Travel year in review: our writers' favourite travel memories of 2018
From hiking in the Dolomites and feasting in Palestine to seal-spotting in south Georgia, our writers share their most meaningful travel experiences from the past year
From hiking in the Dolomites and feasting in Palestine to penguin-spotting in South Georgia and discovering that even the most visited cities can still serve up surprises, our writers recall their most meaningful travel experiences of the past year.
Europe’s wonderful vistas and gourmet gastronomy
Among my travel highlights of 2018 were some phenomenally good hiking trips – through the Unesco-listed Dolomites (pictured) during the Sounds of the Dolomites festival, and in Austria’s extraordinarily beautiful (and also Unesco-listed) Dachstein. It’s also been a great year for French trips, including some wonderful visits to Pas-de-Calais, Aisne, the Loire and Burgundy, and hiking through southern France on part of the Chemin de Saint Jacques. My culinary highlight of 2018 was eating at chef Marc Meurin’s outstanding, two Michelin-star restaurant, Le Meurin, in France’s Pas-de-Calais region – a taste-bud-dazzling extravaganza, preceded by a cookery class with Meurin. Every year, I spend part of the summer in Croatia, hiding away on a small, traffic-free island in the Zadar archipelago for a couple of weeks with my wife and daughter – the most therapeutic, sun-drenched break imaginable.
Decadence in Rome
Amid its classical sites and chaotic suburbs, Rome still has some secrets. I’ve spent much of this year tracking down the Italian capital’s art nouveau and Liberty-style relics. Some, like the Coppede district, with its lavish luxury apartments, and the Casina delle Civette (pictured), a villa of vertigo-inducing architecture, take some work to find. But there are a few examples in the city centre, too. The most impressive is the Galleria Sciarra, an old arcade in a backstreet just a few minutes from the world-famous Piazza di Spagna. Its ornately frescoed walls and gold-leaf pillars are a delicious specimen of fin de siecle decadence and a prize reward for the intrepid traveller.
Penguin dance in South Georgia
While 2018 was a year filled with adventure, for me, travelling to South Georgia was a true highlight. It was the second time I had travelled with Canadian polar gurus OneOcean (I also covered the Northwest Passage with them for The National) and the 14-day adventure from the Falkland Islands to the remote, mountainous South Atlantic island was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. South Georgia is an elusive destination; it sees less (human) visitors than Antarctica, but is a crucial breeding ground for marine mammals, from two-tonne elephant seals to hundreds of thousands of inquisitive king penguins. We were blessed with great weather in a place usually pounded by the elements and left with a profound respect for Mother Nature.
From highlands to Fijian islands
This year’s travels saw me boarding 48 flights and visiting 10 countries, from the Highlands of Scotland to the far-flung islands of Fiji. In the former, I discovered a wonderful near-empty road-trip route along the west coast, from Glasgow to Inveraray to Strontian and on to Mallaig, where you can catch the ferry to Skye. I also visited Luang Prabang (pictured) for the first time in 2018 and, despite being warned that the city wasn’t what it used to be, I was delighted to discover a sleepy, still far-from-commercialised town scattered with beautiful temples.
Banksy in Bethlehem, the Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse and the hospitality of Palestine
The people of Palestine are probably what did it for me. Whether it was having a well-known chef take me on his morning market visit or spending an hour conversing with a stranger in an alleyway after he’d brewed me a fresh cup of tea, I haven’t felt so completely welcome as a tourist in a long time. I learnt that while the Israel/ Palestine conflict is very real, it doesn’t need to negatively affect your trip to the West Bank. The Old City of Bethlehem is a stunning, stone-laden labyrinth of marketplaces, delicious falafel shops and friendly faces. The Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse, run by chef Fadi Kattan, is a beautiful collection of historic buildings with a restaurant that could rival any in London, Paris or Rome in terms of contemporary gourmet fare. Kattan is a well-known figure in Bethlehem, and the morning market walkabout I joined him on, as he force-fed me cheese and wasabi-flavoured herbs, and we interacted with the locals, was one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had. Bethlehem is also home to the hotel that elusive street artist Banksy opened in 2017, right beside Palestine’s imposing security wall. These days, the wall is a stunning patchwork of works by famous artists (like Banksy himself), local artists and complete amateurs just wanting to leave a message of hope.
An Easter surprise in New York City
I was wandering around New York City on April 1 when I stumbled upon the city’s annual Easter Parade. Strolling along Fifth Avenue, between 49th and 57th streets, were men in colourful three-piece suits, women in elaborate Easter egg-laden hats clutching terrified-looking bunny rabbits, and a sole protestor holding up a placard that read: Mark Zuckerberg = Evil. It was a bright sunny day that hinted that summer was on its way, and there was a sense of childlike glee in the air. When I woke the following morning, the city was covered in snow – a record 12 centimetres had blanketed Central Park overnight. I experienced the four seasons in as many days – a reminder that, no matter how many times you visit, the Big Apple always has the capacity to surprise.
The jewel of the Inner Hebrides
Forty two kilometres long by 18km wide, and a 30-minute Loganair flight from Glasgow, Islay is the queen of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Banrigh nan Eilean: an island of bens and glens, peat stacks and peat sausage piles, smugglers’ caves, Viking graves, Gaelic crosses, forts, shielings (prehistoric beehive strictures), standing stones, abandoned kelp kilns, medieval chapels, Neolithic chambered cairns, stirks (Highland heifers), tumbledown byres, ancient fanks (sheepfolds), old herring stations, distilleries, stags, corncrakes and hen harriers. And the recently reopened Machrie Hotel & Golf Links. But I shall never forget being there the day the Barnies arrived – 48,000 Barnacle geese descend on Islay every winter from Greenland. As a local said: “They’re some sight. But don’t put your washing out too long.”
A natural wonder in Zambia
I’ve been to Africa before, but my trip to Zambia this year was certainly a highlight and tops all the other destinations I travelled to in 2018, which includes southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, Mauritius and Sicily. It was peak waterfall season when I visited Livingstone and this meant that the curtain of water gushing from Victoria Falls was at its most fierce. Having zebras on my doorstep and giraffes munching away just metres from me was brilliant, and I’d definitely recommend doing as I did and setting your fears aside for a microlight flight over the Zambezi. That’ll be tough to top next year.
Incredible Greek island escape
Home of the Minoans, one of Europe’s oldest ancient civilisations, Crete is Greece’s largest island. It offers variety, spectacular scenery and the longest summers. While its major package-holiday resorts generally occupy the northern and eastern coastlines, it’s in the southwestern corner where the real, more low-key Crete lingers amid pretty village-dotted hills. The pink-tinged sands of Elafonisi remain one of coastal Crete’s wonders and are all the more enjoyable outside the peak-season months of July and August. For walkers, the rugged Samaria Gorge is the island’s most celebrated walk, but if you’re after more tranquillity, the spectacular Aradena Gorge still sees just a handful of hikers each day. Both end on the southern coast, which is studded with cove beaches and inlets lapped by crystal-clear seas. Only accessible on foot or by boat, picturesque Loutro (pictured) retains a sleepy charm and is an essential halt for those tackling the wonderful coastal path that weaves among beaches, ridges, cliffs and bluffs. Walk like a Minoan.
Culinary highlights in Colombia
Sitting on the northern tip of South America, Colombia has suffered a bad rap for as long as I can remember. Now that it has been somewhat loosened from the grip of civil unrest and drug cartels, it has become easier to navigate and safely explore its humid jungles, surfer-friendly oceans, high-altitude plateaus and historic capital Bogota, and to feast on its exquisite range of fruit, from tree tomatoes to custardy guanabana. My favourite excursion of the year was to Coqui, a village with a population of 117, on the Pacific coast in Colombia’s remote Choco province, where the community has set up a greenhouse for indigenous plants, an organic coconut oil business and a wonderful restaurant, Zotea, aided by veteran chef Leonor Espinosa.
New addresses in KL
I have just ended a hectic year of global travels by stopping off in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, a buzzing under-the-radar metropolis that always has a hotlist of enticing new addresses. After years of construction, the totally luxurious Four Seasons has finally opened its doors. Alternatively, just down the road, the funky design of the futurist W Hotel has made it the hippest place to stay right now. For eating out, Open House, in the iconic Twin Towers, finally offers a gourmet interpretation of traditional Malay and indigenous tribal cuisine, while exciting young Japanese chef Sam Saito prepares exquisite raw fish dishes in his cosy but exclusive fine-dining restaurant, Sushi Hibiki. Lovers of delicious French fare should not miss the seafood platters and boeuf bourguignon served at fashionable Brasserie Fritz, while the latest nightlife venue for clubbing is Ce La Vi, which has launched an extravagant KL outpost of its popular Singapore venue.
Updated: January 13, 2019 05:13 PM