Best escapes for 2011

Waier Island in the Murray Island Group, Torres Strait Islands. Photo / Lonely Planet Images
Waier Island in the Murray Island Group, Torres Strait Islands. Photo / Lonely Planet Images

Pour yourself a drink and dream about travel in 2011. Here are some of Lonely Planet's hot travel picks for the year.

Ten best secret islands

1. Socotra, Yemen

You just have to be intrigued by a destination that describes itself as "the most alien-looking place on earth". Ripped from the coast of Gondwanaland by plate tectonics, the four desert islands that form the Socotra group are a treasure-house of biodiversity, with thousands of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth. Topping the weird list are the barrel-trunked cucumber tree and the dragon's blood tree, which oozes red sap.

Despite being closer to Africa than the Arabian Peninsula, Socotra is administered by Yemen, which keeps the islands off the tourist radar.

2. Torres Strait Islands, Australia

As far as you can go in Aus without falling off the map, the Torres Strait Islands are Australia as it might have been if Europeans had never arrived.

Spilling north from the tip of Cape York, the 274 islands preserve a unique tribal culture that bridges the divide between Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea. The Great Barrier Reef is on the doorstep and there are airstrips and hotels on Thursday Island and Horn Island, but access to other islands is at the discretion of local tribal councils.

3. Yaeyama Islands, Japan

If Godzilla should ever rise from the sea to destroy Tokyo and Osaka, there's only one place to ride out the storm - the idyllic Yaeyama Islands, tucked away at the very southern tip of the Japanese archipelago. Looking more like the Caribbean, the islands of Iriomote, Taketomi and Ishigaki serve up generous portions of sun, sea, sand and sushi. Ishigaki has the best of the beaches, while Taketomi is famous for its traditional Ryukyuan houses and Iriomote is a jungle playground with an open-air onsen (hot springs).

4. Iles du Salut, French Guiana

Most people have heard of Devil's Island, but few would be able to stick a pin on a map. The smallest of the three Iles du Salut, this infamous former penal colony is separated from the coast of French Guiana by 11km of treacherous, shark-infested waters. Steve McQueen tried to escape the islands repeatedly in Papillon, but most modern visitors are willing castaways, lured here by waving palms, chattering macaws and spooky ruins from the penal colony days.

5. Ulleungdo, South Korea

It's easy to see the appeal of tiny Ulleungdo. Midway between South Korea and Japan, this rugged volcanic island is said to have no pollution, no thieves and no snakes - in other words, this is perfect hiking country. Ferries run daily from the mainland to the tiny port at Dodong-ri, where trails climb to the rocky summit of Seonginbong Peak (984m). If you want to really push the boat out, continue to the Dokdo islands, a tiny collection of outcrops that are hotly disputed between Japan and South Korea.

6. San Blas Archipelago, Panama

Panama probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of the Caribbean, but this Central American nation has coral cays to rival anything in the Caymans or the Virgin Islands. Run as an autonomous province by the Kuna people, the San Blas Archipelago is a crescent of 365 tiny islands basking in the warm waters of the southern Caribbean. Forget luxury resorts, the only hotels are homestays in village houses.

7. Penghu Islands, Taiwan

If Taiwan is the other China, the Penghu islands are the other Taiwan. Administered from Taipei, the 90 islands of the Penghu archipelago are famed - within Taiwan at least - for their glorious scenery and "touching nostalgia", which translates to unspoiled traditional Taiwanese culture. Away from the capital, Makung, this is a land of ox-carts, fish-traps, stone-walled fields, basalt cliffs and temples dedicated to the sea goddess Matsu.

If sun and sand are more your cup of shochu, the beaches and wind-surfing are pretty impressive, too. From May to October, Penghu's beaches are a nesting ground for endangered green turtles - locals leave turtle-shaped offerings at temples as part of the Lantern Festival, 14 days after the New Year.

8. Bay Islands & Hog Islands, Honduras

Forget Pirates of the Caribbean, the sand-dusted islands that float off the coast of Honduras are the real deal. In their heyday, the islands of Roatan, Utila and Guanaja were home to 5000 cutthroats, brigands and buccaneers, including the infamous Henry Morgan (aka Blackbeard). These days, the Bay Islands are better known for their beaches, diving and laid-back tropical vibe. You can turn the volume down ever further at the nearby Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands), 13 languorous coral cays and one secluded resort in a sea of brilliant blue.

Camping can also be arranged on uninhabited islands.

9. Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

Another prison-turned-paradise, the Con Dao islands were home to the most notorious penal colony in Indochina, which continued its grim work until the end of the Vietnam War. Now preserved as Con Dao National Park, the 16 islands are a natural wonderland of dense jungles, jade-coloured waters and white-sand beaches, home to dugongs, dolphins, turtles and spectacular coral reefs. For now, tourist developments on the islands are limited to a single dive shop and a handful of resorts. Timing is everything with Con Dao, the islands are lashed by squalls from June to January.

10. Ssese islands, Uganda

Why would a landlocked African nation appear on a list of desert islands? Thank Lake Victoria. The Ssese Islands tick all the boxes for an island paradise. Golden beaches, whispering palm trees, exotic flora and fauna - they just happen to be in the middle of Africa's largest lake. Most of the 84 islands in the group are undeveloped, but a handful of resorts and beach camps grace the sands of Buggala, Bukasa and Banda.

Ten best things to climb

1. Tikal, Guatemala

Ascending the steps of a 1250-year-old temple at the ancient Mayan megacity of Tikal to climb above the Peten jungle is one of Central America's greatest experiences. During the first millennium AD this site was the main metropolis of the Maya, one of the mightiest pre-Columbian civilisations. There are a clutch of ruins to roam, but tallest and most tantalising is Temple IV at the west of the complex. From the top Tikal's three other temples can be seen soaring out of the treetops, more unexcavated ruins lie hidden in the jungle.

2. Sossusvlei, Namibia

The world's highest dunes, the world's oldest dunes ... you won't be here long before the record-breaking sand statistics rear their heads, but Sossusvlei certainly boasts among the most mesmerising dunes on the planet for clambering over. Dunes here reach as high as 325m, but as sand-walking is around 2 times tougher than it would be on a normal surface, climbing is far from simple. The park Sossusvlei sits in, a swath of

sand covering a good third of Namibia, fans out in all directions from the dune summits in a kaleidoscope of colours from blood-red to amber to mauve.

3. Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Hearteningly, in these times of global warming, this glacier is among the few on the planet not actually retreating. Forming a 3km, 60m-high icy frontier against the lake it abuts, Perito Moreno advances only for lake water to periodically undermine and, in spectacular style, collapse it.

Five-hour glacier treks bring you up close and personal to the glacier's myriad peaks, fissures and, if you're lucky, the ice cavern the lake hollows underneath, all effusing an ethereal blue glow. If the trek isn't a sufficient vertical challenge, try the ice climb, 20m up a sheer ice wall, and the ice abseil back down.

4. Old Man of Hoy, Orkney Islands, Scotland

Gather your grappling hooks, you'll need technical gear to scale this iconic sea stack, standing just offshore from some of Britain's highest cliffs on the wild island of Hoy. Flat, fertile Orkney isn't renowned for rock-climbing, but the Old Man is a big exception. The 450ft rock tower thwarted attempts to climb it until 1966, way after Everest had been conquered. Scale soon to avoid disappointment: one of the Old Man's 'legs' was washed away in 19th-century storms; geologists reckon the rest of the stack will ultimately follow suit.

5. Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

Five volcanoes rise in a veritable smorgasbord of ruptured, frequently fiery peaks out of the lunar-like massif which makes up this World Heritage-listed national park. Not only are the world's most dramatic volcanic vistas located on Big Island (try the most active, highest and largest volcanoes), but the craters are easily accessible (a road runs round the rim of Kilauea). Roads shouldn't dishearten climbers from hitting the trails, some 240km of paths take the intrepid out to less-visited parts of the park. Check out offerings to Pele, Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, en route: gifts from seashells to gin are left to appease her fiery wrath.

6. Crac des Chevaliers, Syria

It's not particularly tough climbing this 12th-century Crusader castle, but the challenge of ascent isn't everything, especially once you're greeted with the view from the parapets.

Dubbed the "most wholly admirable castle in the world" by T.E. Lawrence, the fortress stands atop a 650m outcrop on a historically important through-route to the Mediterranean coast. Crac was defensively sound enough for the Knights Hospitaller to make the castle their Crusade headquarters in 1142 and is famous for its walls never having been breached (despite multiple attempts by the Saracens). Reaching the battlements is easier for visitors today, but the surrounding lush, ancient-monument peppered Orontes Valley has changed little over the centuries. Scale early to avoid tour busloads.

7. Canopy walkway, near Iquitos, Peru

For a long time this 500m walkway, strung between trees in the Peruvian jungle, was difficult to visit, with access largely restricted to researchers. It's easy to see why they flocked there, this is one of the best ways to appreciate jungle birdlife on the planet. Now the intrepid traveller, too, can scramble up above the rainforest canopy to be put into prime viewing position for a visual feast of tropical avian activity.

Public walkway access is exclusive to guests of Explorama. Its ExplorNapo Lodge is a half-hour walk away.

8. Stok Kangri, India

One of the world's only non-technical climbs in excess of 6000m, the peak of Stok Kangri often yields better views of the Great Himalayas than the Great Himalayas themselves. Allowing for acclimatisation, it's a four-or five-day trek to the summit. This is about as high as non-professional mountaineers get on the planet: a clear day sees exquisite views of K2, with the huge Ladakhi capital of Leh a mere speck on a horizon, hemmed in by the mountains of the Karakoram Range.

9. Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia

Ever seen Roger Moore's Bond in A View to a Kill and fancied climbing one of the world's largest bridges, girders and all? Your best bet lies in Sydney, not San Francisco, where scaling the Sydney Harbour Bridge takes you to a dizzying 134m above the photogenic harbour. Three types of climbs are offered on the planet's biggest steel arch bridge; wedding ceremonies have even been conducted on top.

10. Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Not featuring Africa's highest mountain in a compendium of great climbs, with its bird's-eye views of the wildlife-studded savannah way below, would be a travesty. At 5895m, this clocks in as the highest free-standing mountain in the world, with a stunning variety of routes to the summit. Climb above the Serengeti savannah without donning hiking boots on a balloon safari.

* Lists extracted from Best in Travel 2011 Lonely Planet 2010. $34. Available now.

- Herald on Sunday

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