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Published: January 3rd 2019
2018 has been my best travel year to date. 9 trips around 13 countries, most of them I haven't gotten round to sharing here, so I'll do a round up now.
January brought my first trip to the Caribbean, with a week-long cruise round the Eastern Caribbean. It started and ended in the Dominican Republic, visiting the British Virgin Islands, St Kitts, Martinique, Barbados, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
I've already written a lot about this trip in previous posts, but some highlights for me were definitely exploring the amazing caves and beaches at The Baths at Virgin Gorda, the British Virgin Islands, Fort de France in Martinique, and the island of Bequia in the Grenadines, where I visited a turtle sanctuary and found paradise.
En route home, I popped into London to see Aladdin, which I loved. I walked up the mall and kicked around the West end for the day.
My next trip was to Disneyland Paris with my sister, and we had a great time. We had been to Disneyworld before, but it was actually our first time to this resort and we were both pleasantly surprised, not only at how good it
Wearing my Tigger hat!
was, but also by how affordable it was. It was actually cheaper for us to stay in one of Disney's hotels on site than it would have been to stay in central Paris then have the faff of getting out there. We were really lucky to get free half-board when we booked too, especially as food in the resort was extortionate and not that great. I'd be pretty upset if I'd paid an extra £200-300 on bland food.
There are two parks, Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park, and both are worth visiting. Standout rides to us were definitely Hyperspace Mountain, the only one in the world that goes upside down, and the best ride of all, the Tower of Terror. I was properly terrified on this ride, but thrilled too! And maybe it is just us, but we loved Stitch Live! too, we found it hilarious. I found the parade, concert and fireworks display at the end of each day just magical and could have happily watched it day after day, but my sister realised that this was primetime for getting on rides without queues. The rest of the time the queues were heaving, often having to
stand in sub-zero temperatures for over an hour to get on the most popular rides. I couldn't believe it was that busy even in February, but maybe it was a French holiday or something. I don't think I could handle the kind of crowds it must attract in the warmer months. Due to the time it took to get on some of the rides, I'd say you need at least a day for each park, but three days overall is perfect. So glad I finally made it to EuroDisney with my sister, we had so much fun.
My next trip was a springtime break to the Isle of Skye with my sister and my dad, a first time for this particular combination but it worked. I hadn't been to Skye since I was 3, and wish it hadn't taken me so long to return. Skye may be touristy, but for good reason - it really is gorgeous. Like Scotland in miniature. The scenery is so dramatic and varied, rolling hills and stunning white sand beaches that look like they have been lifted straight out of a Caribbean travel brochure. Coral Beach deserves a special mention, as do the fairy
pools and their gorgeous glen setting. At Dunvegan Castle we went on the best seal-spotting boat trip ever, we saw hundreds and got so close as we were on such a tiny boat, I highly recommend it. Driving around the scenic Trotternish peninsula was another highlight. Must-see stops include Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock, and of course, the famous Old Man of Storr. We had a great time climbing the peaks and exploring around here.
There were plenty of scenic stops on the drive to Skye and back too, the idyllic Eilean Donan Castle for example, and of course, the breathtaking majesty of Glencoe. We also visited Plockton, a village with such a mild climate thanks to the North Atlantic Drift that palm trees flourish there. Hamish Macbeth, a 90s TV series, was filmed there. And we also drove to the Applecross peninsula via Bealach na Ba, an epically winding and scenic single track road.
After Skye, my next trip was to Italy in June. The trip was based around the Cinque Terre national park on the Italian Riviera, and the closest airport we could fly into was Pisa. So we decided to spend our first night in
a Tuscan town we had yet to visit, Lucca. I'm so glad we did, as Lucca was gorgeous. It has amazingly preserved city walls which you can walk right round. These walls have become parkland so it is teeming with life, everyone from joggers to dogwalkers. When we came down from the walls we wandered into the centre at ground level to visit the home of Puccini. Even if you don't care for Puccini or his music, this museum is worth it just to get a glimpse of a lovely old Italian apartment and how people used to live. Lucca was everything I'd hoped for in a Tuscan city, like Florence without the crowds. Now I need to see Siena next ha ha ha.
The Cinque Terre are 5 precariously perched, wonderfully preserved colourful little fishing villages. Not only are they a protected national park, but they are a UNESCO world heritage site too. As construction is obviously restricted there, accommodation is limited and expensive. We opted to stay in a hotel in nearby La Spezia, an industrial port city. La Spezia had good transport links for the Cinque Terre and surrounding area, but staying there was a bit
bleak for a holiday.
As for the 5 villages themselves, from South to North they are ordered: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. We visited the first two in one day. Riomaggiore was lovely but crowded and extra steep, I was glad we hadn't stayed there after all, I would have needed a rope to climb back to my accommodation! We stayed much longer in Manarola, having lunch in a hilltop restaurant then finding a swimming spot for the afternoon so we could return to the restaurant for sunset. We also climbed higher and explored more in this village, narrow alleyways and terraces with allotments overlooking the sea.
The next day we started in Corniglia, the only village not on the waterfront as it is so high up. The train station is at the bottom of the hill, and the staircase up the hill was not as bad as it looks, assuming you have no mobility issues, there is a minibus transfer if you do. This village was extra quaint and I loved exploring it. All of the villages have hiking trails connecting them but most of them were closed due to landslides when we visited.
But we managed to hike from Corniglia to Vernazza. It took about an hour and a half and was actually pretty rigorous on a hot day. The path was wildly uneven and steep in places, so definitely not suitable for anyone with any kind of mobility issues. It was an adventure and worth it though for the views over Vernazza as we approached. Vernazza has an extra bit of peninsula that juts right out over the sea, so it was extra special to see from above. Vernazza itself was pretty crowded, so once we had recovered it was on to the last village (by train ha ha). Monterosso is the biggest village and only one with a beach. Most of it is private though, the bit we ended up on was a bit manky and to top it off it rained. Although hot, it was actually overcast for our entire holiday, we never saw that sun. This put quite a dampener on our trip, and made La Spezia seem even more bleak. All of my trips this year have been so amazing that quite unbelievably, I think this one may have been my least favourite. It wasn't bad, just not
as amazing as the others. And I can't offer a solution to where would be better to stay, as La Spezia did seem the most practical.
Other day trips we took on this trip were to Portovenere, which we chose over Portofino. It was nice but not that memorable, although I liked the bus journey through other villages to get there. We also visited Genoa for the day, mostly to visit Europe's biggest aquarium. I spent many happy hours watching manatees, seals, dolphins and other animals. The dolphins put on a show that was delightful, but I did feel conflicted knowing that dolphins are particularly unsuited to life in captivity. It's not like they were rescues, they were bred in captivity to entertain us.
On our way back to the airport we also popped into Pisa and this time I climbed the leaning tower. It was so freaky, sliding from one wall to the next, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience.
At the start of August I took a mini-break up the west coast of Scotland. We were based in Oban, a scenic harbour town with ferry links to the Inner Hebrides. We arrived in Oban
by train from Glasgow, a journey world-renowned for its scenic beauty. Oban itself was worth a look around. The seafront but also walking up the steep backstreets, admiring houses and gardens. And climbing up to McCaig's Tower, a colosseum-type structure with lovely sweeping views over the bay. We also took a seal-spotting boat trip from the harbour. We saw some gorgeous seals but it paled in comparison to the
boat trip we took in Skye.
One of my main aims for this trip was to see puffins on the island of Staffa, but when we got to Oban I found out that they had all left the day before! So we saved the Staffa trip for another time, and just visited Mull and Iona instead. We took an organised day excursion combining the two islands. Mull is a much bigger island so we travelled along the South coast to get to the point for the short crossing to Iona. The drive was very scenic, and we even saw some highland cows sunbathing on a tiny beach! Iona was unbelievably beautiful, and I'd have loved to walk round the entire island but we stayed in and around the village for
our visit as there was plenty to see, including an abbey and a nunnery.
Mull is famous for the town of Tobermory on the north of the island, so we hopped back over the next day to visit there too. Tobermory features in a British children's TV show as the fictional town of Balamory. It is a small harbour town with colourfully-painted houses along the waterfront. When we visited there was a random Nepalese market in town, and we enjoyed perusing the shops and cafes and spotting the famous Tobermory cat.
In September I took another short break, to the Alsace region of France. The nearest airport option was actually Basel in Switzerland, so I added a night there on the way back. My base in Alsace was Colmar, a dream destination. Alsace is a region right on the border with Germany and has switched hands several times over the centuries. This has resulted in a unique culture and architecture of adorable multi-coloured half-timbered houses, like something out of Disney's Beauty & the Beast. Colmar is the most famous of these fairytale towns and I just had to see it for myself. It was so picturesque. There's even
a little corner with a canal called 'Little Venice'. There were window boxes and plant pots bursting with blooms everywhere, and even an unassuming indoor market we came across that turned out to be a gem.
Colmar is the home of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the famous designer of the Statue of Liberty. There are numerous museums and attractions around town dedicated to him, and even a smaller (but still large) model of Lady Liberty on a random roundabout as you head out of town. We didn't bother walking to it, but passed it on the bus to Riquewihr, another little town rumoured to be even cuter than Colmar. It was. It was magical. It was more compact than Colmar and I felt like I'd walked straight onto a Disney set. I loved exploring the quaint, tiny cobble streets and stopping for some delicious local wine, Riesling. Even the town's location is idyllic, being completely surrounded by vineyards.
It's funny, these towns were bustling with tourists, but mostly French and German tourists. They don't seem to have been discovered by British tourists yet. I didn't hear a single British accent the whole time I was there, but a random
encounter with a taxi driver in Glasgow the week before I went revealed that he loves holidaying there and was going to be there at roughly the same time as me. I'd love to go back to Alsace and explore more.
After 2 nights in Colmar I stayed a night in Basel. This was my first experience of Switzerland. I was immediately struck by its efficiency, cleanliness and how expensive it is. There was a nice cathedral and surrounding area, but its standout feature to me was the quirky town hall. Beyond that there wasn't much else to see, to me one day in Basel was perfect. We spent the rest of the day hanging out at the river, the center of life in Basel. At several points along the Rhine you can cross in a small wooden ferry pulled entirely by the tide. We did this twice for good measure. We picnicked by the river, basking in the late summer sun and watching the locals swim by and partaking in some kind of extreme muscle-canoeing.
The next two trips I took in 2018 were bucket list items, Iceland then Cuba. Iceland was amazing, I've never seen such
stunning and varied landscape. On our first day we visited the Blue Lagoon as it is nearer the airport at Keflavik than it is to Reykjavik. It was hugely popular, so booking ahead was essential. Even by the time I booked, the most convenient slots were full already, and we had to wait around for a couple of hours between our flight arriving and getting in. When we finally got in, it was relaxing, but a lot of things surprised me. The open plan design of changing rooms and showers suits some cultures more than others (men and women are separated), the fact that you will never leave with the same towel you went in with, the water can easily ruin your hair (cake it in conditioner and don't let it touch the water), and you definitely do not want to know what the soft, spongy feeling underfoot was in the Lagoon itself. Once you let these things go though, floating about with a nice drink in hand and mud mask on your face is pretty therapeutic!
Reykjavik turned out to be a really cute city with a small town feel, and we stayed in a typical apartment among
the locals in an ideal location near the quirky Hallgrimskirkja Church.
The first day trip we did was the Golden Circle tour, an excellent introduction to Iceland. We visited several waterfalls, the Ketid crater, the Geyser Geothermal Field, Icelandic ponies, and the fascinating landscape of Thingvellir National Park.
As amazing as the Golden Circle tour was, my absolute favourite excursion was to the awe-inspiring Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. Its beauty and tranquility was mesmerising, and definitely worth the long drive along Southern Iceland to get there. The icebergs floating around ranged from white to blue in colour, and as the lagoon joined the sea chunks of glittering ice were deposited on a black sand beach where they sparkled like diamonds. I'd just like to point out here that I disagree wholly with Lonely Planet who advise against a day trip here. Of course, if you have your own transport and means to stay nearby for the night, by all means do so, so you have more time to explore and admire the lagoon. But if not, don't shy away from taking a day tour, as a couple of hours spent here is better than nothing.
It was a
long day, but the other stops on the way were also awesome. Seljalandsfoss, the famous waterfall that you can walk behind, was probably my favourite waterfall of the whole holiday. And the town of Vik was memorable too, for its expanse of black sand beach.
We took a whalewatching boat trip from Reykjavik, but unfortunately didn't spot any whales. We did see some dolphins though, and got heavily discounted tickets for Reykjavik's Whale Museum, where we were overawed by life-size models of the creatures.
Relaxing at thermal pools and spas is an important part of Icelandic culture, and we visited one in Reykjavik frequented by locals. In some ways it was more enjoyable than the overcrowded Blue Lagoon, and I can see why people go there just to hang out and chat. The pool and hotpots were on a rooftop, and we had a nice view over Reykjavik as the sun set.
We also had a Northern Lights tour booked that was cancelled several nights due to cloud coverage. It went ahead on our last night in town, but unfortunately we didn't see anything despite a good forecast. This was disappointing of course, but quite common and
by no means spoiled our trip. I still loved Iceland, and want to return to explore more of the north of the country.
Cuba has long been a place that has interested me. It seems to be entering a new era and change is probably inevitable, so I wanted to get there before that happens. My time in the country was curiously fascinating, but I feel that I probably still left with more questions than I had when I got there.
I didn't much like Varadero, the hotels-only tourist resort on a peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. However, from the rampant poverty I saw in the rest of the country, it probably is best that the tourists in their relative luxury are set apart from the locals rather than amongst the community, rubbing their noses in it.
The first day trip we took was a 3 cities tour to Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Our stop in Santa Clara was outside of the centre, Che Guevara's Mausoleum. It was very grand and the museum inside was interesting, despite being almost exclusively in Spanish, the personal photos and belongings painted a picture of a very
colourful character. On the way to Trinidad we drove through the centre of Santa Clara and it was here in particular along with the other nearby inland towns where the poverty was rife. People lived in shacks and had no jobs or anything to do but gather in hordes amongst litter and debris. It was impossible to tell if people were gathered together to wait for a bus at an unmarked stop or simply hanging out from one mob to the next.
Trinidad was a colourful, shabby chic affair. It looked gorgeous, even with grey skies. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is Old Havana. Our tour guide led us around, took us to a cigar and rum shop probably run by his cousin and a restaurant probably run by his uncle, took us to a bar to try canchanchara, a honey and rum cocktail, and gave us free time to wander about.
I enjoyed our time in Trinidad, but unfortunately due to an overly-long lunch it was dark by the time we got to Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos seemed to have a bit more faded grandeur about it, but it was hard to tell. We only
stopped to all bundle into a random dirty bar's toilet where they wanted to charge us for toilet roll (a common theme in Cuba, as is having ridiculous child-sized toilet cubicles where you can see everyone's heads and pretty much everything they are doing in there!)
We did also explore Varadero in our short week in Cuba. The town isn't much to speak of, the marina wasn't worth getting off the bus for, and as for the nature reserve, well. In fairness, I did enjoy our hour-long trek around the forest, we didn't see much wildlife but there were some awesome caves to explore. But near the end, I had an unfortunate incident. I fell in a swamp. And struggled to get back up because of the way my leg was twisted under me. When I did, I knew I had to get back to my hotel as I was soaked in mud (it actually made me quite violently ill later that night), but the trail came out of the forest on to a road in the middle of nowhere, with no signposts anywhere. It was quite funny really. Once I got my bearings, it wasn't too far a
walk along the road back to the start of the trail as it had meandered round so much within the forest. And to top it all off, torrential rain came pouring down. It wasn't my favourite day ever!
Our other excursion was to Havana on an organised tour that packed as much fun and variety into one day as was possible. Our guide Luisa was brilliant, not least because she started the day with a pina colada stop. None of the rubbish mix stuff the hotels were giving us either, a proper pina colada served in a pineapple. It was delicious. She was super-informative and helpful, and even touched upon the taboo subjects of money and politics that other Cubans had been reluctant to get into.
Our first stop in Havana was to Hemingway's house in the hills on the outskirts, with amazing views of the city. It was a beautiful property, but man did that guy like his hunting trophies. He even had a lion's head, which I don't get when he was such a big cat lover.
We had a brief lunch then a ride through 'New Havana' (still pretty old and shabby looking) in
classic cars. We rode round the famous Colon cemetery, stopped at Revolution Square and ended up on the Malecon. From here Luisa led us on an insightful tour of Old Havana on foot then gave us free time when we explored some more. We came across plenty of quirky sights, from street performers to old ladies dancing by themselves in the street, from a wackily-dressed old lady with a giant cigar hanging out of her mouth pushing a cat around in a pram to people sitting in the street hugging street dogs. This particularly struck me, as there were just so many of the street dogs and they all had big plastic badges hanging from their necks as the authorities pick them up, inoculate and neuter them, then release them again with messages asking people to feed them. It's crazy as people can barely afford to feed themselves, but the genuine affection some Cubans were showing the animals was truly touching. One old man dressed in rags with barely a tooth in his head, was kindly feeding a bunch of stray cats, climbing into bushes to get to lone kittens. He was very friendly too and chatted away to me
about the cats even though I indicated that I couldn't understand Spanish. Later that night though I found a lone kitten that was far too young to be on its own out in a busy street. There wasn't much I could do, I didn't want to move him too far in case his mother came back for him. I tried to put him through a fence into a small locked park at the side of the road, but he just ran back into the street, the rascal. My mum thinks it was a scam as a woman appeared asking us for money that she said she would use to buy milk for the kitten, but she took a while to appear so I think she might have just been a random opportunist, there were a lot of beggars around. Either way, it broke my heart to leave the kitten.
We had dinner at the famous La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway's old haunt and home of the mojito. Of course, it would have been rude not to try one. I quite liked it, all the better for not having Bacardi rum like mojitos here do. The food was simple but
La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana
Home of the mojito, one of Hemingway's old haunts.
tasty. The walls were covered in visitors' signatures, so we added our own to the tradition. When we came out of the restaurant the street was mobbed with people waiting to get in.
Our walking tour with Luisa continued. She showed us the square where they keep the yacht that the guerilla fighters travelled to Cuba on and other planes and tanks from the revolution. We saw more nice buildings including the Museum of Revolution, I only wish I'd had time to go into it but we did pack in as much as possible in one day. We had a bit of time to wander up a street popular with locals (this was where I found the kitten). Then the day was rounded off with a visit to Morro Castle for a cannon-firing ceremony. I got talking to some locals who also opened up about life in Cuba today, in between making up rap poetry.
I have mixed feelings about my time in Cuba, but I do think I only scratched the surface in understanding the country. I'd love to explore Havana more but don't think I'd be keen to holiday in Varadero again.
And finally, my
last trip of the year which took me right up to December 31st - Stockholm, Sweden. I originally booked it as a solo trip, but then my dad was lamenting his own travel plans that hadn't come together, so I invited him along too. We've never travelled anywhere just the two of us before, but we both survived the experience and enjoyed ourselves.
My vague plan for the first day was to explore Gamla Stan and Sodermalm, then get out to a park with a butterfly pavilion my dad was keen to see. That went straight out the window when we realised the logistics would be a nightmare, luckily dad said there'd be other butterflies. We didn't actually get to Sodermalm either, or go into City Hall, as Gamla Stan took all of our time. The streets of Gamla Stan were cute, and we happened upon Marten Trotzigs grand, the narrowest street in Stockholm, just 90cm at its narrowest point. We walked around the outside of the Royal Palace, and decided we fancied a boat ride. Stockholm is situated on an impressive archipelago of 14 islands, and if I ever return in the summer months I'd love to explore
it extensively by boat. Being winter, boat trips were limited and shorter, but it was enjoyable and we saw a good bit of the centre. We sailed past Strandvagen, the street of exclusive 18th century buildings in the posh residential district of Ostermalm. We saw a bit of Sodermalm too, and most of Djurgarden, the island of parks and museums.
Back in Gamla Stan, we hunted high and low for the square with the famous coloured buildings I'd seen pictures of everywhere. When we finally found it, they were under renovation! But at least they had been covered by pictures of themselves ha ha.
That evening, we engaged in an unusual Saturday night activity - subway surfing. Stockholm's underground is known for being like one long art gallery, with more than 90 of the 100 metro stations featuring art in some form. So we spent a couple of hours visiting a bunch that I'd found recommended on a travel blog. My favourites were Stadion (a rainbow), Morby Centrum (an optical illusion rainbow and candy floss combo), Hallonbergen (hilarious kids' line drawings), and Solna Centrum (surely the most detailed, red sunset over a green Swedish forest and depicting various
Some of the most photographed buildings in Stockholm.
Shame they were under renovation, but how kind of them to be covered in pictures of themselves.
aspects of rural life, both good and bad). This was a really fun activity.
The next day we made our way over to the island of Djurgarden to visit the ABBA Museum and Vasa Museum. The ABBA Museum was tremendous fun. My dad was even happy as there turned out to be a rock room displaying the guitars of lots of famous musicians. And I got to perform on stage with virtual ABBA. I have video evidence in which you thankfully can't hear me sing - the dancing is bad enough! I'm a beat behind the rest of the band ha ha. But at least I had fun.
The Vasa Museum was worth the visit too. The Vasa is the only almost fully intact 17th century ship to be salvaged and put on display. It sank a mere 1400 yards into its maiden voyage due to being too top-heavy and 30 people died. The viewing platforms are set over several levels so you can see it up close from many angles and really examine it. There are other related exhibits to see too, including a reconstruction of the gun deck that you can walk through. What struck me
most about it was how low the ceiling was. I know people would have generally been shorter in the 17th century, but many must still have had to stoop to walk about like I did, and do so every day that they were on board the ship. I'd recommend visiting this museum to anyone, it's no wonder it is the most-visited museum in Scandinavia.
The next morning we just had time for a bit of shopping before our flight home. We found several lovely little interior design and gift shops, some selling Moomin memorabilia, which took me back to my childhood (the Moomins are a Swedish/Finnish-created cartoon family of fairy tale creatures resembling hippos).
To sum up, I had an amazingly privileged year of travel in 2018 and I enjoyed the vast majority of it, with no major incidents or hiccups. There were too many great destinations and experiences to even name my highlights, it was all a highlight. So far I have no fixed travel plans for 2019, and I don't think it will feature as much travel as 2018 did, but I can't wait to see what's in store for me. Thanks for reading!
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