I’m always asked where my favourite place in the world is. I am fairly consistent. But I want to take the chance and reflect on other places that are ingrained in my mind.
10. Salta, Argentina
Unexpected and not my usual type of sought paradise, I was pleasantly surprised to look at my surroundings in dry and arid Salta. Cushioned up in the mountains of Northern Argentina, a small colonial city lined with orange trees and a rocky background releases a sort of charm that hits you upon arrival. Beautiful but simple cafes, plazas that typify Spanish heritage towns, and a population that really shows the mix of colonial and indigenous roots in the region. My fondest memory during this trip I took whilst doing my Masters in Buenos Aires is of the gondola going up the mountain. Starting out as a cheesy tourist trap with a recorded announcer describing sites in the chairlift to yourself or your group, it actually becomes a magical ride up the mountain and through the unique history of the region. Perhaps it also sticks out in my mind as the setting inspired me to propose. Even if just passing through, take a lift on the gondola and experience the northern and less popular region of Argentina – and all it has to offer.
9. Villa Unión/Concordia, Mexico
I could have chosen the city of Guanajuato as a very different Mexican favourite. The memories of this magical spot in the world are admittedly starting to fade. It has been over 15 years since I set my eyes on this village in Sinaloa, Mexico. I was a 19 year old university student on exchange and had the pleasure to participate in an international student trip to the local surrounding villages. We stopped by sandal factories, had lunch in colonial Concordia, rode donkeys – it was one of those wonderful days that you go around discovering as a kindred group of explorers. I remember one of the last destinations was along the river by Villa Unión. I believe it was the Rio Presidio. Some village children joined us as we got down to our bathing suits and jumped into the glorious river water. I remember the water so clear you could see deep into the bottom lined of beautiful stones with no blur despite the strong pace of the current. We swam all afternoon in this almost water-treadmill of a river, splashing the local kids and enjoying the soft river sand on the shore. I took so many photos of the kids and promised to come back one day and give them copies. I haven’t kept my promise but I intend to go back one day and share copies with the now grown-up villagers that gave me one of my precious life memories.
8. Ko Lanta, Thailand
My desire to get myself onto an island is a constant inward feeling that often pushes me to the brink of spontaneous travel. I look on the map and find my options. There are a lot of islands in Thailand – but one that sticks out in my mind is Ko Lanta. Arriving on the island by boat in 2002, you felt that you were on an island with facilities, but that the farther south you went, things started to get a bit wilder. We chose to stay at the “Last Resort” which was truly the last place to go. It’s such an interesting place, where Buddhism meets Islam and where people peacefully go about their days in traditional livelihoods as well as tourism. I remember trying the best massaman curry of my life here, and watching sunsets as the candles were lit for a beachfront dinner on the floor in true Thai fashion. A few disasters happened including a dreadful trio of motorcycle accidents, a boat stuck in a storm during a snorkelling expedition, and of course unfortunately a couple years later the island was hit hard by one of the world’s worst natural disasters – the 2005 tsunami. I made some wonderful friends during this trip and saw some of the most beautiful scenes from the sea that I’ve had the privilege to witness. The feeling on the island is unique and I think it draws in a very different crowd in comparison to many other Thai island destinations.
7. Misahuallí, Ecuador
I admit this was a hard one. Actually I began by choosing another Ecuadorian destination and writing about it only to go back to this one. There are actually three spots in Ecuador that I’d consider a top favourite but will settle on this jungle destination. Misahuallí is a village with the Amazon on its doorstep. It’s a rough little town that most people just pass through en route to the Amazon river through its tributary. Scaling down the Sierra mountains, the first thing that you notice as you descend on the Amazon basin is the humidity. The vegetation goes from dry and arid to incredibly lush and tropical. The flowers don’t seem like they can even be real. You will undoubtedly be dropped off in the main plaza once you’re in Misahuallí. You can bet that one of the numerous monkeys will then try to steal your luggage, your camera, or at minimum your water. The town is built for passerby tourism – but I’ve never just passed by. Misahuallí became a destination for me fairly often and its mysterious outpost feeling really got inside of me. When the sun begins to set behind the river, something primal awakes inside oneself. The white sand beach along the Napo river is a treasure and watching the skies become pink as you immerse yourself in the current and listen to the awakening sounds of the night is majestic. And don’t head for dinner right after sunset. If you wait a little longer, you will see the most spectacular show of stars you could ever imagine with the shadow backdrop of the rainforest canopy. Amazing little restaurants and a wild discothèque to let you dance the night away with locals as you sweat in the jungle heat is what makes you realise you are a long way from home. Misahuallí instils instinct and simply makes me feel alive.
6. Kakeromajima, Japan
Kakeromajima is an island in Southern Japan, just south of the larger more well-known Amami island. I first visited this island during a trip with a friend during the summer of 2003. From the south end of Amami, you take a small ferry for a short 20 minute trip. Although it’s not really hard to get to, you feel like you’ve landed in a very isolated part of the world as soon as you dock. Views don’t get much better than this mountainous island with windy roads that give you a look at coral reefs, lush vegetation, white sand beaches, and unimaginable sunsets. I remember the first time I visited we sat on a beach facing southward into the open sea. Suddenly the sound of the local sanshin instrument came to our ears from a tree above. A young boy was playing shima uta (literally “island song”), the local music, and singing the most glorious tunes. Each time we looked up he would stop playing from shyness. As we looked towards the sea, he played and we felt the surreal magic of this unique spot in the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was more than a passing trip. The experience moved me to relocate to Amami island a year later. I had the chance to go to Kakeromajima often over the next year – though I never saw the boy in the tree again.
5. Salt Spring Island, Canada
Sometimes home is where the heart is. Not far from where I’m from lies one of the most beautiful places I know. Somewhere in the channel between the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia (BC) is an island that exuberates freshness, nature, clean… and the chosen life. Salt Spring Island is as much about the community as it is about the paradise that residents have mostly discovered and decided to come live in. Surprisingly, I first visited this nature oasis only a few years ago on an island hopping trip to show a visiting friend some of the beauty of my province. Knowing an old friend that was living on the island, we had the chance to stay in her guesthouse and enjoy some true local hospitality. Looking at the emerald green sea water contrasting with the rocks and the lush temperate forest is a privilege you can only find in certain microcosms in the world. Getting up to the highest point of the island is an adventure, and rewards you with a view of the island, the surrounding islands, the mainland, and the true beauty of majestic BC. Go down into the market or visit the galleries in the town and you’ll have a chance to meet some of the most interesting people that have migrated to join this unique community. If real estate weren’t so darn expensive here, you’d better believe I’d have my part-time home set up to visit for years to come – But you do certainly get what you pay for!
4. Dubrovnik, Croatia
A trip around the world by ship takes you to some pretty exotic places, usually starting in some very interesting port towns. I have many highlights from that journey on board, but one that stands out is our stop in Dubrovnik. It’s one of the more well-known destinations in my list of favourites, but its uniqueness is unquestionable. I was so lucky to be with a dear friend, and almost a local, having spent a good part of her youth there. I also shared the company of many dear friends that made up the group of us sea lovers who came together by travelling the entire circumference of the globe over 100 days. Dubrovnik is a Europhile’s dream. Cobbled streets with alleys that could be out of paintings make up the maze of perhaps one of the world’s most charming towns. A stone fort wall surrounds the stone buildings and red rooftops that almost magically go right into the stunning Adriatic Sea. Swim out a bit and turn around to take in the architecture. My favourite memory is sitting in a cafe built onto the rock cliff and watching day turn to night. My more adventurous friends went right from the cliff cocktails to a midnight swim under the moon. It’s absolutely magical. But I will warn you: no matter how inviting those waters look for cliff diving, never hit the bottom with your bare feet. Otherwise you might be picking out pieces of sea urchin for years to come!
3. Cayo Largo, Cuba
This isn’t really the type of place you’d expect me to include since it’s more of a resort destination lined with a few all-inclusives. But I can’t deny my absolute affinity for Cayo Largo. You don’t go for the culture of Cuba here as no locals technically live on this tiny island off the south of Cuba. Employees are brought in for three week shifts by boat. Food and supplies come in weekly since the island can’t sustain itself. Lots of low-budget (dare I say unadventurous and a bit tacky) holidaymakers stay in the four or five main hotels dotted along the southern beachside. But the island is a place that makes you truly feel the sense of islandness and all the images that your head conjures up from that. The beaches are breathtaking, the sea is really top notch. Vegetation is sparse, but that dry and arid feeling along the rocks pounded by the power of the Caribbean is a sensation in itself. I have spent many many days walking eastwardly along the beach, sometimes a full day journey without seeing another human being along 10 or 15 kms of pristine beach. My favourite memory here is with my dear friends working on the island who organised a lobster barbeque on an isolated beach as the sun set over a dramatic horizon. Cayo Largo will change very quickly, I’m so honoured to have been able visit so many times!
2. Ilha Grande, Brazil
After a week of “carnavalling” in Rio de Janeiro, I needed some detox. My usual attraction to islands and a look on the map brought me and two friends to Ilha Grande, or “Big Island”. Not difficult to reach from Rio, you travel to Angra dos Reis where you take a boat for about an hour and a half to Ilha Grande’s port town Abraao. Astonishment is how I describe my feeling on arrival. This island is relatively busy during the tourist season, but at the same time it’s not really. There are no vehicles on the island other than docked boats. The main town has beautiful restaurants, incredible lighting, beaches lined with candles and tables in the sand to enjoy the Brazilian specialties, and carts pushing cakes and sweets for moonlight watchers along the seaside. Trails throughout the island will take you to stunning points with beaches being powerfully pounded by the Atlantic, and calm motionless coves full of colourful fish and sealife. One of my profoundly inspirational memories is of swimming out from the port of Abraao until I reached the quiet of the sea and looking back towards the island. The lush green vegetation, colour of the sea, simplicity of the town, and the powerful mountain peaks define the awe you feel when you realise where you’ve come. This is one of the places that I wouldn’t argue spending the rest of my life if I had a chance.
1. Luang Prabang, Laos
Yes it’s true. As I’m often asked my favourite place in the world, I never hesitate to blurt out Luang Prabang. I have to start off by admitting that the first time I went to LP was in 2002, not long after the country had opened up to the outside world. Visiting again in 2008, I can’t deny that a lot had changed and perhaps the charm of its early thrust into tourism was fading. The crux of LP hasn’t changed though – and the more developed night market, string of French restaurants down the main drag, and the increased infrastructure after years of construction simply give a more modern impression of what the small city represents. Smack between the Mekong and the Nam Kang rivers, you can’t walk far without meeting a sensational river view. The long boats cruising by, the sun setting behind the hills, the agriculture patches scattered on the riverside in dramatic colour sequences – it’s almost surreal. You’ll never get tired of walking by pagodas and meeting smiling monks. The night time emits a magical energy as vehicles stop and night market stalls lit by lanterns and candles come alive. I’m going back to LP soon and I’m very curious to see how another five years has been to my beloved favourite place.