From rock-climbing in Cuba to Cape Town's allure: our favourite trips of 2019

From a jazz festival in the boondocks of Borneo to a back-to-nature retreat in Lapland and a wintry, fashion-infused night in Paris, our writers share their top travel experiences of 2019

The Canadian Rockies is a popular destination to visit. Getty
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This year, the writers who contribute to The National's travel section criss-crossed the globe, visiting everywhere from Australia's Cape Le Grand National Park to the Vinales Valley in Cuba. When we asked them to share their most memorable moments from the past year, for some, it was the chance to visit their favourite destinations with the most important people in their lives. For others, it was the opportunity to indulge in entirely new experiences, such as a jazz festival in the wilds of Borneo with an eclectic line-up that included a Chinese jazz singer, Dutch DJ and Borneo rappers. Others were able to find new delight in tried and tested destinations, or to reconnect with nature – from the raw beauty of the Canadian Rockies to Lapland's unspoiled scenery, sleeping in igloos and hugging the odd tree along the way.

Family time in Hanoi

- AFP PICTURES OF THE YEAR 2019 - 

This picture taken on January 3, 2019 shows a Vietnamese woman collecting incense sticks in a courtyard in the village of Quang Phu Cau on the outskirts of Hanoi. In Vietnam's 'incense village', hundreds of workers are hard at work dying, drying and whittling down bamboo bark to make the fragrant sticks ahead of the busy lunar new year holiday. - 
 / AFP / Manan VATSYAYANA

One of the downsides of being a full-time travel writer is that I so often travel alone. That is why it was incredible to be able to take one of my favourite people to one of my favourite places this year.

For years, I had been talking up Hanoi to my mum. I waxed lyrical about its ceaseless street life, the quirky charm of its Old Quarter, the freshness and quality of its cuisine, the endless bargains in its markets and the variety of its fascinating historical sites. My mum is picky when it comes to travel destinations, but I knew instinctively that she would adore Hanoi.

Even in her early seventies she found herself energised by the Vietnamese capital, which we explored for hours on foot each day. As a history buff, she was particularly engrossed by the city’s two abandoned citadels, and delighted in explaining their backstories to me. There was no doubt the trip had been a success when, as we boarded our flight home, she turned to me and said: “Can we come back?”

Ronan O’Connell

Jazz in Sarawak

The Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building in Kuching. Alamy

This year I explored the length and breadth of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the wild island of Borneo. I was charmed by the hip colonial capital of Kuching, mesmerised by dense tropical rainforest and immense Mulu caves, and astonished by delicious tribal cuisine and amazing orang-utans.

But the highlight was attending the annual Borneo Jazz Festival in the boondocks oil town of Miri, squeezed between the South China Sea, the Sultanate of Brunei and ­never-ending jungle.

For four days and nights, an enthusiastic audience was entertained by a line-up that included Iban and Kenyan natives playing the haunting sapeh guitar; a soul singer from Chicago accompanied by a 82-year-old American virtuoso pianist who lives in Paris; a Chinese jazz singer who appeared in Crazy Rich Asians; a Dutch DJ mixing rare Blue Note classics; and a bunch of punky Borneo rappers who brought the house down on the last night.

Who knows who will be on the bill of next year's event, from Friday to Monday July 17 to 20, but I certainly can't wait to go back.

John Brunton

A wintry night in Paris

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 23: A model walks the runway during the Valentino Spring Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 23, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

By 11.30pm during fashion week in Paris in January, it was so cold the streets were deserted, which left the centre, dramatically floodlit, looking like a theatre set waiting for the actors to step on stage.

I'd been invited as a last-minute plus-one to the Valentino haute couture show. The after-show dinner was similarly delectable and well organised, with about 30 guests packed along narrow tables that made conversation easy.

And it had a brilliantly simple, sensible, quickly served menu. Smoked salmon and blinis to start, then baked potato with caviar, and berries with meringue to finish.

There was a chauffeured car for the evening, too, which is how we came to be gliding over the Seine, past the Eiffel Tower, around the Bastille and Invalides with uninterrupted views of the floodlit buildings and a running commentary from the driver. It felt like such a privilege.

Adriaane Pielou

In the shadow of the Canadian Rockies

The Canadian Rockies. Getty

Just arriving in Alberta was like coming up for air. The temperature was a biting zero degrees – colder than typical for the time of year, but perfect for mountain adventures. In Banff, the summer tourists were long gone, leaving me to enjoy the town’s log-fronted stores and chateau-style restaurants undisturbed, under the watchful eye of Mount Rundle. A walk to Bow Falls and its glacier-eroded valley gave way to a waterfall-laden trek in Johnson Creek and a hike to Lake Moraine. I learned First Nations history at the Banff hot springs and marvelled at the grass-toped overpasses constructed along the Canadian highway - there to ensure the safety of the park’s elk, deer, moose, bears and more.

In Lake Louise, I had to remind myself that it was all real. On day one, perfect blue skies turned the mirror-like lake an even brighter hue of blue as the wintry light illuminated the crests of the Rockies. Next morning, I crunched out of my hotel on to fresh snowfall and a winter wonderland that was draped in a thick blanket of white.

Resilient to both the passing of time and Canada’s weather, the ever-present snowy peaks of the Rockies and a never-ending tapestry of forests, lakes, glaciers and wildlife make Alberta my travel highlight of the year.

Hayley Skirka

Whale-watching in Sri Lanka 

wide top down shot

This story starts with waves crashing, gulls calling and vomit hitting the bottom of a plastic bucket. It’s a scene like no other. Sun pours gloriously from the sky, the Indian Ocean sprawls out before us and the boat’s engine chugs merrily below, yet I am sick to my stomach.

I'm in Mirissa, Sri Lanka, in hot pursuit of the largest living creature that has graced this planet – and I'm starting to seriously regret my quest. Measuring up to 30 metres in length, the blue whale equals the size of two double-decker buses. Easy to spot, right? Wrong.

Three hours in, with serious seasickness, I’m more than ready to admit defeat. My groans become more audible and less shameless with each powerful wave. Then I see it. 

Imagine a small island rising quite suddenly from the water right in front of your eyes. Except it’s not an island – or a submarine, as another delirious passenger points out – it’s 200 tonnes of pure whale, and to see its majesty is worth every spluttering, shivering, gut-wrenching moment. 

Emma Pearson

A Finnish retreat

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland.

After a hot and sticky summer in the UAE, a September trip to crisp, fresh Lapland was just what the doctor ordered. Not only is it home to some of the world's most dense and untouched forests, but the chance to see the Northern Lights dance across the autumn sky made it my undisputed travel highlight of 2019. 

The quaint, alpine town of Levi boasts stunning, rolling scenery, while the busier city of Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus, filled my heart with child-like joy. From watching the night sky from the warmth of my bed inside a glass igloo, to floating silently in the middle of a still lake, it was a trip that took me back to nature, and one I’ll always remember.

Sophie Prideaux

Rock climbing in Cuba

Valle de Vinales National Park in Pinar del Rio province, Cuba.

Climb the cliff, moving steadily from handhold to handhold, your feet finding purchase on protrusions and ledges in the rock. Clip your harness safely to the bolted chain at the top, and relax. Breathe. Thirty metres up a jagged limestone cliff, a small tree grows horizontally from the rock face; it's curved trunk forms a perfect seat from which to admire the beautiful expanse of the Vinales Valley far below.

This tropical expanse in the mountains of western Cuba is increasingly attracting rock-climbers from around the world. Rolling tobacco and coffee fields, interspersed with palm and pine groves, are punctuated by great limestone outcroppings known as mogotes. Towering as high as 300 metres over the farmland, their rough rock faces, pitted with dramatic caves, offer seemingly endless potential for rock-climbers. A few days spent scaling craggy walls and shimmying up stalactites, surrounded by birdsong and the lowing of cattle, are a recipe for pure happiness.

India Stoughton

Sharing strawberries with kangaroos

A kangaroo in Lucky Bay. Getty

I was in Western Australia, on a trip that started in Perth and proceeded along the coast to Albany and Esperance. I was travelling with a group of people from different countries, in a mini bus, and every day was filled with adventure.

My most memorable moment was a trip to the Cape Le Grand National Park, which started with sandboarding down the Wylie Bay dunes, followed by a ride in a 4x4 along the beach to Lucky Bay, where the white sand was dotted with grey kangaroos, attracted by the freshwater creeks behind the beach. I snapped a selfie with one of the friendlier marsupials, which had helped itself to some strawberries from our picnic basket.

Kalpana Sunder

Cape Town's enduring allure

Wildlife and nature are my true loves, but some delightful metropolitan surprises caught my eye this year. Cape Town and I go back more than 20 years and its sheer energy and ability to reinvent itself is always enthralling. From concerts (rock and classical) in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens to the vibrant food scene, the Western Cape and some of the world's top hotels, it gets my vote for World's Best City Visit every time.

Richard Madden

The mighty Zambezi

Canoeing with hippos in Zambia. Courtesy Selina Denman

The hippos watched on as we clambered into our canoes. Bulbous eyes wide, tiny ears twitching, their enormous bulk hidden in the depths, they gathered in a semicircle barely 15 metres away from us as we pushed off into the swirling waters of the Zambezi River. "Don't put your hands in the water; it will attract the crocodiles," our guide advised as I wondered, for the umpteenth time, whether canoeing in hippo and crocodile-­infested waters was the smartest of moves.

But immersing myself in the river that is Zambia’s lifeblood seemed like a fitting way to round of a trip to the south-central African country. And as the sound of water lapping against the side of our vessels mingled with birdsong, interspersed with the odd snort as a hippo surfaced to alert us of its presence, uneasiness ebbed into an incredible and unexpected sense of calm.    

Selina Denman  

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