Ennedi Plateau, Chad

Photo: Dario Menasce at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Dario Menasce at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

African travel has drastically changed in the past few decades. For years, it was the North African countries—like Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco—that received most of the visitors, due to their close proximity to Europe. They were followed by  luxury accommodations in places like Mozambique and Kenya. Cape Town then became everyone’s favorite city. Now Namibia, Angola, and Gabon are attracting adventurous travelers. So what’s left? What hasn’t been cleaned up to appeal to Western tourists?

Chad receives very few visitors. The landlocked country in Central Africa is known for its poverty, violent coups, and corruption. The roads are poorly maintained. Hotels and restaurants are nonexistent. The heat is oppressive. While only extremely determined globetrotters have explored the rugged landscape. But those who have walk away with amazing stories.

The Ennedi Plateau, in northeastern Chad, is one of the country’s most unbelievable places. The massive sandstone wall is surrounded by the endless Sahara. The area is nearly impassable; four-wheel drive vehicles can only go so far. But within the rocks, there are deep valleys, rock formations, hidden pools of water, and interesting animals. Odd-shaped archways, many still unnamed, reach up to 100 feet high. Petroglyphs are etched on rocks like Niola Doa. Camels flock—by the hundreds—to Guelta d’Archei, a rare waterhole. While desert crocodiles, scimitar-horned oryx, and possibly Ennedi tigers live in the harsh environment.

For now, you can only look at photos of the amazing—truly amazing—Ennedi Plateau. Chad isn’t ready for an influx of tourists yet. Hopefully, one day, it will be. Just don’t make it too squeaky clean.

Flores, Guatemala

Photo: Las Lagunas

Photo: Las Lagunas

There’s still time to escape the upcoming Thanksgiving madness. You’ve been considering it for years. First, you stopped fighting with the turkey. Then homemade pies turned into store-bought pies. And eventually, you didn’t even need pies, since restaurants always serve mouth-watering desserts. So this year, instead of making a dinner reservation, make flight and hotel reservations instead.

The rainy season just ended in Guatemala. The humidity has subsided, the sky is clear, and everything is green right now. But it’s still quiet. The crowds won’t begin arriving until mid-December, when hotels will be booked solid until after the new year. Between the quick flight, the ideal weather, and the nonexistent crowds, Guatemala sounds like the perfect alternative to Thanksgiving.

Petén is the heart of the Mayan world. The country’s largest and northernmost department is bordered by Mexico and Belize. It’s home to ancient archaeological sites, colonial cities, an enormous rainforest, and fascinating animals. Plus, Las Lagunas, a small hotel on the edge of a private reserve.

Photo: Las Lagunas

Photo: Las Lagunas

Though only 10 minutes from the Santa Elena airport, Las Lagunas feels worlds away from everything. A wealthy conservationist built the lodge as a private getaway; over the years, it’s turned into so much more. It sits on the edge of the green Quexil Lagoon, which is surrounded by tall savanna grassland and the tropical rainforest. Your rustic wooden cabin stands on stilts along the shore. It has a deck with a jacuzzi and a view of Monkey Island, where howler monkeys are cared for. The infinity pool, the restaurant, and the bar all overlook the lake, which more than 250 bird species call home. While ocelots, margays, and wild pigs live in the surrounding 200 acres.

You could sit in the pool—or your jacuzzi—and wait for the wildlife to come to you, though you’ll probably spot more if you’re a little less lazy. See colorful toucans, loud parrots, and, if you look closely, snakes that blend into their surroundings as you kayak along the calm water. Visit Monkey Island, where you hear the howler monkeys long before you see them. Don’t worry, they’re friendly and will come down from the trees to greet you. Ride an ATV through the jungle, where your guide will point out long-tailed spider monkeys, white-nosed pizotes, and a tapir named Muñeca. Then travel to the colonial city of Flores, the grand Tikal ruins, and the quiet Yaxha archaeological site.

Back at Las Lagunas, you order a cocktail at the bar, settle into cushioned wicker furniture, and relax to watch the sun set. You almost forget about the holiday back home, until you start to smell calebacitas (stuffed pumpkins) wafting from Shultun, the hotel’s restaurant. The scent reminds you to be thankful, even though you may not be eating a traditional turkey dinner or even be home this year.

Vernazza, Italy

Photo: N. Preseault

Photo: N. Preseault

The summer crowds have finally dispersed from Cinque Terre. That’s right, it’s mid-autumn—inching toward December—and they’re just now gone. You can finally find a seat on the train, walk through the little towns without getting elbowed, and enjoy unobstructed views along the trail. Add ideal hiking weather—temperatures in the low 60s ensure you won’t be a sweaty mess at the end of the path—and it sounds like the perfect time to check out the Italian coastline that everyone dreams of visiting.

Cinque Terre is a picture-perfect section of the Italian Riviera in Northwest Italy. Brightly colored houses cling to the steep hillside on the dramatic coast. “The Five Lands” include Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare, from east to west. Fortified walls protected the little fishing villages and their castles from pirates and, later, the Turks in the Middle Ages. Flooding and mudslides are now the biggest threats.

After buying the Cinque Terre Card in La Spezia, board the Genova-bound train. Since the Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) is still closed between the first three towns—due to torrential rains in 2011—Corniglia is your first stop. The train station is, at least. To reach the village, you have to climb the Lardarina: 33 flights that include nearly 400 brick steps. Corniglia is the only one of the Cinque Terre villages without access to the sea. It sits high above the water, surrounded by terraced vineyards. When you arrive, make a miele di Corniglia (gelato with honey) your reward for the climb.

Photo: N. Preseault

Photo: N. Preseault

From Corniglia, follow the Sentiero Azzurro west toward Vernazza. This section of the trail, which many consider the most beautiful, passes by olive groves, grape vines, cacti, and rosemary. The rocky hillside is on your right, while the endless azure sea is to your left. You round corners to see the other villages and little beaches in the distance. Waves crash below you. While a sea breeze keeps you cool.

The view from the entire trail is gorgeous, but nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Vernazza. Peach- and canary-colored houses jut into the water. Doria Castle stands at the entrance of the harbor. The Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia’s octagonal bell tower overlooks Piazza Marconi and the little fishing boats bobbing in the water. After snapping way too many photos, you practically skip down the rest of the steps and onto Via Roma, the main street.

In Vernazza, you visit the stone Chapel of Santa Marta, relax on the little beach, and walk along the pier that protects the village from the strong sea. When you’re ready for a break—and a glass of chilled Sciacchetrà wine—climb the steps to Belforte for warm focaccia, garlicly mussels, trofie al pesto pasta, and a view of the Ligurian coast. You finally understand—truly understand—the Italian phrase “la dolce vita” on the Cinque Terre.

Rikitea, Gambier Islands

Photo: Utilisateur:FREDFRED at fr.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Utilisateur:FREDFRED at fr.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

So you think you’ve conquered French Polynesia? Not so fast. The French overseas collectivity includes more than Mo’orea, Bora Bora, Huahine, and Taha’a. A lot more. Five island groups, which include nearly 120 islands and atolls, are spread out over two million square miles. That’s an area the size of Europe. So forgive us for questioning whether you’ve really been everywhere.

One place you may not have reached yet: the Gambier Islands. The archipelago lies 1,000 miles south of Tahiti and southeast of the Tuamotu Archipelago, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. A single reef surrounds the remnants of a caldera, volcanic islands, and a bright blue lagoon. The islands were ruled by Polynesian kings for centuries. Then Roman Catholic missionaries, who arrived in the 1830s, started here to spread Catholicism through the South Pacific islands. Today, many consider the Gambier Islands to have to the finest and most colorful pearls in all of French Polynesia.

Mangareva is the largest and most central of all the Gambier Islands. A high ridge runs the length of the island. Its highest peak, Mont Duff, sits near the southern coast. In less than two hours, you can hike to the top for amazing 360-degree views. Taravai, Akamaru, and Aukena are in the distance. Mont Mokoto, the island’s second-highest peak, is to the north. While Rikitea, the main town, is below you on the eastern coast.

Rikitea has fruit tree-lined streets, two small markets, and the homes of most of the people who live on the island. Its focal point is Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Rikitea. Missionaries started building the Neo-Gothic church in 1839. The fired limestone building has white walls, black pews, and a pearl-decorated altar. Everyone, including visitors, looks forward to Sunday Mass, when singing can be heard well beyond the open doors. A 140-year-old rectory is across the street. While the ruins of the Rouru Convent, long overgrown with weeds, are nearby. Sixty nuns once lived in the convent; they hid the local women when whaling ships visited the island. Like the rest of the island, it’s a quiet and beautiful place.

Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia

Photo: Lazy Beach

Photo: Lazy Beach

Thailand has been Southeast Asia’s “it” destination since the end of the Vietnam War. U.S. soldiers, injured and exhausted, flocked to the coast for the white-sand beaches, the endless sunshine, and the laid-back party atmosphere. “The Land of Smiles” has remained atop must-visit lists ever since. Which means the nearby—and the equally beautiful—islands off the coast of Cambodia have been largely ignored.

Across the Gulf of Thailand, the islands off Cambodia’s western coast look much like their Thai counterparts did 30, or even 40, years ago. The hilly islands are full of dense jungles, thick mangrove forests, sandstone rock formations, and, of course, gorgeous beaches. The difference: they’re empty.

Koh Rong Samloem is one of these islands. It’s off the coast of Sihanoukville (a popular port city) and south of Koh Rong (the area’s largest island). The French built roads and a lighthouse here in the 1950s; both are long overgrown. Water buffalo carts and boats are used, though walking is still the easiest way to get around. Mangoes, cashews, and coconuts are grown near the island’s small navy base. While every meal features freshly caught seafood.

Photo: Lazy Beach

Photo: Lazy Beach

Your first stop on the island: one of those beaches, of course. Saracen Bay hosts all-night parties during the full moon. But right now, it’s deserted, except for a great hornbill and a few kingfishers. Walk to the waterfall at the end of the nearly four-kilometer beach. Snorkel among seahorses and nudibranches in the calm, clear water. And be amazed that no one else is here. Then head inland, passing small ponds and colorful salamanders. The chattering up ahead turns out to be three macaques running between the tree branches. You watch them until they disappear from sight, and then climb the steps of the old French lighthouse. From the top, you have an amazing view of the turquoise water, the nearby islands, and Sihanoukville in the distance.

There are obviously no resorts on this quiet, little island. But on Lazy Beach, a squeaky clean beach on the western side of the island, there are bungalows near the water’s edge. The simple, wooden bungalows have stone floors in the bathrooms, turquoise sheets on the beds, and hammocks on the balconies. You’re greeted by two friendly black dogs, a brother and a sister who love to play with their guests. Walk down the pine tree-lined beach. Swim among bright coral and even brighter fish. Join a fishing trip on the old squid boat. Or just relax at the Octagon Bar overlooking the water. Between the oversized cushions and the comfy sofas, table tennis and board games, the sun deck and lots of Angkor Beer, there is plenty to keep you in a relaxed mood.

The only thing you’ve yet to try: all that seafood about which you keep hearing. Sizzling spring rolls, fried rice, and pad Thai come out first. They’re followed by fried fish with sour lemon sauce, barbecued giant prawns, and spicy squid. The food, like the rest of this Cambodian island, is quite simple, but simply perfect.

Rumonge, Burundi

Photo: Tanganyika BlueBay Resort

Photo: Tanganyika BlueBay Resort

You’re relaxing on a golden-sand beach. Small waves lap against the shore. The blue-green water is calm and clear. Two canoes silently, but swiftly, pass by. A coconut palm provides a little shade from the direct sunlight. While behind you, tangerine and banana trees somewhat hide the two-story, thatched-roof huts.

This little paradise could be in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia. It’s not, though. It’s in Africa. But it’s not even in Kenya or Mozambique, where everyone knows that gorgeous beaches run along the eastern coast. You’re not even looking at the ocean. Welcome to the African Great Lakes. These are some of the largest, the longest, and the deepest lakes in the world. They ultimately flow into the Atlantic Ocean.

Lake Tanganyika borders Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Zambia. Two famous World War I battles were fought here, and Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara later used the DR Congo’s shoreline as a training camp in the mid-1960s. It’s now quiet and peaceful. Lake Tanganyika sardines, snails, and freshwater crabs live in the warm water. Locals’ lives—and livelihoods—depend on the lakes. While recently, tourists have started to take notice of the area’s beauty.

Photo: Worldtraveller [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Worldtraveller [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Rumonge sits on the lake’s eastern shore in southwest Burundi, one of Africa’s smallest countries. Bujumbura, Burundi’s busy capital, is 75 kilometers to the north. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, rarely seen except on the clearest of days, is across the lake. While the Tanganyika BlueBay Resort is an oasis to relax and decompress.

Sip lemongrass tea from your balcony and watch the dhows head out on the lake early in the morning. Your conical hut has bamboo chairs, a eucalyptus table, and pops of orange. Play tennis before the hot sun reaches its midday peak. But try not to get distracted by the water view from the court. Go kayaking along the shoreline, passing white houses and women busy with their housework. Find a chair under a coconut palm to relax—and probably nap—on the beach. Eat mukeke (grilled fish, beans, and cassava leaves) with your fingers. It’s messy, but delicious. Then watch the shadows dance across the beach while sitting around a fire after the sun sets.

This may not be the beach trip you’re used to. Or even the one you had in mind. But if you’re looking for a location that few have discovered yet, keep the African Great Lakes in mind. They’re beautiful, secluded, and untouched by mass tourism, so far.

Clifton, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Photo: Igbgrant at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Igbgrant at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

November is a great time to head to the Caribbean. The hurricane period is just about over, though this year’s storm activity was lower than normal anyway. While it’s still considered the off-season, meaning no crowds and lower prices before the holiday rush begins. So how’s a quick getaway sound?

Union Island sits at the end of the Grenadines chain. The island is known as the “Tahiti of the West Indies” for its gorgeous volcanic peaks. It’s small, easy walkable, and full of friendly people. Plus, it’s a good place to get a real taste of the Caribbean. French and British influences—leftover from the plantation era—mix with West Africa flavors brought over by the slaves and fresh seafood. You quickly work up an appetite before you even arrive.

The little airport juts out of the east side of the island. After a hold-your-breath landing, it’s a short walk to Clifton. The island’s main town has everything you expect in a busy Caribbean port: colorful houses, an overflowing market next to Hugh Mulzac Square, and plenty of waterfront bars and restaurants. Go to the Anchorage Yacht Club for still-warm croissants and freshly squeezed juice or to Captain Gourmet for a quick espresso, if you can’t wait to start exploring.

Photo: Iain Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Iain Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Climb Fort Hill for a bird’s-eye view of Clifton Harbour and the small planes taking off from the airport. The canon battery protected the harbor in the 17th century. Hike Mount Taboi, the highest peak in the Grenadines. You pass Sea Island cotton trees and cacti before reaching the summit, where you find an amazing panoramic view of the nearby islands. Visit Big Sands Beach to go snorkeling on the north shore. The crescent-shaped beach is protected by an offshore reef. Swim in the warm water off Chatham Bay Beach. Or join a catamaran tour to sail through nearby Tobago Cays Marine Park, five pristine, uninhabited islands.

Back on dry land, stop at Union Jake’s Distillery to taste fruit brandy. The American distillers ferment tropical fruit and honey to create their sweet liqueurs. Head to Happy Island, just offshore, for a strong rum punch. The man-made island was built out of empty conch shells. Return to Clifton when your stomach starts to rumble. The West Indies Restaurant serves simple Creole conch from a little wooden shack. Lambi’s features curries, stews, and a steel-drum band. While the more refined L’Aquarium has French and Italian dishes, a good wine list, a water view, and a giant tank with eels and small fish, of course.

Regardless of which restaurant you select, you should try to find the Blue Pelican Bar after dinner. Follow 51 steps up from the harbor and pass a bunch of pigs to reach this little bar in the trees. The all-blue bar has cheap Hairoun beer and an amazing view. And this time of year, you have it almost all to yourself.