My wife Cheryl and I were broke when we got married. But we had our priorities, and No. 1 was travel. We might not have been able to pay the rent, but we somehow scraped together airfare to St. John and Tortola in the Virgin Islands for our honeymoon.
We were so broke that once we got there, we had to stay in bare-bones pensions and live off peanut butter and saltines, tins of sardines and $1 Heinekens while hitchhiking around the islands.
It was the best way to start our life together, because instead of staying in the honeymoon suite at the Caneel Bay RockResort, we stayed in humble but wonderful places where we hung out with the locals and other travelers.
The best part of the trip was meeting a pirate with an eye patch and red bandana, and who picked us up in his jeep while we were trying to hitchhike to the far side of St. John.
We were dripping with sweat after walking up the mountain road out of Cruz Bay when he picked us. Our pirate been an underwater welder and lost an eye due to an infection caused by a run-in with a sea urchin.
He dropped us off at a secluded end of the island where we spent the day snorkeling. Forgetting the sun sets at about 6 p.m. in the tropics, we snorkeled so long we were running out of daylight and nervous about hitchhiking back.
We walk out to the main road, and there’s our pirate, waiting to take us back to Cruz Bay for cold ones at a beach bar.
A couple of years later, we returned to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands with no more money, but lots more bills than when we got married.
So we stayed at Quito Rymer’s, the only hotel on Cane Garden Bay at the time. A really, really modest $40-per-night hotel on a fabulous beach. There we met Val and Scott, two Americans from Seattle. Scott was an attorney and Val had just opened the Jimi Hendrix Museum. The Rymer’s staff was scandalized by Val and Scott because they were an integrated couple. But by the time we left, Val had charmed them to the point they saw her off with hugs as we were leaving for St. John.
We get to St. John and find an apartment to rent for a few days at a very nice price split two ways. We stayed in and cooked, or we went out dancing, and it was bliss. And we’re still friends to this day.
No money for lavish travel … thank God
In the intervening 30 years, Cheryl and I not only have never been rich, we’ve not really had money to travel like normal people.
Otherwise, we would have been with a bunch of poseurs and snobs, bored to death at the Georges V.
If we’d been rich, would have missed everything: The spontaneous detours; the pop-up friendships that have endured for years, and the surreal moments we’ll never forget.
In 1999, we moved to Izmir, Turkey where our expat adventures really began. In Turkey, I had a pretty good job as a military journalist, but we also had children and little in the way of disposable income for travel. Thank goodness Turkey was, at that time, not only the best place in the world to live and travel, but among the most affordable.
And a note here: We had two little girls under four years old when we lived in Turkey. That’s no reason to not travel. You’re their world, and they don’t care where they are as long as they’re with you. Lale made her first trip to Chios, Greece at eight weeks. By that time, she’d been in four countries – the United States, Germany, Turkey and Greece.
We’ve traveled so much (vacations in at least 13 countries) that we have a game we play every night during dinner: “You remember when …?”
• we traveled across Turkey to Nemrut Dag, this incredible mountaintop in Eastern Turkey with bizarre statues of “gods” to keep company with King Antiochus I, possibly the least glorious ruler ever. We stayed in a tiny pension on the side of the mountain. It was late October at about 7,000 feet and not much in the way of heat or food. But it was the most memorable of many trips with our friends David and Victoria, their daughter Katherine and Serçin, Victoria’s mother.
• on that same trip we were on TV in Malatya in southcentral Turkey. We all stayed at the Bezginler Hotel (literally, the “Tired Hotel”) which Serçin noted had to be the worst marketing ever, because the place was pretty much worn out. We’d traveled 500 miles to Malatya because we’d heard their tourism pitch – “the Dried Apricot Capital of the World!” – in Izmir, and who wouldn’t want to see that? (It was also on the way to Nemrut Dag.) When we got there, the local tourism officials wined us and dined us, and a TV crew showed up to interview the Americans and Turkish-Americans who’d come all the way from Izmir to visit.
• we found The Mountain Lodge near Fethiye, Turkey. It was pretty much the only place in the area we could afford (at $25 per night per adult) that wasn’t booked and we went with low expectations. Instead, we met Mick and Melahat Scarsbrook, who’d built by hand a Cotswolds-style lodge high in the hills near the ruin of Tlos. It was our favorite place ever, and we became fast friends. We went back over and over again and our girls grew up together in one of the most beautiful spots in Turkey.
• we stayed with our British friends the Rendells in the gypsy caravan outside Marmaris in Turkey. No, really. It was basically a big wagon made entirely of wood and on its own little plot on the grounds of a larger resort. The grounds were beautiful and the food fantastic. And how many people can say they stayed in a gypsy caravan? The kids loved it.
• we stayed at a French family’s B&B in a – how do I say this? – “distressed” mansion outside Paris. It was the ultimate in shabby chic, and we slept in a 500-year-old Balinese bed. We ate, drank wine and talked till all hours. One day, our hosts – a rather eccentric, wildly charming couple – told us about this museum we’d never heard of and insisted we go. It turned out to be the Marmottan in the 16th, a boutique museum with an incredible collection of Monets. It quickly became our favorite.
• we stayed in an apartment in St. Denis, Paris’s Red Light District. It was a large apartment and we could afford it because, well, it was in the Red Light District. The girls were small, but not slow. One day on our way out to explore, a 4-year-old Lale asks Cheryl, “Mommy, why are those ladies always sitting in the windows?” Without missing a beat, Cheryl replies, “Well, Lale, they’re just waiting for their friends.” True enough ….
• we met Daniel and Astrid, who had a B&B in the small town of Étouffant near Mulhouse, France. Their rooms and small outbuilding were humble, but nice. And in the French tradition, a stay at their place included the most authentic hospitality and long breakfasts with hours of conversation about everything from great books to travel. One year, we stayed at Easter, and they had presents and candies for the girls. Another year we took friends while Daniel and Astrid were on vacation, and they just turned over the keys and say, “Don’t burn the place down.”
• we stayed in the Love Hovel on the side of a mountain above Lake Thun in Switzerland’s Oberhofen. It was a hut – a cozy converted granary – that was literally the only place in Switzerland we could afford at 37 euros a night. The extent of the luxury was a wood stove and an old radio. At night, we played board games with the girls and listened to (true story) a country-western station in Switzerland that played Jim Reeves and Hank Williams. In the morning, the cowbells in the pastures below were our alarm clock, and we had picnics within sight of Alpine glaciers.
• we went to Paris in 2016 with the Rudasills after selling everything we had to resettle in the Netherlands. It was a fast in-and-out, and we were really trying to economize. We found the Citadines Didot hotel in the 14th close to the Plaisance metro stop, which led directly into the heart of Paris. The rooms were tiny, but the staff friendly and the hotel is in the real Paris of neighborhood patisseries and cafes. At night, we crammed into our two rooms and laid out feasts of baguettes, saucisson, cheese, Côtes du Rhone and pastries. Our room had a tiny balcony, and I remember standing and looking at the mansard roofs up and down the Rue de Didot and remembering why I love Paris most of all.
After 30 years, we’re at the point now where maybe a little luxury wouldn’t be the worst thing. I could live in hotels full-time, and there’s nothing I love more than a big suite.
But for 30 years, we’ve traveled as cheaply as we could and are far better for it.
And here’s my advice: “If you’re young, crazy and broke, don’t save. Don’t plan. Don’t wait.