A conversation I was having last week turned, perhaps inevitably, towards travel and holidays. The person I was chatting with made a simple enquiry about what my favourite destinations were, to which I wheeled out a stock list of responses. This was met with, “what is it about them that you like so much?” And then I went a little silent, pondering the question. After a short period of erm-ing I came up with “they just have a good feel about them”. It was a depressing retort unlikely to influence anyone’s future holiday plans. With this in mind I decided to piece together a set of criteria for determining the appeal of a destination.
These guidelines are geared towards my own tastes and temptations, but I feel are perfectly transferable for other people’s passions. For instance ‘Food & Drink’ could be replaced with ‘Shopping’ or ‘Taxi Drivers’ with ‘Hotel Receptionists’. In each category you should award marks out of 10 giving each destination a final score out of 100. Anywhere that rises above the 80% mark is slipping into the favourite category. What I have discovered using this method of evaluation is that some places create a bond that cannot be determined by what guidebooks and common perception tells you and results can appear surprising. For example, Philadelphia outscores Paris. I’ve nothing against the French capital, indeed it’s granted me many a happy memory – despite being the only place I’ve ever been chain-whipped (a story for another day). And in a who’s-more-handsome-and-sophisticated face off Paris is giving Philadelphia a bloody nose every time. Yet regardless of all this, Philly is nestled firmly in my list of Top 5 world cities beginning with the letter ‘P’, while Paris doesn’t even make the short list. (If you’re wondering how this could be just consider this; it wasn’t the Montmartre steps Rocky Balboa ran up was it?)
So, read on to discover what guidelines I’ve devised to establish what makes a place a ‘favourite’, some places merely a ‘worthwhile’ and a whole host of others a ‘wouldn’t rush back’? (I’ve still yet to have visited anywhere I’ve regretted. And that includes Middlesbrough). In no particular order of importance this is…
World of Sighbury’s 10-step guide to determine what makes a place great (or not as the case may be…)
What’s there to do?
Bit obvious this one I’ll grant you, but what appeals to one tourist may hold as much appeal to another as a double edition of The Vanessa Show. Personally, for a place to work for me it should have plenty of historical monuments to gawp at (a well preserved old town is always welcome), a couple of decent museums to drag my wife around (something which mysteriously makes her go weak to the point of threatening collapse unless we leave soon), a vibrant cafe/bar scene and plenty of aimless strolling potential. The possibility of a quick round of crazy golf is an added bonus.
Places that offer adrenalin rushes, rides in a horse-drawn carriage and endless rows of those people who spray themselves in silver and stand still for a living, at least until some kid is forced by their parents to stick a coin in their pot triggering some awful robotics, run the risk of losing points.
Destinations scoring highly in this category: Ghent, Hanoi, Rome, Salamanca, Vienna
Food & Drink
An integral part of any trip is the promise of feasting with reckless abandonment, pouring scorn on all thoughts of diet and calorie counting. While it’s always a pleasure to be offered a varied menu and countless eating options such as you might find in most large Western cities, sometimes you can’t beat landing somewhere that is renowned for a certain dish or cuisine and just happens to do it outrageously good whether you are eating in a top restaurant or by the side of the road. Anywhere, no matter how beautiful, will always be marked down if you can’t find a decent bit of nosh – a case in point being Yellowstone Park; full marks for natural beauty, nothing for the inedible hamburger they tried to palm me off with in the eating lodge.Bonus points are awarded to anywhere that can serve up a first rate Wiener schnitzel, rack of ribs or corn beef hash. If somewhere can offer all three I’m emigrating.
If the quality of the dining options is important then the standard of a town’s drinking holes is vital for a memorable stay. There are few greater pleasures in life than whiling away an afternoon/evening/weekend in a foreign drinking establishment savouring the local tipple – indeed many of my happiest memories have been spent in such places. The frequent availability and quality of the beer is important, which is one of the reasons I’ll never hear a bad word said about the state of Belgium. I’m even quite partial to an Irish pub on my travels – a sinister secret I’ve now just exposed. Further marks are awarded if you can enjoy your drinking while doing the following; sit outside in agreeable weather, be surrounded by fantastic architecture/scenery or able to watch a live English Premier League match.
Antwerp, Buenos Aires,Melbourne, Memphis, Mendoza, Munich, Prague, Sydney, Tallinn
Or as I also like to call it ‘What Risk Being Chain-Whipped?’ In my younger years I was strangely drawn to places that were a bit edgy and there’s no denying that some of the more interesting places on the planet carry more than a hint of danger to them. It’s strangely life-affirming to carry your wits about you and quickly work out where potential wrong turns exist. Too many wrong turn possibilities, however, and any appeal can soon wane. Similarly, being made to feel more paranoid than a coked up Ray Liotta in Goodfellas can also become tiring. Ultimately, searching for places with an edge is best left for backpackers and Jeremy Bowen. Most of us just want to go about our business without stirring the curiosity of the locals too greatly, free to enjoy your surroundings, especially if you’ve children in tow. The locals can make a stay with their hospitality, or lack of, to strangers, and the more curious the local and their customs then all the better. Places where you encounter piss poor scams such as a stranger telling you that you’ve either dropped a coin or had a bird shit on your shoulder lose points purely for the unoriginality of its criminal fraternity.
Places with plenty of edge: La Paz, Mexico City, Naples, Rio de Janeiro, Washington DC
Places edgeless: Auckland, Dublin, Luang Prabang, Ljubljana, Reykjavik
The presence of water, whether it river, lake or sea, adds to the allure of any destination. Beaches don’t cut it though; they are all right for a couple of hours, but even staring at ladies in bikinis through the disguise of your shades can get boring. A river – one that is navigable and not a dumping ground for supermarket trolleys – gives a place a focal point, drawing life towards it. Find a place to eat and drink while in the presence of a sweeping river and you’ve found a fast route to happiness. Lakes provide a great backdrop to any town or city, plus they offer boat rides which are leisurely, peaceful affairs – apart from that one I took on Lake Titicaca which broke down and slowly began sinking, making me secretly fear for my life until we were rescued by the owner of the travel company in his private vessel, which bizarrely had once belonged to President Nixon after he received it as a present from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (that’s another story for another day). The sea is also capable of eliciting similar feelings to rivers and lakes, but it’s a much more hit and miss combination. Not every port can be a Barcelona and for every Cannes there’s a Clacton and Calais. I’m sure one exists, but I can’t think of a single crap place with a river running through it.
Budapest, Cadiz, Chicago, Florence, Hoi An, Perth, Porto, San Francisco, Vancouver, Venice
Under the stars
Darkness changes everything, but some places simply come alive once the natural light has disappeared. It’s not about the clubbing scene or bar life, but all about how a place looks, feels, sounds, smells once night time arrives. The way somewhere is lit affects the whole mood. Las Vegas with its cacophony of neon or the towns of South East Asia with their almost hushed street lighting are as much a part of the fabric of a place as its people. I’ve never liked anywhere if I haven’t liked it once night descends.
Ho Chi Minh City, London, Madrid, New Orleans, Tokyo
Thirst for knowledge/Cultural referencing
I mentioned a thirst for knowledge at the beginning of my blog as the main reason for undertaking much of my travels. Without that nagging itch to discover and seek places I’ve read about in books or seen on screen it’s vaguely possible I might have become one of those people who holiday in the same place, eat in the same restaurant, drink in the same pubs and spurn diversity at every turn. If I can visit somewhere and find reference to a song, book or film I am familiar with (or in some cases extremely passionate about) and discover first-hand subjects I’ve often spent years studying then I can’t fail to be consumed with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Berlin, Cusco, Guernica, New York, Phnom Penh
Standing in the shadows of history
Everywhere can boast of history – even Milton Keynes – but some places reek of it. There are enough places on the planet to satiate any history obsession, just look at the UNESCO world heritage list if you’re seeking inspiration, but it’s those places where history was made – and in some cases the course of history forced to take a different path – that leave a lasting impression. Admittedly a lot of them involve war and death, but I don’t make the rules – that’s usually how moments that shook the world play out.
Dallas, Gettysburg, Pompeii, Sarajevo, St Petersburg
I never really appreciated how crap zoos are until I began to travel. Seeing any animal in its natural environment is a curious thrill, as well as being fucking terrifying when it happens to be a saltwater crocodile or shark. I’ve never built a holiday around it, but if you can combine some of the things from above and get to stare at the likes of elephants taking a dump in the wild then what’s not to like?
Colca Canyon (Peru), Kruger National Park (South Africa), Northern Territory (Australia), Ranthambore National Park (India), Yellowstone Park (USA),
Often the first people you will encounter in a foreign place. Get one who can manage a smile, speak English (or just speak), not drive like Barry Newman in Vanishing Point and actually charge you the correct fare for the ride and you know you’ve arrived in a great place. I find that if you can manage just one out of the four you’re doing well. In Eastern Europe it’s a little known fact that all taxi drivers assume that men want to visit venues where you can stare at naked women, in India they are convinced that you wouldn’t possibly object to looking at their uncle’s shop, in South America it’s a given that they will only lighten up if you mention the word ‘football’, while in Asia they would feel slighted if you didn’t try to barter the price down. Still, without them bus queues would be horrendous.
Sane taxi drivers: Belfast, Christchurch, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, Stockholm
Taxi drivers that make Travis Bickle look stable of mind: anywhere in Eastern Europe
And World of Sighbury’s Top 10 world destinations as determined by the 10-step guide are…