There’s no denying the fact that 2016 is a year that many of us will find difficult to forget.
It’s the year that the UK voted to leave the EU and the year America elected Donald Trump as their new president.
It’s the year we lost a string of celebrity greats, including David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, and George Michael.
It’s the year that fears of terrorism were at an all-time high, following the horrific events in Paris, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul, and Ankara.
On a personal level 2016 was also one of the toughest of my life. In February I almost lost a close friend to pneumonia and then on 13 August 2016 one of my closest friends phoned me with the devastating news that her dad (who had also been a very dear friend of mine for many years) had died suddenly (he was just 66 years old) from a suspected heart attack.
It was later confirmed that it was actually an aneurism (known as the “silent killer”) that caused his death.
I took the phone call from the hospice where I was visiting my dad, who lost his battle with cancer exactly two weeks later.
Two of the most important men in my life gone within the space of two weeks.
Just two days before my dad died, my parents received (and accepted) an offer on the flat that I currently rent from them. The flat had caused my parents all sorts of unforeseen financial problems since they initially purchased it, and for that reason they finally decided to put it on the market when my dad was first diagnosed. It had taken over a year to sell.
So not only did my mum and I have a funeral to arrange, but we also had to sort out all the paperwork regarding the sale of my flat AND find somewhere else for me to live!
I decided to speak at my dad’s funeral. It was a prospect that filled me with terror, but in light of my dad’s courageous battle with cancer, I felt that I too should exercise some bravery in order to pay a personal tribute to him and to talk about him and the influence he had on my life.
I practised my 900-word speech so many times that I managed to recite it all the way through without a single stumble (maybe my short stint as an amateur thespian in my mid-teens had paid off after all). However what those sitting more than three rows back couldn’t see was how much my hands were shaking, and how uncontrollably my legs were trembling beneath me.
I felt so relieved when the funeral was over, but I also felt comforted by the sheer number of people who attended to pay their respects to my dad. He was a very private man so it came as such a surprise (albeit a very pleasant one) to find out just how much of a contribution he’d made to instigating and implementing positive changes within the local community, and just how highly regarded he was by all those who had the pleasure to know him, both personally and professionally.
It’s my dad I have to thank for inspiring my three major passions today – travel, music, and photography. So, whilst I’ve found it difficult to maintain focus on this blog over the past few months, I feel now more than ever the necessity to never lose sight of those passions.
And, amidst all the difficulties and sadness, 2016 has been a good year for travel. Considering that I’m back into the routine of a full-time day job (and have been since September 2014), I managed to visit seven different countries and spend a total of 66 days on the road.
I kicked this year off with a couple of European city breaks to Latvia and Spain with friends, cycled around Cuba for two weeks in March, celebrated my birthday in Romania in June, and snuck another European city break in to Poland, in September, before beginning a month-long backpacking adventure through Myanmar and Thailand (blog posts to come!) in November.
Here are a few of my highlights, in photos.
Meeting up with friends on the road in Cádiz
Although thoughts of this visit are now tainted with a twinge of sadness (the friends we visited were Nik and Fiona; Nik is the gentleman who died suddenly earlier this year), I’m also so very glad that Stu and I made it across to Spain to spend a bit of quality time with them during their travels through Europe in their campervan.
Life on the road seemed to suit them so well. They were loving the Spanish way of life, had picked up a bit of the language (and were actually more comfortable using it in the local cafes than Stu and I were; my confidence has plummeted since returning from South America), and had made some fantastic friends along the way.
The ancient centre of Cádiz is surrounded almost entirely by water, and is so small that we were able to wander around at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and stopping for regular coffee and tapas breaks as we walked. My highlights included the city’s iconic cathedral, the castillo de Santa Catalina, the cat houses, and our quirky hostel.
A perfect wintery weekend in Riga with two of my favourite girls
Although the three of us (Gloria, Kath and I) have been good friends for many years, we’d not been on holiday together since our mammoth New Zealand adventure in 2005. So we decided that 2016 was the year to change that. Kath and I surprised Gloria with an all expenses paid (Riga is cheap; we’re not that rich or generous!) long weekend in Latvia’s capital.
We arrived into Riga in the coldest month of the year (February) and in the middle of a snowstorm. It gave us a good excuse to purchase some traditional Latvian mittens and to drink copious amounts of the city’s warming liqueur, Black Balsam.
Riga’s Old Town – now a Unesco World Heritage Site – is a fairytale kingdom of gothic spires and winding, cobbled lanes flanked with pastel-coloured gingerbread-style houses. And the fine dusting of snow that rested upon the building’s rooftops really helped to bring a sense of magic to our visit.
Our highlights were the city’s cat cafe (Gloria and Kath both have cats; I would too if I didn’t travel as much as I do), the Art Nouveau Museum, the food, and catching some live folk music at underground bar, Folkklubs.
Cycling 400 kilometres across Cuba
Cuba had been on my travel hit list for some time. I desperately wanted to visit before the relaxation of the trade embargo changed the country too much, and I also had my heart set on exploring the country on two wheels.
Away from the major cities Cuba’s roads are some of the quietest in the world; sharing my space with the odd horse and cart and rusting vintage American car really appealed to me. I also figured that cycling is the best way to explore as much of the country as possible at ground level in a relatively short space of time. And I had (just over) two weeks of annual leave to work with.
Whilst cycling in 37 degree heat over poorly-maintained roads was tough in parts, it was an incredible experience, and Cuba was everything that I imagined it to be. You can read about the practicalities of visiting the country here, and about why Trinidad stole my heart here.
Celebrating my birthday in Romania
The fact that a number of travel bloggers had recently waxed lyrical about this beautiful part of Eastern Europe had made me curious to uncover its charms for myself. And I’d found some really reasonably-priced flights from Birmingham to Bucharest that fitted in with the leave that I had available.
But I almost didn’t go.
Four days before I was due to leave my dad was admitted to hospital with heart failure. He’d been warned that the second lot of chemotherapy may damage his heart, but it was a risk he was willing to take.
Fortunately the hospital were able to give him medication to stabilise his heart, and as a result his condition appeared to improve, so he and my mum implored me not to cancel my trip.
I’m now very glad I didn’t, as I loved Romania. It’s a country of fascinating contrasts, as well as being beautiful, affordable, and untouched by mass tourism.
Liverpool in the sunshine
Although I’m not succeeding all that well, I am trying to make a concerted effort to explore more of my home country – England. And we couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to revisit the fantastic city of Liverpool: the skies were blue and the sun stayed out all weekend.
Liverpool is compact, walkable, and home to some stunning pieces of art and architecture, as well as a huge selection of international restaurants and quirky cafes. My highlights included the Albert Dock, the Maritime Museum, the street art, and eating all the food on Bold Street.
Uncovering the delights of Poznan, Poland
Having said my goodbyes to my dad at his funeral on 20 September 2016, this long weekend away couldn’t have come at a better time. I needed a distraction from everything that had happened recently (my dad’s death, Nik’s death, the stress of the house move), I needed people around me who made me laugh, and I needed a change of scenery.
My Polish city break was a belated birthday present from Kath and Gloria. We’d had such fun in Riga that we decided to make these cheap European weekends away together a bit more of a regular feature in our lives.
Poznan was a city that really surprised us. It’s a perfect mix of culture and history, and of old town charm and urban grit; a city in which the food is amazing and the people go out of their way to help you.
The added bonus at the moment is that not a lot of people know this.
A month-long backpacking adventure through Myanmar and Thailand
I’d had this adventure planned since the previous December, and I was finally able to start organising an itinerary and getting it all booked by the following April (it takes time to wangle four weeks off work!!).
Like Cuba, Myanmar was a country I was hearing more and more about in recent years since it officially re-opened its doors to tourism in 2012. I wanted to visit before tourism began to change it too drastically. And of course I couldn’t visit Myanmar without returning to my beloved Thailand next-door.
As we only had two weeks in Myanmar we stuck to the main tourist trail of Yangon –Bagan – Kalaw – Inle Lake – Mandalay. Travelling outside of these areas can at best be challenging, and at worst – dangerous. As we had no room to manoeuvre we could not afford to travel somewhere that we could not rely on the transportation to get us to our next destination.
As I’ve been to Thailand many times I wanted our visit to incorporate areas that I’ve not yet explored, as well as satisfying Stu’s love of bugs and the sea.
Unfortunately we wouldn’t have time to venture into any parts of northern Thailand that I’d hoped to visit (namely Chiang Dao, Phrae, Mae Sot, or Tak) so I settled with a few days in Chiang Mai before flying down to Suratthani in order to reach Khao Sok National Park and the islands of the Andaman Sea.
Whilst we couldn’t believe our bad luck when we arrived into Krabi in the middle of a horrendous thunderstorm, and the forecast predicted much the same outlook for the next seven days (rain is pretty much unheard of in the dry season), the weather didn’t turn out to be quite as bad as we’d feared. But the overcast skies did nothing to complement the stunning scenery that surrounded us.
I’ve always avoided the islands previously in favour of the rural north, because I believed them to be over-touristed, over-priced, and not as authentically Thai. However I’m so pleased that we chose to spend three nights on Koh Yao Noi, because it was the perfect slice of island life away from the crowds.
So my highlights from Thailand were eating all the food in Chiang Mai, the incredible karst scenery on Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park, and exploring Koh Yao Noi by scooter.
I made a decision not to work on blog posts while I was away, firstly because I’d made the itinerary so busy that I just didn’t have the time, secondly because I’d heard the wifi could be very sketchy in Myanmar (this didn’t actually turn out to be the case), and thirdly simply because I needed to give myself a chance to relax.
After everything that had happened in the few months running up to my four weeks away, I needed to properly switch off and unwind, and enjoy the whole experience of travel without having to worry about blogging about it. I still gave you guys regular Facebook updates and wanderlust-inducing Instagram shots, but I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a brief holiday from posting new material on this blog.
The good news is that all those long bus journeys and multiple internal flights gave me ample time to fill my journal with a ridiculous amount of notes. So I hope to be transforming those notes into blog posts very soon! Keep your eyes on my social media accounts for updates.
I’ll also be publishing a post about my plans, goals and aspirations for 2017.
But in the meantime, tell me about your 2016. What were your travel highlights?
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I can’t seem to find any photos of my dad on his own so here’s one of him and mum looking smiley 🙂