As the decadent debauchery of Yuletide consumption draws to a close and the January blues prepare to engulf our thus far delayed winter, the traveller in me finds herself in a familiar predicament as this time last year with a serious absence of travel itineraries etched into my diary for the upcoming year. Unlike last year, however, this time, it does not faze me.
15 Travels from 2015
Despite having almost nothing pencilled in last January, 2015’s travels bloomed like potently nourished tulips, giving rise to some of my most cherished memories in a year peppered with highs and lows. 2014 was a year of adventure and 2015 showed me the travel bug lives on with vehemence. As for this year, I would love to hear your suggestions for both long and short-haul destinations but first, a moment to reflect on twelve months of exploration.
A jam-packed weekend in Lille kicked off 2015, when I arrived armed with some cryptic clues as part of the Park Inn Express Challenge. I revelled in the swimming pool museum, savoured the delicate bite of Lille’s famous Meert waffles and unwrapped my fingers from their glove shields to feel the wafer thin paper of old books in open air markets.
And still, Lille’s greatest pleasure for me, lay in simply ambling along the unassuming, narrow, cobblestone streets, where the bunting above our eyes oscillated with the gentle breeze.
When Pumpkin made the controversial statement, “you would never want to go on a mysterious, surprise trip without knowing the destination,” I protested the inaccuracy of his remark and challenged him to test his theory.
And this was how I ended up on a surprise visit to Marrakech for my birthday weekend. Once I got over the embarrassment of that Hammam experience, I learned how bad I am at bartering in the glowing souks of Marrakech.
We devoured succulent tagines during a Marrrakech food tour and witnessed a taste of Berber village life in the Atlas mountains, sipping habitually on steaming hot, invigorating fresh mint teas, poured lovingly from shiny, pointed silver teapots.
The Cotswolds, England
Fulfilling a promise we made to ourselves to see more of the UK in 2015, the Cotswolds became our first British destination of the year. Our annual cottage weekends with friends took us to North Norfolk the year before but in 2015, eight of us descended upon a country abode in Chedworth, using it as a base to hop between idyllic villages, countryside pubs and quaint tea rooms.
British winters are always portrayed in such a negative light (usually by us Brits) but as we watched the fresh snowflakes settling on the rustic, stone houses in Cirencester, no goosebumps could remind me why.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Visiting Abu Dhabi really shouldn’t have been sentimental for me, since I bore no bonds with this nation and yet, simply from its vicinity to my former home, Saudi Arabia, returning to the Middle East for the first time since childhood, filled me with nostalgia.
The intense dry heat, the melodic mosque prayer call and the melange of nuts and flaky filo in each handmade piece of baklava all stimulated journeys back into my past.
We divided our stay between the affordable luxury of the Southern Sun as well as the opulence of a club lounge room at the Ritz Carlton but our most memorable of the Abu Dhabi highlights had to be the architectural masterpiece that is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
The urge to set foot on this cluster of paradise islands first set in many years ago after seeing photographs that seemed too flawless to be true – and in May, I made it.
Over the years, I have developed a bit of a soft spot for the Indian Ocean islands but having swum in the warm seas of Mauritius, The Maldives and now The Seychelles, it has only reinforced my view that this region is home to arguably the best beaches in the world.
When we first arrived at Constance Lemuria in Praslin island, Seychelles, we were greeted with the words, “Welcome to paradise,” a confident yet precisely accurate description of the world we had just entered.
Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre and Pisa, Italy
European destinations always draw the short straws in our household, only ever being allocated a long weekend. In my pre-Pumpkin days, I had visited numerous European cities and as a result, my mind hastily tends to jump to long-haul aspirations.
But for Pumpkin, however, the situation is reversed and as he had never been to Italy (my favourite European destination), we devoted a full ten days to the nation of Botticelli, gelato and Ferrari. I can only claim to be an expert on one of those three. 🙂
We hiked in the foothills of Cinque Terre, unravelled some of the alternative sights in Florence and photographed our hearts out upon seeing Michelangelo’s David and the Duomo in Florence. Venice saw us become hideously lost in dark back streets and invitingly absorbed in their cicchetti and wine culture.
Northumberland, Durham and York, England
With the combination of oppressive London traffic and the elongated shape of the UK, it often works out quicker for us to reach continental Europe than the North of England but after years of intending to see Northumberland and Durham, we got in the car in September on a UK road trip and found affectionate locals, magnificent castles, fishing villages and an island so remote we had to drive through a road in the sea to reach it…(If that last one intrigues you, stay tuned, as all will be revealed very shortly in a post all about our trip up North.)
Never one to pass up the opportunity for one final day of exploration, we stopped off for a jam-packed afternoon in York en route to London, a beautiful Medieval city that deserves far more than only the one afternoon we were able to give it. You have heard of the term “pie in the sky,” right? In York, you will actually find one.
November’s festive break to Bruges occurred almost exactly a year to the day after my weekend in Brussels. Bruges’ peaceful, pedestrian-friendly roads set the backdrop for two days of canal-side walks, windmill-spotting and Christmas market browsing.
The winter ice rink and bejewelled night lights enhanced the allure but when all is said and done, a weekend of waffles, frites and velvety chocolate pralines was never going to disappoint, regardless of the time of year.
New York City, USA
Regular readers will be aware that where alcohol is concerned, I am not someone who even knows a Moet from a Pinot Noir. Alcohol has never been my vice and this year, those saved pennies got channelled into my drug of choice – New York City.
I am intoxicated by its sky-scraper pierced skies and its melting pot metropolis but after previous visits only ever taken in the summer, 2015 was my chance to gaze at all those New York City Christmas scenes that I had only ever seen in films.
We also made an effort on this visit to stroll around some of the other, more residential, neighbourhoods of Manhattan that we had previously neglected. I cannot wait to share more stories of my favourite city abroad with you all in due course. Forgive the over-excitement. It’s the addiction. I’m beyond help.
The first port of call was Barbados, a playground of the rich and famous where every local we met proudly and delightfully told us their very own Rihanna story – how they once took her on a tour, how their fathers worked together or how they went to her school when younger.
Although little time was spent on land, the waters surrounding the island were pristine, housing shipwrecks, colourful fish and the majestic sea turtles, all easily seen whilst we snorkelled.
A Caribbean island dwarfed by the two commanding Pitons, the striking volcanic twin mountains which dominate the western coastline, St Lucia is a country with great culture and contrast.
From the natural mud baths, sulphur springs, stunning waterfalls and picture-perfect beaches to the French and Creole inspired food, we instantly felt an affinity with the St Lucia scenery and gracious hospitality, despite being here for only one day.
With 365 beaches on offer in Antigua, choosing which one to spend your day on is no easy task but then again, when your greatest dilemma of the week is picking from a selection of glorious white sand shores, you know you are having a good week.
With excursions booked for various other stops on our cruise, Antigua was a day dedicated to slapping on sun-screen, snoozing under parasols and soaking in seawater.
Plane spotting. Yes, you read correctly. We came to St Maarten and went plane spotting. We would like to think we defied the plane-spotter stereotypes with no anoraks, binoculars or thermos flasks in our armoury. Instead we were lounging by the sea on the golden sands of Maho beach as aircraft came in to land at what felt like touching distance above our heads.
US Virgin Islands
Although a Caribbean island, our final port of call before disembarking our cruise ship saw us return to the United States, when we touched upon the US Virgin Islands. We knew our time in the sunshine was drawing to a close and anyone who has ever been to the UK in December knows that it is therefore worth squeezing every last second out of any available warm weather going spare.
We decided to spend the final day of the cruise submerging our bodies in the warm, turquoise water of the US Virgin Islands under the Caribbean sun on a third snorkelling trip, drying off one last time in the velvety sediment of the virginal white sands.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Despite my passion for travel, when it comes to special occasions, I have always been a bit traditional at heart. Christmases, New Years’ celebrations, wedding anniversaries, proposal (singular) and until this year, birthdays, have always been occasions I prefer to see in the comfort of familiar surroundings and loved ones at close reach.
This year, I stayed trued to form by scurrying home just in time for Christmas but that said, I found myself curiously intrigued by the novelty of starting Christmas week in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, learning about its amalgamation of Spanish and North American influences and as un-festive as it sounds, admiring the beauty of the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery.
What were your travel highlights from 2015? Have you got any suggestions of destinations I should visit in 2016?
Wishing you all a Happy New Year and leaving you with one final highlight of the year – a picture-perfect, anniversary day out at Leeds Castle, Kent.