10 Questions For (3): Lara Dunston of Cool Travel Guide

Wow! I’ve sent out three requests and got three almost immediate answers. Here is part 2: Meet Lara, a really professional traveler and travel writer:

Lara Dunston Dubai Sheesa
Non smoking Lara with a favorite pastime “Sheesha in Dubai”

1) Who Are you?
I quite literally live out of a suitcase – I’m a professional travel writer (Australian – born) and I write guidebooks and travel features with my husband. We had a year’s worth of commissions lined up so as an experiment we put our things in storage in Dubai and took to the road for a year. We’ve been traveling continuously for two and a half years now, so we’re going to stop at three. Naturally, we’re writing a book about it.

2) What do you like about what you do?
As cliched as it sounds, I love the people we meet. We are lucky to meet some of the most fascinating people on the planet – we might interview a Michelin starred chef such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his new restaurant in Istanbul one day and one of the world’s greatest violin-makers in Cremona, Italy, the next. And after the people that we meet, I love the places that we go. We’ve been to some 60 countries now and I’ve loved every one of them in some way.

3) What don’t you like about what you do?
I hate it that every time we finish a project and complete a research trip and we move on to a different destination that our time in the last place can often seem like a dream. You know that feeling? When you return to work after being on holidays? Well, our whole life is like that.

4) Please tell us all about your blog Cool Travel Guide and your aims with it.
Cool Travel Guide is a place for me to reflect on the things I find cool about travel, so I write about anything and everything, from hotels and restaurants we love to the people we meet to more esoteric and odd things, like the ritual of tying ribbons to trees and love locks to bridges – part of the beauty of traveling so intensively and often is being able to identify these little things that connect us all across the planet and connect the dots. But most of all I’m interested in exploring the things that inspire us to travel and what’s so inspiring about travel and I’m not so sure I’ve done enough of that in the first year of my blog (yes, it just turned 1!) but I intend to do more of that.

Lara Dunston Morocco
Lara Dunston in Morocco

5) Your top 3 destinations you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
Can I use the word ‘experience’? ‘Stay’ sounds a bit superficial. Forgive me for being so pedantic, I’m a writer! It would have to be:
1) Mexico City – the first big city we ever traveled to outside of Australia a long long time ago (well, we actually had a brief stopover in Tokyo, but it was too brief to count) and I was blown away by its sights, sounds, smells, colors – it was one of those real assault-upon-your-senses cities that are what traveling is all about.
2) Havana – again, I fell in love with it for the same reasons I did Mexico City but it was alluring in a more subtle way – its colors washed over us, its sounds sang to us, and its people danced to us. I remember the first time feeling nostalgic for the city even though I’d never been there, and on subsequent visits felt the same way.
3) Rio de Janeiro – another sexy, sensual Latin American city – to me Rio was all about the beach, the brightness and the light, and the beat of the streets. I was shown the city by a group of young locals who the first time I met them took me out dancing all night – what an introduction! – and then I got to know the grittier side of the city through a filmmaker who took a bunch of us young filmmakers into a shanty town to do a participatory film making workshop – that was an experience I’ll never forget.

6) Your top 3 accommodations you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
This is difficult – almost impossible to limit them to three!
* Four Seasons Tented Camp, Golden Triangle, Thailand – it’s that luxury tented-safari style you expect in Africa in one of the world’s most exotic locations, Thailand’s Golden Triangle; there are outdoor showers, so you can shower yourself looking over a tributary of the Mekong to Burma, there are elephants to ride bareback, a spa overlooking the jungle, and sunset cocktails in the Burma Bar.
* The Chedi, Muscat, Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, and Bab Al Shams in the Dubai desert – all three have to share second place, I’m afraid – I love each of these three resorts equally. I love the concept of Arabian hospitality that we have on the Arabian Peninsula, I love the desert and the beach there, and I love that contemporary Arabian style that draws inspiration from the traditional architecture from around the region (from Jeddah to Yemen), and these three properties do all of that so well. If I want to relax I can happily go to any of these three places and know I’m going to unwind exceptionally well.
* Villa Crespi, Lake D’Orta – this is one of those beautiful hotels that is so exotic and so enchanting that it’s dreamlike, and you have to pinch yourself that you’re there – the Moorish-Persian architecture is wildly exotic for Italy, influenced by the first owner’s travels to the Middle East, and that adds to the allure of the place. The rooms are beautiful, very regal, and super-comfortable and they have views over the beautiful gardens and of magical Lake Orta. It’s very romantic – a great place for a honeymoon.

7) Your top 3 most memorable food experiences to date and why?
* Villa Crespi, above – just when you think the hotel couldn’t get any better, the restaurant there has two Michelin stars, the chef is one of the most philosophical and passionate we’ve ever met, and the food is simply sublime. There you can have one of those meals where each mouthful is a revelation and flavours are combined in ways you’ve never imagined them to be.

* Alain Ducasse in Paris – we had a long degustation menu that lasted for many hours and ate some of the most divine dishes we’d ever had in our life, made from some of the most luxuriant ingredients. It was truly decadent.

* I’ve named restaurants so far, but I have a million other memories of specific experiences in particular places, from eating fresh French oysters at the seafood market in Lyon, to the first time we had mussels and frites in Brussels, to the first time we tried ceviche at Veracruz in Mexico, to every meal in Shanghai!

8) Your 3 worst destination/ accommodation /food experiences to date and why?
* A Michelin-star restaurant in Athens that I won’t name where everything went wrong that you could possibly imagine could in a restaurant, that even though we’d ordered a degustation menu and had hoped to settle in for a long night, we were begging them to let us go by the third course. The manager then insisted he was going to serve us from then on and everything would be fine and still it took another 40 minutes for our dish to come! It was excruciating.

* Three restaurants in the Michelin guide in Calabria, Italy, where we were researching a new book – the Michelin standards there are very different to the rest of the world!

* A dreadful mid-range motel in Port Hedland, Western Australia… we were writing a new guide to Perth and Western Australia for Lonely Planet and readers had complained about this hotel, that it had cockroaches. As there are only a few hotels in town we thought we’d better try it out. We checked in undercover and one hour later discovered that my husband Terry, who’d been resting from the long drive and watching TV on the bed, was covered in bed bugs bites. We tried to check out but he wasn’t going to give us our money back. We had to reluctantly pull out the business card and tell him who we were so that he would! Something we don’t like doing! By the time we got to the next hotel on the other side of town, word had already spread around town, and when I arrived at Reception the guy said “you must be the bed-bug poeple!”

9) Can you offer the readers 3 travel/ food / accomodation / things to do tips about the city you are currently living in?
Well, seeing we live on the road, I’ll offer a few trips based on recent destinations we’ve researched for books:
* Travel – an Airline tip – try and find an airline you like that goes to most of the destinations you want to travel to, join their frequent flyers club and travel with them as often as possible – this is what we do with Emirates Airlines and while the benefits have always been superb – access to business class lounges, upgrades to Business, dirt-cheap flights when you trade in miles, and extra luggage allowance to name a few – they’re going to be even more invaluable now with the increase in fuel costs and air fares and the increasing luggage restrictions.

* Food – never ever eat on a main square anywhere! By all means have a coffee or an aperitivo and do some people-watching at that cafe/bar on that charming piazza or plaza of some lovely old European city or town, but never eat there – those places are always tourist traps, the food is generally dreadful or at best mediocre, and they’re always over-priced.

* Hotels – when traveling to cities, opt for business hotels on weekends, when they have special offers, or you can ask for a discount and you’ll most likely get it, and travel to beach/mountain resorts week days when they’re quiet, and you’ll also get a great deal.

* Don’t travel anywhere in Europe in August – that’s 4, sorry.

10) Any Question(s) you’d expected me to ask that you would like to answer?
I think you’ve covered everything. Surely you don’t want me to say even more?!

Thank You Lara. Villa Crespi sounds mouth watering to me. Congratulations with you first year of Blogging. Happy Hotelier enters its third year in a couple of days. You may always correct me as English is not my mother tongue (that being Dutch) :-). I have a question about the photo taken in Morocco. Where was that and do I see it right that the city (or town) in the background is an adobe built one?

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5 Responses to 10 Questions For (3): Lara Dunston of Cool Travel Guide

  1. Hi Guido – thanks so much for the fun interview!
    You asked about the photo of me in Morocco… my husband took the pic of me in front of the kasbah or kasr (or qasr!) of Ait Benhaddou. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Morocco’s most impressive fortified cities, just outside of Ouarzazate – I’m actually standing in the dry bed of the Ouarzazate River. It’s mostly known in the West for all the famous films shot there, from Lawrence of Arabia to the Sheltering Sky.

    One of my biggest regrets was not actually exploring inside, however, we’d been travelling all day and were very tired, and there were lots of hassly guys standing at the entrance wanting money to show us around, and we weren’t in the mood to deal with them. These kinds of touts are one of the things I hate about Middle East travel, even after living in the region for so long – most of the time I can deal with them, but sometimes if you’re tired, you just can’t be bothered. But I know I’ll go back and explore the inside (as well as the exterior) more thoroughly next time.

    I have this attitude about wherever I travel that if I love a place, as I did this one, that I’ll return. And we do return to places we like time and time again. I’m not one of these people who thinks “I’ll never get back here so I have to see everything in one stay.” I always think I’ll go back, so that way I appreciate a place more while I’m there.

  2. Great interview Guido. Fascinating to read, Lara. You’re living the dream. I’m still trying to figure out how to travel with my 5 kids full time, for a year or two. But then again, there’s school :)

    I must check out your blog and read more about your adventures.

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