- In March I left New York to travel around the world as Business Insider’s international correspondent. Over the course of more than six months, I have so far visited 18 countries.
- While I’ve had some epic adventures, not everything lived up to the hype. Some bucket-list attractions were overpriced, uninspiring, overcrowded, or just plain boring.
- Among the offending attractions: the “most dangerous hike in the world” in China, the Marina Bay Sands mega-hotel featured in “Crazy Rich Asians,” and the Greek isle of Mykonos.
- I thought it might be helpful to share which of my recent adventures weren’t worth the trouble.
- If you’re looking for the things you should do, I have a list of those too.
Let’s be honest, some things simply don’t live up to the hype.
There’s a temptation when going on a big trip abroad to come back singing the praises of everything you did and saw, whether it’s a mediocre, all-inclusive island resort or an adrenaline-pumping off-road trip through the desert.
But that muddies the waters. Sometimes, you get to a place, attraction, or activity only to find it overpriced, uninspiring, overcrowded, or just plain boring. If you don’t call that out, how do you know some experience you’ve had really was life-altering?
When I left to travel as Business Insider’s international correspondent in March, I knew there would be amazing adventures along the way. I also knew there would be more than a few duds. Among them: the “most dangerous hike in the world” in China, the Marina Bay Sands mega-hotel featured in “Crazy Rich Asians,” and the Greek isle of Mykonos.
With 18 countries and nearly a year checked off on the trip so far, I decided it was time to pinpoint my least favourite adventures. Perhaps it will help you reevaluate an upcoming trip, adjust your expectations for a bucket-list location, or feel less pressure to go see or do that thing that everyone is telling you that you must do.
Here’s what they are:
In China, I headed to Mount Hua, or Huashan, considered to be one of China’s five sacred mountains and one of the most popular tourist attractions and pilgrimage sites for Chinese people. The mountain actually has five main peaks: a North, South, East, West, and Center.
While breathtaking, it’s considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous places to hike, due in large part to the infamous plank walk located on the mountain’s highest peak, South, which has a height of 7,070 feet.
Unfortunately, I never got to the plank walk. The easiest way to get to the mountain’s peaks is by cable car. The line was incredibly long. You can’t even see the cable car in this picture.
After two hours or so, I got to this holding area. It was another two hours before I got on the cable car. I didn’t have enough time to hike to the plank walk by the time I got to the top.
In South Korea, I took a day trip to the country’s border with North Korea, also known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. It’s one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders.
Surreally, it is possibly the country’s top tourist attraction with 1.2 million visitors a year. Depending on the tour, you visit a selection of military compounds, viewpoints, and tunnels.
It feels really strange. What struck me was how commercialized the DMZ felt, from the variety of North Korean products you could buy to the ’80s-action-movie-style video about the border they screen to the cartoon soldier statues for touristy photos. I wouldn’t go back, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a real history buff.
One of the places I was most excited to visit in China was the Terracotta Army, the vast collection of terracotta warrior sculptures that guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.
For some reason I thought the pit of terracotta warriors would be an open-air complex, or that you’d be able to walk close to the sculptures. It’s not, and you can’t.
It is hot, sweaty, and crowded. I was there on a weekday in April — hardly peak tourist time for Chinese travellers — and could barely move. You have to fight your way to the balcony around the sculpture pit.
Before getting to Bali, I had been told by many that I had to try Kopi Luwak, a traditional Balinese coffee considered to be the most expensive coffee in the world.
Kopi Luwak is coffee made from coffee beans that have been digested and defecated by a civet cat. Balinese farmers have touted for generations that this method produces the best-tasting coffee.
Perhaps it produced better-tasting coffee when the method was first developed hundreds of years ago. When I had it at one of the few coffeeshops that produces kopi luwak humanely, it tasted somewhat bitter and overly earthy. Nothing special.
One of the places I was most excited to visit was the Greek isle of Mykonos, known as a party capital and vacation hot spot for billionaires.
While the island was beautiful, it was unimaginably crowded. The island was choked with hundreds of thousands of vacationers, hard-partying dance-music junkies, and cruise-shippers.
And it felt prohibitively expensive. Getting a lounger at a popular beach could run you hundreds of dollars a day, and you have little room to stretch out.
The waters off the most popular beaches were crowded with the yachts of millionaires and billionaires. The water was beautiful and clear, but it makes it feel like you are swimming in a marina. Unless you’re stopping by in the off-season, head to a less crowded island. There are many.
China has lots of unique natural landscapes and geological formations. One of the most interesting ones I saw on Reddit prior to my visit to China was the Danxia landform of Zhangye, also known as the “rainbow mountains.”
The Danxia landform is a spectacular sight, but I’m including it on this list because its beauty is exaggerated in many of the photos you see online. This is how it looked when I visited. Compare those colours to the previous picture.
I would definitely still recommend visitors to China make plans to visit the landform if interested in the country’s natural beauty. Just adjust your expectations.
One place I would unequivocally avoid in China is the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge. It is the longest and highest glass bridge in the world.
But visiting the bridge is no fun. After waiting for several hours for my turn on the bridge, I found it to be crowded and anything but peaceful.
It felt like one of the first tourist attractions built specifically for people to take selfies on. Just about every person on the bridge was laying or sitting on the glass trying to get a “floating” selfie. Unless you like overpriced tourist traps with long lines, skip it.
One of the joys of visiting Hong Kong is wandering the city’s alleyways and streets. In the hilly Central District, however, it can be exhausting. To make it easier to navigate, the city built the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, a half-mile escalator system considered the biggest of its kind.
There are restaurants and bars along the 18 escalators, which run downhill in the mornings and uphill in the evenings.
While the escalators are a useful way to commute to work for Hong Kongers, it’s nothing you need to go out of your way to visit. It mostly just looks like this.
Tourism to Portugal has exploded in recent years, for good reason. The country has gorgeous beaches, great food, and interesting architecture. One of the places capitalising on the boom is Livraria Lello, one of the world’s oldest bookstores.
Located in the coastal city of Porto, the bookstore has become popular thanks to its association with J.K. Rowling (who reportedly based certain Harry Potter settings on the store), and breathtaking photos posted to Instagram.
Unless you visit Portugal during the winter, don’t expect the bookstore to look like the previous photo. It’s more likely to be packed with hundreds of people. There’s barely room to move, let alone take a good photo.
When doing research about Hong Kong, one place that kept coming up as a must-visit was Chungking Mansions. Alternately billed as the cheapest place to find a room in the city and a hotbed of illicit businesses, it is considered one of the most infamous places in Hong Kong.
I was too wary to book a room in the 17-floor complex. But after spending a few hours there, I wondered why.
The place seemed to be a relatively tame building of small businesses and cheap guesthouses.
While there were plenty of small-business and restaurant owners hawking for your business, it hardly felt dangerous.
There’s little reason to go unless you are in need of a cell phone or have a hankering for tasty South Asian, Middle Eastern, or African food. I had fantastic curry after wandering the complex.
When I looked into where I might stay in Hong Kong, I was very excited to try out SLEEEP, the city’s first capsule hotel, a concept invented in Japan in the late 1970s that aims to provide cheap, convenient “sleeping pods” for travellers who do not require the services of a full hotel.
It all sounded futuristic until I got ready for bed. While the sleeping pod looked cosy and inviting …
… the pods got very hot, very quickly, and did little to block out sound. SLEEEP was supposed to be completely designed around getting you the best night of sleep. Instead, I woke up every time someone went to the bathroom or opened a locker.
One of the hottest sectors of Chinese tech is “dockless-bike sharing.” The two primary companies, Mobike and Ofo, have expanded aggressively in recent years across the world.
I was very excited to check out the services while in China, which are supposed to be super cheap and convenient.
While the bikes were definitely cheap and convenient, they were pretty terrible to ride. It didn’t matter if I was using an Ofo or a Mobike. In most cases, I found the bikes to be flimsy, rusted out, with loose handlebars, or a seat stuck too low.
While I don’t have a formal “bucket list,” if I did, seeing and swimming in the Dead Sea in Israel would be on it.
The Dead Sea and the surrounding landscape was undoubtedly beautiful, particularly at sunrise and sunset.
But swimming in it was kind of a nightmare. I made the mistake of going in July when the water temperature approaches hot-tub levels and the air outside feels like the middle of an oven. It isn’t refreshing. And while you can definitely float, beware if you get water in your hair. It dribbles down your face and burns your eyes. Bring a water bottle or a pillow.
In Busan, I visited the Haedong Yonggungsa temple, one of the only temple complexes located on the ocean in Korea.
It is reputed to be the most beautiful temple in Korea, and I was told repeatedly that it was a must-visit while in Busan.
While the complex is beautiful, it’s hardly a must-visit unless you absolutely love temple architecture or practice Buddhism. I was wishing that I hadn’t hiked out of the city to visit it and instead spent more time exploring Busan.
One thing that recurred during my travels was the difference between the magazine and Instagram images of a place and the reality. It was perhaps most striking at the Marina Bay Sands, a landmark building in Singapore that features a hotel, casino, museum, shopping mall, and incredible views of the city and the bay.
I had expected the extravagant $US6.6 billion USD hotel and casino to be the most lavish experience in the world. The bed in my hotel room was super comfy as expected, but, honestly, the decor was all very dated. It seemed like it was cutting edge when it opened, but now it’s kind of drab for a hotel that costs $US500 a night minimum.
If you plan on getting that perfect Instagram photo in the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool, beware: Everyone else is trying to do the same thing. It’s exhausting.
The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, a landscape garden designed and cultivated by French artist Jacques Majorelle and later bought and restored by designer Yves Saint Laurent, is considered the top tourist destination in all of Morocco. From the magazine photos, it looks serene.
Most of the time, there is a line to buy tickets that stretches around the corner. The garden’s tight environs are no match for the number of tourists. At every point in the gardens, I was jumping out of the way of a tour group or stopping to allow someone to compose a perfect selfie.
That’s before you get into the Instagrammers waiting in line to get their perfect shot. As one Moroccan told me, “It’s lost much of its charm over the last few years.”
While visiting the pyramids of Egypt is as mind-blowing as you might expect, actually going inside the pyramids is a different story. I decided to go inside the Red Pyramid, so named for its red limestone blocks. It’s the third-largest pyramid in Egypt.
There’s not much to see inside any of the pyramids, just narrow passageways and empty rooms. Grave robbers, explorers, and museum officials have long since taken anything of interest out of the tomb.
The smell of mould was the worst part. I found it hard to breathe and started holding a scarf over my mouth so that I didn’t have to breathe in the mould directly. I was still coughing.
Towering over the city, at 2,717 feet tall with 160 floors, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest tower in the world. It’s a marvel to look at from below.
Going up to the top, however is a bore. The cheapest ticket costs $US40. The walk to get to the top of the tower is almost comically long.
The observatory at the top of the Burj is cramped with glass and metal bars obscuring the view of the Dubai skyline. Because it’s small, there’s always someone jostling behind you to get in your spot.
It’s been a strange, fascinating, exhilarating, and exhausting trip so far. These disappointments only scratch the surface of things I did that did not live up to the hype. One thing people fail to tell you about travel: Not everything is as good as it looks in the magazines.
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