It seems impossible, but within a few hours’ drive of crazy, congested New York City is a ferry that crosses the South Bay and lands on a quiet, dune-speckled 32-mile spit of land called Fire Island.
Created by the National Park Service in 1966, it’s a barrier island that’s home to hundreds of privately-owned low-slung homes, nestled into thickets of gnarled, twisted lichen-covered trees and tall stands of speckled grasses.
It’s the anti-Hamptons, where A-listers and millionaires fly to their enormous mansions by helicopter; here everyone crams into the ferry, in flip-flops.
Deer casually graze everywhere, unafraid, as swallows and seagulls and mourning doves flit about.
Lots of brown bunnies and monarch butterflies.
The local lending library and post office
Friends who’ve owned a house there for more than 50 years were kind enough to lend it to us for a week of silence, sun, plane-spotting, and the gentle sound of waves lapping against a fleet of boats just off-shore.
Getting there is easy, leaving from the town of Patchogue on the south shore of Long Island, about a 20-minute ride. Day-trippers can enjoy the beach and a local bar and resturant, while residents keep enormous wooden carts there with which to transport groceries and other necessities.
There’s a restaurant near the section we were in, Davis Park, and a general store and we waited eagerly on Sunday morning for the ferry to arrive with the newspapers.
The island has no roads, so no cars, so it’s really quiet.
The only motorized noise comes from motorboats, Jet-Skis and helicopters — and the low, persistent hum of the ferry.
Typical sounds include mourning doves, the rustling of tall grass, the squeaking of a playground swing, the roar of ocean surf.
As aviation nerds, and passionate travelers, Jose and I loved watching aircraft descending in their final few minutes into JFK airport — we watched them through binoculars arriving from Lisbon, Madrid, Dubai, London, Edinburgh and the Ukraine. (If you don’t know FlightRadar24, check it out!)
I caught up on my reading: Transit by Rachel Cusk (meh); Appointment in Samarra, from 1934 by John O’Hara, (which I enjoyed), On Turpentine Lane (given to me by the publisher, a light read) and How Music Works by Talking Heads’ David Byrne — which was amazing and I only got through half of it so am ordering it in order to read the rest.
(Highlight of the week — chanting the lyrics to Psycho Killer with our French friend, 70, who’s also a huge Talking Heads fan.)
I spent my days reading, napping, taking photos, kayaking, walking the beach, chatting with my husband and, later in the week, two friends who came out to join us. And, (sigh), a bit of work as well.
It rained for two days, which we used to read, nap, play lots of gin rummy and read social media and two daily newspapers.
Some homes on the island are for sale — the least expensive one I saw offered on a public bulletin board was $475,000, and weekly rentals from $1,900 to $4,200 — one dropping to $900 a week in the fall.
We left with sand in our shoes, sunburned, well-rested — and looking forward to returning next summer.
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.
Whatever medications you might possibly need, bring them with you!
I learned this the hard way when I wrenched my arthritic knee in Berlin — and assumed I could pick up some anti-inflammatory pills at the pharmacy. Nope! Not without a prescription, so I had to wait until I got to Budapest. Then (bad luck trip!) I cut myself in London, and the wound was painful, so I went to buy Neosporin, a terrific antibiotic cream easily available in Canada and the U.S.
Not in England! I had to settle for some gel. Note that my journey took me not into remote jungles or desert areas of developing countries, but major European cities.
Make note of landmarks
Whether you take a photo or simply use your memory, make note of some basic landmarks, especially on the route(s) back to your lodging. And be sure to have the complete address and phone number with you and written down (in case your phone dies!)
Again, I did this the hard way in London, limping the entire length of Waterloo Bridge (!) after mistaking the north side of London for my destination on the south bank. A day later I found the right bus because I’d watched the route carefully so I knew where the correct bus stop was by remembering its location outside a college.
Yes, you prefer to use apps on your phone, or a map — but what if your phone dies or, as happens, is snatched from your hand and you’re disoriented?
Make time to rest and totally relax
Yes, you’ve possibly paid a fortune for your travel and lodging and dare not miss a minute.
But racing around for eight or 10 or 12 hours every day, especially in summer heat and crowds, is truly exhausting for even the most fit.
Travel is a huge privilege, certainly, but it’s also disorienting, tiring and sometimes anxiety-provoking.
Build in downtime for yourself and your travel companions to sleep, read, listen to music, watch a video or go to a movie.
I was impressed by huge posters in the London tube, suggesting that passengers eat before a journey and to always carry water with them. The single best buy of my trip was a $10 metal water bottle that I filled each morning and carried everywhere, refilling it as needed.
Especially in summer, it’s too easy to scarf down calorie-laden ice cream, beer or soda instead of healthy, no-cal water.
Vary your normal schedule
Get up at 5:00 a.m and watch the sun rise — or stay up late and watch it set, (that can be as late 11:30 p.m. in Scandinavian summer.)
Places are wildly different at sunrise and sunset. It’s so fun to watch a place come awake or locals emerging into the cooling dusk for their passeggiata.
Get out onto the water!
Every time I meet someone eager to visit New York City, I remind them that it’s an island — i.e. with water you can get out onto, whether in a sailboat, a rented kayak or a ferry. Few sights are as memorable and gob-smacking as watching a city light up around you.
Take a brief river cruise in cities like New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Chicago or Budapest — anywhere that offers one!
Toronto has gorgeous harbor islands reachable by ferry, as do Stockholm, Vancouver and others. You can even land on an island in the Toronto harbor at Billy Bishop airport, (if you fly Porter Air.)
You get a totally different perspective of a place from its adjacent waters, whether a lake, river, sound or ocean, certainly in summer (and even in winter.)
Talk to locals, at length
Some of my best memories of my six-week journey have been the candid conversations I had with hotel staff, taxi drivers, a sailing instructor, a tour guide, with professors and students.
I would have had no idea that the average Croatian monthly wage is about 700 kuna — $109 U.S. dollars — a sum I fact-checked with others and which still leaves me shocked.
Remember that every safely completed journey relies on the skills and talents of many people, some invisible to us, no matter how essential
From pilots and fight attendants and maintenance crew to the chambermaids cleaning your room to the wait-staff to the bus and train and boat drivers.
I made sure to leave healthy tips for the chambermaids at every hotel and was deeply touched by the kindness I received while coping with my injury — even from Venice’s overwhelmed and harried vaporetto staff to busy London cabbies.
Say thank-you! Leave good tips!
Your best travel skill — flexibility!
I love Paris, but recently overheard two London businessmen discussing their holidays — the younger one, maybe late 20s, early 30s, said he’d found that legendary city a huge disappointment.
Much I as want to love London, (and I enjoy elements of it a great deal), I inevitably leave it behind with a sigh of relief: for me, it’s just too big, too crowded, too expensive and it takes an hour to go anywhere by public transit. It’s not my favorite city, no matter how hard I try.
So when you arrive at a place you’ve worked hard and saved hard to get to, you might love it — or not. Prior research helps, of course, but things happen: there might be a strike or lousy weather or someone gets ill or (rarely), you might (be cautious and smart) get robbed or pick-pocketed.
Don’t expect perfection!
Have some emergency savings or access to additional funds through a credit card
I certainly didn’t plan — two weeks into a six-week big-city European trip — to badly injure my right knee. But I did, and that meant much slower days, less sight-seeing than I hoped for, and a few more taxi fares — which cost additional funds I hadn’t planned on.
Same thing for getting to and from airports/bus/train terminals, especially with luggage — if you’re exhausted/ill/injured/coping with children or frail companions — prioritize comfort and speed over saving a few dollars.
Most people who choose to visit Croatia head to the more familiar Dalmatian coast — to Split, Dubrovnik and the islands there, like Hvar; fans of the the HBO series Game of Thrones know that Dubrovnik is the location for some essential scenes.
I decided to skip that part of the country, knowing it would be expensive and crowded, and chose Istria instead, a place I’d never heard of before.
Here’s how I found it and chose to go:
1) I consulted Relais & Chateaux , a worldwide association of small, independent luxury hotels. Once I start to think about a future trip, I look for a R & C hotel I might like to try — if I can afford it! (I did in Malta.) That led me to Istria, although the only hotel they included was more than I wanted to pay.
2) Thanks to a Twitterchat I participate it, I met a travel agent based in Zagreb who helped me plan.
Rovinj, a town of 15,000 people, is called Little Venice and feels like a smaller, less-jammed version of that much larger city. The streets are narrow, the houses painted ocher and mustard and a gorgeous deep raspberry color, and the stairs up to people’s apartments are Amsterdam-steep.
I got there by bus from Zagreb, about 4 hours’ journey, and walked to my hotel, the Angelo D’Oro, which (it had to happen!) turned out to be a lot more expensive than I had remembered when I booked it. (Like, holy shit, twice as much.)
It was worth every penny.
The hotel has only 23 rooms, and is housed in two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, and used to be the bishops’ residence. My room was on the top — fourth — floor, with a small terrace overlooking the harbor, my only companions flocks of swallows and shrieking seagulls.
Buffet breakfast was served on a shaded terrace full of oleander trees, with two small cats who came by each morning to visit.
Every morning and evening at 7:00, the bells of Santa Euphemia rang out from the church just above my windows.
The town is so small you can easily walk everywhere, although there are taxis and the hotel has a little golf cart for moving luggage.
There’s not a lot to do, but it’s a place to kick back and soak up the sun and sit in cafes and savor the views.
The beaches are rocky, (and sea shoes are essential because spiny sea urchins live in the rocks and you do not want to step on one!), and the water crystal clear and the perfect temperature.
You can sail, sea-kayak, fish, snorkel. You can buy really pretty linen shirts and dresses from Italy inexpensively and I treated myself to a pair of gold earrings.
I took a narrated bus tour one day to two hill towns, Groznjan and Oprtalj (right at the Slovenian border), which was terrific — a lovely break from 85-degree heat and a chance to see how gorgeous the hilly interior is.
Istria is small, so it’s easy to see a lot of it within a day’s drive.
Only two words of warning about Rovinj — restaurant food, generally, is of very mediocre quality and almost every restaurant has the same (!?) menu, with fried fish, spaghetti or steak, catering to a lower-income tourist, enormous families and its typical mix of British, German, Austrian and Italian tourists.
Crowds! You can escape them, but restaurants can be busy, especially the very few ones with excellent (and pricey) food.
I loved my time there and was sad to leave — taking a catamaran the 3.5 hour trip across the Adriatic to Venice, the perfect way to arrive to a maritime city.
Loved the light on the cobblestone streets
Lots of stores selling pearls — loved how stylish this one was!
I often walked barefoot — the stones are silky-smooth, and, when steep, quite slippery!
For 80 kuna — about $16 — round-trip, you can take a 20-minute ferry ride to Red Island, where this sort of beauty awaits. I had this beach all to myself all day.
Santa Euphemia church, Rovinj, Croatia
Old Town, Rovinj
The view from Groznjan, Istria
This gorgeous image sat in a niche outside my hotel room. I loved seeing it every morning.
I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.
Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”
I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.
In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.
I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.
Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:
No one dictates my schedule
Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.
No one is insisting we must do this or must see that
Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.
I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.
People can be much kinder than you’d expect
This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.
Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch
Making new friends is easier
When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.
I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.
I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.
Silence is truly golden
When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.
As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”
You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others
I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.
I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.
I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.
Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.
Time to reflect
I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.
I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change — and loving it.
The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient
You (re)-learn to be self-reliant
My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”
Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!
At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!
Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.
If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.
The Washington, D.C. Metro
The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap
I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.
Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.
Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.
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.
I’m leaving, starting in Paris with Jose for my birthday, for six weeks in Europe, most of it spent alone and my longest break in 30 years — Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zagreb-Istria-Venice-London.
A few reasons to travel:
Meeting “the other”
Who’s “foreign” and why? What does it even mean to be a foreigner? What’s janteloven and how does it affect Scandinavian behavior? What’s a “bank holiday” and why do people look forward to it? Why do the Dutch keep their windows open and their interiors visible? What part of a Thai person’s body should you never touch?
We each live within a cultural and historical matrix affecting our choices, whether we realize it or not. Shedding that protective shell, even briefly, can be eye-opening — even life-changing.
The Brooklyn Bridge, NYC
Becoming “the other”
Suddenly you’re the fish out of water, whose assumptions and beliefs can seem weird, even rude, where you’re the visitor.
To slooooooow down and pay close attention to where you are
Turn off your phone! Put down that damn selfie-stick!
Instead, bring binoculars, a sketch book, a book to read. Sit on a rocky hilltop or by a waterfall or in an outdoor cafe. Sit still for an hour and be truly present.
Memories are the best souvenir and paying attention creates them.
Learning/testing your resilience and resourcefulness
It’s up to you to: read the map/menu/train station directions/find the hotel or hostel or apartment. It’s up to you to catch the right bus or subway, (a challenge if the language is Arabic or Chinese or Japanese or Cyrillic or Greek!) But the self-confidence it brings transfers nicely once you’re back on familiar soil.
Using/learning another language
Read the local paper or listen to radio and TV. Learn the phrases for “please” and “thank you” and “I need help.” Using the local language, if at all possible, is a basic show of respect, even if you blunder.
Realizing the value of other ways of thinking: political, economic, social, urban planning, healthcare
Americans, especially, have shockingly little knowledge of the world; with a huge Pacific Ocean to the West, the Atlantic to the east, simply getting out of the U.S. can mean a long, expensive flight. Nor are Americans taught much, if anything, about other countries and American exceptionalism can add a layer of potential arrogance and tone-deafness.
Making new friends
Social media and the Internet offers us unprecedented opportunities to make new friends, literally worldwide. Thanks to blogging, my journalism work and Twitterchats, I’ll be meeting up with new and old friends this summer in London, Paris and Berlin, and hope to make a few more along the way.
Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it peameal!
Exploring new cultures
Through food, music, museums, galleries, architecture, parks and natural wonders. It’s easy to forget how essential other cultures have also been to the foundation of so much Western thought — French, Asian, Greek, Arabic, just to name a few.
Find out what a muffaletta and a pan bagnat have in common!
Gaining a deeper appreciation of history
I once stood in front of the magnificent marble facade of an Italian church with a Chinese friend who asked if we had such things in my country, Canada. No, I said — we didn’t even become a country separate from Great Britain until 1867.
Stand inside the ringing silence of the Grand Canyon or the African savannah or Australia’s Outback….and remember we’re mere blinks within millennia.
The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
Savoring nature’s silent beauty
So much travel is focused, as it should, on the great cities of the world. But there are so many stunning natural sites, from White Sands Monument in New Mexico, (actually silica), to the vast red deserts of Namibia and Morocco, the jungles of Central and South America and Africa, the rugged islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland and the U.S. and Canada…
Trying new activities
No bungee-jumping for me! But I’ve tried street food in Bangkok, chocolate-filled churros in Mexico City, sea-kayaking on Ko Phi Phi, horseback riding through the desert in Arizona. Even if it’s an activity you know, doing it in a wholly different environment is worth trying; I loved playing golf on Cruit Island in strong winds at the ocean’s edge — leaving my cheeks salty with sea-spray.
Looking for travel ideas or inspiration?
There are hundreds of travel blogs; one, written by a young Scottish friend — who met her American husband (of course!) while teaching English in China — is Stories My Suitcase Could Tell.
I also enjoy the sophisticated tips offered by a Canadian living in Paris, here.
It’s a fantastic time to visit Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal.) The Canadian dollar is about 73 cents U.S. and it’s a gorgeous place, with much to see, from Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland (forever on my to-do list) to the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island — at the opposite end of my enormous country.
I join weekly travel-focused Twitterchats, like #TRLT, #travelskills and #culturetrav. If you love travel, it’s a terrific way to learn a lot about the world and meet equally passionate fellow travelers.
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.
I’m on an airplane today, for the first time in almost a year, the last time also headed back to the city where I grew up and lived for 25 years, Toronto, a 90-minute flight from New York.
Last June I flew up for only three days, (a splurge we couldn’t really afford), to attend the wedding reception of a dear old friend, marrying at 70. It was an elegant crowd, many of the guests sporting a tiny white enamel flower lapel pin — a signal to the cognoscenti that they had won the Order of Canada.
This time I’m heading north to renew my passport and to take a badly needed break from work, from the U.S. and from the daily stress of life under a President whose behavior leaves me, at this point, adjectivally challenged.
I don’t really miss Toronto as a city. Housing is very expensive and often not of great quality. Winters are long, cold and gray (or grey, as Canadians spell it.) Traffic is now monstrous.
But I do miss my dear friends, people I’ve known since summer camp and high school and university and my first newspaper job. I’ve stayed in close touch with them and can’t wait to see them again.
I’m also planning an extensive — six week — trip to Europe, beginning in early June to celebrate my birthday (again!) in Paris with my husband and some friends who live there and some friends who’ll come over from London to share our rented apartment. (I’ll be blowing through some savings. Gulp!)
I’ll have one week there with Jose, who then flies home to photo edit a major golf tournament in Wisconsin. We’ve been to Paris together several times, usually staying in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis, (this time in the Marais.)
I know the city well, having been many times and having lived there for eight months on a journalism fellowship.
Then I’ll head off solo to wander, something I’ve done many times before.
I know people in various parts of the world, so that even new-to-me places like Berlin contain people I’m eager to finally meet, like this blogger and two Twitter pals, one of them an archeologist.
From Berlin, I’ll head to Budapest to meet up with my best friend from university and one of her grown daughters.
I’m also looking forward to visiting and writing about Korda Studios, near Budapest, one of the largest sound stages in Europe — where The Martian was filmed.
One of the fun things about being a journalist is that I sometimes find great stories to write about while traveling, and can then deduct some of my travel costs while working there as legitimate business expenses.
After Budapest…not sure yet!
I’ll finish up that trip with a visit to my friend C in London, who writes the fab blog Small Dog Syndrome. We share passions for several things, including beauty products, great food and vintage clothes. We had a blast the last time roaming Bermondsey Market and a few flea markets.
Another friend has moved there, so I’ll have another playmate; it’s a real luxury to travel and to re-connect with pals abroad.
In 2016, I only left home for six days’ vacation; three in D.C. and three in Toronto, all in June — not enough for me, having so far been to 38 countries, 38 American states and most of Canada.
I love to savor the familiarity of beloved old haunts and the excitement of making new discoveries.
Are you heading out into the world on an adventure this year?
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.