Uganda

Plenty of travellers still avoid this landlocked African nation, thinking the violence and war of the past remains an issue. For the past couple of decades, however, the country has been relatively politically stable and safe to visit.

It’s not a big place, but there is plenty to explore. In the southwest of the country, the mountainous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to mountain gorillas, who can be visited on guided treks. There’s also the opportunity to see unique golden monkeys or climb volcanic Mt Sabinyo.

Climbers head to the Rwenzori Mountains – the highest point is Mount Stanley at 5100 metres – for an experience not found anywhere else in the world. Hikes start in equatorial rainforest, passing through heath forest before finally peaking in a landscape of snow and glaciers. On the way you might see forest elephants and any number of monkeys.

These mountains are located near Lake Victoria, which straddles the borders of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, and are the source of the mighty Nile. For adrenaline seekers, grade-five whitewater kayaking should be top of the must-do list, closely followed by taking on the rapids on a stand-up paddle board. Of course, there are flat-water options, too, including birdwatching from the river.

For those who love a safari, Uganda has that, too. With a diversity of landscapes, including lakes and rivers, there is plenty of wildlife to spot. Some of the reserves, like Queen Elizabeth National Park, are easy to access yet uncrowded. Located in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, it’s home to buffaloes, elephants, lions (the famous tree-climbing lions are found in a part of the park known as Ishasha), different species of antelopes and plenty of birds. Hippos, crocs and zebras, as well as the gigantic eland antelope, can be found at Lake Mburo National Park.

At the time of writing, the Smartraveller website suggests travellers avoid the border areas near the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Those travelling to remote northeastern districts, including Kidepo National Park, should do so by air. Homosexual relations are illegal in Uganda, and western travellers have been prosecuted for homosexual activities.

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates is flourishing on the back of its hefty oil reserves, but few travellers bother to branch out past either of its two major stopover hubs, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For what it’s worth, either of these cities provides quite the contrast to the normal Asian layovers encountered on a flight from anywhere in Australia or New Zealand to Europe, so those who find themselves on long-haul flights a lot should give their air travel a new route.

Dubai is a glittering mirage of skyscrapers, shopping malls and ‘they did what?’ attractions. After all, why not build a series of islands in the shape of the world (many still undeveloped) or an indoor ski resort in the middle of the desert? But there’s plenty to see here, even if you’re not into gross displays of ostentation. Head to Al Dhiyafah Road, where you can eat with the locals (who are mostly from other parts of the world) at cheap and cheerful Lebanese, Iranian and Indian restaurants. Grab a curry or a grill, plant yourself at a footpath table and do some people watching. Be dazzled and test your bartering skills at the Gold Souk, or head to the Bastakia Quarter, one of the few parts of the city that hasn’t been bulldozed on the road to modernity. There’s a textile souk here, as well as galleries and cafes in traditional buildings.

If your tastes run to camel rides on the beach or dune bashing in the desert, you can get in on some of that action, too.

In Abu Dhabi, make the Corniche your first stop. This eight-kilometre stretch of beachfront real estate goes from Emirates Palace to Mina Port, and is a microcosm of life here. People cycle or promenade along its length before taking well-earned breaks at one of the many cafes on the way.

The city has many of the same characteristics of Dubai, 150 kilometres to the northeast, but is perhaps not as overwhelming. You can take in a 360-degree view – complete with high tea – from 300 metres up at at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers’ observation deck, visit a falcon hospital, check in to a room that resembles a space pod at Yas Hotel, check out some uber horsepower at Ferrari World, marvel at the sheer beauty of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, or gawp at the futuristic architecture and amazing artwork at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Get away from the city with a trip to Ras Al-Khaimah. Located on the ocean but boasting the rugged Hajar Mountains as a backdrop, you can get a full dose of outdoor adventure here, including mountain biking, hiking, sailing, horse riding and fishing. It’s also the stepping-off point for those wanting to head to Oman’s remote Musandam Peninsula.

North Korea

Despite all the propaganda and rumours surrounding the Democratic People’s Republic, North Korea is one of the most fascinating travel experiences you could have and is certainly not out of reach. At the moment about 100,000 people a year are landing north of the DMZ and Kim Jong-un wants that number to reach two million by the year 2020. Rarely is an average tourist denied a visa and rarer still do they regret taking the opportunity to go.

Of course, North Korea is by no means your standard holiday destination, and independent travel is not an option. You’ll be escorted by government guides, won’t get much freedom outside of your hotel and there will be strict rules about what you can and can’t photograph. What you will get the opportunity to do, however, depending on which tour you’re on, is view the UNESCO-nominated landscape of Mt Kumgang and its 1200 waterfalls, gawk at the monumental architecture of Pyongyang, visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and, more than all that, get a first-hand insight into a culture and country barely touched by the western world.

Russia

This is one perplexing country. Its place in history, from Mongol raids to the Russian Enlightenment and on to the twentieth century (with revolution, two World Wars, Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, it wasn’t always kind), is awe-inspiring enough, but in recent years it has become much easier to get your hands on a visa and head to this multifaceted nation.

This is the biggest country in the world, bordering both Europe and Asia, so there’s no end to the landscape that can be explored. Vast areas of the north are part of the Arctic Circle. There are few roads here, but travellers with a taste for adventure can visit nomadic Nenets reindeer herders or indigenous whale hunters on the Bering Sea, albeit only with a specialised tour company. In the country’s far southeast there are even some decent beaches near the city of Vladivostok.

The spirit of the people is one of survival, even if they have had the help of a little vodka. Russia’s recent affluence has meant of cities like Moscow and St Petersburg are suddenly far more cosmopolitan, so along with considerable historical drawcards – the Kremlin and the Hermitage, for example – you’ll also find outposts of Nobu, rooftop bars and velvet-rope nightlife.

Of course, the Trans-Siberian Railway, which travels through the country from Moscow to Vladivostok, is one of those journeys nearly everyone has etched on to their bucket list. More than 30 per cent of Russia’s population uses it, so it’s an amazing way to cover the landscape and meet the locals too.

Tanzania

There are three words that basically sum up why everyone wants to visit Tanzania: Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar. Yep, this east African nation, unfortunately one of the poorest countries in the world, has sights to burn.

High atop many traveller’s must-see lists is the Great Migration, the mass movement of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle across the Serengeti and north to Kenya. The timing is completely dependent on the area’s rainfall patterns, although it can start in April and continue through to September. But at any time of the year, the Serengeti National Park is one of Africa’s most vast and beautiful wildlife zones. The Seronera area, with its high resident populations of leopards, cheetahs and lions, is also one the busiest parts of the park. For something different, journey to the Loliondo Reserve, an area between Ngorongoro and Kenya belonging to the Maasai tribes. There are plenty of animals, including migratory ones during October and November as they’re returning south, and some of the camps have Maasai guides, who accompany guests on drives and walks. Wildlife lovers might also want to venture to tiny Gombe Stream National Park on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. Since 1965, Jane Goodall has been researching the chimpanzees who live in the forest, and visitors can trek into the park to see the habituated families.

Speaking of Ngorongoro, this conservation area, named after the neighbouring caldera, is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. The crater is home to hippopotamus, black rhinoceros, Masai lions, Cape buffalo and plenty of other four-legged creatures.

For all its great wildlife though, Tanzania has another side as home to one of Africa’s busiest ports. Former capital Dar es Salaam, a heaving metropolis, bears the marks of the many people who’ve passed through here, with architecture inspired by Africa, Arabia, India and Europe. There are some great beaches, as well as a fish market that bustles at dawn when the fishermen flog their fresh catch.

Dar es Salaam is also the leaping-off point for a trip to the Zanzibar Archipelago (a two-hour fast ferry service leaves numerous times during the day). The main island, Unguja, is the primary destination for most travellers. It’s here you’ll find Zanzibar City, with historic Stone Town at its heart. One of the island’s primary industries has always been spices – cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon – and that has meant traders from everywhere in the world have landed here and left a little bit of themselves behind at different times. Within Stone Town’s maze of alleys, many too narrow for cars, you’ll find Arabian, Persian, Indian and European elements, which led to its UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2000. Tourists are well catered to here, but only 100 kilometres away is the island of Pemba. Here, it’s a little more rustic, but divers will find some of the best coral reefs, walls and marine life in the region.

Italy

Divine art, Renaissance history, fashion, pasta that’s better than – well, you know – even more art. We’re all familiar with Italy’s attractions and allure – and even if there was any doubt, there are multiple shelves at the local bookstore dedicated to tomes regaling the joys of spending a year learning Italian in Tuscany while falling in love to remind us.

From porn stars to political scandal, the Italians don’t believe in doing anything by halves. Moving between north, south and central Italy you’ll encounter everything  from designer-fixated cool cats and effervescent, pseudo-charming Romeos to “eat, eat” nonnas and every type of person in between.

Don’t let the hordes discourage you; Florence, Venice, Lake Como and the Amalfi Coast are all popular because they are worth it. Travelling in the off-season may help, but ‘discovering’ enchanting villages like Chiusa in the Dolomites or the tiny island of San Pietro in Sardinia will make you feel as though you’ve found another country entirely. In summary: tutti bene. It’s all good.

Poland

In the very centre of Europe lies a country rich in culture, history and scenery all competing for your attention. Poland is both urban and traditional, with the energetic Warsaw boasting beautiful architecture, while forests, lakes and mountains can be found outside the urban landscape. Hiking is a popular activity in the Tatra Mountains, look for bison in the Bialowieski National Park or descend into the eerie world of salt chambers at Wieliczka. Then there are the 500 kilometres of Baltic coastline, with their pretty seaside villages and health resorts.

Poland has a thousand years’ worth of kings, queens, castles and wars to discover and history buffs will fall in love with the former capital of Kraków. There’s a museum set in the Renaissance-style Wawel Royal Castle and moving interactive displays at Oskar Schindler’s former enamel factory. That tragic more recent history is also remembered in cities like Lublin, where visitors can trace the country’s Jewish history.

 

Panama

In 1914, its famous canal brought the attention of the world to this country. One of the most difficult engineering works to be undertaken anywhere in the world, its 77 kilometres connected the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. For the first time ships could avoid the lengthy and hazardous route via Cape Horn, connecting the USA to countries in the Pacific region and fully integrating it into the world economy.

For the uninitiated this may seem like mere trivia, but the Panama Canal, with its proximity to Panama City, offers travellers a number of opportunities to explore the vast, manmade Gatún Lake, that, thanks to a series of locks, is 26 metres above sea level. The size of the locks themselves is awe-inspiring, but plenty of operators offer eco-tours that sail around the lake stopping at places like Monkey Island, with its sloths, toucans and, of course, capuchin and howler monkeys.

But it’s time to discover the rest of this Central American nation, with its Spanish ruins, fantastic surf breaks and salsa rhythms. It has eye-popping, often remote islands, like the pristine Guna Yala archipelago, where almost all of the residents on the 49 inhabited islands (there are 378 in all) are Guna Indians and facilities for travellers are basic. More popular is Coiba Island, off the Pacific Coast, where ancient forests are home to a number of endemic species. The island, the largest in Central America, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

For a real back-to-nature experience, travellers head to the Darién Province, in the country’s southeast. It’s the only place where the Pan-American Highway stops, unable to penetrate the dense forest. It takes a bit of planning, but journeys into Darién’s wilderness from either La Palma or Sambú will be rewarded with amazing wildlife experiences and the chance to interact with some of the indigenous communities who live along the river.

Jamaica

Beaches, rum punch and Bob (Marley, of course)… Sure, those are some of the best-known aspects of Jamaica’s laidback personality, but there is so much more to this vivid island nation in the Caribbean Sea. Chances are you may never have seen a landscape quite so verdant as that covering the mist-laced mountains of Jamaica’s interior. Serious hikers can get a close-up on the trek to Blue Mountain Peak, which rises to 2150 metres above sea level and, on a clear day, affords views of Cuba, 150 kilometres to the north. Spelunkers, meanwhile, can take to the hot, humid conditions of the Cockpit Country, where limestone in the soil has created the perfect geological storm for an underground system of rivers and caves. For the amateur adventurer, a trek to Reach Falls – surrounded by rainforest and with tiers of tumbling water – should be on the itinerary.

The beach, though, is one of the obvious attractions of any tropical island and Jamaica doesn’t disappoint. Unless you simply want to flop and drop for a few days, it’s best to avoid the northwest coastline between Negril and Ocho Rios. It’s not that the stretches of sand here are horrible, but this is the land of the all-inclusive resort. (It’s also where you’ll find the majority of dive outfits if that’s what you’re after.) Instead head to the south coast, where the beaches are the haunt of locals, and a rural lifestyle, to some extent, still exists. Top marks go to Treasure Beach, which, in fact, is made of four coves and villages and offers plenty of deserted spots to spread out your towel and go snorkelling in tranquil waters. Join the locals for a game of cricket, check out the burgeoning arts scene or kick back at a beachside restaurant scoffing cold beer and jerk chicken.

When the quiet life starts to become too, well, quiet, head back to Kingston. The island’s capital is cool and cultural. Spend some time checking out the National Gallery, Bob Marley Museum and a Jamaican music history tour, but save some energy for after dark. See if Usain Bolt is in the house at Tracks & Records, the sports bar he owns. If it’s Wednesday, head out to Stone Love HQ for one of the town’s biggest sound system parties, Wedi Wedi Wednesday. Check out the open mike night at Jamnesia Surf Camp on Saturday – you might just see reggae’s next big thing. Just remember, nothing here starts early and you need to be prepared to party well into the wee smalls.

Ecuador

Deciding whether you want sun-drenched beaches, artisanal markets, Amazonian rainforests, Andean adventure activities, or historical old town walks on a holiday might be a nice decision to make. But it’s still a hard decision, so if decision making isn’t your forte than Ecuador has you covered. You can stroll around Quito and marvel at the seventeenth-century churches and architecture in impeccable knick, climb up Cotopaxi – one of the highest active volcanoes in the world – shop for local handicrafts at Otavalo Market and, of course, venture offshore to the unforgettable Galápagos Islands to get that sought-after bucket list tick. Top it all off with some of the friendliest locals in the world and you’ll be wishing Ecuador were an option in every life decision you had to make.