Mike, could you tell us a little about yourself and why you have pursued the career as a travel writer and author?
I never planned to be a travel writer, but I think that applies to most of the travel writers I know. I did always want to be a writer, and I sold some general articles to newspapers and magazines, all written in my spare time. Then I took the risk and went full-time freelance, and began to specialise in home computers, writing for papers and magazines. I met one or two travel writers and, like everyone, was curious about it as it sounded an enviable life. But they put me off by telling me how competitive and poorly paid it was. It turns out they were right, and it meant I didn’t try doing any travel writing.
Well, not until one time when I had a holiday on the Greek island of Rhodes. I had a good time, and thought of an angle for a piece, wrote it on spec, sent it to a newspaper, and they bought it. I then sent them something whenever I went anywhere on holiday, and the travel editor bought them. I asked her how I could get into doing all these free trips we all hear about, so she told me to send her some ideas of things I’d like to do, and why, which I did and she commissioned one of them. I thought this was all pretty good, as anyone would, and I worked hard at selling my stuff and at becoming a full-time travel writer, which I managed to do.
If you love travel and you love writing, what could be better? It is competitive and it isn’t well paid, but here I am, about twenty years on, still doing it. I guess there’s just no cure for wanderlust.
As you are an expert on Greece, and as our readers are always interested in romantic destinations, could you tell us in your opinion five of the most unique romantic destinations in Greece, and why do you feel they are romantic?
There are romantic places all over Greece. It depends what turns you on.
Somewhere remote like the Prespa Lakes up near the Albanian border are incredibly beautiful and peaceful, so if you like nature and quiet then you’ll find a stroll around there very romantic indeed.
I like quiet places, where there’s a taverna by the water’s edge serving fresh fish, simply grilled, and wine from the barrel. There’s a little place called Kato Zakros on the east coast of Crete that’s nothing more than half a dozen buildings and a beach and it’s wonderful.
I think Nafplion is one of the most beautiful towns in Greece. It’s on the Peloponnese and was the Greek capital before Athens. One time when I was doing a guidebook to the Greek mainland, I drove about 5000 miles but managed to finish the trip a few days ahead of schedule. There was an amazing feeling of freedom. I had a car and knew I could go almost anywhere within a few hundred miles of Athens airport, and relax. So where did I want to go? I chose Nafplion, and loved every minute.
One of the best experiences in Greece, that is totally romantic, is taking the evening ferry from Rhodes to the island of Symi, and sailing into Symi harbour in the dark. It’s a little horseshoe-shaped harbour, which you don’t see until you turn into it, and suddenly there’s this beautiful sight with all the buildings lining the harbour lit up. It’s magical.
And you can’t ignore Athens. It’s one of the world’s great cities. I love it, although I know lots of people find it too busy and noisy. It’s got great character, though. Anywhere with a view of the Acropolis lit up at night you can’t beat that for romance.
I read on your website that you went camel-trekking in the Sinai Desert. Could you give our readers a brief description of your experience?
I’ve actually been twice and they were two of the very best experiences I’ve had travelling. I love deserts in fact I’ve just bought a house in Arizona, partly because of the desert landscape. The scenery constantly changes. You ride the camels during the day, and your body and brain slow down to this gently rocking pace. It’s great if you’re busy or stressed out. It’s perfectly quiet, and you feel at one with the landscape except of course you’d be dead meat if it wasn’t for your Bedouin guides! You might stop for tea if you meet some nomads, or visit caves or gorges or see rock carvings.
At night the Bedu find a good campsite, light a campfire, cook a meal, and then you crawl into your sleeping bag and look up at the stars in a world that’s totally black apart from the dying embers of the fire. Next day you break camp, and I remember one time turning round on the camel to see where we’d stayed, and there wasn’t a single sign that we had ever been there. Another day our guide suggested we all walk out into the desert, find a shady spot, and sit there for an hour and think. Those kind of experiences do have a profound effect on you.
What is a vineyard tour and what can people expect from one?
To be honest, after a while those tours of vineyards and breweries and sherry bodegas and whisky distilleries all start to get a bit samey. They explain the process to you, take you out to see the vines, and give you a taste of the end product. It’s the people and their enthusiasm for wine, or whatever, that I enjoy. And the different end results, of course! But places with some real history behind them, like the sherry bodegas in Jerez in Spain they are quite something. If you’ve never been taken round a vineyard then it’s fascinating. But it is quite amazing what man’s ingenuity can do, producing all these wonderful tastes and I mean things like cheese and butter as well as the bewildering variety of drinks that are produced.
You mention on your site, that you invented the Time for Food series for Thomas Cook. What is this all about?
I was in Venice one time trying to find a restaurant, juggling a guidebook and a map, and then a food dictionary when I found it and wanted to check the menu. I suddenly thought to myself why isn’t there one book, aimed at people who like their food and drink, that will fit in your pocket and have recommendations of where to eat, maps to show you exactly where they are, a food glossary to explain those foreign terms, a list of good food shops, and markets, and a few features on local produce.
There was no such book, so I went home, drew up a plan as to what it should be like, sent it off to Thomas Cook who I was doing some work for at the time, and they bought the idea from me, did about 18 titles, and I got to do Venice, Paris and Amsterdam, three of my favourite cities. I had it written into the contract that I got first refusal on the titles, but given that they wanted them all at the same time, I didn’t get to do as many as I’d have liked but that’s publishing.
You indicated to me that you’re travelling “more and more in the USA, combining work trips with visits to friends and relatives. Recent trips have been to Mississippi, Memphis, Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Denver and Alabama. I love the States – and it’s always interesting because you think you know it from books and movies, but it’s constantly surprising you.” What surprises you about the USA and how does it differ from travel elsewhere?
Well, I think the surprise is because you assume the USA is similar to Britain, which in many ways it is, yet it is so different too. If you go to the Sinai desert, or Jamaica, or China, you expect things to be totally different, and they are. You still have preconceptions. I thought China would be full of people in Chairman Mao suits and very regimented, and it wasn’t like that at all. I realised how little we knew about the country.
Just as an aside, after I spent a few weeks there and came back, I noticed in newspapers and magazines that articles about China would be illustrated by completely out-of-date photographs, which reinforced the preconceptions I had about the country, but in no way represented the country I’d seen. In the photos everyone was wearing Chairman Mao suits, but I travelled there for three weeks and didn’t see a single one.
If you come from Britain you think you know the USA from books and films and music, and you feel at home there because you speak the language (more or less) and can book a motel or rent a car or chat to people without any problems, but then you find the landscape is so much more amazing than it’s possible to imagine, the size of the place is so huge, the people so hospitable and not everyone voted for George Bush! You do tend to assume that, whatever the country, everyone is the same.
And we talk of ‘America’ in such a general way, yet the country is so vast and encompasses everything from the remote wildernesses of Alaska to the Louisiana swamps, from New York to Nebraska, from New England to Arizona. It’s more like a planet than a country. I suppose the difference is that you go to somewhere like China and you know you’re a long way from home and don’t speak the language. In the USA you think you speak the language and think you know what it’s like so it’s more of a jolt when you discover you don’t.
What’s funny is that I did a fantastic trip to the USA a few years ago, driving round from Memphis to Nashville down through Mississippi and on to New Orleans, and then back again, and I loved every minute of it (except for driving the wrong way up a one-way street in downtown Nashville) and I thought: I really must come spend more time in the States. A year or so later I met someone and fell in love with them, and we’re now married… and she’s American, living in England. And we’ve now bought a house in Arizona. And I’m discovering even more how little I know about the USA!
The above interview was conducted by: Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel.com.