Which are the best countries in the world to visit?

Given my travel history, I regularly get asked which is my favourite country in the world….. Honestly, that’s easy. New Zealand every time!

However, I do have a list of places that I highly recommend, many of which I  would go back to (or have gone back to) over and over again. Here it is:

Africa highlights

1. Mali

I totally lost my heart to Mali. Hiking in the Dogon was one of the highlights of my life. No hot water or showers, few cold drinks, filtering my drinking water from the wells, sleeping on grubby sheetless mattresses in the dusty wind on the roof of the chiefs house in every village, and dinner of gritty couscous and mystery meat most nights. I went in summer and sweltered doing 30k hiking days in 40 degree heat for six days (we had to lie down on the shade from 11-3 every day). I would recommend going in December when it’s cooler. But I loved it!!!! The scenery in the Dogon is amazing, the welcome incredibly warm and the history was fascinating. (Djenne was lovely too) I can’t recommend it highly enough

Djenne mud mosque
Djenne market
Yougoudougourou Dogon

2. Ethiopia

I am torn on Ethiopia. Addis is a crap hole full of touts. And there are more and more busloads of Italian tourists. And whenever you stop to pee, anywhere in the country, you will be surrounded by kids while your pants are down asking for a pen or a sweet. However, there is nothing like going to Bet Giorgis in Lalibela at dawn for the services, or climbing up to the ancient monasteries in the Gheralta (although some are men only, like Debre Damo). I loved it, and have developed a real love for Injera. I have been back, and am planning to go again to Harar to see the hyenas at some point, as well as see the Danakil depression (which was closed to tourists last time I went)

Yemrehanna Kristos
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Church Guardian
Bet Giorgis

3. Namibia

Sossusvlei alone merits a visit to Namibia. Big red dunes, amazing old trees, and stunning sunrises – if you have extra cash take a balloon ride at dawn. With more time, you can fly up the skeleton coast, cruise around Windhoek (which wins my vote for the most zen capital in Africa), and go on safari in Etosha. Originally colonised by the Germans, the efficiency and organisation remains!

Dead vlei
Desert flowers

Asia

4. Myanmar

We went before it got touristy (luckily we did the same in Cambodia). I hope it still retains its charm. Getting up early to see the monks collect alms, watching the sun set over what seems like hundreds of miles of temples, and spending time with very friendly locals. You do need to offset that against a truly oppressive political regime.

Monks going for morning alms
temples in bagan
happy monks
temples

Americas

5. Bolivia

The first off the beaten track place I went in South America 20 years ago, I am sure it has changed so we are going back this year to take a look. It was a lifetime highlight, cycling from La Paz down the death road to Coroico, seeing a black jaguar swimming across the amazon while I was in the rainforest, freezing my butt off at 4,800m while being amazed by the salt plains in Uyuni, and horse riding in the footsteps of the Sundance kid in Tupiza. Often overlooked for neighbouring Peru, I would take Bolivia every time, even when I remember the 24 hours I spent lying on the bathroom floor in La Paz with altitude sickness barfing into a less than clean loo.  (No photos as I went in the olden times when we had Kodak film and printed them out)

Europe

6. Georgia

Tbilisi is a trip, great food (Khinkhali and kachapuri) and some terrific architecture. But the joys of Georgia can be found out of town. Apparently it has changed since I went and there are now some posh hotels, but I have amazing memories of hiking in the Kazbeg and loving the locals in their skodas. I also enjoyed David gareji – the ancient monastery. It’s safe, friendly and stunning.

Tsminda Sameba
Ananuri Fortress
Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg
Old town architecture Tbilisi
The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi

7. Uzbekistan

Ok it has a totalitarian dictatorship and the food isn’t amazing (plov!). However, the Silk Road architecture is incredible – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. I have been three times and will go again. The first time I went there, ten years ago, there were no tourists to be seen. Last time there were busloads. Try to go off season but pack warm clothes

Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son
Chor Minaret – Bukhara

The Minaret late afternoon – Bukhara

For a splurge

8. Botswana

For eye watering sums of money, in my view, there is no better place to see big game. You might find leopards more easily in Kenya, but within ten minutes you will be surrounded by other vans bursting with camera toting tourists. Find a leopard in Botswana and chances are you will have it all to yourself. We went top end and stayed at Mombo, and I don’t want to remember what we paid but it was worth it. Flying in the tiny planes between camps, and scanning the runway for elephants before you land also created memories for a lifetime.

Job done!
The baboon tree viewing gallery

Elephants in the Okavango

9. Bhutan

Expensive but worth it! I saved Bhutan for country 182. I spent more in one day in Bhutan than I did in a month of over-landing on a truck in west Africa the year before. I tried not to think about the cost too much and just enjoyed every minute. A highlight of my travels – the most astoundingly friendly people, a culture which is cherished and preserved, and obsession with improving gross national happiness rather than GDP. Add that to outstanding landscapes and stunning monasteries with great hiking and it is my perfect travel destination. And for my husband – the five star hotels with world class food were a big draw! Save up and go!

Tigers Nest Monastery
Archery in Paro
Monks in Punakha Dzong
Paro Dzong

Off the beaten track countries I wouldn’t go back to, but are definitely worth a visit

10. North Korea

Ok this is a controversial one as the oppression is horrendous. However, I can think of few other places as unusual and where you are so tightly scrutinised! The questions the guide asked me made it obvious they had investigated me before arrival. So, the sights aren’t great shakes, you will get heartily sick of the propoganda and bullshit, and you will struggle not to pee your pants laughing when you hear about how the ‘great leader’ solved all the worlds problems. Recommended if you want to see what life without freedom looks like, it’ll make you thankful for whatever your political system is at home.

Pyongyang metro

11. Eritrea

Very hard to get into, and hard to get around without lots of paperwork, but worth it. For any Art Deco fan, the architecture in Asmara is worth making the trip. The coffee is good, the donuts better! Tourists are so rare that you will be warmly welcomed by everyone you meet, and I found it difficult to pay for my coffee at any cafe.

Bowling alley
Famous fiat garage

12. Yap, Micronesia

Ok it’s blimmen hard to get to (and united just made it harder by cancelling the weekly flight) and you aren’t allowed on any of the beaches without the local chiefs permission. And yes you have to carry a leaf when you wander around the island to demonstrate you are not a threat. And women aren’t allowed to wear shorts. And if you want to go to the national festival you have to go in local costume (that means topless!). But Yap has a charm that I rarely found elsewhere, largely because of its isolation. The stone money and paths are amazing. If you are a diver, apparently the manta rays are extraordinary. And I also suspect the excellent Oceania hotel I stayed in in Colonia made all the difference. However the Chinese government had just started big net fishing on their reefs, so I hope their idyllic lifestyle survives.

Ancient stone paths
Meeting house and stone money
Stone money
Meeting house

13. Sudan

Far more interesting than its Egyptian neighbour, Sudan has the stunning pyramids at Meroe, the nile, the lion temple at Naqa and the whirling dervishes at Omdurman. It’s hard to get into, completely corrupt and you can’t get cash when you are there. But the entrepreneurial Greek brothers at the acropole hotel (a Khartoum legend) can sort you out.

Women at Omdurman during the Friday service for the whirling dervishes
Meroe pyramids
Meroe pyramids
Meroe pyramids
Naqa Lion Temple

14. DRC

a terrific place to see gorillas, and support the conservation of them.  its cheaper and less touristy than Rwanda, so you might well have the whole family of gorillas to yourself.  And while you are there you can climb Nyiragongo.  Its easy to get to Goma through Rwanda and you can book everything direct with virunga.org

For first time travelers

15. Thailand

yes this may seem an odd choice, but Thailand is fantastic for first time travellers. It’s pretty safe, travel is easy and the food is excellent. I have been more times than I can count (largely as it was a great place to stopover on the way home from London to Nz and spend a week on the beach). If you haven’t travelled a lot, and want to get started – go here

16. South Africa

An ideal first time safari destination, amazing food, great wine and very very good value. You can go on safari in Kruger or any number of the neighbouring parks and drive the garden route from cape town to plett. Another country I have been to more times than I can count. If you haven’t been to southern Africa this is the very best place to start

——/——

It’s hard not to keep adding countries, as I have had wonderful experiences at most places in the world (largely as a result of the people I meet), so just because I didn’t put it on this list, doesn’t mean I didnt love it.  Honestly, I love France so much, I made it my second home, and everyone should go there, but I reckon most people will go there without my recommendation.   I also love a tonne of other places, too numerous to list.

At this point, I also still have 13 more countries to visit, so one of them might get added to the list

I also don’t think my list is for everyone, it’s entirely subjective and solely my opinion. No gripes if you don’t agree, just write your own list!

Happy trails!

Eritrea – Art Deco in Asmara

In the case of Eritrea immigration, the whole is more than the sum of its parts…. Italian efficiency combined with African bureaucracy….. amazing new levels of ineptitude :-)! I was first in the queue to passport control and 45 minutes later I was the last out, and my kiwi passport had been scrutinised by everyone in the building. Oh well, I still beat most people out as I didn’t have any bags.

The Irga building – one of the earliest art deco buildings

Eritrea is a former Italian colony, famous for having the best collection of modernist buildings anywhere in the world. The entire town of Asmara is a modernist experiment. Historically (and fortunately) they haven’t had the funds to build skyscrapers, and now they are applying for world heritage status to protect and restore the buildings.

Civilised queueing for the bus outside of the main mosque

I was extremely jet lagged from my 1am wake up to get on the flight, but the light was fabulous when I got into town at 7.30am, so I headed out for a stroll. First up, the most famous building in Asmara – the Fiat garage – shaped like an airplane. Gorgeous!

The Fiat Tagliero Building

Then I wandered along to the cinema Roma, I couldn’t resist a macchiato from the ancient coffee machine, and I was even invited into the theatre to see a kids play. The theatre gets put to good use with screenings of the UK premier league matches most days.

The antique projector at the Cinema Roma

Asmara is at 2200 m, and it has a delightful climate, a blessed relief after ten days of sweating, so it was the perfect day for a long wander. The buildings are remarkable. Hartnet ave – the main drag is a bit like Las Vegas back in the day – pastels, Art Deco and palm trees.

Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral

I meandered around the religious quarter where the mosque, cathedral, synagogue and two types of orthodox churches live in peaceful harmony. My favourite was the Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral.

Main Post Office

And then I just wandered around the old quarter looking for a postcard for a friend who has a daughter named Asmara. The post office was stunning but sadly only had six abysmal postcard options – oh well, beggars and choosers. Then I checked out Mah Jai jai and the market. I punctuated the days wanderings with excellent macchiatos in the many cafes in town.


Eritreans are beautiful and stylish! Fine cheekbones and chiselled features. They are definitely modern, and this is the first place in two weeks I have seen women, lots of them, wearing jeans! The old men are nattily attired in hats and jackets and make a full time job out of walking down the street chatting to people and drinking coffee.

The bowling alley

The city vibe is laid back and friendly, totally unlike all other capitals that I have experienced in Africa. Cars stop traffic to say hi to friends coming in the other direction – it’s like small town New Zealand. I had zero hassle day or night, and the locals took pride in telling me I could walk around at midnight with no problems. Too bad I am too old and boring to consider being out at midnight.

Cinema Roma

Eritreans are also extremely polite!  The best example is watching the queues for the bus.   Rather than stand in line, you leave a bag or a rock in the queue and then you can wander off for a coffee or sit in the shade.   Unimaginable in most African countries, where queuing feels like being in a mosh pit at a concert and you certainly wouldn’t leave your bags unattended in the street.

Cinema Odeon

I was up at 5 my second day and wandered up to Kidus Michael Church to watch the sun come up over the city and see the dawn church service. It is a lovely sight watching very devout old ladies perform their morning prostrations – no doubt it keeps them flexible. And then I went for a wander around the Italian cemetery, which is extremely ornate, though I couldn’t figure out why there were cow horns and hooves strewn around in one corner – either a bizarre ritual sacrifice ceremony or perhaps just a lazy garbage man.

Kidus Michael at dawn

 

Italian Cemetery

After breakfast I wandered up and down lots of random streets with no real plan. Every street had wonderful architecture, honestly this place is a modernist dream. For lunch, I met up with the delightful Tekeste…- the worlds friendliest guide (see more on him here). He has developed quite a following from the worlds travellers as is one of the few Eritreans with the connections to easily sort out a visa for you.

Local Injera Lunch with Tekeste

He treated me, and a French writer who was on one of his tours, to a fabulous local lunch with wonderful injera and spicy meat. And then I treated them to the best gelato in Eritrea at the Fortuna gelateria! Outstanding!

Fortuna Gelato – the best in Eritrea

More wandering in the afternoon, honestly the streets are endlessly lovely and I happily strolled for hours.  Then I rounded out the day with Arabic tea and a custard slice at the sweet Asmara cafe.

Asmara is delightful – easily my favourite capital of all African cities. If you like modernist architecture come quickly while the buildings are still standing.  The hospitality is amazing, and I had one final act of kindness from the lovely Tekeste who got up at 4 to drive me to the airport. I will be coming back!

Sweet Asmara – for the best cakes in Eritrea

Travel notes

– I can’t recommend Tekeste highly enough. He was amazing, hospitable, and can sort everything out. I only used him for visa support but next time would book everything through him. His agency is asmara grande, or contact him directly on tekeste.tekeste.azere@gmail.com

– I stayed at the crystal hotel. It was clean, and the staff were lovely. The downside was that the restaurant was not great and with the marble floors it was very noisy in my room

Italian Cemetery

– My favourite coffee spots were the Impero, the Roma and the Asmara Sweet. Best pastries were at the Sweet. Best gelato at the fortuna which isn’t on google maps, but it is across the road from the Omar Bin Abdul Aziz mosque (which is on google maps)

– It is mandatory to exchange with authorised dealers, however they no longer control this at customs. The official rate is 15 nakfas to $1, but you should be able to find someone willing to exchange for 23 (not on the street).  Note there are no ATMs in Eritrea, bring plenty of USD with you, and only change to Nafkas as you need

Antique post boxes still in use

– You can easily fly you to Asmara from Cairo and Dubai. I flew flydubai which departed at an uncivilised 3.40am. Note You can tell a lot about a country by what those coming home bring on a plane. The Eritreans set new records on the amount of duty free bags I have ever seen, with a ratio of 5 bags per person, principally composed of bulk boxes of kit Kats. Get in early if the flight is busy and you want your bag in the overhead locker

– The government here is extremely oppressive and apparently their freedom of press scores are worse than North Korea. Best not to discuss politics with the locals in public.

– Heading out of Asmara is possible but requires permits which you can get (eventually) from the tourist office. Next time I will visit Massawa

Italian Cemetery