Ten of my favourite articles of 2022
2022 ended up being a pretty good year, not least because I had the opportunity to write about some incredible people and places for some incredible publications. I'm enormously grateful to every editor who took the time to read my pitches and felt that there might be a story worth telling there, as well as to all the people who shared their stories with me, and to all of you who took the time to read my words.
I haven't dedicated as much time to my Untold Travel Stories website as it deserves of late (largely due to other writing commitments), but I'm bringing it back to life with a round-up of ten of my favourite articles that I wrote this year. Most of these stories feature interesting people who are doing interesting things in interesting places, because as much as travel can be about the spectacular landscapes and awe-inspiring nature, it's the people who really make it special.
Thank you for reading, and for believing that words still count.
This story on the new generation of Saudis working on the revitalisation of historic Al Balad was one of my favourites of the year, and was originally commissioned by Condé Nast Traveler as part of their Women Who Travel series. It was then expanded for the print edition of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East at the request of then-editor Sarah Khan, and included my photos as well.
One of the reasons that I loved reporting on this story was that I met so many inspirational people in Jeddah, most of whom were women. Among the most inspiring was Dr. Rawaa Bakhsh, an incredible powerhouse of a woman who leads a largely female team in public engagement and communications for the Jeddah Historical District Program. You can learn more about her and the work they're doing in the article, and you'll also learn about all of the fantastic things I ate in Jeddah. This is a city in which you will eat well, and the fried prawns I had in the little dining room above Souq Bab Makkah are reason alone to travel back there.
Writing for TIME is a pinch-me moment, and I had the opportunity to write six pieces for the magazine - in both print and online - in 2022 as part of a series on Dubai innovators. I wrote about the woman who opened the region's first arthouse cinema, the Chief Chocolate Officer of Mirzam, the farm growing tomatoes in the desert, the architect behind the Museum of the Future, and the start-up aiming to democratize the Dubai real estate market. But if I had to choose just one - and for this list, I do - it would be the interview I did with the artist eL Seed.
I've been intrigued by eL Seed's art ever since I first came across it when I moved to Dubai. He has painted large-format works based on Arabic calligraphy (he shies away from the term "calligraffiti") in places as diverse as the DMZ between North and South Korea, the "trash collectors'" neighbourhood in Cairo, and a village in remote Nepal that was severely damaged by the 2015 earthquake. Whenever I spot one of eL Seed's works on my travels - whether it's in Sharjah, Tunis or Beirut - I always get excited and stop to photograph it. There's a familiarity to them and an instantly recognisable beauty. But behind every piece is an important message, and to learn more about that, you'll have to read my article.
Having the opportunity to visit eL Seed in his studio in Alserkal Avenue was incredibly special. We spoke about art, life and Dubai, and watching the way the sweeping, calligraphic forms flowed from his mind down his arm into the brush and onto the canvas was mesmerising. Oh, to have such artistic talent.
My Dad is a major aviation geek which, growing up, kind of made me one too. On weekends we would go flying together, and he would sometimes hand over the controls to me. But, more often than not, my job was to navigate using big maps and following landmarks on the ground. So small planes hold no fear for me - in fact, I love them. I feel like I'm really flying when I can see all the dials and buttons and levers, and it makes me appreciate the miracle of flight in a way that sitting in a comfy A380 watching movies doesn't. Channelling my inner #avgeek this year, I boarded a suitably small plane to write about the world's shortest international commercial flight for CNN Travel.
I spent a lot of time in Anguilla over the past year – 3.5 months in total over three separate trips – and while it was an epic journey from Dubai, taking around 30 hours door to door, the last seven minutes were always the most exciting. Those seven minutes were spent on the world's shortest international commercial flight, the Anguilla Air Services hop between Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) in Sint Maarten and Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport (AXA) in Anguilla. I always tried to get the seat right behind the pilot for the best views, but on the most recent trip time I asked the captain if I could sit next to him up front. These flights only have one pilot so the co-pilot's seat is left empty. I was ready to spring into action should I need to fly the aircraft in for a safe landing in case of emergency. But in the end, my only job was to sit still and keep my hands out of the way of the controls. With views as spectacular as the ones on this short flight, I was glued to the window anyway.
Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia's editor Jeninne Lee-St. John is one of those brilliant people who jump on a slightly off-beat story. When I've sent her one-line emails asking if she'd be interested in a piece on the Turtle Sheikh/the world's deepest diving pool/an indescribable immersive dinner, she has replied practically immediately with "Yes! When can you file?", which is a dream.
But this story, about Afghanistan's first female tour guide, was a more serious one. Jeninne saw the value in it, and made space for it. I follow Untamed Borders, the travel company that takes people into some of the world's most challenging and intriguing places (including Iraq for Michael Palin's recent TV series), on Instagram and saw a post about their upcoming virtual tours of Herat with Fatima Haidari. My first reaction was that I wanted to sign up for the tour, and my second reaction was that this was also a story I wanted to tell.
Speaking with Fatima from Italy, where she's now living as a refugee, was an incredibly humbling experience. I also realised the seriousness of the story when she told me that the women's educational charities she supports are run in secret. I felt a huge sense of responsibility to tell her story well, but not to include anything that would endanger anyone – with women's education being illegal under Taliban rule, this is not a subject to treat lightly. I hope I did her efforts justice with my article.
In March, my parents and I embarked on a weeklong road trip through Ireland. Our last stop was the tiny village of Cashel in County Tipperary so that I could check out a just-opened hotel, the Cashel Palace, and review it for Departures International. Having spent the larger part of my professional life working in hotels I love writing about them, whether focusing on architecture and design, guest experiences, or the people that make a stay so special. Ireland is a place that's always close to my heart – I'm part Irish, part Yorkshire – although it's not somewhere I spent much time growing up. I feel it's a part of me that I'm set to explore more from this point on. And if the welcome everywhere is as warm as the welcome at Cashel Palace, I have plenty to look forward to. Practically every interaction I had in the hotel made me smile.
The main building dates back to 1732 and was the home of the Archbishops of the Church of Ireland. It sits at the foot of the Rock of Cashel, a limestone hill topped by a cluster of medieval buildings that we set out to explore on a chilly morning under a cornflower-blue sky, nodding daffodils keeping us company as we tramped up to the top. This being Ireland, the Cashel Palace has an interesting connection to Guinness, too. But you'll have to read the article to learn what it is.
This was a story I had wanted to tell for a long time, so I was thrilled when Departures thought it worth telling, and commissioned me to write it. It's not a hard-hitting topic, but in a much misunderstood city, Dubai's cafés show that there's a lot more to the place than champagne brunches and bling. In the course of writing the story I spoke to people with a real passion for coffee, as well as people with a passion for creating community spaces. The final article includes cafés that house perfume labs, classic car collections, a motorbike workshop, and more. They're a great way to see a more human side of Dubai and if you frequent them often enough, you're likely to become part of their community, too.
Hadara may not be as well known as some of the other publications on this list, but it's a magazine I love writing for, for a number of reasons. It's published in Sharjah, one of my favourites of the seven emirates, it focuses on the rich creative culture and innovative people of the UAE and the broader region, and I love discussing story ideas with the always-enthusiastic editor, Peter Drennan.
This was my first article for Hadara, a last-minute sprint to the deserts of Mleiha to ride around in a Unimog, to kick up sand at high speed in a dune buggy, to learn about the geology of the area and the medicinal benefits of native desert plants, and to learn how to survive the sands with a number of survival techniques. Do I have the confidence to think I could survive on my own? In Mleiha, probably - I know where the roads and the villages are, so think I could give it a pretty good go. But put me out in a more remote area and I'm not so sure, especially since I couldn't create the spark needed from the flint to light my own fire. I did learn which terribly poisonous plants not to snack on though, so at least that's something.
Another opportunity to write about a hotel, this time in AlUla, a place that fascinates me and where I feel an energy like no other. I don't know why - maybe it's a place where ley lines converge, perhaps it's an energy vortex - but whatever it is, no doubt all of the ancient civilisations that passed through here felt it too, from the Dadanites to the Lihyanites to the Nabataeans to the Romans.
The new Banyan Tree blends into the wide, sandy landscape of the Ashar Valley so well that, at first, you hardly see it. To learn more about what the property is like you'll have to read the article, but this was a place of firsts for me. It was the first time I've grappled with a floating breakfast served on a tray in my own pool, and was the first time I've ever worn a swimsuit in public in Saudi Arabia. When I first started travelling to the country a few years back, this was unthinkable. But so much has changed, and AlUla is a pioneer in terms of tourism in the country. It feels like a testing ground for many things, and I tested out the swimsuit thing myself, diving in (OK, wading in gingerly - it was chilly) to the incredible pool squeezed between two towering rock formations, in a one-piece the same colour as the sky.
Marrakech is one of my favourite places on the planet. As I wrote in my entry for Condé Nast Traveler's list of the 23 Best Places to Travel in 2023, it has a dizzying energy that pulls me in, spins me around, and leaves me wanting more. Back in September, when I was wandering the Medina with my friend Divia Thani, trying not to buy the entire stock of every single shop, we were treated to a tour of El Fenn, one of the city's most glamorous riads, by owner Vanessa Branson (sister of Richard). What fun it was to see her energy as she showed us her ten new rooms just days before they were opening to guests, each completely unique, filled with artisanal design details and punches of colour that make this one of Marrakech's most exciting places to stay. It's no wonder Madonna chose to spend her 60th birthday here. I wrote about the new rooms - and the extraordinary craftsmanship that goes into them - in more detail for Robb Report. I can't wait to go back and stay in one next time.
Many people – especially Dubai residents – unfairly diss Sharjah. They say there's nothing to do there, the traffic is terrible, you can't get a proper drink, it's dusty. Some of which is patently untrue, and some of which is true, but surely doesn't provide reason enough to write off an entire emirate. Fortunately, the editors at Afar decided to give Sharjah a chance, and commissioned me to write about this much underrated destination for the 2023 Where To Travel Next list.
I couldn't fit all the reasons I love Sharjah into the piece - there was no space to go into the dramatic deserts, the laidback and slightly retro-feeling east coast, the beautiful House of Wisdom, the abandoned "ghost village", or the artisans creating exquisite contemporary versions of traditional heritage crafts. But I did manage to squeeze in art, architecture and the brilliant aviation museum, three of the top reasons why you should have Sharjah on your list of places to go next year, or any year, for that matter.