The Happy Wanderer

Hulse is editor of Traveling in Style.

If Lars-Eric Lindblad had lived in the year 1000, he probably would have set foot on the North American continent before Leif Ericson. Or, turning eastward, he might have reached China before Marco Polo. The Viking wanderlust is dominant in his genes. He is almost constantly on the move, taking travelers as intrepid as himself to the ends of the earth. --From the introduction by Roger Tory Peterson to "Passport to Anywhere" by Lars-Eric Lindblad with John G. Fuller (Times Books).

He is a big man--6-foot-3, 190 pounds--and on this day he has just returned from his 30th journey to China. He will be in his office only long enough to sit through our interview and sift through a stack of business correspondence. Two days hence he will be off on still another adventure, this time to Africa with daughters Ana Maria and Maria Cristina. The enormous appetite Lars-Eric Lindblad possesses for travel is insatiable. With the exception of Albania, he has visited every country on earth--many several times. (He missed Albania because of that communist nation's refusal to issue visas to Americans).

As the world's most traveled man, Lars-Eric Lindblad heads the company that bears his name; it is a name held in high esteem by travelers and peers everywhere. Indeed, to join a Lindblad tour is to take part in a learning adventure that eclipses the most meticulously planned travel scenario. Lindblad explorers gather at isolated oases in distant deserts; they visit Zulu tribes in Africa, sail to Antarctica, climb mountain peaks in Tibet, invade St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai and witness the dawn at such exotic destinations as Patan, Bhadgaon, Phuntsoling, Bagdogra, Paro and Thimpu in India, Nepal and Bhutan; they sip martinis chilled by 10,000-year-old glacial ice, ride across sand dunes in Land Rovers, toss bait to the hungry piranhas of the Amazon and exchange pleasantries with the natives of New Guinea.

They are travelers who seek peace, culture, adventure and escape in a package provided by Lindblad, travelers who find no particular joy in riding down the Champs Elysees snapping photos of the Arc de Triomphe or marching with their Instamatics through Trafalgar Square and Tivoli Gardens. They seek something far more culturally satisfying and stimulating, and it is Lindblad who sets them free. The jowly, rotund adventurer sells luxury travel on a grand scale. Besides his own airplanes, ships and Land Rovers, Lindblad operates desert camps and jungle lodges in regions where few dare to tread. Not everyone, Lindblad decided years ago, wants to do one of those maddening "It must be Tuesday because this is Belgium" routines; not everyone wants to rush through 21 countries in 14 days, returning home with little more than a few rolls of film with which to bore friends and neighbors absolutely silly. Instead, Lindblad's groups find joy in exploring isolated islands in the Indian Ocean and studying Darwin's finches in the Galapagos. They are travelers who hunger for adventure--from the peaks of the Himalayas to the jungles of Africa and to the unexplored wastes of Antarctica.

There is, for example, a Mrs. Featherstone, a spirited 80-year-old from Pennsylvania who, although confined to a wheelchair, traveled with Lindblad across the Gobi Desert on a trail blazed by Jenghiz Khan and the armies of Kublai Khan. Although Lindblad had misgivings when Mrs. Featherstone joined the tour, her spirit proved indomitable. She slept in a yurt and rode in a Land Rover on an exhausting journey across the steppes of Outer Mongolia. For her, it was a magnificent adventure. Nevertheless, Lindblad told of "becoming bone-tired from the sheer logistics of getting Mrs. Featherstone around." At one point he had no choice other than to strap her to his back while lowering her down a rope ladder dangling from an airplane while she cautioned: "Don't drop me, Mr. Lindblad, don't drop me." Mrs. Featherstone's spirit remained undaunted. Indeed, Lindblad recalls how she shouted while riding away, strapped to a camel: "This is absolutely fabulous, Mr. Lindblad. Just the way they did it in the old caravans of Kublai Khan."

On one side trip to Arvaiker, the plane that took us to Karakorum failed to come back to pick us up at this desolate spot. A brisk snowstorm was brewing, and there were no overnight accommodations. Our government guide informed us that the only option we had was to drive back to Ulan Bator and pointed to some buses and cars that looked as if they could never make the first bend in the road. He reminded me that we ought to leave immediately to avoid the snowstorm. When I asked him how long it would take, he estimated some 36 hours. I could not visualize Mrs. Featherstone or any of the others being able to survive such a trip on hard, unforgiving seats without heat in the vehicles. The temperature was down into the 30s, and the roads were merely tracks in the sand and turf.

Lindblad solved the crisis by chartering a couple of weary Russian-built airplanes that were parked nearby to fly his party to Ulan Bator. The Mongolian official who'd accompanied the party, however, elected to drive back, admitting later that he feared that the plane "would never make it."

My childhood reading filled my head with colorful images of bejeweled maharajahs and mysterious Buddhist temples, the brilliant, green rice paddies of Southeast Asia and the soaring grandeur of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I was determined to visit these magical lands as soon as I was able to savor their exotic sights ..."

Life for Lars-Eric Lindblad has been a series of adventures. There was the time his motorboat conked out off Peru, beyond the sight of land, and the boatman couldn't restart the engine. While the boat drifted farther out to sea, Lindblad employee Esperanza Rivaud plucked a hairpin from her curls, fashioned a makeshift tool and got the engine running again. Lindblad has lived with other danger. While stranded on an ice floe in the Antarctic he was attacked by a leopard seal that retreated only after Lindblad, armed with an oar, engaged the creature in an exhausting duel, forcing it back into the ocean. In another episode, Lindblad found himself hopelessly surrounded by hundreds of angry Congolese while trekking through the jungles of Africa. He escaped this encounter by assuming the role of a Catholic bishop. (Fortunately for Lindblad, missionaries had preceded him and converted the chief.) Lindblad also has been knee-deep in crocodiles, nicked by a moray eel and threatened by sharks. One time, facing a polar bear in the Arctic, he placated the beast with a serving of steaks and a bucket of Coca-Cola. Still, his most terrifying moment came when his beloved ship, the Lindblad Explorer-- built to go anywhere --went aground in the Antarctic.

I was wounded. I felt as if someone had plunged a meat cleaver into my back. The ship was groaning. With each groan, I could hear the rocks boring into the outside of the hull. The noise, combined with the shuddering and heaving that would not stop, was overpowering. It seemed that the sea and the shoal were shaking the ship the way a terrier shakes a rat. From aft, the ground swell and the waves were lifting the stern and dropping it back again. The ship was half-hanging on the shoal, like a semi-beached whale. We were listing and there was a real danger that we might capsize. If we did, it was inevitable that we would lose some lives. It was one of the most horrible moments of my life.

An SOS hit the airwaves, and the Lindblad Explorer, together with her passengers, made headlines the world over. Later, after the vessel was rescued by a tug, she went on to visit other ports around the world. No ship has ever been farther north or farther south than the Lindblad Explorer. The Explorer has dropped anchor where no tourist before had ever gone ashore, and although she's been sold, Lindblad still feels a deep sense of pride whenever the Explorer is discussed.

The names have haunted me since I opened my first history book: Kashmir, the Punjab, the Taj Mahal, the Hindu Kush, Darjeeling. There was a magic in all of them, even in the gray severity of my Stockholm schoolroom.

As a youth, Lindblad fled his home in Sweden for employment with a Swiss travel agency in Geneva and later with American Express in New York, where in 1958 he founded the World of Lindblad Travel on 53rd Street. During his travels, he was to become acquainted with Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambarene, and with Joy Adamson, the author of "Born Free," also in Africa. And in Darjeeling, his companion would be Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on his conquest of Mt. Everest. Lindblad has always been associated with adventure. His journeys have taken him to Polynesia, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and Micronesia as well as Africa, the Arctic and Antarctica--any region on the globe that one could name.

Lindblad is determined that his clients travel without the ordinary frustrations. Once, when a group of Britishers refused to vacate hotel rooms that were assigned to a Lindblad group in Egypt, he personally gathered up their luggage and deposited it in the lobby. After that he led his flock to their rooms. Nor did he flinch when one of the Brits reprimanded him: "Naughty boy!"

An environmentalist, Lindblad is justifiably proud of his effort to preserve the culture of Easter Island at a time when Chile sought to destroy hundreds of magnificent archeological prizes on that tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean. Lindblad crossed swords with Chile's president and won the promise that the artifacts for which Easter Island is renowned would be preserved. After that, Lindblad brought economic stability to Easter Island through tourism--not with the "ghetto mentality" of Hawaii's brand of tourism but through planned programs aimed at saving Easter Island's culture.

Likewise, Lindblad was a pioneer in the development of tourism in the Galapagos, where he discouraged promoters who'd intended to build high-rise hotels, thus saving Darwin's precious territory. As a result, laws now determine the number of ships that can visit the islands and the number of tourists who may go ashore on a given day. Lindblad insists that no one should "leave behind more than a footprint in the sand." He feels certain that tourism saved the Galapagos from poachers, who would be "scooping up tortoise eggs, fishing, killing and otherwise destroying the environment." Carrying his conservation theme a step further, he refers once more to Hawaii as an example of the "ghetto mentality" that has permitted developers "to destroy so much beauty in those islands." He shudders over the high rises and the destruction wrought by "unscrupulous entrepreneurs" who dynamite black coral on Hawaii's ocean floor, and he finds it particularly disturbing that the plant and bird life of Hawaii is rapidly becoming extinct. Sadly, he concludes that "one generation becomes rich at the expense of another."

Lindblad preached his conservation theories to politicos in the Seychelle Islands, gleaning from them a guarantee that no hotel would ever be higher than a palm tree and that water-skiing would be forbidden in those fragile lagoons. Lindblad insists that nations everywhere should embrace environmental scientists in the development of tourism, declaring that "this is our only planet; we can't jump off; we must protect it."

During 25 years, Lindblad has conducted nearly 200,000 travelers to every corner of the earth--his youngest a 10-year-old, his eldest . . . Mrs. Featherstone. Sometimes, on his trips, clients meet and marry. Several years ago, the governor of the Seychelles officiated at a ceremony held on a deserted beach for a Swiss girl and her German bridegroom while other Lindblad travelers looked on.

What gives Lindblad one of his biggest kicks is the idea that in Antarctica he broke down the petticoat barrier by introducing the female tourist to this frozen wasteland. To reach that area, he built his ice-breaker-like passenger ship, the Lindblad Explorer, which visited scientific outposts operated by the United States, the Soviet Union and others.

Traveling with Lindblad means facing the risk of desert sandstorms and blizzards in Antarctica. With Lindblad one has the opportunity to make mud pies in the Gobi Desert and to toss snowballs at McMurdo Sound. Other Lindblad travelers touch down in New Guinea to study Stone Age tribesmen, traveling by houseboat down the Sepik River and bedding down at tea plantations in the highlands.

At 57, having seen all corners of the world, Lindblad remains almost constantly on the move. On the average, he is gone 10 months of the year, seeking out new offbeat targets for his clients--Lady Bird Johnson, the Rockefellers, and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, among others.

Older people traveling with Lindblad discover untapped energies. Mrs. Featherstone is no exception; she is not unique. Mrs. Alva Gimbel of the department store family was about the same age as Mrs. Featherstone when she traveled with Lindblad to Easter Island. Early on, she sprained an ankle doing a Polynesian dance with locals. The doctor advised her to stay off her foot. "Nuts," she said, and limped off with her group to enjoy the remainder of the tour.

I fell in love with our planet and all its riches many years ago. It was a real love story, starting with heaps of well-thumbed childhood books and culminating in travels to every inaccessible corner I could reach. I journeyed from the steppes of Mongolia to the magnificent temples of China, through the ice packs of Antarctica, the headwaters of the Amazon, the grand sweep of the Serengeti Plains, the Spice Islands of Indonesia, the high Himalayas of Tibet and Nepal, and other remote outposts. I was driven by two desires. One was to introduce others to these rare and beautiful places; the other was to preserve these and other places on our planet for the sake of future generations. And so it has gone for more than 25 years, ever since Lars-Eric Lindblad began his tours. The pace continues this year as he operates three cruise ships on China's Yangtse River, while other cruise/tour groups travel to Egypt, Africa, the Antarctic, down the Danube and along the shores of Scandinavia. A highlight of the Lindblad program next year: a South Seas cruise to observe Halley's comet.

Meanwhile, Lindblad has moved from New York to the charming village of Westport, Conn., where the American and Swedish flags fly above maples and copper beeches outside his office, and a painting from the King of Bhutan graces an inside wall.

As for Lindblad the man, he is subject to the same emotions and human frailties as the rest of us. He's known joy and sorrow--particularly the latter since the recent death of his second wife, Cary. ("We were inseparable . . . "). And so he looks ahead, haunted by the knowledge that it is impossible to retrieve a single precious moment, no matter how the heart may yearn to. One day he intends to lead a tour beyond the gravitational pull of our planet.

Somewhere to Outer Space.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°