The Travel Olympics: Who Gets the Gold?
Happy Olympics Opening Day! I’m super-excited for the London 2012 Games, wondering what the iconic moments will be this time around. I’ll never forget what it was like back in 2008, screaming my head off as Michael Phelps and his teammates beat the French in that one swim relay they weren’t expected to win.
So to celebrate, I decided to do my own personal round of the Olympics, giving out medals to the 33 countries that I have visited so far!
Here’s how I would award my medals:
Gold — Thailand
Silver — Croatia
Bronze — Indonesia
Thailand is an obvious gold winner in this category, being home to countless incredible beaches, both famous and obscure. So many of these beaches are icons, with the limestone cliffs of the Andaman Coast and the gentle beaches of the Gulf Coast. Thailand is also home to my favorite beach in the world: Koh Chang’s Lonely Beach!
Croatia’s beaches may not be sandy, but that doesn’t make them any less amazing. Croatia, in my opinion, is home to the world’s most beautiful coastline. Giant slabs of rocks, pebble beaches, and cliffs jut out into the teal Adriatic. Best of all? The mountain backdrop.
Indonesia takes the bronze for its stunning (and incredibly varied) beaches in Bali and Lombok — and, though I have yet to visit them, on the other islands as well. Indonesia has surfing beaches, black sand beaches, beaches filled with limestone cliffs, and the bluest ocean you’ve ever seen.
Gold — Italy
Silver — Vietnam
Bronze — France
There is no way any country but Italy could win the gold in this round, from the first plate of cheeses and salume to the final caffe! Every meal in Italy is filled with such fresh ingredients and attention to detail — and I love how most meals are a series of courses, each better than the last.
Vietnam gets silver for street pho, amazing noodle and rice dishes, spring rolls, banh mi sandwiches, and local specialties that you can’t find anywhere else, like cao lau in Hoi An. Every dish in Vietnam is an adventure — and unlike in Thailand, you don’t feel like they’re trying to kill you with chiles.
France would probably turn up their nose if they knew I were awarding them only the bronze, but their food is SO exquisite. Food is taken more seriously in France than anywhere else I’ve been, with rich and meticulously prepared dishes. And then there’s all the glory of baguettes, cheeses, crepes and gallettes…
Gold — USA
Silver — Spain
Bronze — Italy
The United States wins an easy gold for having more fascinating and diverse cities than anywhere else in the world! You’ve got inimitable New York City, laid-back San Francisco and Seattle, unusual culture havens like New Orleans and Miami, and quirky smaller cities like Austin and Portland. And my own beloved Boston, of course. American cities are amazing!
Spain wins the silver for having a number of very interesting cities — there are the big two, Madrid and Barcelona, plus gorgeous and cultural Andalusian cities like Granada and Sevilla, university towns like Salamanca, architectural marvels like Toledo, and small but glorious cities like Santiago de Compostela.
And Italy picks up the bronze medal for its sheer variety of cities: hectic Rome; incredible and uncanny Venice, art-drenched Florence, surprising lesser-visited cities like Bologna and Torino, and its least Italian city of all, Milan. In Italy, every city is filled with its own artistic and culinary treasures.
Best Natural Beauty
Gold — Montenegro
Silver — Faroe Islands
Bronze — Austria
Oh, yes — Montenegro takes the gold in this round! Surprised? So was I. While in Montenegro, I spent almost all my time in cars with my face pressed against the glass, enthralled by what lay before me. Gorgeous fjords, mountains, beautiful coastline, and the occasional picture-perfect island.
The Faroe Islands were just barely edged into silver, but this was a close one. Giant cliffs plunging into the ocean, waterfalls, villages with grassy-roofed houses, mountainous terrain filled with puffin habitats. The Faroe Islands are one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Austria wins bronze for its incredible backdrops — the Alps changing from purple to green, freshly dusted in snow after a storm; mountain villages looking like they’re straight out of Heidi; and my favorite, the incredible turquoise lakes that dot the Salzkammergut region.
Gold — Jordan
Silver — Cambodia
Bronze — Indonesia
In Jordan, it seems like everyone wants to welcome you and thank you for visiting their country. Again and again I was invited to share tea with different groups of people. It culminated in Wadi Rum, where we spent the night dancing, singing, and talking for hours, underneath a starry sky. That, to me, earns a gold medal.
Close? Cambodia with the silver! The people in Cambodia have so little, but they don’t hesitate in opening their hearts and homes to visitors. Especially in places like Kampot and Phnom Penh, I felt like I was a member of their extended family.
Indonesia gets bronze for Indonesians’ readiness to invite people anywhere. People elsewhere would hesitate before inviting a stranger somewhere, but people in Indonesia knew no hesitation! I was welcomed as a close friend everywhere, and that kindness is what I’ll remember for a long time.
Gold — Iceland
Silver — Austria
Bronze — Vietnam
Gold medalist Iceland has one of the world’s most unique landscapes, and there are unlimited adventure activities, from volcano hiking to ice climbing to lava caving to snowmobiling to diving in subzero temperatures. The fact that a geyser could sprout out of anywhere adds a nice element of danger to any adventurous activity.
Austria’s gorgeous mountains make it a clear silver medal — where else can you can hike, ski, and snowboard year-round? And for summer activities, there’s rafting, canyoning, rock climbing, horseback riding, and more. Austria’s mountains make it a playground for adventurers.
Vietnam is a surprisingly adrenaline-driven destination. It picks up the bronze for kayaking, wakeboarding, and motorbiking adventures, and for the beach town of Mui Ne being the kite-surfing capital of the world. The ultimate adrenaline rush? Driving in Hanoi or Saigon!
Gold — Croatia
Silver — Cambodia
Bronze — Portugal
In Croatia, you can enjoy hill towns and coastline in Istria that evoke Italy for the fraction of Italy’s prices, (not to mention the world’s cheapest truffle dishes). Sailing the Dalmatian Coast costs far less than sailing in Greece, and most say it’s even more stunning. Want to go even cheaper? Rent a beach apartment in a small town away from resorts and prices plummet to the ground! That’s a gold medal, right there.
Cambodia is the cheapest country I’ve been to. It wins the silver medal in particular for Siem Reap, where you can enjoy fancy meals, cooking glasses, and handmade crafts for cheaper than anywhere in the world, and Sihanoukville, a relaxed beach town where you can live like a rock star on $15 per day.
As for Portugal? It has all the beauty and charm of Western Europe without the sky-high Western Europe prices. Lisbon’s a bargain compared to Barcelona, and the Algarve is cheaper than Spain’s fancier resorts. Keep in mind that dinner on Porto’s gorgeous riverfront will cost you less than half the cost of its equivalent in Florence.
Best Undervisited Countries
Gold — Faroe Islands
Silver — Laos
Bronze — Liechtenstein
Oh, the Faroe Islands — so very beautiful, so very interesting, and so very untouristed. They are somewhat challenging to get to and only a summer travel destination, but visiting these islands is SO worth it for their isolated beauty and the fascinating local culture.
Laos may be a mainstay for Southeast Asia backpackers, but it’s still obscure enough to elicit, “Where’s that?” questions from most people. Laos is peaceful and has an extremely slow and relaxing way of life. As the world modernizes, Laos is one place that’s staying still.
Liechtenstein, our bronze medalist, is more than a little quirky. Sandwiched in between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein is home to chocolate box villages, mountains for skiing, a scandal-free Royal Family that opens its palace grounds to residents once a year, the vineyards of a Prince, a bridge where you can walk into Switzerland, and beautiful views from every angle.