Travel on the Edge

Registan Square was the heart of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in ancient times and is a must-see today.
Registan Square was the heart of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in ancient times and is a must-see today.

There will always be intrepid clients who wish to go where others fear to tread. Whether for prestige, bragging rights, an adrenaline rush or an unrelenting need to “explore strange, new worlds,” to borrow a line from famous risk-taker Captain James T. Kirk, they will not be denied their travel trophy. For them, the greatest fear is FOMO — fear of missing out. To prepare you for such clients, we examine 10 destinations-on-the-edge (and one all-but-forbidden nation) that have been kept out of the tourism mainstream either by remoteness, geological or political instability (real or perceived), controversy or a combination of factors — places on the global map that nevertheless continue to draw interest from hard-core world travelers.

IRAN

The country of Iran has often served as the setting for cultural disputes and political turmoil throughout recent decades. From the 444-day hostage crisis that began on November 4, 1979, to more recent issues regarding oil and economic sanctions, travelers have been wary of visiting the region in the past. However, after years of negotiations, major world powers have reached an agreement with Iran to limit nuclear activity, and that has adventurous travelers hungry to explore the country’s diverse landscape.

Iran’s Alborz Mountains loom above Tehran’s Tohid Tunnel and Milad Tower.
Iran’s Alborz Mountains loom above Tehran’s Tohid Tunnel and Milad Tower.

Officially the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country lies on what was once the Persian Empire, bordering both the Caspian Sea and the Indian Ocean and affording a rich, diverse landscape, including forests, mountain ranges, limestone cliffs and deserts dotted with ancient historical sites.

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Spring and fall are the most popular months to visit Iran, however, skiers will delight in a winter visit to the slopes outside the capital city of Tehran. Iran Luxury Travel, based in North Carolina, offers ski and snowboarding tours at the world-class ski resort, Dizin, in the Alborz Mountain Range. And no need to fear language barriers during a visit, English-speaking guides are available. In fact, throughout much of Iran, signs are posted in both Persian and English, and many people speak multiple languages.

Mountain and desert trekking in the region has also become very popular. Persian Voyages offers an eight-day trek to Alamut Castle in the Alborz Mountains, once the hideout of Hassan Sabbah, a famed adventurer during the Middle Ages. The excursion includes stops at local villages and encounters with local nomadic tribes. They also have a 14-day trekking experience with bird watching and searching for wildlife along the shores of the Caspian Sea and Golestan National Park.

Prefer less stress on your feet? Adventure Iran offers 4X4 vehicle desert tours, and many other local operators offer biking excursions and travel by way of camel, horse or mule.

Must-see cultural sights in Iran include Eram Garden and Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Shiraz.

UZBEKISTAN

Uzbekistan, once part of the Soviet Union, is slowly shedding the S.S.R. stigma and gaining in popularity. Here, cultures really do flow together, as Uzbekistan used to be a major hub along the Silk Road that ran across Europe and Asia. Today, adventurous travelers will see a country filled with artifacts and the remnants of the Silk Road. Cox & Kings suggests that must-sees include the ancient towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, which is the birthplace of the ancient conqueror, Tamerlane.

Travelers who visit Samarkand will see some of the best traditional tile work in the region, remains of an observatory built by Tamerlane’s grandson and Registan, a square that is filled with intricate tile work and unique architectural design. While in Samarkand, Ideal Hotel is an option for accommodations. It received positive reviews on Trip Advisor; another option with good reviews is Hotel Grand Samarkand (remember it’s about the experience).

If clients are headed to Uzbekistan with shopping on the mind, Cox & Kings recommends they head to the Fergana Valley, where there are spice markets, textiles, weavings and tile work. While in the valley, Remote Lands suggests travelers take a cable car from Shahimardan to the blue alpine lake, Kurban Kul.

As for traveling around in the country, the infrastructure is slowly growing. Now it is possible to take an express train from Samarkand to Tashkent, the capital, in just two hours. Tashkent is also home of the Tashkent International Airport, which is the country’s main entry point.

SIBERIA

Siberia may spark images of a cold and bitter landscape in a person’s mind, but that’s not the whole picture, or what the adventurous travelers are experiencing now when they visit this Russian province, located north of Mongolia. Siberia remains a hidden gem with culturally significant cities, natural wonders and welcoming locals.

One supplier that is recently experiencing an increased interest in Siberia is Remote Lands, which offers several itinerary options. One option is the “Classic Siberia” trip, where travelers are whisked around the region from the city of Irkutsk to Altai Mountains during a 15-day experience that includes stops at Lake Baikal (the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake) and a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We hear there won’t be five-star properties awaiting eager visitors, however guesthouses and three-star properties like the Angara Hotel in Irkutsk are available; just remind your clients it’s about the experience not the hotel room. To get to the region, many visitors will fly into Irkutsk, but those looking for a thrill can ride the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow.

Once in Siberia, more thrills can be found in the Altai Mountains, which span across the southern part of the region and have, in many places, been labeled a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here trekking is a must and there are paths for every skill level. Other options include rafting the Biya River from Lake Teletskoye, spelunking in the natural caves and skiing on Mount Veselaya.

Another place full of pure adventure in Siberia won’t be for everyone. Yakutsk, one of the coldest places of habitation in the word, is the capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic. During the winter months, temperatures average negative 37 degrees Fahrenheit. However, in the spring months ice skating and skiing are popular, and in the summer, temperatures reach 60 degrees.

Travelers that are taking advantage of the Trans-Siberian Railway will want to do a short stop in the city of Kemerovo, the major city in southwest Siberia. Kemerovo is home to art galleries and Lenin Square, where the Lenin monument stands as a reminder of Kemerovo’s Soviet past.

NEPAL

The April 2015 Nepal earthquake, known as the Gorkha earthquake, was devastating to the South Asia country, killing more than 9,000 people and triggering an avalanche on Mount Everest, where at least 19 more lives were lost. Subsequently, the country’s tourism industry suffered greatly, as many travelers felt anxious about the possibility of another natural disaster in tow. Now, after several months have passed, the initial anxiety is dying down, and many tour operators are assuring travelers that the April quake was a highly unusual event, and encouraging them to visit and explore all that Nepal has to offer.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal, is a site of many temples.
Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal, is a site of many temples.

Remote Lands reports most of its clients are confident about visiting Nepal, with many tours scheduled for this autumn and the spring of 2016. Culture and light hiking trips are the most popular, while about 20-25 percent of travelers are looking to experience serious trekking through the Mount Everest region (sometimes all the way to Everest Base Camp, which requires 11 days) or the Annapurna region.

While some areas of Nepal’s multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites were damaged as a result of the earthquake, many have since begun to allow entry to visitors, as architecture and history tours are on the rise. Remote Lands also designs adventure trips to Pokhara, the country’s second largest city, giving travelers a chance to try activities including paragliding, Microlight flying, zip lining, whitewater rafting, caving and cycling. Wildlife safaris to see the one-horned rhinos in Chitwan are trending as well.

Tauck also recently announced that it will be resuming Nepal visits in October, with new fall departures of its “Northern India & Nepal” itinerary beginning October 20. Guests will enjoy a three-night stay in the capital, Kathmandu; a Himalayan sightseeing flight in the shadow of Mount Everest; a lecture with a local Sherpa; and visits to Kopan Monastery and the historic city of Bhaktapur.

NICARAGUA

Nicaragua hit rock bottom decades ago with a one-two punch dealt by Mother Nature and politics. In December of 1972, the Managua earthquake killed more than 10,000 people and left 500,000 homeless. Violent opposition to the government was then refueled with the revival of the radical revolutionary faction, the Sandinistas, also known as the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN). A group of nine FSLN guerrillas invaded a party at the home of a former minister of agriculture, killing him and three guards in the process.

Today, Nicaragua is quickly gaining steam as one of the best destinations in Central America. Tourism turned a corner there in 2012 as the country saw a huge increase. INTUR, the destination’s tourism board, took the ball and ran with it, spending twice as much money on marketing Nicaraguan tourism the following year.

So what is making Nicaragua “hot” in a positive way these days? Surfing — and adventure travel in general — is the main reason it will continue to make a great Central American vacation. But Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, the destination’s first luxury resort that opened in 2013, could be the reason why it may become the hottest getaway in all of Latin America. Among the rooms are 16 one- and two-bedroom Beach Villas, beginning in size at 881 square feet with nine-foot ceilings and walls of glass, facing the gently rolling surf of Playa Manzanillo.

Getting there will require a connection. Most major carriers including Spirit, American, Delta, US Airways, will connect to Nicaragua from the Northeast.

MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA

What took Colombia’s second-largest city off the tourism map? Well, it’s more like who — namely, Pablo Escobar. When the notorious Colombian drug lord and cocaine trafficker wreaked havoc on this quaint, little town in the 1980s and ’90s, he transformed it into what most considered at the time as the most dangerous city in the world.

Police corruption was also arguably at an all-time high. Countless movies, TV shows and books have been based on the somewhat-glorified drug lord who was actually loved by many Colombians for his Robin Hood-like tactics of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, although Escobar’s charity always involved blood money. Safe to say, when Escobar reigned, tourists were so scared that they not only avoided Medellin, but Colombia as a whole.

So, when did that sense of community return to Colombia after it spent years lying dormant? Most would point to the death of Escobar in 1993 as the moment when the locals began to feel like they were taking back control of their city, but tourist officials we’ve spoken to in Colombia single out something much simpler — a Metro cable transit system that was implemented in Colombia in 1986 — a boon to both locals (who no longer had to get up incredibly early to catch a two-hour bus to get to work) and, eventually, tourists.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s, however, that the country was able to convince foreigners to come and see the progress the town had begun to make from new hotels to practically zero pollution to, most importantly, a serious drop in crime. Flash-forward roughly 30 years from the height of Escobar’s reign and you will see a Medellin that is perhaps the best tourist destination in all of Latin America, for everyone from foodies to adventure lovers to night owls.

Getting there is pretty easy with most nonstop flights coming out of the Northeast. JetBlue flies directly to Cartagena, Bogota and Medellin from New York. There are also connecting flights to Bogota out of Miami by United and American Airlines.

The Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair) is Medellin’s top annual draw.
The Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair) is Medellin’s top annual draw.

The Desfile de Silleteros (Silleteros Parade) is the central event of Medellin’s annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair), which attracts roughly 20,000 residents and tourists, and usually runs during the first or second week of August. This is the main reason to visit. It’s a bucket list for many and is basically Colombia’s more subtle approach to a carnival-like atmosphere. It is truly a surreal experience to see thousands of these flowers, of all types and colors, being ushered down streets, full of proud Colombians cheering and clapping for their friends and family. The parade also includes floats with some of Colombia’s most well known musicians performing live music.

HAITI

Violence has long marred Haiti’s image, with the mid-to-late 1980s, perhaps, being the worst time to visit in this regard. Indeed, the November 1987 elections were canceled after troops massacred as many as 300 voters on election day. Further instability and more massacres ensued after the 1988 elections.

Labadee is a resort area in Haiti with great tourism potential.
Labadee is a resort area in Haiti with great tourism potential.

Mother Nature’s violence struck more recently — the massive earthquake of 2010. Haiti was poised to make a major investment in tourism and possibly compete with other, more developed Caribbean destinations. But in the aftermath of the natural disaster that put leisure tourism on the backburner, the country was still receiving a heavy amount of volunteer tourists.

The good news: It appears as though enough repairs have been done to the country to make leisure tourism a primary focus again. The first sign that Haiti’s sights were set again on tourism came in 2011 when United Continental Holdings announced that Continental Airlines would begin nonstop flights from Newark (NJ) Liberty International Airport to Port-Au-Prince.

As far as improving safety goes, Haiti established a tourist police force recently called the Politour. The first graduates hit the streets in 2013. Clients will see them at major attractions in downtown Port-au-Prince like the Iron Market and the MUPANAH (National Museum), providing security and assistance for tourists.

What’s really putting Haiti back on travelers’ radar? Starting in 2012, Haiti began to open some hotels by well-known brands, beginning with Aimbridge Hospitality being chosen to manage the new Best Western Premier Petion-Ville Hotel. In December 2013, Digicel and Marriott International broke ground on the $45 million, 175-room Marriott Hotels & Resorts brand hotel in the Turgeau area of Port-au-Prince. It officially opened this spring.

The Karibe Hotel added 103 new rooms and a stylish new rooftop bar/lounge called Asu. Kinam Hotel has added 85 new rooms, taking a previously quaint and charming 33-room historic boutique property and bringing it into the modern age. The old section remains intact, though, giving guests the choice of modern elegance or old world charm.

In the resort area of La Côte des Arcadins, Decameron will soon take over management of Club Indigo, the beachfront resort that was once a Club Med. The hotel, which closed for renovations/expansion in the spring, will reopen as an all-inclusive with 390 rooms in November, carrying the new name Royal Club Decameron Indigo.

Like the hotel sector, air service to Haiti has been picking up steam in recent years. JetBlue, which started operations to the country in 2013, launched a new seasonal nonstop to Port-au-Prince in June. American Airlines expanded service last October with nonstops from Miami to the newly expanded and modernized airport in Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti.

ZIMBABWE

Travelers once avoided traveling to Zimbabwe because of political and economic reasons. Now, visitors are flocking back to the landlocked country, located east of Mozambique, for adventure, sightseeing and bragging rights. Zimbabwe is quickly becoming a popular place to go on a safari with animals like elephants, hippo and endangered black rhinos roaming inside the country’s borders and 10 national parks. One of these popular national parks is Victoria Falls and Zambezi National Park home to Victoria Falls, part of the Seven Wonders of the World. Travelers who want to plan a trip to the falls can go with Cox & Kings, which offers walking and helicopter tours of the falls. Other Cox & King itineraries to Zimbabwe include visiting Mana Pools National Park, a wildlife conservation area, where clients can go canoeing on the Zambezi River. As for places to stay, Cox & Kings offers visitors a stay on a houseboat on Lake Kariba. Clients can even fish for tiger fish on the lake.

Zimbabwe’s majestic Victoria Falls is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Zimbabwe’s majestic Victoria Falls is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Guests looking for a luxury lodge can stay at Singita Pamushana in the private Malilangwe Game Reserve complete with seven suites. According to countless positive reviews online, Camp Hwange is another accommodation option to consider. This camp has eight chalets that overlook a water hole in Hwange National Park, just a three-hour drive from Victoria Falls. A simple way to get to Zimbabwe is to fly into the largest airport in Zimbabwe, Harare International Airport; flights are available by several airlines, including South African Airways and Emirates.

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

Perhaps the worst time to visit this country was during the Bosnian War, which began in the spring of 1992, a few months after the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a referendum for independence. The war raged on until the end of 1995. The war served as part of the breakup of Yugoslavia, effectively splitting one tourist destination into five. Bosnia and Herzegovina emerged from the ashes of war like a Phoenix and has been a top performer in recent years in terms of tourism development. In fact, Travel Agent was told that tourist arrivals to this twin-named nation grew by an average of 24 percent annually from 1995 to 2000. We were also told that among the best hotels in Bosnia and Herzegovina are the Hotel Talija, Stanisici Ethno Village and Hotel Bevanda. Treasures abound for adventurers, ecotourists, history buffs and cultural travelers, including a pair of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Airlines serving Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, include Croatia Airlines, Austrian Star Alliance, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, FlyDubai, Etihad Airlines (Air Serbia), Pegasus, Germanwings, Airways, Norwegian Air Shuttle and Swiss Air Lines.

SERBIA

Sharing a border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (and six other countries), Serbia ushered in its first democratic government in 2001 and has since been building its tourism program. It has plenty to see and do. Tourists headed to this country will find a variety of landscapes, UNESCO sites and ancient architecture. The best way to reach the country is to fly into Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, Nis Constantine the Great Airport or the Pristina International Airport. Air Serbia is the national airline, but other airlines like Air France and British Airways fly into the country. From Belgrade, we suggest heading north to the Fruška Gora hills in the district of Srem. This is the home to 16 Serbian Orthodox monasteries built in the late Middle Ages, making this region extremely important to Serbia.

Another sightseeing option in the area is the Fruška Gora National Park. This park, just an hour from Belgrade, runs along a lone mountain that is a focal point in the Vojvodina plains. Nature lovers will like that the park has the greatest concentration of linden trees in Europe. The park is the perfect place to go hiking and biking as well as wine tasting (there are several vineyards in the area). The UNESCO World Heritage sites are another must-see in Serbia. The sites include Studenica monastery, Stari Ras and Sopo´cani, Mediaeval Monuments in Kosovo and Gamzigrad — Romuliana. The Studenica monastery, located in Kraljevo, was built in the 12th century and is considered by some as the most beautiful of the Serbian monasteries because of its architecture and landscape. To get to the monastery from Belgrade take the E75 highway to Batocina. To complete any Serbian experience, try a dip in one of the mineral water springs that are filled with both warm and cold water. There are more than 1,000 mineral water springs in the country and 53 thermal resorts. One example of a spa is Vranjska Banja in Southern Serbia. Here the springs reach boiling-point temperatures, meaning this spa offers some of the hottest springs in Europe. 

North Korea: Risk vs. Reward

For clients seeking the ultimate travel “bragging rights,” North Korea, formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, might be their must-see destination. We suggest that if travelers are determined to visit this country, which is under communist rule, they do so with an organized tour like the one that Remote Lands offers. The “Classic North Korea” itinerary includes stops at the capital city of Pyongyang, a visit to an orphanage in Nampo, tours of the sheds at the Korean Demilitarized Zone and more.

American travelers need a tourist visa to enter North Korea, which we hear is generally easy to obtain when traveling with a tour group. In the past, Americans have been detained in North Korea, but remembering to keep with the official travel route, not taking pictures at prohibited sites and not spreading religious or political propaganda are the best ways to travel safely in North Korea, advises Remote Lands. If a problem does arise, the Swedish Embassy is the protecting power for the U.S. in Korea, as the U.S. does not have an embassy or consulate there. However even with the risk, it cannot be denied that North Korea is the ideal adventure for curious-minded travelers.

Note: The U.S Department of State “strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea.” Visit www.state.gov for possible advisories for clients traveling on the “edge.”

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