12 Hidden Gems: Great Destinations that Caught Us by Surprise

Wineglass Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Wineglass Bay. Tasmania, Australia. Photo by Peter Daams.

If places we expect much of sometimes disappoint, the inverse is also true. Today, travellers share about places they visited that turned out to be hidden gems.

From the very obscure to the well-known, each of these travel tales attests to the fact that the best moments in travel catch you by surprise.

Cambodia. (Nomadic Matt)

Cambodia. I didn’t really have any expectations about the country. I knew it would be poor, rugged, and undeveloped. But other than that all I knew was that it had Angkor Wat.  Coming out of Vietnam, a country I hated, I thought anything would be better than there. Cambodia was all the things I said but it was much more- the people were so upbeat, the atmosphere chaotic but relaxed at the same time, everyone was friendly, and happy you were there. Cambodia was the opposite of Vietnam. Though the country wasn’t pretty, the people made up for it. I ended up extending my stay, spending extra time on the coast and in the capital. I can’t wait to go back.

Tasmania, Australia. (Ant Stone from Trail of Ants)

When my girlfriend, Reb decided we were heading to Tasmania I smiled and nodded. Inside I was imagining a timid island doused in dank forests and eerie village folk nibbling on dried salmon. Then I began some light-hearted research and got snowballed by what must be the world’s most intense tourism campaign, and it almost all rang true.

Tasmania is underpinned by some unreal rock formations; from proud cliffs and classic peninsulas to the underworld realms of caves and boastful mountains. Couple this with the world’s most sublime beaches, the world’s cleanest air and a history so epic that it’s rivalled only by its future.

While parts of Tasmania remain undiscovered those that have been are deservedly promoted as regional trophies. Such a stage doesn’t just cater for the endless convoys of caravans and campervans, but also plays home to some of the most untormented populations of wildlife in Australia. From possums and platypus to kookaburras and quolls; add the infamously savage Tasmanian Devil and the absent Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine) and you have a quintessentially furry cast. Timid Tasmania turned and socked me with an unforgettable, unexpected yet truly monumental punch and I’m still unable to stop staggering.

For more information on Australia’s island state check out Discover Tasmania or follow my blog over the coming weeks.

Lake District, England. (Angelina Hart from The Little Travelers)

A place for us that was an “oh, we’re in the neighborhood, so maybe we should check it out” was the Lake District of northern England. We just happened upon the world of Beatrix Potter, which turned out to one of our kids favorite things of our entire trip. It was truly adorable for children ages 2-10. I’ve never read or heard anything about it so it was a wonderfully delightful day that wowed all of us.

Cochamó, Chile. (Eileen Smith from Bearshapedsphere)

Cochamó promised to be just another town standing in the way of home, and I was convinced to go there by a man who was retracing his own history, having been a Peace Corps volunteer in the early years in the skinny republic of Chile. I was not optimistic but willing to give this southern town on the Reloncaví estuary a try.  The water rises and falls with the tides, flooding the front yards of the hastily-built stilted homes constructed at its edge. I ate a slowfood lunch of fish and salad and the sun hung stable in the sky for hours after it seemed it should have set. I was offered and took five-hour horseback ride, ducking among the trees, eating astringent caqui fruits and hearing the white blossomed ulmos (trees) buzzing with nectar-collecting bees before I even saw them. Giant, climbable granite boulders and cliffsides dwarfed me, my horse and my ever-slipping saddle. Sunset over the estuary was stripey, perfect, and I had aromatic leaves in my pocket given to me by my guide, which I found when I arrived back to the urban sprawl of Santiago.

Nepal. (Dave from The Longest Way Home)

Like a sledgehammer on the side of my head Nepal was my unexpected gem. I’d arrived a few days before Christmas, and was expecting a place crawling with tourists, tours and soulless commercialism.

Instead I found myself walking down a near deserted road in Pokhara breathing in the winters chill air, yet still warm from the high sun. Before me a vivid blue skyline background magnified by the magnificent Annapurna ice capped mountain range. Beside me, the quite, gentle chanting of “Omadi Padi Hum”  flowed out of store fronts as a cow ambled across the road without concern. A local man passed by and pressed his hands together and greeted me with a smile and humble “Nameste” before moving on.

I looked up and felt a lifetime of emotion overcome me. It said quite simply, “this is home”. This is what it feels like.

After near 4 years of searching I finally felt something many had  ridiculed me over, and something I was desperately certain of that existed.

Nepal, is  not my home. But it did, quite unexpectedly, one winters morning give to me the gift of a feeling for something I am searching for; and now know exists.

Dominican Republic. (Rosalind Cummings-Yeates from Farsighted Fly Girl)

Because I tend to over-research like a maniac, I haven’t experienced many destination surprises. The only place that has managed to catch me off guard was the Dominican Republic. I had consciously avoided the island because the country has been charged with many human rights violations, not to mention forced slavery of Haitians working on plantations. That just doesn’t inspire many high expectations. I had been searching for an ecomomical place for a family Spring break trip last April and the Dominican Republic kept coming up. I checked the latest Amnesty International reports and the findings appeared to be a bit better, if only because of the huge push to build resorts and a subway system to increase tourism and raise living standards. But I was still skeptical. We traveled to La Romana, which is a fishing village at the southern tip of the island, hours away from the capitol of Santiago. I was intrigued by the bustling communities whizzing by on motor bikes. Mango trees seemed to dot every street and kids playing baseball were everywhere. We stayed in a hotel with mostly German and French tourists so I was pleased that we had to rely on our Spanish to communicate. From that point, we were embraced like long lost relatives everywhere we went. The warmth of the people was genuine and unexpected. The natural beauty, from caves we discovered horsback-riding, to the nature preserve on Sanoa Island, was unforgettable. Devouring the spicy local cusine of boca chica fish and mangu plantain stew, I got to talk to Haitians who informed me of the political situation. It’s not good, the Haitian border is patrolled and many Haitian workers are afraid to go home because they won’t be allowed back. But they acknowledged that there were more jobs for them and they could send money home.  I learned a lot from my Dominican excursion, mainly that you can’t truly judge a place until you’ve experienced it. 

Midwest USA. (Greg from Greg Wesson’s Esoteric Globe)

The Midwest of the USA has some great places, and most tourists probably would never think of going there.  Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha (even, a stretch to call mid-west, but Denver). There is something about the air in Midwestern cities. It’s so clean and fresh.  Omaha was quite a shock, as most Americans would probably never suggest a tourist stop in Omaha.   The downtown area is nice, they have a beautiful old market area, there are some nice lakes, and you can get excellent steak dinners for not much money.  The area is also home to many German immigrants, and thus home to some great German food.   I had an excellent meal of potato pancakes and a selection of wurst sausages at a little German restaurant in Bellevue called Edelweiss, which I would highly recommend.  Good thing the air is so clean and fresh in the Midwest, because after all that wurst, a night-time stroll to work off some calories was definitely needed.


The jungles of Laos. Photo by Derek Turner.

Lightning Ridge, Australia. (Nora Dunn from The Professional Hobo)

When I rolled into Lightning Ridge – a tiny outback opal-mining town in Australia, I had high hopes but low expectations. And my expectations were perfectly met, when I (initially) saw the faded billboards and weather-beaten look of a town trying too hard to be attractive to tourists.

So after driving more than a little bit out of my way to get there, I was prepared to drive away the following morning.

Lucky for me, I had one evening; one chance for Lightning Ridge to redeem itself. And so it did. In fact, I met such a warm and friendly group of people at a Rotary meeting that night, who introduced me to more fabulous people over the next few days, that I stayed a week in this place I had only intended on passing through. I now have friends there who will surely be so for many years to come.

Sometimes looking beyond the façade of a place and allowing its true colours to seep in can result in the most beautiful of experiences.

Venice, Italy. (Debby Lee Jagerman from Debby’s Departures)

Venice, Italy. Well, yes, I guess I had some expectations, as Venice is obviously quite famous. But, I was not anticipating that I would feel that Venice would be awesome enough to visit at least five times during my five-month solo travels in Europe.

Thinking that I would only travel to Venice once, the first time I went, I explored the tourist sites. But from that experience, I was drawn to Venice, and felt that there was so much more to discover. So I went back again…and again. I visited the islands of Murano and Burano on my next trip. Another time, I just walked up and down the busy main streets, filled with tourists and stores to people-watch and window-shop. My favorite trip was strolling off the beaten path, exploring the quiet side streets, and experiencing the local life. I saw locals use boats as most of us do cars, children playing, and women preparing fresh greens for the evening meal.

Finally, I took my mother and sister to Venice so that they could experience the magic of this city, and so that we could take a sunset Gondola ride together.

And yes, I would even go back again!

Grand Canyon, USA. (Tammie Dooley from Solo Road Trip)

My son and I set out for the Grand Canyon to celebrate his graduation from HS. Seventeen hours later a parking lot filled with buses, crawling with fellow travelers, greeted us. Both had envisioned the Grand Canyon with its sweeping vistas of color, water, sky – not this. We’d projected ourselves into a pristine environment, feet dangling over the side of a steep drop-off, wind ruffling our hair. Struggling to a point that provided a glimpse of the canyon, we returned to the car dejected by our disillusions. At the exit a Ranger asked how we’d enjoyed the Grand Canyon. “We were hoping for something, uhhh, quieter with better views.” The Ranger said, “I don’t know how much time you have, but if you travel to the North Rim of the canyon you’ll get what you came for. Only 10% of the people seeing the Grand Canyon see the North Rim. There’s only one drawback, it’s a 5 hour drive from here.” We thought “exclusivity, feet dangling over the sides, wind ruffling our hair – we’re there!” Wildlife, sunshine, and the slightest of breezes met us this time. Giddy with seeing the panorama before us, we frolicked on the unprotected edges of the pristine North Rim until dark. It was better than anything we’d dreamed.

Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong. (Nikolas Tjhin from Unearthing Asia)

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I visited the Lantau Island and went over to the Giant Buddha Statue at the Po Lin Monastery. I wasn’t expecting much, judging from what my local friends said. But as you may as well know by now, travelers would often be intrigued by the small little things that locals find unamusing. This was definitely a good example of that!

The journey towards Po Lin Monastery started with a 20-minutes cable car ride called the Ngong Ping 360, towards Lantau Island from Tung Chung MTR Station. This was an experience in and of itself, with the amazing view to be enjoyed throughout the ride. I can see a walking pathway down below the cable car, which turns out to be this adventurous hiking trail around the island. The ride stopped at Ngong Ping cultural village in which tourists can shop and unwind, but I was more interested with the Giant Buddha Statue and immediately made my way towards Po Lin Monastery.

The walk was steep and the wind cooling (it was winter time in HK), but it was worth the effort – the Giant Buddha Statue was truly a sight to behold. Over 34 metres of bronze atop 268 steps of stairs! There are relics of Sidartha Gautama himself, and various carvings, scriptures and statues. Nearby, I also visited the Monastery which featured a grandiose hall with colorful carvings and paintings. All in all, definitely worth a day trip visit!

Laos. (Derek Turner from The World By Sea)

To be shamefully honest, I couldn’t have even told you where Laos was when I first arrived to Asia. But every time I’d meet a person who’d experienced Asia and the country was mentioned, their eyes would go distant and with a slight smile, they’d murmur something like, “Ahh… Laos…”

Two months later I learned why. My Loatian adventure began with a ½ day drive and a 7-hour hike into a remote village. Oxen stood with goats, stood with chickens and dogs. Children stood barren amongst grass-covered huts. All watching as I walked muddy paths through their village. Corn grew tall, next to fields of rice, next to thick jungles. It felt pure, untouched.

I zip-lined into tree houses, slept atop trees, under nets to the symphonic sounds of nature, and woke to howling gibbons. I rode my bike through villages to waterfalls, and traveled by boat and tube down the Mekong. The people were poor, but no one seemed to notice. I’m not sure in all my travels that I’ve ever a people more genuine-quick to smile and say hello, with nothing at all to sell. It was beautiful.

It’s a place I never planned on visiting, but anytime I pause at the beautiful picture painted by my experience, I can’t help but stare into the distance and smile slightly… Ahh, Laos…

What about you? Have you ever been pleasantly surprised to discover a hidden gem on your travels?

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Discussion »

  • #1WildJunket

    Wadi Rum, Jordan! Yes the jewel of the Middle East! Coming from Egypt, we were relieved to get away from the incessant hassles of the Egyptian vendors, and into this calm sanctuary that was peaceful and felt like a god-sent. As compared to the overly-hyped Egypt, Jordan has so much to offer, from the ancient treasury of Petra, and the red-rose sandy deserts of Wadi Rum.

    What I found surprising was the genuine and authentic experience you could have in Wadi Rum. We went into the desert with a local guide, to explore the sand dunes and rock formations. Along the way, we would meet so many Bedouin families, eager to offer us tea and some shelter. When night fell, we stayed at a simple Bedouin camp with really good local food, and of course, the locals to chat with. It’s difficult to find such a genuine place anywhere else…

  • #2Michelle

    The link to bearshapedsphere’s blog is broken!

  • #3Marion

    I want to travel to Paris in August, and I want to get a good deal on air fare and hotel. Can anyone give me advice on booking and where to book my travel arrangements. Also, I would like to know about the currency exchange; our dollar to their Euro. All information will be welcomed. Thank you,

  • #4Eric

    Thanks Michelle, fixed that!

  • #5Visiting the Po Lin Monastery and the Wisdom Path | Living Together Blog | Thoughts on Married Life | Living in Iloilo

    [...] Leave a comment submit_url = “http://livingtogetherblog.com/2009/04/07/visiting-the-po-lin-monastery-and-the-wisdom-path/”; We’ve been away three times since March that we didn’t have much time to blog. So today’s blog will still be about Hong Kong (yes, we did a lot of things in HK!), focusing on the charming and old-fashioned Po Lin Monastery, which is a must-visit for anyone who wishes to see the other side–the more laid back side–of Hong Kong. In fact, this monastery may catch you by surprise. [...]

  • #6Chrissy

    I too was surprised by how touristy the Grand Canyon seemed. I wish I would have encountered that Park Ranger on my trip. Thanks for sharing the insider tip. We’ll hit the north rim next time we make our way there. I once read an article in an airline magazine about a couple who hiked the Grand Canyon. It too sounded amazing and I hope to brave it one day. One thing is for sure, no matter where on or in the Grand Canyon you explore, you simply must hang around for the sunset. The strokes of color and light are simply spectacular!

  • #7Tammie


    It’ll be worth the trip to go back to the North Rim. It really is a different world making it almost a different Grand Canyon than the South Rim. I’d love to hike the canyon someday AND raft it! There are few places I tell everyone about, and this is one of the top 3.

  • #8[email protected]

    On a trip to Northern Italy several years back, we were going to skip Venice altogether — we’d pictured it as a crowded and crumbling tourist trap. Upon hearing this, my dad insisted we give it a few days, saying, “It’s the kind of place that’ll touch your very soul.”

    And he was right: http://www.travelswithtwo.com/?p=1079

  • #9Andy

    Expedition National Park in Queensland is just awesome. A mate and I had been travelling around and while we were looking at the map we saw a tiny NP sign on the map. So, we decided to go for it. To say the place is remote is a bit of an understatement (there are no signs and we navigated by guesswork and the sun) but we stayed there for 4 days and didn’t see another person. It was the epitome of peace and quiet.

  • #10Anita

    Lombok, the less developed and much less touristy version of Bali.

  • #11Hostels Valencia

    have any of you tried Venezuela and Angels Fall, and the surroundings tepuhi, amazing.
    who had visit Misali Island in Tanzania? heaven on earth! believe me, but promes my something….don’t tell anybody, we always ruin the places

  • #12Oman

    Though I feel spoiled living in Oman I have to say Syria was a real gem – from the Ummayid Mosque, Haqawati, Busra and so much more each something unique and to be savoured and the highlight – sunset on the hill in Palmriya – astounding

  • #13The Travelers Zone

    really amazing destinations!The Grand canyon is the most famous natural attraction in the USA.Planning a vacation to the Grand Canyon national park provides a great relief for you and your family.

  • #14Vacations

    Many people even when visit any good country or state, do not sometimes visit the places they should have, may be coz they are not aware of that place, few of the places u just mentioned above are ought to be visited when on a vacation. I always suggest the people who are vacating, to learn about a place before you are to visit & your blog may remind a few people what they missed on their vacation to these states or countries. Thanks for the Useful info.

  • #15Conor - Tasmania Trip

    Really happy to see that little old Tasmania has made into the top 12 hidden gems. As a local I have often taken Tasmania for granted, but now that I’m on the other side of the world in the UK (and seen a lot more of the world since I left Tassie) I’ve realised how much it has to offer. In fact I miss it so much I’ve made my own website on it called Tasmania Trip. If you’re ever down the bottom end of the world make sure you check out Tasmania!

  • #16Shannon OD

    Laos factors in as perhaps my favorite country visited at this point – and I also couldn’t have pointed it out on a map before planning for the trip. The country is a gem and I loved, loved, loved getting off even the traditional path a little and trekking through some of the more remote areas. :-)

  • #17rabby

    Really a wonderful list .Nepal always attract visitors for its unique beauty and greenery.

  • #18Brad

    I’ve been to Cambodia extensively and love it every time. The people are great, it’s for sure more laid back then Vietnam. Laos is even more laid back. Southeast Asia is one of my favorite places to visit.

  • #19Doug Edwards

    A nice overview thanks..Cambodia,next stop!

  • #20Shay

    I have traveled to the DR and I grew up in the midwest. The world has soooo many beautiful places to visit. I hope to see some of the ones you suggested. Thx :-)

  • #21Doug Edwards

    Beautifully put together..thank you

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