Voyages of discovery

Does travel really broaden our minds and make us happier? The philosopher Alain de Botton tests the theory on four very different holidays

The highlight of my holidays in 2004 involved sitting on a giant inflatable banana that was being pulled at high speed by a motorboat driven by a maniac off the coast of Torremolinos. I was clinging tightly to the girl in front of me, and all eight of us on the yellow rubber tube were screaming as if we'd just seen a great white shark.

The highlight of my holidays in 2004 involved sitting on a giant inflatable banana that was being pulled at high speed by a motorboat driven by a maniac off the coast of Torremolinos. I was clinging tightly to the girl in front of me, and all eight of us on the yellow rubber tube were screaming as if we'd just seen a great white shark.

The only thing that made this aquatic jape slightly unusual was that on the shore, a camera crew had its lens trained on us and was, via walkie-talkie, encouraging the driver of the motorboat to make violent turns that would throw us all into the chilly sea and release yet more hysterical wailing (and hopefully, elicit laughter from the viewers).

After years of writing books alone in my ivory and cork-lined study, unmolested by modern civilisation, reluctant to put on bathing shorts and suspicious of all water sports, I had finally stepped out of the house to make a documentary on travel for Channel 4.

A couple of years before I'd published a book about going travelling. The Art of Travel was a fairly caustic take on the subject, best summed up by the book's epigraph from that famous homebody, the 17th-century French philosopher Pascal: "All of man's unhappiness comes from his inability to stay alone in his room." The book deliberately set out to puncture some of the pretensions put about by the travel industry and the holiday shows that dominate TV schedules. I believed that going travelling was a subject worthy of philosophical reflection. I was keen to debunk the idea that moving from one place to another was an instant route to happiness.

Fortunately, none of this frightened the intrepid commissioning editors at Channel 4, who invited me to go on a number of short holidays in search of the meaning and purpose of travel. So we set off for Torremolinos on the Spanish Costa del Sol. I'd never been there before, but I was pleasantly surprised. The hotel I stayed in was clean and bright, the food was good, the nightlife interesting. The only problem - and this is key difficulty in all journeys - is that I realised I'd taken myself with me on my holiday: the old familiar me (with all the same anxieties and regrets) had ended up spoiling what I'd come to see.

***

Time to move on to the next leg of my trip: a Mediterranean cruise aboard the QE2. For years, I'd rather fancied going on a cruise. I loved the idea of sitting on deck watching the world go by. The sight of a massive ship makes one want to gasp and admire the technological ingenuity of mankind in the way only small boys are supposed to.

Cruise ships bring out the nerd in everyone. In my experience women are generally above the whole technology thing and don't care a fig about the relative merits of the Airbus A319 vs the Boeing 737. Yet on board, I saw women enter into long, animated conversations about the size of the propellers on the QE2. You wonder how human hands could ever have put something so big together, and how it could move an inch, let alone thousands of miles across tumultuous seas.

Part of the fun of cruising is that you can do a host of very land-like things - lifting weights, getting your nails done, playing table tennis - while moving across an ocean. This has some of the pleasures of camping, where it can be thrilling to eat sausage and beans, just like at home, with the added excitement that one is in the middle of a field under open skies. The staff all add to the effect. They're dressed in dinky white shoes and smartly pressed white uniforms. They bow at every turn and call you sir and madam and ask you with exaggerated formality how you'd like your tea.

The show they lay on is pure Noël Coward camp, but nicely so, given that you're floating above sharks (maybe) and miles of ice-cold water. Engage them in conversation, and fascinating things soon emerge. They'll let you know about the number of people who die on each journey (at least one, and on the QE2 world cruise, about 20), how long the Titanic took to sink (four hours) and about whether there are any crew-passenger affairs (none at all, they say at first, but get them relaxed and it turns out it's routine business, especially between barmen and wealthy widows from the States).

But cruising isn't all fun. For a start, once on board, you can no longer see the beautiful machine you're actually on - a great pity, given how impressive the ship is. On a calm day, wandering through the corridors of the QE2, you might forget you're on a ship at all. You could be in a chic Marriott hotel off the M25, an impression contradicted only when you disembark, by which time it's a little late. Unusually too, the management doesn't encourage you to take a look at those exciting sea-related aspects of the ship: you're not allowed into the engine room, you can't look at the bridge, you can't see the kitchens.

Then also, it can be rather boring on board, despite the dozens of activities - shuffleboard, flower arranging, ice-sculpting etc - that are laid on to keep at bay what Jean-Paul Sartre termed "the nothingness of existence".

Most holidays raise the question of what there is to do in the world other than work - and cruising raises the matter more forcefully than most. Aboard the QE2 the answer is simple: eat. You can begin at 6am, when breakfast starts; by noon, lunch is laid out; at 4pm, tea starts and goes on till 7pm, when it's time for dinner. Finally, from midnight until breakfast, something called a "midnight feast" is offered. Unsurprisingly, everyone leaves the ship feeling rather fat and disgusted with themselves for being so indulgent.

Luxury is surprisingly hard to endure, for it's accompanied by feelings of guilt at one's own indolence - especially so when the crew works so hard. Most of them live four to a cabin and hail from small villages in the Philippines, where they have families they only see once a year or less. That's enough to end any uncomplicated enjoyment of cucumber sandwiches.

***

On our next mini holiday we tried to focus on the distinctive charm of actually travelling, without a destination in mind. We went on a road trip. The place you most readily associate with road trips is the US, but we took off for the former East Germany instead. Since unification, the eastern half of Germany has witnessed an enormous wave of autobahn construction - and it's an impressive sight. Dazzlingly lightweight bridges soar across valleys, symmetrical roads stretch off into the horizon and there are brand new service stations and motels every few miles. In fact, the off-road provisions are so good that at one point, near Dresden, we found the Ollywood swingers' hotel, which promotes "sex between loving couples" on the road.

I've always found hotels strangely sexy places, and the swingers' hotel took the idea to its extreme. It was a mixture of German luxury and decadence. The hotel had a pool, a business centre, a cocktail bar and an S&M torture room. The manager offered us a discount on what he called his "double-double room" (with a bed built for four and a Jacuzzi that would fit eight at a squeeze), but we politely declined and instead headed back out onto the motorway.

***

Our tour also took us to Holland to explore the notion of exoticism. We normally associate the exotic with somewhere very far away, yet Holland has always seemed to me an incredibly exotic country. I love the simplicity of the architecture, the bluntness of the people, and the celebration of everyday life you find in the country's art.

Having a camera crew helps one to find friends. I met a pair of young Dutch women in a museum gift shop and was soon cycling around Amsterdam with them while they explained that they found England the most exotic country on earth. They particularly appreciated Hugh Grant and revealed to me that there's a national obsession with him among Dutch girls. It's the shyness they love - very exotic when you grow up in a land full of plain-speaking men.

***

For our last holiday, we stayed close to home. We wanted to explore the ideas of an eccentric 18th-century Frenchman, Xavier de Maistre, who wrote a book called A Journey Around My Bedroom - the world's first anti-travel book. M de Maistre celebrates the joys of staying at home and, as the title suggests, advises us to look with the eyes of travellers at familiar things.

We found a couple who take more holidays than the most prolific city-breaker, yet never stray further than a 10-mile radius of their home in Kent. They believe that the county offers them everything they need, and that they have yet to discover most of its charms. They mock those taking off from Gatwick for foreign destinations.

When it's time for another vacation, they just take their caravan and drive a few miles. They immediately adopt a holiday mode, taking a keen interest in all they see.

Their lesson should be an inspiration to everyone who has stayed at home over Christmas and New Year. Being a good traveller perhaps has less to do with going far, and more to do with knowing how to look around you properly.

***

Alain de Botton's 'The Art of Travel' will be shown on Channel 4 at 7pm tomorrow, 2 January. The author's website can be found at www.alaindebotton.com

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