World’s ninth least-visited country; 3,600 tourists a year
Few tourists reach Kiribati, not because the country lacks attractions – just ways to get there. Kiribati is the only country in the world situated in all four hemispheres. Its 33 atolls and islands in the central Pacific Ocean – about 4,000km south-west of Hawaii and 4,700km east of Australia – are spread across the equator and international date line over an area the size of India. Air routes to the capital, South Tarawa, are scarce, but that will change in late 2019 when national airline Air Kiribati expands its network to Fiji and Australia. The Tarawa atoll hosts the national government and Betio, the biggest town with decent restaurants, nightlife and hotels. Top attractions involve water: fishing, canoeing and swimming in the beautiful lagoon, surrounded by small palm tree-covered atolls.
The most important birthday to be celebrated is the first, as infant mortality rates have historically been high. I was invited to Randall’s party by his emigrated Welsh grandfather. About 200 guests enjoyed a show by dancers in traditional costumes, speeches and blessings for the birthday boy by a nun. Then the dancefloor opened up, and a local guy invited the nun to dance – they owned the dancefloor. Four huge tables were covered with food, seven pigs were roasted over coal on large barbecues. At the end of the party, hungry villagers were invited to help themselves to leftovers.
Stay at Tabon Te Keekee Eco Lodge, where a double, stilted wooden cabin costs from £60
World’s 29th least-visited country; 79,000 tourists a year
Do not confuse this island nation with the much-larger (and more touristy) Dominican Republic, 500 miles north-west. Dominica is a natural wonder that is said to have left Christopher Columbus lost for words when asked to describe the island to Queen Isabella of Spain. When I arrived in 2017, nine months after Hurricane Maria, the country’s worst natural disaster, the clean-up efforts and rebuilding were ongoing. Fallen trees were everywhere and many houses had visible damages, particularly on the eastern side of the island.
The only operational airport cannot accommodate bigger aircraft. I flew in on a propeller plane from St Lucia, although it is also possible to visit by ferry from Guadeloupe or Martinique. There is no public transport from the airport, so I picked up a rental car (which had seen better days) and went all over the island. With its gorges, waterfalls, thermal springs and 195 bird species creating a soundtrack, walking through the rainforest was magical. The vibrant capital of Roseau has seen an increase in tourists in the last few years, which in turn has led to a small restaurant boom.
The biodiversity has also helped several eco-resorts and lodges across the island flourish, but some hotels remain closed following Hurricane Maria. I rented a flat, and luckily my landlord kept nagging me to visit Emerald Pool and Boiling Lake: the first is like paradise, the second resembles hell, where volcanoes meet the water in sulphurous plumes.
Stay at Cocoa Cottages, doubles from £80 (or treehouse from £156)
World’s 57th least-visited country; 278,000 tourists a year
The smallest and only Dutch-speaking country in South America, Suriname is the size of England and Wales but 80% of the country is covered with rainforest and the population is only just over half a million. There are white sandy beaches on its Atlantic coast, huge rivers and it has its own Table Mountain (Tafelberg). I went kayaking, hiked on wooded trails and took a dip in a sula (waterfall), but the highlight was being invited by locals to one of the legendary Sunday parties on the river. A speedboat picked us up from Paramaribo, the capital, and took us upstream to a shallow part of the Suriname River. We joined more than a hundred people who were drinking, dancing and chatting onboard dozens of boats, waterscooters and jetskis. Quite a few people bathed in the lukewarm water; everyone clutched a beer and food was served from the boats. As a guest, I wasn’t allowed to pay.
My hangover was nursed in Paramaribo’s historic inner city which is on Unesco’s world heritage list. The people here have a mixed heritage with ancestry from Asia, Africa, Europe and America, and there is also mutual respect between faiths, symbolised by a synagogue that borders a mosque on Kaiser Street, only 800 metres from Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, one of the world’s biggest wooden buildings.
Stay at Hotel Palacio, Paramaribo, doubles from £62
Santo Antão, Cape Verde
World’s 75th least-visited country; 668,000 tourists a year
Santo Antão, the westernmost island of Cape Verde and indeed all of Africa, is one of the most beautiful places I have ever explored. My girlfriend Caroline was amazed as the minibus took us up the valley to Paúl, a natural wonder of wild ravines and basalt mountains scattered with colourful small villages and isolated farmhouses. Two people we met told us that this was their eighth visit to this island, the second largest in the Cape Verde archipelago.
Remember to bring walking boots: the narrow, winding roads will only take you to half of the island, which is twice the size of the Isle of Wight, but the many marked paths make it perfect for hiking. We walked up the steep path from Paúl to the main road that crosses the island and hitchhiked from there. At a small bar, I enjoyed a cold Portuguese beer and Caroline emptied several glasses of ponche cocktails, made up of Cape Verde grogue (rum distilled from sugar cane), molasses and lime.
There is no airport on Santo Antão, so use the twice-daily ferry from Mindelo on São Vicente, the country’s cultural capital, which is worth a visit for its lively nightlife and restaurants. Both islands show you “the real” Cape Verde, as opposed to all-inclusive destinations Sal and Boa Vista.
Stay at Guesthouse Casa Cavoquinho, doubles from £55
World’s 152nd least-visited country; 6.3 million tourists a year
I may be biased, but my home country is blessed with such spectacular scenery that it is by no means one of the least visited in the world. However, Longyearbyen (the Long Year Town), on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, is the northernmost major settlement in the world and so attracts fewer visitors. It is as close as many of us will ever get to the North Pole.
Polar nights on the west coast of Spitsbergen start in mid-November, with 2½ months of total darkness, bar the light of the moon, the stars and the northern lights. The temperature plummets to -40C, so just venturing outside is considered an extreme activity, but snowmobile safaris and dog sledding are popular with those who make the journey to this remote outpost. When I went dogsledding with my sister Kjersti, we watched the aurora borealis and it was so cold that icicles formed on her eyelashes.
Unsurprisingly, the return of the sun in early March calls for big celebrations with Solfestveka (the sun party week). Even though Norway is one of the world’s most expensive countries, there are no alcohol taxes in Longyearbyen, so there is nothing to dampen the spirits of the three-day party. Then, in summer, the sun never sets on the treeless landscape and people hike and kayak around the clock.
Stay at: Basecamp Hotel, doubles from £130
Gunnar Garfors has travelled to every country in the world twice, in part to research his forthcoming book Nowhere, about the world’s 20 least-visited countries
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