What’s on my travel bucket list? Not much. That might sound odd coming from a travel writer, but while I enjoy visiting new places as much as the next intrepid explorer, oddly enough, these days my real passion is returning to places I already know. Many of them have enraptured me since childhood. One of my earliest memories is the steam railway at Littlehampton, a nondescript, dare I say, depressing little seaside town on England’s south coast. Had we gone on a day trip? Maybe. Was I with my parents? I think so but can’t say for sure. But even today, nearly half a century later, the smell of burning coal or tar takes me instantly back to that steam train, on a journey straight back to childhood.
Smell will do that, of course, as I am not the first to observe — thank you, Monsieur Proust. The briny, seductive pong of pingingly fresh fish and shellfish, no matter where I come across it, has me back, as an 18 year old, at La Coupole, the Parisian brasserie which is a rite of passage for any teenage travel geek — for that, of course, is what I was. Stagnant water, which some might call a stench, transports me to Venice — and, if I close my eyes, I can almost hear it lapping the sides of the canal, like soup sloshing about in a giant tureen. Freshly mown grass has me back in Port Meadow, Oxford on a glorious summer’s day, at a picnic in the last week of my college days — just before real life began.
Perhaps it’s some sort of regressive gene that time and again calls me back to these places. Nowadays, the service stinks at La Coupole (I think it probably always did) but still, I’m a sucker for it, and Venice is, at least when I’m feeling rich enough, a second home. I’m a fan, by the way, of the recently opened, jaw-droppingly beautiful Aman Canal Grande hotel, although Aman resorts and Venice still strike me as slightly awkward bedfellows.
Here in America, I have my passions, too. The Victorian houses, or “painted ladies,” of San Francisco’s hippy-dippy Haight-Ashbury; the Rockies; the Hall of Mirrors at the Omni Netherland in Cincinnati — often referred to as “the greatest ballroom” in the Midwest and the place where I was lucky enough to get married; Charleston; and the Carolinas. These are the places I have loved and always long to revisit. Because no matter how many new places I promise myself I will try and see, it’s the golden oldies that are ever calling me back.
And then I remember my first-ever day in America, a lifetime ago now, landing in New York and being driven through the sunny streets of Manhattan (and already having my bearings, because only those brilliant early New Yorkers could have thought of planning their city on a grid). To the World Trade Center we went, and then up, up into the clouds, to Windows on the World, for cocktails — imagine that, so high up and so grown-up. And that is somewhere, alas, none of us can never revisit, except in the mind.
So where to next? I hear Micronesia is swell, ditto Peru. I do have a yearning, I must admit, to get to Papua New Guinea, where cannibalism was only banned in 1960 (“but where we all know it still goes on,” as my precocious, travel bug-bitten 11-year-old informed me recently). And Myanmar is a must-see. I also fancy Aleppo in Syria and Isfahan in Iran, though probably not any time soon, and I must get to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, which I missed the first time around, 20 years ago, after misreading a train timetable and ending up in Vladivostok instead.
You need to be passionate about travel — of course you do — but you also need a good pair of reading glasses.