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World’s most unique places to visit

Some travelers are trading beach vacations for unforgettable experiences in faraway lands like Bhutan, Socotra, and beyond.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is the last remaining kingdom in Asia and is the only place in the world to measure Gross National Happiness. Takstang means “tiger's lair” and hangs on a cliff high above the Paro valley. Visitors must climb the slope on foot or by mule.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is the last remaining kingdom in Asia and is the only place in the world to measure Gross National Happiness. Takstang means “tiger's lair” and hangs on a cliff high above the Paro valley. Visitors must climb the slope on foot or by mule. Angelo Cavalli / Getty Images
/ Source: Forbes

If the options for your next vacation come down to the usual beach relaxation period or volunteering at an elephant shelter in Thailand, which would you choose?

Should the pachyderms sound more appealing than sipping a Mai Tai in Ko Samui, you're not alone. Exciting, interesting and a little bit strange are elements that travelers are currently seeking in their vacations, experts say.

Some travel agencies are even specially marketing bizarre locations, total culture immersion and one-of-a-kind experiences as package deals. A quarterly survey called TravelHorizons, conducted by market-research group YPartnership, says that although wallets are still tight, two out of three Americans said they planned to take one trip for leisure purposes between August 2009 and January 2010. Adventure tourism might provide the truly memorable experience those travelers are looking for.

"Going somewhere and sitting around on a beach has definitely been supplanted by going out and doing things and activities," says Giampiero Ambrosi, general manager of Virtual Tourist, a social network for tourists, locals and travel aficionados to share insider knowledge.

Ambrosi says he too falls into the adventure-seeker category: Recently, he participated in a grueling auto rickshaw race, driving a thousand miles through India, to raise awareness for road safety and money to build local schools. He calls it "an experience I will always remember."

Expert advice
To create our list of some of the world's most unique places to visit, we spoke with several travel experts and asked them to recommend destinations based on their own journeys. Those weighing in, along with Ambrosi, were Pamela Bryan, co-founder of Bozeman, Mont.-based travel firm Off the Beaten Path; Bruce Poon Tip, chief executive of Toronto-based travel company G.A.P. Adventures; and William Altaffer, founder and owner of Expedition Photo Travel in San Diego.

One particularly unique vacation travelers are currently discussing on Virtual Tourist: Guided tours through the Ukraine's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which infamously and disastrously suffered a reactor explosion in 1986. Guides assure that short-term exposure the environs is not harmful, but there are also strict procedures. For $170, visitors get a combined history and ecology lesson.

If that's a bit too edgy, there are more peaceful, quiet and natural options in places where the happenings of modern life are pretty much nonexistent. "Social media, Facebook, cell phones — [it] means you're connected all the time, and people want to get away to somewhere remote," says Poon Tip, chief executive of G.A.P. Adventures, a travel company based in Toronto. He says Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands are two G.A.P. Adventures destinations that are becoming popular getaways.

Big trip, low impact
Along those lines, sustainable and eco-friendly tourism are also on the rise — and affecting people's travel decisions. A survey conducted by the U.S. Travel Association and Ypartnership in July 2009 shows a 9 percent increase from 2007 in awareness of "green travel." Six in 10 respondents in the same survey said they believed environmental programs at travel services could have a positive impact on the environment.

The general idea of such an excursion involves minimizing harmful effects on the environment and making sure the money tourists spend in a country stays there. For example, tourists stay at local accommodations and participate in fair trade, buying goods directly from the makers.

Off the Beaten Path, a travel agency based in Montana, offers an excursion that supports a Native American tribe in the Northern Rockies. The service hires local guides, and visitors have the opportunity to attend a powwow with a Native American host, eat dinner at a tepee camp and attend meetings of local tribal members.

Though if none of these destinations sound particularly weird or interesting enough, William Altaffer — who, as founder of the Expedition Photo Travel, a California travel planner, has visited every country in the world, 300 island groups and disputed territories and colonies — has a simple suggestion for settling on a destination that's truly off the beaten path: "I recommend searching the State Department's list of most dangerous places."

Altaffer remembers the two ornate treasure caves of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in North Korea, filled with various gifts from diplomats and other world leaders. In one room, there was an entire train car, a gift from Joseph Stalin.

But visiting North Korea is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it extremely difficult to gain access, once there, visitors must follow strict, government-approved tours. After visiting four times, Altaffer crowns Pyongyang the most bizarre place he has ever been: "It's like Mars, with people."