I’ve been to 80 countries- Here’s My Top Ten

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Having been to so many amazing, wonderful places, whittling down my list to my top ten has taken quite a bit of work and thought. Out of all my 80  countries I have been to, there are just five I would never go back to again.

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My visited nations map.Source: AmCham. What does yours look like?

I am  sometimes reluctant to share my favourites, because it can lead to a war of words on why I chose one place and not another! My criteria are based around culture, food, ease of travel, safety and peace, great nature and people. So with that caveat, here are my  top ten countries/territories that I hope to go back to in a post COVID world.

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1.New Zealand

A stunning, diverse, peaceful, safe, country with extraordinary nature, terrific food,  friendly people, lovely cities and a strong inspiring Maori (indigenous) culture. I have traveled from the top to the bottom of New Zealand,  hiked across many of its tracks and enjoyed all of its major cities. I also married there! New Zealand beats every other country for me. Flying into Queenstown is one of the greatest airport landings you will ever experience.

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Wellington, the capital is one of the most beautiful in the world with terrific restaurants, cafes, museums like Te Papa and Zealandia and vibrant theatre scene,

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Sculpture Harbourside in Wellington, NZ- I always try to walk the waterfront every day that I am in Wellington.

I am not a great Auckland fan but there are few cities as stunning  naturally.

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A view from Devenport (Auckland)

So many special adventures await a NZ visitor including the Waitomo glowworm caves,  beautiful Lake Taupo, Napier’s art deco architecture, the wines of Martinborough and the stunning grandeur of the Southern Alps. Throw in a glacier or two, the beautiful seaside town of Nelson, and the fascinating Scottish city of the South: Dunedin and the incredible Abel Tasman and Milford Sound National Parks.

Last year, I visited Hamner Springsfor the first time which included hot baths and a relaxing spa treatment.  Much of my time has been trekking through seven of the most beautiful walks in the world including Milford Track and the Queen Charlotte Track.

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The mountains at Milford Sound

Only drawback for me which is also its advantage is how far away it is from the rest of the world.

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Gulf Harbour- Mexico is 17,905 nautical miles away

2. Iceland

Coming a very close second for me, is this small peaceful island  nation. With a population  of just 340 thousand, Icelandic  people are some of the loveliest people who speak a language that is just music to listen to! They also like to party! Iceland wins for its incredible diverse beauty. It really is one of the most beautiful places on earth with Nature that is both wild and beautiful.

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Iceland seascape

When we reopen the world, I recommend avoiding just going to the traditional tourist haunts and explore some incredibly isolated places like Fjallabak Nature Reserve and the longest lake in Iceland: Langisjór. Check out the smaller cities like Hvolsvöllur and Akyueri.

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North of the island is Akyueri, 20,000 people; a fishing port, woodworking and shipbuilding centre. My favourite town in Iceland

I highly recommend a daily visit to a public swimming centre to swim in boiling hot water and challenge yourself with increasingly hotter and hotter hot tubs! Great way to meet people and experience Icelandic culture.

 

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Hiking near the capital

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A view from the Hallgrímskirkja  church in Reykjavik. This small city located at latitude  64°08′ N -the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign country.

3. Denmark

Another small country, packed with good food, beautiful classical and modern buildings, stunning scenery, warm people, great public transportation, multiple fun events and lovely atmosphere. A nation of incredible safety with great well being and happiness rates. Just bloody expensive!

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The symbol of Copenhagen (maybe Denmark); The Little Mermaid. She has had her head removed and her arm taken as a protest and has been blown up.

You cannot go past Copenhagen which will entertain you for days if not weeks. Compact with good public transport, start with a walking tour to get bearings and advice.

Whatever you do, avoid eating in the Nyhavn area which every tourist photographs. Very atmospheric but expensive even by Danish standards and you wont meet many Danes! Try the excellent Torvehallerne food  markets for  lunch and a smorgasbord or wine bar for the evening.

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Expensive Nyhavn

Denmark is a delight in both summer and winter when the country’s fabled Hygge (cozy) hospitality emerges. Check out a tour of the fabled Freetown Christiania, visit The National Museum of Denmark,  ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, Kunsten Museum of Modern Art. Denmark is known for its collection of fairy tale castles including Frederiksborg Castle (Denmark’s Versailles), Kronborg Castle (home of Hamlet), and my favourite Egeskov Castle.

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One of the most impressive church buildings in Copenhagen: Church of Our Saviour, Copenhagen- The black and golden spire reaches a height of 90 metres with the external staircase turns four times counterclockwise around it.

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Copenhagen Harbour-

4. Switzerland

I was a backpacker riding in a train from Interlaken to Thun in the 1990s when I fell in love with Switzerland.  I  had spent time on  Zurich which I have still never warmed to (it feels too neat) and with my Swiss Rail pass, I was determined to explore every inch of the country. Well multiple visits later, I have still got vast gaps.

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City of Bern:I prefer Bern and Geneva to Zurich.

Interlaken is a marvel with the colours of the lakes, mountains, mingling together.

It is one of the most marvelous places s in the world to hike So well organised, so easy to get around, eat and sleep.

I also fell in love with hearty Swiss food such as my first Rosti (potato pancake) at a bar in Zurich, Älplermagronen (gratin with potatoes, macaroni, cheese, cream and onions) in Interlaken and cheese fondue in Geneva. And of course, I am very happy to pick up a Swiss chocolate bar or two  at  Co-op or Migros supermarkets for a train trip or hike.

With rail passes, discount hotel deals and meals where the locals eat, Switzerland can be more affordable than it initially looks.

Sadly my photos of Switzerland have disappeared in a faulty back up drive accident.

5. Taiwan

Welcome to a fun, functional, friendly nation  which combines incredible food, culture, the best night markets on the planet, stunning cities and beautiful countryside.

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Hiking on the outskirts of Taipei,. The huge Taipei 101 was the first building in the world to break the half-kilometre height mark and was the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2010

Life is punctuated there by politics, history and earthquakes but I can never forget how welcoming every day Taiwanese people are.   They will  happily point you to the best steamed dumplings, oyster omelets, pineapple cake, mochi balls, fried mushrooms and almond nougat you can find! You can eat and eat and eat here.

Be warned, my happy visit to the largest night market was disturbed by the smell of the Taiwanese dish ” stinky tofu”. I cannot describe how incredibly awful the smell was for me (and note I like blue cheese and Durian!). I did try it though and the taste is incredible. It is this intense burst of silky pleasure. I am more immune to  the smell but its still a shock. For the home of  bubble tea, you can drink the stuff from dawn to dusk! There are superb local coffeeshops and bars too.

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Sobering reminder of the power of earthquakes., The Jiji temple remains as a monument to the devastating 1999 quake.

Incredible Chinese art resides cheek by jowl with ultra modern technology.  Nothing can prepare you for the collection at the National Palace Museum with 700,000 pieces of  Chinese imperial artifacts taken with the Nationalists when they fled the Communists on mainland China in 1948 and 1949. It is astounding

I love hiking there. In a non COVID19 world, head down the east coast and into the centre of the country where you will see fewer tourists.

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Hiking in the centre of the island- I saw no other foreigh tourists until the evening

Travel is easy with high speed trains, regular trains and buses. Signage is excellent across the country and facilities for travelers with a disability are impressive.

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High speed trains link the west coast cities interconnecting with efficient local trains and buses

6. Estonia

I knew nothing about Estonia prior to last October  I wanted to visit there before Christmas 2019 and knew that its capital Tallin had a beautiful old town. That was it. I was intensely surprised with Estonia, so much it is in my Top Ten, after just one visit. The Tallin Old Town is as stunning as I was promised and I fell in love with the city.

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Add to that very friendly locals who I found extraordinarily helpful. we enjoyed  outstanding food; some of it the traditional rye bread, pork, potatoes and dairy combinations and some it of  modern  fusion that produced delicious meals.

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The country’s history was enthralling. It has one of long periods of occupation by the Germans in southern Estonia  and  Denmark in the north, then Sweden and Russia followed by a brief  23 year independence, then brief Soviet rule followed by the Nazis and them the Soviets again until the early 1990s.  Local language and culture survived but there are some tragic tragic stories. The Estonian Museum of Occupations is definitely eye opening. Language wise, most signage was in English, Estonian and Russian and in some cases German and locals were very bilingual or trilingual.

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There are more museums, castles and churches than you can imagine in a country with just over a million people. The KGB museum in Tallin was sobering and the seaplane museum astoundingly fascinating. Visit Kuressaare Castle in Saaremaa and check out Pärnu and Tartu. If you are a hiker like me, then one is spoiled for choice.  You can enjoy walks through the thick Kõrvemaa forest or through a real life boggy area that look like a Lord of The Rings episode (Kakerdaja Fen)  or along the Ahja River or the huge amount of coastline  the country has.

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Spooky looking old town

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Tallin is connected by good ferry services to Helsinki.  Trains and buses connect the rest of the country. Parnu and Tartu are  also cities worth spending time in.  I will return to Estonia

7. Portugal

From Braga to Porto to Lisbon to Sagres to Faro, the whole of Portugal is captivating, enchanting and sheer fun. It is one of the places on earth to feel truly alive. Welcoming, funny and bluntly honest, the Portuguese seem to desire to live life.

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Lisbon rooftops

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Lisbon: Padrão dos Descobrimentos, an uncomfortable monument and 25 de Abril Bridge suspension bridge

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There is more to Portugal than the famous yellow trams but no visit to Lisbon is complete without at least one ride on them!

8. Japan

Japan is one of the easiest countries in the world to traverse. Excellent well sign posted transport connects the the mega cities like Tokyo and Kyoto with forests, villages and seascapes.

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Until  my first visit there, I had never appreciated how every region is known for unique cuisine, lumping everything together as a generic “Japanese  food”. Now I know to find mouthwatering Ramen in Sapporo,  Monjayaki a “do it yourself” pancake dish of dried squid, sweetcorn and cabbage in Tokyo and Takoyaki octopus dumplings in  Kyoto.

One day in Hiroshima we went into a local bar near our host’s house which was selling Okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes). It was one  of those classic scenes when all  conversation stopped as us two very obvious Gaijin (foreigners) walked in. There was a moment of panic on the staff’s face as they confessed to not being able to help us in English. Once we made it clear, that we were  fine with that, there was much hilarity and celebration as we munched our way through the deliciousness of  flour batter, cabbage, egg, seafood and noodles arranged in a six-layered structure served with very liberal servings of  rice wine. The chef was definitely enjoying the rice wine. This was typical. Initially reserved,  Japanese people are incredibly helpful and highly hospitable.

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Try out a typical Onsen and stay at a traditional Japanese inn (Ryokan) with tatami-matted rooms and communal baths. A great way to connect with locals and experience a new way of living.

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Atom Bomb Ground Zero..sobering and challenging..all leaders need to come here

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Japan is full of zany characters

9. Costa Rica

This is an intriguing place. No army. A 98% literacy rate. Approximately 25 percent of the country is national park. About five percent of the world’s biodiversity is protected here. High rankings for happiness, life satisfaction and peace yet still struggling with income equality. Friendly people. Transport slow and confusing across the country but did I mention the friendly people? Check out the best ice creams in the world at POPS.

My Costa Rica photos are in the same black hole as my Swiss pics!

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Avenida Central,  the heart of San Jose a pedestrian mall that extends from for eight city blocks (wikipedia)

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Juan Mora Fernandez, Costa Rica’s first elected head of state (wikipedia_

10 Hong Kong

I turned seven the first time I was in  Hong Kong. I returned in my 20s and found it just as mesmerising, Since then I have been back 15 more times including spending some time working in this magical city.

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The abacuses that fascinated  me at seven in the shops have been replaced by some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, the buildings have grown even more taller, but the food, markets, temples, churches, mosques and outdoors remain as mesmerising and absorbing as ever. Hong Kong operates at a very different beat.  Ride with it and don’t fight it, as it can be exhausting! It is a non stop city.

Make sure you have a dim sum Yum Cha at least once while  you are there.  A mouthwatering treat you can find along the streets is Lo mai gai . This combines glutinous rice, with a chicken/ pork combo  inside a lotus leaf which is then steamed.  The flavours all mingle together. Deliciousness. There are Michelin restaurants, foreign fast foods, and traditional food stores all  together  in an impossible crowded atmosphere.

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I have ridden the Star ferry (above) between HK island and Kowloon on every visit, sometimes multiple times. There is something about being in the Harbour which is always busy.

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There is  also the historical tram system which is huge fun to ride. HK is one  of three cities with double decker trams.  The  the spotlessly clean and efficient MTR will take you out to new places to  explore in the New territories. Hong Kong people are always amazed that I can name towns in the New Territories where few tourists go. . As well as the peak tram(go early in the morning as the crowds are now insane), there  are these crazy buses that fly around the tight curves and steep hills of the island. And I love riding the longest outdoor escalator system in the world,  up the hill.

There is of  course the shopping. Hong Kong is the only place in the world that I have had to buy new suitcases multiple times! From the Ladies Market (one of my favourites to buy clothes at) through to stores like Marks and Spencers and Sogo Causeway Bay. with its eighteen floors of retail space).

The biggest surprise for many are the extraordinary number of hiking trails, through the region. You can actually get some silence and solitude whilst enjoying nature in such a crowded city. There is of course, HK  Disneyland (which I have never been to) and Ocean Park which I have to confess I did enjoy.

Sadly toxic politics are starting to spoil the territory and it’s sad to watch the tear gas, fights and attacks. It looks increasingly like a police state where shops are closed and tourists and locals can risk being teargassed, pepper sprayed and harrassed. No Thanks. I cannot believe the failure to negotiate  between all sides in the conflict and restore the confidence of residents, tourists and business people.

As a result, HK’s positioning in my top ten favorite countries/territories  is now tenuous. I had three visits planned there this year until COVID19 knocked my schedule out of whack. These visits would have helped me decide if the magic was still there or whether it was time to replace it with Canada, Finland and Germany which all currently  tie at my eleventh place.

 

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One of my favourite Congee (savoury porridge) outlets

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I love congee (Chinese savoury porridge) – HK has the best in the world

As for what comes after the Top Ten:

11 Canada
11 Finland
11 Germany
12 Italy

So which nations are in your top ten and why?

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Comments

  1. Andorra, Chile, Ethiopia, Italy, Japan, Montenegro, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, and Thailand. Ethiopia makes the list as their airline was one of the few I could use to leave South Africa after disembarking a corona-free cruise ship in March. They had a flight with less than an hour layover in Addis Ababa which required transiting much of their airport. The people were friendly and efficient, the airport was set up with fever monitors, and security was a breeze. Passage through the airport was very efficient and I developed a very favorable impression of the country, its systems and its people. The airline was fine and I came back with no corona.

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