Everything has been rated. You may not realise it, but every single element of your holiday experience has already been reviewed and scored. Your flight, your hotel, your cruise, your tour, your bus, your restaurant, your cafe and your bar – your destination itself has been evaluated by countless people before you.
That's the way now, with TripAdvisor, with Skytrax, with Google and Expedia and more. Everything to do with travel has a star rating. Every element of your forthcoming journey has been evaluated in advance and represented by a number.
In some cases that's extremely handy. We choose better destinations now. We also lower the risks of disaster by having other people experience them and report back on them first. In other cases, however, these endless ratings do travellers a disservice – mostly, because the evaluations are wrong.
There are places out there that are criminally underrated, attractions and destinations that your fellow travellers either haven't discovered or seem to be viewing in the wrong light. On the flipside, there are just as many eternally popular places out there that seem, to the Traveller team at least, to be coasting along on reputation alone, with little heed paid to travellers' actual experience.
Each year, our team casts its eye over the world to look for these anomalies, for the destinations and attractions that the reviewers have got wrong. These are the underrated and overrated features we've discovered in the world of travel in 2019.
CONTRIBUTORS: Ben Groundwater, Brian Johnston, Catherine Marshall, Rob McFarland, Kerry van der Jagt, Sue Williams
CITIES AND COUNTRIES
Small, sedate Singapore, long considered rather boring, has founds its spark in recent years and has stepped out in style. Beyond its reputation for shopping and street markets, it has a heady cultural mix, impressive hotels, sophisticated dining and bar scenes and impeccableeco-credentials.
Tourism in Poland is booming, but it lags behind the rest of Europe, and thus offers a mostly crowd-free enjoyment of its many beautiful old towns, parks and 16 World Heritage sites. Since the fall of Communism its cities have been restored and revived, making them great places both for historical meanders and contemporary living.
If you want gorgeous old towns and destinations mostly over the horizon from Europe's increasing tourist crowds, then you ought to get more familiar with northern Germany and its former Hanseatic trading cities such as Lubeck, Rostock and Bremen. The coastline is lovely and Hamburg is considered by Germans to be their coolest city.
KYUSHU REGION, JAPAN
This southernmost big island has a mild climate, spectacular volcanic landscapes, national parks, hot springs and a ragged coast sprinkled with beach resorts, yet gets minimal Western tourists.
These 15 islands flung across 2 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean provide the ultimate tropical getaway without hordes of tourists, condominiums or raucous bars. As for Aitutaki (above), it flaunts the world's most dazzling lagoon whose peacock waters are fringed with white-sand beaches on which the only crowds are scuttling crabs.
SAN DIEGO, US
LA and San Francisco get all the California acclaim, which also means they get all the crowds. Head south to San Diego and you'll find better weather, better beaches, better Mexican food and an surprisingly vibrant arts and culture scene. If you've got time, plan a day-trip to Tijuana just across the border.
Often dismissed as a gaudy seaside resort full of candy floss and fish'n'chips, Brighton has quietly evolved into a sophisticated, cosmopolitan metropolis. You'll now find outposts of London celebrity magnet The Ivy plus Italian small plate specialist Polpo.
Often overshadowed by its showier neighbours – Brazil, Peru and Argentina – Ecuador rarely gets the attention it deserves. Yet this equator-straddling minnow offers variety no other South American nation can match. Where else can you get such diverse experiences as island hopping around the Galapagos, trekking through the foothills of the Andes and exploring the Amazon all in one country?
This slender country in south-eastern Africa is the continent's quiet achiever, a culture-rich nation now building a reputation as a safari destination. The Malawian government has been hailed as a leader in conservation thanks to its commitment to the rehabilitation of wildlife parks and the reintroduction of previously decimated species.
Despite having some of the planet's best-preserved archaeological treasures, Athens is often seen as just a stepping stone to the Greek Islands. Spend some time in the city and you'll soon realise it has much more to offer, including a sophisticated culinary scene honed from 2500 years of practice, a stamina-testing nightlife that will have you dancing till dawn and a population of friendly, feisty, fun-loving locals. More than anything else, it's a city where you'll be constantly surprised by the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern.
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM
The city formerly known as Saigon is not as famous as Hanoi and can't boast the same charm as its northern sibling, but still, this is one fantastic tourist destination. Ho Chi Minh City is friendly and frantic, and electrifying in so many ways. Maybe you'll score a bargain at a market. Maybe you'll eat a meal that is the best you've ever tasted. Maybe you'll be wiped out by a scooter. The thrill is in not knowing.
Build it and they will come should be the tagline for this emerging city on the Caspian Sea. Independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, flush with cash from a natural resource boom, and flashy thanks to an impressive number of ambitious building projects, Look to the heavens for a trio of skyscrapers shaped like flames, a carpet museum shaped like a rolled up carpet and the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Centre, with its distinctive curves and waves.
The famed floating city, capital of the Venetian Empire and world tourism juggernaut, has been getting bad press recently thanks to genuine issues with overcrowding. Venice is sinking, probably in part under the weight of all those visitors. But this city is still a pleasure to visit if you do it right steering clear of the hotspots and sticking to the backstreets.
Portugal is the little European country that could, the one-time battler that is now welcoming record numbers of visitors thanks to its golden beaches in the south, its beautiful, bustling cities along the central coastal areas, its wine regions throughout, the nation's excellent no-fuss cuisine and a laid-back friendliness that instantly charms.
What do you look for in an Italian city? Roman ruins, the likes of beautifully preserved amphitheatres that are several millennia old? Verona has that. High-quality local food served in friendly, affordable restaurants? Verona has that, too. Exceptionally good local wine? Verona has that. Historic charm and beauty? You guessed it.
Is there are a more exciting destination in Australia right now for food and drink than Adelaide? Surely not. This is the home of Orana, the Good Food Guide 2019's Restaurant of the Year. It plays host to destination eateries such as Orso and Africola. It has not one, not two, but three of Australia's best wine regions on its doorstep with its Central Market home to many of our finest purveyors of fresh produce.
Though this troubled area is rarely mentioned as a potential tourism destination, there are many fine reasons to journey to the Palestinian Territories and experience it for yourself. Begin with historic cities such as Bethlehem, Nablus and Jericho, continue with the Palestinians' excellent Levantine-style cuisine and finish with the chance to understand an unfairly maligned part of world.
The exotic Khan Al-Khalili souk. Photo: iStock
Cairo was a tourism powerhouse. And then, it wasn't. Political unrest put a stop to that; terrorism became a threat and the flood of visitors suddenly slowed to a trickle. However, as political tensions ease in Egypt, so Cairo is beginning to reclaim its former status.
What if there was a country with mountain ranges like Austria; with fairytale villages like Switzerland; and with gastronomic culture like Italy – and yet a fraction of the crowds of all those famous destinations? That's Slovenia, a modest and vastly underrated country surrounded on all sides by nations that are not.
With rugged highland scenery, rich cultural heritage, some of the world's finest pubs, history that stretches back millennia, cities that charm and empty countryside that seduces – plus a local population that's friendly in the extreme – there's very little to dislike about Scotland. Except, maybe, the weather.
Need a T-shirt with a naked Vladimir Putin reclining on a bear rug? Or a big fur hat for winter? Or a Soviet good citizen medal? Europe's largest city has it all, as well as the world's most stirring monuments. St Basil's Cathedral is battily beautiful, socialist fortress the Kremlin holds more priceless items that you can ever imagine in its armoury, and Red Square is, well, an incredibly atmospheric 73,000 square metre rectangle.
The capital of humble Romania isn't the place where you'd expect the most valuable property in the world. But it's a city full of surprises, from the massive Palace of the Parliament (above) built by former communist dictator Ceausescu, now valued at US$3.4 billion, to the shady cobbled streets filled with restaurants; from Revolution Square where Ceausescu gave the speech that triggered his demise, to the National Village Museum with its peasant farms, homes and churches.
It gave the world Cadbury chocolate, JRR Tolkien, Thomas the Tank Engine and Ozzy Osbourne, so the UK's second-largest city is well worth a second look. And today it's far from the grimy industrial place it once was. Now the host city of the 2020 Commonwealth Games has undergone a huge regeneration, with more kilometres of canals – and pretty tow paths – than Venice and cheaper beer than Germany.
The monastery in Spania Dolina. Photo: iStock
Once best known for its beer and bawdy bucks' nights, this small central European nation is emerging as a terrific tourist destination, big on charm, beautifully preserved historic sights and economic prosperity. Wander the cobblestones of the capital Bratislava in the footsteps of the coronation processions of the kings and queens of the once-mighty Hungarian empire, see the sights left by Napoleon and the Soviet Union alike, and hike through stunning countryside.
Kenya and Botswana may have higher profiles for wildlife viewing, but Tanzania is creeping up behind them with some of the biggest tracts of land in the world for seeing animals in action during the annual migration. Watching wildebeest charge through the Serengeti or round and round Ngorongoro Crater as lions and crocs line up to pick off the stragglers – It's life (and death) in its rawest form. And there's Africa's highest mountain, Kilimanjaro.
Doha, Qatar. Photo: iStock
It started off as a convenient long-haul stopover with an excellent airline, but there's far more to this Gulf state. It's become the Middle East's cultural capital with a huge array of art galleries, museums and eye-catching architecture, as well as falconry, desert dune bashing, Al Jazeera, sailing and sport. The rebel of the region is still intent on a place on the world stage – and that's coming with a very hot 2022 FIFA World Cup.
It's just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the birth of Motown and it seems there Ain't No Mountain High Enough to defeat the former Motor City's climb back up from the depths of economic despair. From the ruins of the car industry and bankruptcy, it's rising Phoenix-like with funky new development, creativity and hipster cool including brew houses, cafes, galleries and Budapest-style "ruin pubs".
Och aye, it has a magnificently positioned castle and lots of old buildings, but it also has its drawbacks. On the east coast of Scotland, with the chill wind direct from Siberia, it can be bitterly cold, it's swamped by tourists, it's horribly over-priced and it's hard to find a cafe that doesn't claim to have some Harry Potter connection.
Waikiki sure is pretty, with the beach, palm trees and Diamond Head crater in the background, but it's lost much of its charm to the high rise hotels, over-sized resorts, flashy designer stores and hugely inflated prices. When you see people lining up from 6am to get into a very ordinary cafe, fighting over pool-side chairs and bumping boards in the surf, it feels more aggro than aloha.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Yes, it has the world's tallest building, but it also has some of its worst traffic congestion that makes getting to the Burj Khalifa from those massive shopping centres, theme parks and artificial islands one of the world's biggest nightmares. It's really just a mad concrete jungle on steroids.
HOI AN, VIETNAM
This lovely historic town has unfortunately become a victim of overtourism, with huge crowds and tourist-focused facilities robbing it of its charm.
THE FRENCH RIVIERA
The beaches in places such as Nice and Antibes are lovely, if you like pebbles instead of sand. The French Riviera is also expensive and crowded.
BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA
Byron just ain't what it used to be. The hippies have gone and the influencers have arrived, turning a former surf town into a building developer's paradise.
This is a city of beauty, history and culture, but it's also extremely popular, and there are plenty of alternatives in Japan that people tend to miss in its favour.