It’s probably an age thing, but the year has flown by and once again it’s time to draw the curtains on another year of rewarding travels.
January: Cuba with a stopover in the Netherlands
It has been fifteen years since I followed the advice in the travel press to “get there before it changes”. Like many others, I was conned: the headlines still say pretty much the same thing today. Having found a £140 error fare with Aeromexico, the journey was a bit convoluted – though it did win me a day exploring Zaanse Schans and Delft on the way. Havana and Trinidad were as captivating as they were in 2003, though the food was considerably better. I had a front row seat at the Casa de la Trova and scored an invitation to kick on with the trumpet player – if only his intentions had been honourable I might have been tempted. If you’re off tho Cuba, book a Mob Tour with Havana Supertours – guide Michael was excellent. I felt like I’d stepped onto the set of Mad Men when we walked into the Riviera Hotel, once a gangster favourite.
March: Key West and the Bahamas
With two weeks to kill while the builders demolished the kitchen and rebuilt it into a finished shell, we decamped to the sunshine of Key West and the Bahamas. I especially enjoyed a visit to the Tennessee Williams Exhibit and some of Key West’s other historic attractions, and let’s face it, the margarita culture helped. But it was the Bahamas that won out. Husband is a big fan of cute little piggies – he married one, after all – so we booked a trip to see Big Major Cay’s swimming pigs. They were feisty little (and not so little) creatures, particularly when the food came out and we were warned to steer clear of one fat mama who had a thing for biting tourists’ bums. Fortunately, no one got bitten and it was the highlight of the holiday.
May: Faroe Islands
I had the opportunity to join a press trip to the Faroes in May which was a chance to explore this northerly Iceland-alternative. A meal at Michelin-starred KOKS was unforgettable thanks to wriggly barnacles, but the home hospitality we enjoyed was just as welcome. The weather was challenging, particularly during our hike at Saksun, but fortunately the sun came out over colourful Torshavn. It doesn’t quite have the scenery to compete with Iceland, but I’d like to go back on my own one day. Being so used to independent travel, I’m not sure if I’m cut out for press trips, but nevertheless it was a fascinating insight into how the world of travel journalism operates.
May: New Zealand and Tonga
A too good to resist Black Friday deal saw me travel all the way to NZ for under £400, a chance to visit family and see a bit more of North Island. A dawn hike to a deserted Cathedral Cove was delightful and experiencing the hand dug hot tubs of Hot Water Beach was fun. Windy Welly lived up to its name but the gales subsided in time for my flight out. Last time, my South Pacific add-on was Vanuatu, but this time I opted for Tonga. So far it’s not embraced tourism in quite the same way as some of its neighbours. I got lucky with a knowledgable Fijian guide who showed me the highlights of Tongatapu, most memorably dramatic blowholes and fire dancers.
June: Port Lympne
For husband’s big birthday we were treated to a weekender at Port Lympne with family. Going on safari without leaving the Home Counties seemed a bit bonkers but the place was exceptionally well run and our guide was as good as any I’d had in Africa. Our game drives became a little more interactive than planned when one of the giraffes took a liking to a skip that should have been off limits, though luckily it responded to our treats of hastily grabbed branches full of tasty leaves. The most surreal moment of my travel year was waking up and looking out of the bathroom window to see a rhino pottering about in the back field. In Kent, of all places!
September: New York
It had been a while since I’d been to New York so I piggybacked off my husband’s business trip to join him for a week in the Big Apple. While the city broiled in an extended heatwave, we sought out the air-con of the Freedom Tower as he’d never been. I had a surprise at the top as the skyline was revealed, a part of the experience that hadn’t been open when I first visited. But it was the Lower East Side and East Village that, once again, I enjoyed the most, with a fascinating LES a food tour with Free Tours By Foot, a one to one tour of the Museum of the American Gangster, a chance meeting with Michael Quinn of Feltman’s of Coney Island and cocktails at PDT. Please don’t tell.
October: Moldova and Transnistria
I’ve never been much of a wine drinker, but nevertheless headed for the Moldovan capital Chisinau for their National Wine Day celebrations. Twelve samples later, I had rose tinted spectacles when it came to appreciating the city’s other attractions, including a teeny tiny statue that took an age to find. Fortunately this lightweight doesn’t get hangovers which was good news when it came to catching the early morning train for a day out in the breakaway republic of Transnistria the next day. Though Tiraspol was a bit soulless, the border town of Bender with its riverside fortress was not, thanks to a mediaeval fair in the grounds complete with rifle range, dress ups and a liberal scattering of plastic ducks.
BA offered a sweet deal whereby its air miles were worth double their usual value – and sweeter still as I’d collected most of them on that sub £400 business class error fare to New York I found a few years back. So I redeemed them to do “Barbados on a Budget” and thanks to a steal of an Airbnb deal, brought in a week’s holiday for under £800 including food. Good job the rum was cheap. I loved chatting all afternoon with Nigel Benn’s Aunty Lucille who not only poured a generous measure but told a tall tale and sorted out the bus timetable as well. Beautiful gardens, plantation houses and a countryside hike with incredible views of the east coast and a working windmill completed the picture.
December: Nuremberg’s Christmas markets
I’ve been working my way through some of Europe’s finest Christmas markets, clocking up trips to Salzburg, Regensburg and Copenhagen. This year, I opted to fly back to Nuremberg and although the fare didn’t match the previous £4.08 deal (sadly I think that was a one off) it was still sufficiently good value to make a day trip viable. I began the day in Bamberg, whose mediaeval heart was delightful. I hopped on and off the train back to Nuremberg, calling in at the markets at Forchheim and Erlangen on the way. The main event was pretty, decorated with twinkly lights for evening, with plenty of Christmas decorations and foodie treats to round off the day.
Where have your travels taken you in 2018? Share your stories, I’d love to read them.
Despite a house move – and subsequent endless weekends spent decorating and driving to and from every DIY store in a fifty mile radius – I’ve managed to fit in a few trips this year. What follows is a review of my favourite travel moments from 2016 and what I’m looking forward to in 2017.
There are a few countries on my “still to visit” list that I really should have ticked off years ago, and Sri Lanka was one of them. I finally managed to get there in March and had a fabulous week riding trains and exploring the southern half of the country. Here are some of my posts from that trip; I’ve you’ve never been, I’m sure you’ll want to add it to your wish list.
Sigiriya – to the tune of Duran Duran’s Save a Prayer…
Tea time in the hill country – dare you swallow and not spit?
Uda Walawe – watching the elephants play!
From Sri Lanka, it was a short hop across the Indian Ocean to the beautiful island archipelago of the Seychelles. This one had been saved as a potential honeymoon destination, but in the end we opted for a US road trip and I visited the Seychelles as a solo traveller. Anse Source d’Argent was every bit as sublime as the glossy travel magazines would have you believe, and being able to do the trip on a budget without sacrificing style and comfort was an added bonus. Definitely one to return to one day.
New York – but this time in business class!
I’ve almost lost count of the number of trips I’ve made to New York and there’s much to read on this blog that will explain to you why it’s a city that has held my interest for so long. But this year, I travelled in style with British Airways for less than the cost of an economy fare, courtesy of a very attractive error fare. It’s likely my article on how to blag a business class fare on the cheap is going to be in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine before the spring, but in the meantime, I blogged about error fares here:
Stockholm and Sweden’s High Coast
I took a slight detour on the way back from NYC and visited Stockholm, another place that’s been on my bucket list for a while. The Swedish capital was fun to visit, its ABBA museum exceeding expectations and the outlying islands providing an alternative to city traffic. I then drove up to the High Coast area for a few days in the splendid isolation of some of the country’s best beaches and sheltered harbours. If you’ve never heard of this part of Scandinavia, then I’d urge you to check it out.
Extremadura – hidden Spain
I’m a big fan of Spain and was delighted to have the opportunity to explore a region that has been overlooked by Brits – Extremadura. With a mix of stunning natural beauty, characterful towns packed with history and outstanding food, it ticked all the boxes and then some. I only scratched the surface, but my short trip has left me keen to return. My guide is just an overview; it will get you started but to fully explore the region before you go, then I’ll point you in the direction of native Irene Corchado and her excellent site:
September brought with it the opportunity to spend some of hubby’s air miles and a respite from the muddle that is our half-finished house. We chose to fly to LA for the weather, but having been there before, headed south down the coast for a few days in San Diego and then inland to the heat of Palm Springs. Good food, lots of sunshine and a chance to witness the crazy run up to the elections first hand before returning home to even crazier news a month later when the result was announced. The highlight of the trip, for me at least, was a visit to San Juan Capistrano, one of SoCal’s mission towns:
A few day trips to end the year
With two dogs to take care of, I need to juggle the trips I make so that they are well looked after. One of the ways I achieve this is to take shorter trips which means my husband can work from home to keep them company. So, the last three trips of the year were day trips: to Budapest, Regensburg and Copenhagen. I’ve done many such trips and it is always a big surprise to realise how much it’s possible to fit in without the day feeling like one big dash from sight to sight. To see what I mean, check out these three and the previous similar trips I’ve made. It’s also a great way to get your travel fix on a budget – flights for that day out to Regensburg (flying to nearby Nuremberg) cost less than a fiver.
And so, that was my travel year; I hope yours was as satisfying. What’s in store for 2017?
To kick off the New Year, I’m off to Puerto Rico for some winter sunshine and a chance to explore the historic sights of San Juan’s Old Town. Then a couple of months later I’m off to South America for Uruguay’s gaucho festival and a chance to finally visit Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. After that, who knows? Writing some background material about the ‘Stans for Kalpak Travel has put Central Asia on my radar, a part of the world that suits my preference for off the beaten track destinations. Georgia looks like a strong contender right now, along with neighbouring Armenia and some fascinating breakaway republics, but nothing is set in stone. I’ll be keeping an eye on those error fare notifications just in case…