There’s a reason the classics are the classics. We love the romance and filtered light of Venice, Kyoto’s temples and gardens, that view of Machu Picchu. But with popularity comes the strain of overcrowding: stress on fragile environments, landmarks, and local infrastructure – and an annoying lack of elbow room. Seasoned travelers know how best to see the favorites, visiting in the off-season, taking two wheels, hiking hidden trails.
But for many iconic destination, there is a place less traveled that is just as cool.
Here are 7 less-explored counterparts to popular destinations that are just as fascinating and fun – proof that when it comes to where to go next, there’s always a new hit to discover.
GLACIER BAY, ALASKA
An estimated 1.3 million cruise passengers are projected to visit Alaska in 2020, highlighting the popularity of the Last Frontier’s network of waterways carved by glaciers millions of year ago. Sprawling across 3.3 million acres, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is the place to find fjords and forests, not to mention whales, porpoises, sea lions, and bald eagles.
Only a few select cruise lines have the requisite permits to sail through this region, with Holland America and Princess leading the pack. But they only stay in the region for a day sailing. Get more up close and personal with nature and wildlife, on an adventure/expedition cruise. Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures offer multi-day experiences of a lifetime not matched by any bigger ship sailing.
Norway cruises reveal majestic scenery and charming port towns. The country’s southwestern coastal region, where deep blue inlets cut into mountains, are where you’ll find the country’s most famous inlets: Geirangerfjord, a 62-mile-long behemoth of 5,000-foot gneiss walls and waterfalls, and the 127-mile-long Sognefjord, which crosses three preservation areas.
Venture beyond these iconic fjords by heading north above the arctic circle to the North Cape. Enjoy Norway’s small towns, Viking cities and magnificent landscapes on a coastal cruise with Hurtigruten. Alternatively, discover the crown of Norway’s arctic region, Svalbard (Spitsbergen) with Hurtigruten, Silversea and Ponant.
Feeling more active? Put your best foot forward on a walking and hiking tour of the Lofoten Islands with Backroads.
Kyoto is the cultural and historical heart of Japan. Big – and busy – it’s draw are its astounding number of gardens, temples, and shrines. As an alternative, check out Takayama, sometimes called “Little Kyoto. A mountain village in the Gifu Prefecture, it distills the essence of old Japan. The narrow streets of its Sanmachi Suji historic district are lined with wooden merchant houses dating to the Edo period (1603 to 1867). They brim with cafés, shops, and restaurants.
Takayama is a major sake-producing region, and sake breweries are scattered around the neighborhood. During the city’s festivals each April and October, gilded floats parade through the streets. In winter, a dusting of snow renders the alpine town a snow-globe scene.
Backroads eight-day walking and hiking journey in Japan takes in both Kyoto and Takayama. During the two-day Takayama leg, you walk a seventh-century road past shrines and temples, sample sake at a private tasting, and soak in natural hot springs at a ryokan.
Shrouded in mystery – and often in mist – at 7,972 feet in Peru’s Andes, the sprawling fifteenth-century Incan citadel induces awe with its temples, terraces, and huge blocks of stone. Many arrive via train from Cuzco, about 70 miles away, or stay the night in nearby Aguas Calientes.
Hardier types hoof it for several days along the breath-capturing Inca Trail. But this trail is limited to 500 people per day (including guides and porters). Consider the lesser-known Salkantay and Lares routes if the Inca Trail is sold out.
Alternatively, walk in the footsteps of the pre-Incan Chachapoya civilization and explore Kuélap instead. The fortress of Kuélap, which sits at 9,842 feet in northern Peru, predates Machu Picchu by nearly a millennium. The Kuélap ruins, and the whole region of Chachapoyas, have remained untouched. Overlooking the Utcubamba Valley, some 400 ruins spread over more than 1,100 acres here. Until recently, the walled complex was a four-hour hike or bumpy 90-minute bus ride from the village of Nuevo Tingo, but a cable car that opened in 2017 streamlines the ascent to 20 minutes.
Imagine Napa Valley with a 90-mile lake down the middle. In some ways, the Okanagan Valley feels like Napa did 40 years ago. The valley stretches about 125 miles between the Washington State border and Armstrong, British Columbia, punctuated with laid-back towns and crystal lakes with vineyards rising from their shores. Headliners are the pinot noirs and rieslings, but innovative boutique wineries offer robust reds, crisp rosés, and even ice wine. Summer brings alfresco dining and sandy lakeside beaches, while for active travelers, winter competes as the best time to go: Skiers and snowboarders can hit the fresh powder at nearby alpine resorts one day, and warm up during wine tastings the next.
Want a guided tour of the region? Consider Luxury Gold’s 16 day Canadian adventure which includes wine-paired dinners around British Columbia and Alberta, and two days in the Okanagan Valley with winery visits.
AUSTRALIA'S BARRIER REEF
For divers and snorkelers, the world’s largest and longest coral reef system is underwater heaven. Off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the fragile system spans more than 1,400 miles and teems with marine life, including sea turtles, giant clams, manta rays, and clown fish. For unrivaled access, stay at Qualia Great Barrier Reef. Qualia flies guests to snorkel points by helicopter or seaplane, with sensational aerial views of Heart Reef, Whitehaven Beach, and the Whitsunday Passage.
Alternatively, discover Australia's “other coast”. Halfway up Australia’s west coast, the 186-mile-long Ningaloo Reef sits close to shore – only a few hundred feet away in some places – but is beautifully secluded. That means uncrowded encounters with turtles, manta rays, humpback whales, and 500 species of fish. What really sets the reef apart, however, are the elusive whale sharks that assemble here in large numbers – more than any other place in the world – from March through August. Launch from the towns of Exmouth or Coral Bay to kayak, swim with whale sharks, or take a scenic flight over the remote Indian Ocean reef.
Venice sees around 20 million visitors each year – meaning summer can be downright uncomfortable. For waterways, cultural stimulation, and postcard serenity – without the crowds of Venice – steer to the Belgian city of Bruges.
Step-gabled houses from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries front pretty canals here, and cultural attractions run the gamut from tongue-in-cheek (the Frietmuseum dedicated to french fries, Belgium’s beloved snack) to classical (the Groeningemuseum showcases six centuries of Belgian and Flemish masters’ work). Even the imposing Church of Our Lady houses treasures, including a Michelangelo sculpture. Hop aboard a boat tour of the town’s swan-filled canals crossed by stone bridges. And be sure to stop at one of the many chocolate shops to taste the city’s official sweet, Brugsch swaentje, a chocolate-covered praline embossed with a swan.
A perfect way to see this city is on an AmaWaterways or Avalon Waterways eight-day springtime sailings through the Netherlands and Belgium. It’s a chance to explore the city’s quiet squares, canals, and gardens in full bloom.
The above article contains excerpts from Virtuoso's January 2020 publication of B-Side Bets: For Every On-Repeat Destination, There’s a Place Less Traveled and Just as Cool.
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