You Went Where? // Weird Travel

01/10/2014 12:22 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

The world is a lot smaller today. Tibet is no longer a distant dreamland, the Amazon is a plane ride away. Trying to find a unique vacation spot is a minefield of hype and hoopla; how unique can it be if there are several companies running the same tour of the same place?

"Weird travel" is always a fun subject for me -- the places people want to go proves that a lot of thought goes into it, and often I have to hit Google to find something that really resonates. And it isn't as easy as you would think: Some places are just curious; unlike gardens displaying the curative properties of plants, the Alnwick Poison Garden in the UK is dedicated to the ones that will kill you. Interesting, and certainly very curious, but I wouldn't call it "weird." Not unless I catch you asking for recipes from the gardeners, of course.

But others are just plain off the wall. Here are a few I've come across:

North Korea
No, really.

In a past post, I strongly discouraged anyone going here for a vacation -- not because of any homophobia, but because the entire country is the backyard playpen of Kim Jong Un and whatever whim he has at the time. And boy, did I get raked over the coals in the comments for that. However, the recent show-arrests of Merrill Newman and Kenneth Bae proved my point that this is not exactly the safest place on the planet to get a tan.

But the fact remains that North Korea is one of the most popular "strange vacation" destinations going. It really is an event, too; in the 90s, the government ran the show, and gave grand tours of the country and the capital of Pyongyang. One of the legendary stops was the hospital visit, where visitors were shown medical and maternity wings filled with patients clearly neither sick nor pregnant. A friend of mine got into very serious trouble with the police for throwing away a newspaper with then leader Kim Jong Il on the cover -- it was construed as a sign of disrespect for the "Supreme Leader."

Today, luxury/bespoke tour company Cox & Kings runs what is probably the best tour of the country, and I strongly suggest going on a set tour; it will make it that much more difficult for your visit to be turned into a propaganda fest. For those who want a trip through the surreal landscape of what a police state really is, there is no better place.

The Mᅢᄐtter Museum
This gem of Philadelphia is a particularly rollicking gallop through the ghoulish.

An extension of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and founded in 1858 by Dr. Thomas Mᅢᄐtter, the museum started out in life as a repository for pathological specimens the good doctor used in his lessons. I am talking babies in jars... and anthrax carbuncles... and a wall of skulls... and a woman whose body turned into soap after she died...

But the hands-down winner -- and I kid you not -- is Einstein's brain. They sliced it out of the man (after he was already dead), chopped it up, and threw the pieces into apothecary jars brimming with formaldehyde. It was all to figure out what made this man tick; there was the idea that somehow his brain was physically or physiologically different to the point genius was the result. Dutifully, there was a whole micro-wing of science dedicated to Einstein's brain.

When I saw that, I really thought it looked like sushi... and then made the grave mistake of saying that aloud to where other viewers heard me. Talk about getting "The Look."

Because nothing says "unique vacation" like the site of the worst nuclear meltdown in world history!

Fukushima may have the mind of the public now, but the Japanese have nothing on what Soviet screwballs did back in 1986. The long and the short of it is that the Chernobyl reactor was of a now-obsolete type that is extremely unstable at low energy outputs; ironically, so long as the power plant was operating at full capacity, it was a fairly reliable system. So what did said-screwballs do? They knocked the power down.


It was a full nuclear meltdown. The reactor went haywire, generating 10 times the normal output in a matter of seconds in a positive feedback loop that was impossible to reign in. The reactors exploded, spewing out plutonium, americium, cesium, and assorted nuclear waste, creating a classic nuclear fallout scenario. 31 people died outright, but long-term health is still being assessed, with at least 5,000 standing cancer cases tied to the event and 25,000 - 60,000 predicted. Mutations in wildlife are common. An area of over 1,000 square miles was evacuated, and the reactor was entombed in concrete.

Located in the modern nation of Ukraine, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone reigns as one of the most usual tourist sights in the world. On the list of must dos is the entire city of Pripyat, within eyeshot of the reactors, and not evacuated until a few days later (after much of population fell ill with radiation sickness). Now totally abandoned, Pripyat is not only a monument to Soviet folly, but also how nature deals with man's idiocy. While still the most radioactive place on the planet, radiation levels around Chernobyl have fallen to level low enough that quick tours are perfectly safe.

Isla de las Munecas
For all those people who think huge doll collections, with all those creepy glass eyes looking back at you, are the work of the Devil, this idyllic island south of Mexico City, on the canals of Xochimico, is soooo not for you.

It starts out as a very sad, but nevertheless mundane, story. Island occupant Don Julian Santana Barrera made the tragic discovery of finding the body of a young girl who somehow fell into a canal and then drowned. Eying a doll floating in the water near her body, Barrera hung it in a tree to appease the spirit of the departed child.

And then he went a little bonkers. Barrera began hanging multitudes of dolls around the island, convinced he was being haunted. Over the course to 50 years, the island became a veritable wind chime of dolls.

They. Are. Everywhere. Hanging from the trees, strewn on the ground, their head jammed onto branches, limbs scattered in the bushes. It's Hannibal Lector meets Barbie.

Creepiest of all? Barrera died in the very same canal he found the girl.