Old world order: McCall Smith loves 'timeless' Tuscany / Alamy

'There is no point thinking of the shark encounters one has narrowly missed'

Alexander McCall Smith's latest book, 'A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh', is out now

First holiday memory?

Swimming in the Indian Ocean, near Durban in South Africa, at the age of four. I remember a sandstorm on the beach and a tiny canoe, made out of tin; everything else has faded. I read later that there were shark attacks at that particular beach. I would have been a bite-sized morsel at four. But there is no point sitting about in this life thinking of the shark encounters one has narrowly missed.

Best holiday?

A house exchange with a French family in the Auvergne. Our children were still very young, and it suited them well. We were able to swim in a river and go into the nearby town to buy delicious French pastries. It was idyllic. The family with whom we exchanged became firm friends.

More recently, I organised a cruise with four old friends in the British Virgin Islands. We had known one another for years and it was a real bachelor outing. We were receiving instruction from a very experienced sailor, the great Tom Cunliffe. In the evenings we sang sea shanties, excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan and songs dredged up out of the dim recesses of memory. On these trips, my friends and I go back to being 18 again – the age I think many of us, if we are truthful, feel inside.

Alexander McCall Smith

What have you learnt from your travels?

One thing I find interesting in my travels in parts of the world where life is harder, is just how resourceful people can be. We take clean water pretty much for granted; seeing how hard that is to obtain elsewhere puts our moaning in perspective.

Ideal travelling companion?

I find the company of my wife very pleasant, I'm happy to say. Otherwise, it is always a delight to share an experience with a friend – it underlines the interest, accentuates the pleasure of discovery.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

None of these. I prefer soaking up the atmosphere of lived-in places, watching ordinary local life. In Singapore I went to a cat show, of all things, and was able to use that knowledge in one of my books. It was very unlikely, but very interesting.

Greatest travel luxury?

Proper tea – loose-leaf. In some countries it is provided as a matter of course. In the US, you have to take your own, and your own kettle.

Holiday reading?

I like to have something substantial – one of the classics – at the same time as something exciting. Patrick O'Brian's naval novels fit the diverting bill rather well. If visiting India, you have to read William Dalrymple; if you are going to Greece – or in that direction – then Patrick Leigh Fermor should be at your side.

Where has seduced you?

Siena is a most seductive, lovely town. I also like a place called Montalcino, a village in the hills not far from Siena, where they produce Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy's greatest wines. There is a timeless beauty to that Tuscan landscape.

Better to travel or arrive?

That depends. Air travel is now a boring and often humiliating ordeal. Travelling by train, though, is a different matter, and such a journey can be highly enjoyable. I have only once ever been on a plane journey that I did not want to come to an end, when I travelled in a suite on an Emirates plane from Melbourne to Dubai. It was wonderfully comfortable, with a little wardrobe, baskets of fruit and one's own door.

Worst travel experience?

When I was a student in Edinburgh many years ago I used to travel by boat from Aberdeen to the Shetland Islands, where I stayed with an aunt. I remember doing that journey during the winter and having to put up with cabin companions who were being sick all over the cabin – and me.

Favourite walk, swim, ride or drive?

I like the walk in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town. I love looking up at that side of Table Mountain while at the same time enjoying the amazingly varied plants grown there.

Best meal abroad?

In France, not surprisingly. I cannot remember where the restaurant was. I just remember the exquisite dishes, and the care with which they presented them.

Favourite city?

I would have to divide that into New World and Old World. In the New World, New York wins hands-down, with Mobile, Alabama, coming in second. There's something very charming about Mobile; it's New Orleans without the touristy façade. In the Old World, it is hard to beat Florence or Siena. And then there's Edinburgh, where I live – my favourite place of all.

Where next?

Botswana, then Cape Town. Early next year I return to the Caribbean for another voyage, this time taking in some islands I have yet to visit.