You know it's love when you find yourself in an argument. When you realise you've just launched into a passionate defence of a country or a city that's not there to stand up for itself, when you feel personally insulted because someone has said something critical of your favourite destination – then, you know it's love.
This is a thing that happens to travellers. The connection you form with a place you've visited is as intense and real as any traditional love affair. Travel stirs such passions: when you've met the local people, when you've shared their food, when you've seen their sights, when you've felt their history and pictured their future, it's very easy to feel a sense of possession over their home, to consider it yours, to allow it to become a part of you.
To travel is, after all, to love. To experience is to feel. Though that feeling might be fleeting in certain places, and maybe some destinations won't touch you at all, other parts of the world will have a much deeper impact.
All the signs of love will be there: the sheer joy of spending time in its presence; the pain of parting when your time is up; the ache of missing it when you're not there. The need to defend it no matter what.
Of course, love isn't perfect, which is why these places we've fallen for can sometimes come in for criticism. It's OK to try to help those you care for if you hope to see them regain their former glory. That's part of the deal.
The following are destinations for which our writers have truly fallen and, in some cases, for good as well as bad. They're the places we feel most passionate about, the parts of the world for which we most deeply care.
These love affairs are purely subjective, of course – they're destinations that have brought us great personal joy and at times sorrow, but they're also places other people may feel completely differently about. And that's fine. Though if they do, they had better be ready for an argument. - Ben Groundwater
TATAMI AND YOU
By Louise Southerden
Japan, I love you. And not for the reasons others do. Sure, I love your fresh-off-the-boat sashimi and I'm like a snow monkey when it comes to onsen, soaking until I'm dazed, par-boiled and rosy-cheeked. But I couldn't care less about your geishas, golden temples and tea ceremonies. I love you because of how I feel when I'm with you: peaceful, as if I've come home.
It wasn't love at first sight. In fact, flying in over Osaka's ugly sprawl back then, I wasn't sure we'd get along at all. I liked wide open spaces, you seemed all human-centric. But I was intrigued – and young enough to get a working holiday visa. And I'd always wanted to live in a foreign country.
I chose seaside southern Kyushu, near Miyazaki city, because it reminded me of the beachy places I loved back home. But I fell in love with you because you helped me cast off the bowlines from all I knew.
I can't remember a more contented time than that year and a half we spent together, teaching English and surfing every day. People think you're all robot-hotels and neon streetscapes, but I've seen your simple heart.
Even today the sweet straw smell of tatami mats takes me back to living amid rice fields and sleeping on the floor, in a village so safe the postman would leave my letters inside the unlocked front door.
When I think of you, I don't think of Tokyo, Kyoto or even Hokkaido. I think of hot summer days, palm trees lining the main roads and bento box picnics by the sea. I think of sunset surfs with our friends. Hiking in volcanic mountains to see the autumn colours. Riding my bike to the beach past obachans (old ladies) who'd smile "konnichiwa" from under their broad hats.
It's never fair to generalise about an entire nation, even one as homogeneous as you, but you really are an introvert's paradise where it's OK to be quiet, thoughtful and sensitive.
I'd been shy before we met; you helped me grow wings and enough confidence to write about my experiences. My first travel stories were love letters in disguise; I wanted everyone to see how wrong they'd been about you: you weren't expensive, unfeeling or difficult to understand.
My love isn't blind, dearest Japan. I don't like your track record with marine mammals or your wild-animal cafes and your passion for packaging is out of step with an increasingly plastic-free world.
It's a bit puzzling given how you feel about nature with your Ocean Days and national holidays for spring equinoxes and, let's face it, you are the world's crazy cat-lady, in a good way (Hello, Kitty). I know, it's wrong to want you to change. But it's just in these ways. In every other way I love you, my Japan. And I always will.
FIRST AND LAST
DEAR SOUTH AFRICA
Clifton Beach in Cape Town
By Catherine Marshall
You were my first love and you will be my last. My heart still flutters when I hear your name. And then it burns with those bedfellow emotions, belonging and sorrow; for oh, what courage it took to tear my roots from your tender bedrock.
But it had to be done, for we were incompatible – I desirous of safe harbour, you a conflicted and unreliable motherland. And so I left you for another. I'm not looking to reconcile, for I've found happiness. But like a duplicitous lover I sneak back to you from time to time, absorb the glow of your reflected beauty, fall back into your familiar embrace.
Despite what happened with us, I urge my new compatriots to give you a chance. Go to my birthplace, Johannesburg, I tell them. Feel how it thrums with an energy so extraordinary it should be bottled and sold. How I wish to take some home with me, to dab it on my pulse points in those moments when I miss you most.
Explore now-integrated neighbourhoods, I suggest, where risk-takers have reversed the oppressive narrative of the grubby, inner-city neighbourhoods of my youth with light and whimsy and African ingenuity.
Wave back at the man hauling a trolley-load of empty bottles up the road, for he is offering you a welcome you'll find nowhere else; contemplate the humour of his hot-pink wig bobbling on his head, and notice the authenticity of his smile. This medley captures the spirit of your people: tenacious, good-humoured, sincere.
But be careful, I tell my friends, for my first love possesses many personalities, and not all of them are sunny. To avoid the darkness they must be vigilant, not flashy; adopt a street-smart posture; navigate your interior judiciously.
Such effort can exhaust those who dwell in you, and this is why we had to part. But I know those I send your way will be rewarded, in a short burst of time, with the very best of you, my love.
Take them to Cape Town where they can stand in the shadow of that masterpiece, Table Mountain; let them peer into forever from its unclouded summit. Flood them with the scent of the African bush as rain strikes dirt and sizzles with primal recall. Fill their eyes with sunsets that explode as they hit the horizon.
Then send them home with the same memories you've embedded in my soul, so that they, too, will always love you.
PLATES IN THE HEART
DEAR CALA DEIA
By Terry Durack
You probably don't remember me, and I can't say I blame you. It has been several years since I was last in north-west Mallorca. But I can't forget how you suddenly appeared through the wind-twisted trees like a dream, as I made my way down the steep Tramuntana mountainside from the little village of Deia.
I remember your rock pools and clear turquoise waters, fringed by craggy cliffs and dotted with runabouts. I remember the tanned locals and tourists that swam and basked along your 70 metres of shingled beach, wearing little more than suntans.
In truth, I have known better beaches, and lying down on your rock-hard shingles is like doing penance for past sins. You don't have the golden sands of Bondi, the surf culture of Byron Bay and beyond, or the charged energy of Copacabana. But you have something special, where the wild grace of your land meets the buoyant saltiness of your water.
You also have two of the most delightful beachside restaurants that capture the just-caught-and-grilled magic of Spain's chiringuitoes and Australia's beach shacks, and bring everyone – rich and poor – down to the same level.
The locals' favourite, Ca'n Lluc, sits right on the sand, a beach ball's throw from the water, with a no-nonsense offering of classic Mallorcan dishes, fish and salads. Then there's Ca's Patro March, perched like a hermit's hide-out on the side of the cliff, its steps hewn from stone.
There are no windows, no walls and no roof; just straw thatching sagging over a rickety wooden framework that would pass no inspection ever. But the simple plates of calamari, octopus, sea bass and john dory are the stuff of magic – slapping fresh, grilled and smoky, and the local rosé comes on ice and keeps going until the sun starts to sink and the skies take on the same delicate hue.
This used to be a locals' favourite too, but then it played a starring role in the compelling television series, The Night Manager (Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Elizabeth Debicki). These days, who knows? It might be ruined, filled with shady superyacht owners or blinged-up rap artists, or worse, hordes of people peering around trying to spot somebody famous.
So yes, Cala Deia, I yearn to be with you again, but will you be the same, or will fame and fortune have changed you? I accept what happens, either way. That you exist at all is what really matters.
LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE
Deception Island, Antarctica Photo: Alamy
By Jamie Lafferty
Perhaps it's a facile comparison, and perhaps you know this better than anyone, but love and glaciers have a lot in common. They grow and they shrink, advance and retreat, melt and reform.
There are often cracks which are usually resealed, but once in a while a vital piece breaks off, never to be returned. Instead it drifts away, fragments and eventually disappears.
At their best, they're both as intoxicating as each other, love and glaciers. On grey days, like when I stood on the deck of Aurora Expedition's Polar Pioneer as we passed through Paradise Bay on the west coast of your Peninsula, the bergs seemed to generate their own light, pumping out a blue that looked almost artificial.
They appeared like huge paper lanterns, waiting to float into the heavens, or like a piece of the heavens had floated into them. Even if people don't come to you with the blues, they certainly leave with them. Aquamarine, azure, baby, cobalt, cyan, midnight, navy, royal, sapphire, turquoise … When I close my eyes and think of you, it's not white I see, but those hues.
December 2015, and my wife and I were trudging uphill through your knee-deep snow, trying to reach a place known as The Window on Deception Island – you know the place. Almost exactly five years earlier, a different voyage again, the journey had been a lot easier – with little snow, the dark volcanic landscape had been bare, the footing comparatively assured.
Your sun had shone. She said "yes" to that question you've probably heard asked a few times before. This second time, no one else from our ship was around – it was a private pilgrimage to the spot where we got engaged.
The Window overlooks Neptune's Bellows, the spectacular Tolkienesque entry into the dormant volcano that makes up Deception. From a distance, it looks like the lair of a master villain; inside it was the special place we agreed to make two into one.
When we finally arrived to what we just about agreed was the spot – hot, bothered, on the brink of argument – we pause for a quick kiss and a couple of photos. Below, in the snowy bay, we see that almost all the other passengers are already heading back to the Polar Pioneer. There is no time to hang around, so we have a final look, promise to come back again and start our descent.
Neither of us have any idea that within 12 months our marriage will be over.
My relationship with you, Antarctica, has, thankfully, endured. I'm hoping to see you again this year, just as soon as you're taking visitors again. I hope you still remember me. I think of you often. I know you'll definitely have heard this before but, well, I love you.
See you soon, Jamie.
A NEW BEGINNING
Jodhpur, India Photo: iStock
By Ute Junker
Believe me, I never meant to stay away so long. In fact, I still can't believe that 15 years went by so quickly. Obviously there was no way we could maintain the frantic pace of those heady early days.
When I fell for you, India, I fell hard. That first six-week trip – which introduced me to the chaos of your cities and the beauty of your deserts, to Mughal splendour and life lived in the streets – left me craving more.
And so I came back again and again, showing up almost every year to explore more of your wonders, from the jungles of Kerala to ancient cities where maharajas once ruled in splendid majesty.
What came between us, perhaps surprisingly, was money. When I was a young traveller existing on minimal creature comforts, I was able to deal with your more difficult side: the poverty, the squalor and, most upsetting of all, a flagrant disregard for the poor that I saw all too often.
As my travel budget increased and I was able to enjoy more luxurious accommodation, I struggled with the huge gulf between the lifestyle available to those with money, and the existence eked out by your poorest citizens.
And so I stayed away. With so many people deriding you – grumbling about the pollution in Delhi and the crowds at the Taj Mahal – I was able to convince myself that I wasn't missing out.
But this year, a decade and a half since we last saw each other, I decided it was time. Time to revisit my lost love and see if, after all these years, sparks were still flying. And yes, you've still got it.
Your array of attractions, from the unexpected elegance of Calcutta to the natural high of the Himalaya, is as beguiling as ever. What is less evident, thankfully, is that extreme poverty.
Walking the streets of your cities, the results of the economic boom that I've been reading about for years are clear. Not that poverty has disappeared, of course, but it appears much less rampant than it used to be.
Most exciting of all, the things I loved most about you are as appealing as ever, from your mouthwatering food to that insatiable hunger for colour that is on show in every temple and on every sari. India, I'm back, and I'm yours. Here's to a new start – and lots more adventures to come.
THE POWER AND THE PASSION
DEAR BASQUE COUNTRY
By Ben Groundwater
As with the most passionate love affairs, part of the attraction is physical. There's a raw beauty to you, the Basque Country of northern Spain, that can't be missed: it's strikingly bold, completely lacking in subtlety or restraint.
Just look at your mountains that begin where land rises from sea, these jagged peaks that brush the sky and touch the shores, that stretch from Basque France all the way to Cantabria. These hulking formations are filled with green meadows that disappear down dizzying limestone cliffs; mountain brooks that meander through forests; wildflowers that explode in an infinite palette.
Your coastline is no less spectacular, with sheep-strewn meadows that meet the deep blue Bay of Biscay, where little fishing villages like Getaria cling to the hillsides, where layers of history are folded into the flysch rock formations in towns like Zumaia. Wind and rain regularly buffet these coastal areas, going to show that beauty here comes with pain, it makes you work just that little bit harder, and always provides rewards.
But a love affair can't be purely physical. For passion that stirs your soul you need an intellectual connection, you need to think, you need to feel and you make me think, Basque Country. You make me ponder your people and how they came to be. You force me to consider their language that bears no connection to any other tongue.
It makes me wonder at how those mountains and that coastline have helped to shape and preserve this amazing culture, how the Basques have maintained their autonomy as empires and nations have risen and fallen around them.
Basque Country, you allow glimpses of what it means to call you home, you let me tap into your local passion and spirit and to feel, if only briefly, what it is to belong. You find that spirit in your cider houses that nestle in the hills around Astigarraga, these country homes where diners shares long tables and eat salt cod and rib-eye steak and drink as much cider as they can handle.
You find it on your streets of San Sebastian's Parte Vieja, the most convivial of places, where people snack and drink and talk for hours. You find it in your farmhouses in mountain hamlets like Berastegi, where guests are welcomed into the "etxeak", the homes that are so vital to the Basque way of life.
Yours is a culture that's celebrated in the best things in life, one that manifests itself in superb food and wine, in sporting prowess, in cherished celebrations, and in the unbreakable bond of family, of friendship and of identity. To feel part of that, if only briefly, is to love you forever.