Whenever I read the standard travel article, I feel like throwing up. That might be an appropriate reaction if you’re more interested in adventure and education in new places rather than spending most of your time at restaurants. The usual itinerary then divvies up what’s left of the day either shopping at stores for invaluable locally-made trinkets or visiting a contemporary art museum (the Emperor’s New Clothes Code requires that the author not say it is filled with crap). When I visit a new city, I head for whatever is unique to the location and treat it as if I will never return (snacking on the run, since almost any cuisine can be found in a major U.S. city).
Formula B for travel pieces imagines encountering ordinary people on the street and allowing them to lead the writer on to adventures laden with cultural insights, parting ways as BFFs. Alas, that approach is unlikely to be very productive for most readers because of language barriers: yes, many people speak some English in other countries, but few are fluent and fewer have the time to reschedule their day to guide a stranger around town (nor do they have the expertise of a trained guide).
I want to share what I feel are the much better approaches to travel adventure, based on the 75 journeys I have taken since I started writing travel articles over three decades ago, most with my wife, Sandra Wells. Only three have been failures due to unexpected circumstances; the rest have been in some way remarkable and there have been three keys to their success:
°First, do as much homework as you can by reading a couple of travel guides to get their differing takes on what you should see and why. Read Tripadvisor reviews and also the destination’s official website. There is plenty of time for study while waiting in airport lines and ignoring mediocre movies that are shown during the flight.
°Second, go with a first class tour operator or line up a highly-rated independent guide (this is not in lieu of the first point—the trip will be much more meaningful if you know the basic background of your destination or you won’t fully understand what the guide says).
°Third, meditate. Seriously: we’ve found that doing a minimum of two formal 20-minute meditation sessions a day (it doesn’t matter what style) brings the brain waves into the alpha state, which somehow magnetizes what the psychologist Carl Jung called synchronicities. These are those seemingly impossible, meaningful coincidences. Skeptical? Try it.
The combination of being adventurous and prepared has led to our having more than our fair share of peak travel experiences, defined as those that really opened our eyes, were amazing learning experiences, especially thrilling, filled us with awe, even changed our lives. Naturally, what was important to us may not be exactly what you are seeking, but consider these as examples of the potential (for the best account of personal transformation on the road less traveled, read Travels by Michael Crichton; Sandra knew him before the journeys described and they shared an interest in the mysteries of life; the appendix described how these trips changed his view of reality). There are some places that might be expected to be included here, like Japan and New York City, but did not quite make the list. Others, such as China and Spain, we still have managed to visit (both get so many tourists they do not cultivate media coverage). Here are some of our most memorable experiences in rough ascending order (links are to some of the resulting stories, though others are no longer are available in digital form).
21 Architecture of the Imagination: Los Angeles 2016-17
Laura Massino of Architecture Tours introduced me to the city with the world’s most creative and diverse architecture: my own. For many L.A. residents, the amazing buildings blend into the scenery after passing them daily. Their origins were in the early days of film, when Hollywood tycoons often hired those who designed their sets to create distinctive homes. To complete the loop, some buildings designed by movie staff have been depicted in motion pictures. The diversity of L.A. is reflected in the nearly 150 languages officially recognized by the main school district. Those who moved here often wanted to create the type of houses and buildings from home, creating a wild mélange in some neighborhoods (the best handbook on the styles, as well as a tourist’s introduction to what is more generally worth seeing, is Borislav Stanic’s Los Angeles Attractions). Many of the world’s leading architects have practiced here, including Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rudolph Schindler. After taking Massino’s Hollywood tour, I went back to hear the story behind the buildings downtown, as well as Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Silver Lake. I look forward to going with her to all the others she offers. Whether you think you have very little interest in architecture or are a professional in the industry, you’ll find her tours fascinating.
20 Beatles Love: Las Vegas 2008 As a contributing editor at Las Vegas Magazine for many years, I reviewed most of the stage productions, which have made the city a major destination for fans of theatrical spectacles. Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles: Love at The Mirage is the most creative, spectacular show I have ever seen or likely will ever see: it is hard to think of a way to push the boundaries of magical musical and theater experience beyond this.
19 Jefferson Hotel: Richmond 2017 This was our first trip to Richmond, which we were visiting primarily for the nation’s best Civil War museums, though it has many other things to see and do (http://www.chattanoogan.com/2017/4/24/346740/Richmond-Is-A-Glorious-Place-To.aspx). It was also
the first time I was writing for the SimonandBakerTravelReview.com, which has a reputation for reporting on every aspect of a hotel that a really discerning luxury traveler might want to know. It was a daunting task, but I learned an enormous amount about what distinguishes the very best from the merely excellent (you probably have never read anything with quite this much detail about any hotel: http://simonandbaker.com/the-jefferson-hotel/). The Jefferson, which I had never heard of before, provided us with our overall most satisfying hotel experience ever (and we’ve covered many other 5-Star/Diamond properties from Hong Kong to London).
18 Civilized Society: Toronto 2011 Toronto has been called “New York City as if it were run by the Swiss,” meaning clean, efficient, and boring. We had low expectations even before the tourism office put us in the suburbs for two of our five days because everything downtown was still booked up the week after the annual film festival. The first day it was raining, so we agreed go on a four-hour car tour of Mississauga, expecting to be bored to death. But as our guide began describing a town that is a role model for civic activism, with a business community eager to support a new arts center and lots of parks, we perked up. He told us that thousands turn up for walks through the historic district, where Toronto began in 1805. A national political campaign was going on and almost every home, whether a mansion or shack, proudly declared its allegiance, while political discourse in public and the media was vigorous, polite, and informed (the metro area supports four major newspapers; many U.S. cities can barely keep one out of bankruptcy). Canadians repeatedly told us they were perplexed as to why we had allowed our banking system to melt down and the economy to be run into the ditch during the Great Recession. By the time we did move into the downtown hotel, we felt we had discovered an unknown civilization. And Toronto is actually quite fascinating, including having some quirky museums, like the one devoted to the history of shoes and another to contemporary Inuit (Eskimo) sculpture (which is largely about shamans transforming themselves into animals). This was our report for a gay magazine: http://adelantemagazine.com/have-a-gay-old-time-in-toronto/
17 Biggest Little Country: Malta 2009
Malta lies in the Mediterranean between the boot of Italy and Tunisia on the north coast of Africa. For millennia, this set of a few tiny islands (the biggest 15 miles long and seven wide) has played an outsize role in history. It has the world’s oldest freestanding buildings, enormous Stonehenge-like stone constructions that began as far back as 3,600 B.C. (a millennium before the oldest pyramid at Giza, Egypt). The islands have more World Heritage sites per square mile than any other country. Malta also played heroic roles in turning back tyrants. In 1565, when all Europe was in fear of the spread of the Ottoman Empire, its 15 million people ruled by Suleiman the Magnificent, who sent 40,000 troops to take Malta’s fortresses. They were opposed by just 700 knights, 3,000 other soldiers, and 5,000 militiamen. For four months, the Ottomans rained down 88,000 cannonballs and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat, but could not defeat the Maltese, sailing home with just 28,000, while 313 knights and 9,000 other Maltese were killed. Then during World War II, the British used the islands to stage the invasion of Sicily and the residents suffered 154 days of bombings by Axis aircraft, triple what London suffered during the Blitz, bringing the people to the brink of starvation.
16 Ancient Native Rock Art: Ridgecrest 2017 Kern County, Calif. (whose main city is Bakersfield), is the most underrated destination in California, as I explain in this article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bakersfield-california-the-undiscovered-destination_us_5a25df89e4b0f0c7768d4383. And its most overlooked attraction is next door to the town of Ridgecrest on the land of the Naval Weapons Station China Lake, which has the greatest concentration of ancient native rock art in the hemisphere. I spent part of a day trekking through Little Petroglyph Canyon, which is filled with the strange carvings that anthropologists have interpreted as everything from magical efforts to improve hunting to reports of shamans of their visits to the Other World. For anyone interested in the ancient history of the Americas, it will be as close as you’re likely to get to feeling like Indiana Jones.
15 Never Forget: Berlin 2009
Having lived in West Germany in the early 1970s, I thought I knew German history, but a visit to the reunited country and reinstated capital city showed me how little I understood. The German History Museum in Berlin does a brilliant job of educating visitors in several languages on everything from the tribes who defeated the Roman legions two millennia ago to the fall of the Wall, as well as the nation’s great contribution to the arts and philosophy. And it does this in the context of what was happening elsewhere in Europe at the time. We found the section on the rise and rule of the Nazis gripping, including videos of speeches and book burnings few have ever seen, as well as coverage of the political and wartime resistance. Berlin’s Jewish Museum is perhaps the best of its kind in the world. And few take the opportunity, as we did, to go out to the suburbs to visit Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp where the SS was trained to run all the others. Of its 220,000 mostly Soviet and political prisoners, 70,000 died from illness, malnutrition, and the cold weather, while 30,000 were executed. There are also exhibits on the medical experiments that were done there. Berlin today has a vibrant arts scene and nightlife and is one of the most visitor-friendly destinations anywhere.
14 Georgia Aquarium: Atlanta 2017
Atlanta has the world’s busiest airport (100 million passengers each year) and it’s no surprise that it is a favorite destination for tourists, especially domestically (just behind No. 1 Orlando and Chicago). Somehow, we had never even been through the airport until we got stuck there for a whole day on the way to Richmond for our belated honeymoon, due to bad weather and malfunctioning computers, which resulted in the airline giving us some free tickets. That prompted us to take a closer look at Atlanta itself, which impressed us with the range of things to do, including the Martin Luther King Center, the Carter Presidential Library, the Civil War history center, and the High Art Museum. But what caught our attention most was the Georgia Aquarium—we’re aquarium aficionados and had been to half a dozen along the west coast. But Atlanta’s is the largest in the U.S. and by far the best, by all accounts, with frolicking beluga whales, white alligators, and a chance to scuba dive with the fish. It’s worth going into the city just to see this:
13 Heart of Islam: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 2005 Sandra was afraid to go there because of all the horror stories about women being mistreated (and she’s a former Playboy Bunny and militant feminist, which seemed a formula for getting into trouble). Our American friends living there said to keep an open mind and the experience turned out to be delightful. Instead of spending time at theaters, movies, and nightclubs, the Saudis have cultivated conversation to a high art at parties in their homes. It’s worth noting that contrary to what most Americans think, only 20% of Saudis, mostly in rural areas, are ardent Wahhabists, the ultra-fundamentalist faction of Islam. Prior to the 1979, Saudi culture was much more in sync with the modern West, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused a retreat into conservatism and the new Crown Prince is working to restore the way things were. I was on assignment to write a business article (tourist visas would not be available until the following year), but we spent some of the week seeing this very modern city, the original village, and museums, as well as having extensive discussions with local professionals about almost every subject imaginable (all of whom were fluent in English and much more informed about global politics and history than most Americans). Sandra had a lot of fun with her new women friends, going to excellent restaurants and window-browsing high-end stores (without male accompaniment, except for their Filipino drivers). One thing we came to appreciate was how devout Muslims manage to work around the five prayers a day: remarkably, they don’t disrupt getting work done, while being a constant reminder of life’s most important values. Yes, Saudis have a very different culture and punishment for breaking laws is fierce, but the U.S. has twice the crime per capita and three times the gun violence. Most American visitors hide out in the corporate compound and have no idea how fascinating and safe Riyadh is, which just adds to their misunderstanding of the Muslim world. Unfortunately, what I wrote about Saudi Arabia eventually reached the Iranian government, which resulted in my being banned from a press tour in 2016.
12 Vatican Museums: Rome 1996 We hate to say it, but the Sistine Chapel has been overexposed. What we did not know is that getting there through the Vatican Museums would provide a sensory overload, with the ceilings of the galleries and hallways covered with masterpieces. We were also fortunate to hear Pope John Paul II speak. Alas, we had not yet realized the importance of two aspects of preparation for the rest of Rome: we did not hire a guide and we thought we could just study guidebooks and figure out which churches and museums to visit. We were soon overwhelmed by hundreds of paintings of crucifixions and those based on Greek mythology, which we had not studied to understand. It was only years later when we read Will Durant’s vol. 5 of the Story of Civilization on the Renaissance that we came to fully appreciate that artistic supernova.
11 Fountainhead of Western Civilization: Athens, Greece 2001 We arrived very late and went straight to bed, waking up at 2 a.m. local time. We went out on the balcony and saw the Parthenon for the first time, beautifully lighted, a symbol of the enlightenment of the Golden Age of Greece, which had inspired the Renaissance (read The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton on the Greek contribution to much of Western civilization; it changed our understanding of everything we take for granted, from drama to science). We were there to write about the unfairly maligned city that was to host the Olympics two years later. The artifacts at the National Archaeological Museum were stunning, the Greek islands played important roles in history, and Sandra (who psychically sensitive) said she felt the spirit of the oracle at Delphi.
10 Relevance of the Revolution: Colonial Williamsburg 2014 Having written extensively about American history, I thought I knew pretty much everything, but was looking for a way to help Sandra learn about how exciting and inspirational the story of the founding of the U.S. could be (she never had those rare teachers who know how to making history interesting). The terrific TV series about the Revolution, “Turn,” had just debuted, stimulating wide interest in the era, and Williamsburg, Virginia, the first colonial capital, seemed the best place to bring the Revolution alive. It exceeded our expectations, with its brilliant, multi-faceted approach to edutainment, streets bustling with kids looking for spies in the RevQuest game, debates between partisans within the revolutionary movement, speeches by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson (followed by Q&As), slaves speaking out about their plight (half the colonial town was black, enslaved and free), and Continental soldiers trooping. You can watch a gunsmith, learn about colonial health at an apothecary, participate in handicraft classes, listen to period music, tour homes of leaders, and feast on authentic cuisine. No one can come away without being deeply appreciative of what the Founders did, despite the odds they would end up being hanged for their trouble. The scary thing is that Americans are increasingly ignorant of their own history, not visiting museums or living history centers like this, so those who care need to actively support them: http://thefederalist.com/2017/08/22/americans-declining-interest-history-hitting-colonial-williamsburg-hard-not-one/. The Historic Triangle includes Jamestown and Yorktown, so plan to spend at least a few days in the area:
9 British Museum: London 2016 We had each coincidentally spent a day here 30 years earlier on our own, so we thought we should get a refresher together for just half a day. Big mistake. Without any qualification, this is the greatest world history museum—any one section of it is filled with truly priceless artifacts and you won’t be able to come anywhere near fully appreciating it without spending a couple of days exploring it. One of our favorite areas displayed the very imaginative art of Africa and the Pacific:
8 Louvre: Paris 2000 For breadth and depth of artistic genius, this puts all other museums to shame—put together. In its 783,000 square feet of exhibition space at any one time is 10% of the 380,000 objects from its permanent collection, as well as items on loan. Since Sandra is an artist and since my paternal grandfather and great grandfather were award-winning landscape papers, we spent most of our time enthralled by some of its collection of 7,500 paintings and sculptures from the 13th to 19th centuries, especially French and Northern European (Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Vermeer, Bellini, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Titian, and on and on). It is no wonder that it is the world’s most popular art museum, with over seven million visitors a year.
7 Mysterious Maya: Guatemala 2015
I have been a lifelong student of the native cultures of the Americas and aspired to be an archaeologist as a kid (by high school, I had discovered that the scientific skills and patience needed to examine clods of dirt for pieces of pottery was not my forte). I did become a guest lecturer at UCLA on the mysteries surrounding Central America’s Mayan civilization, but several attempts to visit their cities didn’t work out until a synchronistic offer from Bella Guatemala Travel. As I mentioned in the resulting article, our main guide, Jose Antonio Gonzalez, was the best I’ve ever had anywhere (which is saying something, since we’ve been on many first class tours). He was overflowing with the enthusiasm of someone who had just unearthed a lost city. The highlight was our visit to the site of ancient Tikal and I’m hoping to return for some of their other regional tours.
6 War and Peace: Northern Ireland 1972-1993
My first visit there was an accident in September 1972: my first wife and I were on the first leg of our hitchhiking honeymoon around Europe and were just trying to get from Dublin to Scotland by taking a ferry in Belfast. Somehow, we kept getting rides that took us in the wrong direction until we missed the last boat, so we camped out behind a low wall. In the middle of the night, there was a gun battle on the other side (this was the bloodiest year of the war, with 479 killed out of a total of 3,542 over 30 years). I am mostly of Scottish and English ancestry, with a few distant Ulster Protestant ancestors, so I certainly had no natural bias in favor of the Irish Catholics. But in 1981, as a result of this experience, I was asked to organize a panel on what became known as the Troubles and began to study it as a budding freelance journalist. My first assignment came in 1985 and I ended up writing 55 articles for a wide range of publications, from Christian Science Monitor to Soldier of Fortune, mostly about the war and politics, but also the island’s history, culture, and best sites for tourists. I brought my son and my second wife on the second trip in 1987, returned on my own in 1991, and my final visit in 1993 was with Sandra (the only place all three spouses were with me). As even a casual visitor will affirm, it is easy to get hooked on Irish music, poetry, drama, and history and the North added life-and-death decisions about patriotism, freedom, courage, and personal sacrifice. It was also my first encounter with government propaganda and surveillance, as British officials repeatedly lied and got the FBI to spy on me because I was talking with the “wrong people” on all sides (resulting in a 300-page file that was mostly blacked out when I finally obtained it through the Freedom of Information Act). I hope my articles helped bring about a better understanding of the situation by all sides and for outsiders and made a small contribution to the peace agreement in 1998. Northern Ireland is now where much of Game of Thrones is filmed, the partisan murals have become tourist attractions, and there is much else worth seeing, from the Giant’s Causeway rock formations and the Ulster American Folk Park to Derry’s 17th century walls and the museum about the Titanic (which was built in Belfast harbor). It remains Europe’s most overlooked destination. http://www.ireland.com/en-us/destinations/northern-ireland/
5 Modern Muslims: Turkey 2005
Turkey has been the crossroads of the world for thousands of years and has 40,000 archaeological sites, more than any other country. It has hosted Persia’s founder, Cyrus the Great, was invaded by the army of Alexander the Great, was ruled over by the Byzantine emperors, and the Ottoman sultans oversaw their vast empire from Istanbul for six centuries (it remains one of the most dynamic cities in the world). We spent three weeks traveling through western Turkey and marveling at how many places remain legendary, from Troy to Lydia (where Croesus amassed his fortune). Despite the recent political troubles, we recommend it as the first Muslim-majority country Americans should visit, not only because there is so much to do, not matter one’s vacation preferences, but because the founder of the secular modern Republic, Kemal Ataturk, enabled it to become an exemplar of moderate Islamic culture.
4 Whirling Dervishes: Egypt 2002
When we first tried to get a press trip to Egypt in early 2001, the government tourism office told us they had been getting more than enough free publicity for nearly 5,000 years. Then 9/11 happened and they asked Abercrombie and Kent to reach out to us. Having Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s leading archaeologist, as our guide through the national museum was the sort of remarkable resources A&K can arrange. To our surprise, the Giza pyramids were disappointing: very difficult to traverse bent down and really nothing to see inside (even though we thought we had done adequate study). We were much more impressed by the temples of Dendara and Abydos, which we visited in the area of Luxor while the others in our group went to Sinai Peninsula beaches. Both retained much of the brilliant colors of the original paintings inside and Abydos, which plays a central role in the myth of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, is the only place where the official insignias of all the pharaohs (except for a few minor, illegitimate, or heretical rulers) are engraved. Having spent a month on the road by this time, we reluctantly declined a voyage down the Nile to southern Egypt, instead spending our last night at Cairo’s Citadel, where the Sufi whirling dervishes were to perform their ritual dance. After waiting for hours, we took our seats next to 200 Japanese tourists as it slowly got underway and found ourselves soon spellbound, as was everyone else.
3 Islamic Tile Art: Samarkand, Uzbekistan 2008
In most Muslim countries, one can see the product of 1,400 years of artists perfecting flower and geometric designs, in lieu of depicting human and animal figures, since the Sunni tradition forbids showing animals and people (as if one were trying to imitate Allah the Creator). That is how the Taj Mahal in India is decorated. But in Uzbekistan, the Persian-Iranian Shiite interpretation of the Koran that allows this was influential. At Samarkand, the fabled oasis on the Silk Road and the capital of the 14th century Mongol conqueror Tamarlane or Timur, the use of colored tiles was brought to the highest artistic level anywhere. Tamarlane’s golden tomb, the Shah-i-Zanda mausoleums, and the Registan Square are truly jaw-dropping and no photograph can do them justice. When we entered one of the buildings on the Registan and looked up at the ceiling of swirling golden flowers, Sandra asked, “Can we just lie on the ground and stare at this for an hour?”
2 Sacred and Secular: Northern India 2004
After decades of hearing travelers complain about poverty and disease in India, it was a pleasant surprise for visitors as it became a hub for global technology, from call center support to top software developers. By the time we arrived, the sidewalks of New Delhi that once supported beggars were full of entrepreneurs plying their trades. Yet despite the worldly success in Northern India, every aspect of Indian society remains intertwined with many vibrant religious traditions. We were invited to participate in a Jain temple ceremony, watched Hindu priests chant the nightly prayer by torchlight on the Ganges, visited gorgeously decorated mosques, talked with monks where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and listened to Sikh hymns. Life and death are regarded by Indians as just stages on an eternal road of the soul, which gives them the Big Picture context for their mundane occupations. This trip also helped prepare me for a new spiritual path I would discover the following year, the culmination of a lifetime of searching (Sandra, who has had two near-death experiences that stimulated her psychic abilities, agreed that this was one of our most inspiring trips).
1 Into the Wild: South Africa 2013
When I interviewed Bob Newhart for AARP: The Magazine in 2006, I asked him one of my standard questions: what was your favorite travel experience? He responded, “I just came back from going on a safari in South Africa and it was like going back to the Garden of Eden.” When I told Sandra, she too was eager to go on one, but we were frustrated for years by our inability to find a press tour, with Africa slow to have the resources to cultivate travel writers. I had given up when I came across the South African Airways booth at an international tourism show and worked out a discount to make the trip feasible. The hotel where Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography hosted us in Johannesburg (another underrated city) and it sent us to their base camp in the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve for a two-day safari. We were a bit panicked at the time limit: this was not a zoo and the wild animals could not be counted on to show up on schedule. What would we be able to write if, as we’d heard from some other travelers, there was nothing to see in 48 hours but herds of antelope? The gods decided to produce a miracle during our four scheduled three-hour forays into the bush in a big jeep with an armed guard. The first day before dawn started out disappointing, but in the last hour we found ourselves a few feet from a leopard (fortunately, he wasn’t hungry) and just as we were arriving back at camp, we were nearly charged by a rhinoceros protecting her baby, which we had nearly run into (our guide somehow drove us to safety in the dark on trails in reverse at high speed). In the early evening outing, we encountered elephants, rare wild dogs and zebras, and ended up being surrounded by 200 dangerous Cape buffalo, any one of whom could have easily turned over our vehicle with a butt of their horns (our guide had never seen more than 15 together and drove very slowly and politely we got out). We didn’t see anything but antelopes and birds during the third tour, so we skipped the last one (those who did go saw lions, but we had already gotten close to some at a wildlife refuge near Johannesburg). We also visited a nearby village and were delighted by the children, who had very little in worldly things, but had parents who clearly gave them plenty of emotional and educational support (starting with names like Gandhi and Genius). Back in Johannesburg, we took a sobering tour of a museum on our prehistoric cousins, who went extinct because they did not adapt to environmental changes. A timeline on the wall showed just what a brief flicker civilization has been. A journey to Eden makes one reflect on how magnificent nature can be—and how dangerous for those who think they have mastered it.