Jessica Spiegel is a travel writer for the BootsnAll Travel Network. Although Spiegel is based in Portland, a city she loves dearly, she’s more commonly known as the “Italy girl.” She writes the WhyGo Italy travel guide and doesn’t try to contain her bias toward anything and everything Italian.
Spiegel’s goal is always to provide enough pre-trip education for people going to Italy so that their expectations are appropriately set – that way they’re better equipped to handle whatever comes up, and more comfortable taking advantage of serendipity when it comes along. Jessica can be found (often) on Twitter as @italylogue.
What’s the most underrated destination you’ve been to?
I sort of think I’m answering the question wrong if I’m thinking of destinations that are relatively unknown, rather than underrated, but maybe not. In any case, I’m thinking of two (and yes, that’s pretty much cheating).
First, the Isle of Mull in Scotland. It’s in the Inner Hebrides, and although lots of people set foot on the island it’s most often because they’re on their way to the next island out – the Isle of Iona. Iona’s tiny, and yet it’s famous – it’s widely believed the Book of Kells was created on Iona, so it’s a relatively popular pilgrimage site. But spend a little more time on Mull and you’ll be treated to a gorgeous island dominated by one-lane roads, occasional houses, and plenty of sheep. There’s but one town of any size on the island, Tobermory, which has a surprisingly picturesque harbor – the buildings lining it are all painted in bright colors. I’m biased, because I eloped in Tobermory, but I think it’s well worth a couple of days. The seafood is fresh, and the people are some of the warmest I’ve ever met.
Second, the Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, Canada. It’s another island, or rather an archipelago of islands, fully half of which are a Canadian National Park. The park has within its borders several native “ruins” of the Haida people, for whom the islands are sacred, and access to the native sites and the park itself is strictly controlled by the Haida. The northern half of the islands – the non-park part – are popular for camping, hiking, fishing, etc., but I highly recommend booking a spot on a tour that will get you into one of the native sites. You can go by seaplane for a few hours or sign up for a multi-day tour on rafts and kayaks. It’s stunningly beautiful, hauntingly quiet, and intensely spiritual (even if you’re not religious).
How do you kill time when you’re stuck on a bus or plane?
It depends, but I almost always have an arsenal of potential distractions on hand just in case. I’m bound to have a book (either an actual book or my Kindle), an iPod full of music and podcasts to catch up on, my netbook, an old-fashioned paper journal and pen, an inflatable pillow (nevermind that I can barely sleep sitting up anymore), or some combination thereof.
Honestly, though, one of my greatest delights when I’m stuck in transit is finding that I’m sitting next to someone who’s engaging. I love meeting other travelers, even if we end up communicating with hand signals. People are fascinating.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen or experienced traveling?
This isn’t the strangest thing, but it’s the one that’s had the longest staying power. During my junior year of college, I studied for a semester in England – and midway through that trip we had about two weeks off from classes. I went to, among other places, Zurich to visit relatives. From there, my Swiss cousin and I took the train to Prague where we spent five amazing days. This was in 1992, and the city was still palpably alive with energy nearly three years after the Velvet Revolution.
On one evening stroll across the Charles Bridge, we stopped to listen to some musicians. They turned out to be American students (Prague was crammed with
them us), and one guy off to the side was holding and passing the hat for donations. We dropped in a few coins, and as we left he called out, “Hey, don’t forget to drink your milk!” My cousin and I looked at each other, and then laughed for the next half hour. To this day, we still sign letters and emails to one another with some milk-drinking reference.
What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at a new destination?
After taking photographs of my as-yet-unspoiled room (which, I must note, I did long before I was a travel writer – for scrapbooks and whatnot), I usually freshen up if necessary – washing my face and brushing my teeth makes me feel like a new person, even if I’m in clothes I’ve worn for 24 hours – and go for a walk, most often in a meandering search for food. If it’s a place I don’t know well, I go out with a map or keep myself to a small area so I don’t feel the need for a map. If it’s a place I do know, I wander around with a stupid smile on my face as if I’m saying, “Hi again, I’m back! Didja miss me?”
If you could give one tip or piece of advice to travelers, what would it be?
Have a Plan B, even if you don’t know what it is – in other words, be adaptable. Everyone gets caught out by problems when traveling, either of their own making or someone else’s, and the people who end up losing the most time and money on picking up the pieces and moving on are the ones who didn’t say, “Right. So that happened. Now what?” One of the best skills you can have as a traveler is the ability to think on your feet and figure out an alternative quickly rather than settling down in woe-is-me-my-trip-is-ruined land.
And yes, this is still something I sometimes struggle with.