Recently I was at a meeting of women entrepreneurs, listening to a woman tell her story of going from losing her job and the difficulty of scraping by while raising her son as a single mom, to building a successful business that supports her comfortably and even saving enough money to take her son to France for a vacation. And while I found her transformation inspiring, I’m distracted by pangs of guilt. Specifically because I’ve never saved for a vacation. I just go.
If you know anything about me, then you know I’m about the farthest from being born with a silver spoon in my mouth as you can get. Heck, we were lucky to have spoons. It’s just that I consider travel a necessary part of life, like eating and breathing. So I don’t rely on “saving up” for it, any more than you would “save up” to buy groceries. Sure, there are times when the groceries are less “choice” than others, but still, there’s always groceries.
Saint Augustine of Hippo said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Travel gives you a broader view of the world, and the people in it. It gives you the visceral experience that pictures and movies can’t convey. It gives you an appreciation for other cultures and ways of life, and very often a greater appreciation of your own. You become not only more interesting, but more interested in other people and places. And it brings all of the world just that much closer.
While I may not have two nickels to rub together, still I can use my AmEx card as a debit card all year and hoard miles like a miser until I can go … somewhere. I’ve done trips cheap and not-so-cheap, and while I prefer not-so-cheap, any trip is better than no trip. And being a wise trip planner, I usually manage to land somewhere in the middle.
This year’s vacation, having recently gone to Paris for a book signing and having only a few extra days to spend outside of a needed trip near London, was a visit to the Cotswolds.
The Cotswolds is a region of villages about an hour northwest of London, and is considered England’s most romantic place to visit. While the area itself covers 800 square miles, many quaint villages are within a ten or so mile distance of one another, allowing maximal exposure with minimal driving (on the wrong side of the road, no less, performed brilliantly by my brave husband with me gasping, I mean navigating, next to him.)
Our home for three days was a 17th century coaching inn, The Killingworth Castle in Woodstock. The eight-room bed and breakfast was absolutely charming; its proprietors managing to maintain the original English character while including all of the conveniences you would need, including real coffee (not the powdered stuff) and a French press in the room, and a little decanter of sherry for a nightcap in the evening. The bartenders Paul and Paul (yes, two Paul’s, so you’re only a “Hey, Paul” away from another pint), along with the rest of the staff, are warm, and friendly. The pub serves surprisingly exceptional food that is beautifully presented, earning them local organic awards and 2 AA Rosettes. And if all that weren’t enough, we took advantage of their current special and booked three nights for the price of two.
Our first excursion, having done a little advance reconnaissance work on the area, was the Tuesday outdoor market in Moreton-in-Marsh. Local vendors sell everything from leather goods and sheepskins to homemade fudge (from a fellow who’s turned his garage into a Willie Wonka factory), jams and spices. We came, we tasted, we bought.
After strolling and antique shopping in several other villages, we stopped in at The Crown and Trumpet in Broadway for lunch – bangers and mash and a Worcestershire meat pie. When I complimented the proprietor, Mr. Scott, on his restaurant, he enthusiastically and politely corrected me that it was his English pub, and asked that I stress the importance of having a real pub experience when in England, complete with dark paneled walls, low rustic beamed ceilings, dartboard, and convivial conversation to join in or just eavesdrop on. And I wholeheartedly agree – done, Mr. Scott.
Our final stop of the day was Bourton-on-the-Water. This is a town where all fairytales should start and end. We stopped in at a tea shop for “cream tea” – an afternoon break of tea and scones – and a friendly debate with owner Steve regarding which country’s government was in more of a pickle; his with the impending Brexit or ours with, well, everything else. Not sure who won that argument but I’m pretty sure I know who the losers are.
Chatting with some fellow hotel guests that evening, we discovered that we were staying only a few miles from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace and home of Sir Winston Churchill. The only non-royal country house to hold the title of “palace”, Blenheim Palace strikes me as sort of a “baby Versailles” with its moderately adorned gates and well-groomed grounds. You can spend a day roaming the gardens, or just a couple of hours, as we did, touring the palace and visiting the Winston Churchill Exhibit. Especially meaningful was playing short excerpts of some of Churchill’s speeches, right from a spot where he undoubtedly stood.
We wrapped up our day with a visit to The Porch House, which claims to be England’s oldest Inn (although I think several of them make that claim), and a stroll through Burford, recommended by our hotel bartender, which is known for its shops.
A few tips for making the most of your travel experience …
Here’s my trick for finding the best rooms at the best possible rate and greatest flexibility. First, go on the major hotel booking sites (Hotels.com, Booking.com, etc.) to see what’s available in the area and what interests you in your price range. Once you’ve got it narrowed down, go on the hotel’s website, not the booking site, to make the reservation. Most often the rates will be the same or better, or they will offer special packages (such as the three nights for the price of two deal we just snagged) that the booking sites don’t have. Another big advantage is that, if for some reason you need to change or cancel your reservation, it’s normally much easier to do by dealing directly with the hotel rather than a third party (who gladly takes your money but takes no responsibility for modifications.)
Pick up a guidebook such as Fodor’s, or do some advance Googling, to see what’s around you in the area you will be traveling. Very often you can find blogs written by people who have traveled in the area and found some off-the-beaten-path experiences. RickSteves.com and HandLuggageOnly.co.uk are excellent places to start. Also, Google “best way to get from [here] to [there]”, to find the best transportation opportunities.
Engage with the people around you. One of the things that makes travel so special for my husband and me are the conversations we have with the people we meet – shopkeepers, locals in restaurants, and fellow travelers. I’m basically an introvert, never the gregarious “life of the party”, and I would normally rather listen than talk. But I’m very interested in people. And while it’s easy enough to remain insular while traveling, staying in your own bubble and talking only to your immediate travel companions, finding out about people in other areas, what they like or don’t like, what they worry about and what brings them joy, makes the world a little smaller and makes you realize we’re all not that different. Of all the things I’ve seen and done, these conversations are some of the most special moments of traveling.
I hope I’ve inspired you to plan a trip to anywhere, throw a few things in a bag, and read a few more pages in the book of life.