A general fact of travel worth considering: Anywhere worth getting to, takes getting to.
Many of my favorite spots in the world are on the way to nowhere, and so are most often overlooked. I hope that the spots below will inspire you to stretch out a little and make your own discoveries beyond the guidebook highlights page.
- Muang Ngoi, Laos. Bombed by the United States twice a day for four years during the “Secret War” spilling over from Vietnam, this riverside town, ringed by emerald rice paddies and dramatic karst limestone peaks and caves, is the essence of laid-back graciousness. Though often compared to Vang Vienne — today infamous as a riotous party centre — the feel of the town is decidedly sleepy, and you won’t find 19 year-old Danish backpackers doing body shots here. Simplest explanation? There are, as yet, no roads to Muang Ngoi, which requires a journey of more than an hour up or downriver to reach.
- Tofo, Mozambique. Though it might be flooded with South Africans around the New Year, the beach town of Tofo near Inhambane in the south of the country is a far cry from popular beach spots like Bali and Phuket. There are no beach resorts, no high rises, and very little in the way of a developed ‘tourist’ culture. Instead what you get is miles of wide, empty beaches made of white sand so fine it squeaks between your toes, bookended by a sapphire Indian Ocean on one side, and high, rolling dunes on the other. Popular with both Mozambicans and hardcore travellers alike, Tofo is a party town, with a handful of open-air beach bars spread out over more than a kilometre of shoreline, but it has the sort of low-key, un-slick, everyone-is-welcome vibe that eludes scenester-y beaches the world over. The key to Tofo’s cool? If you don’t have your own vehicle, it’s a bitch to get to from Jo’burg on public transport.
- Togian Islands, central Sulawesi, Indonesia. If Tofo is a bitch to get to, then getting to the Togian Islands of Indonesia is beyond ridiculous. Sitting in the heart of Tomini Bay between the central ‘arms’ of the enormous island of Sulawesi, getting to this scattered archipelago takes patience, money, or both, enduring internal flights, looooong days on bad roads, and a final trip from the mainland on boats of varying size and seaworthiness. Arriving here, though, is pure Robinson Crusoe — the end of the world, with sunsets that burn out like nuclear fire over miles of cobalt blue and thriving coral gardens in waters so clear that you can spy the bottom, 40m down, from the surface. You may find yourself staying a few days longer than you wanted, of course, whether by choice or because the boatman you hired decided he has other things going that day, but that’s really all part of the charm.
- Lingshet, Ladakh, India. While getting to the above three destinations is inconvenient, none of them are WORK in the way that getting to Lingshet is, a tiny mountain village at 3800m in the upland desert of Ladakh, northern India. To get here you’ll have to walk. A lot. For at least three days and over mountain passes of more than 4500m. Lingshet, though, is a mountain idyll — green barley fields and a riot of wildflowers topping a series of stepped plateaus nestled between sheer mountain walls. A couple days here and I could feel my wifi addiction waning away — walking the mountain paths, chating to monks at the centuries-old Buddhist monastery, drinking tea and generally enjoying a place that neither time nor the wider world seem to have touched. One of those spots that — when you leave — you take a little piece of with you.
- Coffee Bay, South Africa. Coffee Bay, the gem of the South Africa’s undeveloped and aptly-named Wild Coast, is a delight. You won’t have to trek or take a boat to get here, but situated as it is at the end of a long, poorly-maintained road to the coast thru the traditional apartheid-era African homeland known as the Transkei, you won’t find the crowds here that mob Cape Town and the Garden Route. Half coastal and half pastoral, it’s a paradise for surfers and photographers alike, and while there’s a party scene here, it’s delightfully chilled-out, and you’re unlikely to find anyone trying to sell you crystal meth (Indonesia’s Gili Islands, I’m looking in your direction). Best of all, the town is home to the gracious Khosa people, who make Coffee Bay so much more than just a pretty landscape.