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!

Places to Return to – Georgia

Georgia is stunning!  The Caucasus mountains, the black sea and some amazing orthodox architecture.  The people are friendly and relatively modern.  The food is amazing.  I can’t believe more people don’t come to Georgia.  I loved it and can’t wait to go back.  My recommendations for Georgia

Head to the Kazbeg and climb up to Tsminda Sameba

It is a thrilling, albeit rough, ride up the Georgian Military Highway, almost to the border with Russia to reach the Kazbeg, a sleepy mountain village in the shadow of Mt Kazbeg.  On the way, you pass the gorgeous Ananuri fortress, which is worth a visit.

Ananuri Fortress
Ananuri Fortress

Once in Kazbeg, you can climb up to the spectacular orthodox church – Tsminda Sameba at 2200m.  These Georgians take their religion pretty seriously, and none of the 80 year old villagers think anything of walking up 1000 metres to go to a service.  The Russians actually built a cable car up here in the 80s, and the locals promptly destroyed it – you can’t see any evidence that it was ever there.   Don’t expect any respite when you sweatily arrive at the church either.  Like most orthodox churches in this part of the world, there are no seats.  Only lazy people need to sit down to hear a sermon for two hours, good orthodox christians are happy to stand up.

Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg
Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg

The church is spectacular, but the setting more so.  If you have time, I would recommend staying a few days and getting some hiking in, and perhaps climb Mt Kazbeg (5047m)

Tsminda Sameba
Tsminda Sameba
Visit davit gareja

Davit Gareja is a collection of old cave monasteries right on the border with Azerbaijan.  So close to the border in fact, that I decided to go for a walk in Azerbaijan, as I hadn’t technically visited at this point.   Getting there is easy from Tbilisi, though we did run into a very NZ like traffic jam on the way there

Traffic jam en route to Davit Gareja
Traffic jam en route to Davit Gareja

6000 monks were killed here when the monastery was sacked by Shah Abbas in 1615.  The monasteries never fully recovered but there are still monks living there today.

Davit Gareja
Davit Gareja

Its easy hiking around the many caves, and worthwhile going the hiking to check out the frescos (although be on the look out for snakes)

Cave Frescos
Cave Frescos
wander around tblisi and eat a lot

Georgian food is good!  So good in fact, that whenever I travel to a former Soviet Republic I check to see if they have a Georgian restaurant and make a point of going to eat there.  My favourites are Khinkali (meat dumplings), Kachapuri (cheese bread) and Mastnis Supi (yogurt soup).  They sound heavy to eat, and they are, but Georgians are masters at spices and herbs, so the food is delicious!!!!

Old town architecture Tbilisi
Old town architecture Tbilisi

To counter the calorie intake from all the good food, I would suggest taking in the sites of Tbilisi to get your step count up.  I really enjoyed the new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi (yup same name as above, it means Holy Trinity), wandering round the old town to visit the little old orthodox churches, and enjoying the huge stalinist monstrosities in the new town.

 

The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi
The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi
Additional tips
  • I only had 5 days in Georgia and getting public transport was going to be slow!  So, I used a local agent to provide transport and an english speaking guide (a groovy young feminist called Tamuna).  It was about $150 per day just for me, and both the guide and the driver were fab.  They also entertained me with lots of local music.  I booked this through http://www.georgicatravel.ge.  If you were time pressured, you could do everything above in a long weekend.  If you had more time you could go to Svaneti and the black sea
  • I stayed at the Radisson on points.  It was fine.  Being cheap, I made sure I made a packed lunch and snacks to take with me from the very good breakfast buffet
  • Ladies don’t forget a headscarf or a hoody if you want to see the inside of the churches

Visited May 2011