They sit nestled in oft-forgotten parts of the world, but don’t miss these low-profile wonders.
Resting atop South America’s eastern shoulder, Suriname is a former Dutch colony turned ethnic melting pot, where indigenous cultures mingle with British, Dutch, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian influences. There is much to like here. The capital, Paramaribo, retains some fine Dutch-colonial architecture, but the nature reserves are the country’s true gems (though the infrastructure is less dazzling), with Raleighvallen Nature Reserve and Brownsberg Nature Reserve noted for their rich bird life. Bordered by the equally anonymous Guyana and French Guiana, this is the last frontier of South American travel.
About as wide as a cigarette paper, Togo bounces off the tongue and into the hearts of those who make the journey to this West African nation. The capital, Lomé, fronts the Atlantic Ocean in a line of beaches and palm trees, but from here the country heads inland through deep valleys and tall mountains that peter out into flat savannah. Togo can be all things to all people – you can be windsurfing on Lake Togo one hour and sifting through voodoo medicines such as monkey testicles and snake heads at Lomé’s fetish market the next.
Fancy a slice of the Caribbean just off the African coast? The two sleepy islands that make up Africa’s smallest nation are the antithesis of all things African. Few people have heard of them, and even fewer visit, though news of their charms is leaking out. There are miles of deserted beaches, crystal-blue waters with excellent and uncharted diving, jagged rock formations and lush rainforests. There’s also a laid-back cafe lifestyle with real coffee, delicious fresh fruit and seafood.
In the glory days of ocean travel, Comoros was a traditional stopover for ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Obscurity came with the construction of the Suez Canal, and today there are only 25,000 visitors each year. Neighbouring the Seychelles, and just a few freestyle strokes from Mauritius, Comoros should be a tropical idyll, but it’s as fragmented as its islands, enduring 20 coup attempts since gaining independence from France in 1975. Skip across to Mayotte, a part of the archipelago but not of the country, and you can visit one of the world’s largest lagoons.
There was a time when the tiny, potato-shaped island of Nauru was among the richest nations on earth on a per capita basis, its people made wealthy by an abundance of phosphate deposits. Today, the phosphate is all but gone and the mines abandoned, but the locals retain a languid approach to life, playing Aussie Rules football and singing in distinctive Pacific Islander harmonies. Nauru’s denuded landscape evokes a melancholy poetry – a craggy, treeless moonscape interior, some startlingly green cliff s and a windswept ocean complete with swooping seabirds.
A speck of an island that sits 600km from its nearest neighbour, Niue sees so few visitors that there are only two in-bound flights every week (one each from Auckland, New Zealand, and Apia, Samoa). This is not your classic Pacific beach paradise as there are few beaches here; but there’s some fantastic cave exploration through the Vaikona and Togo Chasms and, as the island has no rivers running into the sea, visibility for divers is exceptional. The name of the Toilet Bowl, a dive site off the west coast, is no reflection on the quality of Niue dives.
Famous only for being invaded, tiny Kuwait is on few travel agendas, partly because its only land crossings are with Iraq and Saudi Arabia, making overland entry all but impossible. For those who think about flying in, there’s not a whole lot here to justify the effort, unless you like gleaming Middle Eastern shopping malls and four-lane highways. Away from the spit-and-polish of Kuwait City you can ascend all 145m to the country’s highest point on the Mutla Ridge, or check out Al-Ahmadi, the birthplace of Kuwait’s oil industry. Go nuts.
As other former Soviet states fill with visitors, Belarus only looks on, despite being the straightest line between Moscow and the rest of Europe. The last dictatorship in Europe to fall, Belarus is the place to come if you want to reminisce about all things Soviet – the capital, Minsk, was all but destroyed in WWII and rebuilt to a Stalinist blueprint. For natural grandeur, there’s the Belavezhskaja National Park, straddling the Polish border. This is Europe’s largest primeval forest, a Unesco World Heritage site and home to European bison, the continent’s largest mammal.
Travel Alert: The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office recommends against all non-essential travel to some areas, please check with your relevant national government.
Think of great mountain countries – Nepal, Peru, Canada – and Kyrgyzstan will inevitably get overlooked. It shouldn’t. This former Soviet republic, closed to foreigners for much of the occupation, contains the highest and most dramatic mountains in Central Asia; its highest peak is almost 7500m above sea level. Trouble is, Kyrgyzstan has little else, being low on resources and tourist infrastructure. It’s a good thing, then, that most visitors head straight for the relatively developed Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-highest lake in the world and a launching pad for the region’s finest trekking.
This article is an excerpt from an edition of Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences. It was originally published in March 2010 and was refreshed in July 2012.