Travelers Roundtable

Category: Travel Essays

It’s mid-September, and the Grand Teton National Park is on fire. Slender tendrils of smoke rise into the sky like the flags of an invading army laying claim to enemy territory.  There are five different fires in the park the day I arrive; two prescribed burns to control overgrown areas, and three that occurred naturally as a result of recent lightning strikes. The forest service keeps an eye on things to ensure that the fires don’t threaten historic structures. Otherwise[…]

I’m standing on the sidewalk on a bright, sunny September afternoon in the south of France. A lovely young woman dressed in late 19th century clothes walks past me, her eyes modestly averted. In one hand she holds a leash leading a baby goat, and in the other she leads a small boy who looks like a Dickensian paperboy. More people stream past, some dressed as Roman soldiers, others as medieval archers, and still others attired like Renaissance royalty. An adorable collection[…]

I hope the city fathers of Roanoke, Virginia know what they have here. But I’m not certain they do. They’re building buildings, flaunting their God-given resources, and dreaming up events to make the place interesting with kite festivals, marathons, and more. They’re building out a 174,000-square-foot, kid-friendly civic center with an aquarium, a butterfly room, an interactive science museum, and a restaurant with a view. They want you to know how many nature trails they’ve got, and how many city parks[…]

Thailand is underwater. That’s what people think right now with the massive flooding that seems to have been going on for months – since July, in fact. And unless you’re paying close attention, you might not notice how much more there is to see than the flood zone despite its sometimes shocking reaches. The floods started in the north when the rains came quite a bit harder this monsoon season. At that time, places such as Chiang Mai, the lovely[…]

I am the last human being on the island. Dusk is slipping down over the menagerie behind me like a velvet curtain full of sparkling pinholes. The sea lions, the iguanas, the bird colonies take back their home, and I am the last person to board the launch for the ride back to the ship. My fellow travelers and I will talk into the night like excited school children about our amazing first day in the Galapagos Islands. I have[…]

Among the greatest satisfactions of small town life is the savoring of simple pleasures. Sure, sometimes you want to travel to destinations that will set your pulse pounding. But often what you really need instead is to put yourself into a lower gear. Over the past twenty years, I’ve continually found that elusive, soothing, gentle pace in the small town of Geneva, Illinois. There are no world-class museums in Geneva. You’ll find no mention of the town in 100 Places to[…]

On a trip to London in 1998, my wife and I stayed at the home of a dear friend who had lived in London for half a century. While I had visited the old city many times, my wife had never traveled there before, and so I was taking her around the town to see a few of the world-class sites for which it is rightly famous. One morning, I informed my London-native friend that we were off to tour[…]

Click for audio on this topic from a WUWM broadcast below: Friday night, 7:30 p.m.: It’s time for my young son to go to bed, and we’re lying together and looking at the map app on my iPhone. “There we are,” I say, pointing to the blinking dot in the middle of the grid as the GPS shows us our current location, a tiny blue ripple lost in the patchwork puzzle of Southeastern Wisconsin. He stares, fascinated. “I want to[…]

  It’s not in the trendy tourist brochures, it’s not in a Royal County, and there are no castles, stately homes or dead rock stars buried here. If you want the Last of England, though, with its tinkle of teaspoons on the morning air, perhaps you’d consider Frinton-on-Sea.

I’ve been coming to Bangkok since 2006. That year student protests disrupted a couple days of my business trip and a month later there was a nonviolent coup. I was here when Yellow Shirt protestors shut down the international airport for nine days in 2008. During the Red Shirt riots of 2010, I stayed right at the edge of the barricaded zone and rode in a taxi through the burning tire smoke of the military’s deadly, protest-ending crackdown. A devastating[…]

I had been living in London for a year, finishing a screenplay. I managed to wrap it up just as my visa was expiring, and needed to figure out where in the world  I was going to live next.  I had spent much of the previous 10 years living abroad—France, the Czech Republic, The Philippines and the UK — and I had a hankering to go back to the States.  But where?

My friends and I pull over to the side of the road where a sign shows a single black line across its center: Sea Level. This real-life travel moment requires an underscore. Here we are surrounded by desert, baked hills of pale dirt and stone too bright in the midday sun to even look at without sunglasses, and yet being led to think of the other 71% of the earth’s surface that is more fish-friendly. We mark the occasion with[…]

  Towering proudly over the Quetzaltenango basin in the highlands of Guatemala is nature’s perfect cone. Santa Maria, a now dormant volcano—one of thirty volcanoes in this country—can be seen from great distances in any direction, thrusting 12,375 feet into the clouds. Anything this prominent, this beautiful, simply demands to be climbed. In fact, Santa Maria is only one of many popular hikes in the highlands. The breathtaking colors and dramatic landscape are perhaps only matched by the rainbow-colors of[…]

Tip and I stood in line to get our three-day passes for Angkor National Park. Once the clock struck five, we purchased the tickets for the following day, yet we were allowed to enter the park that night, essentially for a free sunset. We hired a guide for our first day, and a driver for the rest of the trip. We stood in line with the guide, our passports, and some unnecessary passport photos in hand. “We don’t allow your own pictures[…]

I come up from the subway and a sky as heavy as slate hangs over Kiev, reflecting in the river below and in the puddles as I cross the brick-paved street.

Last February, a very dear friend of mine was going through a tough time. A terrible thing happened to him, and I was frustrated by the distance that separated us, so I proposed that we meet somewhere. I wanted to offer distraction, nothing more. Hopefully someplace warm, as it was bitterly cold in both our respective cities. I suggested Las Vegas, the capital of distraction, but he demurred. New Orleans, he said. He wanted to go to New Orleans.

I don’t know where I’m going. My driver won’t reveal our destination. But he promises me I’m going to like it. The driver is one of my oldest friends, Portland native Jeffrey Neal. Jeff picked me up a few hours ago in The City of Roses, at the recommended Hotel Fifty, with an air of gleeful secrecy, and we hit the highway towards our mysterious destination. The green magnificence of Oregon rolls by as we head west towards the Pacific Ocean[…]

Silence. It’s what I was hungry for all these months, though I didn’t recognize the lack of it until I was immersed in it. The quiet is startling at first, foreign to me after too much time in the city. I lean on my ski poles and take a minute to listen. There are many varieties of quiet. There are the vacant atmospheres of waiting rooms, the faintly humming vacuum of a field of empty office cubicles, the muffled rustling[…]

The radio is a constant hiss of static and occasional comments in Swahili and Steve, our driver, keeps it on but seems to ignore it as we bump along a dusty tire-track road. We stop for a herd of Cape buffalo and the five passengers in the van stand at once to shoot photos out the opened rooftop of our Toyota van. Suddenly Steve grabs the mouthpiece and replies, and without even telling us we are moving on, we are[…]

Chicago has been called “the most American of American cities,” so it should come as no surprise that a Chicago Christmas offers visitors some of the most archetypically American holiday experiences to be found anywhere. From browsing the charming store windows at Macy’s to shopping your way down The Magnificent Mile to sipping cocoa or mulled wine at the Christkindlmarket on Daley Plaza to taking a regal afternoon tea under a grand, 20-foot-tall Christmas tree in a posh Michigan Avenue hotel, Chicago[…]

Detroit, Michigan has filed for bankruptcy. The city’s emergency manager made the decision last Thursday. So that’s that. Detroit is finished. Again.

Some of us believe that to travel is to become a temporary local and that it is essential when traveling to immerse yourself in the local culture as completely as you can. And that means eating as the natives do, even if the riding gets rough. Over our many years of traveling, my wife and I have tested that philosophy and come away rewarded… and not. Here are the kinds of experiences that put either question marks or exclamation points[…]

I’m walking in St. Louis’ City Museum through a menagerie of beautifully crafted stone and gleaming white terracotta. Everything around me has been salvaged from venerable old buildings that fell to “progress” here. I turn a corner and see a 19th century, rough-hewn stone drinking fountain. Hand-chiseled into the front of it is an invitation to the thirsty stranger, “Come Be Refreshed.” From what we’ve seen the past two days, those three words might as well be the unofficial motto[…]

On the drive between Oban and Kilmelford on the west coast of Scotland there is a sign pointing you to the Isle of Seil and the Bridge Over the Atlantic. The road is a long one. A narrow one. And built with plenty of kinks and contortions so as to maximize your chances of being killed in a head-on collision. You will drive so long that you will think you are lost. You will think I’m lying about there being[…]

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