Five lesser-known spots in five not-so-secret destinations

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Sometimes the best sights aren’t always the most obvious, or the most famous. Sure, the Sydney Opera House is amazing and the Taj Mahal is unmissable, but the crowds are insane and the costs unfathomable. So, skip those long, wallet-draining queues and get to the heart of a place with some of these less-visited destinations.

Country: India
Alternative spot
: Sikkim

If you’re suffering from too much heat, city dust and dirt, or just crowd overload in India, then a spell in the former kingdom of Sikkim is the perfect antidote. The clean, fresh mountain air of the Himalayas sweeps this state, the second smallest after Goa as well as the least populous. There’s room to move and even feel alone, but the people are among India’s most friendly, with a charming manner that’s unobtrusive and slightly shy.

Plunging mountain valleys are lushly forested, interspersed with rice terraces and flowering rhododendrons. Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries (gompas) add splashes of white, gold and vermilion to the green ridges and are approached through avenues of colourful prayer flags.

Sikkim’s big-ticket item is the majesty of Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga, 8598m), the world’s third-highest mountain straddling the border between Sikkim and Nepal. Khangchendzonga’s guardian spirit is worshipped in a series of spectacular autumn festivals and its magnificent white peaks and ridges can be spied from many points around the state. Dawn is its best show, when the sun lights up the eastern face.

Related article: New Zealand's best spots - as picked by Lonely Planet staffers

The tiny outpost of  Sikkim is surrounded by the mountainous outskirts of Nepal, China and Bhutan, in the very north of India.

Find out more about Sikkim in our digital guidebook chapter

Country: New Zealand
Alternative spot
: Dunedin and Otago

Coastal Otago, and its one major city, Dunedin, has attractions both urban and rural, offering travellers a chance to escape the crowds of Queenstown, party down in the South Island’s coolest city, and get up close and personal with the island’s most accessible wildlife.

The heart of Otago is Dunedin, long credited as New Zealand’s indie musical heartland and definitive student party town. With a plateful of fabulous restaurants and cafés, it’s also a great place to lay off the two-minute noodles and indulge your stomach. From its stately train station (one of many grand old Victorian buildings in town), you can catch the famous Taieri Gorge Railway inland, or continue further on NZ’s greatest bike trail, the Otago Central Rail Trail.

You can find the South Island's coolest city on the south east coast.

Find out more about Dunedin and Otago in our digital guidebook chapter

Country: Japan
Alternative spot: Hokkaidō

Comprising one-fifth of the country’s total land mass, yet home to only 5% of the population, Hokkaidō is where all of your preconceived notions of Japan will be shattered. A frozen hinterland with a wild frontier spirit, Hokkaidō is defined by everything that Japan’s southern islands are not. Aside from a few major cities, the untamed north country is a hauntingly beautiful wilderness, on par with the Canadian Rockies or New Zealand’s South Island.

Carved by a network of glorious highways, the island attracts all manner of adventurer, drifter or escapist. In fact, the image of cruising across Hokkaidō’s dramatic landscapes is often associated with unfettered freedom in the minds of the Japanese.

For the thrill-seeking traveller in search of sweeping vistas, amazing wildlife, wide open roads and overwhelming emptiness, Hokkaidō is a refreshing contrast to the often claustrophobic density of Honshū. From November to March, a Siberian cold descends on the island, providing some of the best skiing in both Japan and the eastern hemisphere.

Beautiful and desolate, Hokkaidō is Japan's most northern island.

Find out more about Hokkaidō in our digital guidebook chapter

Country: South Africa
Alternative spot: Northern Cape

Welcome to South Africa’s last great frontier. The republic’s largest, least-populated and downright strangest province is a playground for off-the-grid explorers. A journey through this super-sized land of half-human trees and singing sands, of big orange-ball sunsets and bright starry nights is like stepping into the pages of a swash-buckling adventure by Laurens Van der Post and Dr Seuss. Ride a snowboard down a dune in the candy-cane striped desert. Drive a 4WD along a shipwrecked coastline by a diamond sea. Hike across surreal moonscapes in harsh but rewarding |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Or search for black-maned lions in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier’s remote and crimson outback. The choice is yours.

Find out more about South Africa's Northern Cape in our digital guidebook chapter

Country: Australia
Alternative spot: Tasmania

Image by Nomad Tales

Dazzlin’ Tassie is brilliant, beautiful and accessible. It’s compact enough to ‘do’ in a few weeks and layered enough to keep bringing you back. The island state has exquisite beaches, jagged mountain ranges, rarefied alpine plateaus, plentiful wildlife and vast tracts of virgin wilderness, much of it within a World Heritage area. Tasmania produces some of the world’s great gourmet food and wine, and has a flourishing arts scene and a burgeoning urban cool.

For too long Australian mainlanders derided their compatriots across Bass Strait, partly because Tasmania took a long time to emerge from the ignominy of its grim past. The first 100 years of European settlement were mired in violence and deprivations imposed upon the island’s Indigenous peoples and convicts, and there remains a pervading sense of melancholy and loss. But this is only part of Tasmania’s confounding enigma. It’s where the courses of mighty rivers were changed to generate hydro-electricity, where railways were built across impossible terrain and where miners and pioneers eked out meagre means in the most hostile and isolated environments. It’s a land of contradictions – of wilderness and logging trucks, wildlife and road kill, where the relics of a cruel history are all the more affecting because they’re so heartbreakingly beautiful.

Find out more about Tasmania in our guidebook