Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Travel: The highs... and lows

Despite jaunts to Portugal, France, Croatia and Slovenia, my 2015 travel was mostly in Spain (for a change). I saw in a new year of travel with a work conference Zaragoza, and my final destination of 2015 was another business trip to Murcia. There was plenty of travel for pleasure, though, with long weekends in the Basque Country and Extremadura, and a week touring the Costa Brava on two wheels.

So what were my 2015 travel highs... and lows?

Favourite new destination

I have boomerang tendencies when it comes to travel, bouncing back to destinations I've loved. So in 2015 I tried to branch out, ticking off a few 'new' towns and cities – including Girona, Baiona, San Sebastián and Cáceres – plus a previously unvisited country, Croatia. When it comes to picking a favourite, I was torn between the pretty cities of Girona and San Sebastián. Both beautiful, compact, with buzzing food scenes and lively bars, San Sebastián ultimately swung it thanks to the sandy sweep of La Concha beach. Given its lack of stand-out museums and tourist attractions, San Sebastian is all about the food and drink: the bars in the old town and seafront Gros come alive at night, when pintxos washed down with txacoli steal the show. With nothing more pressing to do than eat, promenade and party, San Sebastián is a fun, fuss-free weekend break destination.

Stunning San Sebastian: My favourite destination of 2016

Most visited destination

This will come as no surprise to regular readers, but I clocked up 5 visits to Barcelona this year. With its cosmopolitan charm, great restaurants and firm grasp on tradition, I'm a sucker for the Catalan capital. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Catalan cuisine with Devour Barcelona, and finally witnessing castellers assemble a human tower during September's Festes de la Mercè. Watching a correfoc (fire run) from the sidelines is one experience I'd be happy not to repeat, though: the flying sparks and booming firecrackers just centimetres away were a bit too much for me.

Castellers in Barcelona (and anonymous selfie snapper)

Favourite hotel

In terms of Instagram-worthy images and a stunning setting, it would hands-down have to be the Parador in Baiona. But when comfort, service and food are thrown into the mix, there's no contest: Hotel Sa Punta in Platja de Pals takes the title. From a room upgrade to friendly but professional service, a gorgeous freshwater pool with spa jets, big balconies and a tranquil location, the scene was set for serious relaxation. My expectations of hotel restaurants are generally low: often overpriced and uninspiring, I tend to avoid them. But the Sa Punta restaurant is no standard hotel dining room: it pre-dates the hotel itself and attracts diners from around Catalunya. And you can see why. With three-course menus drawing on the best of local produce and combining delicious flavours with perfect presentation, it's a real treat. Service is attentive yet discreet, and the wine choices were spot on. I'd return in a heartbeat.

Biggest surprise hit

The first time I visited Palma de Mallorca as a teen, I was so ill I ended up in hospital the following day. With clouded memories, I was unsure what to expect from my second trip years later - but I was blown away. Chic and international with a very Spanish feel, Palma is packed with impressive architecture, interesting sights and top-notch bars and restaurants. I felt so at home there, I didn't want to leave. Watch this space for a return visit in 2016.

Palma de Mallorca: Picture perfect

Best trip

Sometimes the best trips are the ones that push you out of your comfort zone, that challenge you, show you something new – and allow you to relax. In 2014 it was my yoga and pilates holiday in Morocco, in 2015 it was cycling around Catalunya. Thanks to Headwater Holidays, a friend and I cycled through the gorgeous (and thankfully mostly flat) countryside on and around the Costa Brava. Starting in seaside Calella de Palafrugell, we visited medieval hill-town Pals before arriving in Platja de Pals. The next few days took us to Begur and La Bisbal d'Empordà, before heading back to Calella via pretty Peratallada. Despite the August heat, the cycling was achievable and a unique way of seeing areas of the country that would doubtless lose some of their charm from a car window. With time to chill out, enjoy our hotels' pools or the beach and sample some local cuisine, this was a pretty perfect holiday. You can read more about it here.

A sample of the Catalan countryside I cycled through

Most disappointing destination

After years of hearing rave reports, I couldn't wait to visit Croatia. Italianate Istria in the north west may not have been my first choice of destination, but I was happy when circumstances took me there for an eight-day holiday. Eager to explore coastal Rovinj and Rabac and the hilltop 'truffle town' of Motovun, the reality turned out to be rather different than expected. With accommodation issues, countless incidents with unhelpful locals and a food poisoning incident, Croatia failed to wow us. For a holiday that was supposed to be relaxing, we spent far too much time dealing with local-induced stress and eating homemade cheese sandwiches. It's a long story that will be told soon, but suffice to say I've never been so keen to leave a country. So keen, my friend and I cut our trip short by a day and retreated over the border to Slovenia, a country so amiable it even has 'love' in its name. Maybe we were unlucky, or maybe the more-visited areas around Split, Zadar and the islands would have made for a more successful trip, but I'm not in an immediate hurry to find out.

Rovinj, Croatia: Pretty (disappointing)

Worst journey

After 48 hours in Paris, I hoped for a smooth journey back to Madrid so I'd be fresh and ready for work the following morning. No such luck. There was a 6 hour delay at Charles de Gaulle, during which fellow passengers got increasingly agitated about circumstances beyond their control and obsessively photographed the boarding gate, as though this would help in some way. Conspiracy theories that we were not in fact going to get back to Madrid that night spread like wildfire, so I retreated with a book. Yes, I got home in the small hours of the morning and had to shell out for a taxi from the airport, but I claimed compensation through EasyJet and received the €250 I was entitled to for a delay of over 4 hours within the EU. Not such a bad ending. 

What were your 2015 travel highs and lows? Do you have any 2016 travel plans?

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