A few years ago, a bored hotel manager invited me to join him in a conspiratorial game designed to while away dull hosted dinners with guests. The aim was to identify as many instances of one-upmanship as possible; those cringey moments when travellers attempt to trump one another by casually dropping – often unnecessarily – obscure destinations into conversation.
One guest: “This scarf? Oh, I bought that from a yak herder in the high Himalaya of Bhutan.”
Another: “Yes, we’ve been there but I much prefer the light at 4,500 metres in the Bolivian altiplano.”
And so it went on.
Fortuitously, as Europe snuggles into cooler temperatures, many exciting long-haul destinations are blossoming, with warm weather making them contenders for proper sun-soaked escapes. More than making memories, holidays are about the stories you bring home – and these winter-sun destinations will no doubt generate a few.
Sao Tome and Principe
It’s not yet possible to venture to the Earth’s core – and it’s unlikely anyone would want to – but you can live out a Jules Verne fantasy of sorts by travelling to the centre of the world. Sitting along the Equator at one degree north and seven degrees east off the coast of Gabon, Africa’s second smallest country is overflowing with fairy-tale flora and fauna.
Founded by a philanthropist, HBD Principe manages four beachside hotels and social enterprises across the two volcanic islands including Roça, a house set on an historic cocoa plantation, and jewel in the crown Bom Bom, re-opening after an extensive renovation next year.
Walk along beaches marked only by the flipper trails of tortoises, nesting from mid-October to January; swim beneath rainforest waterfalls while watching tropical birds perform courtship displays; and explore bays surrounded by volcanic plugs where air temperatures are a far from molten 27C.
Eight nights half-board from £3,740pp (two sharing), including flights (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.com).
Sharing the land with indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes who feast from the sea and forest is perfect dinner party material. Up until a few years ago, foreigners needed a special permit to visit this archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, closer to Myanmar but governed by India. Only 30 of the 572 islands are accessible, making the largely unknown destination even more tantalisingly appealing.
While tribal areas are rightly off-limits and the Sentinelese people remain uncontacted, pristine beaches and virgin forest are within reach. Havelock Island is the best base for exploring, with a good mix of beach huts and boutique spa hotels. Learn to worship nature like the local Onge people by kayaking through mangroves, diving on remote reefs and climbing an active volcano.
A 15-day Golden Triangle and Andaman Islands trip costs from £3,430pp, including B&B accommodation and flights (020 3582 4990; www.originaltravel.co.uk).
Swapping ocean waves for black sand slopes, volcano surfing is a brag-worthy way to experience Central America’s volcanic peaks. Slide down on a sand board at speeds of 50mph, feeling the warm ash under your feet.
Nicaragua also has long stretches of cooling coastline washed by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Choose from Playa Popoyo for surf breaks, Playa Maderas for a sociable chill-out and Playa la Flor for turtle nesting.
Inland there’s also an option to swim or dive between the 365 islets of Lake Nicaragua. Once an ocean bay, until blocked by a volcanic eruption, it’s the only freshwater lake where you’ll find bull sharks, tarpon and swordfish.
A nine-night luxury Ultimate Nicaragua trip costs from £4,900pp, including B&B accommodation, activities and transfers. Flights extra (0207 426 9888; www.blacktomato.com).
Everyone knows Mauritius and the Maldives, but few have sampled sun-loungers on the Indian Ocean’s lesser-known island. Officially part of France, Reunion’s croissant-filled patisseries make it feel comfortably close to Europe in a landscape that’s wildly exotic.
The safest swim areas are along the beaches of LUX Saint Gilles, the island’s only high-end resort, but there’s more to do than lie on a beach. Drive along a new ocean highway rising from the seabed – declared the most expensive road in the world – but ditch the car for a helicopter ride and hike in the cirque of Mafate – a natural amphitheatre of calderas where isolated villages have no roads.
In the south of the island, climb to the rim of ever-rumbling volcano Piton de la Fournaise or cycle along solidified lava flows trailing to the ocean.
A 16-night self-drive trip costs from £2,950pp, including B&B accommodation, car hire, activities and flights (0208 131 2707; rainbowtours.co.uk).
Less than a decade ago, it took almost five days to reach this remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean on a Royal Mail ship departing Cape Town every three weeks. A new airport has eased access, but Napoleon’s place of exile still feels remarkably disconnected from the real world. Huge areas have no mobile connectivity, the nearest neighbours are 2,000km away and the wildlife has been left in peace.
Between December and May, male and female whale sharks gather in equal numbers – the only place in the world where this phenomenon occurs. Sightings of humpback whales, devil rays and hawksbill turtles are also common.
On land, hike one of 21 signposted walks, passing through cloud forests, volcanic beaches and arid plains, stamping a logbook to prove you’ve completed the trails. Meeting 191-year-old Jonathan the tortoise, thought to be the world’s oldest living animal, is another anecdote to write home about on a postcard that’ll probably travel at the same speed as the retired HMS Helena.
A 12-day Untouched St Helena trip costs from £3,095pp, including dives, B&B accommodation and flights (01962 302 087; diveworldwide.com).
West Papua, Indonesia
Making Papua New Guinea look like Butlin’s, its unruly Indonesian-governed neighbour still beguiles visitors with tales of fluorescent bats, walking sharks and belligerent tree-dwelling tribes. Although land travel is possible, it’s pricey and complicated. A much easier option is to join an expedition cruise, covering a list of destinations few people could locate.
Find resident whale sharks swimming below steep limestone karst cliffs at Triton Bay, sail through the Namatote Passage to gaze up at ancient rock paintings, and swim under the Kitikiti waterfall, gushing from the jungle directly into the sea.
In Raja Ampat National Park, more than 1,500 islets form part of the Coral Triangle – one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Explore the area around Misool to swim through sea caves decorated with giant stalagmites and snorkel in a lake packed with stingless jellyfish.
A 10-day cruise between Kaimana and Raja Ampat costs from $7,100pp/£5,724 full board. Various dates between October and January. Flights extra (0062 361 474 3902; seatrekbali.com).
Starring in a Bounty advert typically guarantees worldwide fame. But unlike the Seychelles and Dominican Republic, West Africa’s ‘taste of paradise’ coastline is yet to savour success. A 45-minute drive from capital city Freetown, River Number Two beach is one section of a golden 402km coastline that’s been largely ignored by European travellers in the last few decades.
Aside from the postcard scenery, it’s the human encounters that leave a lasting impression: watch fisherman heading out to sea in wooden dhows, chat to women sifting through buckets of freshly caught fish, or get caught up in a five-a-side with excitable kids.
Seeing the country’s potential, British actor Idris Elba (also a citizen of Sierra Leone) has ambitions to transform an island the size of St Lucia into a luxury destination, while the opening of a flashy new airport earlier this year is likely to attract investment.
A 10-night highlights trip costs from £3,095pp, including B&B accommodation, private guide and flights (0208 131 2707; rainbowtours.co.uk).
Sian Ka’an, Mexico
Thick jungle and Mayan ruins run along the Yucatan Peninsula, making beaches feel more like castaway escapes. Once a bohemian enclave, Tulum has been taken over by luxury resorts, but a little further south is a spot that remains blissfully untouched.
Meaning ‘where the sky is born’ in the Mayan language, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. A mix of tropical forest, savannahs, blue lagoons, mangroves and coral reefs, it’s also a place to find petenes (tree islands in swamps) and cenotes (freshwater sinkholes).
Opened at the beginning of this year, beachfront Casa Chablé is the only hotel inside the reserve. Kayak or paddle board in search of turtles and dolphins and take a boat tour along an ancient Mayan canal system packed with manatees.
A nine-day trip twinned with Chablé Maroma on the Riviera Maya costs from £5,928pp, including excursions and flights (020 8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.com).
Marau Peninsula, Brazil
A few hours south of Salvador in Bahia, palm trees hem a coastline of wide, shimmering beaches polished by the frothing Atlantic surf. The Marau Peninsula is the third largest bay in Brazil but still largely unknown to foreign travellers, although it’s teetering on the edge of becoming the next cool barefoot holiday find.
Sandy streets link relaxed bars and pousadas in laid-back village Barra Grande, but elsewhere there’s been little development, making this as close as you’ll get to seeing the unspoilt Brazil of 50 years ago. Landscapes shift with the moon’s cycle, creating pools at low tide filled with fish from the coral reefs at Taipu de Fora; on the other side, pristine mangrove forests and uninhabited islands decorate the Bay of Camamu.
Try yoga, horse-riding or capoeira at boutique seven-room Casa dos Arandis, one of the only properties in a place where the secret will inevitably soon get out.
Five nights from £4,195pp, including half-board accommodation, transfers, flights and a boat trip. (0207 607 1943; laterallife.com).
Necker Island, BVIs
Neither undiscovered nor so far-flung it takes an age to reach, Richard Branson’s private Caribbean getaway is firmly on the map. But how many people can say they’ve stayed there? Booking the 24-room property for exclusive use costs a wallet-shredding $134,500 (£108,476) per night, limiting it to movie stars and wealthy CEOs, although discovery weeks scattered throughout the year give normal people a chance to sample A-list living.
In October and November this year, it’s possible to book an individual room at a fraction of the price. Laze in a hammock on crowd-free beaches, meet Branson’s exotic menagerie of lemurs, giant tortoises and flamingos, and use the island’s fast speed Wi-Fi to post photos on Instagram and gloat about the geotag.
Four nights from $2,700/£2,178pp (two sharing), including full-board accommodation and boat transfers from Virgin Gorda of Beef Island airports. Flights extra (0208 600 0430; virginlimitededition.com).