Continuing my 10 Q series of interviews
It has been a while since I’ve published my last interview, but here is another great one:
1) Who Are you?
I am Janis Turk, a full-time professional travel writer, photographer and happy nomad who’s been greatly blessed. In the past six months alone I’ve taken 15 trips, including Kenya, Manitoba and Nevis. Over the years, I’ve climbed the great wall of China, wandered the souks of Marrakesh, watched ships pass through the Panama Canal, slept under the Southern Cross in Namibia, walked along the Malecon in Hemingway’s Havana, rode a midnight train to Moscow, run with the bulls in Spain, danced the samba in Rio de Janeiro, shopped the night markets of Hong Kong, watched the Northern Lights from the sub-Arctic igloo, married a matador, drifted in a gondola on the canals of Venice, touched the sandstone ruins of Petra, slept in a Bedouin tent in the Middle East and prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem—just to name a few adventures. So, yeah, it’s a neat life.
Lately, I’ve done a bit of food photography for two cookbooks, and my newest adventure finds me co-hosting Try Travel Writing weekend getaway writing workshops (www.TryTravelWriting.Com) with other travel writing and photography pros. We give writers and travelers the chance to find out just how travel writing works while enjoying vacations in great locations at fabulous hotels. We offer people a behind-the-scenes look at what we do—and teach them how to get started on this career path if they’re so inclined.
I’ve lost count of how many countries I’ve visited, and I recently had to get extra pages added to my passport, so people assume I must be single and not even own a pet. But actually, I have a loving supportive family—two great kids and a sweet husband who picks me up at the airport who is always happy to see me when I come home. And yes, I have a dog, named Michael Squints Palledorous.
2) What do you like about what you do?
Everything. I love airports and watching planes take off. I like landing at JFK and seeing the skyline of the Big Apple spread before me in the distance. I love hearing the call to prayer in a foreign land. I love chaotic marketplaces and countries where I don’t know the language. I adore crisp sheets and ironed newspapers in posh hotels and little budget spots where the innkeepers remember my name. I like swank hotel bars. I think of the line from Walter Kern’s Up in the Air, “Planes and airports are where I feel at home. Everything fellows like you distrust about them—the dry recycled air alive with viruses; the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil; the aura-sapping artificial lighting–has grown dear to me over the years, familiar, sweet. “ I read that and thought, “Yes, exactly. That’s me.”
3) What don’t you like about what you do?
Being away from my family is the hardest part.
I also dislike how often I have to hound some editors in order to get paid even months after a story has run—the same editors who were adamant that I turn my articles and photos in on time under strict deadlines.
I’m sometimes frustrated that so many online magazines and news sources think that they shouldn’t have to pay for quality content. Why are some stories worth $1,500 to a print magazine but only $50-$100 to an online one when it reaches an even larger audience? Screenwriter Harlan Ellison’s says, “They always want to writer to work for nothing, and the problem is that there are so (bleep) many writers that have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something, so they do it for nothing… I don’t take a piss without being paid for it.” That’s a crass expression, but of course he’s right.
Still, I don’t always follow this advice. Often I’ll take write a Web article or do a shoot pro bono for friends. I want to be generous with others. But I don’t travel just to get a free trip; I have to pay my bills, and when writers give away their work for free , it hurts the rest of us.
Oh, and then there’s the weak airport coffee on pre-dawn flights. Ugh. That’s the worst.
4) Please tell us all about your blogs and your aims for them.
GoNOMAD for which I’m a contributing editor, was just named one of top three travel blogs on the Web. It is a remarkable travel resource full of sharp, well-written first-person narrative essays and ruminations on Everyman travel, as well as helpful advice from travel experts. My editor and friend Max Hartshorne owns the site, and I help out when I can.
We’re also hard at work expanding what we’re doing with TryTravelWriting.Com, for writing workshop learning on location vacation opportunities. We’re busy planning for a writing and photography trip to the Grand Hotels on Mackinac Island this October and a workshop in New Orleans early in 2014. There’s still space available on the Mackinac trip. Even if writers just have their own blogs or travel journals, we hope to encourage and empower them. The Grand Hotel is where the movie Somewhere in Time was filmed. I can’t wait to check out that historic property on an island where cars aren’t allowed and horse-drawn buggies are the main mode of transportation.
And of course I have my own site, janisturk.com and a blog called Stories from the Open Road, but both need updating and sit there neglected like my suitcase that never gets completely unpacked.
5) Your top destination experiences you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
- Africa— I’m smitten, beguiled by Africa and enchanted by the quiet hum and pace of safari life and the starry skies over Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. I especially like Cape Town and its wine lands. In North Africa, I love Morocco. There is something magical about its Moorish wonders. I adore the city of Fez and am turned on by the expat Mecca of Tangiers.
- Jordan –Jordan’s beauty is subtle and surprising. The deserts to the south, the Ma’in hot springs and waterfalls that lie 866 feet below sea level to feed the Dead Sea, the Roman ruins of Jerash, the splendors of Petra: It is unforgettable. The hotels at the Dead Sea are lavish, too. Jordan is safe, and it’s so close to Jerusalem that you can just pop over the border into Israel for the day to see the ancient walled city and be back in your hotel by dusk.
- Hiking Huangshan Mountain in rural China. Director James Cameron got the inspiration for the Avatar setting from these high mountains that seem to hang in the clouds. The picturesque village where Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed rests nearby.
6) Your top accommodations you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
- The Steenberg in South Africa – Twice I’ve stayed in the Heritage Suites on this green and rolling Cape Dutch farm, whose buildings are National Monuments date back to 1682. The property overlooks the vineyards of the Constantia wine lands above False Bay off the coast outside Cape Town. My friend and I had an entire house to ourselves there with a living room, office, enormous kitchen and dining room, three bathrooms, two suites-sized bedrooms, and a butler who came and lit our fireplace and brought us coffee and champagne. We also and our own private swimming pool on the edge of the vineyards. Even the smallest room here is big and exquisite, and the award winning cuisine and wine offerings are remarkable. The Steenberg Hotel, which has often topped lists as the best hotel in African and indeed in the world, also has an 18-hole championship golf course and a fine spa. steenberghotel.com
- The Amanjena in Marrakech, Morocco – I was watching the movie Sex and the City 2 and I loudly gasped and pointed the screen saying, “I’ve been there—right in that spot where Carrie and Aidan are kissing!” I recognized the arched walkways leading into the grounds of the Amanjena Hotel where they filmed that scene. Amanjena means peaceful paradise, and this was the first Aman resort on the African continent, located just outside the ancient city of Marrakech. An oasis of palms and olive trees, the resort’s classic Moorish heritage is evident “within pisé-walled resort, including the luxury villas and pavilions that radiate out from an ancient basin, echoing the style of a sultan’s palace,” according to their website. The Aman chain of hotels offers luxury lodgings of quiet, understated luxury and taste. I’ve also visited the Aman Summer Palace outside Beijing, and it too is sublime. The Amanjena has been named the No. 1 hotel in African and the Middle East, and it’s easy to see why. amanresorts.com/amanjena. If the Amanjena is out of reach, there is a fabulous little hotel in the Medina of Marrakech called Maison Arabe that I highly recommend. Its spa/hamam is one of my favorites, and the owners are as classy and delightful as their little hotel. www.maisonarabe.com Riad Anayela is also lovely.
- La Residence in Franschhoek, South Africa – This is my idea of heaven. It has the most gorgeous suites I’ve ever seen. Located in the Franschhoek valley at the heart of a private 30-acre estate, surrounded by vineyards and plum orchards, with a spectacular mountain backdrop, La Residence’s opulence and grandeur integrate gracefully into the natural surroundings. Breezy indoor/outdoor spaces have black and white checkerboard marble floors and glittering Indian chandeliers, while original artwork and enormous mirrors grace the walls. Elegant antiques and fresh flowers fill every room. I love the bathrooms with deep claw foot tubs and little Russian tables next to them holding crystal carafes of sherry to sip as you relax, and candles that dance in the wind as you bathe with windows open to the vineyards. One special suite was created for special guest Elton John. laresidence.co.za
- The Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas & Spa in Johannesburg – Yes, I know, another South African hotel, but this one also often tops Travel and Leisure’s best hotel lists. Royalty, statesmen, Hollywood actors, best-selling authors and Nobel Prize winners have stayed here, including Oprah Winfrey and President Bill Clinton. Nelson Mandela chose the serene surroundings of the Saxon for editing his best-selling autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom. The cuisine is world-class, service is outstanding and the grounds are impeccable. saxon.co.za.
- Hemingway’s Nairobi – The entrance of this new hotel looks remarkably like that of The Saxon in Johannesburg—and not by accident. They wanted this luxury boutique to be just as elegant and outstanding, and it comes close. Located on what was once Karen Blixen’s farm (the author of Out of Africa) at the foot of the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, this five-star luxury resort hotel has spacious suites, bathrooms the size of ballrooms all lined in white Carrara marble, and just as at the Saxon, Hemingways’ butlers draw your bath, unpack your bags, and keep champagne on ice. The restaurant is perhaps the best in Nairobi, too. hemingways-nairobi.com. Also look out for the new Villa Rosa Kempinski Nairobi opening this month, which will have fabulous restaurants, bars and impeccable accommodations. kempinski.com/en/nairobi/hotel-villa-rosa
- The G in Galway, Ireland theghotel.ie (ultra-modern—and what a spa!) and The Dylan Hotel in Dublin (dylan.ie) over –the- top- fab décor wins me every time, and the No. 1 Perry Square Hotel & Spa in Limerick is a gem. oneperysquare.com
- The Harbour Grand Hong Kong, with views of the harbor and a fabulous high-rise restaurant, harbourgrand.com and the Altira in Macau www.altiramacau.com for its spa.
- The Claude Bernard Hotel, Paris hotelclaudebernardparis.com and Hotel de Bruno near the Rialto Bridge in Venice hoteldabruno.com These are not luxury places, but little 3-star gems with good locations and affordable rates. I always return to these hotels—it feels like coming home.
- For safaris, I love Little Ongava near Etosha National Park, Namibia, The Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve of Kruger National Park in South Africa, sabisabi.com/lodges/earthlodge and The Ole Mara Kempinski in Kenya. For the best beaches, the Cook Islands can’t be beat, and I adore the Four Seasons Nevis fourseasons.com/Nevis
- Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana Vieja, Cuba. hotelambosmundos-cuba.com
- The Carlyle rosewoodhotels.com/en/carlyle and The St. Regis in New York remain outstanding, and I was born to be like Eloise and live at The Plaza theplazany.com I never go to New York without having drinks at Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle. I’ve heard Woody Allen play clarinet at Café Carlyle, too. That was quite a night.
7) Your most memorable food/wine experiences to date and why?
- Any meal with my family is the best. Often it is the company and the atmosphere that make a meal memorable, though I love fine food and have an ever-expanding waistline to prove it. These are feasts I’ll never forget
- Dining on an airstrip in the bush under the stars surrounded by Tiki torches, Land Rovers and lions near the Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge in South Africa, and breakfast in the bush in Kenya at the Olare Mara Kempinski Masai Mara safari lodge as hippos bathed in the river nearby.
- A late-night supper in the Escargot Room at Antoine’s in New Orleans just a few months after Katrina when we shut the doors and whispered into the wee small hours over wine. At the end of the meal, after the Baked Alaska was served, the waiter set the table cloth ablaze in a ring of fire—on purpose.
- A supper I shared with travel writers at London’s Draycott Hotel’s dining room with windows open to the wind and the gardens.
- Easter jazz brunch at Arnaud’s in New Orleans with my family—It was all seersucker suits, straw hats and canes for the men and sorbet-colored dresses and Easter bonnets for the ladies after the big parade. It is a favorite spring tradition along with St. Patrick’s Day brunch at Brennan’s followed by lunch under the arbor at Kevin Kelley’s Houmas House Plantation houmashouse.com
- Dinner at Elaine’s in New York with handsome travel pro Marc Nadeau, and Actor’s Studio host James Lipton at the table to our right and actor Chris Cooper at the table on our left. Dinner at Elaine’s was always magical.
8) Your worst destination/ accommodation/food experiences to date and why?
- A fleabag youth hostel on Montmartre in Paris, where I was sick with food poisoning all night in a dirty dive room with a down-the-hall shared bathroom that had no toilet paper. That night of horrors is still burned into my brain.
9) Can you offer the readers 3 destination/ food / accommodation / things to do tips about the city you are currently living in?
- I live in a small Texas town near both Austin and San Antonio and kept a pied a terre in New Orleans for the past 19 years, great cities all.
- In Austin, I just found the Heywood Hotel heywoodhotel.com , a sustainable, green, mid-century modern retreat in East Austin. I love to eat at Justine’s, and I adore The Elephant Room for jazz. Trace at the W Hotel has a great brunch.
- In San Antonio, I like The Mokara River Walk Hotel and the affordable River Walk Vista hotel. I like eating at The Fruteria and La Gloria, and I’m excited about the fall opening of Chef Steven McHugh’s Pearl Brewery gastro pub Cured.
- In New Orleans, I love The Soniat House soniathouse.com, dinner or a jazz brunch at Arnaud’s restaurant, jazz at The Spotted Cat, drinks at Molly’s at the Market and The Napoleon House, and dinner at Galatoire’s. Happy Hour at Chef John Besh’s Lüke is also a favorite.
10) Any Question(s) you’d expected me to ask that you would like to answer?
The questions I always get are, “How can I get your job?” “Do you get to travel for free?” and “How did you get started?” and I think, “Wow, let’s see, where do I begin?” so that’s why my travel writer friends and I now offer the workshop vacations to explain all that. One thing people should know is that travel writing doesn’t pay a lot, but it is so rewarding. You know, Ludwig Bemelmans, the illustrator of the Madeleine series of children’s books was a bon vivant, travel writer and family man, and he painted the walls of my favorite New York hotel bar (Bemelmans, which now bears his name) in exchange for a year and a half residence at The Carlyle Hotel. He always said wanted his tombstone to read, “Tell them it was wonderful.” I love that. Of course they didn’t put it on his stone, but they should have. This really is a wonderful life.
Follow Janis Turk on Twitter @TurkTravels.
A pleasure having you Janis. I didn’t mind to share a bit more hotels than usual with my readers. As a well traveled lady you are an expert in the field. Makes me wish to stop my career as a (Happy) Hotelier, hit the road and inspect them all 😉