2015 was a crazy year in terms of travel. I visited 17 countries, 9 of which new countries I had never been. I never expected to do so much travelling, but I can honestly say it was the best travel year of my life! I decided to put together a list of the top 7 travel surprises of 2015. These are all places that far exceeded my expectations and shocked me/blew me away. I have also included a list of my (tentative) travel plans for 2016. Cheers to a new year of travel!
1. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia
Never had I before experienced a capital city so charismatic as Ljubljana. I wasn’t expecting much going into the Slovenian capital, as I usually don’t care too much for most capital cities these days. I’d rather visit a smaller, more unique village on the outskirts. However, Ljubljana blew me away! Ljubljana had a small town vibe indeed. The one word that comes to mind when I think of Ljubljana is charming. It was an eclectic mix of elegant/classy and bohemian/hippy, if that makes sense. The cafe culture was alive outside and it was almost impossible not to sit down at one of the trendy cafes overlooking the river. With only 1 day there, it wasn’t enough and I hope to go back soon to enjoy it more.
2. Interlaken, Switzerland (aka “Narnia”)
The ultimate winter wonderland in Interlaken, Switzerland
With only a short amount of time in Switzerland, we had a lot on our lists of things to see. But when traveling, sometimes you realize that plans don’t always work out the way you would like. Me and my friend Carey planned to see Jungfrau and/or Harder Kulm, yet due to the heavy snowfall, the visibility was slim to none and these activities never happened. We were a bit disappointed, to say the least, as the only 2 things we came there to see were closed. So we decided to take a paper map and explore the city. Well, we got lost and ended up walking through a park in the middle of a snow storm. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, with nothing in sight except for white powdery snow. At one point, a man on a horse rode by covered in a robe (a sort of “black knight”)and we looked at each other like, is this real life? We played in the snow and had numerous photo shoots, just the 2 of us. Something so simple brought us so much joy and it ended up being our favorite part of the trip. You know what they say, sometimes no plans are the best plans.
3. Israel and Palestine
Culture shock in Israel and Palestine
It was surreal to be able to stand on the same ground where Jesus once stood and to see his birthplace. The whole visit to Israel seemed like a dream and it’s something I have wanted to do my whole life. And I can honestly say that I experienced the biggest culture shock in all of my travels to date visiting this area. To see young military personnel walking around with guns was something very new to me, yet it’s a normal way of life over there. Also, the clash of multicultural people within the city walls of Jerusalem who were all living harmoniously together was incredible to see. If only those walls could speak. It was truly an eye-opening experience and I’m so glad I was able to witness it. Another huge bucket list item was also checked off for me here-floating in the Dead Sea!
If you’ve ever been to or seen pictures of Cappadocia, I think you can agree that it is like somewhere from a different planet. The landscape is like no other place on earth and the memories made there will last forever. From eating in a local family’s house sitting on the floor, to watching the famous hot air balloons rising above the land at sunrise, these are some memories I will never forget.
5. Rovinj, Croatia
The picturesque streets of Rovinj, Croatia
It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with Croatia, but visiting Rovinj catapulted this obsession to a whole other level. The fact that I waited so long to visit this area baffles me. The streets of Rovinj were some of the most picturesque streets I have ever seen. The mixture of Croatian, Italian, and German languages spoke in this city really surprised me, until I learned some of the history behind it. The architecture especially had a strong Italian influence and at times I forgot I was in Croatia. How could I not like a city that felt like a mixture of Croatia and Italy, my 2 favourite countries! If you haven’t been to Rovinj yet, you’re really missing out on a hidden gem of Croatia!
This is a place I had been dreaming to go ever since I saw pictures that actually made me think this place was fake due to its stark beauty. Usually when I give myself high expectations I am let down, 9 out of 10 times. But this wasn’t one of those times! Hallstatt might be the most beautiful/quaint/cute small village I have ever seen. The fact that it is set on a breathtaking lake just magnifies its beauty. Visiting Hallstatt was also very special since I went on my birthday and also because I’m half Austrian. Hallstatt definitely did not disappoint.
Feeling like a princess at the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle
If you’ve ever traveled in Europe, you come to realize that extravagant castles appear to be the norm there. Once you’ve seen a dozen, you start to become immune to their grandeur. However, Neuschwanstein Castle is the epitome of a fairytale, and in my opinion it was the most spectacular castle I’ve ever seen. This was also part of my birthday trip so it was extra special. But when I arrived, it almost didn’t happen. Due to the weather, the lookout bridge with the best view of the castle was closed. But of course that didn’t let it stop me. I jumped over the fence and decided to go anyway, as many others decided as well. As a tried to take the “easy route” against my boyfriend’s wishes, I slipped on ice ad fell hard on my left shoulder. I then grabbed the bottom of the fence with my right arm, as my feet were dangling off the mountain. My boyfriend ran to my rescue and grabbed me by my left shoulder to help me up. The rest of the trip I could barely move my arm, but it was well worth it for the amazing views! I certainly felt like princess on my birthday.
Where Am I going in 2016?
That’s a very great question! So far, I only have a short trip to Reykjavik, Iceland and Bergen, Norway booked for Winter 2016. The rest is up in the air for now! However, I have a tentative plan that I hope will get put into full effect. Here it goes:
Spring 2016 wish list:
Summer 2016 wish list:
Fall 2016 wish list:
I can’t afford to go to all these place, so I will probably pick just one or 2 out of this category. It’s such a hard choice!
*As with most travelers, plans can always change and new destinations will be chosen last-minute (which is what happened with Israel and Egypt last year!)
So, here’s to not knowing exactly what my plans are and the fun part of figuring that out. Happy New Years to everyone and I’ll see you in 2016!
WHAT WERE YOUR 2015 TOP TRAVEL SURPRISES? AND WHERE WILL YOU BE HEADED IN 2016? DO TELL!
After a life-changing sailing trip on the Adriatic coast one year ago, I knew I had to return to this captivating country. What attracts me to Croatia is not just the delectable food, the fascinating history, the laid-back culture, the crystal clear waters, or the people. It’s about the way Croatia makes me feel. And for that very reason, I was extremely eager to get back to one of my favourite countries in the entire world! For my next trip there, I decided to visit the island of Vis.
While doing research on which Croatian island I should visit next, I remembered a place called Vis that a local had mentioned. After google search upon google search, I didn’t seem to find much information about it besides some basic demographic statistics. Well, how is that going to help me with my decision? But then I stumbled across something very interesting. Tourists were not allowed on the island of Vis prior to 1989, as Vis was the site for the military base for the Yugoslav National Army! I also learned that Vis is the farthest island from the Croatian mainland and the least developed, resulting in even less tourism. That’s all I needed to hear, I was sold!!
After a pleasant 3 hour ferry ride, I had arrived on the island. I noticed a quiet port town displaying traditional old stone buildings, quant narrow streets, and best of all, no tourists! YES. I knew in the first minute that I had made the right decision. I was quickly greeted by my apartment host who picked me up and escorted me to the guest house I would be staying in. After 10-15 minutes of navigating through windy roads, we had arrived. I had hoped for something secluded, but little did I know I would be staying in the middle of nowhere!
I shortly found out that the wifi only worked at the top of the driveway, and that the closest store/ restaurant/attraction was not even within walking distance. My first reaction was, how would I function for 2 days without wifi and without transportation? But then I remembered, wasn’t this what I came here for?
Getting Around the Island
After settling in, the host invited me up to the main house for some delightful fresh fruits, cheese, and salami. She then offered to let me use one of her bikes to explore the island, to which I happily agree. On the top of my agenda was visiting Stiniva Cove. As a captivating picture can often be the sole motivation for my decision to visit a destination, it is safe to say that a picture of Stiniva Cove single-handedly lured me to the island. The only thing standing in my way of seeing it was a mountain bike and 4 kilometres. When asking how to get there, I was given the seemingly typical foreigner response: “go right out of the driveway and when your see a church, turn left, then after 500 meters, turn right”, and so on. So without a map in hand, I was on my way! This should be fun.
A little weary of the fact that I’m a little directionally challenged to say the least, I must admit I was a little hesitant. And by hesitant I mean scared to death I would never make it back to that secluded guest house! As I slowly strolled my bike out of the driveway, the sound of gravel echoing beneath my wheels faintly reminded me of my childhood bike riding through the woods. Suddenly, I started to feel a little at ease. After 30 minutes of traversing steep hills and windy roads, the wooded area finally opened up into never-ending immaculately harvested vineyards. Had I died and gone to wine heaven? This is paradise! My legs were sore and shaking, and my bottom was numb from all the riding, but for a few moments, I didn’t feel a thing, except for the warm, blazing sun reflecting off my body. All I could think of was the taste of crisp white wine on the tip of my tongue. But that would have to wait!
View from the top of Stiniva Cove
After the intense 4 kilometer bike ride, I finally ended up at the top of Stiniva Cove. I heard it was a tough hike, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that rugged! I inched my way down, sliding on the slippery rocks and shifting pebbles. A grueling 40 minutes later, I finally made it to the bottom, drenched in sweat and parched from the heat. My eyes enlarged as I witnessed one of the most beautiful and angelic things I had ever seen. I was standing inside a partially enclosed crescent-shaped cove, with the deep blue sparkling Adriatic Sea peaking though an opening. Forget what I said before, this is paradise! Behind me I was surprised to see a little hut where a local was serving cold drinks. I sat for a bit and drank some pear cider, as I resumed to chat with the local for some time. I then proceeded to bask in the sun and lowered myself into the shallow water.
I thought to myself, how is somewhere so perfect and etherial so empty? Then I remembered, I’m on Vis, the raw, authentic, underdeveloped island. And then it all made sense! Vis is a slice of heaven!It is here where I really came to appreciate the lesser-known, unique places, with a true sense of the local culture. Vis left an impact on me. I sat there in the serenity and quietness, and just let myself soak in my surroundings.
Komiža is a small fishing town on the west coast of Vis island, framed by the Hum Mountain in the backdrop, some 600 meters high. Historically, the fishing industry was developed in Komiža in the 16th century, and this is the site of the first fish cannery on the Mediterranean.
From afar, this town looked a bit ritzy, giving off a French Riviera type vibe with all the beautiful boats lining the port. However, from the minute I stepped foot onto the marina, I fell in love with this place! There was something just so charming and genuine about this town. Beautiful stone buildings, narrow alleys, alfresco cafes, and orange rooftops is what caught my eye. It was so old and ancient, yet so alive. And as if for the first time, I witnessed the Croatian people in their natural habitat going about their everyday lives. I learned a lot about their culture. I learned that they are very simple people, and don’t require much to be happy.
In the late evening, I was fortunate enough to watch the Croatian soccer team in the World Cup with a bunch of locals. That in and of itself is a whole new experience! The passion that they have about this sport, and about their country, was incredible to watch, and the energy was quite contagious!
Final Thoughts on Vis
Vis embodies everything I love about Croatia, and so much more. It’s quiet and quaint, it’s genuine and authentic, it’s isolated and peaceful, it’s simple yet extraordinary, it’s filled with jaw-dropping nature, and it’s absolutely gorgeous!
There is something about Croatia that will always have a hold on me. Croatia is a special place. It leaves an impression on you that is everlasting. And for that, I am always destined to return.
Komiža port from afar
Make sure to visit Stiniva Cove by car or bike and hike down from the top (the boat tours only take you inside the little cove from the sea just briefly and you will not get the spectacular view from the top).
Dress appropriately for the hike, the rocks can be slippery (no sandals please!).
Don’t miss a visit to the Blue Caves at nearby Biševo (which unfortunately I didn’t have time for and am still kicking myself for missing).
Eat Seafood! This is the birthplace of the fishing industry after all, they must be doing something right!
Talk to the locals, they’re always there to help and give good insider tips!
Take a ride through the countryside and marvel at the wineries. And stop at one or two if you’re feeling keen.
Bring cash, as most places do not accept credit cards.
* A special thanks to Total Croatia for publishing my article on their awesome website!
Have you been to Vis island and had a similar experience? Do you have any other tips to share? I would love to hear them!
Croatia is a breathtakingly gorgeous Eastern European country resting across from Italy, bordering Slovenia, Hungary, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and lined by the crisp, deep blue Adriatic Sea on the West. With over 1200+ islands and islets, 3,500 miles of coastline, and 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it’s no wonder why Croatia has become the new hot spot for adventure seekers looking to explore more unique travel destinations. A blend between beautiful pristine coastlines, numerous desirable islands, fascinating historical landmarks, ancient villages, and mouth-watering food, Croatia has much to offer and should be on the top of every traveler’s bucket list! If your’e planning a visit to this amazing country, act now! Europe’s best kept secret is surely becoming the “it” destination soon to be highly overcrowded by tourism.
1. (Relatively) Cheap Prices
Unreal colors of the Adriatic Sea
Although Croatia joined the European Union in July 2013, they have yet to adopt the Euro currency of their Western European counterparts. The local currency in Croatia remains the Kuna, and the current exchange rate is 6.7 Kuna to $1 (at the time of this article’s publishing). With the dollar being so strong at the moment, your money will go a long way there! To get a feel of the prices, a coffee costs about 8 Kuna ($1.20) and a roundtrip catamaran ticket to Hvar and back costs about 80 Kuna ($12). As you can see, Croatia is extremely affordable and this just adds to its allure.
Croatia is well-known for sailing, and this is the absolute best way to explore the islands. As the location of the infamous “Yacht Week”, Croatia has fast become the prime spot for sailing trips in Europe. With over 1200 islands throughout the coast, one could spend weeks exploring and never get bored. At the forefront of the tourism boom, these 7-day sailing trips attract more and more tourists every year eager to explore the fabulous Adriatic coastline. Most boats depart from Split or Dubrovnik and navigate to 4-5 islands within the week-long trip. A mix of partying, culture, site-seeing, exploring, great food, theme nights, and numerous swim stops, the sailing experience is one you will never forget. From personal experience, I can go as far as to say this was the best week of my life!
Sailing the Croatian islands
3. Local Food and Wine
Fantastically fresh and flavourful seafood straight from the ocean to your plate, local olive oil, and family owned wineries producing the finest Croatian wines will leave your taste buds craving more. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, some white wines from a little town called Trstenik are even imported to the White House. Additionally, and of an honourable mention, Split boasts some of the best gelato I have ever tried! Coming from someone who’s been to Italy 10+ times, that’s a bold statement.
Mussels in tomato sauce-yum!
4. Sunsets, Sunsets, and More Sunsets
Words cannot do them justice, so I’ll let the pictures speak. But can I just say something? Perfect. Sunsets. Every. Night.
Just a casual stroll down the Split Riva, and BAM! No filter..
Sunset over the marina
From the hike to Hvar Fortress
Walking up to the Hvar Fortress, and what do you know…there’s that infamous pink sky!
In Croatia, there’s never any rush to get anywhere. As a whole, they are a laid-back culture unbound to time constraints and really know how to enjoy every moment of life. So when you’re there, do as the locals do, relax, have a cocktail, and set your clock to “ish time”. Why not? You’re on holiday!
Bonus #6: Numerous Game of Thrones Locations
If you are a huge GOT fanatic like me, you will understand that being able to visit the actual filming locations is like a dream come true! As you may know, Dubrovnik is the major backdrop and filming site for King’s Landing.
King’s Landing in Dubrovnik
Numerous scenes are also shot throughout Split and the surrounding area (Diocletian’s Palace and Klis Fortress), as well as nearby Šibenik. If you’re lucky enough, you may even get to sneak a peak at a live filming!! Jon Snow stalker alert!!!