23 Off-the-Beaten-Path Experiences for Serious Travelers

If travel is the best form of education, then consider this a master class. These experiences go off the beaten path, and offer deeper, richer, and more fulfilling experiences. As you’ll see, the rewards are worth the extra effort.

Highlights
Carretera a Punta Sam Km 5.2 Manzana 9 Lote 3 SM 2, Zona Continental de Isla Mujeres, 77440 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Located in Cancun, Mexico is an unlikely resort. Unlikely because while it features many of the qualities that draw people to Mexico in the first place, beaches and luxury accommodations, the hotel also features an adventure travel component. Every year thousands of whale sharks migrate through the waters near Cancun, attracting thrill seekers from around the world and the Villa del Palmar is well situated to offer its guests a unique experience. Understanding how special the once in a lifetime opportunity to swim with these massive creatures is, the hotel has created packages to combine the relaxing hotel with the adrenalin pumping adventure of swimming with the whale sharks. Not many hotels embrace adventure travel in such a way and I was duly impressed. The whale sharks are filter feeders and so are harmless; but it’s hard to keep that in mind as the school bus sized fish come swimming towards you. Luckily after a few minutes I got used to the barrage of whale sharks and eagerly tried to anticipate the next one to swim by. Bobbing there in the middle of the open ocean as these beautiful creatures swim past is truly a once in a lifetime experience everyone should try.
Kasane, Botswana
There is a sliver of Africa where four countries almost converge: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. The Chobe River is one of the many separation points between Botswana and Namibia and it’s also where I experienced one of my favorite wildlife adventures of all time. The boat I called home for a few days is permanently moored in the middle of a vast river system of wetlands and river grasses. The marshland is rich in wildlife; hippos, birds of all kinds, Cape Buffalo and hundreds of elephants converge on this one spot. The elephants were perhaps the most impressive, in size as well as sheer numbers. While boating along the river one day the driver shushed us, cut the engine and pointed to the riverbank. There on the shore were two young elephants walking with great purpose towards the water. I had never thought about whether or not elephants could swim , but I soon got my answer. They plunged into the river without fear and began to swim with zeal and power to the coveted river island. They also didn’t seem to care about us as they came within a few feet of our boat. Watching these majestic animals ford the river and then emerge with a great splash was extraordinary. It’s one of the travel moments that makes you feel both alive and incredibly thankful.
Coron, Philippines
The mountainous Coron Island, just northeast of Palawan, is part of the officially designated ancestral domain of the indigenous Tagbanua people (possibly descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines). They steward the land and sea, and control access to the island, much of which is off-limits to visitors. There is still plenty to attract travelers to the area, though: a small, sleepy town and clear lakes; limestone rock formations; and white-sand beaches. Those lucky enough to be welcomed into a Tagbanua community can learn about their culture and how they spearfish, as well as the special techniques for harvesting octopuses, seaweed, and sea cucumbers. For snorkelers, Siete Pecados offers rich coral reefs and the chance to spot dugongs, giant hawksbill turtles, and baby sharks. Divers can also hope to get a glimpse of puffer fish, eels, and giant clams. As well as the diverse marine life, there are numerous Japanese shipwrecks from World War II on view underwater. Add in the visibility of up to 80 feet, and this area is a superb playground for diving enthusiasts.
9 Crijevićeva ulica
Climb the grand baroque staircase and pass the Jesuit church, cross Gundulić Square, and follow the COLD DRINKS WITH THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEW signs. Then, yes, walk through the walls. Buža translates to “a hole-in-the-wall,” and a hole-in-the-wall it is, one that leads to a cliffside ledge with a bar on it. From the moment you order a cool beverage off a simple menu, you begin to unwind. The backdrop to your drink is stunning: a sky-high stone parapet on one side and nothing but the blue sea between you and the horizon. This is the ideal spot for swooning over Adriatic sunsets.
Narchyang, Nepal
In the mountain village of Koto, Nepal, there is a path that branches off the legendary 150-mile Annapurna Circuit and passes—ceremoniously, tantalizingly—through a large stone gate. This trail is off-limits, a nearby sign reads, unless you have a registered guide and a special permit.

Luckily, I’ve got both. I proceed through the stone portal with my guide, Ian, and I pause to spin three Buddhist prayer wheels. With this simple gesture, I leave one of the world’s most popular trails (sadly, the Annapurna Circuit is also known as the “Coca-Cola Circuit”) and head north into the Forbidden Valley, also known as the Nar-Phu Valley, a Himalayan region where Western visitors are comparatively few and far between.

I’m traveling with Epic Tomato, a new expedition-focused venture from the U.K.-based travel company Black Tomato. Epic Tomato specializes in getting well-traveled, thrill-seeking clients like myself off the grid for serious adventures far away from the normal, more casual tourist circuits.

I’ve gotten off the beaten path before, hiking through the backcountry of Zion National Park in Utah and the Himalayan foothills in India. What makes this trek different is that despite the remoteness, you encounter people who actually live in the mountains you’re hiking.

This ancient route opened to limited trekking in 2003. The trickle of tourists has brought small changes such as new wire suspension bridges and widened ledges—improvements that make the journey slightly less mythic than it once was, and considerably less harrowing. But remarkably, the valley, and the lifestyle of its inhabitants, are much the same as they were centuries ago.

Hours after spinning the prayer wheels in Koto, we are well on our way to the next village, Phu. Inaccessible by road and three days away by foot, Phu is one of the most remote villages in Asia.

The path is cut into a rock face high above the Phu River. To my right, a slope bursts with tall pines and firs; to my left I stare down at the rumbling river. At one point, I squeeze myself against a ledge to let a donkey train pass underneath a waterfall. Later on, I find myself behind a lone villager.

After spending the night in a rustic campsite, we start hiking at seven the next morning; soon the deep, narrow gorge opens and we find ourselves on a terraced plateau dotted with wind-bent junipers. Pisang Peak rises into perfect blue skies; across the river sits a red-roofed monastery. In the late afternoon, we pitch our tents amid a jumble of abandoned, straw-roofed homes. I sit atop one, thinking big thoughts and eventually none at all.

The landscape becomes yet more austere on day three, as we hit 13,000 feet and counting. We arrive at Phu, a honeycomb of simple, flat-roofed houses packed onto a hillside. A dusty village hemmed in by mountains, Phu is a place of scant resources. Piles of firewood, gathered on long, back-breaking walks, double as insulation. Yak herders shout at each other across the hills. “Nepali cell phone,” Ian jokes.

The next morning, I wake before everyone around me. I leave my tent to contemplate the fading stars when I notice the outline of a villager trudging toward me. He’s heading into the hills, a basket on his back, and as he passes me in the half-light, he gives me a knowing smile—as though, today at least, we belong to the same brotherhood of early risers.

The Tibetan border is two days’ walk to the north but closed to foreigners. I exit the village by the same route I entered and begin the two-day journey back. It’s a rapid comedown, and not just in terms of altitude. I felt like a privileged guest in this isolated land of rock and wind, where the solitude was as intense as any I’ve ever felt, even as I shared it with people who have inhabited the Nar-Phu Valley for centuries.

Nar-Phu Valley Trek with Epic Tomato, (888) 341-9663, epictomato.com. From $9,189 for a 15-day trip including meals, accommodations, and charter flights within Nepal. This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.

Wadi Musa, Jordan
Petra flourished more than 2,000 years ago, trading with Rome as an equal before being abandoned after a series of earthquakes in the 4th and 6th centuries C.E. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when European explorers “rediscovered” it, that the ancient city returned to the public consciousness. Now, visitors can walk down the narrow canyon of the siq to the city entrance—as dramatic an approach as any to a tourist attraction on the planet. The canyon opens up onto the carved facade of the Treasury, Petra’s most iconic site. From there, you can explore the cliffside tombs with their colorful bands of sandstone, the Street of Facades, and the amphitheater hewn from living rock. The ancient center lies some distance off, along with the splendid old Monastery, which sits at the top of a steep but rewarding climb. Consider buying a three-day ticket and visiting at different times of day to enjoy the changing light—early in the morning is best for the Treasury, while late afternoon is better for the Royal Tombs.
Passage Prince Moulay Rachid
Described by writer Tahir Shah as the “greatest show on Earth,” no visit to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the famous night market on the Djemaa el Fna. Arrive before sunset and park yourself at one of the various cafés with terraces overlooking the square to watch performers set up; then venture into the fray in search of adventure. Silk-clad acrobats, wide-eyed storytellers, sly snake charmers, jangling belly dancers, and capricious monkey handlers all emerge from the darkness, ringing the edge of the food stalls with their own special brand of entertainment. When you tire of the heckling, prowl the market in search of good things to eat: bite-size morsels of grilled lamb rubbed in cumin, sardines fried in chermoula, peppery snails, and sheep’s heads for the brave. Then nudge up alongside a family of locals at the table and settle in for the feast. If you’re nervous about going it alone, you can sign up for a food tour with Canadian tour guide and all-round good egg Mandy Sinclair of Tasting Marrakech; she’ll help you find the best stalls while introducing you to the secrets and delights of traditional Moroccan street food.
Adelaide Parkland Terminal, Richmond Rd, Keswick SA 5035, Australia
The two-night journey traverses 1,851 miles from Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory. As the train traces the route taken by 19th-century Afghan camel drivers, Platinum Service travelers have the opportunity to disembark and explore the iconic rust-red Uluru monolith and Aboriginal rock art in the Katherine Gorge. From $862. 61/(0) 8-8213-4592. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
United States
Yellowstone National Park is no secret by any stretch of the imagination. Yellowstone is one of America’s most popular tourist destinations, and with good reason; there few places in the country where you can rub shoulders with grizzlies, smack racks with moose, track prey with bald eagles, and badger the badgers. But people rarely consider the way they get in and out of the park, and this is one road less traveled you shouldn’t miss. The north east entrance out of Yellowstone through Montana takes you up and over some of the most dramatic scenery in the country. My camera loved it, my car hated it, and I felt lucky that I was able to experience a bit of the park relatively few people every experience. Our crew had spent our last night in the park in Mammoth, a destination often eschewed for the much more popular Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons. Consider rolling north the next time you hit the West - you won’t be disappointed.
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Severely dehydrated, severely under-dressed, severely cold (the sum of these parts means, of course, that I am severely stupid) my travel partner and I dragged our sorry carcasses through the woods and over rocks in the dead of night in search of Low’s Peak. We found the peak, and under cover of dark we sat huddled together in an effort to get warm. And then the sun peaked over the horizon, and everything changed. I was still damn near freezing to death, but at least I had a smile on my face. Kota Kinabalu, for all it’s commercialization, is still a brilliant climb. This is the 20th tallest mountain in the world by virtue of topographic prominence, and you’ll feel every inch on your way to the top.
21 Namdaemunsijang 4-gil, Hoehyeon-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Dumplings are delicious. That’s not much of a secret. But snacking on dumplings in one of the world’s busiest and most atmospheric night markets? That’s an entirely different experience. Namdaeumun Night Market, located smack dab in the heart of Seoul, is a throwback to the Korea of yore, a place where you can sample traditional street treats, fill your pockets with pickled ginger, and a host of other ancient herbal supplements (you’ll need them after you power through a bottle of soju), rub shoulders with old school shopkeepers, and buy just about any sort of trinket you can possibly imagine. Namdaemun is a world away from the Seoul that surrounds it, and will always and forever remain one of my favorite places to watch the world go by.
Neharde'a St, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
Next time you travel to Israel and interested in an exceptional and different dining experience, I highly recommend to check the new website of EatWith, to book a dinner with locals. EatWith is a global community (started in Israel) that invites you to dine in homes around the world. Connect with amazing hosts, share stories and unforgettable experiences, and enjoy delicious homemade cuisine. In Israel, you can choose between having a local dinner in the Galilee and enjoy the local home made fresh cheese, lunch in an ecological farm, or dinner in an amazing loft in Tel Aviv. The options are wide, the locations are all across the country and the food options vary. This is a great opportunity to try Israeli food, see how the Israeli are hosting their guests, mingle with locals, and meet other people who want to have a different meal experience.
Lower Nob Hill, San Francisco, CA, USA
Bourbon and Branch is a traditional speakeasy. Their 8 house rules—hushed voices and no cell phones among them—encourage neighborly conversation in a very relaxed setting. It’s a great way to meet people if you’re traveling alone as well. There is a binder’s worth of libations here that are each expertly prepared by resident ‘mixologists.’ Don’t forget the password—they’ll give it to you when you make a reservation. It’s all part of the fun!
Kingkitsarath Rd
The morning market in Luang Prabang is bursting at the seams with culinary curious - some you may indeed want to put in your mouth, and others, well - others you’ll need to see for yourself. Luang Prabang is the busiest tourist destination in Laos, but early in the morning, the market is generally void of foreign faces, making it a perfect place to meet the locals, dine on Lao food, and watch the people as they wander. Grab yourself a frosty bevy and a slice of blood sausage and check it out.
Utah 84718, USA
It’s really fun to visit a place that has such rich travel-related history. National Geographic magazine, who photographed the area using Kodachrome film for a 1949 photo-spread, hence its name. This is Grosvenor Arch, named after the former president of the National Geographic Society. You can camp in the little park and hike all around the arch and several rock formations...and see eagle’s nests, which are pretty cool!
Lake Maninjau, Tanjung Raya, Agam Regency, West Sumatra, Indonesia
This is what I think of when travel comes to mind. I think untrammeled territory, wide open country, bits and pieces of the world I’ve never seen before, people doing things I didn’t know they still do or ever did, and a big, booming landscape. Lake Maninjau ticked off every box on my list time and again. We went on quite the harrowing bike ride around the lake (it was supposed to take half a day, but lasted roughly ten hours), but we had plenty of time to pick rice with locals, sample fresh cinnamon bark, and try our hand at fishing from a canoe. I found out that I am a terrible canoe fisherman, but my new friend didn’t really mind. He thought it was funny that I could hardly balance myself on the felled timber, never mind his tiny skiff. If you visit Maninjau, I highly recommend that you rent a bike or a scooter and get lost on the western shore. It was a fantastic experience, and one I’ll cherish forever. Maninjau is one of the largest crater lakes in the world, and exists as a place that time forgot. Bikes can be rented from most hotels in town for less than $5 a day. Ditto for scooters. Hotels range from $6 a night (no joke), to more than $75.
A three-day safari in Kruger National Park is a must for anyone visiting South Africa. Entering the gates is like Jurassic Park and you feel transported back in time to the creation of Earth where the wild animals, especially the elephants, are dinosaurs filled with ancient knowledge of the land’s beginning. Although you may not see anything like the infamous “Battle at Kruger” YouTube video, you will certainly witness some interesting animal behavior like hippos bathing, monkeys mating, giraffes snacking or even two elephants flirting in the brush.
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