It’s been a couple of months since I wrote my last post, snowed with work in between trips, but I thought I’d write my usual roundup piece. After a couple of COVID-impacted years, travel in 2022 finally started to feel normal again. Places were busier than ever and many of the restrictions that had created an administrative headache were lifted. Here’s where I went and how 2023’s plans are looking so far.
Edison loves a country walk so we decided to kick off the year’s travels with a week in Cumbria, staying in a lakeside cabin close to Carlisle. The weather, as expected, was pretty mixed, but we enjoyed blue skies for a beach walk at Silloth and a hike to Aira Force waterfall. It’s a long drive from our home in Essex but it did give me an excuse to pop into Mainsgill, a great farm shop on the A66 near Richmond, and say hi to the camels.
March: an Amtrak ride across the USA
Ever since I rode the rails down to New Orleans a few years ago I’ve wanted to sleep in an Amtrak roomette again. This time, I started my journey in Chicago. First stop was St Louis, where I boarded a retro tram to the top of the Gateway Arch and ate Gooey Butter Cake. Continuing south, I explored a little of New Mexico, staying in Santa Fe and Albuquerque while I climbed ladders to step inside the caves at Bandelier National Monument, made tamales at cookery school and took a road trip to Taos via the quirky Classical Gas Museum in Embudo. If you’re keen to know more, I wrote about it for the New Zealand Herald.
For a long time, Alsace has been on my wishlist, so it was great to finally see it in the flesh. I was impressed with Strasbourg and enjoyed the obligatory boat ride as well as a mooch around Petite France with its cobblestone streets and half-timbered buildings. Colmar was even prettier – and there I took another boat ride, this time much lower to the water. I was keen to visit one of the smaller villages. After a failed attempt to catch a bus to Riquewehr (arriving at the bus stop several days early) I managed to get to Eguisheim, which was very quaint.
After a family trip to Paris for a Disney-based 21st birthday party, I jetted off to Australia. News had broken earlier in the year that my favourite TV show, Neighbours, was wrapping up after 37 years, so I decided to be there to watch the final day of filming on “Ramsay Street”. It was also fun to do the Neighbours Tour again, this time visiting the sets at Nunawading Studios, and driving around the eastern suburbs of Melbourne ticking off sights such as the church where Scott and Charlene got married and Lassiters’ pool. Even I wouldn’t fly halfway round the world just for Neighbours so I tagged on a dreamy few days in eastern Tasmania, the opal mining town of Coober Pedy and a trip to Sydney’s Northern Beaches for the Home and Away tour. Breaking the homeward journey in New York City was the icing on the cake.
One of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in England is surely that of the Northumberland AONB. Dad and I spent a few days there in glorious sunshine, visiting Cragside, Alnwick Poison Garden and Rothbury. We were incredibly luckily with the weather for a boat trip to the Farne Islands on a millpond calm sea, with plenty of seabirds and seals to look at from the boat and close to the Longhouse Lighthouse.
After spending the hottest summer ever at home, Alan and I took off for a relaxing week in Malta. I’ve been before, so it was good to take it easy this time. I was tempted off the sunlounger for repeat visits to Valetta & the Three Cities, Marsaxlokk and Mdina. For the latter, I opted to ride the vintage bus, which is now a tourist attraction rather than the regular public transport it was last time I was here. With a breeze streaming through the window, it was far more comfortable than the airconditioned vehicles that have replaced it and definitely more photogenic.
Though I did enjoy season two of The White Lotus, I’d say the best reason to visit this Mediterranean island isn’t Taormina, Siracusa or even Etna – it’s the train that’s carried on a ferry. This railway journey, linking the mainland to Messina was certainly the most unusual of all the train rides I’ve done over the years. Milazzo was an overlooked gem, and the jumping off point for a boat trip to the Aeolian Islands where Stromboli was puffing ash into the sky. The views from hilltop Erice were equally breathtaking, as was the hour long hike back to the bus stop but for more literal reasons. Palermo was interesting, particularly learning about the Mafia’s historic hold over the city. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend is Pani ca’ Meusa (veal spleen sandwich) that has a rather intense taste and a pungent aroma.
I’ve been to Marrakesh many times but never tire of wandering its souks, so a few days here in autumn was a real treat. I found myself a beautiful riad so buried that I couldn’t even hear the call of the muezzin. It was hard to find the first time, but once I could remember at which sign to make a left and when to keep the wooden doorway on the right, it was plain sailing. I was grateful of a press pass to skip the enormous queue at Jardin Majorelle, but delighted to discover the charming Jardin Secret even closer to my base. Another highlight was a day trip to Eassaouira by bus – fresh sardines on the quayside, hassle-free shopping and a chance to see the historic Jewish Quarter before it is gentrified.
I was really excited at the prospect of seeing more of Colombia, having dipped a toe in with a Cartagena weekender about 15 years ago. This time, I was on the coffee trail, beginning a journey in Medellin that would take me through some of the coutnry’s most wonderful scenery to Bogota, the capital. I learnt a lot about coffee staying on two very different but equally captivating coffee farms: Hacienda Venecia and Hacienda Cafetera La Gaviota. Touring the countryside near Salento was like stepping into the Disney movie Encanto, while cute Barichara was absolutely worth the long slog to get there. It wasn’t all coffee and countryside, however, as I spent a fascinating afternoon in the Egipto barrio of Bogota learning how the community is trying to shrug off the gang-related violence of the past and build a safer and more positive future.
Several years ago I tried unsuccessfully to visit Oslo. Two cancelled flights meant that the most I saw was an airport hotel. This time, I made it to the Norwegian capital only half an hour behind schedule and spent a pleasant – if cold – couple of days visiting its Christmas markets and some of its museums. Unfortunately, the curse struck again, this time thanks to heavy snow at Stansted which caused my flight home to be cancelled last minute. I rebooked, but the next flight was also cancelled. Fortunately, it was third time lucky, and Visit Oslo’s generosity in comping me an Oslo Pass and train ticket meant I got to see the fabulous view from the top of Holmenkollen Ski Jump and one of the original Screams on my bonus day.
2022 turned out to be an incredible year, and not just in terms of travel. Neighbours is coming back in 2023, though I don’t (yet) have any plans to be there for the first day of filming. What I do have in the calendar is a week in Yorkshire and a return trip to South Africa from where I shall ascend the vertiginous Sani Pass into Lesotho (someone else is doing the driving so I can concentrate on the view!) After that, who knows what 2023 will bring, but I’m excited to find out. Happy travels everyone, wherever your wanderlust may take you.
Once again, 2019 has been a hectic year and I’ve notched up several new countries plus plenty of revisits. In this post I’ll be looking back at some of my favourite moments from another awesome year of travelling.
The first trip of the year took us down to Cornwall to see family for a long weekend. To break the journey for elderly doggo, we stopped off on the way, but thanks to husband twisting his knee, we didn’t get to see Salisbury as we had hoped. Fortunately, it improved sufficiently for a couple of walks, including this one on Portwrinkle Beach before the long drive home.
This year’s biggest trip was the first I took: to Uganda. I spent two weeks in this fascinating but flawed East African nation. The highlights were as varied as they were numerous. I rode a horse beside the River Nile at Jinja, had some close up encounters with the entertaining chimps of Kibale Forest and saw probably the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever witnessed in Murchison Falls National Park a few hours before helping park rangers free an elderly giraffe trapped in a snare. Visiting Love in Action’s school in Masaka gave me an insight into everyday struggles in the country.
Italy’s always a pleasure to visit and in April I travelled to the far south for the first time. En route to quirky Alberobello, I stopped off in the 2019 European Capital of Culture Matera. In the sunshine, the caves of the sassi were beautifully photogenic, though they were once described as the shame of Italy. Alberobello itself didn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the characterful Trulli Anti which is one of the loveliest places I’ve stayed. The only downer was the weather, but the cone-shaped dwellings were stunning even in the wet.
A week off in May took me to Central Asia and the delightful country of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has been hogging the headlines, thanks to a successful change in tourism strategy, but I felt that its neighbour would be a better fit for me after watching Joanna Lumley’s excellent TV documentary. I travelled just before peak season kicked in. Snow was still thick on the ground as we crossed a mountain pass to a deserted Song Kul, but it was remote Tash Rabat, the Silk Road caravanserai at the end of an almost forgotten valley, that stole my heart.
A family celebration saw us heading off to Devon to a bungalow by the sea at Saunton Sands. Grandpa dog managed to get himself onto the beach, though a walk along its entire 3.5 mile length was out of the question. It felt a little odd to be going to the West Country and not continuing to Cornwall, but it was a beautiful part of the country nevertheless. Though I didn’t surf, it was fun to watch those who did.
The big celebrations I’d hoped for to mark my 50th birthday had to be scaled back as our golden retriever Einstein hit old age. No matter: Alaska will wait and in the meantime, my husband stepped up to look after things at home while I spent a few restorative days in Austria. I revisited St Johann in Tirol for some invigorating mountain hikes in the sunshine and plenty of good food. In Kitzbuhel, I was reminded how celebrity is a curious concept, when everyone bar me went wild for a folk singer who was big in Austria – but a complete unknown over here in the UK.
August – just!
A few days after I returned, we set off, dogs and all, for a week in Gloucestershire, staying in a log cabin in the Forest of Dean. Champagne in our own private hot tub – with two black noses pinned to the glass watching us – marked the Big 5-0. But being able to make a few excursions with Einstein (and Edison of course) was the best birthday present I could have hoped for. We enjoyed a steam railway, a trip to a castle and best of all the spectacular view from Symonds Yat.
The Lithuanian Coast was the much anticipated destination for September, on a press trip with the British Guild of Travel Writers. It had been many years since my first trip to this Baltic country and I was keen to visit some more. Our guide was an absolute gem, feeding us excellent food, informing and entertaining in equal measure as we toured her region and generally giving us a trip we could remember. The highlight for me was our stay on the Curonian Spit, a blend of culture and natural beauty worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
It was back to Italy this month, this time a second visit to Bologna, ostensibly so I could visit San Marino to bump the country count to a nicely rounded 120. I was hosted on an excellent food tour of the Quadrilatero which introduced me to a characterful bar I’d missed the first time round, the Osteria del Sole and the delights of Pignoletto, a fizz not unlike Prosecco. San Marino was very pretty and I was blessed with plenty of sunshine as I explored the cobbled streets of its hilly capital city. There was surprisingly lots to do and I’d be tempted to go back one day.
The trip that almost didn’t happen, thanks to Edison’s (successful) attempt to destroy my passport, was to Italy. This time I spent a few days in Lombardy, but not to Milan. Instead, flying into Bergamo with Ryanair, I explored Mantova, Cremona, Pavia, Crespi d’Adda, Vigevano and more with the hardworking Isabella from Lombardy Tourism and her cheerful driver Luca. It’s a region that, despite being so well connected, is still off the beaten tourist trail and one that rewards with crowd-free sightseeing and good food.
More from November
Rounding off November was a return visit to Fes in Morocco, the first with my new passport. I stayed in a sumptuous riad in the heart of the medina, near to Place Seffarine, which had been lovingly restored by its architect owner. The old town of Fes was almost exactly as I remembered it from my first visit in 1997. Although some areas of the souks had been smartened up, you still had to listen out for the clatter of horse’s hooves and donkeys hurtling through the narrow alleys with heavy loads. The smell of the tannery hadn’t improved either. New to me was the blue city of Chefchaouen, which was a pleasant place to spend the day.
The last trip of the year, as has become my custom, was to a Christmas market. This year’s choice was the northern German town of Bremen, a city I’d enjoyed twice before. Despite the rain, a mug of Gluhwein and the German sense of humour in the form of a bird feeder tagged “Cat cinema” got me in the Christmas mood.
So what does 2020 have in store?
For the first time in a very long time, I have no trips booked. I have a few ideas, but nothing firmed up. It probably has a lot to do with Einstein; as his back legs weaken I know I don’t want to be away when the time comes, so last minute bookings juggled with my husband’s work commitments seem the way to go. I’m not complaining; that’s what you sign up for if you have a dog.
When I do give the new passport an airing, I think Bergamo is on the cards, if only for a day trip. Further afield, I’m keen to visit Tajikistan after such a wonderful trip to Kyrgyzstan in May. Sao Tome & Principe, Comoros, Rwanda and Madagascar are also high up on the bucket list as are Andorra and Belarus, the only two European destinations I’ve never visited. To the west, a return visit to Peru to explore the central cordillera would be the stuff of dreams, as would trips to Alaska and Hawaii.
What trips have you got planned for 2020?
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…