Stay-at-Home Traveler: Destination Rankings, Vol. I

In this series, I will be sharing my personal top 10 countries I’d most like to visit. This list is ever-changing, but some of these places have been on my mind for a long time. For me, every country has something worth visiting, but I had to narrow it down. I hope they will interest you too.

Without further ado, let’s explore, shall we?

Two hands with map image superimposed
“He’s got the whole world in his hands”
Photo credit: stokpic from Pixabay

#10 – Samoa

Before we went to French Polynesia this past December, Samoa was my Oceania destination of choice. I had done some research on several Pacific islands, looking for the most authentic representation of culture, things to see, some nice beaches, and unique experiences. Samoa hit each one to my liking. It’s not an easy country to get to, but just about every place in the Pacific involves several long plane rides. This time, we’re sticking with the armchair.

Other than the name for a popular Girl Scout cookie and maybe Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson‘s ethnicity, likely much isn’t known about this South Pacific nation. Formerly known as Western Samoa until 1997 (I should point out that it is distinguished from the US territory of American Samoa to the east, although that separation was initiated by Germany), it is a sovereign nation that seems to be the heart of Polynesian culture.

That is one of the biggest draws for me. Many other islands are tourism-focused, where the culture often takes a back seat. Reading up on Samoa gave me the impression that it is probably one of the least commercial places left in the region. There are plenty of other reasons to go, as you shall soon see.

A man jumps into the To-Sua Ocean Trench, a swimming hole in Samoa
Diving right in…the To-Sua Ocean Trench
Photo credit: Ethan Elisara on Unsplash

Just looking at the colorful photos of markets, grass skirts, and beautiful blue water beaches were enough to convince me. The culture is multi-faceted, with a strong heritage of tattooing and atypical gender roles. In fact, there is even a “third gender” called fa’afafine. Men also take on some traditional feminine roles that aren’t typically found in other countries. The government is run in parallel with a tribal system and a familial code of conduct.

One thing that really sounded cool to me was the beach “fale,” a traditional thatched hut on the beach. Can you imagine drifting off to sleep to the sound of ocean waves literal feet (or meters, I should say) from you? Then waking up to ocean breezes and the sunrise as you gaze into the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean. Wait, why haven’t I gone here yet?

From the often pictured blue sinkhole of To Sua Ocean Trench to the Alofaaga Blowholes and even the markets of the capital city Apia, Samoa seems to know what it’s doing. If you happen to be an avid bibliophile, you should know that Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson lived here because it captivated him so. There is now a museum in his honor.

As if lazing on pristine beaches wouldn’t be enough, there are waterfalls, sliding rocks, black sand beaches, cave pools, snorkeling, lava fields, hiking, rainforest canopy walk, cultural performances, and fresh seafood. That’s a perfect itinerary for a couple weeks! These things encapsulate the Fa’a Samoa, or the Samoan way of life.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really excited about going to Samoa someday.

#9 – South Africa

Well, now, here’s a place more people are familiar with. Kruger National Park. Nelson Mandela. Cape Town. Invictus. The vuvuzela. Apartheid. The fascinating documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It won an Oscar in 2012, you know.

Really, there aren’t too many places on earth that have the stuff South Africa has. A renowned wine industry, “click” languages, wildlife preserves, and a turbulent history that is all too recent for some of us. Yet it’s a modern country with so many vastly different perspectives to show.

I can’t begin to summarize what’s there. A trip there would be one of many, as I would need to focus on one area at a time. I would probably start in Cape Town, since its reputation has had me intrigued for decades.

Table Mountain overlooks the city, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Atlantic Ocean. One could easily spend the whole time in this cosmopolitan city and environs, with its stunning views, night life, and beaches–some with penguins! At Hermanus the whale-watching excursions might be the best this side of Antarctica. Seal Island is known for, well, take a guess.

Table Mountain in the distance with South African countryside in the foreground
Table Mountain looms over the South African countryside like a fortress in the sky
Photo credit: Manie Van der Hoven on Pixabay

For a more serious look at apartheid, the District Six Museum is a must-see. Infamous Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, lies off the coast. Many other museums and historical sites are further north in Johannesburg and its notorious township of Soweto.

There are so many colorful neighborhoods to explore, as well, like colorful Bo Kaap, hip Woodstock, and quirky Kalk Bay. Of course, there is a lot more to see beyond Cape Town, so let’s hit the road.

Panorama of Three Rondavels Viewpoint in northern South Africa
Three Rondavels viewpoint, not far from Kruger National Park
Photo credit: Matthias Mullie on Unsplash

I’m particularly smitten with Stellenbosch, a quaint city not far from Cape Town. This is in one of South Africa’s premier wine regions. Oh, and there are beautiful mountains and nature reserves nearby too. The southern coast beckons a road trip up through Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban. That would probably take several weeks, just stopping along the way.

One of the most popular safari parks in the entire world has got to be Kruger National Park. It is far in the northern part of the country, but worth the journey to see lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinoceroses. For giraffes and hippos, there’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is on the Botswana border and is the gateway to the Kalahari. I could go on and on with all the parks, but these are some of the top ones.

Two zebras in a field
Mountain Zebra National Park
Photo credit: George Brits on Unsplash

Honestly there are too many places to name, so I should probably stop now. I didn’t even get into the off-the-beaten-track kind of places like Adam’s Calendar or Thohoyandou, the former capital of one of apartheid’s South Africa’s homelands, Venda. The geography nerd in me would want to visit Bloemfontein, the judicial capital of the country and closest large city to the landlocked nation of Lesotho. Oops, I snuck another country in this list!

#8 – Oman

Only within the last few years has the Middle Eastern sultanate of Oman started to appear on the list of cool new destinations. I’m not sure why it took so long. This strip of land between the Arabian Sea and the Rub al Khali desert contains several gems.

The mix of tan desert colors and aquamarine waters stand out like paintings. This contrast is present even in the chandelier of the country’s most famous mosque, the Sultan Qaboos Grand. Located in the capital of Muscat, this architectural wonder is one of the top attractions here. It promises to offer a more authentic glimpse of a Middle East city than its glitzy neighbor of Dubai.

Chandelier in Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Interior of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat
Photo credit: Mostafa Meraji on Unsplash

I like cities that have a lot to offer, but also allow for an escape without a huge hassle. Nearby Jebel Akhdar mountains (part of the Hajar Mountain range) and the small city of Nizwa with its fortress and quintessential palm tree oasis setting are just that. Whether it’s a day trip or a mini excursion, I could see myself really digging this place.

The Bimmah Sinkhole is a coastal attraction not far from Muscat, but I might be more intrigued by the Tayq Sinkhole. Between the settings and just getting there, I would imagine the experience either way would be well worth it.

People swimming in the Bimmah Sinkhole
Bimmah Sinkhole looks like a blue eye
Photo credit: Katerina Kerdi on Unsplash

A popular destination is the province of Dhofar and its capital of Salalah. This region is culturally distinct from the northern part of Oman and Muscat. Salalah is also an oasis but on the beach. I can almost smell the scent of exotic spices imagining walking through the souq of the old town.

If you’ve ever wondered what a frankincense tree is like, this is your destination. This biblical substance comes from these desert trees in the heart of this area, where even essential oils are distilled from its harvest.

One of the world’s geographical anomalies, the Musandam Peninsula lies at the northern tip of Oman. What makes it unusual is that it is separated from the rest of the country by parts of the United Arab Emirates. Jutting out into the Strait of Hormuz, this thumbnail of land contains Jebel Al Harim, a pinnacle from where jagged escarpments and deep tourmaline blue waters can be seen in equal parts.

Blue water and rocky coast of Musandam Peninsula
Photo credit: Melissa Kumaresan on Unsplash

Geography nerds (ahem, *raises hand*) will want to visit the enclave of Madha and counter-enclave of Nahwa, technically part of the Sharjah emirate. These borders within borders resulted from locals voting which citizenship they preferred.

#7 – Uruguay

Quietly nestled between powerhouses Argentina and Brazil, tiny Uruguay is usually not a primary destination. But look a little deeper, and there is plenty to discover. A robust wine industry. Marriage equality since 2013. Legalized marijuana. One laptop for every school pupil. Non-crowded beaches. A UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s doable even as a day trip from Buenos Aires. Fun without the crowds. That usually means a better travel experience.

Let’s start with the food! Heavily influenced by Italian cooking, Uruguayan cuisine is also heavy on the meat like its neighbors. The chivito is the country’s signature sandwich. French fries seem to be popular too. Uruguayan barbecue, simply called asado, is a ubiquitous treat. I’m not a huge fan of sausages, but morcilla dulce sounds interesting. I need to try some pasta with Caruso sauce and its creamy ham and mushroom base.

Various grilled meats, chicken and vegetables
Grilled meats in Montevideo
Photo credit: Alejandro Duarte on Unsplash

Whatever is on the plate, it’s going to need to be washed down with some choice Tannat wine. After a day at the beach, a glass of sangria-like clerico sounds divine. Or maybe it’s winter and you need a dose of grappamiel, made with honey. It may be the official national drink of Uruguay.

I could be content with hanging out in Montevideo, the capital city with a sleepy reputation but knows how to party, especially during Carnaval. Their festival lasts 40 days! Outside of that, there are plenty of architectural gems, parks, beaches, a boardwalk, and street art to name a few things. Without the tourist numbers that other cities see, you could really immerse yourself here and have a meaningful experience.

There is one attraction that may be one of Uruguay’s iconic sites. This is the sculpture called “La Mano” (the hand) on Brava Beach in Punta del Este, a beach resort city not too far from Montevideo. Further up the Atlantic coast near Brazil is Punta del Diablo, a beach town that attracts a more laid back crowd. Further south is Cabo Polonio National Park, with its picturesque seaside and village that has been described as one of the most unique in South America.

Four fingers of the "La Mano" statue in Punta del Este
La Mano – giving visitors the fingers since 1982
Photo credit: David Mark from Pixabay

I wonder what spending a weekend in a quiet central Uruguayan village would be like. As much as seeing the sites and walking the streets of a city is a draw, I am interested in the mundane day-to-day life. But why not have both? The lure is the scenery, but the fun is the serendipity of the experience and what could happen.

One more country for this edition…

#6 – Albania

My fascination with Albania could be traced to my early childhood obsession with languages. The name of the country in its native language (Shqipëria) doesn’t look anything like what we call it, and that made me curious. What other secrets is this place hiding? It turns out, quite a bit.

Albania is another one of those places slightly off the radar, but brimming with cool stuff to see and do. It has had its dark moments of history, but over the last decade has opened up and is ready to share its bounty with us.

Just about every city has a medieval castle. The west coast is on the Adriatic, full of beaches, historical seaside towns, and coastal parks. The eastern border between North Macedonia runs through idyllic Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa (also part of Greece), and the Korab Mountains further north.

Saranda, Albania skyline at sunset
Saranda gleams at twilight
Photo credit: David Mark from Pixabay

Arguably the most popular destination is the stunningly clear blue Albanian Riviera and its unofficial “capital” of Saranda. From Himara and Dhermi to Narta and the monastic isle of Zvernec, there are plenty of options to explore. Albania is affordable and the food is excellently Mediterranean.

The UNESCO World Heritage ruins of Butrint are only 20 kilometers outside of Saranda, and a couple skips from Ksamil Beach. This area is also within sight of Greece on the southern frontier as well as across a channel into Corfu. Between Himara and Saranda is the rustic village of Qeparo, painting that perfect picture of a Mediterranean hamlet.

The country is scattered with small cities worth exploring, such as captivating Gjirokastër with its cobbled streets or Theth in the Albanian Alps. Another UNESCO site is in millenia-old Berat, while seaside Vlora is where the country’s independence was launched.

Main street of Berat with hilltop fortress and houses in background
Majestic Berat
Photo credit: Ervin Gjata from Pixabay

Let’s not discount the capital city of Tirana, which is the epicenter of the country’s commerce and as capitals usually are, the most cosmopolitan. It makes a good base for day trips to such places as Durres and Kruja. A little further, near the Montenegrin border and a stone’s throw from Lake Skadar, is northern Albania’s city of Shkoder.

I would love to spend a month exploring all of these places. Fun fact: Albania allows visits up to 12 months without a visa for Americans. I can’t think of any other place in the world that offers such a generous incentive to linger there.

There you have installment one! I hope these places will satisfy that travel urge a little bit. Each link is a clickhole you can lose yourself in if you’re having a rough travel withdrawal kind of day.

Deri herën tjetër…until the next time!

Village church with backdrop of snowcapped mountains
Theth in the Albanian Alps
Photo credit: Sara Darcaj on Unsplash

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Darla G says:

    A few of these are on my “like to visit” list too–looking forward to the next installment!

    Liked by 1 person

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