The Joys of Wandering Off the Beaten Path

07/19/2010 10:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a time and a place for Las Vegas, Orlando, Cancun, Waikiki and other popular "tourist" hot spots. I've visited them all. But the true joy of travel is more often found in off-the-beaten-path destinations where the towns have no traffic lights and the "crowds" consist of herds of grazing guanaco or regiments of 600-year-old stone statues. Here are my four favorite places for feeling like a traveler not a tourist:

Cook Islands: Tahiti may be more famous, but this 15-island South Pacific nation is equally stunning--a watery mosaic of coral atolls (Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the two to visit) and picturesque lagoons that shimmer with every imaginable shade of blue. Named for Captain James Cook, who landed here in 1773, and now self-governing in association with New Zealand, the Cooks' no-fuss brand of tourism is steeped in authentic Polynesian customs. The traditional dance (known as the ura) is a rapid-fire hip-shaking set to an explosion of synchronized drums, and the cross-island trek on Rarotonga with blond-dreadlocked Pa is a high-energy lesson in local flora and fauna. On tiny Aitutaki (population 1,946) castaway dreams become reality as you paddle a kayak from the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa out onto on a crystalline lagoon and let the mesmerizing azure panorama envelop you.

Easter Island: Other ancient wonders such as Machu Picchu and the Great Pyramids are fascinating but frustrating as you battle hordes of day-trippers and yearn for a quiet spot to contemplate the awesome beauty of man's handiwork. Here, on this isolated, 69-square-mile isle in the middle of the Pacific (but ruled by Chile) you can ogle 887 mysterious stone statues (the famous moai of Rapa Nui, as the island is officially known) for as long as you desire. Tourism has surged of late--there are now flights several days a week from Santiago on LAN and a three-year-old high-end Explora lodge--but the red-dirt roads are still unpaved and the best way to explore is to rent a Jeep and drive until you spot a silent regiment of 13-foot-tall moai on the horizon...and then, another and another.

Patagonia: Shared by Argentina and Chile, this pristine region is home to some of the most picturesque peaks and incredible glaciers on the planet. Hiking in this vast, unspoiled wilderness is one of life's most invigorating experiences as crisp air fills your lungs, condors circle overhead and skittish guanaco check you out from across the grassy pampas. On the larger Argentine side, the must-sees are the massive Perito Moreno Glacier and striking Mt. Fitz Roy--accessible with a stay at Los Notros--while the smaller yet even more scenic Chilean side boasts one of the most magnificent vistas anywhere: Torres Del Paine. You can wake up to this unforgettable view and miles of hiking trails at Explora Patagonia.

Namibia: If Americans are familiar with this southern African nation, it's probably because Shiloh Jolie-Pitt was born there, but anyone who has actually been here will know it's the home of the dunes of Sossusvlei, some of the planet's most awesome piles of sand. By awesome I mean hundreds of feet tall and at sunrise and sunset colored a mirage-like fiery orange-red. It's worth getting up at 4:00am to photograph them (and climb them) in Namib Naukluft Park, a 90-minute drive from the welcoming Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. Along the way, you're apt to spot a few locals: sharp-horned oryx, gemsbok and ostrich. And come nightfall, the nature watch continues with superb stargazing in a sky so clear you can actually see the Andromeda galaxy.