I think it is safe to say I love to travel. My earliest memory is of me in the back seat of our family station wagon clunker, with the window rolled down, setting off on our annual pilgrimage to the then-untarnished Jersey Shore (except for the year when our gas tank fell off and we didn't make it past the end of the block).
Our summer vacations were modest in nature, but explain that to a 4-year-old. They were my first epiphany that a whole world existed outside my small-town bubble in upstate New York.
That impression was cemented for life when I traveled to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to visit a Dominican friend who lived there with her large and welcoming family. Years later, I would visit the gorgeous resorts and golf meccas lining the country's coastline, but during that first trip to the nation's capital -- at 15, it was the first stamp in my first passport -- I dwelled in luxury of another kind: total immersion in a vibrant Latino culture about which I knew next to nothing.
This was my first aha! moment, when I discovered that travel opens up your world and can change your life. I was hooked.
I have had countless aha! moments since then, the most special of which fill the pages of my book "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" (Workman Publishing). No one was more shocked than I at the immediate and international response to the book when it was released in 2003. Apparently, its popularity across all demographics was telling me, the world loved to travel as much as I did.
One of the book's major hooks was the inclusion of practical information for travelers: Most of the thousand entries end with suggestions and prices for hotels, both high-end and modest, with telephone listings and website information, plus when-to-go suggestions for best weather as well as local festivals. We also suggested tour operators and others who specialize in destinations less frequently visited by Westerners, where independent travel might be a challenge (Africa, Asia, etc.).
When I wrote the first edition, there were those who asked me how I would ever find enough places to hit the 1,000 mark. Did people really think there were so few places on this earth worth the journey? All those destinations that sadly didn't make the final cut for the original book due to space restrictions -- Italy's Piedmont wine region, Tel Aviv's White City, the stunning Amritsar in India's Punjab state -- were stored away in a safe corner of my mind and would become the beginnings of the new edition, published last month, with hundreds of additions.
No sooner was the ink dry on the first edition than I took a breath and set off again, out to add to my list of the world's wonders. I stumbled upon remarkable places that had simply not been on my radar (the clutch of Unesco-protected Byzantine monasteries in Cyprus' Troodos Mountains, Greenland, the monumental ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon) and finally made it to places that had long been on my own dream list. I am still pinching myself following a recent visit to the Sing Sing Festival of Papua New Guinea. As surreal journeys go, this one easily takes the blue ribbon.
Since beginning research in the mid-1990s for the first "1,000 Places" book (it would take me eight years to complete, despite my publisher's innocent suggestion of one -- and two if needed), the world has changed in ways both staggering and small.
Staggering when I think of the number of former Soviet Bloc countries now open for business and touting their attractions. Once perceived as dark and unwelcoming, and for the most part deservedly so, they were grappling with their nascent independence but with a promise and rich history that was being allowed to shine again.
In those first years of my research, the intrepid and curious flocked to Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Moscow, some of the first cities to welcome tourism; they made a modest appearance in the original edition of "1,000 Places." Tourists were few, and the Soviet legacy was both palpable and visible, at once disquieting and quasi-threatening but always with an underpinning of excitement.
Bragging rights played a role for those who arrived in those heady years following the fall of the Wall in 1989. With half-empty grocery store shelves and dim-bulbed eateries serving uninspired food, it was as close as many of us would come to experiencing how life must have been behind the Iron Curtain. Hotels were modest at best, and guest services was an exotic concept not yet heard of, much less embraced. It was worth every effort to get there before the Golden Arches did.
Fast-forward two decades, and many of those cities are today unrecognizable -- in a positive way, for the most part. The newly unified Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary and Russia warranted rewritten and expanded chapters to reflect the work-in-progress infrastructure evident today in these increasingly popular destinations.
Add to them the inclusions of other former Eastern Bloc nations that didn't make the original book: the charming and history-rich Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, easy to visit in a single north-to-south sweep. At the heart of their flourishing capital cities are historical centers that have been designated World Heritage Sites and are some of the largest and best preserved in Europe. South of there, the Balkan countries of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro, exiting the series of wars from 1991 to 1995, are enjoying increasing numbers of in-the-know visitors, promising a tantalizing corner of the eastern Mediterranean with vestiges of Venice's one-time maritime power and frequented by today's international glamorous set.
These and others, including Vanuatu, Mauritius, Tajikistan and Ghana, make up the second edition's 28 new countries that have helped bring the revamped "1,000 Places" up to snuff.
Keeping up with emerging or changing destinations is a challenge in a world where the attention span of a fruit fly is commonplace. Those places that enjoy a lot of press are hard to miss: Who isn't aware that Rio will host the 2014 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, with the 2016 Summer Olympics fast on its heels? Ukraine will have its 15 minutes when it co-hosts the Euro 2012 soccer tournament; Belfast is curiously using 2012, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, built in the city's famous shipyards ("It was fine when it left here!"), to shine a spotlight on this once-again vibrant city, eager to move beyond the global impression left by the decades-long period known as the Troubles.
Extravagant beauty campaigns funded by boards of tourism convince us that India, Chile and Mexico must be seen before we die (I concur), while box-office films set in Bruges, Bora Bora and Tuscany as interpreted by Merchant Ivory portray a setting and scenery that often steal the show and are the true protagonists.
Some of my first airplane tickets were impulsively purchased after seeing the emerald green backdrop of "Ryan's Daughter" (Ireland), "Lawrence of Arabia" (Jordan's Wadi Rum), "Out of Africa, "Indochine" (Vietnam and Malaysia), "Passage to India" and "Brave Heart" (Ireland filling in for the Highlands of Scotland).
The story line will fade over time, but I can conjure the scenes and almost smell the heather (rush-hour fumes, ocean air, etc.) in a film where the star, to me, was often the scenery. Who can remember what Leonardo DiCaprio was doing on Koh Phi Phi Island in "The Beach"? Yet who can forget the translucent waters of that gorgeous Thai island and the Technicolor sunsets that seemed too beautiful to be real?
Other destinations might not profit from the same marketing savvy, deep coffers or Hollywood connections. They stand by quietly, waiting for their close-up, for a little attention from the glossy magazines or a nod from a celebrity visitor. (Turks and Caicos benefited when Demi and Ashton recently chose the island to stage a last-ditch tryst to save their marriage. It didn't work, but the world learned about the sandy slice of heaven where they gave it a go.)
Keeping my ear to the ground and an eye on any publication even remotely travel-related, I try not to bypass the places that deserve our attention: Colombia is no doubt happy to be absent from the headlines these days. But it is also no doubt frustrated that the travel world doesn't acknowledge that its drug-cartel era is a thing of the past and recognize it as one of South America's most charming and intoxicating locales, something that anyone who has ever visited can confirm.
Lebanon's lack of press, too, can be interpreted favorably: Surrounded by bordering nations caught up in the Arab Spring, its capital city of Beirut feels light years away from a region beset by emotional protest and revolt-related risk. A visit here reveals a quasi-European pace and style, with a host of excellent restaurants open till late and a few choice hotels that can easily make the world's best-of list.
Nearby Jordan, too, has managed to maintain an image of calm and welcomes a slight stream of tourism.
But elsewhere, the situation in neighboring Syria and Yemen is serious enough to discourage any form of tourism. Still, I have left them in the revision, two of my favorite countries anywhere, as informative and evocative armchair reads while the world prays for a quick resolution of their situation.
Every day they remind me of the urgency implied in the title of my book. While the fragility of our own lives should never be ignored, nor can we overlook the ephemeral nature of the world's wonders: One tsunami, one volcanic eruption, one wave of revolution across the Arab world, and the map of travel possibilities can change in a second.
There are no guarantees that just because the pyramids are older than time, they will always be available to us. Carpe diem and postpone no pleasure.
Those who don't relish running up against the unpredictability of the world when far from home, or those impoverished of time and budget, might consider joining the 70% or so of Americans who don't hold a passport and adhere to the notion that "there's no place like home."
I became officially in awe of the wealth of possibilities within America's borders when writing "1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die" (Workman Publishing), and it is from this "short list" that I whittled it down even further. The revision of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" has a U.S. chapter that is a glorious mixed bag of the predictable (Mount Rushmore, the Pacific Coast Highway, Monument Valley), and the unexpected (the Iowa State Fair; Kentucky's Bourbon Trail; and Shipshewana, Ind., America's third-largest Amish community).
But seeing what awaits us in our own backyard can only make sense if seen within the perspective of the big picture. "1,000 Places" encourages readers to assume that basing your views of the world and life as drawn from travels within the U.S. alone should never be considered an option.
If Shakespeare thought that all the world is a stage, I would humbly add that it might also be considered a classroom. Although one without walls, it promises legions of teachers and invaluable life lessons of all shapes and sizes. For travelers who subscribe to the notion that it is never too late to learn, the lessons are countless, and the rewards invaluable.
Travel will open you up to all of that. It will open your eyes and your head and your heart and change you in ways both profound and subtle. Or you can opt for the less strenuous, less expensive and immeasurably more comfortable option of the staycation, an absurd idea that never really appealed to me. I don't think St. Augustine would have cared for it, either.
"Life is like a book," he said, "and he who does not travel, reads just one page."