1 month ago

The Armchair Traveller: Kate O’Brien’s Favourite Travel Book

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Anytime the subject of travel writing is raised, after a quick trot around the globe, my mind invariably settles on Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania, which I read probably 30 years ago while sharing a little house with a canary yellow front door in the heart of Dublin’s Monkstown. Maybe this book set the tone for the future, as I subsequently spent close to 20 years living in Hong Kong (for the most part) and was fortunate to travel extensively through Asia Pacific.

Theroux takes planes, ferries, helicopters, but primarily his kayak over isolated atolls around fifty-odd Pacific islands, from New Zealand’s rain forests, to crocodile-infested New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Marquesas amongst others and I recall becoming so absorbed in his tales of the folk and wildlife he encountered along the way. Funnily, shortly afterwards, The Irish Times asked me to review my favourite travel book. I just wish I had kept those words.

Years later, I was fortunate to sail around some of these Happy Isles myself, dropping anchor on a few of the very same islands I had visited from my little house in Dublin. Moorea (if my memory serves) was home to a turtle sanctuary and restaurant run by the eccentric Frenchman, Claude. After enjoying the local hospitality, we adopted two turtles, one we called Liam (after our first child born earlier in the year), the other Fred, after our friend’s father. I don’t know too much about the lifecycle of turtles, but just maybe Liam has managed to evade the poachers and is enjoying a long life floating around those glorious deep blue waters.

Years later, I was fortunate to sail around some of these Happy Isles myself, dropping anchor on a few of the very same islands I had visited from my little house in Dublin.

Felicity Kendal’s memoir White Cargo is another favourite. The actress whom I adored during the 1970s, playing Barbara in the BBC sitcom The Good Life, vividly describes her upbringing in India, touring the country as part of a Shakespearean acting troupe managed by her father, whom she adored. Written at his dying bedside in London, intertwined with her story are (mostly) fond musings to her father, with each chapter opening on a poignant memory of the rich tapestry that was life in India in the years after independence.

 

Through my work as a spa and lifestyle commentator, I’ve been privy to some of the world’s most exquisite destination spas. Now home in Ireland with Europe on my doorstep, if and when planes will once again fly, one of my first trips will be to Preidlhof in the mountains of South Tyrol. This slice of alpine charm overlooking the lush Vinschgau Valley, remains one of my favourite spa destinations. Shortly before my first visit, I read Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri. Not because it started at Bolzano train station (just minutes from the hotel), but simply because the blurb tempted me!  I was intrigued by the rich history of South Tyrol/Alto Adige region on the long-disputed border of Italy and Austria (not unlike the struggles and conflict on our own doorstep) and was absorbed in the family saga about forgiveness, conflict and a woman’s search for the truth about her birth as she takes the train to the very South of Italy to see Vito, the love of her mother’s life, who is dying.

Wanting others to feel the magic of these sweeping stories too, I gave all of the above books away and new copies are proving hard to find. Maybe it’s time to write my own!

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