Top 10 destinations lists — recommended vs. favorite

This item appears on page 38 of the April 2018 issue.

The standing Buddha of Aukana — Sri Lanka. Photo by Nili Olay

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.

This is the seventh installment of the series, and we’ll wrap it up next month.


From Brooks Goddard of Needham, MA: Let me first say that I have found some of the destinations named in the Top 10 lists to be far too broad. One could spend a lifetime exploring India; instead, one might recommend Delhi or Agra or Jaipur. With that in mind, here are my selections. (Each list is in no particular order.)

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Costa Rica — In particular, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Arenal Volcano National Park, Tortuguero National Park and Corcovado National Park. This country figured the tourist-circuit thing out a long time ago and has everything you might seek (except good shopping): birds, volcanoes, nature walks, zip-lines and beaches.

2. Istanbul, Turkey — I have always felt that Istanbul, especially the Sultanahmed Meydanı, is a wonderful introduction to going afield. I realize that, at present, there are some security issues, but Hagia Sophia, Süleymaniye Mosque and the Spice Bazaar are entrancing.

3. Volubilis, Morocco — Roman ruins in a serene location. Even General Patton went there.

4. Oaxaca, Mexico — Mornings and evenings in the Zócalo, the city square. An afternoon trip to nearby Monte Albán.

5. Cuzco, Peru — Everything happens in the central square. Many options a bus ride away (once you get used to the altitude).

6. New Delhi, India — Have it arranged to be picked up at the airport and taken to your hotel. Sleep for five hours, then hire a taxi to drive you around. Negotiate the price before setting off (I learned that from a hotel concierge). Don’t let India scare you.

7. Sydney, Australia — It really is the same language. Go straight to the harbor and see the beautiful Opera House.

8. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador — See biodiversity in action. You’ll be on a tour that will take you to five or so different locations, each of which will spur you to learn more about Darwin’s voyage there.

9. Cape Town, South Africa — A very cosmopolitan city that just happens to be a long plane ride away. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is world-class, as are the wineries.

10. Malindi, Kenya — Great beach, with huts on the ocean. Steak and chips for breakfast? Why not?! The nearby Gedi ruins will give a glimpse of the 15th century.

Personal Favorites  

1. Agra, India — The world’s most magnificent building, and the Taj Mahal is only one of several grand sights, including Agra Fort, I’tima¯d-Ud-Daulah, Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri.

2. Petra, Jordan — Walking down the Siq at night, or in the early morning, reveals how all travel can be an opening into beauty.

3. Harar, Ethiopia — I do not know if they still exist as they did for me in 1968, but, outside the walls, the Christian market and the separate Muslim market were my single most exotic experience. 

4. Papua New Guinea — The Sing-Sing at Goroka or Mt. Hagen. Never have I been in the middle of such energy as when I was on the field among the dancers at these events.

5. Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania — The Swahili coast in Kenya and Tanzania opens you to a whole different sense of East Africa. Fly in from Zanzibar for double the enjoyment.

6. Hanoi, Vietnam — Crossing the streets in Old Hanoi is a rush you won’t have in any other major city in the world. The “official” attractions are pretty good, too.

7. Djenne, Mali — Who knew adobe architecture could be so grand? The Great Mosque is just that: great. Go for the Monday market in front of the mosque and then walk the side streets and look at the 2-story houses. Note: currently, there are security issues in Mali.

8. Isfahan, Iran — The central maidan (plaza) and the major buildings on it could be the most beautiful public space on the planet. Stand in the plaza center before entering each building.

9. Habarana, Sri Lanka — From this town, make trips to visit five UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Who knew?!

10. Imam Reza shrine, Mashhad, Iran — A rival to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City as the world’s most powerful religious center, architecturally and spiritually. (OK, it doesn’t have the Sistine Chapel art.) Glorious in the sun. Then have a meal at Hezardestan Traditional Teahouse.

From Donna Pyle of Boulder, CO: Number 1 is our most recommended.

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Galápagos Islands (Ecuador) — Because for anyone wanting to see wildlife, this is the most fascinating place in the world.

2. Botswana — Because everyone should experience a game safari. Plenty of companies make this easy to do, and Botswana seems to be the friendliest place for this at the moment.

3. Costa Rica — Because in this very tiny country, you can do so many things: visit the rainforest, bird-watch at low and high altitudes, watch a volcano, surf, raft, play on the beach….

4. New Zealand — A comfortable place where English is spoken.

5. Peru — Because everyone enjoys Machu Picchu.

6. Australia — Specifically, the east coast. English is spoken, and there is lots of diversity. 

7. Jordan — Because so much of our history starts from this area. Petra, alone, makes Jordan worth a visit, but there are other interesting sites, too. 

8. China — Because it has such an extensive history and is playing such a big role in current events. (Visit on a group tour.)

9. Japan — Because of its fascinating history. (Do this country on a group tour as well.)

10. Chile — An incredible variety of terrain and of things to do.

Personal Favorites

1. Galápagos Islands — The most fascinating for its wildlife.

2. Tibet, China — My husband and I went into Tibet in 1985, the first year it was opened to tourists. An incredible experience!

3. Kenya and Tanzania — We did a foot safari in addition to the standard tourist thing.

4. Botswana — We did the standard game safari but saw some rare animals.

5. Chile — We saw it all: the northern desert, the glaciers and Torres del Paine. Even Easter Island.

6. Israel — So rich in history.

7. Egypt — Also rich in history.

8. Palau — In this island country, so beautiful and so off the beaten path, we did a snorkeling and sea-kayaking trip.

9. Costa Rica — You can do so many things there.

10. New Zealand — Especially on the South Island, great outdoor activities.

From Nili Olay of New York, NY: These listings are alphabetical because it simply would be impossible to actually prioritize them.

Nili Olay and lemurs in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park — Madagascar. Photo by Jerry Vetowich

Best for Beginning Travelers

1. Buenos Aires, Argentina — Of all the cities I visited in South America, Buenos Aires was the most European. I felt very comfortable walking around the city, and English was widely spoken. A trip there requires a long flight, but since it’s only one hour ahead of EDT, jet lag is not an issue. 

There is much to see, including Recoleta Cemetery, various museums, pedestrian shopping streets and La Boca, the old port district. Two “musts” are the steak restaurants in the Recoleta area and a tango show.

2. Québec City, Canada — This is a beautiful city, with Château Frontenac [hotel] as its centerpiece. I felt like I was in Europe, with the French food, the old architecture and the French language being spoken. However, getting there is much faster and less expensive than going to France.

3. Havana, Cuba — The music at each café, beautiful restored colonial Havana and the Museo del Chocolate shop on Calle Mercaderes are just a few of the attractions. Riding in the 1950s cars that are so lovingly restored is such fun. Cuba is CLOSE — just an hour’s plane ride from Miami. It’s in the CST and CDT time zones.

4. Costa Rica — Ideal for nature lovers. Ecotourism is entrenched there, and the ecolodges are fabulous. Whether you stay on the Nicoya Peninsula, the Osa Peninsula or in the Arenal Volcano region, you will see monkeys, sloths, snakes, birds and lots more. The Arenal region also has hot springs.

Costa Rica is a fairly short plane trip away and, again, no jet lag is involved since they are in CST year-round. English is widely spoken, and the US dollar is the currency of choice.

5. Galápagos Islands — This is one of the most unique places on Earth. The best way to visit is to fly from Ecuador and go on a small, 16-passenger boat. There is much to see and do off the boat, if you like hiking and snorkeling. It does take effort to get there, but, since they are on MST, jet lag is not an issue.

6. Israel — There is so much to see in this tiny country: religious sites, antiquities, mountains, deserts, beautiful beaches and more. English is widely spoken. It’s a long flight from the US, and there is jet lag to deal with, and, of course, the political situation scares some people, but it’s well worth the trouble.

7. New Zealand — This is a small country with lots of different scenery. In a 2- or 3-week trip, the traveler can bungee jump in Queenstown, hike the Milford Track, visit sheep farms, see the hot springs in Rotorua and more. Language is not an issue (except for the accent), but it is a long way away from the US.

8. Peru — To be able to both walk in the Amazon forest and see Incan ruins in one country is amazing. For the Amazon, I recommend staying in lodges rather than just cruising on the Amazon River, in order to actually feel the forest. And if you’re physically fit, I recommend hiking to Machu Picchu rather than arriving by train. The Incan ruins on the Inca Trail are fantastic. Jet lag is not an issue.

9. Singapore — This city/country has so many different ethnic groups living in it. Little India, Buddhist temples, Chinatown and the orchid gardens are all close together. It’s a long way to get there, and jet lag might be a problem, but English is spoken, and travelers are very welcome.

10. Bangkok, Thailand — Again, this is a very faraway country, and the time difference is tough. However, Bangkok is used to English-speaking travelers. There are amazing sights, such as the Grand Palace and the many temples, and you can ride a canal boat to visit the floating market.

It was extremely hard to limit my favorites to just 10; I left out so many “favorites.” Friends always ask me to name my favorite country, but each one is so different.

Personal Favorites

Tsingy de Bemaraha Integral Nature Reserve — Madagascar. Photo by Nili Olay

1. Bhutan — The mountain scenery, the temples, the archery and the pre-festival dance rehearsals at each village were fantastic. Even more wonderful were two unique experiences: (1) I met the Queen Mother at a hilltop monastery (to which we had to hike) and had a long conversation with her, and (2) I was invited to a private home celebration when our guide stopped to check out the music coming from a courtyard. We chatted, danced, ate and drank and were honored guests at the celebration.

2. Botswana — My husband, Jerry, and I visited three safari camps, and each was a delight. There is nothing like being coddled while in a wild country. The drives were varied and interesting, and, of course, we saw lots of animals, including mating lions. 

3. Costa Rica — This can be many types of vacations, and in our seven weeks we experienced ecolodges, hot springs, beach time and many hiking adventures. Among the highlights were watching monkeys walk overhead on telephone wires (on our evening walk to a restaurant) and a visit to The ARA Project, the macaw-preservation effort.

4. Easter Island — It is a long way, 2,300 miles from Chile, to this little island (14 by 7 miles) in the South Pacific, but what a fascinating place! There are some 900 huge stone figures called moai, and we saw many of them, both finished and unfinished. 

5. Egypt — Visiting the pyramids and the tombs and floating up the Nile were fantastic experiences, made more meaningful because it took peace to allow this Israeli to visit that country. Cairo was hectic, but Luxor and Aswan were delights.

6. Galápagos Islands — An 11-day cruise on a 16-person boat, stopping at various islands and crossing the equator multiple times, was fabulous. I truly enjoyed the unique wildlife, including the blue-footed boobies, penguins, iguanas, huge tortoises and fur seals. The islands, themselves, are geologically interesting and beautiful.

Nili Olay and Jerry Vetowich on Easter Island.

7. Israel — I am a bit prejudiced about Israel because I was born there. Arriving in Tel Aviv always feels so comforting. In Tel Aviv, I love to sit on the beach and order food from the restaurant right on the beach. And then there is the antiquity and history. I delight in a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem, with its many churches, mosques and the Wailing Wall. And, of course, a swim in the Dead Sea. 

8. Madagascar — This was one of the hardest countries to visit that I ever went to. The roads were impossible because they hadn’t been updated since the 1950s, and in-country air flights were undependable. We visited in May-June 2010.

However, the rewards of visiting were huge. Where else can you see lemurs? The lemur encounters often were close (too close when they wanted to steal our lunch). The most incredible experience was hiking in the Tsingy nature reserve using carabiners and ropes. 

9. Peru — For history buffs, there are the Incan ruins along the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu, placed in incredible scenery. Also, Cuzco and the surrounding area are full of archaeological sites. I loved spending a night on Taquile Island in Lake Titicaca. Finally, there is the Amazonian jungle with its unique animals, birds and plants.

10. Sri Lanka — It has thousands of years of history, beautiful temples and magnificent statues of Buddha. There also are tea plantations, elephants and elusive tigers. Monkeys visited us on our balcony (forcing us to close the balcony doors). We capped it all off by spending a week at the beach.


Nili with a tortoise in the Galápagos Islands. Photo by Jerry Vetowich