Once upon a time, a trip to an exotic destination such as Beijing or the Galapagos Islands was a thrill that few travelers could ever experience. But now there are few places that have escaped tourism en masse.

Once upon a time, a trip to an exotic destination such as Beijing or the Galapagos Islands was a thrill that few travelers could ever experience. But now there are few places that have escaped tourism en masse.

If you’re one of those travelers looking to conquer unexplored lands for life-changing adventure — or just for the chance to brag to your friends about places they’ve never been — your options are limited.

A few places still exist that — should you somehow manage to visit and survive — are guaranteed to provide you with a rare and precious experience. Still, don’t expect your friends to happily sit through the slide show.


Why you might want to go: Parts of the subtropical island, especially in the capital of Havana, are like a Caribbean paradise captured in amber (at least for visitors who don’t have to deal with a totalitarian socialist government on a permanent basis). Beautiful beaches, lush forests, a rich culture and a government eager for hard currency make the island welcoming — to some.

Why you probably won’t: After the Communist revolution in 1959, the U.S. government forbade Americans from spending any money in Cuba — effectively banning travel to the island. Although the Treasury Department recently relaxed the ban, our government still maintains that citizens of the Land of the Free should not be completely free to travel to Cuba, because Cubans are not free.

How to get there if you really, really must: Journalists can get around the rules (because, hey, we’re special), and adventurous scofflaws could always travel to a third country and connect to Cuba from there (risking fines). The most recent changes have obviated the need to break the law (or attend journalism school) for a small number of tourists annually. A handful of trips, operated by licensed tour operators such as Smithsonian Journeys (www.smithsonian journeys.org) and centering on personal interaction between Cubans and Americans, have been sanctioned by the U.S. government. And, for the first time in decades, a few charter flights now go directly between the United States and Havana.

Hawaii’s forbidden islands

Why you might want to go: The islands of Niihau and Kahoolawe offer the beautiful beaches, soothing waves and tropical sun of Waikiki but with almost none of the people. (Niihau is the only remaining place in the world to hear the Hawaiian language spoken in ordinary daily life.)

Why you probably won’t: On Kahoolawe, you might step on a bomb and blow up. The 45-square-mile uninhabited island just off Maui was used as a bombing target and training area by the U.S. military from 1941 through 1990. It has been partially cleared of ordnance but is preserved as a cultural reservation for native Hawaiian organizations. Access is strictly limited.

Niihau, a 72-square-mile island near Kauai, has a population of about 200 but no roads, hotels and electrical service. And the island has been privately owned by one family since 1863. Most visitors may come only with permission of a family member or one of the island’s native Hawaiian residents.

How to get there if you really, really must: Kahoolawe, which had been overrun and denuded of many native plants by introduced goats and sheep (not to mention the bombs), is slowly being replanted and made hospitable for occasional human visits. Anyone can volunteer for one of the occasional weeklong work trips sponsored and operated by the state’s Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission (www.kahoo lawe.hawaii.gov). It’s $125 for the week, but you must pay your own way to Maui, where the trips begin. Expect hard work, primitive living conditions and the experience of a lifetime. And at least a two-year wait.

Although most visitors can never stay the night on Niihau, the island’s owners in recent years have offered access to a small number of tourists through a half-day helicopter tour from Kauai. The chopper lands on an isolated Niihau beach, allowing visitors a few hours of “forbidden” surf and sun. A grittier tour is available to hunters, who can sign up for a daylong guided hike in pursuit of one of the island’s invasive boars or goats. Hunters can take as many as three observers along for the trip. For more information, visit www. niihau.us.


Why you might want to go: Modern-day Iran, the center of ancient Persia, offers astounding architecture, gardens, historic sites and art; fabulous scenery such as sere deserts and snowy mountains; and a well-educated and friendly populace. The country has recently spent millions on its tourism infrastructure, hoping to lure more visitors.

Why you probably won’t go: You do read the papers, don’t you? As you may have heard, the Iranian government is not exactly on friendly terms with its U.S. counterpart.

The U.S. State Department advises against all “nonessential” travel by Americans to Iran and does not maintain an embassy in the country. Several U.S. citizens visiting the country have been detained.

And whatever you do, don’t just “wander” in. American hikers who strayed close to the border of Iran from Iraq in 2009 were captured and spent up to two years in prison.

How to get there if you really, really must: Travel to Iran by Americans is legal, if difficult. More than 1,000 American tourists visited last year, according to the Iranian Tour Operators Association.

Americans can acquire an Iranian visa (mandatory) for authorized guided tours through the Iranian Interests Section in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. A guide authorized by the Iranian government must accompany Americans throughout their travels. Several tour operators, including adventure tourism company MIR (www.mir corp.com), offer Iranian excursions.

Outer space

Why you might want to go: You know. The final frontier and all that. Really, though, if you need to be persuaded, you should probably keep your feet on the ground.

Why you probably won’t go: Although several companies are promising (relatively) economical space tourism, none have come through yet.

How to get there if you really, really must: Virgin Galactic (www.virgin galactic.com), which won the X Prize in 2004 by flying a private craft, SpaceShipOne, to the edge of space and then doing it again two weeks later, says it might offer its first trips to space for customers next year.

When the new SpaceShipTwo does lift off from Spaceport America in Las Cruces, N.M., customers will pay about $200,000 for a short suborbital flight 62 miles up and back, similar to the flight made by America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, in 1961 (only with better cabin service, I’m guessing).

And the Russian space agency has already sold several seats to very well-heeled tourists aboard its Soyuz spacecraft for trips to the International Space Station — for $20?million or more a pop. The company that brokered the deals, Space Adventures, also plans to offer its own suborbital flights soon — and even has plans for a tourist trip around the moon (www.spaceadventures. com).