Voyages of Rediscovery
Once marred by violence, four beautiful countries want you back
(MONEY Magazine) – Libya. Rwanda. Croatia. Nicaragua. We expect to see these names on the evening news, not travel brochures. A war or another well-publicized horror can keep tourists away for generations, but these countries have quietly recovered from past troubles with their beauty intact and their history well preserved. Tourists have yet to return in force, so crowds are down and prices are low. Travelers who want the familiarity of, say, St. Thomas or the guidebook-friendly ease of Paris won't consider these to be dream destinations--you trade the comforts of a well-established tourism network for real adventure. But each offers an experience that you can't find anywhere else. So don't cross these countries off your list because of what you think you'll find there. You could miss not only a good deal but a vacation unlike any you, or anyone you know, has ever taken.
• Libya? Are you kidding? Nope. You might think of it as nothing but sand, but Libya has some of the best-preserved Roman ruins outside Italy. All of them were off limits to Americans until last year (when the U.S. lifted its ban on travel after 23 years). A Libyan Liaison Office opened in Washington, D.C. in January and plans to issue visas to U.S. tourists. More than a million foreign visitors a year are expected by 2010.
• Is Qaddafi still in charge? Yes, but he has renewed ties with the world by dismantling weapons programs and rehabilitating Libya's image. The man seems more interested in commerce than politics--his son recently attended Davos as part of an effort to woo foreign (including U.S.) business leaders and investors into helping Libya privatize its oil industry, and Qaddafi himself has said that a safe, stable country is vital to healthy trade. He's not your father's Muammar.
• Still, why would anyone want to go there? Besides Roman ruins, Libya boasts remarkably intact Greek, Byzantine and Phoenician buildings, with the Mediterranean as a backdrop. But what sets Libya apart is the chance to see it before the crowds, which now are almost surreally absent, descend. "Often we were the only ones there," says Steven Conner, 69, a San Diego retiree who visited recently with his family. "To have these places to yourself is an incredible experience."
• Is it safe? Europeans have been traveling there since 1999, and after more than two decades many Libyans are welcoming American tourists, according to the travelers and tour operators we spoke with. "I walked to my hotel in Tripoli at midnight several times and had no problem," says Janet Moore of Distant Horizons in Long Beach, who visited three times in the past year. Crime is low, largely because of the country's wealth.
• The way to go Take a cruise--the best sights are clustered along the coast. Oceania's 10-night Barcelona-to-Lisbon sail starts at $1,799, including air fare from the U.S. It stops in three Libyan ports with a night in Tripoli (oceaniacruises .com). Get a travel agent who specializes in Libya--try Travcoa (travcoa.com), Mountain Travel Sobek (mtsobek.com) or Geographic Expeditions (geoex.com). One note: Alcohol is taboo, and women are encouraged to cover their arms and legs. Sunbathe on the boat.
• I saw Hotel Rwanda. It wasn't exactly an ad for the tourism bureau. Rwanda has been at peace for 10 years, and the government has launched a major initiative to bring back tourists. Much of the country has been rebuilt, the economy has rebounded, and four major hotels have opened in the past year. Travelers can safely visit most areas, including the home of the mountain gorillas made famous by zoologist Dian Fossey. "Rwanda is as safe as we've seen it anytime in 20 years," says Thomas Keesling of Frosch International Travel, which specializes in Rwanda. His wife heads the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, once run by Fossey. They travel there three to four times a year.
• Can I stay at the real Hotel Rwanda? Sure, but it's not really called that. The Hotel des Mille Collines, where hundreds once took refuge, is open for business. Or go for the luxe Intercontinental ($175 a night), Rwanda's first five-star hotel.
• Wouldn't it be easier just to go on an African safari? Maybe, but you won't see mountain gorillas on a safari, as Rwanda is one of the few places where the endangered gorillas live. (You can see them in Uganda, but it's more expensive to visit, and the hiking is far more difficult.) Get face to face--within seven meters, to be exact--with mountain gorillas in Parc National des Volcans, a string of seven volcanoes. The park reopened in July 1999, and all visitors are protected by a military guard unit. After a day of hiking, enjoy "sundowner" time at the Gorilla Nest Lodge, where travelers share stories, drink and dine outside on china set on white linen tablecloths.
• The way to go Find an experienced tour company. Park East offers a six-day trip for $2,798. It includes flights between Nairobi and Rwanda's capital, Kigali, lodging in town and on the mountain, all meals, game drives and gorilla permits ($250 on their own), a driver and a naturalist (parkeast.com).
• Remind me where Croatia is, exactly. On the east coast of the Adriatic Sea (the one with gorgeous beaches) across from Italy. It borders Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Hungary and Slovenia.
• How long has the war been over? Ten years. After the fall of Communism, civil war broke out between the former Yugoslavian states of Serbia and Croatia. Peace has since established, and Serbia has ceased to be a threat.
• Why would I go there instead of some other beach? Croatia's Adriatic shores offer a waterfront paradise unlike any other. In-the-know Western Europeans flock there to escape summer crowds along the French Riviera. In addition to the scenic coastline and breathtaking summer weather, Croatia has a rich cultural history and many nature preserves. "Dubrovnik is a classic medieval city, but it's not overrun with tourists," says Jim Berkeley, president of Destinations and Adventures International, a custom-tour operator. "Food ranges from bistros to five-star dining, with influence from Italy."
• Is it more affordable than St. Tropez? Oui. Prices are lower to begin with, and since Croatia is not part of the European Union and doesn't use the euro, U.S. dollars go much further.
• How would I spend a day there? Here's what Sanja Milic, a New York makeup artist who grew up in Croatia and spends summers there, recommends: Drive between Rijeka and Dubrovnik, often compared to the Pacific Coast Highway. Stop in a village for lunch along the way, then sail out to Vis, one of the hundreds of nearby islands, where you can hike and dine on grilled octopus.
• The way to go Vantage Travel offers a bargain trip at $1,999 for 15 days including tours, round-trip air fare, hotels and most meals (vantagetravel.com).
• You say Nicaragua, I think Sandinistas. Nicaragua's civil war ended 15 years ago. The infrastructure has been rebuilt, and several top resorts have opened. The country remains one of the poorest in the world, but it has held three peaceful presidential elections since 1990.
• I hear it's like Costa Rica 20 years ago. Is that good? Yes. Nicaragua shares Costa Rica's natural beauty, from volcanoes to cloud forests, but it's less crowded than its trendy neighbor. Just work with a veteran tour operator such as Nicaragua Adventures (nica-adventures.com) so you find the spots with the best amenities.
• What can I do there? Sit on the edge of the crater, hike a rain forest, mountain bike down a volcano, kayak across Lake Nicaragua, and surf some of the best waves in Central America with no photo-snapping tourists to elbow aside. For a more laid-back experience, enjoy a breakfast of rice and beans and strong local coffee, hit the beach all day, and enjoy a steak dinner at sunset.
• The way to go Last October the luxury ecolodge Lapa Rios in Costa Rica opened Morgan's Rock Hacienda in Nicaragua (morgansrock.com). There are just 15 bungalows on the property, which uses solar power and sits amid a vast nature preserve. A four-night package including multicourse meals, local drinks, a nature walk and volcano tour is $800 per person May through October. Most hotels and restaurants in the capital accept credit cards, but away from the city it's harder to find places that take plastic. It ain't St. Thomas, but then that's the idea.