Ten intimidating destinations that are surprisingly easy to visit

Have you ever rounded a street corner in Valletta and run into window-smashing protestors angry about a visiting British warship carrying nuclear weapons? Set forth from your hotel in central Lima to buy toothpaste only to find the square outside occupied by tanks? Enjoyed breakfast in Bangkok even as you read in the newspaper about another army coup?

For many travellers, such scenarios are the stuff of nightmare. Yet I've had all those experiences, and none made my holiday worse. Nor did they diminish the considerable reasons to visit Malta, Peru or Thailand. Two months after the 9/11 attacks, I travelled around an eerily tourist-empty, bargain-priced Middle East – including Syria and Lebanon – and was welcomed everywhere.

In truth, I'm a cautious, responsible and reasonably risk-averse traveller. Can things go horribly wrong? Of course they can. (Rest assured, I wouldn't visit Syria now.) Sometimes, though, it pays to ignore the hype, hyperbole and hand-wringing of the doomsayers. Last year, 6 million tourists visited Iran, 12 million visited Romania, and 35 million enjoyed a holiday in Mexico, even though movies and the media portray Mexico as a land of uninhibited drug warfare.

Ready to reconsider? Then pack your bags and your common sense, and you'll certainly enjoy these 10 outstanding travel destinations.

THE PLACE Iran

WHAT THEY SAY Iran is relentlessly portrayed as a rogue state, rife with political unrest and full of religious fanatics with a particular hatred of Westerners.

WHAT WE SAY Really? You'll find most mosques empty, youngsters testing dress-code limits, and shy students eager to talk. Iranians are well-educated and exceedingly hospitable, helpful and friendly.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT Esfahan is the world's greatest showcase of Islamic architecture. Shiraz is also lovely, and nearby Persepolis features the ruins of the Persian Empire's great capital. The Alborz Mountains have great hiking and skiing. You'll find ancient monuments, convivial teahouses and eye-popping bazaars everywhere.

STRATEGIES Behave conservatively; women will have to cover up. In large cities, avoid demonstrations if they arise. Expect somewhat basic hotels and tourism infrastructure.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Peregrine Adventures has a 13-day "Ancient Persia in Depth" tour that takes in the highlights, including ancient desert city Yazd. See peregrineadventures.com 

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See also: The three-minute guide to Esfahan, Iran

THE PLACE Romania

WHAT THEY SAY Communist-era images of Ceausescu's excesses and badly treated orphans linger. A new reputation for supposedly exporting pickpockets across Europe is widespread.

WHAT WE SAY Romania is one of Europe's lowest-priced, least-crowded destinations, with a relaxed, youthful vibe and an impressive depth of history and culture.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT Attractive old towns have been thoughtfully renovated over the last decade, including Art Nouveau Timisoara, medieval Sighisoara and baroque Brasov. Former royal residences Peles Castle and Dracula-associated Bran Castle, plus Carpathian Mountain landscapes, are other highlights. Bucharest isn't pretty but has good museums and cafes.

STRATEGIES Be alert for petty thievery, especially on public transport in bigger cities. Roads deteriorate in the countryside, but new motorways link towns.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Cox & Kings has a luxury 10-day "Timeless Romania" tour to the highlights, including the painted monasteries of Gura Humorului. See coxandkings.com.au 

THE PLACE Colombia

SunJul22coverhard - Too-Hard Destinations - Brian Johnston Colorful walls in Cartagena, Colombia CREDIT: Shutterstock

Colorful walls in Cartagena, Colombia. Photo: Shutterstock

WHAT THEY SAY Guerrillas, kidnappers and narco-traffickers give Colombian a dark reputation as a country seemingly on the verge of failure.

WHAT WE SAY All isn't well, and some of Colombia's regions remain no-go zones. But cruise companies visit, and tourist numbers exceed 3 million annually. The reasonable, informed visitor will be fine.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT A mix of South American and Caribbean food and culture, landscapes that range from snow caps to rainforest and coral-fringed beaches, great city festivals and nightlife. Spanish-era Cartagena is the highlight. The romantic, World Heritage port oozes charm, from flower-laden balconies right down to worn cobblestones.

STRATEGIES Leave valuables behind, use a money belt, watch where you wander. Fly rather than drive where possible. Avoid certain regions (see smartraveller.gov.au).

MAKE IT HAPPEN Intrepid Travel has several Colombian journeys, including a 16-day "Best of Colombia" that includes a visit to a coffee farm. See intrepidtravel.com 

See also: The Caribbean coastal city tourists don't know they're missing

THE PLACE Sicily

WHAT THEY SAY It's hard to shake off images of The Godfather. This Italian island is famous for the Mafia and assumed to be crime-ridden and unpleasant.

WHAT WE SAY Unchecked Mafia crime is a thing of the past. Petty street crime isn't unusual, but hardly particular to Sicily.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT Superb Norman-era churches, baroque palaces, Greek ruins, glorious hilltop towns, and great street markets, gelato and pastries are just the start in this culture-dense island. Expect stunning coastal and volcanic landscapes too, and a pleasingly balmy climate.

STRATEGIES Avoid certain districts of cities at night, and be vigilant for bag-snatchers. Don't worry about much-reduced Mafia activity, never directed at the lucrative tourist market.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Insight Vacations has an eight-day "Sicily In Depth" tour that visits some of Sicily's loveliest towns, such as Ragusa, Taormina and Syracusa. See insightvacations.com 

THE PLACE India

Tiger family a stroll one early morning at Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan, India SunJul22coverhard - Too-Hard Destinations - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Tiger family a stroll one early morning at Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan, India. Photo: Shutterstock

WHAT THEY SAY Tumultuous crowds, strange religious practices, stomach-churning food, heat and dust, dung-splattering cows, bewildering bureaucracy and glorious efficiency.

WHAT WE SAY Yes, all true. Pack your chill pills and Imodium. Prepare for the world's greatest human spectacle. India can be maddening, but is utterly unforgettable.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT A huge history, tropical lowlands and Himalayas, tiger safaris and spectacular temples, extraordinary festivals and kaleidoscopic markets, wandering sadhus and Bollywood stars create a fascinating destination. The "India lite" that is Rajasthan will suit first-time visitors.

STRATEGIES Book the best hotels you can afford, since they'll be your retreat from the day's madness. Join a tour, or hire yourself an accompanying guide or driver. Practice the art of calm, and accept you're in a different world.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Abercrombie & Kent's private journeys include a 12-day "Royal Rajasthan" itinerary taking in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. See abercrombiekent.com.au 

THE PLACE Russia

WHAT THEY SAY Is there a good word about Russia in the news? You'd think this was an entire country of skinheads, gay-bashers and obnoxious oligarchs.

WHAT WE SAY Politics seldom impinges on the visitor experience, and the Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup have encouraged tourism. For history and culture enthusiasts, few destinations are better.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT From Black Sea coast to the volcanic Russian Far East, this continent-sized country has variety, showcased on the legendary Trans-Siberian train ride. Moscow is bold, bling-laden and rich in brooding history, St Petersburg light, frothy and draped in sumptuous architecture.

STRATEGIES Just accept that Russians don't believe in smiling service – or smiling at all. You'll see them at their best relaxing in traditional bathhouses or conversing over tea or vodka.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Viking River Cruises' 13-day "Waterways of the Tsars" sails between Moscow and St Petersburg along the Volga-Baltic waterways. See vikingrivercruises.com.au 

See also: Why you should visit the world's final frontier

THE PLACE China

The Stone Forest in the Yunnan Province in China SunJul22coverhard - Too-Hard Destinations - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

The Stone Forest in the Yunnan Province in China. Photo: Shutterstock

WHAT THEY SAY Human-rights abuses, political machinations, urban pollution, environmental degradation, dodgy businesses, shonky goods: who doesn't love a bit of China-bashing?

WHAT WE SAY All the above are issues in a nation changing faster than any other in history, but there are just as many good-news stories. Most people's lives are better, service has wildly improved, and many tourist facilities are first-world standard.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT The world's oldest continuous civilisation offers everything from Great Walls to Buddhist cave sculptures and terracotta warriors, palaces to colonial-era concessions. Provinces such as Sichuan and Yunnan have glorious landscapes.

STRATEGIES Spend less time in traffic-clogged, polluted cities, more time in small towns and the very rewarding countryside. Prepare to deal with perpetual crowds – take it as a people-watching opportunity.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Wendy Wu Tours specialises in China, with nearly 60 options such as the 16-day "Wonders of China", which includes a Yangtze River cruise. See wendywutours.com.au 

THE PLACE Mexico

WHAT THEY SAY Banditry, kidnappings, open warfare between rival drug cartels and the mutterings of Donald Trump do little to promote Mexico.

WHAT WE SAY Don't panic. Some 35 million tourists head to Mexico each year, putting it in the top 10 most visited nations.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT Mexico is an epic and diverse country. It has tropical coastline, humid rainforest and high plateau merging into arid mountain ranges. Ancient Mayan and Aztec ruins compete with the outrageous baroque churches in Spanish-era old towns, and modern cities are dense in markets and flamboyant street life.

STRATEGIES Avoid border regions and those parts of the country most associated with drug cartels (smartraveller.gov.au has the details). Petty crime is common, so be sensible with valuables and don't walk alone at night.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Chimu Adventures has various Mexican itineraries, including a 15-day "Mexico in Depth" around southern Mexico's major sights. See chimuadventures.com 

See also: The tropical island paradise that's a well-guarded secret

THE PLACE Ethiopia

Ethiopia, Turmi village, Omo valley, 16.09.2013, Dancing Hamer tribe in a ceremony of initiation of young men SunJul22coverhard - Too-Hard Destinations - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Dancing Hamer tribe in a ceremony of initiation of young men in Ethiopia. Photo: Shutterstock

WHAT THEY SAY Ethiopia hasn't quite shaken off its 1980s (and Band Aid) reputation as a drought-ridden country suffering terrible famine.

WHAT WE SAY Ethiopia is opening up, liberalisation is in the air, famine is long gone and visitor numbers are climbing. Only certain border regions should be avoided.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT The adventurous will find national parks, towns hewn from rock, ancient frescoed churches and medieval castles, as well as a millennium-old cultures that remain largely intact. The Simien Mountains have good hiking and unusual wildlife such as baboons, Ethiopian wolves and ibex.

STRATEGIES Prepare for just-OK hotels, unstable electricity supply and less than smooth roads. In tourist areas Ethiopia is, however, one of Africa's safest countries for travellers.

MAKE IT HAPPEN World Expeditions has an 11-day "Ethiopia Explorer" that includes visits to Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls. See worldexpeditions.com 

THE PLACE Antarctica

Paradise Bay Antarctica SunJul22coverhard - Too-Hard Destinations - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Paradise Bay Antarctica. Photo: Shutterstock 

WHAT THEY SAY Antarctica is seen as frigid, distant, dangerous and the nemesis of many an explorer.

WHAT WE SAY All true: Antarctica remains a truly adventurous destination. But it doesn't have to be arduous, since numerous luxury cruise ships make the journey.

WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT Antarctica offers landscapes of frozen, elemental grandeur, such as the dramatic walls of ice at Paradise Bay and the scalloped, drifting icebergs of the Wedell Sea. Deception Island and South Georgia have vast penguin colonies. Other wildlife includes elephant seals, albatross, petrels and leopard seals.

STRATEGIES Large cruise ships don't land passengers but only indulge in scenic sails, so book a small expedition ship. Some cruises include a flight across the notoriously rough Drake Passage.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Scenic operates Antarctic cruises on new ship Scenic Eclipse, including a 12-day "Antarctica in Depth" that also calls at the South Shetland Islands. See scenic.com.au 

EASY-PEASY PLACES

If it all seems too risky, here are five of the world's easiest destinations to visit.

NEW ZEALAND

Easy to get to, easy to get around, great tourism infrastructure and friendly natives who speak English (or an amusing form of it) make New Zealand the best bet for timid travellers. It's almost like home, yet quirkily different. Landscapes are lovely, you can get great food and coffee, and you don't have to bungy-jump – just follow the wine trail instead.

GERMANY

The Germans like nature, hiking, wellness retreats, sleek fast trains, sleek fast cars, huge cheap beers, Christmas markets and arts and culture. If you need any further reason to visit, the Germans also believe in providing value for money, and don't make an exception for tourists. Head to Bavaria for conservative prettiness, Berlin for edgy urban life, the Rhine Gorges for scenery, and never feel uneasy.

SINGAPORE

This city-state could hardly be less confrontational. Crime is rare, terrorism non-existent, street drunkenness seldom seen. The whole nation is neat, tidy and well-organised. Compact size coupled with excellent public transport makes getting about simple, and Singapore packs in a surprising number of sights and three major cultures (Chinese, Malay and Indian).

SWITZERLAND

The stereotypes about the meticulous organisation and tidiness of the Swiss are all accurate. The result is well-run hotels, a transport system efficient to the second, and well-kept towns erupting with public displays of summer flowers. Nearly everyone in the tourism industry speaks some English. With skiing a major pastime, even winter travelling is a cinch.

MONACO

You'd have to try hard to get lost in a country a tad over two square kilometres in size, and where the sparkling Mediterranean coast is always in sight. Squeaky-clean streets and omnipresent security cameras create a bubble of peaceful prosperity for sports stars and oligarchs, and you'll feel like you're living the glamorous, in-between-chases bits of a James Bond fantasy.

NOT REALLY THAT HARD

These five cities may seem intimidating, but aren't as challenging as you might imagine.

CAIRO

This city is crowded, hot and chaotic, but there's a lot to see, and locals are charming and friendly. Hire a guide to smooth your visit, and keep pocketfuls of small notes handy to ease your way through a destination where modest tipping is a way of life. See egypt.travel 

RIO DE JANEIRO

Street crime is unquestionably an issue, so be wary where you go at night (if you go out at all), dress down, and leave valuables in your hotel safe. Most people are never mugged, and Rio is an entrancing city that you're sure the enjoy. See visitbrasil.com 

MOSCOW

The city's traffic is permanently gridlocked, and You Tube videos of Russian car crashes hardly encouraging. The solution is Moscow's fabulous underground-train system. As an added bonus, many stations are wonders of Soviet-era architecture. See russiatourism.ru 

TOKYO

One of the world's largest, most densely populated cities could seem a challenge, but take into account Japanese organisation, consideration of others in public places and shy helpfulness, and it's not actually that hard to navigate. See gotokyo.org 

NAPLES

This southern Italian city has a reputation for street gangs and grime, so be sensible about where you wander. But Naples has exuberant street life, sunny piazzas, great museums, even greater food, and a lovely setting overlooked by Vesuvius volcano. See visitnaples.eu 

JUST GIVE IT A GO

Can we tempt you with these not-that-hard travel experiences? We hope so.

HIKING THE MILFORD TRACK

New Zealand's great 54-kilometre walking trail across Fiordland can be done with a guide and enjoyed in comfort with lodge stays, meals and logistics provided. See ultimatehikes.co.nz 

SEEING POLAR BEARS

Canada's Wapusk National Park is the world's most accessible destination for polar-bear sightings. These magnificent animals have little fear, and may even peer into your tundra buggy's window. See travelmanitoba.com 

EXPLORING THE KIMBERLEY

You don't need a month's supplies, a four-wheel drive nor the ability to fix a crankshaft to explore Australia's remote northwest. Hop aboard a luxury expedition cruise and you'll be right. See coralexpeditions.com 

PILGRIMAGE TO SANTIAGO

Hardly anyone walks the entire 770-kilometre pilgrim route from the French border across northern Spain. Do sections. Tour companies will help with logistics and luggage transfers. See caminodesantiago.com.au 

OLYMPIC BOBSLEIGH RUN

The Olympic Sliding Centre in Whistler features luge, skeleton and bobsleigh competitions on the world's fastest ice track. You can take passenger skeleton and bobsleigh rides: all you need is the ticker. See whistlerslidingcentre.com

Brian Johnston has been hosted in some of the above destinations, and visited others at his own expense.

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