My life in travel: John Sergeant
'I'm programmed not to be disappointed by holidays'
Saturday 07 June 2008
First holiday memory?
Getting badly sunburnt on Chesil Beach in Dorset. We were staying in a strange religious community near Lyme Regis, in a cottage with no running water or electricity. My mother would read to me and my two siblings by candlelight.
The most exotic was a trip to Tahiti and Bora Bora with my wife. I went there to write a story, so a great deal was laid on for us. We went on a cruise and the hotels were very luxurious. We also took a submarine down to a coral reef, where we saw sharks. It's an amazing place, and if I fell on hard times, I'd probably disappear to Tahiti!
Favourite place in the British Isles?
We used to camp or rent a National Trust house at the end of Ullswater, in the Lake District, with our children, and it's very beautiful there. These days, my brother and I charter a yacht and sail up the south-west coast, and it has become my favourite part of the UK.
What have you learnt from your travels?
Travel is still the most wonderful thing to do; it can be a challenge but it almost never disappoints. A few weeks ago, we went to Beirut, where our son is a BBC correspondent, and it was a fascinating place.
Ideal travelling companion?
My wife Mary, because she knows my moods and always wants to do roughly the same things as me.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
I like there to be a learning element to a holiday, and it's good to have a theme, whether it's butterflies or buildings or beaches, because you can't see everything. Mary is a classics teacher, so there tends to be a Roman element to our travels – we're going to Libya next.
Greatest travel luxury?
A good book, ideally one that relates to the place you're in or what you're doing.
Where has seduced you?
We had a terrific time in Turkey last year. We started in Istanbul and were driven to all the sights, including Troy and Ephesus. It was great to have a driver. We also had a marvellous trip to Morocco last year, visiting most of the imperial cities.
Better to travel or to arrive?
I enjoy travelling. I usually set off in a fairly uninspired mood but then it grabs me very quickly. The journalist in me likes the fun of seeing what hits you without any preconceptions. That first 48 hours in a place can be very revealing – the ignorance and freshness of view can be a terrific advantage.
Worst travel experience?
I've had lots of bad experiences as a reporter, mostly being frightened. I went to Vietnam during the war for my first foreign assignment – it was very melancholic. I was also in Cyprus when the Turks invaded in 1974, which, again, was frightening. But it's exciting to go back to places such as Vietnam now they're at peace.
I'm programmed not to be disappointed by holidays. We once went to the Lake District for three weeks and it rained every day. It had to be overcome because it was our children's summer holiday.
I've stayed at some awful hotels, mostly when I've been working, with cockroaches and the like. I was taken to a truly awful one in Vietnam by a rickshaw driver. It was on the side of an airfield and I wondered how I'd survive the night.
The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai. However, we arrived at about 2am, I got to my room and ordered a lamb biryani, and had to leave again at 6.30am. It overlooks the Gateway of India and is fabulous. Another great hotel is The Carlyle in New York. I was staying there with Gordon Brown, and they managed to lose my pyjamas when they cleaned my room. But it was very grand.
Favourite walk/ swim/ride/drive?
I like walks that remind me of dramatic news stories. For example, in Barcelona I like walking down the Ramblas because I was there when terrorists had kidnapped some people in a hotel and I covered the story from a nearby hotel. I wrote the story while the Guardia Civil were firing outside. And in Washington, DC, I like walking while looking at the Lincoln Memorial, because I was there when Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream" speech.
Best meal abroad?
I've had some very disappointing grand meals in Paris recently, so my favourite meals tend to be more simple. I had a great meal with my son and Mary in Beirut, enjoying fantastic food while troops patrolled the streets.
First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?
Look out over the city, even if just from a balcony or window. Or if I'm in a taxi, I ask the driver to take the long route from the airport to get a sense of the place.
I would like to go to South America and Antarctica – places I haven't been to yet.
Istanbul is jolly nice if you get it right. We stayed in a perfectly preserved wooden Ottoman-style house; it felt like we had stepped back in time to 1890. A complete delight.
To Libya, and then I'm taking a party across the Ganges Plain in India later in the year. We'll be starting in Calcutta and heading towards Delhi.
John Sergeant will lead a tour across India for Cox & Kings from 18-31 October (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk)
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