RJ Furth (September, 2011)

A few years ago I wrote an essay entitled The Joy of Preplanning. In it I talked about the pleasure I got in planning a trip, reading guide books and checking out information online. Just as a kid spends weeks excited about the gifts he expects to receive at Christmas, I too spend weeks savoring the oysters I’m going to eat in France or eagerly anticipating my first steps up the Great Wall of China. Yet we all know how that child feels when he opens the first brightly wrapped present on Christmas morning only to discover that it’s a purple sweater that’s two sizes too big. Sandy and I experienced the down side of preplanning a few days ago on the Brittany coast in France.

We had taken the ferry from Poole, England, to Cherbourg in Normandy, drove to Saint Malo in Brittany, a beautiful drive along the coast that features views of Mont St Michel and a stop at the oyster beds of Cancale. For our second day we had planned a drive along the Cote Emmeraude, the Emerald Coast of Brittany. Both of my guide books (Rough Guide and Michelin) described the drive as spectacular and not-to-be-missed. The first problem we encountered was that, unlike most coastal drives we’ve done, this one did not feature a single, well-marked road. Rather, roads that led into small villages suddenly ended or headed inland, forcing us to search for a coastal road. (We’ve experienced this before when driving in France. Roads enter town as one thing—D90 —and exit as something else—D908.) We were frustrated, but continued our drive in anticipation of spectacular views at the highly touted Cap Frehel. The other problem we experienced is that we couldn’t find any open restaurants. Although September is not high season, France still abounds with tourists, yet we drove through village after village for well over an hour and couldn’t find a single place to eat. Finally, after a delightful lunch near the coast (mussels and perfect fries, fresh salad) we arrived at Cap Frehel. Sandy and I bundled up (the wind can be brisk on the Brittany coast in September) and walked to the edge of the cliff. We were greeted by a view that was, well, underwhelming.

Sandy and I have been accused of being travel and food snobs, a charge that I strongly refute. We were both raised to appreciate good food (Sandy’s parents owned fine-dining restaurants in Chicago for fifty year, my father was an early foodie),but we are as happy with a 50 cent bowl of Vietnamese pho soup or a burger as we are with a white table cloth dinner in Paris. We have strong opinions regarding food and we know what we like and don’t like. The same goes for travel. We have traveled for many years in many countries. Some places fascinate and thrill, others leave you cold. When Sandy and I looked out to the English channel from Cap Frehel and scanned the rugged coast, we were both struck by how unspectacular it was. We looked at each other, shrugged, and got a case of the giggles. The weeks of anticipation, the long drive with numerous wrong turns, the midday hunger, all for a vista that was nice, but not awesome. Coastal drives and views in southern Australia, the California coast (Monterrey) and along the French Riviera were far more impressive. We were experiencing the danger of preplanning. As well, we had fallen into the trap of believing the guide books, which have been known to heap praise upon places that deserve only mild comment.

I could write a book (maybe a long essay) about travel disappointments: bad service and lousy food at highly recommended restaurants, tiny rooms overlooking loud roads in famous hotels, travel meccas that leave one wondering what the fuss was all about. (Mont St Michel, one of the most famous and visited sites in France, was so crowded with tourists that it felt like opening day at a new Disney theme park: Medieval French Abbey Disney World, complete with bearded animatronic figures in dungeons singing Frere Jacque.) I could also write a book (or another long essay) about unexpected pleasures on the road. The list of these expected pleasures is long, so I’ll limit myself to one hotel, one restaurant, one travel destination and one group of people.

When Sandy and I taught in Japan in the early 90s we used to flee to warmer climates for Christmas vacation. Two years in a row we went to Koh Samui, an island in southern Thailand. (My first novel, Captive in Paradise, was conceived on Koh Samui in 1983.)  Debbie Studwell had recommended The Princess Village on Chaweng beach, and Debbie’s picks are usually reliable, but we didn’t know what to expect. The simple rooms—cold water only, no air-conditioning or television or minibar— were set in a tropical garden. Every day an old man tended the garden, picking up fallen leaves and raking the sand. The restaurant featured fresh fruits and newly caught fish and Thai dishes, and was run by a few friendly women who always greeted us with smiles. Our children, about 7 and 4 during our first visit, would go to the restaurant on their own and were made to feel as if they were in their own home. The beach was wide and clean and safe, and our days were mostly spent walking and playing on the beach and in the South China Sea. There was nothing fancy about The Princess Village, nothing that would lead to it being featured in trendy travel magazines. There was no bar, no pool or tennis courts, no car or bike rentals, only a friendly staff and a clean, quiet haven that was, for us, a tropical paradise. The Princess Village closed in 2005. Koh Samui added an airport that could handle jumbo jets and was overrun with luxury hotels and discos whose booming bass could be heard all night across the entire island. I suspect that travelers looking for small, quiet hotels decided to find other, more tranquil islands. To this day, when we lament about some noisy, dirty hotel, we reminisce about The Princess Village.

I was studying French in Toulouse, southern France, for two weeks when I stumbled upon a lovely, casual restaurant whose name I cannot remember. I’ve looked it up online and it might be L’Assiette Rose or Le Rose Bonbon. I suspect one or the other because the restaurant was dominated by shades of pink, which is rose in French. The white plates were trimmed in pink, the sugar was pink as were the glasses and the curtains on the windows. I had been in Toulouse a week and had been wandering side streets looking for something different, some place that didn’t serve the usual cassoulet for which the region was famous. The menu posted by the front door promised simple dishes and inexpensive wines. The two waitresses were young, as were the customers. (Toulouse has a lot of university students.)  I sat down and ordered a half bottle of rosé, which seemed appropriate, and started with a foie gras. The rosé was dry and cold, the foie gras creamy and delicious. For the main course I ordered roast rabbit, one of my mother’s favorite dishes. Most rabbit dishes I’ve had come in thick, strong sauces that overpower the rabbit. The meat is often overcooked and dry. This rabbit arrived with nothing more than honey drizzled over it. The meat was tender and moist, and fell off the bone. It was excellent. (I called my mother that evening to describe my meal.) I don’t remember the dessert, but I do remember that the restaurant was packed with loud, happy young people when I left.

Sandy and I visited China last year, a trip I planned for over six months. What I hadn’t planned was visiting Wang Jia, Dayuan, the Wang family courtyard. We were spending a few days at the old walled city of Pingyao and had been somewhat disappointed by the experience. Our hotel, an old courtyard residence, was simple and memorable, but the city itself was full of Chinese tourists and tourist shops, and it was rapidly losing its charm. On our last day we hired a car to take us the 37 miles to the Wang family courtyard. The guide book gave it a rave review, but I had grown skeptical about the book’s choices, many of which disappointed. The Wang residence exceeded all expectations. ‘Residence’ is a term that falls far short of what we saw. Started in the 17th century, the Wang family kept adding rooms built around courtyards, each for a member of the extended family. There was a servant’s section and rooms to display weapons and art, and eventually the residence began to resemble a good-sized village that climbed up the hillside. After a century there were 123 courtyards and 1,118 houses, all surrounded by a tall rock wall. The views across the valley were impressive and much of the art remained. While nowhere near the scale of the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors of Xian (both which met and surpassed our expectations), visiting the Wang family courtyard was one of the highlights of our trip, partly because it was totally unexpected and, as importantly, because there were only a handful of tourists, all Chinese. We felt as if we had discovered a rare, unknown treasure.

I’ll conclude with something I wrote about last year upon our return from China. There are some countries and places that are rightly famous for the kindness and sweetness of their people. Visitors to Bali, Thailand and Burma often remark about how well they are treated, how gracious and gentle the locals are. That is not always the case with China. My view of Chinese people is skewered because I have met, and dealt with, extremely aggressive Chinese in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. In southeast Asia the Chinese have a reputation for being insular and driven by profit motive. Although it’s wrong to stereotype, I was stuck with visions of pushy Chinese who refused to stand in lines, spat often and loudly (I’ve witnessed Chinese hawking up phlegm many times), and blew cigarette smoke in your face. What I found instead were some of the kindest, friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. Old people smiled for the camera, people eagerly helped us when we were lost, and they were patient as I tried to speak Mandarin. Perhaps the Chinese in China are different from overseas Chinese, maybe they’ve found more to be happy about in post-Communist China, maybe they’re thrilled to see foreign money enriching their community. Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant surprise.

To plan or not to plan is not the question. Sometimes you have to book flights and hotels months in advance, otherwise you run the risk of paying too much or ending up in a lousy hotel in the wrong part of town. (I recently tried to book a hotel in Amsterdam and was shut out of the ten I tried; we changed the date of our visit.) I also like reading about a country’s history and learning a few words and phrases of the language. The danger, perhaps, is reading too much and raising expectations too high. For everyone there is a right balance between being prepared and excited based on research, and leaving much to chance. When my father planned a ten week family trip to Europe in 1965 he booked every hotel and dinner nearly six months in advance. When I spent a year traveling across Asia in 1976 I had nothing booked. Both trips were memorable, both featured huge disappointments and unexpected pleasures. As any traveler will tell you, that is the nature of travel.

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