Our year in travel tends to be rounded off each December by a trip to Britain to present product training sessions to Inntravel staff at Castle Howard. It’s a part of the year we enjoy immensely as visiting the Inntravel offices feels more like catching up with friends we haven’t seen for a while rather than work.
Delivering training sessions about some of the destinations we’ve visited over the year prompts us to reflect on our experiences in a specific location; something which doesn’t always happen immediately after a trip as there’s nearly always somewhere else exciting to visit steaming toward us.
For a similar reason, I enjoy indulging myself with a round-up of the best, and worst, travel experiences from our year.
Biggest WOW of the year
No need to mull over this one, the herdsmen’s village of Velika Planina on a high plateau in Slovenia was the biggest travel surprise of the year. The photos we’d looked at beforehand didn’t prepare us for just how wowed we were when we actually saw it for ourselves. This is an exceptionally beautiful place. As well as being the biggest surprise, strolling around the village and eating buckwheat mush and sour milk outside a herdsmen’s hut was the most enjoyable travel experience of 2019.
Most beautiful destination
For years our nephew Liam has been raving about Zermatt in Switzerland. Finally we found out why. With the world covered by a thick snowy duvet, exploring Zermatt and surrounding countryside was like stepping into Christmas card scenes. Waking up to widescreen views of the Matterhorn each morning made sleepy eyes ping open with untypical enthusiasm. Greatest revelation was just how much fun following walking routes in thick snow can be.
The destination which disappointed
Last year Venice exceeded expectations, this year Florence failed to live up to them. The Florence north of the Arno didn’t charm for a variety of reasons – too many tour groups and grabby restaurants. A measure of a place is how long you want to spend there; our forays into the tourist hot spot across Ponte Vecchio were short-lived. It was simply too frantic. Thankfully, the south side of the Arno was a tranquil and charming contrast. Our experience of Florence was of a Jekyll and Hyde city.
Ljubljana isn’t the prettiest city we’ve visited but the feel-good factor was off the scale. We wandered with permanent smiles fixed to our faces. It’s a city with a big town feel so getting to know it doesn’t take much time. It’s a destination for anyone who enjoys good food, smooth wines, craft ales, and live music; a place to eat, drink, and be merry. After a day there, and some beer and wine, we declared it a place we could happily live.
Best hotel stay
Another category where there have been lots of contenders – Hotel Plesnik in Slovenia’s Logar Valley for its dream location; Hotel Agua Geres in Geres, Portugal, for being ultra comfortable and having excellent food after a tough day’s walking; Quinta Roja in Garachico, Tenerife, because it’s a favourite of ours; Oltrarno Splendid in Florence because it was actually splendid and as cool as Vincent Vega. Best though was Hotel La Laguna Gran in La Laguna, also Tenerife, as its lounge is a compelling blend of colonial and contemporary decor, it has a fabulous Michelin star restaurant, and the bar is of the sort which puts an arm around your shoulders and says “come on in, we’d love your company.”
There were so many excellent meals wolfed throughout the year, ranging from Michelin standard to quality street food, it would be unfair to single one out, so I’ve written a separate piece listing our favourite dishes of the year.
Send it back
The Etrop Grange near Manchester nearly came top as a) their already limited menu had even fewer options by the time we ate at 7.30pm and b) the chef managed to make fish and chips dull to the point I wasn’t tempted to pick at leftover chips (a really bad sign). But biggest culinary disappointment was at Mar e Sol in Sesimbra where the pez espada preto (scabbard fish) we’d told my mum would be meaty and tasty was mushy and bland, the worst pez espada we’ve eaten to date. Not that my mum cared, she was just happy to be sitting in the sun overlooking a gorgeous beach on a warm October day.
Exhilarating walking route of 2019
For having just the right level of challenging walking, boasting contrasting stop-us-in-our-tracks scenery, possessing an eclectic mix of ingredients (a mountain lake, sanctuary in a ravine, stone slab bridges), and just being loads of fun (a rare occasion of being able to walk with our friend and colleague from InnTravel, James) a route from Roucas to Peneda in Peneda-Geres National Park in Portugal ticked all the boxes which make for an exceptional hike. A difficult choice as all the routes we walked in Peneda-Geres were winners.
Most enjoyable transport
A cruise up the Douro River on a sizzling May day proved a scenic overdose as well as being a blast. The hills lining the river were hypnotic – their natural rolling curves artistically enhanced by the addition of narrow terraces of vines whilst the atmosphere on board ship was bizarrely booze cruise, but one mainly full of septuagenarian Portuguese. Why the nationality of partying pensioners made the experience more enjoyable rather than less so, I don’t know. But it did. It was an eclectically experience and the Douro lived up to the promise we’d seen in old films in a Port cellar in Porto.
Most emotional experience
The winter sun sparkling on blades of frosted grass; long, kilted shadows on a crisp forest path; a silhouetted lone piper playing a haunting lament; a roaring fire warming numbed legs; my nephew and his new bride wearing Cheshire cat-sized beams as they dodged a downpour of heart-shaped confetti. Scotland, you tug at my heart like no other destination.