As the New Year fast approaches, I've been reflecting on what an amazing year it's been. From cruising along the Pacific Highway in the Californian sunshine to cosy pubs in snowy Wales, 2018 has been full of wonderful weekends away with friends, mesmerising road trips and exciting new adventures. Here are some of my travel highlights!
A Boozy Weekend In Ghent
In April, I travelled with my husband and four lovely friends to the beautiful Belgian city of Ghent to celebrate our pal Katie's 30th birthday.
Often overlooked by neighbouring tourist hotspots Bruges and Brussels, Ghent is a an equally brilliant location for a weekend getaway and arguably benefits from less crowds. Despite only having two days and one night in the city, we made the most of our time and soaked as much of the sights, sounds and tastes of Ghent as we possibly could.
Boasting an abundance of ancient churches, beautiful bridges, museums and immaculately preserved medieval architecture, there is so much to do in Ghent and we easily could've spent longer here. Just wandering the cobbled streets make you feel like you've gone back in time, with only the sound of regular trams bringing you back to the 21st Century.
Arriving into Gent-Sint-Pieters Railway Station at around 10.30am, we spent the first day visiting traditional landmarks such as St. Bavo's Cathedral (home of the coveted religious art feature, The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb), Gravensteen Castle and St Michael's Bridge as well as the more modern attraction of Graffiti Street.
Our main focus, though, was sampling the amazing local food and drink! Even if you're not the biggest beer fan, I defy you not to find something you enjoy amongst the vast array of Belgian beers on offer. From speciality beers Pauwel Kwak (which arrives in a novelty test-tube style glass), Lupulus, Val-Dieu (brewed in a Belgian Abbey) and Golden Drak, to the more commonly available options of Leffe and Hoegaarden, you can happily wile away the hours hopping from riverside bar to quirky pub around the city.
We finished the day off with a very special meal with plenty more delicious local cuisine, then spent our second day enjoying a river cruise (once again accompanied by local beverages, of course!) in the Spring sunshine.
Soaking Up The Literary Magic Of Hay-On-Wye... Twice!
As a total book nerd, it's surprising that I got to the age of 29 before visiting the literary haven of Hay-On-Wye... And then ending up going twice in one year!
The first time was in the Spring during an Easter trip to Wales and the Brecon Beacons. With stunning scenery and uncharacteristically good weather, visiting the market book town of Hay was the icing on the cake. We were lucky enough to be there during the town's 'Bookstagam' mini festival which meant that there was a hub of activity, giving a small taste as to what it would be like during the annual literary festival the town is so famous for. There were film screening, quizzes and Q&As with authors to whet the appetite, the majority of which took place in the main hub of The Globe At Hay which plays host to numerous events on throughout the year. This is on top of the many, many wonderful and unique new and second-hand bookshops to get lost in.
During this first trip, we visited the Richard Booth's Cinema Bookshop (yes, a cinema in a bookshop - living the dream!) to watch a film which was fantastic. Though a relatively small screening room, the seats are so comfy with stone walls around, giving it a brilliant atmosphere and acoustics and there's something so quirky and fun about watching one of the latest releases in the room behind a bookshop.
The other place we feel a little in love with during that first visit was The Old Electric Shop which - though being a pretty hipster establishment - is an eclectic shop-come-cafe in the heart of the town. Serving excellent coffee and treats during the day and literary themed cocktails and music of an evening, it's a great little spot to hang out in.
Food wise, we were spoiled for choice too, but my personal favourite was the Welsh Rarebit at local pub, The Blue Boar. Though nothing special to look at, this friendly and cosy pubs offers some cracking lunches and the Rarebit was simple but delicious!
We visited again in August, this time just for the day on the way home from a group holiday in Herefordshire, and brought a few friends along to show them around. We had a lovely wander and spend a couple of hours exploring all of the bookshops, once again went away with armfuls of literary treasures!
Kayaking On Lake Tahoe
On a gorgeous clear, blue sky day during our road trip around California this June, we got up early and travelled to Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay to kayak on it's calm shores. Hiring the kayak for two hours via Kayak Tahoe was incredibly simple, and I can't explain how peaceful and serene it was on the lake, with the water crystal clear and the mountains dazzling in the sunshine.
This is one of the reasons why I love kayaking as it gives you the time and perspective to take a moment and breathe in the incredible scenery around you. Lying back in my kayak in the mid-morning sun was one of those picture-perfect moments when you go, "wow, look where we are!"
After exploring the bay itself, we moored our kayaks on Lake Tahoe's only island, Fanette Island and walked to the top to take in the views, as well as visiting the magnificent Cascade Falls and relaxing on the white sandy beach. It's such a beautiful spot and the views just took my breathe away. Absolute bliss!
Read more about our California road trip here
Visiting Titanic Belfast
In September, I was lucky enough to visit Belfast for work and have some spare time to explore the city around my professional commitments. Though it was a slightly flyby visit, I got a great taste of the city and found time to visit impressive new museum, Titanic Belfast, which takes centre stage in the former shipyard of the Titanic Quarter.
Opened in 2012, Titanic Belfast is erected on the dock where the Titanic itself was designed, built and launches 100 years earlier. It's a true feat of engineering in itself and so much more than a museum. Having been fascinated by all things Titanic ever since Kate and Leo (with the help of James Cameron) bought it to life in 1997, I loved learning the full story of the ship's fateful voyage as well as the excavation process in more recent years. It's hugely interactive with so many audio and visual elements that each unique section really hits home about this terrible tragedy.
My particular favourite part was a large auditorium towards the end where you are surrounded by screens depicting underwater video footage, making you feel that you are exploring the wreckage itself. The whole experience is masterfully done and I thoroughly recommend it.
I'm keen to go back soon and explore more of Belfast now. There were so many museums, pubs and landmarks that I didn't have to see properly, but the feel of the city was very exciting and there's clearly a ton of history to be explored. Just seeing the impressive architecture of Belfast City Hall and Stormont Parliamentary Building was enough to guarantee a return trip for me.... Watch this space!
Driving Over The Golden Gate Bridge
Having seen the famous Golden Gate Bridge in many movies and iconic landscapes, it was hugely special to finally see this wonder of the modern world in real life this summer.
San Francisco was our first stop on our amazing road trip and my first glimpse of the bridge itself was on our second full day. Despite being jet-lagged and a bit dazed, as it slowly came into view, I was blown away by how magnificent it was and driving over it was even more exciting!
We were very lucky with the weather and managed to get some great pictures of it bright blue sunshine before driving it over it on our city bus tour, then seeing it later with the low cloud hanging over which was equally impressive and highlighted the height of the construction. On our final day whilst driving back to the airport, we went over it again with the weather overcast and it was eerily magical seeing the towering structure disappear into the mist.
Read more about San Francisco here
Local Wine Tasting In Kent
To celebrate my own big 3-0 during the summer, I was treated to a fabulous day out at local vineyard, Hush Heath near Staplehurst, Kent.
We could easily have been tricked into believing we were basking in the Tuscan sun or exploring the valleys of the South of France as we wandered through the vineyard.
Specialising in English Sparkling Wine, Hush Heath Estate comprises of 400 acres of beautiful vineyards, orchards and ancient woodland. We took part in a guided tour of the grounds where we learnt about the important ecological work the company does to sustain the environments and the history of the estate as well as learning how the wine itself is made.
The afternoon concluded with a tutored tasting of six of the vineyard's wines, including its famous Balfour Brut Rosé. A brilliant day out and perfect birthday treat!
Marvelling At Mountains In Yosemite
Finally, if I had to choose one highlight of the year, it would be visiting the breathtakingly beautiful Yosemite National Park.
It's somewhere that's been on my bucket list to go for quite some time (even going as far back as being a teenager when I studies Ansel Adams' photography at school) and it was every bit as awe-inspiring and magical as I'd imagined, if not more. It's such a vast area and there's so much to see and explore which could easily be overwhelming, but the parks department (yes, I'm imagining Leslie Knope manning the decks!) have made it so accessible and easy to get around.
We had two very hot days for our time in the park and two pairs of very sore feet by the end, but it was the most incredible experience which I will treasure for a long time. Those mountains, those waterfalls, that valley! Just out of this world.
Read more about Yosemite National Park here