Underrated travel destinations: Travel writers' secret places revealed

The job description of a travel writer is fairly simple. Find somewhere interesting. Explore every aspect of it. Go and tell the world. But there's the rub. It is one thing to send back dispatches from typical tourist hot spots, whether you are covering Brooklyn's newest bars or Peru's best mountain lodges. Sometimes, however, you come across a little gem so special, so unspoilt, you really don't want the rest of the world to know about it. You want to keep it to yourself. Some of these places are hiding in plain sight: a hidden swimming hole in the glorious Daintree Rainforest; a hip Roman suburb where the bars and restaurants are packed full of locals.

Other destinations require a bit more effort. There is a spectacular archipelago of Micronesian islands that offers astonishing scuba diving for those who find a way to wash up here (just head north from Darwin, then keep going for 2000 kilometres.) Then there is a spectacular sandstone mountainscape north of Cape Town, which can only be explored by those willing to wriggle and scramble, to squeeze through narrow passages and skirt sheer drops.

Traveller's writers – with more than a little arm-twisting from our editor – have agreed to share some of their most special, cherished places; the secret spots we don't want the world to know about. Just this once, we are willing to share (as long as it stays strictly between us).

PIGNETO, ROME

In Rome it can feel as if no one actually lives there – a city populated entirely by tourists. However, there's succour. Whisper it, but if you jump on a bus or hail a cab and head to the up-and-coming suburb of Pigneto, suddenly everything changes. The tourists are gone. In their place are the normal residents of Rome, the working class, the middle class, the hipsters, the students, the families. Pigneto was once pretty rough, but these days is home to Rome's coolest little bars and restaurants, places like Spirito, a speakeasy that's only accessible through an unmarked door in a shabby sandwich shop. You pick up a phone, press a button, and all of a sudden you're in hipster heaven. Then there's the world's best porchetta and meatballs at Trattoria Pigneto. There's not a single tourist attraction around; and not a single tourist. Whisper it. BEN GROUNDWATER

MOSSMAN RIVER, QUEENSLAND

Most visitors to Tropical North Queensland have one thing on their mind – the Great Barrier Reef – and that's fine by me. For those that do seek out the magnificent Daintree Rainforest – the world's oldest living rainforest and the inspiration for the movie Avatar – their endpoint is typically the fabulous $20 million Mossman Gorge Centre, or the awe-inspiring Cape Tribulation. That's more than fine by me too because, most likely, it means I'll have a secret swimming hole on the glorious Mossman River pretty much to myself. To reach it takes some effort. It's located off the road to the famed Silky Oaks Lodge, via the friendly sugar cane town of Mossman. Pull over at Anich's Bridge and make your way down to the rushing fresh water river. Float downstream on the rushing currents and gaze up in wonder at the ancient canopy entwined with strangler figs. Enormous butterflies flit and kingfishers swoop looking for lunch. See cairnsgreatbarrierreef.org.au. SHERIDEN RHODES

MANONO, SAMOA

Electricity only came to Manono in 2003 and you won't find a single car on the island (or a road). And yet Manono's just a 20- minute boat ride from Samoa's most populated island, Upolu. I first heard of Manono in Paul Theroux's South Pacific odyssey, The Happy Isles Of Oceania, and knew I had to visit. Few visitors ever come and even fewer stay overnight. Those who venture across stay in simple villas by the sea run by families who prepare each meal . But the views are stunning – clear vistas from your balconies across an empty blue lagoon. There's not much to do except walk around a track that encircles the island – stopping to talk with locals tending tiny plots of farm land, or finding another private beach to swim at. I'm the only palangi (foreigner) on Manono when I stay. But even so, no one takes any notice of me as I walk among  them, sipping warm Vailima  beer bought from the island's only store. See samoa.travel. CRAIG TANSLEY

LAKE RHONA, TASMANIA

In Tasmania it can seem as though all walking trails lead to Cradle Mountain or Wineglass Bay, but that has the lucky side- effect of keeping places such as Lake Rhona blessedly anonymous. Pooled on the slopes of the Denison Range in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Rhona is place where mountains and beach combine. Along the lake's northern shore, a strip of white sand frames the molasses-dark lake. Where the sand ends, the craggy walls of Reeds Peak rise to a pyramid of rock about 400 metres above the lake. Arriving here after a long day of hiking - the only way in - feels almost like stepping back in time,  when it sported similarly spectacular mountain beaches. Small natural barriers help maintain Lake Rhona's secret. To get here you must cross the Gordon River on a fallen tree - in high water, the log is submerged, making access impossible. Past the river, the soupy buttongrass plains turn the approach walk into a full-day mudfest, requiring camp to be made by the lake. It's hardly a chore since you can pitch right on the beach, often alone, even in summer. ANDREW BAIN

PARIS, BELLEVILLE

Formerly a hilltop village, surrounded by farms and wineries, Belleville was swallowed by Paris' metropolitan sprawl in 1860 and lies, under the radar of most travellers, in the 20th arrondissement, just north of Pere Lachaise Cemetery (resting place of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde). Belleville's (relatively) cheap rents have long drawn working-class Parisians and immigrants, but in recent years, it's emerged as one of the city's most hip, happening and artistic areas - and a magnet for so-called Bobos (bourgeois bohemians). Street art abounds, laundry flutters from wrought-iron balconies, and a stew of languages fill the air, including "le accent de Belleville", supposedly the Parisian equivalent of east London's cockney dialect. Apparently Edith Piaf - born in Belleville in 1915 - spoke and sang in it. Belleville's highlight? The mosaic-and-mural-speckled terrace that crowns Parc de Belleville. From here, enjoy stunning views of Paree, with the Eiffel Tower soaring in the distance. STEVE MCKENNA

KANIMBLA VALLEY, NSW

The main route through the Blue Mountains west of Sydney is well tramped but, if you drop down across the railway line behind the cafe-buzzing town of Blackheath, you come to a promising fork in the road. One way takes you to the Megalong Valley which, although quiet, is nevertheless a name well recognised by Sydneysiders. The other road, unsignposted, meanders past apple orchards before plunging between shivering eucalyptus trees down a cliff face and into the Kanimbla Valley. This was one of only two routes across the Blue Mountains known to local Aborigines and wasn't settled by Europeans until the early 1900s. It still feels incredibly remote: no scone lunches or designated viewpoints here. Instead, a few horses stare and kangaroos hop. Mist rises in the morning, and sunsets bring an orange glow to the escarpment above as wombats take their evening constitutional down by the creek. Perfect peace, and fantastically beautiful. See visitbluemountains.com.au. BRIAN JOHNSTON

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FRASERS HILL, MALAYSIA

Just two hours' drive from Kuala Lumpur, Bukit Fraser (named after a long departed Scottish prospector) is surely one of the most unlikely travel destinations in Asia. With its cream teas, Toby jugs and mock-Tudor bungalows, this colonial hill station would look more at home in an episode of Midsomer Murders than on a normal travel itinerary of Malaysia. There's even a red post box in the village square. A time-consuming bus service from the city keeps most visitors away. And apart from a golf course there's not much to do – except sip tea and pretend the sun never set on the British Empire; the resort is popular with wealthy Singaporeans who love Jane Austen and scones and jam, while the lush forest teems with eager young ornithologists; there are more than 270 bird species here. Frasers Hill is whimsical, charming, pointless and slightly batty. I hope it never changes.  MARK CHIPPERFIELD

RONDE HOEP, THE NETHERLANDS

Thousands of tourists tackle Amsterdam by bike every day. They clatter along cobbled streets, dodge dangerous drivers, ring angry bells at pedestrians and jostle for parking outside crowded restaurants. Few venture into the countryside south of the city. That's nice for us; we like having smooth cycle paths and quiet roads to ourselves. Following the Amstel River out of Amsterdam brings us to Ouderkerkaan de Amstel. We easily find a waterside table in a relaxed village cafe. From there it's an easy ride circling the Ronde Hoep​ polders, those improbably green fields kept dry by the drainage canals and dykes holding winding rivers in place with cows in meadows, swans on lakes, windmills and church spires and Amsterdam's skyline always in the distance. See bikingamsterdam.com. RICHARD TULLOCH

SECOND VALLEY, SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Kangaroo Island throws plenty of shade with its rugged beaches, the flash Southern Ocean Lodge, world-class fishing and premium gin. But the quiet ones are the ones to watch. Across the water, the place most charming on the South Australian mainland must surely be the hamlet of Second Valley on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Best enjoyed on a hot February day, rolling hills and jagged cliffs give way to a protected swimming beach, a caravan park and the beautiful stone building, Leonard's Mill, where flour was produced a century ago. Around the corner from the beach off a rocky ledge snorkellers and scuba divers might spot the elusive leafy sea dragon  in the clearest waters. It's just 90 minutes from Adelaide, and 15 minutes further on is Cape Jervis to catch the ferry to Kangaroo Island, if you can bear to leave the valley. See southaustralia.com; leonardsmill.com. JANE REDDY

PALAU, MICRONESIA

An archipelago of some 500 islands bunched in the Philippine Sea, 2200 kilometres north of Darwin, Palau is a long way from anywhere. But surely if not for its isolation Palau would be swamped. Tropical forests blanket much of the islands, with ironwood, banyan, breadfruit, coconut and pandanus making up the bulk of the waving greenery but the real reason to come here is what lies below the water. Launch yourself off just about any one of Palau's beaches and you're in a world of crimson coral fans, platter-shaped emperor angelfish, schools of polished-aluminium trevally, sharks, barracuda, tridacnaclams, sea turtles, manta rays, grey reef sharks, sea snakes, chamber nautiluses and dugongs. This is the white hot centre of fishy haute couture, all crammed together on a single catwalk. See visit-palau.comMICHAEL GEBICKI

CAPE HILLSBOROUGH, QUEENSLAND

The 6.5 metre tide is on its way in to cover the bobbles in the sand made by soldier crabs earlier in the day. It'll also wash over the temporary causeway and make Wedge Island an island again. There's a delicious simplicity to this lonely finger of the Queensland coast, just to the north of Mackay. The beachside cabins and caravan park are little more than basic, the walks along the cliff tops are usually a solitary pursuit, and strolling back from the island in time to beat the tide is the main thrill ride. But as the sun comes down, the locals turn out to make it a giant Australian cliche. As the sky goes red, figures bound towards the shore. It's a few wallabies, with Bridget the kangaroo bringing up the rear. She's unflustered by the company, and we sit together on the sand as the world slowly goes dark. See capehillsboroughresort.com.au. DAVID WHITLEY

BALTIC COAST, GERMANY

Bondi it ain't. Germans may flock to the Baltic coastline every summer, eager for their share of seaside fun, but frankly, the area's sandy beaches don't really compare with our island coastline. However, there is another reason to head to Germany's deep north. The lands stretching back from the Baltic shore were for centuries divided between a patchwork of duchies and free towns, many engaged in fierce rivalries. The result: a series of towns and cities designed to demonstrate power and prestige, many of which have been beautifully-preserved. Lubeck is set on a spectacular inland island surrounded by canals. Its grand buildings and soaring spires offer ample evidence that this town was once the heart of the mighty Hanseatic League. The lovely Gothic streetscapes of towns such as Wismar and Stralsund​ attract even fewer visitors. For a completely different vibe, try the laid-back island of Rugen, or the over-the-top romance of Schwerin, where a turreted castle is perched on an island floating in one of the city's seven lakes. UTE JUNKER

CIENFUEGOS, CUBA

From the packed out bars where crowds gather to watch baseball on a Saturday afternoon, to the barbershops and buskers throughout the streets, there's a real sense of community to this lesser-known coastal Cuban town that lends it a special air. Nicknamed "The Pearl of the South" it was founded in 1819 by immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana though its heyday came in the 1850s following the introduction of a railway and the subsequent boom in the sugar cane trade. The halcyon days may be long gone but with its waterfront setting and crumbling neoclassical architecture, there's a certain faded palatial grandeur to Cienfuegos. Wander the streets beneath sagging telegraph wires and pastel-coloured house fronts and you're just as likely to dodge a horse and cart as you are a rusting vintage Chevrolet. This isn't a place to come and tick off a checklist of attractions; it's about the people, the authenticity of the experience. GUY WILKINSON

MEURSAULT, BURGUNDY, FRANCE

The Burgundy region of east-central France is famous for producing some of the world's best wines, and its charming capital, Beaune, draws hundreds of thousands of grape worshippers every year. But drive 10 minutes southwest of Beaune, to the foot of the Cote d'Or escarpment, and you'll discover Burgundy's best-kept secret: the secluded village of Meursault. Monks planted the first grapes here in the 13th century, and the deliciously buttery chardonnay produced by Meursault vineyards is world-renowned. Yet you can pull into this village in the middle of le vendage (wine harvest) and find the peaceful streets, lined with shuttered historic stone houses, virtually devoid of tourists. See burgundy-tourism.com. NINA KARNIKOWSKI

WOLFBERG CRACKS, CEDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

Ancient red sandstone walls form nature's cathedral, carved high in the Cederberg Mountains, three hours' drive north of Cape Town. These are the magical Wolfberg Cracks, a series of caverns, tunnels and rock steps that lead you up 633 metres to the 1462-metre peak – an adventurous four-hour round-trip hike. Scramble up boulders, wriggle under fallen rocks, squeeze through dark passageways and teeter along vertiginous paths to experience mind-blowing views and amphitheatres. Stay in self-catering Sanddrif​ cottages – basic but comfortable - on the Dwars River at the foot of the Wolfberg. At day's end, there's a glass of Cederberg shiraz and a barbecue as the sun paints the Wolfberg red-gold. And Sanddrif is home to the multi award-winning Cederberg Winery, producing South Africa's finest cold climate reds. See cederbergwine.com. ALISON STEWART


PUERTO ESCONDIDO, MEXICO

The first time I went to Puerto Escondido it was on a whim; I was drawn to the name, which translates as "Hidden Port." A bone-shattering overnight bus trip from Mexico City deposited me right by the highway, and I walked towards the water expecting a Pacific Ocean version of Cancun –– highly-developed, overrun with tourists. But Puerto Escondido is not like that. Somehow, it has escaped the ravages of capitalism. Sure, there are hotels and a few overpriced restaurants. But the beaches –– Playa Zicatela, Playa Carrizalillo –– are filled with sun-tanned bodies of all shapes and sizes, fanatical surfers, drooping umbrellas, dog-eared novels. At night the main pedestrian drag, El Adoquin, thrums with music and clinks with beer bottles, and it's possible to order seafood and watch it carried right across the sand out of a fishing boat.It is not the most beautiful in Mexico (that title goes to Tulum, on the Caribbean side, which is now unfortunately besieged by wealthy Americans), but Puerto Escondido feels special every time I return –– both more real, being a place where native Mexicans actually go; and more like a dream, being a place of happy memories and trouble-free solitude. visitmexico.com LANCE RICHARDSON
 

Five best-kept secret countries

POLAND

Start with cities rich in history, such as Krakow, the former royal capital, and the mighty port city of Gdansk. Add in the soaring Tatra mountains, the pretty Masurian​ lakes and the world's largest brick castle, and you have a gem of a country. See poland.travel.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Eight hundred languages, 21,000 species of plants, and a thriving tribal culture makes our nearest neighbour a compelling destination. Yes, getting around can be tricky, but experiences such as spotting birds of paradise on a jungle trek and being invited to a sing sing ceremony are unforgettable. See papuanewguinea.travel.

GEORGIA

From the picturesque old town of Tbilisi, with its narrow lanes and leafy squares, to the spectacular Alpine landscapes of the Caucasus Mountains, what we really love about Georgia is the warm welcome of the people, the superb wine and the addictive Khinkali dumplings. See georgia.travel.

NICARAGUA

Nicaragua has active volcanoes, massive lakes, cloud forests and colonial cities, all sandwiched between not one but two lovely coastlines, the Pacific and the Caribbean. Genuinely friendly locals and great value for money are an added bonus. See visitnicaragua.us.

SLOVENIA

Its neighbouring countries include the holiday hotspots of Italy and Croatia, so it's a mystery why Slovenia is so underrated. The picture-perfect Lake Bled, the charming capital of Ljubljana, and rafting on crystal-clear snowfed rivers are just some of the highlights. See slovenia.info.

UTE JUNKER

Five best kept secret cities

ISFAHAN, IRAN

The Persians had a definite romantic streak, as evidenced by the poetry of Omar Khayyam and the city of Isfahan. Gorgeous architecture, elegant bridges and verdant public gardens help set the mood. At day's end, retreat to one of the tea houses by the river to watch the sun go down. See tourism.isfahancht.ir.

FERRARA, ITALY

Blame it on Venice. With so many visitors making a beeline to La Serenissima to cruise the canals, the Renaissance glory of nearby Ferrara is often overlooked. There is an upside to that: those who  do venture here can explore the magnificent palaces and glorious city walls without having to struggle through crowds. See ferraraterraeacqua.it/en.

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS

Texas' most underrated town scores big for history (those ancient Spanish missions), art (several surprisingly good museums), culture (especially among the vibrant Mexican community) and architecture (the delightful River Walk). For fine food, head to The Pearl, a converted brewery that houses the town's top diners, including Cured and The Granary 'Cue and Brew. And whatever you do, don't forget the Alamo. See visitsanantonio.com

BUSAN, KOREA

Sydneysiders will feel an affinity with this harbour city, especially its sweeping sandy beaches and its bustling fish market. We also love the thriving contemporary art scene and the charming temples on its pine-scented hills. See visitkorea.or.kr.

STRASBOURG, FRANCE

Half-timbered houses, cosy taverns and entrancing Christmas markets: what's not to love about Alsace's picturesque capital? Start your explorations in the scenic neighbourhoods of Grande Île and Petite France. See strasbourg.fr/en/.

Five best-kept secret places

NEW YORK: FORT TRYON PARK

Visitors flock to the green oases of Central Park and Prospect Park, but most of them overlook Frederick Law Olmsted's​ other great New York parklands. Fort Tryon Park looks like it has been lifted from an English country house; it is also home to the Met's lovely medieval museum, The Cloisters. See nycgovparks.org.

PARIS: LA PAGODE

There is no better place in Paris to catch a flick than at this cinema, housed in a gorgeous replica oriental pagoda. However, the real gem is the teahouse, or salon de the, in the attached Japanese garden. Only open from spring to autumn, it is one of the most romantic spots in the City of Light. See etoile-cinemas.com/pagode/.

TOKYO: YANAKA

A touch of old Tokyo in the middle of the metropolis, a visit to the Yanaka​ neighbourhood takes you on a trip back in time. A slow stroll lets you admire the wooden houses, street stalls and temples. The traditional handicrafts produced by the area's artisans make great souvenirs. See gotokyo.org/en.

LONDON: KENSINGTON ROOF GARDENS

No, not the royal park; this high-altitude wonderland is on the rooftop of an old department store in Kensington. There are three themed gardens, including a lovely Moorish garden, and a trio of resident flamingos. See virginlimitededition.com

ISTANBUL: GREAT PALACE MOSAIC MUSEUM

Despite its location right by the Blue Mosque, few visitors make it to this little gem, where you admire the sixth-century mosaics that once decorated one of the courtyards of the Great Palace. The astonishingly-lifelike scenes depict everything from boys riding a camel to a lion fighting an elephant. See goturkey.com.

See also: 9 awesome tourist attractions in unlikely locations

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