Top Travel Experiences for 2015
This weekend I headed to Olympia London in the wealthy London borough of Kensington to check out the ‘Destinations’ holiday and travel show 2015.
This event brings together thousands of holidaymakers, tourist boards representatives, travel companies, well known travel personalities and a few other entities (Cats Protection & the Freemasons, I still don’t know why you were there…) for a day of travel inspired fun.
As well as broadening my travel horizons, my trip to ‘Destinations’ was also somewhat of an anthropological field trip. Most people were seemingly there to hawk their personal details for the chance to win a free holiday to anywhere (not fussy) and to fill their bags with as much free stuff as they could get their suntanned hands on. If Saturday taught me anything, it was that the age old adage that “there is nothing like free stuff to draw crowds of ravenous bargain hunters to your stand” is still as true today as the day it was coined.
I, in contrast to the kleptomaniacal masses, was there for purely journalistic purposes and to get some travel inspiration following the cancellation of my trip to New York following the #snowgate scandal of Jan 2015.
Admittedly, I have a tendency to be drawn to the weird and wonderful destinations of the world, so often overlooked by many a more sane and sensible traveller. But, after much consideration, I have put together a list of my top 4 trips for 2015 as inspired by my time at ‘Destinations’:
1. Bear watching in Transylvania
Romania may conjure up thoughts of Dracula and communist dictatorships, but did you know the Carpathians forests in the region of Transylvania are home to some 5,000 brown bears (approx 60% of all the brown bears in Europe)?
This makes the region ideal for a bit of nature spotting. You have to search to find these adorable but ferocious creatures, however, the wait is all part of the fun. Whilst looking for bears, you should also keep your eyes peeled for lynxes and wolves, nocturnal creatures which are even harder to find.
In addition to bear watching, Transylvania’s collections of fortified Saxon churches and wooden Orthodox churches are both UNESCO listed, the town of Brașov has its own Hollywood style sign in the hills and you can even stay in a guest house purchased by Prince Charles in 2006 in an effort to help preserve a traditional Transylvanian village.
2. Snorkelling in Okinawa
Okinawa is the main island in the Ryukyu chain off the southern tip of Japan. Over 1,000 islands stretch all the way down to Taiwan and they are known for having a distinct culture and architecture from that found on the Japanese mainland (as well as being the home of karate and being the site of a massive US military base ever since the end of World War Two).
The best beaches and snorkelling can be found in the clear waters of the Kerama Islands. There’s loads of wildlife to see and the water looks beautiful. The subtropical climate makes it perfect for relaxing and, although the beaches may not quite rival those down in South East Asia, they look pretty good to me, and (even better) you’ll rarely come across another non-Japanese tourist. You can’t say that about Thailand! Bliss.
3. Trekking & 4×4 driving in Albania
Albania is one of the last truly undiscovered corners of Europe. A 4×4 means you can use dirt roads that are inaccessible to cars and minibuses and reach remote villages where people still lead traditional lives. Tour company Drive Albania also offers trekking tours that allow you to enjoy the country’s breathtaking rural scenery.
Interestingly, you can even follow in the footsteps of a small group of British Special Operations Executive officers who were parachuted into the remote Çermenika mountains in Oct 1943 to support resistance against the Nazis. Using the notes from a (very forbidden) diary that was kept by one of the men, and only discovered in 2002, Drive Albania have recreated their trek.
The route passes through a rarely visited part of Albania with no tourist infrastructure. The terrain is challenging, so the trek requires a good level of physical fitness from participants. However, you will be rewarded with an experience that’s hard to find in Europe nowadays: exploring territory (as yet) undiscovered by tourism.
4. Skiing in Iran
What more is there to say? You can go skiing. In Iran.
Iran has two major ski resorts, Dizin and Shemshak, both around 2 hours from Tehran. Up in the mountains, it is a world away from the anti-American slogans and pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini you can see daubed on the walls of the capital. The ski slopes used to be segregated, but apparently the religious police responsible for enforcing such rules can’t ski, so now it’s just the chairlifts and gondolas that are single-sex.
The ski lifts were installed by the French before the revolution in the 1970s. They may be a little bit older than their Alpine counterparts, however, the resorts are much less busy and, what’s more, you can combine your ski trip with a visit to Isfahan, the ancient Persian capital, which is less than an hour’s flight from Tehran. Perfect!
Other notable mentions from the Destinations show 2015:
- Banana bread from the St Lucia stand
Worst stand nibbles
- Stale Walkers Baked crisps (salt & vinegar) at Tunisia stand
Least corruptible stand attendant
- Lady from Malta stand (turned down offer of £50 in exchange for me ‘winning’ the holiday competition)
Worst competition prize
- A cruise line branded towelling robe
Best holiday for those on a budget
- 2 weeks at Cat’s Protection League
Most tenuous ‘travel’ stand
- Soft Tub UK hot tubs
Best tip for next year
- Bring sticky address labels to expedite competition entries