In a year that has seen locals across the globe protesting against the impact of uncontrolled levels of tourism on their cities, it’s more important than ever to carefully consider those mainstream bucket list destinations. So we’ve scoured the world for destinations that really should be on people’s bucket lists but somehow haven’t got there yet.
There are only a handful of places on the earth that demonstrates the skill of Islamic artists and architects quite as well as Uzbekistan’s crossroads of cultures, Samarkand.
Owing its rich fourteenth-century architecture to its position on the silk routes that zigzagged between China and the Mediterranean, the city became not just a centre for Islamic scholarship but also the capital of the Central Asian emperor Timur (better known to many as Tamburlaine the Great). The almost iridescent blues of the ceramic tiles that represent the city’s ornate architecture shine all the brighter in the dry climes. The detailed Arabic calligraphy and floral designs they form, as well as the meticulous geometry of the structures, demonstrate cultural influences not just from Islam but also many of the neighbouring central Asian empires.
The finest buildings, characterised by large square-fronted entranceways, are perhaps those around the public square called the Registan. It’s there you can find three madrasas (Islamic schools), including the ornate Lions Gate Madrasa. Only a short distance away is the Gur-e Amir, the mausoleum of Timur himself, which dates back almost 600 years.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Unlike nearby Havana in Cuba, the capital of the Dominican Republic remains something of a hidden gem. Founded by Columbus’ younger brother in 1496, Santo Domingo is the oldest European settlement in the Americas, laying claim in turn to the first university, castle, cathedral and fortress in the new world.
The younger Columbus’ city lies in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed zona colonial, adorned with a number of elegantly restored sixteenth-century buildings including the Fortaleza Ozama. The zona acts as the lynchpin around which ‘la Capital’s’ myriad diverse neighbourhoods revolve, each with its own distinct way of doing things. Whichever part of the city you find yourself in, you’ll never be too far from a concert hall or bar featuring live music, the Dominicans adoring both music and dancing almost as much as their Sundays. It’s then that people from all walks of life decamp to the white sand beaches and turquoise blue seas a short distance from the city to relax before the start of another week in their hidden gem of a capital.
The Canadian North
Canada’s north is a place to get away from all the modern world throws at you, and experience nature at its most raw, powerful and beautiful. The way of life there remains traditional, the population of its settlements predominantly indigenous Inuit. It’s the realm of landscapes so epic and vast road travel can be measured in days rather than hours. In fact, Nunavut, Canada’s most northerly territory of all and one of the world’s remotest regions, doesn’t even have any roads that connect it to the rest of the country. In short, its isolation is its great draw, with fishing, canoeing and wilderness camping all on offer for those who make it here.
Easier to access is the town of Churchill, Manitoba. Probably the best place in the Arctic to capture polar bears on camera, it has adopted the unofficial title of the ‘polar bear capital of the world’. Each autumn, the world’s largest land carnivore heads to the town’s Hudson Bay shore from Canada’s interior, where they can be viewed from the safety of specially-designed ‘tundra buggies’.
Nova Gorica, Slovenia
Given its location between the ever-popular holiday destinations of Italy and Croatia, it’s surprising how few make the short and easy journey into neighbouring Slovenia.
Though not its capital (a title held by nearby Ljubljana), Nova Gorica makes for the perfect place from which to explore the small and friendly nation. Too small to be intimidating, yet large enough to contain good restaurants and transport links, with an educated English-speaking population and surrounded by beautiful parkland and hills, it’s the town’s location on the Italian-Slovenia border that makes it special. There are actually two towns, Nova Gorica (Slovene for New Gorizia) on one side of the border, and Gorizia on the Italian side.
The Border Museum, perhaps one minute’s walk from the frontier, tells the fascinating story of the political intrigues that went on here while East and West faced off during the Cold War. A little further out of the city, but still within walking distance amid beautiful scenery is the Solkan Bridge, the longest railway bridge of its kind in the world. On the hills above the town is the monastery of Montesanto, reconstructed after its destruction during the First World War, when Nova Gorica found itself yet again on Europe’s fault lines.
Corn Islands, Nicaragua
The tiny car-free island of Little Corn and its slightly larger brother Big Corn Island, lie about 40 miles (70 km) from the eastern coast of Nicaragua, deep in the Caribbean Sea. The one-time home of pirates, the islands were British for two hundred years until 1860 when annexed by Nicaragua. As a result, the population is an intriguing mix of indigenous people and English Creole-speakers of African descent.
Still difficult to reach without recourse to aircraft and free of the large resorts of other Caribbean islands, their isolation means the islands can appear pricey. However, this is more than made up for by the laid-back vibe, long stretches of deserted white sand beaches and a chance of catch sight of a green turtle, ray, or shark while snorkelling or scuba-diving. If you’re up for a fancy-free escape that comes as close to paradise as any other, look no further than the Corn Islands.
Situated on Namibia’s Atlantic coastline and wedged between two great slabs of desert, Lüderitz is a town like almost no other. It is one of the most surreal destinations in Africa, but its otherworldly location with apparently endless sand dunes visible from the edge of town is not the only reason. Its heritage as a German colony gives it a rare sense of Africa as it once was, where it is as easy to find a slice of black forest gateau as it is more common African staples. Its colonial-era architecture gives it a Bavaria-in-the-tropics feel combining simple wooden clapboard structures, larger timber-framed townhouses and turn-of-the-century art nouveau design.
The sense of time having stood still continues to the nearby ghost town of Kolmanskop, the only regularly accessible part of the Sperrgebeit restricted diamond-mining region. A former centre of diamond mining, the town was abandoned in 1954 and is being slowly swallowed by the orange-yellow sands of the Sperrgebeit, a part of the Namib Desert stretching 10,000 square miles (26,000 km2) and protected by armed guards with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. You have been warned.
Six hundred miles (965 km) inside the Arctic Circle, Hammerfest is often considered the world’s northernmost town. Its location on an isolated stretch of coast surrounded by stunning mountain scenery makes it a great destination for activity seekers and the wild at heart. Hiking trails span from the well-trodden ten-minute zig-zag path to the top of Mount Salen for views over the town’s colourful Lego-like homes and the Norwegian Sea to multi-day walks across the barren landscape of the Finnmark region. Fishing from boats remains an ever-popular pastime with visitors and locals alike.
Not only that, Hammerfest is the perfect place to witness the ‘midnight sun’ each summer, with the sun not dipping below the horizon between mid-May and the end of July. It can be a strange and disorientating experience. In contrast, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all during the town’s winter ‘polar night’ period, making it a great time to observe the phenomenon of the northern lights.
W National Park, West Africa
Thousands of miles away from the safari lodges of southern and eastern Africa lies W National Park. Straddling the borders of three of West Africa’s most beguiling nations — Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin, the park takes its name from a W-shaped meander in the River Niger as it winds through the park. Important enough to have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park covers 4,000 square miles (10,000 km2) of land largely free of human habitation, though there are a multitude of archaeological remains speaking of a more habitable past.
The park is one of the best places in West Africa to image the animals quintessentially associated with the continent — hippopotami, lion, leopard, and cheetah, as well as some of the region’s last elephant herds. With 350 different species of bird, it is also a paradise for birdwatchers.
Relaxing on the soft cushions of the veranda of a luxurious houseboat on the clear still waters of Dal Lake surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, you’ll soon have dismissed Kashmir’s reputation as a flashpoint for conflict. In fact, locals are proud of their history of hospitality to outsiders, having previously welcomed the likes of The Beatles among others.
Having reached an inner peace, you might be tempted to exploring this unknown region a little more. Situated in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, Kashmir is sometimes called India’s Switzerland. Many first-time visitors are surprised by the abundance of brightly-coloured flowers in its gardens and amid seemingly ageless structures rising from the surrounding countryside. Almost every view provides the sort of picturesque alpine scenery more associated with the Alps.
Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, or La Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción to give it its full title, is not only the chief river port for this landlocked South American country, but also its cultural and political hub. Sometimes called the ‘mother of cities’ for its history as a staging post for expeditions further inland. It has a slower pace of life than other South American capitals. This, and the fact it is also one of the least expensive capitals on the planet makes it the perfect place to try local delicacies. One such drink is tereré, a cold herbal tea drunk from an ox horn cup with a metal straw.
Charmingly decayed on the one hand and sparkling with modern glass-plated skyscrapers on the other, Asunción is a city where anything goes. A perfect place to start is the building from the Spanish colonial period around Calle Palma, downtown’s main drag. A series of more traditional homes in front of the Presidential Palace have been converted into the ‘Manzana de la Rivera’ museum to showcase the city’s evolution. Whatever you decide to do, the slow pace here means you’ll never feel rushed into a decision.
Whether you’re seeking relaxation, culture, history or activity, we reckon you’ll be asking yourself why you’d never thought of these destinations before. Our recommendation? Get there before everybody else discovers the secret too.