Image: North Koreans perform Arirang Mass Games' chapter 5, named "Goodwill Arirang" in Pyongyang in this photo released by North Korea
KCNA  /  Reuters
North Korea's Mass Games, performed earlier this month, were "just about the most unorthodox vacation one can take," said Ryan Lile, who saw the event last year and in 2005.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/24/2010 9:22:20 AM ET 2010-09-24T13:22:20

The border between Iran and Iraq may seem like a strange place for a vacation — specifically, to go hiking — but after last week’s release of Sarah Shourd , one of three American hikers held for more than 13 months in Iran, the whole world knows it happens.

Shourd and two companions say they strayed across the poorly marked border in northern Iraq by accident. She was released on $500,000 bail, while her friends remain behind bars.

Video: Shourd: Still being punished without fiance, friend

As it turns out, however, Iran isn’t the strangest place people go on vacation. Not by a long shot.

Julia Dimon, a travel blogger and TV host, went to Chernobyl, the site of the world’s biggest nuclear power station disaster. When reactor No. 4 exploded in 1986, it released nearly nine tons of radioactive material into the environment — about 90 times as much as the Hiroshima bomb.

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“Walking around this abandoned city, I felt as if I was the only one left on earth,” Dimon said. “Though the guide tells me the levels of radiation are safe here, I can’t help but wonder. Will I grow a second head, will my skin glow green, will I gain supernatural powers?”

Jack Jensen went to Antarctica to get away from it all. “Icebergs everywhere,” recalled Jensen, who works for a shipping company in Chicago. “The scenery blew away everything that I saw in Alaska.”

Jensen and Dimon are part of an interesting minority of travelers who visit unusual destinations when they’re on vacation. These offbeat vacations go beyond a typical trip and offer adventure and spontaneity for people who have the stomach for it.

New perspectives, new worlds
"Although I would not consider Mount Everest your standard vacation, it was the highlight of my life," said Susan Ershler, author of "Together on Top of the World." Ershler and her husband are believed to be the first couple to climb the seven summits — the highest mountains on each continent.

"You explore areas of a country where often tourists do not go, you establish strong relationships with the teammates in your group and with the locals, you get an incredible workout, your parents, family and friends are proud of you, you get to experience an incredible sense of accomplishment after reaching the summit and all of your experiences make for great conversations at cocktail parties," Ershler said.

North Korea's Mass Games were "just about the most unorthodox vacation one can take," said Ryan Lile, who saw the event last year and in 2005. "It's one of the last places on earth untouched by globalization," he said. "It's a unique destination and experience in every way, and in this respect, it didn't disappoint at all."

Lile recalled the spectacle of seeing 100,000 performers at the games and a trip to the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjeom.

Beyond R&R
Many trips to unusual destinations are done with more than rest and relaxation in mind. Frequently, they offer an opportunity to make a difference by helping build homes or offer relief.

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"They're transformational and inspirational," said Malia Everette, a tour director for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based international human rights organization. "You will get deeper into the culture and social fabric of a place quickly."

Some people push themselves harder on vacation than in their everyday lives. Nicole Miller, a self-described "36-year-old woman from the city," likes roughing it. She recently took a four-day caving trip where she crawled through 10-inch wide holes and rafted an underground river. "There's lots to be gained from these types of trips, including seeing and experiencing nooks and crannies of the world that very few people have seen, and meeting very interesting people in the process," she said. "You also get to challenge yourself physically, mentally and emotionally in ways you'd likely never get to."

Offbeat trips also offer unique cultural experiences. "I buy an outbound ticket and a return ticket and a guidebook," said Ken Goldman of Jersey City, N.J., who visits far-flung locations such as Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. "This is the best way to get to see a country and know its culture and people. Indonesia is an amazing place for this type of travel because every island is like a different country."

Indeed, there's no better way of seeing a place than spending time on the ground, strapped to a backpack and going places other tourists don't.

Whether you’re vacationing at a time when no one else is, or going to a place no one else goes, an unorthodox getaway can be rewarding. It will push you to think differently about the world you live in, teach you something about yourself, and maybe even help save the planet.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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