Top 10 destinations lists — recommended vs. favorite

This item appears on page 38 of the March 2018 issue.
Larry Flinner and friends at Snow Hill Island, Antarctica.

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 sixth installment of this series, with only a couple more parts to go.

From Larry Flinner of Cincinnati, OH: In these lists, I would consider number 1 the top choice, number 2 would be next, etc.

Huli tribesman at a Sing Sing in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Larry Flinner

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) — For the solitude and the animal and bird life.

2. New Zealand — Beautiful.

3. South Africa — From the major cities to the coastlines to the wildlife.

4. Thailand — Spectacular.

5. Kenya — Amazing wildlife.

6. China — A country with a long history that has entered modern times.

7. Peru — The history and beauty.

8. India — Loud. Noisy. Crowded. Different.

9. Baja California Peninsula, Mexico — Where else can you touch a whale?

10. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — A modern city with beaches and nice scenery.

Personal Favorites

1. Antarctica — Once you have visited, you will want to return.  There is no other place on Earth like it.  

2. South Africa — Great white sharks, lions and wine, all in one country.

3. Myanmar — A once-closed country where it seems you are transported back in time.

4. Brazil — Big cities, beaches and jungles. Something for everyone.

5. Bhutan — Another country that will take you back in time.  

6. Rwanda — A chance to get up close and personal with mountain gorillas.

7. Easter Island — A mysterious island.

8. Costa Rica — For the immense beauty of its jungle and coast.  

9. Egypt — Including the pyramids, history abounds.  

10. New Zealand — Fascinating people. Beautiful scenery. Great eats.

Pagodas of Bagan, Myanmar, as seen from a hot-air balloon over the city. Photo by Larry Flinner

From Eric A. Wagner of Gainesville, FL: Gosh, I have loved so many of my trips and cruises (visiting 159 countries and the seven continents) that this was really hard. South Africa should also be in my top 10, but the others belong there also. I am 75 and, luckily, have completed my bucket list, though I have not stopped traveling.

Destinations 1, 2, 3, etc., are the most recommended and most highly ranked.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Costa Rica — Close and economical. Magnificent scenery, flora and fauna. Safe and very easy for tourists. A Spanish-speaking country, but English is spoken often.

2. Western Canada — Close and easy, with no language difference. Spectacular mountain scenery. One of the world’s greatest gardens, Butchart Gardens, is near Victoria, BC.

3. New Zealand — No language problems. Very friendly. Great scenery. Incredible hiking trails, such as the Milford Track. Magnificent gardens. 

4. Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) — Pristine flora, and you can see land animals and sea life close up (such as a Galápagos penguin that swam between my legs). Fabulous for kids.

5. Caribbean Mesoamerica — A Caribbean cruise is an enjoyable way to see great Mayan ruins in Mexico and Belize.

6. Cape Town, South Africa — Lovely city, with the terrific Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and its unusual plants. A launching point for wonderful animal safaris in Southern Africa.

7. Panama Canal — See one of the world’s great wonders at work. Easy and safe.

8. Tahiti — Lush landscapes. Incredible fish in crystal-clear waters. Wonderful tropical relaxation.

9. Israel — Full of history. Easy for tourists.

10. Cuba — When I visited in 1981, you could see what Communism did to the country and how much progress had stalled. Lots of old cars. It was fascinating to see what much of the Caribbean was like in the ’50s.

Personal Favorites

1. New Zealand — LOVED hiking the Milford Track. Gardens were even better than in England. Friendly people. Lovely country.

2. Antarctica — Endless penguins (some resting on my feet) and lots of other Antarctic birds. Endlessly fascinating ice and bergs. Really different and interesting locations.

3. India — Endlessly amazing. Great cuisine. Incredible history. So much to see, including the Taj Mahal, Khajuraho and the Kerala waterways.

4. Brazil — Adventures in the flooded Amazon rainforest, with islands of dry land. Iguaçu Falls (the greatest waterfalls in the world, in my view). Birds galore.

5. North Pole — I went on a Russian nuclear icebreaker (the Yamal), with polar experts giving lectures. Moving through ice almost as far as one could see. We saw polar bears, walruses and narwhals and virtually all types of the Arctic birds. Really exciting!

6. China — So MUCH to see: the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, great cities, fascinating agricultural areas and, in Tibet, the Potala Palace. On my several trips from the 1980s to the last few years, I witnessed incredible changes.

7. Nepal — Riding elephantback and seeing tigers, rhinoceroses and enormous black gaurs at Tiger Tops — priceless. Enormous Himalayan peaks. Temples of Kathmandu.

8. Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) — The birds and animals have no fear of humans. Watching great flocks of pelicans fish. Playing with dolphins in warm waters. 

9. Western Canada — As a lover of scenery and nature, including flowers, I find a trip to the Rockies to be about as good as it gets. Also Victoria and Vancouver.

10. Tristan da Cunha — The loneliest island in the world, but it’s fascinating to see how a small population thrives and enjoys their isolation. Part of a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, it’s a really unusual place to visit.

From Nanci Alexander of Lexington, KY: The recommended countries are in no particular order. The personal favorites are in descending order from favorite as number 1.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Australia — The people are extremely friendly, and they speak English.

2. New Zealand — Friendly people who speak English, plus the scenery is amazing.

3. Costa Rica — The scenery is amazing, and the outdoor sports are wonderful. Also, it is not a long-haul flight from the US.

4. Ecuador — See my description for Costa Rica, but the flight is slightly longer.

5. Peru — Like Ecuador but with a slightly longer flight.

6. South Africa — They speak English, and in many places the infrastructure is good. A great place for your first safari.

7. Canada — It’s close, they speak English, and it’s very easy to navigate by yourself. 

8. French Polynesia — The scenery is amazing, and the hotels are beautiful.

9. Chile — Along with Peru and Ecuador, this is a great country in which to begin your exploration of South America.

10. Argentina — See my comments on Chile.

Personal Favorites 

1. French Polynesia

2. Australia 

3. Canada

4. New Zealand

5. Ecuador

6. Chile

7. Costa Rica

8. Israel

9. South Africa

10. Peru

Holland America Line's MS <i>Oosterdam</i> framed by the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo by David Selley

From David Selley of Toronto, ON, Canada: First-time American travelers should be assured that, in all these places, they do not have to worry about safety. All are safer than any equivalent place in the USA, unless you foolishly get involved in politics in China or Vietnam or do drugs in Singapore.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. New Zealand — A relaxing but fascinating destination. The people are laid-back and supremely friendly and speak English. Gorgeous scenery. It’s easy to drive there (but on the other side of the road). Start in Auckland, see Rotorua, fly to Christchurch and explore the South Island by car.

2. Australia — A friendly continent, and big. They speak English (sort of). Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are beautiful cities. From there, explore Adelaide or even Perth and the interior and head north. Kakadu National Park is fabulous. Ayers Rock is iconic. The people are great; they’re proud of their country and very hospitable.

As in New Zealand, driving is easy, except in Sydney and Melbourne.(Again, it’s left-hand-side driving.)

3. Hong Kong, China — Thrilling! And great for a first taste of the Orient. One of the most spectacular cities in the world and frantically busy. You don’t need a guide; everyone you come into contact with will likely speak some English. Travel by subway (MRT). The Star Ferry is the best value in the world for views. Fabulous food of all possible varieties. For the best weather, visit September to November.

4. Singapore — A tamer version of Hong Kong, with spectacular architecture, food and parks. Only a few miles from the equator, so it’s hot and humid year-round. Super-clean and safe. Everyone speaks English. Expensive. 

5. China — Unlike in the four places above, you would want to be on a guided tour for China, although make sure you have some time to explore on your own in the cities. 

Shanghai is spectacular and modern. Beijing has more historical interest and is closer to the Great Wall. Xi’an has the Terracotta Warriors. Guilin has the Li River trips, which are magnificent. If possible, travel between cities by high-speed train, just to see how far behind the times we are in North America. They are decades ahead of us in infrastructure.

In the cities, all important signs — including road signs and, in the subways, all signs and announcements — are in English as well as Chinese.

6. Vietnam — In my experience, these people are the friendliest in the world and will go out of their way to help, even if their English is spotty. Hanoi and Saigon are bustling cities, where you just absorb the atmosphere. Great food everywhere. Hoi An is a lovely, quiet town with historical interest and lovely restaurants.

7. Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) — You can only go there on a tour. It’s an awe-inspiring experience, as you spend usually a week on a smallish boat cruising from island to island. The birds and animals have absolutely no fear of humans. Beforehand, spend a few days on the mainland in Quito, Ecuador (preferably included in the tour), a picturesque and historic city.

8. Antarctica — Breathtaking scenery plus whales, seals and penguins and other birds. It may seem like an odd place to start traveling, but that should not disturb you. This is a very expensive trip but entirely guided. Everything is done for you, so you don’t have to worry about anything.

If you wish to actually set foot in Antarctica, you have to go on a small ship that holds fewer than 500 passengers.* The larger ships, while much cheaper, just cruise around and let you admire the scenery. If you can’t go on land, you miss half the experience.

As for the cruises on which passengers can go ashore, you have two choices. You can take an “exploration” ship from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile (for example, a Hurtigruten ship). The cruise usually lasts a week or so.

A more expensive option is a luxury cruise (my wife and I went with Seabourn Cruise Line) from Valparaíso, Chile, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, that, on the way, spends about six days in Antarctica. 

A cruise like this lasts about three weeks and is not quite three times as expensive but in many ways is better value for the money. In addition, you travel up or down the Chilean fjords, which are almost as spectacular as Antarctica, itself. 

The biggest problem with visiting Antarctica? Everywhere else will seem like an anticlimax.

9. Japan — This is one country where fewer people speak English but everyone is helpful. Tokyo and Osaka are the largest cities; they are enormous. They will probably seem rather overwhelming at first; however, they’re quite easy to navigate using the subways. 

Kyoto is somewhat smaller — much more peaceful and picturesque and historic — but its places of interest are scattered, so it is not walkable. Nearby Nara is even more picturesque and historically interesting. 

It’s easy to get around the country by train. Stay at least one or two nights in a ryokan (traditional inn). Perhaps go on a guided tour the first time, but that’s not really necessary.

10. French Polynesia — Paradise. The place to go for a truly hedonistic experience — a very “upscale Caribbean” and expensive to match. But the scenery, the beaches, the hotels, the people and the food are absolutely fabulous.

A blue-footed boobie in the Galápagos Islands. Photo by David Selley

* According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers operated by association members may not land passengers anywhere in Antarctic waters. Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line are among the member companies that are operating “cruise only” sailings to Antarctica. It should be noted, however, that not all companies operating cruises to Antarctica are IAATO members.

Personal Favorites

1. Antarctica — After a lifetime of travel, I found this the most awe-inspiring experience ever. I went on a luxury, small-ship cruise. If you can’t afford the trip, try to anyway. Apart from the unbelievably spectacular scenery and the penguins, there are seals, whales and albatrosses plus weather that changes every few minutes.

2. Galápagos — Second to Antarctica in awesomeness. Here, it’s the wildlife; the scenery can’t come close to matching Antarctica’s, but the whole atmosphere is magic. At one point I stepped over a booby’s nest; the bird didn’t seem bothered at all.

3. Hong Kong — I never tire of the sheer dynamism of this spectacular city with amazing scenery, throbbing streets, fabulous food. If you venture into the New Territories, there is scenic countryside as well. The walk around Victoria Peak must provide the most spectacular man-made view in the world. My third-favourite city (after Paris and New York).

4. New Zealand — A beautiful country to drive around in and very relaxing. The opposite of hectic, even in Auckland, the main city. The people are exceptionally friendly. Superb wineries everywhere, but you need to be on a wine tour (guided, not drive-yourself) to appreciate it.

5. Bangkok, Thailand — An amazing city of contrasts, full of energy but with a Buddhist-inspired calm as well. The sites are gorgeous, and the river, in particular, is a place where you can just sit and watch for hours. Super-luxury hotels with unbelievable levels of service at reasonable prices.

6. China — No end to the experiences available. There are relics of former ages around some corners and hints of traditional China everywhere. 

Shanghai and Beijing are truly thrilling cities that amaze you at every turn. Travel between the two by high-speed train in about four hours, which is faster than flying when you count getting to and from the airport. A trip to the Terracotta Warriors, near Xi’an, is also memorable. 

If possible, get off the beaten tourist track to see how the rest of the country lives. In quite obscure cities (like Yinchuan in the Ningxia Autonomous Region), you might find an 8-lane expressway or you might find unpaved roads. I was surprised to find vineyards around and that the staple food in the area was potatoes! China is a country of endless surprises, and I marvel at the sheer energy of the people.

7. Sydney, Australia — Nothing can top the bustle of Sydney Harbour, with the iconic bridge and the Opera House as a backdrop. On top of that, there are great beaches, fabulous restaurants, great wines and friendly people.

8. South Africa — Wine, wine, wine, safaris and scenery. Visit Cape Town for its beautiful setting and great markets as well as for the surrounding vineyards, many of which have fabulous restaurants. Day trips from the city are easy. 

Then do a safari, either in Kruger National Park, where you can drive yourself and stay in amazingly affordable overnight camps with great accommodation (but book months ahead), or in one of the peripheral game reserves that are amazingly expensive but offer great lodges and expert guides and you are guaranteed to see all the big game you could wish for.

9. Vietnam — The whole country lives on motor scooters, which makes it exciting (especially for pedestrians). Just watching the scooters and the world go by in Ho Chi Minh City is worth the trip. Nha Trang and Hoi An are lovely old towns farther up the coast and full of friendly people, fascinating markets, great food and interesting sights. Nha Trang has a great beach. I find Vietnam to be a constant stream of pleasant experiences.

10. Siem Reap, Cambodia — For Angkor Wat. Apart from the stunningly spectacular ancient temples, Siem Reap is a fascinating city in its own right, with vibrant street life, great restaurants, luxury accommodation at very reasonable prices and, everywhere, the most delightful and friendly people you could possibly imagine.

Marine iguana in the Galápagos Islands. Photo by Larry Flinner