sites somehow linked to grief or death, such as World War II’s concentration camps (like my recent visit to Auschwitz death camp in Poland or Cambodia’s Killing Fields.) These visits remind us of past atrocities and can help fuel hope or determination to prevent a repetition.
- Slum tourism are visits to poor areas, which movies like Slumdog Millionaire have made popular, whether Mumbai, the favelas of Rio or the townships of Johannesburg. There are various schools of thought about whether this is purely exploitative or whether it is supportive of local economies by providing pride and jobs.
It is still unusual to travel to dangerous places (and that’s a good thing for everyone, solo travelers included). Hitting some of the world’s strife spots would certainly qualify as unusual but please, don’t do this unless you have to. My travels to dangerous places have all taken place for work, not pleasure. If you go, though, do your best to stay out of harm’s way.
And let’s not forget… sometimes we seek the exotic and unusual when it’s sitting right on our doorstep. Look around and ask yourself: are there any unique travel destinations I keep putting off nearby?
A UNIQUE TRIP: TRAVEL CLOSE TO HOME
For many of us, this is the travel reality right now: local travel, the staycation, or staying close to home.
Remember, our back yard is someone else’s unusual destination, so look at your surroundings with the eye of a foreigner or ask yourself these questions:
- If you didn’t live here, what would fascinate you?
- If you were showing around a foreign friend, what would you show her?
- If you were asked to write a pamphlet for your town, what would you include?
- If you were a newcomer, just arrived, what kinds of things would you like to know?
STILL CAN’T DECIDE ON WHICH UNIQUE PLACE TO VISIT?
When I’m planning a trip and am in the mood for something unusual, I head straight for Atlas Obscura, which covers in its words “the world’s most wondrous places and foods”.
It’s deeply satisfying to experience something new and different, something that activates your feelings or pushes your boundaries. I wouldn’t want this to be my constant travel style (I do love a good city weekend or the occasional laze under a beach parasol) but for each time I visit a place I know, I like to add a place I don’t.
And if I can’t do that, I’ll at least try to experience something unfamiliar in a place I know well.
— Originally published on 05 November 2011