Getting there (before everyone else does)

When it comes to travel, better to be fashionably early than fashionably late.

I’m a travel writer by trade and a fashion writer by extension, since travel and fashion are inextricably linked. 

How so? Fashion, in terms of travel, is as much about where to go as what to wear, and the travel writer’s trick is to identify what place is about to be fashionable and then write about it before every other travel writer does. Austin, Texas, Costa Rica and Tuscany may be fashionable places to travel to right now, but no self-respecting travel writer wants to write about them. It’s way too late, you see. 

Fashion in travel moves on quickly and is unforgiving. Does anyone still go to once-fashionable Phi Phi in Thailand, to Siem Reap in Cambodia or to Goa, India?  I’ll answer that question for you. Of course they do, but not because those places are fashionable. Only because they are ancient, or beautiful or simply take your breath away. Or perhaps a combination of all three.

Some destinations defy fashion. Paris, New York City and San Francisco will always be fashionable, in the sense that fashionable things are always going on in those cities, but we don’t feel we have to visit them immediately to see them at their
zenith, before they fall from grace — before everyone moves on to the next big thing. In other words, they are not going to go out of fashion any time soon. Like heaven, great cities can wait. 

The secret, as I said, is to get in early. Here are some of the world’s most fashionable travel destinations over the past few decades and the year in which you would have had to discover them to be truly fashionable yourself — Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (1945); Marbella, Spain (1950); Mustique, St. Vincent and The Grenadines (1960); Marrakesh, Morocco (1964); Tulum, Mexico (1988). All of them earlier than one might have thought, no? Fashion in travel gets on with the job, doesn’t wait around. The French Riviera came into fashion in the 1830s, made smart by the very smart Lord Brougham, who built a villa in Cannes. When the Scott Fitzgeralds arrived in the south of France in the 1920s, though the Riviera was still fashionable, they were hardly pioneers. 

So what’s moving into fashion? Croatia got a fillip from the World Cup — and its Dalmatian coast is breathtakingly lovely. Go now, while there’s still room to spread a beach towel. And Ljubljana, the capital of neighboring Slovenia, is having a moment.  So is Ischia, Capri’s not so little sister island in the Mediterranean. In Asia, Bhutan is still hot and getting hotter, but its tourism is carefully controlled by a visitors’ tax, which puts off all but the wealthiest or most dedicated travel fashionista. I’ll bet my bottom rupee it will be a fashionable place to go for some time to come. Also please note, the moon will be coming into its own around 2020. Contact Elon Musk for details.  

Where is it stylish to travel to is of course another question. A well-thumbed coffee table book, “Travel in Vogue,” published 20 years ago, still has pride of place on my bookshelf (since I don’t have a coffee table). It’s a compilation of travel articles and stories by well-known writers or celebrities, gathered from the pages of Vogue over the previous century. I never tire of reading Cecil Beaton’s musings on Baghdad, Truman Capote’s tittle-tattling about Tangier or (onetime “Men’s Vogue” editor) Geoffrey Aquilina Ross’s insider’s take on St. Tropez. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s 2011 book “The Eye Has to Travel,” a biography of her husband’s grandmother, the great Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, goes a step further, showing how travel is the inspiration for style, and how traveling helps us sharpen and refine our own particular aesthetic sense.

Fashion in travel is also linked to, but can remain independent of bragging rights, which are acquired through travel to places which are not only fashionable to some degree, but also carry a certain element of exclusivity, often associated with inaccessibility or even danger. The incomparably exquisite Isfahan in Iran, or exotic and mysterious Zanzibar in Tanzania both carry top-tier bragging rights, as does a trip to Western Samoa (although sad to say Aggie Grey’s, that legendary hostelry of the South Seas, is now a Sheraton.)  Something I forgot to mention earlier, by the way — if you’re thinking of signing up for a moon trip, do it quickly, because my prediction is that by the middle of the next decade, the moon is going to feel terribly, terribly last year.

Bragging rights work historically, too. Throwaway lines like “We always flew Concorde” or “I was in Berlin the night the wall came down” are always good for engaging the most taciturn guest at a cocktail party. An audience with the pope is also super-braggable, as is hosting a dinner party in the crater of Mount Vesuvius. A visit to the Galápagos Islands is less braggable than it used to be but is still up there, especially if conducted by private yacht (and better still with the Clooneys on board). 

Bucket lists are quite another matter: I have places on mine that are neither fashionable nor remotely stylish, but they’re still spots I’d like to see before shuffling off this mortal coil. One is Kashmir, in northern India, and another is Palermo, in Sicily, which I’m told is one of Italy’s most atmospheric, most vibrant cities. The Falkland Islands, those barren, windswept microdots in the middle of the South Atlantic, which Argentina went to war with Britain over in 1982, also beckon, for no good reason other I’d like to say I’ve been. Ironically, war and travel make good bedfellows. I’d like to see the First World War battlefields of the Somme some day too. Hardly fashionable, hardly stylish — but surely salutary.

Still having difficulty sorting the wheat from the chaff, the stylish from the merely fashionable? Here are some pointers. Cape Verde (300 miles off the coast of Senegal) is entirely unfashionable but strikes me as a very stylish place, on account of its Creole-Portuguese-African culture and traditional morna-music. In Spain’s Balearic islands, Ibiza is still fashionable but no longer very stylish, while its neighbor, tiny Formentera, is downright stylish but not (yet) very fashionable. 

St. Barth’s in the Caribbean is both fashionable and stylish. But just to throw a spanner in the works, for every well-off haut-bourgeois Parisien who air kisses and calls it paradise, there are thousands of grounded, wealthy Americans who would rather vacation in Atlantic City than be subjected to le snobisme of the French or the hauteur of the St. Barth’s shopkeepers. Make up your own mind — and just be sure to take some well-loaded plastic.

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