To all of you dedicated followers and readers out there, thank you for a spectacular 2013 here at my little cyberdesk in the blogosphere. I am continually surprised by and thankful for the many ways blogging informs my life, creates new friendships and provides a constantly rewarding outlet for my thoughts and creativity. I’m excited to be embarking on my third year of blogging and look forward to all the adventures, both planned and uncharted, of 2014.
For my first post-holiday post, I’m looking back at all the places I’ve been and distilling my memories and impressions into My Top 10 of Travel. On this day, at this moment in my life, after thousands of miles by air and by land, these destinations — some of which I visited over a decade ago — still speak to me through memories and photos. Best of all, I traveled to one of these places as recently as last week, reminding me that the potential of discovery looms large on every trip.
Without further ado, here’s My Top 10 of Travel: an unconventional list of the impressions I have of the places I’ve been. Perhaps you agree or disagree, and that’s what makes this world go ’round.
10. Most naturally beautiful country: New Zealand
I’ve been to New Zealand twice, traveling across a good portion of the north and south islands by train and car. This country has views for days, weeks, miles. From spectacular coastline to verdant sheep-covered hills to moody Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps, the landscape of New Zealand is like a series of postcards. Its best feature is its distance from the rest of the world — leaving it untrammeled and uncrowded for anyone who makes the journey.
9. Most thought provoking country: Cambodia
Even just a few days in Siem Reap will leave any thoughtful traveler with endless questions about the history and plight of Cambodia. The mind-blowing grandeur of the Angkor complex lingers among the destruction of Pol Pot and the Vietnam war. Reconciling such a painful history and finding a way forward is left to Cambodia’s young population growing up amidst high levels of prostitution and human trafficking. Scratching the surface of Cambodia reveals an abyss of complicated issues.
8. Country with the happiest people: Sri Lanka
Move over Bhutan, you’ve got company. Just look at the opening photo of this blog post! During our trip to Sri Lanka last year I was struck by the genuine, glowing smile of nearly every person we met. From the boys playing cricket who were ecstatic to have their picture taken, to a tuk tuk driver who bought us coins and a bag of tea for a souvenir, to a tuk tuk tour guide who told us stories about surviving the tsunami in 2004 … I’ve never been welcomed to a country by so many smiling, happy people. With so much to see among tea hills, coastal wilderness and southern beaches, I emphatically recommend going to Sri Lanka if you have the opportunity.
7. Destination where you’re most likely to be adopted by a local: Taiwan
This just happened. Mr. Producer and I went to Taiwan for the holidays, where we met Lily and her husband Mr. Chen who are locals in Nanzhuang. Lily has five brothers and sisters. Those brothers and sisters have a bunch of kids and a bunch of friends. We were invited to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of a guest house in Nanzhuang with all the aforementioned people (and more). It was a feast, with piles of food we hardly recognized like pigs’ trotters and fried sweet potatoes covered with candied sugar. We met the mayor of Nanzhuang and were treated like the guests of honor. We ended our trip with dinner at Din Tai Fung in Taipei with Lily, Mr. Chen and their son Arton. All of this was totally unexpected, and totally beautiful because Taiwanese people all over the island just want to know where you’re from, where you’re going and if you’re having a good time. Thanks for the photo, Min!
6. Most underrated country: Turkey
Turkey’s pretty fabulous, for dinner and for travel. We spent three weeks there in 2001 and loved every minute. Turkey has an efficient bus system (really nice buses with AC and lemon water to wash your hands) which makes it easy to travel all over the country. Inland, we went to Egurdir (the lake district), Pamukkale and Cappadocia — a must-see area of crazy geology and architecture. We also hopped along the coast to a handful of beach towns, like Kas and Oludeniz, where it’s easy to charter a boat for an overnight sail along the coastline. Roman ruins are everywhere — many still partially buried in the countryside, along with restored sites like Ephesus that will blow your socks off. (This is also where I bought the biggest, best peach I ever ate, from a Turkish farmer on the side of the road.) To top it off, Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities with its captivating Grand Bazaar.
5. Best country to eat, drink and be merry: Germany
Beer? Check. Schnitzels and sausages? Check. Adorable Christmas markets? Check, check, check! Schwimmbad? OMG, where do I start? I had no idea that schwimmbad culture existed until a trip to Cologne in 2006. Schwimmbads are swimming pools, and they’re all over Germany. But I’m not talking rectangular pools with lap lanes. I’m talking indoor-outdoor, hot, cold, swirling, steaming and plunging pool complexes where you can while away entire afternoons in aqua bliss. It’s a way of life here. It should be a way of life everywhere. Dip in, and have a dampfnudeln for dessert. I ♥ Bavaria.
4. Best country to travel back in time: Myanmar
When I saw people on the street corner in Yangon making phone calls from old telephones with cords while an attendant kept track of the minutes with a pencil and paper, I knew I was somewhere unique. In the race for tourism, Myanmar is busy tying its shoelaces while the rest of the world has sprinted halfway around the track. But that’s its charm. Go here and you’ll find life in the slow lane, a lot to explore (don’t miss Bagan) and a way of life that’s just a memory for most of us.
3. Best supposedly unaffordable country that can be affordable: Bhutan
Don’t be fooled by tour companies that want to charge $800 to $1,000+ per day, per person for a trip to Bhutan. Sure, you can pay that and travel in luxury if you want to, but that’s not the only option. Try booking with a local Bhutanese company like Bridge to Bhutan. Fin and Lotay will take great care of you. Their moderate daily fee includes a guide, driver, meals and good accommodations. Seriously — you can’t even do a trip to New York City for a similar daily cost, especially with all these things included. Kuzukuzu!
2. Country with the widest array of things to do and see: the U.S.
The fifty nifty United States are geographically enormous, covering a full spectrum of terrain and climates. Add to that an integrated population from all over the world, and the result is a diverse country with a lot to offer. Pop culture; music; art; food and wine; sports; outdoors; wildlife; city; country; big attractions like Times Square, the Grand Canyon, Big Sur and the Golden Gate Bridge; and amazing national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone make the U.S. a big, beautiful place to explore.
1. The ultimate country for culture, history, architecture, cuisine, beauty, nature and people: France
It’s no wonder why millions of people travel to France, making it the world’s most popular destination year after year. Life here is an art — something to be savored without rush. Whether it’s sipping coffee at a cafe on the Rive Gauche or cycling through the Alps amidst farmers, fromages and flower boxes, France is pretty darn fantastique. Train travel is easy and efficient, cheese and wine are abundant, and the Paris cityscape has character unlike anywhere else on earth. And the patisseries? Mon dieu! Allons-y!