Today is December 22nd, but it does not feel like it. I’m sat in the sun outside my hotel in Phong Nha in central Vietnam, wearing a sundress and listening to banging electronic dance music and the chants of “Một hai ba dzô” (cheers!) from the wedding taking place next door. The owner of our hotel has just rolled in after spending all night and morning drinking at the nuptials, and asked us - a serious look on his face - why British people say “lovely jubbly” all the time. Wherever I look I can see stunning limestone karsts rising up above ramshackle one-storey buildings. In town there are ‘Christmas trees’ made of beer bottles and pizza boxes for the Western tourists; despite having a significant Catholic population, Vietnam does not really do Christmas like we do. After spending much of 2018 on the road, this bizarre festive season I’m enjoying feels - while in no way traditional - appropriate.
Reflecting on 2018’s travels
As the end of the year approaches, now feels like the right time to reflect on 2018: for me, 12 months of change and travel. 2018 took me to 11 countries, from the Caribbean to Europe and across to Southeast Asia. After years of building up my freelance travel writing work, in May I finally took the plunge and left my day job. In September, my boyfriend Phil and I set off on a year-long journey around Southeast Asia and Europe, writing as we went. Here are the highlights of my favourite trips of the past 12 months.
January: Beer and chocolate in Brussels, Belgium
I didn’t expect to enjoy Brussels. My friend Clare was desperate to leave the country for her 30th birthday (a rather relatable feeling), so we just booked the cheapest flights we could find. I expected to land in a bureaucratic city containing plenty of men in suits and high-rise buildings, with weather just as gloomy as that haunting the UK.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Brussels turned out to be the perfect way to kick start 2018. Wrapped up in hats and scarves against the chilly - but dry - weather, we meandered around the festive markets and visited Manneken Pis - a tiny statue of a young boy urinating into the fountain. This unusual and hugely famous artwork symbolises Belgians’ zany sense of humour, or “zwanze”. On Clare’s birthday we took a Belgian chocolate-making workshop that banished our hangovers. Each night at the Grand Place, multicoloured lights danced across the historic buildings in time to booming pop hits.
Belgium is famed for its beers, so it is fitting that it was the pubs and breweries that really blew us away. We stumbled upon Delirium Brewery entirely by accident. The interior is eclectic, with a variety of unusual seats and vintage adverts adorning the walls, and the bar sells - as you would expect - a wide variety of Delirium beers. We both ordered and quickly downed two pints of the mouthwatering Delirium Red, before Clare turned to me and said “I feel hammered”. I also was feeling somewhat woozy, and given that our usual alcohol tolerance is significantly higher than two pints, I Googled the alcohol content. Eight point five per cent. That explained it!
After a short nap we visited the beautiful Goupil Le Fol bar. A historic brothel crammed with huge oil paintings in gilded frames and ornate chaise longues, this hip bar is endlessly seductive. Our pub crawl continued to Poechenellekelder - a cosy watering hole decorated with eerie puppets - and a rock bar with a genuine skeleton within one of the glass tables: perhaps another example of the Belgian “zwanze”. We rounded off our trip with Belgian waffles and amber ale at one of the cosy pubs surrounding the Grand Place, and bought EU hoodies to take home. Brussels had managed to do the unthinkable: make us feel festive after Christmas was over.
May: Mojitos and dancing in Cuba
Cuba: a destination that has long been top of my bucket list. In May I was lucky enough to visit with a large group of British travel journalists headed for the FITCUBA tourism conference in Cayo Santa Maria. To say I was excited about this trip would be a huge understatement.
Havana was everything I expected it to be: from the incredible motors and mouth-watering mojitos to the evocative scenes of life playing out on the backstreets. We took a classic car tour of the city, during which I got to ride in a hot pink convertible Buick as we passed iconic landmarks such as Revolution Square and sailed along the Malecon. Later we popped into Bodeguita del Medio - the buzzing bar where Ernest Hemingway used to take his mojitos - and glimpsed the Ambos Mundos Hotel where he lived on and off for seven years in the 1930s. In the evening we wound our way through the Old Town and managed to glimpse the Buena Vista Social Club playing at one of their venues.
Before long it was time to head to Cayo Santa Maria, a beautiful island off the north coast of Cuba, connected to the mainland by a huge sea road. Here we spent our time eating and drinking at the all-inclusive Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria, and making the most of the hot weather at the pool bar. The hotels on the island are a vision of white polished marble and water features, and most claim a private section of paradisiacal coastline. The vibrant turquoise sea looks absolutely unreal; my pictures of the coast did not require an Instagram filter.
We took a trip to nearby Santa Clara to learn a little of Cuba’s intriguing revolutionary history. The Che Guevara Museum and Mausoleum was first on the itinerary. The final resting place of the revolutionary hero, I was fascinated by the artefacts and photographs of his time hiding out in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. We also stopped by Tren Blindado: a national monument created in memory of the Battle of Santa Clara that took place in 1958 and changed Cuba forever. Other highlights included an open-top bus tour through leafy Remedios, and a trip to visit Sagua La Grande: a gorgeous Cuban town that the government has announced as the country’s latest tourist hotspot.
Cuba’s history was endlessly fascinating, and I found it impossible to tear my eyes away from the many high-octane performances of song and dance we were treated to. The people were incredibly warm too, and I loved living off rum and mojitos for the week! After my trip - unable to stop thinking about this incredible country - I fell down a Cuban literature rabbit hole. After devouring books by Reinaldo Arenas, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Leonardo Padura, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, and Che Guevara himself, I’m even more amped up for my next visit.
June: Dramatic scenery and jellyfish in Scotland
Much like Brussels, my trip to Scotland hugely exceeded my expectations. Along with my boyfriend Phil and a group of pals, we drove up to the highlands to stay in our friend Verity’s vacation home, which is tucked away on the banks of Loch Sunart. The drive, through the middle of a dramatic mountainscape, was truly breathtaking in and of itself.
Unsurprisingly, the weather wasn’t warm - but this just made the whole experience even cosier. We passed a few days tucked up in front of the crackling fire, reading, drinking, and playing Articulate. Our accommodation was pleasingly remote, so every morning we’d drive out to the nearest shop - 20 minutes away - and collect enough junk food to keep us going. The views over the Loch were moody and enchanting.
When the weather improved, we took the boat out on Loch Sunart, which turned out to be an unforgettable experience - for all the wrong reasons. Reaching the centre of the Loch, our motor sputtered and failed. I looked into the water and realised we were surrounded by thousands upon thousands of Blue Moon Jellyfish, which were pulsating in a most threatening manner. After five minutes Verity managed to get the boat going again, and we zoomed out of the water and made a pact not to go swimming in the Loch again.
One day we took the ferry out to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull: a phenomenally scenic island. The coast is fringed with historic houses in pastel shades of purple, yellow, and maroon, and the sparkling water is crystal clear. In true British style we ate fish and chips on the beach and paddled in the water before taking a steep hike up the island to a stunning viewpoint. On the way back we visited the rugged Ardnamurchan Point - the UK’s most westerly point - and spotted a large group of deer bouncing through the endless fields.
Despite living in the north of England, my experience of travel in Scotland is sadly limited to a university pub crawl in Edinburgh and a teenage caravan holiday with my family. After being blown away by the highlands and seeing incredible scenery I would never have imagined existed pretty much on my doorstep, this is something I intend to rectify on my return to the UK.
July: Charming towns and Vinho Verde in Northern Portugal
July brought with it an incredible press trip to Northern Portugal. I’d visited Tavira on the Algarve a couple of years ago, and loved it, but I had no idea what I’d been missing out on in the north of the country. Thanks to its spellbinding scenery and tasty cuisine, this trip would end up being one of my favourites of the year.
We started off our whirlwind week in Amarante. With medieval architecture set against the great Serra do Marao mountain, and the River Tamego winding its way through the centre, Amarante is undisputedly one of the most charming towns I’ve ever seen. We visited a bakery to try our hand at making the sweets invented aeons ago by Poor Clare nuns in order to feed the needy. These super-high calorie sweets - like most other high calorie foods - taste fantastic, and we washed them down with Vinho Verde - Portugal’s delicious fizzy wine. After spotting a number of phallic-shaped cakes in bakery windows, I was informed that these are the unofficial symbol in the conservative town. According to legend, single women should eat them in order to find their one true love.
After Amarante, it was onto the spectacular Douro Valley. The leafy hills on either side of the River Douro are dotted with the names of the wineries and port houses they belong to, in the fashion of the Hollywood sign. We enjoyed a beautiful picnic of bread, cheese, port, and wine among the sundrenched vines of the valley. Next on the itinerary was Guimaraes - a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as ‘the birthplace of Portugal’. The nation's first king was born at Guimaraes’ imposing 10th century castle, which is brimming with historical tidbits. Later we travelled to Braga, where we took a cable car up a mountain filled with huge boulders for more cheese, bread, and wine. I’d never before seen a landscape that looked quite so prehistoric before.
Finally, it was time to spend a couple of days in the painfully cool city of Porto. The thronging Ribeira district was a revelation: narrow back streets wind their way down to the river, lined with pastel hued homes and restaurants. We enjoyed yet more tapas on the banks of the river, before climbing up to Dom Luis Bridge for sweeping views of the whole district. One morning we were permitted early access to Livraria Lello Bookshop - an absolute treat for a Harry Potter fan such as myself. A young JK Rowling often wrote in the coffee shop above the stunningly intricate store. It’s believed she derived some of her inspiration for Hogwarts from the staircase there.
Other highlights included a fortune telling weighing scale in the azulejos-tiled Sao Bento train station, and the world’s fanciest McDonalds. Furthermore, the people we met were some of the friendliest I’ve come across in the world. I arrived in Porto not knowing what to expect, and left thinking I would happily live there.
July: Exquisite architecture and partying at the night market in Palermo, Sicily
At the end of July, it was my turn to escape the country for my 30th birthday. What better way to soften the blow of this dreaded milestone than to explore the polished marble streets of this exquisite city with a bunch of great friends?
We spent a beautiful, relaxed week sightseeing, devouring cannoli and tripolo sandwiches, and drinking cocktails. We climbed a spiral staircase to the roof of the stunning cathedral for incredible views over the Sicilian capital, and the mountains that ring it. Wandering the streets, we came across endless breathtaking churches and anti-mafia monuments speaking to Palermo’s recent past as a mafia hotspot.
In the Norman Palace - the current seat of the Sicilian parliament - we saw the gilded Palatine Chapel, which was undoubtedly the glitziest religious space I’ve ever seen. Mondello and Cefalu beaches are both reachable within an hour’s drive too, giving Palermo a beachy edge lacking most city break destinations. After sunning ourselves on the busy sands we hiked up to the Roman ruins of Santa Flavia for glittering views over the peninsula.
At night in Palermo, the streets around the markets are flooded with dancing revellers, as hip bars throw open their doors to those looking for somewhere to go after most of the city’s watering holes shut up at midnight. We passed a night on the cobbles, marvelling at this most Sicilian of parties and avoiding the motorbikes that frequently zoomed roaring through the packed crowd. It had been the best 30th I could have imagined!
October: Temples in Northern Thailand
I’d been impatiently crossing the days off my calendar to October. Not only was I excited to return to Thailand, but this destination would mark the start of a year long round-the-world trip with Phil. The first half would be spent in the balmy climes of Southeast Asia before flying over to Eastern Europe for the second leg.
We landed in Bangkok, and immediately headed north. We love a historic attraction, and northern Thailand provides an abundance. We spent days cycling around the ancient, crumbling temples of Ayutthaya, the historical park in Sukhothai, and of course, the pretty temples found in Chiang Mai. Even further north, we saw Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, before rounding our month off with a week relaxing and drinking in the hippie haven of Pai. It was good to be back in Southeast Asia.
November: The Angkor Kingdom and South Coast of Cambodia
Cambodia was a dream from start to finish. We spent a week cycling around the ancient structures of old Khmer capitals near Siem Reap, completely awestruck. Angkor Wat was - of course - a highlight, but we were just as impressed by the off-the-beaten track temples we stumbled upon. Then it was time for a short journey to the quiet riverside city of Battambong for a little relaxing before we moved onto Phnom Penh - Cambodia’s frantic capital city. Here we learned about the Cambodian genocide at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum during a tough but enlightening day.
For the second part of our journey we travelled down to Kampot and Kep on the south coast: we only intended to enjoy a couple of days in these relaxing destinations but ended up staying there for two weeks - only just making it out of Cambodia before our month-long visas expired. We agreed Kep, with its laid back way of life, fascinating history, and glittering sea, was our favourite destination of the trip so far.
December: Travelling north in Vietnam
Three years ago, I’d spent seven weeks in Vietnam as a solo traveller, motorbiking down the stunning coast. It had proved to be the most challenging and the most rewarding journey of my life. I was eager - if a little nervous - to head back there with Phil. As it turned out - somewhat sadly - travelling in Vietnam was a lot easier with a tall man in tow.
We took a bus from Phnom Penh across the Vietnamese border to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We stayed here a week, exploring the surprisingly leafy city, and taking trips to the beautiful Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi tunnels - used by the Viet Cong during the ‘American War’.
From here we travelled to one of my favourite destinations from my last trip: a tiny fishing village on the stunning Bai Xep Beach, close to Quy Nhon. Then it was time to make our way to beautiful lantern-lit Hoi An, where my Mum was coming to visit us. We were all thoroughly enchanted by the combination of the yellow French colonial buildings and Vietnamese culture. Hoi An is undeniably the prettiest city we’ve seen so far.
After waving our goodbyes, we took motorbikes up over the iconic Hai Van Pass (or the ‘Top Gear Road’ as some travel agents now call it) to the old capital of Hue. Here we explored the old citadel - once home to emperors - and visited their ostentatious tombs.
Desperate for a little bit of time in Vietnam’s beautiful rural surrounds after three weeks in cities, we jumped on a bus to Phong Nha - famed for its jaw-dropping caves. This little town is set against incredible limestone karsts, and surrounded with opportunities for adventure. It was wonderfully relaxing, and we love to hang around longer, but we need to get to Hanoi in time for Christmas!
After welcoming in the New Year in Hanoi, we’ve got a few more Southeast Asian destinations to visit in early 2019: Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Singapore. From Singapore, we’ll fly to Eastern Europe for the second leg of our itinerary. The plan is to hire a car and wend our way around those countries we’ve always wanted to see (Slovenia, Albania, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria) as well as returning to some old favourites (Hungary and Croatia). However, we’re yet to carve out a concrete itinerary for this part of the trip; part of the fun is leaving it open ended and seeing where we end up. I’m looking forward to spending most of 2019 on the road: who knows what the New Year will bring?
Caroline visited Cuba as part of the FITCUBA Fair 2018 where the UK was the guest country, invited by the Cuba Tourist Board on behalf of MINTUR. Please visit www.travel2cuba.co.uk and www.cubatravel.cu for more information. The Tour in Havana was courtesy of Viajes Cubanacan (MINTUR) ground handler of the UK Tour Operator http://holidayplace.co.uk
Caroline visited Northern Portugal as a guest of Visit Porto and the North and Visit Portugal. TAP Air Portugal has 20 weekly departures from London City and Gatwick to Porto. Prices start at £41 one way.