Pick a country, any country
January 8, 2012 10:06 PM   Subscribe

For my birthday, my boyfriend arranged for me to take two weeks off work to travel to the place in the world I have most wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Hurrah! But it turns out that right now is a terrible time to go there (political upheaval, violence, etc.). Sadness. Can you help us figure out where we should go instead?

For years I've been obsessed with the idea of visiting Socotra, a Yemeni island in the Indian Ocean that's known for its bizarre indigenous plant life, beautiful beaches, friendly locals, and a generally unspoiled atmosphere. It's really, really cool. And for my birthday, my boyfriend secretly arranged with my boss for me to take two weeks off work at the end of February/beginning of March for the two of us to go there. Then the tragic realization struck: it's simply a stupid idea for two Americans to visit Yemen right now. Where should we go instead?

I find myself in the interestingly frustrating position of having two weeks of vacation time and no vacation to go on. We have a million ideas of places to visit, but have spent so long reading and learning about Socotra that we're not really sure where to be focusing this decision: Chile? Bhutan? Panama? Turkey? Tokyo? MeFites: Help me decide where to travel on six weeks' notice!

- The biggest, most important thing for us is that we're looking for a feeling of difference, of being outside of our normal environment. I realize that can come from any number of sources, we're open to most of them.
- Would kind of prefer for it to be overseas (we're in the US), and would prefer not Western Europe, where we've already traveled extensively.
- Budget is pretty flexible. We'd assumed $1300+/person for airfare to Socotra, which keeps most of the world open.
- Our priorities for activities are: For me: good/interesting food, good/interesting things to photograph. For him: Beauty, natural or cultural; the chance to interact with new people, whether fellow tourists or locals, but also opportunities for solitude.

I'm particularly interested in anecdotes about really really amazing places you've been to. What's the best destination-driven trip you've ever taken?

*This isn't a high bar, but I'd like wherever we go to be safer than Yemen, which is currently overrun with political instability, anti-American sentiment, and Al-Qaeda.
posted by firstbest to Travel & Transportation (56 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Madagascar. The Seychelles. New Zealand. Finland. Alaska. The Galapagos.

I have never been to any of these places, but I have much the same criteria as you (and Socotra was on my list too!)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:09 PM on January 8, 2012

Volcanic areas of Hawaii, for another place with mostly unique plant life.
posted by jacalata at 10:15 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Galapagos Islands, surely.
posted by LarryC at 10:16 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

"...bizarre indigenous plant life, beautiful beaches, friendly locals, and a generally unspoiled atmosphere."

If you don't go to New Zealand, you'll be sorry!

You can take glacier climbing lessons on the morning (Fox Glacier), and then be at one of the top ten beaches in the world by the next day (Hot Water Beach) - by way of Marlborough Sound and some wine tasting.

Being isolated, NZ has the best plants and animals - EVER. Kauri trees, Pongu, weird birds...

Memail if you want a stellar itinerary. Kayak camping! Wilderness camping and staying great huts, so you don't need anything but a sleeping bag and food! Or not food if you are near the water and want to source protein from the surf! Amazing people! Gorgeous food at crappy roadside diners in the middle of no where... and OMG, canyoning!

And glacier climbing. In the summer. Did I mention that?

I'm a little biased here. I went on vacation and loved it so much I moved there for a while:)

I did a lot of great horseback riding as well, much better than in the states. Much.

Also, you can spend days out in the bush, respite (inexpensively) to an upscale spa-like hotel, and the right back into the wild.

Also. NZ has great DJ's and an amazing music scene.

If I had two weeks, I know where I'd go!
posted by jbenben at 10:20 PM on January 8, 2012 [18 favorites]

Kauai. I loved it so much, I moved and I live here now.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:33 PM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Seconding both New Zealand and the Seychelles.
posted by bz at 10:36 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd go to Madagascar for sure. Along with the other excellent suggestions of New Zealand and the Galapagos, that gives you three places that are beautiful, remote and incredibly unique.

Although personally, I'd go to South Africa instead. Or maybe Tanzania, but that's me - I'm a freak for sub-Saharan Africa.

And kamikazegopher is right - Kauai is also amazing - I grew up there and it's pretty great.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:40 PM on January 8, 2012

Best answer: Zanzibar?

1. Sound exotic!
2. But, really, Stonetown is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with Moorish, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European influence.
3. I ate good food - don't know that it was strictly 'Zanzibar food', but good food (probably reflecting the above influences!), think you can get more Zanzibar-type food at the night market, but the gardens where it is held was undergoing works while I was there.
4. Pleasant evening drinks at sunset with traditional felucca/dhow boats sailing past.
5. Beautiful beaches.
6. Some animal life, including Zanzibar red monkeys (or something like that).
7. Also known as the Spice Islands - did a great spice farming tour.

I stayed at the Zanzibar Palace Hotel in Stonetown and would recommend.

I travel quite a bit for work to a range of interesting and exotic places, but Zanzibar was a good combination of interesting, comfortable and exotic.
posted by AnnaRat at 10:44 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Madagascar sounds pretty similar as far as biodiversity is concerned. I've never been there, but it's what I think of when I consider weird plants that are found nowhere else on earth and scenes that seem almost Seuss-y in their peculiar, different-ness.
posted by Arethusa at 10:53 PM on January 8, 2012

If you're looking for a feeling of difference, then I'd suggest Japan. I went there precisely so I could go somewhere utterly different, yet safe. I don't read or speak Japanese, other than a few tourist phrases. Being in a country where I couldn't read signs or talk to the vast majority of the population was a great adventure. Its also a friendly and very safe country, full of amazing and beautiful world heritage sites. Travel outside of Tokyo though, after you spend a couple of days there. Go to Kyoto, and Nara for a start. The further outside of large cities you go, the less likely you are to run into people who speak English - that gives a fun sense of adventure. How about heading south to the tropical islands of Japan, like Okinawa?
posted by Joh at 10:56 PM on January 8, 2012

Best answer: It will push your budget, but you have pretty much the right timeframe to be able to take advantage of a last-minute trip to Antarctica. You may want to do some looking around on the tour operators' sites; Intrepid, as a random example, has spaces sub-$5K.

Your profile says NYC; Flyer Talk has a couple of decent deals to Beijing and Cape Town, both of which are good jumping off points to adventure. If you want something a little natural, the Guilin area in China is pretty otherworldly, and I've heard great things about Yunnan province as well.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:23 PM on January 8, 2012

I'm well aware that you said ideally not Western Europe, but you might be interested to look into the Faroe Islands if you haven't already. Utterly unique, magical, strange and endlessly fascinating. Albeit a good deal colder than Socotra.

Santorini is also fascinating and unique, although probably fails because again it's in Western Europe, is pretty touristy and doesn't have a whole lot of wildlife on account of being volcanic.

To save my answer from completely failing to meet your criteria, Okinawa would be nice. There's so much more to Japan than the big cities.
posted by The Discredited Ape at 11:24 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The biggest, most important thing for us is that we're looking for a feeling of difference, of being outside of our normal environment.

So don't go to an English speaking westernised country like New Zealand, you won't be getting this feeling at all.

Japan would probably be a good place but make sure you travel outside Tokyo. While it did feel foreign to me (sort of), it also felt very safe and almost a little bland. I don't think Tokyo alone really fits your criteria above either. But there are lots of places both in Japan and in Asia in general that are more what you're looking for. With two weeks you could travel around quite a bit.
posted by shelleycat at 11:46 PM on January 8, 2012

Best answer: Zanzibar (delicious food, great architecture, very different culture that is a unique blend of middle-eastern and east africa. Historic Stone Town, and beautiful beaches alongside friendly villages and fishing communities.)

Senegal (Delicious food, interesting crumbling french-influenced architecture, great music/dance cultural scene, general charms of francophonie (ie readily available baguettes and nutella.)

I'm more than happy to expand on both of these, if you're interested!
posted by Kololo at 11:56 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Try Malaysia. Intrepid travel has a couple of interesting itineraries you could borrow from.

What I liked:
1) Muslim country with feeling of alienness. Most of the other tourists were from the Gulf states. The islands of Langkawi have great beaches and are referred to as the "Muslim Hawaii".
2) Great food with Indian and Chinese influences
3) Neat wildlife and beautiful scenery. We did not go to Sarawak and Sabah but it is supposedly wonderful, we regretted not extending our trip and going there. Hornbills are the cutest birds ever.

If you do go, make sure to check out the Museum of Islamic Art in Kuala Lumpur, which is much cooler than it sounds. The national Mosque is also worth a visit.

Drinks are expensive and not worth the trouble, but it doesn't sound like nightlife is a priority for you.
posted by benzenedream at 12:10 AM on January 9, 2012

Historically the Swahili Coast of East Africa has cultural ties with the Arabian coast - Yemeni and Omani influences abound. Zanzibar is of course one of the best known towns representing that era but the whole area is worth exploring.
posted by infini at 12:14 AM on January 9, 2012

Southwestern China - Yunnan and Sichuan. Full of tasty food and beautiful things to see. Lonely Planet even publishes a separate "Southwest China" guide. The biggest downside is that you will have to spend time on very slow buses to get to the sights.

Lugu Lake, a completely still lake on the border of Sichuan and Yunnan and home to the Mosuo people.

Jiuzhaigou, a beautiful nature preserve that is a popular destination for domestic tourists.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, a beautiful and easy 2 day hike with hostels along the trail.

It's very backpacker friendly, but outside of the hostels you won't see very many Western tourists. The hostels themselves skewed more mid-twenties/early-thirties backpackers than the partiers you can run into in Thailand and more popular destinations. I spent about 3 weeks there, but if you planned what you were doing before you got there, it would be fine with only 2 weeks. I'm happy to elaborate if you want more details.
posted by asphericalcow at 12:22 AM on January 9, 2012

Yunnan is fantastic, and yeah, I'd skip Japan, but not Bali. Bali is possibly the best place I've ever been. Gorgeous scenery, amazing food, kind and warm people with an amazing culture. The beach areas are awash with young people on vacation in foreign countries (it's like the Australian version of Tijuana), but the more into the mountains you go, the better it gets. There's a good amount of English spoken, so it's not a very difficult place to travel, but it is pretty radically different from anything back home. My wife and I've been there three times, and we're always wondering when we'll be able to go back.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:29 AM on January 9, 2012

So don't go to an English speaking westernised country like New Zealand, you won't be getting this feeling at all.

Seconding. Don't get me wrong, NZ is beautiful, but it is not what you are looking for if you were otherwise considering Yemen.

I second Malaysia. Some beautiful places to photograph, interesting towns like Malacca where you can dip in and get a dose of interaction with other people in a large town before heading elsewhere. Great food culture. Astoundingly good food from markets. Inexpensive.

You would arrive in KL but given your criteria, could head out of the city almost immediately. Long distance buses are plentiful and go everywhere.

I have also enjoyed travels in China, Botswana, Turkey, and Lebanon for similar reasons.
posted by wingless_angel at 1:10 AM on January 9, 2012

They don't hate Americans in Yemen, they hate their government. You will be on a resort island miles away from the capital. I would call ahead but I don't think there's any reason not to go.
posted by parmanparman at 1:11 AM on January 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

They don't hate Americans in Yemen, they hate their government. You will be on a resort island miles away from the capital. I would call ahead but I don't think there's any reason not to go.

According to the foreign office:

The overall level of the advice has not changed; we continue to advise against all travel to the whole of Yemen and advise British nationals to leave Yemen now by commercial means.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:26 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I realise this is UK-specific, but still:

We advise against all travel to Yemen and strongly urge British nationals to leave now by commercial means (see list of airlines). If you do not leave the country now while some commercial carriers are still flying it is extremely unlikely that the British government will be able to evacuate you or provide consular assistance. Our current ability to provide any consular assistance is very limited.

The political situation in Yemen is volatile. The security situation remains extremely precarious since negotiations between the President and the opposition broke down on 22 May. President Saleh’s compound was attacked on 3 June. The threat of an escalation of violence and disorder remains. British Nationals who have left Yemen are advised not to return. See Safety and Security - Political Situation.

In 30 September 2011 news reports indicate that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula extremist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed. We advise you to be extra vigilant in case of reprisal attacks which may include an increased threat against westerners.

posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:27 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another vote for Zanzibar - or perhaps other Tanzanian islands such as Pemba or Mafia (Tanzania also has some great mainland options like the Selous game reserve). The Andaman Islands might fit the bill although I have never been. You might like the Chilean part of Patagonia - perhaps around Torres del Paine. For similar reasons you mike like the Gran Sabana area of southern Venezuela (the land of Up).
posted by rongorongo at 1:32 AM on January 9, 2012

Have you been to Iceland? The environment there is pretty weird. crazy old lava flows, glaciers, etc. The food is ok in Reykyavik. but if its soon then a lot is closed down in winter.

Mainland China or Nepal? I hear they are really amazing places to travel. and very much out of ones comfort zone.
posted by mary8nne at 1:36 AM on January 9, 2012

Madagascar or Colombia. Colombia would be very cheap and the time runs out to visit this place, before it becomes a tourist destination.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:12 AM on January 9, 2012

I just learned about Socotra a couple of days ago and can see why you were besotted.

I'm sorry you have to change your plans, but if you do, how about Nukus, near the Aral Sea, to see the ? Or Siberia or Mongolia.

Or if you prefer not to go up Siberia way in winter, how about the Andes? Or the Amazon?

posted by hungrytiger at 3:03 AM on January 9, 2012

Mainland China or Nepal? I hear they are really amazing places to travel. and very much out of ones comfort zone.

China is definitely more of a food experience than Nepal (one of the OP's criteria). Nepalese food is good (momos!) but not nearly as diverse as in China.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:38 AM on January 9, 2012

Vietnam. It is fascinating and beautiful. You will meet loads of people and eat some of the greatest food on earth. It is compact enough to see a bit in 2 weeks. Head to Hanoi and go from there. Don't miss halong bay.

posted by Greener Backyards at 4:21 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would pick Easter Island (Rapa Nui), but maybe that's just me. So much Polynesian mythology to learn!
posted by IndigoRain at 4:45 AM on January 9, 2012

If you can find a way to get there without going through Sanaa go for it. Also I see lots of suggestions here that seem to ignore the time constraint of Feb/March. Not when you want to be a lot of places named above.

My crazy adventure vote is for the stans but not that time of the year. I just left Tokyo (Nara right now) and the eating there is amazing if you have the cash, but while Japan is very different from the west it isn't like traveling to a place where tourists are a surprise to the locals.
posted by JPD at 5:17 AM on January 9, 2012

You might like the Chilean part of Patagonia - perhaps around Torres del Paine.

I wouldn't head to Torres del Paine any time soon-- there was a fire that closed the entire park recently and did a lot of damage to popular areas of the park. I'd expect lots of the park to closed through March.

Chile wildfires kill 6 firefighters, 1 missing
posted by base_16 at 5:41 AM on January 9, 2012

My first thought was Antarctica, if you can afford. I really, really, would love to go.

But then when I read more about Socotra, I thought Madgascar was a good stand-in (although I am becoming convinced that Zanzibar is too).

Have fun!
posted by molecicco at 6:06 AM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: My botany-associated dream trips involve: Cape Province, South Africa; Madagascar; Borneo; (and Socotra).

I hope you guys end up having a great trip.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:08 AM on January 9, 2012

Also - please let us know what you decide!
posted by molecicco at 6:16 AM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: What a treat to wake up to so many awesome answers! Honestly, I want to go to almost all these places. Right now the frontrunners seem like Zanzibar, Borneo, and Madagascar — look for MeMails, some of you, and I'd love love love to hear more info on any of those.

But JPD hit on one of the main criteria, which I really should have emphasized more in my original question: We leave in late February and return in early March, so which of these places are still worth it in the depths of (northern hemisphere) winter?
posted by firstbest at 6:18 AM on January 9, 2012

OP: beware of suggestions to Zanzibar, Tanzania, and East Africa. These are areas with sizeable Muslim populations that have violent protests in current days, and will not guarantee safe haven to Westerners. Terrorist groups exist in many East African & Muslim coutries - do not trade your concern with Yemen for just another dangerous place.

There are tons of places that are free from Muslim political violence, and offer stunning geographies and local interactions, inc:

Cape province
posted by Kruger5 at 6:29 AM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: I have one word for you: Borobudur.

But I also wanted to come in with a couple of caveats on these awesome suggestions.

• Galapagos: Amazing, obviously, of course. But also this is a trip where you're really managed, and time is structured for you. The last person I know who went was like "yeah so we got to walk down some path that a million other tourists walked down and look at all this stuff we can't touch." I'm not sure I'd feel the same way but it's definitely a specific kind of visit.

• Zanzibar/Tanzania: While I don't agree with the above, I do also feel like the way most people travel here is also very managed and tourists are kept somewhat isolated, grouped and segregated, in a way that you won't in Southeast Asia (outside Myanmar!).

(Also: ooh, the Maldives!)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:52 AM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: I'm going to second Zanzibar. I ended up there in the mid 90's and it was one of the most interesting and unique places I've been. So much so that I dropped out for a while and lived there as a SCUBA guide so that I could be more immersed in the culture. It has much of what you are looking for. Interesting culture where Arab and Christians unite and can get along. Great beaches and snorkelling or diving, street markets with great food, winding streets and alleys, friendly people, nice restaurants, easy to get around, easy to get lost. If you wanted you could probably fit in a stop in Arusha Tanzania on the way there or back to take in the Serengeti.

Good luck.
posted by YukonQuirm at 7:00 AM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: Christmas Island.

Mainly because I've always wanted to go there. I mean pretty much every ecological niche has been filled by a crab of some sort how cool is that. It's not super touristy and only about 1500 people live there.

It also a territory of Australia so you'd have an excuse to visit there at the same time, I mean the whole country of Australia is full of bizarre indigenous plant life (and animal life), beautiful beaches, friendly locals. The air fare might be cutting it close, but if you catch a last minute deal you might just be OK. I am an expat Aussie so completely biased.
posted by wwax at 7:22 AM on January 9, 2012

(RJ Reynolds is absolutely right, the Maldives are completely ooh despite the devastation caused by El Niño to the reefs and the 2004 tsunami to some of the islands - but you have to be a dedicated diver, really. Hiking? Yeah, for about 30 minutes. And that's if you actually circumnavigate a fair-sized island. Most of the islands are small. Culture? Well, a bit, mostly in the capital of Malé. Photography? Totally: underwater. Not forgetting that it is a predominately Muslim country whose government needs the tourism but doesn't really want the tourists - especially frowning on interaction with citizens. So, not for OP, I think.)
posted by likeso at 7:27 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recently went to El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines in December and it ticks off most of your list.
posted by spec80 at 7:31 AM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: Additional great ideas! Thank you everyone! Couple additional notes: We're not SCUBAers (though would happily become so, if it's possible on such short notice), and my boyfriend is Arab and Arabic-speaking (though not Muslim), so we travel relatively easily in Arab nations — obviously we're still American, but in his company many ethno/linguistic barriers are much lower than I've found them to be for me (passable Spanish; Eastern European genes) when traveling alone.

(RJ Reynolds, the structured nature of Galapagos trips is exactly why this isn't the right trip for us right now. We want to wander (or not wander) as the whim hits us, and explore at our own pace. Responsibly, of course, etc. etc.)
posted by firstbest at 7:46 AM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: Madagascar! Absolutely! It is a completely different place from anywhere. When you're in the capital and environs, you'll encounter mostly Merina people, who are descended from Polynesians. It's not Africa, and yet it is Africa - a very different place than anywhere. There's also a lot of diversity on the giant island, and you can get around by taxi-brousse if you're feeling adventurous, or by AirMad for less nearby destinations. You can also get fairly cheap flights between Mada and Mauritus for a little more luxury if you're up for it.

Some people speak English; most people in tourism speak French. Tourism had dropped precipitously after the 2009 coup, but I was there in 2009 and there was minimal disruption and no problems with violence outside of planned demonstrations in Tana (Antananarivo, the capital). There is decent food in the Tana; there are plenty and plenty of things to see and do. I would also recommend you spend some time up on the islands at the north tip of Mada - Nosy Be and Nosy Komba (pronounced "noos' bay" and "noose' koom'bah"). Mahajanga on the west coast is beachy, and on the way you could stop at Ankarafantsika National Park, which is wonderful and full of lemurs. If you go to Ankarafantsika, make sure you take a night walk with lemurs! (They weren't officially offering it when I was there, but we paid a guide $50 and he took us.) Avenue de Baobabs is incredible. There is so much to see that is really unique to Madagascar. People there were incredibly excited and happy to see us in rural areas; in cities, we were less impressive, but loved Tana. The city's bones remain from French colonial days, but it has a very original feel. Oh, I hear Toliara is nice but didn't get down there.

There's tons of hiking and outdoorsy activities as well. I was there for work but can talk more about it if you're interested. You do need a bit of French and a spirit of adventure, but I think you can stay quite a bit nicer than I did for relatively minimal costs.
posted by quadrilaterals at 9:20 AM on January 9, 2012

Less mainstream ideas, yet ready to reach within your budget and timeframe:

- Easter island (the moai! sealife!)

- Korea (forests! birds! korean starcraft craziness!)

- Borneo (wildlife! mountains!)

- Mongolia (long-hair livestock! cold plains! yourts!)

- Reunion island (volcano! forests!)

- Egypt - red sea coast (corals!)
posted by knz at 9:40 AM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: It looks like you want to escape winter, not embrace it, but I'd consider a trip to Yellowstone National Park.

The winters there are amazing, there's barely any tourists, and some of the geothermal features there will make you wonder what planet you're on. That's not to mention the amazing animal life you'll see since it's much more concentrated due to the animals coming off of the highlands.

Also, to most people, your typical small-town Wyomingite is truly a different type of person to behold, both friendly and independent, and you'll actually get to meet some of them (instead of just other tourists).

There are several documentaries about Yellowstone in the winter out there, so maybe check and see if it's appealing to you, but I think it covers several of your criteria.
posted by Fister Roboto at 11:06 AM on January 9, 2012

Borneo, to see orang utans. Or Papua New Guinea. I think both are safer than Yemen.

Or different, in a different way, fly to Cape Town and then take the ship to St Helena.
posted by plonkee at 12:06 PM on January 9, 2012

If Japan is a place you're excited about (I'm looking at Tokyo in your list of possible places), investigate Shikoku. Beautiful beaches (too cold to swim at that time of year, but still pleasant for walking), yummy citrus fruit that will be ripe at the right time, amazing local food, and friendly but mostly non-English-speaking locals. Look up the 88-temple pilgrimage--not necessarily to do the whole thing, but most are really beautiful, peaceful places. You will see Japanese tour groups dressed in white, but few to no American tourists.

An amazing place to stay, if you can get there (you'd definitely have to drive), is Shimanto Gakusha--in an old school, right on the river, with excellent food. This is in a pretty isolated area. It's completely beautiful, and it's a part of Japan tourists don't usually see.

I lived in Kochi City for a summer a few years ago and always highly recommend Shikoku. It's a long way from Tokyo, but by flying in to either Osaka or Tokyo, you can see some of big crazy Japan and also some of the rural Japan some people don't realize exists. Feel free to memail me if you're interested! From the follow-ups it sounds like this miiiiight not be right for you for this trip, but I figured I'd post anyway.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:48 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have always wanted to go to Socotra as well and went to Madagascar instead (as many have suggested) because of the political turmoil in Yemen. I have also been to Tanzania/Zanzibar. I very highly recommend Madagascar. It was one of my favorite vacations ever. Zanzibar was very pretty and I enjoyed it there, but Madagascar is just incomparable when it comes to unique biodiversity. The lemurs are great, but it goes beyond that, from skittering tenrecs in the rainforest to strange, knobby plants in the desert to otherworldly cacti-like trees in the spiny forests near the Mozambique Channel.
posted by Falconetti at 1:32 PM on January 9, 2012

One note: we hired a driver in Madagascar, which allowed us to travel at our own pace and stop when and where we wanted (although we had our own personal itinerary). Our driver also acted as a fixer and arranged everything for us. I am still in touch with him and recommend him (his name is Nene), so if you do decide to go to Madagascar and want a driver recommendation, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Falconetti at 1:35 PM on January 9, 2012

How about India? I'm biased, seeing as I'm from there, but it's a hell of a trip, both geographically and mentally. The place is huge and noisy and vibrant and loud, just completely different from anything I've ever experienced in the US our Europe, and it fits all your variables well, especially if you can manage to get away from the touristy places. Plus, early March is a great time to visit, since it's still spring and so you won't die of heat, and the people here are really warm and inviting.
posted by Tamanna at 2:48 PM on January 9, 2012

Victoria Falls really is a once in a lifetime experience.

Malaysia is wonderful, as is Thailand and Cambodia.

Goa is supposed to be amazing.

Cape Town is amazing, but very European. I'm not sure I'd call it "different".

I bet Morrocco would qualify. Haven't been heard great things.

Everyone I know that's been to the Seychelles raves about it like nothing I've ever heard.

A camping safari on the Serengeti would probably be my pick, but need to check the season.
posted by whoaali at 3:53 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: It looks like Madagascar and Zanzibar are the frontrunners — we're going to look into airfare/accomodations, do a little itinerary research (look for MeMails, many of you!) and maybe just flip a coin. You guys are, as always, completely amazing. Please keep the advice and suggestions coming!
posted by firstbest at 6:22 PM on January 9, 2012

I posted about going to Madagascar a few years ago. I really wanted to go there for our honeymoon. My wife was willing to go along until she saw an email from a FoF that started "Its the most amazing places I've ever been once you get past the leeches and cholera"

So yeah, maybe one day I'll get there.
posted by JPD at 10:37 PM on January 9, 2012

Oh also other Madagascar factoid - the guy who wrote the lonely planet book for it as of two years ago died doing the research. So yeah. It sounds perfect for what you want. (I mean that sincerely and w/o snark. I want to go there too)
posted by JPD at 10:38 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: Hey old thread! We've finally decided one something totally and completely different, based on a zillion factors including the convenient presence of a delightful cousin who will act as a fabulous guide: Brazil! Here's the accompanying AskMe »

Your advice in this thread has been amazing, and we seriously plan to go on trips to Madagascar, Socotra, Zanzibar, and/or New Zealand using your extraordinary advice. Thanks Metafilter!
posted by firstbest at 8:35 PM on January 29, 2012

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