In the past 12 months, travel returned with vigour.
As more and more countries dropped pandemic-related restrictions and reopened their borders, holidays were once again on the cards. Travellers were keen to get back on the road and The National’s writers were no different.
From flocking to far-flung destinations, revisiting old favourites and exploring new cities, here are our top travel experiences from this year.
Scuba diving in Oman
I’ve travelled pretty extensively this year, to Asia, North America and Europe, but my favourite trip was actually a relatively short drive away. To celebrate UAE National Day, a friend and I headed to Muscat to do a spot of scuba diving. I’m a big fan of road trips, so relished the six-hour journey to Oman — we crossed the border at Al Ain / Buraimi, rather than Hatta, and didn’t encounter any major queues or delays.
We stayed in Al Mouj, where many diving local diving trips depart from, and had two full days of underwater adventures. The teeming marine life at one of Muscat’s most famous dive sites, Daymaniyat Islands, included leopard sharks, rays, thriving coral populations and shoals of brightly coloured fish, but it was a trip to the Al Munassir wreck that formed the highlight of my weekend.
The amphibious warfare vessel belonging to the Royal Navy of Oman was purposefully sunk in 2003 and sits at a depth of between 10 metres and 28 metres. The opportunity to dive by long-defunct gun mounts, along semi-enclosed balconies and up through an old loading deck was wonderfully eerie and a high point of 2022.
Eating around Dunkeld in Scotland
I am no stranger to Scotland, but this summer a road trip with friends took me to a few locations in the country I hadn’t previously visited. Dunkeld, which is about an hour and 15 minutes drive from Edinburgh, was an unexpected hit. The small town is in Perth and Kinross in central Scotland, on the north bank of the River Tay. Surrounded by greenery, the river and its surrounding area were the perfect places to spend hours walking, chatting and enjoying the scenery without too much of an agenda.
We checked into The Taybank, which is now easily my favourite British hotel. The five-room hotel has a distinctly Scandinavian-minimalist aesthetic. It is located a stone’s throw away from the river, with a phenomenal restaurant and cosy bar with a garden on the river bank, which hosts movie nights throughout the summer. Sadly on the weekend we stayed, a screening of The Godfather was rained off, in true Scottish style.
It didn’t dampen spirits, however, because we had ample time to feast at the hotel’s restaurant overlooking the river. The menu is built around home-grown and locally sourced ingredients — our plaice was so large it was served on a chopping board, not a plate. Another highlight was breakfast, which consisted of fresh fruit, granola, charcuterie, cheese and pastries served in a hamper and delivered to your door at 8am, ready to be taken out for a picnic or enjoyed at leisure in bed.
Away from the hotel, we made a beeline to Aran Bakery, which is owned by Flora Shedden, a former contestant on The Great British Bake Offand is on the main road in the town. We stocked up for a sensational picnic at the nearby Hermitage, a quiet forest with impressive Douglas firs and waterfalls.
Chasing Iceland’s green lady
I have dreamt of seeing the northern lights ever since I first heard about them and in December, I convinced my husband, who is strongly averse to cold weather, to visit Iceland with me. For weeks leading up to our trip, I was monitoring the aurora forecast that gives an indication of visibility for the lights and I was heartbroken when the weather forecast showed rain and clouds.
When we set out on the “hunt”, the sky was partly overcast. However, 20 minutes later in the remote countryside, we spotted them from our window. I couldn’t believe we were able to check off the most elusive item on my bucket list on our first day in the Land of Fire and Ice.
The activity forecast for that night was moderate, but the aurora borealis turned out to be more than spectacular, dancing and putting on a magical show. With temperatures close to -5°C, I couldn’t feel my toes — but. as they say, if you can feel your toes while seeing the northern lights, there’s something wrong.
The rest of our time in Iceland was spent basking in that achievement. The country is full of extraordinary experiences — adrenalin-charged glacier hikes, picturesque waterfalls, mighty geysers that erupt every few minutes, powerful volcanoes and roaring waves black sand beaches. Not to forget the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in the south-west, where the water temperature ranges between 37 and 40°C amid frozen surroundings.
Iceland has undoubtedly been my favourite travel destination. The icing on the cake for me was, and will always be, the green lady.
Family time in Tbilisi, Georgia
After more than a year of not travelling, my husband, two-year-old daughter and I had the chance to head off to Tbilisi, Georgia, where we enjoyed exploring the city, eating local food and discovering a new culture.
Staying in a swish two-bedroom apartment bang in the middle of the city, we had a great base for five days. And it was even better thanks to Georgia’s cheap prices, despite the perfect location it was entirely affordable.
We found plenty to keep us busy. We spent our days taking in museums, digging into Georgian cuisine — khinkali, a type of dumpling, was my favourite — and had no trouble at all hitting our 10,000 steps count each day as we meandered the rudimentary pavements, steep inclines and narrow lanes of the capital.
A highlight was Fabrika, a hostel and alternative hangout space housed in a former Soviet sewing factory in an older part of town that’s covered in graffiti and home to a bunch of bars and restaurants, particularly popular with digital nomads. The Tblisi Open Air Museum of Ethnography was a great spot for learning more about the city’s rich history via folk architecture and craftwork and we rounded off our trip with a ride up the funicular to a park with myriad attractions, culinary pit stops and fantastic views.
Exploring history in AlUla, Saudi Arabia
My first trip to Saudi Arabia was to AlUla and what an introduction it was. Landing amid striking rock formations, I knew from the moment we stepped off the plane in June that this trip was going to be unlike anything I’d ever done before.
Located in north-west Saudi Arabia, AlUla lies on the ancient incense trade route and was also ruled by the Nabataeans, the same people who built the archaeological city of Petra.
The opening of Saudi Arabia to the world kickstarted AlUla’s development as a major tourist destination, and the transformation is impressive. From the small but stunning airport to perfectly-made roads and some of the most striking hotels, as well as standout architecture such as Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored structure, AlUla is a tourist’s dream.
A note of caution, however. While there are plenty of world-class facilities, AlUla is not designed for budget travellers, at least at the moment.
But if you do get to go, do not miss the helicopter tour of the city, a tour of the Unesco World Heritage site Hegra and, for the true history buff, a tour of Dadan, the ancient kingdom of the Lihyanite and Dadanite civilisations who built AlUla.
The Old Town is also spectacular. Recently named one of the world’s Best Tourism Villages by the UN, it’s a maze of more than 900 stone and mud houses some dating as far back as the 12th century.
Travelling to AlUla is easy, especially if you live in the region, and it can be enjoyed in two days — although new attractions and events are being launched regularly to entice you to stay longer.
Road-tripping in northern Thailand
Thailand’s roads are chaotic and dangerous — statistically the second deadliest on the planet, according to The New York Times. The last time my brother visited me in Thailand, my on-off home of 10 years, we were involved in a car crash.
Nonetheless, when he came to see me again in Bangkok this year, we brazenly decided to fly to northern Thailand, hire a car and spend eight days completing a 720km road trip, which took us high into isolated, jungle-draped mountain ranges.
Fortune does indeed favour the bold. It was an extraordinary trip — one we both will remember until the day we expire. Although I’d visited this region several times previously, the freedom to explore and meander offered by self-driving was precious.
We unexpectedly ended up in locations that were variously bizarre, eerie or spectacular. From touring a facility that makes paper from animal excrement; exploring an unsettling temple of human torture; and peering down into remote valleys populated by hill tribes, it was more than a holiday or a journey, it was a true adventure.
Glamping in Venice
Like many people in Europe, I was back travelling in 2022, with emotional — though crowded — trips to revisit favourite cities such as Paris, Florence and Brussels.
But the highlight of the year came somewhere much closer to my home in Venice — although it felt like thousands of miles away. I booked a quiet autumn glamping stay in a sleek retro silver Airstream caravan at Camping Ca’Savio, on the narrow Adriatic shoreline, with sandy beaches and the sea on one side, and the wild wetlands of Venice’s lagoon on the other.
After an hour-long ferry and bus trip from the centre of the Serenissima, I found myself in the middle of a natural paradise, renting a bike and traversing the lagoon on narrow tracks that came out at Al Notturno, a rustic osteria serving the host’s freshly-caught grilled fish and seasonal vegetables straight from the garden. The whole trip was a genuine carbon zero experience.
Culinary exploration in Goa
I’ve been a Goa regular since the early 2000s, but on my first visit to the Indian hotspot since 2018, I felt like I was in a new town.
Whenever I’ve travelled to the popular seaside destination, I’ve had my list of regular haunts to which I’ve stayed loyal, but in November, it felt like Goa had undergone a culinary makeover. I checked out some of the places whipping up delicious drinks — using spices and combinations that I didn’t think belonged in a glass, but they turned out to be some of the best I’ve sampled in a long time.
For food, Florentine’s — something of a Goa institution — continues to have the best cafreal, a local marinade or sauce that is used to spice chicken, meat and fish. Mustard Cafe was a highlight for its Bengali-French fusion, which blends common ingredients from both cultures to create exciting new dishes. Titlie, a popular party spot, also stands out for its culinary offerings and I loved their hummus with fried okra.
There were plenty of other spots proving popular, each serving its own take on a variety of international and Indian cuisines, and I think I’ll need to make several trips back to Goa before I can walk away satisfied — but this trip was a good start.
Exploring the Royal City of Bhaktapur, Nepal
Given the terrible state of the roads, it takes about 40 minutes to drive the 13km from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, but it is worth the bone-jarring ride.
Like much of the Kathmandu Valley, the royal city of Bhaktapur was seriously damaged in the 2015 earthquake and is undergoing extensive restoration. However, it is easy to see why it has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979 because entering the city is like stepping back in time.
Narrow streets are crowded with wooden buildings that sag charmingly with age, overhanging twisting pathways. Doorways are framed by dense layers of carvings, while windows are shielded by panels, such as the Peacock Window. Found on the wall of The Pujari Math building, this shows a bird in full display plumage and was cut from a single piece of wood back in the 1400s. Considered a masterpiece, it is just one of the many jaw-dropping moments that make up this ancient city.
Built in the 1200s by King Ananda Deva, Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal until the 16th century, and as such is brimming with displays of wealth, taste and power.
Both modern and ancient, Bhaktapur is overflowing with carvings and buildings that document almost a thousand years of history, making it a rare gem definitely worth battling the traffic to visit.
Falling for Seoul
In November, I travelled to Seoul and it was undoubtedly the best place I’ve visited this year. The weather was fantastic and the streets of the South Korean capital were lined with trees in picturesque shades of red, yellow and orange thanks to the autumn foliage.
There was also a buzzing energy in the city, which really does seem to have something for everyone. There’s no shortage of amazing places to eat in Seoul, whether you visit a street market (such as Gwangjang Market, which has been featured on Netflix) or go to a high-end restaurant (such as the famed La Yeon in The Shilla Hotel).
There’s also a lot of history to explore with Unesco World Heritage sites and many diverse neighbourhoods full of little restaurants and cafes. For those who prefer shopping, Seoul really feels like the beauty capital of the world with its myriad skincare and beauty stores. It’s definitely a city that can keep you busy.
A wild welcome to Brazil’s Amazon
Blissfully bobbing in tranquil waters as the sun beamed down on my face was my idea of holiday perfection.
That was until I was slapped — yes, physically slapped — out of my reverie by a fellow swimmer who went on to dive beneath the waters and tunnel through my flailing legs, leaving me wondering what on earth had just happened.
In Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, the locals are a playful bunch, and my attacker was none other than a wild pink river dolphin, tens of thousands of whom call the River Negro home.
As I nursed my stinging chops, “Will Smith” was joined by reinforcements, at least five or six botos — as they are known locally — leapt in and out of the inky water. And it was nothing short of magical.
In a rainforest whose size is legendary, it’s the small things that make it so special — a backhand from a wild dolphin being one of them. Bring on round two.
Finding peak adventure in Switzerland’s Interlaken
Having travelled to Switzerland twice before, I thought I’d experienced everything it had to offer. However, my October visit proved how wrong I was thanks to an action-packed week spent adventuring in Interlaken.
Surrounded by mountain peaks between lakes Thun and Brienz, Interlaken is an alpine village that bills itself as the European capital for adventure, and it’s not hard to see why. Jumping in — literally — at the deep end, my trip commenced with a canyon swing experience. This involved stepping off a towering platform for a 90m free fall experience before soaring between rock faces at speeds of over 100km per hour in the glacial gorge of Grindelwald. In a word, it was exhilarating and really set the scene for the days to follow.
A morning drive to Beatenberg, high above Lake Thun, led to awesome views of the Bernese Oberland followed by a high-speed run off the edge of a grassy embankment. Thankfully, I was firmly attached to Florian from Skywings Paragliding and spent the next 20 minutes soaring over glacier-blue waterways, green pastures and red rooftops, with a few aerial tricks and turns thrown in for good measure.
A funicular ride to an alpine hike on Grindelwald-First mountain was cut short as a blizzard rolled across the Alps while we stood on a viewing platform. The weather might have cancelled the trek, but it gave me my first glimpse of snow for the season. A raucous Wacky Races-style descent down the mountain on two-wheeled trottibike scooters, fleeing past mooing cows as rain drizzled all around was comedy gold. Throw in stunning scenery on panoramic alpine train rides, vineyard walks in Spiez and kayaking on the glass-like Lake Brienz and it’s not hard to see why it tops my list of 2022 travel.
Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast
With its rich diversity and stunning landscapes, Bulgaria never ceases to amaze me. The south-eastern European country is a cultural melting pot with Greek, Slavic, Ottoman and Persian influences, and its syncretism is impressive.
While I have previously experienced the cosmopolitan charms of the capital city Sofia, most recently I explored Burgas. The city on the Black Sea coast is peppered with scenic beaches, a sea garden, a bay with sweeping oceanic views, broad promenades, atmospheric eateries and world-class hotels. The historically rich region dates back 2,500 years, with a spate of archaeological excavations unearthing stunning ancient artefacts.
Exciting water sports are on offer, too. At Sunny Beach, an expansive beach resort, I explored sand dunes, clubs and bars, and a water park that I was loathe to leave. Wellness seekers can take mud baths here as well.
Food was definitely the highlight of my trip as I gorged on fresh calamari and mussels pulled straight out of the water and served on the spot. On the last day of my visit, I cruised to the charming Anastasia Island, sitting on its pebble-strewn shoreline while listening to an oceanic symphony while watching playful seagulls cavorting above me.
Updated: December 27, 2022, 8:07 AM