Good Times in Really Bad Places
Looking for a thrill on your next vacation? Here are seven resort destinations that are anything but tame.
THE PIRATE GALAPAGOS
THE PIRATE GALAPAGOS
Where: Hadibo, Yemen
What: Seeking out Dragon’s Blood on Socotra Island
Some 150 miles off the Horn of Africa, Socotra is a naturalist’s dream, an ancient wonderland of biodiversity, home to 700 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth — including forests of frankincense, myrrh, and the fabled dragon’s blood tree. Yes, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a bit harder to get to than most: The few flights to the remote island pass through Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, whose impoverished citizens are among the most well-armed in the world and do a healthy business in kidnapping. But Socotra is peaceful. No larger than New York’s Long Island, it boasts jagged mountain ranges, brilliant white beaches, and craggy cliffs that fall into the turquoise sea. The locals don’t speak Arabic, but Socotri, a native language unique to the island. You might want to think twice, though, about chartering a skiff to the nearby archipelago — the waters are crawling with Somali pirates. If you’re planning to join the few thousand or so bird-watchers and sun-bathers who make the adventurous journey there each year, the main town of Hadibo has a handful of decent hotels. But you’d be wise to move fast: Apparently, both the U.S. and Russian navies are considering the island as a possible base for fleets operating in the nearby Gulf of Aden.
FIRE IN THE HOLE
Where: Kabul, Afghanistan
What: Kabul Golf Club and the Gandamack Lodge
For war-weary correspondents, military contractors, and NGO-types, Afghanistan’s only golf course gives new meaning to the word “hazard.” On this 9-hole course just west of Kabul, avid golfers are more likely to lose their balls amid discarded ordinance than in sand traps. Before the course was re-opened in 2004 following the U.S. invasion, the fairways were reportedly pockmarked with mortar craters and littered with spent casings. St. Andrews it ain’t. But with greens fees only $15, it’s a cheap afternoon for ex-pats pulling in hardship wages. In the evening, savvy travelers retire to the Hare and Hound Watering Hole at the Gandamack Lodge, run by the British journalist Peter Jouvenal. Rooms start at $75 a night, but it’s not quite what it used to be: The old location, a mansion near the Interior Ministry, was reputedly the home of Osama bin Laden’s fourth wife.
RUN THROUGH THE JUNGLE
Where: Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo
What: Seeing the silverbacks at the Orchid Safari Club
Nestled in the foothills of eastern Congo, along the Rwandan border, the Orchid Safari Club boasts an impressive view: It’s hard to beat the sunsets over Lake Kivu from the veranda. But once the sun goes down, it’s best to stay in for the night. The rustic lodge is in the city of Bukavu, which saw horrific violence in 2004 when rebel leader Laurent Nkunda allowed his troops to run wild for three days, raping and killing civilians at will. There’s still the occasional outburst, but U.N. peacekeepers have now tamped much of the embers. For a hundred dollars or so, the Safari Club arranges outings to view Congo’s famed, and notoriously reclusive, silverback gorillas. But be warned: The small remaining population of these majestic animals is often found deep in the jungle, in regions where rebels remain unchecked. Maybe a quick dip in the lake is more up your alley? Oh, wait: It’s full of toxic methane and carbon dioxide bubbles that kill dozens of people every year.
INTERLAKEN IN IRAQ
Where: Rawandoz, Iraqi Kurdistan
What: Pank Tourist Resort
Perched atop a butte in the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan lies the ambitious resort of Pank, a community of neat ranch homes boasting well-manicured lawns and stunning views of the Rawandoz gully and Halgurd Mountain, the region’s highest peak. To be honest, it looks a lot like a suburban town in, say, New Mexico, complete with broad sidewalks and well-lighted streets. There’s a Ferris wheel, a mini-golf course imported from Sweden, a 1,400-meter-long toboggan ride, and a “beautiful” restaurant (according to the slick website). For visiting dignitaries escaping the chaos and heat of the rest of Iraq, Pank tourist village offers three helicopter landing pads and six VIP villas, and a five-star hotel is reportedly in the works. And for Kurdish guerrillas looking for a little rest and relaxation before heading back into eastern Turkey (only 40 miles away), go on — you’ve earned it.
THE MAKE-A-KILLING FIELDS
Where: Poipet, Cambodia
What: Star Vegas Hotel and Casino
Ten years ago, the dusty Cambodian border town of Poipet was a miserable place awash in prostitution, touts, drugs, and pickpockets. For backpackers making their way from Bangkok to the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Riep, it was a place to get a passport stamped and a cold soda. But now, not far from where the remnants of the Khmer Rouge once holed up, it’s Southeast Asia’s Las Vegas, a glitzy development of hotels and casinos that lures Korean high-rollers and Thai punters looking to make a quick baht. Driven by cultural and legal prohibitions against gambling in Thailand, the border town is booming. Star Vegas‘s motorized rickshaws pick up guests at the border and deposit them at the gaudy complex along Mao Ze Tung Road. There’s even a golf course, which the manager assures guests is now completely free of land mines.
CARTELS AND COCKTAILS
Where: Mazatlán, Sinaloa State, Mexico
What: Narco-tours at El Cid
Too old for spring break in Cancun? Looking for something a bit more authentic than Cabo San Lucas? Look no further than the beaches of Mazatlán, a beautiful seaside town about halfway between Mexico City and the U.S. border. Great weather, good food, friendly authorities, and a highway straight north to El Paso — so fine is the location, in fact, that it’s home to the notorious Sinaloa cartel, among Mexico’s most ruthless and brazen drug organizations. Locals offer narco-tours of infamous gangster shootouts and take curious onlookers past the glitzy homes of Francisco Arellano Felix and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, heads of the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels, respectively. In June, 28 gang members were killed as two cartels clashed in Mazatlán prison, and in December 2009, Mexican marines literally stormed the beaches in a raid on narcotraffickers. For lodging, try the El Cid hotel chain, which has four posh resorts on the shore and was popularized in a recent “narcocorrido” (or drug ballad) by Andrés Márquez, who waxed rhapsodically about armored cars, nosefuls of cocaine, and the hotel’s fine suites.
LET THE SUN BEAT DOWN UPON YOUR FACE
Where: Kashmir, India
What: Gulmarg Ski Resort
If you’re fed up waiting for the lifts in Aspen or in the boutiques of Sundance, look no further than Gulmarg ski resort: the only line you’ll be near atop the vertiginous peaks is the Line of Control. Granted, you wouldn’t want to cross it in search of some off-piste bowls. The contours of the heavily militarized high Himalayan border between India and Pakistan remained unsettled during partition in 1947 and four wars have been fought over the strategically vital terrain. The latest, in 1999, saw Pakistani troops cross the border and infiltrate Indian defensive positions, bringing the subcontinent to the brink of nuclear war. But after weeks of shelling and a 2003 cease-fire agreement, tensions along the border cooled (local ski websites nonetheless recommend checking the political situation before booking). Though once a playground of Mughal kings and, later, a British hill station, the accommodations at Gulmarg are relatively simple, but for those in search of fresh tracks, there are heliskiing guides and tours. Just make sure you’ve stashed any contraband, as the road in from the Kashmiri capital of Srinigar is dotted with checkpoints. As for the après ski scene, don’t get your hopes up: India’s 2001 census counted 664 people in the town of Gulmarg, of which 1 percent was female.
Ben Pauker is a former executive editor at Foreign Policy.
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