Far Horizons

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 56 of the January 2017 issue.

Building your travel bucket list

Lively Old Havana features vintage American autos and impressive architecture. Photos by Randy Keck

It is easy for seasoned travelers to forget what it was like to be in the early stages of the exciting but, often, daunting task of planning which international destinations to visit.

Often, I am asked, especially by those just beginning their international travels, about my favorite destinations and/or which ones I would most recommend. Herein I will share my thoughts on this topic.

Developing a selection strategy

In developing a personal strategy for choosing international travel destinations, the wisest counsel is always “know thyself.” 

It starts with the assessment of four primary factors: your time availability, financial resources, state of health and travel interests. How does each relate to visiting specific destinations?

Added to this mix is the wild-card factor of “opportunity,” as in special or unexpected options that may present themselves along the way.

With those elements reviewed, the next consideration is travel style, specifically, whether you prefer individual or group travel or any of their many variations. That, however, is a broad topic for a different discussion.

Below, I offer some general recommendations for the most rewarding international destinations. I am excluding Europe from this discussion. The primary rationale for this is the generally higher level of familiarity with Europe on the part of Americans and the relatively compact nature of the region, which allows for easily visiting multiple countries in one journey. The development of a bucket list for Europe is worthy of a separate treatise.

Each listing below is followed by a brief rationale and, in some cases, caveats.

Destinations on my Top 13 list (why do lists need to be the top 10?) below are not in any order of ranking or preference on my part. 

Undoubtedly, some of our well-traveled ITN readers will have differing opinions, and this is as it should be.

My Top 13 Recommended International Destinations (excluding Europe)

Vietnam and Cambodia — Vietnam is, deservedly, a favored destination for Americans, and it can easily be combined with a visit to the Angkor Wat archaeological site in Cambodia. 

Scenic and cultural attractions abound in Vietnam. Visitors are enamored with both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi as well as the entrancing coastline and life along the Mekong River. 

The Vietnamese, themselves, are perhaps the greatest attraction. I have found them to be inspiring, enterprising and incredibly welcoming to Americans. 

For many, a visit also helps bring additional healing and closure in regard to the horrors of the Vietnam War of the 1960s and ’70s, a time permanently etched into the memories of Americans of the Third Age.

Galápagos Islands and Peru — Many itineraries now pair the exotic wildlife experience of a cruise among Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands with the allure of the legacy of early Inca civilizations in Peru’s high Andes. Despite increased visitor traffic, both the Galápagos and Machu Picchu rightly remain top priorities for many travel aspirants. 

Visits to the highlands of Peru — including Machu Picchu, at 7,972 feet, and especially Cusco, at 11,152 feet — require the ability to adapt to and function in high-altitude conditions.

Southern Africa, with a wildlife focus — At the southern tip of Africa, the country of South Africa offers amazing scenic and cultural diversity, but its natural wildlife offerings overall do not compare in grandeur with those of its northern neighbors: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. 

For those enthralled with African wildlife and able to do so, I advise taking a comprehensive trip to South Africa and a separate wildlife-focus visit to the game camps of the Okavango Delta area of northern Botswana as well as neighboring Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls can be included with either itinerary.

Brazil, Argentina and Chile — A tour of the highlights of these three countries provides a great educational primer on the major cities of Rio, Buenos Aires and Santiago and on other significant visitor attractions, such as the mighty Amazon and Iguassu Falls. Hopefully, this will inspire future explorations to other fascinating destinations on our neighboring continent. Do your research.

Australia and New Zealand — In the faraway South Pacific, diverse Australia and ultrascenic New Zealand are nations founded from the same European immigrant stock as North America. 

Bereft of boundaries, infused with wanderlust and filled by imagination, the travel bucket is, by its very nature, a perpetual work in progress.

Geographically, however, they could not be more different.  Australia’s impressive cities, sweeping coastline attractions and unique Outback amaze. New Zealand’s combination of snowcapped mountains, endless green pastoral landscapes and rugged seascape splendor are scenically unmatched.

If possible, they warrant being visited on separate trips. Both destinations are easy to visit on your own, and New Zealand’s smaller size is particularly conducive to self-drive options. If you plan to visit the region only once, however, many itineraries combine the countries. If doing them together, I recommend a visit of three weeks or longer.

Don’t overlook rugged and beautiful Tasmania, Australia’s island state.

China — Fascinating China may be at the top of the list of destinations that US travelers feel they need to visit. I wholeheartedly agree. With China now a dominant world superpower both militarily and economically, we need to know and understand China and its people as well as they do us. 

A 2-week visit will both fascinate and educate you. Beijing, Shanghai and the other major cities are overpowering, and a cruise on the Yangtze is a must. Include fascinating Hong Kong, if possible.

Cuba  — Although Cuba has long been forbidden to American visitors, several of the former prohibitive travel restrictions have now been lifted.  Americans by the thousands are descending on the island, posing challenges for, in particular, the accommodation infrastructure. Visit now before Cuba’s landscape changes further, as it inevitably must. 

Americans are rightly smitten by the island’s hospitable people, the music, the pristine beaches and the architecture of Havana and the other colonial cities. Surprises await, often revealing that we have much to learn from the enterprising Cuban people.

India and Nepal — India provides a feast for the senses like no other destination. It helps Westerners confront their fact-versus-fiction sensibilities and their assumptions about life on the subcontinent. 

India can be combined with a contrasting visit to the top-of-the-world heights of neighboring, exotic Nepal. Challenge any internal naysaying and just go! You will be happy for that decision.

Turkey — The roots of human civilization can be found in fascinating western Turkey, and visitors tend to be enthralled with the country. While, sad to say, it may be wise to wait for the current political and travel-safety equation to normalize, when it does, go!

Egypt — For early-civilization attractions, Egypt has always been a must-see destination. It absolutely remains so, but, as with Turkey, it may be advisable to wait for the current political and security climate to stabilize. Combine Cairo and, if possible, Alexandria with a Nile cruise.

Kenya and Tanzania — Either as a first or second African adventure, the Eastern Africa tandem of Kenya and Tanzania virtually guarantees a great wildlife exposure. For those planning to go to Africa only once, primarily to see wildlife, this combo can substitute for Southern Africa. For many travelers like myself, Africa is addictive, warranting multiple visits.

Israel and Jordan — Visitors to Israel tend to rave about it. It provides a combined experience of religious history and cultural education like no other country. It also can be easily combined with a short visit to the captivating UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra in neighboring Jordan.

Antarctica — The Antarctic is on the must-see lists of many world travelers and continent collectors. Some travelers are deterred by the thought of having to reach it by crossing the Drake Passage with its, often, rough seas. Be advised that several companies now offer air/cruise itinerary alternatives.

In 2003 I had the good fortune to be the only American journalist on the first-ever air/cruise trip to Antarctica. We flew into and out of the Eduardo Frei air base, operated by the Chilean military, from Punta Arenas. It was great avoiding the Drake yet still being able to cruise to the standard Antarctic visitor destinations.


Myriad ITN readers are well traveled and able to share wisdom gleaned from their global wanderings with those in the formative stages of the process. For those of you so positioned, my hope is that you will make every effort, when invited by others, to extend in this manner.   

Dare to inspire others on the path of worldly exploration and discovery, and do so from a place of gratitude and humility infused with the spirit of giving.

You may reach Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350, randykeck@yahoo.com.