With the winter holidays fast approaching, it's time to start planning your cold weather getaway. But this time, rather than taking advice from friends or travel guides and ending up in the same overhyped destinations, why not dare to be different and head out into uncharted tourist territory? To help you start planning, here is a list of the best destinations that you've (probably) never heard of.
[See a photo recap of the Top Secret Vacation Spots]
Unspoiled beaches are hard to come by these days, especially in the Great Barrier Reef area. However, this uninhabited island just off the coast of Central Queensland (accessible only by boat from the mainland tourist ports or the nearby Hamilton Island tourist hub) has barely been touched. When it comes to a perfect day at the beach, atmosphere is key, and Whitsunday definitely delivers: more than 20 individual reefs are hidden by forested coves. But don't let yourself be overwhelmed by choice; Whitehaven Beach on the island's southeast coast trumps the other shorelines with more than four miles of pearly sands and azure waves. Unlike more popular beaches, Whitehaven is renowned for its cleanliness, earning it a spot on CNN.com's list of the World's Best Eco-Friendly Beaches. If you tire of sunbathing, consider donning your flippers and exploring the nearby Great Barrier Reef.
When many jet setters (or should we say jet-skiers?) crave the blanketing snows of Europe, they head to the coveted slopes of the Alps. Rather than fight for your turn on the ski-lift, why not just try a different mountain range? Andorra la Vella -- capital of Andorra, a tiny nation sandwiched between France and Spain -- is tucked away in the Pyrenees mountain range just a short drive or bus ride to many of the region's primary ski spots. When you're not cruising the slopes, take some time to explore this quaint little city. The historic town center features the rather magnificent Saint Stephen Church, and the piazza outside the Government Exhibition Hall hosts popular celebrations, including the annual music festival in winter. If you do plan to visit, make sure to set aside some souvenir cash -- Andorra acts as Europe's shopping haven thanks to the country's bargain-priced goods and lack of a sales tax.
These days, Thailand seems to be all the rage, with thousands of tourists flocking to Bangkok for the culture and Phuket for the beach. Instead of struggling to find peace and quiet in either of those spots, head even farther east to Laos, where Si Phan Don offers a breathtaking environment barely touched by outsiders. Known in English as the Four Thousand Islands, this grouping of islets in Laos' Mekong River are perfect for hiking: canopied trails traverse the islands, leading to hidden natural wonders like Khone Phapeng, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. If your feet grow weary, shell out a buck or two to rent a bicycle, or take a boat tour of the islands -- if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the pink Irrawaddy dolphins that cruise the river. After a long, adventure-filled day, relax with a bite to eat and an evening stroll along the beach before retiring to one of the waterfront vacation bungalows available (for only a few dollars, might we add) for a good night's sleep.
Many visitors to Turkey head straight to Istanbul for a soak in the baths and a taste of the nightlife. But if you're a true historian, you'll head due east to Kars. Sitting close to the Armenian border, this town offers sanctuary to those who have set out to visit the medieval city of Ani. In Kars, however, you can spend your time investigating the city's mysterious origins, or explore the Kars Castle, which has defended the city since the 13th century. After your journey through time, refuel with some of Kars' mouthwatering peynir (cheese) and bal (honey). If there's time, you should also head to Ani. Located about 30 miles east, Ani is the former capital of the Armenian kingdom that once governed most of Turkey. Today, all that remains of this former political powerhouse are the ruins of several massive churches, a mosque, the ancient stone walls and an abandoned suburban cave village.
When visiting Africa, many people either head north to Marrakesh, Morocco; east to Cairo, Egypt or south to Cape Town, South Africa. The time has come to pick a new direction. Resting on Senegal's Atlantic coast, Saint-Louis (or "Ndar" as it is known in the Senegalese language of Wolof) was the country's capital city throughout its time as a French colony. Many aspects of this city are reminiscent of the Caribbean: A golden shoreline, swaying palm trees, colorful buildings and a strong emphasis on music. The city's community is bound by its love of Mbalax, Senegal’s national dance accompanied by contemporary music blended with traditional sabar (percussion music). If you do decide to visit this rhythmic city, try to book your trip in June so that it will coincide with Saint-Louis' annual Jazz Festival.
Finding a quiet spot in the Caribbean is almost impossible these days; it seems as though even the most remote beaches have cruise ports. However, rest assured that secluded sands like those found at Colombia's breathtaking Hotel Playa Koralia still await those who know where to look. Nestled on the northern edge of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park -- about 30 miles west of touristy Santa Marta -- this beach resort is inspired by the fusion of Columbia's stunning nature with South America's rich culture. "You'll quickly come to appreciate other distractions," writes Laura MacNeil of Budget Travel, "namely sea views from porch side hammocks, howler monkeys, iguanas, white eagles, natural whirlpools in the nearby rivers, and a full-service spa." If you're not already sold, you can stay at this Caribbean paradise for as little as $95 a night.
While everyone else is touring up-and-coming Lisbon, you can get a head start on the ancient ruins that dominate this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although it is heavily overshadowed by the nearby capital, those in-the-know agree that Évora is one of Portugal's most delightful towns. Tucked away in Alentejo Province -- about 83 miles east of Lisbon -- this tiny town came to life more than two thousand years ago. Throughout its lifetime, Évora has changed hands numerous times, passing from the Romans to the Visigoths to the Moors and finally to the Kingdom of Portugal, where it became an artistic epicenter. Today, the town flaunts awe-inspiring monuments from its turbulent past. So while everyone else is waiting in line at Lisbon's St. George's Castle, you can beat the crowds past Évora's fortified walls for great views of sites like the Roman Temple and the Palace of Vasco da Gama.
Anchoring the Trans-Canada Highway at its westernmost point is Prince Rupert, British Colombia. This small town -- resting on the northern coast of Kaien Island about 614 miles north of Vancouver and around 40 miles south of Alaska's southern tip -- claims to be the place where Canada's wilderness begins. They're really not lying: Head any farther north and you won't find much more than prime habitat for some of the country's more untamed residents, including grizzly bears, mountain goats and wolves. Head any farther west and you'll be swimming with humpback whales, orcas and seals. Prince Rupert offers unique opportunities for wildlife voyeurism, including bear-, bird- and whale-watching boat tours and flights out to the more remote areas of Canada's Pacific Coast. There are also plenty of opportunities to hike and kayak. And as the day draws to a close, curl up in one of the town's cozy B&Bs.
For a truly clandestine vacation, Comoros is the place. Sandwiched between Mozambique and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, this tiny island nation lies way below the tourist radar. But that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. Start your visit in Moroni, the capital city of Grand Comore (the largest island) and the Comoros Islands. According to Lonely Planet, "Moroni feels like another world. It is a timeless place where the air is heavy with romanticized Arabia -- a great introduction to the Comoros if you’ve just arrived." From here, golden shorelines and brilliant blue waters surrounding the island are easily accessible. If you like to walk on the wild side, take a hike through Karthala Forest, which rests at the base of Mount Karthala, an active volcano. At the end of the day, watch the sun dip below the horizon from Moroni harbor -- the orange light sets the whitewashed buildings ablaze, making for a spectacular view.
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