While the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s only natural that travellers are taking their first steps back into the world with caution. Social distancing rules are making remote destinations more appealing than ever before – not that we needed more reasons to travel to the Arctic circle to marvel at the Northern Lights, or to make the long trek to the UK’s remotest pub.
Check our updated-daily Coronavirus travel advice page to check that your trip can go ahead smoothly, then take this opportunity to explore the more unexplored corners of the earth.
Most remote islands
St Helena Island, South Atlantic
This small, volcanic island 1200 miles off the west coast of Africa has a surprisingly dramatic history: Napoleon was exiled here by the British military from 1815 until his death there six years later (Longwood House, where he was imprisoned, is now a museum). In 2017, the British Overseas Territory opened its first international airport, coined ‘the world’s most useless airport’ for its failed test flights. But it’s not so useless for the island’s 4,500 inhabitants (called ‘Saints’) who can now access Cape Town – or for visitors wanting to get seriously off the beaten track in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Internet only arrived here in 2015 and remains expensive, giving you the chance to completely immersed. Whale and dolphin watching here is phenomenal – it’s not uncommon to see a pod of 600 dolphins at once – and there’s 47 square miles of mountainous, foggy, barren countryside to hike through.
Socotra Island, Yemen
On Yemen’s Gulf of Aden, 400 miles from the capital Sanaa, is this UNESCO World Heritage site that’s home to just 40,000 people and 800 rare species of plant – a third of which are no found nowhere else on Earth. Botanists are particularly enamoured with Socotra for its unique Dragon’s Blood Tree, so-called for its red sap and famous for its strange, upturned crown. And the extra-terrestrial-looking plant life was only mildly disrupted in 2011 when the island built its first road. Needless to say, this is one of the most unspoilt locations in the world.
Before planning a trip here, remember that mainland Yemen is experiencing civil unrest, and while there are safe pockets, the mainland is unsuitable for tourism. Socotra has remained largely untouched by the conflict, but there are no direct flights there – you’ll have to stop in Seiyun, on the mainland, even though you might not even alight from the plane – and you should thoroughly research the current political situation before considering a trip.
Most remote deserts
Siwa Oasis, Egypt
A five-mile bus ride from Cairo, this oasis in the western desert of Egypt isn’t a common tourist stop-off – but that makes its surrounding dunes, and refreshing pools and freshwater lakes all the more delicious for the few visitors that make the journey. Once there, central Siwa is overshadowed by a labyrinthine, 13th-century mud-brick fortress, with an ancient mosque and old settlements built from kershef (a mixture of salt, rock and clay). Some are available for overnight stays and you can climb up to the central square for gorgeous views of the palm tree-filled oasis, overflowing with olive and date groves.
Of an evening, make a beeline for Abdu’s – the longest-standing restaurant in Siwa Oasis. Not only can you feast on traditional vegetable stews, couscous and roasted meats, you can organise desert excursions and day trips from there, tapping into the staff’s friendly advice.
Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan
Central Asia’s least-visited country is eccentric and quirky, jam-packed with lesser-known history and unforgettable thanks to its landscape of blustery deserts and craggy mountains. On the ancient silk road, its bazaars attract intrepid visitors to capital Ashgabat in search of aromatic spices and plush Turkish rugs. But whether you stick to the capital or venture into the desert, you’re unlikely to see many, if any, other tourists.
Head out into the Karakum desert, which covers some 70 per cent of Turkmenistan. Stop off at the ancient oasis city of Merv, which was once one of the largest cities in the world, dating back to 8BC, or the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Konye-Urgench, near the border with Uzbekistan. But Turkmenistan’s desert highlight is the Darvaza gas crater, right in the heart of Karakum and a three-hour drive north of Ashgabat. Also known as the Gates of Hell, the collapsed natural gas field has been aflame since geologists set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas in 1971. Now, it’s a 30-metre pit of fire, surrounded by an area that’s popular for wild desert camping.
Most remote villages
The village home of the Havasupai Tribe provides a true experience of a lifestyle lost to much of the world. On the southwestern branch of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, it’s only accessible by helicopter, horseback, or an eight-mile hike – a three-hour journey that the local postman makes with his mail-carrying mule. When you get there, tourist facilities are charmingly modest. There’s a museum, café, grocery store and lodge, but most people bring their own camping equipment and sleep beneath the stars.
The name Havasupai means People of the Blue Green Waters, referring to the four, blue-green waterfalls that characterise the area. Don’t miss Mooney Falls, which cascades from 190 feet high into a popular swimming hole in the Canyon below. The day trips from Supai are second to none – Beaver Falls is a four-mile walk away, and walking trails traverse Havasu Canyon and the Colorado River, via the choppy Havasu Rapids.
The largest settlement in mainland Britain that’s not connected to the road network also claimed the Guinness National Record for the UK’s remotest spot. It’s the main village on the Knoydart peninsula in the Scottish Highlands, only reachable by a seven-mile ferry from Mallaig port – unless you fancy the 17-mile trek over incredibly rough terrain and chilling-to-the-bone winds. The journey over Loch Nevis to Inverie invariably means sharing the boat with shopping and supplies for the local residents, and keep your eyes peeled for the first dramatic view of Inverie: a line of small, white houses at the base of the towering, dark mountain, Sgurr Coire Choinnichean.
In Inverie, there’s one place to hunt out immediately: the Old Forge, which also holds a Guinness record for the UK’s most remote pub. It has a range of snug accommodation and camping options for just £4 a tent at the nearby beach. Of an evening, sip on the pub’s own ale and ask whether they’re hosting a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish barn dance and the most fun you might ever have.
Most remote places for families
Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
Tórshavn is the smallest capital city in the world. Halfway between Norway and Iceland, and directly accessible by flights, the Faroe Islands capital is named after Thor, the god of thunder and lightning in Norse mythology. Calling all Marvel fans: this is your chance to channel the King of Asgard while using the town as a starting point for adventuring around the barren, sheep-filled landscape of Streymoy, the biggest island in the 18 island-strong Faroes.
Here, old-world charm – and seriously dramatic, fjord land scenery – really does rub up against modern amenities. Phone signal rarely dips, the roads are in excellent condition and the population is amenable and open. It’s a great option for teenagers in need of a change of pace, but without losing any creature comforts. Try kid-friendly fishing or photography tours, plus boat trips to the other islands.
Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland
Belfast is hardly an intrepid-sounding destination, but take a budget flight there and you’ll find yourself at the gateway to one of the UK’s most remote areas: the imposing Mourne Mountains. Driving from the Northern Irish capital, wind your way into the increasingly dramatic countryside along the Down shore (take a detour to Downpatrick if you wish – said to be the burial place of the patron saint of heavy drinking in green top hats, Saint Patrick).
Hole up in Newcastle, a small seaside resort in County Down that sits at the foot of Slieve Donard, the highest of the Mourne Mountains – making it the best starting point for exploring the region. Enjoy the sandy strip of beach, lined by pubs and live rock bands, before taking the family into the wilderness: walk or bike through the Tollymore Forest Park and Murlough National Nature Reserve. Younger kids will love the ball pits and soft play at Coco’s Adventure Playground, or the maize maze at Funny Farm Castlewellan. But after that, parents have full permission to enforce an atmospheric mountain trek, perhaps on Slieve Donard itself.
Most remote destinations for nature lovers
On the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, high in the Arctic circle, this is the most northerly town on Earth with a permanent human population. Though the area is served by Norwegian Airlines, the North Pole is just 800 miles away – so you can imagine how intense the cold can get here. January sees average temperatures of -20 degrees Celcius and so real is the threat of attacks from polar bears – which outnumber the local population of 2,000 people – that residents aren’t allowed to leave town without a gun.
Travel here in the winter and you’ve got excellent chances of viewing the Northern Lights; go between April and August and prepare to see the ‘midnight sun’, which doesn’t set all summer. Yet such unprecedented access to the elements means that wildlife like walruses and narwhals are on the doorstep, not to mention those polar bears. Go birdwatching and look out for Arctic terns, take a boat safari to the Borebreen glacier, or speed through nearby valleys on a Fat Bike.
With less than 57,000 inhabitants, Greenland is the least densely populated territory in the world. And this town of just 450 people is as far away as you can get from any other inhabited area in Greenland – it’s closer to Iceland than it is to any other settlements there. Its only neighbour is Greenland’s 604,000 square-mile National Park, the world’s biggest – the size of France and Spain combined. For nine months of the year, the town is hemmed in by sea ice, meaning that you’ve got to get a helicopter transfer to get there.
When you finally arrive, the proximity to the natural world is intoxicating. Not only is this one of the world’s primary destinations for viewing the Northern Lights, it’s also home to seals, walruses, narwhals, polar bears, and Arctic foxes. If you can bear the cold, there are beautiful spots for camping. By day, venture into the wilderness on a dog-sledding expedition, or watch locals heading out to hunt and fish.