Some faraway destinations seem so exotic, so grand, that to mention their names is to illicit visions of romance, paradise and good times. The word Thailand, for example, brings to mind white sand beaches, cerulean waters and full moon parties, while one can’t think of Paris and not be reminded of fine dining, good wine and artistic marvels. We store these mental notes in our subconscious and call upon them when we think of a place – but what happens when those notes don’t really align with a nation’s modern narrative?
We’ve put together a list of 10 destinations working hard to break free from frosty reputations, places that have known political turmoil, civil strife, or have just never received the credit they deserve. Each is an intrepid traveller’s dream come true.
Forget everything you think you know about this part of the world; Georgia is marked by stunning scenery, an excellent food pedigree, tremendous historical cache, and friendly, inviting people. Georgia features the ancient allure of Egypt, the energy of Turkey, and as much danger as some of its more noted neighbours – if that’s what you’re after on your travel itinerary. If you’re more inclined to traipse across sweeping mountain passes (Caucasus), chase after the Golden Fleece (Rioni Region), call in on hillside vineyards and mountaintop monasteries (Kahketi Region), and float along in the Black Sea, then Georgia has you covered. You would really have to go looking for trouble to find it in this Eurasian country, and since Russian authorities are unlikely to allow you to pass into the troubled South Ossetia region, you can concentrate on tracking down the famous khachapuri cheese pie, a staple of the wonderfully nuanced Georgian cuisine.
2. Sri Lanka
Rocked by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and ravaged during the course of a 20-year civil war, Sri Lanka has been left off many intrepid traveller itineraries over the years. But the war ended in 2009, and a dark cloud parted to reveal sunny blue skies overhead. The country is experiencing a renaissance unparalleled in its history, with independent travellers keen to come to terms with all the Pearl of the Indian Ocean has to offer. English-style hill stations, jungle dreamscapes, haunting eastern shores, and sprawling national parks characterise this plucky South Asian upstart, a country known for spicy food, fiery spirits and unabashed hospitality. Through tumult and turmoil, Sri Lanka has always offered visitors a hundred different adventures in a day, while the southwest has re-emerged from the nautical disaster as a world-class relaxation destination, the perfect place to lose yourself for a few days.
Tajikistan doesn’t qualify as a country with a bad reputation simply because it doesn’t have much of a reputation at all. This Central Asian nation endured a vicious civil war during the 1990s in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and has never been considered a prime tourist destination. But peace has reigned for more than a decade, and those who do enter are greeted by some of the world’s most inspiring mountain terrain (The Pamirs), first-rate ecotourism opportunities, glimpses of the ancient Silk Road, friendly locals, and one of the region’s most exotic capital cities (Dushanbe). The Wakhan Valley turns slackers into trekkers, while waking up hillside in the Pamirs to a breakfast of fresh yogurt and yak milk tea is what travel is all about. Tajikistan is, in short, a thrill-seeker’s dream come true.
4. South Korea
South Korea is a beguiling, insular and ultimately charming nation that reveals itself to the stalwart traveller in bits and pieces. Seoul, the cultural, economic, and social hub of the country, is a massive modern marvel that hasn’t lost touch with its past. Skyscrapers rub elbows with ancient palaces in the city centre, traditional markets share space with futuristic art galleries, and the food, no matter how classic the recipe, never gets old. Just outside the metropolis you’ll find world-class climbing, trekking and skiing venues, lively traditional fishing villages, a second-city to rival any in the world (Busan), 18th- century Joseon fortresses (Hwaseong), and spectacularly scenic countryside. Western media makes a bigger deal of North Korean political posturing than South Koreans do; few places on earth feel as safe or welcoming.
Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik, tucked away somewhere near the North Pole, may as well be an iceberg, floating along as it does on the edge of the world. While Iceland – Europe’s most westerly nation – has never been considered dangerous (statistically, Iceland is the safest country on earth by a wide margin), the country as a whole has long been thought of as desolate, cold, and inhospitable. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Iceland is a tiny island packed with massive character; the country is home to Europe’s largest glacier, one of the most desolate deserts on the planet (think ice and not sand), fierce volcanoes, and more geothermal wonders than any place else on earth. Icelanders are a fun-loving, imbibing folk, fond of craft beer, good vodka, gourmet hotdogs and rotten shark. Yes, Icelandic cuisine is one of the world’s most curious, which only adds to the fun.
Surrounded on all sides by bigger, bolder neighbours – Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia – Laos is all too often left off Southeast Asian travel itineraries. In passing you may hear of travellers of a certain breed flocking to Vang Vieng, where the Mekong runs quick and dirty, transforming the sleepy backwater into the Spring Break capital of Asia. They unwittingly turning their back on the rest of Laos – the other Laos – a destination that offers sophisticated, adventurous visitors an enchanting escape into the region’s most elegant country. Laos is no longer the exclusive domain of the renegade backpacker; today the nation is well suited to serving the needs of upmarket visitors and enthralling the intrepid discoverer: cruising the mighty Mekong, canvassing ancient temples like a colonial surveyor, shopping for locally handmade textiles in haggard markets or exploring the deepest recesses of the ancient jungle makes it easy to act like a tourist without feeling like one.
Admit it – you’re afraid of Colombia, but you’ve always wanted to visit. This South American country has a fearsome reputation that is, in some regards, warranted. But days of bloody civil war are over, and Colombians and visitors alike are out to celebrate and spread the word. Bogotá is more romantic and alluring than you think, and features one of South America’s wildest nightlife scenes (that’s saying something). The Colombian Caribbean has beautiful white-sand beaches to rival any on earth, while the country’s interior is rife with trekking, climbing and safari opportunities. Villa de Leyva is a beautifully preserved colonial town, while the famed Lost City of Ciudad Perdida will test your traveller mettle. Colombia is poised to become a breakout destination. Get here before the crowds do.
On the surface Myanmar appears to be shedding the shackles of more than 50 years of government oppression, opening itself to the world, democracy and outside influences all at once. Yangon’s gritty streets provide plenty of fodder for adventure; sample curious concoctions from bubbling cauldrons at the Botataung Pagoda, dance around all manner of fowl at the medieval chicken market, and trade for antique coins and jade of suspect origin at the Bogyoke Aung San Market. Swap crisp, clean, American currency for ruddy, wrinkled Burmese kyat with suspect characters at the Sakura Tower – a sort of Burmese rite of passage, if you will – then take a crash course in civic navigation at the Sule Pagoda. Hop on a dilapidated bicycle and cruise across the dusty plains of Bagan, the landscape dotted with the sharp spires of 10,000 ancient temples as elephants lumber in the distance and stars crack in a sky that is a mix of day and night. Skip across the world’s largest teak bridge with tangerine-robed monks, learn how to paddle a skiff using only your legs with the Intha fisherfolk, and ride a buffalo into the northern backcountry of Asia’s most astonishing nation.
9. Northern Ireland
The Republic of Ireland is one of Western Europe’s most popular tourist destinations (Americans love it), while Northern Ireland has only recently begun to carve off a chunk of the intrepid traveller market for itself. Generations of civil strife left Northern Ireland battered and bruised but now, after a decade of peace and stability, the troubles have given way to a nation bent on being rediscovered; the almost-mythic Giant’s Causeway and the Causeway Coast no longer need be viewed in books, while Belfast is staking a claim as a literary and artistic powerhouse to rival Dublin (doesn’t hurt that it features raucous nightlife and an underrated foodie scene). Black Taxi tours bring the turbulent history of the country to life, while stunning architecture, those famous rolling green hills, and the first-rate music scene add swaths of colour to any trip to this corner of the Emerald Isle.
You could argue that landing on Madagascar is enough to take you off the beaten path, but it’s possible to go even further afield once you step foot on this big island tucked into the shadow of the African continent. Madagascar hasn’t suffered the political, civil, or social unrest that many of its neighbours have known, yet it still features large swaths of uncharted territory. From the rugged Hauts Plateaux where trekking is king to the Nosy Hara archipelago for a glimpse at Madagascar most remote, to the beautiful Île Andantsara island and the electric city of Antsiranana, the country has plenty to keep you occupied. The brave track crocodiles through underwater caves and hunt for ancient treasures in Ankarana National Park’s fossilised coral reefs; the rest spend their time unwinding on deserted beaches or sampling the capital’s fine Parisian fare. •