Of all the questions a travel writer is asked when they reveal their profession to a new acquaintance, the most common is: "What's the best place you've ever been?" Given our obsession with lists and ratings, this question is obvious, but it's also the most difficult to answer.
After all, can you really weigh Budapest against the Masai Mara or Vanuatu and declare a winner? Faced with the prospect, most travel writers will either produce a vague response - "Mexico is the best because it has so much to offer" - or, if they're feeling particularly generous and not eyeing a tray of canapes across the room, they will open up a conversation by saying, "It depends."
It depends on what qualities you value as the most important. Is food the most pressing interest (Spain), or transportation convenience (Switzerland)? If relaxation is paramount, London might be the worst place in the world, and you might say the Maldives or a Greek Island ranks at the top.
On the other hand, if culture is the main attraction, London is fairly difficult to beat. Add to this subjective experience - the idea that value is really determined by one's personal experience of a place, the people and meals - and the question becomes even more vexed and seemingly impossible to answer.
Nevertheless, we set a challenge for our travel writers - to answer the question: "What is the best destination in the world for Australians today?" We didn't want their favourite place, an obvious choice, or even the "it" place of the moment. The place didn't need to perfect – no place is, despite what the locals might say. It just needed to stand up to scrutiny, ticking as many boxes as possible. Here are their arguments.
By Ben Groundwater
Is there a more fascinating, more beautiful or more bizarre country than Japan? There can't be. It's as old as it is new, as colossally strange as it is conservative. It's a country of vast megalopolises where the little things count, where as much care goes into folding a small piece of paper as building a sky-scraping tower.
It's a country where history rubs up with ultra-modernity, where suit-clad salarymen eat lunch next to goths and punks, where gaming arcades are as popular as tea shops, where one night you're staying in a Buddhist temple deep in the mountains, and the next in the dinging, whirring, flashing insanity of Shinjuku.
Japan can feel ancient and mystical. Other times it can seem depraved and bizarre. But the true beauty of Japan for visitors is that it's never, ever threatening. You're free to experience all the country's history, all its culture, all its oddities and quirks and kinks without ever feeling that you're in danger, or that you're unwelcome.
It's all so easy. The trains run on time. The streets are clean and safe. The people are helpful and polite. Every meal is lovingly prepared and presented. And yet it's so wildly interesting.
I'll never tire of visiting Japan. I love its historic sites and monuments, its shrines and temples, its mountains and cities, its restaurants and shops. But the one experience I'll always crave is just sitting at a traditional izakaya with a glass of sake and a plate of food, and a whole night free to watch this strange and beautiful country go by.
By Ute Junker
So you have been to Italy and found it, well, overrated. I hate to break it to you but quite frankly, it is your own fault. You went to Italy expecting ancient ruins, an unrivalled collection of artistic masterpieces, historic towns, homey trattorie serving up simple but tasty meals, right?
And, if you are honest, that's precisely what you got. What you didn't like, I'm guessing, was the crowds. The endless queues at the Uffizi, the tourist packs pushing their way through the Vatican.
Fair enough. The truth, however, is that great destinations draw even greater tourist hordes. Don't like crowds? Then travel off-season. Outraged by tourist-gouging prices in the Piazza San Marco? Have your coffee in a quiet neighbourhood bar instead.
A little strategic thinking is a small price to pay to enjoy the splendours of Italy, splendours that are not only unrivalled but virtually inexhaustible. The attractions of Rome and Florence and Venice are too well-known to waste time on.
Let's talk instead about the Norman cathedrals of Puglia and the grand cafes of Turin, the Greek ruins at Sicily and treasure-laden towns such as Padua, Mantua and Ferrara. Nowhere else on earth has so much culture, so much history, so much loveliness packed into every square inch of ground.
Pick any hill town at random and you will be charmed in a dozen different ways, from the neat geranium pots perched on the staircases along the narrow winding streets to the luminous frescoes decorating the local church. Tired of touring? Grab a seat in the local piazza and watch the world go by. Yes, in Italy, even people-watching is elevated into an art form.
By Brian Johnston
There's no point in arguing: China is hands down the world's best destination, and it would take a lifetime to absorb its geographical and cultural superlatives. For a start, no other country can match its length of history.
The world's oldest continuous civilisation provides a 5000-year smorgasbord of stone Buddhas gazing from caves, teetering temples in remote mountains, vermillion palaces, terracotta warriors, the Great Wall, traditional gardens, colonial-era concessions and revolutionaries' mausoleums.
In brilliant contrast, no other country can match the speed and scale of China's current economic and social change either. Why bother returning to Europe for the same old thing all over again? Every time you return to China, it has moved on. People are better off, trains faster, temples lively again and service has wildly improved.
Yes, with this comes problems – for the visitor, urban pollution is the downside – but this is your chance to see a nation in the throes of change that hasn't been seen since the Industrial Revolution. Yet, despite it all, China's many successes deserve to be admired.
China is also far more varied and surprising than many people imagine. It has snow-covered deserts, the Himalayas and steamy rainforest. The northern Chinese cuisine is based in wheat, not rice. (And need I really remind you how great the food is?).
China is also staggeringly beautiful, from the misty cliffs of the Yangtze Gorges to the calligraphy-scroll perfection of Huangshan, where soaring rock pinnacles are crowned with gnarly pines.
Best of all, China has an engaging and forward-looking people, most of whom believe their lives are getting better. Their enthusiasm and optimism is a great antidote to hand-wringing westerners.
By Alison Stewart
South Africa has more charisma than is decent. First things first, it's excellent value. One dollar yields SAR9, so a five-course dinner at Cape Town's Test Kitchen, ranked 28 on S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants, costs about $60 a head or $100 with matched wines.
By this reckoning, most Antipodean travellers can afford some luxury, while moderate-priced travel is truly cost-effective – the Wild Coast's lovely Umngazi River Bungalows, for example, cost from $107 a person, lavish meals included.
Isolation and tough exchange rates have forced South Africans to holiday locally, yielding quality holiday options for all budgets. And South Africans do luxury exceptionally well too, from hotel and safari lodge accommodation to dining, tourism infrastructure, hospitality and adventure travel.
World-beating Rovos Rail is just one of many high-end companies offering superior service and value. South Africa has always captivated travellers with its natural beauty, from the sweep of the Wild Coast to the Provencal-esque Cape winelands, from the sculptural red-rock Cederberg Mountains to the game-rich Kruger plains and the Blyde River Canyon, the world's largest green gorge.
But it's not just about the natural beauty, the 3000 kilometres of silky white-sand beaches, the safaris or the climate. There's a buzz about its cities too. Cape Town regularly makes "best of" lists – London's Telegraph readers have just voted it the world's best city for the third year running. And nothing beats a hot African night, the roar of a hunting lion and a star-spattered sky.
By John Huxley
Not so long ago, an English couple off on their honeymoon in Australia were surprised to do the flight from London in a world-record time, of 12 hours, including a switch of plane. The only snag: they'd arrived not in Sydney, New South Wales, but Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Raoul and Emma eventually made it Down Under, but not before they were treated like royalty by their surprised hosts, who put them up in the best hotel, entertained them at a civic function and took them on stunning sightseeing tours of surrounding Cape Breton Island.
That's typical of Canada, a friendly country which is regularly listed among the world's top 10 "most liveable", and boasts three cities - Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary - in the top five of the Economist Intelligence Unit "quality of life" survey.
Canada ticks more boxes than most travellers can imagine: from Vancouver Island's world-best gardens to the wilderness beauty of remote Newfoundland; from the polar bears of freezing, far north Tuktoyaktuk to the dramatic Niagara Falls, south of Toronto; from the ski slopes of Whistler to the French chic of backstreet Quebec.
It's a big country, bigger by far even than Australia, but transport is generally cheap, reliable and comes in a variety of forms, including the iconic, such as the Canadian Pacific railway.
Likewise, hotels, admission tickets to national attractions and a wide choice of foods, mixed on the melting pot of Canada's multiculturalism, offer excellent variety and value with the local dollar going much further than the US greenback.
By Lance Richardson
Sri Lanka is a sprawling universe contained inside a thimble. Teardrop-shaped, the size of Tasmania, it sits off the southeastern coast of India and can perhaps be thought of as "India Lite" - all the colour, less of the mayhem and constant human onslaught.
Move beyond Colombo, Sri Lanka's unlovely capital, and it quickly becomes clear why the Dutch and British felt compelled to try to stake "Ceylon" (as they called it) for themselves. Many places lay a claim to being diverse, but almost all of them pale next to this place.
The southern shore is a fringe of perfect beaches, and the old fort city of Galle is a masterpiece of spice-scented cobblestone streets. Slightly north, the island protrudes into a spine of verdant mountains blanketed with tea plantations.
A train snakes through the heights on one of the most lovely journeys in the world, taking visitors within easy reach of national parks and the holy mountain of Sri Pada.
Everywhere are Buddhist temples, dropped seemingly at random in the forest, and even further north, beyond the mountains, ancient Buddhist cities lie on an open plain that can readily be explored by bicycle.
At the very top of Sri Lanka, in a place called the Jaffna Peninsula, the tempo changes, becomes more Indian, and you find yourself in a place once ravaged by war but now open for business to the more intrepid traveller.
Read: Traveller stories on Sri Lanka
By Kerry van der Jagt
Peru. For young or old, independent or groups, wildlife warriors or culture vultures, Peru ticks every box.
Ancient Ruins From the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu to its little sister Choquequirao, the temples of Pachacamac to the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, Peru is thick with ancient wonders. While the Incas are Peru's pin-up civilisation, remnants can still be found of the Chimu people at Chan Chan, the Nazca and their mysterious lines and the 5000-year-old pyramid city of Caral.
Bragging rights Navigated the Amazon River? Check. Surfed the North Shore? Check. Hiked 4000-metre mountain passes? Swum with pink river dolphins? Slept on a floating reed village? Check, check, check. Your friends will hate you, but you'll come home a stronger, more confident version of yourself. But Peru will also soften you. Even with a growing economy, the gap between the haves and have nots is wide, particularly in remote Indigenous communities. Travellers can give back through volunteer programs, community tourism and homestays.
Culture It's everywhere, inside Lima's world-class museums, lived large on the streets. It's in the clothing and customs, the religious and seasonal festivals, the offerings to Pachamama, even the guinea pigs and funny hats.
Dining Lima's white-hot restaurant scene is taking the world by storm. Chef Virgilio Martinez's Central is now No. 4 in the S. Pellegrino list of World's 50 Best Restaurants, serving up native ingredients from the mountains, sea, desert and jungle. Then there's the cevicherias, more than 16,000 across Lima alone. Fruits from the Amazon, beef from the countryside, seafood from the Pacific. A cooking class, a pisco sour lesson, a fried pork sandwich, it's all here.
Ease of travel Peru is well connected with flights, safe and welcoming to travellers and has a range of accommodation, including a new wave of boutique hotels.
By Steve Meacham
Don't be fooled by Alexander McCall Smith and his traditionally built heroine, Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder and owner of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Botswana can't be that idyllic, can it? It is even better.
One of Africa's most stable, multi-party democracies, Botswana is relatively free of corruption, has a good human rights record and a thriving economy based largely on two things: diamonds and upmarket tourism.
The scenery and wildlife are staggeringly picturesque. The Okavango has been described as "a beautiful but deranged river" because it begins in Angola, close to the Atlantic, then heads inland, drawn to the desert. As it meets the Kalahari, it spreads out into a lush delta that is home to all the great safari animals of the continent. Where else can you see hippos, lions, elephants, buffalo and leopards from the comfort of a mokoro canoe?
The declared policy of successive Botswana governments has been to invest and encourage "high-cost, low-impact" tourism. Which means it isn't cheap, and budget travellers are deliberately not targeted. But, if you can afford to treat yourself, the Okavango is one river that should be on everyone's Bucket List.
Choose two or three different lodges or safari camps at different parts of the Okavango, with a couple of nights at each one, to maximise your chances of seeing as much wildlife as possible. And enjoy those gin and tonics the cheerful guides will serve up at the end of another waterfront safari.
By Catherine Marshall
How do you identify a singular destination in a world bursting with temptation? You don't, of course, for the perfect place – the one that appeals to our cultural appetites, our geographical disposition, our habits and peculiarities – is a composite that simply doesn't exist. The best we can do is settle on a country that fulfils more of our nomadic yearnings than any other, one that triggers for us such a deep and abiding sense of connection that, once we've seen it, we could happily stay home.
Tanzania is such a place, set below the equator and framed by the Indian Ocean to the east and an arc of great lakes from north to west to south: Victoria, Tanganyika, Rukwa, Malawi. The country fulfils the most fundamental principle for the serious traveller: to know not just where you're going, but where you've come from. It sits within the heart of Africa, that cradle of mankind. In the Great Rift Valley's Olduvai Gorge lie fossilised bones and stone tools – the earliest evidence of the existence of our human ancestors. A trip to Tanzania, then, becomes a voyage of discovery.
Here travellers can also see other, less primordial, enchantments: Africa's highest peak, the snow-dusted Kilimanjaro; Zanzibar's tropical beaches; Ngorongoro Crater, filled with Masai cattlemen and wildlife so prolific one can hardly believe they cohabit peacefully; and one of the world's most beautiful expanses on earth: the Serengeti.
Add to that its unfailingly friendly inhabitants, reputation as one of Africa's safest destinations, favourable exchange rate and cultural diversity – from traditional Masai to fourth-generation Dutch settlers to Zanzibar's earliest inhabitants, Persians come to ply the spice route – and you have yourself a destination that is almost perfect.
One of the world's most misunderstood countries, Iran is a fascinating, beautiful, and above all safe country to travel through, a place of amazingly hospitable people, stunning mosques, labyrinthine bazaars, ancient cities, and even a ski resort. BG
The home of Europe's most exciting city (Berlin, if you missed the news) is also Europe's most underrated tourist destination. Gorgeous medieval towns, stunning natural landscapes and a rich artistic and musical heritage. UJ
Spain is a mosaic of fiercely independent regions with distinctive languages, cultures, landscapes, cuisines and architectural styles. It has a fascinating history, passionate people and evenings filled with aimless perambulation and tapas-eating. BJ
Byzantine and Ottoman, European and Asian, modern and ancient, Turkey's appeal likes in its contradictions. Cosmopolitan Istanbul is a like a country in in its own right, and there are spectacular sites of antiquity like Ephesus and Nemrut. AS
The US may be quick to toot its own horn, but when it comes to travel it has a good reason. What other country can boast epic wilderness (Alaska), heavenly islands (Hawaii), a city like New York, and a mountain chain as glorious as the Rockies? LR
BEST FOR CULTURE
When your history includes some of humankind's most interesting civilisations, from the Incas to the Nazcas, the Chimu to the Moche, and finally the conquistadores of Spain, you're never going to be short of culture. BG
It is not the fact that their culture stretches back over 1000 years that makes Japan special; it is the way that culture is revealed in every aspect of daily life, from the way a shopkeeper wraps your purchases to how dinner is arranged on your plate. UJ
Visiting America is like stepping inside a movie: open highways, Alcatraz, yellow cabs, Beverly Hills, cowboy country. It has provided the soundtrack to our lives too, from Memphis soul to New Orleans jazz, Delta blues to Seattle grunge.
Denmark has a rich artistic and freethinking culture. Museums, theatre, film and literature are funded through grants allowing Danes to tell their stories and preserve their complex history. Architecture, design, fashion and food are world class. AS
There's no culture in the world that grips you by the shoulders and slaps you in the face with quite the same ferocity as India's. No matter where you go, you won't escape the religious rituals, the confounding traditions, the strange-yet-quotidian practices that infuse every element of Indian life. CM
BEST FOR FOOD
Forget the paella. Five of the world's top 20 restaurants are in Spain, including the No. 1, El Celler de Can Roca. This is the home of tapas, of pintxos, of jamon iberico, of queso manchego, of the complexity of Ferran Adria's famed creations. BG
Sizzling satays, spicy clams and chicken rice, melt-in-your-mouth roti parata: Singapore's street food lives up to the hype. Throw in local traditions like the kopi tiam breakfast, high-end diners and chic eateries and who has time to shop? UJ
In many a urban neighbourhood you can chomp your way through Thai, Vietnamese, Greek, Italian, Chinese and mod Oz (and then there's the coffee). And in country towns you'll find fine wine, cheese, honey, artisanal breads, olives and oysters. BJ
Unimaginable even just a few years ago, England - London, specifically - has become one of the most exciting culinary centres of the world, filled with stellar restaurants and the diversity that comes with mixed immigration from Europe and beyond. LR
Take the best of Central Asia, Middle East, Mediterranean and Balkan and you have Turkish cuisine. Think spinach and feta gozleme, lamb kofte, grilled eggplant, spicy chickpeas, beetroot dip, Turkish delight and baklava. KvdJ
Read: Traveller stories on foodie holidays
BEST FOR SCENERY
Just try – try – to take a bad photo in Burma. From the beauty of sunrise in Bagan, when the day's first rays of light wash fields of ancient temples in bright orange, to the sparkling waters of Inle Lake, this is one extremely photogenic country. BG
Lakes and alps provide gorgeous natural scenery with the Swiss providing a helping hand by adding geranium-draped chalets, lakeshore promenades and lush meadows where cowbells clank. BJ
Many countries, across Europe, Asia and the Americas offer dramatic, drop-dead gorgeous views, but nothing matches the scenery shock of disappearing off the end of the earth into the seascapes of Antarctica. JH
The unusual topography of Peru makes it extraordinarily diverse. The verdant Amazon, the soaring Andes, the wide and desolate ocean front desert: even just a few hours travel transforms the landscape beyond reckoning. LR
There's a reason why Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have shot movies here: the landscape is truly breathtaking. From the Bay of Islands to steaming, sulphuric Rotorua, from the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps to the majestic fiords, New Zealand is the Land of the Long Loud Sigh. SM
BEST FOR HOSPITALITY
It is probably a cliche to say the Irish are open and welcoming, but cliches usually contain a kernel of truth. Step into one of the trillion pubs in and beyond Dublin and it quickly becomes clear that foreignness is no obstacle to good craic. LR
An extraordinarily cheap, beautiful, mind-blowingly templed country, scattered with so many reminders of a blood-soaked recent history, inhabited by so many wonderfully happy people. JH
Forget the media image. Iranians aren't just polite and relaxed but very helpful: they'll lead you to bus stations, buy you tickets and share their picnics. Loiter in downtown squares and shy students will start conversations. BJ
Most of the visitors trickling into Nicaragua are drawn by its natural attractions: verdant forests, massive lakes, active volcanoes. What they are not expecting is the genuine friendliness and warmth of the locals. UJ
Malawi, wedged into the Great Rift Valley between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, and unspoiled by tourism. is known as "the warm heart of Africa". It's not an idle claim since Malawians are incredibly hospitable. AS
From the very first "Bula!" to the last, you know you're in a country where the people are happy and genuinely happy to see you. This goes for many other Pacific island nations too, but Fijians are incapable of an unwarm welcome. SM