Top 10 destinations lists — recommended vs. favorite

This item appears on page 39 of the January 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.”)

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

From Jo Rawlins Gilbert of Palo Alto, CA: I chose these countries as starters for new travelers, as most Americans haven’t learned a second language and you can get by with just English in all of these. 

The first countries on this list are the ones that I recommend visiting first.

Best for Beginning Travelers  

1. Australia 2. New Zealand 3. Hong Kong (China) 4. Singapore 5. Bhutan 6. Nepal 7. Vietnam 8. Cambodia 9. Morocco 10. Cuba

Unfortunately, I haven’t been in South America other than to visit Venezuela, which is in flux. (It’s an interesting country, but it’s not for beginners and it’s not a fave.) 

The following are in order of preference.

Personal Favorites 

1. Oman 2. Jordan 3. Myanmar 4. India 5. Iran 6. Lebanon 7. China 8. Chad 9. Ethiopia 10. Azerbaijan


From Tony & Patti Leisner of Tarpon Springs, FL: We went back over our photos and sort of relived the trips in order to come up with why we went to each country (100-plus on seven continents) and what we did, asking ‘Would we go back?’ Travel is about the experience, and when we agreed we had enjoyed a destination and would return, that made the list, though we didn’t attempt to rank the places.

Choosing our favorite countries was the easy part, but making suggestions for new or budding international travelers was a bit problematic. Destinations we would recommend for a younger couple who have kids and jobs that limit their time or budgets would be very different than those for well-to-do retired people. Places that require long flights add cost and can chew up a few days of vacation time. So, in addition to our list of favorite places, we have compiled two lists for beginning travelers, one for each of those demographic types.

This first list is for travelers with flexible vacation times or who are retired, as some of the countries do require long flights or the ability to go off-season in order to visit when there are fewer crowds and better pricing. (Seven are in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning opposite seasons.) Most require a reasonable level of fitness to fully enjoy the trip. 

Best for Beginning Travelers (who have the time)

1. Cuba — Because it is close, because it can be visited by cruise ship or land tours, and because it should be visited now, as it won’t likely be the same a decade from now.

2. Colombia — This country welcomes tourism and, we believe, is now as safe as any US state or city. Visitors can enjoy the beaches, mountains, cities and beautiful, old colonial villages. The food is fantastic, the accommodations are varied, and the people are happy to see us. 

3. Uruguay — The most civil and comfortable country in South America. About eight hours’ flying from the US; plan on spending a week, at least. (We have considered buying an apartment there for longer stays.)

4. Ecuador and Galápagos Islands — Take the Tren Crucero (Cruise Train) from Quito to Guayaquil (four days, with overnights at haciendas) and then fly to the Galápagos. Stay in Puerto Ayora in a waterfront hotel or on a small ship to tour the islands. The US dollar is the official currency.

(If you have time, Peru is next door to Ecuador, and Machu Picchu is a must at some point in life.)

5. Namibia and Botswana — Somewhat off the well-beaten path, these two very civilized countries are still unspoiled, and they’re each dedicated to protecting their wildlife, environment and indigenous cultures. 

6. Morocco — Morocco is a short ferry ride from Spain and Portugal and is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. Art and crafts abound, and the architecture is so varied as to astound. Take a tagine cooking class. 

7. Antarctica — Go now, and don’t wait until you are too old to board the shore boats and walk on the rocks, snow and ice. Many ships leave from South America, so tie a visit in with time in Chile and Argentina.

8. Rwanda — The country is at peace, and tourism is the primary funding source to protect the gorillas from poachers. The huge silverbacks are spectacular and won’t easily be seen anywhere else in the world. 

9. Costa Rica — A great intro to Central America, with rainforests, exotic wildlife, beaches, volcanoes and a global mix of dining. The safest of the seven Central American countries. 

10. Caribbean — Pick an island, as they all are a bit different. We liked Antigua, St. Kitts and St. Vincent. 

Many younger people working in the US have two vacation weeks a year and won’t want to spend much time getting somewhere. The following destinations can be reached in less than a day’s flying, and some in less than six hours, from the middle of the US, allowing more time to tour. They could even take the two weeks in two different destinations. (Also, in these places, English is the primary language or is widely spoken, and the US dollar is accepted or easily exchanged.)

Best for Beginning Travelers (with limited vacation time)

1. Cuba — We recommend taking one of the many new cruises. Make sure your cruise visits several cities. Go now while you can still see so much of what has not changed in 50-plus years. 

2. Panama — Copa Airlines and American Airlines offer great service from Miami, less than four hours away. Panama is really three countries: (1) Panama City, with incredible dining, a hop-on/hop-off bus, the new canal and a historic neighborhood, (2) then it’s off to the rainforests for incredible wildlife and scenery before visiting (3) the beaches and coast. The US dollar is the official currency. 

3. Colombia — About the same travel time to reach it as Panama but worlds apart. Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena are as safe as any North American city, and each offers a different cultural experience. Take day tours outside any of them to experience the unique flavors, people and scenery. From the seashore up to 9,000 feet, it’s a great country to visit for a week or so. (A caveat — they export their best coffee beans.)

4. Trinidad & Tobago — Especially recommended at Carnival time and during the pan drum (steel drum) competition. Stay outside of Port of Spain in a smaller community both for safety and activities. For the best experience, find a good guide with a van and explore off the beaten track, enjoying the interior with its huge, lush green valleys and rivers, not to mention small restaurants on the roadside. 

5. Canada — If time is short, choose either eastern or western. The little places in Prince Edward Island and the Maritimes [eastern provinces] are unique, with many largely unchanged for a century. Western Canada offers a luxury train to see the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park and the wildlife on the plains. 

6. Belize — You can choose from the wilderness of the mainland or the variety of the just-offshore islands of Caye Caulker and the more populated Ambergris Caye, which has the second-largest reef in the world. The main town on Ambergris Caye is San Pedro, which has all the trappings, including great snorkeling and diving plus a lively nightlife, with golf carts getting the prime spots at bars.

It’s a former British colony, English is the official language, and the US dollar works fine. 

7. Costa Rica — Similar to Panama. The interior offers extraordinary rainforests, spectacular birdlife and more volcanoes than are in most countries. Climb inside a volcano or walk on one of the hanging bridges over a 300-foot gorge. And, yes, there are some fine beaches for downtime. Stimulate the adrenalin, then unwind with some local wine. 

8. Mexico — Get to the interior, where there are historic cities like San Miguel de Allende, instead of to Cancún or the resorts. The Mayan ruins of Mérida are another choice and an easy trip from the US. 

9. Bahamas — If time and money are short, then no list is complete without these islands. A short hop from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and you can find many options in the smaller cays. The water is crystal clear, beaches are clean, and there is a variety of local foods to please the palate. The beer isn’t bad, either. 

10. Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten — Want to visit two different cultures on a single trip? Half the island is Dutch and the other is French. Never fear, as English is widely spoken and understood. 

Making the following list was really hard because both of us had to agree. 

Personal Favorites 

1. Uruguay — This was an easy choice. Affordable accommodations. Great public transport. Lots to do. A global food scene. Safe. And, from the south, Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a short ferry ride away. 

2. Indonesia — For culture, diversity, history and, once you are in-country, ease of travel. 

3. Antigua — Easy to get to. And English Harbour has a really laid-back atmosphere. A sunset rum drink at Skullduggery Café (which overlooks the southern end of Falmouth Harbour but is considered to be in the English Harbour community), and then it’s off for peri-peri chicken at Flatties Flame Grill. Very walkable, with friendly expats in abundance.

4. Colombia — This country is just going to get better and better now that the safety concerns are being addressed. Beaches. Carnival. A little altitude for cooler weather. And they are really excited to see visitors. 

5. Thailand — Exotic, diverse, culturally interesting and sort of affordable. 

6. Australia — Whether a highlights tour including Sydney, Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef or a lengthy train trip through the Outback, this country is an entire continent, with a month’s worth of new and interesting places. 

7. Panama — Not just the canal but rainforests, wildlife, zip-lines and a real mixing pot of people. 

8. Trinidad & Tobago — Go for Carnival, the steel pan competitions, the food and the countryside away from Port of Spain. 

9. Singapore — Small but mighty. Visiting both the world-class zoo and Harry’s bar and restaurant (the original, at 28 Boat Quay) sounds like an odd combination, but it works, and so does Singapore. 

10. Namibia — Rent a car (drive on the left) and tour the parks and cities, then take a small charter plane to the remote Skeleton Coast and villages of OvaHimba, with places just like in National Geographic pictures.


From Peggy Bach of Stuart, FL: In the first list, the countries at the top are easier for traveling. As for my favorites, each is special in its own way.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Peru — Don’t miss Machu Picchu.

2. Guatemala — A beautiful country, and Tikal has interesting Mayan ruins.

3. Bermuda — The best island near the US. Beautiful.

4. Victoria, B.C., Canada — Of the many gardens I have visited all over the world, Butchart Gardens, near Victoria on Vancouver Island, is the most beautiful I have seen. 

5. South Africa — A great way to see Africa for the first time.

6. Thailand — The temples are beautiful. A good way to begin Asia travel.

7. Chile — Such a diverse country.

8. Australia — Sydney is beautiful, with its famous sites, and the Outback is fun.

9. China — History is everywhere, and, of course, the Great Wall is a must for everyone.

10. Dubai — A fun way to see a bit of the Middle East.

Personal Favorites

1. Tanzania — Such large numbers of animals, it’s hard to take it all in.

2. South Africa — Wonderful people, great food and terrific safaris.

3. Egypt — The pyramids are awesome.

4. China — The Great Wall, and the country is full of history.

5. Thailand — The temples in Bangkok are magnificent. Chiang Mai is a great place to play with elephants.

6. Guatemala — A beautiful country, and Tikal is so interesting.

7. Peru — The country is beautiful and so fascinating, with great people.

8. Nepal — I saw Kathmandu before it was a major tourist destination and also spent time at Tiger Tops lodge in Chitwan National Park.

9. Agra, northern India — I can’t describe the Taj Mahal, it is so beautiful.

10. Australia — On the other side of the world. Lots of fun.

Seeing the Great Wall, the pyramids, the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu are “musts” for a dedicated traveler.

* Correction Notice : Tony & Patti Leisner's 8th listing for Best for Beginning Travelers (with limited vacation time) was printed as "The Aztec ruins of Mérida." Aztec was corrected to Mayan.