Top 10 destinations lists — recommended vs. favorite

This item appears on page 35 of the May 2018 issue.
Ray and Wanda Bahde posing near the Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel, Egypt.

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 eighth — and final — installment of the series. We thank all who shared their experience.

From Fran Koort of Santa Barbara, CA: I do not think that I have an order to these countries. That would probably depend on how rested and adventurous I feel on any given day. All of the destinations in this first list are easy to travel to.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — A gorgeous town with lots of authentic housing and lodging choices plus a large American expatriate community.

2. Israel — The hills and green vegetation were a surprise. The contrast between Jerusalem and Eilat (a hip beach town in the south) couldn’t be greater. I found Jerusalem overwhelming — large, with each area representing a different culture. The desert and the Red Sea add to the variety of topography in this small nation.

3. Morocco — This country in northwestern Africa has many large cities, all different from each other. Casablanca could almost be a European city. Rabat has more organization than Fez, which has a very large suq (market). Marrakesh has nightly markets that begin at sundown and provide a variety of services (dentistry, etc.).

4. Dubai — This emirate exudes wealth, with large, posh hotels and shopping centers. An elaborate fireworks display was held every evening during our visits. Except for the Metro, there wasn’t much change from our first trip, in 2008, and the next, in 2013. Many wealthy Europeans have second or third homes there.

5. Egypt — This will always be a stunning destination. The pyramids of the north are a short distance from Giza, near Cairo. Luxor has perhaps the most temples. Aswan, in the south, has Abu Simbel, where a huge temple and large statues were moved to higher ground to prevent them from being submerged when the dam was completed in 1970. 

My husband and I did not see much change from our first visit, in 1980, and our last visit, in 2009, which, in our experience, is atypical.

6. Costa Rica — We have visited several times and have always found the country to be organized, pleasant and safe. The interior and east coast are more authentic than the touristy resorts of the west coast. We enjoyed the interior towns, with their central squares and churches, and the fishing villages along the east coast. Although it is safe to self-drive, tours are easily available.

7. Japan — This island-chain nation has a great deal to offer, and its different climates are a bit of a surprise. The memorials at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both alluding to the human cost of war, are different from each other; Hiroshima’s is typical of large museums, while the memorial at Nagasaki is smaller. 

I particularly liked the city of Kagoshima, which has a humid, subtropical climate.” (I took a ‘treatment’ there that consisted of being buried with mud. I had no idea how heavy it was!)”

8. Northern India — The temples and other artifacts are very impressive. We spent some time in Varanasi at the holy Ganges River, where both cremations and bathing are done. The number of people everywhere is overwhelming.

9. New Zealand — This is a very developed country. The food is familiar to Americans, and hotels in every price range are very clean. The North Island is more urban than the South Island. Outdoor activities abound in the south, especially water sports. 

The British influence was evident in some cities, like Christchurch, which is a university city. I felt that I could happily live there, if not for my American ties. (I visited before the devastating earthquake in 2011.) 

The country has 30 million sheep and a peaceful society.

10. Cuba — I have been there three times (legally), twice to western Cuba (in 2003 and 2010) and once to eastern Cuba (2015). I liked both areas but think Havana should be included for a first-time visitor. Buildings are being painted, and many small restaurants are opening. The constant is music; it is very much a part of Cuban life.

Personal Favorites 

1. Antarctica — Its being so remote provides topics for lectures and outings, especially the difficulties experienced by the early explorers. Crossing the Drake Passage can be the “Drake shake” or the “Drake lake”; we had both.

2. Easter Island — Nearly 3,000 miles from Chile. The famous large statues won’t disappoint.

3. Iguazú Falls — At the border of Argentina and Brazil (though we were only in Argentina), it’s perhaps the most incredible natural wonder in the world. There are hundreds of cataracts of varying lengths, with water always gushing. The boat ride is guaranteed to make you very wet.

4. Namibia — This country in southwestern Africa is easily accessible via Johannesburg, South Africa. Frequented by Europeans (especially Germans) and South Africans, this stunning country is diverse in its natural beauty, from the tallest dunes in the world, in the south, to Etosha National Park, in the north. We saw tens of thousands of zebras and impalas in Etosha.

5. Galápagos Islands — You really can get within a few feet of its sea lions, large birds and other native fauna. The government of Ecuador limits the numbers of travelers who may visit.

6. Oman — This country has incredible infrastructure, with highways cantilevered around hills and mountains. The marine life is varied and plentiful.

7. Peru — Although Machu Picchu attracts many tourists, this country is worth a visit for its indigenous cultures and the importance of the Amazon River. In some areas of the Amazon, people live in homes built on stilts, with boats as their means of transportation. Visitors can sleep in permanent tents (with window screens to protect you from insects) and listen to jungle sounds at night. 

8. Indonesia — This nation consists of thousands of islands. Sumatra and Java are worth visiting for their culture, colorful traditions and natural beauty. Sulawesi is best known for its traditional burying sites and ritualistic ceremonies honoring the dead. Komodo is known for the Komodo dragon, a large, dangerous and dangerous-looking creature.

9. Bolivia — Lake Titicaca is 12,507 feet above sea level, which made all of our group (even the “younger” travelers in their forties) use elevators instead of stairs. All hotels had oxygen available.

10. Southern India — Northern India has the temples, etc., that are frequented by travelers, but the country’s south is cleaner and greener.

We were there for the Pongal Festival, a 4-day event, usually held in mid-January, which is celebrated by making pongal (a traditional rice dish), visiting friends, displaying street art and taking cows to the temple.

From Susan Tartaglino of Fort Worth, TX: On each list, the highest-ranked country is in the number-1 position.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) — Back to the age of reptiles.

2. Southern Africa — Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), the Okavango Delta (Botswana) and the Thornybush and Sabi Sands private game reserves (South Africa).

3. South Georgia Island and Antarctica — A journey to another world.

4. Luxor, Egypt — Remains of ancient Egypt.

5. Cambodia — The Angkor Wat temple complex in the jungle.

6. Australian Outback — Wonderful desert.

7. Cook Islands — A South Seas paradise, including Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

8. Trans-Siberian Railway — World’s greatest train journey.

9. Peru — Machu Picchu, the ancient city in the Andes, and Cusco.

10. Nepal — The Everest region, for the magnificent mountain scenery.

Personal Favorites

1. South Georgia Island and Antarctica

2. Galápagos Islands

3. Southern Africa

4. India’s wildlife parks — The Gir Forest, for the Asian lions, and Kanha National Park, for tigers and elephants.

5. Niger — The Sahara Desert.

6. Nepal — A trek to an Everest base camp.

7. Torres del Paine, Chile

8. Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt — For Red Sea snorkeling.

9. Tanzania — Climbing Kilimanjaro.

10. Isfahan, Iran — For the Persian architecture.



Women waiting to offer Chhath prayers at the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Photo by Wanda Bahde

From Wanda Bahde of Summerfield, FL: These are ranked with the most recommended or most favorite first.

Creating these Top 10 lists has been a fascinating project that has made me rethink my entire traveling life of 44 years. It also made me realize how I wish I could have afforded Papua New Guinea when I was young and the area was more authentic. I wish I had gone to Bhutan when I was still able to climb to Tiger’s Nest. But I am thrilled that I managed to visit Turkey and Egypt while they were still safe and that I trekked in Nepal while I was able.

I urge travelers to take “tough trips” while they can still cope with long flights, lesser creature comforts, marginal medical care and higher physical activity. Reliable tour operators make any destination possible. Time, finances, health and travel interests, as well as opportunity, determined my destinations. I encourage others to prioritize destinations, research options and follow their dreams.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Kenya and Tanzania — Take a photo safari during the animal migrations to marvel at the plains undulating with thousands of wildebeests and zebras heading toward greener grazing. Stay inside game preserves either in a lodge or tent camp for the best experience. (We are investigating a return trip and see that many companies are now setting up camps just outside the Maasai Mara or Serengeti, resulting in more travel time and less quality-safari time.)

2. Peru — Briefly visit Lima before flying to Cusco and traveling through the Sacred Valley to the ancient Incan architectural wonder of Machu Picchu. 

3. Thailand — Visit the River Kwai, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Travel beyond Bangkok to see “authentic” Thailand. Learn how Buddhism influences the Thai culture, and appreciate the country’s unique history and architecture.

Ray Bahde climbing to the Royal Tombs at Petra, Jordan.

4. India — See Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho and Varanasi. India offers an exotic kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells. The contrasts are unimaginable. Expect grueling travel days and challenges, but keep an open mind and carefully select your travel itinerary for a rewarding experience. 

5. Israel — Visit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Masada. While exploring this diverse country, learn about the foundations of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

6. Australia — Appreciate the history and diversity of this continent. Experience the culture of Melbourne and the spirit of the Outback and Uluru. Go snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and visit bustling Sydney. 

7. China — Climb the Great Wall, marvel at the historic sites in Beijing, ponder the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, sail the Yangtze and study the Three Gorges Dam. In addition, contrast traditional Tibetan life at the Potala Palace in Lhasa with contemporary Hong Kong.

8. Antarctica — Witness immense blue glaciers and icebergs. Ride Zodiacs (inflatable rafts) to shore to walk among penguins and other wildlife. Marvel at fragile tundra greenery. (I was on a small-ship cruise.)

9. Turkey — Visit Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia before traveling inland to the cave cities of Cappadocia and south to Antalya’s old port and the Perge (Perga) ruins. Continue east along the Mediterranean Sea (but not on a gulet), concluding at crowded Ephesus. Unfortunately, many tours to Turkey have been suspended.

10. Egypt — Head beyond Cairo’s bustle and the pyramids to Luxor and the Karnak temples. Visit Aswan to see the High Dam and the Philae temple complex. Ride camels into the desert. Fly to the temples of Abu Simbel.

Personal Favorites

Ray and Wanda Bahde listened to vivid night sounds from elephants, hippos, hyenas and frogs just beyond the canvas of their tent in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

1. Nepal — In 1990, I trekked through friendly villages of the Annapurna Himal, near Pokhara, and walked beside rugged mountains, sharing the trail with mule trains. Sherpas looked after our safety and comfort as we camped. My goal was to learn and appreciate the Nepali culture and lifestyle. In addition, I came home with a better understanding of my own personal strengths, mental and physical. 

2. Zimbabwe and Botswana — Only tent canvas separated my husband and me from animals at night. From bed, we listened to elephants munch on leaves and hippos crash through brush plus a multitude of unidentified sounds. In addition, we learned about regional politics, elephant overpopulation, the AIDS epidemic and much more.

3. Antarctica — Mingling with penguins and seals, with glaciers everywhere, we saw whales, fossils from prehistoric times, abandoned whalers’ blubber cookers and research stations.

4. Polynesia — Specifically, Tahiti, Fiji and the Samoas. In 1978, taking an opportunity that is no longer available, our group of 15 stayed as guests in remote Fijian and Samoan homes, where running water and flush toilets were absent. The friendly villagers were as curious about our lifestyles as we were of theirs.

5. India — In Jaipur, we visited the traditional sites but also were invited to our guide’s sister’s home to observe private worship and celebration during the Diwali festival. In Varanasi, we witnessed processions of women making offerings to the god of the sun during Chhath, in addition to daily aarti prayers at the Ganges.

Ray Bahde walking among curious penguins in Neko Harbour, Antarctica.

6. Peru — I first saw Machu Picchu in 1977 on a day trip from Cuzco. A decade later, we also visited rural communities in the Sacred Valley, floated on the Urubamba River, explored the Ollantaytambo ruins and watched Sunday festivities in Cuzco. 

7. Israel and Jordan — I am interested in world religions. In Jordan, Petra’s magnitude exceeded my expectations, as did Israel’s diversity, but the kaleidoscope of perspectives in the region stretched my mind and helped put world events into focus. 

8. Thailand — We had an “authentic” experience by tromping through salt fields, rice paddies and pineapple plantations, visiting the River Kwai, studying the opium trade in Chiang Rai and riding elephants in Chiang Mai. Our devout Buddhist guide introduced us to his religion and its role in the Thai culture. 

9. Egypt — Cairo’s pyramids at Giza seemed insignificant when contrasted with the relocated temples at Abu Simbel. Our Nile cruise concluded in Aswan, our favorite city. We rode camels into the desert to an abandoned monastery and a Nubian village. Serendipity and getting away from crowded traditional sites made this trip special.

10. Turkey — While Istanbul’s exotic sites are on every itinerary, the highlight for us was floating in a hot-air balloon among the “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia’s Kiliçlar Valley. Another highlight was staying in the historic seaport of Antalya and touring Perge, which we preferred over crowded Ephesus. Turkey’s people were so friendly, and the scenery was outstanding.

In conclusion, I advise following Randy Keck’s counsel, “Know thyself,” as well as my mantra: “Do everything you can, while you can.” Get out of your comfort zone and embrace serendipity. Welcome every opportunity to experience our amazing planet and the people who inhabit it.