Uncharted Isles

August 2, 2008
On these seven islands, you're guaranteed to get there before anyone you know.

Skomer Island
The secret is out about Skomer—among birds, anyway. Nearly half a million puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars, and razorbills build nests in the lichen-covered cliffs of the 721-acre nature reserve off mainland Wales. The birds far outnumber the dozen or so humans on Skomer, just a 15-minute ferry ride from the town of Martin's Haven (Dale Sailing, 011-44/1646-603-123, $18 round trip). Crisscrossed with hiking trails, the island is protected by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. A maximum of 250 people may visit per day, but there's only room for 15 overnight guests in a converted barn (shown here) where scientists conduct most of their research (011-44/1239-621-600,, $139). If you visit between May and July, when the majority of birds are nesting, you'll hear the eerie serenade of the rare Manx shearwater; there are more than 200,000 of them on Skomer. "They have this really wacky call, like a crazy chicken crossed with a pigeon," says Jo Milborrow, the island's wildlife warden. "The legend is that they're the souls of sailors." —Amy Laughinghouse


Corn Islands
Even the pirates of the Caribbean took a vacation from plundering, and to this day, their hideaway has remained a fairly hidden treasure. Forty miles off mainland Nicaragua, the Corn Islands are still populated by the descendants of buccaneers. On Great Corn Island—one-hour La Costeña flights depart daily from Managua (011-505/263-2142, from $164)—the only attractions are sand and sea, including a reef that surrounds a 400-year-old Spanish galleon. "If you get bored here, then you don't know how to unwind," says Jeff Johnson, an expat from Washington, D.C. "Not doing anything is the point." Great Corn is a metropolis compared with the 1.4-square-mile Little Corn Island. The $6 ferry from Great Corn drops you off near the two best places to stay: Hotel Los Delfines (011-505/820-2242,, from $50) and Casa Iguana, which relies on solar power because of spotty electricity (, from $35). Despite the wonky infrastructure, Little Corn has pockets of sophistication: Paola Carminiani serves up a taste of her Italian homeland with three-course dinners at Farm, Peace & Love (, $15). Just bring a flashlight so you can find your way back through the jungle. —Paul Katz

Kíthira Island
Mythical characters dwell everywhere on Kíthira, just eight miles off the tip of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Here's the pool where Aphrodite bathed. Over there, you can see the cave where Helen and Paris are believed to have sought refuge. Except for the six weeks starting in mid-July, Kíthira is a sleepy place with compact medieval villages that are home to ancient grain mills, Byzantine chapels, and cheerful wooden beehives that are painted yellow, blue, or white. (Kíthira's thyme-scented honey is so coveted that the annual production sells out within weeks.) Lodging on the island consists of small hotels and inns. In the whitewashed capital of Chora (shown here), the 12-room Hotel Margarita faces the sea (, from $111). An even better base for exploring is one of the villages in the center, such as Mitata, where a beekeeper has opened Aplinori, an inn where guests can learn how to make honey and cheese (011-30/27-36-033-010, from $79 including breakfast). One-hour Olympic Airlines flights to Kíthira depart daily from Athens (800/223-1226,, $263 round trip). —Ann Banks

Rottnest Island
The name Rottnest is unsuitable for such a beautiful place—after all, the island has more than 60 white-sand beaches. Blame Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh, who discovered the island in 1696, mistook the marsupial quokkas for rats, and named the place "rat's nest." After a 70-year stretch as a penal colony, the island, 12 miles off mainland Australia, has become a popular day trip from Perth (, $66 round trip). The best way to tour the salt lakes in the interior is to rent a bicycle through Rottnest Bike Hire (, $17 per day). The reefs around the island are great for snorkeling; Oceanic Cruises leads excursions to shipwrecks off Kingston Reef (, from $22). Most visitors come just for the day, but there are lodgings—cabins and bungalows (shown here) managed by the island authority (, from $41). Before heading back to catch the ferry, stop for some Victoria Bitter beer and a platter of fish, scallops, and oysters at the Rottnest Tearooms Bar & Café (011-61/8-9292-5171, —Justin Bergman


Fakarava Island
The island's single road wasn't paved until 2003, in anticipation of a visit by then French president Jacques Chirac (he never arrived, nor did he give a reason why). But that certainly helped put Fakarava on the map—unlike its more populated neighbors Bora-Bora and Tahiti, Fakarava is home to about 500 residents. In the center of Rotoava village is the Relais Marama, the one pension in town with oceanfront bungalows (, from $106). For divers and snorkelers, the northern Garuae Pass and the southern Tumakohua Pass have pristine coral reefs that are accessible through outfitter Te Ava Nui (, from $80). You'll have to travel for a full day to get to and from Tumakohua—the pass is only reachable by boat—but it's worth the trip. The nearby village of Tetamanu has a church built entirely out of coral, as well as several black-pearl farms that give free tours. A pension on the outskirts of Rotoava, Pearl Guest House Havaiki, will even allow you to snorkel to its oyster farm with the owner and keep any pearls you find (011-689/93-40-15,, tours from $40). One-hour flights to Fakarava depart from Papeete, Tahiti, once daily (, from $437 round trip). —Lynwood Lord

Sumba Island
Legend has it that Sumba's first inhabitants descended a ladder from heaven, but as soon as their feet hit the ground, they started battling. The natives' reputation convinced European traders to avoid the island in southern Indonesia, leaving it relatively undeveloped for centuries. The warrior culture lives on in the annual Pasola ritual war festival held each February and March, in which horsemen from various tribes joust using spears. For more mellow activities, the island's southern coast has great surfing—12-foot swells are not uncommon—and a community-minded (although expensive) resort called Nihiwatu. The hotel has day trips to nearby villages, where you can chew betel nut with the locals, buy colorful ikat cloth, and volunteer at a clinic funded by the resort (, day tours from $25). The more affordable Sumba Nautil Resort is down the coast (, from $116). One-hour Transnusa Air Service flights to Sumba depart from Bali (, $207 round trip). —Susan Crandell

Amantaní Island
Few places have a welcoming committee quite like the one on Amantaní, an island in Lake Titicaca: Aymara Indian women wearing embroidered black tunics line the dock and wave to visitors as they disembark from the ferry arriving from the city of Puno. After living in relative isolation for centuries, residents on the island began to allow overnight stays about 10 years ago. There are no cars or roads, and quinoa and barley are grown by hand—as they have been for centuries—on hillside terraces. Stone hiking paths lead to the island's two highest peaks, Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth). During the Fiesta de la Santa Tierra each January, the residents form dual processions from temples built atop Pachamama and Pachatata to the main village, also called Amantaní, where everyone dances late into the night. Tour operator Edgar Adventures will arrange farmstays with several families that take turns hosting visitors (, $27 including the four-hour ferry ride). "The Aymara live simply on what they produce," says guide Fredy Manrique. "It made me realize that you can be happy with very little—that you don't necessarily need to have big houses and cars." —Justin Bergman


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5 Ancient Villages Are Back in Business

Castello di Fonterutoli For nearly 600 years, the Mazzei family has produced wine, grappa, and olive oil on 300 acres of land surrounding the village of Fonterutoli—a majority of which the family also owns—in the heart of Tuscany's Chianti region. Once common all over Italy, this type of centralized, aristocratic agricultural estate largely vanished following the Industrial Revolution and the exodus of people from the countryside to the cities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Mazzeis, who are still headed by a marchese, Lapo Mazzei, held on to their operation by modernizing the farm and buying back land they had sold off over the years. As the village slowly emptied of residents, the family also converted some of the old farmworkers' homes into guest rooms. Three apartments share the cobblestoned village square with the 16th-century family villa and the church of San Miniato. The lodgings have been carefully restored to retain many of the original architectural elements—stone walls, beamed ceilings, fireplaces, and terra-cotta floors—and have been furnished by the Mazzei marchesa with paintings and antiques belonging to the family. There's also a three-room B&B on the top floor of a house where some members of the family currently live. Named Roseto after the rose bushes climbing its walls, the B&B is an odd but pleasing mix of modern and traditional styles—the sitting room has beamed ceilings, floral-patterned sofas, tapestries on the walls, and a bright-red resin floor. In the tiny courtyard garden is a swimming pool for guests. An old stone country home overlooking the estate's vineyards just outside the village has been turned into the Osteria di Fonterutoli. The restaurant serves all the Mazzei wines, as well as classic Tuscan fare such as pici al ragù di cinta (hand-rolled spaghetti with a ragù sauce made with pork from a belted Sienese pig) and imaginative riffs on old-fashioned dishes. Patrons who order the tagliata dell'Osteria, for instance, receive a plate of raw steak strips that are cooked at the table on a blisteringly hot stone. Information: Via Puccini 4, outside Castellina in Chianti, 011-39/0577-741-385,, from $195. Borgo Argenina Elena Nappa calls it The Welcome. When guests arrive at her hilltop Tuscan inn, her dogs, Pasqualina and Bianca, escort them to the main house, and Elena seats them at her massive kitchen table. She then launches into a lengthy discourse on what they should see in the Chianti area, circling sights, vineyards, and artists' studios on a map and drawing in back roads that can save time. On the way to the room, she explains that everything in the minibar is free, as are the vin santo and cantucci (dessert wine and Tuscan biscotti) on the loggia, and she asks for at least a day's notice to cook a family-style dinner for $62 per person—she makes the pasta by hand. Finally, she gives her guests the key to the lock on the door's iron bolt. Elena stumbled upon the abandoned medieval hamlet of Borgo Argenina while taking a walk in 1992. A fashion stylist in Milan at the time, she instantly fell in love with the crumbling homes and bought them from a local wine estate—the move was so sudden her mother thought she was crazy. Five years after Elena's team of workers began the renovations—rebuilding the walls and roofs, digging wells, adding bathrooms, and running electrical lines to the village—she quit her job and opened the hotel for business. The main house has six guest rooms decorated in traditional Tuscan style, with antique wrought-iron beds, hand-stitched quilts and lace curtains, and timeworn terracotta tiles on the floors. In contrast, one of the three smaller houses for rent, Villa Oliviera, has a contemporary design, with steel staircases, track lighting, curtains and linens made from old textiles, and polished cement floors. The sunny breakfast room is always filled with conversation as guests get to know one another over a rich spread of cheeses, meats, eggs, bread, and cakes still warm from the oven. In the late afternoon, couples congregate on the recliners and low wall of the terrace, swapping stories and comparing their experiences. Elena might stop by to share some cherries from the orchard. As accommodating as she is, Elena does request that her guests don't arrive in the afternoon, when she naps. "You have to stick to the rhythms of the land," she says in defense of her daily riposo. "A trip to the Chianti should be about rediscovering this pace of life." Information: Off S.S. 408 outside Gaiole in Chianti, 011-39/0577-747-117,, from $265. Closed from mid-November to March. Fattoria di Titignano Deep in the Parco Fluviale del Tevere forest in southern Umbria, the village of Titignano has remained virtually unchanged since it was founded in 937. Originally a farming estate like Castello di Fonterutoli, Titignano was built on a spot above the Tiber River by a French count and his family and sold at an auction centuries later to the Corsini family—one of the most important noble families in Italy—for the equivalent of $380. The Corsini clan still owns the hamlet and grows grapes and olives on some of the 5,000 acres of surrounding land. In the 1980s, the family renovated abandoned homes in the village to open an agriturismo, or farmstay. Titignano, home to about 15 people today, sits at the end of a cypress-lined road and atop a hill overlooking vineyards, woodland, and Lake Corbara in the distance. On one side of the main piazza is a church popular for weddings (grains of rice and pasta are stuck between the cobblestones); on the other side is the imposing central keep, which houses the hotel's reception desk, a shop selling products from the Corsini farm and vineyard, and the ancient main hall. With its 20-foot-high ceiling and stone fireplaces large enough to roast a cow, the hall is Titignano's biggest draw. It's also where the hotel's seven-course lunches and dinners are served. The parade of dishes includes wild-boar salami, radicchio risotto, pappardelle with a pheasant ragù, and roasted spring lamb, plus wine from the vineyard. People come all the way from Rome, a two-hour drive through the countryside, just to indulge in the feast. Titignano's 15 guest rooms and six apartments—set in various buildings in the village—are decorated with wrought-iron beds, patchwork quilts and blankets, and giant armoires painted with bucolic scenes. The paintings, however, can't compare to the views from the pool just below the defensive walls. From this vantage point, you can see two of Umbria's biggest attractions: Todi, a medieval town to the east, and Orvieto, an ancient Etruscan capital that rises majestically from volcanic tuff to the west. Information: Off S.S. 79 between Orvieto and Todi, 011-39/0763-308-000,, from $140, or from $187 with dinner. Lunch can be purchased separately for $31 per person. Castel Pergine The heavily fortified, 12th-century Castel Pergine is one of the best preserved and most impressive Gothic castles in Italy's often overlooked Trentino-Alto Adige region, near the Austrian border. Guests enter the mighty keep—which is surrounded by two rings of ivy-covered stone walls—through an echoing, octagonal hall with a vaulted ceiling and a floor of mismatched flagstones. A stone spiral staircase leads up to the lobby and bar, where tables for two have been set inside the deep window bays (the windowsills serve as benches). The stained-glass windows depict the coats of arms of the various owners of the castle over the centuries: generations of Austrian dukes, Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I, and several Italian bishops. Because the castle is medieval to the hilt, the hotel's managers, Theo Schneider and Verena Neff—a husband-and-wife team—have added 21st-century touches where they can. "We like the tension between old and new," says Verena. "The castle is old, and the walls are old and speak of history, but it's important to put something new in here as well." A different regional artist's sculptures are exhibited on the grounds each year, and the castle frequently hosts folk and jazz concerts. There are 21 guest quarters in a long, ivy-covered wing, which was appended to the castle centuries after the keep was built and has more of a Renaissance look. The small rooms, or what Verena calls the "monastic cells," are filled with bulky neo-Gothic furniture that was brought in when the castle was initially transformed into a hotel in 1910. Fourteen of the rooms have their own toilets and showers, and there's a large, communal bathroom in the hall for the other seven. (In the next round of renovations, Theo and Verena plan to put private bathrooms in those rooms.) The tower above the double portcullis at the entrance has two more rooms that are available for stays of three days or longer. Guest quarters will also be added in another tower on the outer defensive wall when it is refurbished sometime in the near future, Verena says. The nightly rate for all the rooms includes a candlelit dinner in a Renaissance-style hall in the keep, with dishes such as spinach cappellacci (a type of ravioli) stuffed with ricotta and asparagus and covered with a truffle-and-walnut pesto, a chicken and porcini mushroom stew, and trout with roasted potatoes and grilled zucchini. There are more than 250 wines in the cellar to choose from, including bottles of the chardonnay, pinot bianco, and nosiola produced in the Trentino-Alto Adige region. Information: Via al Castello 10, Pergine Valsugana (Trento), 011-39/0461-531-158,, from $199 with private bath, from $153 with shared bath, including breakfast and dinner. Closed from early November to mid-April. Castello di Montegridolfo Because of its strategic position on the border between the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Marche in eastern Italy, the hilltop hamlet of Montegridolfo has seen its share of battles. Founded sometime around the year 1000, the village was fought over for 300 years by the rival city-states of Rimini and Urbino before they destroyed it during a clash in 1336. Rebuilt by the rulers of Rimini, the Malatesta family, Montegridolfo passed through the hands of numerous owners and later became part of a monastery. Then fashion designer Alberta Ferretti visited in the 1980s and, with the help of a few financiers, purchased most of the buildings, spent six years renovating them, and opened a hotel. Today, Montegridolfo offers panoramic views of the countryside and an escape from the crowded beach resorts on the nearby Adriatic coast. Although recent renovations have diminished the patina of age—there are no cracks in the buildings, no crooked shutters, and no moss growing on the mortar—the village is gorgeous by any measure. The only entrance to the main square is over a steeply curving stone bridge that crosses a dry moat at the base of the outer walls. The square is flanked by a tiny chapel, a guard tower that now houses a bar and gelateria, and a wall with a niche containing a papier-mâché Madonna behind a pane of glass. The buildings were constructed with red, yellow, and gray bricks, giving the hamlet a mottled look reminiscent of Indian corn. About 10 families still live there. The Palazzo Viviani, the main manor house, which dates back to the late 1330s, has eight elegant—and expensive—apartments for rent, one of which is adorned with 16th-century frescoes. Eight more guest quarters are scattered throughout the village. And the Casa del Pittore—named after its previous owner, a painter—has seven guest rooms and a pool overlooking the vineyards and farms on the hillside below. Everyone gathers for breakfast in an aranceto (a type of winter greenhouse for citrus trees) in the village, and dinners are served at the excellent Ristoro di Palazzo Viviani in the main house's old stone-walled cellar, accompanied by live piano music. Information: Via Roma 38, 011-39/0541-855-350,, from $218.

Scouting Report 2008: Tanabe

TANABE, JAPAN Alisa Grifo: Owner of Kiosk, a New York City–based store stocked with souvenirs from her travels ( For about a decade, any time Alisa Grifo wasn't working as a set designer on film and photo shoots, she went traveling—or, more specifically, collecting mementos while abroad. So many friends began begging Grifo to bring back her finds for them that she decided to open Kiosk, a New York City store stocked with souvenirs; she focuses on one location at a time, though at any given moment shoppers can find black licorice from Finland, vegetable peelers from Germany, and air mail envelopes from Hong Kong. Grifo now hunts for products nearly half the year. A tip from a Japanese coworker led Grifo to board a train in Kyoto and head south into the mountainous, densely forested Wakayama prefecture. "My husband and I had to transfer buses near the top of a mountain range," says Grifo. "The views of the surrounding trees and peaks were just extraordinary." Her destination was Kamigoten Ryokan, a traditional guesthouse that has been run by the same family for four centuries. Near the Ryujin Onsen hot springs (within the city of Tanabe), the 11-room inn has a two-story wooden façade and indoor and outdoor hot-spring baths, many of which overlook forests and a nearby creek. "We took baths, ate an amazing dinner, had a long sleep, and felt utterly relaxed. No one spoke English, but it was never a problem." One day, Grifo and her husband stumbled upon a hiking path that sliced through Japanese cedars and up a mountain slope. "At the end there was a really beautiful waterfall," she says. "The trail felt like it was used only by the local community. It was very simple and totally secluded." Information: Tanabe tourism website, Trains from Kyoto to JR Kii-Tanabe take 150 minutes,, $52 each way. Buses to Ryujin Onsen take 80 minutes, 011-81/739-22-2100, $16 each way. Kamigoten Ryokan, 42 Ryujin, 011-81/739-79-0005,, from $150 per person, with breakfast and dinner. > See photos of the best places you've never heard of

Scouting Report 2008: Wilson

WILSON, UNITED STATES Nat and Rachael Lopes: Cofounders of Hilride, a mountain-bike park and tourism consulting firm that's based in Berkeley, Calif. ( In 2004, die-hard mountain-bike riders Nat and Rachael Lopes got married, quit their day jobs, and began assessing trails all over North America and Europe as spokespeople for the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Last year, the couple founded Hilride, which offers consulting services to destinations interested in creating mountain-bike parks. Though officially based in Berkeley, Calif., the Lopeses now travel year-round searching for the best trails—and helping others find them, too. Just off I-70, which cuts through America's heartland, Wilson, Kans., is admittedly "the last place you would ever think of for an epic mountain-bike ride," says Nat, who nevertheless trusted a local's tip and gave Wilson State Park's Switchgrass bike path a try. He and Rachael made an exciting discovery: "The 13-mile trail is fun and challenging," says Nat. Adds Rachael: "It runs through grasslands, sagebrush, and small stands of trees, and along sandstone and limestone ledges that ring a lake." Fishermen love the 9,000-acre Wilson Reservoir for its striped bass and walleye, but the lake has an additional appeal: Native American petroglyphs that were submerged when the reservoir was created in the 1960s. Information: Wilson State Park, 785/658-2465,, $4.25 per vehicle, cabin rentals from $60. > See photos of the best places you've never heard of

Scouting Report 2008: Moravský Krumlov

MORAVSKÝ KRUMLOV, CZECH REPUBLIC Rick Steves: Tour leader, producer of shows for television and radio, writer of a syndicated travel column, and publisher of over 30 guidebooks via his namesake company ( Back when he was a teenager, Rick Steves visited Europe to scope out factories with his father, a piano importer. Now he spends his summers racing across the Continent befriending locals and inspecting up to 20 hotels and 15 restaurants a day. "It looks like it did the day the Iron Curtain fell," says Steves, of Moravský Krumlov, a small Czech town in a remote eastern corner near Slovakia and Austria. "Nothing has changed. There's a romantic, wistful decrepitude about the place." The main attraction is behind the chipped yellow exterior of the 13th-century Castle Moravský Krumlov: Slav Epic, a series of gigantic, grandiose paintings by Alfons Mucha, who was born in nearby Ivancice. Mucha is known for his wispy, sensual art nouveau posters, but he considered these 20 panels depicting the history of the Slavic people to be his masterpiece, and he spent 18 years creating them. The work then languished in storage for decades after World War II. "When you're there, you feel like you're all alone with these canvases," says Steves. "It's like you discovered a treasure." Information: Trains to Moravský Krumlov from Prague take four hours,, $37; Castle Moravský Krumlov, 1 Zámecká, 011-420/515-322-789, $3. There are plans to move Slav Epic to a new home; it may go to Prague as early as 2009. > See photos of the best places you've never heard of