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Position:Inspiring Travel Specialist
Address:55 Victoria Road DevonportAuckland
Given my usual penchant for Grinchiness it was a bit of a surprise to those who know me that I wanted to spend my hard-earned holiday immersed in all things festive, well actually it was just one thing festive, the Christmas Market on Market Square in Bruges, Belgium.
I'd seen the photos of gingerbread houses edged with sparkly lights, ice skating rinks and wooden chalets selling delicious snacks, Gluhwein (Vin Chaud in France, read: mulled wine) and trinkets and the generally jovial atmosphere of Christmas shoppers not battling shopping mall parking lots and checkout lines… and honestly, all I imagined was true.
Each city we headed to; Bruges, Monschau and Aarchen (Germany), Amsterdam and Paris had a market of their own personality, from the old-fashioned carousel and pipers (disappointingly not eleven) playing from a 300-year old balcony in Monschau, to the giant ice rink in the square outside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (I didn’t skate, but if there’s a skating equivalent to après ski, that was me!).
Mostly the vibe was very relaxed; families having a good time together, and no one seemed to mind the weather. You can buy mulled wine everywhere, usually in an actual ceramic mug, take it home if you want to or return it to the vendor to get your Euro back and stock up on baubles, chocolate and novelty “Amsterdam” fridge magnets.
Not to be missed:
- The Amsterdam Light Festival, specular sculptures of light edge the canals throughout the city, best seem in the evening from a canal cruise.
- Get a drink at the Ice Cube Bar on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, for the best views over the Opera House, across Montmartre to the Sacré-Cœur and of course the Eiffel Tower, the window displays at ground level are worth a wander too.
- Feast on Frites and mayo, I realise this isn’t exclusive to either Belgium or winter, but when it’s chilly they are so, so good!
Things to know:
- Pretty much every major city and most smaller towns will have a Christmas Market, some are open week long and other only on the weekends, so check your dates.
- Don’t expect snow: highs were between 8 – 12 degrees in late November, early December, which was unseasonably warm but still snow doesn’t usually settle until in the new year in a lot of places.
- Be picky with your accommodation: given the temperature you are less likely to want to walk long distances, so book something close to where the markets are, you can pop out and pop back when you forget gloves or a scarf!
- It’s dark, all the time: Sunrise was usually about 8.45am and anti-climatically it went from dark to grey till about 4.30pm
My first impressions of Ireland were of the country as old, with a history as rich as anywhere in the United Kingdom, but with a lighter vibe, less pomp and ceremony. The people are more laid back with a wicked sense of humour, even the whiskey is easier to drink (though I’m not giving up my Single Malts anytime soon!).
Not to be missed:
- The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare: Honestly it will probably be raining but even a 15-minute break in the clouds and they are worth the drive.
- Trad Night: Basically, walk into any Irish pub, any night of the week and there’s likely to be someone with a fiddle, an accordion and/or a flute. Grab a beer and start tapping your toes. There is no way to listen to Irish music and not feel good about life.
- The Guinness Factory, Dublin: Do the tour, it’s a fascinating look into the brewing process and the history not only of Guinness but Dublin too (the Guinness family funded many a municipal work), and to end your tour you get a glass of Guinness in their roof top bar, which gives you a 360degree view over the city.
- Kinsale, County Cork: This was my favourite little town, so pretty with its pastel coloured buildings, here took place the Battle of Kinsale, where the Spanish and Irish united against the Protestant English rule. It’s also close to Cobh (Queenstown) the final departure point of the Titanic and the Lusitania.
- Watch a game of Hurling: this is the weirdest televised sport since camel racing in the Middle East, but it’s a local passion (especially around Galway who held the title for 5-years, before losing it to Limerick while I was there), embrace it.
Things to know:
- The Potato Famine, this is a fascinating and heart breaking part of Ireland’s story; which explains some of the dynamics between the English and Irish through much of history, it gave rise to the importance of peat bogs and the mass emigration to the United States, so it fundamentally underlies so much of what we know of Ireland today, take the time to understand it.
- It rains, a lot: The Emerald Isles aren’t Emerald for nothing, the rain was pretty persistent while we were there (at the end of Summer); somehow it just seems to fit with the place though, take a good rain coat, an umbrella and don’t let it stop you.
Until this time I had never experienced an all-inclusive resort; that’s all food, all drinks, all room services and resort activities. And while it would have been so easy to spend the entire week working my way through the cocktail list by the pool, the Yucatan Peninsula is a very cool mix of culture, food and the ocean.
Given the flight times from Houston (the most direct way to get there from NZ), Cancun is an easy transfer. Lots of shops, clubs and a strip of beautiful hotels this is the party end of the peninsula. Heading south down the Riviera Maya toward Playa del Carmen and Tulum the beaches get longer, sand whiter and the pace of things slower.
Not to be missed:
- Tulum and Chichen itza: The Mayan’s were prolific in this area from 2,000BC until the end of the 17th Century; their understanding of engineering, mathematics and astronomy are mind-blowing, get guided through these ruins to really understand the clapping of the Kukulkan bird (while impressive, people aren’t applauding the temple for nothing!) at Chichen itza or the alignment points of the Sun at the Solstice.
- Playa del Carmen: With its local markets, walking street and access to Cozumel island this was my favourite part of the trip. Most of the big resorts are out of the town centre along the coast so the places feels buzzing busy but not manic. I loved the vibe, the colours and the ocean.
- Guacamole: Food in general in Mexico is fresh, simple and utterly delicious. Mostly corn or bean based, the hot sauces range from mildly warming to excruciating (you have been warned!). Cheese (queso mainly) and tomatoes were introduced by the Spanish.
Things to know:
- Hurricane Season: We were the last flight out of Houston with Hurricane Harvey hot on our tail; made for and interesting take off and a bit of an impression. The season loosely runs from June and November and while I’m not sure I’d chuck a whole trip to avoid it I’d definitely have a Plan B and good travel insurance.
- Respect at Ruins: Little more galling to me than seeing arrogant tourists traipsing over cordons to walk on the ruins of 1,500 years of civilisation for the sake of a selfie.