Tuesday 5 January 2016

2015 – An epic year of travel and adventure!

2015 was truly an epic year - we travelled to so many fantastic places all over the world. Happily, two of our trips, and a total of five months of the year were spent on our adopted island home of Utila in the Caribbean Sea. Also in 2015, we visited the USA, Central America, the Seychelles, South Korea, the Bahamas, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines – many of these places extensively and more than once!

Early in the year, in February, Trav and I become grandparents for the first time when our son James and his lovely Korean wife Sujeong had a beautiful baby boy. During our family trip to South Korea in the summer of 2015, not only did we get to meet our grandson but we saw our own three sons reunited again, two and a half years after James had left Scotland to teach English abroad. It was a very special and an emotional time. Trav and I are planning another trip to Korea in February 2016.

In April 2015, I also saw my career as a writer hit new heights when my 2015 release ‘Castaway in the Caribbean’ became a number one bestseller on Amazon. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any better for me professionally this year, the novel was announced on a shortlist for the prestigious Love Stories Awards in London in November. Unfortunately I was in Bangkok at the time - and I didn’t win - but it was such a thrill to have been in the final shortlist.

It has been a heady twelve months and so I thought I’d best review it now before I get too involved in 2016. I must warn you that this is an epic post because it reflects an epic journey – and so I’ll take it one month at a time – starting at the beginning.

January 2015:
Last year, my husband Trav and I had spent Christmas and New Year in a rented house in South West Scotland, but as soon as January 2015 arrived we were on a mission to pack our suitcases. Having travelled extensively in 2014, we had decided to ‘go for it’ and to commit to travelling the world long-term, leaving at the end of February.

Scotland: views from our house down by the river

We had already downscaled considerably after selling our own house in January 2014, but in the rented house we still had all our furniture, appliances, kitchen pots and pans, and all those things you have to have on shelves and keep in cupboards and draws. I started going through all our things, preparing to sell them on Ebay and local websites.

Trav wound down his business, sold his van, his tools, and everything he had stored in his garage and workshop. I went through my wardrobe and donated bags of clothes and shoes and handbags to charity shops. One of the hardest things was to sort through my book collection. I had a beautiful library - shelves and shelves of fiction in paperback and hardback, dozens of gardening books and a comprehensive cookery book collection - amassed over many years. I donated books to the local library and also to second-hand bookshops. The only books I kept, which I packed very carefully into storage boxes, were my precious first editions and personally signed books by my very favourite authors. We planned to rent a small storage facility for our precious things - like my books and for family photo albums etc.

The general rule was that if an item wasn’t deeply sentimental or it going to give us the “I’m so happy I still have you” feeling when we saw it again in perhaps in ten years’ time - then it wasn’t taking up expensive space in storage.

One thing I did worry over was our huge collection of digital photographs and the many years of family video that we had stored on CD discs. I wondered if CD would even exist in the future and if the format wasn’t accessible then and what would become of our precious digital memories? I decided that I would rent storage space for these too - and so for most of January and February 2015, while selling stuff and packing up, I spent many hours uploading these precious memories to digital cloud storage space that I could access from anywhere in the world via a computer and which I could also share online with family members who might like to see them.

Another thing that was hard to deal with was the thought of leaving our lovely West Highland Terrier, Polly. We weren’t actually abandoning her because our son, who dotes on her and takes her everywhere with him, was going to look after her. But I knew that I was going to miss her terribly. The thought of leaving her gave me a lot of heart-ache and I still have to fight the tears back when I think of her. She is getting old and I know I might never see her again.


Setting off to explore the world has been both a dream and an ambition for my husband and I for a long time – one that we have nurtured and worked for all our lives. We knew that once our sons had left home the empty nest syndrome wasn’t going to be an issue for us – as we planned to fly the nest too.

Now that my husband Trav has retired from his own business – he has become a scuba diving instructor – his dream job. While I continue to write magazine features – I’m now writing travel features – as well as my romantic adventure novels. Travel is a great inspiration for my imagination!

The downside of our plan is that miss my family, my friends and my dog but I can soften the pain of physical separation by keeping in touch with those we love on messaging services, Skype, and using social media like Facebook for daily contact. Surprisingly I don’t miss any material things. I don’t miss having a car or owning a house – now I just think of all the costs associated with such things – not the purchase so much but the upkeep.

The upside of our plan is the total freedom I now feel. Life is exciting every day – sometimes to the point of exhaustion – but then a good night’s sleep is sure to follow. We spend a lot of time in airports, but I’ve never minded, as I love to read. Or, now that most airports have free Wi-Fi, to catch up on social media. We also make lots of lovely new friends everywhere we go, and thanks to Facebook we can easily keep in touch when we or they move on.

During both January and February, I was working on the final edits of my latest romantic adventure novel ‘Castaway in the Caribbean’, which I had started writing during our time on Utila in the summer of 2014. I had a strict deadline to meet, as my editor was expecting to do the final copy edit at the end of February. I was also under pressure to finish on time because I had two PR companies organising promotional online tours for the new novel, which was to be first released on pre-order on Amazon worldwide in March as a Kindle ebook, before being released later in the summer as a paperback.

I was also still working as a senior editor with award winning emagazine LLm (www.loveahappyending.com) producing a monthly book review feature as well as regular travel features. As I planned to continue to work with the magazine during all my travels, I felt it was important not to miss any deadlines for this job either. The pressure was on!

One week before we left Scotland, on the 23rd February 2015, our best friends gave us a wonderful farewell party. It was a fun filled and emotional night, even though we all knew we would all see each other again at St Andrews in July. But we all knew it might be times far and few between that we would get see each other again like this over the next few years. They toasted to our travels and we extended our invitation to visit wherever we may be in the world. There were hearty promises made to come over to stay with us at our rented house in the Caribbean – and we do expect those promises to be kept!

Our farewell party was a fun filled and emotional night

Then on the 25th February, on his due date, Aaron Thomas Horton came into the world in South Korea and we became grandparents. What a wonderful feeling! Photos and videos of our beautiful grandson were gratefully received and we looked forward to when we could cuddle Aaron in our arms later in the year.

Aaron Thomas Horton: on The 25th February 2015 we became grandparents

On the 1st March we left Scotland from Glasgow Airport to fly back to the Caribbean via New York with an overnight in Houston Texas. We also had a stopover on the larger of the Bay Islands, Roatan, where it felt amazing to be basking in tropical heat after the bitter winter chill of Scotland!

It’s my birthday during the first week of March and this year I would be celebrating it on Utila with our island friends. I had a party at the dive centre and Trav arranged for me to have a ‘princess piñata’ – a traditionally Spanish/Honduran party piece - which I beat with a stick until she gave up her burden of sweeties!

My birthday princess piñata – a traditionally Spanish/Honduran party piece! 

A few days after my birthday, my new novel Castaway in the Caribbean went up on Amazon for pre-order ahead of its publication date of the 26th March. It was excited to see it racing up the Amazon UK and US bestseller charts. On publication date it was sitting at #3 in the Amazon Kindle Adventure Travel Fiction Bestseller Chart in the UK!

Castaway in the Caribbean went up on Amazon for pre-order ahead of its publication date

During this time, we started making plans for April, when our eldest son Ben and his girlfriend would be coming over to Utila to stay with us for two weeks. One of the things we planned to do was rent a private island called Little Cay for a weekend while they are with us – yes, an actual tropical tiny island with palm trees and a house on it – because that’s the kind of thing you can do at very low cost out in the eastern side of the Caribbean!

Little Cay - a private Caribbean island for rent

My dream of achieving a number one bestseller with one of my books came true on the 4th April 2015 when Castaway in the Caribbean hit the #1 spot in the UK Amazon Kindle Chart for Adventure Travel Fiction. To say I was thrilled was an understatement. I believe I screamed and had to be calmed with a gin and tonic!

Castaway in the Caribbean hit the #1 spot in the UK Amazon Kindle Chart for Adventure Travel Fiction

I’m practicing yoga again on Utila, attending several classes a week. I’ve also discovered Ashtanga yoga and I’m practicing at introductory level and really loving it. We are very fortunate to have wonderful Emma and Autumn to teach yoga here and classes are always well attended. I’ve made many lovely new friends through Yoga Utila.

I'm on the mat at Yoga Utila

While I’m busy Trav is enjoying his diving with Ecomarine Dive shop, which is the oldest established dive shop on Utila. It has a lovely family atmosphere and it’s where real divers come to play. Their mantra is 'freedom rules!'

Ecomarine - Utila's longest established dive shop. Photo: Steve Dankewich

When Trav and I get a day off together we call it a Date Day and we take a boat over to Coral Beach and Neptunes’s Bar and Grill. Sometimes we’ll go over to Water Cay for a beach BBQ picnic and drinks. I tell you… life really doesn’t get much better than this.

Coral Beach Utila
Ecomarines having fun at Water Cay

When our son Ben and his girlfriend arrived from Scotland, we chartered a small plane to meet them in Roatan. I don’t believe they’d ever been in a Cessna before and I think they might have been both thrilled and nervous when we told them it was their ride home!

Both thrilled and nervous with their ride home!
Father and son prepare to go diving
Ben and Trav diving in the Caribbean Sea

May is a fun time on the island – there are beach parties to attend. Temperatures on the island in May are incredibly hot and the only way of staying cool is to jump into the sea – and we did this as often as possible: picnics and BBQ’s on the beach followed by sitting in the shallows with a beer or a rum in hand.

I continued to enjoy yoga and practiced several times a week. I felt I was really improving until I did something stupid - a lesson learned in over-stretching - and tore a tendon in my knee. I was told this was a common sports injury but I could expect to take at least nine months to recover. Nine months on and it is still painful. Gentle stretching, walking and swimming helps but I do wonder if it will ever fully recover. So if you see me wearing a knee brace in some of the photos that follow – that’s why!

At the end of May it’s our wedding anniversary - this year is number 32. And as we had to do a ‘visa run’ anyway (our entry permit allows for 90 days) we decided to leave Utila for Miami for a few days and then, for extra fun, to head down to the Florida Keys. Getting to Miami involved taking a small plane to the neighbouring island of Roatan and then a flight to the Cayman Islands and onto Miami. We arrived in Miami on Memorial weekend – a major holiday in the USA – so the place was buzzing and blisteringly hot. We explored South Beach and the Art Deco area and walked the entire length of Ocean Drive.

South Beach Miami Florida
Art Deco Area Miami Beach
Trav on South Beach

After the weekend, we took a Greyhound Bus to Key Largo for a couple of days and then onto Key West (we had a great view from the bus’s front seats) as we travelled over the famous seven-mile bridge.

Go Greyhound!

The Florida Keys - Seven Mile Bridge

At Key West we celebrated our wedding anniversary in style on Duval Street and had Margarita’s at the original Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville. We visited the shipwreck museum and then the Hemingway House. To celebrate my new found love of yoga, I had two tattoos done at the Southernmost Tattoo shop. I continue to be delighted with them – one on each wrist – an Om in a heart and a lotus flower.

My new tattoos!

Having enjoyed Key West we decided to stay in the US a bit longer and so we flew to New Orleans – a place that has long been on my ‘bucket list’. We stayed in the French Quarter on Chartres Street – one street away from the famous Bourbon Street and a five minute walk from Jackson Square. What an amazing time we had – shopping in ‘Hex’ for spells and tarot cards – eating oysters for lunch – and going to jazz bars in the evenings. 

Oysters for lunch in New Orleans

We stayed in New Orleans for four days and then, as we knew we had a return flight booked back to the UK at the end of the month, we were tempted to continue our travels over the next four weeks and meet with our flight in Houston rather than head back to Roatan.

But were next? We thought about taking the Greyhound Bus up to Nashville and then onto Memphis – perhaps to do the ‘Bourbon Trail’ across Tennessee. But eventually, needing rest, we settled on somewhere to kick back and relax – somewhere with beaches and guaranteed sunshine. We settled on the Bahamas. 

We found accommodation in the Bahamas using Airbnb.com – which we hadn’t used before but which came highly recommended to us. We found a private traditional colonial style home very close to the famous Cable Beach on Nassau that had a small separate one bedroomed apartment, a bathroom, kitchen and screened porch sitting area. It was being rented out by a retired university professor named Stuart who was originally from the UK and it just happened to be vacant for the month.  We contacted Stuart and asked him if we could come the following day. He said he would pick us up at the airport. Bahamas here we come. During our stay, one of the highlight was spending a weekend at Atlantis and seeing Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett in concert!

At Atlantis
Cable Beach Nassau Bahamas
Our last day in the Bahamas

The first week in July we headed back to the UK. We planned to see our family and friends in Scotland and then hire a car and drive down to England for a few days to catch up with family there. Afterwards, we had a couple of weeks to spare before we attended a wedding in St Andrews Scotland.

So what to do with those two weeks? Our family and friends were caught up with so we decided to take a look at grabbing a bargain last minute flight to somewhere new to us that also happened to be high on our bucket list.

Luckily for us a flight to the Seychelles was up for immediate grabs with Emirate airlines – leaving the very next day. We decided to organise our first night’s accommodation in the Seychelles online and then go island-hopping Indian Ocean style. Our bags, of course, were already packed!

Praislin Seychelles

Once back in Scotland, we had two days to prepare to be guests at a fabulous wedding in St Andrews. With only worn out beach clothes and flip-flops to our names – Trav and I went shopping on Princes Street Edinburgh – my favourite shopping street in the world! I immediately bagged a summer frock in Monsoon’s summer sale and a pair of lace ballet shoes from Accessorize together with a jaunty wee ‘fascinator’ on a headband. Trav went to a men’s wear department store and managed to hire a suit, shirt, waistcoat and shoes. We were all set to head north for a fabulous weekend in St Andrews.

July - we were guests at a wonderful wedding in St Andrews Scotland

On the Monday morning after the St Andrews wedding weekend we met with our two sons, Ben who lives in Edinburgh and Iain who lives in Glasgow and together we flew to Seoul, South Korea.

This was without doubt the most exciting trip of the year. Not only would our three sons be together again two and a half years after our son James had left Scotland to teach English abroad but we would be meeting our baby grandson for the first time. It was so fantastic a trip that we forgot about being tired or jet lagged from from all our travelling – it was such an exciting and emotional journey.

Meeting our first grandson Aaron in South Korea
Aaron in his Scotland kit!
Horton's on tour!
The Horton Kang family

Twenty four hours after landing back in Glasgow, Trav and I were flying back to the Caribbean. We stayed at an airport hotel overnight and set several alarms and booked a wake-up call to make sure that we woke in time for our early morning flight. We knew there would be time to relax once we got back to our adopted island home of Utila and our lives could slow down a little. Travelling is fun but it is also very exhausting!

Back to our island home of Utila...

September and October
We were back on Utila for the next two months but Trav and I were already making plans for when we would leave at the end of October, when it would be rainy season. Rainy season in Utila runs from October until the end of February.

Leaving Utila again - but we'll be back...

We had decided to go on our most adventurous trip to date – to spend four months exploring South East Asia staying at island dive resorts.

Our plan was to first fly back to Scotland to see our family and friends. We then booked to fly to Bangkok from Edinburgh with a return four months later directly to Houston USA, so we knew it might be another year before we could feasibly return to the UK again.

While in the UK we also had to arrange for a multi-entry visa into Thailand and to top up on expired travel vaccines.

So as planned, at the very end of October, we arrived back in Scotland for a period of just 48 hours. Our youngest son met us at the airport and drove us straight to the Thai Consul in Glasgow for our multiple entry visas. On the same day, we had our travel vaccines administered and we swapped our suitcases for backpacks at an outdoor store in Edinburgh.

For our Grand Asian Trip we swapped our suitcases for backpacks

Our Grand Asian Trip began when we arrived in Bangkok, where we spent the night, before flying onto Krabi. From Krabi we took a traditional long-tail boat to Railey Beach: inaccessible any other way, it is said to be one of the most picturesque places in Thailand. We stayed here two nights before moving further south, again by long-tail boat and later by speed-boat, to spend a whole month island-hopping down Thailand’s Andaman Sea, stopping off at tropical paradises along the way.

Beautiful Krabi

We stopped off at Koh Lantra, Koh Kradan, Ko Ngai, Koh Bulon, Koh Lipe and also took many trips out on dive boats to other smaller islands, like Koh Phi Phi – famous for being the setting of the Leonardo DeCaprio movie ‘The Beach’ - until we reached the island of Langkawi in Malaysia.

Travelling between islands in the Andaman Sea Thailand
On Koh Kradan

We stayed on Langkawi, Malaysia, for a few days and really explored the island. We found everything so affordable here as it is a duty free island - so we enjoyed lots of fabulous Malaysian food and premium drinks and wines!

Langkawi Malaysia
View from the top - Langkawi Cable Car

On route to our next destination of the Philippines, we flew to Kuala Lumpur and spent the night in the city. While in KL, as Kuala Lumpur is known, we were keen to see the famous landmarks - the Petronis twin-towers. We knew we didn’t have enough time in the city to get a ticket to go up inside and walk along the sky bridge that has featured in so many action movies  - so we wanted to make sure we saw the towers from the outside. At night they were all lit up and looked spectacular so we took a taxi to Traders Hotel, where on the top floor they have the ‘Sky Bar’ famous for its cocktails and the best view of the Petronis Towers in KL!

The Petronis Twin Towers as seen from Traders Hotel
Having a cocktail at Traders Sky Bar
Trav and I agreed that so far we had made just one mistake in planning our trip – and that was not allowing ourselves more time in KL – so we vowed to return to explore the city properly sometime in the future.

Traveller tip: The Petronis Towers only allow a certain number of visitors per day to walk across the sky bridge so you have to get there as early as 7.30am to queue for a ticket for later that same day. Worth it though!

From KL Malaysia we flew onto the Philippines. We were excited to be spending a whole month exploring these tropical islands that had so far been only a dream. Our first destination was Malapascua – which up until that point we had only seen on a map. It was our furthest journey point in the northern Vasayas as we planned to head back south afterwards heading for Bohol, then onto the somewhat remote island of Siquijor, known as ‘fire island’ as from a distance at night it looks to be on fire, due to its millions of dancing fire-flies. Then we planned to end up in Dauin, in the area of Negros, where we would spend Christmas.

Malapascua Philippines
Bohol Philippines
Siquijor Philippines
Trav diving off Gato Island Philippines
On the dive boat - Philippines
Goodbye Malapascua party - from Kokays Dive Shop

Two things that we hadn’t accounted for made our stay in the Philippines a little more difficult than we expected. Firstly, we had thought that getting around the islands would be as easy as it was in Thailand – we were wrong. A transport network between the islands doesn’t really exist, certainly not by boat or ferry anyway. So we travelled by boat and then long distances by road and then more boats. It took us over 15 hours to travel between each island. It was also much more expensive than we had envisaged. Although it was all worth it in the end of course.

The other thing was the weather – which had been perfect for most of our trip and for that I am so grateful – but once we arrived at our Christmas destination, the weather took a turn for the worst and a typhoon hit the northern islands where we had been at the start of our Philippine adventure.

Because of the typhoon, diving was cancelled, as were all boats and ferries and when we heard that the typhoon had circled and was coming back in again – this time to hit the area where we were - we decided to cut our trip short and leave.

We took a flight out and headed back to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We were excited to be going back sooner than we thought! We checked into a lovely treat of a hotel right next to the Petronis Towers for the night and then we managed to booked in for Christmas too. With Trav's hotel loyalty card we secured an upgraded room and so we were looking forward to spending Christmas in style!

In the meantime, with three days to go before Christmas Eve, we decided to flit off to Singapore. It was only an hour flight away and we had never been there before. We planned to do some Christmas shopping there – as we only had beach clothes in our backpacks and we needed party clothes for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. While in Singapore we did some fabulous sightseeing too and had a Singapore Sling or two at the famous Raffles Hotel!

Singapore Slings at Raffles Hotel Singapore

Christmas in Kuala Lumpur was fantastic. We explored the city, went up in the Petronis Towers and walked along the famous Sky Bridge. We also had afternoon tea in the KL Tower – the one with a restaurant at the top that turns slowly to give you a 360 degree view of the city. I had my hair done at a classy city hairdressers and then had a manicure and a pedicure too. Bliss.

On the Sky Bridge - Petronis Towers Kuala Lumpur
Looking down from the top of the towers

Then we celebrated a very grown up Christmas; our first ever without being with any of our kids or without me doing any of the cooking. We ate Christmas dinner in a restaurant – Asian Style – with champagne of course! It was all very magical. I felt like Cinderella afterwards, taking off my sparkly dress and shoes - which I gave away to hotel staff afterwards - as I couldn’t fit anything else in my backpack. It’s a real pain having to carry anything more than 15kg on your back and besides the airlines don’t let you check in more than 20kg.

Christmas in KL

New Year
On December the 26th, we said goodbye to Kuala Lumpur and flew to Bangkok and from Bangkok we flew to the island of Koh Samui on Thailand’s gulf side. We stayed there for just one night before taking the three hour ferry over to the island of Koh Tao, where we planned to celebrate the New Year and to settle down for a six whole weeks. Hence our need for a multi-entry visa plus a 90 day stay. Travel tip: do carefully research the up to date visa/entry requirements of the countries you plan to visit. Thailand made changes to theirs just weeks before we travelled!

Happy New Year from Koh Tao Thailand!

During our six weeks on Koh Tao, Trav will be diving while I am writing – I'm working on my next adventure romance novel due out in the summer of 2016. I will of course enjoy occasional days out of the dive boat so that I can snorkel on coral reefs and swim in the sea. Also during this time, my lovely friend Dina is coming out from the UK to spend almost three weeks holiday here on Koh Tao. She has booked a room right next door to ours and I can’t wait to see her again. I’m sure that after she gets here I’ll have another adventure to tell you about!

Rounding off our Grand Asian Adventure:
We plan to round off our Grand Asian Adventure by visiting South Korea in mid-February – arriving just in time for our grandson’s first birthday party. I can’t tell you how excited we are about it. Aaron is almost walking now and he has grown so much. He is a happy wee boy and thanks to our son and daughter-in-law we see photos and clips of video of him every single day through Facebook messenger and Skype. These are just a few cuties ones!

Our return flight at the end of February will take us from Bangkok straight back to the USA and onto Roatan and then Utila.

Thanks for reading my blog and following what has been an epic year of travel and adventure and achievement. 2015 will be forever in my memory as the year we truly made our dreams come true.

While travelling, as I have said at the start of this post, we have really missed being with family and friends. I know social media is not quite the same as kissing and hugging and being there but I honestly don’t think I could have handled being separated from you all in the ‘old days’ before Facebook and the internet.

I’m now looking forward to seeing what the New Year will bring us all and so I will take this opportunity to once again wish you a very happy and healthy and prosperous 2016!

Love, Janice xx

My Travel Map 2015-2016
To date we have visited 37 countries in the world - but this map shows how much of the world we have yet to explore!