My Life In Travel: Stephen Fry, writer and TV presenter
'Every one of the states seduced me. Ohio possibly less than the others'
Saturday 04 October 2008
First holiday memory?
Taking a steam train to Cornwall. I have faint memories of a smut in my eye when looking out of the window, à la Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.
Lawks! A two-week trip with a friend in 1987, driving an Aston Martin through the South of France, to Venice and Florence. We came back via Salzburg and the Alps. I remember hitting 160mph and thinking I had never been happier. Tragic, isn't it? The Masaccio frescoes in Florence contributed their share, naturally.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
The A149 from Old Hunstanton to Sheringham, along the north Norfolk Coast. It's the most beautiful and perfect place on Earth. My favourite drive is along this road through Burnham Overy Staithe, Holkham, Wells, Stiffkey, Morston, Blakeney, Wiveton and Cley, finishing in Salthouse, where I pop into Cookies, a little shack that serves fabulous fresh crab, lobster and other seafood.
What have you learnt from your travels?
That travel is about two things, and two things only: bowels and laundry.
Ideal travelling companion?
My beloved partner of 12 years, of course. Or a combination of A C Grayling, Anthony Quinton and Jools Holland.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
As a rule, I'm a little of the first two. I prefer cities to so-called paradises. However, I did once combine the first and third by paragliding off a mountain in Rio de Janeiro and landing on Ipanema beach.
Greatest travel luxury?
Going first class, I fear. I attribute it to my long frame, but actually the problem is, once you've turned left on entering a plane, you never want to turn right again: it's a footling mixture of pride and self-indulgence. I should hate myself for it, and yet I don't. I would add, as another pointless luxury, my inordinately absurd suite of laptops, digital gadgets, chargers and cables.
First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?
Unpack the cables and get online. Pathetic, isn't it?
Better to travel or to arrive?
To arrive, although I still do get excited by trains and boats; aeroplanes less so.
Big fat novels, biographies, that sort of thing. Anthony Blond and Ferdinand Mount both had autobiographies published this year that are hard to beat. I could read that sort of book for ever.
Where has seduced you?
Deia in Mallorca is pretty ravishing for holidays and walking. Monument Valley on the Utah and Arizona border took me by the throat, and I was lucky enough to be entertained there by a family of Navajo Indians. They make the most wonderful "fry bread". I certainly want to go back to Vermont, Montana and Kentucky. I loved the Lowlands of South Carolina, too. And northern California. And Alaska. And Arizona. In fact, every one of the United States seduced me, Ohio possibly less than the others, but that's being pointlessly mean. Even Ohio has its points.
Worst travel experience?
The usual hot rushes to the airport to be followed by 18-hour waits. They hurt so much at the time, but looking back manage, like most pain, to recede into a nothing.
Oh, Lord. Well, that would be the Grand in Brighton about five years ago. The expensive suite smelt of a dead body, was vilely overheated, and I couldn't open the windows. The service was appalling, the food ghastly – an epic vision of Britain in microcosm. From splendour, self-belief, cheerfulness, optimism and unforced charm to a shabby, sullen, automated, dimwitted, understaffed insult to the human spirit designed to appeal only to shareholders in the De Vere group. If it has been improved then I'm delighted to hear it. Perhaps as the oil price continues to rise and people fly less, the era of the British hotel will return, with dance bands and style to match.
The Carlyle in New York is pretty hard to beat. For views, the Park Hyatt Sydney is sensational. I have a soft spot, too, for the madness that is the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. I find it much more charming than it used to be. It is still insanely dark inside, but a great place for a long stay. I love old world, grand luxe hotels, which the Connaught in London used to be, (I stress the used, sadly). Now, maybe the Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg takes the crown. It's elegant, but without any of the hideous bastard-son-of-Philippe-Starck urban chic/boutique fripperies on the one hand, or over- flounced vulgarisms on the other. You expect Lilli Palmer or Alma Mahler to walk in at any moment. Or possibly Magda Goebbels...
Best meal abroad?
A chowder and lobster feast in Eastport, Maine.
New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Berlin, Salzburg and London. It's a dead heat on all of those. And by all means, let's hear it for Norwich.
If Burma and Indonesia weren't so politically arsed up, I'd like to take the Ayeyarwady river-and-land trip from Mandalay down through Malaysia to Singapore, and across down through Indonesia.
I'm off to Africa to try to film gorillas and white rhinos. Then to Madagascar for ai ai (lemurs), over to Mauritius, then the Isle of Komodo to film the dragon, up to China perhaps, then down to New Zealand. I'm making a series of films for the BBC in the footsteps of Douglas Adams, who, with Mark Carwardine, wrote the prophetic Last Chance to See about a quarter of a century ago. Mark and I will be seeing which animals are now extinct (a quarter of those he and Douglas chose for the book are now said to be gone for good), and looking at some more deeply imperilled creatures.
'Stephen Fry in America', by Stephen Fry, is published by HarperCollins (£20). A six-part BBC1 series of the same name starts on 12 October at 9pm. The DVD of the series is released on 17 November
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