Mette Ehlers Mikkelsen is one of the most travelled women in the world. In this interview with EveryCountryInTheWorld.com, she shares some of her favourites among other things.
How many days have you approximately travelled?
I have spent ten years abroad visiting 155 / 195 countries. I divide my experiences abroad between my almost eight years studying or working abroad, most of this time as a Danish diplomat, longer travels of 4-6 weeks in one country and the fast ‘weekend’-trips. To me, these are very different and hold each of their strengths. Living in a country, it becomes part of me – that’s my favourite. Rushing through several neighbouring countries gives a kick to the intensity of impressions like a tasting menu, and it makes it possible to stretch time and money to visit even more countries.
What are three of your favourite countries and why?
Estonia as it was my first posting as a young diplomat, just 28 years old. I had written my dissertation on EU and NATO enlargement and felt so humbled to be part of something as historic as assisting them in becoming members. Today I still cherish visiting Estonian friends who I admire for how well they managed to lead their country. Travelling often reminds me that leading a country is not an easy task.
Vietnam has been a favourite of mine since I was the desk officer at the Danish ministry for foreign affairs and got to visit for the first time in 1998-99. The smiles. The food, for instance, paper rolls with fresh basil, coriander and shrimps. Nature such as Halong Bay and the history in Hanoi, Hué and Ho Chi Minh. The floating markets in the Mekong Delta were a unique experience. Again, it is mostly the people with their friendliness and willingness to look forward and work hard that I truly admire.
Bhutan for being as magical as the dragon on its flag, placed in the snow-covered mountains between huge powers with infinitely larger populations. I respect how they have diplomatically succeeded in maintaining independence. The respectful and peaceful culture and its positive CO2 balance and Gross National Happiness Index are admirable.
Are there any countries you don’t enjoy travelling?
I am not too fond of Egypt and Morocco and in general countries where I am not respected without putting in the effort to be a woman and even be blond. But I have met amazing people everywhere I have been, and in the most unexpected and tough circumstances like Erbil, Lilongwe and Bamako, kindness and hospitality live well.
What are three of your favourite cities, and why?
That’s why I live here. I like it for the fact that both my three kids and I can bicycle to work and school and that this is safe, even at night. I like it because of the city planning of preserving the architecture and its history as a place of trade; and insisting on lots of parks, lakes and art; and that all areas are livable.
It holds history with numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites and war memorials. At the same time, my eldest children are fascinated by the culture as they have a reputation for the best international schools globally. The K-pop, the movies and the beauty industry mixed with high-end technology and industry. I let my daughter arrange our trip there for the four of us, and it opened my eyes to another world.
At the botanical garden, a sign tells you that you are welcome to hug the trees, picnic on the grass, smell the flowers. I love that they focus on everything that is free and allowed rather than rules and restrictions. The area around the harbour is stunning. It is a laid back and yet efficient city, where I could live.
What are three of your favourite hotels and places you have stayed?
The Ice Hotel in Kiruna
When I lived in Sweden for four years, it was a must to try this. Get there early to see all the rooms in the afternoon. Stay in one with ice-art if you can afford it. Take a drink in the ice bar. The aurora lights, trips with dog sledges, snow scooters and deep underground into the mines are unique.
Zen Resort, Bali
Zen Resort on the northern shore of Bali because of the host Ms Luh Buhdiani. The meditation at sunrise at 6 AM with a view of the shore and the rice fields. The yoga at 7 AM. Breakfast at 8 AM. Then massage, diving classes, pool or excursions all day and amazing dinners. Flower arrangements everywhere. Not far away, you can snorkel on artificial coral reefs in the shape of metal art structures and even sponsor one. My kids and I have our names on a lionfish structure with six years old corals.
Live a-boards between islands in Galapagos and Komodo National Parks with a mix of snorkelling and hikes every day. Nature is breathtaking.
What are the worst places you’ve stayed?
Cheapest hotel in Luanda
In Luanda in Angola, I found an expensive hotel but turned out to be the cheapest hotel in town for foreigners as the oil industry is who they build hotels for. I had cockroaches in the room and hardly dared walk to the nearby gasoline station to buy something to eat.
Local Apartment, Transnistria
Snowing in Transnistria literally meant that the kids and I got stuck and had to stay a night more in a local apartment before getting back to Moldova. The dirt and poverty were typical Soviet. But the company and weirdness of the place made it all worth it.
Trying to sleep in a small tent in Las Vegas
I had tried to make a dream road trip in Nevada, California, Utah and Arizona less expensive by bringing a tent. We were in a sauna. Kids were almost fainting. Carcroaches outside and then also inside. The last half of the night and the rest of the road trip were enjoyed in motels.
A night in a shelter on a Danish island
I had taken a children’s sleeping bag with me by mistake. I woke up in shifts of cold and with nightmares about getting stuck in the tight sleeping bag and being eaten by a leopard on an African savannah.
What are three of your favourite restaurants, and why?
Polynesian Restaurant-dish anywhere
Raw fish in coconut sauce in Polynesia in the shade under palm trees with the mild wind from the Pacific Ocean. Anywhere I have gotten this, it has been breathtaking. Kiribati, Tonga, Samoa.
Two resorts during the same trip in Krüger National Park and a small family place inside the Wetlands National Park where you can try antelopes and ostrich while looking at the elephants and enjoying the intensity of the experience with the warm air, the light and the sounds of nature. I was there while travelling with three generations, and this gave an extra dimension to experience this together and compare the impression.
The street markets and places where I have tried spiders and red ants in Cambodia. Scorpions in Thailand, octopus so freshly chopped it is still moving in South Korea, sea urgents and snakes in China, pepper snails in Nigeria, sea snails in Sao Tomé and even a fruit bat in Palau.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Staying overnight in tents in the Okavango Delta in Botswana with my kids
In the morning some noise woke me, and as I made my way to the outdoor toilet, a young male elephant blocked my way. It turned out a group of them had slept next to our camp in the shade of the same small group of trees.
Butterflies in all colours at Iguazu Waterfall
Experiencing the beautiful butterflies in all colours sit at our hands, feet, heads etc. at the Iguazu waterfall on the border of Brazil and Argentina on my first trip around the world for eight months 2006-7. My oldest kids were just 4 and 5 at the time, and it seemed magical to us.
The second trip around the world
During my second trip around the world, my partner and I literally just returned at the end of February 2020. This gave the feeling of travelling through the Pacific and visiting all the states of Oceania while the world closed behind us. In Papua New Guinea I got to talk to Mary-Ann, an amazingly proud grandmother. Mary-Ann told me ‘my mother was a good gardener´. First, I started telling her of my parents’ garden, but then I understood. She was saying that her mother was a wealthy and respected woman in a matriarchal society and that Mary-Ann as the oldest or only daughter had inherited this fertile land. This had made it possible for her to have six kids, and now grandchildren and to provide for this big family. She expanded my horizon infinitely during our talk on motherhood, economy and leadership.
Visiting friends around the world is normally where my favourite travel moments occur as they know places better than you can ever do, just visiting. When my dearest friend worked in Scotland, I managed to visit several single malt whisky distilleries – and even gotta put my finger in a barrel at Laphroaig in Islay before it was closed.
What are your three worst travel moments, and why?
Ill, lost or afraid
The worst moments are normally connected to kids or I being ill, lost or afraid. Skiing holidays have scared me more than crime or terror where I have been more in control with the degree of risk I take. Most often, being ill is because of sunburn as the Vikings in us crave sun, but cannot really last more than an hour. Both the Comoros’ and Mexico’s sun almost sent me to the hospital.
Getting lost in the mountains of Lesotho scared me
We had to stay in a creek, and I did not know where we were. The car even broke down. And I love road trips normally.
Being allowed into Nigeria
and similar moments of bureaucracy and even corruption from the visa application and the signing of documents allowed me to travel with my kids without their dad. But curiosity to expand my horizon always wins, and this is forgotten quickly.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Find a partner in life who also loves to travel
Make it something that holds you together. Make sure it is a mutual priority of time and money over a house, car etc.
Bring your children as much as possible and as soon as possible
Accept that your travelling is your own wish, to begin with. Trip by trip expands their horizon, and your love for travelling and the world forms them as human beings. It is also amazing to be met as a parent and a family when we travel. Everywhere in the world, people identify with a mother and a family and relate to me and my three kids as this. I brought my three children (12-19 years old) to 78-81 countries each, and this is the single best thing I have done in my life. And yes, my parents taught me to love to travel.
Find a driver/guide/fixer
If you travel solo as a woman in Central America or some of the lesser travelled places in for example Africa, find a local driver/guide /fixer who will show you around and protect you. Make him see you as a sister and let him know you are not wealthy. Make sure he speaks a language you know so you can ask him all about the country during the whole trip.
Make phases in your life where you focus on travelling in order to do both this and handle a family or job because you cannot do everything 100% all the time. Prioritize and accept that either you travel for years in fewer countries or you travel less in more countries depending on your possibilities. It is still a privilege.
Do you have any little-known travel tips?
Always surround yourself with those with the same mission as you. Join networks of people who will inspire and challenge you. This holds up whether you wish to start your own company, a blog on travelling or travel to every country in the world. There you get the great advice – and remember to be generous as you get back what you give. I am part of and recommend Nomad Mania, Danish Travelers Club, the travellers café Globen in Copenhagen, Travelers Century Club, Every Passport Stamp, Women Who Travel Solo and Host a Sister.