Viewpoint: Confessions of a Travel Junkie


A not very private secret of mine is that I am a travel junkie. I speak of this as a "secret" out of my consideration for the fact that the second "revised" edition of my travel book, An Eccentric Guide to the United States, is now hot off the press. The meager sales of the first edition attested the fact that it was an all-too-secret endeavor. In spite of a whispering campaign, begun by my mother, and one advertisement in REASON, the odds against a prospective buyer having heard of the book were many millions to one. Now, the second edition is out. It, too, seems destined to be a secret, shared among the publishers, my immediate family, and me. But if you enjoy passing on secrets, go ahead. A little gossip is good for the circulation.

Of course, every author suspects that his book has been ineptly publicized. In many cases, this suspicion is correct. In many others, the only way attention could be brought to a book is for its author to be implicated in some gaudy crime. This leaves me out. My taste for risk is not of the highest. I last roller skated at the age of five. One solid spill, and I unbuckled my skates forever. Not even the sight of Olivia Newton John doing a tight-pants disco in a roller rink could change my mind. At the age of 10, living out in the country, I was thrown from a horse. That was enough. I thought about going hang gliding. Poking through the file cards in the library to bone up on the topic, I discovered that the classic works on hang gliding technique and instruction cannot be revised. Their authors are all dead—their median age at death, something like 28. I decided not to go hang gliding. I could give you other examples, but you can see what I mean about having a low taste for risk. I have simply never been able to enjoy any endeavor or pasttime that would bring a frown to my insurance agent.

The trouble with this cautious, pedestrian attitude is that it cuts one off from lots of life's cheap thrills. There is no doubting that there is a real excitement in challenging the odds. Some never seem to be truly alive except when they are risking death or, at the very least, grievous bodily harm of the sort which carries with it the promise of a sufficiently long hospitalization to turn one into a Ted Kennedy supporter. I knew a fellow such as that at Oxford—Simon Keeling. Outwardly mild-mannered, he was the person to whom the Ferrari commercials are addressed: "Only he who dares…truly lives." Simon later became president of the Dangerous Sports Club of Great Britain. He led an expedition to Mt. Kilimanjaro. He and several other mad Brits climbed up and jumped off—gliding into the neighboring valley suspended from giant kites. On a trip to California a year or two ago, Simon tied a huge rubber band to the Golden Gate Bridge and leaped off. The only hurt he suffered in the whole endeavor was that he was arrested for obstructing traffic.

I can hear such tales with wonder, but I would never conceive of joining in. If I did, I'm afraid I'd turn the priorities of the operation inside out. I'd find it far more exciting to travel to Mt. Kilimanjaro than to see how close I could come to homogenizing my insides by leaping off. And it is this thought which brings me back around to the topic of this essay: travel. I do find it exciting. It is not always so, of course. Business travel, especially on an exacting schedule, can often be downright depressing. One's bags can be lost. Then there are scheduling snafus, mildewy hotel rooms, and often formidable logistical obstacles in the way of obtaining a good meal. I associate these difficulties primarily with business travel because business considerations are more likely to take one where he does not otherwise want to go. When I travel on my own, just to experience and explore what the various unique spots of the world have in store, the likelihood is overwhelming that I'll enjoy myself.

Having written at length about my American travel experiences in the book mentioned above, I'll avoid the temptation to elaborate here upon what's in store on the back roads and in the small towns of America. That still leaves me free to summarize my experiences in the rest of the world in a few paragraphs. So, with a trumpet blast and a flourish, I hereby share my favorite vacation.

It begins with a flight to Europe aboard British Airways. There is something about the Elizabethan service, so-called, that steps up the cultural transition which travel is all about. The food is normally good. (I admit to liking the veal, pork, and chicken liver pie North Umberland, a game pâté). And there is something fetching about being served by a gentleman who speaks like the butler from old movies. Among other advantages of flying on British Air: they always serve their beef with horseradish sauce and, when arriving in London, the British Air flights tend to be accorded good service by the London Airport authorities. It may only be my imagination, but it seems that when I've flown to Europe on Pan Am or TWA I've experienced more snarls than is the case with British Air. For those who enjoy sampling the "ten channels of listening pleasure," the British Air flights offer an added advantage—the chance to take in some real cockney humor from Tony Hancock or Bernard Cribbins.

Once in London, one settles in at the Connaught Hotel where the food is so incredibly good that it is probably advisable to wire ahead in order to get a reservation for dinner. Another excellent place to stay is the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge, which has one of the better selections in all of England for afternoon tea. In the evenings, one always has the pick of not one, two, or even a half-dozen selections, but as many as 50 presentations in the legitimate theater, concerts, opera, and ballet.

If you truly enjoy a grand hotel, in the old continental tradition, you'll find it in the Hotel Plaza Athenee on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris. This is the hotel where Mata Hari was a guest when she was arrested during World War I. The hotel still looks the part of a backdrop for the highest level of intrigue. It is elegantly appointed. The food is of the first caliber (especially "savouries du pecheur"). The service is just what you would expect: proper and discreet. A few years ago one of the snooty French tour guides described it as "incontestably the best service in the world."

As is often the case with continental hotels, the service gets even better when you personally write to the managing director to arrange a reservation. At the Plaza Athenee, he is M. Franco Cozzo. Pay him a visit. His hotel is a splendid base for seeing Paris, a city whose legendary excitements, according to the song, did so much to depopulate rural America after World War I. It is still exciting, in a way which appeals to souls like me who find our thrills a few steps shy of stepping out of airplanes.

I have run out of space here, very much as one always runs out of vacation time—before having done all the traveling one would wish. Yet travel is a subject that is worth coming back to, if only because it helps bring a better perspective to our lives at home. There is even a kind of satisfaction for authors of unknown travel books, and perhaps a lesson, in learning that the most potent advertising campaigns fall some way short of universal success. The English do not eat English muffins. In Denmark, the nearest thing to a Danish pastry is known as "Vienna cake." And the Spanish have never heard of Spanish rice. Of course, they've never heard of An Eccentric Guide to the United States, either.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union. His book The Squeeze was published recently by Summit Books.