Big Frontiers

Formerly off-limits, these territories are finally opening their doors

Feb 21, 2007
Outside Magazine
Kvarken Archipelago, Finland

Kvarken Archipelago, Finland    Photo: courtesy, Maxmo municipality/Hannu Vallas

Adak Island
Shrouded in fog and mystery, most of this remote Aleutian isle went public in 2004, after its naval air station was closed and transferred—lock, housing stock, and runway—to the Department of the Interior and the native Aleut Corporation. Most of 280-square-mile Adak is now a federally designated wilderness and wildlife refuge. Bald eagles soar above dormant volcanoes, and 3,000 caribou (introduced during the Cold War as an emergency food supply) roam the moors. Roughly equidistant from Alaska and Russia, the "Birthplace of the Winds" is also a birdwatching hot spot—nearly one-fourth of the 200 species recorded here are migrants found nowhere else in the Americas. High Lonesome Bird Tours leads expeditions ($4,600 per person for eight nights, all-inclusive; 800-743-2668,, or check out

The typical headline out of Iraq is about roadside IEDs, not roadside attractions. Yet last fall this long-suffering autonomous region bordering Syria, Turkey, and Iran launched an irony-free international marketing campaign, "The Other Iraq," to showcase its superb scenery, ancient history, and relative security. Virgin snow blankets the mountains, while the plains hold Sumerian ruins and the hospitable capital, Erbil, one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. In December, Austrian Airlines began twice-weekly flights from Vienna to Erbil. For information, go to

Cordillera Azul National Park
Imagine a forest primeval, with uncontacted jungle tribes and animals with no fear of humans. That Lost World still exists in this national park in the eastern Andes, established in 2001 after biologists from Peru and Chicago's Field Museum recorded 28 new plants and animals—including a bird species confined to the cloudforest atop a single mountain. Only three other scientific groups have since surveyed the 5,225-square-mile Cordillera Azul, which holds endangered jaguars and spectacled bears. In July, the Sierra Club will run a pioneering trip (non-members welcome) that includes an eight-day transect of the preserve by foot, bamboo raft, and dugout canoe ($3,395–$3,795; 415-977-5522,

Houaphan Province
Sealed off by the daunting Annamite Range and shackled by its past (unexploded wartime ordnance, guerrillas, reeducation camps), Houaphan—in northeast Laos near the Vietnamese border—lies beyond the typical backpacker trail. But a trickle of DIY travelers now seek out this lush outpost for its unaffected hill tribes and vaulting karst mountains. In Vieng Xai district, about 20 miles east of Xam Nau, you can explore the cave-riddled peaks that served as rebel fortresses throughout the Vietnam War. While the U.S. unleashed its bombing campaign, 23,000 Pathet Lao hunkered down in limestone caverns equipped with electricity, dorms, and weapons depots. The Lao Association of Travel Agents ( can provide a list of tour operators.

Kvarken Archipelago
The 5,600 islands in the Kvarken Archipelago are literally in flux; released by the diminished weight of melting Ice Age glaciers, the seabed is rebounding from the Gulf of Bothnia at the rate of a third of an inch annually. The astonishing amount of uplift—more than 900 feet over the last 10,000 years—prompted UNESCO last year to designate some 480,000 acres as Finland's first natural World Heritage site. Paddle the ever-changing labyrinth of emerging islets and expanding peninsulas, washboard moraines and shallowing lakes, then bunk down in a former pilot station on Rönnskar. Björkö Wardshus ( runs guided boat trips; offers travel info. But get there now: In a few millennia, the uplift will form a land bridge to Sweden.

Filed To: Iraq, Laos