Get extra countries

 

 


David Whitley takes a look at the extra countries you can easily add to your tally from popular round the world destinations


Travel isn’t a competition. There is something pathetically childish about people who measure their importance by how many countries they’ve been to. But, let’s face it, sometimes it’s nice to be able to say you’ve been somewhere – even if it’s just for a day or two. And there are a few countries that are tantalizingly close to popular round the world flight hubs that you can easily sneak off to without taking a massive detour. Such as…


Macau (from Hong Kong) 
Whether Macau counts depends very much on your definition of what a country is. But, hey, if it’s allowed its own football team, that’s got to count for something, huh? A short ferry ride away from Hong Kong, Macau can easily be tackled as a day trip and it’s a weird, weird place. It’s part Chinese and part European – it wears its Portuguese heritage rather strongly – but it’s also the world’s biggest gambling centre. Macau’s casinos take in far more than those of Las Vegas, and there’s a very different atmosphere inside them. There’s less of the fun, and more deadly serious gaming. The most common sound is that of angry men thumping tables.   

China (from Hong Kong) 

Again this depends on how liberal your idea of separate countries is, but Hong Kong hands off the end of China like a fat icicle. A cross-border jaunt is fine, if you’ve got the visa sorted. The problem is what’s at the other side of the border. Shenzhen is possibly one of the most soulless places in the world – it’s essentially just a giant shopping centre.  
 


Mexico (from Los Angeles) 
You’re only a few hours away from the Mexican border in Los Angeles. The first city you’ll come to on the other side is Tijuana, which isn’t exactly a charming Cotswolds village. It has a reputation for drug and gun crime, but keep your wits about you and it’s also a raucous place to go drinking and bar hopping. About 100km further south is Ensenada, a far more gentle seaside city that’s popular with surfers and cruise ship passengers alike.   

Swaziland (from Johannesburg) 
Buses from Jo’Burg take around four hours to get to Swaziland’s main cities of Mbabane and Manzini, though self-driving it and going to the Malkerns or Ezulwini Valley is likely to be a more rewarding experience. These two areas have a nice mix of nature, museums and cultural attractions.   

Uruguay (from Buenos Aires) 
Uruguay is just over the admittedly huge mouth of the River Plate from the Argentine capital, and regular ferries will take you there. Budget four to six hours to get to Montevideo, which is arguably South America’s most relaxed, agreeable capital city, or two-and-a-half hours to get to Colonia del Sacramento. It’s a fabulously pretty town, crammed with a cracking fortress and – as the name would suggest – colonial era buildings.   

Malaysia (from Singapore) 

Singapore is just an island. Head north along the causeway and you’ll find yourself pretty quickly in Malaysia. The first introduction to the country is the largely charmless Johor Bahru, so you’re better off heading further north to Melaka. This historic trading port city has Portuguese, Dutch and British heritage. It’s a gorgeous place where exotic charm meets temples, colonial buildings and palaces. Oh yes, and anyone who likes gawping at boats should be in heaven. 

Indonesia (from Singapore) 
You can’t do it by land, but if you head the other way from Singapore by ferry you’ll end up at Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago. Of these islands, Pulau Bintan has the best combination of accessibility and pleasantness. The beaches aren’t amazing, but they’re decent enough – and the stilted buildings and markets make it an enjoyable day trip escape from Singapore’s claustrophobic feel. 

Oman (from Dubai) 
There are a couple of odd Omani enclaves within the UAE’s borders, but the best spot to head for is the Musandam Peninsula, which is cut off from the rest of Oman by the Emirates. This wild region is regarded as Arabia’s take on Norway, and the dhow cruises through the fjordy landscape, accompanied by numerous show-boating dolphins, are an absolute treat. 

Canada (from New York) 
You’d be mental to attempt to do Toronto or Montreal as a day trip from New York, but there are daily trains to both, and you could easily make a couple of days of it. Both cities are ace in their own way – Toronto has lots to do and has in immense likeability, whilst Montreal has the party factor, a gorgeous old town and a bilingual culture that draws you in instantly. 

Cambodia (from Bangkok) 

It’ll take you the best part of a day to get there by land – a combination of bus to the border and share taxi on to Siem Reap is best. Ignore the numerous too-good-to-be-true cheapo options that go all the way through – they’re invariably scams. It’s a bit of a faff, but you can spend a few days exploring Siem Reap and the Angkor temples before heading back. Mercifully, the road between the Poipet border post and Siem Reap has improved markedly in recent years – the journey isn’t as painful as it once was.
 




Alternative UNESCO

 

 

The UNESCO World Heritage list can often be used as a lazy tickbox list by travellers – just because something’s on the list doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth visiting. But while there are plenty of obvious contenders – such as the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Wall of China – a few World Heritage sites are less well known. And these are some of the most obscure ones that are perhaps worth making a visit to...

 

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Where? Hiroshima, Japan

If you want a World Heritage site that genuinely brings a lump to the throat, then this is it. In 1910, the Hiroshima Prefecture decided to promote industry by building a domed exhibition hall. It’d be a pretty unremarkable building now if it hadn’t been for The Bomb. The building, now known as the Genbaku or Atomic Bomb Dome, was the only one left standing near the hypocentre of the atomic bomb blast on 6 August 1945.

The decision was made to leave the dome as it was – a blown-out shell – and build a Peace Park (including the Peace Museum) around it. It’s a terrifying reminder of a weapon that dropped out of the sky and killed 140,000 people.

 

The Cradle of Humankind

Where? Near Johannesburg, South Africa

This area, to the west of Johannesburg, is seemingly where we come from. An extraordinary number of ancient fossils have been found in the region’s caves, and these include hominid fossils that are 3.5 million years old. The Sterkfontein Caves are the most fruitful hunting ground for archaeologists – around a third of all early hominid fossils ever found have come from there – and the tours and exhibitions there make it a great tourist attraction. The nearby Maropeng Visitor Centre also gives a superb, if occasionally rather odd, insight in human evolution.

 

Shark Bay

Where? Western Australia

Shark Bay is on the World Heritage list for its natural wonders, and although some of them may not particularly exciting to look at, they’re hugely important. Let’s face it, no-one’s going to go this far to look at the world’s largest bank of seagrass. Even the stromatolites aren’t particularly gripping for the neutral – but while they look like rocks, they’re actually extremely rare examples of the oldest remaining life on earth. Shark Bay is really worth visiting for its end-of-the-earth wilderness feel and the dolphins – some of which come up to the beach at Monkey Mia to be handfed.

 

Potosi

Where? Bolivia

Often dubbed the highest city on earth, Potosi was the world’s largest industrial complex in the 16th century. The extraordinary riches of silver in the mountainsides caught the eye of the Spanish and effectively became a giant piggy bank. Absolute fortunes were shipped back to Spain, after being dug out of the hillsides by indigenous and African slave labour. Tin and silver are still mined here today, and the combination of impressive colonial buildings and scarred landscape makes it an extraordinary place to explore.

 

Gunung Mulu National Park

Where? Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

The Gunung Mulu National Park is so much remarkable for what’s above ground, but what’s below it. It’s not for the amateur daytripper, but this part of Borneo contains what is arguably the world’s most incredible cave system. Experienced cavers and canyoners can explore an enormous underground river system, and the biggest single-chamber cave in the world. The Sarawak Chamber is gigantic, and could reportedly house eight Boeing 747s lined up nose to tail.

 

Redwood National and State Parks

Where? California, USA

In this part of the world, it’s usually the Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks that get all the attention, but these redwood forests along the Californian coast are remarkable. The coastal redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, and plenty of them soar above the 100m mark. This makes a walk through the forest a humbling stroll through some absolute giants. It is a place in which to feel very small indeed.

 

Chief Roi Mata’s Domain

Where? Vanuatu

Chief Roi Mata’s Domain is arguably one of the weirdest on the World Heritage list. It’s a collection of sites related to a former tribal chief who was allegedly poisoned by his brother. Then, once he died, over 50 family members and followers sacrificed themselves to buried with him. The three main sites – on three different islands – are seen as where oral history meets archaeological history. And while you’re enjoying fab caves and beaches, you also get an insight into how the chiefdom systems in the Pacific nations have worked over the years.

 

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Where? Near Manila, Philippines

For a rare example of how the human hand can actually make a landscape look more impressive, a trip to Luzon Island (the main one in the Philippines) is in order. Around Ifuago, centuries-old systems of growing rice have left their mark on the hilly landscape. Extraordinarily intricate systems of terraces, largely based around natural contours, have made the steep slopes look like they’re a series of narrow slices stacked precariously on top of each other. The elaborate farming and irrigation systems have been built up through years of knowledge and experience, creating both a natural and engineering marvel.

 

Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump

Where? Alberta, Canada

Whilst it’s hardly going to compare to the Pyramids, Machu Picchu or Table Mountain in terms of wow factor, Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump wins the award for most ridiculously-named World Heritage site hands-down. Essentially, this was a giant buffalo graveyard, and for 5,500 years the native Blackfoot people had managed to hunt buffalo by rounding them up and forcing them to run off a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff, the buffalo had broken legs and were rendered immobile, making them easier to capture. This bizarre hunting technique and lots more about the Blackfoot culture is explained in an on-site museum.

 

 

Animals Abroad

 

 

Sometimes, what you don’t do on your holiday is almost as important as what you do. I got to Chiang Mai after a ten-year absence and found myself blown away by the heavy development and construction that has transformed the city. I came to Chiang Mai to spend a week volunteering with elephants at Elephant Nature Park, which operates a little like a retirement village for elephants (and an experience I highly recommend). There, elephants are treated with dignity and the project provides income for a number of families and locals. Before I started at the project, however, I had three days to hang around while I waited for my boyfriend to fly in and join me.   

Waiting for my pickup at the airport, something caught my eye. Prominently displayed throughout the arrivals hall were bright brochures with a picture of a girl cuddling a baby tiger. 


I wanna do that
 my inner dialogue screamed. I live for animal encounters, whether it be having a baby giraffe suck on my thumb in Namibia, walking with lions in Zimbabwe or working with elephants for a week in Thailand*.  The feeling of being so close to these animals is overwhelming, a special moment that leaves you on a natural high for days. It’s also a privilege. Of course I wanted to cuddle a baby tiger. I am a cat person. And those baby tigers were cute. 

But after that first urge to cuddle a tiger, something started to bother me. I looked closer at the brochure. This wasn’t a tiger conservation project. This was a business aimed at generating money. A small blurb on the back of the brochure explained the keepers jab the animals to wake them up so they wouldn’t look sleepy in photos. I was shocked they’d put that in writing.

 

I don’t like the idea of an animal being jabbed to smile for a photo. Remember when you had that annoying girlfriend who always used to make you take photos everywhere? Or the school pictures when everyone had to look and appear a certain way? Try going through that every day being a wild creature. A little digging online at my hotel revealed a slew of online criticism. There were multiple accusations of neglect, abuse, mishandling, and cruelty on Trip Advisor.

 

Thailand has an interesting relationship with animals and tourism. One of my first memories of arriving in Bangkok ten years ago was watching an elephant with a mahout cross twelve lanes of heavy traffic and walk past a 7-11. In the resort beaches you can find monkeys tied to ropes and brightly coloured lizards being offered to tourists to hold and photograph for a few baht. It makes for a great snapshot but the reality is that the animals are often mistreated, stressed and stolen from the wild.

 

When I was younger and a little more naive, I didn’t get it. Now that I’ve travelled across the world and seen more, I don’t like it. And I have a habit of speaking out against it. All these creatures don’t belong in bucket bars or on city streets- they belong in the wild.

 

Little is done to dissuade locals and tourists from doing this by either the government or the Tourism Authority of Thailand. I get that the demand from tourists for these encounters is high and Thailand is a poor country. But I also know that the only thing that can stop this sort of thing is the individual making a choice. I really wanted to cuddle a tiger cub in Chiang Mai. But the idea of tigers being breed into captivity for tourists to cuddle like dolls doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe I should have made up my own mind by going to this tiger zoo myself. But I’m glad I didn't, because sometimes what you don’t do on your travels is as important as what you do.

 

*Author’s note: all these animal encounters were at legitimate conservation, rehabilitation or rescue centres for wildlife

 

 

 

RTW wine

 


 

David Whitley picks out some of the best wine regions that can be built into a Round The World ticket, and offers some wine tourism tips.

 

The humble grape can do magical things when treated right, and with many New World wine regions easily built into a Round The World ticket, there’s a chance to go and visit the people who get it very right indeed. Over the last couple of decades, wine touring has gone from being seen as the preserve of the specialists to big business. You don’t have to be able to scribble down detailed tasting notes to be able to enjoy a trip round the wineries – many cater for the clueless-but-interested. If you can learn a little whilst tasting, then great, but if not, there’s no crime in just going along for the ride and enjoying the tipples.

 

Wine tour tips

 

The first key point about going on a wine tour is that, if you genuinely want to enjoy it, you’re probably going to need someone to drive you around the wineries. Forget about all that spitting it out nonsense – if you’re going wine tasting, you may as well taste the good stuff properly. Alas, that’s probably going to put you over the driving limit in most countries.In the wine regions, there are usually a fair few tour companies. The cheapest tend to drive a large bus around and if you can avoid these tours, it’s for the best. They tend to be rather impersonal and due to the sheer numbers, they’ll often only visit the big, commercial wineries. It’ll be slightly more expensive to organise a personal tour, but surprisingly not that much more per person – particularly if you can get a group of four together. 

 

Smaller, personalised tours are usually a much better experience. The driver will be able to tailor it to your tastes, picking out the wineries that produce the drops you’re likely to enjoy rather than the ones that can cater for 30 people at once. The other key thing is that you should be prepared to experiment – try varietals you’ve never heard of and go for recommended small wineries rather than the big boys. After all, if you know exactly what Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass wines taste like after buying them in a UK supermarket, what’s the point in going to the other side of the world to try them?

 

RTW wine tours - USA

 

The area of California known as ‘Wine Country’ lies just to the north of San Francisco, and of the regions that make up ‘Wine Country’, the Napa Valley is the best known. It’s the place to go to for cabernet sauvignons, while zinfandels are increasingly popular. The Napa Valley can get extremely busy – particularly on weekends – so it’s worth looking at the less hyped likes of the Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley. But whilst Californian wines are best known outside of the US, there’s also an increasing emphasis on wine growing in Oregon further north. World class pinot noir and pinot gris is being produced in the likes of the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon regions.

 

RTW wine tours - Chile

 

A number of wine regions are within spitting distance of the Chilean capital, Santiago. The best known of these is the Maipó Valley, which is most famous for cabernet sauvignons. The Rapel and Curicó Valleys slightly further south are highly regarded for cabernets and chardonnays respectively, although you’re likely to get a taste of some good merlots and carménères. The latter is the variety that is seen as fairly unique to Chile, even though it originated in France’s Bordeaux region. 

 

RTW wine tours – Argentina

 

The Mendoza region – just on the other side of the Andes from the main Chilean regions – is Argentina’s major wine hub. And whilst it used to just pump out as much cheap plonk as possible, the desire to feed the export market has seen quality rise hugely in the last decade or two. This has led to another nice bonus – a huge boom in tourism as people come for wine tasting, juicy steaks and spectacular mountain views. Big, fighty malbecs are the key varietal in these parts, but tempranillos, cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays also get a major look-in.

 

RTW wine tours - South Africa

 

The Cape Winelands outside Cape Town have a spectacularly stark look about them in the height of summer – but the regions of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl are well set up for wine tourism. A lot of the wineries have a neat little gimmick to draw in the guests (one has its own cheetah sanctuary, another has goats meandering around a Rapunzel-like tower) but the quality is generally good. Pinotage is the varietal most readily associated with South Africa, although Chenin Blanc is the most-planted grape.

 

RTW wine tours - Australia

 

Australia is the place where it’s easy to fall into the big bus around the well known wineries trap. It really pays to look for the more personalised options here, even if the big wineries won’t exactly disappoint. South Australia is the daddy of the wine-producing states, with the Barossa Valley being almost synonymous with a bold shiraz. Great cabernet sauvignons can be found in the Coonawarra, while McLaren Vale is a good bet for a range of styles. The Margaret River region in South-West Western Australia is known for its quality over quantity approach, with a good mix of varieties, while Tasmania’s cooler climate has led to very promising rieslings, pinot noirs and sparkling wines. From Sydney, the easiest wine region to reach is the Hunter Valley (a couple of hours north). Wine tourism is big business there – and chardonnays, semillon blancs and shirazes are common.

 

RTW wine tours – New Zealand

 

Marlborough, in the north-eastern corner of the South Island, is often regarded as producing the world’s best sauvignon blancs. The region – which has Blenheim as the hub – is the biggest in the country. Further south, the Central Otago region near Queenstown is gaining a reputation for excellent pinot noirs. On the North Island, Hawkes Bay is the best wine touring area in New Zealand for those who prefer reds – they’re often blends, mind – and has some nice sauvignon blancs and chardonnays as well.

 

 

Wildlife

 

 

 

 

One of the great joys of heading off around the world is seeing those that you share it with. And whether it’s penguins in New Zealand, polar bears in Canada or the safari stalwarts in Africa, it’s possible to take in plenty of jaw-dropping animal encounters on a round-the-world trip. Here are just ten options for wildlife wonders...

 

Kangaroos and koalas

Australia’s weird, unique wildlife is one of the country’s main draw cards for international visitors – even if Australians do get baffled by the expectation that you’ll see kangaroos hopping around the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. There are numerous good places to see them in the wild (and plenty of bad ones too if you happen to be driving through an avalanche of the hopping menaces at dawn or dusk). The Grampians in Victoria is teeming with them – particularly the tourist hub of Halls Gap – while just about any rural golf course will be overrun.

For koalas, try Port Macquarie on the New South Wales coast or Magnetic Island in Queensland. Alternatively, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane allows you to hold a koala and hand-feed a kangaroo.

 

Polar bears

In a similar vein to the myth of Australia’s urban kangaroos, polar bears don’t roam the streets of Toronto and Vancouver, swiping babies out of prams. You tend to have to head north in Canada to spot them, and numerous operators offer specialised polar bear-spotting adventures. They don’t tend to be cheap, alas, but watching the great white bears prowl across desolate tundra is a thoroughly mesmerising experience.

 

Penguins and albatrosses

The Otago Peninsula and neighbouring harbour on New Zealand’s South Island is one of the world’s most underrated wildlife habitats. Take a day cruise out from Dunedin, and you’ll see all manner of birdlife sat on the cliffs or chasing after fishing trawlers. The albatrosses are the most impressive, with two metre-plus wingspans, and one of the world’s only nesting colonies can be found at the end of the peninsula. Nearby is Penguin Place, which is trying to protect the rare yellow-eyed penguin. It’s possible to watch from specially created hides and tunnels as the penguins come back to their nests, trying to dodge sea lions on the beach, following a day at sea. 

 

Elephants

It’s possible to spot elephants in many of Africa’s famous game reserves – such as the Serengeti in Tanzania, Masai Mara in Kenya and Kruger National Park in South Africa. But it’s one thing to see them and another thing entirely to ride them. It’s possible to go on elephant-back safaris near the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa or near Victoria Falls on either side of the Zambia/ Zimbabwe border.

 

Rhinos

The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal is famed worldwide for its efforts to build up the remaining numbers of white rhino. There are now hundreds of them roaming the hilly expanses of the reserve and there’s arguably nowhere better to spot them. It’s not just rhinos available here, however – Hluhluwe has the big five – and that means lions, leopards, buffalo and elephants as well.

Hluhluwe is approximately three hours away from Durban by car, but you’re arguably better off staying nearby and making a night of it. 

 

Pandas

The giant panda is the one creature that gets everyone adamant about wildlife protection – even if there’s a strong argument to suggest that extinction is the price you pay for being fussy eaters/ maters. As we all know, there are very few pandas left in the wild; they’re also surprisingly aggressive, so wandering around China trying to find one is probably not the best tactic. A wiser gambit is to volunteer to help out at one of the panda sanctuaries in the Sichuan province of South-West China. These experiences are best lined up before leaving the UK, but allow you to get privileged encounters with the not-so-gentle giants.

 

Orang-Utans

Similar programmes are available on Borneo, but the attraction there is orang-utans rather than pandas. Numbers of wild orang-utans (which means ‘person of the jungle’ in Malay, incidentally) are similarly low, and a number of schemes attempting to protect their habitat are underway. Some you can join, some you can look in on for the day and some are designed as photography courses to for those who fancy themselves as a budding David Attenborough.

 

Mountain Gorillas

Of course, if it’s primates you’re after, then the daddies are the silverbacks that inhabit the cloud forests of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of the three, Uganda is both safer and better set-up option for gorilla-spotting tourism. Be warned, however, it’s not really ideal for those who like their creature comforts to come with their creatures – finding the gorillas generally involves a lot of hot, sweaty trekking through not exactly easy-going terrain.

 

Tigers

India is the best spot for watching tigers, although habitats are consistently under threat there and poaching isn’t managed as well as it really should be. The central state of Madhya Pradesh is arguably the best place for tracking down the stripy beasts. It may be somewhat off the usual tourist trail, but an estimated 10% of the world’s tigers are estimated to live here and there are numerous parks and reserves that have been created with tiger protection in mind. In the Satpura National Park, it’s possible to go tiger-spotting on a walking safari, as opposed to the 4x4 vehicle options elsewhere.

 

Just about everything

Of course, while it may have the purists shrieking, not every wildlife encounter has to be conducted in the wild. Sometimes, you just can’t beat a good zoo. And if you want a really good one, then Singapore’s ticks all the right boxes. There’s a wide variety of animals on display, the creatures have plenty of space, and wherever possible they’re separated from visitors by moats rather than bars so that the setting is naturalistic. Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, is excellent too – especially the harbour views and the ranger-guided tours.

 

More beasties here