Top 10 destinations lists — recommended vs. favorite (part 2)

This article appears on page 38 of the November 2017 issue.

An article by Contributing Editor Randy Keck, “Building Your Travel Bucket List” (Jan. ’17, pg. 56), generated the following project. We asked ITN subscribers (March ’17, pg. 15) 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).

Jean and Fred DeVinney flanked by tribal members at the Tumbuna Sing-Sing in Papua New Guinea.

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 last month’s issue, we printed a few of the lists received — two from each person — and will be printing more list pairings in the months to come.

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.”

From Patricia Carberry of Fairview, TX: The following are in no particular ranking.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Cairo, Egypt — The site of the pyramids is breathtaking. Learning about an amazing civilization that is 4,000 to 5,000 years old is fascinating and a privilege.

2. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — Beautiful beaches, Sugarloaf Mountain, the “Christ the Redeemer” statue and more.

3. Cape Town, South Africa — Table Mountain is a glorious backdrop to this spectacular city. The shoreline at the Cape is also spectacular.

4. Sydney, Australia — The iconic Sydney Opera House centers the wonderful harbor shore waiting to be explored.

5. Machu Picchu, Peru — The breathtaking site of an ancient culture.

6. Tokyo, Japan — An exciting city to explore, both ancient and modern.

7. Cappadocia, Turkey — The “fairy chimneys” are an out-of-this-world landscape, best seen at sunrise from a balloon.

8. Beijing, China — The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and other sites show the peak of a past culture worth exploring.

9. Istanbul, Turkey — The most spectacular skyline in the world, spanning two continents.

10. Panama Canal, Panama — A fascinating engineering feat that changed the shipping industry.

Personal Favorites

1. Sydney, Australia — A gorgeous harbor and fun, outgoing people.

2. Cape Town, South Africa

3. Beijing, China — Bigger-than-life vestiges of an ancient civilization.

4. Tokyo, Japan — Side-by-side old and new cultures in a bustling city. 

5. Istanbul, Turkey

6. Cappadocia, Turkey

7. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — Beaches, music and so much more.

8. Lake Titicaca, Peru — Experience the Uros and their amazing lifestyle on the floating islands.

9. Panama Canal, Panama — An engineering marvel (a battle with nature and disease) plus natural beauty.

10. Cairo, Egypt

From Fred DeVinney of Walnut Creek, CA: While my wife and I have always enjoyed traveling independently in Europe, for the more adventuresome destinations we have either joined small-group tours or had a travel agent put together a private tour for us and another couple. In this list, number 1 is tops on down to 10.

Personal Favorites

1. African game parks — There is nothing in all our travels that has been as thrilling as the close-up viewing of some of the most amazing animals on Earth. The thrill of seeing your first lions, a herd of elephants, giraffes loping beside you, a pool of snorting hippos or rhinos, leopards, zebras, baboons, hyenas and countless varieties of the antelope family, all in their natural habitat, is extraordinary. 

Add comfortable accommodations, good food and a “sundowner” at the watering hole on a balmy evening drive and you have the experience of a lifetime. 

Having traveled to parks in both Tanzania and Kenya (1971 and 2005) and farther south to Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, including Cape Town (2012), we felt the latter provided greater diversity of landscapes and experiences, while Tanzania and Kenya offered a somewhat greater abundance of animal encounters.

2. India — While it may not be for everyone, this fascinating culture offers rewarding and unforgettable experiences. The image of people bathing, praying and socializing on the holy Ganges at sunrise, with a backdrop of funeral pyres, will remain with you for a lifetime.

The incredible Taj Mahal, the splendid temples of Khajuraho and the magnificent forts and palaces of Rajasthan, plus a one-night splurge at the splendid Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur, all were highlights of our first trip (1998). We planned it to coincide with the Pushkar Camel Fair in early November, where contact with the people left lasting impressions. (Late October to early November is one of the better times to travel in India.)

On our second trip (2010), we explored southern India. There we encountered the impressive, pyramid-shaped temples of Thanjavur and Madurai and enjoyed participating in evenings at these temples where families gathered to pray and socialize. 

The lovely shore temples of Mahabalipuram, the mountainous Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and colonial Pondicherry were additional highlights.

It then was a real treat to board our own houseboat and cruise the Kerala backwaters, absorbing village life along the way. 

This country of 1.3 billion offers a culture like no other. Despite great poverty in many areas plus teeming crowds and roads clogged with cars, motorbikes and trucks, their horns blasting, as well as cows and pedestrians, it all works somehow.

After a day of sensory overload, we were happy to retreat to a nice hotel and enjoy a good dinner in comfort and quiet yet looking forward to the next day, when we would reenter the fray to come away with more memorable experiences. We feel that one has not fully seen the world until they have experienced India!

3. Papua New Guinea — This is probably the most primitive unspoiled destination one can travel to safely and comfortably today. The villages along the Sepik River, which see only a few tourists each year, welcome you with ceremony and open arms. The carvings and artifacts of this area (many now filling our TV room) are unique and inexpensive.

Within the highland cultures, many tribes gather in annual celebrations called sing-sings. The Tumbuna Sing-Sing we attended in May 2008 was smaller and more personal, witnessed by only a few tourists. We were thrilled by the most colorful, awesome and breathtaking display of costumes, body decoration and pulsating dancing we have ever seen — truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

4. China — We were fortunate in that we made our first trip in 1979. Despite the pollution often encountered in Beijing today, the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and nearby Great Wall and Ming Tombs are world treasures.

Highlights of our second trip, in 2010, included Xi’an, with the Terracotta Army, and the Guilin/Yangzhou area along the picturesque Li River — not to be missed.

5. Egypt — Cairo and the pyramids, the ancient temples of Luxor and Karnak as well as Aswan and Abu Simbel offer some of the best-preserved antiquities of one of the world’s great ancient kingdoms. The trip along the Nile is an amazing journey back in time. (1980.)

6. Southeast Asia — This area requires at least two trips. Our first (2001) concentrated on Vietnam, which would be our favorite Southeast Asian country. Highlights included Hanoi, beautiful Ha Long Bay, the old capital of Hue, historically preserved Hoi An and Saigon. We also went north of Hanoi to visit the hill tribes around Sapa (Sa Pa) and the Chinese border.

Vietnam is easily combined with Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders. We also spent a few days in Luang Prabang, the religious center of Laos on the Mekong, with its vast array of Buddhist temples.

Bangkok in Thailand (as well as Bhutan, which is not in Southeast Asia) was also part of our second trip (2007). We have yet to explore Thailand, but we have visited Bangkok three times. It’s one of our favorite cities, with the Grand Palace complex and Temple of Dawn among the treasures of Southeast Asia. Boat trips along the city’s klongs (canals) and to the floating markets are highlights of any visit.

Myanmar, visited on our third Southeast Asia trip (2010), has recently opened to full-scale tourism and contains some of the more amazing sights in Southeast Asia. The stunning, massive, gold-covered Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon; 2,000 ancient pagodas/temples in Bagan; Mandalay, and beautiful Inle Lake, where we experienced a colorful festival, were among the highlights of this beautiful country of warm, friendly people.

7. Indonesia — The tropical paradise of Bali (1971), with its lush terraced rice fields, unique Hindu temples and music and dance presentations, plus, in 2009, the awesome temples of Borobudur on Java, the island of Komodo, with its Komodo dragons, and up-close encounters with the wonderful orangutans of Borneo highlighted a trip of great diversity.

8. Morocco — This fascinating country offers entry into the Muslim world free of strife and rich in culture. Step back in time in the labyrinthine souks and medinas of Fez and Marrakesh, visit beautiful mosques and ancient kasbahs, cross the Atlas Mountains, enjoy the marvelous blue city of Chefchaouen, and spend a night or two in a tented camp in the incredibly beautiful Sahara desert, where you can visit nomadic tribes and experience an unforgettable sunrise. In addition, you will enjoy one the world’s great cuisines. (1971, 2015.)

9. Turkey — We have driven through Turkey on our own and traveled to the eastern regions in a group with a tour operator (which currently has canceled all trips to Turkey).

Istanbul is one of our favorite cities in the world, and Cappadocia is a geological wonder. Turkey is the crossroads of many great civilizations, with splendid Roman and Greek ruins, including at Ephesus. (1992, 2013.) 

10. South America — Our first trip, in 2003, included, in Peru, Machu Picchu, Cuzco and Manu National Park. (Machu Picchu in person is breathtaking.) It also included the Galápagos Islands (of Ecuador), an extraordinary experience, offering the ability to walk within a few feet of amazing birds (we wanted to adopt a couple of blue-footed boobies), iguanas, sea lions and giant tortoises in a unique, unspoiled setting.

Our second trip, in 2009, was to Patagonia. We enjoyed a few days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before experiencing the abundance of nature in the beautiful mountain lakes of Bariloche, the massive Perito Moreno Glacier and, in Chile, the spectacular scenery of Torres del Paine. 

A post-trip to Iguassu Falls was the highlight, and it’s truly the most breathtaking complex of waterfalls we have ever seen. (Sorry, Victoria Falls, but you are only number 2!)

I can’t believe I’ve listed these fantastic trips to South America 10th on this list. To quote Louis Armstrong, “What a wonderful world!”

I found this next list to be much more difficult, as what is challenging for some may not be so for others. I took into consideration distance, ease of travel and current political situations (which, I feel, currently eliminates Turkey and Egypt, although some tours are still going there).

Best for Beginning Travelers

“Fairy chimneys” at Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo by Jean DeVinney

1. Costa Rica — While this beautiful country did not make our Top 10 Favorites list, it offers many highlights, including the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Tortuguero National Park rainforest, beautiful Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Pacific, and Arenal Volcano. (1992.)

2. Peru — Machu Picchu, Cuzco and the Sacred Valley.

3. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

4. Patagonia — Southern Argentina and Chile.

5. Morocco — This may surprise you, but it was easy and safe, you could drink the water, and the food was wonderful.

6. Vietnam and Cambodia — In Cambodia, visit Angkor Wat. 

7. Myanmar — Can easily be combined with Vietnam and Cambodia. 

8. Indonesia — Including exotic Bali.

9. African game parks — Outside of the long flight, this is not hard travel.

10. China

From Femi Faminu of Los Angeles, CA: These lists were more challenging to compose than I anticipated.

For beginning travelers, these are destinations that I think are easier to navigate because they have more developed tourist infrastructure (numerous options for transportation and guided tours) and because English may be more widely understood. In no particular order…

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Costa Rica — A small country with fairly good infrastructure and several interesting sites within reasonable reach. English is widely spoken, and US dollars are widely accepted.

2. Malaysia — Good infrastructure, so it’s easy to get around, and English is widely spoken. It’s culturally and architecturally interesting.

3. Turkey — Wonderful food and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Plus great architecture, fabulous history and good infrastructure.

4. New Zealand — Beautiful scenery with wide, open spaces plus great infrastructure and the interesting Maori culture.

5. Australia — A wide variety of interesting experiences, including the food and culture. English is, of course, spoken everywhere.

6. South Africa — For great food, a wonderfully varied landscape, great infrastructure and great accommodations available at all price ranges. It is a terrific value for the money, especially now. English is widely spoken.

7. Zimbabwe — For its friendly people and Victoria Falls.

8. Thailand — A taste of a very different culture. Still, it’s readily navigable for English speakers. The country has prices to suit every budget.

9. Singapore — For its interesting mix of cultures and the great infrastructure. English is widely spoken.

10. China — For its history and its culture.

Ranking the destinations on my list of personal favorites is challenging, but I suppose the fact that I’ve visited Tanzania and Ecuador more than the other places, and will continue to do so, is indicative, so I would say this list of my favorites is in order, with number 1 being my favorite.

This list is skewed toward wildlife viewing (including birding) in natural, mostly tropical, settings.

Personal Favorites 

Up close with a male orangutan in Borneo, Indonesia. Photo by Jean DeVinney

1. Tanzania — For safaris in Ruaha National Park.

2. Ecuador — Easy access to the Amazon for birding and jungle walks.

3. Brazil — For the Pantanal, the Amazon and Rio de Janeiro.

4. Sri Lanka — For great birding plus leopard spotting.

5. South Africa — Also great birding and leopard spotting.

6. Uganda — Cruising the Kazinga Channel and walking in Kyambura Gorge.

7. Myanmar — For its friendly people, river cruising and the serenity of Inle Lake (at least, it was serene when I visited over a decade ago).

8. Laos — For its easygoing culture and unique handicrafts.

9. Turkey — See above.

10. Réunion — A fascinating mix of cultures and beautiful scenery.

From Norm Loeffler of New Braunfels, TX: Before listing travel suggestions, I wish to strongly urge any fledgling traveler to research and read up on the destination before your departure. One veteran traveler felt that for every hour spent boning up before travel, the enrichment and enjoyment of the visit was amplified by a factor of four or five. 

For me, the rich impact of Xanadu [Shangdu, China — Editor], Timbuktu and Easter Island (to note a few) unfolded like a magic carpet as I reviewed stored mental images of each site’s history and then felt a thrill or chill just being there.

For those who find history and geography reading dry and plodding, you can try historical novels or, my favorites, detective mysteries. Some of the latter have guided me around streets and points of interest in Singapore, St. Petersburg, Cairo, Cape Town, etc. 

Secondly, and sadly, some of the listed options may not now be suitable from a standpoint of travelers’ security. Checking in advance with your tour operator, recent news from the locale, ITN’s “News Watch” pages and the US State Department has become an unfortunate necessity.

In these lists, number 1 is best, 2 is next, etc.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Egypt — The most remarkable art and unbelievable monuments — a stunning pageant of the ascent of mankind.

2. Torres del Paine, Chile — A remote corner of Chile with, arguably, the world’s most scenic peaks plus the possibility of glimpsing a circling Andean condor.

3. Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina — A close-up encounter with an icy chain of monstrous turquoise monoliths marching to collapse into a narrow river gorge.

4. Cape Town, South Africa — One of the most beautiful cities in the world, surrounded by astounding vistas.

5. Tanzania — Options abound for safaris offering close-up and personal contact with nature in the wild. Ngorongoro Crater is a personal favorite.

6. New Zealand — In Christ­church, relax immersed in British customs, such as punting on the Avon, watching buskers (street performers) and enjoying a pint in a cozy pub. It’s a gateway to scenic lakes, sylvan glades and snowy peaks on the South Island, while the North Island has an active volcano, geysers, pristine beaches and “The Hobbit” Shire.

7. Bali, Indonesia — A beautifully lush and dramatic island, with gentle people, stunning monuments and exotic ambiance.

8. Uzbekistan — A gateway to other parts of the Silk Road. Exotic bazaars. An “Arabian Nights” fantasy of stunning Moslem edifices covered with exquisitely patterned tiles and rivaling the Taj Mahal, including the Minaret in Khiva and the Registan in Samarkand.

9. Peru — For the Gold Museum in Lima, the stunning impact of Machu Picchu, the awesome Incan fortress in Cusco and the laid-back Pacific coast. Plus pisco sours and coca tea.

10. China — The fabled Forbidden City, Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, the Li River, the Great Wall and the train to Lhasa, for starters.

Personal Favorites

1. Easter Island — A lush, relaxed island with unexpected groves of trees, herds of horses, craters of dormant volcanoes, stunning vistas, friendly locals and, of course, iconic stone monoliths.

2. Egypt — The nation with the most astounding and most ancient sights of anywhere I have visited.

3. Darjeeling, India — Tucked into a hillside of the Himalayas, it has traces of the flavor of the Raj. Ride the “Toy Train” from the plains of India.

4. The Karakoram Highway — Setting out from the fabled caravan center of Kashgar, China, toward the world’s highest border crossing at Khunjerab into Pakistan. Plunging down the Hunza River gorge and skirting the Hindu Kush and Western Himalayas, with a must-stop visit at Karimabad, an ancient Silk Road stop, for its scenic beauty and wisps of the former kingdom.

5. Timbuktu, Mali — A dusty remnant of one of the most vibrant ancient centers of wealth, knowledge and culture, now slowly being devoured by the Sahara and periodically menaced by belligerent local factions.

6. China — The train odyssey from Beijing to Lhasa is a swift, smooth ride across much of the country on a high-tech track among some of the world’s highest venues, with vistas of cities, rural villages and grazing yaks.

 7. New Zealand — Geysers, volcanic activity, lush mountain valleys and beautiful ocean bays plus a revered maintenance of Britannic culture.

 8. Uzbekistan — A stunning panoply of scenic splendor and structural wonders plus exotic culture. Of the five “’Stan” countries I visited on the historic Silk Route, this was the most alluring and visitor-accommodating. 

 9. Indonesia — A symphony of experiences, including Bali, an island of lush beauty, ancient culture and gentle, serene people; Java, with the stunning temple of Borobudur and active volcanoes; Lombok, for beaches, and Komodo, for adventure. 

10. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — For Carnival, a seemingly unending display of music, dancing, costumes and gigantic, fanciful floats slowly performing along the half-mile Sambadrome. Small bands and children dancing to the beat throughout the city.