This is the season for travel lists – the “10 best” of this and the “10 best” of that. Travel journalists disclose their “10 best” travel destinations for the year ahead, or their “10 best” unknown travel gems, usually places of which few Americans have ever heard, or places so expensive that few Americans would choose them. One well-known travel firm has named Botswana in Africa as its No. 1 favorite for the year ahead, without disclosing that Botswana probably is the single most expensive safari destination in all of Africa.
I like choosing places that aren’t totally unknown, but simply don’t receive as many visitors as they should. And I usually point out that some totally unknown destinations are lightly visited because they simply don’t deserve a greater number of visitors. In a recent column, I singled out Portugal and Colombia as destinations that receive a fair number of tourists, but deserve a great many more.
Let me add to those selections the following:
The Peloponnese: Most visitors to Greece confine their itineraries to Athens and the islands. They’re missing the awesome sights and important history of the massive, peninsulalike land mass called the Peloponnese, which is to the west of the Greek mainland. Next time you’re in Athens, rent a car and drive into the mountainous Peloponnese, devoting most of your attention to Olympia (you’ll see the actual stadium of the ancient games) and Delphi (religious capital of ancient Greece), an exciting and memorable trip in itself.
Sicily and Sardinia: Having made the classic trip from Rome to Florence to Venice in your previous stays, consider Sicily next. Though it receives plentiful tourism, you’re never overwhelmed with those visitors and you enjoy a largely crowd-free visit to Palermo, Agrigento, Siracusa and Taormina simply by following the coastal road around the island. Or take a ferry or flight out of Rome to Sardinia, whose excellent beaches and museums receive a fair number of European tourists, but hardly any Americans.
Panama: Low airfares bring you to a pleasant country, home to an increasing number of American retirees living in high-rise, seaside condos, but never inundated with tourism. Viewing the canal is an obvious thrill, then the well-preserved colonial center of Panama City (“Casco Viejo”), then the villages of indigenous people outside the capital city. Prices are reasonable, and the U.S. dollar is the currency.
Concordia Eco Resort on the island of St. John: An ecological community (canvas-sided bungalows) on the coast of this quiet member of the U.S. Virgin Islands, your fellow vacationers are passionate worshipers of the natural life, and their company lends a unique atmosphere to a tropical vacation.
Oxford and Ithaca: Everyone knows of stately Oxford, and of Cornell (“high above Cayuga’s waters”), but few Americans take advantage of their summer courses offered to people of all ages and backgrounds (the Oxford Experience, and Cornell’s Adult University). Studying subjects taught by eminent faculty in the liberal arts is a unique vacation opportunity here, and the opportunity to live for a time in a student residence vacated for summer (which include the famous 16th-century quads of Christ Church college in Oxford), is a priceless dividend you’ll remember for a lifetime.
The coast of Maine: Except in the single town of Bar Harbor, everything else on this rock-bound coast is lightly visited, and vacationers renting homes, bungalows or rooms enjoy a quiet and fulfilling contact with the sea and the small-town life of a lightly populated state. And though I can’t guarantee the price, I recently paid $10.95 for superb lobster dinners in a number of coastal restaurants. A visit to Acadia National Park, most of which is not far from the sea, is an added plus.
Cuba: Before the crowds descend on this tropical island, you can fly there immediately via Jamaica, Cancun or the Bahamas on a number of airlines, quickly board a connecting flight to Havana, and stay in the home of a Cuban family (a “casa particular”) whose low-cost rentals are available from AirBnB or any number of other apartment-listing websites. At least for the next several months, before scheduled air transportation brings the crowds, this is a unique experience.
Sanibel Island, Florida: Reached by plane to the excellent airport of Fort Myers, Fla., this is a winter destination whose many seafront condos are rented by their owners to outside visitors in slow months like December and January. With excellent restaurants and shopping, bicycling and hiking, a decent cultural scene, an expansive beach and a remarkable wildlife preserve with the quaint name of “Ding Darling” (the latter a must-see among visitors to Florida), Sanibel provides a quiet vacation setting for thoughtful tourists.
The South of India: And especially the cities of Chennai (the Detroit of Asia), Bangalore (the Silicon Valley of India), and Madurai (in the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu), offer a sometimes-refreshing contrast to the greater poverty of the northern cities. There is higher literacy here, greater industrial development, somewhat progressive political policies, an improved status for women and remarkable religious and cultural attractions in both areas, but especially in Madurai, site of the Gandhi Memorial Museum. Recent visitors have been entranced by the experience, and greatly value the chance to have seen this fast emerging, vibrant area of India.
Portugal and Colombia: As described in an earlier column, Portugal vies with Greece as the lowest-cost country in Western Europe, endowed as well with a gracious population friendly to tourists, with excellent cuisine as well as fine weather, and sufficient cultural and historic attractions to keep you well satisfied. As for Colombia, the recent truce between its government and a once-powerful insurgency, has removed the fear of military conflict. Its large cities once again calm, it is an excellent location for a South American vacation.
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.