Like everyone else, travel writers have sights-to-see, places-to-go, and things-to-try wish-lists. Whether it’s trekking through the Himalayas, taking a wildlife safari in Africa, or learning to dance the tango in Buenos Aires, you’ll have yours, too.
Top of my own list is a desire to go beyond the Arctic Circle and keep the night watch inside a thermal glass igloo in Finland. Work? Seeing the Northern Lights in such a setting would be a dream come true for me.
I’d also love to take an in-depth Spanish language course in Granada, a beautiful city steeped in memories of its Moorish past. Then there’s learning to sail in the Mediterranean… hearing the blues in Memphis…exploring the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto during cherry blossom time.
Okay, not everyone would thrill to the idea of the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. But old hippie ways die hard. So if an editor ever wants to sentence me to a week of self-sufficiency coupled with what’s described as “radical self-expression,” I’m up for it.
Every wish-list is personal, of course. But some destinations are too special to miss. For me, the following five places sum up what the travel writing life is all about.
Where in culturally-confusing India? It doesn’t matter—your senses will get rocked wherever you go. I won’t parrot the phrase “India will change you,” but it certainly forces you to view life and humanity from another perspective—and that can help with your writing.
Strange sights, tastes, scents. Strange everything. Cows and naked sadhus (holy men) wandering down the street amid traffic chaos. Thousands of people delivering home-made lunches in tiffin boxes. Dawn breaking over the Ganges, a maharajah’s palace or the spice gardens of Cochin. Mumbai’s open-air Dhobi Ghat laundry where thousands of washermen labor over the city’s dirty washing in the old-fashioned way. You’ll never be lost for a story.
2. Venice, Italy
Whether it’s to experience a gondola ride along the Grand Canal, wear a mask during Carnevale, explore the spiderweb streets of the original ghetto, or simply stand in St. Mark’s Square wolfing down a gelato, don’t leave it too late. Would you really want to miss one of the world’s most visually alluring cities? I hope I’m wrong, but every time I visit Venice, the tick-tock of time seems relentless. There’s the shivery sense that the lagoon is waiting and “la Serenissima” is doomed to sink back into the waters forever. Especially on misty winter evenings when there are few crowds around, this city of canals and bridges and crumbling palaces already seems more rooted in dream than reality.
3. Bangkok, Thailand
Every writer should have at least one encounter with a steamy, southeast Asian mega-city. A modern metropolis layered in exoticism, Bangkok is mega in every way. Home to a teeming multitude of over 8 million people, Thailand’s capital offers thrills galore. For traditionalists, there are golden Buddhas, emerald Buddhas, dragon boats, and gilded temples. Gleaming air-conditioned malls haven’t yet seen off the night markets, the floating markets, and the Chatuchak Weekend Market—all 35 acres of it. Throw in spirit houses, silk emporiums, and fabulous street food…saffron-robed monks and wildly glamorous “ladyboys”….Thai massage and Thai kick-boxing matches…screeching tuk-tuks, and the gleaming Skytrain. Yes, the city has its sleazy side but so what? I’m a travel writer, not a missionary.
4. Marrakesh, Morocco
Once a hippie hangout, Marrakesh is now a popular destination with mainstream European tourists. But that doesn’t change the past. The forebears of the snake-charmers, sooth-sayers, story-tellers, magic potion-sellers, musicians, dancers, and acrobats on Djemaa El-Fna square were here a thousand years before anybody thought of nipping over to North Africa for a weekend getaway.
The Medina, the historical part of the city, is a labyrinthine maze of around 3,000 alleyways and colorful souks (markets) where you’re expected to haggle for whatever takes your fancy. From minarets to mint-tea sellers, curious sights and smells await at every turn. And after visiting the malodorous tanneries where animal hides are still cured in the medieval manner, take yourself off to a hammam, a Moroccan bathhouse.
5. The Greek Islands
Do you, too, have a passion for ancient history, seafood, and ouzo? Then you should visit Greece, the cradle of western civilization. The best trips are always the ones that feel like a vacation. And at this moment, I’m dreaming of a Greek island getaway—I have a yearning for olive groves, the scent of meadow herbs, and a shimmering sapphire sea…for tumbledown temples, blindingly white houses with drowsy cats on the doorsteps, and harborfront tavernas strung with fairy-lights. Oh, and thick yogurt with honey for breakfast.
Greece numbers thousands of islands, of which 227 are inhabited, so the choice is never simple. So far, my own favorite island is Chios, in the northeast Aegean. Discovered by relatively few foreign visitors, it remains the old-fashioned Greece of donkeys on the road and village square kafenions where games of backgammon and sweet, sludgy coffee are the order of the day.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]