5 Countries That Are Great Alternatives To Their Crowded Neighbors

It’s the great hypocrisy in the mind of every traveler that they want to tour a place free from other tourists. Grumbling that a place is overcrowded isn’t without grounds, though. Who hasn’t wanted to pull a Dr. Manhattan on the tour groups that take group photos with every single person’s camera? And boy, what we wouldn’t give to disappear the backpackers pretending to make out with statues of the Buddha.

We can overlook these indignities as necessary evils most of the time. In reality, tourists are going to be present at the big attractions everywhere, and the penalty of avoiding tourists would basically be staying at home permanently.

That being said, for those who just can’t take it anymore, we’ve compiled a list of some less infested options. These five countries offer up similar attractions to their neighbors, but see far fewer visitors to the nooks and crannies, which will make any tourist-weary tourist breathe a little easier.

Montenegro (Crowded Neighbor: Croatia)

Croatia’s attractive coastline is a magnet for tourists. The attendant income from droves of foreigners was one of the reasons Serbs attempted to include it in their “Greater Serbia.” The subsequent Croatian War of Independence ended in 1995, and the current crowds milling about Dubrovnik are the spoils of victory. Little Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia only in 2006, shares the same coastline and a lot of history with its more famous neighbor. The country currently sees far fewer tourists (1.2 million vs. 9.9 million) visiting its excellent beaches, like the superb spits of sand at Sveti Stefan and Petrovac. Nor do many tourists hike and cycle around Montenegro’s untouched forests at Biogradska Gora and Skadar Lake National Parks. Montenegro’s comparative anonymity provides an experience that can’t be matched in Croatia.

Cambodia (Crowded Neighbor: Thailand)

Cambodia’s main attraction, Angkor Wat, certainly doesn’t dwell in obscurity. This single attraction saw over a million visitors last year, which accounts for more than a third of all visitors to the country. Some of Thailand‘s other neighbors, like Laos and Myanmar, can barely achieve those numbers on a national level. However, when it comes to pretenders to Thailand’s tourism throne, Cambodia is the only one in the region that can offer attractions that go tit for tat with Thailand’s best. Beaches? The empty white sands of Koh Rong and Ream National Park beckon, as does the party-centric seaside town of Sihanoukville. Ruins? Cambodia rolls deep; Angkor Wat is backed up by Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer Empire now overgrown in the jungle, and Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex. Interesting capital? Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia,” boasts French colonial architecture and a park-strewn riverfront. Food? A taste of amok trey or lok lak will make you forget all about pad thai.

Estonia (Crowded Neighbor: Sweden)

Sweden is a huge Scandinavian tourism juggernaut. Estonia? Just a scrappy little Baltic state. What’s the appeal then? A lot, actually. Estonia, like Sweden, is a nature-lover’s paradise. Soomaa National Park, the “land of bogs,” is one of the best canoeing destinations in Europe and is home to wolves, bears, elk and other wildlife. Estonia’s crumpled Baltic coastline contains a mind-boggling number of shallow soft-sand beaches, especially in the summer capital of Pärnu. Estonia’s past is also worth a look. While its Soviet experience is visible in some of the less adventurous architecture, the medieval castles are well preserved and atmospheric. Tallinn, the capital, is flooded with tourists, but island life on Saaremaa is quiet and isolated. Saaremaa boasts a 13th-century castle fortress and other curios like the 100-year-old Angla windmills and a Gothic church bearing symbols of the occult.

Mozambique (Crowded Neighbor: South Africa)

South Africa is head and shoulders above its Sub-Saharan neighbors when it comes to tourist numbers. Its famous game reserves, coastline and unique heritage attract almost 10 million visitors a year. Mozambique can’t match the tourist infrastructure that its neighbor to the south has meticulously erected, but it can offer other competitive attractions. Before its large mammal population was decimated by the civil war, Gorongosa Park was considered to be Africa’s Eden. Efforts to revive the park are underway, and all of Africa’s Big 5, save the rhino, can be seen here. Maputo, the capital, is small and friendly and features Portuguese colonial architecture and an extremely laid-back vibe. Mozambique’s true attraction, though, is its coast, where surfers (of the kite and wind variety) enjoy the unspoiled beaches at Vilanculos and divers explore pristine coral without the crowds at Pemba and Tofo Beach.

Iran (Crowded Neighbor: Turkey)

Turkey sees some 27 million tourists a year and Iran, well … not nearly as many. Official mouthpieces assert some 3 million tourists visited Iran in 2011, though less than 1 percent of those were traveling for nonreligious reasons. Those few tourists had historical sites like Persepolis and Imam Square all to themselves. They experienced Iran’s outstanding natural attractions – lush forests and beaches on the Caspian Sea in the north and deadly deserts and sunny Persian Gulf coastlines in the south – without the crowds that bog down these landscapes in Turkey. Those travelers were also some of the only foreign tourists in Tehran, enjoying its multitude of parks and museums, and were alone again in Yazd, a city of compacted sand reminiscent of Tatooine. Then they joined Iranians on the empty slopes of Dizin, one of the best value-for-money ski resorts in the world, and one of the few spots where Iranians are able to pull back the veil and let loose.

[Photo Credits: Kumukulanui, ecl1ght, (flicts), VilleHoo, F H Mira, Adam Hodge]

Exploring The Marvels Of Croatia’s Modric Cave

Twist your head to the right, your body to the left and wiggle through the crack, urged the guide leading us through Modric Cave in Croatia. Pretending I was a pretzel worked. After dragging my lagging left leg through a fissure between caverns, I re-lit my carbide miner’s lamp and stood stunned by the beauty of crystals sparkling on the curvaceous stalactites. My husband, who was a spelunker in his earlier days, couldn’t stop grinning and told me that he’d never seen a cave so pristine.

We were partially through a two-hour excursion into the cave, which is located less than 20 miles from the ancient city of Zadar and about a three-hour drive north of Dubrovnik. The adventure had started with a 10-minute walk over rocky ground to the entrance, within view of a calm, azure Adriatic Sea. Our guide, Marijan, unlocked the iron gate barring the entrance to the cave, so that our group of five could enter. Looking at the opening, the size of a book-return slot at a library, we eyed each other wondering how we could slip through it. Grab the rock wall, slide your feet through the crack while resting your back on the grate, wiggle through, then twist around and drop to the ground, Marijan directed. Following his directions (mentally thanking the helmet on my head when it smacked the grate), I wound up in a space barely big enough to hold the group.

During the time we spent exploring Modric Cave, we gingerly climbed over rocks or contorted our bodies to wiggle through small cracks in walls to marvel at the formations in the larger caverns. Our lamps revealed nature’s beauty created over millions of years. The cave is still “living” – growing with drops of water depositing tiny bits of calcium carbonate on the formations – and we were admonished not to touch them. Colored stalactites hung from the ceiling, with drops of water at the bottom you knew would one day add a millimeter to the glistening column. Stalagmites had dew-laden tops from the ground water seeping through the ceiling high above. Entering cavern after cavern in this 829-meter-long cave, we were awed as Marijan pointed out flows, columns and speleo shapes ranging from cuttlefish and jellyfish to a formation that looked like a turtle.

Quick flashes of light from cameras showed the three Germans we were spelunking with posing by fat pillars. Marijan, lean and weathered from years of leading people through caves and on treks in nearby Paklenica National Park, took our camera and photographed us. Then we sat down, turned off our lights and held our breath, savoring the absolute darkness and silence.

When we had re-emerged into bright sunlight, Marijan re-locked the iron gate covering the entrance and said that no more than 1,000 visitors are allowed in with a guide annually. In reality less than 300 people will visit this year, he added.

For us, this immersion into an underworld of pristine beauty was the highlight of our trip. Croatia may be a “hot” destination, but it still holds many unexplored marvels like Modric for the intrepid traveler.


****************

Advance arrangements are needed to visit Modric Cave. Go to www.zara-adventure.hr for details. Modric Cave is listed as a technically undemanding excursion, but do expect to walk over very rough surfaces and to twist your body into some seriously contorted positions. This is not a cave NFL linebackers can enter, nor anyone with claustrophobia or a fear of the dark. Marijan, who says he is the only guide allowed to take small groups into Modric Cave, supplies overalls and helmets. Light hiking shoes, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a camera are all you’ll need to bring. The adventure costs 22 Euro per person. Experienced cavers can also arrange to visit caves that require rappelling and more advanced caving skills.

[Photo Credits: Lois Friedland]

A Museum For The Heartbroken

I was staring at a wooden leg. It was on display. Next to it, a placard read:

“The prosthesis endured longer than our love. It was made of sturdier material.”

I was in Zagreb at the Museum of Broken Relationships. I didn’t know what to really expect when I had heard about this small three-room museum in the center of the Croatian capital.

I wasn’t sure if looking at objects that broken-hearted people had donated to the museum would have any redeeming value. After all, when I first heard about the museum, visiting it sounded about as joyful and exciting as a funeral procession.

But I was in Zagreb, a town I didn’t like very much (at least the last time I was there) and decided I had a choice: I could go to this museum or watch drunkards fall down in the main square. I went with the former.

“Well, a relationship very short, but mentally so tough and ‘crazy’ that it brought me to a moment of complete madness … and I cut my hair and I lived without it for a long time and no one loved me … And I was happy”
-Placard next to lock of hair

In the last year alone, I could start my own museum of broken relationships. But that’s not exactly why I was lured here. After all, it almost felt invasive to get a glimpse into someone’s past romantic relationships, even if the object they’d abandoned by donating it to the museum may have aroused a sense of catharsis.

I strolled around the museum, rotating my eyes between the objects and the placards. Each one told a story – sometimes in one sentence and sometimes in several paragraphs. I pulled out a notebook to make some notes and realized that – fittingly enough – the pen I was holding was from a hotel I had stayed in with someone I’d been romantically involved with the previous year.

“May it dance with teddy bears, wedding rings, love letters, and other people’s boxer shorts. But without me.”
-Placard next to a wedding dress

I tried my best to ignore it and began jotting down some of the items. There was an axe, various sex toys, a garden gnome, a pair of mannequin hands, and a clock that says, “We broke up on Skype.” I was only halfway through the museum but I decided I loved it here. Was it the sense that I was standing among the objects of people with whom I’ve recently shared something? Aside from our own survival and death, losing someone we love – that the person will revoke their love for us – is one of our biggest fears.

Later I would meet with the co-founder, Olinka Vistica, who started the museum with her ex-boyfriend as memorial to their own broken relationship. When I asked her about the appeal of the place, she had this to say: “I think we’ve tapped into something that’s important for each of us, something universal.” I asked why the museum is so popular. “It’s the celebration of the end of one cycle, an era, and the beginning of another.”

Gain and loss is something we experience on a daily basis. Sometimes we accept it. Sometimes we don’t – to the point it kills us. Which is why I think I may have gravitated here: a simple reminder of the impermanence of all things. We sometimes let life sweep us away, getting caught up in petty aspects of our life and anxieties about things that will fade with the passing of time. And it took me traveling to Zagreb, to visiting this small but fascinating museum to remind me that, really, the Museum of Broken Relationships is more than a depository of objects that symbolize lost love. It’s a museum dedicated to the ephemeral nature of things, something our minds trick us into forgetting about – certainly a self-defense mechanism.

If I needed a most dramatic reminder, it was the dog collar. It sat on a pedestal, a light on it frantically blinking. The note next to it was written by a man who had decided to break up with his wife. She, and the couple’s dog, moved back to her parents’ house until she could figure out how to get on with her life. The note went on to explain that, since he adored and missed the dog so much, his ex-wife sent the collar to him. A year went by and he was hoping for the best for both of them, that they could both move on and eventually be happy. But one day he got some sad and disturbing news: his ex-wife had found it impossible to move on so she gave up – she killed herself.

As I was making my way to the museum exit, I felt both weighed down by some of the heartbreak I read about as well as uplifted to have a reminder that pain and loss will come again in all of our lives. And to accept this is to transcend it.

But just for good measure, I took out that pen – the one I picked with the far away hotel scrawled across it – and discreetly left it on a table at the museum. Just for good measure, it was my own donation to the Museum of Broken Relationships.

G Adventures Announces New Destinations For 2013

Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands, AustraliaAdventure travel company G Adventures has announced that starting in January of next year it will begin offering options to visit 12 new countries and expand its popular Local Living tours to more destinations as well. These additions to the G Adventures catalog will provide a host of new and unique experiences for travelers of all types.

Perhaps the most exciting news is that with its new expanded line-up, G Adventures will now be offering options to visit all seven continents. Over the past 22 years, the company has been providing amazing travel experiences across the globe, but until now they haven’t offered any tours to Australia or New Zealand. That changes in 2013 with new overland trips from Sydney to Cairns and Melbourne to Darwin in Australia, and exciting excursions to both the North and South Islands in New Zealand. Travelers will have the option to go spearfishing, soak up the culture in an Aboriginal community, visit a working cattle ranch or sail some of the most beautiful islands on the planet. Tours will range from three to 21 days in length and can be customized to fit schedules and budgets.

Besides Australia and New Zealand, ten other countries are new to the G Adventures roster next year. Those countries include Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Croatia, Iceland, Scotland, Montenegro, Sweden, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania and Serbia. These new destinations will expand the company’s offerings to over 730 different tours.Also expanding in 2013 will be the Local Living tours, which have been carefully crafted to give travelers the opportunity to experience specific destinations like a local. While there, guests actually stay in one place and can really delve deep into the history and culture of that single location by becoming embedded into day-to-day life there. The Local Living option was first introduced with tours to the Amalfi Coast and Southern Tuscany, but starting next year 23 different tours will be offered to such places as Iceland, Mongolia, Croatia, Morocco and more.

With so many options in its catalog, I think it is safe to say that G Adventures has a little something for everyone. Whether you enjoy a hardcore adventure or a more relaxed cultural experience, they can provide the kind of trip you’re looking for and they’ll do so at an affordable price.

Photo Of The Day: Silba

silba

Silba is a tiny northern Dalmatian island close to the port city of Zadar, Croatia. The island sees its population boom in the summer, from a few hundred year-rounders to a few thousand seasonal sunshine seekers. Closed to passenger cars, Silba is one of many Croatian islands that could have been created to perfectly showcase summer in all of its glory.

This image, captured by Flickr user mmusnjak, is drenched in happy summer emotions. It is a particularly bittersweet image today, the last day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Upload your best images to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. We select our favorites from the bunch to be future Photos of the Day.