It must have been Nick Hornby. Surely it was the British novelist, with his book High Fidelity, who helped take the concept of a "desert island" list to its nerdiest degree.
Hornby extended the BBC's long-running "Desert Island Discs" idea for a new generation, warping it from a mere collection of records that you could bring along when you're marooned somewhere sunny, to apply it to just about anything: books, films, dream jobs, memorable break-ups.
Nerds everywhere rejoiced. Desert island top-five lists became a thing to mess around with. And so it was only natural that we would end up applying it to travel. Travellers are, after all, nerds at heart. We all have our favourites from around the world. We all have our pet hates. We all have our opinions.
And we all have plenty of time to discuss them, too, as we sit around in hostels and on buses and in airports and on trains making idle conversation with people we don't know very well, toying with the idea of our desert island top five foreign experiences, or our top five meals, or our top five cities, or our top five travel buddies, or so much more.
I've played this game thousands of times, and I figured that today I'd put it into print. My desert island top five countries. My five absolute favourites. The destinations I'd take with me to a desert island, if such a thing were possible. The five places I'd choose to travel to for the rest of my life it I really had to whittle the world down.
I'm not claiming these are the world's "best" countries. They're just the best countries for me. And of course, the idea of a list is that everyone has their own…
Granada Photo: Alamy
It was always going to be Spain. There's so much I love about this country, starting with the fact it really feels like 30 or 40 countries, so different are the cultures of each province once you scratch the surface. Spain also has the world's best food, from tapas in Andalucia to pintxos in the Basque country. It has cities like Barcelona and Seville, San Sebastian and Granada. It has a love of the good things in life: family, friends, food, wine, music, football. It has spectacular landscapes. It has bonkers traditions like "caga tio". It has siestas. It has fiestas. And I could never give it up.
It's hard to believe the culture behind La Sagrada Familia and the works of Salvador Dali are behind the weirdest Christmas tradition on the planet.
Muizenberg and False Bay, Cape Town Photo: Alamy
Things aren't perfect in South Africa at the moment, and I'm not saying I want to live there, but as a tourist destination, this country is pretty much ideal.
South Africa boasts one of the world's great cities in Cape Town. It has landscapes the likes of which you would almost not believe: from the coastal reaches of the Cape, to the greenery of the Garden Route, to the spectacular Drakensburg Mountains, the bushlands of Kruger, the wildflowers of the west coast, and more. There's great wine in the Stellenbosch area. There's wildlife viewing throughout the country, both on land and under sea. There are people far friendlier and more hospitable than we often give them credit for. There's culture. There's history. There's biltong. That's enough to keep me occupied for a lifetime.
Venice, Italy Photo: Alamy
It does seem weird, I guess, to only have five countries to select and to then choose two – Spain and Italy – that are so similar. But which would you want to give up? I'm not letting Spain go, and I'm definitely not punting Italy. Italy, again, is really a collection of disparate cultures, from laidback Sicily in the south to bustling Milan in the north.
You could visit this country for many reasons – for the Roman history, for the beaches and lidos, for the art galleries, for the villas, for the ancient mountaintop villages and the world-famous attractions – or, you could visit just for the food. I would visit just for the food. Pizza, pasta, salumi, antipasti, ragu, risotto... it's a no-brainer.
Japan is one of those countries you could go back to again and again and never grow bored. It's endlessly interesting, and endlessly confusing. The more times I visit Japan, the more I know, and the less I understand. But that's what so great about it. You're never bored. You're never completely comfortable.
There's a fascinating culture that runs deep in Japan that's both centuries-old and ultra-modern. This is a country that's traditional but innovative; respectful but outlandish. It's a place of the hugest cities and the smallest communities. It's a country that takes foreign influence and moulds it, warps it, develops it into something that's solely its own. Japan is alien and bizarre, impenetrable and interesting. And always reassuringly safe. I could never tire of it.
Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia, Argentina Photo: Alamy
This was tough. I wanted to choose Peru, for the food, for the Andes, for the Amazon. I wanted to choose Chile, for Patagonia, for the Atacama. I wanted to choose Bolivia, for the indigenous culture, for the insanity of La Paz. In the end though, I've gone for Argentina, because Argentina has much of what makes those neighbouring countries great, and then more. It has good food, in the form of gaucho-friendly steak.
It has mountains, too, in the Andes around places such as Mendoza and Bariloche. It has vast swathes of Patagonia. It has smatterings of indigenous culture, particularly in the far north. And it has something no one else has: Buenos Aires, one of my favourite cities in the world, a thriving hub of food and football, of fashion and design, of European culture transported to another world, a buzzing, bustling place that I couldn't give up.
What are your desert island top five countries? Why?
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