My top ten travel experiences of 2018

2018 was a great year, and now it is behind us it is time to reflect on the many wonderful travel experiences I had. Travelling is balm for the soul, whether it is to a big city, an African savannah, the Australian desert or a snow-covered mountain. Here are my top ten – in no particular order.

1.  Field of Light, Uluru

Field of Light, Voyages, Bruce Munro, Uluru

While I had been to Uluru before, I hadn’t seen the highly-acclaimed Field of Light by Bruce Munro. We got up from our comfy bed at Sails in The Desert hotel at an ungodly hour of the morning with the sky an inky black, until we come upon what is the equivalent of seven football fields ‘planted’ with beautiful orbs glowing in the dark. This garden of 50,000 bulbs on swinging stems is solar powered and the vision of the blue, white, violet and ochre orbs, surrounded, or is that protected, by tangles of spinifex, is mesmerising. Even as the night sky turns deep purple with the oncoming sunrise, and then a pretty pink, the garden still glows, until the light wins the battle and the landscape returns to its ancient hues of red and green.
You can see Field of Light on tours in the darkness of the early morning or at night. Book ahead! It will be shining in the sand of Central Australia until 31 December 2020. While there, don’t miss Tali Wiru – an incredible dinner on a dune top. Find out more about what’s available at Ayers Rock Resort HERE.

2. Sleeping on Milford Sound

Milford Sound, Fiordland Discovery, Pure New Zealand, Helen Hayes

Everything about this experience is wondrous. The sort of thing that makes you want to freeze time so you are locked in there forever. It starts with me picking up an Aston Martin V8 Vantage through Ignition Self Drive in Queenstown and driving alongside Lake Wakatipu to the impossibly beautiful hamlet of Glenorchy, where I leave the car and climb into a helicopter through Heli Glenorchy. I feel like Victoria Beckham or Duchess Meghan as we take off and fly over the snow-topped Southern Alps to magical Milford Sound. My jaw hangs open – very un-Victoria Beckham-like – as the pilot spots our target and starts descending. We are landing on a boat. Yes really! We touch down on the deck of Fiordland Jewel, a 24-metre three-deck catamaran. She carries 20 passengers in nine cabins. I am in the Governor’s Suite, the only room on the top deck, with a huge bed, large windows on two sides and an ensuite. We spend the afternoon cruising Milford Sound, taking in the sights and nosing under waterfalls. We anchor in Deepwater Basin, enjoying pre-dinner drinks in the lounge as well as a three-course seafood dinner. Afterwards, several passengers head up to the chilly deck to chat and drink champagne in the hot tub but I am too immersed in the incredible starscape overhead. In the morning, after waking to mirror perfect reflections in the stillness of the Sound, we go kayaking past the soldier-straight cliffs, watch two seals frolic and just drink in the majesty of this spiritually moving place. To top it all off, on the return flight in the chopper we land on a glacier up amongst the mountain peaks and feel that Heaven could very well be like this.
The overnight experience is magnificent but if time is tight, you can fly in from Glenorchy for lunch on the vessel. Find out more here.

3. Blanket Bay

What’s almost as good as landing on a boat in Milford Sound in a helicopter? Landing back in Glenorchy and going straight to Blanket Bay. This lodge has been on my wishlist for years, and to finally get to drive through the rustic brown gates in what feels like a postcard location, makes me smile till my face aches. The lodge, made of stone and timber, sits grandly back from the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu, and in every single direction you look, there is a knockout view.

The main lodge is spectacular, with the focal point being the Great Room. And great it is with its soaring ceilings, enormous glass windows and comfortable lounges making it the perfect place to take in those views over a coffee, a good book, a drink or a combination. There are rooms and suites in the main building, and I am lucky to be in the Mt Earnslaw Suite, which is on the southern corner of the building, with its own spacious balcony. I fling open the doors and take in the crisp, fresh New Zealand air, and plan to read a book out on the outdoor lounge. Then again, I have a beautiful lounge area in my suite as well, with a push button fire. Choices, choices. The bed is enormous and so comfortable, I dare not lie down on it in case I fall asleep and miss anything. As for the bathroom, it has all the bells and whistles, as well as a shower that can turn into a steam room. There is other accommodation in the Owners Cottage, the Villas and the Chalet Suites, all intrinsically elegant and all with that certain country panache that Blanket Bay exudes.

In the evening I join other guests for drinks in the Den, chatting over a beautiful New Zealand sauvignon blanc, then sit down to an exceptional dinner in the Dining Room. To round out the Blanket Bay experience, I laze in the hot tub which has opening doors out to the water feature and lake, then lose any residual work stress I might have been hanging onto with a massage.
Does it exceed my expectations? Hell yeah.
For information on the many activities you can do when staying at Blanket Bay, click that mouse HERE.

4. A tour of Koh Klang in Thailand

Koh Klang, Thailand, ASTW, Thai Airways, Hug Thailand

This day still brings a smile to my face. We were staying in Krabi, after a busy convention in Bangkok, Thailand. We spent one day touring some of the islands off Krabi including the gorgeous Pranang Beach, but it was the tour of Koh Klang that won me over. Our guide Somjit Moonboot (she said to call her Boo which was much easier!) picked us up from our digs at the beautiful Sofitel Krabi Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort and we then transferred to a long-tailed boat in Krabi Town for the short ten-minute chug up the Krabi River to Koh Klang. We tied up at the Kanabnam View Seafood Restaurant & Fish Farm which sits on stilts on the river, stepping across the timber decking and into tuk-tuks for a tour around the island. Koh Klang is a flat island of mangroves and rice paddies, with locals getting around on tuk-tuks, pushbikes or on foot. It is so peaceful and green, and we hear the history of the island and its mostly Muslim inhabitants over the course of the day. First stop is a cooking class where we learn to make roti with a Muslim mother and daughter. They serve them up with banana drizzled with condensed milk or with egg and then each of us has a turn at making the roti. The island established a community-based tourism platform over a decade ago, and everything visitors do here is with real, local people.  We call into a very local cafe just up the road and meet several women, tucking into lunch. One has a baby, and we all go bananas over her, which the mum doesn’t mind in the least. Next stop is a batik workshop where we learn how to do a batik painting in a beautiful little place across from paddies where water buffalos roam contentedly. Back at the restaurant on the river, we sit down to a feast of epic proportions and I worry that we might sink the longtail boat. Not really! There are many tours here that you can do – learn to plant rice, learn to fish the traditional way, or join a cooking class or batik class like we did. There are also homestays available.

5. A night at Siam Hotel Bangkok

Siam Hotel Bangkok,Thailand, Preferred Hotels

There are times when the word ‘wow’ just slips out uninvited. Usually somewhere really beautiful and you’re trying to be cool as if you are used to staying in such luxury darling. I can’t help but say wow every five seconds when we arrive at the Siam Hotel Bangkok. Located on the Chao Phraya River, this spectacular boutique property has just 28 suites and 11 villas, all drop-dead gorgeous. The hotel is owned by Thai rock star and hotelier Krissada Sukosol, who has a passion for anthropology. Kriss asked Bill Bensley to design this hotel, and they worked together on the fit out, with many of the owner’s antiques and photographs meticulously placed throughout. I am blown over by the Atrium, a serene space with huge elevated water feature supporting a forest of tall palms and other plants. It is impossible to walk past and not take photos.

The whole property has an ambience that is the perfect blend of elegance and style and the comforts of home. All the rooms follow a Thai theme with my suite – the Maeman – featuring a Thai kickboxing (Muay Thai) theme. Philip, our butler, shows us the mobile phone that we can use, with complimentary data and international calling. Here comes that wow again. Everything about this property is beautiful and elegant. Sit in the Vinyl Room and play one of the hundreds of albums in there. Have one of the best massages you are ever likely to have in the Opium Spa downstairs or try the full kickboxing ring in the gym. Do laps in the riverside pool, and don’t miss the chance to dine at Chon Tahi restaurant, located in a trio of centuries-old traditional Thai teak houses by the river.
The Siam is a member of the Legend Collection from Preferred Hotels and Resorts.

6. Everything about the Serengeti

Serengeti, Africa, Classic Safari Company, Maasai Wanderings, Nasikia Camps

Words can’t really describe what it is like to be in The Serengeti, looking over the grassy plains to the horizon, and seeing wild animals doing their thing. You can’t see any cities or towns, or even villages, because this is a National Park and the Tanzanians take conservation very seriously. All you see if a herd of elephants on that hill, a lion strolling towards the car, wildebeest and zebra grazing, or maybe a giraffe nibbling on a sausage tree. It is a special feeling. Almost spiritual.

I experienced two camps in the Serengeti – the Kaskaz Mara Camp in the north, and Ehlane Plains Camp in the more central, Seronera region. Both are part of Nasikia Camps, and are safari-style camps with luxurious trimmings. If camping had been like this when I was growing up I would have been much more enthusiastic about it. There were so many highlights it is hard to choose, but the ones that will live long in my memory are tracking a pride of 15 lions over a couple of hours, culminating in the successful hunt of a warthog, having a young lion come so close to the car that I could have touched it, sleeping under the stars on a stargazing bed at Ehlane Plains, and experiencing a crossing, with thousands of wildebeest taking the plunge to cross the Mara River with a huge croc snapping unsuccessfully away. Going on safari is unforgettable, unmissable and don’t think that if you have been once, you have ‘been there done that’. Every safari is different and every safari is special.
Check out these tips on how to safari in Tanzania – here.

7. Staying on a private island in Mozambique

Mozambique, Azura Quilalea, Azura Retreats

Who knew that Mozambique had world-class diving and snorkelling right on the sandy doorstep of a luxurious private island retreat? I certainly didn’t but I do now. Flying out from Pemba in a helicopter was like flying over the Great Barrier Reef or The Whitsundays. Azura Quilalea is perfection.  Just nine villas dot the tiny island which has shaded paths through ancient baobabs and bluer than blue sea lapping its white-sand beaches.

This resort is the only one in the country to have a house reef and I am lucky as I can access it from my beautiful villa. Several times a day I don snorkel and flippers and explore the bright corals and watch the rainbow collection of fish darting here and there. I sail in a traditional dhow, visit a nearby island with a history dating back centuries, sit in my plunge pool, read a book and have incredible meals at various locations around the island. A miracle happens. I actually relax. Wifi is restricted to the bar, there is no TV. All there is, is this beautiful place.  If you have an anniversary coming up, or a zero birthday, or you just want to do something amazing, then go to Azura Quilalea Private Island. You most certainly will thank me later.

8. Horseriding in snow in Colorado

Steamboat, Colorado, Ikon pass, Alterra, Steamboat Springs

The best family holiday is one that includes snow and one of the highlights of my family ski trip to Steamboat in Colorado was going for a horse ride at Dell Triangle 3 Ranch. We are grateful for our ski gear as we just on our selected steeds, then head out into the big white nothingness with no signs of civilisation anywhere. The two-hour ride takes us through groves of bare aspens, across wide-open spaces and up hills where we had a wonderful view of the Continental Divide. It is strangely quiet, apart from the odd squeak of the horses’ hooves on snow. And it is oddly therapeutic. The rhythmic gait of the horse’s walk, the freshness of the air, the cold, the landscape. So enjoyable and gave our legs a break from skiing Steamboat’s sensational runs. This place has serious Olympic cred and no wonder, as the terrain is wonderful. The tree skiing is particularly good!|
Get ready to giddy up by clicking HERE.

9. Going to Disneyland Resort in California

Disneyland Resort, California, Cars Land, Radiator Springs Racers, Mickey Mouse

I have to admit it. I love Disneyland and will never turn down an opportunity to go. There is something to be said for being in a place where grown adults are having conversations with Mulan or Snow White or Cinderella and happy to do so. A place where you almost feel like skipping like a kid. A place where your face aches from smiling. The moniker of the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ is absolutely spot on. My highlight on this trip was too hard to pick, but it would be very close between World of Color, Radiator Springs Races, Indiana Jones Adventure and Soarin Over the World. I was a week too early to test out the Incredicoaster, but I did ride its predecessor so not sure I would have been brave enough for it. Especially because I was still getting over the shrieking (mostly mine) on the Guardians of the Galaxy: BREAKOUT! ride.

Coming up this year there is Mickey and Minnie’s 90th birthday celebrations with plenty going on such as Mickey’s Mix Magic, which lights up on January 18 with jaw-dropping projections, lighting and lasers in various parts of the park and from January 25, Mickey’s Soundsational Parade will keep the beat down Main Street USA. And then in the American summer, the biggest thing to happen in some time will blast in. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is a new land and it will thrill absolutely everyone.

10. Watching OneRepublic play at Red Rocks in Denver

OneRepublic, Red Rocks Denver, Visit Denver, IPW

Talk about the perfect setting. Red Rocks Ampitheatre, on a clear night, and as the sunsets the rocks do glow red and the lights of Denver flicker in the distance. I had heard of OneRepublic but could only name one song before the show. But there were a heap more that I knew as soon as Ryan Tedder’s voice rang out, his incredible range wowing the crowd. I didn’t know that he wrote Halo for Beyonce until he sang it. He sang Bleeding Love – he wrote that for Leona Lewis. And he also played a song he had just written with Ed Sheerin – Happier. As for the OneRepublic songs, well I loved I Lived the most, just ahead of Counting Stars, Preacher, and Apologize. I now have a OneRepublic playlist on my Spotify and every time I listen to them I remember that night and how happy it made me.