My life in travel: Sir Terence Conran, designer and retailer

'I love the feeling of being a stranger in a foreign land'

First holiday memory? My nanny took me to Felpham near Bognor Regis for a seaside holiday. I was very young and felt tremendously grown up to be away from home without my parents. I managed to get in a furious argument with another boy, and I hit him on the head with a spade. It was very much out of character for me.

Best holiday?

Rajasthan, India. I went a few years ago and stayed in the Balsamand Lake Palace, a breathtaking heritage mansion in Jodhpur. I also went to the Nagaur Sufi music festival, which was wet and left me with a horrible cold when I got back to Britain – but it was a wonderful experience.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

I have a great affinity with the South West. I love Olga Polizzi's hotel in Cornwall, the Tresanton, which is every bit as elegant as you would expect. It has a beautiful location on the coast near St Mawes and the restaurant is pretty special, too. It serves wonderful, fresh seafood with beautiful views of the harbour and lighthouse. It's a very peaceful part of the world to do some designing, while enjoying excellent food.

What have you learnt from your travels?

Leave the guidebook behind. I love the feeling of being a stranger in a foreign land, exploring museums and galleries, or wandering down backstreets to find hidden surprises. I also like to seek out flea markets, where you can often pick up local arts and crafts away from the tourist traps.

Ideal travelling companion?

As a young man, the best trip I had was with my dear friend, the photographer Michael Wickham, in France. It was the first time I'd ever been abroad and he opened my eyes to a new world.

We drove south in his battered old Lagonda through the Dordogne and Lot, camped out in haylofts and fields, and lived very much day to day.

Coming from grey, post-war London, I was amazed by the quality of every day life in France – the delicious food in roadside cafés, washed down with carafes of rough red wine, and the abundant displays on market stalls.

Greatest travel luxury?

Having someone else to do the worrying for you, relaxing in hotels, sleeping on crisp linen sheets and having excellent meals cooked for you.

Holiday reading?

I read Perfume: The Story of a Murderer recently on holiday and was hooked from start to finish. It's devilishly written by Patrick Suskind, and the plot is intricately gripping. It seems to capture the essence of 18th-century Paris brilliantly.

Where has seduced you?

Paris. Even after 50 years of regular visits, I still get a thrill from arriving. The restaurants, the shops, the beautiful buildings and the atmosphere seems to encapsulate the idea of relaxed, intelligent, easy living. A stroll along the Seine on a balmy summer evening is truly one of life's great pleasures.

Worst travel experience?

A journey home from Milan when the engine of my Alfa Romeo completely seized up on an obscure mountain pass in the Alps.

It was the middle of the night, I had a raging toothache and there was nobody in sight. I thought I was going to die, but I dragged all my clothes out of my suitcase – put on layers of shirts and three pairs of underpants – and after a frightful night I was picked up in the morning. I have a vivid memory of being served pea and ham soup and brandy after, which brought me back to life.

Worst hotel?

I can't remember staying at a hotel recently that's worthy of criticising – which perhaps makes me a very lucky man, because I'm not known for sitting on the fence. I remember staying in some pretty hair-raising places years ago on buying trips to India – but I struggle to remember a single place that didn't make me feel completely welcome.

Best hotel?

The Hotel Oustau de Baumanière in Provence. It's romantic, in a very old fashioned sense, and gives the modern traveller a real trip back in time, but with all of today's comforts and luxuries. Too many hotels in France are overly contemporary, with attractive but soulless interiors. But the Hotel Oustau de Baumanière makes you feel as if you're staying at a friend's country manor, from the soft colours and antique floor tiles, to the lovely gardens with cherubs and fountains.

Best meal abroad?

Michel Bras runs a beautiful restaurant and hotel in Laguiole with his son and the food is exceptional. I stayed for three nights and ate several exquisite dishes. The menu is deeply rooted in the countryside and rural villages of the region, where he's lived all his life. Highlights included a squid dish with red pepper; a lettuce soup with a large oyster submerged in it; and a salad made from hedgerow plants and flowers.

Dream trip?

Mexico. I've never been before and I would love to make that my next big holiday, perhaps topped off with a week in one of my favourite places, Cuba. I'd also love to stay in one of Francis Ford Coppola's resorts in Central America to see if his hotels are as good as his films and wine.

Favourite city?

Tokyo. It has a great desire for reinvention that gives it a cutting edge. If you get up high – on the top floor restaurant of the Park Hyatt or the club on the 51st floor of Roppongi Hills – the views are absolutely breathtaking. I love the energy, buzz and sheer scale of the city, but also that within an hour, the bullet train can whisk you away to the tranquillity of Nasu.

Where next?

India, I hope. It's one of the most exciting countries in the world, with a terrific and newly thriving design scene. Some of the new hotels there wouldn't look out of place in Hong Kong, New York or Miami.

Sir Terence Conran celebrated his 80th birthday this month. To mark the event, The Design Museum looks back over his career and influence with a new exhibition from 16 November:

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