Following an enforced change of plans this summer, over the last six weeks I ended up exploring Ireland and Sicily, two European regions I’ve been fascinated by for years, but never made it to until now. Both are magnificent, amazing places, although their also far from unknown quantities to travellers. Ireland was about as wonderful as I’d long expected, but Sicily really took me by surprise – it’s surely one of the great travel destinations of the world. Despite the popularity of both places, one thing that struck me in a very positive way was how ‘authentic’ they felt on the whole. Tourism is still relatively low-key in Ireland, Sicily and elsewhere in southern Italy, the people of both countries are curious, friendly almost to a fault, and absolutely fascinating culturally, retaining their own unique characters in a world where people often seem to be losing their individuality. Best of all though the despised plague of mass luxury tourism that’s infecting popular tourist destinations the world over has yet to taint either. This summer’s travels set me thinking about other far less well-known places that I’ve been lucky enough to visit already, and how bizarrely and inexplicably (although so fortunately, for us travellers) they’ve remained off the radar for most to this day.
My body is still stubbornly functioning on England time at the moment, so to use my jetlag for a positive end, I’ve sorted briefly through some of the (digital) photos I’ve taken over the years, and come up with my six most mind-blowing, utterly extraordinary destinations. These tower above all else in my travelling experience so far, and I’d jump at the chance to visit any of them again.
I’m running the risk here of coming across as an immodest show-off, but anyway, here’s the list! With a bit of luck the photos will prove that I’m not casually name-dropping a tally of exotic, far-flung countries just to improve my travel-writer’s cred and gain a few brownie points. I believe these places truly are among the world’s greatest travel destinations, although for various reasons (such as perceived safety issues or the need for vast sums of money or effort, both of which are largely unfounded) none of them have so far become popular travel destinations. Things are slowly changing, but undiscovered corners of the globe like this knock you sideways with their beauty, the friendliness of their people, and their blessed lack of damned commercial tourism.
Anyway, lets start the name-dropping with maybe the most sought-after (and certainly the most memorable) medal of honor for any traveler:
Bug**r me if there’s anywhere else on this earth that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Antarctica for sheer, unadulterated, overwhelming, profoundly moving beauty. Antarctica is less a travel destination than a kind of Paganistic religious conversion, albeit one that reveals the sad state of the remainder of our exceptionally beautiful but polluted, developed world in a remarkably powerful way. Before committing to the expense of heading down there in January 2010, I’d heard (from a couple of people who’d already been) that Antarctica is on a whole new level as a travel destination. However nothing could have prepared me for the trip, which (and I promise this isn’t empty hyperbole) was among the most intense experiences of my life so far. Boarding a boat in Ushuaia and crossing the Drake Passage felt a little like stepping into a space ship.
After a couple of rough, sometimes vaguely scary days bobbing across a cold, wild and unforgiving ocean, we saw the first growlers, bergy bits and icebergs of the Antarctic Peninsula (you soon become an expert at telling them apart), and it felt like we were entering another world. And in a way, that’s exactly what we were doing. That Drake crossing (which is often dryly referred to as ‘paying your dues’ – it’s clear why once you’ve done it twice) effectively cuts Antarctica completely off from the rest of the world. For eleven magnificent days we saw not one airplane or vapor trail in the sky, let alone a single length of asphalt, or, for that matter any sign of human life, beside a couple of research stations. The very air (which must have been largely free of radio waves, and certainly many hundreds of miles from the nearest TV or cellphone signal), almost felt as if from another planet. The occasional fellow cruise ship passed, but we only saw a couple of other boats during our 11-day trip. Antarctica is on another plane of pristine remoteness altogether. I imagine Alaska would look very similar, and Greenland (more on that in a mo) definitely does, but both those regions have stretches of roads, and they’ve been tamed, colonized, if only in small patches. Antarctica is utterly vast, utterly empty, and profoundly untouched, and it makes all the difference. People that have been that far south tend to refer to their experience in hushed, referential tones. It’s a bit like being in an exclusive little club, and we’ve long given up trying to explain what it’s like, because the only way to know is to go. If you do go (and you must), for goodness sake, join a small boat (of less than a hundred people if possible), which gives far more opportunities to go ashore (in rubber Zodiacs). It’s not exactly a cheap trip, but whatever you do, stretch your budget as far as you can and get the longest trip you can afford. We did an eleven-day trip which crossed the Antarctic Circle. Most trips don’t head that far south, as conditions start getting very icy and forbidding down there – far more so than crossing the Arctic Circle at sea off Norway or the west coast of Greenland. Limited numbers of luxury cruise ships regrettably do cruise these waters (not that you’ll notice them while you’re there), but the Antarctic experience is so diametrically opposed to that whole fake ambiance of style, cuisine and plush comfort that presence of these floating palaces is a deeply unwelcome intrusion on one of the last corners of the world to remain aloof from the polluting effects of human meddling.
Greenland is a great deal closer to my English home than Antarctica, but a visit feels light years away from neighboring Iceland, that extraordinarily beautiful country that in recent years has perhaps become too touristy for its own good. Like the Antarctic Peninsula, Greenland is quite an expensive adventure (with no roads at all outside the few small, widely scattered centers of population, all travel is by boat, plane or helicopter), but wow, is it worth it! Naturally, Greenland sees far more big cruise ships than Antarctica, but really the only way to see it properly is to travel like the amazingly friendly, curious locals: hop between settlements and towns on the west coast by boat, ferry or helicopter, and walk around the quaint villages of wooden houses painted in bright colors. On the outskirts of the more northern villages to find the dog-sled teams, which spend the summer impatiently camped out in the open waiting for the snow to return, barking all night.
Greenlandic supermarkets, which are veritable meeting places for each settlement, are remarkably well-stocked and surprisingly inexpensive. Prices for food and domestic helicopter rides (among other things) are subsidized by Greenland’s Danish overlords. Before going, I assumed that Greenland would be largely inhabited by Danish émigrés, but in fact the large majority of inhabitants in most settlements we visited were Inuit, a wonderfully friendly, curious people. No-frills six-or-eight seater helicopters serve most of the domestic routes here (the kind where pilot has to give you ear mufflers to wear before boarding – grab the two seats along the side window against the door for a view you’ll never forget). The only remaining public ferry service runs down the west coast (which is the part most travellers visit, since it’s perhaps the most interesting). The trip from Ilulissat and impossible-to-pronounce Qaqortoq (the ‘q’s are all enunciated a bit like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch – but not quite…) is rather expensive, and a sometimes rather dull three-day journey (much less interesting than the absolutely stunning Hurtigruten ferry that runs the length of the Norwegian coast).
Luckily it’s still possible (although now I think technically illegal) to quietly get a local to give you a lift in one of their tiny fishing boats along the coast between the remote settlements of the southwest coast. Many of these boats only fit three or four people, and it may be hard to believe you’ll get out alive speeding down the west coast of Greenland for several hours. However, as on the Antarctic Peninsula, a string of offshore islands ensures calm seas for much of the summer. This is the way to explore Greenland!! Its southwest corner is undoubtedly one of the world’s most spectacular places, with scenery that exceeds anything I saw in Norway – think southern Patagonia’s great mountain national parks like Torres del Paine. It’s crushingly expensive for the average backpacker to charter a boat here (we divided the cost of a day-long boat charter between two of us, and we still spent a small fortune each), but the day trip by little boat from Nanortalik (a tiny village in a fantastically remote and scenic setting) up Tasermuit Fjord is one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever taken! I hear the scenery gets even more superlative a few hours further south.
Unlike stormy Iceland (which, although at a similar longitude, seems, like northern Scotland, to sit in the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Roaring Forties), the summer weather in southern and mid Greenland is remarkably wonderful. During our two-week stay we had blue, largely cloudless skies almost every day, and several locals told us the fine weather would last all summer, until into August. Greenlanders live a simple life blissfully separate from the rest of the world and its tensions. Boarding helicopters, there’s no baggage check or security of any kind, you simply walk across the tarmac of the car park-sized heliport, bag in hand, and jump aboard while an assistant throws the packs in the helicopter’s boot. Once, while on a plane flight between Greenland’s only two proper airports, our cabin attendant (after finishing her introductory duties) sat down in the seat in front of us, took her knitting out of a bag sitting on the next seat, and returned to a sweater she was finishing.
Visiting the Faroe Islands made me wistfully wonder if nearby Iceland would have felt like this before its new status as a tourist magnet took a shine off the experience. Iceland was the only vaguely disappointing part of our Arctic summer of 2015. Scenically it still knocks the socks off many other popular destinations around the world, but culturally much of the population seems to be hurtling enthusiastically into the modern world of consumerism, and there’s a feeling that everyone wants to make money off you, although they do it in a very friendly, smiling, pleasant way.
The Faroes do now seem to be taking off slowly as a destination, so maybe eventually they’ll lose their extraordinary charm. Meanwhile their awesome natural beauty (including some of the most majestically wild coastal cliffs I’ve ever seen) is complimented by a population of disarmingly lovely, friendly people, prices that are quite a bit cheaper than pricey Iceland, and some much more homely, much less ’boutique’ home stays than any we found in Iceland. Our August visit even coincided with Europe’s smallest Gay Pride march, where a large proportion (we heard something like 30 or 40 percent) of the Faroe Islands’ capital city Torshavn took to the streets to march for equality. It’s impossible not to love a place like this, and even though it’s difficult to see their side of the notorious annual whale hunt, talk to them before leaping to an emotionally-charged judgement.
Part 2: Ethiopia, Iranand Uzbekistan… coming later…
I could easily add a few other neglected countries – Colombia, Zimbabwe, Mali, Algeria, Uganda, Kyrgystan, Pakistan, Albania and Romania have blown me away for different reasons, and two others, the Ukraine and Bhutan, both wowed me so much that I’ve already written blog entries on here about them. However I visited the first seven countries in my youth during the early 1990s, when print film was still the only way to go and camera quality wasn’t a spot on today’s cheap digital marvels. One day I’ll sort through a few of them, scan them and upload them for nostalgia’s sake, but meanwhile here are a few places I got to more recently that nearly, but not quite made it into my most treasured travel experiences.