My hols: Sally Emerson

Sunday Times
Published: 9th February 2003

I started travelling quite young. When I was five, my father worked in a hospital in Brooklyn for a year, so I went to school there. Brooklyn back then was much rougher than it is now. Teachers used to get stabbed with great regularity, which was a bit of a shock after Wimbledon. However, my parents used this placement to see something of the country. I still vividly recall much of the travelling — going down to the Great Smoky Mountains and seeing the Indians and black bears, for instance.

So we did almost the same thing with our children. We lived in Washington from 1989 to 1992, because Peter was working there, and we travelled around and saw the Grand Canyon, New Mexico and Death Valley. We did go back to the Great Smoky Mountains, but the bears have all gone, of course.

I think if you can take your children somewhere like that at a young age, the experience will be with them for ever. Although, when I asked my daughter, Anna, what she recalled most about our epic road trips in the United States, all she could remember was that she would eat her sweets immediately and Michael would save his till the end.

I remember other childhood holidays of my own, such as being on the beach at Frinton in a howling gale with pounding seas, trying to build sand castles between the seaweed. Then we started travelling abroad, to beaches that were always hot and sticky and safe. I thought it was so boring after Frinton. Still do, in fact. I dislike beach holidays and doing nothing. At least in England there was the excitement of fighting against the elements.

When we travel now, I generally prefer holidaying in houses to hotels. A house comes with a sense of history, with the scuffs and marks of other people, whereas a hotel is very much in the present. Once, we stayed in a riad in Marrakesh, and we had to walk through the medina to get to it. For the first few days, people tried to sell us things and pull us into their shops, but after a while they got used to us and stopped. I don’t think you get that in a hotel, the sense of how people live and how they have lived in the past.

I do think travel is a matter of experiences — you often remember people as much as places — and of timing. There is a time in your life when you should hitchhike and do unsuitable things, and a time when you should start sampling grand hotels. I think you can do the latter too soon. I remember Peter and I spent our honeymoon at the Cipriani, in Venice, and we felt like impostors. I felt very out of place — I didn’t think we even walked right. And we broke a glass coffee table — it was very embarrassing. Now we’d probably end up complaining about the poor quality of the furniture.

As a youngster travelling around Europe, I remember thinking how dull life was for all those people sitting in posh hotels, and how much more exciting life in my hostel was. Just the absolute arrogance of youth, of course. On that trip, I fell in with a charming Parisian man who turned out to run a prostitute ring and had done time in jail — but he did show me some of the seamy side of Paris, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I couldn’t do that now.

Well, I could, but it wouldn’t be the same.

Holidays also enable you to connect with your past. I went on a cruise to Alaska with my son a few years back, just the two of us, and we had a marvellous time. I had read about this Russian Orthodox church in the mountains and we went up to see this beautiful structure.

We were just inside when we heard a cry: “Bear!” So we rushed out and there was this bear, rearing up. And it brought back so vividly the memories of the bears I had seen in the Smoky Mountains with my parents. I had that sense of the past, present and future being there all at once.

I got the same feeling in South Africa, on safari. I do believe in some sort of human race memory — seeing animals in the flesh does jolt something in us, some feeling that, thousands of years ago, our ancestors were facing that same bear or hunting those same antelope.

I am very much aware of family holidays coming to an end. We have had great trips as a family, always got on, always enjoyed each other’s company. Now, I can sense that going away as a group is too oppressive for them, that the children need their freedom. I’m told they come back to the fold after a few years, when they’re still broke and realise they can go away with you and still have their independence. I hope so.

Sally Emerson talked to Rob Ryan