Hotel Essencia, Mexico

Travel highlights of 2011.

I’m only just doing my travel highlights of 2011, because my travels from 2011 stretched into 2012 and I’ve just got home. It was another great year of travelling adventures – although there is always never enough travelling. Highlights included visiting the colourful (and tourist free) mountain markets of north-west Vietnam, getting hopelessly lost in the backroads of central Bali, seeing the delight in my daughter’s eyes as we walked into Main Street Disneyland and swimming with dolphins in the Caribbean. So, in no particular order, here are my Top Ten Travel Highlights from 2011:

Ma Pi Leng Pass, Ha Giang, Vietnam
The north-west province of Ha Giang is as north-west as you can get in Vietnam. Only a dumpling toss away from China this is Vietnam’s wild frontier with secluded mountain villages and one of the most spectacular mountain-pass drives in the world. The gorge road between the delightful towns of Dong Van to Meo Vac snakes its way precariously on the edge of towering cliffs of bright green. It was good that the scenery was so stunning because you didn’t notice the sheer drop next to the narrow road without safety barriers.

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

Dumplings, Singapore
I was in Singapore for the Singapore Writer’s festival and one of my big highlights was eating dumplings at Din Tai Fung restaurant. This Taiwanese based restaurant is famous around the world (the two Hong Kong restaurants both have one Michelin star!). There are 12 Din Tai Fung restaurants in Singapore and I had to see what the fuss was all about. Well, it was certainly worth the fuss – their dumplings are hands down the best, tastiest and juiciest dumplings I’ve ever eaten. And, the great news is that there are three Din Tai Fung restaurants in Sydney. I know where I’ll be heading when I go up to Sydney next.

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

Manly, Sydney, Australia
Talking about Sydney, I took Beth up to Sin City a few months back and she absolutely loved it. And with a day like we had it would have been hard not to. We began the day with a stroll through the city down to Circular Quay, then jumped on the Manly ferry across Sydney harbour (which has to be one of the most spectacular commutes in the world for those lucky enough to live in Manly) and when we got to Manly had fish and chips on the pier overlooking the harbour. After lunch we hired a tandem bicycle and rode up to North Head then all along Manly beach. We then caught the ferry back to the city as the sun dropped. it was perfectly romantic, even if I did do all the peddling on the tandem.

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

Disneyland and Universal Studios, Los Angeles, USA
I went to both of these 22 years ago and it was fun, but not as fun as seeing my 9 year-old daughter’s face when she almost wet herself on Splash Mountain (well, she did get very wet but that was the splashing from Splash Mountain), and when she squealed with delight on the Simpson’s ride at universal Studios (I did a bit of squealing myself, too, actually), or when she squeezed my hand so tight when King Kong jumped on top of the tour train on the Universal Studio Tour and when I finally, after all these years, I let her have Fairy Floss (or Cotton Candy). The dentist bill will be more than the entrance to both parks!

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

Cooking class, Hanoi, Vietnam
I’ve always wanted to do a cooking class in my travels, but never got around to it.  I’m so glad that I finally did one, and best of all, it was absolutely wonderful. The cooking school belonged to Hidden Hanoi and we spent hours (there were three of us) cutting and dicing and pestling and frying and grilling to make ’simple’ street food. The spring rolls were the best spring rolls I’d ever eaten (even if I do say so myself). I did try to make the three-course meal at home, however, and it took me all day to prepare and my spring rolls looked like squashed piles of mess (although the four glasses of wine I had while doing all the slicing may have had something to do with that!).

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

Isla Mujeres, Mexico
This is as idyllic as it gets. There was white sand beaches, swimming with dolphins, downing margaritas as big as my head, staying at the perfectly divine Villa Rolandi hotel, cruising around the island in a golf buggy, romantic lobster dinners on the beach, Coronas in the jacuzzi, Mexican eggs for breakfast right on the water and, oh, it was also my honeymoon!

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

A veritable feast of feasts, Ubud, Bali
This was my third time to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and, yes the events are fantastic, and the venues are wonderful, and the crowds are great and Ubud is a beautiful town, but the highlight for me is the food. As a guest at the festival we are invited to banquets every single night. Every night we were presented with tables laden with local specialties including my favourites such as Babi guling (roast suckling pig), Sate lilit (minced seafood satay, served wrapped around a twig of lemongrass), Urutan (Balinese spicy sausage), Opor ayam (chicken cooked in coconut milk) and the list keeps going (and so did the size of my stomach). I staggered home every night (although the bottomless glasses of wine may have helped there as well).

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

Kayaking, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
After taking the prerequisite overnight boat cruise around Halong Bay I stayed at this tiny ‘resort’ (see below) which I shared with four other guests. I then spent the entire afternoon paddling around (and under) the countless magnificent limestone karsts and isles that rise out of the clear waters away from the maddening crowds. I even found my own private little beach that I only shared with a few empty bottles and couple of crabs.

Brian Thacker- Travel highlights of 2011

Winter fun in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
It was very warm winter as far as Minnesota winters go (it was a mostly around a balmy -3 instead of the usual -20), but we still did lots of fun winter things like skiing (at Welch village which is only 40 minutes out of town), tubing (which is sooo much fun and one day jasmine and I had the entire Tubing Park to ourselves – see pic below), building snowmen (or more like a snow dwarf – or whatever the politically correct term is now for small people), snow fights (Jasmine will say that she won, but I got her a beauty in the back of her head), and my favourite thing – setting off a giant box of fireworks on new years eve in a snowstorm.

Brian Thacker- Travel highlights of 2011

Hotel Esencia, Xpu Ha (halfway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum), Mexico
Para, Para, Paradise…. Chris Martin must have been singing about Hotel Essencia. Every tiny detail was just perfect. There was the perfect white sand and warm aqua water, stunningly designed room with private pool and great little touches like an iPod full of cool latino music, brewed coffee on call, and a free minibar stocked with funky Mexican beers. The ‘Mexican’ breakfasts were to die for and the gourmet Mexican cuisine in the gorgeous restaurant was even better. The beach was perfectly quiet with our own little grass hut with table service for lunch and cocktails. And to top it off I was there with the most wonderful girl in the world.

Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011
And it is was so beautiful that I have to show you another shot of that beach…
Brian Thacker - Travel highlights of 2011

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