Travel

Visions of Sugar Plums: 15 Delectable Destinations for the New Year

“Sugar Plum” is such a cool word. How many children have gone to sleep on Christmas eve with “visions of sugar-plums” dancing in their heads, dreaming of stockings filled with candy? Every year the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier twirl their way across Nutcracker stages, inspiring countless little girls and boys to google how to pronounce pas de deux. It’s also a sweet term of endearment, as in, “Sugarplum, you are so cute!”

But for us, a “Sugar Plum” is also a great travel destination that has a village feel. We were on the road extensively this year, and took particular delight in finding these 9 new treasures. You’ll hear more about them in the new year, but for now, here are some tasty tidbits.

1. Sighisoara, Romania

Tongue-twisting Sighisoara probably won’t be a city name that most travelers recognize, but there are a couple of excellent reasons to visit this central Romanian standout. First, its delightful Medieval citadel, narrow cobblestone streets, and distinctive eyebrow windows will equal or surpass any others in Europe. And if that alone isn’t enough justification, horror fans will want to take note: it sits squarely in the blood-curdling bastion of Transylvania and is the birthplace of none other than Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Count Dracula. You’ll have to dig to find the true vampire history, but you’ll only have to scratch the surface to score all the Dracula T-shirts, fridge magnets, and coffee mugs you can carry.

2. Sintra, Portugal

One of Lisbon’s best and easiest day trips, Sintra is located only 15 miles northwest of the Portuguese capital – just a 45 minute train ride. The lush, green valley and hills surrounding the old town are home to fantasy castles and palaces. Its centrally located National Palace is Portugal’s oldest and most accessible landmark in the historic center. This sight-rich town is very popular with bus tourists, so plan accordingly. But even with the crowds, it’s still definitely worth a visit.

3. Colmar, France

Europeans are experts at preservation and restoration, so there are impressive examples of Medieval villages all over the continent. However, few can come close to the crème de la crème: Colmar, France. Picturesque, quaint, enchanting … all storybook adjectives apply. The city escaped the ravages of WWII and its architectural heritage has been closely guarded, so it’s a textbook of buildings from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. It’s also criss-crossed by canals and home to the legendary Storks of Alsace, boasting nests perched precariously on rooftops around town. Naturally, you won’t be the first traveler to discover its appeal, so wear your tolerance hat and enjoy.

4. Hoorn, Netherlands

If we told you that the tiny Dutch village of Hoorn, sitting quietly on a protected bay in the west-central Netherlands, was the headquarters of one of the largest, richest, most influential corporations in the world, you probably wouldn’t believe us. But if it were the early 1600s, there would be no doubt. For it was here that the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, (VOC), aka The Dutch East India Company, began and controlled its global trading empire. The VOC is long gone, but what remains today is a  pleasant village with real-life charm and the Westfries Museum with its intriguing exhibits highlighting Netherland’s Golden Age. If you want a break from Amsterdam’s frenetic pace, a scenic 45-minute train journey will make it so.

5. Dalkey, Ireland

We wanted to spend some time on the coast in Ireland, so we chose a long weekend in Dun Laoghaire (inexplicably pronounced Dun-Leery), one of Dublin’s east coast burbs. While waiting out an Irish downpour we read about the tiny, affluent, star-studded village of Dalkey, just down the beach. We don’t normally go for this sort of thing, and we didn’t really expect to see any celebrities, but the thought of having a pint in Bono’s local was too good to pass up. As you might expect on a gray, chilly day, the VIPs skipped the pub, but the consolation prize was a nice, long walk along the coast road for a world-class vista over the Bay of Dublin and Dalkey Island in the distance. 

6. Basel, Switzerland

Basel, of course, isn’t a village, but it once was. As a metropolitan crossroads of Switzerland, France, and Germany it has a rich history and all the normal museums and other big-city attractions. But as always, we seek out the historic parts of town to get a feel for what the city looked like in its earliest days. Basel is a big, sprawling place, but it only takes a short walk from the bustling train station to discover the raucously red, fresco-covered rathaus on the old market square, and the grandiose red-brick cathedral with its tranquil courtyard overlooking the Rhine. For many travelers it’s a transport hub, so if you transit the area, stop for a look.

7. Bruges, Belgium

Most tourist hot spots are popular for good reason, and Bruges is one of them. Forget about what you’ve read about it being overrun with tourists and “not being the same.” We fell in love with  Bruges years ago, and no, it isn’t the same. But don’t let yourself be deprived by falling for the anti-tourist hype and snobbery. Get a hotel in the center of the historic area, take an early morning walk in any direction, and be enthralled. Its jumbled Medieval streets, swan-crowded canals, and Gothic architecture make it well worth tolerating the swarm of fellow travelers.

8. Lewes, England

On a short stopover in the UK we decided to base ourselves at a Gatwick Airport hotel instead of in central London. You’d be surprised at the number of charming villages easily accessible by train from Gatwick. One of these is Lewes (pronounced Loo-is). You can explore its quintessential English high street, an 11th-Century castle, and the Anne of Cleves House. This half-timbered residence was part of a divorce settlement from King Henry VIII, and today it’s a small museum. Interestingly, Anne never lived here but kept it as a rental property. The creaky, 600 year-old house is a fascinating look at village life at the time.  

9. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, USA

In the rolling bluegrass hills near our home in Lexington is the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. The Shakers were a 19th Century religious group which established communal farms centered around extreme devotion, simple living, and equality among the sexes and races. They were known for their state-of-the-art farming methods, and were skilled craftsmen who excelled in simple, yet ingenious designs. This working farm and open-air museum preserves the Shaker traditions, and proves that not everything old is outdated. The BBC (and we) say it’s “A top hidden travel destination,” and if you’re in the area you won’t find a better way to enjoy the countryside. 

* * *

We hope that these towns and cities inspire your future travel planning. It’s always fun to search out places that are quirky and unique – both abroad and close to home. If you’re still looking for more village ideas for your peregrinations, we highly recommend 6 of our past faves:

10. Luang Prabang, Laos where a unique rhythm guides daily life.

11. Kotor, Montenegro for a chance to step back in time and discover a medieval town.

12. Rothenburg, Germany, the fairy-tale village at the end of the line.

13. Tarpon Springs, Florida USA to experience a true taste of Greece right here in America.

14. Dubrovnik, Croatia for a look inside a walled city that Disney would love.

15. Santorini, Greece where a donkey may become your new BFF.

We wish you all a Very Merry Christmas! May your days be filled with endless Christmas cookies, and your nights replete with visions of sugar plums. Thanks so much for all the joy you’ve brought us this year. We’ll leave you with our favorite sign, spotted at a bakery in Hoorn, Netherlands. It’s perfect for the holidays … or any time, really.

Peace and Joy,
James & Terri

 

53 thoughts on “Visions of Sugar Plums: 15 Delectable Destinations for the New Year

  1. Some of the names may be tongue-trippers but there’s no doubt that you’ve found some sugarplums indeed! We have storks nests up and down the Algarve Region of Portugal and it still fills me with wonder to see the fledglings in the spring or one of these great giant birds flying across the sky. Happy Holidays to both of you! Anita

    • Anita, we’ve seen nests in a number of places, and we saw storks actively nesting in Segovia, Spain. They’re a interesting to watch, and for a large, relatively ungainly bird, they’re lovely in flight. They’re not that common in the US though.

      We had a good travel year, but we always make it a point to be off the road for Christmas. I see all the travel hassles on the news (e.g. Gatwick’s drone problems – that’s a new one, and we just came through LGW!), and am glad we’re snuggled in at home for the holidays. I hope that you and Richard are well and wish you both a Happy Holiday and a Great New Year. ~James

  2. Sounds like you had wonderful, exciting travels. Can’t wait to read all about it in the coming months. I’m hoping we will have a chance to explore Kentucky a bit this coming year. We visited a Shaker village in NH several years ago. It was fascinating! Love the bakery sign! Eat cake and have a Merry Christmas!

    • Laura, I can’t say that I agree with many of the Shakers’ religious views, but I certainly respect them for what they accomplished. I had no idea, but apparently there were 20 farms scattered around the country. The amazing thing to me was how clever their designs were for accomplishing everyday chores. I hope things are going well for you and Steve way down south. This is the time of year when Floridians get to be smug about where they live. Have a great holiday and Happy New Year. ~James

  3. We can’t wait for future posts and the chance to see so many destinations through your eyes. Thanks for the details you include in your posts and your most-welcom humor! Wushing you both good health and happiness and the joy of wonder all through the new year!

    Rusha and Bert

    • Thanks Rusha. We discovered some great new places this year, and revisited some old favorites we hadn’t seen in years. There’s lot of grist for the ol’ blogging mill – which is a good thing. All the best to you and Bert for a fun holiday and a Happy and Healthy New Year. ~James

    • Beth, we haven’t firmed up any travel plans for the new year but we always have few things on the list. In the meantime, we’re glad to be home for Christmas. All the best to you for a Happy Christmas and fun and successful New Year. ~James

    • Thanks Darlene. We had a busy travel year, and it zipped by faster than usual. But you know how it goes – Carpe Diem. All the best for a fun and relaxing holiday and a successful New Year. ~James

  4. Best wishes for Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year. Glad to read that you got a lot of travel in this year! I only managed the UK, and next year doesn’t look promising right now – travel while you can!

    Have been to numbers 1, 2, 3, 7, 10, 11 and 14 and agree with you, so will consider the others. (Although Luang Prabang was so, so much more touristy on my third visit I won’t go back.) BTW, Arundel castle is a good side trip from Gatwick (I have a favorite B&B in Horsley if I’m flying out of Gatwick). Entirely agree about avoiding holiday travel!

    • Kathy, we love London and if we have a few days we go into town. But if we have a short connection we’ve started staying out at the airport. We’ve stayed at both Heathrow and Gatwick (our preference) and it’s so convenient. LGW is especially convenient for accessing sights in the south of England. Last trip through we visited Chichester and the Fisbourne Palace Roman Ruins. If you haven’t been it’s very low key and super neat. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year. ~James

      • I once lived near Chichester, but I didn’t visit Fishbourne until I recently spent a few days in Portsmouth. Enjoyed visiting the ships there. Another place nearby I’d like to revisit is the Weald and Downland Living Museum – but so many places!

      • Thanks for that recommendation Kathy. We love these living museums and will put this one the list for our next LGW stop. BTW, we visited one of these open-air museums outside Sibiu, Romania that was huge and excellent. ~James

    • Thanks Sylvia. It’s funny you mention photos because one project we hope to make some headway on this holiday season is getting a totally out-of-control photo library better organized. We wish you the best of holidays and a very Happy and Healthy New Year. ~James

  5. James and Terri – What a list! I am so happy to see out-of-way (well, not really, more like less-visited) places. It gives a traveler a real appreciation for what’s out there, and a better moment to connect with the world. Happy travels – and the very best of holidays
    Susan

    • Hi Susan, If anyone can appreciate a great walk it’s you! We gave our Fitbits fits on all these fun walks, whether we were hiking up castle walls or strolling along Irish beaches. As you so beautifully point out – It’s all about the walk. We wish you a wonderful holiday! ~Terri

    • It’s the kind of good old fashioned fun that Sport and Bean would love … and you two, as well. Although it harkens to a simpler time, their inventions and designs could be straight out of an Ikea catalog! Happy Holidays to you and your family, Terri
      P.S. I’ve really been enjoying your posts on Ireland. 🙂

  6. Lovely photos as always. I have been to 5,6 and 7. I am glad you got home for Christmas. I am sure that is another sugar plum.

    • Anne, I’m surprised that you’ve been to Dalkey Anne. There are a lot of celebrities that live around there, and as far as I know, we saw absolutely none of them. But, we did have a really nice walk and saw lots of “lifestyles of the rich and famous” houses. Have a great holiday and all the best for a wonderful New Year. ~James

  7. You two certainly don’t let any grass grow under your feet! Thanks for all the many travel tips over the years. Sintra, Portugal is on our list for 2019. Merry Christmas and a new year filled with wonderful adventures!

    • LuAnn, you guys will enjoy Sintra. We took the train from Lisbon and it was the perfect day trip. I’ve always thought that most castles and palaces were overpriced and overrated, but the National Palace in Sintra has lots of variety with original appointments, so it was very cool and worth the time. BTW, the village itself is compact and it’s a bus tour stop, so plan accordingly. Have a great trip, Happy Holiday and a fun New Year. ~James

    • Alison, as most travelers, we visit big cities by default as transit hubs and by choice for national museums etc., but we find ourselves drawn to the smaller, less crowded and less obvious places. All the best to you both for a Happy Holiday and a Fun and Healthy New Year. ~James

  8. You guys have had quite the travel “agenda” in 2018. I loved the snippets of new-to-me places (except for Bruges, of course – glad you made it back there and still enjoyed it), Some quite a bit off the beaten track. I see that you managed to take a photo of a big “hoorn” in Hoorn as well. 🙂 Happy holidays to you both and may 2019 bring you many more adventures and meaningful trips and blogs!

    • I’m glad you noticed the hoorn in Hoorn Liesbet. I had another idea for a caption on this photo, but it didn’t make editorial review. 🙂 We squeezed in a fair amount of travel this year, and that’s always a good thing. As for Bruges, it has gotten pretty wacky with tourists, but for the things we enjoy, it’s really has only gotten better over the years. We love the medieval architecture and as more and more of the buildings get renovated, it just improves. Also, with a bit of timing and wandering, it’s not too tough to escape ther tourists. All the best for a wonderful New Year. ~James

  9. What a wonderful full year of travel you have had (we have too actually, as we are realizing while we work on our year in retrospective post). Many of these places are obviously off the beaten track and I think that often that is where the hidden treasures are. Lovely post.

    Happy new year to you both.

    Peta

    • Peta, when we were putting together our year-end wrapup we had a similar experience as you. We hadn’t thought much about the amount we’d traveled, but when we reviewed it was quit a lot. And that’s always a good thing. We don’t start the year with a plan for travel. Normally, it just evolves as we go along, and luckily, we usually have the flexibility to be able to travel when we want – something we never take for granted. All the best for a happy and mobile New Year, and hopefuly the political troubles in Sri Lanka will settle down soon. ~James

    • Thanks Curt. We never take our ability to travel for granted, and another year on the move is always a good thing. All the best to you and Peggy for a happy and healthy 2019. And Happy Blogging. ~James

  10. Some very “plummy” destinations here. I have only been to Bruges. It is great to see a list that is a little more unusual, places that are not often on the main tourist trail. Have a fantastic 2019 filled with great moments and health 🙂

    • Gilda, we find ourselves drawn more and more to smaller, lesser-known places. Big, popular cities are good for national museums, but sometimes you can see the same sorts of things much more easily in small towns. Have a wonderful New Year and Happy Blogging. ~James

  11. Holy Moly that was some year! How wonderful to visit so many countries and to find so many ‘sugar plums’. The only one we have visited is Sintra which made me feel as though I was in the land of Dr Seuss. Looking forward to the stories of your adventures in the months ahead.

    • Yes, it was a busy travel year Sue, and there was great variety to boot. We moved around more than normal on all our trips, but you know, if you travel lean n’ mean it’s easier to do that – that and a detailed plan for transport that gets us from place to place as conveniently as possible. ~James

    • Thanks Jane. It was a good travel year, with no destination disappointments. For travelers, it doesn’t get much better than that. All the best to you for a happy, healthy, and fun 2019. ~James

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