Rimatara, French Polynesia

Photo: La Perruche Rouge

Photo: La Perruche Rouge

You’re captivated by French Polynesia. You keep returning to gaze at the volcanic peaks, the picture-perfect motus, and the amazingly clear water. It’s what you envision each time you think about paradise. And, lately, paradise has meant more than the view from a sun lounger at your pampering resort. You’ve finally started to explore—and to see what the islands are like beyond the overwater bungalows. This will be your farthest adventure yet.

The Austral Islands are the southernmost islands in French Polynesia. Tuha’a Pae, as the Polynesians call them, are made up of seven islands within two archipelagos. The Bass Islands lie to the southeast; the Tupua’i Islands, where you’re heading, sit in the northwest. The islands have no resorts. They see few visitors. But they’re absolutely beautiful.

You arrive on Rimatara, the westernmost Tupua’i Island. At only 3.3 square miles, the circular island is the smallest of the islands. It’s filled with volcanic plateaus, banana trees, and taro plantations. White-sand beaches line the coast. Pirogues glide through the shallow lagoon. While a fringe reef extends almost to the shore. The island was one of the last Polynesian islands to have contact with Europeans; it wasn’t discovered until 1821. An airport was finally built in 2006. But Rimatara has remained quiet and relatively isolated.

Photo: La Perruche Rouge

Photo: La Perruche Rouge

You’re welcomed at the little airport with a flower lei—still one of your favorite traditions—and big smiles. La Perruche Rouge, the family-owned pension where you’re staying, is nearby. “The Red Parakeet” has four bungalows with embroidered linens, wide decks, and garden views. Meals, featuring fresh fruit and fish, are shared in the thatched-roof restaurant. While the Kato family is happy, even anxious, to show off their island.

Over the next few days, you visit the little towns: Amaru, Anapoto, and Mutuaura. You see the Protestant churches, where the deeply religious islanders worship. You watch nimble fingers weaving pandanus leaves into beautiful baskets and mats. You buy a shell necklace that will surely be envied when you return home. You search for rare, brightly colored Rimatara lorikeets. Plus you claim a different beach as your very own each day. Though no one has delivered you fruity drinks, massaged aloe onto your sunburned back, or spread bougainvillea petals on your turned-down bed, you’ve never felt more at home in French Polynesia.

Cooper Island, British Virgin Islands

Photo: Cooper Island

Photo: Cooper Island

Everyone claims that they want to be whisked away to a deserted island. But the reality of an island with just sand, a few palm trees, and the hot sun isn’t nearly as romantic as one would expect. Sure, the view of the turquoise water and the greens islands in the distance are jaw dropping. But what about food and drinks, shade, and, most importantly, shelter to protect you from the crabs, the mosquitos, and who knows what else. Maybe deserted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Cooper Island, one of the Southern Islands in the British Virgin Islands archipelago, is one step up from deserted. Along with white-sand beaches, swaying palm trees, and stunning views, the 480-acre island only has a handful of privately owned homes and a small beach club. There are no casinos, resorts, or even cars. A boat—or a yacht, if you prefer—is the only way to get there. While shipwrecks have become intriguing scuba diving sites just offshore.

As you approach Cooper Island on a boat, it certainly looks deserted. It isn’t until you reach Manchioneel Bay, dotted with sailboats, that you start to see the Cooper Island Beach Club through the dense greenery. It’s early, so the loungers, the kayaks, and the paddleboards are still being dragged down to the sand. You decide to explore the island, before the humidity increases. Hike to Quart-a-Nancy Point. From the island’s northern tip, you have a perfect view of the bay and rocky Cistern Point, with Salt and Peter Islands beyond the calm water. Then head south to the Haulovers, a narrow strip that connects the north and south ends of the island. You find pretty shells on the rocky beach and schools of sergeant majors when you put your snorkel mask on to go for a swim.

Photo: Cooper Island

Photo: Cooper Island

By the time you return to the beach club, you’re happy—make that relieved—to see umbrellas and someone serving ice-cold beverages. The informal Beach Club Restaurant is open air with a view of the dock. Grab a table overlooking the beach. Order a pitcher of sangria to share. Then decide to share a few seafood dishes, as well. Homemade conch fritters are served with a spicy Marie Rose sauce. Shrimp and pineapple are skewered between red peppers and grilled limes. Plus a bucket of fish and chips quickly reminds you who rules this Caribbean island.

After lunch, and probably a little nap on the beach, head back into the water. Join a scuba diving group to see the best spots around the island. Squid and eels dance around huge pillar corals at Vanishing Rock. Four deliberately sunk wrecks cover the ocean floor in Wreck Alley. While blue tangs, queen angelfish, and even sea turtles weave through the lattice-like rocks in Devil’s Kitchen.

It’s happy hour by the time you return to the beach club again. Rounds of painkillers, rum punches, and Carib beers are being passed around the bar. People are celebrating the end of a fun day before returning to their boats and, eventually, their hotels on the larger islands. But you’re not ready to leave. Not quite yet. Luckily, the beach club has a few cottages nestled among the cactus garden and the tropical flowers. You’ll have this peaceful island practically to yourself once the rest of the now-tipsy crowd sails away. And you’re more than happy to trade practically for deserted when it comes with a recently renovated room, recycled teak furniture, and a sunset-facing table at your prepared dinner.

Boma National Park, South Sudan

Photo: Bahr El Jebel Safaris

Photo: Bahr El Jebel Safaris

It’s known as the greatest migration on Earth. More than one million gazelles and antelopes. One of the largest national parks in Africa. Grasslands, floodplains, and green plateaus. Few tourists. Even fewer roads. Yet no one—or at least very people—have heard of it. How is this possible? Because it’s in South Sudan.

South Sudan is one of the newest countries in the world. It’s also one of the poorest and least developed. After decades of violence, a referendum finally split Africa’s largest country (Sudan) in two in 2011. Members of the new government and tribal groups continued to fight. Yet the tropical rainforest, the swamps, and the plains—and therefore the national parks—remained relatively undisturbed.

Boma National Park, in the Greater Upper Nile region, sits along the Ethiopian border. The 8,800-square-mile park was established in 1986. Twice a year, from March to June and November to January, it becomes one of the longest highways in the world, as animals move from north to south and west to east in search of water and food. It rivals the Serengeti in terms of the sheer number of animals crossing between neighboring national parks. And, until recently, it was impossible to see it.

Bahr el Jebel Safaris is the only licensed safari company in South Sudan. Former tribal hunters now lead day trips into Boma. Hundreds, if not thousands, of white-eared kobs (antelopes) are easily found in the clay plains and the wetlands. Male kobs make a whistling-like sound to protect their mating territory. The dark-colored tiang is harder to spot, since it’s one of the fastest antelopes on the continent. While Mongalla gazelles are particularly active in the morning, before it gets too hot.

These may be the most common animals, but they’re far from the only creatures that call Boma home. African leopards prowl the land from sunset to sunrise, while Sudan cheetahs prefer to hunt during the daytime. Masai lions, at least the males, are easily spotted with their extensive manes. Rüppell’s vultures are considered the highest-flying birds in the world. Plus sightings of buffalo, elephants, and giraffes are always a possibility. Go now. Everyone is bound to catch on soon.

Topping, Virginia

Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.

Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.

You’re off to a tasting room today. The gorgeous spot has a wide deck, tables spread out over a gravel patio, and views of the water. But you won’t be sampling sparkling wine, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir after touring a vineyard. In fact, this tasting will be unlike anything you’ve ever attended before. Today is all about oysters.

In 1899, James Croxton started growing oysters along the banks of the Rappahannock River, which ultimately flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Four generations later, the family (now two cousins) is still harvesting mollusks and shipping them to some of the best restaurants in the U.S. Though you could easily find these oysters on menus in New York City and Washington, D.C., the best place to sample them is just feet away from where they’re harvested: Merroir.

Merroir—a play on the wine buzz word terroir—is a tasting room, not a restaurant, that serves good food grown well on the east coast of Virginia. The plates are small and seasonal. The food is cooked on an outdoor grill, if it’s cooked at all. While the menu is constantly changing. Except for one thing: the focus is always on the oysters.

Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.

Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.

When you arrive at Merroir, grab a table on the patio. You have a view of the light blue water and the oyster cages from under your bright orange umbrella. Order a glass—no, make that a bottle—of Grüner Veltliner. The acidic, dry white wine from Austria will pair well with the salty oysters. Then request a dozen raw oysters that includes three different types.

The first oyster you taste, the Rappahannock River Oyster, is sweet. This oyster, which grows where the freshwater from the Blue Ridge Mountains meets the seawater of the Chesapeake Bay, sits in a deep cup. It tastes buttery at first, then a little minerally, and finishes clean. The second oyster, the Stingray, is mild. It’s harvested in bags in Mobjack Bay, in between the Rappahannock and York Rivers. It starts out sweet, becomes slightly briny, and ends on a crisp note. Finally, the Olde Salt Oyster is considered the classic oyster. It smells oceany, tastes briny, and goes down smoothly. You may not be able to pick your favorite among the oysters—they’re all that good—but by now, you can easily tell the differences between the three.

You decide to stay for lunch when your oyster tasting is finished. Do you want steamed clams or bay scallop ceviche? Roasted red pepper soup with blue crab or a crab cake with creole remoulade? Or perhaps more oysters? You can try them roasted, baked, or grilled this time. This tasting may have started out differently than any other, but it seems to be ending—continuing really—quite the same way: into a long, lazy afternoon.

Marieta Islands, Mexico

Photo: Marcin Klapczynski [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

Photo: Marcin Klapczynski [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

Aww, Puerto Vallarta! You’ve been exploring Zona Centro (the Old Town center), the lively boardwalk, and your relaxing resort all week. The weather has been perfect with sun-filled days and cool ocean breezes. While the gorgeous golden-sand beaches are bordered by green hills on one side and the warm Pacific water on the other. Now you’re thinking about a day trip.

The Marieta Islands are just a one-hour boat ride northwest of Puerto Vallarta. The uninhabited archipelago, which was created by volcanic activity, used to be a military testing site. The bombings created caves and rock formations. After Jacques Cousteau started protesting in the 1960s, the explosions eventually stopped. The islands were later named a national park, where fishing and hunting are prohibited. They’ve since become a popular destination for snorkelers, kayakers, and sunbathers.

From the boat, you start to see brown rocks poking out of the blue-green water. Two dolphins race alongside the boat. Blue-footed boobies, with their distinctive feet, dive into the water in search of lunch. The only thing missing this time of year: humpback whales. The huge whales travel from Alaska to give birth in the warm water between December and March.

Photo: islasmarietas.com.mx

Photo: islasmarietas.com.mx

By now, you’re itching to get in the water yourself. Don flippers, a mask, and a breathing tube to go snorkeling. You immediately see two large sea turtles, a bunch of manta rays, and even an octopus when you put your head underwater. Paddle around the islands in a kayak to see the rock formations and those bright-footed birds up close. Paddleboard into deep caves where your voice echoes inside. Then find the hidden beach in one of those caves.

Playa Del Amor, that hidden beach, can only be accessed during low tide. As the water recedes, move through the water tunnel. When it opens up, you’re surrounded by rocky walls. The sun is shining overhead. While a small beach seems to be pulling you toward it. You walk out of the water and collapse onto the sand. You have the little beach all to yourself—at least for a few minutes. It’s going to be quite hard to top this day trip.

Machias Seal Island

Photo: Sea Watch Tours

Photo: Sea Watch Tours

Canada and the United States are at odds with each other. The neighboring countries, which share the longest international border in the world, are known for their friendly relationship. They amicably share borders along the Pacific and the Arctic, eight provinces and 13 states, and the Great Lakes. But there’s a lingering problem in the Atlantic: Machias Seal Island.

Machias Seal Island sits 10 miles southeast of Cutler, Maine and 12 miles southwest of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. Along with North Rock, it’s part of the “gray zone,” a disputed territory that covers 277 square miles in the Gulf of Maine. The Passamaquoddy people used the 20-acre island as a spear-fishing post for centuries before the Europeans arrived. The French, the British, and, eventually, the Americans largely ignored the barren island up through the Revolutionary War. It wasn’t until the war ended, with the Treaty of Paris, that Machias Seal Island became disputed land.

During World War I, the U.S. Marines occupied the island to prevent German U-boats from attacking North America through the Bay of Fundy. The Canadians, on the other hand, built a lighthouse on the island in 1832. Despite being automated years ago, the lighthouse is still manned. Today, the island is also a migratory bird sanctuary, while lobster boats bob through the chilly water just offshore.

You decide to see this disputed territory for yourself. On Grand Manan Island, join Sea Watch Tours’ boat heading to Machias Seal Island. The boat runs six days a week from June to September. Warm clothing—think jackets, hats, and gloves—are needed even though it’s summer. It’s hard to see the island, or passing whales, through the dense fog. While the tours are small, only 30 people (15 brought over from each country) are allowed on the island each day.

Follow your guide over the slippery, seaweed-covered footpath when you disembark. A white lighthouse stands in front of you. The wind whips through your hair and thin jacket. While the sounds and the smells are intense. The island is full of birds. Thousands of Atlantic puffins, with their bright orange legs, nest in burrows. Hundreds of pairs of black-and-white razorbills sit over their eggs in crevices between the rocks. Plus common murres incubate their eggs at the edges of small cliffs. Arctic terns, Leach’s storm petrels, and phalaropes fly overhead. While greater and sooty shearwaters stand along the rocky coast. So much for an international dispute. The birds clearly own this speck of land.

Salkantay, Peru

Photo: Mountain Lodges of Peru

Photo: Mountain Lodges of Peru

Your sights are set on Machu Picchu. The ancient city is one of the most awe-inspiring places in the Andes, if not the world. While hiking through the Sacred Valley to get there is half of the fun. But the Inca Trail, which passes through cloud forests and alpine tundra, is overrun with tourists. So much so that the Peruvian government now strictly limits the number of people on the path. Don’t despair. There’s another—equally beautiful—trek you can do to get there instead.

The Salkantay Trek is nothing to sneeze at. Though less well known—and therefore less popular—than the Inca Trail, it’s constantly rated one of the best hikes in the world by almost everyone. Salkantay is the highest peak in the Willkapampa mountain range. The trail starts in Mollepata, crosses the Salkantay Pass at more than 4,600 meters, and descends into the cloud forest. It passes Llactapata (more Inca ruins) and meets the Inca Trail at Aguas Calientes. Eventually, it brings you to Machu Picchu, that gorgeous archaeological site about which you’ve been dreaming.

But don’t rush. This is a trek to enjoy, not race through just to reach your destination. Plus, unlike most of the hikers who you’ll meet at the end, you’re hiking between lodges. Instead of dealing with tents, sleeping bags, and boiling water, you have down duvets, fireplaces, and gourmet dinners to look forward to.

Photo: Mountain Lodges of Peru

Photo: Mountain Lodges of Peru

After spending a few days acclimating to the altitude in Cusco, head to Mollepata to begin the Salkantay Trek. The first day is relatively easy, as you follow a dirt road, walk up small hills, and start breathing the clean mountain air. Pass Inca ruins and little mountain villages. Then, after six hours of hiking, enjoy a glass of Chilean wine when you reach the Salkantay Lodge, your home base for two nights. Instead of hurrying to the next lodge, you spend the next day hiking to Lake Humantay, a clear, glacier-fed lake, where you find stunning views of Salkantay and grazing llamas. Return to the lodge and sit in the jacuzzi to relax your now-aching muscles.

The next day is challenging, to say the least. Trek to the highest point on the Salkantay Pass. The three-and-a-half-hour hike up the trail is tiring; the five-hour hike down is the real killer, though. The views of the snow-capped Willkapampa range and the large glacier on the south face of Salkantay make it all worth it. You have no trouble falling asleep once you collapse into your comfortable bed, with that goose-down duvet, at the Wayra Lodge. The same is true after passing through banana plantations and avocado orchards to reach the Lucma Lodge the day after that.

The final day of hiking takes you along the Llactapata Pass. You gasp loudly when you catch your first view of the City in the Sky in the distance. Lots of photos quickly follow. Those climbing the Inca Trail miss this breathtaking sight. You meet those hikers in Aguas Calientes, where everyone boards the train to explore Machu Picchu. Instead of following the crowd through the ruins though, you climb steep Huayna Picchu for more jaw-dropping views of the ancient city. You can’t decide if your trek made you more adventurous or a glutton for punishment.