It’s that time of the year again — a time to stop, look back and reflect. 2013 has been a year full of milestones, of opportunities and of personal achievements for me. I published my first book, kept WildJunket Magazine going, became an aunt and celebrated our fifth blogiversary. Most importantly, this year I finally found a balance between travel and my personal life and I’ve never been happier.
Travel wise, we chocked up quite a lot of new and exciting adventures — even though they weren’t quite as groundbreaking as 2012 when I covered seven continents in one year. After spending a long winter last year in ridiculously cold places (we’re talking about Antarctica and Lapland), we packed this year with plenty of trips to hot, tropical islands – from the Pacific island of Fiji to the volcano isles of Hawaii and the savannas of East Africa. We still managed to cover quite a lot of ground, visiting 24 different countries across four continents.
Here’s a look back at 2013 and all the places that have made the year such a spectacular one.
January: Ice Run — Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland
At the end of 2012, Alberto and I took off on an epic train journey around the coldest reaches of Europe armed with our Eurail passes and plenty of winter gear. This journey – which we aptly named the Ice Run – was all about the ice, the powdery snow, the raw wilderness and the chilly cold. Some of the most memorable moments included sleeping in an igloo in Zermatt, catching the Northern Lights in the Swedish Lapland, riding reindeers in the Finnish Lapland and watching the spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Stockholm.
After a short break back at our home base in Spain, we headed off to the holy land of Israel, a place we’d long wanted to see. We’d passed through Israel a few years ago when we crossed overland from Egypt to Jordan, but now it was time to see and explore the country for real. In the two weeks we were there, we packed in plenty of adventure: from hiking up the Masada to see sunrise, floating in the Dead Sea and offroad-driving in the Judean Desert, to wandering the alleys of Jerusalem and walking the Jesus Trail. It was also interesting to cross over to the Palestinean Territories to get a different side of the story and see how people on the other end of the wall live.
March: St Kitts
By March, we were tired of the winter cold so we headed off to the Caribbean in search of some sun. Swaying coconut trees, sparkling blue water, powdery sand and the sounds of reggae music in the distance: St Kitts was everything we’d imagined – and more. It was the Caribbean without sun-burnt tourists, all-inclusive resorts, and Señor Frogs. Despite its small size (68 square miles), St Kitts packed a punch especially for active travelers like ourselves who like to get out and about. We hiked in the Phillips Rainforest, ziplined through the Wingfield forest, tried SNUBA diving for the first time, and even hiked and biked on the neighboring island of Nevis.
March: California, USA
From St Kitts, we flew to California to welcome the arrival of my new nephew, Dominic. It was great to spend some time with my family since I rarely get to see them and it was also time for a much-needed break. My parents flew in from Singapore and we all gathered at my sister’s home in Fresno, which has somehow turned into a spot for our occasional family reunion. With Baby Dominic’s arrival, we were all swept in warmth and joy and for two months we kept our mind off work and slowed down our pace.
April saw us traveling around the Pacific Island of Fiji on board Captain Cook Cruises’ MV Reef Endeavour, a small-scale vessel that navigates around the islands of Fiji and into the villages and homes of locals. Our one-week voyage on the Heritage Cruise brought us from Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, around to its west coast to the old colonial capital of Levuka and up to the northern islands – Vanua Levu and Taveuni. What I loved about this heritage cruise was its strong emphasis on heritage and culture, packing in tons of village visits, Fjian mekes, historical tours, and jungle hikes. Contrary to what many people think about cruises, this one in particular didn’t isolate us from the locals — instead it brought us deep beneath the surface of its culture and into the heart of Fiji.
April: Pico Bonito, Honduras
I’d never been a birding enthusiast, but this trip to Pico Bonito piqued my interest in these feathered creatures. As one of the most biodiverse regions in Central America, the Pico Bonito National Park is home to a myriad of wildlife, ranging from the world famous toucan bird to the Central American aguti, the elusive jaguar and ocelot. Out of the 750 species of birds that inhabit Honduras, 500 of them are found in Pico Bonito. Head naturalist of the Lodge at Pico Bonito, James Adam, even went so far to call this, “the toucan capital of the world”. Undoubtedly, we made it our mission to spot the toucan bird while we were there — and after several days of early morning hikes and nocturnal jungle treks, we finally caught a glimpse of a rainbow-colored keel-billed toucan on our last day. That marked the beginning of my love affair with birds.
(Photo courtesy of head naturalist James Adam)
In May, we headed back to the Caribbean — this time to the Grenadines for Liming Live Week. Over the short span of a week, we found all means to explore the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines: on foot, by car, by boat and plane. We hiked La Soufriere volcano, drove inland to see the waterfalls and villages of St Vincent, island-hopped on a catamaran and even flew over the Grenadines islands on a charter plane. It was perfect for us – plenty of time to kick back on the beach with bits of outdoor adventure and island exploration mixed in between.
May: Maui, Hawaii
By this time, we had been eagerly chasing the sun all spring and summer and Maui was the last stop on our four-month-long island-themed trip. I had always thought Maui was all about beaches, beaches, and more beaches. But I couldn’t be more wrong. During the action-packed week in Maui, my perspectives of Hawaii completely changed. Granted, there were the signature surfing spots and wide sandy beaches, but there were also many things that surprised me about Maui. For one, the island is huge and covers different types of climates and terrains. There was so much diversity in the terrain and natural environment: ranging from the underwater Molokini Crater to the rooftop of Maui — the Haleakala Volcano.
June: Toronto, Canada
Our stint in the Americas ended with a weekend trip to Toronto for the Travel Bloggers Exchange conference (TBEX) 2013. I had a great time catching up with old friends and making new ones, learning new things about our industry as well as some picking up some new knowledge. It was an excellent opportunity to meet up with industry folks and swap ideas. Part of the reason why I went to Toronto was also to catch up with the G Adventures team – a company I strongly support and work with closely. Their founder Bruce Poon Tip has always been an inspiration to me so it was an honor to finally meet him in person.
July and August: The Med Run — Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia
After spending two months at our home base in Granada, we hit the road again on a train trip with Eurail through the lesser-known Balkans region. The conflicted history of the ex-Yugoslavia countries had always been a particular draw for me and traveling was always the best way to learn about a country’s past and present. Our journey began in the adventure capital of Eastern Europe – Bled, Slovenia – where we went paragliding, whitewater rafting and canyoning, as well as zorbing — all in one day! From there, we hopped on the train to arrive in edgy Belgrade, Serbia, before crossing into Montenegro, a country so small yet covered with towering mountains and hiking trails. My favorite stop on the trip was definitely Mostar, one of the most heavily bombed of all cities in Bosnia during the civil war in the 1990s. Visiting its half-destroyed buildings and museums and listening to tragic stories from those days was a sobering experience — but it brought many of those history lessons to life.
September: West Sweden
In comparison with our previous trip to Northern Sweden last winter – where we watched the Northern Lights and went snowmobiling – this trip showed us a very different side to Sweden. It was an extraordinary journey, one that brought us through the backwaters and little-known villages of Sweden and changed all the original impressions we had of the country. For most of the trip, we were based in the Bohuslän region of West Sweden, which is peppered with some 8,000 small and uninhabited islands. To navigate the coastline, we booked ourselves in on a multi-day kayaking/camping trip and paddled through the islets of the Gåsö archipelago, with a tent, food, camping equipment, and our kayaks in tow. We absolutely loved just how peaceful and pristine the area was — and it definitely got us hooked on camping!
An iAmbassador project brought us back to Mauritius — our first visit was almost two years ago enroute to Madagascar for our honeymoon. This time, the tourism board was eager to show us the array of outdoor adventures on offer on the island. From the west highlands of Chamarel to the eastern shore of Pointe d’Esny and the northern coast of Grand Baie, we traversed the main island in search of unusual experiences: some of my favorite activities included flying over northern Mauritius on a seaplane, canyoning in Tamarin Falls,and sailing on a catamaran to the remote island Île de Plate.
October: East Africa
By October, I was in East Africa, traveling on an overland truck for three weeks. East Africa is a part of the world that’s particularly special to us. Five years ago, Alberto and I volunteered in a village in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and the experience changed our lives. It gave us that push and determination to make travel a way of life and we wouldn’t have made it otherwise.
This time round, I made it a point to explore more of the region: from gorilla tracking in Uganda to meeting the Masai tribe in Kenya’s Masai Mara, learning about Rwanda’s history on a short daytrip to Kigali and seeing the Big Five in Serengeti. I also took the opportunity to return to the village of Bomang’ombe and meet our old friends as well as students from the school where we taught — I was truly overwhelmed to see my old friends and students, and even more so to see how much the village has changed…
November: Nepal and Bhutan
Without a doubt, this trip to the Himalayas was my favorite trip of the year. Both Nepal and Bhutan completely swept me off my feet. In Nepal, I spent two weeks traveling from the capital of Kathmandu to the foothills of Annapurna where we trekked through impressive rice terraces and villages, before ending our journey in the lush jungles of Chitwan National Park. Some of my favorite moments included drinking raksi with the porters, trekking in the Himalayas, running from a massive Asian rhino and hanging out with a great bunch of travelers.
From there, I flew over the Himalayas to Bhutan on one of the most spectacular flights I’ve ever taken. Having only opened its doors to international tourists in 1974, Bhutan still remains shrouded in mystery. From the many impressive dzongs(fortresses) that dot the country, to the solemn monasteries and lofty, snow-peaked mountains, Bhutan blew me away with beauty of epic proportions. Everywhere I went in Bhutan, colorful prayer flags flew high in the air, sounds of monks chanting echoed through the walls of temples, and praying wheels spun freely in temples and on the streets.
To end the year off, I went on a short jaunt to the Gambia and while it was just a taster of what West Africa has to offer, it definitely left me with the urge and curiosity to explore more of the region. What surprised me most about Gambia was just how laidback it is. Upon arrival at Banjul, the country’s capital, there was none of the chaos you’d usually find in African capitals like Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam. Instead, the whole country seemed to be engulfed in a relaxing atmosphere — perhaps it’s because it’s a perched on the coast or maybe it’s because of its small size and population (it’s the smallest African nation), but somehow it’s so easy to ease into life in Gambia.
We’re currently spending the festive season at our home base in Granada, Spain but I’ll soon be off to Papua New Guinea in mid-January. It’s place I’ve dreamt of visiting for years so I’m really excited to see it for the first time.
Then Alberto and I will be spending Lunar New Year with my family back in Singapore – my sister will be bringing her partner and baby along – and we’re all looking forward to seeing Baby Dominic again!
In March, I’m off to Brazil to celebrate Carnaval in style. During our four-month trip in South America, we left Brazil off our itinerary on purpose as we knew this country deserved a whole trip on its own. I can’t wait to head back to South America after being away for four years. I still don’t know where the rest of the year will take me but I’ll definitely continue to write here.
A big thank you for your support, hope to see you around in the new year!