I had so much fun in Montreal in September, we came up again — this time by car — to celebrate my husband’s birthday and to enjoy the city in warm, sunny weather. (We’ve been here in February, and it’s an adventure, but the wind and cold and snow can be really daunting.)
We stayed again at the Omni Mont-Royal, on Sherbrooke Street, whose central location is terrific, with lots of great shopping within a two or three block walk.
There are nearby excellent restaurants, like the freshly made pizza we had at this place on Peel Street, sharing a delicious antipasto, an oven-fresh-made pizza and three glasses of red wine.
This visit I went down to Notre-Dame Ouest to check out its small section of antiques stores and loved the mix I found.
The selection at L’Ecuyer, at 1896 Notre Dame Ouest, is the best and most affordable, (the other shops are priced at $1,000 or much more for their material), and the owner has a great selection of china, glass, paintings and hand-made textiles. He specializes in vintage suitcases and they’re fantastic. I saw everything from a zebra skin rug ($1,200) to a spectacular 18th century walnut armoire ($7,000) but also many smaller items for much less.
Like many along this strip, he rents out his items to television and film crews — he’d just loaned out several paintings that morning to a movie starring Kathy Bates and Felicity Jones being filmed locally.
We treated ourselves to dinner at Lemeac, far from the tourist trail, in the elegant residential Francophone neighborhood of Outremont. Diners ranged from hipsters in their 20s and 30s to a woman in a gold turban in her 70s or beyond. As we left at 10:30, a line-up filled the doorway…
I took a spin class at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, whose drop-in rate is $30, (but $15 for some guests of local hotels, like ours.) The classroom was large and sunny, on the top floor, and — like everything in Montreal — offered in a mix of French and English.
The MAA is in a gorgeous pair of buildings from 1905, with two lovely period stained glass windows that glow at night; the lobby contains a fantastic, huge period photo mural from 1890 — celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Snowshoe Club.
One of the things I most enjoy about Montreal is how damn stylish its women are — especially those 50 and beyond. Oh la la! Great haircuts. Great hair color. Chic, minimalist clothing in gray, black, cream and beige. Lots of them wearing cool sneakers, studded with black crystals or a fur pom-pom.
I find it really inspiring.
We shopped at two Canadian retail legends, Browns shoe store (men and women) and Aritizia, a privately-owned Vancouver-based chain also sold online and in the U.S. that sells women’s clothing. Its colors are mostly limited to solid burgundy, olive, dark green, black, gray and a mid-pink, many in knits; prices are reasonable for the quality with many items below $100 to $150. I also appreciate their sizing, some of which easily and stylishly accommodates me (between a 12 and 14) without screaming this is a plus-size garment!
I’ve gone twice now to the salon La Coupe, at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke, for cut and color; the color was fantastic and well-priced. The space is dead simple, even basic — black, gray and white — but offers a variety of services and has been in business since 1967.
Walking the city offers lots of architectural surprises; be a tourist and look up to find some unusual sights, like this gray stone building now housing McGill’s alumni association that used to house a distiller’s headquarters. It looks like a Scottish castle!
Visiting Montreal is like a quick, easy trip to France, with many of the same charms and pleasures; this is Alexandre et fils, where I ate in the mid 1980s when I was a feature writer at the Montreal Gazette and lived nearby — three of my former colleagues still work there.
This was my longest break from work since 1988, (not including job-searching!)
It was the best possible birthday gift I could have given myself as I enter another decade, and with fewer ahead than behind me now.
Some of what it reminded, or taught me:
The world is filled with kindness
Yes, we live in an era that can appear utterly savage: terrorism, racism, violence, economic inequality, grinding poverty. All of these exist and can destroy our hope, our belief, that there is also counter-balance, much active kindness and compassion.
I was so lucky and so grateful, even in the busiest and most crowded cities in the blistering heat of summer, to be treated with kindness by almost every single person I met. It was deeply moving to me, just one more random stranger amid the millions of tourists out there.
People’s lives are complicated — everywhere
When we go on vacation/holiday, we switch off from our daily cares, which is the whole point. It was powerful to hear of Europeans’ challenges, from the Venetian chambermaid whose wristband prompted our conversation (27 years lifting heavy mattresses had injured her) to the Croatian tour guide who told us his monthly wage is about $200, typical there, to my London friends and colleagues who are seeing some pernicious effects of Brexit already.
Listening at length means the world you’re passing through isn’t just some postcard.
It’s full of fellow human beings struggling as we do.
If you feel disconnected from the world, from others who seem so different from you, travel and speak and listen to them with an open heart and a healthy curiosity.
Slowing down — and getting off-screen — is essential for mental health
I wish someone could put electrodes on my head right now as I can feel a major difference in my brain function and mood between when I left New York and how I’ve arrived home:
I didn’t listen to or read news.
I didn’t watch television or movies or listen to the radio.
I didn’t waste hours every day on-line attached to a screen and social media.
I didn’t consume two newspapers every day.
I interacted on-line maybe an hour a day.
Instead, I was outdoors in sunshine and nature, watching and listening to and connecting with people.
I enjoyed the people I spoke with on my journey, from a woman at the Venice airport from Calcutta who’d traveled the world to the Romanian professor of anthropology I talked to on a bench in Zagreb to the young women who vividly recalled living through the Bosnian war as children.
Unless you get out into it, and speak to people, the rest of the world can feel very distant and literally invisible when you live in the enormous and self-centered United States, where “foreign” coverage of the world is shallow and the “news” forever dominated by American politics and violence.
Working alone at home can render you a little feral
I’ve been working alone at home — no kids, no pets — since 2005 and rarely in a cafe or library, although our suburban New York town offers both.
Being surrounded by so many people in crowded cities reminded me what a hermit I’ve become. By the end of my journey, I was relieved to withdraw to silence and solitude.
But this trip also reminded me how stimulating and fun it is to meet new people, so this has shifted how I now think about spending more of my time in others’ company.
How can I miss you when you won’t go away?
Having been with my husband for 17 years, and now both of us working from home much of the time, we can end up in one another’s pockets.
I missed the hell out of him on my trip!
There are some husbands who would freak out if their wife said: “Bye, honey! I’m traveling Europe alone for the next five weeks.” But we have the savings, I have the time off I need as someone self-employed — and he knows he married a restless globetrotter. Tethering someone like me to home/work is not w prudent decision.
Routine is comforting — but deadening. Break it!
It feels good now to be home again and to enjoy my routines: the gym, the coffee shop, cooking, favorite television shows, two newspapers every morning thumping onto our apartment doorstep.
But it’s also deeply confining to keep doing the same old things the same old way, day after day, week after month after year. Only by cutting the cord to all of them could I envision — and in solitude really think through — some new ideas and ones I’m really excited about.
If something makes you really happy, savor it now
I arrived home in New York to the terrible news that a local writer, someone whose work I’d seen for years — envying her Big Magazine bylines and steady, well-paid work for them — had died.
Leaving three children and a husband.
With 1.5 months between her diagnosis and her death.
We have no idea, ever, how long we will live or how many more precious opportunities we will have to seize joy, to hold our sweetie’s hand, to cuddle our kids or pets, to connect deeply with work we still enioy.
Or to travel, even a bike ride or bus ride to a nearby and beloved beach or mountain-top or museum.
Travel makes me happier than anything else, ever, anywhere.
I’m so grateful for taking this time and having, for now, the health and the income to do it.
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)?
Washington, D.C. June 2016
“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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s 2.5 years since I was last here, in the depths of winter.
My husband Jose and I came for my birthday, and three friends joined us that evening, one from her home in London, her partner from visiting his parents in Sweden and a journalism colleague stationed here. Some had never met one another, and I had never met two of them, but it was a terrific evening.
We ate at this gorgeous restaurants in the Marais, Les Chouettes (The Owls.)
I lived in Paris for a year when I was 25, on a journalism fellowship, so the city feels like home to me. I speak French and have been back many times since then, four times in the past decade.
The city is a feast in every way: great food, beautiful colors everywhere — flowers, doors, women’s clothing — millennia of history, gorgeous architecture, reams of culture, tremendous racial and ethnic diversity.
Most visitors spend their time in the 1st through 11th arrondissements — with possible visits to the quieter, chi-chi, residential 16th. (Balzac’s home is there) and the grittier 18th, 19th and 20th. The buses and subways are clean and efficient and many taxi drivers now speak English.
Some photos of our week:
Jose planned a terrific Sunday jazz brunch at La Bellevilloise, a 100+ year-old building that’s been re-purposed into a cultural center in the funky 20th arrondissement (neighborhood), with great views of the city. The buffet style food was delicious, the music Django-esque, and the crowd a mix of all ages, tourists and Parisians.
I recommend it highly; you must make reservations!
The flat we’ve rented, from a journalism colleague of Jose’s, is in a trendy nabe, the Marais, (literally, as it once was, the swamp), an area filled with indie boutiques, bars and restaurants lining its narrow streets, with fantastic names like “the street of bad boys” and “the street of the white coats.”
The view from our flat’s living room
Our rented flat is on the first floor at the end of a tree-filled cul-de-sac, so it’s blessedly silent at night.
My Paris isn’t typical.
I don’t feel compelled to fight the crowds and see all the official sights: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Tuilieries, the Eiffel Tower.
I treat it instead like an old, familiar friend, as one more big city I enjoy.
Some tourists stagger along with pontoons of shopping bags from Chanel and Vuitton and Hermes. Instead, I’ve bought everything here from eyeglasses to bathmats; the colors on offer are so distinctive and these things bring us daily pleasure at home for years afterward.
We have a few favorite restaurants, like this one, Les Fous de L’Ile, on the Ile St, Louis, (where we rented a flat for two previous visits) and love to try new ones.
We tasted two whites and two reds, with matching types of cheese and baguette and water to help us not get too drunk and learned a lot.
Paris has changed, of course, since I’ve been coming here, and five new things I notice this time:
— people jogging in the streets in Spandex and Fitbits, (once unheard of)
— far fewer smokers, more vapers
— so many people speaking excellent English, happily, from cabbies to store clerks and restaurant staff.
— Everyone’s wearing “les baskets” — sneakers — and a good thing, too! This is a city that demands and rewards hours of walking, but ohhhh, your feet will get tired if you don’t wear comfortable and supportive shoes.
— This visit, too, I’m much more aware, all the time, of our surroundings and every possible egress; with terrorism attacks in various European cities, including the massacre here at the club Bataclan, you can’t be stupid and tune out. A policemen was attacked with a hammer outside Notre Dame on Tuesday.
We live in weird and frightening times. I came out of a department store to find a large crowd and a lot of security guards and thought…ohhhhh, shit.But it was only (!?) people waiting for some American actor/celebrity to show up; apparently Tom Cruise has been here filming the latest Mission Impossible.
On a more sober note, one thing you’ll notice here, if you pay attention and look at the doorways of residential buildings, is the number of signs and monuments to the men, women and children who died during the Resistance and in WWII.
I saw this glass monument in the park next to Le Bon Marché, an elegant, high-end department store — steps away from a brightly-lit carousel filled with happy children
It honors two little girls who perished in Nazi death camps and I found it deeply moving,
Arrested by the police of the Vichy (occupation) government, complicit with the Nazi occupiers, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944, and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish. Several of them lived in Paris, in the 7th arrondissement and among those two “very little ones” who hadn’t even started attending school.
As you pass by, read their name because your memory is their only resting place.
A great joy of summer here is the huge amount of sunlight. Paris is much further north than you might expect — 48.8 degrees north, (the Canadian border with the U.S.) — and the sun isn’t setting right now until 9:45 or later, so there’s a long, lovely dusk.
I have my new passport in hand now — and it’s good for ten years.
I hope I am!
Acquiring a new passport really is an exercise in optimism, as international travel, (all travel, really) always requires three key elements:
Jose and I are now at an age we read the obituaries and keep finding people our age, and younger, who have lost their lives prematurely, most often to cancer and heart attacks. We pray for continued good health, without which travel — let alone anything else — is out of the question.
This is such a privilege!
So many people work in jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, that allow them little to no paid time off, or are too scared to actually take their paid vacation or — worst — insist in answering work-related demands even while they are supposed to be resting and recharging.
Jose and I both work full-time freelance and are only paid when we work; i.e. no paid vacation days, ever. Every day we take off without pay means we have to make it up somehow, since our overhead costs are fixed.
Another mark of privilege.
Many people just can’t afford to go anywhere a passport is needed, i.e. to leave the United States (or their home country) — poorly paid or unemployed or beggared by debt service.
We don’t have children or dependent relatives, so we have more options in this regard.
Of course, travel and adventure can also be found and enjoyed close(r) to hand, exploring your own neighborhood, town/city/state/province. Both my native Canada and adopted U.S. are enormous, tremendously varied and filled with alluring places to visit.
The places in Canada I still want to see include Newfoundland, P.E.I. and some more of the Far North.
In the U.S., I hope to visit Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and several more national parks. I really want to do a driving trip the length of California. I’d like to visit Portland, Oregon, where we have several good friends.
It’s a very long list of places I’ve yet to see, including Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, South Africa, Namibia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, islands of the South Pacific, Antarctica, Lebanon, Greece, Croatia, Finland, Iceland and Morocco.
So far, I’ve made it to 38 countries, from Thailand to Turkey, New Zealand to Austria, Fiji to Tanzania.
Then the only child of a globe-trotting freelance Canadian family — i.e. plenty of time to travel and no measly American two weeks’ vacation a year for us! — I took my first solo flight at seven, from Toronto to Antigua.
I live to travel, whether a weekend road trip from our home on the Hudson River near New York City to friends in Rhode Island or Maryland or a longer journey across an ocean.
Deeply grateful to have been so many places, here are some of the ones I’m still eager to visit:
Morocco, Iceland, Finland, Croatia, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Antarctica, the Inner Hebrides where this blogger lives and the Outer Hebrides where this one grew up, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Brazil; within the U.S., to drive California and see the canyons of Utah and revisit the stunning vistas of Montana and the Dakotas; within my native Canada, to revisit the North.
We might finally make to to Newfoundland this summer, meeting friends there to camp and hike in spectacular Gros Morne National Park.
They chose Mexico City as their premier destination and I agree. It’s a fantastic place I’ve been to several times over the years, (although not in this list below.)
Here’s a tightly-edited list of 20 places I’ve been to I think well worth a visit:
Think of France and the last thing you’ll likely picture are cowboys and pink flamingos, let alone in the same region. But this flat marshy part of southern France is full of surprises and these are two of them. I spent my first honeymoon there, and interviewed a lady bullfighter for a story. Thanks to the TGV, the high-speed train network across the country, nowhere is hopelessly distant.
Like many others, I love this city’s architecture and scale, the colors — whether the pearly gray of buildings and rooftops or the deep rich tones of the glossy wooden doors leading to quiet, private courtyards — navy, emerald green, burgundy. Every alley has history and mystery. It’s a bustling city with room for visual intimacy.
I also come home every time with clothing and accessories that win compliments for years afterward. French women of every age dress with a style and confidence that’s inspiring to me.
My paternal grandfather emigrated from the small Donegal town of Rathmullan to Vancouver and I’ve been back to his birthplace twice. The northwesternmost county of Donegal is wild, windy and much less touristed than other parts of Ireland.
There are gorgeous islands nearby like Aranmor and tiny towns with welcoming spots like the Lobster Pot in Burtonport. (If you go, say hello to Annie and Tim, the owners.) We rented a cottage there for a week and fell in love with this part of the country.
I only saw the North Island, but found this distant nation stunningly beautiful, its people kind and welcoming and the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles worth it. The Coromandel Peninsula was breathtaking and I loved the exotic and unfamiliar (to me) vegetation like pohutukawa trees.
New York City
Few Western, let alone American, cities offer this combination of energy, elegance, style, history and architecture. From the canyons of Wall Street to Broadway to Harlem to Central Park, this is a must-see. The best bits are far from the noise and insanity of midtown, where throngs of tourists waste their days bumping into one another. (Check the archives here for several posts on quieter treasures here.)
And don’t come in summer! (It’s smelly and humid.)
That bridge! The fog! The harbor! San Francisco is an old-money town, with a quiet, low-key style all of its own. A terrific museum, the Presidio, old-school restaurants and a quieter pace. Take a day to drive the lush green hills and sleepy towns of Marin County.
The Hudson Valley
Just north of Manhattan lies a gorgeous region, where I’ve lived since 1989. Home to enormous Beaux Arts mansions like Lyndhurst, Kykuit and Hyde Park, its geography is stunning, especially as the Hudson River narrows near Cold Spring. The nation’s premier military academy, West Point, perches high above the river on the western edge — opposite a former Catholic monastery now home to a variety of Buddhist and other programs focused on spirituality.
Some of the steep and winding riverside drives are simply spectacular, especially in fall. Well worth an extra few days exploration if you’re coming to New York City.
The Toronto Islands
I grew up in Toronto, now a sprawling city of 2.6 million. It attracts many tourists to its shopping, (Queen Street West!), galleries and museums and many excellent restaurants. It sits on the northern edge of Lake Ontario, a fact easily missed because access to the waterfront has long been badly mangled by two expressways.
But one of the city’s treasures, in all seasons, are its islands, a quick, cheap ferry ride across the harbor. One of them is filled with colorful small homes, with fortunate residents who live there year-round, even though the region is technically public parkland. In summer, there are bikes for rent and a petting zoo and lovely beaches.
We were married on Centre Island in September 2011, and our guests arrived via water taxi. The church is tiny and intimate — and I could barely hear my processional music because of the cows mooing nearby in the petting zoo.
Watching the sun set from there over the city skyline is fantastic.
Many people visit France many times, but never think to visit this stunning island off its southern shore. I went there in 1995 for a week, traveling around the north by moped alone, and loved every second of it. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, anywhere — timeless, rugged, ringed by the Mediterranean.
Similar to French tourism, where many visitors focus on a few well-known spots, those going to Spain usually choose Barcelona and Madrid over the lovely southern cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada. I was there a very long time ago, but was mesmerized by the beauty, history and the mix of Spanish and Arab influences that affected food, architecture and language.
I was in Seville in spring, when the entire city burst into fragrant orange blossom. Unforgettable!
Mae Hong Son
The odds of getting there are slim, I know, as it’s a small town — pop. 6,000 — near the Burmese border, in northern Thailand. But if you’re going to Thailand, it’s worth it. I’ve never been to a town so small I could, and did, walk from the airport into town, with a Buddhist temple across the street. Centered around a small lake, its guesthouses are inexpensive and welcoming. We rode mopeds right to the Burmese border, one of the craziest adventures of my life — as the road was, literally, still being built, and we drove through clouds of silky red dust, using our feet as pontoons.
The Eastern Townships
A region of charming small towns a 90-minute drive south of Montreal, it’s got skiing, hiking, canoeing and gently rolling hills — where you can also dog-sled, go horseback riding or snowmobile. Here’s the website.
If you love the Louise Penny mysteries starring Armand Gamache, this is where she lives and where they’re set. We have stayed many times at Manoir Hovey on Lake Massawippi, a luxury resort worth every cent, and look forward to returning year after year.
I lived here as a little girl and have been back many times since. I find it more challenging, (expensive, slow to traverse by public transit), than Paris but a place everyone must visit and get to know, even a bit. From the enormity of Tate Modern to narrow cobble-stoned alleyways to the elegance of Primrose Hill, (with its terrific shopping and fantastic city views), London contains — like Paris and New York — many smaller and more intimate neighborhoods.
Some of my favorite things to do there include a visit to Liberty, (a store of enormous style and elegance. Not cheap!), tea somewhere lovely, (the Ritz last time!), visiting its flea markets and a few of the smaller museums, like Freud’s house, Sir John Soane’s house, the Wallace Collection or the Geffrye.
I lived for 18 months in New Hampshire and got to know NH and Vermont fairly well. I still prefer Maine, albeit coastal Maine, which is where most tourists will end up.
The coast is studded with small hotels and inns, has fantastic scenery and — if you want to drive that far — Acadia National Park. which is right on the ocean’s edge. We rented a house on Peak’s Island in Casco Bay, off of Portland, for a week and loved walking down to the dock to buy fresh lobster.
To watch the sun rising over the Andes, its light spilling into each successive valley, is one of life’s great pleasures. I was there decades ago and remember it as if it were yesterday.
Charleston and Savannah
Two of the most elegant and historic cities in the U.S., each with its own character. Charleston is more formal, Savannah funkier, but both offer moss-draped trees, charming streets and squares, fantastic Southern food.
Canadians who canoe know this northern Ontario park and love it deeply. You can see many images of it through the paintings of the Group of Seven, Canada’s version of the Impressionists.
Slabs of granite lapped by deep, dark waters. The haunting call of loons. Pine trees gnarled, bent and twisted by the winds.
I grew up canoeing its lakes and miss it still.
The Grand Canyon
The silence, below the rim, rings in your ears.
A fox leaped across the path I was walking. The light shifts minute by minute, creating new shapes and shadows. Few places on earth will make you feel as small, humble and grateful to have witnessed its staggering beauty. Of all the places I’ve ever visited, this one remains one of my favorites.
The interior of Ngorongoro crater is probably what Eden looked like — a vast plain filled with animals beneath the hot sun.
Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.
In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.
I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful.I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.
Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.
Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.
Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!
When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!
It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?
As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.
In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.
Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.
A whole set of blog posts on its own!
If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.
All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.
Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!
These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”
Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.
Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.
London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.
Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.
To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.
Eating and drinking
London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.
Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,
Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner. For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!
New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.
Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.
When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up. Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.
And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.
Read about your city!
These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.
There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)
Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.
Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.
Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!
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.
The city resembles a small child, at best bursting with charm, all winning smiles and irresistible, 24/7 energy. At worst? Projectile vomit, much throwing of small, sharp objects and/or prolonged shrieking at high volume.
You never know which city you’ll get.
After 25+ years of living and working around New York City, here’s a random list of 20 things I’ve learned:
— After an exhausting day at a conference or trade show at the Javits Center, a hulking structure on the western edge of town, your poor feet are raw, since there’s almost nowhere there to sit down. Food is crazy expensive and not very good. When it’s time to go home, you head for the taxi rank, naively expecting, (hello, it’s a taxi rank), to find…you know, taxis! Lined up, lots of them, eager for business. Wrong! You will give up and trek long blocks in the pouring rain in search of one, praying you don’t miss your flight home.
— If you actually need a NYC taxi between 4 and 5:00 pm. — also known in most cities as rush hour — fuhgeddaboudit.There are 20 percent fewer cabs on the street then, as that’s the drivers’ shift change. But, if you beg, really nicely, sometimes a driver will in fact take you. Will you get a safe and experienced taxi driver? I once got into a cab, barked “Laguardia” and got a quizzical glance. (It’s one of NYC’s two major airports.) I directed him to the right tollbooth where the collector said “Take the BQE”, (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a major artery). That didn’t register either.
— NYC — huh? — has shockingly lousy radio. We have WNYC, and the fab Brian Lehrer, (talk, call-in, 10-12 each weekday morning), and Leonard Lopate, (talk, culture, noon to 2pm, weekdays), and Jonathan Schwartz (American songbook, Saturdays and Sundays.). We have WFUV and WKCR, Columbia University’s station, (love their eclectic schedule — from troubadours to 60s reggae and ska), and WQXR. Then…WBGO, a jazz station from Newark, NJ.
— Be very, very careful if you choose to cycle or even cross the street here; a shocking number of people, including children, are killed here every year by careless drivers. Don’t be stupid and focus on your device while trying to navigate the crosswalk, if there even is a crosswalk — that text you’re reading or sending could well be your last.
— Getting a traffic or parking ticket of any kind in New York City is really expensive; I recently got my first-ever ticket, for going through a stop sign — $138. (If I’d run a red light in Manhattan, it would have been $270.)
— But the cop who slapped me with my $138 fine also confided, since it was my first offense, how to get out of paying it. (I paid anyway.)
— Tourists. Gah! We hate freaking tourists, especially when they walk three or four abreast, slowly, entirely blocking the sidewalk for the rest of us. It’s totally awesome you have all bloody day to stroll, chat and stare. We don’t. Speedupalready!
— Yes, we can tell just by looking that you’re tourists. It’s not just your maps and foreign-language guidebooks. It’s your hair color/cut, choice of pastel clothing and/or white sneakers and/or lots of purple and pink and/or the volume of your conversations. Also, that glazed look.
— Please, do not whine about what things cost here. Yes, the prices are insane — $50 to park for four hours in a garage or $20 for a midtown cocktail, $8 to cross the George Washington Bridge, $10 for dessert or $15 for an appetizer. We know how expensive it is. We also pay a shitload of taxes to a state and city government forever sending its elected officials to court or prison for fraud, sexual harassment or corruption. I once simply drove my mother to the airport — $13 for tolls and 20 minutes parking. Puhleeze.
— Two places you can always find a bit of peace? The many pocket parks and plazas dotting the city and the pews of any church.
— You’ll see an entirely new city with each season, and softer or sharper, less or more angled sunlight it brings. I was walking south on Park Avenue the other day — at 2:30 on a sunny January afternoon — and passed a 1960s building I’ve seen hundreds of times. But I saw it wholly anew, as the light’s angle created pockets of shadow clearly intended by the architect, in metal indentations below each window. It was lovely.
You can even, for a week in late January every year, watch world-class champions playing squash in a glass-walled court inside Grand Central Station. Crazy!
— There is beauty in almost every single block, if you look carefully. It might be a hanging lamp, a brass marker inlaid in the concrete, a gargoyle, a church spire, leaded windows, exquisite ironwork, a tiny snowman with pretzel hair. Despite its insane rushrushrush, New York City is actually a place that rewards a slower pace, (off the busiest streets!)
— New Yorkers may look mean, tough, unfriendly. We’re really not. We are usually in a hurry, (knowing the taxi, if we can even find one, will take forever to get there or the subway will break down). We’re probably rushing somewhere to get more something: money, opportunities, friends, whatever. But so many of us have come here from somewhere else that we get what it feels like to be scared, overwhelmed, lonely — and thrilled to finally master this place, even for a while.
It’s fascinating, and sad, to me that so many people are reluctant, even fearful of leaving their home — whether their familiar surroundings of city/town/farm or the greater adventure of exploring their county/state/province, country or continent.
Why is the notion of “travel” so unappealing to some people?
I think because it really includes a raft of expectations, fears and assumptions, like:
Travel is dangerous
It can be. So can staying at home, never trying or experiencing anything new!
There are multiple forms of danger to consider, mitigate or avoid.
These include physical (is that boat safe?); emotional (what if someone shouts at me on the street?); political (is there an advisory against travel to that place right now?); criminal (if an object is that financially valuable, leave it at home or insure it.)
The worst crimes I’ve suffered — break-in and assault (Toronto); break-in and burglary (Montreal); fraud (New York) and auto theft (New York) all happened at home. Too ironic. (Well, we did lose everything from the trunk of our rental car at the Pont du Gard in France. That was nasty.)
Yet I’ve been alone, young and female in places like Istanbul and Bangkok, with no incident.
Travel is lonely
Only if you want it to be! The single best way to meet fun, cool fellow adventurers — even within your own state or province — is to take a tour (walking, bus, boat, bike, horseback) or stay at a hostel.
Travel is too difficult
That depends on you, really. If you have multiple, tiny, exhausted children and/or are ill or in pain, travel can really be a nightmare. But even the stupidest annoyances can sometimes be re-framed as an adventure when they happen to you in Sicily or Singapore.
Travel means speaking to strangers
Of course it does! What that really means is making an effort — to be kind, to look people in the eye and hold their gaze, (when culturally appropriate) and greet them. If you have ever visited France, you learn within days that every time you enter and leave a shop, you say “Bonjour, monsieur/dame!, Au revoir, Monsieur/dame!”
People are often delighted, if you try to speak their language and show pleasure in their world, to help. But you won’t know until you try.
Travel means trusting in the unfamiliar
That can be frightening if you’ve so far had little experience beyond your own culture.
American “news” of foreign countries is usually only that of political unrest, war, fires, floods, crashes, famines, tornadoes, hurricanes or lurid crimes involving Americans.
It’s crazy, inaccurate and bigoted. If all non-Americans ever heard about the U.S. was as grim and depressing, I doubt that millions would flock to New York or Miami or L.A. or the Grand Canyon, as they do every year.
If you’re hoping to visit a place totally unfamiliar to you, do some homework! Read the local press and/or listen to local radio (on the web.)
Visit a tourist bureau, consulate or embassy to find out more. Find some people who are from that place and ask them for their advice, insights and recommendations. Read travel blogs and magazines for insight.
Travel means relying on systems and organizations you don’t know to be safe or reliable
That depends on you, your taste, your family’s tastes and where you go. As anyone who’s been to Asia or India knows, you can live on $50 a day or less.
In New York or L.A. or Paris or Montreal, you can spend that on a few cocktails or lunch.
Travel means if I get sick I will not find a doctor or (safe, effective) treatment
I’ve been ill in France, Holland, Turkey and Canada, and had excellent care in all of those places. It’s pretty clear that any rural or isolated area is going to make this more difficult, although I was able to find a terrific, well-staffed clinic at the Grand Canyon for an exam and a tetanus shot.
If you’re heading into an area known for certain illnesses (malaria, cholera, plague), be sure to get the necessary inoculations and pack a small medical kit for emergencies.
Travel away from my work means I will never find another job
That depends on a range of factors. What sort of work do you do? How well-developed or in-demand are your skills? How strong is your network of contacts?
Travel means I will lose all my freelance clients
Not if you use social media, the Internet and are willing to do enough to keep your hand in.
My magic carpet!
Travel will alienate me from my friends, family, sweetie and pet(s)
This is actually a real fear and one that I’ve lived. People who choose to venture out, repeatedly and further each time, into the wider world — during college, for vacation, for months or years, doing NGO or non-profit or volunteer work — are a different breed from those whose pulse races at the latest TV line-up, not a fresh new passport or plane ticket.
Thanks to social media, you can stay in touch. Those who get it will really appreciate your decision.