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Dec 31

Best of 2012: Travel Highlights From Another Year Grand Touring

Matakauri Lodge, Queenstown, New Zealand.Here’s a look back at the best of 2012 travel highlights from another year grand touring – from the bathtub of New Zealand’s beautiful Matakauri Lodge, pictured above, no less – a year in which our travels focused largely on Asia and Australasia; a year in which we seemed to  continuously be doing journeys, by rail, road, sea, and air; a year in which we seemed to do a lot of learning and in which we did a lot of doing, from hiking and biking and cruising and touring to learning about classical music and contemporary art, and cooking and eating! In some ways it was a year that gave more of a nod to the old grand tour days than to the more contemporary style of grand touring we’ve been doing in recent years.

SYDNEY
A breathtakingly beautiful harbour and beaches, gorgeous parks and gardens, some of the world’s best restaurants and small bars, a buzzing Chinatown and inner-city ‘burbs, atmospheric historic quarters, and compelling art, architecture, music, culture, and festivals… 2012 was the year we were reminded that Sydney really does have it all and deserves to be at the top of all those world’s best places lists people keep putting it on. Since 1998, when we first moved overseas to Abu Dhabi, people have continually asked us if we missed our hometown Sydney, and we always seemed baffled by their dismay when we said we didn’t. Now we understand why.

NEW ZEALAND
The dramatic beauty of the Remarkables, Lake Wanaka and Milford Sound, the wonderful wine region of Central Otago, the creativity and resilience of Christchurch and its colourful new pop-up city, the rich Maori culture of Lake Taupo, the lovely luxury lodges with their lavish style and superlative service, the country’s fantastic food and wine, and the friendly, easygoing people… after an all-too-short trip doing the Relais & Chateaux Route du Bonheur with Air New Zealand, which saw us staying at Huka Lodge, Whare Kea Lodge, Otahuna Lodge, and Matakauri Lodge, we were left wondering why we had postponed a trip to New Zealand for so long. We loved it so much we’re already making plans to return in 2013.

HANOI
Gritty, elegant, chaotic and exotic, Hanoi is the quintessential Asian city. Here life is lived on the streets more intensely than any other Asian capital. The first night we arrived, Terence, who’d gone out to forage for food while I stayed in and worked, returned and said “You’re going to love it here – this is our kind of city!” And it is. Six weeks later we’re still here. The restaurants may be crap and it’s true many taxi drivers and vendors seem out to try to rip off foreigners, but the street food is fantastic, the old town incredibly atmospheric, and for every person out to take advantage, there’s a good-hearted soul with a warm smile who seems intent to make amends.

MALAYSIAN BORNEO
Wide winding rivers, towering trees, lush rainforest, and wildlife galore – from the russet-furred Proboscis monkeys with their big noses to the colossal Orang-utans with their enormous heads – Malaysian Borneo was an absolute delight for us animal and nature lovers to discover. The culture and history was a highlight too, from the different indigenous groups such as the Rungus with their vibrant costumes, music and dances, to the architecture of their breezy traditional longhouses. And then there was the food, of which the cuisine of Kota Kinabalu was the highlight, with its superb spicy seafood and creamy bowls of curry laksa. And let’s not get started on the lovely lovely people. We did most of the trip with Orion Expeditions; our first cruise, it was a fascinating experience. More on that soon too.

HALONG BAY, VIETNAM
Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Halong Bay with its 2,000-odd limestone karsts jutting spectacularly out of the jade-coloured sea in the Gulf of Tonkin is a place I’ve desperately wanted to go, since – as corny as this sounds – seeing the French film Indochine at a film festival in 1992. That it took me twenty years to get here – and Terence and I have travelled to 70 countries since – probably says something about the importance we place on bucket lists (i.e. none). I was prepared to be disappointed, having heard about the pollution and the colossal number of boats operating on the bay, and we had awful weather for five out of six days. It’s winter after all. But on the day that the weather was good, Halong Bay was absolutely gorgeous. It was so glorious I’d return in a heartbeat. In spring next time.

BANGKOK
We’ve spent so much time in the Thai capital in recent years that it’s practically our second home, a place we settle into for four months or pass through for four days, a place we go to write about, as much as we use as a base from which to bounce to other places for assignments. Bangkok is a city we know well and feel at home in, yet it’s a city that we’re still discovering. And that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating for us, that each time we visit we peel back another layer of what must be one of Asia’s most complex cities and one of our favourites.

ORIENT EXPRESS EASTERN & ORIENTAL
We’ve always loved train travel, yet a few disappointing train journeys in Europe had us wondering whether the romance of train travel was dead. Fortunately Orient Express’ Eastern & Oriental train and the Epic Thailand trip we recently did restored our faith in rail travel. From the lavish train itself to our spacious and extremely comfortable cabin, from the delicious food and impeccable service to the range of whistle-stop tours (from market walks to winery visits), the attention to detail was impressive. If you’re only going to do one luxury train journey in your life, make it this. Our stories on the trip are coming soon.

ORANGE, NSW, AUSTRALIA
A weekend in Orange eating wonderful food, quaffing top quality cool climate wines, and driving through ruggedly beautiful landscapes confirmed our suspicions it’s a wine destination to watch. A few hours west of Sydney, Orange is a typical country New South Wales town with wide streets, big old corner pubs and bakeries selling meat pies. But it also has a wonderful farmer’s market, terrific local produce – from Mandagery Creek Venison to Abilene Grove Olive Oil – excellent restaurants such as Bistro Ceello and Racine at La Colline winery, and some of Australia’s most exciting wines from wineries such as Angullong, Printhie and Philip Shaw.

PHNOM PENH
If Bangkok feels like a second home, it’s because this year we made our primary base Phnom Penh. Well, that’s not exactly true yet. We moved there and stayed a month only to find ourselves having to head back to Thailand to do the Orient Express and then to Vietnam on assignment. And we loved it so much here in Vietnam we extended our one-month trip to what could ultimately be four months. From here we’re headed back to the Cambodian capital to finally establish a ‘home’. As pulsating as Phnom Penh felt when we first visited in 2011, it feels low-key compared to Bangkok and will feel positively sleepy after Hanoi. But it’s the fact that it must be Asia’s most laidback little capital that we find most appealing.

We’ve got more stories to come from all of those places in 2013. Thank you for joining us here this year and we’re looking forward to seeing you back in 2013 – a year with some changes afoot for Grantourismo, which by the way turns three years old today!

Happy New Year!

8 comments

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  1. Leanne

    We too travelled to Hanoi and Halong Bay this year (along with Sapa, Hue and Hoi An) and also had some time in Orange and nearby Milthorpe (love!) at the beginning of the year.

    You’ve travelled some miles this year! Always enjoy your updates.

    I actually stopped by to review your posts on Phnom Phen and Siem Reap as currently planning some time there with the family in April this year and love your insights.

    Have a great year!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Great travellers think alike it seems ;)

      We probably travelled fewer miles in 2012 than previous years in fact. We kept track for a couple of years – 2010 was a big one; I recall a friend (or maybe a GT reader) figuring out we’d been a quarter of the way to the moon that year.

      Do let us know if we can help more with Cambodia tips. April is one of the hottest months there, so stay hydrated.

      Thanks for the kind words :)

  2. Red Hunt

    That’s a pretty super list of destinations…I love how you enjoyed Phnom Penh so much, that is one of my favourite cities in Asia…I’d happily be there over Bangkok! ;)

    1. Lara Dunston

      We do like Phnom Penh a lot, but it’s not an easy city to live in. We actually prefer Bangkok but Phnom Penh suits us more for a whole lot of reasons. Bangkok has too many distractions for starters. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Nico

    Some great places to visit. It’s nice to see that you like Vietnam, because I’ve heard very mixed reports about the country.

    1. Lara Dunston

      We do like Vietnam – and we especially like the food!

      We understand now why it gets mixed reports. Vietnam *is* a challenging place to visit – it’s not easy to be here in the way it is in Thailand.

      Every day here we find things we both love and dislike about it. Yes, it’s true that people do try to rip off foreigners, and on the whole locals are not particularly friendly, but at the same time there are honest people who treat foreigners in the same way they treat locals. It’s not ‘the land of smiles’ – people tend to scowl more than smile – but the rare occasion we do get a spontaneous smile, it gives us hope.

      It’s to do with education as far as I can see. We’re privileged in our work to get to meet artists and musicians and performers, and everyone we’ve met in the creative/artistic fields has been just lovely.

      I think the traffic chaos, the insane driving, and the general madness on the streets – all of which represents a disregard for other human beings – is the thing that frustrates me the most. Again, that can be resolved through education – and a police force that actually polices.

      But for us the positive things outweigh the negative. We wouldn’t move to Hanoi, but we’d definitely return for a visit in the future. It’s an extraordinary city in so many ways.

  4. Wil

    Quite a busy year! I hope my travels one day live up to that.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Yes it was! I think we’re still recovering and not yet ready for another year. But if we say we need a holiday, the usual response is “but every day’s a holiday for you guys!” So we’ve stopped complaining. Enjoy your travels!

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