Many a human’s idea of blissful living involves swinging in a palm-strung hammock while the ocean swooshes gently onto a white-sand beach nearby – so it’s no surprise that the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu was voted top dog in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. The water’s ridiculously blue and teeming with life; the interior’s lush and volcanically rumbling, great for exploring amid the breadfruit trees. But it’s the sense of community that makes this a truly happy place. Extended families congregate regularly for age-old celebrations – in Vanuatu, there’s always a knees-up somewhere.
Visit from April/May to October, when temperatures range from 18°C to 28°C. The terrifying Land Diving festival (the original bungee) runs in April/May.
Montréal, Québec, Canada
Clean, welcoming and refreshingly multicultural, Montréal is happy enough year-round. Come July, though, it’s downright hilarious. Just For Laughs takes over the city in summer, packing venues with the best in both Anglo- and Francophone comedy. It’s one of the biggest comedy gatherings in the world, hosting many a top-drawer wisecracker. Shows sell out fast, as even the less known acts are virtually guaranteed to be a riot. But even if you can’t get a ticket you can giggle along – every night the city’s Latin Quarter is abuzz with street performers, parading puppets and a fantasia of fireworks.
For special offers and advance info, sign up to the festival newsletter at http://www.hahaha.com.
Happy, Texas, USA
Welcome to the self-proclaimed ‘town without a frown’. The tiny Lone Star State settlement of Happy (setting for the 1999 movie Happy, Texas in name only) is a frankly disappointing collection of silos and gridded streets. But look outside the ‘city’ limits and the best of Texas is on the doorstep, guaranteed to raise a smile. Hike or ride amid the red-rock hoodoos of the Palo Duro Canyon, the USA’s second biggest; spy bison and stunning sunsets in lesser-known Caprock Canyon; or spend your Wild West dollars at the Amarillo Livestock Auction, a slice of pure Americana (comedy Stetson practically mandatory).
The auction takes place every Tuesday; canyons are best visited in autumn and winter – summers are extremely hot.
Monasteries held to cliffs by the hairs of angels, giant penises daubed on every home, argyle socks as national dress and a complete absence of traffic lights – what’s not to be cheerful about in Bhutan? Indeed, so jovial is this Himalayan Shangri-La that gross national happiness is an official measure, a way of ensuring that the country’s gradual modernisation (still barely perceptible) doesn’t disturb its Buddhist spirituality. Stand on a mountain pass on the world’s highest range, snow flecked all around and prayer flags flapping like a grateful audience, and just try to keep a smile off your face.
Visitors to Bhutan must pay a set daily rate for travel on an arranged tour; see http://www.tourism.gov.bt.
Whether it’s the coffee beans or the Carnival atmosphere, Colombia buzzes with Latin high spirits 24/7 – from its Caribbean coast to the backstreets of Bogotá. While some think it odd that a country so plagued with insurgency and drug trafficking could rate second on the Happy Planet Index, those who’ve visited in recent years report a much improved safety record and an irrepressible energy, both infectious and uplifting. Attend a football match (the national obsession), a home-grown cumbia song-and-dance concert or one of the many, many Catholic festivals, to catch this vociferous nation at its most passionate.
Hear cumbia at the raucous Baranquilla Carnival (just before Ash Wednesday). Avoid October and November, the wettest months.
Wuyi Shan, China
Despite its winsome name, Tian XingYong Le (the Ever-Happy Temple) is surrounded by drink sellers and an unromantic car park. Still, it’s no surprise that the building is perpetually cheerful. The temple in Fujian Province’s rugged north sits in a realm of secret valleys splashed with waterfalls and pocked with mysterious caves. Use hewn rock steps to explore, skirting tea bushes and bamboo groves to access Water Curtain Cave and Heavenly Tour Peak. Or take to the water – simple rafts topped with rattan chairs will float you down Nine Twists River, while guides point out the 4000-year-old niches carved in the cliff faces above.
Visit midweek to avoid tourist crowds; boat trips depart from Xing Cun and last one hour.
If it’s grins you’re after – big, unabashed ones – head to Malawi, dubbed the ‘warm heart of Africa’. The country’s people are renowned for the effusive welcome they give travellers, despite living in one of the poorest nations. From the woodcarving markets of capital Lilongwe to the sandy shores of Lake Malawi and the elephant-grazed bush of Liwonde National Park, you’ll be accosted with smiles at every turn. To make this happiness a two-way street, sign up for a volunteer project. Doing your bit to help the locals – 85% of the population lives in traditional settlements – will put a smile on everyone’s face.
Dry season lasts from April to October; for a list of charity organisations in Malawi see http://www.malawitourism.com.
If good health is an indicator of happiness the people of this teeny principality between France and Spain must be smiling the widest – they have the world’s longest life expectancy, a venerable 83.5 years. It must be all that Pyrenean air (average altitude is 1996m) and outdoorsy fun: skiing in winter, hikes and off-road cycling come summer. There’s also peace of mind bred from peace of nation – Andorra hasn’t been at war for 700 years. Finally, there’s the food: rock up at a traditional, stone-built borda for a plate of wild mushrooms, river trout and high-pasture-grazed boar and feel the organic goodness take years off .
Andorra doesn’t have an airport; access the country from Toulouse, Perpignan or Barcelona.
Hidakagwa, Wakayama, Japan
When goddess Niutsuhime no mikoto overslept for a great meeting of the kami (Japanese spirits), the other 8 million or so more punctual deities had a good laugh at her expense. And thus a tradition was born: each year the residents of Hidakagwa, led by a clown, take to the streets in decorated floats. They jangle bells and yell ‘Warau! Warau!’ (Laugh! Laugh!) to the gathered crowds. Like merry sheep, soon everyone is, indeed, chuckling, infectious good humour spilling all the way to Niu’s shrine itself. It’s nothing at all to do with the freeflowing rice wine, not at all.
Wakayama is in the Kansai region of Honshu; the Warai (Laughing) Festival takes place in October.
It’s official: Denmark is the world’s most contented country. The diminutive nation tops most happiness studies with Scandinavian reliability. It’s easy to see why: standards of living are sky-high. Transport runs on time; summer houses on the beach are the norm (there’s an abundance of sandy shores); cycle paths thread through the cities, forests, dales and wetlands; restaurants serve up some of northern Europe’s best (and freshest) grub. Cafe-cruise in laid-back Copenhagen, canoe the fjords of North Jutland or hire a bike to tackle the 11 national cycle routes, and find out what they’re smiling about.
June to August boasts good weather and many open-air festivals; Roskilde (www.roskilde-festival.dk), the biggest, is in early July.