At the end of every year, I like to take a look back at the highs and lows of the past twelve months. Today, I’m so excited to share with you my biggest travel highlights!
2015 has been an odd year for me, but in a way, it’s also been one of the best. While much of the year was dominated by the dizzying highs of publishing a book, there were dozens of smaller moments that filled me with more happiness than I realised at the time. It’s been a fabulous year for travel and I end 2015 feeling excited and inspired for what lies ahead.
From Cambodia to Cornwall; Latvia to Lake Como, here are my favourite moments of the year!
Road Tripping My Way Around Cornwall
I mean, just look at that beach!
If you’ve got a trip to the U.K. coming up, you have to go to Cornwall. I spent ten days road tripping around this region and was blown away by how much it has to offer visitors. In fact, I loved it so much that I’m already in the planning stages of a second road trip for 2016!
Where to begin? The beaches are surprisingly greatfor England, although the ocean is, of course, freezing. There are beautiful hikes running all the way along the rugged coastline. No matter where you are, you’ll be looking at rolling hills, sand dunes, cute houses, or jagged cliffs.
The laid-back lifestyle won my heart, too. It’s a place where good food, living well and surfing reign supreme, and the locals are so warm and welcoming.
And I can’t talk about Cornwall and not mention the food. Cream teas with Cornish clotted cream. Fresh seafood. Fish and chips. Cornish pasties. I don’t think I’ve eaten as well anywhere else in the world. Who would have thought I’d end up saying that about somewhere in the UK?
Mounting Four Beasts in One Afternoon in Taipei
For such a large city, Taipei surprised me with its numerous accessible hikes. From Taipei 101, you only need walk twenty minutes to be at the base of Elephant Mountain, with dozens of hiking trails stretching out before you. There are four main mountains in Taipei, each named after a different “beast”, and I spent much of my month in the city clambering all over them.
The paths were well-paved, with plenty of small trails leading off into the distance, and if you walked for long enough, you’d find yourself treading above the clouds. I chose to hike in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, when the paths were blissfully quiet. It was common to walk for half an hour without seeing another person, and when I did, it was nearly always an incredibly fit local who looked as though they’d been running up these mountains for the better part of a century.
It was these walks that helped lessen the anxiety I’d been battling for most of the year. They made me feel strong. They gave me a chance to throw on my headphones, take my mind off of everything, and concentrate on my feet.
Running So Far Out of My Comfort Zone
I’ve never, ever been a runner, but after finishing my book, I was losing my mind. Or, at least, that’s the only explanation I have for signing up to join a running tour of Maastricht. You know, that place I visited immediately after spending three months walking no more than 30 metres a day?
What was I thinking?
It was so hard. I had no fitness whatsoever, and our guide was definitely perplexed by me, but damnit, motherfucker, I was going to finish the tour. And so I ran the hell out of that five kilometre route in — cough — ninety minutes, and I was bursting with euphoria as I did so.
I was a runner! I was a really fast runner!
So I bought tickets for a five kilometre colour run for a month later. As I said: losing my mind.
And somehow, I made it through that, and I didn’t come last, despite not running once since Maastricht. I felt amazing again!
I used to hate running because I sucked at it, but once I started thinking of it as a fun activity rather than something that will make me want to die, I found myself enjoying every minute. Conquering your fears always feels amazing!
Touring the Beautiful Douro Valley
The Douro Valley easily wins a top three ranking on my list of the most beautiful places I visited this year.
While the scenery was one of the main draws for me, the highlight had to be spending an afternoon touring some of the best producers of port wine in the area and sampling dozens of glasses. I learned so much about the different types of port (mostly that it’s impossible to find one I don’t like), and could have easily spent
thousands hundreds of euros if Dave hadn’t been there to talk me back down. I love port!
So many people visit this area as a day trip from Porto, but the next time I’m in Portugal, I’m going to make like a couple we met at a tasting: take a week-long road trip around the valley to soak up as much of the
port region as possible.
Getting Caught Up in a Rainstorm at Keukenhof
I was mildly excited to learn we’d be in the Netherlands at the right time of year to catch the famous tulip displays at Keukenhof. Flowers aren’t really my kind of thing, so while I appreciated the beauty of the colourful tulips I was a little underwhelmed.
That is, until we took a boat tour of the gardens. A dozen of us clambered on board the small open-air boat and set off just as the sky turned black: the weather had transformed from bright blue skies to thunderclouds within minutes. Our driver merely chuckled and we continued on.
It was just as we reached as far as we could possibly get from dry land when the heavens opened. And it poured. A thousand painful droplets pounded down on our heads as everyone began to scream.
It was hilarious!
We were half an hour from shelter, on a river, in the middle of these beautiful tulip fields and everyone was drenched. I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face.
Oh, and then a woman dropped her bottle overboard so we had to turn back around to find it. But nobody could see it because there was so much rain, so we were sat floating for a good ten minutes, squealing and searching for a stupid water bottle in the murky, choppy waters, raindrops splattering against our faces.
Something about massive rainstorms where you’re immediately drenched and can’t do anything about it fill me with so much joy. It’s a weird thing to count as a travel highlight, but it was hilarious and I hadn’t felt that alive in a long time.
Living With Locals Beside Lake Como
A clear sign that I’m having the time of my life? When I leave a place and realise I didn’t take a single photo.
A week in the tiny village of Piazzaga was just what I needed in the days following my book launch. The towns around Lake Como can be incredibly touristy — our day trip to Bellagio had us wincing and heading for the next ferry out of there — so I was overjoyed when Dave introduced me to his friends who own a restaurant in a village with a population in the single figures.
We spent our days hanging out in the restaurant, drinking wine and people watching as the locals passed through, playing Exploding Kittens for hours on end, and eating some of the best, freshest food of my life. The pasta! The tomatoes! The cheese! The meat! The wine! I loved every moment.
Falling in Love with Thai Food in Bangkok
Dave and I aren’t huge fans of Bangkok — in fact, we’re not really fans at all — but when we discovered some of our friends would be in the city at the same time, we immediately booked flights to hang out with them.
The neighbourhood we were staying in was my kind of place. A place where there are so few tourists. Where the only thing to do is eat. So that’s exactly what we did.
Before this trip to Bangkok, I firmly believed I would never like Thai food. I don’t have a huge tolerance to heat, I despise all nuts, and I’m not a fan of coconut. So, uh, that massively limits me in what I can eat, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered a dish in Thailand only to find that, surprise! It was smothered in peanuts or chillies.
But this time around, I had Jodi as my guide, and she knew exactly where to take me. By the time we left the city, ten days later, I was obsessed with Thai food and excitedly talking about the potential of spending several months living in Bangkok so that I could cram as many pad pongalis into my mouth as humanly possible.
Basing My Travels Around Seeing Friends
2015 was all about the people. After four years of prioritising the places I’ve most wanted to visit, these days I’m focusing more on where my friends are and how I can see them. And because many of my friends also work online, it means we can spend so more quality time together — lunch dates and coffee catch ups and work days and blogger dinners.
At the start of the year, we moved to Granada because our friends Dan and Lindsay couldn’t stop raving about it, and while we were there, we took a bus up to Madrid to spend time with Diana, and catch up with Craig and Linda. Then, when our time in Spain drew to a close, we flew to the Netherlands to see Dave’s brother, catching up with Julia and Scott, and spending a sunny afternoon on Yvette’s boat, in the process.
Later on in the year, we moved to Madrid for six weeks after learning how many travel bloggers would be in town that summer. For a blissful few weeks, we got to talk travel blogging business with Diana and Will and Matt and Sam and Audrey.
When it came to Southeast Asia, we flew to Bangkok to spend time with Jodi, James, Stuart, and Diana (yep, this was definitely the Year of Diana!), then we moved on to Cambodia, making sure to time our visit to Siem Reap with Chris and Stephen. After showing Dave’s parents around Vietnam, we rounded off the year with a catch up with Tom in Taipei, and pub drinks with Torre in Melbourne.
As much as I’m looking forward to finding a base so that I can surround myself with a constant set of people to hang out with, I can’t deny that basing my location around where my friends are feels amazing.
Cafe Hopping Around Hanoi
It’s always the way: I arrived in Hanoi fully expecting to dislike it then fell head over heels in love. So many people complain that Hanoi is too chaotic, the people aren’t friendly, it’s full of scams, but my experience couldn’t have been more different.
I loved the chaos; it made me feel alive. But most of all, I loved the cafe scene, and spent my five days in the city hunting down propaganda-themed cafes and expat haunts. I always thought Saigon was my kind of place in Vietnam, but Hanoi is starting to edge it out. The streets full of nothing but hipster cafes have a lot to do with it.
Sleeping in the Jungle in Cambodia
What a cool and unusual experience!
Our three nights spent relaxing on the Tatai River in Cambodia were some of my favourite of the entire year.
We were staying in a floating bungalow in the middle of the jungle, a thirty minute boat ride from the nearest village and Internet connection. Each morning, we’d dive off our balcony into the river, then spend the rest of our day doing some kind of water-based activity. I loved spending our afternoons tubing downstream with a cold can of Angkor Beer in hand, and the cruise we took one night ranked up there as showing me one of the best sunsets of my life.
But what really made the stay perfect was the staff at our hotel. When the excursion we wanted to take wasn’t running, they gave us a free sunset cruise to make up for it. When construction was taking place in the room next to ours, they offered us a free meal. When it was time to move on, they waited for the bus with us, then gave the driver a note, asking him to call ahead to book a minivan for our next leg of the journey. When I splash out on an expensive hotel, I expect to feel as though I’m being ripped off and charged for every little expense, but it was the complete opposite here.
Forming an Indulgent Routine on Otres Beach
Otres Beach is a favourite haunt of mine, and I was relieved to return this year and discover that it hadn’t changed. Our style of accommodation, however, had. We were in the highest-rated place on the beach for Dave’s birthday, and we took to making our stay one of our most indulgent.
Each morning, we awoke to a breakfast of fresh coconut juice and tropical fruits, then immediately after finishing, walked ten metres from the restaurant into the warm ocean. Back at the hotel, we would spend our mornings lazing by the pool and reading books, and our afternoons wandering the length of the beach. Dinner was often pizza at Papa Pippos — one of our favourite restaurants — and we rounded off our evenings with a moonlit paddle in the ocean. It was the perfect daily routine!
Walking the Walls of Angkor Thom
Our tuk-tuk driver at Angkor was bemused. No matter how many times we had told him we wanted to see the temples without people, he kept parking up in front of them. When he dropped us off in front of the Bayon, he frowned when we turned on our hells and walked in the opposite direction.
We kept going until we found one of the gates to Angkor Thom, then clambered up the eight metre wall to reach the top. To walk the entire circumference of the walls, we’d be clocking up twelve kilometres, so we set about walking a quarter.
And for the hour that we walked, we didn’t see a single person. A few kilometres from us was one of the most popular temples at Angkor, yet nobody was where we were. It makes sense: from a tourist perspective there wasn’t much to see, but from a Lauren perspective, it was heaven.
As we dawdled along the edges, surrounded by butterflies and vines, and overlooking the chocolate-brown river, Dave and I got to properly talk without distractions for the first time in a few months. We spent the time daydreaming about what we want for our future base and our upcoming travel plans. We chatted about Dave’s life-changing experience on the Camino and how I was slowly starting to conquer my anxiety. It was a beautiful moment made even more enjoyable by the solitude.
An Anniversary Celebration in Taipei
When I got dunk and sent this guy a DM on Twitter all those countries ago, I never imagined that four years later we’d still be together. It’s been a wonderful experience: Dave has been my cheerleader, my confidant, and my confidence booster, pushing me out of my comfort zone when I most needed it and least wanted to, but always being there to help pick me up when I fall. I’m a lucky girl!
Our anniversary celebration was the perfect slice of normality: smoked salmon eggs benedict at our favourite brunch place, watching James Bond at the cinema, stuffing our faces with mango shaved ice, taking an afternoon nap, and heading out for delicious Indian food in the evening.
Honestly, I know it sounds like a really mundane day, but that’s what made it such a highlight. Now that travel is my new normal, spending a day living a “regular life” now feels like a novelty. Not only that, but it also showed us that finding a base is definitely the right for us — we couldn’t stop talking about how great that day was all month!
Falling in Love With Olives in Granada
I’m been a hater of olives for as long as I can remember. I despised them. They were weird and salty and had a strange texture and were far too strong for my tastebuds to handle. They were the absolute worst.
We joined a 21-course tasting meal at La Oliva in Granada, and I was horrified when one of the first dishes was a small tray of olives. I pulled a face at Dave, knowing I’d have to try one because I didn’t want to offend.
I popped it in my mouth and frowned because it was delicious. Dave would later tell me that it was one of the most mild olives he’d ever tasted, but it turned out that that was just what I needed to get me on the olive ladder of success. Because now that I’d found an olive I liked, I could begin my climb. And that’s exactly what I did.
I started by having one whenever Dave ordered some. When we travelled around Cornwall, I tentatively tried a few more. In Madrid, I started ordering them as a starter for all of my meals, and now, in Melbourne, I just visited a Spanish restaurant and filled my stomach with a super-strong olive/anchovy/chilli concoction that was mind-blowingly tasty.
These days, I’ve evolved from the pickiest eater you’d have ever met to someone who genuinely can’t think of a single thing she wouldn’t try, so much so that it’s hard to find any kind of food that challenges me anymore. That’s why falling in love with olives made me so happy. One of my remaining barriers to liking all food: removed!
Finding Solo Travel Confidence in Riga
I loved Riga! What a cool, underrated city. But what was so wonderful about my time in Latvia was travelling solo for the first time in over a year and discovering how much confidence I’d gained.
After writing a post about how I hate eating alone, in Riga, I found myself wondering why I had made such a big deal out of it. I ate out for every meal there and loved every second of it. I was ordering three dishes to sample as much of the local food as possible without feeling shame for having a small appetite; I was asking waitresses for their recommendations; I was lingering over my meal for an hour without feeling embarrassed.
But not only that, I did things I’d normally have shied away from as a solo traveller. I took free walking tours, and chatted to locals, and asked for directions, and took weird Snapchat videos of me singing in the streets, and sunbathed in parks, and wandered inside random buildings.
Riga helped me realise that I wasn’t a terrible solo traveller, which was something I had always feared. All I had to do was worry less about what other people were thinking about me. Riga was great for showing me I was finally getting there.