It’s the kick off of 2015 and they’re all doing it (the mainstream press that is). So, as a professional traveller I thought I’d add my pinch of salt – or spice. Culled from decades of travel, here’s my short-list of affordable destinations that give you the best of all worlds … in 2015.
1. Cuba – Havana + Baracoa
Of course – everyone has it on their list since Obama and Raul Castro made their truce a few weeks ago. You can’t miss Havana, that divinely crumbling monument to Spanish colonialism and to mixed races, plus huge doses of salsa, Caribbean breezes, bookshops, vintage 1950s Chevvies and rum. Anything else? Well you could hot-foot over to the eastern side of the island to Salvador de Cuba, a serious hotbed of music, then head north to Baracoa – an idyllic little coastal town full of colour, friendly locals, delicious seafood and tropical accents – as in pic below. Read my article about it in the Independent here.
Its energy is relentless, charging forwards in art, music, literature and design, while jealously guarding a pile of tradition. It has to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities straddling three waterways, a symbolic bridge between East and West, Christianity and Islam. History is everywhere, from simple clapboard houses to the major mosques to Topkapi, but so is incredible modern craftsmanship, the Grand Bazaar being the obvious showcase. Watch the anglers on the bridge, feast on grilled fish, then put your feet up on a ferry to meander up the Bosphorus. Read this old blog post here.
3. Burma – Bagan
Coming in from the cold along with its charismatic spokeswoman, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma (or Myanmar) is seeing a flood of tourists. But nothiing can change the spirituality, peace and beauty of Bagan, where over 2,000 temples and pagodas stud a plain of 100 square kilometres. This is where you can wander or cycle at will for days, drinking up the exquisite workmanship of these Buddhist structures, mainly from the 11th – 13th centuries. But it is also alive with streams of monks – young and old – paying homage to their many Buddhas, so the stones and stories come alive. My article in the Observer was written before it was politically ‘correct’ to travel there.
4. India – Kolkata
Forget Rajasthan, forget Kerala, both are far too touristy. Instead go northeast to Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, a chaotic, buzzing, mesmerising city of over 14 million, some of whom sleep in the street, while others live in mansion block splendour. Yet decades of strict Marxist government have left their mark, and there is unexpected solidarity and much-needed charity. Fabulous (and hygienic) street-food, wonderful saree-shops, the broad Hughly river for boat-trips and some mammoth Raj-era monuments top it all off. PLus that inimitable Bengali eccentricity. A recent blog post here also here.
5. Haiti & Dom Rep
Everyone has Haiti on their list – it’s suddenly the Caribbean’s new Barbados (if only THAT one would sink). I’ve set foot in Haiti (briefly) twice, once to go a sprawling market, another time tiptoeing over the border into a village of the deep south. Aid logos were everywhere. But there’s dynamism, artistry and self-claimed pride in being black – in fact it’s the world’s only “black republic”. Even if you don’t get there (it’s pricey thanks to all those NGO workers), you can still get a feel for the people while in neighbouring Dom Rep where many hotel-workers are Haitian. And Dom Rep has plenty to offer too – try the Samana peninsula for tropical splendour, beaches and comfort. Read about it here and here. Below is a superb hand-painted Haitian tap tap.
I know I know, I just wrote a blog about it, but I do feel it’s a strong contender for Spain’s most magical city. I’m not talking about endless museums like Madrid, fantastic food as in San Sebastian, or avant garde design a la Barcelona. It’s more about a sensation, a sense of timelessness, immense beauty and façades washed with light. And it is, after all, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. More here.
7. Northern England
Hard to choose between the landscapes of Yorkshire (moors and dales), Derbyshire (the Peak district) and pushing north into the bleaker northern Pennines, but this is England’s great secret: swathes of unspoiled, raw hills, tinkling streams, rushing rivers, woolly sheep, picture postcard stone villages, the odd castle and immense skyscapes. Add to that a warm pub with crackling fire, jokey landlord and sustaining pies (pints?) – and what more do you need? Some impressions here.
It’s featured on my travels for a while (since I was about 6 years old), but still remains high on my list of favourite cities. There’s space, water, light, literal highs and lows of seven hills with big views,peeling facades, the history of world discovery, quirkiness from bars to vintage shops, vastly improving food focused on Atlantic-fresh fish, great shoes, and a great sense of style – with no self-consciousness. Even better for the visitor, prices are low. Read about it here.
9. South Morocco
Forget Marrakech and those pushy ‘cooks’ on the Djema El Fna, I say head south through the spectacular Atlas mountains and down the other side, so that you’re closing in on the Sahara. It’s a road-trip like no other, with epic landscapes and magnificent fortified villages entirely of mud, and one long oasis stretching to the first dunes. Then you are into the shrinking desert villages, engulfed by sand. From Taroudant south, allow at least a couple of days – then play it by ear. More info in my article here. Also a blog on Taroudant here. And something on a little known jewel of Islamic culture near the Sahara here.
10. Cambodian Riviera
Once you’ve spent a dew days in the overwhelming surroundings of Angkor, an absolute must on anyone’s South-East Asian itinerary, then it’s time for some sybaritic time off on the south coast. Here, squeezed between Vietnam and Thailand, is a blissful stretch of coastline where you can spend lazy days beachside or marketside, filling up on giant prawns or grilled fish, then collapsing in a delightful guest-house built in vernacular style – thatched wood cabins raised on stilts – beneath the welcome whirr of a fan. Or, begtter still, in a beach hammock. And a blog here.