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Unusual Travel Destinations: How to Spice Up Your Travels

Women on the Road
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If you're anything like me, you might enjoy visiting places you already visited and loved – in my case that would be Madrid, Lyon, the Sahara, Central Asia...

Unusual travel destinations - Sahara DesertOf course people have been here before - I'm here, after all! But it certainly didn't feel that way that morning in the Sahara...

But sometimes, I enjoy switching to my explorer's hat and heading for the offbeat, the unique travel destinations that fewer people write about  like Nairobi or Colombia or Uzbekistan... 

Have you ever had that feeling of wanting to try something different?

Perhaps it's simply the illusion of discovery, but there's something thrilling about leaving the first footprints on the sand, looking out your window and not recognizing anything, or feeling something you've never felt before.

That's why experiential travel is so popular! It's about experiencing something, not just seeing.

Too often, travel disintegrates into a copycat game of poking a camera through a herd of other cameras.

When a place is beautiful, 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?

Unique vacations, unusual holidays and adventure travel to strange places

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 are far less covered and coveted.

They may be too expensive, too distant or too difficult to reach and while people do go, not as many people do.

Or the place might be popular and highly visited but the experience you have there might be relatively novel.

We can't hope to undiscover the discovered but perhaps we can see it differently, or see a different part of it!

Travel to remote areas

Remote destinations are by their nature unusual: distance often costs money and the 'faraway' isn't accessible to everyone, especially in these geopolitically confused times.

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.

The more remote the more unusual, but 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.

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 often, 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.

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 remains uncommon, 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

Most people don't travel specifically for food, so culinary travel holds its place in the annals of unusual travel.

Unusual travel destinations - food travel and piles of cheeseA market in Genoa - many travelers to Italy are on a food pilgrimage (just check carefully with Customs back home before bringing anything back with you)

Supernatural travel

If you enjoy the supernatural you'll definitely be dipping your toe into something unconventional.

Be intrigued by the possibilities of ghost tourism and the discovery of haunted or otherworldly places, as I was in Dublin. Most destinations have an otherworldly backstory and their exploration by mere mortals surely qualifies as unique travel. (The easiest option to see Dublin's ghoulish sights is with this entertaining ghost tour by bus by the way!)

Spiritual travel

Giving your travels a spiritual element will definitely set you apart from the crowds.

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. 

Voskopoje, Albania, one of many unusual places to visitOne of the many ancient churches at Voskopoje, in the mountains of southern Albania. Many have been abandoned but a few are lovingly maintained by local monks

Artistic travel

Most of us love a bit of culture slightly less common is the desire to visit a destination because of its art.

Would you consider going somewhere specifically to see a play or an opera? Or visiting a location only to see its outdoor sculpture park? Or a specific museum? Or some glorious gardens?

I admit street art is one of the reasons that pushes me towards certain cities...

music pilgrimages

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 on quiet little side streets.

Educational travel

Taking a course is relatively common 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?

Movie travel

It's not really unusual anymore and has gone mostly mainstream but movie tourism to sites where filming has taken place - or location tourism -  can be hugely enjoyable. 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 Marrakesh in Morocco – where some spectacular scenes from the film Gladiator were shot. Many more films were partly made here, such as The Man Who Would Be King, Jewel of the Nile, Kundun, The Mummy and many more. Morocco is just that kind of place.

Istanbul is a visual feast wherever you look, so it has unsurprisingly been the backdrop 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.

Travels 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, observing gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda, watching whales off Vancouver Island or looking for primates in Borneo. (It can also get you lost in the Amazon.) If I weren't so busy I'd turn my dream visit to the lemurs of Madagascar into reality. 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.

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?

Getting there 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.

ghost tourism

If you're the kind of traveler who likes the occasional tingling spine, traveling to haunted places may be for you. And it's not hard to find destinations with ghostly associations - I took a ghost walk in Dublin but 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 your something to tingle that spine.

Historical travel

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. Or why not something even less frequented, like the extraordinary ruins of Volubilis in Morocco?

Unusual travel destinations - ruins of VolubilisThe ruins of Volubilis in Morocco... not too hard to get to but you won't be fighting crowds here

Space tourism - it's not that outlandish anymore

What could be more unusual or off the beaten path than leaving the planet entirely?

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; perhaps not for everyone yet, but if you have enough money, you can simply buy a ticket from Space Adventures or Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin and hop into space - more or less.

STAR GAZING: TRAVEL FROM THE EARTH UP

If gazing into space seems more your style than boarding a rocket ship to outer space, 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.

Tourism linked to places of violence

It's often called grief tourism but has a number of facets: 

  • Disaster tourism, which 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. 
  • Dark tourism, 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.)
  • Slum tourism, visits to poor areas which movies like Slumdog Millionaire have made popular, whether Mumbai, the favelas of Rio or the townships of Johannesburg. 

Dangerous Travel

It is still unusual to travel to dangerous places (and that's a good thing). But if you feel so inclined (and I hope you don't, really) then hitting some of the world's strife spots would indeed qualify as unusual. Please, though, 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?

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.

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