Go With a Purpose.
A blog about connecting through places that matter.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Heritage Q&A With Condé Nast Traveler's Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin

Today’s post is next in a series of Q&As with people who have a passion for heritage- and culture-related travel.

Wendy Perrin is Condé Nast Traveler's consumer news editor. She writes a practical advice column called "The Perrin Report" as well as features on a wide variety of travel topics. She and her team also write a daily deals blog on Concierge.com, the online home of Condé Nast Traveler, called “The Perrin Post.” Wendy is the author of Wendy Perrin's Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know (Fodor's, 1997). Considered an authority on consumer travel issues, she received the 2005 award for Travel Journalist of the Year, and her exposé about medical care on cruise ships won an investigative journalism award in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition.

Wendy is often on TV and radio offering travel advice and discussing trends and issues. Her appearances include The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and various programs on CNN. She is a graduate of Harvard University and lives in the New York City area with her husband and two sons.

You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Wendyperrin.

1. Where have you found inspiration and/or life enrichment during your travels?
I would probably choose somewhere I have been with the kids, two boys ages 5 and 7. When we travel together, I make a big effort to enrich them by showing them the historic sites and local culture. Boston and Washington, D.C., were both great learning experiences where the boys could see the heritage of our country. We also go to Sonoma County, California, every summer — that’s where my husband is from — and while it doesn't go back as far in history as Boston or D.C., many of the communities there have a strong hometown heritage. Every July they are alive with Fourth of July parades, local fairs they’ve held for many years, and a lot of Americana.

One of the most enriching experiences we have had outside of the U.S. (and maybe most enriching of all) was when we took the kids to Egypt and showed them the pyramids. They learned so much about the world’s most ancient civilization — about pharaohs and temples and mummies and hieroglyphics and how the people used to live — knowledge that they were then able to bring back and share with their classmates and friends.

2. Tell us about your most recent trip. What heritage or cultural sites did you visit?
Well, just last Sunday we stopped in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, en route back from Washington, D.C. We were there for only a few hours, but there was a lot to see and do and the kids were riveted. First you watch a film at the visitors’ center that explains the battles that took place there and what they signified. Then you go inside this very cool Cyclorama—a 360-degree painting from the 19th century where you watch different parts of it light up to show where all of the different battles were fought. The museum had some interactive exhibits that the kids loved, as did the great gift shop. In the shop we bought flashcards that are photos of the national parks across the United States, and we tested each other during the drive home. "OK, who can guess which park this is? ... Hint: It’s mainly in Wyoming ... Another hint: It’s got geysers that shoot water out of the ground … Yes, you’re right, Yellowstone!" And so on.

The toughest part of that trip, actually, was trying to explain to the kids what a civil war is and all of the connected concepts of slavery and freedom and an economy based on cotton. But we tried to explain why the Gettysburg Address is important, and we stood in the spot in the soldiers’ cemetery where Lincoln stood and talked about what that speech meant to this country and our democracy, and they kind of got it. Kind of. Maybe.

3. What is your most memorable heritage or cultural travel experience?
With the kids, I would have to say either Spain or Italy. We rented a house in southern Spain near Granada last year and really got to know the local community. We visited the school where the neighborhood children went. That part of Spain has an agrarian economy where they live off the land. It was interesting to show our kids how, for the people there, orange juice doesn’t come from Costco; it comes from picking oranges off the trees, putting them in an old-fashioned metal hand press, and squeezing. It was eye-opening (for all of us) to see how differently people live there, versus back home.

Without the kids, one of the most mind-changing places I’ve ever been was the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution. On the different islands, you are able to see where and how species evolved differently in the different environmental conditions. Not only can you see evolution in action, but you also start to realize how human beings are so similar to animals ... how we are animals. You can see the Waved Albatrosses doing their mating dance, which in the way they mirror each other is so similar to two human beings going out on a date. And you’re really struck by the differences between males and females, the male animals wanting to spread their DNA around as much as possible, the female animals wanting to mate for life. You see how human beings are really just highly evolved animals—only with society, convention and religion thrown in.

4. Where is one heritage or cultural destination you think everyone with your interests should visit?
Well, my interests change depending on what my story assignment is. But one thing I always love is beautiful landscapes, and my favorite place in the world is New Zealand. My husband lived there for three years—he was traveling there and loved it so much that he ended up staying. When we were trying to figure out where to go for our honeymoon, he said, "Let me take you to the very best country on earth," and he took me to New Zealand.

The country is just so gorgeous and friendly and filled with thrilling adrenaline-pumping activities to try. People live very differently there. They are so laid-back and fun-loving, it’s a very uncrowded country (there are a lot more sheep than people), so you can play it by ear, which is always nice if you like spontaneous travel experiences. And everything you eat there is so fresh and pure. You stop at a gas station to buy juice and potato chips, and the juice carton says, “Just Juice,” and it’s exactly like that: just juice, no preservatives or other crap. And the potato chips taste like … potatoes — and you realize that the potato chips you’ve always eaten back home taste like cardboard.

5. What sorts of things do you like to learn during your travels?
I like to learn how other people live differently, and that's why, when I travel with my kids, I like to show them how other people live differently. I want them to appreciate other cultures and hopefully grow up to become citizens of the world.

As an example, you see people living so differently in Syria. One of the highlights of my entire travel career was crisscrossing Syria in a rental car. It is one of the easiest places I have traveled in. There are all these world-class ancient sites — from Roman cities to Crusader castles — and no one is there so you have them all to yourself! There aren’t the lines and rules and tourist infrastructure that can get in your way in other places. The driving is easy, the road signage is great and the people could not be any friendlier or more generous or helpful. If your car were to get a flat tire in Syria, the next person driving along would stop on the road, fix your flat tire, invite you to his home, make you a delicious home-cooked dinner, and insist you stay for the night.

6. What does heritage travel mean to you?
What comes to mind is going to a place that has a history and truly deeply learning about that history.

7. What are your favorite heritage- and culture-rich destinations?
Well, in terms of being somewhere so exotic and authentic, Syria is one of my favorites. I love places that make you feel like you’ve traveled backward in time. In the Souks of Aleppo, it feels like you’ve gone back to the Middle Ages.

I get a similar feeling when walking around parts of Florence, Italy, as well. Inside the Vasari Corridor, for instance. The Vasari Corridor is a medieval passageway that is almost a secret. It was built by the Medici family that ruled Florence centuries ago and connects the Uffizi Museum (where the Medicis used to work) to the Pitti Palace (where they used to live). It’s an aboveground tunnel that starts inside the Uffizi, runs across the Arno River above the Ponte Vecchio — it sits right on top of those gold shops on the bridge — and continues through the Oltrarno District to the Pitti Palace. It’s how the Medicis used to get around Florence in secret and spy on their subjects. And when you walk through it, it’s like walking backward in time and getting to see the secret heritage of the city.

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