The year that was

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

It’s been a busy year of travelling and it’s time to take stock. Here Just About Travel contributor and travel enthusiast, Kaye Holland, shares some of her favourite travel destinations of 2015

Buenos Aires, Argentina
I touched down at Ezeiza International Airport intending to stay in the Paris of the South for seven days. But one week turned into two and before I knew it a month had drifted by… but then that’s Buenos Aires. It’s the kind of place that, despite its fall from being one of the word’s richest cities to one stuck in a permanent financial crisis, seduces visitors into staying a lot longer than planned… For there are so many things to enjoy in this glamorous yet gritty city from the superfluous steak to tango, infectious football games and the proud, passionate Portenos (BA residents) themselves.
Admittedly arriving isn’t a piece of cake as currently there’s only one eye wateringly expensive direct flight from the UK with British Airways, but then often it’s the places that are hardest to get to that are the most rewarding. And the rewards are immense: make no mistake this is one of Latin America’s most exhilarating cities, where it’s still possible to bag tickets to a big gig only a few days beforehand and where dinner reservations don’t need to be made a month in advance. What can I say: the Paris of the South has cast a spell on me. I’ve left enamoured, starry eyed and wanting more…

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
When the bustle of Buenos Aires gets too much,  escape to Colonia del Sacramento – a characterful town that’s resistant to bright lights and late nights. There’s little to keep you here for longer than a couple of days but, if you’re looking for an antidote to busy urban life, unsung  Colonia del Sacramento hits the spot. It’s the perfect place to decamp, escape and unwind. For while Colonia is on the tourist trail, it’s not packed with visitors (unless you foolish enough to go at the weekend), meaning you’ll never feel as though you are a trudging a well worn path. On arrival, chances are you’ll feel as though a veritable time machine has transported you to the past: the UNESCO listed town is all cobblestone streets and aesthetically pleasing plazas – making it one of those rare places that looks stunning at any time of year. The best thing to do is to explore Colonia del Sacramento’s winding streets on foot, sniffing out its nooks and crannies and enjoying its picture perfect street life. Then retreat to a cosy cafe or restaurant (for a tiny town, Colonia hums with places to eat) to read the papers. Friendly locals are a further surprise. Forget Luis Suarez’s antics at the 2014 World Cup – hospitality is a national obsession.

O’ahu, Hawaii, USA
Hawaii was declared the 50th US state back in 1959 but, compared to the mainland, it may as well be another country (and indeed some natives are seeking sovereignty). The difference is largely down to the tropical shirt and rubber flip flop clad Hawaiians themselves– and their love of the three Fs: food, family and fun. Unlike UK or US citizens, Hawaiians don’t ask for more from life than it can give and, as such, smiling faces are evident everywhere from the taxi driver who starts crooning his favourite Bruno Mars track (the music maestro was born in Hawaii) to the supermarket assistant who greets each and every customer with a heart felt “alo-ha!”
But let’s be honest: Hawaii is best known for its beaches (Hawaii does beaches better than pretty much anywhere else on the planet). Waikiki is the most famous, with Hanauma Bay– which has a reputation for the best snorkelling – also hogging the headlines. Beyond the beaches, waking early to head out to Pearl Harbor – the target of a Japanese attack that thrust Hawaii into America’s history –  and pay your respects to those who lost their life on the 8 December 1941 at the USS Arizona Memorial is a rite of passage for any visitor to O’ahu. The island isn’t easy to get to, being some 2,000 miles from any country, but I left happier for having visited.

Valparaiso, Chile

Ah… Valparaíso. I don’t think I met a single soul during my sojourn in Chile’s port city who managed to resist the wily charms of Valpo (as the Unesco world heritage listed town is affectionately known). Spend even the smallest amount of time here and you’ll quickly discover the delights of Valpo’s 45 cerros (hills), overlooking the Pacific, that are dotted by sugar almond hued houses whose exteriors are made of corrugated metal peeled from decades old shipping containers. It’s a sleepy sort of place in which to rest, reflect and recuperate. Or as Pablo Neruda – the Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet who was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” – put it in a letter to his poet friend, Sara Vial, in 1959: “I feel the tiredness of Santiago, I want to find a house to live and write in peace at Valparaíso.”
One negative? Stray street dogs (perros callejeros) roam Valpo’s sinuous streets  24/7. Most Valpo residents refer to the canines as fellow Porteños seeing them as much a part of the frenetic port city as the escalaeras (stairways), ascensores (funiculars) and street art scene (colourful murals adorn every Valpo wall and door). Personally I found being permanently surrounded by a pack of scraggly dogs (there’s 25,000 in Valpo )more than a tad disconcerting.

Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena – or Cartagena de Indias as it was originally, and romantically, called is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and seductive places I’ve ever visited. Expect cobbled alleys, flower bedecked balconies (a prize is awarded every year for the most beautiful balcony), horse drawn carriages, statues (saluting the heroes who helped defend Catargena against British and French colonialists, pirates and ultimately from Spain) and elegant plazas, all of which combine to help the city maintain a unique unspoiled identity. You could spend days wandering around the walled old town – where every budget from top end to backpacker can find a home – putting your bargaining skills to the test by purchasing sweets from El Portal de los Dulces (featured in Gabriel Garcia Maquez’s Love in the time of Cholera), before loosing yourself in a labyrinth of sights, sounds and smells.  My final night in Cartagena was a magical one full of fabulous food like Arepas de huevo (fried corn cakes filled with egg) and Papas rellenas (potato balls stuffed with cheese), mojitos and music, that had me pinching myself in disbelief: what was a little girl from hum drum Watford doing in colourful Cartagena? This is a city truly on the verge of great things – get it while it’s hot.

Asheville, North Carolina, America
Been to America and never made it to Asheville? That must be righted. Owing to its canny line of unique boutiques, microbreweries, live music scene and ability to serve fab coffee, the laid back North Carolina town has tonnes of charm. Plus time seems to move slower here than in frantic New York or in your face LA.
But don’t just take my word for it: Asheville has recently been hailed as an ‘It’ destination by travel bible Condé Nast no less. Clearly there’s something of a buzz building around Asheville – and not just because of the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home and Asheville’s number-one tourist attraction. Of course you can’t properly visit Asheville without checking out the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe – aka Asheville’s most famous son. For all that, it’s the forthright and fun loving locals who are invariably at the heart of what Asheville has to offer – everyone waves hello and shares a smile on the street. Spend a while with them and you may never want to leave. Or as Wolfe wrote his sister Mabel in 1938: “I have a thing to tell you now: that is you can’t go home again.” Despite Wolfe’s words I did return home but I often think of Asheville. I’ll go back. I hope it’s soon.

Budapest, Hungary
The Hungarian capital is divided by the Danube with hilly Buda and its grand old architecture on one side and the more modern – and flat – Pest – on the other. Classic postcard sights on the Buda side include the Castle District. No matter how many times you visit, the views from Fisherman’s Bastion of Budapest’s picturesque parliament (it’s especially stunning at night when the beautiful building is illuminated by light) will always make your heart flutter. Million dollar vistas can also be enjoyed while riding the giant Budapest Ferris Wheel – Budapest’s answer to the London Eye.
The city is also chock full of historical treasures such as St Stephen’s Basilica (home of the mummified hand of St Stephen aka the first Hungarian king), sculptural installations like Shoes by the Danube (a heart rendering memorial to those who were shot and their bodies dumped into the Danube towards the end of the Second World War) charming cobblestone streets, painted houses and palaces and parliament buildings to swoon over.
Also worth a visit are some of the thermal spas – not for nothing is Budapest known as the city of baths. Following several hours splashing about in Szechenyi’s warm, healing waters, I left feeling whole again – with some lasting memories to see me through dark days back at the desk – and convinced that Budapest may just be Europe’s most underrated and affordable city.

London, England, UK
I’ve reached that stage in life when friends and colleagues are deserting the capital in their droves. My school friend Sarah has swapped her Shebu home for Herfordshire, in favour of a garden and a garage. Meanwhile my uni mate Heidi has upped sticks from Southfields to a place called Phipps Bridge (I’d never heard of it either), while my single mate Patrick has turned his back on Brixton and relocated to the suburb of Streatham.
I wish I could say I understand it, but I’d be lying. I just don’t get why you’d want to leave London with its bright lights, black cabs, brilliant (family friendly) restaurants, myriad of museums, theatres, art galleries parks and carnivals – for a big house in the boring ‘burbs where life revolves around private schools, pony lessons and eating out once a week at Pizza Express.
On a personal note, I would always rather live in postage sized apartment with Wembley Stadium’s iconic arches towering in the background, than in a large house that I have nothing to leave it for. Or as Lord Kitchener once famously sang: “At night when you have nothing to do. You can take a walk down Shaftesbury Avenue. There you will laugh and talk and enjoy the breeze. And admire the beautiful scenery of London: that’s the place for me.”
Even at it’s coldest, wettest, busiest and most expensive, London remains the UK’s superlative city.  Still need convincing? See  (shameless plug alert!)  the capital through the eyes of  Talk of the Town – a dynamic London walking tour company I co-founded with three friends!

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