Slovenia, where I found my paradise
I've been to about 30 countries on various continents in my 30 years, but it was the tiny Balkan nation of Slovenia that impressed me the most.
Slovenia is part of former Yugoslavia and was always the most wealthy region of that troubled nation.
When I told my family that I was going there, some of them cringed at the idea, thinking I was going to stroll through old minefields and still-broken towns like you see in Kosovo. They were decidedly wrong on all counts.
We started our trip around Eastern Europe in Slovenia more out of a curiosity than anything we'd heard about it.
Arriving in the tiny capital city of Ljubljana we discovered a beautiful European city with a relaxed feel and superb cafes that was easy to navigate. The people were friendly (many English speakers, which helps) and the city spacious and pretty.
We found it an enchanting city, but Slovenia really shines with its natural scenery. Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge are only an hour from the capital by bus and this region is truly spectacular.
Lake Bled is amazingly beautiful with its clean waters surrounded by the Julian Alps. There is a pretty island in the middle with a centuries-old church on it and it was there that I found my paradise.
Slovenia is such a special little country, but because it is sandwiched between the more popular tourist meccas of Italy and Croatia, it does not get as many visitors. It should, so I am thrilled I was able to see it before it became the next Croatia. I'm not really into the well-beaten path, by New Zealand standards anyway.
I went in September,which I think is the right time of year to go. It was still warm and pleasant, and I avoided the summer months (June - August) when apparently the peaceful places are overrun by Italian tourists whom the locals find obnoxious, rude and loud.
I recommend Slovenia to anyone. If you go, make the trip to Budapest in Hungary too via Zagreb, Croatia. They are beautiful cities as well.