Ultratravel Top 10: Places to see right now

See these top 10 destinations before the crowds – or climate change – alter them forever.

North Korea. Courtesy Remote Lands
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As the world around us changes, so too does the travel map. Locations that were once common travel destinations – think Afghanistan 40 years ago – are now areas deemed too unsafe for the everyday traveller. Likewise, there are passport stamps, such as Cuba, that until recently were tricky for certain nationalities or even for the majority of the world, as in the case of Bhutan and Myanmar. So with a number of locations braced for unprecedented crowds and others facing uncertain futures that may take them off the tourist track forever, the travel writer Paul Theroux’s advice – “if it’s possible to go to a place, go there” – remains completely true. Whether you’re looking for a dose of culture, getting closer to nature or to tour a country still under self-imposed isolation, now is the perfect time to start exploring. We’ve come up with the top 10, must-see places to visit.

10. North Korea

With just about every corner and crevice of the map filled in, there leaves little adventure for the traveller who has “seen it all”. Only the hardiest, however, are likely to have ventured to this hermit kingdom. While other far-flung destinations begin to quickly catch up to modernity, North Korea remains unapologetically abrasive. This country has voluntarily isolated itself from the rest of the world, creating a bubble that is mainly unknown to outsiders. There are, of course, a select few tour groups that are able to offer visits. These packages include itineraries that have been carefully prepared with the participation of North Korean officials. But if this doesn’t bother you, heading off to this East Asian country is sure to satisfy any adventure seeker. Or at least make for interesting conversation at dinner parties. Remote Lands — a US-based tour company — offers several North Korea itineraries, some exploring areas of the country only recently opened to tourists. The nine-day visit to the Northern Territories offers travellers the opportunity to stay with a local family (North Korea’s only homestay), explore a Buddhist temple, experience the country’s only market open to tourists and hike the Chilbo mountain range.

The Exploring North Korea's Remote Northern Territories package starts from $6,750 (Dh24,793) per person, based on a two-person share and includes accommodation, food and taxes

9. Jordan

Though Jordan has drawn crowds for decades, it’s the change in landscape and deterioration of its most treasured landmarks that make going now so imperative. The grand structures of Petra — a city half-carved into the surrounding rocks — has suffered from erosion over the years. One scientist found that in a 10-year period, the surfaces of The Treasury — that of Indiana Jones fame — receded by a whopping 40 milimetres due a number of factors, including salt deposits and even the same flooding that originally carved out the region’s canyons. As though that isn’t reason enough to hop on a plane and head straight for the ancient city, the Dead Sea has also shown evidence of strain. A combination of overuse and environmental changes caused by global warming have led to a loss of 1 metre of water depth per year since 1985. There are a large number of tour groups that offer packages, ranging from no-frills group itineraries to personalised, luxury experiences. Emirates Holidays offers group guided, luxury tours of Jordan. The company’s seven-day itinerary includes Amman, Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea.

The Jordan Explorer package starts from Dh8,395 per person, based on a two person-share and includes flights, accommodation, food and taxes

8. Antarctica

The southern-most continent has historically been shrouded in mystery and the romance of the age of professional exploration, from the Southern Cross Expedition to Robert Scott’s Race to the Pole. For most, Antarctica remains a destination to simply read about. But tell that to the many brave souls now choosing to venture there. The number of visitors topped 37,000 in 2014, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. This increase in demand is driving up prices for tours and threatening to crowd one of the world’s final pristine frontiers. Climate change is also drastically affecting the landscape of Antarctica, meaning in a decade or so, the landscape you see today will most certainly have changed. Those looking to take the long voyage in comfort should check out Abercrombie & Kent’s Antarctica package. The tour offers travellers a 12-day experience, learning about Antarctica’s environment from experts, exploring islands off the continental coastline and taking in views of some of the world’s rarest wildlife and terrain.

The Classic Antarctica package starts from $13,995 (Dh49,200) per person, based on a two-person share, including accommodation, food and taxes

7. Mount Kilimanjaro/Mount Kenya

Trekkers of Mount Kilimanjaro typically celebrate their climb by taking in exquisite views from the mountain's snow-capped peak. Climbers of Mount Kenya also enjoy trekking a diverse landscape of both rock and ice fields. That, however, is changing. As a result of rising temperatures – thanks to global warming – the snow on these mountains is disappearing. And fast. Some scientists have reported that in 20 years time, the snows of Kilimanjaro will be nothing more than a memory. The same is said of the ice fields of Mount Kenya. Travellers who wish to experience these iconic peaks in all their snowy glory should act fast. It Started In Africa, a Kenya-based tour group, offers three Mount Kenya trekking packages, from four to six days. The price for the Naro Moru Route package is US$890 (Dh3,269) per person, and includes private transport from Nairobi, accommodation, food and taxes. Travellers looking to trek Mount Kilimanjaro can do so with Kilimanjaro Experience, a South African group. Visitors can choose from both private and scheduled climbs, each varying in difficulty, scenery and time.

The Marango Climb (private tour) package starts from $2,000 (Dh7,346) per person, based on a two-person share, and includes most meals, accommodation and taxes

6. Congo Republic

While many associate the Congo Republic with chest-thumping silverbacks, dense forests and large, muddy potholed roads, this central African country is on the brink of a new era. Oil, timber and rapidly growing infrastructure – those potholed roads are being replaced by well-paved tarmac – are all signs pointing to a growing economy. And though tourist numbers remain small, the government is taking a page out of the book of neighbouring countries, with new national parks being built and old ones rehabilitated in a bid to create a safari industry. It is the Congolese government’s hope that this will increase the country’s popularity – and if that bet pays off, the savvy traveller will want to get in before the crowds. The UK-based Natural World Safaris offers an eight-day safari that tracks western lowland gorillas, visits the country’s Gorilla Tracking Academy, travels downstream along the Lekoli River and embarks on night forest walks, searching out nocturnal primates such as the galagos.

The Republic of Congo Small Group Safari starts from £5,210 (Dh29,875) per person, including accommodation, food and taxes

5. Myanmar

The country formerly known as Burma is still going through a transitional period, seven years after a constitutional referendum. Myanmar is still not the fully fledged democracy it’s aiming to be, and there are lingering social and political issues left over from the military junta’s rule. Still, waiting too long to visit raises the risk of missing out on authenticity that was preserved through Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation. While there are a number of tour packages available, for an experience that errs on the side of luxury, consider Abercrombie & Kent’s 11-day itinerary. This journey is a mix of traditional Myanmar and modern indulgence. Travellers will visit the Five-Day Market (located around Inle Lake), explore a hidden village in Inle and visit a textile workshop in Amarapura.

The Quintessential Myanmar package starts from £2,925 (Dh16,772) per person, based on a two-person share, including accommodation, food and taxes

4. Bhutan

Until 1974, the only foreigners granted entrance to Bhutan were those invited personally by the royal family. The internet only arrived in 2008, and despite technological advancement, many people’s day-to-day lives still mirror what they were centuries ago. But as the last remaining independent Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas embraces the 21st century, it has also welcomed in an ever-growing influx of tour groups from around the world. There are now several that offer luxury trips. Despite its growing popularity, getting to Bhutan remains a relatively difficult journey for many, with only a limited number of flights from South East Asia and India available to the country’s sole international airport, in Paro. It is, however, a fairly easy reach for UAE travellers. Those interested in visiting this mountainous country, but who shy away from physically demanding holidays, should consider a tour through Uma by Como resorts. The six-night itinerary mixes luxury with a hardy dose of nature and culture, visiting the Buddha Dordenma, exploring the Punakha Valley and indulging in one of the many Como Shambhala treatments.

The Himalayan Explorer package starts from $7,049 (Dh25,890) per person, based on a two-person share, from September 3 to November 30, including accommodation, internal transportation, visas, food and taxes

3. Serbia

This Balkan country, which celebrates its 10th anniversary as a state next year, has historically been overlooked by tourists frequenting its more popular neighbours, Croatia and Bulgaria. That, however, is changing. Skiing, spas, nightclubs and festivals — the Exit Festival was recently awarded the Best Major European Festival at the fifth annual European Festival Awards — are all putting this former Yugoslavian republic on the map as a must-visit destination. It’s also inexpensive. But as Serbia inches closer towards ascension to the European Union, the small crowds and affordability are unlikely to last. Savvy travellers who prefer to explore Belgrade on their own terms can book direct flights to the city from Abu Dhabi and five nights of accommodation with Eithad Holidays, with prices starting from Dh3,501 per person, including taxes (etihad.com). Alternatively, Regent Holidays – a UK-based tour company – offers an eight-day package to Serbia. Travellers will visit Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan Park, explore the Ovcar-Kablar Gorge and take in views from Avala Mountain.

The Serbia Fly-Drive Holiday package starts from £920 (Dh5,230) per person, including accommodation, some meals and taxes; excludes flights

2. Cuba

The United States officialy restored formal diplomatic ties with Cuba earlier this year, making a huge stride towards ending the 54-year-old travel and commerce ban on the island country. As a result, Cuba has understandably stormed to the top of many travel lists. This move forward will mean the introduction of big international brands, from hotels to restaurants, department stores to supermarkets, and even coffee shops. Cuba will soon find itself emerging from its 1950s time warp of retro Chevys and government-run businesses, and flung head first into the 21st century, big businesses and all. There is, however, still time to experience authentic Cuba before a Starbucks and McDonald’s pops up on every street corner. Travel companies like Country Holidays offer a nine-day package that leaves from Dubai and flies via Amsterdam. Starting in Havana and visiting Viñales and Trinidad, visitors will explore Havana’s Plaza de Armas and Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the Che Guevara Memorial and Bay of Pigs.

The Nostalgia in the Caribbean package starts from Dh16,430, per person, based on a two-person share, including flights, accommodation, food and taxes

1. Salalah, Oman

A brand new airport marks the beginning of a bright phase in tourism for the southern Omani town of Salalah, capital of the Dhofar region. With a direct route with FlyDubai and the new Salalah Rotana Resort on Salalah Beach, a luxury stay is now possible, though, with a string of new hotels due to open, it may not be long before the blissfully quiet sights of old Arabia are filled with coachloads of visitors year-round. The area offers plenty to fill a few days, including the old seaside village of Mirbat, Taqa Castle, the Unesco-listed site of Sumharam and adjacent Museum of Frankincense Land, Mutraq Souq, Mughsail’s cliffs, beach and blowholes, and the green hills and clean pools of Wadi Darbat.

Return flights from Dubai to Salalah with FlyDubai cost from Dh960 return in economy and Dh2,850 return in business class; the flight takes two hours. Double rooms at the Salalah Rotana Resort (00968 2327 5700) cost from 58 rials (Dh553) per night, including taxes