30 Dec A Girl with a Saddle Bag in 2018: A travel review
Welcome to my annual catch-up of my travel in 2018. It’s a real-life review of where I’ve been, what we got up to and, importantly, the very best things I ate (I’m only partly joking). Enjoy!
How is it almost the new year?
I swear every year flies by faster and faster. It seems only a few weeks ago that I was sitting down to write a round-up of my travels in 2017. Now I’m sitting down ready to share everything we’ve been up to in 2018.
This isn’t a travel guide. Think of it more as a catch-up over a cup of coffee, or if you’re still feeling festive, a cheeky glass of vino. This is the real-life story of our travels and adventures. I’ll be sharing a few stories that didn’t make it to the blog, photos as yet unseen and an explanation of how we squeezed it all in around full-time jobs. There’s even a few hints about what I’ll be getting up to in 2019.
Shall we get started?
Discovering the pistes of La Plagne, France | February 2018
Winter in the UK means a few long months of drab weather, drizzle and dark evenings. Once Christmas has been and gone, it can feel like an endurance exercise getting through ’til spring.
But there’s a perfect antidote. Get away! A winter adventure (warm or cold) makes this time of year worth looking forward to.
Regular readers will know that I’m a winter skier. Every year a group of friends and friends-of-friends somehow all manage to agree on somewhere to stay and ski, and we head off to budget-friendly but beautiful pistes for a week of escapism.
This year we headed off to La Plagne in France, a resort I’d heard a lot about but never been to. How it isn’t better-known escapes me. It’s an enormous ski area that’s linked to next door Les Arcs, with a seemingly endless amount of outstanding piste.
We had a whale of a time exploring each day, demolishing vast amounts of chocolat chaud à la ancienne and generally enjoying each other’s company and the scenery. I’m incredibly lucky to have a great group of friends that I ski with, who love a good view and a hot chocolate as much as a good piste. Exploration is the name of game and we had a brilliant time working our way around the ski area and discovering the each of the eleven villages that make up La Plagne. It’s a ridiculously pretty ski area, with jaw-dropping views of Mont Blanc just across the valley. Luck was on our side and we had clear skies and spectacular views most days, especially up high.
As we were a large group, we opted for a catered chalet in Plagne 1800 for the week, with a wonderful host to whip up hearty meals at the end of the day. It’s a surprisingly affordable option if there are enough of you, and like us, willing for the tour operator to fill the other rooms in the chalet (I can only hope the two guys who booked our spare bedroom have now recovered from the experience). It was a short stroll – if you can call it a stroll in ski boots – from the piste and even less to Les Mines, Plagne 1800’s bar. We spent a few cheerful happy hours in here (there’s live music most days and a good selection of drinks beyond pints).
La Plagne is firmly on the list of resorts I’d like to return to, and one I’ll always have fond memories of.
A Welsh weekend in the Brecon Beacons | February 2018
For Christmas 2017, Ben and I decided to give each other gifts we really wanted – adventures away. So on Christmas morning we each unwrapped envelopes stuffed with information about surprise getaways.
As a caveat, we did do some advance planning. We picked dates together, and set a sensible budget. This wasn’t going to be extravagant long weekends on the continent, but rather the sort of mini-adventure we wished we did more of.
Ben did a fantastic job of booking our first trip: a weekend in the Brecons. Best of all, in a shepherd’s hut at a pretty hill farm right at the heart of this National Park.
So just a few days after arriving back from Grenoble airport, I donned my thermals and wooly hat once more ready for another slightly chilly excursion.
The Brecon Beacons are spectacular at any time of year, but I have a particular fondness for our National Parks during the winter. There’s something beautiful about crisp mornings, muted colours and the magical way the light plays across the landscape in the late afternoon at this time of year. And whether you like a challenging hikes or afternoon strolls, there’s something for everyone in this part of Wales.
We spent two nights at Aber Farm, packing in three long walks (getting in almost 20 miles on the Saturday). Our home-built shepherd’s hut was rustic charm at it’s best, and the local pub kept us toasty and full of carbs each evening.
Best Christmas present ever? It might just be.
A Cotswold weekend with a difference | March 2018
With my Christmas present from Ben in the bag, it was my turn to treat. In a twist of fate that perhaps shouldn’t have surprised us, I’d managed to also book a shepherd’s hut.
Only this time, the location wasn’t what you’d expect. Instead of a rural idyll, I’d opted for Cheltenham’s elegant Montpellier district.
Cheltenham might not be the first city you think of when it comes to the south-west, but it’s an underated gem that delights on so many fronts. It’s got a fantastic food and drink scene, Regency architecture that rivals Bath or Bristol any day, and sumptuous shop fronts that can even entice me inside (I normally feel an urge to run from the British High Street on a Saturday). As a bonus, it’s relatively quiet.
Our accommodation for the weekend was delightfully different to Wales – think boutique B&B rather than rustic retreat – and tucked away behind a particularly pretty residential street. We spent most of the weekend filling up on great coffee, indulging in the best sticky toffee pudding I’ve ever eaten (no really), quaffing curious beers and scoffing cinnamon buns.
If you’re looking for a weekend city getaway down south, or even a day trip out of London, give Cheltenham a chance. It might really surprise you.
A Galician adventure to Santiago de Compostela | May 2018
Easter came and went, and before we knew it, spring was heading towards summer. Feeling the need for sunshine, I booked the best value flights to Spain I could find – to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela.
I was dreaming of cobbled streets with the sun on my back. Strolling under shady trees escaping the midday sun.
I’d overlooked something crucial.
Galicia is not Andalucia. And in May, my summer dresses and sandals were more than a little premature. We arrived on an overcast grey morning, and I immediately put on all the clothes I’d packed. For most of the year, Galicia is cool and wet.
But don’t let this discourage you. Santiago de Compostela and the surrounding Galician countryside are delightful. The Spanish city that’s best known for its cathedral and the Camino – a long distance pilgrimage route – is not a one-trick pony. It’s beautiful and packed with a host of interesting things to explore.
We spent a happy few days meandering through the markets, medieval streets and museums of Santiago. The lure of the Camino was strong and we headed out of town one morning to return on foot along the ancient path. We even hopped on the train down to the coast, spending a chilly and curious day in the city of A Coruña – a place that deserves a little sunshine to be at it’s best, but nonetheless has an impressive archaelogical and architectural repertoire.
But the absolutely best thing about this trip was the food and drink. I’ve never eaten such generous, delicious and incredibly local tapas. You’ll find chic wine bars, full beautiful light Albariños from this part of Spain. Traditional bakeries stacked with crispy, flavourful empañadas. And just the thought of a tapas or two in a bar brings platters of cheeses, charcuteries and olives flowing, or plates of charred pimentos de padron and cheese-filled croquetas. It’s heaven.
Come for the Camino or cathedral, but stay to eat and drink.
A brief stop in Bristol | July 2018
Along came July and an excellent reason to try somewhere new – a wedding.
With a dear friend celebrating her nuptials in the ridiculously pretty neighbourhood of Clifton village, Bristol, we decided to make a weekend of it. Whilst not new to Ben, Bristol was new to me, and almost immediately became my favourite British city. I’m fickle like that.
In between toasts and celebration, we explored Clifton and it’s gorgeous cafes and Regency townhouses. We strolled along the riverside and marvelled at our unwitting ability to book an Airbnb on one of the city’s most famous, rainbow-coloured streets. Luck was on our side as it was one of the summer’s hottest weekends and the city dazzled in the sunshine. How could we resist just one more drink on a sun-drenched terrace or a meander in the dapped shade of the city’s parks?
In short, I liked it so much I’ve already booked a return visit for 2019.
Falling in love with Slovenia | July & August 2018
And now for the big one – our two week summer adventure around Slovenia.
It was a trip we’d been toying with the idea of for some time, but hadn’t quite happened. Then one wet weekend in April we sat down and made some proper plans. If we were going to go to Slovenia, we’d better do it properly and take a little time to really enjoy it.
We spent a total of twelve days in the country. The first few were in Ljubljana, the delightful capital city that now ranks amongst my favourites. With fantastic food and architecture, charming castles and churches, cobblestones and cafes I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Craving some refreshment, we headed north after a few days to our next stop – Lake Bled. Slovenia’s most famous iconic view couldn’t be missed, and we’d managed to book an absolute gem of a little apartment to be our home for a few days.
The lake and it’s little island is undeniably pretty. But if I’m to be completely honest, there’s two important things to remember if you’re thinking of staying here in peak season. Firstly, it’s busy as anything. It may be a small town in the foothills of the mountains, but my goodness it can pack a lot of people around its lakeside. And secondly, just bear in mind that the town itself is mostly mid-twentieth century resort. It’s not the prettiest. But that’s not what you want to come for – it’s the landscape that thrills.
We spent our time here heading off piste a little – exploring the surrounding hills and valleys, villages and viewpoints. It delighted beyond my expectations, unexpectedly unspoilt. And when we were done walking, there was the lake waiting for us to dive into.
But we weren’t quite done with Slovenia yet. We’d saved possibly the best ’til last. For some serious mountains we hopped on a bus to go a little further north into the fringes of the Alps – the Bohinj valley on the edge of the Triglav National Park. Compared to Bled it was blissfully quiet. The lakeside is largely undeveloped, the crowds smaller and both the water and mountains much bigger. I was in Alpine heaven – for a fraction of the usual price.
We spent five days at Lake Bohinj: swimming, walking, running and paddling (I’m now seriously considering investing a paddleboard). I had the most outstanding meat and cheese platter I’ve ever eaten on the terrace of a Gasthaus in Stara Furzina. We’d only gone in for a beer.
We hiked one of the most breathtaking routes I’ve ever walked on Mount Vogel, got hopelessly lost on Mount Prsivec and chased waterfalls. And when the day was done, we indulged in terrible cocktails at our local bar, overly-enjoyed an accordian concert and watched an aged Slovenian rockstar play a gig in a drainage canal (yes, unbelievably true).
I couldn’t have imagined anything better.
Read more: How to plan the perfect trip to Slovenia
How we made it work
Autumn has been a quiet one this year, with time at home taking centre stage over travel. We front-loaded the year with travel, which was great – but neither our budgets nor my annual leave allowance are endless. I work full-time in a corporate job, which means I have to be creative with my time.
All our trips within the UK took place on weekends, so I only took one day of annual leave in total for these (to extend our stay in Wales). This meant I had enough leave for four week’s worth of international travel in 2018 – one week in La Plagne, one week in Spain and two in Slovenia. I even tagged a bank holiday onto one of these trips to make my allowance go further.
Learning from friends who are even more ingenious with their leave, I actually managed to have a few days in hand by December – letting me have a more laid-back Christmas break. My employer has also generously allowed me to carry some over to the new year, ready for my next trip.
My advice to anyone looking to travel more with a full-time job is always to be imaginative. Make use of holiday weekends to extend your stays, and travel off-season (and to less well-known destinations) to make your budget go further. And never forget that adventure can be just beyond your doorstep – we love exploring our little patch of southern England. Think like you would when you’re away, and turn a regular Sunday into a mini-holiday.
What’s next? Travel plans for 2019
Nothing makes me look forward to a new year more than having exciting plans in the diary.
Already scheduled are two Great British Weekend Getaways (a.k.a. more local adventures), early in the new year.
Then in February I’m off to the Alps for a ski week. I’m heading back to an old favourite, but it’s one that I’ve not blogged about before. Plus we’ll be putting a new spin on things staying in a different village and trying out some new pistes that have landed since our last visit.
From there on in, we’ve got no firm travel plans for 2019, although we’ve a few ideas for an Easter escape. I’d like to notch up a trip to one particular European country I’ve never visited, but I’ll save that as a surprise for you.
All of this leaves me with nothing more to say than a huge thank you for reading and supporting the blog in 2018. I wouldn’t keep this up without you, and I appreciate all the love you’ve given to my posts.
May 2019 bring you much happiness and many adventures – whether at home or away.