I cannot believe it has been more than 4 years since I wrote this post, about my dream travel destinations. I also cannot believe how much travel I have done in that time, culminating with the most insane 2018: 26 journeys, 24 of them – international, including to 5 new countries. I visited places I longed for, and those I had never thought about. I fell in love with spots I didn’t expect, and was disappointed by some I had built up in my mind.
I checked more items off of my 2015 list that I could have hoped for in such a relatively short time, added new ones, and reshuffled the rest.
Once again, without further ado, here is my Travel Wish List 2015 In Review, and Travel Wish List 2019!
What have I checked off?
Back in 2015, my list was led by the British countryside and followed by the Italian countryside, Morocco, South Africa, Western Mediterranean, Germany’s Rhine Valley and Croatia’s Dalmatian coast.
All my girlhood, adolescent and adult dreams came true over May Holidays 2019, when I crossed Great Britain from the Isle of Skye to Cornwall. I still have not completely ochuhalas’ from that experience; it might be months, if not years, before I can adequately describe the feeling of finally taking in the sights I have mythologized for three decades. Rolling hills, quaint villages, ancient castles, fields of bluebells, dramatic cliffs – that road trip had it all. And it has entered the books as one of my all-time top-3 trips to date (the other two being Crimea 2014 and France 2017, below).
But the road trip is just part of the story. In the last few years I’ve been to the UK over a dozen times. Most visits were spent in London, going between my hotel, an office meeting room, and back. But occasionally scheduling gods have smiled upon me. And between day trips to Windsor, weekends in Buckinghamshire and excursions to the Cotswolds I have gotten to take in as much of this island as I could have hoped for.
Practically every location exceeded my expectations, especially in terms of natural beauty and downright-storybook rustic charm. Over and over again I fell in love with breathtaking landscape and cozy inns alike, and the country as a whole.
Ironically, this brought me no closer to checking this destination off of my Travel To-Do List, because every spot, every road bend opening up to an even better view has made me want to come back for more. For Snowdonia in Wales, for the Lakes District and Robin Hood’s Bay and white cliffs of Dover in England, for the turquoise waters of the Isle of Harris and magical castles throughout Scotland.
Between Emilia-Romagna in 2015 and Umbria in 2019 I finally got a feel for the more provincial – in the best sense – parts of Italy (I had traveled to Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa and Cinque Terre back in 2008).
I picked E-R with particularly high expectations of culinary experience; after all, even Italians supposedly consider it the culinary heart of their country. That was a letdown. 70-Euro per kilo mortadella, aka budget lunch meat with giant chunks of fat, for real? Local pasta specialty, tortellini al brodo is a poor man’s Russian pelmeni. And here’s a spoiler: Parmesan in Parma and balsamico in Modena taste exactly the same as Parma’s Parmesan and Modena’s balsamico sold throughout Italy, particularly because the sumptuousness of both is dependent on aging, not freshness.
Yet, on the same trip, I was awed by the mosaics in Ravenna, swam in the clearest Adriatic waters and ate the grossest, gag-inducing, ridiculously expensive raw sea food out of free will on a self-dare, so that nobody could accuse me of not being adventurous enough.
Meanwhile, I went to Perugia, Umbria with zero expectations – what with it being a work trip, so who cares? – and discovered the most amazing food (wild boar ragout, pastas in light cream sauce, tangy cheeses, wild berry desserts, Orvieto white wine), lush, arboreal landscapes and picture-perfect hill towns devoid of tourists.
Tunisia, Cyprus and Turkey
While none of these countries is Morocco, OBVIOUSLY, taken together (and journeyed to in 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively), they gave me a decent sense of that North Africa meets Mediterranean meets Middle East flavor. It was there, in the serene Medina quarters and the colorful bazaars, in secluded lemon gardens and majestic mosques, in the white-washed, turquoise-accented facades and endless tea houses with all-male patrons.
I still want to go to Morocco, eventually. I still have never been to a desert or ridden a camel. I want to wander the “blue town” of Chefchaouen, and tour the kasbahs – ancient fortresses in the Atlas Mountains, and stay at a traditional riad. But the sense of urgency and the aura of exoticism have been subdued, for sure.
Western Mediterranean Road Trip
AKA The best. Trip. Of my life.
Summer Holiday of 2017 was designed around my overly ambitious, borderline delusional itinerary connecting nearly every photogenic village and panoramic scape of the SXSW part of France.
Did I hit every marker on that itinerary? Hell yeah I did, bumper-crushing accidents on country roads be damned. I started out in the rolling hills and dramatic river valleys of the Aquitaine/Lot/Dordogne regions of France. I ate my weight in foie gras and took a million photos of the cutest hilltop villages, straight out of Beauty and the Beast. I had an entire castle all to myself, in pouring rain, and got to lock it up with the kind of key that took both hands to turn. I brought back kilos worth of magnets, shopped for local produce at the town market and drove two hours just to bring my mom limited edition Cahors wine from Cahors proper.
Then it was off to the beaches of Collioure, snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees and boat rides off Cadaques. There were cod croquettes and cherry clafoutis, hikes through hail storms and knee-deep in the snow, hidden waterfalls and backyard barbecues, days on end speaking only French and drinking bottles of rosé in rose gardens. It was epic, and relaxing, and perfect in every way.
And then came more trips to southern France, gorgeous drives to Eze, Gordes, Roussilon, Verdon Gorge, Cassis, Calanques National Park, Cap d’Antibes, Villefranche Sur Mer…
Like with England and Scotland, the more time I spent in that part of France, the more I wanted to stay, see, do – particularly around the Lot Valley and Prades. I still can’t believe that the itinerary that I conjured up from Google Images of pretty castles and mountain views didn’t just meet my astronomically high expectations, but surpassed them in every way. At least once a week I go through my Instagram feed of that trip to relive it.
Less than six months after putting it on my list, there I was, cruising down Rhine, stopping at photo-ready hamlets and learning the two most important words in the German language: Weinschorle and Apfelwein. A few months later I found myself on the French side of the river, in the rainbow-colored Alsace villages of Colmar, Ribeauville and Riquewihr, with more castles, more Rieslings and more gently sloping hills covered with wildflowers.
The Rest of the List
I wanted to re-visit Paris, and boy, did I! Seven times in the last four years. Was the re-do better than my original, study-abroad experience? Absolutely. As I suspected, being able to actually afford Paris made a huge difference. So did having a proper camera with me. It’s not that I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about before, but fully enjoying all that fuss as a grown-up made me love this city a little more with every encounter.
Shanghai was nothing like I expected China to be, but it was great – and certainly the most “different” destination to date. I didn’t make it to the mountains, as I had hoped – logistics are a bit tricky – but I loved the water villages of Zhujiajiao and Tongli, the romantic West Lake in Hangzhou, and I walked the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City in Beijing. And yes, I am still determined to head to Huangshan and Zhangjiajie ranges one day.
A chilled-out week in Burgundy was all about the wine and food I had planned to eat there (yes, I travel for food), down to the disgustingly stinky, addictively delicious epoisse. France is known for its haute cuisine, but there is absolutely nothing better than crusty baguettes, spicy saucisson sec, some soft cheese and fresh tomatoes from a local farm.
Travel Dreaming – 2019 Edition
South African safari is now at the top of my list – I’m penciling it in for 2021 and a birthday milestone. Norwegian fiords are still pretty high up there too. Although I have slightly cooled off on Croatia (I think I overly bought into the hype back in the day), I still want to do a boat cruise along its coast. And of course there are two major to-dos left in my 2nd home country, US: the Pacific Northwest (La Push beaches, the Cascades, Olympic National Park and Mt Rainier) and the Southwest (the Grand Canyon, Arches, Monuments Valley).
Somewhat unexpectedly, I am now really itching to go to Japan. I got sucked into far too many shows and blogs about everything Japanese, from food and arts to history and nature. Plus, every single one of my friends who has visited there has absolutely raved about the country – and these are people with drastically different vacation preferences and travel styles.
Short trips to the Bavarian and Swiss Alps made me absolutely fall in love with the mountains and I cannot wait to have a proper hiking holiday there. And although I have zero aptitude for winter sports of any kind, I’d be content to spend several days just watching the snow fall on those insane peaks.
There are also three European “norths” now perpetually on my “next vacation” shortlist: northern Spain (Asturias – the coast and Picos de Europa), northern Italy (the lakes and the Dolomites) and northern France (Bretagne). Yes, I now think of France as my “holiday in the countryside, all the time, anytime” destination more than I do of even my country house near Moscow.