How to plan a perfect vacation

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20170315_172130157_HDR

 

Toronto, March 2017

One new friend, a Zagreb travel agent, says: “A perfect vacation is one without expectations..”

She might be right.

When I plan a vacation I focus on what I, (and/or my husband), really want to do, (not what we see on social media or what’s “hot” this year) — informed by my participation in multiple weekly travel Twitterchats, and reading travel websites, blog posts and articles that offer specific ideas and inspiration.

Having been to 40 countries, I’m torn between visiting the familiar, like Ireland, (five visits), and France (many more), and seeking out new experiences.

Things to consider when planning your holiday:

For how long? (Will it be enough or will you get bored?)

Using what transportation?

With whom, (or alone?)

How much activity, and how much downtime?

How many (tiring) travel days and transfers?

What will you give up to stay on budget, (e.g. luxury hotels, taxis everywhere)?

IMG_20160618_124653042_HDR (3)

Washington, D.C. June 2016

 

IMG_0104
The Donegal cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

“Perfect” for me includes:

 


 

Easy/safe/quick/affordable, (hello, $$$$$ London!), public transit in and around the city/town, ideally without cars or taxis. My favorite vacations involve no driving, unless it’s a road trip or touring.

— Making emotional connections. I travel out of curiosity, and having long conversations with a country’s residents is a great joy for me. I got to know two sisters in Croatia whose powerful memories of Zagreb being bombed are much more powerful to me than any lovely vista.

Kind and welcoming locals. I liked Berlin, but didn’t enjoy “Berliner schnauze”, a biting, sarcastic edge that’s quite common. Travel is disorienting enough and you can feel vulnerable, especially if you’re alone. Croatians have been terrific.

Healthy food at decent prices. Easy access to farmer’s markets, (in cities like Toronto, Paris, London, Zagreb, New York), can make a real difference to your budget and ability to eat well.

A climate with some variation. If it’s a sweltering 80 to 90+ degrees during the day, a drop of even 10 degrees and a breeze is a blessing. I can’t handle humidity; cold, for this Canadian, is not a problem.

Ready access to nature: lake, river, ocean, forest, parks, gardens. Too much concrete makes me feel ill, even on a city-focused trip.

Great shopping. I love finding items, styles and colors I just can’t get in New York (yes, really.). I treasure wearing and using them for years to come.

— Culture/design whether music, museums or just well-designed lighting, streetscapes and buildings.

Personal safety.  Especially in an era of terror attacks, I avoid crowds whenever possible and am extremely aware of my surroundings in large cities..

Fleeing American violence and toxic politics. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1989, but am so sickened and embarrassed by its current politics and President I want to be as far away from of it as I can afford, and for as long as I can afford.

Nor do I want, on vacation, to be surrounded by Americans, so I choose places, and hotels, with a more international clientele.

While trying to relax, the last thing I want to think or talk about is American politics.

— History. The town I’m writing this in, Rovinj, Croatia, has buildings from the 16th century — and my hotel dates from the 18th and 17th, two buildings later combined. I’m happiest in places with a rich, accessible history.

Eastern Europe also offers something I’d never seen before — in Berlin, Budapest and Zagreb, museums of torture, places where its citizens suffered unspeakable crimes. History is filled with darkness, too.

Grace notes

Everything from the starched, spotless linen napkins and tablecloths in my Rovinj hotel to the oleander blossoms that fall onto my breakfast plate from the terrace’s overhanging trees. For me, touches of beauty and elegance make a place deeply memorable. 

— Rest!

It’s so tempting to gogogogogogogo. I finally lay in bed one afternoon and napped and listened, on the Internet, to my favorite weekend radio shows from NPR.

— A mix of solo and accompanied time

So many women are afraid to strike out alone, to eat alone, to walk alone.

I’ve done it in Istanbul, Spain, Mexico…

Dig through the archives here and you’ll find several posts detailing how to do it safely and enjoyably.

Ideally, I like a mix of vacation time both solo and accompanied; alone here, I’ve had terrific conversations with bus and train mates, at cafes and in shops and restaurants. These included two U of Texas accounting students; a Croatian art history major; a Romanian professor of environmental anthropology; an epee fencer, and an electrical engineer, both from Zagreb and an IBM exec — who I met smoking a hookah! — who’d worked for NGOs in Africa.

Even when I travel with my beloved husband, taking some daily time apart is essential.

 

Some of our best vacations have included:

 

• Our rented cottage in Dungloe, Donegal, in June 2015, (through this website), and the flat we rented twice on the Ile St. Louis in Paris (friends.)

• A five-week bus journey throughout Mexico in May 2005, including Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived as a teenager.

• Since our first visit in the fall of 2001, exhausted by covering the events of 9/11, we’ve returned six (!) times, so far, to Manoir Hovey, a resort on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a 7-hour drive from our home in New York; elegant but not stuffy, welcoming, great food and lovely in every season.

 

L1010191A
Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships

This European trip has offered virtually no disappointments, not bad for a month on the road through four countries so far. I chose a mix of larger and smaller cities, with a seaside break in Istria, Croatia.

I also chose three long train journeys — Paris-Berlin (7 hours), Berlin-Budapest (13 hours), Budapest-Zagreb (6 hours) —  in order to rest and see the countryside. I dislike flying, so this also reduced my stress.

IMG_20150106_134932581_HDR

 

 

This trip’s two greatest surprise expenses?

Hotel laundry, (sweaty from walking all day in 80+ degree heat; one hotel even forbade hand washing!), and taxis, when my arthritic right knee gave out. I could have used laundromats, (as I have in Paris), but right now, free time is more precious to me.

IMG_20151211_194239374

Lincoln Center, New York City

IMG_20140927_181158070_HDR

Bucks County, Pennsylvania

 

IMG_20150105_142023694

IMG_20160616_133549584_HDR

Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

 

Have you had it — or planned it — yet?

Road Trip! A Top Ten List, Plus Mine — And Yours?

Life Is A Highway
Image by Matt McGee via Flickr

I love road trips!

Here’s a fun list of America’s top 10, three of which — Arizona, Maine and The Blue Ridge Parkway — I’ve done.

I didn’t learn to drive until I was 30, growing up in Toronto and Montreal, where public transit was safe, cheap and plentiful and where the taxi drivers knew me by name I splurged so often. So I had some seriously pent-up consumer demand by the time I did get my license, after learning to drive in Montreal, en francais. It’s a city of aggressive drivers and many hills, so learning stick on a hill in the dark in French was good prep.

I didn’t have much of a jones to do road trips in my native Canada because the distances are so often exhaustingly enormous, certainly if you’re on your own. You can drive for 12 hours in Ontario and still be in…Ontario. After six or ten hours of pine trees, enough is enough.

Some of my favorite road trips have included:

Montreal to Charleston, S.C. with my then boyfriend, later husband, (then ex.) It’s a long, long way and I was still learning how to drive, so had an interesting moment trying to shift gears at 60 mph on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We camped some of the time, stayed in some hotels, ate a very good meal at Poogan’s Porch in Charleston, where I ended up covered in mosquito bites from eating on the (lovely) terrace. If you love architecture or design, Drayton Hall, near Charleston, is one of the nation’s most beautiful early homes, whose construction began in 1738.

Montreal to Savannah, Ga. with my Dad. We visited small coastal towns like New Bern and Oriental, N.C., winding down backroads fragrant with night jasmine and the Great Dismal Swamp. It is large and, on a rainy gray day when we drove across it, was dismal indeed. If you’ve never been to Savannah, it’s well worth a visit.

Santa Fe To Taos, aka The High Road, with the sweetie. We stopped in Truchas where the sweetie explored a Buddhist temple while I waited outside — where a dog bit me on the ass. Never before, never again. The drive is gorgeous.

New York to Charlottesville, Va. I did that trip in the spring of 1995 in my red convertible and spent a whole $500 for a week’s solo adventure. I loved historic spots like Harper’s Ferry and Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia, was intrigued by Monticello and often, as I drove through the hollows of West Virginia, felt as though I were lost in a Thomas Hart Benton painting.

Taxco to Acapulco, with my Dad. Driving in Mexico is its very own brand of adventure. We ran out of gas somewhere rural and my Dad, pointing to a hacienda down the dusty road, said “You speak Spanish. Ask where the nearest gas station is.” I remember getting a bad electrical shock in the pretty tiled bathroom in Taxco and loving the dirt-cheap pension in Acapulco Dad remembered from a trip 20 years earlier.

Perpignan, France to Istanbul, with Pierre, a professional truck driver I was writing about. Eight insane, amazing, scary, unforgettable days. Pierre didn’t speak a word of English and we slept in the truck in two narrow, tiny bunks. We didn’t shower once the whole time because hotels cost money and that was — then — the only place to get a shower. So we wore duty-free cologne and perfume we bought at truck stops in Bulgaria. Our gas was siphoned out of the truck while we slept in Yugoslavia, just as he had predicted it would be.

We were pulled over by an irate cop in Bulgaria who shouted at me inside the truck cab and demanded I roll out all my film to expose it. I was so grungy by the end I begged Pierre to let me wash my hair; on a windy day in a parking lot in Romania (maybe Bulgaria) he held a plastic jug full of water over my head while I lathered up. My skin still broke out from constant road dirt.

I’ve never seen a truck go by since without a thumbs-up of respect for their tough, important job. Best road trip ever.

What’s been your best — or worst — road trip?