Family adventures or solo trips, budget stays or the ultimate in luxury, a look back through our travel calendars always seems to confirm time well-used. These were some of our favourite experiences on the road.
Travel year in review: our writers' highlights of 2017
Rosemary Behan – Travel editor
My 2017 has been more office-bound than usual, but the highlight was probably the second week of January, when I arrived on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. Owned by Sir Richard Branson and rented out under the Virgin Limited Edition brand, the far-flung island had long been on my list to visit, and the launch of a new direct Emirates service to Fort Lauderdale in Florida, as well as its code-share agreement with JetBlue, put it within striking distance. Both its physical attributes – a small, lightly developed private island with regenerating fresh air and translucent aquamarine water – and its place in the Richard Branson story made it a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Arriving by speedboat, and jumping into the water for a swim before a beach barbecue with Branson himself, makes you feel like part of that story. Sadly, this came to an end after 48 hours, yet with the island finding itself in the eye of Hurricane Irma in September, it only underlined the fact that if you can go somewhere, you probably should.
In spring, I took a road trip up the American west coast. Of all the places I’ve been to, I never think twice about returning to the United States, a country which, partly thanks to its size, I find consistently interesting, beautiful and inspiring. I’ve been visiting Portland, Oregon and the surrounding area since 2015; as someone who grew up in an inner city and has lived in the Gulf for almost 10 years, I just want to stop and drink in the fresh air, mountains, forests and rivers.
From hot-air balloon rides over the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, to tracking black rhino on foot in northern Kenya or sunny picnics with my family in the Lot region of France, I’ve had no shortage of travel highlights in 2017. Two that really stand out though would be the exhilaration of camping at 5,000m on the shores of Lake Tilicho high in the Nepalese Himalayas. At night, we could hear the glaciers on the wall of 8,000- metre-high mountains creak and groan, and in the morning, we woke up to fresh snow and a pink dawn light on the frozen lake.
My second travel highlight would be the magnificent Roman ruins of Djémila in northern Algeria. Not only were they the most beautiful ruins I have ever seen, but like other ancient sites in Algeria, there weren’t any tourists there.
My year in travel has consisted of 42 flights, 42 hotels, 14 countries, two private islands and my very first cruise. When you travel this much, it’s easy for it all to blend into a blur of airport terminals and hotel lobbies, but that’s what makes the trips that stick in your mind all the more special. For me, this year’s favourites included a visit to Bawah Island in Indonesia, a new eco-resort spread across five prehistoric islands, where I paddled through cobalt-blue lagoons in a clear perspex kayak by day and watched stars catapult across the sky by night.
Spending my birthday staring wide-eyed at the technicolour Hong Kong skyline from my suite at The Peninsula was another highlight, as was a soul-soothing walking tour of Kumaon in the Indian Himalayas with Shakti Himalaya, accompanied by my own yoga master and now, friend for life, Shivachittam Mani.
Literary pilgrimages often underwhelm – the image of a place planted in your head by great writing can easily outshine the reality. Not so the village of Kardamyli in Greece. In July, I visited the Mani peninsula of the Peloponnese, the rocky, southernmost point of the Greek mainland – a favourite haunt and eventual home of the English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Kardamyli, which is a 3.5 hour drive from Athens, and about 50 kilometres away from the closest airport in Kalamata, is where Fermor built his house. The city has managed the rare trick of developing tourism without spoiling its charm. The setting hasn’t changed: the olive groves still cling to the mountainsides, the waters still sparkle, the jagged peak of Mount Taygetus, the highest in the Peloponnese, still looms over the rooftops. There are now bohemian cafes in shaded courtyards, smart restaurants overlooking the bay, and an excellent bookshop (well stocked with Leigh Fermor titles, of course).
Best of all is the island set in dizzyingly clear waters offshore. Leigh Fermor swam round it daily into his 90s: if you do the swim (and you should), don’t miss the tiny Orthodox chapel hidden among the olive trees.
Crossing Australia’s Northern Territory’s East Alligator River was an unforgettable experience. Downstream were the wrecks of cars that had previously failed to navigate the fast-flowing waters. We were the first official, successful attempt for the season. The other side of the crossing is the Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal territory that can only be visited with a special permit. And at the end of the Arnhem Land, down corrugated dirt roads that are often flooded, is the beautiful Cobourg Peninsula.
Getting to the Cobourg felt like a true Australian adventure. But exploring it – watching giant crocodiles swim up to the beaches, walking through the ruins of an abandoned British settlement, fishing in a spectacular craggy inlet and hunting for mudcrabs on the rocks – sealed it as a genuinely special experience.
It’s wild and remote up there, with nature very clearly in command and man just a privileged interloper.
Returning to places that hold unforgettable memories is usually a recipe for disaster – the place of your dreams is swarming with busloads of tourists, modern hotels and condominiums have sprung up on idyllic beaches. I certainly feared for the worst when returning to visit Sarawak’s Mulu caves on the island of Borneo. When I first went over 25 years ago, some of the world’s largest underground caverns could only be reached by a day-long ferry-ride, trekking through jungle and sleeping in tents. This year, I flew into a tiny airport, booked into a luxurious Marriott resort and waited for my tour guide. Well, for once I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.
This amazing natural site and ancient rainforest were exactly as before, with visitors barely exceeding 200 a day, admission allowed only with experienced nature guides, and even daily flights are limited to keep numbers down. The moment I clambered through the entrance of Mulu’s massive subterranean chambers, the shock and emotion was just as great as all those years ago.
Iceland has been on my “must-go” list for quite some time, and my visit thoroughly exceeded expectations. The capital, Reykjavik, is pleasant enough, though it probably won’t win any beauty awards and there’s no escaping its slightly provincial air.
But once beyond the suburbs, nature rapidly takes hold with verve and vigour. Iceland is still actively volcanic, and these extraordinary forces have shaped, gouged and riven this island, which is slightly larger than Ireland.
Even just driving through the classic southwestern Golden Circle route, landscapes quickly changed from lush lake-filled pastoral idylls to austere Scottish-like highlands to virtually desolate rolling hills with steaming volcanic vents that might just, under sunny skies, pass for some strange corner of Sub-Saharan Africa. Then, heading along the south coast or into the sparsely-inhabited interior, you’re among snow-capped mountains and vast glaciers, some of which deposit weirdly-shaped icebergs into lake-like lagoons. Achingly-lonely homesteads and hamlets punctuate this route and one can only admire the hardiness of their residents.
After a hectic year with trips to all seven continents, my favourite would have to be my two-week visit to South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic. I travelled from the Falklands to this remote, mountainous island with Canadian expedition cruise specialists OneOcean, and its team of specialist wildlife photographers, naturalists and guides in search of king penguins and their newly-hatched chicks. South Georgia is constantly under assault by the elements, with wicked winds, towering swells and plummeting temperatures. However, we were extra-ordinarily lucky to be able to land at some spectacular sites, where we had close encounters with king, Gentoo, rock hopper and macaroni penguins, as well as massive elephant seals, soaring petrels and albatrosses, hunting leopard seals, and even pods of dolphins and whales. We also delved into the island’s history of polar exploration, marking a moment beside the grave of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, before braving the seas back to the Falklands.
My absolute travel highlight of 2017 was hiking the Salzburger Almenweg, a long-distance walking trail in Austria’s Salzburgerland, with my seven-year-old daughter. It passes through staggeringly beautiful mountain scenery, with wildflowers growing in profusion in spring, and more mountain huts than anywhere else in Austria – making it a perfect introduction to Alpine adventures for kids. We punctuated our route with a visit to Hohenwerfen Castle, with its spectacular falconry displays.
Another highlight was cycling along the Canal d’Ille-et-Rance in Brittany – from the parks and gardens of Rennes, to the medieval ramparts and narrow, cobbled streets of Dinan, and finishing beside the sea at Dinard. Despite having been a regular visitor to Zadar for some 20 years, I never get bored with spending time in this beautiful city on Croatia’s Adriatic coast, and watching the breathtaking sunsets from its waterfront promenade, alongside the medieval old town.
Melinda Healy – Weekend editor
The fortnight I spent travelling around Morocco tops my list for 2017. I was fortunate enough to travel with a close Moroccan friend, who helped make the experience an insightful and personal one. Our travels included stops in Casablanca, Marrakesh, Ouarzazate, Merzouga, Ouzoud and Todgha Gorge. My time in the village of Er-Rich, an eight-hour drive from Marrakesh, deserves special mention due to the beauty of the mountainous landscape and the hospitality of the town’s people – and at times it felt like stepping into the past.
Being invited to stay with my friend’s family gave me the opportunity to experience Berber life first-hand, something I won’t forget. A visit to Ouarzazete, the home of Atlas Studios (the world’s largest film studio) was special too, considering that films and TV series produced here include Lawrence of Arabia, The Jewel of the Nile, Game of Thrones and The Mummy.
Navigating rickety walkways across the cascading water beneath, sipping tea in Setti Fatima in the Ourika Valley, riding a camel in the Sahara Desert, taking pictures alongside the Ouzoud Falls with the resident monkeys and driving past fields filled with poppies playing our Moroccan tunes, as well as wandering through the Medina in Jemaa el-Fnaa, will be hard to beat next year.
For those looking to add some natural wonder and small-town charm to a trip to Melbourne, then it is hard to go past Hepburn Springs. A two-hour drive from the city centre, the resort town is home to the largest concentration of mineral springs in Australia. But there is more to it than than idyllic bath locations. For a population just under 800, Hepburn Springs is also home to buzzing community of creatives including authors and musicians. For those wanting to hear folk music from local talent, then head to the stately Palais – a venue hosting live entertainment since the 1920s. Those with an appetite can take their pick from the wide assortment of restaurants ranging from Italian and Japanese to Indian. For a good breakfast, however, head to the Blue Bean on the central thoroughfare Main Road. The coffee is great and it serves a hearty egg-hollandaise sandwich served with sides of spinach and baked beans.
Another surprise was Rabat, a direct Etihad route. The Moroccan capital is often dismissed off the tourist trail in favour of buzzing cities Marrakesh and Casablanca. But spend a few days here and Rabat reveals charms of its own. Located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, you can spend an afternoon strolling the promenade, called the Bouregreg, and sample some of the delectable beachside seafood restaurants. For those looking for some history and low pressure hiking can check out Chellah - an abandoned city dating back to Carthaginian rule and now home to colourful birdlife and storks. Rabat also boasts its own street market called Medina, with stalls selling authentic Argan oil and food stalls making fresh kofta kebabs. The best time to visit is around May – or a few weeks before Ramadan – when the Mawazine Festival is held. With free concerts held all around the capital, the week-long event is a great way to engage with the underappreciated city.