Inevitably the more you travel the harder it gets to pick ten places that you enjoyed travelling to the most. A myriad of factors form together when making these decisions – the place itself, the people you were with, the time you were there, chance encounters, random generosity, a magical sunset, a moment of clarity or calm. Travel is a subjective experience and no two trips to the same place will ever be the same experience. Nonetheless, the following is a list of some of the most memorable places that I have visited.
1. Vinales, Cuba (March 2003)
Vinales is the place that stands out in my mind from my 2003 visit to Cuba. For one, it’s amazingly beautiful, with imposing hills and lush vegetation. Second, it was the scene of my worst sunburn ever, a traumatic experience that taught me once and for all the value of sun safety. But most of all, it was the scene of gracious generosity. One of the great benefits of travelling in Cuba is the system of casa particulares, that allows families to rent out a room to travellers, and usually includes breakfast and dinner. In Vinales we stayed with Carlos and his family. Unfortunately our financial situation was such that we could only pay him what was agreed – and certainly couldn’t afford any luxuries. Still, on the last night he brought out a whole lobster for me – and home-made mojitos. Our spirits were lifted by this act of generosity, a perfect antidote to some negative experiences we’d experienced elsewhere in Cuba.
2. Halstatt, Austria (sometime in 2004)
A small town east of Salzburg might seem a strange choice for this list, but Hallstatt is an astonishingly beautiful place. There’s nothing else to say really – the train there from Salzburg weaves through the beautiful Austrian mountains, the lake is crystal clear and the buildings all traditional constructions. It’s postcard-perfect.
3. Huang Shan (Yellow Mountains), China (summer 2005)
The Yellow Mountains are mountains on a grand scale. Accessible by overnight train from Shanghai, and then by climbing hundreds of granite stone steps, the views across the jagged peaks are jaw-dropping. On the ascent, I fell into conversation with a Chinese family from Shanghai, who decided to ‘adopt’ me, letting me stay with them in their dorm room at a hotel at the top. The next morning we awoke at 4am – something I would never have done on my own – to climb to the summit to see the sunrise. The sunrise was unimpressive, and I had become covered in dozens of small insect bites. Still, despite the tiredness and the irritation of the bites I said goodbye, and began the descent. It was one of the most remarkable journeys – up and down the jagged peaks, like something out of Lord of the Rings, with sheer drops on either side at times, exposed chasms, and only a meter between you and what would be certain death – no ‘health and safety’ ropes here! It was an awe-inspiring experience, and the most impressive mountain range I have seen.
4. El Nido, Philippines (Christmas / New Year’s 2006/7)
El Nido is a small town on the northern coast of Palawan island. It is a bizarre place, with grumpy expats, holidaying locals, a pretty average beach and lots of motorbikes and dogs. Yet it is also a gateway to some stunning islands, beaches, snorkelling and wreck diving – and it is largely empty compared to similar places elsewhere in East Asia.
5. Abashiri, Hokkaido, Japan (February 2008)
Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is a winter wonderland in the early months of the year, and Abashiri is the jewel in its crown. After travelling across the island, through snow-capped mountains and valleys with frozen reservoirs and onsen (hot springs), you arrive at this remote coastal town. Locals wary of Russian sailors might not give the fondest welcome to Caucasian visitors, but the drift ice that covers the sea is a sight to behold. Visiting here is an unforgettable experience, and I would encourage any visitor to Japan to travel north to see the stunning natural beauty of Hokkaido.
6. Tokyo, Japan (several visits 2007-2009)
I love Tokyo, probably because it distils almost everything I like about Japan into one place. Kyoto may be the city of ancient Buddhist shrines and Shinto temples, but Tokyo is Japan’s gloriously neon, modern face. It’s a city best expressed in names – Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ebisu, Ueno, Asakusa, Akihabara, sushi, sashimi, yakitori, nomihodie, karaoke, love hotels, shinkansen bullete trains and tranquil parks, views stretching off into the distance – to Mount Fuji – and Tsukiji fish market, best visited at dawn. The Yamanote-sen, circling this futuristic and fantastic city.
7. Koh Tao, Thailand (August 2009)
While the Philippines were great, there’s something immensely satisfying about the combination of tropical beaches, weather and comfort that Thailand has to offer. Out of my three visits, my favourite island was Koh Tao. Sitting reading a good book, drinking a Chang beer and eating Pad Thai that cost pennies and tastes great – it can’t get much better than that. Yet Koh Tao also has secluded beaches, accessible by dirt bike, and some of the best diving in Thailand. I haven’t been to its nearby neighbours, but I immensely preferred it to the overdeveloped Koh Phi Phi on Thailand’s west coast. As of 2013 I would now also recommend Koh Kut in East Thailand as a perfect beach getaway.
8. Merzouga, Morocco (July 2010)
Merzouga is an odd place, clearly struggling with poverty, sitting as it does at the ‘end of the line’ in the south-east corner of Morocco on the edge of the desert. A trip out on camels to sleep in the desert, complete with Bedouin guide and these groovy tents is a bizarre but wonderful experience, particularly if you haven’t slept for twenty-four hours. It was the highlight of my Morocco trip for no reason other than it was so different to anything I’ve ever done before. Having experienced colds of minus thirty in Hokkaido, Japan, it was good to experience the forty degree plus midday sun here to restore some balance!
9. Istanbul, Turkey (November 2011)
Istanbul (not Constantinople) is a fab city, full of amazing architectural gems such as the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, amazing food and welcoming people. It’s the Westward leaning face of a fascinating country, one that’s grappling with how to deal with modernity, and choosing between its Western, secular and Islamist heritages. A trip up the Bosphorus, seeing the silhouettes of Sultanahmet at sunset, is unforgettable. For me mosques are stunningly beautiful buildings – and Istanbul has some of the best in the world.
10. New York, USA (Christmas / New Year’s 2011/12)
New York has it all – and in XL portions. That’s not just the food, but the quality of restaurants, the quality of beers, or parks, museums, art galleries. It’s a behemoth of a city that’s both beguiling and imposing, with skyscrapers stretching toward the heavens and hobos prowling the run-down public subway. I loved it – it blew every other city away – and I’ll definitely be back.