When people I meet find out I’m a travel writer, they ooh and aah for a while, then ask, “What’s your favorite place?”
I hate that question because my love of travel is so wide and indiscriminate that there’s almost no place I don’t like. “I travel for travel’s sake ... ,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in “Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes.” “The great affair is to move.”
If pressed, I turn the question inside out, admitting I have no love for Cancun, Mexico, Canada’s Laurentian Mountains in winter and England’s Stratford-upon-Avon, an Elizabethan tourist trap. But I seldom have a strong aversion to a place; instead, I simply don’t remember it, like so many of the expensive dinners I’ve eaten at fancy restaurants.
If I confessed to having favorites -- say, Paris or Naples, Italy -- I’d feel responsible for people’s travels. They’d go there on the strength of my recommendation, then eat bad oysters and get sick in a budget hotel on the Left Bank or lose their wallet to a pickpocket while gazing over the Bay of Naples. Even when I’m writing about a place, I try not to sound too enraptured (though sometimes I am), and I usually include the negatives, because places, like people, are never all bad or good.
Love of place is a complex equation with too many variables to predict. So I’ve come up with a stock answer to “What’s your favorite place?” First, I distinguish between a destination and a trip. It seems more fruitful to me to talk about trips taken, not places. I think the Grand Canyon is one of the most extraordinary places in creation, but some of my trips -- for instance, in the heavy crowds of summer on the South Rim -- have been less than idyllic. On the other hand, I once spent a few blissful days on Prince Edward Island in Canada, although the landscape and ambience are too sweet and manicured for my taste.
I usually say that the pleasures of a trip depend on factors neither your travel agent nor the fine print can guarantee: your mood, the weather, what’s going on at work; whether you are well prepared for the trip or have planned so carefully that things go too smoothly, minimizing the chance for surprise and adventure; and, perhaps above all else, whom you go with. Even though you argue at home, you and your mother may rediscover the deepest kindred ties on a little getaway to Big Bear, while the ardor between lovers may dissipate on a Bora-Bora beach.
With those things off my chest, I’ll dive in. Truthfully, there’s nothing in the world I’d rather talk about than my favorite trips.
Always at the top of the list is Venice, Italy, in the winter of 1994. It was my first (and only) visit to La Serenissima, on an off-season Alitalia package for about $800 that included airfare, transfers and five nights in a three-star hotel, with breakfast. I didn’t expect much from such a deal, knew the weather was likely to be bad and sprained my ankle the day before I left.
It turned out to be a completely magical and transforming trip. The sky over the lagoon was consistently blue, the weather perfectly suited to shirt sleeves. The Venetians had largely evacuated for winter, leaving the waterlogged city and its spider web of canals to me and a gay couple on the same Alitalia package whom I kept seeing as I wandered around.
My hotel on the Campo San Marino was modest, but the breakfasts weren’t: crisp croissants with cheese and caffe latte, brought to the table in separate pitchers of steaming coffee and milk. And then there were the Titians and Bellinis, the Baroque harpsichord concert in the 17th century church of St. Stae, the houses of Marco Polo and John Ruskin.
That trip was all about dumb luck, so wonderful I’m not sure I’ll ever have the nerve to go back. I wouldn’t want to compromise the memory.
A few years later, I went on a three-day walk along the Emerald Coast of Brittany and Normandy in France. The trip was planned by the seat of the pants. I took a ferry from Portsmouth, England, across the channel to Saint-Malo, France. In the walled city, destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II and painstakingly rebuilt, an agent at the city tourist office plotted my course and reserved the hotel rooms for me.
The beauty of that trip was about getting there, not being there, walking along the Atlantic coast of France as opposed to just driving from Paris to eat oysters on Mont-St.-Michel. They taste better if you get there under your own steam.
Other stellar trips stick in my memory: St. Petersburg, Russia, in the icy cold of winter; Chongqing, China, a vertiginous city at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers; and Fish Creek and Owl Creek canyons in southeastern Utah, where my brother and I went backpacking. We were tired and dirty after we climbed out of the canyon, and I made him drive me to the town of Blanding, where we cleaned up and bought steaks to barbecue at a campsite in Natural Bridges National Monument.
At Hollyhock, a Canadian New Age retreat center on Cortes Island about 100 miles north of Vancouver, I ruminated about my life as I sat under Douglas firs, sunned on a rocky beach, listened to bumblebees in the garden and had the most extraordinary spa treatment of my life: a craniosacral massage that felt so good it left me in tears.
These memories make me happy, though I still can’t say precisely what endears certain places to me. I suppose it’s like falling in love. For the brief time you’re there, you see only the good and take that home, which is why I’m inclined to keep my favorite places secret and am wary of returning to Venice.