'A local fixer can help you get behind tourism'

First holiday memory?

The beach at Cromer in Norfolk with my parents and brother. I remember building sandcastles and making big tunnels in the sand with my dad. He was the classic father-at-the-office, so on holiday I got to see a lot more of him and an adventure like that was fun.

Worst travel experience?

Not surprisingly, being kidnapped in Lebanon! I don't think anything has been quite as bad as that.

Ideal travelling companion?

I travel quite a lot. Sometimes it's with family or friends, but often it's with strangers. I look for someone who's going to be interested in the place and the people and most of all has a sense of humour – but doesn't bang on too much.

Best holiday?

Our honeymoon in India. It was my wife Anna's first time there. It was interesting going from two essentially different cultures from the South up to the North – Chennai to Delhi via Rajasthan. We travelled by bus, train and car, stopping off at temples and being blown away by this amazing country. It was lovely seeing all those places with hardly anyone else about, and particularly seeing them together.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

Home, in Woodbridge, Suffolk. When you've been travelling, it's lovely to come home to the family and start to make plans for the garden and think about more travels and adventures.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

I'm a mild adrenalin junkie – I like sailing – but I like wandering around in churches or temples.

Greatest travel luxury?

On holiday, it's sleep. When I'm travelling for work, it's the joy of working with a local fixer. On a recent trip in Asia they were just fantastic and I found them as interesting as the work itself.

The serious side is that it's a real privilege to get behind the tourism. They help you get into people's homes and you can ask lots of questions without knowing the language. You get a real understanding of the culture.

Holiday reading?

Normally I'm trying to catch up with work, but on holiday I love to chill out with a light novel. I'm a great fan of Georges Simenon, who wrote Maigret. Otherwise I'll read a travel book.

Where has seduced you?

Italy because of the culture, atmosphere and food. My favourite place is Tuscany – it's so familiar and beautiful. I love driving over the hills, going to Florence and visiting some of the tinier towns.

Better to travel or arrive?

Flying can be boring, but travelling by bus or train is enjoyable because there's so much more to see and you get a sense of the scale of a place. Saying that, I do enjoy coming out of an airport or a station and experiencing the bustle. You get that hit of noises, sights and smells and I think that's really enchanting.

Worst hotel?

A hotel in Delhi. I arrived in the middle of the night and had to beat my way in past someone who was asleep against the inside of the door. When I got to my room, it was already populated with cockroaches.

Best hotel?

The Explora group's Hotel Salto Chico in Torres del Paine, Patagonia. It's in a great location overlooking a lake with the "Torres" mountainous towers in the background. It was fantastic looking out onto the lake in the middle of the night; there was a bright moon shining across the water from behind the rocks – absolutely breathtaking.

Favourite walk?

Dunwich Heath in Suffolk. There's a fantastic circular route over sandy tracks, through woods and the Minsmere Bird Sanctuary and across a shingle beach. Halfway round, there's a little pub – every good walk has one.

Best meal abroad?

I was in a town called Chengde, north of Beijing to see a fantastic Buddhist temple. One evening I was taken to this restaurant which looked like a seedy den but once inside, it was a nice, large room and all we ate were dumplings of every sort. They were just utterly gorgeous. Part of the joy was it was completely unexpected.

First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?

I like to get to my hotel room, unpack and then explore the area.

Dream trip?

I'd like to head off across the Silk Route towards Thailand on my own; I've always been intrigued by stories of central Asia. . The main dream is go to India with Anna and our daughter, and also to Africa, because I'd love her to see animals living in the wild.

Favourite city?

London – I always find it an interesting place to be.

What have you learnt from your travels?

People are very friendly – it's a bit of a cliché, but it's true. The joy of travelling is you learn so much by getting involved with people.

Where next?

I'm going to spend New Year in the Lake District with Anna, our daughter and some friends.

John McCarthy presents the series Art of Faith from Sunday 17 October at 7pm on Sky Arts 2 HD. See Sky.com/arts