GUEST OF THE MONTH - JANUARY 2017
She's got the best Snapchat out (JetSetCD) and her writings on all things planes, trains and ships can be found at Condé Nast Traveler, amongst other publications. We chat to this New York based writer about her fascination with transport, what it's like travelling solo as a woman and the future of tourism in the USA.
You’re the guru on travel transportation. How did this all start for you? Have you always been drawn to planes, ships and trains?
Yes, totally. I’ve always been drawn to planes, ships, and trains. The facts and experiences just stick in my brain better than most everything else. Ocean liners were my first love, and I don’t mean like just the year “Titanic” came out. I mean I was memorizing books with titles like “The Grand Voyage: Transatlantic Liners, 1895-1955” back in my early teens. You can imagine how popular I was in junior high (not). I had my first flight in my late teens, and it was a revelation.
My “calling” in life, as it were, is to aid others in overcoming the fear and hesitation that can prove obstacles to travel. Information and inspiration are key to this empowerment.
This year has seen you fly some incredible airlines. Is there a standout experience?
There are flights I enjoy and might share an Instagram of, and then there are flights which I know I’ll remember and talk about for the rest of my life. The latter for me is Etihad’s First Apartment on the Airbus A380, which I’ve flown twice (LHR-AUH and SYD-AUH). Sure, the hard product of private suites with separate bed and seat, plus access to the onboard shower, is phenomenal and without parallel, but it’s the smaller details that stick with me best: a few seconds of opening up a personalized thank you note from the crew on pearlescent stationery; the minutes spent customizing dinner, face-to-face in my “Apartment” with the onboard chef; and the hour before nodding off to sleep, where I watched the live tail cam from bed. These are memory-imprinting moments.
Who has the best economy seat going around in your opinion?
I really need to write about this, as it’s a total underdog: SriLankan Airlines. Travelers would be forgiven for going into a SriLankan flight with very low expectations, considering their geographical proximity to Air India’s home turf (Air India being my worst-rated long-haul economy experience), but SriLankan’s product is on par with Singapore Airlines! The planes are clean, there are drop-down footrests, and seats on their wide-body aircraft feature the latest touchscreen, on-demand entertainment. Meal service in economy is more than edible, trays have real glassware and silverware, and I have only had genuinely nice cabin crew. Beyond the hard and soft product, economy on SriLankan is also often a spectacular value for those with frequent flyer miles in Oneworld programs.
Travelling solo is a reality of the job at times and as women we’re often discouraged from doing it. Do you enjoy travelling by yourself? Are there any destinations you recommend for women to experience on their own? Any to avoid?
Intensive travel for me began around 2003, when I was studying abroad and taking the earliest flight/train out after class on Thursday and returning on the last train/flight before class restarted on Monday. Very quickly I learned to be comfortable with myself and by myself, and study abroad was a kind of training period in that way. I’m much more observant and open to felicity when solo, and I’ve had some wonderfully unique experiences because of it. Just the same, traveling with friends or colleagues is fun in its own ways, depending on the destination and the personalities.
I think Hong Kong, Seoul, and Amsterdam are absolutely fantastic for solo female travelers; they’re easily navigable (no matter by public transportation or foot) and safe in that way for anyone with common sense, plus so incredibly adaptable to a range of travel styles. Spontaneity works in the traveler’s favor in these places, and I feel like an upgraded version of myself when I’m in them.
Destinations specializing in honeymooners or couples (St. Lucia and other Caribbean islands, for example) can be difficult, with the challenge of avoiding double-occupancy pricing and being constantly asked as to the whereabouts of your boyfriend/husband. They’re not *not* safe, per se, but being there as someone who wants to meet other people and venture outside a resort may bring frustration. Personally I’m not a fan of cities where it’s unsafe to go for a long walk alone, even in daylight, because of threats from people or traffic conditions. A few places like this are Manila, Jakarta, and Delhi.
Australians travel to the USA in droves. Do you see the recent election affecting USA’s tourism industry at all?
One hundred percent. Of course we won’t really know until four years from now how numbers have changed, but the sentiments are already shifting and there’s apprehension. It’s in the small talk with cab drivers, conversations over coffee with an overseas colleague, and banter at the bar; it’s like the wool has been pulled from the eyes of the rest of the world regarding the United States’ true nature, that it’s not all friendliness and equality and big smiles over here. When I’m out of the country and asked where I’m from, most of the time I say New York City. People know New York, and the response is invariably positive, either “I love New York” or “I’ve always wanted to go there.” An instant ice breaker. Now those sentences are longer, appended with “but I think I’ll stay away right now” or “but I’ll wait four years and see.”
Something I initially could not reconcile about the President Elect was the fact that he has traveled and met people around the world, and yet his way is one of hatred, intimidation, occlusion, and divisiveness. But then I recalled that his exposure to reality has been from a private jet of gold-plated faucets or a TV show set, with those he meets either working for him or kowtowing before him. It’s no wonder he thinks so little of, or rather, fears everyone outside his bubble so much that he seeks to stifle freedoms.
You asked me in the previous question for places I’d recommend avoiding. The truth is that I feel less safe in my Midwestern hometown than I do on the other side of the world. This last election was scary; it revealed the ugly nature of neighbors and deep-seated prejudices wethought things of the past.
We were so lucky to have had eight years with a president who valued the world as a whole. I am particularly impressed by Obama’s conservation initiatives and the fact he established more national monuments than any other U.S. president in history (source: https://qz.com/881165/map-obama-established-more-national-monuments-than-any-other-president/).
You photographed and wrote a piece on the North Pole recently. What can one expect to see when voyaging the Arctic?
A whole lotta nothing! There’s not much, land-wise, between Murmansk and the North Pole other than Franz Josef Land, which provides incredible scenery of snow-crusted, plateaued islands crawling with polar bears, walrus, and rare birds. But that’s maybe one or two days of the two-week journey. The rest of it is all white, with the occasional patch of blue sky. The weather itself becomes the scenery, and your eyes adjust enough to the 24-hour daylight and glare of the snow and ice to begin to pick up on the topical quirks of floes. Think ribbons of ocean detritus caught and frozen between layers or distant pressure ridges stark enough to pose a challenge to our ship, were we to change course to that direction. Walks on deck are often solitary affairs and awe comes easily; to experience the fogbows, lenticular clouds, and brief blizzards (lit by sunshine so that every snowflake sparkles and drops onto your shoulder a fully-formed encyclopedic illustration of itself) in this rarefied region means having to keep tissues on hand. In New York, a beautiful sunset is instagrammed thousands of times over. In the Arctic, on the one ship capable of scheduled trips to the North Pole, you might be the only person with your eyes on a spectacular sundog. You want to weep for the privilege of being there to see it.
Favourite hotel stay of 2016? And most anticipated for 2017?
There’s a story I’ve been telling about a stay back in January 2016. For me it illustrates perfect personalized service, where guest services are really listening to and communicating the guest’s preferences to produce the type of delight that sparks loyalty.
I was at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa in the Maldives and there was a bottle of red wine on a table in the room, a welcome gift. I didn’t touch it, instead setting it on a sideboard. It’s not that I don’t like wine. I do, but when I’m staying somewhere for one or two nights and I’m alone and I have work to do, I’d rather not waste a whole bottle for one glass. I’ll pull a sparkling water from the minibar. So, at the FS Kuda Huraa, in a casual conversation I mentioned my love for finding “exotic” versions of snacks (currywurst-flavor chips in Germany, or larb-flavor Pretz in Thailand, for example). Well, I was shown to the back-of-house, to the staff canteen, where afternoon tea was just about wrapping up, and where I was invited to share in a platter of housemade chips of cassava, spicy dried shrimp, and more. That would have been a pleasant surprise on its own, but when I later moved on to stay at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, I walked into my room to find a welcome spread of the same chips and an iced bucket of bottled sparkling juices (a mix of lime and tamarind was the winner). It’s like that quote from “The Grinch Whole Stole Christmas,” when the Grinch finally develops empathy: “the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day.”
No one single property stands out just yet for 2017 as I haven’t made many plans yet, but I did just book a trip with a friend to Morocco. I’ve been working on a list of Riads for years, just waiting for this.
You’ve pretty much been everywhere. Anywhere left on your list?
Up until only a few ago I hadn’t been to Japan and I was embarrassed to admit it. People are usually shocked to learn that I haven’t yet been to Alaska, Prague, Greece, and every other country in Africa aside from Tunisia. As I write this I’m en route to Vietnam, crossing off another new country for me with my first trip of the year. There really are too many places to go in this world for one lifetime.
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