My friend Pam is crazy for orchids, so we made our first-ever journey this week — about a 20-minute drive south of our town — to the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary destination we had never seen.
The show, which filled room after room of the enormous conservatory, was spectacular, complemented by hanging lanterns and tinkling exotic music.
It ends April 9.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see huge baskets of orchids when I visited Thailand, but typically have only admired them in nurseries and flower shops.
This was an astonishing array — and this year’s show, their 15th focused on orchids, was all about Thailand, which has 1,200 species of orchids.
The displays included several small altars, enormous topiary elephants and a temple.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel far and wide from an early age, the only child of two deeply curious parents who took the back seat out of their car, installed my crib, and drove to Mexico from Vancouver (my birthplace) when I was a small baby.
No wonder motion feels like my natural state!
I’ve been to 38 countries and 38 states of the U.S. — so far!
Here are the five places I’ve so far found the most beautiful and why:
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand (tied with Mae Hong Son, Thailand)
In 1994, I spent 21 days in Thailand, most of it with my first husband, but a week alone. To reach Ko Phi Phi was in itself an adventure — an overnight train from Bangkok to Krabi, at the nation’s southern tip, then a two-hour boat ride in blazing sun to reach the island, shaped like two croissants back to back. Even then, it was clear that it was being over-developed, and I wondered how it would change in later years.
Mae Hong Song has been called the prettiest town in Thailand, a quick flight from Bangkok, landing in an airport across the street from a Buddhist temple, and so close to town — which circles a lake — you simply walk the distance. In the early morning, mist covers the town and, atop its highest hill, you can easily hear kids and roosters and radios, but can’t see any of it, thickly muffled. As the sun rises and heats the moisture, it evaporates and shimmies upward, revealing the town below.
Well known to Europeans, lesser known to Americans, this island off the southern coast of France is spectacularly lovely. A quick flight or longer ferry ride brings you to Bastia in the north or Ajaccio in the south. I spent a week on a mo-ped touring the north, specifically La Balagne, and went as far inland and south as Corte.
It was July and the land is covered with maquis, a thick, low scrubby brush that’s a mix of herbs — sun-warmed it smells divine, so my nostrils were full of its scent. I drove down switchback roads to find 19th century hotels at the ocean’s edge, saw the Desert des Agriates in pelting rain, (a truly eerie Martian landscape), and felt more at home in its wild beauty than almost anywhere.
I wept, bereft, when the plane headed back to Nice. I’ve not yet returned but it remains one of my most treasured memories.
From top to bottom, this is a state bursting with natural beauty, from the sinuous red rocks of Sedona to the jaw-dropping expanses of the Grand Canyon.
I still recall a field of cactus at sunset, a spectacular array of gold and purple, their curves silhouetted against the sky.
I love Flagstaff; (stay at the Monte Vista, a funky hotel built in 1926) and you’ll feel like an out-take from a Sam Spade film noir. Tucson is a welcoming small city with some great restaurants.
It’s hard to overstate how lovely this country is — albeit a brutally long flight from most of the United States (12 hours from Los Angeles.) I only saw a bit of the North Island, staying in a youth hostel in the Coromandel Peninsula, where (!) I met and was promptly adopted by four kids then half my age who whisked me off to their weekend home then to one of their parent’s houses outside Auckland where, a total stranger, I was welcomed as family.
A place where kindness and beauty abound. What’s not to love?
Salluit, Quebec (aka the Arctic)
How can fewer than 24 hours somewhere be unforgettable decades later?
You’ll never go there because it’s a town of 500 people with no tourist facilities. Or anything, officially, to see. I went, in December (!) to write a story for the Montreal Gazette, where I was then a reporter. It takes forever to get to — jet from Montreal to Kujuuaq then into a very small plane, past the tree line, to Salluit, landing on a tiny, narrow ice/snow landing strip surrounded by frigid Arctic waters.
White knuckle city!
What made my very brief stay magical? There is only one color — white.
No trees. No vegetation. No animals (that I saw.) No city lights. No air pollution or car exhaust. No billboards.
Ice, snow, water.
Every minute, as the light shifted, that white became the palest shade of blue, purple, green, gray, mutating before us. It was pristine, mesmerizing, extraordinary.
Here’s a list by travel writer Paul Marshman, which inspired mine.
I loved this, from the late British writer A.A. Gill, from The Times:
The abiding pleasure of my life so far has been the opportunity to travel. It is also the single greatest gift of my affluent generation. We got to go around the globe relatively easily, cheaply and safely. Postwar children are the best and most widely travelled generation that has yet lived. We were given the world when it was varied, various and mostly welcoming.
Whether we took enough goodwill with us and brought back enough insight is debatable. But today the laziest gap-year student has probably seen more and been further than Livingstone, Stanley and Richard Burton.
One of the things that surprises and dismays me is how many of my contemporaries spend their time and money on travelling to sunny beaches. All beach experiences, give or take a cocktail, are the same experience. My advice to travellers and tourists is to avoid coasts and visit people. There is not a view in the world that is as exciting as a new city.
Some of many runners-up include: The Hudson Valley (my home), Ireland, Paris, Savannah, the British Columbia coastline.
I started traveling young — when my parents removed the back seat of our family car and drove from Vancouver, my birthplace, to Mexico, a country I’ve since visited many times. I was two.
So constant motion and long-distance travel just feel normal to me!
In the next few weeks, we’ll be in Pennsylvania, near New Hope; in D.C. and suburban Maryland and on the Delaware River, each time visiting with friends who live there. I love getting away, even for a few days.
In December, Jose and I fly to Paris for Christmas, where we’ve been loaned an apartment. I then have five days in London alone visiting another friend, then another week alone there to do….I have no idea!
Which is my definition of bliss.
Berlin? Amsterdam? Antwerp? A quick flight to my new friend in Bahrain?
Nothing in the world makes me happier than a travel adventure.
Here, in no special order, are some of my favorite places around the world:
The West Village and East Village of Manhattan
Having lived in a suburb of New York City for more than 20 years, I never tire of wandering these two quieter and residential edges of the city: battered 19th-century doors and weathered stone steps, enormous 18th-cenury churches, cobblestoned, tree-lined streets and elegant brownstone houses with their ornate black metal railings and tall, narrow windowed doors. The area’s many cafes, restaurants and small shops include Porto Rico for coffee and tea, Bosie’s or Tea and Sympathy for a seated afternoon tea and Morandi for spaghetti carbonara. The best perfume shop in the city is on Christopher Street, Aedes de Venustas.
I’ve been visiting this chic spot since my childhood in Toronto. The Papery sells lovely stationery; the Craft Ontario shop offers terrific and affordable pottery, jewelry and Eskimo art a new store, Ca Va de Soi, recently opened there, selling the loveliest women’s sweaters. (Queen Street West gets all the attention. I like it a lot, but Yorkville is easier to manage, cleaner and safer.)
Such an elegant city! Spectacular views, great sailing, that bridge, the beaches and Marin County, a landscape of staggering beauty. I ate here, at the Presidio Social Club, in 2012 and loved every minute of it — a former military barracks set in a park. Sacramento Street has dozens of small, gorgeous shops.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Watching the sun rise, filling every valley in the Andes as it came towards us, remains one of the highlights of my life.
I spent five amazing days here, alone, traveling the north of this island by mo-ped, with a top speed of about 45 mph. It was July and the heated maquis, the scrubby fragrant underbrush, smelled like very good pipe tobacco. Craggy mountains, deep valleys, steep oceanside cliffs. Great food, welcoming people. I wept so hard when the plane took off for Nice the poor flight attendant thought I was injured or dying. Few places have touched me as deeply.
Kenya and Tanzania
I saw both, on safari, in my 20s. The Maasai Mara in Kenya and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania are unforgettably beautiful, filled with wild animals. It’s expensive to get there, but worth every penny to see a landscape that reminds us we’re only one late-arriving species. (Once you see animals in the wild, zoos seem sad and pointless.)
Mae Hong Son, Ko Phi Phi, Bangkok, Thailand
I spent 21 days in Thailand in January 1994 and remember every detail. MHS is a tiny town in the far north; KPP is a sliver of an island two hours by boat from the southern town of Krabi and crowded, humid Bangkok feels like an out-take from Blade Runner. I loved everything about my time there: food, people, flowers, astounding landscapes. If only it wasn’t 19 hours’ flying time away!
Oddly, we went there in November, a time of year when the sun barely rises at 8:30 and is gone by 3:00 p.m. It was staggeringly expensive, but worth it. The colors! The light! I loved the Vasa Museum — a ship launched with great fanfare in 1628, and which promptly sank in the harbor. It’s amazing — you climb a scaffolding so you’re literally face to face with history. I loved everything about this city, especially its attention to design, detail and light. I’m eager to return, preferably in summer.
The Eastern Townships, Quebec
We return every two years to Manoir Hovey, a five-star inn on Lake Massawippi. The area itself is lovely in every season, dotted with small towns and a gently rolling landscape. There’s skiing, horseback riding, winding roads to cycle, a stunning monastery — and Montreal 90 minutes north. If you’re a fan of best-selling mystery writer Louise Penny, this region will feel familiar, as that’s where she lives, and sets her stories.
The Grand Canyon
If you make one journey in your lifetime, make it here. Seriously. And don’t just drive to the edge, snap a few pics and drive away…You must walk deep into it (twice as long to come back up! take plenty of water!) to best experience a place that so powerfully reminds us what a mere eye-blink in time our lives represent. The light, the silence, the hawks and foxes and fossils…Few places so richly reward sitting still for an hour just to watch the light shifting and the landscape changing every minute as it does.
I’ve been, (so far), four times; my father owned a house near Galway City for a few years. Hard to name anything I don’t love about this small, friendly, gorgeous country….not to mention my heritage! My great-grandfather was a schoolteacher in Rathmullan, Co. Donegal. Get out to the Aran Islands top see shaggy cows the exact color of Guinness, or wander the streets of Dublin. For a bit of craic, try the annual matchmakers festival in Lisdoonvarna, which I wrote about for the Washington Post. Lots of shy bachelor farmers!
The Hudson Valley, New York
Home! I moved here in 1989 and love its history, landscapes, the Palisades, the Hudson River. The river towns — Irvington, Tarrytown, Ossining — line the Hudson, with quiet parks and access to the water. Lots of great restaurants and cafes…ancient churches and graveyards…winding roads, fantastic views. Visit Olana to see a spectacular example of 19th century architecture and West Point to visit an American icon.
I don’t expect to find it hard to leave, but you never know.
There are, I’ve discovered a few times, places in the world that sear your soul, where you unexpectedly feel so at home you can’t bear to leave, plotting your return even as you reluctantly pack your bags.
I rarely cry, especially not in public. But three places, (so far), left me in tears of regret and longing as departed: Corsica, northern Thailand and Ireland.
I had one week between the end of one job and the start of another. I was single and craved something absolutely amazing.
I love France and speak French and friends had raved to me for many years about this island, known for its rugged interior — and fierce desire to separate from France.
I flew from New York to Nice, Nice to Bastia and rented a mo-ped at the port, while the hotel owner in Bastia helped me plot out a five-day circle tour of La Balagne, all in the north. It still remains one of the best holidays of my entire life, (and I’ve been to 37 countries, so far.)
Imagine buzzing along empty, winding country roads in brilliant sunshine, with the maquis,the island’s thick scrubby undergrowth filled with herbs, sending its rich, delicious sun-warmed fragrance into your nostrils. Meander down a series of hairpin turns to a hotel at the ocean’s edge, so close you’ll hear the surf from your bedroom window. It’s a lovely old house from the 1850s or so. You eat dinner, alone, on the terrace at dusk.
One day it poured so heavily I couldn’t wear my glasses, (which I really do need for driving), nor did my helmet have a visor. I got a black trash bag from a restaurant to cover me, and kept on going, whizzing past 1,000-foot drop-offs into the sea. People invited me into their homes for a meal. I chatted with a handsome young mason in a bar, who gave me several CDs, still some of my favorite music ever, the polyphonal a capella group I Muvrini.
The landscape is wild, untamed, primal, timeless. When my plane took off for Nice, I cried so hard the flight attendant came to comfort me and ask what was wrong. I couldn’t even speak for grief, watching the island disappear into the clouds.
I’d found, as I did in every place that has seared my soul so deeply: beauty, peace, scent, kindness, history, adventure.
I visited in January 1994 with my husband, our new marriage already in tatters and soon to blow apart.
We’d visited Bangkok and Chang Mai, both standard tourist destinations, and decided, spur of the moment, to fly further north to Mae Hong Son, which one guidebook called the most beautiful town in Thailand. I’ve only seen one other airport — in Bastia — so rural and tiny that sheep grazed a few meters from the runways. As we walked (!) into town, the only sound was that of bells from the temple across the unpaved street.
Guesthouses, then $15 a night, ringed a lake. We rented mo-peds, (clearly, my favorite mode of transport), for a day-trip even further north to the Burmese border. Madness! The road, quite literally, was under construction, with huge machines grading the land, their quizzical drivers gazing down at us in pity and wonder.
We went with Roy, an Englishman we’d met at our guesthouse, who’d worked in developing countries delivering vaccines. When the road forked, with a sign we couldn’t read, what next? “Follow the power lines,” Roy said.
The road dust was a thick, silky red, so deep I put my feet out on both sides and used them as pontoons to steady the bike. As we pulled into town for lunch, men wearing extremely large rifles across their chest stared at us — we were now in the Golden Triangle, then the world’s largest suppliers of opium.
We ate lunch, then turned south in the golden late afternoon light, back down the insanely steep hills we’d so eagerly climbed. On one turn, (no guardrails), I got off the bike and had my husband walk it down, too terrified of flying off the road and over the treetops to my certain death. I’d already fallen and shattered the bike’s side mirror, giving me a tiny scar on the inside of my right wrist as a permanent souvenir of the day.
A library in Brooklyn has amassed an enormous collection of sketchbooks — 7,500 from 130 countries — and their books are now traveling the world, currently in Chicago. They’re on a 14-city tour, ending in Melbourne.
I love every single thing about this:
sharing ideas globally
sharing one’s art with strangers
sharing the most private and intimate place to stash your drawings.
And they’re now collecting sketchbooks for the 2013 world tour. Jump in here!
I’ve sketched all over the world on my travels.
Here (gulp) are a few of what’s in one of my sketchbooks.
I spent the happiest year of my life, 1982-3, living and working out of Paris, on an eight-month journalism fellowship called Journalistes en Europe. We were chosen, 28 of us from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35, to live in Paris and travel all over Europe reporting. I got to know the Les Halles area, in the 1st. arondissement, well, as the CFPJ centre nearby was at Rue du Louvre. On one of my many later visits, alone on a frigid winter’s afternoon, I did this quick sketch with a sharpie. It’s still one of my favorites. (All these images are, in life, 4 by 6 inches.)
Here’s a pile of photos of the place to see what it’s really like! I did this one in colored pencil. This is a great tea-room in the Marais section of Paris. The name means The Dormouse in The Teapot, a reference from Alice in Wonderland. You’ll find it at 3 rue des Rosiers in the 4th. arondissement. Everywhere I travel, I seek out a cosy tearoom. Amusez-vous bien!
Did you know that Sigmund Freud lived in London after fleeing the Nazis in his native Austria in 1938? And that you can visit his home, now a museum? I’ve been to London many times, and loved seeing his chair — which is battered brown leather — and the original psychoanalytic couch, covered in an oriental rug, that his patients lay on. His family, a talented and eccentric bunch, has very much left their mark on British culture, from his grandson, legendary painter Lucian Freud to author and Financial Times columnist Susie Boyt, his great-grand-daughter who grew up desperately wanting to be Judy Garland. I did this quick sketch in pencil.
For a few years, my father owned a house built in 1789 in Galway, near the town of Athenry. It was one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay. This is a watercolor I did of the view from the kitchen into the stone-walled paddock behind the house. He sold it, sadly, and it’s now a nursing home.
In 1998 I was crazy enough to fly alone to Sydney — 20 hours from my home in New York — with the goal of writing a book about women sailors competing in a round-the-world race. It was an insane commitment of a ton of money and when I arrived they reneged on the deal! So it became a very costly, albeit lovely holiday I would never have dared embark on otherwise. I did this watercolor from the window of my hotel room. One of the things that intrigued me most about Sydney, which you can see here, were its corrugated metal roofs.
In 1994, I spent 21 days traveling Thailand, from very north to very south. This was a temple across the street (!) from the airport in the tiny, quiet, isolated town of Mae Hong Son, in the very northern corner, near near the border with Burma. The only sound you could hear after getting out of the airport — one strip — was the bells from this temple. I walked into town from the airport, a first, and felt I had arrived in heaven. This spot remains in my top five of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited.
And yet, despite my loathing of turbulence, I live to travel.
This calendar year, so far, I’ve been to Victoria, Vancouver and Kamloops, B.C., Banff, Alberta, Toronto, D.C., Minneapolis, Peterborough (Ontario) and Chicago. In January I’ll be in Tucson and thereabouts for two weeks (while my husband teaches a photo workshop there), then go to New Orleans on the 25th to speak at a retailers’ conference.
Spoiled by years of international — i.e. off the North American continent — travel, I still have a huge jones to go somewhere, soon, they don’t speak English as a first language.
I’ve been, so far, to 37 countries, from Fiji to Turkey, Thailand to New Zealand. In 1982, I won an eight-month journalism fellowship that required (heaven!) funded solo travel on 10-day reporting trips all over Europe. I went to Denmark, England and Sicily and did an eight-day trip in a truck from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French trucker who spoke not a word of English.
Pack, rush, stand, wait, take off shoes. Flying, so much fun.
Do you notice the airports you travel through? Here’s a recent list of the world’s top 10, which includes Paris Charles de Gaulle (which, built in 1974, looks like a cartoon idea of the future with all its tubes) and Rio’s domestic airport and Dulles, in D.C.
Here’s my top 10:
1) Santa Barbara, California. Tiny, red-tile-roofed. There are pool houses larger. Charming, cute, feels like vacation.
2) Mae Hong Son, Thailand. The only sound you hear is that of temple bells from the Buddhist temple across the street. The only airport I’ve ever flown into where you can walk right into town.
3) Vancouver. The architecture is spectacular — lots of glass, waterfalls, totem poles inside and out. One of the very few airports that actually makes specific reference to where you’ve just landed. The approach is also fantastic — the Rockies, the ocean, not to mention all the huge log booms on the water. I also love their use of YVR as its name — every Canadian airport code starts with Y. (YUL is Montreal, YYZ is Toronto. Go figure.)
4) Seattle. Think about it — when do you ever notice, in a good way, what’s at your feet? I’ve flown through this airport a few times and marveled at what lovely materials they chose for the flooring. Not to mention the inlaid bronze salmon inserted randomly. One of whom carries a briefcase.
5) Toronto Island Airport. You can wing into this one if you fly Porter Air from Newark. It’s set on a small island from which you take a ferry for about 1 minute, then a ten-minute taxi ride to downtown. The best way to see Toronto’s dramatic skyline.
6) Cuzco, Peru. OK. I admit it. I remember nothing of the airport but my immense, weeping gratitude that I saw it at all, after a hairy, scary descent on Faucett Air. (now defunct.) Think of a sewing machine needle threading up and down through cloth. That was us, trying to find a clear bit of air between many large mountains.
7) Shannon, Ireland. I love any airport that immediately gives me a strong sense of place. Landing in the west of Ireland, you look down over an impossibly beautiful patchwork of green, hundreds of small fields ringed by low stone walls.
8) Bastia, Corsica. Like Galway and Mae Hong Son, the landscape is at the edge of the airport. I remember seeing sheep within a few hundred yards of the runways.
9) Charles de Gaulle, Paris. Although many hate it, it is saturated with happy memories for me from my year living in Paris on a fellowship. From there, I flew out, or back, from Montserrat, England, Istanbul. I loved that CDG became “my” airport. Easy access to central Paris on the RER.
10) Westchester, New York. My home airport. It’s impossibly crowded but small and easy to get in and out of. I love that we walk across tarmac into the planes. You can sit in the restaurant and watch planes taking off and landing. I love being able to get to an airport in 20 minutes.
This photo is taken in Cuba. My Dad, (who like me has a Canadian passport so we could visit easily enough), keeps trying to get me to go cycling there with him. He’s 80, went a few years back, loved it. I admit, though, it’s not highest on my list, but I do still share his insatiable lust for travel. My mom traveled the world alone for many years and savors memories I still dream of acquiring. She saw the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan before the Taliban blew them to smithereens and has touched down in Nauru. She taught me to wedge a chair beneath my doorhandle when staying in a dodgy hotel, just in case. When I was in college and she roamed the globe, I’d see her once a year, imported to wherever she was then — Fiji, Cartagena, Peru, Costa Rica.
When I was two, Mom and Dad took the backseat out of their car and drove from Vancouver, my birthplace, to Mexico, a country I’ve lived in, been to many times and love. No wonder I’m happiest on the road!
Today’s New York Times includes in their travel magazine the news that many travelers, with tighter budgets and perhaps craving the familiar in rough times, are returning to old stand-bys like London or Tuscany. As someone whose shelves bulge with travel books and guides, whose Times Atlas, passport and green card are some of my most precious possessions, I spend a lot of time dreaming of the next trip. I’ll be going to Atlanta in three weeks for three days, for a board meeting, a new-to-me city. After that, Toronto (hometown) for Christmas, then Tucson and New Mexico for vacation in January.
When I have more income and time, I’ll head for some more places on my list: Argentina and Patagonia; the South Sea Islands, Jordan and Lebanon; Norway, Finland, Iceland, Estonia; Morocco; The Magdalen Islands and Gros Morne National Park. My sweetie, a Buddhist, is desperate to get to Tibet and would love to see Ireland (which I’ve been to, luckily, four times.) I won’t return (sorry if these are your faves) to: Austin, (the Times raves about it, again, today) Salt Lake City, Orlando, Cabo San Lucas.
My top 10, so far: the tiny northern town of Mae Hong Son, Thailand; the island of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand; Galway City; Paris; London; Peru; Corsica; Tunisia [Tunis’ Bardo Museum has one of the world’s best mosaic collections]; Istanbul, Stockholm.
Where do you want to go next? What are some of your favorite places and why?