Go truly off the beaten track with one rarely-visited gem plus three other suggestions per region
It appears there’s almost no such thing as “undiscovered” any more, with more people posting selfies from deserted beaches and spiraling mountaintops than ever before. Here, however, is our guide to how you can still surprise the next person who asks where you’re going on holiday.
Landlocked between Ukraine and Romania is Moldova, a place that’s shedding its slightly bleak, post-Soviet reputation, and becoming more well-known for its wonderful scenery, excellent wine, and the culture and nightlife of its capital, Chişinău.
It’s a very rural country, with craggy hills, meandering rivers, beautiful meadows, and lush forests covering the landscape. 367,000 acres of the country are devoted to vineyards, making this small country the 11th-largest wine producer in Europe.
It still manages to have an off-the-beaten-track feel to it, however, despite the increase in numbers of flights from western Europe. Chişinău isn’t a huge city (around 530,000 people), meaning it’s walkable, lively, leafy, and with a rough-around-the-edges charm that’s immediate and appealing.
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Moldova is also home to the surreal, self-declared republic of Transdniestr (Transnistria), the last relic of the Soviet Union in Europe, a breakaway state still fully enamored with all things Lenin. Its idiosyncrasies can be explored for 12 hours without the need for any paperwork (just register at the border office), which is more than enough time for a day trip into its capital, Tiraspol.
Special Mentions: North Macedonia, San Marino, Belarus
North Macedonia is, outside the capital Skopje, a pleasant patchwork of lakes and mountains, a wonderful place to relax that has a multi-hued history steeped in both Balkan and Mediterranean heritage, with a good dash of Roman, Greek, and Ottoman thrown in.
The tiny principality of San Marino is a curiosity, a hangover from when what is now Italy was a network of powerful city-states. At only 61 square kilometers it’s the fifth-smallest nation in the world: nine municipalities with walled towns and sheer hillsides, castles, towers, and ancient streets.
Belarus might not seem an obvious place for a holiday (and whether you can overlook politics is an individual matter), but Minsk is interesting: it manages to be almost crushingly Soviet without being uniform and grey. Murals, sculptures, and statues in grand squares are the order of the day, while outside the cities are farms and villages seemingly trapped in time.
Africa: São Tomé and Príncipe
The reason this tiny country gets so few visitors is simply that not many people have heard of it. That’s not unexpected: two main islands formed as part of a volcanic archipelago around 240km from the coast of Gabon.
It’s one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. Independent from Portugal since 1975, its two islands are ringed by beaches, with a landscape that turns to deep, lush forests and jagged volcanic pillars. The islands are dotted with roças, coffee, and cocoa plantations that remain the backbone of the country’s economy, and you’re more than welcome to visit, learn about the production and the history, and try some of the products.
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Ecotourism is a big deal, as residents know exactly how special their country is. Watersports, swimming, diving, and snorkeling are popular pastimes, as are turtle-watching, visiting underwater caves, or simply lying on the beach eating fresh coconuts. Inland, you can hike in the forests and national parks, discovering secret pools and waterfalls, or climbing to the highest points for a view over each island.
It’s a beautiful, laid-back, and friendly country where — due maybe to its size, or just the fact that people are very welcoming — everyone seems to know and look out for everyone else. Get it on your bucket list.
Special Mentions: Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti
Another tiny island nation that specializes in ecotourism is Comoros. With only around 28,000 visitors a year, many of whom are volunteer workers helping with things like sea turtle nesting sites, it features many of the elements mentioned above: sparkling blue seas, palm tree-lined beaches, and spectacular black sand and lava formations.
Squeezed between Gabon and Cameroon lies Equatorial Guinea, a country whose history is tainted by coups and corruption, the whole business drenched in oil. Despite this, it’s slowly attempting to improve its image, with Malabo boasting lively markets and a bustling port. The jungles inland are alive with chimpanzees and gorillas, forest elephants, and clouds of butterflies. It’s not an easy place to visit, but we bet you’ll be the only person you know who has.
A country that still works along tribal lines — certainly outside of its capital — Djibouti is a country in which tourists are still a curiosity. The harsh, dusty, otherworldly landscapes contrast beautifully with the locals’ colorful clothes and traditional songs, while camels and flamingos make their untroubled home on the horizon. The sometimes brutal heat can be lessened with a trip to the Red Sea coast for beaches and swimming (or at least a bit of a breeze!)
The country formerly known as East Timor has survived a brutal independence war that lasted right up until the beginning of the 21st century. Declaring independence in 2002, it has set about combining its ancient traditions with gingerly testing the waters of tourism.
Sharing an island with Timor — still part of Indonesia — it manages to cram every untouched-tropical-paradise cliche into one place: clear, shimmering seas lapping gently at endless beaches, wondrous reefs teeming with life, even dolphins leaping out of the water to greet you.
The chaotic capital, Dili, is the place to learn the difficult (there’s an understatement!) history of the country, its Resistance Museum doing an excellent job. The Barbecue Market is the place to be for incredibly fresh seafood, and the Cristo Rei statue an excellent vantage point for getting your bearings.
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Get out of the city though, and explore the real magic of the country: mountain villages shrouded in early-morning mist, the communal activities of the friendly locals, the pilgrims hiking to the top of Mount Ramelau to watch the sun rise. Get involved in all that’s good about this proud, new nation.
Special Mentions: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Brunei
Turkmenistan borders on the absurd, with its overblown capital, Ashgabat, a monument to former leader Saparmurat Niyazov’s… let’s say ‘ego’. Marble and gold are the order of the day here, and it’s this post-Soviet madness that attracts curious adventurers. Venture further out, however, and you can camp wild in the deserts surrounding the fearsome Darvaza gas crater, known as the Door to Hell.
Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia but is a country of huge skies, mountain passes, and vast, blue lakes. 90% of the country is mountains, and it’s through these mountains that the ancient Silk Road passed for centuries. In Tajikistan, you can trek your way through history.
Located on the island of Borneo, Brunei is a country of fewer than half a million people and is mainly rainforest, home to monkeys, temples, and traditional boats navigating the rivers. It is, however, incredibly religiously strict, so bear that in mind if you plan to visit.
The Americas: Guyana
Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, which makes it an oddity right from the outset. Achieving independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, it remains a member of the Commonwealth, and the capital, Georgetown, sits on the coast.
Most of the population lives on the coast in fact, the deeper you range into the interior, the more diverse, spectacular, and, frankly, difficult it gets. The south is mountains and rainforests, while to the southwest you’ll find drier savannah. Indeed, some parts of the country (the forest in particular) remain inaccessible to humans, and there’s a campaign to name much of the region a World Heritage Site.
That which you can see is incredible. The Kaieteur Falls — second-highest in the world and largest single-drop waterfall by volume — seem like a vision of water plummeting off the very edge of the world. Animals such as jaguars, ocelots, and anteaters roam the jungles, while eagles soar above.
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Guyana is trying to balance the need for tourism with maintaining its traditions and beauty, with indigenous people — who had previously had to survive by working in the mining or timber industries — now at the forefront of community-led and -owned programs to encourage travelers to stay at eco-lodges and join in with wildlife conservation while discovering the traditional ways of life.
Special Mentions: Suriname, Belize, St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Next door to Guyana is Suriname, the smallest independent country in South America. Dutch settlers arrived in the 16th century, making it the only nation outside Europe where Dutch is the main language. Culturally, it’s considered Caribbean, with a wide ethnic diversity making it lively and welcoming, with the capital, Paramaribo, a spicy mix of parties, mild chaos, and some wonderful colonial architecture.
Belize is a name that’s coming to the forefront of the booming trade in ecotourism, offering similar jungle-based delights as Guyana, while also offering white, sandy Caribbean beaches, reef diving, windsurfing, fishing, exploring the underwater cave systems, or simply lying in a hammock with a cocktail.
With a name that sounds like a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll band, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a collection of 32 islands in the Caribbean Sea, nine of which are inhabited. Relatively tricky to travel around due to geography — the islands are volcanic and heavily forested — it’s also a getaway for the extremely wealthy, with some of the islands (Mustique, for example), renting out villas whose prices start at $4,000… per day.
Tuvalu really is the leader in least-visited countries. Only around a thousand people a year come to this remote archipelago of nine islands, a two-hour flight from Fiji, a massive 1,179km away.
There is little-to-no tourist infrastructure, with no credit cards accepted and no ATMs anywhere. It’s cash only at the one hotel in the capital, Funafuti, and the dozen or so guesthouses and homestays dotted around the islands, so you’ll have to bring everything you need (and some Australian dollars) with you.
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This also means that there’s little crime, no political parties (what politics there are, they are based on personal, family, or island loyalties), and nothing to stop you from enjoying Tuvalu as a simple, beautiful, island paradise. Rent a scooter or bike and explore. Meet the locals and join in a game of soccer, or te ano, a local variation of volleyball.
Swim, sail, walk, dive, or just lie on the beach. No matter where you’re from, you’ll be a very, very long way from home and all the stresses and worries that go with it.
Special Mentions: Solomon Islands, Tonga, American Samoa
The Solomon Islands consist of four inhabited islands and over 900(!) smaller islands and islets. A haven for surfers and divers, the number of islands (and the nautical treachery that brings) means that there are a large number of shipwrecks to explore, as well as crashed warplanes from the Pacific Theater of World War Two.
It says something about the vast nature of the Pacific Islands that Tonga and Fiji are considered neighbors, and are often mentioned in the same breath, despite being over 800 km apart. “The Friendly Islands” are known for their marine life, so you can travel by yacht to meet humpback whales, reef sharks, octopuses, turtles, and more, as well as exploring sea caves and hidden coves.
And finally, we’re going to cheat slightly: American Samoa isn’t technically a country, rather an unincorporated territory of the US, similar to Puerto Rico and Guam. This means US citizens can arrive without having to do any paperwork, visiting what’s considered by many to be the oldest Polynesian culture, dating back 3,000 years. However, due to its ties to the US, it’s more developed than many other countries, including the town of Pago Pago, a town built around a harbor and home to a lively fishing industry, and a national park looked after by the US National Park Service.
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