My Life In Travel: Penny Smith

'Almost anywhere in South America does it for me'

First holiday memory?

A beach holiday in Clacton. It was freezing cold, but we went in the sea anyway. I had the usual hand-me-down bathing costume, which was ruched. As soon as it got wet, it hung down to my knees. I remember having very chafed knees and a cold head. But I still love eating cockles.

Best holiday?

There have been so many memorable holidays to so many beautiful places. The first time I went to Barbados, I fell in love with the island. I made some wonderful and enduring friendships, and had a riot of a time. It was over a period when they hold a festival of plays and music, which they call Holders Season. The weather was beautiful and I managed to only get five mosquito bites. That is what I call a good holiday.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

The Lake District is one of the most stunning areas of Britain, and great hiking country. I have holidayed in most areas at some time, and everywhere has its attractions. The Peak District holds very happy memories. And the south coast, particularly Dorset, is beautiful.

What have you learnt from your travels?

The most important thing is to be adequately prepared. I once went to Venezuela woefully under-prepared and had to borrow clothes from other people. I always try to find out what the worst possible scenario could be, and then see what is the smallest amount of clothing that I can get away with. I hate putting bags in the hold, both for the waiting and the risk and would prefer to spend the entire week in one outfit.

Ideal travelling companion?

Someone who doesn't expect five-star luxury, who is fun, can make me laugh when all about is collapsing and who won't look at me in a funny manner if I suggest we skip the sights and just sit around on the terrace doing not very much the whole day except sampling the mojitos.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

I'm a bit of the first two, but definitely not an adrenalin junkie. I do like white-water rafting and kayaking through white water. If it looks like fun and doesn't look like I'm going to end up with my stomach in my mouth, I'm generally up for it.

Greatest travel luxury?

It would have to be a cashmere scarf, cashmere socks and a superior eyemask.

Holiday reading?

Something easy to read on the plane – I don't like turbulence, so I can't concentrate. I also take a selection of books from the airport bookshop, a mix of novels and factual books.

Where has seduced you?

The British Virgin Islands – such sea, such sky, such nature. And there seems to be a real quality of stillness. I also had a wonderful time at Strawberry Hill in Jamaica, and Ecuador has so much to offer. In fact, almost anywhere in South America does it for me.

Better to travel or arrive?

Arrive. There is nothing nicer than having a shower and testing the bed, before heading out to sample the local brew.

Worst travel experience?

An emergency landing in Dhaka. The hotel I stayed in after that was just disgusting. The sheets were filthy and the floor was damp. They told me there'd been a fire in the room, and they'd had to put it out. I would have preferred to sleep in a cupboard. As it was, I unrolled my bed mat and slept on the bathroom floor in my sleeping bag inner sheet.

Worst holiday?

Marrakech, with a friend of mine. We were both getting over broken relationships, and wanted to lie side by side on sun loungers, reading. It rained the entire time, and we had huge arguments about almost everything. I've since been back, and I thought it was gorgeous.

Best hotel?

Any hotel where you feel welcome. I am not a fan of stuffy hotels where you feel weird if you're walking around in your cheap market clobber, and not Gucci-ed up. I loved staying at the Amanjena in Phuket, Thailand. The rooms were beautiful and the staff were so warm.

Favourite walk/ swim/ride/drive?

A walk where you don't have to go up and back down the same way is always going to be better. That's why Kilimanjaro has never appealed to me. However, the Himalayas are unerringly beautiful and the views are so spectacular, it takes your mind off your screaming hamstrings.

Best meal abroad?

Breakfasts of spicy vegetables and noodles in Indonesia or Malaysia. I went to Borneo with a friend a few years ago, and breakfast was my biggest meal. I must have eaten about three or four helpings while Kirsty was attacking her fruit salad.

First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?

Unpack my sponge bag, have a shower, clean my teeth and go out for a drink.

Dream trip?

Any trip where I haven't had to organise a thing, but everything appears just when I'm most desperate. Like a cooling lake after a long day's hike, a massage with fragrant oils and a long, cold glass of beer.

Favourite city?

Florence – for the cultural attractions, the shopping, the food and the coffee. It's such a brilliant place to go to walk around, although it is better when it's not a weekend so you don't have to lurch from queue to queue.

Where next?

Hiking and kayaking in the Yukon. Apparently, it's awash with mosquitoes and the grizzly bears are on the prowl. I'm more scared of the mosquitoes because I've become allergic. One bite, and I swell up like a puffer fish. Mind you, one bite from a grizzly...

'Coming Up Next' by Penny Smith, is published on 21 July (Harper Perennial, £6.99)