7 trips to take if you want to escape the crowds
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Need to get away from it all — or, at least, away from everyone?
Whether you’re trying to avoid contributing to overtourism; are in search of some serious peace and quiet; or simply want to keep travelling while avoiding as many germs as possible, sometimes the best destination is the one with the fewest other people around. It may take some extra miles or hours to get away from it all, but trust us: These crowd-free destinations are worth the effort.
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Big Bend National Park, Texas
If you’re in the market for dark skies, wide-open spaces, river adventures, hikes and some breathtaking desert topography, look to West Texas (and we mean far west) to Big Bend National Park. Big Bend is so removed from bustling cities that, on certain nights, you can see 2,500 stars with just your eyes. For comparison, in a medium-sized city, you’ll probably only spot a few hundred stars. In fact, Big Bend is often considered the best national park in the Lower 48 for stargazing.
But it’s not just about starry nights at Big Bend. Be sure to budget time for some scenic drives, kayaking or canoeing on the Rio Grande and the 1.5-mile easy hike at Santa Elena Canyon for some stunning views. Just don’t spend more than necessary on your U.S. national park holiday.
Where to stay: You’re probably not cashing in your hotel points at Big Bend. This would, however, be a fun trip to rent an RV, book a campsite and go all-in on the intimate family fun. If that sounds like your idea of a vacation nightmare, there’s the park’s Chisos Mountains Lodge, but you need to book pretty far in advance.
Getting there: Big Bend isn’t particularly close to any major airport, so you’re going to get at least a little road-tripping in with this adventure. It’s about a five-hour drive from El Paso or a six-hour drive from San Antonio.
Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
Canada’s easternmost province is famous for its wildness and remoteness. It’s a place you come to commune with nature – not necessarily other people.
During the summer, you can watch the migration of one of the largest populations of humpback whales, and nearly two dozen other whale and dolphin species. (Book a private whale-watching trip to see the phenomenon in solitude). Depending on when you visit, you might even be able to see icebergs float along the shore as they travel south from Greenland. And it might not be too late to see one of the lures of winter — the northern lights, which can sometimes be seen plying the skies over this remote region.
No matter when you visit, be sure to explore Gros Morne National Park, an ancient landscape and UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its fjords and waterfalls, bogs and glacier-carved mountains.
Where to stay: Splurge on a night (or two) at the stilted, ultramodern Fogo Island Inn, which sits on an island off the coast of Newfoundland (also an island). Basically, if you want to put some physical space between you and everyone else, this isn’t a bad place to start. Book a room with a wood-burning stove and a soaking tub overlooking the windswept coast.
Getting there: Fly into Gander, Newfoundland (YQX) — an airport in a small Canadian town of the same name singlehandedly responsible for the safe passage of thousands of transatlantic flights every week. Or, fly into St. John’s, Newfoundland (YYT). Either way, you’ll probably be on board an Air Canada, WestJet or Porter Airlines flight.
The Big Island, Hawaii
The island of Hawaii gets about 100,000 to 175,000 visitors per month (which is roughly the same number as Kauai), but since the so-called Big Island is so, well, big, those visitors are pretty spread out. The Big Island is actually larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, so whether you want to go to Hilo, Kona, Volcanoes National Park or a black sand beach, you’re unlikely to encounter crowds in the same way you would on Oahu.
When you visit the Big Island, you’ll want to rent a car and devote several days to the trip. I recommend a few days on each part of the island including a stay in or near Volcanoes National Park, as it’s truly a vast sight to behold.
Where to stay: There are plenty of points-friendly hotels on the Big Island (Hilton Waikoloa Village for Hilton Honors members, or the Sheraton Kona and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel for Marriott loyalists) though if you stay there, you’ll probably be back to dealing with crowds.
For a more isolated and rustic experience, you can spend under $100 a night to stay in a small cabin at Volcanoes National Park. You’ll have electricity, a light and an outdoor grill, but not much more.
Getting there: Many carriers have direct flights to Honolulu (HNL), including Southwest Airlines. But you can fly directly into Kona (KOA) or Hilo (ITO) on the Big Island from San Francisco International (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX) or even Seattle International (SEA) on Delta, United and Hawaiian.
You might not exactly be itching to head far away right now, but if you do want to book an international retreat, French Polynesia might be as good as it gets — especially since the islands seem to be following some pretty tough health restrictions. Located just eight hours off the West Coast, French Polynesia isn’t truly a world away, but it sure does feel that way.
If you go, be sure and hire a boat to get out on the water. And, while Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea are the most popular islands in French Polynesia, you can certainly venture farther off the beaten bath if you wish.
While Tahiti’s population is around 283,000 (as of a 2017 census), charming Huahine (technically two islands) has just a handful of villages and a total of 6,075 residents. It’s easy to carve out your own piece of paradise here. There’s a bridge between the isles and a sandspit during low tide. The bridge is actually one of the island’s main tourist attractions since the water below is filled with eels, which are considered sacred to locals. It’s your duty to stop by and greet these blue-eyed creatures during your visit. There are some spectacular beaches on Huahine, plus Polynesian ruins, inexpensive lodging (for French Polynesia, anyway) and some very good restaurants.
Getting there: From the U.S. mainland, you can fly to Papeete (PPT) from either San Francisco (SFO) or Los Angeles (LAX). From there, you’ll take an Air Tahiti flight onward to the island of your choice, unless you want to visit Moorea, which is accessible by ferry. You have many options for using your miles to get to Tahiti, but your flights on Air Tahiti will likely need to be paid for with old-fashioned cash. It’s not cheap.
Where to stay: The Conrad Bora Bora is a great use of Hilton points. The St. Regis Bora Bora also gets pretty high marks. In any case, you’re likely staying in a private villa, so you’re a bit removed from people even when technically at a resort.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
For nothing but wide-open spaces, head to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The largest national park in the country at 13.2 million acres, it’s also one of the least-visited, thanks to its incredible remoteness.
Here, the acre-to-human ratio is ideal for intrepid tracellers who are seeking a completely unplugged getaway (fewer than 80,000 travellers visited in 2018, according to National Geographic). This is a destination where serious outdoor enthusiasts can come to backpack, mountaineer, fish, boat, hike, and take in the vast splendour of the land.
Wrangell-St. Elias is a world of extremes: More than half of the highest peaks in North America can be found in this preserve. And there’s no better way to appreciate the scale than by booking a “flightseeing” tour of the park. Reserve an air taxi for a backcountry drop-off, or book a tour operator based in Glennallen, McCarthy or Chitina. Really, an aerial tour will be the best way to take in the incredible scenery.
Where to stay: You probably won’t be using points or miles to bed down at one of the wilderness lodges in Wrangell-St. Elias (such as the Ultima Thule Lodge, pictured above).
Or, pack your sleeping back and reserve one of the rustic cabins available through the National Park Service, most of which are reachable only by backcountry airstrip. Alaska is a highly-seasonal destination, and most lodges won’t open until late May. So, book your travel plans accordingly.
Getting there: Whether you plan on meeting a tour guide in McCarthy or simply want to venture out on your own, you’ll first want to fly into either Anchorage (ANC) or Fairbanks (FAI). These airports are served by major cities like Los Angeles (LAX), Denver (DEN) and Seattle (SEA), among others. Because Alaska is so seasonal, you might find additional routings during the summer.
North Captiva Island, Florida
You’ll find the barrier island of North Captiva off Florida’s gorgeous Gulf Coast in Lee County, just north of Captiva Island. The two were connected until a 1921 hurricane carved a channel — now called Redfish Pass — between them. This separation is exactly what you need if you’re looking for remote and crowd-free vacation spots, as half of the island is protected land owned by the State of Florida.
If you can commit to North Captiva’s remote location, you’ll be rewarded with incredible beaches strewn with some of the prettiest shells you’ll find on this planet. Bird-watching is also world-class here and, if you adore fishing, you won’t ever want to go back home.
Where to stay: There are only about 300 homes on the island and no points hotels. Instead, you can rent a house with a private pool and even your own dock. You can review some of the vacation rental properties at North Captiva Island Club Resort.
Getting there: Fly into Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW). There’s no bridge from Captiva to North Captiva, also known as Upper Captiva, so the only way to get there is by boat (or small charter aircraft). From the airport, arrange for a private car service, like GroundLink, or a ride-hailing app like Uber, to take you to Pine Island Marina on Pine Island (near Cape Coral) where you can board a ferry to North Captiva. Once on the island, you’ll get around via foot, bike or electric golf cart.
Great Western Catskills, New York
Depending on where you live, you may not have to venture all that far from home to escape the crowds. For decades, burnt out New Yorkers have been heading north, to the mountainous, sometimes rural areas of the Catskills. The exodus has been traced back to the 1920s, but city dwellers have been coming here since long before that. It’s an area of undulating terrain punctuated by rambling rivers and waterfalls, perfect for scenic hikes and drives, and afternoons spent skiing or fishing.
The Catskills are in the midst of another resurgence, making it easy for even frequent visitors to experience a new, undiscovered part of the sprawling wilderness areas. So, pack up your car (or rent one) and drive north, leaving the city squarely in the rearview. The farther west you go, veering away from the Hudson River, the more remote and crowd-free the Catskills become. While the eastern and southern Catskills (Ulster and Sullivan counties) are the easiest to reach, they’re also arguably the most popular. Even the northern Catskills (Greene County) was put on the map back in 2016 by Scribner’s Catskill Lodge, a Hunter Mountain property originally built in the mid-1960s. So, set your sights instead on the westernmost subregion, the Great Western Catskills (Delaware County).
But, no matter what part of the Catskills you choose, you won’t have any trouble finding a quiet mountainside to explore, a collection of antique shops to peruse or a provincial farmstead to visit.
Where to stay: Check in to the whimsical Roxbury Motel, which will officially welcome a significant expansion at Stratton Falls this summer. (Book either a room at a reimagined 19th-century estate, the Mansion, or stay in one of eight new cottages.) This themed experience isn’t for everyone, so for a more traditional Catskills stay, try one of the many inns and lodges in the area.
Getting there: Depending on traffic, the Great Western Catskills region is about three hours northwest of Manhattan. So, be sure to break up the drive with lunch in one of the charming towns along the Hudson River.
Featured image courtesy of Cavan Images/Getty Images.
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