This week’s NileGuide 5 interview features travel writer Kristin Luna. Kristin inherited the travel bug from her own nomadic mother, but it wasn’t until she studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh in 2003–and, like many American in Europe, spent many months transversing the continent–that she realized she had to make a career out of it. Six years later, Kristin spends more than six months annually on international travel assignments for national magazines and newspapers. She splits the remainder of her time visiting her family in Tennessee or bumming around her adopted home of California, where she writes the annual Frommer’s California and Frommer’s San Francisco updates and her column for local magazine 7×7’s website.
You can follow Kristin’s travels on her Bloggie-winning travel blog, Camels & Chocolate: Tales from a Travel Addict or or Twitter (@LunaticAtLarge), or check out her professional site at www.kristinluna.com.
1. What’s the most underrated destination you’ve been to?
Two of the most off-the-radar trips I’ve taken both occurred in 2009. The first was to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, where I spent time on both Rarotonga and Aitutaki, indulged in a lifetime’s worth of tropical fruit (some of which I’d never even heard of before!), and went diving with sharks in the midst of a cyclone. I’m a sucker for beautiful, deserted beaches in a tropical environment with plenty of local color and no chain hotels or restaurants in sight, and that was the exact definition of the Cook Islands.
The second spot, Svalbard, is a territory of Norway up in the Arctic Circle. I took an expedition cruise around the main island of Spitsbergen on Hurtigruten and, during the trip, saw wildlife galore–minke whales, Arctic foxes, reindeer, walruses, seals, Arctic skua, polar bears (just paw prints in my case, though others had actual sightings), and much more–from both the comfort of the boat and on our daily zodiac landings to shore. Additionally, I traveled up to Moffen Island, a protected wildlife sanctuary at the 80 degree parallel, the northernmost point one can reach in open water; swam in the Arctic Ocean in just a bikini; and got to ride on a working dog sled in the main town of Longyearbyen.
2. How do you kill time when you’re stuck on a bus or plane?
The traditional methods: books and magazines. I always have a couple of each onhand, preferably ones that aren’t too bulky and that I’m not too attached to and don’t mind ditching along the way to lighten my load. (I’m also guilty of spending way too much money in airport bookstores stocking up on overpriced magazines from the newstand, even when I have plenty of reading material in my bag!) I actually like the time I spend en route, as it’s my only chance to be disconnected from the world (though the arrival of wireless on flights is quickly doing away with that) and catch up on my always-growing reading list that I’m forever neglecting.
I always bring DVDs from Netflix in my carry-on, as well, in case I get stuck somewhere without entertainment, though I rarely wind up watching them as I’m often immediately sucked in to the in-flight movies I missed in the theater. As a writer, too, I spend much of my time in transit doing just that–working on my next piece–as I’m constantly under multiple deadlines at once.
3. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen or experienced traveling?
I live in San Francisco, so there’s not a lot I encounter on the road that’s any stranger than any given day in this city, but if I had to pick something I’d say being mowed down by a cab in Helsinki this summer has to be one of my most out-of-body experiences. I was simply there for two days on a stopover from California to Estonia to break up the trip a bit and spent the majority of my time filing a report in the police station instead (and with hand motions and body language at that, as I seem to have landed the one interrogation officer in all of Scandinavia who doesn’t speak English!)! The cabbie, who drove a mini-van, pulled an illegal U-turn at a red light, and I–in my bright purple, can’t-miss-it jacket–happened to be right in his line of fire, as I went flying into the medium once his vehicle made contact with my shoulder. My first instinct was to throw up my hands to shield my photography equipment; I didn’t really care about my body in the heat of the moment. But I wasn’t terribly hurt–nor was my camera–so at least there’s that. Unfortunately, that tainted my view of Helsinki, as it was my first time in the city, and I don’t have much of a desire to return now!
4. What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at a new destination?
If it’s somewhere far away, I tend to break the golden rule of travel and take a catnap. It probably does nothing for my jet lag, but then I’m rejuvenated for the remainder of the day. After I awake, I try to do my own walking tour of the city and get lost. I tend to not do a lot of research before I visit most places–nor do I travel with guidebooks or maps on most occasions–but I like to hit the ground not having any preconceived notions. After a day or two of my own exploration and getting tips from locals, then I’ll hit up the visitor’s center and gather information about can’t-miss attractions. As a travel writer, I’m always looking for my next story idea, so I find doing research on what others have written prior to my trip spoils any original concepts I might come up with on my own.
5. If you could give one tip or piece of advice to travelers, what would it be?
Pack light. Stuff everything into a carry-on if you can. It will make your travels so much easier in the long run. Recently, I took a three-week jaunt to Switzerland, Atlanta and Tennessee, and due to the length of time and varied climates and activities, I traveled with a large suitcase, laptop bag and camera case, for my Canon DSLR and multiple lenses. By the first day in the Alps, which required four train connections to reach my final destination (for the day) in St. Moritz, I was ready to ditch it all! To make packing light easier, I generally stick to one color scheme–normally, in shades of beige, brown and camel–so one pair of nice shoes, one purse, one scarf usually suffice and go with everything.
[Photos: Kristin Luna]