2023 Year in Review

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2023 was a big travel year for us and although I haven’t posted nearly as much blog content as I would have liked, there are so many travel highlights to share. 2023 saw us embark on a 6-month family trip from February to July, which was especially memorable because it might just be our last extended travels together as a family of 5. With two kids in high school now, our travels going forward will likely occur during school holidays so this trip was extra special.

Favourite Multi-day Hike

We wanted to do a lot of hiking on this trip including a few multi-day hikes. The four that stand out are Quetzeltrekkers in Guatemala (mentioned under “Best Sunrise”), Tayrona National Park in Colombia, Los Nevados National Park in Colombia and of course all of the hikes we did in the Dolomites in Italy.

Los Nevados was really special because just the week prior we had to cancel our planned Lost City trek because Paul had been sick and we luckily found this much lesser known region. Los Nevados is in the high Andes forest and the unique paramo ecosystem was magical. We hiked in rain boots (we were skeptical at first too, but that is the way in this wet region), staying at simple farms and reaching our second highest elevation ever (4200m). Miles did suffer from altitude sickness again and at our highest elevation our guide was making him cocoa leaf tea, Paul was carrying him and eventually they sent for a horse to take him to the next farm. He wasn’t a fan of the horse, but luckily as we descended, he started feeling better. We hiked with Paramo Trek – a fantastic company with superguides.

As a mountain lover, the instagram photos of the Dolomites had completely captured me and even though it isn’t a budget destination, it was one of the parts of the trip that I was most looking forward to. We spent 2 weeks in the Dolomites – day hiking, trying independent via ferratas and eating delicious northern Italian cuisine. I found out I actually quite like polenta! But the main event for our visit was a 7-day hut-to-hut hiking trip on the Alta Via 2.

We love backcountry camping, but were keen for a hut-to-hut experience where we didn’t have to carry massive bags, could sleep under shelter and have hot food served to us. Europe has a massive network of trails with huts or refugios scattered regularly along the trails. While there were elements of backcountry camping that we missed – the solitude and feeling of being alone in nature – we loved the hut experience too. We covered 84 km in 7 days, raced thunderstorms, met many friendly hikers and soaked up the communal and unique vibes of each hut. It was absolutely incredible and we are keen to do more hikes like this in the Dolomites and Europe.

Favourite Eats

Greece and Italy were hands down the countries with our favourite eats. In Greece, we loved the stereotypical dishes like cheap souvlaki, fresh greek salads, fish and moussaka. But we also loved tasting regional specialties like Cretan olive oil – we went olive oil tasting, which was interesting, but I definitely prefer wine tasting! We ate Cretan specialties like dakos, Greek pies, and Chaniotika Boureki (potato & zucchini casserole) and capped off each meal with ouzo whether we wanted it or not!

In northern Italy, we gorged ourselves on pizza and pasta of course, and some of us learned to love polenta and mushrooms. We also had our fair share of streudel, German beer and delicious Italian wines.

In Morocco, the cheap and abundant fresh orange juice was amazing. We did a cooking class in Marrakech where we learned just as much about Moroccan culture and politics, as we did about the food. We ate a whole lot of tagines in Morocco which did lose their appeal after awhile. But what we loved the most in Morocco was the copious amounts of mint tea. Whenever you arrive somewhere, meet someone or just want a break from the busyness of Moroccan life, you have tea. The kids even became experts at the famous Moroccan pouring style.

Lastly, when staying with Ella’s host family in France, we were treated to delicious home cooked French meals and capped off our visit with an incredible dinner at the fanciest restaurant I have ever been to.

Favourite Island

We visited four Greek islands this year and it is hard to choose just one as our favourite. We spent 2 weeks on Crete and it is definitely an island we want to return to. We loved the diversity of the island, exploring secluded beaches and coves and mountain towns and of course the incredible food and hospitality of Cretans.

The Best Hotel Pool

The desert in Morocco is hot and when choosing a place to stay I was completely captured by this swimming pool over looking the dunes. It was bliss to swim with this amazing view and we had wonderful hospitality by the staff here.

Most Unique Destination

We visited 4 Balkan countries on this trip (Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo) and each were very unique, but Albania had to be the quirkirst. From touring bunkers to learning about why Albania has the highest concentration of Mercedes-Benz cars in the world to learning about the communist history of Albania, it was a fascinating country to visit.

Best Sunrise

In Guatemala, we did a 3-day hike with Quetzeltrekkers, a social enterprise that supports local children. As we walked from the city of Xela to Lake Atitlan, we bonded with our fellow travellers and got to experience the real Guatemala. The highlight of the 3 days was watching the sunrise over Lake Atitlan on the last day. From our viewpoint, we could see volcanoes erupting and the warm glow lighting up the lake as the sun rose was pure magic.

Favourite City

We visited some really cool cities on our travels this year including the Balkan capitals of Tirana and Skopje, Madrid, Nantes, Verona, Cartagena, Marrakech, Casablanca and Fez. Each was special and unique, but our week spent in Medellin, Colombia really stands out. We were fascinated with the transformation of Colombia over the past couple decades and nowhere is a bigger success story than Medellin, once one of the most violent cities in the world. The pride of what has been accomplished and hope for the future is everywhere in Medellin. It was also a city where we spent a full week in a residential neighborhood, which allowed us a break from our travels.

Best Hollywood Location/Authentic Cultural Experience

We are huge Game of Thrones fans, so it was really exciting to visit a Game of Thrones film location on this trip. We visited Essaouria in Morocco where we walked along the ramparts that was Slaver’s Bay, Astapor.

We couldn’t mention Essaouria without mentioning the very authentic cultural experience we had there. Ella, her exchange partner and I visited a very traditional hammam and without a shared language, an older Moroccan woman scrubbed and bathed us, challenging our modesty.

Best Airbnb

We stayed in Airbnbs most of the time and I likely spend way too much time trying to find the perfect place to stay in each destination. But it pays off – we were truly happy with everywhere we stayed.

One of the most incredible places we stayed was a mountainside home in Minca, Colombia. The home had the most incredible views and sunsets and we loved the indoor-outdoor living style and decor. It was a splurge for us at $160 CAD/night, but a total deal in hindsight.

Another standout place was a riad in the Marrakech medina. The traditional tilework and decor were an incredible introduction to Morocco and the rooftop terrace had the best views and sunsets.

Our hosts in Greece were the most hospitable we have ever encountered. On Naxos, the grandmother would make us fresh cakes and treats daily. On Crete, our hosts became friends as we dined together and enjoyed learning about each others lives.

Best Cat Destination

Morocco hands down! We aren’t cat people, but the Moroccan cats tugged at our heartstrings. Sadly so many of them struggle to survive but we were so impressed with the communal effort in Morocco to take care of the stray cats everywhere. There would often be boxes in the alleys of the medinas with a mama cat and kitties and people would leave cat food and leftovers for them. They could definitely be a nuisance when trying to dine outdoors and the family joke was that Paul kicked the cats (really he just nudged them with his leg throughout our dinners).

Best Spa

This is a funny heading because it implies that we regularly visit spas, which we definitely don’t. Ella, Paul and I visited QC Terme Dolomiti in Italy as a special treat and it blew us away. More a wellness centre than a spa, we relaxed our tired muscles in glorious pools and saunas with mountain views and explored all of the relaxation rooms and water features and topped it off with a healthy and delicious spa lunch. We even managed to forget our bathing suits, but QC has thought of everything and they had ones for us.

Favourite National Park

Durmitor National Park in Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia) was a really special place for us and really reminded us of Canada. The mountains of the Balkans are incredible if you want to get away from the crowds and high costs of Europe. We loved the incredible views driving through the park and our hike up Mount Prutas.

Best Beach

How can you pick just one when each beach is so unique?

The beach at Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National Park, Colombia is one of the most photographed places in Colombia for good reason. The boulder strewn beach is reminiscent of the Seychelles (or what I imagine the Seychelles are like, never having been). The fact that there are no roads in and you have to walk in helps to maintain this special place. We spent a night sleeping in hammocks here and soaking up the views.

The Albanian Riviera is renowned for its beaches and while they don’t have the powdery sand we expect from a beach, the pebbly beaches with gorgeous turquoise waters were superb.

But, really who can compete with the beaches of the Greek islands? We loved beach hopping on Paros, spending days on Agio Anna on Naxos and exploring the beaches of Crete. Balos Beach on Crete was one of our favourites even if it was a busy spot. The endless sand bars, turquoise waters and remote location make it easy to love.

Favourite Natural Experience

Guatemala has 37 volcanoes and with fond memories of the volcanoes in Nicaragua, we knew that volcanoes were going to be a big part of our visit to Guatemala. Our 2-day hike up Volcan Acatenango was way more challenging than we anticipated but incredibly special as we spent the night with views of neighboring volcano, Fuego, erupting in the dark. It is a weird feeling to be freezing cold in a tropical country, but this trip was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Guatemala.

Best Luxury Stay

This was our first visit to the Greek islands and we knew we wanted to visit quieter islands, but we couldn’t resist the allure of Santorini. Even in shoulder season when we visited, Santorini was busy and expensive but we splurged on a caldera view Airbnb for one night and we are glad we could check off this iconic location. Our location was pretty incredible as evident by the flying dress photoshoots that happened throughout the day right in front of our place. Santorini is stunning and easy to see why it is so popular, but our style and budget lend itself more to the other islands we visited – Paros, Naxos and Crete.

Best Garden

While in Marrakech we visted Yves St Laurent’s garden, Le Jardin Marjorelle. It is a super popular (and expensive) tourist sight, but the colours are breathtaking and the break from the browns and orange of the desert was refreshing.

Get There Now Destination

We seek out lesser-known destinations, which in the Instagram-era are harder to find. There are certain destinations that we visit that are on the cusp of being “discovered” by travellers and you know that if you visit even a few years down the road, it will have changed so much. Albania as a country is one of those such places that has exploded in popularity over the last few years. Many of the places we visited in Alabania were overrun with tourists, but there was one spot that really felt on the brink of crossing over into the mainstream. That was the Theth Valley in the Albanian Alps or Accursed Mountains – a remote region where we stayed in family homestays and hiked through untouched wilderness. Building is rampant, new roads are being laid and it isn’t hard to see why people and the government want to elevate this gorgeous spot as a tourist location. But of course that will bring change and take away from what makes this place so special – it is definitely a get there soon type of place.

Best Non-Family Hike

We were fortunate to do a lot of fabulous hiking this year. It has become a tradition of mine to do a solo trip/hike while the kids are at camp in August. Just after arriving home from our 6-month trip this year, I headed to western Canada for some family time and an awesome 6-day hike with my friend Janet in Mount Assiniboine. One of the things I liked the most about this trip was being disconnected for almost a week, something that we hadn’t experienced on our 6-month trip no matter how remote we got. In fact, while it is convenient to have connectivity whereever you travel these days, I miss that forced disconnection that used to come with traveling to remote regions. Being in the mountains camping for a week was so good for my soul and the sense of achievement in doing it on my own was so good. We managed to see a grizzly mom and cub and experience some epic views (when the wildfire spoke cleared).

What’s Next in 2024

With two kids in high school, our travels in 2024 and for the next few years, will be during school holidays. But, if you know us, you know we will maximize that. We are off to Mexico for Christmas holidays with two other families and in March, we will get our skiing fix in British Columbia. Next summer, the plan is to do one last big trip on our travel trailer – another trip out to BC and perhaps down into the US, with lots of hiking and biking.

We hope you have a wonderful 2024 with good health and lots of adventure and exploration!

Check out our previous Year in Review posts: 2022, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016.

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