The end of 2019 marks 10 years spent working as a full time freelance travel journalist for me. As another decade ticks over I started thinking about where I’ve been and what has brought me to where I am now.
As a conscientious student who strived to get good grades, it surprised a lot of people that I wasn’t interested in going to university straight after I left high school. All I wanted to do was get a job so I could start travelling.
Not much has changed since then except what I do for a living and the fact I no longer have a 1980s ‘poodle perm’. These days instead of typing letters and ‘making hot beverages’ for my boss (a task that officially formed part of my position description in 1987), I write about travel for a living.
I’ve bunked down with bedbugs in budget hotels, stayed in suites costing $10,000 a night, and everywhere in between. Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t the fancy accommodation which came to mind when I started thinking about my best ever travel experiences.
I GOT MY FIRST PASSPORT when I was 18. I had never been on a plane before I set off to spend a week in London followed by a 21-day Contiki tour of Europe. I also finally met the two penpals I had been writing to since I was in primary school.
I DEAL WITH JETLAG the same way I did on that very first flight to London when there were no entertainment options to keep me awake. I put in earplugs, pull on an eye mask and refuse to remove both until I nod off. The sheer boredom eventually puts me to sleep and helps me beat jetlag.
SOME PLACES DON’T LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS. For me, that place was Vietnam. Not because it wasn’t a wonderful destination but because I visited during one of the worst heat waves in the country’s history. Our itinerary included daily walking tours which sounded great in the brochure. In almost 50 degree heat with 100 percent humidity? Not so much. I would love to return to Vietnam but not in summer.
THE PLACE I WANT TO VISIT MOST is the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls which spans three countries. We couldn’t justify the A$160 Brazilian visas we needed to get across the border to see both sides of the falls when we backpacked through Argentina years ago. I’m determined to see it one day.
MY HOLIDAYS ARE MOSTLY DEVOTED TO work even when I don’t want them to be. One of the (very) few downsides of what I do for a living is that whenever I travel, even if I’m on holiday with my family, the travel journalist in me can’t switch off and simply enjoy the trip.
THE BEST UPGRADE I’VE EVER GOT was flying out of Heathrow on British Airways with my husband Trevor more than 20 years ago. The passenger who checked in before us was horrible to the poor girl on the counter and she was upset but trying to hide it when we walked up. We gave her a chocolate to cheer her up and had a chat. It wasn’t until just before the flight that my husband realised she had upgraded us both to business class.
THE PLACE THAT MOST SURPRISED ME was Syria. My husband and I backpacked there for two weeks not long after 9/11. Everyone except, surprisingly, the Government’s Smartraveller website, said we should reconsider our trip. We did, but went anyway. The lack of tourists meant we had spectacular historic sites like Palmyra almost all to ourselves and Syria turned out to be one of the safest and most welcoming countries we have ever visited. Watching the news and seeing what is happening there now breaks our hearts.
I NEVER ASK LOCALS WHERE THEY THINK I SHOULD GO. Instead I ask them where they like to go. The best local tip I ever got was in Tuscany when I asked a hotel staff member where she liked to spend time on the weekend. She answered immediately: her home town of Pitigliano. The tiny Tuscan hill town was 20 minutes away by car and had atmospheric cobbled streets and a lively local vibe. After spending an afternoon there we asked around to see if someone’s uncle or cousin had a spare apartment we could rent and have been back several times since.
ONE THING I’D ASK TRAVELLERS TO CONSIDER is asking before you take photos of locals going about their daily life. You don’t need to speak the language. Just smile and hold up your camera or phone with a questioning look. Some people are delighted to have their photo taken but not everyone will say yes. I’ve heard ‘no’ plenty of times over the years but it’s always been said with a smile.
THE SICKEST I’VE BEEN ON HOLIDAY WAS in Venice on my Contiki tour. A flu spread like wildfire through the bus and by the time we arrived at our hotel, I was a snotty, feverish mess. I spent my time in Venice snorting antihistamines like a junkie and rubbing my nose raw with cheap Italian tissues. Even through the haze created by a cocktail of flu drugs, I fell in love with the city and vowed to return one day with someone special. In 2018 we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with an early morning gondola ride. Venice was so quiet that it felt like the canals were ours alone.
MY BEST SOLO TRAVEL EXPERIENCE happened in Paris. I had 24 hours before a work trip started so I booked an eight hour walking tour which took in all the major sights. It was excellent but the spontaneous dinner that night with the other solo travellers on the tour was even better. There were snails, Champagne, and probably a few sore heads the next day.
THE BEST HOTEL I’VE EVER STAYED AT is the Ritz Paris. I won three nights there in a magazine competition in 2001 and my husband and I turned up carrying our backpacks on their sides so they looked like suitcases. They didn’t, of course. We were brave enough to put them on when we checked out and asked the doorman to take our photo.
I HAD A PASSPORT DISASTER WHEN I applied for an ESTA to visit the United States before my new passport had arrived. When I arrived at the airport, the airline had no record of the approval because it was linked to my old passport number. I had to apply for another ESTA at an internet kiosk at Fiji airport (few travellers had smartphones back then) and hope my second application was approved in time for my flight. It was. Just.
THE BEST SOUVENIR I’VE EVER BROUGHT HOME IS a Swiss Army knife with my name on it that I picked up in Lucerne in 1988. I spent my whole childhood enviously eyeing off the other kids’ pencil cases with ‘Karen’ and ‘Angela’ on them. Finding something with my unusual name on it felt like winning Lotto. And, yes, I’ve still got it thanks to the kindness of a few airport security staff over the years.
I’LL NEVER REGRET not going to university when I finished high school. That decision started my journey along the path which eventually led me to the career of my dreams. Like most rewarding journeys, it took a while and wasn’t always easy, but I got there in the end.