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My Life In Travel: Alistair McGowan, actor, comic and impressionist

'I often feel my holidays start at St Pancras'

First holiday memory?

Pontins in Somerset. It was 1969 and I remember the Bluecoats performing. Before all the children went to bed, they would sing a song called "Goodnight Children", which filled me with horror because it meant going back to the chalet. They are very happy memories, though. It was a good chance to meet children from all over the country.

Best holiday?

A train trip around America with a former girlfriend. We started in New York and went across to Los Angeles. I didn't want to do it by car for environmental reasons, so instead we did a cross-country "road trip" by train. It was amazing the things we saw from the window: the salt lakes of Utah went on for hours, and the endless vineyards of California. The Rockies were a definite highlight, too.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

The Lake District. I had a fantastic holiday near Grasmere about 10 years ago. It took my breath away; the countryside is so unspoilt. I also recently spent 24 hours in Lavenham in Suffolk which was extraordinary. I've rarely seen somewhere more beautiful. The history and the atmosphere made it feel like a film set.

What have you learnt from your travels?

Go out of season. I'm self-employed so I'm usually able to avoid the crowds and school holidays. I've also learnt that it's nice to go to Paris or Rome, but it's so much nicer to come home.

Ideal travelling companion?

My black cat. I went to Edinburgh a few years ago and couldn't leave him at home. Instead, he sat on my lap on the train all the way up. It was the most blissful experience. He was as calm as you like and everyone who walked past looked at me in a very lovely way.

Greatest travel luxury?

Feather pillows. I can't sleep on artificial ones. I spend a lot of time on sleeper trains, so proper cushions are very useful on those long journeys.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

Holiday is the only time I get to visit galleries. In England, I always go to the theatre, cinema and comedy, but rarely get a chance for the visual arts unless I'm travelling. My ideal trip would combine a classical concert, with a wonderful mix of good weather, history and culture.

Holiday reading?

Romantic fiction; I'm a bit of a softie at heart. I recently read When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman which moved me to tears at several points, but was also very amusing. Also, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher was a really moving, well-written story.

Where has seduced you?

Montpellier. I went there several Christmases ago. The old town is free of cars, which appeals to me hugely. There's a large pedestrian area, with the narrowest streets, full of the oldest shops, and yet, somehow, it's grand at the same time.

I also loved Dubrovnik. I was not in the least bit prepared for how beautiful it was, despite seeing it in magazines. The fact you can swim just off the rocks and cast yourself into the little bays was divine.

Better to travel or to arrive?

I often feel my holidays begin at St Pancras. I did a train trip recently where I had breakfast in Brussels, lunch in Geneva and dinner in Milan. It was fantastic.

Worst travel experience?

Corsica. I went last summer and the ferry journey over from mainland France was like sliding an iron across a big blue shirt. It just went so smoothly.

On the way back, though, there was a storm. I had to endure the repeated thump of massive waves on a huge boat for 11 hours. It was one of the worst and most frightening experiences of what I thought was going to be a short life.

Worst hotel?

I took my sister back to Montpellier because I'd had such a good time on my first trip. However, this time we stayed in a horrible hotel where the room smelt of tar. Breakfast was a carton of orange juice and some biscuits. The people at the door were unbelievably grumpy, even when I tried to engage them with my not completely unimpressive French.

Best hotel?

Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire. The atmosphere, service and beauty of the building are wonderful. My room had a walk-in shower and a big, beautiful bed. Every little touch was more than five stars. It was beautifully English, with a French touch from Mr Blanc.

Also, the Hotel Excelsior in Venice is extraordinary. You approach it by water taxi. There's a private beach and the most beautiful, big pool. A wonderful example of slightly faded Italian glamour.

Favourite swim?

I had a holiday in Canada eight years ago and stayed in a place called Barnes. It's tiny, with a few houses surrounding a wonderful lake. On the last day I swam the full length, doing backstroke. It was the quality of the water: so thick and still, like a big swimming pool. There was total silence and the landscape was just beautiful. The sun shone, the sky was blue – it was just an absolutely heavenly moment.

Dream trip?

A swim off the Greek Islands. There are several that are close enough to reach with a support boat in tow. After my experience in Canada, I've always wanted to do more swimming.

Favourite city?

I was very impressed by Milan. There's a kind of arrogance about the buildings. They say: "Look at me, look how beautiful I am." I'm not a religious person, but visiting the cathedral was a completely spiritual experience. You can walk onto the roof, where there are all these statues looking down on the city. I just wanted to lie on my back and stare up.

Where next?

Lincoln. A friend went years ago and came back saying how wonderful it was. I always thought that I must go one day. So I'm looking forward to that.

Alistair McGowan performs Sincerely Noël at the Leicester Comedy Festival on 13 Feb (comedy-festival.co.uk)