Saturday, May 06, 2023

They’ve got the look: The world’s most beautiful countries named


They’ve got the look: The world’s most beautiful countries named

Lencois Maranhenses National Park, Brazil. ISTOCK

Mirror mirror on the world, which of 195 (or is it 197?) countries on planet Earth is the most beautiful of all?

It’s the sort of difficult question travel writers are often asked, sometimes to their consternation, since isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Still, you can see why people ask.

Who doesn’t want to see the world’s most beautiful places? Travel writers usually prevaricate and produce a short list. Now we’ve pressed them - consternation or not - for their definitive choice.

As you’ll see from their varied responses, beauty is both personal and universally appreciated. But is the perception of beauty permanent? Maybe not. Our ideas of what’s truly lovely in travel have changed with our cultural notions throughout history.

Ancient Romans were barely interested in landscapes, and medieval Europeans dismissed as unsightly the mountains and ancient ruins so lauded by tourists today. You might ponder what we’ll find beautiful in the next century. Perhaps beauty really is only skin deep.

Interestingly, it isn’t only the obvious aesthetics that matter to our writers, but other factors as well, from deep ancestral connections to the spirituality or friendliness of locals.

Ultimately, chemistry counts: we simply have emotional connections to places that we can never quite explain. We hope you’re inspired by our choices - some of which may surprise you.

We invite you to share your own nominations with us too with details on how to write to us at the end of the story.

***Wylie Bath Saturday Lunchtime in the May the Force be with you week - the Pacific Ocean temperature 20 degrees and clear and as transparent as Spoutible waves 🌊 🌊 


Serenity Falls in the Sunshine Coast hinterland

There are the showstoppers - Uluru and the Kimberley, the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef - and then there are the quieter beauty spots we’re still discovering, like the lush Sunshine Coast hinterland, or the bushwalking trails of South Australia’s Ikara-Flinders Ranges. Add to these First Nations guides sharing deep knowledge of Country, and you’ve got something worth staying home for.



By Nina Karnikowski

Nepalese mountain Ama Dablam. The country is home to Mount Everest and seven other of the world’s 14 highest peaks. ISTOCK

There is certainly a difference between glamour and true beauty. Glamour is show-stopping, loud, perfect. It’s the stuff that knocks us off our feet - the people and places we might find on the covers of magazines. But true beauty?

Well, that’s more quiet and unassuming, more nuanced and deep and real. It’s what lies beyond the obvious and, when we’re around it, what makes us feel more alive.

By this measure then, Nepal must surely be the world’s most beautiful country. Aesthetically, one could argue that Nepal is show-stoppingly gorgeous.

Home to Mount Everest and seven other of the world’s 14 highest peaks, it offers some of our planet’s most spectacular landscapes.

Add to that the raw desertscapes of the Mustang region with its ancient Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and mysterious sky caves; the lush jungles of Chitwan or Bardiya national parks, home to Bengal tigers and rhinos; and the intricate hand-carved palaces, temples and shrines of Kathmandu’s royal durbar squares, and you could have something edging close to glamour - but isn’t.

Maybe it’s the deep spirituality which infuses Nepal that keeps it firmly in the realm of true beauty. Prayer, after all, is a constant here, as evidenced by the infinite number of fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels.

Aesthetically, one could argue that Nepal is show-stoppingly gorgeous. ISTOCK

On a trek in the Everest region last year, I spent a day hiking through forests and valleys, past small villages and organic farms and Buddhist stupas, stopping finally at Thupten Choling monastery.

My gentle Sherpa guide and I spent the evening there, watching hundreds of monks and nuns chant and pray and immerse themselves in ritual. It was like slipping through a portal into another world, one where kindness and compassion reigned. It was one of the most unforgettable days of my travelling life.

Which brings me to the Nepalese people, who are the real source of this small country’s beauty. Nepal’s history is rife with hardship – civil war, natural disasters, fuel shortages, border clashes and poverty.

Yet no matter where I’ve gone on my three trips to the country so far, the locals seem unfailingly optimistic. Always ready with a smile and a laugh; always wanting to help and to give.



By Catherine Marshall

Wildebeest on the Masai Mara, Kenya. ISTOCK

This is a landscape bred in our bones. In the country’s barren north, where Lake Turkana flows sea-green into the Great Rift Valley, the fossils of some of our earliest ancestors lie concealed beneath a crust of earth.

Perhaps this is why Kenya taps into our souls, communicating in a language we can all understand. Shouts of “Karibu!” (“welcome”) ring out everywhere I go; but it’s the salutation “Welcome home” that strikes the deepest chord.

I’m returning, after all, to the cradle of humankind. When those hominids first stood upright hereabouts, a vast world awaited discovery. But our ancestors needn’t have ventured far, since untold beauty was already close at hand.

South of Lake Turkana, the Great Rift Valley cuts a trench lush with grasslands, forests, swamps and volcanoes.

Escarpments are chalked onto the skyline, and mountain peaks arise like ancient skyscrapers. To the west, the land spills away to the shores of Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake.

This basin sizzles with colour: the flush of flamingos tiptoeing across shallow lakes; the flare of the Masai’s shukas as they herd livestock in a timeworn ritual. Africa’s wildlife coexists with its people: big cats and their doe-eyed prey, scavengers loitering on the peripheries and disposing of the entrails, birds blackening the skies in their supple murmurations.

Flamingos at Lake Nakuru, Kenya. ALAMY 

One of nature’s great spectacles occurs here when the wildebeest depart en masse on their annual migration. Many will die along the way; there is pain in beauty, after all.

The senses must adjust as you travel north and east into fossil-plugged deserts and semi-arid regions in which life somehow prevails. This inscrutable terrain is painted bone-white and sage-green and oxblood; it tapers off towards a coastline luminous with tropical foliage and beaches and bays.

But for beauty to have meaning it must be both flawed and soul-stirring. Those exclamations of “Karibu!” are faithful; I travel with ease around this warm-hearted country.



By Ben Groundwater

Floating Tori Gate, Itsukushima, Japan. ISTOCK

Consider the “kuromoji”. It’s a toothpick, essentially, a small shaft of wood that you will find lying across the plate holding your wagashi, an exquisite Japanese sweet traditionally paired with  matcha tea.

The kuromoji needn’t be anything special – it’s just a utensil, something to lever the confectionery from the plate to your mouth. And yet this is Japan, so of course it has been deeply considered.

Kuromoji are thin and flat, cut from the aromatic wood of a black willow, with a look as if they’ve been whittled by hand, the tree bark still in place, the shaft tapered to a smooth point.

Its presence and its prettiness tell you much about Japan. It embodies the love of nature here, of things that are natural and real, just like the tatami-mat floors you’re sitting on, and the ceramics, fired from clay, from which you eat and drink.

It shows the love of small details. And it shows, most importantly, the love of beauty. It’s everywhere you look in Japan.

Yes, the scenery in this country is gorgeous, those mountains covered in cedar and pine, endless alpine vistas captured so memorably by Japanese artists for millennia.

But there’s so much beauty that is man-made too, that has been created with thought and skill and an appreciation for visual perfection.

Consider Japanese architecture, traditional homes with curved roofs and wooden walls, interiors with “shoji” and “fusama”, moveable screens and doors with wooden frames and translucent paper, tatami mats on the floor, and “engawa”, or wooden verandahs to capture views of natural settings all around.

The historic Higashiyama district in Kyoto. ISTOCK

There’s beauty in all things you touch and see in this country. Japanese paper is beautiful. Japanese flower arrangements are beautiful. Japanese ceramics are beautiful. Japanese fashion is beautiful. Even the labels on sake bottles are beautiful. Even the artworks on manhole covers are beautiful.

We haven’t even talked about food, possibly the source of the most beauty of all in this country where every morsel is prepared with care and presented in a way that will be most appealing.

From a carefully wrapped onigiri at a convenience store to the most achingly perfect slice of fish draped over rice at a three-star sushi joint, food here is of the utmost beauty.

Of course, it’s served on tableware that is beautiful. And sometimes it comes with a kuromoji.



By Brian Johnston

Lungern, Switzerland. ISTOCK

Switzerland is the prequel to heaven. Its mountains could easily be the snowy home of the gods, and you wouldn’t be surprised on Mount Rigi if you found a flight of angels tucking into schnitzels on a chalet terrace.

Train travel here can be like a near-death experience: you pop out of dark tunnels and are rewarded with glacial light, swan-paddled lakes and meadows sprinkled with wild flowers.

At times Switzerland is too beautiful to seem true: a fantasy Photoshopped by calendar and jigsaw-puzzle makers.

But no. It really does pack a walloping scenic punch and, as if lakes and mountains and green fields aren’t enough, the Swiss have set about adding optional extras: timeworn chalets, frescoed buildings, terraced vineyards, promenades popping with petunias, flower boxes cascading geraniums.

Some countries suit particular people, but Switzerland’s beauty is universally appreciated. Bollywood loves its scenic kitsch, which frequently forms a cinematic background to improbable dance routines.

South Koreans became obsessed with previously little-known Lake Lungern, which featured in Netflix series Crash Landing into You. Atop famous viewpoints Chinese, Americans and Saudis in chadors gawk.

Loveliness is so ubiquitous in this small country that much of it gets ignored. French-speaking Switzerland is beyond the Alps and except for Lake Geneva unvisited by tourists, but is plump and pretty.

A tourist train travels down the mountain from Jungfraujoch station. ISTOCK

This is toy train-set country: painted blue lakes, dappled orchards, rolling cornfields, castles popping out of lush fields chewed by contented black-and-white cows.

Take the train from Zurich to Geneva via Neuchatel and you can admire it all, from the primroses along the embankments to the Alps that hover on the horizon.

Dozens of gorgeous villages go uncelebrated: Bauen on Lake Lucerne, Morcote with its pastel villas and lemon trees, Erlenbach with its ornamental farmhouses and views to 200 peaks.



By Julie Miller

Agua Azul waterfalls in Chiapas, Mexico.  ISTOCK

I have an artwork adorning my bedroom wall, a folk rendition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, her behaloed, velvet-swathed visage surrounded by a hot pink background festooned with sun rays, roses and generous amounts of glitter.

To me, it represents all that is beautiful about Mexico – its vibrancy, passion, faith and the unashamed embrace of kitsch.

This oft-derided country south of a somewhat domineering neighbour is seductive in so many ways, from its geographic extremes, to its flavour-packed cuisine, brain-numbing beverages and its joyful, discordant music.

Its culture - unwavering in defiant bravado - is a raucous celebration of life and beyond, the intangible as good an excuse for fireworks as any; while standards of physical beauty are turned on its monobrowed head, with artists, cripples and revolutionaries claiming the mantle of superheroes and celebrities.

I first fell under the spell of this glorious mosaic of a country on its Caribbean coastline, where blinding palm-lined shores are lapped by a jewel-box turquoise sea overseen by crumbling ancient pyramids.

Steps away, a snarl of jungle conceals labyrinthine pools of unfathomable wonder; while further inland, colonial towns retain their whitewashed serenity, donkey hooves clip-clopping along cobblestoned laneways.

Mexico’s Caribbean coastline, where blinding palm-lined shores are lapped by a jewel-box turquoise seas. ISTOCK

In fact, so evocative are Mexico’s hilltop villages that many have been officially designated “Pueblos Magico” – magical towns.

One of these mystical beauties, Valle de Bravo – a lakeside vision 150 kilometres south-west of Mexico City founded by Franciscan monks in the 16th century - lures me back time and time again, to join horseback vaqueros riding along pine-scented trails, through cactus-strewn farmland and into secret groves where endangered Monarch butterflies whisper.

Here, I’ll join the communal table of dear friends, salted margarita glass in hand, to feast on the lime and chilli-infused bounty of paddock and sea, generosity of servings matched by effusive hospitality and boundless laughter.

Ironically, in this verdant, bougainvillaea-choked garden, I have faced my mortality more than once – during a terrifying earthquake, and by the excruciating sting of el alacran, the scorpion.

Somehow, these near brushes with death only served to tighten my bond to this complex country, its dangers as essential a part of Mexico’s allure as its breathtaking landscapes.



By Michael Gebicki

Grand Canal in Venice. ISTOCK

I’m sitting in the sunshine at Caffe Florian in Venice’s St Mark’s Square, pretending to be here for the gorgeous little almond tart and thimble of rocket-fuel ristretto in front of me, suave and worldly, but in fact I’m gobsmacked.

Around me is the world’s most dazzling square, the yardstick of urban pulchritude, bordered by long colonnades of arches in pale Istrian limestone, an elaborate opera set for the thousands who pour in.

At the far end the facade of St Mark’s Basilica is a giddy, ornamented fusion of Byzantine and Western art, bearing witness to the Venetian taste for splendour, power, war and loot. The square has barely changed since Canaletto painted it – again and again - almost 400 years ago and unchanged because you can’t improve on such perfection.

Italy excels in such moments, and as well as the sublime cities, the medieval Umbrian hill towns ringed by olive groves, the gelato-coloured mound of Positano rising from the sea, the ice-sculpted alpine valleys and cloud-piercing peaks of the Dolomites, there is an Italian ingredient that transforms its scenic wonders into experiences.

Colourful Positano rises from the sea. ISTOCK

Portofino is arguably the most gorgeous fishing village on the planet, a tiny harbour that curves around like a tortellini with a cobblestoned piazza ringed by houses painted in amber, yellow, cream and terracotta.

Yet despite the yachts in the harbour and the floating Armani pop-up, what you might remember is your late afternoon espresso in the piazza, interrupted by a woman leaning from the windows above, taking in her washing and loudly telling Fabio to quit playing football and come home for dinner.

Italy also has its warts. It can be gritty, grotty, abrasive and abusive. Whole-of-country elegance is a big ask.

Naples is a city falling apart. Exhausted, unkempt, stained with grime and graffiti, mad, bad and dangerous by repute, Naples sits a long way down on the travel hot lists.

Yet overlook the squalor and decay, sail in with open mind and Naples is one of the most passionate, authentic and likeable of all Italian cities. Venice and grand cafes included.


By Ute Junker

Ipanema Beach, Brazil. ISTOCK

If it is good looks you are after, head straight to Ipanema Beach. Stand on that wide stretch of white sand looking at the sun shimmering on the sea while strains of samba drift past and Brazilians of all ages throw themselves into the beach lifestyle as only Brazilians can, and the overall effect is dazzling.

It is not just Ipanema, of course. Brazil has plenty of other beauty spots, from the natural - the thundering falls at Iguacu, the giant water lilies that float on the Amazon River – to the manufactured.

(Take the futuristic curves of Brasilia, the Oscar Niemeyer-designed capital city where the cathedral is shaped like an upside-down lotus and you can watch clouds drift pass through the massive glass panels.)

For me, however, the beauty of a destination is about more than just aesthetics. The most beautiful moments are often tied into a sense of the unexpected and in a country as large as Brazil, there is always something unexpected waiting around the corner.

On my first visit, before the internet put a world of travel information at our fingertips, while I was town-hopping in the country’s north-east I told a local that my next stop would be the colonial town of Sao Luis. “Fantastic - you’ll love Lencois Maranhenses!” they assured me.

Now I’d never heard of Lencois Maranhenses National Park, but I promptly found a local travel agent and booked a day trip, and it remains one of my favourite spots in Brazil. A series of white sand dunes rises unexpectedly from a flat plain, rainwater gathering in the folds between the dunes to form otherworldly swim spots.

It’s a miraculous landscape that looks like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else, and that makes it all the more beautiful. It would probably be right at the top of my list of beautiful places in Brazil if Salvador de Bahia didn’t exist.

The capital of the sun-drenched state of Bahia, Salvador’s colonial centre is always ready for its close-up with those pastel-painted walls and photogenic cobblestones belie its dark, not so beautiful past as Brazil’s key slaving port.


Seven more contenders


Icelandic mountain Kirkjufell at sunrise. ISTOCK

Geysers shoot water high into the air; underground ice caves make you feel you have been transported to another planet. You can stroll by the sea and swoon at the black sand and the weathered basalt columns at Reynisfjara Beach, or cruise on the ice-studded Jokulsarlon lake or marvel at the midnight sun or the dazzling Northern Lights.



The Mekong River between city Luang Prabang and Pak Ou in Laos. ISTOCK

South-East Asia’s only landlocked country is about laughing children playing on eroded river banks; fishermen casting hand-knotted nets; terraced fields of rice tumbling down hillsides. But it’s in the World Heritage-listed royal city of Luang Prabang that Laos’ cultural and spiritual glory dominates, with the vision of saffron-swathed monks making silent progression past ornate, gilded temples.



Borobudur Temple at Yogyakarta. ISTOCK

A nation consisting of 17,000 volcanoes and rice terrace-dominated tropical islands could hardly fail a beauty test. Sumatra has emerald rainforest, waterfalls and crater lakes. Komodo features biscuit-brown cliffs, ragged mountains and pink-sand beaches; Flores has crumpled coastlines and more lakes of improbable paint-chart colours. And we haven’t even mentioned Bali.



Provence. France will steal your soul. ISTOCK

Canals lined with plane trees, the chateaus along the Loire Valley, Normandy’s Mont Saint-Michel, the fairytale village of St-Cirq-Lapopie in the department of The Lot, the provincial street markets and the cafes in little squares beneath shuttered houses with the patina of time spelled out on their rough facades – in a thousand different ways France will steal your soul.



Roy’s Peak overlooking Lake Wanaka on the South Island. ISTOCK

Outrageous natural beauty abounds in New Zealand, from the Bay of Islands in the north to the the south coast of the South Island, via rolling green hills and shimmering lakes, alpine peaks and deep valleys, geysers, hot springs. Then there’s the aerial descent into Queenstown, across the snow-capped Southern Alps, over Lake Wakatipu, wingtips almost touching emerald hillsides.



Namibia’s salt pans are explosive contrasts of colours. ISTOCK

Its coastline is jagged with skeletons of sunken ships and wreathed for its entire length by desert. Yet seal colonies flip-flop on deserted beaches, lions are traced pale against flaxen sandbanks, gemsbok horns protrude above pillowy dunes, and ephemeral rivers flowing like quicksilver through the world’s oldest living desert.