Happy new year!
This is becoming a bit of a tradition. Every new year since I started Pack The Suitcases, I’ve dished out the ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ for all that year’s travel.
Precisely no one reads it because who cares? I know you all just want lists of places to eat for whatever city break you’re going to do. But when did no one listening/reading my stuff ever stop me…?! So I’m doing it again for 2018.
To be fair, this might give you some ideas about where to go (and where to avoid?) for 2019…
Best travel experience
Going to the USA for the first time (San Francisco and Boston)
I wasn’t sure what I’d make of the USA before we went this year. I thought I’d hate it in a way, but I actually loved it for a holiday.
It is a completely weird place and I have no idea how you could live there without going up the wall, but to visit I have to admit it’s fascinating. I wrote a list of 42 weird things I found about America on first impressions, but note that this is from visiting San Francisco and Boston only, so obviously a limited first impression and there’s so much more to it. If we’d gone to Texas and Alabama, my thoughts would be entirely different.
I think I ended up leaving the US with more questions than answers. Why is there so much water in their toilets? Why are there so many flags? How do I survive without such extravagant brunches? What even is tipping?
I know I definitely want to go back and see more, which is the best thing about travel and experiencing massive cultural differences around the world.
Worst travel experience (joint winners)
1. Staying in an an absolutely filthy and hideous Airbnb in Boston, USA
This apartment was SO bad that we ended up staying out all day every day and getting up really early. We didn’t want to spend any time in it, at all costs.
‘Highlights’ of the experience included:
- every surface in the whole apartment being filled with weird tat (bowls of potpourri, figurines of angels, fake silk flowers and awful candles with the shop tags still on) all of which were covered in a fine layer of dust
- finding a mouldy old apple underneath a footstool
- a random dressmakers’ mannequin placed in the middle of the bedroom
- dark grey bedding made of JERSEY material, not cotton – and it was all pilled #vom
- filthy rugs (including the fetching cow-skin horror pictured) on every floor, which made us both sneeze when we rolled them all up and shoved them in a wardrobe
- creepy religious artefacts everywhere – just WHY?
- the kitchen being covered with fake vine garlands that had years of sticky kitchen emissions on
- cockroaches casually running in and out of the living room as we were getting ready in the mornings.
If you’re wondering why we didn’t just leave and book somewhere else, Boston accommodation is EXPENSIVE (£150+ a night) and we had 5 nights. You have to pay in advance with Airbnb, so we’d already paid for the place in full. There was no getting out of it. We had to grimace and bear it.
The apartment was really well rated on Airbnb so this has actually put me off using Airbnb for life, even though I’ve stayed in Airbnb places before and they’ve been fine.
2. Getting the world’s rankest bus journey from Brasov to Bran, Romania
This was another challenge. I have never been so hot and never felt so unclean. The smell of BO and general unwashed bodies was unbearable and once we were on, there was no choice but to see it through to the bitter end. You could hardly see out of the windows, they were so filthy, so I couldn’t even stare at the beautiful Romanian countryside going past to distract myself from the experience. To make matters worse, the seats were made of fabric from the 80s that had never been cleaned. I discovered that it’s possible to need to peel yourself off upholstery.
The journey was so awful that I ended up ordering a taxi for the return journey because we couldn’t bear to go through with it again, which if you’re a regular reader you’ll know is quite a big deal because I ALWAYS get public transport over taxis.
Best new destination
Romania as a whole was an interesting but challenging destination on so many levels – definitely not a ‘holiday’ this one, but rather travel on hard mode. I don’t mind that at all. I’m always after an experience and not about relaxing. I liked a lot about Romania, especially the feeling of being somewhere so very different, including compared with anywhere else in Eastern Europe I’ve been to. We spent 3 nights in the city of Brașov, an absolutely picture-perfect city surrounded by lush green mountains and rolling countryside. I’m voting this my best new destination for 2018 as I just wasn’t expecting it to be how it was, and I really loved it.
Brașov (pronounced Bra-shov) is full of history (and of course the whole Dracula tale). Something that really struck me was the huge German influence, from when it was a Saxon city. The buildings look really German and it’s very popular with German tourists (we even found a bar serving Munich‘s Augustiner beer!) but it also has a unique feel to it that is very Romanian. It even boasts its own ‘Hollywood’ sign up in the mountains, which you can get to via cable car.
Also, Brașov was very affordable for us as Western European tourists, but both food and accommodation standards were really high. The café culture is thriving, and the bar culture possibly even more so. There’s a really strong foodie scene and we did really well for pescetarian and vegan food – see the ‘best food destination’ category in this post for more on that.
Finally, I should note that Brașov is a huge tourist hub – just not so much for British tourists. It was full of central and eastern European couples and groups of friends on their holidays. This may be an eye-opener if you think of European tourist spots as being the British favourites of Venice and Rome etc, and I found it really interesting to see.
You can read my full post on 20 things to do in Brasov, Romania here.
Best revisited destination
I knew as soon as I booked to go to Copenhagen again that it would be my favourite re-visited destination of the year. How could it not be when it’s my favourite city. This was our fourth visit and as ever, I just felt completely at home there. I even cried on the last night because I didn’t want to leave, which is entirely normal behaviour I’m sure.
Denmark is always making the headlines for being one of the happiest countries in the world for various reasons: everyone spending time in nature, proper healthcare, good education, relative equality/fairness in society, people valuing time together over money/materialism and so on. It’s a combination of all of those things and more probably, but I always feel incredibly calm and content in Copenhagen. It’s not often a bustling city has that effect on me.
Some of my highlights from this particular visit included eating the most insane vegan lunch at Souls Nørreport, buying all kinds of pretty homewares and Christmas deccies at Notre Dame, and visiting the mind-blowing art museum Louisiana, located on the beautiful coastline of Humlebæk.
You can read my full post on 2 days in Copenhagen here. It was the hardest post I’ve ever written because I struggled to do Copenhagen justice.
Best local destination
Isle of Man
I did quite a few local trips this year, including York, Essex, the Lake District, the Isle of Man and Shrewsbury. My favourites were the Lake District and the Isle of Man really. However, I’ve not blogged about the LD yet so I don’t want to spoil it by doing a preamble here… (also that post will probably be months away yet due to the absolute blogger saturation of the LD that I’m not about to try and compete with).
The Isle of Man is one of my most-visited local destinations and I’ve written loads about it this year:
- 60 things to do in the Isle of Man
- an Isle of Man travel guide: the hidden gem of the British Isles
- 20 of the best Isle of Man restaurants and places to eat and drink
- 3 days in the Isle of Man by public transport.
No matter how many times I go back, I’m always finding new things to do, see and of course eat. I’m also extra fond of it because it was the first place I ever got recognised in public by a blog reader, which I will never tire of going on and on and on about. No regrets. Also this year, my ’60 things to do’ post went viral and I ended up with more visitors to the blog than ever before as well as an interview on Manx Radio. Autographs are available for a small fee…
Best foodie destination
We ate SO well in Romania. I really had no expectations for the food there at all, just assuming (wrongly) that it would be some nice, some alright, some crap like most countries. Obviously I always research thoroughly to avoid crap in most places, but you know what I mean.
But these are some of my highlights…
- Simone, Brașov – a lovely little bistro serving local food with loads of veggie/vegan options.
- Rocca by The Jar, Bucharest – a brilliant Korean and Thai restaurant where I had a spicy kimchi bowl that I’m still thinking about months later. Their menu featured this utterly baffling quote that had me laughing for a solid 5 minutes: ‘After eating one of our hamburgers, you will easily imagine village people performing live at Royal Albert Hall.’ If that isn’t now how you want a burger to make you feel, there’s something wrong with you.
- Dei Frati, Brașov – definitely the best atmosphere of anywhere I’ve eaten for a long time and my favourite meal of the whole trip. You know when you imagine the perfect setting to sit outside and eat? Well this is it. Fairylights, cobblestones, flowers: everything you need for al fresco dining in a cute little side-street. The food was incredible. Whenever somewhere does homemade pasta, I’m all over it.
- Caru’ cu bere, Bucharest – this was a Bavarian-style beerhall with a vibe that was absolutely Romanian and not Bavarian. It was way less rowdy and there was a man playing a violin at the front. Of course. We had a cosy, homely meal made up of lots of veggie side dishes.
- Aubergine, Bucharest – weirdly located in a tacky bit of the old town, this was a little vegan oasis. Inside was stunning, with loads of reclaimed doors painted up and secured to the walls above gorgeous tiled floors and indoor olive trees. We ended up with a neighbouring table’s couscous and the man it was meant for was PROPER fuming. Soz.
- French Revolution eclairs, Bucharest – these bad boys were an absolute game-changer. I hardly ever allow myself to eat cream-filled pastry goods because it just opens the door to me eating everything in sight. Well worth it though.
My most memorable meal of 2018 has got to go to Hobenköök Restaurant & Markethalle in Hamburg.
Like it says on the tin, it’s a market hall and restaurant in one, located by an old freight railway station in an up-and-coming area of the city.
All the produce is from within 100km of Hamburg and is beautifully laid out in the renovated old warehouse. It has a bit of a Scandinavian feel to it, with lots of fresh and smoked fish on the menu (all brilliant) and beetroot pickled/fresh etc, and the BEST homemade rye bread I have ever had. I seriously regret being so full that I couldn’t eat the last piece.
Hobenköök is exactly the kind of place I love finding when on holiday. When anyone I know says that they’re going to Hamburg, this will likely be the first thing I recommend to them and start sending them links to. That’s how good it is.
You can read my full post about 2 days in Hamburg here.
Mercearia Dona Mécia, Funchal, Madeira island, Portugal
Mercearia Dona Mécia is synonymous with an early evening in Funchal for me. It’s tucked away in a pretty little courtyard off a side road in the nicest area of Funchal, on the same road as my favourite shop and bakeries. As well as being a proper bar at night, it’s a café bar in the day and serves a variety of nibbles. It has poncha and bottled craft beers, but we normally have a small generic cerveja (beer) and they always bring over some crisps or olives or something too.
The best time of day to go is for an early evening drink at about 16:30-17:00. It starts filling up about then but you can usually get a table and sit outside under the shade of trees to watch the world go by. Or more specifically, watch the well-dressed locals finishing work and heading home through the courtyard. It’s definitely the best place in Funchal for people watching and we’re usually the only tourists when we go, which is an added bonus.
You can read my post about the best bars in Funchal, Madeira here.
Best accommodation: hotels, B&Bs and apartments
Best hotel: Hotel Antler in Brasov, Romania
For our Brasov trip, I found the utterly lovely Hotel Antler. Our room was stunning, with lots of antler-themed things going on. But the main thing I liked was coming into the hotel from the bustling, warm street and immediately being hit with a (not overpowering) scent of cleanliness and a general aura of calm. All very zen. The staff were really helpful without being overbearing. One receptionist even warned us about the crazy crowds at Bran Castle (which we should have paid more attention to…). For only £48 per night, you can’t go wrong. I’ve paid double that for a barely-functioning Travelodge in the UK complete with air con that sounded like a plane taking off all night, so this was an absolute steal in my view.
Best B&B: Raymond’s B&B in Douglas, Isle of Man
Raymonds B&B in Douglas, Isle of Man, was a real unexpected treat. There are loads of self-catering places and B&Bs all over the island but as we don’t drive, being in or near Douglas (the capital) is usually the best bet for getting to most places easily on the Isle of Man’s public transport. Raymonds looked good online but it surpassed my expectations in real life. We had a really gorgeous massive room that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Laura Ashley catalogue. It was only £75 a night, complete with brilliant veggie breakfast (harder to get than you’d think sometimes). I think it’ll be our new go-to B&B on the island.
Best apartment: Rooftop Sunroom, San Francisco, USA
The Rooftop Sunroom in the Noe Valley area of San Francisco could not have been a better location – or a better apartment. The location in SF is vital because you can walk 5 minutes and go from a swanky shopping district to a homeless camp very quickly. Our host, a lovely chap called Dana, was an absolute delight and couldn’t do enough for us – he could easily have charged more for his gorgeous apartment too. It had the BEST views of the beautiful valley, too (which you can see in my San Francisco post here). SF is so expensive to stay in. Hotel prices were worse than Paris or London or anywhere in Scandinavia. Seriously, I was not expecting to have to spend about three weekends doing research to find anywhere <£150 a night that didn’t look like it’d give you fleas. But this was within budget (about £99 a night) and worth every penny.
Biggest travel learning experience
If the public transport doesn’t work, don’t do it
I only tend to travel to places with high-quality public transport. Going to the USA this year has definitely made me appreciate that even more than I already did.
I picked our two American destinations based largely off the apparent ability to do them without needing a car. The internet suggested that both San Francisco and Boston have decent public transport. That may be the case by USA standards, but if you’re used to Europe (or Japan!), then you’re in for a shock. Public transport does exist in both places, but it is mostly hard going. The trains and buses are rudimentary, they’re all run by different private companies so it’s hard to find one transport map that lays every line over it to use in a joined-up way, and they don’t always run late in the evenings.
Also, trains are SLOW AF, even compared with bloody Northern Rail. And that’s saying something.
After several days trying our best to stick to our usual public transport method of holidaying, we caved and decided to start using taxis. However, in SF especially, there were hardly any ever around. We asked what the locals do and the answer was Uber. So that’s what we resorted to. It was a challenge in itself because obviously we didn’t have roaming mobile data, so we ended up getting a local SIM just to survive. As soon as we had that, everything became so much easier. Getting back to our apartment after a meal and drinks at night suddenly became doable rather than mildly terrifying and a massive faff. I didn’t relish using Uber, but when in Rome etc.
Travel blogging overall in 2018
This was a big year for Pack The Suitcases.
The blog took off in ways I never imagined, including being shortlisted for a Northern Blog Award, being nominated for a UK Blog Award, going on my first ‘free’ trip abroad (to Hamburg), being interviewed on radio, and hitting 25k views a month.
You can read more about all that kind of waffle on my work with me page.
But basically, the blog has ramped up this year and I’m really enjoying it, although am still very aware that it’s tiny and crap compared with the big professional travel blogs. I don’t mind that though. I’m not looking to make it into a job because I love my real job and prefer to keep both travel and writing about it firmly in the ‘fun’/’hobby’ categories of life.
I’m looking forward to photographing and writing about some exciting new places in 2019. I may possibly even catching up on the gigantic backlog I have to write about from 2018…
My 2018 travels: in total
Here’s everywhere I went and when.
- January: Madeira
- February – April: No travel due to massive USA trip coming up. Went a bit stir crazy.
- May: USA trip to San Francisco and Boston (with day trips to Rockport and Berkeley and Salem); York for a friend’s hen do
- June: We went to weddings pretty much every weekend and became financially ruined.
- July: Isle of Man
- August: Clitheroe for a friend’s wedding; Romania: Bucharest and Brasov
- September: Essex to visit friends; no ‘proper’ travel but I did go to the Northern Blog Awards.
- October: Lake District; Southport; Copenhagen
- November: Hamburg (with a day trip to Lubeck)
- December: Shrewsbury.
What’s next for 2019?
My next trip is a return to our favourite Japan to visit Chris’s BFF. I’ve also got plans for Finland, Russia and Italy throughout the year.
Where else do you think I should book for 2019? Answers on a postcard or, you know, in the comments.