This is a highly subjective subject. The answers say as much about the writer as the destinations. So allow me to narrow the focus: what is the best destination for your average cruising sailor during a five- to seven-year circumnavigation?
Indulge me with one more kindness: allow me to be utterly bold and non-PC. Being mealy-mouthed serves no one.
Let’s start at the Panama Canal, and head westward – as any sane sailor would.
Colon is pronounced like the perfume but smells like the body part. It is the only place I’ve been where the cyber cafes have shotgun toting guards. While provisioning, we backed our taxi up the supermarket and still had thieves sliding over and under it to steal our can goods.
The yacht club sells your garbage to undeserving (but well-muscled) folks. It’s a tough, tough town! The canal, however, is worth the hassle. It might not be as pretty as Cape Horn, but it is much more relaxing.
The Galapagos are the world’s largest open-air zoo. Seals, blue-footed boobies, and iguanas are everywhere. But be careful here – there’s voodoo in the air. They used to be called the Enchanted Isles because of the dense fog, strong currents and fluky winds. Check out Lonesome George’s grave and see the future of this planet’s animal kingdom.
The Marquesas are lofty and proud. There’s a renaissance of culture taking place here: in music, art and, of course, tattooing. The Polynesians are great carvers, boatbuilders and poets. Fatu Hiva is arguably the most beautiful harbor in the world. (The Bay of Penises, specifically.) Paul Gauguin luxuriated here – check out his house and grave on Hiva Oa. Ditto Jacques Brel, the Belgium Frank Sinatra.
The Tuamotus are only a few hundred miles downwind, and yet totally different. They are low-lying and often have huge lagoons with pearl farms everywhere. Before GPS, they were seldom visited and called the Drowned Isles. Many ships were lost here.
Tahiti is, I’m sad to say, closer to Paris than Paradise. It’s expensive, industrial and crime-ridden. Be careful: while you’re foot-racing the fellow who just stole the sandals out of your dinghy – a local yachtsman will ‘harvest’ your outboard from your stern rail.
Tonga is highly interesting, especially after a few cups of kava. Neotapatapu is our favorite, with Vava’u and Nukulofa close behind. We used to go to church with the king – all 500 pounds of him.
Yachties, at least the brave ones, often head south to New Zealand – the land of the Long White Cloud – from here. It’s the one English-speaking place where I’d retire. They are mad about boats, sailing and yacht racing – and are very ‘can-do’ people. No whinging allowed. Picture America pre-WWII, and you’ve got the picture.
Our experience with Oz (Australia) is, perhaps, atypical. I hope it is. We found one of the continents we most looked forward to visiting… a disappointment. Greed is out-of-control – we were ripped off by customs and nearly everyone in town. The merchants cheat you about as often as India. We have many dear Australian friends all around the world – perhaps all the good ones leave. It is such a nanny/police state that many times a day government planes flew over us as we moved northward along the coast… to radio-holler at us for… what? Being alive? Visiting?
If you must visit, grab a pile mooring in Brisbane. It’s just outside the Botanical Gardens, and the heroin addicts will watch your dinghy. Take care in the toilets—those soap dispenser are actually needle collection devices! Don’t go out on Friday nights, as the drunks like to knock you into the gutter for their enjoyment and amusement. We did, however, enjoy the bike paths in Brisbane – more miles per capita than anywhere in the world.
In addition, we enjoyed the New Territory area, especially Darwin. The Kimberlies are also awesome.
Fiji, however, is fun – especially if you’re into cannibalism. The National Museum sure is. They have the shoes of the first missionary they ate.
Vanuatu is very primitive: many men still only wear a penis sheath. I’m always amazed while in Africa and the Middle East by how clean people are despite their poverty. Not so on the island of Tanna. The ticket taker at the National Park stunk so bad that I could not get within 10 meters without puking. I had to put the money on the ground – and run away while holding my nose and screaming. Putrid barely covers it!
Bali is a dream. Most of the prostitutes here are male. Their Johns are Janets: mostly overweight female schoolteachers from Oz, U.S., England and, of course, Germany.
Borneo hasn’t changed much since Joseph Conrad’s time. The village we anchored off had seven shrunken heads. Yes, they invited us ashore for dinner; no, we did attend. (You never go if invited FOR dinner, only TO dinner!)
Micronesia is the last great cruising ground in the Pacific. Everything that was once true about French Polynesia is still true of Kosrae and Yap. Yes, it is true that many woman are traditionally not allowed to wear tops in Yap. It is also true that the sight of any women in shorts disgusts them, as they find thighs obscene to the max. Here’s where the Big Money is – often so big it can’t be moved. When the owner falls on hard times and he sells his Big Money to someone else, since it can’t be moved, it serves are a constant reminder of his misfortune, literally.
Southeast Asia is, in our humble opinion, one of the finest cruising areas left in the world. The coast of Viet Nam is magic. Thailand is truly the Land of Smiles. Malaysia is amazing, Cambodia shocking, Laos puzzling.
We can’t wait for Burma to open up – I’m going there for a shave if nothing else. Actually, we’ve visited three times, briefly. They are fixated on ‘clean’ U.S. five dollar bills. It is the only place I saw children and chickens being sold in the market – as if there was little difference. (Brother and sister: the boy $400 and the girl $300.) The government is run by, basically, the lowest level of Mafia-type thugs. A tour of the town consists mostly of ‘who killed whom, where’ over the centuries. Thumb’s down!
India is the place that conflicted me most. We anchored in Cochin. It taught me things I don’t want to know – like it is (somehow!) difficult to outrun the legless beggars there. The first day was hot and I purchased an ice cream cone … but couldn’t finish it while people were dying a few feet away. A few months later, I had no such qualms: “Can’t you people die somewhere else? Can’t you see I’m eating an ice cream cone!”
I cried when I left India – and I still don’t know who I was crying for. Yet I met actual human angels there – people purer and better than I’ll ever be. I gave more money away to (carefully evaluated) charities than I ever have… faster than I ever had… because my pennies had such an impact. Example: I attended a party at a school thanking the Rotary for a $32 loan to have a bus tire retreaded – and then not charging interest for the two years it took the school to pay it back!
Next up is the best cruising destination left on the planet: the deserted Chagos Isles, just south of the Maldives. There’s nobody ashore. Zero. Picture the Virgin Island sans inhabitants, and you are close to the utterly unbelievable beauty of this place. We stayed four months, eating fish and lobster exclusively. Yummy!
I don’t recommend the Red Sea because of the Somali pirates. But we transited these dangerous waters in 2010, and had a great time in Aden (Yemen). Suakin (Sudan) in particular, was amazing. There were no roads, no electricity, no plumbing – any picture you took could have been from Biblical times. Oh, and listen to the mayor – his English isn’t good but he’s a nice, concerned fellow. (When he warns you of ‘landmarks’ he means LANDMINES!)
Madagascar is as crazy as its lemurs – indigenous animals that seem to be the result of a cat and a monkey mating. Madagascar was connected to India and Sri Lanka many eons ago, until it drifted off southward while dozing. It has been dozing every since.
Hellville, it’s capitol, is aptly named. A large gang of very large young men hang around the dinghy dock to collect your traditional $1 fee. The only problem: there’s no organization. When you return to your dinghy there are always a dozen very violent, very aggressive fistfights going on around you. It is easy to get hurt in such a massive melee. My wife Carolyn was almost knocked into the water. I became angry, and, when bumped myself, uttered the words (without thinking), “mudderfockers!”
Evidently, they listen to a lot of America rap music here. The whole fighting crowd stopped in mid-swing and tried to figure out what I just called them. When they collectively came to the collusion that I did, indeed, call them what I called them … well, they were overjoyed.
“Me mudderfocker!” the largest one said, lifting me up and down with great, appreciative joy. From then on, Carolyn and I were golden with the Boat Boys of Hellville.
Yes, the best part of travel is always unexpected.
Cape Town is too weird. White folk kept offering to help me and, when I accepted their gracious offer, sent black folk to do the actual work. What’s wid dat? We never once went ashore in Durban without witnessing a violent crime. Besides, it is rough in the Agulhas current. South Africa is the only place the weather forecast regularly called for ‘phenomenal waves’ of 60 feet or greater. Visit here with extreme caution.
St. Helena is still obsessed with Boney, its most famous guest. I got drunk and started telling sea yarns at Anne’s (the traditional sailor’s bar) and was invited into a lovely little house just next door to continue. The room was a bit old fashioned. On the wall was a photograph of Joshua Slocum, doing exactly what I was doing … on the very same couch.
The following day I rented a car. “How old is this vehicle?” I asked its driver when it pulled up.
“My father purchased it used and had it shipped to the island in 1928.”
That’s typical of seldom-visited St. Helena – where they still get their BBC TV News one month later, on VCR tapes.
But, hey, where else are you allowed to bounce up and down on Napoleon Bonaparte’s death bed? (He must have been tiny, as his bed was about the size of a modern crib.)
What are the top five cruising destination in the world? Who knows? But I can easily tell you the top five areas where we had the most fun during the course of two leisurely circumnavigations: Borneo, Thailand/Malaysia, Chagos, Micronesia, and Madagascar.
Your mileage may vary.
But I didn’t inform you – on the eve of setting off on our third circ – my very favorite destination: that’s our next one.
I think it will be the best ever! And that’s what keeps us going; that’s what keeps us young.
The Goodlanders are, once again, evading their bill collectors in mid-Pacific.