Top 10 destinations lists — recommended vs. favorite (Part 5)

This item appears on page 39 of the February 2018 issue.

After the article “Building Your Travel Bucket List” appeared in Contributing Editor Randy Keck’s column (Jan. ’17, pg. 56), ITN asked subscribers to each send in two lists of international destinations, excluding locations in Europe (which is so popular among travelers) and in the United States (which ITN does not cover).

One list was to include the Top 10 destinations that they had visited and would recommend for newer/beginning international travelers. On the second, they were to list their own Top 10 favorite travel destinations, based on their actual experiences. We requested an explanation or comment with each choice. (In some cases, when the traveler’s reasoning was clear, ITN allowed the listing of some adjacent countries or of a particular experience as a single “destination.”)

A pantaneiro (cowboy) in the northern Pantanal, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, in April 2011. Photo by Edna R.S. Alvarez

This is the fifth installment of this series, with more lists coming.

From Stephanie Sorensen of Madison, WI: Picking the top 10 countries is a challenge. So much depends on when one visited, the weather, travel companions, illness, etc. If one of these was a negative issue on a trip, it could make me not like a place.

Few of us have been everywhere. I don’t like hot, humid weather, so I have not gone to the tropical Asian countries or South America. I did not like Costa Rica (must be the only one), as it was hot and humid and I discovered that rainforests make me claustrophobic. So I prefer the Middle East and the desert. Such things will affect the lists people submit.

Also, somewhere I went 20 or 30 years ago is not likely to be the same now.

I have been to some of the following places with tour groups as a single and some with my husband and some just on my own. There are certain things a single woman must always be aware of, which is why “safe” is a word I used here often. But here are my picks, with number 1 being rated the highest.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. New Zealand — Pretty. Friendly. Easy to get around in. No language issues. Plus some interesting native cultural art and experiences.

2. Australia — Same as with New Zealand though much larger. Can’t see it all.

3. South Korea — Clean. Friendly. Definitely different, but English is used in many places (buses, subways). Good tourist-info help. Lots of cultural opportunities.

4. Japan — Same as in South Korea — lots of options and helpful people. Good tourist offices. Clean. Totally safe food. Great temples and shrines.

5. Iran — The most friendly people, so happy to meet Americans. No street crime. A safe place to go, even walking around alone as a woman. (You must wear appropriate clothing.) The food is safe to eat, even salads. One must go with a tour company; find a good one.

6. Turkey — Though I would not recommend it right now, Turkey has had lots of tourists and has a good infrastructure (but be careful of carpet salesmen).

7. China — Much to offer.  Lots of culture and history. Go with a group and you will be well taken care of.

8. Kenya — Go on a safari with a luxury company and it will be delightful. I suggest one that stays at Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp. Visit the giraffe and elephant sanctuaries just outside Nairobi.

9. Tanzania — The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is the most luxurious place I have ever been — splendidly indulgent; we were more than well cared for.

10. Bermuda — Easy. Pleasant.

Personal Favorites

1. Iran — I loved the people. Fascinating culture. Gorgeous architecture. Safe. Of the countries I have been to outside of Europe, if you told me there was only one country I could go to but as many times as I wanted, it would be Iran.

2. Bhutan — Very unusual; different from anywhere else. But not an easy destination.

3. Ethiopia — Also very different, for me, and I was not on a safari, so I saw more “normal” things. Interesting experiences. Ethiopia is not easy; there is real poverty.

4. Egypt — Go for the incredible history, but be aware that the touts and hassles are endless and annoying. Still, I would go back for the temples.

5. South Korea — I found it a lovely surprise. Clean and safe. Interesting culture. Good food.

6. Japan — Easier to manage alone than I expected. So safe. A beautiful place. Lots to see and do. Good food. 

7. Syria — I went 10 years ago. It was a nice place, with great history, fabulous ruins and interesting culture. So sad there right now.

8. New Zealand — It would be easy to stay there quite some time. Great for women travelers.

9. Tanzania — For that Ngorongoro lodge (but it could never be as wonderful as the first time).

10. Turkey — Lots to see and experience. It’s sad that things are so difficult there now.

From Mr. Clare A. Moelk of Las Vegas, NV: I am 82 years old, have lived and worked abroad for many years and have visited 81 foreign countries. The places in my Top 10 lists are not in any particular order; every place is a little bit different.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Istanbul, Turkey — A tourist’s delight. Hagia Sofia. Sultans’ palaces. The Grand Bazaar, so large you can literally get lost. And the Spice Bazaar. Cruise the Bosphorus. 

2. Machu Picchu, Peru — By far the most outstanding archaeological site in the Western Hemisphere.

3. Fez, Morocco — The medina (walled city) has no vehicular traffic. A visit to life as it was 500 years ago. Home to many artisans and craftsmen. The tannery is of special interest.

4. Cape Town, South Africa — Table Mountain. The Cape of Good Hope. Robben Island’s prison. A great botanical garden. You can also see African penguins.

5. Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe) — One of the natural wonders of the world. Take an evening cruise on the Zambezi River. You can zip-line over the river or bungee jump off the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Woodcarvings and other souvenirs are much cheaper in Zimbabwe than in South Africa.

6. Kyoto, Japan — A city of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. This city was only sparingly bombed during WWII. Kyoto is a treasure trove of Japanese arts and culture, including many fine gardens (Ryo¯an-ji, Saiho¯-ji, etc.). See a performance by a maiko (apprentice geisha). 

7. Beijing, China — See Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and temples, and take a short trip to the Great Wall.

8. Siem Reap, Cambodia — Site of the Angkor Wat temple complex and many other ruins in the jungle. Take a boat trip on a nearby lake or watch a folk show.

9. Bagan, Myanmar — My favorite archaeological site. Take a hot-air balloon ride.

10. Cairo, Egypt — Visit the pyramids, the Sphinx and the Egyptian Museum with its collection of mummies.

Personal Favorites

1. Tozeur, Tunisia — A desert oasis in the Sahara, best reached by 4-wheel-drive vehicle. The finest dates in the world are grown there (hand-pollinated and hand-harvested by men who climb the palm trees without any gear). There is a small museum plus a nice zoo filled with desert animals. 

Restrictions on water usage prevent expansion of the limited hotel facilities, so make reservations well in advance.

Take a half-hour camel ride to the dunes to watch the sunrise and/or sunset. 

2. Bangkok, Thailand — A fair land of golden temples, with world-class hotels and restaurants. Thais are the friendliest people on Earth. Visit the floating market to buy jewelry, temple rubbings and celadon tableware.

3. Agra, India — The Taj Mahal. Enough said.

4. Kotohira, Japan — A small village on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands. Home of Kotohira-gu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to mariners. Climb the more than 800 steps of the shrine to get a magnificent view.

Stay in a ryokan (traditional inn) and bathe in a hot springs. Walk through the village in a robe (yukata or tanzen, depending on the weather) provided by the inn.

5. Cappadocia, Turkey — Both a natural and man-made wonder of the world. Underground cities amidst a fantasy landscape. Take a hot-air balloon flight.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — Probably the most scenic port in the world. Famous for Carnival. Visit Sugarloaf mountain, the “Christ the Redeemer” statue and Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Dance the samba or go to a samba show. 

7. Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt — A major resort city on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. One of the very best places to snorkel or scuba dive, with a wonderful variety of colorful, tropical fish.

8. Singapore — One of the most modern cities in the world. Small areas have been preserved for Chinatown and Little India. Take a “night safari” through the zoo. A good family destination with a large amusement park.

9. Hong Kong, China — Ride to the top of Victoria Peak to see the best view of the spectacular lights of the city at night. Top-notch tourist facilities.

10. Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia — This ancient capital is near Borobudur and Prambanan, two premier archaeological sites. Go to puppet shows and gamelan concerts. You will find some of the world’s finest batik and wood-carvings for sale.

From Edna R.S. Alvarez of Los Angeles, CA: This was fun to do. The first list follows the order in which I would recommend taking trips, starting with Canada. My personal favorites are in no particular order.

Best for Beginning Travelers

A Dai woman with Edna R.S. Alvarez in southern Yunnan province, southwestern China.

1. Banff and Lake Louise, Canada — The Canadian Rockies are stunning, and Canada is a very easy country to visit. Try to go off-season and miss the crowds.

2. Costa Rica — The colors and views — flora and fauna — are significantly disparate from what one is used to in the USA, and yet Costa Rica (a) is easy to get to, (b) has been catering to tourists for well over 30 years and (c) is well affordable. I visited several times from the ’80s to the 2000s.

3. Cuba — Again, the ease of access (nonstop flight from Miami) and the height of “differentness” would put Cuba high on my “experience it early” list.

4. New Zealand — This is such a beautiful and wonderfully easy country to visit (with a very developed tourist infrastructure), but its being far away geographically gives the fledgling explorer of international travel a good sense of adventure.

5. Oaxaca, Mexico — A real contrast to life at home, yet easily accessible. A real stimulant to the eyes and taste buds and sense of history. A beginning to the “language” challenge.

6. Singapore — Such an easy introduction to Asia. Very clear. Very controlled. And, yet, definitely Asia.

7. Kyoto, Japan — This is farther into Asia but still comfortable. Very tourist-friendly, yet it will give the new international traveler a sense of history and the “exotic.” 

8. South Africa — Either take a simple “Cape Town and Kruger National Park” trip or make it Southern Africa and add on Botswana. 

9. China — Take a tour that includes Beijing, Xi’an, the Yangzte and the Three Gorges plus Shanghai. This tourist “ring” route is well traveled, with comfortable, “Westernized” infrastructure.

10. Mekong River cruise and Siem Reap, Cambodia — To top your introductory visits, you are now ready to take a river cruise to a place that will offer truly new views and a bit more of a challenge.

Personal Favorites

1. Atlantic Forest of Brazil — An equatorial tropical forest with exotic flora and fauna, including maned wolves and giant termite mounds.

2. Hokkaido, Japan — It offers two different worlds: the stark visions and icy cold of the winter and the bursting beauty of spring, including “black grizzly” bears. Either way, it’s an extraordinary destination. Heavy in natural beauty and devoid of tourists. 

3. High Atlas, Morocco — Berber country, with hidden mountain villages, blossoming fruit trees, agrarian life, modern cities and warm, welcoming people.

4. New Zealand — Stewart Island, or Rakiura, a remote island south of the South Island; it’s well off the beaten track. And at Akaroa, on the east coast of the South Island, the Eastern Bays Scenic Mail Run — a delightful day spent with the local postie as he/she delivers mail around the remote bay. Includes a picnic lunch in scenic wonder.

5. The Pantanal of Brazil — Remote, amazing flora and fauna not likely to be seen elsewhere. Think hyacinth macaws, jaibarus (storks), jaguars, giant anteaters, etc., plus cowboys.

6. Botswana — There is simply nothing like the first time you see a majestic family of elephants, walking slowly and purposefully, led by the matriarch elephant. And to stay in a tented camp amongst the wonderful mammals of Africa is simply glorious.

Mother elephant and calf in Botswana. Photo by Edna R.S. Alvarez

7. The Altiplano in Chile — High, high, high. (Altitude meds may be necessary.) You’ll see new and tiny plants and animals. It’s Mars on Earth — i.e., otherworldly.

8. Ethiopia — The throngs of Addis Ababa are memorable, people of various religions, and the population constantly walking down the long roads. The circular, thatch-roofed huts. Not to mention the remote regions outside of Addis Ababa, with their many primates and other fauna and flora. This is a world unto itself.

9. Sichuan, China — The graceful southern city of Chengdu, the extraordinarily grand Balang Shan Pass, the Tibetan villages and the gloriously turquoise lakes of Jiuzhaigou National Park.

10. Yunnan, China — This is the province of China with the greatest number of minority ethnic populations. I recall the clear air of the gentle mountains with their bountiful citrus groves and tilled fields, their banana trees and coffee groves plus the, still, traditionally dressed populations and small villages with strong senses of community.