Top table: the now closed el Bulli in Spain
Top table: the now closed el Bulli in Spain

John Niven: My life in travel

'A meal I had at elBulli was pretty spectacular – all 38 courses of it'

Laura Holt
Friday 11 July 2014 10:59

Writer John Niven is speaking at the Curious Arts Festival at Pylewell Park in Hampshire (18-20 July; (

First holiday memory?

Anstruther in Fife. It's a tiny coastal town where we had a caravan holiday in the early 1970s. I remember it raining all the time. There was a lot of Ludo and Snakes & Ladders. I remember looking for crabs with my brother. We didn't have a huge amount of money but my parents always made sure we got a holiday every summer.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

I'm very fond of Glasgow, particularly the West End. The whole stretch of the west coast of Scotland from Loch Lomond up through Mallaig to the Kyle of Localsh is so beautiful.

Best holiday?

My family went to Toronto to visit relatives when I was 13 or 14. It was the first time we had ever been abroad. This was the early Eighties and I remember the impossible glamour of air travel – my mum spending days trying to decide what she was going to wear on the plane.

At the other end of the scale, I used all my frequent-flyer points last year to take my son first class to New York for Christmas shopping. It was one of the new BA First cabins, with all the cool blue lighting. He took it all very much in his stride, the spoilt wee chap!

What have you learnt from your travels?

Expect things to go wrong and don't sweat the small stuff. That said, I'm no stranger to a crazed tantrum.

Ideal travelling companion?

A book. Caitlin Moran is always good value, because she's uncynical, never complains and finds joy in unexpected places.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

I don't do sports and my idea of hell is being dragged around ruins/museums/famous buildings, so I guess I'm a beach bum . But really, as long as there's a bookcase and a cocktail cabinet, I can take or leave the beach.

Greatest travel luxury?

I go to the Caribbean for a month every January with hand baggage only. All you need is a passport and a credit card. You can get anything anywhere now.

Holiday reading?

I try to get in as much new fiction as I can, but if I'm staying in a holiday house with books in it, I often end up reading terrible autobiographies. As I browse the shelves, I say things like: "Ooh, Jim Bowen's book! I wonder what he's saying ..."

Worst travel experience?

A cottage in Pembrokeshire for New Year in 1998. It was a last-minute booking, that looked all right from the photographs. When we got there, it was like the set from Deliverance. Just a mud swamp with the family who had rented it staying in a caravan at the end of the drive, staring at us, pocketing our cash. A nightmare.

Where has seduced you?

Antigua. I first went about five years ago with family and friends and pretty much go back every year now. It's far from the most fashionable island – it's certainly not St Bart's – but I've got to know it really well. That's key for me: I like going back to places where I know where to eat, the best beaches and all that. Why risk a new place when you have to start all over again?

Better to travel or arrive?

I used to think travel, but I'm getting a bit long in the tooth now, so I'm very happy to arrive. Torching that first cigarette outside the airport is always bliss.

Best hotel?

The Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles because they do the perfect Caesar salad. I also love the Cavalieri Hilton in Rome for the gardens, pools and tennis, all just on the edge of the city. It's brilliant when it's boiling in summer.

Worst hotel?

I stayed in a hotel somewhere in southern Germany on a book tour, where the guy behind the counter tried to attack me and my translator because we had the audacity to demand food and drink at 2am. He was outraged, despite the fact that there was a sign behind him saying "24-Hour Service". He came vaulting over the counter and we had to call the police.

Best meal abroad?

I was lucky enough to go to elBulli just before it closed. That was pretty spectacular – all 38 courses of it.

Favourite city?

I love so many but, at the end of the day, London is pretty hard to beat. I'd probably take just Soho over most cities.

Where next?

Los Angeles. Hopefully with a couple of nights up in wine country and a steak at The Hitching Post, where, as ever, I will endlessly recite dialogue from Sideways.

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