The Perfect Holiday – How Do You Build A Great Vacation?

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Most of us, especially where I live in the U.S., have precious few vacation days. That can put a lot of pressure on making them really great. Here is my formula.

the Christensens in St Mark's Square

the Christensens in St Mark’s Square

Start with the People

We have talked about a lot of destinations on the Amateur Traveler. We have gone with guests to swim with whales and to see mountain gorillas. We have cruised the Nile, the Seine, and the Rhine. We have been to the South Pole and the Galapagos. With all that focus on destinations, you would think that my first consideration for a perfect holiday would be where to go. Poppycock. A perfect holiday starts with the right travel companions. For me, that would be my wife and kids and a few choice friends we have traveled with numerous times. Find the right travel companions and you can have a great vacation anywhere.

My father went on a road trip with friends when he was in college from Colorado to Banff, Alberta. His travel companions wanted to drive through Montana at night because “there is nothing to see there”. I don’t know if you have been to Montana, but western Montana at least, is one of the most beautiful states. He convinced them to drive through in the day time so they could at least “see what there wasn’t”. When they got to Glacier National Park they pulled over at the first vista point to look at the scenery but then decided that they should go get a campsite as it was getting to be late. When my father wanted to go back into the park the next day they said, “but we already saw it”. They had not. They were losers and the kind of losers you should leave at home. Any list of the top ten scenic drives in the United States that does not include the Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier needs to become a top eleven list.

Leave the losers at home and take instead friends gifted with flexibility and wide-eyed wonder.

Joan and Beth at the Parthenon

Joan and Beth at the Parthenon

Someplace New

Let’s assume money is not an issue and that I have enough time to go anywhere. Where would I go? First, it would have to be someplace new. I have destinations that I love that I want to return to someday: Maui, London, Paris, Greece, Tanzania, and Venice come readily to mind. But the perfect trip for me is that first trip. The trip where everything is still new. It is the scariest and also the greatest experience.

I think about getting off of the plane in Cairo at about midnight and having to figure out how to get money and buy a visa. There was a pop quiz already and we had not even left the airport yet.

As we left the airport we had no transportation arranged to get us out to our hotel on the other side of Cairo in Giza. A man approached us and said he could get us a car. I found myself saying “sure” and following him into the night as he picked up our bags and walked away briskly. My wife was thinking that this could be a very bad idea. But he took us to a driver who, while he didn’t speak English and didn’t really know where our hotel was, drove confidently into the chaos of Cairo traffic which was still hectic at 1 am. I cringed in the back seat as he wove through cars and donkey carts and foolhardy pedestrians in the vague direction of our hotel. After stopping for directions only twice he got us to the hotel for a good night sleep. That’s the way a trip should start. If I wanted things to be the same as home… I could stay at home.

Camel in Upper Egypt

Camel in Upper Egypt

The place I would go would probably be one of those many destinations that we have talked about on Amateur Traveler. Like some of you, that I have talked to, I have my own list of places that I long to go to now that I have heard about them. Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Jordan, Norway, Argentina, and South Africa are all now on my “short” list. But I no sooner write that but I want to see Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu. I want to stand on the rim of a volcano in Vanuatu or hear a concert in a bunker in Albania. I want to explore a souq in Morocco or see the Red Fort in India. Choosing a destination might be a bit more difficult that I suspected.

Since I wrote this article I have made it to Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Jordan, Norway, Argentina,  South Africa and Angkor Wat. I also made it to India but could not convince a tuk-tuk driver to get me to the Red Fort… next time.

Throw a dart, spin the globe, pick a place. Surprise me.

I am reminded of a trip I took to Mexico a few years ago to Mexico City and to Oaxaca. We had done episodes on both destinations so I had some preparation for my trip, but I also had the unusual bonus of meeting up with first Ana Laura who had been our guest talking about Mexico City and later Sarah Menkedick who had been our guest talking about Oaxaca. Ana Laura took me on a personal tour of her neighborhood of Coyacan. We saw where Cortez lived after the conquest of the city in the original colonial neighborhood. Sarah met me for coffee in Oaxaca and talked about living in the city including when the city filled with tear gas from the difficult protests and riots. As I explored the city I walked around listening again to Sarah’s voice describe what I was seeing.

Forget the dartboard, choose an Amateur Traveler episode at random.

Lion - Ngorogoro Crater - Tanzania

Lion – Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania

Something Old

Let it be a place with history: old things piled on older things. A place built by people so long ago that most people don’t know their names. The Nabataeans, the Lemba, or the Phoenicians would all do just fine, thank you.

I am reminded of visiting the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul. It was an old cistern built below Hagia Sophia by the Roman Emperor Justinian that was so old it was forgotten. The Turks ruled Istanbul for 100 years before they rediscovered it. Someone became curious about how residents in the neighborhood were able to fish from holes in their basements.

Spice Market - Istanbul

Spice Market – Istanbul

Let the people speak a different language so I have to think and I am forced to learn something new.

Let it be a place with culture. A place with markets filled with activity and with at least some food I don’t recognize. Let it be a place with music and a place filled with laughter.

Let it be a place with beaches or mountains or forests or deserts or animals that strike me dumb with their beauty.

I am reminded of introducing myself in Swahili to a church group in Tanzania who was so amused at the simple phrase “nina computer fundi” (I am a computer craftsman). I am reminded of the man in the local market in Arusha Tanzania who sold me a length of sugarcane for 10 cents, inviting me to “taste Africa!” I am reminded of the wonderfully crenelated mountains of the Napili Coast on Kauai or the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies.

Have a place in mind yet?

Blackwater Rafting in New Zealand

Blackwater rafting in New Zealand


Let the destination offer some adventure. It might be black water rafting like I did in New Zealand, or river rafting or a zipline like we did in Costa Rica. It might be riding a camel as we did in Egypt or a simple bicycle rickshaw as we did in China. There is so very much to see. There is so very much to do.

What is my perfect holiday? My next one… and it can’t come too soon!

First Choice Holidays (, a UK travel agency has been working on a project to define the perfect holiday ( As part of the promotion of the project, they challenged me to come up with my definition of a perfect holiday.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

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