Last updated on August 19th, 2021
Featured image: JourneyWoman Stephanie sitting above Skógafoss in Iceland
Hidden gems to explore, as recommended by the JourneyWoman team
Curated by Amanda Burgess, Editor, JourneyWoman
In our recent Once-in-a-Lifetime Travel Dreams survey, JourneyWoman readers identified off-the-beaten-path places you think every woman should visit. We’ve been exploring the Top 7 Once-in-a-Lifetime experiences as chosen by you in a series of live Q&As and follow-up articles. What we haven’t yet shared: Our own picks.
In this feature, our well-travelled team shares unique corners of the earth that have called out to our adventurous souls, along with can’t-miss experiences and tips for those inspired to follow in our footsteps. You’ll want to save this article for planning your future travels!
1. Koh Jum (Koh Pu), Thailand
Recommended by: Krystal Kenny, Social Media Manager
This tiny diamond-shaped island situated between Krabi and Koh Lanta is quiet, laid back, and relatively untouched. Travellers looking for a taste of authentic, slower-paced Thai life will find it here.
This sleepy little island is all about slowing things down
It takes a bus and two boats to get to the sleepy island of Koh Jum
I discovered this island on a trip to Thailand a few years ago. It was the perfect place for relaxation and connecting to nature. The island is not easily accessible which is what makes it off the beaten path. After landing in Phuket, we had a three-hour van ride to a ferry. After the ferry arrived to what felt like the middle of nowhere, we had to jump onto a little Thai boat which was another 30 minute-ride to our tropical paradise.
We loved having an island all to ourselves! There were very few tourists and we were surrounded by lush tropical trees, monkeys, a beachfront with crystal blue waters, and little cabanas on the beach with restaurants and massage options. If you want to experience Thailand without all the hustle of other touristy islands, this is the perfect place to unwind and enjoy.
This sleepy little island is all about slowing things down
Krystal’s Can’t-Miss Experiences
- Watch the stunning sunsets from this well-situated island
- Oonlee Bungalows
- Go on an hopping tour arranged by Oonlee
- Dine at the Oonlee restaurant (owned by a Thai-French couple and delicious)
- Have a massage on the beach (affordable and relaxing)
- Rent bikes on the island
- Pack light: You will be jumping between boats and travelling far. It’s warm, so a small carry-on is perfect!
- Plan to eat out daily: Your room does not have a kitchen most likely, but the restaurant is afforable and offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Don’t be afraid to wander the island: The locals are very friendly and there is literally one police officer because there is virtually no crime there.
We reveal the top seven Once-in-a-Lifetime Travel Experiences recommended by women, including the Northern LIghts, the Camino de Santiago, Canada’s Rocky Mountains, a Safari in Africa, an Antarctica expedition, Machu Picchu and Bali.
Recommended by: Stephanie Cerratti, Webmistress
This Nordic island-nation is known for its dramatically rugged landscape marked by glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields, turf houses, and highlands full of sheep that outnumber the human population.
“While the Northern Lights are one of the biggest draws for travellers, I visited Iceland in 2017 for the Secret Solstice Music Festival. I didn’t know what to expect from Iceland, since it was a last-minute decision with some friends to go to the festival. We added a few extra days to explore, and I’m so happy we did as it remains one of the best places I’ve visited so far. I was completely blown away by the natural beauty of all the landscapes we discovered along the way.”
Looking out to the sea at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
One of the biggest surprises was the fact that the sun truly never set. I visited in June and was able to experience the midnight sun every day of my trip. We booked our visit to the Blue Lagoon at 10:00 pm, and it was still daylight!
My friends and I made our base in Reykjavik and rented a car for the five days they were there. One of the highlights: On the day we landed, we took off on the Golden Circle road trip route, making stops at some of the best waterfalls in the country.
Downtown Reykjavík makes a great base and is a very walkable city
Gullfoss was truly a spectacular sight to behold
Upclose at Skogafoss, Iceland. Bring a rainjacket if you plan on visiting the waterfalls!
- Pack smart: Even in June, the weather is not too warm. Bring warm clothes and a rain jacket if you want to get up close to the waterfalls.
- Plan to cook meals to save money: Iceland is very expensive! We saved money by shopping at budget supermarket Bónus and making meals at our Airbnb when possible.
- Don’t be afraid to take the road less travelled: Rent a car with manual transmission and four-wheel drive if you want to get off the road and discover some of the more remote attractions.
3. Morella, Spain
Recommended by: Carolyn Ray, Editor-in-Chief
My partner and I had just arrived in Valencia, Spain after a few days in Ibiza and was finding the pace a bit slow. Our hotel very kindly allowed me to cancel the remaining nights, so we rented a car and hit the road going north towards Barcelona. When I saw a sign for Morella, a medieval walled city perched more than 1,000 m in the mountains, something compelled me to turn off the highway. I had nothing booked, but after walking the cobblestone streets, we found a small hotel fairly quickly.
The next day, we climbed over 1,000 m to the top of the rock where Morella Castle stands. Because of its strategic location, the town is reputed to have been founded by El Cid, and has been occupied by the Iberians, Greeks, Romans, Moors and the Visgoths. There are even prehistoric cave paintings in the area.
As we drove back toward the coast, not knowing where our next destination would be, I received an email from a new hotel in Sitges offering last-minute bookings. We booked right away, and off we went, to enjoy an evening in Picasso’s old haunt! That afternoon, we swam at one of Sitges’ 17 amazing beaches and had a delicious dinner under the stars and cathedral at Fragata. I’ve returned to Sitges several times since. It has become one of my ‘happy places’ in Spain.
From the Convent looking up to the top of Morella / Photo from Carolyn Ray
Carolyn’s Can’t-Miss Experiences
With over 2,100 years of history, there’s much to explore here (plus it’s a culinary paradise!):
- Stroll along Calle Mayor where the restaurants, hotels and shops selling olive oil, mushrooms, pastries
- Climb up to the Castle, but be prepared for a steep walk!
- Visit the Basilic Church of Santa Maria, the Cathedral and the Convent of San Francisco
- Plan to stop in nearby Sitges, and have dinner at one of the many wonderful restaurants on the ocean. It’s like the French Riviera, only better!
- Car rental: To get to Morella, you’ll need a car. Make sure you have an international driver’s license before you leave home.
- Injury prevention: Reminiscent of Orvieto, Italy, there are steep hills so stretch before you hike!
- Homestay: Plan a longer-term stay in Sitges, which is only 20 minutes to Barcelona by train. There is also a bus to the airport.
- Spanish: Although English is widely spoken, try out your Spanish. Regina Winkle-Bryan’s article to travel Spain like a local has some key phrases you can practice.
Step off the beaten path and find new adventures with these five unique destinations around the world, as recommended by our readers!
4. Vieques, Puerto Rico
Recommended by: Carolyn Ray, JoureyWoman Editor-in-Chief
Just a short plane ride from San Juan, Vieques is the kind of place where the entertainment is simply what you see and feel in the moment. You can’t beat its quirky nature. The strangest part of being on Vieques is knowing that for over 60 years, the U.S. Navy assaulted it as a bombing range and site for military training exercises. Today, a large portion of the island is still off limits, with signs that remind you that there could be unexploded ammunition. But perhaps that’s what has saved it from development and hotels sprawling along the pristine beaches.
In every conversation, I heard countless stories of how people came together to rebuild this community, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. The women who rebuilt the Malecon. The volunteers who cleared the beaches and the paths. The people who opened their homes to others. And the restaurants and chefs who joined together to feed people when there was nothing arriving from Puerto Rico.
The food on Vieques is exceptional, on par with San Juan. There are family-owned restaurants along the main street which offer fresh seafood and traditional Puerto Rican food, notably Bili and Duffy’s. On Christmas Day, we were invited by Bruce from Fun Brothers, where we rented our golf cart, to a $25 per person set menu at Café del Mar, with local families. We were the only ‘tourists’ invited, making it even more memorable.
As any proud local will tell you, Vieques is home to the world’s most vibrant luminescent bay, Mosquito Bay. Extreme measures are taken to protect this area from light and water pollution in service to the microscopic plankton that soak up the sunlight and glow in your palms. There’s hardly a more breathtaking sight than agitating the water and seeing green flashes of light wiggle between your fingers. Or fish scooting under your kayak, like stars shooting in the bay.
Sunset on the Malecon on Vieques, Puerto Rico
Carolyn’s Can’t-Miss Experiences
- Stay on the south side of Vieques, in Esperanza, at Malecon House. This boutique hotel faces the ocean and is right on the Malecon, or boardwalk, so you can walk to restaurants. Book a room on the top floor with the balcony so you can see the sunset.
- Beaches: Vieques has over 20 beaches, all free, each with a different vibe. Bring an umbrella, chairs, snorkel and supplies for the day. Rent a golf cart (not a scooter, due to the road conditions) to visit the incredible beaches on this island. My favourites are rocky Playa Grande, on the west side and sandy Puntas Arenas on the north side, facing the mainland. Sunset at the Puerto Ferro Lighthouse is a breathtaking sight, with waves crashing against the high rocky cliffs.
- Everywhere in Vieques, horses roam freely around the island. One of my favourite rituals was going to the ancient, 375-year-old Ceiba Tree at Vieques Ceiba Tree Park to see the horses gather in the morning.
- Mosquito Bioluminescent Bay: There are many companies offering kayak trips into the Bay, which start around 6:00 pm. Don’t miss Mosquito Bay, home of the world-famous bioluminescent bay. Take a two-hour tour with one of the many companies but check your calendar and pick a night with a new/or no moon. Wear clothing that will get wet.
- Shoes: Bring good walking shoes to explore the island.
- Getting there: Getting to Vieques can be a bit of a challenge, but it’s worth it. Most locals will tell you that the ferry is unreliable and recommend flying from one of Puerto Rico’s 10 regional airports. I took an Uber from San Juan to Fajardo, stayed overnight, and took a 10-minute flight from Ceiba to Vieques. I returned to San Juan via Isla Grande Airport, a 25-minute flight. It was worth it just for the view of San Juan.
- Weather: Always have an umbrella or poncho ready (it seems to rain every few minutes, but passes quickly).
- Try Spanish: Because it’s a U.S. territory, it’s easy to speak English. Try to greet people in Spanish to make an immediate connection and have a better experience. Ask questions, be curious. There’s so much to learn about the character and history of Puerto Rico.
- Food: Support the farm-to-table movement. Eat at locally-owned restaurants. Check out the Foodie Guide here.
5. Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
Recommended by: Amanda Burgess, Editor
Ethiopia is a country of contrasts, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Danakil Depression — the geological wonder of the Afar Region that borders Eritrea and Djibouti. A hot, harsh, inhospitable climate, much of the developed world would deem it unliveable by standards ancient or modern, yet it’s been home to mankind for millennia. I visited this geological gem on my first trip to the country in 2014.
Camel caravan in the salt flats of Dallol
While the addition of snaking tarmac roads linking the highland city of Me’kele with the villages of the Danakil has elevated tourist travel in the region from unbearably harsh to just below tolerable, the fiercely independent Afar people – a nomadic tribe of desert-dwelling agro-pastoralists —steadfastly cling to the time-honoured traditions of the ancient salt trade.
Spending a morning watching them carve salt out unforgiving earth without stopping to take a sip of water while sweat gushes from every pore of your body is something to behold, as are the sulfur lakes of Dallol. At more than 100 metres below sea level, Dallol offers panoramic views of the most colourful, otherworldly terrain on earth.
Thin crust covers pools of technicolour acid that bubbles to the surface through hot springs. Geysers furiously spit toxic gases. Sweltering sandstorms the locals call fire wind are a constant threat. Dallol is a dizzying and relentless assault on the senses. As you traverse the salt-crusted ground, feeling it shatter like spun glass beneath your feet, you are enveloped in a swirling sensory storm of blinding neon colours, rising steam, and the pungent, nostril-burning scent of sulphur. The watchful presence of the military — and no other lifeforms in sight for miles — amplifies the feeling that you’ve somehow stumbled onto an alien planet.
The otherworldly landscapes of the Danakil Depression
Amanda’s Can’t-Miss Experiences:
- Camping on cots in the middle of the desert at a small outpost near the sulfur lakes and salt mines of Dallol.
- A four-hour hike to the peak of Erta Ale – a 2,011-ft high volcano and the only one in the world to boast two active lava lakes. Camping there overnight and hiking back down to greet the sunrise. The Afar call Erta Ale the Gateway to Hell — and you can clearly see why as you stand at its widely yawning mouth, with the heat of its fury burning your face, and sparks of its outrage at your presence floating perilously close to you on the winds that appear alternately to calm or stir it. Simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.
The fiery depths of Erta Ale
Me (centre) with my tribe of travellers after our hike back down from active volcano Erta Ale
- A traditional Ethiopian meal (consistently delicious even in the most remote villages). My favourite dishes: Tibs (small cubes of lamb, beef or goat cooked with peppers and onions in the most savoury of spices) and shiro wat (slow-cooked chickpea stew), both served over injera (traditional sour flatbread similar to a crepe).
- A night of Ethiopian jazz in Addis Ababa.
- Do your research on guides: Interview and get a feel for them. The Danakil Depression is a dangerous place. You have to trust the guide and crew leading you through some of the most unforgiving terrain you’ll ever traverse. Michael Atsbeha and his crew at Danakil & North Ethiopia Tours made our small tribe of friends feel cautiously confident.
- Pack smart: The heat is oppressive, even at night. Pack lightweight, sweat-wicking, quick-dry pieces, including a couple of scarves that you can use to create a hair turban to keep the omnipresent sweat from your eyes. Bring baby wipes for on-the-go cleansing. A headlamp is handy for volcano hikes and night-time trips to the outhouse while camping in the desert.