If you read the travel section in your newspaper each week, you’ll see a lot of stories about the world’s great destinations: Paris, Rome, Mumbai, Egypt, the plains of Africa. But while those places get all the publicity, there are other places that don’t get the attention they deserve — the overlooked destinations.
Sometimes it’s because they don’t have an iconic attraction that draws the world’s attention, like the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids. But in many cases, they have attractions that are less famous but just as fascinating, delivering great sights and experiences that take visitors by surprise.
Here are five countries I’ve visited that I’d rank among the world’s undiscovered, or at least underappreciated, treasures:
If you’re going to Southeast Asia, odds are you’ll end up on the beaches of Thailand. But right next door is a fascinating country with its own character and some great sights of its own.
Malaysia is one of my favourite countries. I’m a fan of its colonial but rapidly modernizing capital, Kuala Lumpur (above), and I’ve been to most of its diverse and beautiful regions. But to me, Malaysia is most of all a mecca for those who like cultural travel. The dominant culture is Malay, and the religion is Muslim, but it’s a country that’s home to an exotic mix of cultures, making it both fascinating and unique.
Malaysia’s Chinese community is readily seen in the temples, hawker food centres and rickshaws of Penang and Malacca. There’s also a thriving Indian population, adding colour with its temples and festivals. But to me, the most fascinating community is Malaysia’s famous native tribes. A short flight from the mainland, the states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo are home to legendary tribes that still live in longhouses dotted along the rivers in its ancient rainforests. And it’s easy to pay them a visit.
There’s also beaches, lush countryside and cool hill resorts like the Cameron Highlands, where you can tour the tea plantations and have a cuppa while admiring the green landscape. Best of all, Malaysia is a good size for travel: it’s easy to get from one attraction to the next, and the country has modern facilities — there’s even a monorail from the Kuala Lumpur airport.
When they mention South America, most people think of Brazil or Peru. But while it gets less attention, Argentina offers an amazing variety of attractions, set in a landscape that ranges from one extreme to the other.
The sprawling capital, Buenos Aires, is one of a kind, more European than South American, and sports a unique culture, with its tango shows and parillada barbecue restaurants. If you want a taste of the country, you can go watch the gauchos do their equestrian show on the estancia (that’s Argentinian for ranch).
Head north and you can see Iguazu Falls, one of the continent’s natural wonders, while the south offers the rugged landscapes of Patagonia, or a side trip to Las Malvinas, known to us Anglos as the Falkland Islands. Keep going south and you’ll end up in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and gateway to Antarctica.
Finally, if you like skiing, hiking or wine, there’s the charming provincial city of Mendoza, up in the Andes, where tour shops offer trips to ski the high country or do some mountain trekking. Or you can do what I did and tour the wineries for a taste of some of their dark, tasty malbec. And of course, this being Argentina, you can have it with a juicy steak.
Not many people would pick Denmark as their top destination in Scandinavia. But you’re missing a bet if you visit the region without seeing this beautiful and unique country. Start with its brilliant capital, Copenhagen, infused with the fairy-tale spirit of Hans Christian Andersen. You can ride tour boats on the canals that run through the centuries-old downtown, or spend a day at Tivoli Gardens amusement park, the original “happiest place on earth”.
There are castles and palaces galore, starting with the majestic Rosenborg Castle and Amalienborg Palace right in downtown Copenhagen and reaching the length of the country. Out of town, there’s the impressive Frederiksborg Castle, set on a lake, and for something truly classical, the brooding Kronborg Castle in Elsinor, setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Nearby Roskilde, the former capital, has a museum with five reconstructed Viking ships, and hosts one of Europe’s biggest rock festivals. Odense, on the island of Funen, has a real Viking grave and the renaissance Egeskov castle, right out of a story book, with peacocks strolling the grounds. Then there’s Legoland, near Esbjerg, on the west coast.
But to me, Denmark’s greatest appeal is its Nordic beauty: attractive cities mixing ancient buildings with world-leading modern design, the green countryside with thatched houses here and there, the rugged coastline shining under the midsummer sun. Add the beautiful blonde women and the free-and-easy culture of the Danes, and it’s a great place to be.
Its travel posters don’t feature kangaroos or Crocodile Dundee, but in its own way, New Zealand is just as spectacular as Australia. And it’s a much smaller country, so all its treasures can be seen within a couple of days’ drive.
Of course, you won’t be seeing them that fast: New Zealand’s natural wonders could keep you there for weeks. To me, the south island is the place to start, with its incredible temperate rainforests (above), fjords, and the Milford Track, one of the world’s top-rated hikes. Then there’s the Southern Alps and the majestic Mount Cook, whale watching in Kaikoura, and the Marlborough wine country.
The north island is packed with highlights, as well, starting with the thermal springs in Rotorua — also an important centre for the Maoris, who’ll welcome you to the marae for a traditional earth-oven hangi feast. The Coromandel Peninsula offers idyllic beach life, and travellers love Auckland, the “city of sails”. Farther north is the beautiful Bay of Islands, and some of the last kauri trees, the Pacific version of giant redwoods.
There’s also a dizzying array of adventure sport — this is where they invented bungee jumping, after all. And New Zealand’s landscape is unequalled, with its great forests, dramatic coastline and lush fields full of sheep, cattle and deer. But the New Zealanders themselves, some of the friendliest people on earth, are a great part of the country’s charm. Once you meet them and see their beautiful country, it’s hard to leave.
Publications like International Living have been touting Panama for years as one of the world’s great places to retire, but it’s also one of the great places to visit. You can start with the canal, one of the world’s most amazing engineering feats, and well worth a trip (go here for a guided tour). But there’s a lot more to see.
First, there’s Panama City, Central America’s only world-class city. It’s a global metropolis, and its bustling centre is becoming more and more visitor-friendly, with great hotels, museums, restaurants and clubs. And if you like wildlife and natural beauty, Panama is a paradise: in fact, the wild country starts right at Panama City’s doorstep, in a rainforest filled with birds, monkeys and other animals.
Travelling west, there’s the lush Valle de Anton, a favourite retirement spot for gringos, and farther still, toward Costa Rica, the cool mountains of Chiriqui province, with their apple orchards, coffee plantations and forests where you can see the exotic resplendent quetzal bird — a highlight of my birding career.
There are also beach areas, including Bocas del Toro and the San Blas region, owned and run by the Kuna Indians, who welcome visitors to spend some time on their white sands. And there’s history galore, replete with Spanish conquistadors, English pirates and places where Christopher Columbus set foot. In all, another country with a lot more than meets the eye.
Those are my five overlooked destinations. I’m pretty sure that if you take my advice and visit them, you’ll be happy you did. There’s more to the world than New York and Paris, and sometimes discovering a places you hadn’t considered brings the most pleasure. Happy travels.