The middle of nowhere can be the most exhilarating destination of all - well worth the effort to get there. Explore pirate islands, volcano villages, incredible wildlife and Arctic tundra in the furthest reaches of the world…
1. Cook Islands
New Zealand Population: 15,000 Good for: Cool caves, dynamite diving and wonderful whales
Scattered halfway between Fiji and Tahiti, visitors to the coral atoll of the Cook Islands will arrive on Rarotonga. Here, a swift driving test allows you to rent scooters to zoom the island’s coastal roads. Alternatively, follow the Cross-island Trail, trekking ancient warpaths into the lush forest interior, then grab front-row seats off shore to the annual migration of humpback whales (Jul–Oct) – a truly remarkable sight.
If you have time, hop over to Aitu to see its incredible makatea (raised coral) coastline. Be sure to visit the burial cave of Rimarau, where nearly 600 skeletons lie in situ, or the candle-lit Anatakitaki, in which dwell chittering Kopeka birds, a cave-dwelling species endemic to the island that navigates entirely by echo-location.
Getting there:Air New Zealand fly daily from Auckland to Rarotonga (four hours). From there, Air Rarotonga has connecting flights to nine of the other islands.
2. Angel Falls
Canaima NP, Venezuela Population: 8,000 Good for: Record-breaking falls set in a 30,000 sq km lost world
Angel Falls, Venezuela (Dreamstime)
Deep in the rainforest of Venezuela's Canaima National Park, where the Pemon people live, lies the highest waterfall on Earth. But reaching Angel Falls (979m) isn’t easy. A motorised canoe trip through thick jungle (you may need to get out and carry it at times) offers the kind of drum-roll the site deserves, as the crashing Churún River gives way to the bestial roar of the falls.
Local cooperatives run tours and lodgings within the park; try to combine with a visit to Sapo and Sapito Falls, where a tunnel leads you behind the downpour for some stunning shots. Alternatively, a guided trek up Mount Roraima (2,810m) takes you to the highest point in the Pakaraima chain of tepuis, where the views are simply heart-stopping.
Getting there: Canaima NP is inaccessible by road. Single-propeller return flights can be chartered at Ciudad Bolivar (1 hour) or Caracas (1.5 hours).
3. Easter Island
Chile Population: 5,800 Good for: Iconic ancient statues – 2,000km from anywhere
Easter Island (Dreamstime)
Despite lying 3,500km west of Chile’s mainland (its nearest neighbour is the equally remote Pitcairn Islands, 2,000km away), Easter Island remains firmly on travellers’ wish lists, thanks largely to regular flights and its mysterious moai (statues). Carved up to 900 years ago, why and how Polynesian settlers erected the famed 800-plus ‘heads’ – weighing up to 86 tonnes – remains a mystery that draws visitors from near and… well, mainly from afar. Answers to that question range from rope pulleys to bored aliens, and they remain an enigmatic sight.
Visit iconic Ahu Tongariki, where 15 moai stare imperiously out to sea. Elsewhere, Rano Raraku afford great views across an island seemingly on the edge of the world.
Getting there:LATAM Airlines fly six times a week from Santiago to Easter Island (5.5 hours).
4. Fernando de Noronha
Brazil Population: 3,000 Good for: Pristine beaches and great snorkelling among incredible sea life
Once a remote outpost of forts and fishing villages, Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha archipelago is no stranger to tourism, despite lying 350km from the mainland. Yet strict limits on visitors make it a rare gem. Its skies are home to the largest population of tropical seabirds in the western Atlantic, while the waters below teem with opportunities to snorkel and dive alongside sea turtles and friendly nurse sharks.
Explore the main island and relax on the idyllic Praia do Sancho beach (one of many), then trek the Baia dos Golfinhos Trail, eyeing pelicans and blue-footed boobies as they plummet kamikazelike into the azure seas and spotting pods of spinner dolphins from the cliff top. This truly is a remarkably wild island.
Getting there:Azul offer flights daily from Natal and Recife to Fernando de Noronha (both around one hour).
5. St Helena
British Territory Population: 4,200 Good for: History, hiking and Napoleon’s last stand
Part of a single British territory that includes Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, St Helena lies 1,950km off the coast of south-west Africa. Few find their way here, with the RMS St Helena voyage from Cape Town currently the only way onto the tiny volcanic island – where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled after his defeat at Waterloo – at least until its new airport is up and running.
Once there, pay a visit to Longwood House and Briars Pavilion, the one-time homes of France’s first emperor and full of relics of his time here. His tomb (he died six years after arriving, in 1821) still lies in the lush Sane Valley, even if his body has long-since been removed to France.
Capital Jamestown slips between steep ridges, with great views of its colourful Georgian buildings to be had from up on Jacob’s Ladder. Outside the capital, the old Plantation House is home to Jonathan, the island’s resident 180-year-old tortoise. Plenty of endemic wildlife fills the forested peaks of the central island, while hikes from the coal-black beach of Sandy Bay up into the lush valley above are well worth the effort.
Combine with a trip on to Ascension Island to see 5,000 green sea turtles nesting on Long Beach (Dec–Jul), or to hike its Green Mountain, a once barren rise seeded in the 1840s as part of a Charles Darwin-inspired plan to transform the island and now a remarkable mini cloudforest.
Getting there: British Airlines fly direct from London Heathrow to Cape Town (11.5 hours). RMS St Helena sails from Cape Town to St Helena (5.5 days), with its final voyage on September 9.
6. Shetland Islands,
Scotland, UK Population: 22,400 Good for: Seals, seabirds and fire in Britain’s Viking north
Explore the British Isles’ distant north, exploring the Shetland archipelago across more than 100 windswept islands. Just 15 are populated, with the best time to visit in January, when whole towns light up for Up Helly Aa, a raucous Viking-style fire festival to mark the end of Yule.
The biggest festival is held in capital Lerwick, which flickers to the licks of torchlight as its main procession gets going. But if you want to escape, tranquil Bressay Island is a short ferry ride away, where you can spot rare birds and seals in peace.
Elsewhere, Unst is the northernmost inhabited island in the Shetlands, its wind-scored tip host to the battered ruins of Muness Castle. Above it circle flocks of sea birds from the colonies in Hermaness reserve, in autumn grey seals pup in the caves below and 25,000 puffins burrow its cliffs. Pure wild escapism.
Getting there:Logan Air fly daily from Aberdeen to the Shetland Islands (one hour), with flights connecting the rest of the UK.
7. Wrangel Island
Russia Population: Research staff only Good for: Arctic wildlife; this is the Galápagos of the far north
Visitors to the UNESCO-listed Wrangel Island have a limited window of opportunity – such is the difficulty in getting there. But few make the journey these days. By the 1970s, the last of its Chukchi people had mostly been relocated, and today it is one of the world’s most isolated zapovednik (nature reserve), with just a small military and research presence. Only in late summer is the Chukchi sea ice passable enough to make the trip. Then, the sight of its 80,000 Pacific walruses is a sight to behold.
A remarkable density of polar bears (up to 500) roam the island’s steppe and tundra, alongside musk-oxen, arctic foxes, lemmings and nesting snowy owls, with treks on land and overnight stays it’s like stepping into the Ice Age – complete with remarkably preserved woolly mammoth skeletons.
Getting there: A handful of tour companies run trips to Wrangel Island, with Heritage Expeditions tours departing in August from Nome, Alaska.
Nunavik, Canada Population: 600 Good for: Hikes and wildlife in Pingualuit National Park
Just 600 people live in Kangiqsujuaq, a village seemingly dropped at nature’s behest into the hollow of a vast, sweeping valley in the far north of Arctic Quebec. It’s the kind of landscape that makes you squint for a divine signature, raw and beautiful at once – see the double fjord of Douglas Harbour. It is also the gateway to Pingualuit National Park, where a short flight (or snowmobile day-trip in winter) spirits you to a mountainous world of arctic foxes and migrating caribou.
Kayak on Lake Manarsulik, watching the sun drop over its crystal waters, or trek the tundra to the immense Pingualuit Crater (10km in circumference) and gaze square into the vivid blue pupil of the lake inside, known to the Inuit as the ‘Crystal Eye’. An Arctic wonderland.
Getting there: Kangiqsujuaq is not accessible by road. Air Inuit fly daily between Kangiqsujuaq and Montreal (nine hours).
9. Christmas Island
Australia Population: 2,100 Good for: Being overwhelmed by the island’s famous crab invasion
Perched atop a 4,500m-high underwater mountain, deep in the Indian Ocean, Christmas Island lies closer to Indonesia than its motherland of Australia (1,500km away). It certainly has a tropical feel, covered in rainforest and rich in endemic species. The island is 63% national park, but the draw here is the incredible annual migration (during October or November) of its 50 million red crabs, when a scarlet tidal wave of crustaceans emerge from their forest burrows, scuttling over anything that gets in their way to spawn in the seas. It is difficult to predict, so check with Parks Australia for specific dates. But there’s plenty else to do, with good hiking, wildlife-rich waters (spot whale sharks from Nov–Apr) and 80,000 nesting seabirds.
Getting there: Virgin Australia fly six times a week (Tue and Sat) from Perth to Christmas Island (4.5 hours).
10. Pitcairn Island
British Territory Population: 49 Good for: Birds and diving historic wrecks
Not only can you visit Britain’s most far-flung territory (14,000km from the UK), you can even claim a plot of land if you choose to move here. But reaching this tiny tropical archipelago is the first challenge. A rather lengthy cargo-boat ride across the South Pacific culminates in arrival at capital Adamstown by longboat transfer, since there isn’t a port here – or indeed a hotel; visitors usually arrange to stay in islanders’ homes.
The main island is Pitcairn. Begin here with a trip to its only museum, which houses wreckage from the HMS Bounty; descendants of its mutinous crew still make up many of the islands’ 49-strong population. After, dive Bounty Bay for a closer look at the scuttled vessel itself. Alternatively, take a trip to the UNESCO-listed Henderson Island; this raised coral atoll is a mini Galápagos, with endemic land birds such as the native crake, lorikeet and fruit doves all having evolved away from man’s reach. Bliss. ~
Getting there:Air Tahiti flies weekly from Pepeete, Tahiti (5.5 hours) to Mangareva. From there, a three-day trip to Pitcairn aboard passenger-cargo ship Claymore II (only four times a year).
Xinjiang Province, China Population: 1.7 million Good for: Experiencing China’s ‘Wild West’ and some great food
You might wonder what a metropolis of 1.7 million people is doing on this list, but in a nation as vast and weighted towards the east as China, north-western Xinjiang (three times the size of France) is frontier country.
Capital Ürümqi – the remotest city from any sea on Earth – lies along the old Silk Road and is perhaps best used as a base to explore the region, riding horses among the snow-capped Tienshan mountain range or heading south to the ancient city of Jiaohe and beyond, to where the region’s Uyghur minority live in greater numbers. But be sure to stick around long enough to embrace the local cuisine at the city’s night market; this is China’s comfort food and trying everything from chuan’r kebabs to filling dapanji (‘big plate of chicken’) is a privilege.
Getting there: China Southern fly daily from Beijing (four hours) and Shanghai (5.5 hours) to Ürümqi.
12. Komodo Island
Indonesia Population: 2,000 Good for: Exploring the last home of the giant Komodo dragon
Komodo Island (Dreamstime)
The Komodo dragon is a fearsome oddity, all muscles and raking claws wrapped in an ill-fitting scaly overcoat. Yet the giant lizard remains one of nature’s most unmissable anachronisms: a genuine dinosaur complete with toxic bite. They only live on a handful of Indonesian islands, with overnight stays on Komodo taking you within hissing distance.
An early-morning 5.5km trek into Poreng Valley brings you up close before the first tourist boats even beach. After, explore Komodo village, largely made up of former inmates of a prison that used to stand here, then snorkel the island’s rich waters alongside curious dugongs. Finish the day offshore, when thousands of flying foxes blanket the burnt-orange skies, gliding the islands in search of food. Unforgettable. Getting there: Multiple airlines fly from Bali to Labuan Bajo (1.5 hours). From there, Komodo Island is just a four-hour boat-ride from the city’s port.
13. Palagruža Island
Croatia Population: 2 Good for: Escaping the crowds on Croatia’s mainland
Palagruža Island (Dreamstime)
Palagruža represents the furthest (and loneliest) fingertips of Croatia, and in truth lies closer to Italy than the Dalmatian coast (120km away). Its only occupants are a pair of lighthouse keepers, who share lodgings with you in the lighthouse on the main island, perched atop a precarious 90m cliff.
The island is quickly explored (it’s just 1.4km by 300m), revealing isolated pebble beaches and good snorkelling off its narrow shores, but boat trips elsewhere can be arranged. A local fisherman can even deliver fresh seafood to your door, but it’s best to stock up on supplies beforehand or risk going hungry. Getting there: Multiple budget airlines fly between the UK and Dubrovnik (two hours). From there, ferries connect to Korcula Island where a speedboat takes you from the port to Palagruža (2.5 hours). Book accommodation between May and October at lighthouses-croatia.com.
14. Cocos Islands
Costa Rica Population: Park staff only Good for: Diving with hammerhead sharks off this ‘little Galápagos’
Hammerhead sharks swimming in Cocos Island (Dreamstime) Costa Rica has its share of parks, but few are more remote than the Cocos. Only 3,200 travellers a year make the 550km voyage to this former pirate colony – still said to be riddled with buried loot. Today, the tiny UNESCO-listed islands are home to just a handful of rangers, with access limited (10am-4pm). You can’t stay overnight onshore and guides are required on trails.
This doesn’t stop you exploring, though, and walks wind through dense rainforest alive with endemic cuckoos and finches to waterfalls that tumble freely into the ocean. But its real jewels lie offshore, among an undersea terrain of lava-hardened ridges thick with hundreds of hammerhead sharks and some of the best remote diving on the planet.
Getting there: Ten-day liveaboard boat trips to the Cocos Islands (36 hours) sail from Puntarenas. Undersea Hunter offer visits, including permits, plus the option of diving in a deep-sea submersible.
Portugal Population: 245,000 Good for: Volcanoes and sperm whales
On a visit to the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores, the islands’ origin is rarely far from your thoughts. Black-sand beaches, coal-coloured soils, calderas and the towering Mount Pico volcano (2,351m) are all potent reminders. Discover Europe’s largest volcanic cavern on Graciosa, thermal pools on São Miguel and chilly underground lakes in the magma tunnels of Algar do Carvão.
Above ground, Terceira has fine cycling along its Darwin Trail, winding the coast past the UNESCO-listed town of Angra do Heroísmo, but its waters are the lure for many. Snorkel a clear sea, then take a boat offshore to spot fin and sperm whales frolicking during the summer. Getting there: Multiple airlines fly daily from the UK to Ponta Delgada, São Miguel; flights with Ryanair go from London Stansted (four hours).
16. Ogasawara Islands
Japan Population: 2,400 Good for: Aquatic fun and Second World War history on forgotten islands
Ogasawara Islands (Dreamstime)
Over 1,000km south of mainland Japan, the Ogasawara (or Bonin) archipelago is actually part of Tokyo, even if it couldn’t be more distant in spirit. The 30-plus islands are home to just 2,400 residents, the majority living on Chichi-jima where snorkelling the coral reefs off its northern shores and strolling barefoot on the isolated white sands of John Beach provide vivid contrast to the neon adrenaline shot of the capital.
Bob in its waters alongside humpback (Jan–Apr) and sperm whales (May–Nov), while hikes inland reveal snippets of the islands’ brutal past – the twisted wreckage from old Second World War fighter planes still rusting in its jungles. A side of Japan that few witness. Getting there: The islands have no airport. Weekly ferries leave from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier for Futami Port on Chichi-jima (25.5 hours).
17. South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands
UK Population: Research staff only Good for: Shackleton, penguins and seals
Penguins in the sandwich islands (Dreamstime)
At the frozen tip of the world lie some of Britain’s most inaccessible territories. Cruise ships arrive at South Georgia’s Grytviken settlement, a former whaling station with plenty of rusted reminders of its past. Get your passport stamped at the post office and pay your respects at explorer Ernest Shackleton’s grave – or better still, relive the last few footsteps of his fateful 1916 trek after his ship, Outposts The Endurance, was crushed by ice and he had to traverse South Georgia to save his crew.
It’s wildlife that rules here, with fur seals, shags and a half-dozen species of penguin. To be truly overwhelmed, head to Salisbury Plain to see hundreds of thousands of king penguins huddled tight on the shores of the north coast.
Getting there: The islands are only accessible by sea, with Antarctic cruises from Ushuaia, Argentina, including visits to South Georgia. Trips are possible only from November to mid-March.
18. Galápagos Islands
Ecuador Population: 25,000 Good for: Evolutionary history and the ultimate wildlife break
The volcanic islands of the Galápagos are flush with cerulean lagoons, verdant highlands and beaches stuffed wing-to-snout with nesting boobies and lolloping sea lions. Lying 1,000km from the mainland, its isolation gave rise to Charles Darwin’s famous 1859 theory of natural selection and it remains just as inspiring today.
Despite its 200,000 visitors a year, tours here are well-timed to avoid clashes. And though five of its 13 main islands are inhabited, much of it remains protected and as close to a paradise as you’ll find. Hot-step swivel-eyed iguana on Islote Las Tintoreras, admire giant tortoises up close and swim alongside the world’s most northerly penguin colonies under pale blue skies in one of the finest places on Earth for spotting wildlife.
Getting there: Multiple airlines fly daily from Quito to the Galápagos’ Baltra (Santa Cruz) and San Cristobal airports (both two hours).
Alaska, USA Population: 4,400 Good for: Dog sleds, polar bears and a woozily disorientating 65 days of night
Life is not hectic in the USA’s northernmost town. Even the sun takes its time, and from late November the area enters ‘polar night’: a full 65 days of perpetual darkness that only lifts at the end of January. During this time the northern lights run their full gamut across its clear skies, and while temperatures rarely skirt above freezing, dog-sledding treks more than get the blood pumping.
Polar bear-spotting tours (Oct–Jun) along the Chukchi Sea coast are best before the long summer hits, when the ice is at its thickest. After that, the sun doesn’t set for 82 days and the whole incredible cycle starts over.
Getting there: Barrow is not accessible by road. Alaska Air flies daily from Anchorage (two hours) and Fairbanks (1.5 hours).
20. Skellig Islands
Ireland Population: 0 Good for: A mysterious monastery (and movie spotting)
A pair of tiny, rocky outcrops just 12km off south-west Ireland house what was once Europe’s most isolated – and inhospitable – monastery. Skellig Michael is a spiky prospect, all shardlike rock carpeted in lush green scrub. Hidden at its peak are beehive-like monastic cells, recently made famous as Luke Skywalker’s hideaway in the latest Star Wars movie.
Little is known about the settlement, which is thought to have been built in the 6th century, but a precariously breezy 670-step climb leaves little doubt as to its former residents’ zeal – only the puffins and cormorants look at ease here. Sadly, you can’t stay overnight and private boats are the only way to reach the UNESCO-listed site, but it’s worth braving the rough seas to discover. Getting there: Boat tours to Skellig Islands regularly depart Portmagee, County Kerry (45 minutes each way).
21. Cirque de Mafate
Réunion Island Population: 700 Good for: Hiking hidden villages inside a giant caldera
Sandwiched between Madagascar and Mauritius, the tiny island of Réunion hides a secret. Deep within its northern interior lies three vast hollows, revealed after its Piton des Nieges volcano (3,069m) collapsed.
The most difficult of these to access is the mysterious Cirque de Mafate, a steep-sided caldera that shelters a nest of truly remote villages dating back to colonial times. Utterly cut off from the world, many were founded by escaping slaves looking to flee the harsh rule of the French. Consequently, the only way in and out is via a steep hike or a helicopter ride (supplies are constantly being buzzed in).
These days it’s not so hidden and gites now dot its hundreds of kilometres of trails, fording tropical forest, lush grassland and waterfalls amid plenty of wild flora that is endemic to the area. Nevertheless, this is a genuine lost world. Getting there: Multiple flights (Air Austral, Air France) connect the UK to St Denis (13 hours). From there, drive to the Col des Boeufs car park, where a 20.4km pedestrian trail leads into the Cirque de Mafate and back.
22. Myeik Archipelago
Burma (Myanmar) Population: 2,000 (est) Good for: Island hopping and culture-swapping in a remote part of travel-hot Burma
Myeik Archipelago (Dreamstime)
As little as 20 years ago, Burma's Myeik Archipelago was off-limits to travellers. Even today, permits to explore its 800 or so islands are all but impossible to get independently, with tour companies your best bet. Because of that, it remains relatively untouched – and in places, uncharted – while few but the archipelago’s native Moken minority (often called ‘sea gypsies’) set foot beyond a handful of islands.
Visit the nature reserve of Lampi, spotting elusive wild elephants and wandering its monkey-packed mangroves, then drop in on Bo Cho’s settled Moken village to learn more about its people. Most boats keep their schedule flexible – you go where weather and time will allow – but no matter where you end up you’re sure to be kayaking and snorkelling where few others have visited.
Getting there: Multiple internal flights link Yangon to Kawthaung via Dawe (two hours). From there, multi-day tours deep into the archipelago are best booked with tour companies, who can pre-arrange permits.
23. The Arctic Circle Trail
Greenland Population: 500 (Kangerlussuaq) Good for: Hiking 164km of Arctic trails
To be honest, we could have picked anywhere in Greenland, with east coast Ittoqqortoormiit often credited as its most remote town – and paradoxically now on plenty of cruise tour itineraries. But as far as adventures go, the Arctic Circle Trail offers true isolation. Away from the ice caps and polar bears, it begins in the tiny town of Kangerlussuaq and follows backcountry paths stretching 164km to coastal Sisimiut.
In midsummer, there’s no nightfall as the desolate tundra shines under the relentless gaze of the sun, with musk-oxen and arctic foxes spotted while hiking. There’s basic huts en route for shelter, and when you get bored of walking there’s often a kayak on hand to traverse some of the larger lakes. A truly epic journey.
Getting there:Air Greenland has daily flights from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq (4.5 hours). The 164km Arctic Circle Trail takes 9–11 days to complete, from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, with hiking season from June to August.
24. Falkland Islands
British Territory Population: 2,900 Good for: Raw nature, just an easy 12,650km from the UK
There is a rather old-fashioned quality to the Falklands, where passenger lists for local flights are still announced daily on the radio. Colourful capital Stanley cuts a civilised air, with a fine dockland museum that narrates the islands’ unusual past, away from the battlefield tours. Sheep account for a third of the population’s employment here, yet it’s wildlife on a more Darwinian scale that catches the eye.
On Sea Lion Island, bull elephant seals bellow blood-curdling challenges while mid-winter boat trips afford front-row seats to the pods of orca that stalk their newborn pups. Spot braying Magellanic penguins huddled against the thaw on Sandy Bay as quivers of cormorants arrow through its rough waters. This is nature at its most resilient on some of the UK’s most far-flung islands. Magical. Getting there: LATAM Airlines fly weekly from Punta Arenas, Chile (1.5 hours), while twice-weekly flights from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire to the Falkland’s Mount Pleasant airfield take 20 hours.
25. Port Lockroy
Antarctica Population: Research staff only Good for: Colonies of penguins and getting your passport stamped at the end of the world
Crossing the stomach-churning seas of Drake Passage to the seat of the Earth is no mean feat. The lucky few who get to land at Port Lockroy are met by a restored version of its old British naval base, which doubles as a museum and the UK’s most southerly post office. Partly made out of timber scavenged from whalers in the 1940s, exhibits range from old wooden skis to war rations.
Grab your Antarctic passport stamp here before exploring the wilderness of tiny Goudier Island, where some 800 pairs of gentoo penguins gather to breed in the brief spring/summer (Nov–Feb). Many of the birds waddle cheerfully in front of the research hut under the watchful gaze of staff and bullying squas, allowing you to get amazingly close. Sadly, you can’t stay overnight, but even setting foot on land here is a badge of honour.
Getting there: Many Antarctic Circle cruises will try to stop at Port Lockroy, but be aware that it is often left off official itineraries, as weather will determine access. Two-week cruises departing Ushuaia, Argentina or Puerto Williams, Chile to the Antarctic Circle.