OPINION: You don’t get many bragging rights from “nice”. You don’t get to impress people with “safe”. And no one in the travel world is going to get too excited when you announce that, on this trip, you’re planning to go “on the beaten track”.
This is the funny thing about travel. There’s no glamour in predictability. In our yearning to explore the far reaches of the globe, in our urge for adventure in increasingly exotic or fashionable climes, we sometimes forget that some of the world’s greatest experiences can be found in some of its safest, most approachable places.
You’ve heard of the “badlands” – these are the “nicelands”. These are the countries where things very rarely go wrong. They’re the friendly, welcoming places where the trains always run on time, the streets are always clean, the power is always on. These places are safe. There’s no war; no threat of crime. They’re approachable. They’re easy.
In other words, they’re destinations that will win you few kudos with hardcore adventurers, and yet offer an amazing travel experience.
There are some travellers, admittedly, who might call that level of predictability bland, or boring. But they’re not looking hard enough. There’s nothing bland about canoeing on a lake in the Canadian Rockies. There’s nothing boring about a meal of frog porridge on the streets of Singapore’s Geylang district. And even the most seemingly predictable places usually have an underbelly: the hippie-created semi-autonomous community of Christiania, for example, plonked in the middle of squeaky clean Copenhagen; or the red-light district of Kabukicho in friendly, polite Tokyo.
So forget, for a moment, the thrill of the unknown, and the desire for somewhere edgy and new. Forget the exotic and the far-flung for just a little while. Nice guys might finish last – but nice countries should be at the top of your list.
THE NICE FACTOR Look up the word “nice” in the dictionary and you’ll find a photo of a Canadian. These guys define the very idea of niceness, of politeness, of safety and civility and calm.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Although Canada has some great cities with their share of cultural attractions, the best of the country is in the great outdoors. We’re talking skiing in the Rocky Mountains, canoeing in British Columbia, hiking in the Yukon, or taking a road trip through Nova Scotia. To see polite, kind Canadians at their most hyped up and aggressive, meanwhile, you need to see an ice hockey game.
THE DARK SIDE Canada isn’t perfect. The nation has been heavily criticised for its treatment of its First Nations people in the past. It’s also the home of Celine Dion.
ESSENTIALS Canada is a year-round destination, offering activities both indoors and out in all seasons. Its cities, however, can get uncomfortably cold in winter.
THE NICE FACTOR There’s a purity to Finland that seems to permeate every element of society: from the cleansing ritual of a sauna and a dip in icy waters, to the vast tracts of spectacular Arctic wilderness, to the vibrancy of Helsinki on a long summer day. You’ll eat well in Finland. You’ll drink well, too. And you’ll discover a friendly, polite people with a healthy dose of quirk.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO For the wilderness areas, obviously; for the chance to go dog-sledding and snowmobiling in Lapland, hiking through forested national parks, staying in cabins by pristine lakes. However, there’s culture to enjoy in Finland too, from the many music and arts festivals, to the design stores of Helsinki, to the restaurants such as Spis, specialising in fine-dining Nordic cuisine.
THE DARK SIDE Though Finns are proud of their egalitarian nation, the country is the second-most violent for women in the EU, according to a 2014 study.
ESSENTIALS For Northern Lights viewing, as well as dog-sledding and other winter sports, the colder months are best. However, May to August is most comfortable.
THE NICE FACTOR Families have long known that Fiji is an ideal, hassle-free destination. Fijians love kids – that’s something of a cliche, because it’s true. This is a place you can take the whole family and not have to worry about any of them. Fiji is also a bona fide tropical paradise, an island nation where palm fronds, white-sand beaches and warm water abound.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Plenty of families will head straight to Fiji’s upmarket beach resorts, the likes of the InterContinental, the Hilton and the Outrigger on the main island of Viti Levu, and Castaway and Malolo Island resorts further afield. The vibes there are relaxed, and the childcare is world-class. Off the beaten track, a homestay in a local village will give intrepid visitors the perfect taste of island life.
THE DARK SIDE Behind the big smiles and the “bula” welcomes in Fiji lies a fractured political situation, with tension between Islander and Indian communities. There have also been several military coups.
ESSENTIALS Fiji is at its finest from June to September, when the weather is warm, and the skies are clear.
THE NICE FACTOR I hate Denmark, said no-one ever. After all, why would they? Denmark is harmless. It’s safe and it’s friendly. It’s the birthplace of “hygge”, the concept of coziness as a way of life. It’s also a place of well-dressed, unfairly attractive citizens who all ride around on bikes and treat each other kindly.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO This egalitarian wonderland has more than its share of tourist attractions, from architecture both traditional and modern, an extensive network of cycle paths for pedal-powered exploration, world-class restaurants (the likes of Noma, Geranium and more), centuries-old castles and Lego theme parks. On the flipside, its capital, Copenhagen, is home to Christiania, a semi-autonomous hippie enclave where you’re as likely to smell hashish as you are pastries.
THE DARK SIDE Danish people are up there as some of the happiest on Earth; however, they’re also the fifth-highest consumers of anti-depressants per capita.
ESSENTIALS Denmark is best visited in the warmer months, from May to September, when the days are long and the people are out enjoying themselves.
THE NICE FACTOR Everyone loves New Zealand. It’s a friendly, unpretentious, unaffected country that manages to keep itself out of any global conflicts to instead concentrate on winning rugby world cups. New Zealand is also very easy for Australian travellers to access, and the culture there is a simple one for us to slip into with just a few changes of vowel sounds and a pair of jandals. What’s not to love?
WHY YOU SHOULD GO You could go to New Zealand for the skiing. Or, you could go for the adrenalin activities in Queenstown, for the hiking around Milford Sound, for the road- and mountain-biking throughout the country, for the Māori cultural experiences, for the food, for the wine, or just to soak in a thermal bath.
THE DARK SIDE New Zealand has some regrettable moments in its history in regard to relations with the Māori people.
ESSENTIALS New Zealand is ripe for visitation year-round – ski in winter, cycle in the shoulder seasons, hike and swim in the warmer months.
THE NICE FACTOR For all you need to see to fall in love with Ireland, simply step into one of its pubs. Because where the Danes have hygge, the Irish have “craic”: a far livelier version of the concept of comfort. Craic is all about having a good time, which in Ireland usually manifests itself in chatting to friends and family, listening to music, singing songs, dancing and drinking pints of thick black beer. And the good news is that everyone is welcome.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO There’s more to Ireland than its friendly pub culture. This is a land of rolling green hills, of rugged coastlines, of small villages and quaint towns. Indulge in the favourites: kiss the Blarney Stone, explore the wilds of Donegal, see Belfast and Derry, tour the Guinness factory in Dublin. Everywhere you go you’ll experience Ireland’s greatest asset: its people.
THE DARK SIDE Ireland’s long history of sectarian violence is well-documented. There have also been extensive allegations of sexual misconduct associated with Catholic institutions.
ESSENTIALS Visit Ireland any time of the year – it will probably be raining, but that’s something you get used to. Though the days are longer in summer, winter can also be pleasant inside a nice pub.
THE NICE FACTOR The hills are alive in Austria with skiers hitting the slopes, or hikers making a long traverse, or with any number of other outdoor enthusiasts doing their thing. Austria is spectacularly beautiful, and certainly a “nice” place to appreciate the beauty of Mother Nature. The country is also the home of high culture and a low crime rate.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Cultural hubs such as Vienna and Salzburg will always draw visitors keen to experience the classical music performances, the fine-dining, and the remnants of the Hapsburg Empire. Those chasing more of a rush, meanwhile, will be drawn to the likes of St Anton, Soelden, Kitzbuehel and Lech, picture-perfect mountain towns with high-quality skiing. For something a little off-beat, meanwhile, try the “beer pools” at Starkenberger’s Castle in Tarrenz.
THE DARK SIDE Obviously you’re not supposed to mention the war, but there was a man called Hitler who was Austrian. That is all.
ESSENTIALS Austria has something to offer in all seasons, whether its long days and big events in the warmer months, or skiing and Christmas markets in winter.
THE NICE FACTOR Surely there isn’t another nation on Earth that can boast the good manners of Japan, where strangers will stop to help you the moment you look confused, where good citizens will walk you to your destination to ensure you don’t get lost, where petty crime is virtually unheard of, and where everything works efficiently and predictably.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Japan is so foreign, so different to anything we know in the West, and yet it’s also safe and approachable. Maybe you’re nervous about visiting an onsen for the first time, but you’ll be welcome there. You might be confused by the experience of staying at a ryokan, a traditional inn, but someone will talk you through it. You may be intimidated by the sheer scale of megalopolises such as Tokyo and Osaka, but you’ll always be safe. Even red-light districts such as Kabukicho in Tokyo are surprisingly benign.
THE DARK SIDE Though the Japanese are incredibly welcoming to visitors, that’s on the proviso that you’ll be going home. The country allows few immigrants – last year it received 19,628 applications for asylum from refugees – it approved 20 of them.
ESSENTIALS Every season in Japan has something to offer, from the cherry blossoms of spring to the festivals of summer to the foliage of autumn and the snow in winter.
THE NICE FACTOR If being robbed is one of your chief fears when travelling, then this is the country for you: the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore second only to Tokyo in its 2017 Safe Cities Index; in 2016, the island nation reported 135 days without a single crime. The only real danger you’ll face here is putting on too much weight.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Though Singapore has several excellent museums, plus Gardens by the Bay and the theme parks of Sentosa Island, the city-state’s main attraction is its food. From the $2-a-plate hawker centres all the way to Michelin-starred fine-dining, there’s an obsession with cuisine here that translates to some seriously good eating. For food with a slight edge, head to the red-light district of Geylang for frog porridge.
THE DARK SIDE One of the reasons Singapore is so safe is because it’s so heavily policed: in 2016 alone, more than 62,000 security cameras were installed in the city, keeping an electronic eye on such crimes as “outrage of modesty”.
ESSENTIALS Singapore’s weather is consistent year-round: expect it to be hot and humid, regardless of when you visit.
THE NICE FACTOR You could say Switzerland is pretty as a picture – but there aren’t many pictures that can do this place justice. Switzerland really is unbelievably beautiful, with towering mountains and green-grass valleys, wooden farmhouses and shimmering lakes. The country also has a very low crime rate, and is a breeze to get around.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO Visit Switzerland for the natural beauty, of course. Go for the Bernese Oberland, which inspired JRR Tolkien to create Middle Earth. Go for the lakes, of which there are more than 3000. Go for the sky-scraper Alps. But don’t forget the cities – Lucerne, Bern, and Geneva – and the culture. Switzerland has an underbelly, too: check out the Reitschule, a former hippie squat turned counter-cultural hub in Bern.
THE DARK SIDE The Swiss penchant for fence sitting is legendary – the country declined to take sides in World War II, only joined the UN in 2002, and is still not a part of the EU.
ESSENTIALS There’s no bad time for a holiday in Switzerland: there’s snow or there’s green grass, and little in between.