My Top 5 Favourite Islands

My Top 5 Favourite Islands

Last summer I wrote a series on some of my Favourite destinations. But one of these lists needed some serious updating after my travel adventures over the past 12 months. So without any further ado, here is my updated list of favourite island escapes.

Spanning five unique countries, all of the islands on my list have one important thing in common: stunning natural beauty.

Top 5 Favourite Islands

Galiano Island, BC

This lovely little gem in the Gulf Islands is the nearest to Vancouver making it a perfect weekend getaway or even day-trip from the mainland. Very few people live here year round, but those that do love it’s laid back vibe and tight knit community. Galiano is the only place where I’ve ever felt safe enough to hitch hike or leave my bike unattended. They even have a free store and a free book store where you are welcome to take whatever you like – no donations required. With stunning views from the top of Mt Galiano, lovely trails near Montague harbour, and the friendliest locals around – It’s no wonder I have come to consider Galiano my second home.

Mt Galiano Viewpoint

Hvar, Croatia

If you are looking for an intoxicating blend of old world charm, exhilarating night life, and ruggedly beautiful coastline, then look no further than Hvar. Touted as the sunniest spot in Europe, this beautiful island on the Dalmatian Coast convinced me that it would make a perfect Honeymoon destination. A consistent contender on many top 10 lists – it’s no surprise that Hvar easily holds its own among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Hvar

Capri, Italy

I just can’t get enough of the Amalfi Coast and especially my favourite little piece of la dolce vita – Capri! Twice I’ve visited this lovely island off the coast of Naples and twice is not nearly enough time to soak it all up. Famous for its dazzling Blue Grotto and beloved for its majestic Cliffside vistas, Capri is the perfect place to soak up luxurious Italian living.

Capri, Italy

Maui, Hawaii

Oh Maui… how do I love thee? Let me count the ways! Before I first visited Maui, I had previously been to Oahu twice. And I thought it was great. Then, I went to Maui and now I wonder why anyone even bothers going to Honolulu because Maui is E V E R Y T H I N G ! Less crowded than bustling Waikiki, Maui offers a more laid back vibe but still delivers a ton of activity if you want it. In my four day escape I lay on gorgeous beaches, snorkeled with sea turtles, drove the winding and scenic road to Hana, summited a volcano, and ate my heart out. I still look forward to visiting the other islands in the future but for now I am content with my version of paradise!

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Santorini, Greece

Located in the Aegean Sea, about 200 km southeast of mainland Greece is Santorini, one of the most popular islands in the world – and for good reason! I fell head over flip flops for the spectacular caldera views, beautiful beaches, cliff-side villages, amazing restaurants, and friendly local hospitality. Santorini was a dream destination for me and it absolutely lived up to all the hype. I had one of my favourite travel days of all time while riding an ATV around the island and touring the nearby wineries. It was so unbelievably gorgeous that it almost pained me to leave. I will definitely be back someday!

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What’s your favourite island escape?

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My 7 Wonders of the World

This is a special edition of my Favourites series.

It seems like there are so many variations of the Seven Wonders of the World floating around that I decided I would create my own from places that I’ve actually been.

My 7 Wonders of the World

Machu Picchu, Peru

Without a doubt, Machu Picchu is the most spectacular, awe-inspiring site that my eyes have ever seen. It absolutely lives up to all the hype! I trekked 33 kilometres over three days from Lares to Ollantaytambo before finally taking a train to Aguas Calientes and making the early morning trip to Machu Picchu. From touring the ancient capital of the Incas to hiking Wayna Picchu, the whole experience was incredible from start to finish. These Incan ruins need to be on every person’s bucket list.

Machu Picchu

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

While I was planning my trip to Egypt, people were constantly asking me Why Egypt? This question seriously puzzled me. Don’t people understand that to see the pyramids one would have to go to Egypt? Well this original wonder of the world certainly earned its place. Riding camels around the site didn’t hurt either…

Camel Time

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The most recent wonder on my list is the magical Halong Bay. Even on a mostly cloudy day this place had a mystical hold on me. With nearly 2000 limestone islets and floating fishing villages creating a tropical kaleidiscope above the green waters, this place is more than worthy of a spot on the new 7 wonders of the world list… and mine too!

Fishing Village

The Colosseum, Italy

I’ve visited this famous amphitheatre twice now and both times it transported me back in time. I’ve read so many stories and seen so many films (Gladiator anyone?) from the era of the Roman Empire and it is always haunting and humbling to be standing in a place so rich in history and tragedy. I can only imagine how impressive it would have been back in its glory days.

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The Eiffel Tower, France

Paris je t’aime! Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m not living in a chic apartment in the Cinquième (5e) arrondissement splitting my time between the cafe culture and long walks along the Seine. But, I digress. There is no building on earth that I was more excited to see than the Eiffel Tower. After studying French for 8 years, this was the place that I most wanted to see when I went to France and the place that I would most like to re-visit… and soon!

Paris

Alhambra, Spain

This palace/fortress, originally constructed in 889 and reconstructed in the mid-11th century by the Moors was a major highlight of my 3 months in Spain. It might not be as popular as some of the other wonders on this list but it is every bit as beautiful. My only regret is that I didn’t take more pictures… I was too busy experiencing in the present tense.

Alhambra

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Croatia, Croatia, Croatia. The country that won my heart in one, all-to-brief week. And the crowning jewel is this absolutely stunning national park filled with turquoise lakes and magnificent waterfalls. This was the perfect day trip from Zagreb and a must-see stop for any trip to the Balkans. I can’t wait to go back!

Plitvice Lakes

 

My Top 10 Favourite Cities

According to my Trip Advisor travel map, I’ve been to 265 cities and counting! I believe that this stat gives me a bit of credibility in listing some of my favourites thus far. I wholeheartedly recommend all of these cities and have visited half of them more than once. As always, I reserve the right to update this list whenever I like because I’m constantly visiting fabulous new destinations. But, for now at least, here are my top 10 favourite cities.

My Top 10 Favourite Cities

San Diego, California

La Jolla

I first visited San Diego on a family vacation when I was 10 years old. We did the typical touristy activities like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. I loved them both and even got called up on stage during two of the shows (my 15 minutes of fame). Flash forward a decade and my views have certainly changed. I may no longer support animal captivity but fortunately SD still has a plethora of amazing (cruelty free) things to do – try whale watching or surfing instead. When one of my best friends moved to the city in 2012 I was beyond excited about frequently visiting (and I have!). With blissful temperatures year-round, stunning cliffs and beaches, and amazing restaurants, San Diego is my favourite winter getaway. I could even see myself living here someday – Hello Vitamin D!

Paris, France

Paris

A wise woman once said, “Paris is always a good idea” and I couldn’t agree more. If you were to visit my apartment, one thing would quickly become apparent, and that is that J’adore Paris! I can’t possibly think of a city with more class and culture. Just imagine perusing the markets in Montmartre, strolling the grounds of les Jardins du Luxembourg, or savouring a crepe on the Champs-Élysées. An exemplary model of urban planning, this world-class city has so many unique neighbourhoods to explore. Not to mention being home to some of the world’s most famous sights; L’arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Le Louvre, and La Tour Eifel, to name a few. Now if only I could remember my 8 years of French lessons…

Rome, Italy

Rome

Ah Roma… a textbook example of why you sometimes need to revisit a city to truly appreciate it. Ten years after my first visit, I went back to the eternal city to discover what I had missed back in my teenage years. Yes, I remembered that the monuments were impressive and that the gelato was tasty but I couldn’t seem to understand what the fuss was all about. Well, let me tell you – Rome is simply magical. The entire city is like an open air museum with rich history spanning more than 2,500 years and amazing architecture around every corner. You could easily spend years in Rome and still not discover it all. I’ve thrown my coin in the Trevi Fountain twice and I’m sure I’ll be back again!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik

My inaugural trip to the pearl of the Adriatic was almost ruined by a missed train and a spiral of lost connections. Fortunately, I pushed passed the roadblocks with the lovely premonition that I was about to fall in love. Most of the cities on this list are places that I’ve courted over several trips but Dubrovnik is my only one night stand. So, you can imagine how intoxicating a city it must be to have such power over me so quickly. Well let me tell you that one walk around the old city walls is all it took to have me spouting off grand declarations and adding Croatia to every list in my book. Dubrovnik is quite simply the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen and even though our time together was brief, it left a lasting impression on me. I hope I won’t have to call her The One that Got Away for long.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh

Edinburgh was one of the very last stops on my 8 month European backpacking adventure in 2005/2006. I arrived there feeling a bit of travel burnout and was definitely looking forward to heading home. Fortunately I arrived to perfect spring weather and a gorgeous city dripping with classic European charm. Edinburgh has a distinctly medieval feel with cobblestone streets, Gothic architecture, and a castle resting on an extinct volcano. But, it’s also a great city for young people and maybe even a place to find love… I mean if it worked for Will & Kate! I have yet to hear a negative review of this Scottish gem so if it isn’t on your bucket list yet… you know what to do.

Bogota, Colombia

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This is one that may raise some eyebrows. Bogota is a very unconventional choice and probably won’t make many top ten lists (unless you’re looking at the negative side). But, I don’t care what the critics say – I have my own opinions and my own experiences and Bogota won me over big time. It likely had a lot to do with my personal tour guide / travel agent friend who hosted and entertained me the entire 5 days, but that also proves that there is plenty to love about Colombia’s capital. The historic district La Candelaria (pictured above) has lovely Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture with a wealth of churches and squares to fill your camera. The city has great shopping and dining options plus Monserrate, one of the most beautiful mountain top attractions I’ve ever seen – the funicular ride to the top is a must-do for all tourists. Transportation may not be super easy (although I was kind of taxi fairy) and English still isn’t widely spoken (if at all) but the effort was definitely worth it to discover the inner beauty of this very misunderstood city.

Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg

Visiting Salzburg was the realization of a childhood dream – to step into the world of Fräulein Maria and the Von Trapp children. After growing up with an obsessive passion for the Sound of Music I knew I had to do the official SOM tour when I finally made it to the famous city – and it did not disappoint. Even in the fall, the Mirabell Gardens (pictured above) with views of Hohensalzburg Castle were enchanting. The nearby palaces, abbey, and Lake District easily appeased the fan girl in me and proved that my adoration of Austria was well deserved. But, the city has even more to offer. As the birth place of Mozart, culture in the way of museums and music is at a premium and the lovely riverside hosts one of my favourite little Christmas markets in the winter. Although it is much smaller than Vienna and harder to avoid tourist groups (sorry – that was me), it is worth your time and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Florence, Italy

Florence

Tuscany. That’s probably the only descriptive word that I need to use to explain why I love Florence so much, but this is a blog, so I will elaborate. Firenze is another city with a medieval feel. Often considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is so easy to get swept away with the impressive art (Michelangelo’s statue of David), gorgeous churches (Duomo and Santa Croce), and unique bridges (Ponte Vecchio). I loved exploring the winding streets and discovering epic views (see above) from the Piazzale Michelangelo. And to top it all off, Florence is where I first discovered gelato (Tiramisu flavoured nonetheless)! There’s something dreamlike about this part of the world and it’s orange roof tops – it easily makes my list.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Welcome to Nawlins y’all! There is just something special about the South that makes me want to slow my speech and eat something fried… but maybe that’s just the Bourban talking. Joking aside, New Orleans is a truly amazing city that in many ways doesn’t even feel like part of America. With buildings dating back to the 1700s and a unique French influence, Louisiana is easily one of the most interesting of the 50 states. Known for its delicious Cajun food, amazing jazz music, beautiful colonial architecture, and the wild and crazy Mardi Gras – NOLA has something for everyone. You can party in the street all night long or step back in time on a beautiful antebellum or creole plantation. The city has faced a lot of adversity with its history of slavery and recent tragedies like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But, what I saw here was beautiful resilience, hope, and a whole lot of fun! Do your part to help and make New Orleans your next vacation stop.

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Vancouver

My city. My home. My happy place! The past two years of living in Vancouver have been some of the very best of my life. I still pinch myself every time I cross the Burrard Street Bridge (which is usually twice per day) because I can’t believe that this is my real life. Vancouver is by far my favourite place on earth. Wherever you look you see water or mountains or both! You can ski, golf, bike, sail and kayak– all on the same day. Not only is this city breathtakingly beautiful but it is bursting with activity, diversity, and general awesomeness (that’s a technical term)! In Vancity we know all about living well – we are clean and green. We love yoga and craft beer and playing outside all year long. If you’re not planning a visit to the magnificent Pacific Northwest – then you should be!

Honourable Mention:

My Top 5 Favourite Countries

I’ve been having so much fun with this Favourites series… let’s keep the ball rolling with my favourite countries.

The criteria I used to make my decision are as follows:

  • Natural Beauty
  • Rich Culture
  • Interesting History
  • Liveability
  • People (i.e. friendly? interesting? etc.)
  • Overall Experience (i.e. weather? ease of travel?)
  • Intangible – Wow Factor

Top 5 Favourite Countries

Croatia

This country knocked my socks off! Not only is it one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been, but the locals were incredibly helpful (and basically all spoke English), the history is fascinating (was there really a war here just 20 years ago?) and the cities were dripping with old world charm and romance. After my first trip in 2013, the Balkans region has climbed to the top of my dream trips list. I hope to be back again by 2016.

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Italy

Where do I even begin with Italy? In some ways I don’t want to put Italy on my list because it seems too obvious, but three trips later and I still can’t get enough. Italy was the first European country I ever visited (way back in 2003) and since then I have covered Western Europe on 4 separate trips (one that lasted nearly 9 months). I have visited many of the big ticket attractions but there is still so much to explore. I constantly feel drawn here – to the place that made me fall head over heels for Europe. I can’t dream up a better afternoon than sipping a glass of red wine in a beautiful square while listening to the musical language of the locals. Italy, I love you!

Venice

Switzerland

People always ask me which place has been my favourite? That’s partly what motivated me to write this series. For years, my default answer was always Switzerland. And, for good reason: Swiss Alps, Swiss Chocolate, and Swiss Cheese. Because it’s such a small country I was able to see quite a lot of it by train, car, and gondola! I met some truly beautiful people who are like family and got the thrill of a lifetime when I went skiing on Christmas day 2005. Some may find it stuffy and expensive, but I love the clean streets and polite drivers. It also doesn’t hurt that it is spectacularly beautiful!

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Austria

I was blessed to call this country home for about three months in fall 2005 but that isn’t when it first stole my heart. I first discovered Austria through Julie Andrews’ voice in the magical film…The Sound of Music. I can’t remember when I first saw it and I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen it (clue: A LOT!) but I do know every song by heart and I can tell you that the hills definitely are alive! From sleepy alpine villages to vibrant world-class cities , Austria has everything this city girl / nature lover / history enthusiast could want, except for maybe an ocean, but the lakes are a lovely substitute.

Hallstatt

Colombia

Have you ever been travelling, and for no apparent reason, you just felt like you were somewhere special? It doesn’t happen to me very often (anymore) but it definitely hit me as I was boarding the plane from Cartagena; I knew that I had to come back someday. Colombia is the least touristy country I have ever been. The violent history. The language barrier. The difficult terrain. All of these things should have deterred me, but I couldn’t be stopped. What a thrill to go somewhere where I had absolutely no expectations. After spending time in the capital, Bogota, I proclaimed (probably foolishly) that I could totally live here (and I don’t say that very often). Maybe it was the rainy weather. Maybe it was the mind-blowing coffee. Or maybe it was being reunited with my friend Beatrice and meeting her amazing family. I’m not sure exactly… but something felt right and oddly familiar while being completely different at the same time. Tropical. Cosmopolitan. Diverse. Colombia had me at Hola!

Cartagena

 

Plitvice Lakes National Park

A picture is worth so much more than a thousand words. Every once in a while I see a photo of a place I’ve never heard of before and immediately add it to my bucket list: Bruges (check). Dubrovnik (check). Plitvice Lakes National Park (check).

This trip was fantastic for exploring lesser known wonders that deserve every bit as much recognition as the big seven. Plitvice Lakes is the oldest national park in Croatia, made famous for its 16 cascading lakes and renowned for the stunning range of colours from turquoise to green, grey or blue. The park was officially added to the UNESCO World Heritage register in 1979 and was one of the first natural sites to make the list.

We planned our trip to Plitvice on our last full day in Croatia. Our hired guide for the day, Mladen of Funky Zagreb, gave us a world class tour with all the history and local hookups to make our day a memorable highlight. Our first stop of the day was at the Croatian War Museum just south of Karlovac where we learned about the city’s role in the Croatian Homeland War from 1991-1995. It is still shocking to think that the bombed out buildings were destroyed less than 20 years ago.

From there we continued on to a dairy farm where the Novkovic family made us a delicious breakfast fit for a king: home-made cheese, jam, eggs, bread, organic apple juice, and even some morning liqueur (When in Croatia!!). We also stopped in the sleepy watermill village of Rastoke where we enjoyed a wake-up coffee and landscapes akin to scenes from Lord of the Rings. I was almost expecting to see hobbits emerging from the cute little houses.

By lunch we had arrived at the park and spent a magical four hours wandering along the wooden pathways and climbing beside waterfalls as we photographed the lakes from every angle. It was so tranquil and rejuvenating to be out in nature and simply appreciating the beauty of creation. Although, no single image was as impressive as Niagara Falls, it was the culmination of the colours, size, and sounds that contributed to such a beautiful sensory experience. I couldn’t think of a better way to end our trip. Until next time…

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A Kaptol Celebration: Croatia joins the EU

Many people told me that Croatia’s political capital wasn’t worth visiting. So after we left the coast for our final three days in Zagreb, I had low expectations. But, what we experienced was nothing short of lovely. The northern temperatures were much cooler and allowed us the opportunity to explore the city all day long without having to break for the heat. We discovered a city reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian architecture of places like Vienna and Munich with the familiar old-world feel that is so classically European.

Zagreb is such a liveable city and was definitely a refreshing break from the throngs of tourists that we’d been dodging the entire trip. We kind of felt like celebrities as we road our uber-touristy Hop-on Hop-off bus, waving at everyone we passed in the streets. It sounds ridiculous but it was actually extremely fun and an interesting social experiment.

With beautiful parks, historic buildings, and a plethora of pubs, there was plenty to keep us busy. So when we casually stumbled across the preparations for a great celebration in the old Kaptol, we were thrilled to learn that in mere days Croatia would officially join the European Union as the 28th member. What an exciting time to experience the culture of a country rebounding from years of war, economic turmoil, and political change. It is my opinion that Zagreb is severely overlooked as a travel destination and no trip to Croatia should be complete without visiting the nation’s capital.

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A Modern Twist in Ancient Split

Croatia’s second largest city may be best known as a transportation hub for buses, ferries, and flights but that’s not the full picture. We didn’t do much more than pass through Split on our way from the islands to the North, but we did find a little piece of paradise along the way. The main harbour was buzzing with activity with tourists flocking to the beautiful promenade lined with palm trees, cafes, shops, and the UNESCO world heritage site, Dicoletian’s Palace. At first it seemed out of place to stumble across the beautifully preserved Roman palace at the epicentre of the city’s transportation network, but soon the old and new blended together in a perfect split that didn’t seem divided at all. One minute we were shopping in an upscale boutique and next we were climbing on a pile of 4th century ruins. Around every corner was a new discovery and the unexpected time travel felt oddly perfect.

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Next up: Heading Northwest to the capital city, Zagreb.

Hvar: The sunniest spot in Europe

It was a cold, dark, and rainy January evening when I randomly met my first Croatian at a Pita Pit in Vancouver. We struck up a conversation that started with olives and ended with an email exchange of must-see places in Croatia. I had never heard of Hvar before and I certainly hadn’t planned to go there, but my new friend Davor assured me that it was not to be missed.

Fast forward 6 months and I spent two amazing days on the beautiful island that claims to be the sunniest spot in Europe! We stayed a short five minute walk from the harbour and spent our time strolling along the promenades lined with cafes where we enjoyed dinner, drinks, and dessert al fresco every night.

And of course no Mediterranean vacation is complete without a beach day. After a mere 30 minute water taxi ride we reached the tranquil and even more remote Palmižana island.  A part of the Pakleni chain of islands, this popular spot is the perfect place for yachts (both big and small), swimming, and sunbathing. We rented some luxurious beach chairs and spent a blissful day soaking up the sun, which played hide & seek, but fortunately, mostly seek.

Another highlight of our time on Hvar was our hike to visit the Fortica (Spanjola). After an easy 20 minute “hike” up the stone steps and winding pathway we reached the 16th century fortress that provides stunning panoramic views of Hvar town and the surrounding Pakleni islands. We were once again blown away by the beauty of Croatia (see Dubrovnik post) and took an embarrassing number of photos to document the stunning vistas. At this point, Croatia is a top contender for the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited… although it does have some stiff competition (I’m looking at you Italy, Ecuador, Spain, Costa Rica, and Switzerland).

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Ferrying up the Dalmatian Coast

Growing up on the West Coast, I’ve spent my fair share of time on ferries. But the magical voyage to Vancouver Island that I remember from childhood didn’t quite hold up into adulthood. These days ferries have come to represent painful lineups, multiple sailing waits, crowded decks, and exorbitant fees. Not so glamorous eh?

So it was with mild trepidation that we boarded an overnight ferry from Italy to Croatia. Although, glamorous still isn’t a word that I would choose to describe sleeping on a row of chairs in public… it wasn’t as bad as I expected. In fact, the views at sunset and sunrise were quite spectacular from the sea.

The following day we endured a painful, five hour bus ride with no air-conditioning from Split to Dubrovnik. After that, travelling by ferry was once again starting to sound a bit more magical.

With nearly 1800km of rugged coastline and over 1000 islands, ferries really are the ideal mode of transportation in Croatia. Over the course of a few days we spent over 20 hours ferrying up the Dalmatian Coast and to be honest… I loved every minute of it. It was so calming and refreshing to be at sea. Perched on the edge of the railing with the breeze blowing through my hair, I was entertained by windsurfers and sailors, while passing peaceful seaside towns and subtropical islands. Starting to sound more glamorous after all? Sure it wasn’t a yacht (and we saw tons of those) but for this budget travelista… it was the next best thing!

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Ferry

Dubrovnik: The Pearl of the Adriatic

Nearly 8 years ago, I received a book of the 100 most beautiful cities in the world. Croatia had never really crossed my mind until I opened the page to Dubrovnik – The Pearl of the Adriatic. One glance and I was sold. Someday, I told myself, I will go there! And now, after many missed connections, planes, trains, ferries, and buses, I’m finally there!

Dubrovnik is a tourism mecca. As a popular cruise port, throngs of visitors pour into the old town’s narrow streets in search of the quintessential European charm and coastal beauty that makes it a UNESCO World Heritage site and a top contender for the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

The city is steeped in stunning architecture and sculptural detail, boasting spectacular churches, monasteries, museums, and fountains. And despite past violence and destruction from earthquakes and war, the magnificent 13th-century walls that surround the Old Town still stand as the highlight of my trip so far.

This is where we found ourselves after a leisurely dinner in the main square observing three joyful wedding parties on their celebration marches. The 2km city walls that wrap around the Old Town provide the most beautiful panoramas of the city including Lokrum Island nestled near the harbour mouth and beyond… the Mediterranean Sea. We spent more time than we care to admit wandering around the walls on this warm summer evening, drinking in the picture perfect vistas and filling our cameras with complimentary souvenirs. Every turn led to more ooh’s and aah’s and I really never got sick of photographing those red-tiled roof tops. Trust me, I have evidence. And isn’t it curious how laundry hanging to dry somehow becomes magical in a foreign land? In the end, our one  night in Dubrovnik was all too short but worth every bit of effort.

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