25 BEST PLACES YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF
Asia & Australia
Everyone wants to know about the "next great places." But rather than simply make up a list, we turned to the people who explore for a living--for companies such as Starbucks, W Hotels, Trader Joe's, and Lonely Planet. Get ready for a serious case of wanderlust (not to mention job envy).
Australia: Simpson Desert
Lonely Planet now sells more than 6 million guidebooks annually. With all that success, it's no wonder that Tony Wheeler--who founded the company in 1973--spends six months of the year searching for new regions to report on. "I like places that are on the edge even if they're not going to be seriously visitable for awhile," he says.
He means places like the Simpson Desert, the majority of which is in the southeastern corner of Australia's Northern Territory. It spreads out over 50,000 square miles of uninhabited red-sand ridges. "It's surprisingly beautiful country with a lot of vegetation," he says, "and if you're lucky, plenty of wildlife."
Most folks begin in Alice Springs, then head south, starting their eastward desert crossing at Dalhousie Springs. Officials advise a caravan of at least two four-wheel-drive vehicles--in case one breaks down--and a UHF radio or satellite phone to call for help if necessary. "Between Mount Dare and Birdsville there's no habitation, no campsites, no hotels, no fuel, no water, and no help if you hit problems," says Wheeler. "When you want to stop, just pull over and set up your tent." The light at the end of the desert is the Birdsville Hotel. "The celebratory cold beer there is one of the highlights of the trip." Australia 4 Wheel Drive Rentals: 011-61/88-94-53-338, australia 4wheeldriverentals.com, from $93 per day. Desert Parks Pass available from South Australia's Department for Environment and Heritage: 011-61/88-64-85-300, parks.sa.gov.au, $71.
Relief Riders International runs horseback trips to provide humanitarian aid in rural Rajasthan, India. "I scout for villages in need of help," says Alexander Souri, its executive director.
Souri is on the road at least four months of the year, leading tours, looking for villages in need of aid, and working with outfitters and the Red Cross. "Everything I did before this"--he was an international-event planner, a special-effects producer for The Matrix and X-Men, and a commercial director in China--"gave me the skills to run Relief Riders International."
While in Rajasthan, Souri stumbled upon the village of Mahansar in the Shekhawati region, an area in the triangle formed by Delhi, Jaipur, and Bikaner that's famous for its havelis (traditional residences) decorated with colorful frescoes. "You get a sense of grandeur, of something old that's slowly decaying by time, not by development," he says. Some of Mahansar's best frescoes are on three vaulted ceilings in the Sona Ki Dukan Haveli. The gold-leaf paintings depict scenes from the Ramayana and Gita Govinda. (Ask nearby shops for a key; donations welcome.) A few rooms in the Narayan Niwas fort, built in 1768, still contain frescoes, as well as antique rugs and carved wooden doors. Conveniently, it's now a hotel. Narayan Niwas Castle: 011-91/1595-264-322, from $26.
On Aaron Richter's first day in Inami, it started pouring. He ducked into a shop, then looked around. The shop stocked one thing--umbrellas.
Richter was in the mood to appreciate serendipity. It was 2002, right before he started working at W Hotels Worldwide, where he's now the senior director of design. He had taken some time off after his mother passed away. "I had to get across the planet," he says. "An inner journey, or something like that." Unlike the relentless, meeting-driven travel he does now--in July he went to Brussels, Qatar, and Istanbul, "and that was actually kind of a light month"--Japan was all about wandering. He was there for five weeks, mostly in Kyoto, and visited Inami for three days.
It was an architectural pilgrimage. "The town has a history of woodworking," he says, "and there's the Inami Woodcarving Museum, designed by Peter Salter." But what he took away was less about architecture than craftsmanship. "Wherever you walk, you'll catch someone's studio out of the corner of your eye. People are very friendly, and accommodating about showing their work. They're proud of it, and rightfully so."
Richter stayed at a ryokan called Yamashita. "I got attacked by this guy staying there. Not attacked--he just wanted to be my instant friend." The guy insisted they perform karaoke. Richter still can't believe it: "He could barely speak English, but he sang Sinatra perfectly. I did John Denver's 'Country Roads.' " From Kyoto take the Thunder Bird "Raicho" train to Takaoka (three hours), then the Johana line to Tonami (20 minutes), then the bus to Inami. Inami Woodcarving Museum: 733 Kitagawa, 011-81/763-82-5158, $4.25. Yamashita Ryokan: 011-81/763-82-0231, from $116.