Oh, The Places You’ll Never Go

For travelers, one of the ongoing struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic is the thought that you can’t go anywhere. In addition to staying put at home during quarantine, travel as we knew it in the past is impossible for the foreseeable future. 

Gone are the days of snagging an error fare and hopping on a last-minute overseas flight. Gone are the carefree ferry fares, the tranquil train trips, and the border crossings by bus. In fact, the only thing that isn’t going, going, gone is you. 

As humans, we tend to want what we don’t — or can’t — have. So while you’re building your never-ending list of places you can’t visit right now, add to it these locales you can literally never visit, coronavirus or not.

Ni’ihau, Hawaii (image via Wikimedia Commons)

A privately-owned Hawaiian island, Ni’ihau was sold to a Scottish housewife by King Kamehameha V for $10,000 USD in 1864. Nearly a century later, it became known as the “Forbidden Island” during a 1952 Hawaiian polio epidemic.

“My great-grandmother purchased the island from the monarchy, and it’s been virtually unchanged since that date by my family,” Bruce Robinson said in an interview with ABC News in 2010. Robinson currently owns the island with his brother, Keith. 

“My uncle wanted to protect the residents here from the epidemic, and it was forbidden to come out here unless you had a doctor’s certificate, and there was a two-week quarantine,” Robinson said. “And it worked. We never got polio [on the island].”

Ni’ihau remains a pristine, critical habitat for several highly endangered species and is a highly-coveted destination for the extremely few guests who are invited by the owners.

Holy Monastery of Simonos Petra atop Mount Athos in Greece (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Mount Athos
Mythology meets the monastic on this illustrious Greek island. Referred to in Greek as Agion Oros, or Holy Mountain, Mount Athos has traditions dating back to the Byzantine Era and legends as old as 3000 BCE.

In Greek mythology, Athos was one of the giants who challenged the gods. He threw a rock at Poseidon that fell into the Aegean Sea and became Mount Athos. Homer added to the mountain’s anthology with a mention in the Iliad. Not to be outshone, the monastery’s resident monks currently call the territory the “Garden of the Virgin Mary.”

The ruling body of the Monastic State of the Holy Mountain and the Athonite issues an extremely limited number of visitor permits each year. To obtain one of these exclusive invitations, you must be an Eastern Orthodox male who is making a pilgrimage to the Holy Monastery of Simonos Petra, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.

Surtsey Island erupting from the Atlantic Ocean in 1963 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Currently the southernmost point of Iceland, the island of Surtsey sprang from the Atlantic Ocean during a volcanic eruption in November 1963. As quickly as it emerged from the water, so shall it return ⁠— experts estimate that it will only remain above sea level for another 100 years.

Surtsey is only open to a handful of botanists and biologists who are closely monitoring the establishment of flora and fauna on what was originally a barren island. After an improperly handled human defecation led to the sprouting of a foreign tomato plant (which was promptly removed), scientific visitors must now rigorously check themselves for any outside contaminants and carefully remove signs of their visiting presence to maintain the island’s pristine conditions.

The view from Amboyna Cay on Spratly Islands (image via chauha on Wikicommons)

The Spratly Islands
This archipelago in the South China Sea is inhabited by members of the militaries of Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam who are each claiming squatter’s rights over the islands’ oil and natural gas reserves and its plentiful fishing.

Nearly 3,000 marine species have been recorded in the Spratly Sea, including endangered sea turtles, red-footed boobies, dolphins, orcas, and whales. In addition to many of these creatures being hunted and ousted from their natural habitats by the humans inhabiting the island, Spratly’s sand is disappearing. China and Singapore import it for their commercial developments, where it has fetched upwards of $190 USD a ton.

As recently as 2016, the United Nations was called in to help settle disputes over the Spratly Islands, their ownership, and protection of their resources under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But tourism remains off limits.

Ilha da Queimada Grande, Brazil, also known as “Snake Island” (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ilha da Queimada Grande, Brazil
With terrain that ranges from bare rock to lush rainforest, Ilha da Queimada Grande is a 106-acre (43-hectare) island off the coast of Brazil where you’ll find a rather unwelcome welcoming committee: the critically endangered and highly venomous golden lancehead pit viper.

Rising sea levels cut off what locals refer to as “Snake Island” from the mainland and trapped the snakes on Ilha da Queimada Grande, where they feast on birds. The Brazilian Navy closed the island to visitors in order to protect both snakes and people, particularly the more than 12 million residents of downtown São Paulo, located just 93 miles away.

Marcelo Duarte, a biologist who has visited Snake Island more than 20 times, told Atlas Obscura that the Brazilians’ claim of the island having as many as five snakes per square meter is an exaggeration, “though perhaps not by much.” Duarte said one snake per square meter is more accurate, not that that relaxes things any. “At one snake per meter, you’re never more than three feet away from death.”

An aerial view of Mawson Peak on Big Ben, the active volcano on Australia’s Heard Island (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Heard Island
Two-thirds of the way from Madagascar to Antarctica you’ll find the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands. Some of the most remote land on earth, these Australian islands are home to the country’s only active volcanoes, which is also why the islands are home to no humans.

The largest of the island group, Heard Island, is the site of the active Big Ben volcano. Mawson Peak, the summit of Big Ben, is higher than any mountain on the Australian mainland with a height of 9,006 feet (2,745 meters). But Heard Island also has 41 glaciers that cover 80 percent of the island’s surface, and this constantly shifting terrain of fire and ice make it impossible to dock ships. Instead, they must anchor offshore.

Sealers and scientists have set up temporary accommodations on Heard Island on and off since the mid-1850s, but conditions for visitors are fairly intolerable, particularly since the volcano could erupt again at any moment.