Whether we dwell in city centre or suburb, we nearly all dream of escaping the humdrum and finding somewhere truly off the grid. As the world shrinks, more and more places that promise isolation find their offerings increasingly crowded. Here's five destinations, drawn from Rough Guides' Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, that still deal in true escapism.
If isolation feels like exile choose the Kornati islands in central Dalmatia, where the neighbours are just beyond your bay. For true Robinson Crusoe types, however, there’s little in Europe that compares to Palagruža. Nowadays the only resident is a lighthouse keeper who lets two simple apartments to adventurers eager to experience Croatia’s most distant island, a nature reserve that is closer to Italy than the Croatian mainland 120km away.
With a week to explore an island you could circuit in an hour – rummaging through the Mediterranean scrub that fuzzes its rocky fin, peering over 90m cliffs – you can’t help but discover a golden beach. And what beaches, washed by the cleanest seas in the Mediterranean but without a sunbather in sight: the shock comes when you return to the real world.
Cottages in the Kornati National Park (www.kornati.info) sleep two to six and can be booked through UK agencies Croatia for Travellers (www.croatiafortravellers.co.uk).
The Empty Quarter is well named. Covering an area the size of Belgium, Holland and France combined, it is almost entirely devoid of life. With its constantly-changing colour, vast, ever-shifting dunes and eerie silence, it’s quite simply the most mesmerizing desert in the world. Once home to the fascinating Bedu, who regarded the dunes with reverence, the desert today hosts the Arabian oryx, endemic to the region and one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth, around two dozen species of plants and hundreds of species of insects.
Visiting the Empty Quarter requires serious preparation. With few if any useful maps, very little chance of meeting another human being, and extremely low chances of survival in the case of stranding, you need to travel well prepped and well equipped. Most visitors choose to join a tour run by any of several reputable local tour companies. Guides, tents and even camels can also be arranged.
Saudi Arabia is still one of the world’s most inaccessible kingdoms. Non-business visitors can visit as a group travelling with a recognized agency. See www.saudiembassy.net.
Stuck out in the Labrador Straits, the jagged knot of granite that is Battle Harbour feels like it’s perched at the end of the world. Established in the 1770s, the island soon became one of North America’s busiest saltfish, salmon and sealing ports. Today the fishing boats are long gone; only a red-roofed church and a clutch of clapboard cottages dot the hillside above the rickety wharf. Just offshore, shimmering blue-white icebergs float gently southwards, slowly melting into bizarre shapes and twisted pillars.
Spending the night here is a magical experience; the island’s natural beauty is complemented by its equally evocative human elements – creaking bunkhouses equipped with oil lamps and wood fires, a museum built from old, salt-stained warehouses and friendly locals who seem to have stepped straight out of Moby Dick. Accents have changed little since the first settlers arrived from England’s West Country in the 1800s; children ask their mothers “Where’s me father to?”, and old fishermen look at the sky and say “ee look like rain, don’t ee?”.
Battle Harbour is open from mid-June to mid-September. For more detailed information see www.battleharbour.com.
It can take you days to reach the Termas de Puyuhuapi – but then getting there is all part of the fun. One of the most remote hideaways in the world, the luxurious lodge-cum-spa sits halfway down Chile’s Carretera Austral, or “Southern Highway”, a 1000km, mostly unpaved road that threads its way through a pristine wilderness of soaring mountains, Ice Age glaciers, turquoise fjords and lush temperate rainforest. The most exciting way to travel down it is to rent a 4WD – you’ll rarely get above 30km/h, but with scenery like this, who cares?
Separated from the carretera by a shimmering fjord, the lodge is unreachable by land. Instead, a little motor launch will whisk you across in ten minutes. It’s hard to imagine a more romantic way to arrive, especially during one of the frequent downpours that plague the region, when guests are met off the boat by dapper young porters carrying enormous white umbrellas.
You can take to the wilderness in a number of ways: go sea-kayaking (with dolphins, if you’re lucky); learn to fly-fish in rivers packed with trout and salmon; take a hike through the rainforest to a nearby glacier. And afterwards soak your bones in the hotel’s raison d’être, its steaming hot springs, channelled into three fabulous outdoor pools – two of them right on the edge of the fjord, the other (the hottest of all) enclosed by overhanging ferns. Lying here at night, gazing at the millions of stars above, you’d think that you were in heaven.
Termas de Puyuhuapi (www.patagonia-connection.com) offers transfers from Balmaceda airport.
In the far northeast of India, lodged between Tibet and Bhutan in the tiny state of Arunachal Pradesh – “the land of dawn-lit mountains” – lies a lonely valley. Here, high up on a spur, is Tawang Gompa, India’s largest Buddhist monastery. Although you can get here by helicopter, the most rewarding way to reach Tawang is by joining the locals and wedging yourself into a sumo. These shared Jeeps – packed to bursting point with people and possessions – shuttle along the 345km road to the city of Tezpur in Assam, an exhausting journey that takes anything from 12 to 24 hours, depending on the weather.
Along this winding route, darkly humorous road signs with phrases like “Be gentle on my curves” and “Overtaker, meet undertaker” warn drivers to take care at the wheel. At the breathtakingly high (4300m) Sela Pass, the sumos stop at a tiny wooden hut, the Tenzing Restaurant, where passengers crowd round a wood-fired stove and drink cups of salted yak-butter tea. From here, the road curls down into an isolated valley, and eventually Tawang itself, a sleepy end-of-the-road town filled with Buddhist prayer wheels and flags. A few kilometres beyond is the monastery itself. A colourful fortified complex, it was the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and remains home to around five hundred monks, as well as a priceless collection of Buddhist texts and historic manuscripts.
The monastery is most atmospheric in the late afternoon, when the setting sun bathes the place in a rich orange light. As you gaze down at the valley below, with its isolated ani gompas (nunneries), tiny hamlets, glistening lakes and sheer mountain slopes, it is hard to escape the feeling that you’ve found your own Shangri-la.
The Tawang Gompa is open daily from dawn to dusk. Foreign tourists require a Restricted Area Permit, in addition to an Indian visa, to visit Arunachal Pradesh. For further information, visit www.arunachaltourism.com.
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