Sunday, August 07, 2016

World's Best Countries 2016

I bet this is another place you would like to visit. I proudly present Samoa in the Pacific Ocean.
I am asked about my favourite country 10 to 20 times every week. And yet, I am unable to give a good answer. First of all, there are way too many indescribably amazing countries out there to pick only one. I could certainly mention top ten, but that would inevitably call for an 11th country, a 12th and so on. Most people who ask about my favourite country also do so for a very selfish reason; They want a recommendation.

Trying out different various transport modes
may not always be equally comfortable.
But definitely memorable, as in Kerala, India.
But how can I give a recommendation to a complete stranger in a semi-shabby bar, queing for a skewer on the street or in between goats, chickens and piglets on an overcrowded bus? To give a satisfying answer I need to know a little bit about the person. What are her interests, preferences and vices? What does she loathe? Is it furthermore a family trip, a girls weekend and are gourmet food or quality cocktails mandatory?

The best travel recommendations are personalized.

And to be fair, I hear from a lot of people who want a very individualized travel tip. Or ten. One gentleman from the US sent me a lengthy email asking, almost demaning, that I provide him with a complete itinerary, including every transport leg, hotel and sightseeing stop for the European holiday of himself and his wife. He offered no reward, for something that would take me hours or days to do properly. I replied that a very important, educational and fun part of travelling is planning, replanning and improvising before and during your own travels, and that leaving this to someone else will diminish your own experience on the road.

I never heard from him again. He presumably paid top dollar to a travel agency to sort his trip out for him.

What may be your favourite country will be someone else's tourist hell. But easy is boring, and I will give it a try. Sort of. Below follows travel recommendations for three types of travellers. Whether you are a novice, well-travelled or a true globetrotter you ought to find something here. These are my top destination tips for 2016.

The novice traveller

You dream about exotic travel experiences, but still always end up in some all-inclusive resort or another. At least you do then know what to expect and what you'll get.

But you do still realize that it will be win-win for you to try somewhere new. This will either open your eyes and encourage you to try out new and exciting types of destinations in the year to come, or you will be able to confirm that Sunny Beach All-Inclusive Bar, Restaurant, Hotel & Bowling is your kind of place.

Yes, you want to be me in such a photo.
Outside Punta Cana in Dominican Republic.
1. The Dominican Republic
Her finner du massevis av resorthoteller og kritthvite strender, men det er så mye mer å se og oppleve om du gir eventyrlysten en sjanse og tar turen utenfor hotellområdet.

Besøk asurblå kilder i og utenfor utrolige grotter, gå turer i regnskogen eller lær å surfe. Få for all del med deg hvordan de landsetter speedbåtene på stranda før det blir mørkt.
  • Capital Santo Domingo with its colonial history.
  • Ditch the pub. You want to party with the locals on the car wash slash liquer store on the outskirt of town. Open 'til late. 
  • Swim in the underground lagoons. The colour of the water is unreal. 

Cape Verde was the 198th and last "new" country I visited
in 2013. We celebrated for four days in Sal. 
2. Cape Verde
Another hour by plane past the Canary Islands provides you with a much more exciting alternative.

The country is a part of Africa, but do not let that scare you (Africa does unfortunately come across as scary to many westerners). Hotels, restaurants and beaches have the same standard as in Europe, but you won't have to queue everywhere. And that annoying neighbour of yours is for sure not here.

Do not forget to bring suncream.
  • The seafood here is worth the ticket alone.
  • Sao Vicente is the cultural capital of the country, but demands and additional plane or boat. 
  • To not dive or snorkle here is an insult to both water temperature and fish diversity.

Beer or bust in Latvia. I was invited by local
friends to drink it on a rooftop. 
3. Latvia 
The Baltics, including Latvia in the middle, is a very safe and easy start for those willing to give Eastern Europe a chance. The odds are, you will be back.

Expect great restaurants, buildings with an exciting history and top nightlife options in capital Riga and beyond. Beaches and related activities can be found nearby in the spa town of Jurmala just outside the city and the centrally located airport.

Just stay away from stag night and hen parties, unless those are your thing.
  • There are an ambundance of photo ops in the Old Town of Riga. 
  • You will rarely pay less for massages and spa treatments. The selection on offer in beach town Jurmala will blow you away. 
  • Pub crawl or bust. Here you order beer. 

The (well-travelled) traveller

You have travelled a bit, books your own tickets and seek inspiration to adventures in places most of your countrymen still haven't visited.

You are still not keen on going to places your neighbours haven't heard about. What would then be the point of travel bragging updates on Facebook?

Cute, perhaps, but smelly as hell.
1 Namibia
Find the biggest sand dunes in the world in one of Africa's most modern countries. Expect traditional BBQ parties at night in the desert.

You will discover that sand is more interesting than you think. The country's colonial past ensures that pretty much everything is well organized and in order, with a much better selection in the supermarket than you will find in i.e. Norway.

It is usually cheaper and easier to travel here via South Africa, an incredibly diverse country. Did anyone say two birds with one stone?  
  • Sand surfing in the desert is the shit. Snowboarding is so 2015.
  • The seal coloni on Cape Cross. Just set aside time for a shower afterwards. 300,000 seals smell just as bad as you'd imagine. 
  • Capital Windhoek is like a Germany in miniature, in Africa. 

Exploring Jeju Island south of the Korean mainland.
2. South Korea
This is a vastly underestimated destination for most westerners. Discover and explore one of the world's new superpowers in cultural exports.

Gigantic Seoul never stops and gives a new meaning to convenience. You should still set aside time to visit other parts of the country too.

  • A Korean BBQ will bring out your inner stoneman. Sit around the flames and barbeque your own food.
  • The student neighbourhood of Hongdae has it all, and is yet constantly changing. 
  • Jeju Island is holiday paradise number one for Koreans. Activities on offer are plentiful. 

A window seat is mandatory above Bolivia.
3. Bolivia
This country is surprisingly diverse and you cannot visit only the major cities La Paz and Santa Cruz. Small, remote villages and breathtakingly beautiful mountains just await exploration.

The locals are proud and are usually happy to pose for a picture with you in their colurful national costumes.
  • Hike a mountain. This is the easiest country if you want to go higher than 600 meters. 
  • Order a llama steak. 
  • Explore the fascinating brick houses that virtually cover the hills of La Paz.

The globetrotter

The more challenges, the better. You have travelled a lot and are not scared of the unknown. Special destinations give you butterflies. 

You do not belong in this category if you have never been outside "the western world" or if you have never crossed an international land border with something but a plane outside Europe or North America. 

In São Tomé, the capital of São Tomé og Príncipe.
1. São Tomé and Príncipe
The hospitality experienced in this island nation off Africa's West Coast is second to none.

The little country will provide you with a diverse option of activities, despite a lack of tourists. Bring good shoes and your touch piece for augmented fish luck. Or visit unreal and virtually untouched beaches in this tropical paradise.

Do not confine your movements to capital São Tomé with its colonial architecture and colourful residential shacks. Just go there by plane. I hitchhiked by cargo ship fromk Gabon. That set me back 40 hours.
  • Buy local chocolate. Experts claim it is best in the world. 
  • Visit the blow holes. Waves pressure water through tiny tunnels in the bedrock, creating a geysir effect on land.
  • Order a beer in one of the few but cozy bars in the capital. If you demand an umbrella drink, try the Seychelles or venture to one of the very few resort hotels here.  

My brother Øystein and I joined two local
brothers on a mountain hike outside capital Bishkek.
2 Kyrgyzstan
The -Stan countries totally deserves a much bigger audience, and Kyrgyzstan is my favourite and a great place to start. Snow covered peaks higher than 7000 meters combined with the world's second biggest saline lake and very welcoming and hospitable people make this a winner.

Do not chicken out when it comes to drinking. If you are offered vodka, drink it like a hero: Bottoms up. Or fifty fifty, as they say around here.
  • You have to go hiking in the mountains. Not necessarily to above 7000 meters, but you have to go hiking. 
  • Go swimming in Issyk-Kul lake. The Sonjet Union once tested nuclear weapons in the world's 7th deepest lake with no rivers running from it. Issyk-Kul means warm lake. 
  • Order caviar and endulge.  

The world's most narrow country?
3. Kiribati
The country name is pronouced "Kiri-bass" and is one of the logistically most difficult countries to visit. But you are a globetrotter, right?

Expect the prototype of a Pacific island. Minus the luxury.

Most of the civilization is around South Tawara, the capital, but it is in the more remote islands that you will really understand what it is like to live on a Pacific island. Electricity is not necessarily in all locals' vocabulary. Kiribati is one of the first countries that will "sink" in case of increased ocean levels.
  • You are committing crimes unless you snorkle or dive here. 
  • Stay on one of the smaller islands. 
  • Go fishing. 

Do note that I am based well within the physical and cultural borders of western society, and that this inevitably has affected my recommendations.

(I first recommended these destinations in Norwegian daily Dagbladet in January 2016.)