Every year I try to do a post about my favourite travel destinations of the past year. So in keeping with tradition I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 travels from 2017. In many ways it feels like the past year flew by, and then at the same time there were some months that looking back at them moved by achingly slow. I fit in a lot of travel this year. I shared a lot of great memories. I nursed myself through a heartbreak. I connected with a cousin I didn’t really know I had and visited her twice this year. I almost delivered a baby on a plane. I drove a rickshaw in Ethiopia. I was flown from Georgia to Bahrain in business class on a flight were I was the only passenger. I’ve made some very dear friends this past year- that has probably been the biggest blessing for me. While the travel was great- the actual human interactions I had are the thing that stands out the most.
In 2017 I visited 18 countries not including Saudi Arabia. 12 of them new to me. I took 38 international flights, which for someone terrified of flying is no easy feat. I traveled solo, with a tinder date, with my Kiwi sidekick, to see my cousin and then home for a few weeks. I traveled by plane, bus, boat, rickshaw and car. So without further delay here’s my 2017 travel recommendations in chronological order…..
Croatia is stunning. In April I spent a week in Dubrovnik with a fella I met on tinder a month before I left for Saudi Arabia. He was a great travel partner and I would happily have him be my travel side kick again- he was only mildly irritated when I asked him to take the hundreth posed picture of me in a row. And he was pretty much down to do and eat where ever I wanted- what more can you ask for in a travel companion?! After a week in Dubrovnik he flew back to Canada and I spent a few days in Split solo exploring the city. As I previously blogged Dubrovnik is a great base to visit nearby Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina on separate day trips. We spent our time in Dubrovnik exploring the Old City, taking tons of postcard worthy pictures and sipping Croatia’s delicious wines. I would highly recommend to avoid both Dubrovnik and Split during the peak tourist season. We were there in April and it was the beginning of the cruise ships- I would have been highly irritated if we had gone when the reportedly 10,000 daily cruisers get dropped in the Old Town (although reportedly they are capping this number at 8,000 in 2018.)
My favourite thing that we did while in Croatia was explore the nearby abandoned resort Town of Kupari just south of Dubrovnik. I love abandoned places and it was super cool to be able to wander through these large empty hotels and take pictures. It had that eerie beauty to it, and it was very easy to imagine what it must’ve looked like in their prime time. We also visited the nearby town of Cavtat which has a very cute water front and some delicious restaurants. The Croatian coastline is spectacular.
2017 was a lot about Europe for me. Seeing as Frankfurt is a direct flight from Riyadh and has easy connections to just about every large European city it’s pretty easy to make a long weekend into a trip to Europe. My Kiwi sidekick and I opted for Switzerland seeing as neither of us had ever been and we were traveling in May which made for perfect weather there. We stayed in Geneva where we strolled the cobble stoned lanes, ate our weight in cheese fondue, and stumbled upon Camino signs which only solidified me knowing that I want to walk the Camino de Santiago again. One of the coolest things we did though was take a day trip to nearby Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps.
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps range and the highest in Europe. We did a bus trip to the French town of Chamonix and from there we took two gondolas to the top of the mountain. I’m scared of heights and being confined to a small car packed with people dangling from a cable from the top of a mountain was moderately terrifying. Both Kiwi and I rode most of the way with our eyes closed performing lamaze child birth breathing techniques. But once up top the views were stunning. We even concurred our fear of heights by walking out into this glass floored room that’s 1035 meters off the ground.
Azerbaijan was one of the countries that surprised me the most last year. I had no idea what to expect and it actually blew me away. It had a Middle Eastern vibe, but felt very European. The buildings were very European but accented with Islamic architectural features. I felt totally comfortable traveling there solo, and it was pretty easy to get there from Riyadh as it’s a direct flight from Dubai to the capital Baku. Some of you may never have heard of this country (and I’ve yet to properly blog about) but I’ll tell you a few helpful facts. Azerbaijan borders both Europe and Asia and is a predominantly Muslim country, but it felt the least religious of all the Muslim countries I have traveled to. It is in the Caucasus region and borders the countries of Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and Baku is on the Caspian Sea. The phrase “the old meets the new” or the “east meets the west” are very fitting in relation to Azerbaijan.
I spent two nights in Baku which was the perfect amount of time to see the city. The Old Town in Baku is really cool. The buildings are of an architectural style I had never seen before with double story homes with very ornate wooden balconies. I would later see this same style in Georgia. I wandered the Old Town and climbed the Maiden Tower which has a great panorama view of the city from the top. I strolled the walkways near Nizami square soaking in the sunshine and fresh air. I walked the corniche overlooking the Caspian Sea. One evening I walked over to Sahidler Xiyabani Park with is a really ornately decorated park that has amazing views overlooking the city, and also perfect views of the iconic Flames Towers. There is an impressive nightly light show on the Flames Towers featuring flames, and running water, and the Azerbaijani flags. If you’re looking for somewhere a little off the tourist track and an easy long weekend trip from Riyadh I would highly recommend Azerbaijan!!
The country. Not the state. Just to be clear. If I had to rank these countries in order of my favourites Georgia would’ve been at the top of my list. Georgia first landed on my radar after seeing a friend’s picture from a trip she and her boyfriend took. Or more specifically a single view from a balcony of a hotel at a range of mountains that I later researched to be the country of Georgia. I was determined to wake up to that same view one day. I spent a week solo in Georgia. A couple nights in the capital of Tbilisi before retreating for the mountain views of Kazbegi that had inspired my trip, and then a night at the end back in Tbilisi. The best decision I made while in Georgia was to hire a guide/driver from Instagram. At first it sounds a little sketchy- having some youngish guy pick you up a night from the airport in a country you’ve never been to as a solo woman traveler. But, I’m a big believer in listening to your gut. And my gut said that Zuka was legit- and in fact he was. Zuka would be my sidekick over the next week. He drove me around, told me the history of the region, and we rocked out to Enrique Inglasias’s song “Bailando” quite likely 100 times.
Zuka drove me to the famous Jvari Monastery, to the wine region of Kakheti, and later into the mountain region of Kazbegi close to the Russian border where I spend 3 days taking in the most stunning mountain views and watching the changing weather. I spent time in Tbilisi and was mesmerized by the graffiti art around the city. If you are a foodie at all I would highly recommend adding Georgia to your list. Georgian food is fantastic- my favourite was the Georgian Salad made of cucumbers, tomatoes, with a walnut paste and Khinkali which are pork dumplings. And trust me- Georgian wine is amazing. If you go be sure to use Zuka– tell him I sent you, and be sure to listen to a little Enrique or whatever music is trendy when you go!
The icing on the cake of my trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia was turning up to the airport to fly back to Riyadh and getting upgraded to business class and then coming to find out that not only was I upgraded, but that I was the only passenger on the entire flight. It will be difficult to ever top that travel experience!
Ethiopia was definitely the most exciting trip I took this year in terms of things just generally not going as plan but still working out in the end. From the get go this trip was a hot mess. Our flight was delayed in Riyadh for 8 hours. 8 hours after we had already been awake for nearly 24hours. Then there was a medical emergency where a woman was in questionable labour and didn’t speak English. We assessed her and kept her comfortable and for landing she and I were moved up to Business class. I had instructed her via a Swahili translator that if she were to feel like her water broke or that she was bleeding she was to squeeze my arm. Literally as the plane touches down she squeezes my arm. So here we are taxiing to the gate and I’m under her dress assessing her. Thankfully she was neither bleeding, nor did her water break and she could still feel the baby moving. In the midst of all this excitement my kiwi sidekick proudly told me she knew the Swahili word for Giraffe. Not super helpful!!
Three of our four flight legs were delayed that trip. Ethiopia Air is a bit of a scheduling disaster and I wouldn’t fly with them again unless there were zero other options. My Kiwi mate lost consciousness likely due to altitude in the town of Lalibela. That was medical emergency numero 2 of the trip. One minute she’s saying she doesn’t feel well, the next she’s laying on the floor. The greatest disappointment of the trip though was our Ethiopian attempt at wine tasting. We literally drove 3-4 hours each way to go wine tasting at a French winery only to be told that there was in fact no wine to taste. I nearly cried. Ok. I might’ve actually cried.
It wasn’t all bad though. Ethiopia is an intriguing country with amazing food. It’s colourful and vibrant. The rock churches of Lalibela are amazing and totally worth the effort it took to get there. We were even able to convince our tour guide in Lalibela to organize us a tour by auto rickshaw in which I was the driver and he was happy to comply. He proudly told us that I was the first westerner to driver Bajaj (rickshaw) in the history of Lalibela. We spent time exploring Addis Ababa and even got to meet up with one of the housekeepers that I work with here in Saudi. She and her family took us out for dinner and I oogled their cute kids and we decided I would take one to Canada- but then we decided Canada was far too cold for them. Ethiopia was both extremes- frustrating beyond belief at times, and then totally rewarding and heart filling.
I’d previously been to Austria twice before. Once way back in 2010 to Vienna, and then in 2016 to Salzburg with my mom. Both times I loved the food and especially the wine. In August I visited Bratislava Slovakia and then traveled by boat up the river Danube to Vienna and later onward to Slovenia. The main reason I was stopping off for a night was to meet up with a cousin I had only really learned about the month before. Her mom and my Dad were cousins so I guess we are second cousins- although after meeting her she feels very much like a first cousin to me. I stayed right near St Stephen’s Cathedral which is beautiful and my room had rooftop views over the city.
Even though I was only there one night I had really wished I had the time to stay another couple nights. My cousin and I went for a traditional Austrian meal and she toured me around the city on foot pointing out the important buildings and telling me the history of the city. We sipped delicious Austrian wine at a rooftop bar and tried to piece together our family history. And best of all we made plans to ensure our paths would cross again….
I’d long wanted to visit Lake Bled- it’s on many people’s favourite places they’ve traveled to list, so I had to see if it held up to the hype. I spent 8 days in Slovenia split between its capital city of Ljubljana and three nights of total relaxation at Lake Bled. Ljubljana is a great city- it’s small and easy to navigate, if felt totally safe as a female traveler and there’s enough to see to fill a few days. Oh, and of course the food and wine is really good. It’s pretty touristy and it being the summer it was pretty packed, but the temperature was perfect for evening strolling while eating gelato (a favourite past time of mine). I did a couple free walking tours while there. As I’ve previously mentioned many, many times I’m a huge fan of taking part in free walking tours. They are offered in almost every major city- they’re a great way to get your bearings by walking a city by foot, learning the history of the region, meeting other travelers and they are cheap. While not exactly free the guides work off of tips- I’m happy to give them the equivalent of $10 US for someone to walk me around for 2-3hours telling animated tales. Always money well spent. If you are only in a city for a short period of time I’d always recommend joining a walking tour. Make sure to visit the central market in Ljubljana as there’s tons of delicious food, and during the warmer months there’s an outdoor food festival on Fridays called “Open Kitchen.” They serve international food and alcohol and it’s great fun to sit outside sampling different food.
After spending a night in Ljubljana I took the bus to Lake Bled for 3 nights. This part of my trip was a bit of a splurge and I had booked myself a room with a balcony over looking the lake, facing towards the castle. I spent my time walking the 6km lake path, climbing up to the castle which had postcard worthy views of the lake and town below and taking boat tours around the lake. In the evenings I would sit on my balcony sipping wine, reading a book and watching the magnificent sunsets. I would look up every paragraph or so to see the sky changing colours. Deepening. Each moment more beautiful than the one before. Watching as the light sparkled across the lake. The yellow brightening into orange then into pink and then into a light mauve. The sky looked like it was expanding. As the sky fell darker the last bits of light faded the castle on the opposite cliff grew brighter- its windows illuminated from within as the last bit of sun slipped away. Those sunsets were my favourite part of being in Slovenia. Lake Bled is a very romantic place and would be a great place to take a partner, but equally so if you’re looking to clear your head and relax which was exactly why I was there.
In October I flew into Helsinki Finland and made my way down thru Estonia, to Latvia and then Lithuania before flying to Berlin to meet up with my cousin. Estonia was a place I’d heard a lot about this past year. If you’re into travel at all then you also have probably heard a lot about Estonia, specifically about the city of Tallinn which has been an up and coming travel destination. I spend a couple nights in Helsinki and then took the ferry to Tallinn. The ferry to Tallinn is more of a booze cruise for the Finns. They go over to Estonia where the booze are cheaper and stock up. The ferry itself is only about four hours. It’s super easy to get between the two countries. I’m used to ferries in Canada or the US. They are low key, relaxing type of sailing. Often you sit and watch the view from the windows or go to the upper decks for some fresh air. Ferries in this part of the world are really more of a cruise entertainment experience. There’s singing and choreographed dance moves. There was also a stuffed mascot that was involved in the dancing. While waiting for the ferry to board I was approached by a couple. They were Finnish and very, very drunk. And/or possibly on meth- it was hard to say. He was a little overly friendly and started chatting me up. Being the polite Canadian I was I answered and the following conversation ensued……. Him “Where are you from?” Me “Canada.” Him “Hmmm never heard of it.” So I then told him that I lived in the Middle East and was here on vacation. He then started yelling “BOMB.” Quite loud while pointing at my suitcase and then he started laughing. I was mortified and thankful no one nearby was taking him serious. He then tried to hug me and he and his lady then proceeded to overshare their entire life stories. How they met, how many kids they had, how much alcohol they planned to buy. The ship literally could not board fast enough. I kept thinking that at some point I was likely going to get pick pocketed, but that didn’t happen. They were just very friendly Finns. I managed to lose them in the crowd as we boarded, but later saw them going into the Duty Free. He winked at me and waved.
So I arrived in Tallinn Estonia on a cold autumn afternoon after being mistaken for a terrorist. I had booked a cute AirBnb in the Old Town and it was perfect for my three night stay. Tallinn is a very charming city. The Old Town is cobble stoned and easily walkable and you could easily picture yourself walking there 200 years ago. Because I was there during the off season that meant less tourists, and that it was pretty easy to get a table in some of the citiy’s best restaurants. If you are a foodie then add Tallinn to your list. There are so many great restaurants there. My favourite was Restoran O (But the “O” has those two little dots above it that my keyboard won’t let me type.) They had an amazing tasting menu with a wine pairing and all the dishes are from local foods influenced by the Island of Saaremaa the largest island in Estonia.
The second day I was there I joined a walking tour that wound it’s way thru the city to some very scenic overlooks all the while learning the history of the country. Estonia most recently became independent in 1991. The language is similar to Finnish or Hungarian and they are not gender specific. Also they have no future tense so instead of saying phrases like “in the future” they say “in 5 months time.” Also a large percentage of Estonians are atheists. That’s all the fun facts I can remember right now. You’re welcome. There is also a very cool part of town that has an urban industrial feel and is full of artists, graffiti and bars and restaurants. It’s called Kalamaya and it’s an easy walk from the Old Town. It would be a shame to visit Tallinn and not leave the Old Town as the city has much more to offer.
After Tallin Estonia, I traveled to Riga Lativa on a one way tour bus that was really like a day tour with stop offs on the way between the two cities. This was a great way to see the countryside as it was October the leaves were changing colour and the air was crisp. Fall is my favourite season hands down. En route from Tallin to Riga we stopped off at small villages to walk around and wander thru some old castle ruins and then hiked up to some caves that were made of sandstone. Leave it to me to walk 700Km across Spain without falling only to walk like 1km on a muddy path in Latvia to make a massive spectacle of myself. As it turns out I don’t have nearly the cat like reflexes I had previously convinced myself I had. I realized this whilst laying on my back in a muddy puddle. Mud in my hair and covering most of my jeans I opted not to change into the only other clean pair of pants I had, lest I repeat the same incident.
We arrived in Riga in the rain and in the dark, but it being a weekend the city was just getting started. It was gearing up for the bachelor parties and mayhem that would later spill out of the bars onto the main street. The city felt vibrant and full of energy. The following morning I joined…. you guessed it….a walking tour of the Old Town. Riga is known to have one of the largest amounts of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. I’m a big fan of this style of architecture and I had a great time walking out of the Old Town to the nearby neighbourhoods where the vast majority of these buildings are located. The Old Town of Riga though is lovely. The alleys are cobble stoned and quaint, there are several open squares, and you can see the remnants of the old city walls. Interspersed with exploring the city on foot I took many stops for cappuccinos and of course wine. In fact one of the best places I came across that trip was a place called “Easy Wine” in the Old Town. It was a wine bar that had like 60 different kinds of wine in a vending machine. Wine. Vending Machine. Sounds like heaven to me.
Germany was another place I’d been to a few times. I went to Munich for Oktoberfest a few years back and visited the Christmas Market in Frankfurt two winters ago. I ended my trip to the Balkans in Berlin for two reasons. First, my cousin was living there (the one I had met in Vienna in August) and I was keen to spend more time with her. The second reason was that I wanted to get a tattoo covered and I had found an artist I really liked who was in Berlin. I spent four nights there with no real plan other than to hang out with my cousin and get my new tattoo. Other then that I just wanted to spend some time outside walking the city and eating good food. Luckily my cousin is very knowledgeable about WWII history so she walked me around the city explaining to me the history and pointing out important sites. We walked the East West gallery which has urban art painted on portions of the Berlin Wall. We visited the Mauerpark market which sells a little bit of this and a little bit of that and was insanely packed with uber trendy hipsters. My cousin introduced me to curry wurst which pairs great with beer and are basically sausages in a curry ketchup sauce. Fun fact: you can walk all over town sipping your beer. No one will say a dang thing about it.
I loved all the different neighbourhoods and how walkable the city was. I’m a big fan of big cities and I really liked Berlin. I was also lucky enough to be there during the Festival of Lights where there were different light installations spread across the city with evening shows. I’m pretty sure Berlin will be a city that I’ll return to- most likely in the spring when my cousin is back there as I’d love to explore some more and spend some time with her!
So that’s some of what I got up to in 2017. I ended the year by ringing in my birthday in Bahrain. 2018 is starting to take shape and I’ve got some plans in the works. As always I’m still not exactly sure when my final exit from Saudi Arabia will be. Right now I’m just taking it day by day. In a couple weeks I’m going to Luxor Egypt for a long weekend which has been something I’ve wanted to do the last couple years. Hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings is on my bucket list so I’m pretty pumped. I’m looking into going to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi in early February and then flying to Djibouti with my kiwi sidekick for a few days. Many of you reading this are probably like hold up did she just make up another country again? No. Djibouti is next to Somalia and according to the Lonely Planet otherwise known as my travel bible, Djibouti is its 4th pick for up and coming country in 2018. After that I don’t have anything set in stone. I’d like to visit the “Stans” in the spring. Specifically Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Something really off the beaten path for a few weeks. That’s all from me. I hope 2018 is starting off as a good one for you all, and I hope this post gives you some new ideas for your upcoming adventures!