Tuesday 3 January 2017

2016 – An epic year of world travel and amazing adventures!

2016 was a truly epic yearThroughout 2016, we have been fortunate to travel to many fantastic places in far-flung corners of the world, where we have met lots of wonderful people we can now call friends.

This time last year, I posted a travel map showing a total of 37 countries that we had visited to date. This year, our updated map shows a total of 46 countries – that’s nine uniquely new destinations for us during 2016 and of course many repeated ones too in the USA and the Caribbean.

We saw this year in with a fabulous new year’s eve party on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand. We stayed on the island for the first six weeks of 2016 and then - just six weeks before the end of the year - we returned to Koh Tao again. It felt like a wonderful fate to be coming full circle in 2016!

This year, we have not only travelled a lot, we have achieved a lot.

While my husband Trav and I were staying on our island home of Utila in the Caribbean Sea (for a total of six months this year – although we did a visa run to the USA and Mexico between each of our three month stays) Trav added to his scuba diving qualifications and experience by qualifying as a PADI Staff Instructor. He also became a boat captain by passing the International Commercial Small Powerboat and Rib Master ITYW course. I am SO proud of all his hard work and all he has achieved this year.

During our second trimester on Utila, Trav, as a newly qualified Staff Instructor, was working as a volunteer dive instructor with Operation Wallacea – an organisation that works with marine biologists and eco-students at Degree/PHD level.

The emphasis was very much on reef ecology and marine conservation and Trav’s part in this exciting venture was to teach students how to dive and also to maintain a safe underwater working environment for them in which they could undertake their marine studies.

While Trav was busy doing all of the amazing stuff above - I began working on my next romantic adventure novel entitled ‘Island in the Sun’ and also to write world travel features for lifestyle magazines – and of course to hang around in a hammock drinking cocktails!

Highlights of 2016 include:

* My best friend Dina coming over from England to Koh Tao Thailand to visit in January.

* Trav and I visiting South Korea for the occasion of our baby grandson’s first birthday party in February.

* Our eldest son Ben and youngest son Iain coming over to the Caribbean with their girlfriends to be with us in April.

* Our USA visa run from the Caribbean in May/June, during which time we renewing our wedding vows in Las Vegas while celebrating our 33rd wedding anniversary where we took a trip out to the Grand Canyon before ‘honeymooning’ in Cozumel and Tulum in Mexico.

* After spending a combined total of six months on the Caribbean island of Utila, we flew to Florida to spend a week there before flying on to visit family in Vancouver, Canada.

* After two weeks in Canada, we flew onto Asia via Japan to visit Malaysia and Indonesia before coming full circle back to Thailand at the end of 2016.

It’s been a heady twelve months and so I thought I’d best review the highlights now before we get too involved in 2017. I’ll take it one month at a time – starting at the beginning. If you click on the links after each month’s summary you can go to the full blog post with more details and more photos of that trip.

January 2016. We saw in the new year on the beach in Thailand, dancing with the fire dancers, setting our wish lantern up into the sky, and counting in 2016 with our Koh Tao friends

Seeing in 2016 on Sairee Beach Koh Tao Thailand

Later in January, my best friend Dina, whom I’ve known all my life, came out to Thailand to visit me and to have a holiday/vacation in the sun. During this time, Dina and I travelled from Koh Tao to Koh Samui and onto to Chiang Mai and Bangkok. On the return journey, we took an iconic train journey through Thailand and we had many fabulous adventures and lots of fun. Dina also got to discover scuba diving for the first time on Koh Tao. While we were off on our BFF adventures, Trav was busy doing an PADI Instructor Development Course to become a qualified scuba diving instructor.

You can read more about our fabulous BFF travels in Thailand HERE.

February: Trav and I travelled to South Korea to attend our grandson’s first birthday party, which is a special occasion in any country, but in Korea it has special significance, and so a big party was planned. We arrived looking forward to meeting our extended Korean family although had underestimated how cold it would be – in the minus’s C – and we only had summer clothes. Trav bought socks to wear with his flip-flops and one of our first priorities was to buy warm clothing for the week.

You can read more about our celebrations in South Korea HERE.

March: Trav and I flew back to the Caribbean and it didn’t take us long to settle back into island life on Utila, the smaller of the Bay Islands off Honduras. We have now spent a total of over a year on this beautiful island and it felt good to be back. During our first week, it was my birthday and we had a party with friends on the dock and a meal out in an island restaurant. My birthday present this year was a bicycle. I was thrilled - it’s a perfect way to get around this small island - and I haven’t owned a bicycle since I was about twelve years old!

Settling back into Caribbean island life on Utila
I haven’t owned a bicycle since I was about twelve years old!

On Utila Trav completed his Staff Instructor course at Coral View Dive Centre and also took and passed his International Commercial Small Powerboat and Rib Master ITYW course and so became Captain Trav!

The months whizzed by – otherwise filled with sunshine and fun and diving and snorkelling and boat trips and picnics and BBQ’s over on beautiful Water Cay – one of the small islands off Utila and a favourite spot for spending time on the beach and catching up with friends.

You can read more about our experiences on the Caribbean island of Utila HERE.

April: We were so excited that two of our sons, Ben and Iain, were arriving from Edinburgh UK with their girlfriends, Hayley and Brogan, to spend two weeks on the island with us.

They were looking forward to lots of sunshine and fun and diving. Ben and Iain are already qualified dive instructors and the girls wanted to do their Discover Scuba Diving courses. One of those days out on the boat with Ecomarine Dive Centre turned out to be very special indeed because we spotted and swam with a whale shark and, not one, but two pods of dolphins. It is such a joy to swim so close to these beautiful and wild creatures. 

Our wild dolphins - photo credit Dave Thatcher 
Family fun diving

During their holiday, it was Iain’s 23rd birthday and we celebrated with a day at the beach and with lunch and cocktails and birthday cake. Over the following weekend, we all rented a private island called Little Cay – which is amazing in itself - but also something that is totally affordable in this part of the eastern Caribbean!

Happy birthday to Iain! 
The tiny private island of Little Cay - our family weekend retreat

You can read more about this amazing time together as part of the same post as above – which is also HERE.

May: Trav and I had to leave our Caribbean island home of Utila on a visa-run to the USA, where we celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary by renewing our wedding vows in Las Vegas, took a 600 mile round trip on a bus to drive over the Hoover Dam and to travel along ‘the mother road’ of Route 66 before exploring the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and grabbing a last minute flight to Mexico for a second honeymoon!

You can read more about this whirlwind of adventure and romance HERE.

June – July - August: We returned from Mexico to our Caribbean island home of Utila and stayed for another three months. During this time Trav was very busy indeed volunteering as a dive staff instructor for the marine conservation and educational organisation Operation Wallacia (OpWal) at Coral View Dive Centre.

While Trav was diving I had another couple of tattoos. My new tattoos came about because a guest tattooist from the USA came to Utila and after seeing his work I decided to finally get my 'mermaid and diver' tattoo done on my thigh and, to cover the nasty scar on my foot, a 'marine' montage with a shell, a starfish, a sand dollar and a sea turtle.

No pain no gain - getting tattooed

The rest of the time I was working hard on my next novel entitled ‘Island in the Sun’ which I hoped to have completed by the end of the summer. While I was researching and writing about a hurricane in the story, we actually had a hurricane warning for our part of the eastern Caribbean Sea. Hurricane Earl had started out as a tropical wave and, during my research watching the National Hurricane Centre website, I watched it progress to a tropical storm and then become a hurricane.

You can read more about Caribbean island life and hurricanes HERE.

September: We left Utila when our visas expired in early September and we flew back to the USA. As Trav and I were feeling pretty exhausted, after working and playing so hard all summer, so we took a week’s vacation in Lauderdale by the Sea in Florida. We booked into an inexpensive hotel right opposite the beach in this beautiful laid back little town and we took it easy.

On the beach at Lauderdale by the Sea Florida

We also ate really well too - it was such a treat to go to a big US supermarket and to see the huge variety of foods available - after our long stay on a small Caribbean island that only got supplies by boat twice a week. We could hardly believe our eyes and we enjoyed shopping for food and cooking for ourselves in the BBQ back at our apartment.

We did eat out a couple of times too and we took walks on the beach and lazed around in the sun at the pool and we slept - we did a lot of sleeping to make up for the sleep loss on Utila - where we were woken every morning by our natural alarm clock of ear-piercingly loud cockerels crowing outside our bedroom window at around 4.30am!

You can read more about our summer of island life HERE

September: Revived and refreshed, we set off on our next adventure by flying from Fort Lauderdale to Vancouver Canada, where we were to stay with family for the next two weeks. My Uncle Ed (my mum’s brother) and his wife Dawn have, over the years, often invited us over to stay with them at their home in Hope, British Columbia, so we thought we’d take them up on their kind offer at long last and visit. We had THE most amazing time – hiking up mountains and exploring the wilds and having fabulous experiences – all while looking out for bears. We concluded our trip with a fabulous visit to Whistler Mountain and a ride of the world’s highest and longest peak to peak gondola ride!

In Hope BC Canada with my Uncle Ed and Aunt Dawn

You can read more about our amazing trip to beautiful British Columbia HERE.

At the end of September: Trav and I flew from Vancouver Canada (via Montreal, Houston, and Tokyo) to Kuala Lumpur (KL) in Malaysia. A total flight time of twenty-five hours and a leap in time of eight hours.

Thankfully, we managed to get a few hours of sleep before we had to dash back to the airport to meet up with our son James and his lovely wife Sujeong, who were flying in from South Korea to meet up with us in KL for the weekend.

We hadn’t seen James and Sujeong since February of this year, when we were in South Korea for our grandson Aaron’s first birthday celebrations. Aaron wasn’t with them this time though, as this was a strictly grown-up affair, to help James and Sujeong celebrate their second wedding anniversary.

With James and Sujeong in Kuala Lumpur

We had a wonderful weekend, sightseeing at the stunning Petronas Towers and its famous sky bridge, shopping in KL’s sophisticated malls, and celebrating their anniversary by eating out in restaurants, drinking in our hotel club room, enjoying each other’s company and catching up on our busy lives. It was such a special weekend.

You can read more about our very special weekend in Kuala Lumpur HERE.

October: From KL we flew to Bail. We stayed just a few nights in Bali and we explored the island interior town of Ubud – famous for its monkey forest and reputedly the cultural and culinary centre of Bali. We enjoyed Ubud but not so much the busy coastal touristy town of Kuta. We didn’t explore further – although I’m sure there is more to see in Bali – but we were keen to move off island to the more remote Indonesian islands off the neighbouring island of Lombok – the Gili Islands. Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno.

The Gili islands are a vision of paradise in Indonesia that have white sand beaches and palm trees and no motorised transport. Gili T is the larger and most developed of the three and it has gained a reputation from backpackers as a party island. Trav and I like to beach party on occasion, but on this trip we were looking for quiet, relaxation, diving, snorkelling, great seafood, and a beach bar with a laid back ambience, so we stayed on the boat when it made its stop here and we went onto Gili Air. We stayed here in a lovely homestead cottage for a week for the princely sum of £100 (equivalent) before moving on to the even smaller and, dare I say it, even  more beautiful island of Gili Meno. Here we splashed out a bit and stayed in a boutique hotel amongst a coconut plantation. It was idyllic.

I do urge you to see my full post on this trip - as the photos are stunning. Not that I’m an expert photographer – it’s just the islands are so visually spectacular.

You can read more about Bali and beyond HERE

From Indonesia we flew back to KL and onto Langkawi Malaysia.
We were looking for somewhere to settle down for a period of six weeks before we went onto Thailand to finish the year where it started - on the island of Koh Tao. As October was rainy (monsoon) season on Koh Tao, we went house hunting in Malaysia, where it was the beginning of the high (dry) season. We stayed a week on the island of Langkawi and then a week back in the city of Kuala Lumpur. We viewed lots of apartments in both places but we were unsuccessfully (mostly due to it being high season). BUT then, unexpectedly, we were offered not one but two fantastic opportunities back in Thailand and we took one of them – which would help Trav to work towards his Master Instructor scuba qualification – his goal for 2017. So everything worked out far better than we ever could have planned!

You can read all about our house hunting failures in Malaysia and our impromptu return to Thailand HERE

November: This is Trav’s birthday month and it happily coincided with a visa run (as we only had a 30 day entry visa for Thailand) so after 30 days on the island of Koh Tao we hopped on a boat, a bus, a plane, a train and an uber taxi, and headed back to KL to celebrate Trav’s birthday and also to secure a 60 day tourist visa from the Thai Consulate.

The Thai visa takes up a whole page of a passport and then there are the additional in/out stamps too. It was pointed out to us in the KL Thai Consulate that we had now run out of blank pages in our passports.

This was not so much a problem but an immediate crisis. Our passports still had 18 months before they expired but if we had no more blank pages then no pages – no visas – no stay – no travel – and the clock was ticking and the days counting down to our next visa run. Did we have to dash back to the UK to replace our passports? Thankfully, we found a way to renew our passports via Her Majesties Passport Office in Bangkok. It took just three weeks to get our brand new passports. Stress but then Success!

You can find out more about how we overcame our visa and passport problems HERE

December: Even though the monsoon rains where heavy over Koh Tao, we had a pretty amazing December. We had in hand our new passports and visas that allowed us to stay in Thailand until the first week in January. So we forgot about travel for a while and Trav spent his time diving (he gets wet anyway so a little monsoon rain doesn’t bother him!) and I knuckled down indoors to finish my next book ‘Island in the Sun’.

I have now finished the first draft and it has now been sent to my lovely editor for a story edit. This part of the editing process is when a fresh set of eyes (my editors sharp ones) reads the manuscript for readability, story structure, plot and character development.

The week before Christmas however, Trav caught a head cold and due to congestion he couldn’t clear his ears. This is bad news for a diver as being underwater puts lots of pressure on the ear drum. Diving with a head cold is therefore not recommended.

As it was raining heavily on Koh Tao island – and had been for almost three weeks – we checked the weather forecast to find that on the mainland just a few hundred miles north of us in the Thai resort of Hua Hin – the sun was shining. So we took a boat to Chumphon the mainland (1 hour) and then a bus (5 hours) to Hua Hin.

The trip was inexpensive and the bus was actually a well-appointed and comfortable coach. At Hua Hin, we stayed at the Intercontinental Resort, where we got three nights for the price of two (a member of the Holiday Inn Group, we collect their points). This mini-break was to be a wonderful pre-Christmas gift to each other. The hotel was right on the beach and the resort was very beautiful – plus it was indeed hot and sunny.

After being in Hua Hin, Trav’s head cold was much better and so we returned to Koh Tao to carry on as before – Trav doing his diving and me finishing my novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel too good at this point and so I spent the next week, up until Christmas Eve, not able to eat or drink very much. I didn’t have a cold but I had something – maybe a stomach bug.

Despite feeling ill, I got back my story edits from my lovely editor and finished working on the second lot of edits of ‘Island in the Sun’ on New Year’s Eve. It felt great to be finished, especially on the last day of the year. The next stage in the editing process is the copy edit – my editor will check the novel for grammar, spelling, typos over used words etc.

Trav and I celebrated Christmas and New Year on Koh Tao with our lovely friends. The weather improved and we had a fun Christmas Eve night out with Bans Dive Centre at Fishbowl Bar and, on Christmas Day, it was very hot and sunny so we walked along the beach. It was kind of amusing to see everyone walking along or sunbathing in Santa hats.

We have been travelling for three years now - and we haven’t experienced a cold winter in a long time - but it still feels strange to me to experience Christmas in 35+ degrees C of heat!

We had a wonderful night out on Christmas Day night with our friends from Sunshine Dive Centre. We had a ‘proper’ Christmas roast dinner at Barracuda Restaurant and we all did a fun Secret Santa. Trav received a dive equipment thingy and I got a spa voucher. Very suitable and wonderful gifts indeed!

It was truly wonderful over Christmas to chat and to have facetime with our family and friends using social media / Skype /Viber etc. It was great to see how everyone was celebrating the holidays and to reflect on what an amazing year of travel and adventure 2016 truly was for us. I’m amazed by it all and also very thankful.

So now we are into January 2017 and I’m excited for what the New Year will bring. We don't have any immediate plans to leave Thailand - except for another visa run - so that will no doubt be the subject of my next post. 

Happy New Year to you all!

Do pop back next time and feel free to leave a comment. I’ll be sure to reply.

If you enjoyed reading about our travels in 2016 and are curious about the places we visited in 2015 - you can read the highlights of those travels HERE.

Love, Janice xx

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