I Toured 33 Countries in a Year. Here’s My Pitch for Each One as the Best to Visit
When we tell people we’re traveling around the world for a year, the most common question they ask is “what’s been your favorite place so far?” That’s a logical question, and it’s the question I’d ask too, to help narrow down my next travel destination from someone who’s been to places I may not have been. In fact, as we were planning our trip, I asked my friends and family on Facebook that very question to get ideas on where we should go.
When strangers ask me that question now, I give a different answer each time I’m asked. Not because I’m trying to be dishonest — in fact I really do think that every place is amazing in its own way. And while I do have some areas I’ve favored more than others for differing reasons, I could easily give a reason why each of the 33 countries we’ve visited is the best. So in alphabetical order, here are my reasons why each country has been the best stop on our world tour.
We spent 15 nights in Argentina — one of the longest stays of any country on our trip — and as we got on a plane to leave, I regretted not scheduling even more time there. The exciting nightlife, the distinct and inviting Buenos Aires neighborhoods, the delicious steaks, and what we dubbed the “Argentina pour” for wine (up to about a half-inch from the brim of the glass) had me ready to enroll in Spanish classes and move to Buenos Aires. This was the first time on the trip I felt like I was in an international city, and it felt very much at home. The Mendoza wine region was spectacularly beautiful with friendly hosts ready to assist experts and newbies alike in the joys of wine.
While we were only able to experience a sliver of the country on our two-week drive between Sydney and Adelaide, it was amazing how much the Aussies could jam-pack into just that fraction of their land. In just that short two weeks I found myself planted on a surfboard, strolling among the vines of a winery and shuffling across the deck of a whale-watching boat. I ate ramen as good as anything I’d tasted in Tokyo at Menya Noodle Bar, and experienced hospitality as friendly as anywhere. Thanks for whetting my appetite Australia, as Anthony Bourdain says, “I’m hungry for more.”
Exploring the ruin bars in the old Jewish quarter — with buildings formerly housing squatters that have become community shops, stores and bars — was alone worth the trip. This city is bustling with activity.
Let’s be honest, this country isn’t for everyone. Cambodia will make you experience emotions, whether you want to or not. Perhaps your heart will ache because you’re on a gut-wrenching visit to the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where the stories of the tortured and executed still echo today. Maybe you will commiserate at your predicament of being without power in the stifling heat. Perhaps you’ll share laughter with friendly locals and other travelers over a Cambodia beer. Maybe you’ll feel a sense of utter peace as you watch the sunset at Sihanoukville. If you’re lucky as we were, you’ll also see the sun rise over Ankor Wat, and marvel in amazement at the carving and construction of this World Heritage site. We experienced all these emotions in Cambodia.
Like most people who visit here and see the devastation the Pol Pot regime has brought upon this little country, with challenges from which they are still recovering — I left Cambodia as a fan. It is the underdog country, and I will root for it for the rest of my days. If you’re just looking for pina coladas and resorts, don’t come to Cambodia. If you’re looking for something more, something challenging, something that will change you for the better for the rest of your life, then you must go to Cambodia.
Eating fresh ceviche at an beachside dive with the ocean breeze and crashing waves as our view is a great way to end the day. Especially after the exhausting but gorgeous hike up the dormant Cerro Chato volcano. Now I understand why so many Americans travel here.
No place beat the expectations game better than Croatia. Of all the medieval cities we visited in Europe, not one felt more authentic than walking the narrow cobblestone streets of Dubrovnik. Croatia's Plavac Mali wine is one of the best I've ever tasted — it is abundant and inexpensive in Croatia, but because they only make enough for themselves, this country is one of the few places you can find it. Smart move Croatia — that alone may be enough to bring me back.
You sit down in U Zlateho Tygra bar, in the corner of a room filled with older Czech gentlemen stoically chatting and sipping from their steins. A stone-faced bartender walks up without a word and plops beers on the table for everyone. No words are spoken, as there is only one item they serve here, and the assumption is you’re having it. A person could get used to this.
The Danes know smart living and visitors get to enjoy this lifestyle with lots of green space and fresh air, plenty of bicycle lanes, colorful neighborhoods, fantastic shopping markets and the best street food market I’ve ever seen. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you’ve got spectacular museums — my city’s National Gallery of Art paled in comparison to the staggering number of paintings of impressionist masters at Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum. And I noticed if you bring a child with you to Denmark’s fantastic National Museum, your total price is cheaper. The Danes know smart living.
I can say it, but scientists have confirmed it — there simply is no other place in the world like the Galapagos. Swimming with seals and tortoises during our tour of the islands was unlike anything this landlubber Okie had ever experienced. If you love animals and have the opportunity, you absolutely must go to this place.
People like things to come easy when they travel, and England makes your trip easy in many ways — the most obvious being no language barrier — while still being an exotic destination with a history that’s exponentially more complex than ours. Within just a few hours drive, you can experience the variety of both the hubbub of London and the quaint calm of the English countryside, and in both the city and the country, you’ll experience the English hospitality and the resolve of the English stiff upper lip.
The Eiffel Tower is probably the most recognizable sight in Europe, yet it still takes your breath away when you see her for the first time on the skyline of the City of Light. Paris is romantic, yes, but it’s so much more, yet if you want a slower pace the cities and the towns in the countryside provide everything you could ever need. And it's cliche to say that the croissants here are better than anywhere else, but it's true.
We ate and drank our way across Germany for nearly three weeks. I don’t understand why I keep seeing German tourists in every country we travel — there’s plenty to do and see, eat and drink in their beautiful home country.
It is awe-inspiring to be in one of a few places in the world where civilization lurched forward — in government, architecture, design, mathematics and science. And then you eat like a Greek god. Walk the Acropolis and then have some souvlaki all in the same day. You’ll thank me later.
Christmas in Hong Kong, we pondered? Why not? As a former British colony, the territory is as decked out and Christmas-y in December as any New England town or German Market. We were in need of those comforting holiday jingles and street-side Santa Clauses as we were six months into our trip, and wanted to feel as close to home for the holidays as possible. Hong Kong was a perfect stop to prevent the holiday blues.
What we weren’t expecting is the unique way the Hong Kongers celebrate Christmas Eve - it’s basically a more intense version of our New Year’s Eve. On Christmas Eve evening, thousands of people squeeze into a three-block area of bars and clubs called Lan Kwai Fong, and proceed to drink their faces off. We saw college friends, parents with their adult children, tourists, locals — every age and demographic was represented, and it truly seemed to be a family event with multiple generations celebrating together. Everyone was drinking and dancing and belting out Christmas tunes — one-year retirees included.
I’d heard it was beautiful, but I wasn’t prepared to have a sore jaw, after being agape for seven days straight looking out my window at the Icelandic vistas. Beautiful? Yes, but something more, as the volcanic topography actually makes the scenes puzzling and otherworldly. Dozens of waterfalls pour over the edge of mountains from unknown sources. Mountains jut out of the earth and stretch into the sky, randomly placed on otherwise pancake-flat ground. While the highest mountains are listed as only about 7,000 feet, looking at them they seem to rise up into the sky for miles, almost like the horizon-bending scene from the movie Inception. Geysers belch forth scalding liquid, steam simmers from hot springs like ground-based tea kettles, and glaciers creak and groan under the pressure from a warming earth. You’ll take a plane to Iceland, but it will feel like you took a spaceship.
Mani Bhavan, the humble museum in Mumbai that was the home of Gandhi is — much like Ghandi was — unimpressive in stature. But you don’t go there to gawk at opulence anyway, you’re there to walk on the same floorboards where the Mahatma’s sandals once shuffled. That alone makes it an awe-inspiring experience. If you can appreciate simple blessings like these, you will appreciate India.
On my early morning jog through the streets of tiny Ubud, I watched a shopkeeper putting out her sidewalk offering to the Hindu god — called a canang sari, it’s a bit of rice, some fruit, and burning incense on a bamboo plate. Then she’d bow her head for a short prayer before returning to her duties. These simple little memorials dot the sidewalk as I passed, and each one I saw reminded me of some simple truths: there are things in this world more important than you, and make sure you focus your mind on them each day, lest you get carried away with yourself. Perhaps those meditations were what brought about the calm and focused kindness of the people of Indonesia I encountered. They are what I’ll remember most about this place, and what I’d come back to experience again.
Even being part-Irish, I feared that a road trip through Ireland with pubs, traditional music and rolling green hills would seem a bit touristic and cliched. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I also suspected the Irish couldn’t possibly be this friendly. Wrong again. Ireland is all the good things you’re expecting, plus really delicious cuisine that you’re not expecting.
You can be forgiven for skipping the priceless works of art and the jaw-dropping Roman Coliseum. But only if it’s because you couldn’t get past the cicchetti, the cacio e pepe, the pizza, the gelato, all of the food. All of it. That is your only excuse, and it’s a good one. Multiple times in Italy we asked ourselves - “why would we ever leave here?” I still don’t have a good answer.
I’ve always wanted to go somewhere that was the most different from America in every way. Japan is that place. Some countries had wonderful hospitality, some had delicious food, and others impress with spectacular views. Japan has all of these, and more. We’ve been to more than 100 cities and towns on this trip, and if you told me I could only visit one international city on vacation for the rest of my life, I would choose Kyoto and not think twice.
Touring the Maasai Mara National Reserve is like putting yourself in the middle of a three-dimensional nature program. I’ve never said “wow” so many times in one day in my life. Instead of David Attenborough, a friendly Kenyan guide explains everything unfolding before you — a leopard stalking her prey, two hippos bickering for social position, and the lioness and her lion enjoying their shade tree honeymoon suite (the last one needed no narration).
If you like Las Vegas gambling, you’ll love Macau, as the tiny country has a much larger gambling scene than Vegas. But Macau seems to just focus on the gambling, so don’t expect the nightlife, stage shows or roller coasters that Vegas has developed to diversify their entertainment options. Also in Macau there’s no drinking at the tables, inexplicably. This place is just about gambling — hordes of tourists from China come over from Hong Kong on the frequent ferries to gamble, gamble and gamble some more.
The casinos are mostly high-end which translates to $50 or higher hands of blackjack, but luckily a pit boss directed us to the only “economical” casino in town - a smallish room in the back of a mid-range hotel, with one lonely 21 table. We made it our home for the day and even more luckily, we were able to win a few patacas(the Macau currency) and get the heck out of Dodge.
If you’ve got nerves of steel, drive the streets of Monaco and pretend you’re a Formula One driver. You could pack your formal-wear and do it up in style at the Casino of Monte Carlo, or you could just fit in with the rest of the tourist gawkers and get that selfie with the Ferraris parked out front.
The Dutch have such a unique philosophy of how to live life that it’s important to not only experience how it’s working there, but to also talk to locals to get a taste of Dutch life — tolerant, open and structured, where prostitution and marijuana cafes are legal, and the city efficiently hums along on bicycle power.
I’ve never experienced four different topographies in one day. Then I drove through the northern island of New Zealand, and received a windshield tour of plains, rolling hills, mountains and desert scrub in one day’s drive. Our road trip from Auckland through to the southern island provides postcard views at every turn. Americans tend to lump in New Zealand with a trip to Australia, but Kiwis are rightly proud of the fact their country can stand on its own as a premier tourist destination. Go for the countryside, yes, but the cities have a great vibe, with a unique feel between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. And I thought Washington, D.C.’s museums were premier in the world, until I walked into the Te Papa Gallipoli Battle exhibit. The Te Papa’s presentation is a step above any museum exhibit I’ve seen in D.C., or the world.
I heard one tour guide respond to a question from a tourist on how best to enjoy a trip through Scotland - “Do yea golf?” Our focus was indeed golf, as well as whisky, and we had our fill of both. But even if those two vices aren’t exactly your plate of haggis, there is plenty to see and do throughout Scotland. Some of the most beautiful countryside of the year was along Scotland’s windy country roads.
The city of Cape Town is like the whole of California, at a third of the price. Gorgeous coastlines, mountain trails, a world class wine country, a terrific food scene, bohemian neighborhoods and unbeatable weather. Yes, it’s a long flight, but take it. This place is a 10 out of 10 on my “could I live there” scale. And Tabletop Mountain which borders the city is a spectacular sight. I think I stared at the mountain for the entire three weeks we were there.
I’ve never in my life seen waters as blue as those stretching out in every direction off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania.
We stopped off for a whirlwind two days in Bangkok to meet up with friends on our way to Cambodia. Bangkok isn’t for everybody, but it is definitely a city that knows how to whirlwind. Because I’ve been before I can also attest to the real beauty of Thailand outside its capital. If you have the chance to experience the friendliness of the smiling people of Thailand, take the opportunity. And stay for the cuisine, some of the best in the world.
United Arab Emirates
The entire city of Dubai is like a resort. Rich Saudis couples covered head-to-toe mix with tourists from all over the world to marvel at the high-end shops and fancy restaurants, while the Burj Khalifa — the tallest structure in the world — towers over everything. It’s almost too tall to fit into a selfie, but tourists all over the city are constantly working to answer that challenge. There’s not a scrap of trash to be seen, nor any homeless, which for some is a welcome change, while others might find it disconcerting. If you want to live like a wealthy sheik, this is where it’s done.
United States - Colorado, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Oklahoma
Colorado and the islands were first stops on the trip before heading out of the country, and how could they not be the best as we were able to say goodbye to so many friends and family. And we returned to Oklahoma to both a hero's welcome and Sonic cheeseburgers and cherry lime-aids, so what's not to love there too? Also, my D.C. friends should know that the less than four hour flight to Puerto Rico is a relatively short trip for fantastic beaches, and the best Margarita of my life in Old San Juan, as well as a terrific cuban sandwich at Kasalta Restaurant. And after experiencing beaches on five continents, I can attest that nothing I've seen has beaten the pristine white sands of the Virgin Islands.
You’ll love trying to keep up as the scooters whiz by you in Saigon, and you’ll love trying to slow down as your boat silently coasts through beautiful Ha Long Bay. Vietnam is about experiencing contrast — the sweet yet spicy food, the older generation’s acceptance and remembrance of “the American War” of the past, while the younger generation focuses on their future. The contrasts of Vietnam brings forth its beauty, and my appreciation.
No matter which of these answers I give, to the "which was best?" question, they'll all be correct, because I've learned that no matter where you go in the world, the enjoyment of travel is not determined by the destination, it is determined by the traveler.