The Trip That Changed My Life
Henry Winkler, Sanjay Gupta and 8 other avid travelers share experiences that transformed them
Travel can be wonderful, uplifting, relaxing and fascinating, but sometimes a trip is truly special, changing our perspectives or offering moments of beauty or transcendence. We asked 10 people to describe an unforgettable travel experience — and where they want to go next.
Henry Winkler: Smith River, Montana
Where the actor, 75, discovered an almost divine joy
It was the first time I went fly-fishing, on the Smith River in Montana. My wife, Stacey, and I spent five days there with a couple friends. I am desperate to be able to explain the sheer joy it brought me. The closest I’ve come to the divine is on a river. We’d fish, have lunch and dinner on the bank, sleep on the bank. You see bald eagles or a moose. The sound of the rushing water, lapping against your waders or the boat, makes anything you’re worried about dissipate. Mostly you concentrate on the trout. Because you have to be patient. You have to play the trout. You have to tire it out. When you land it, you take a picture. You say thank you. You give it a kiss, and you put them back for next year. So that he or she can grow, and we can do it all over again. You put your palms up and think, How is this possible?
On my to-go list: While I’m still able and hungry for travel, I would like to go to Italy and eat my way from Rome to Milan. After that, maybe walk up and down the streets in Lyon, France, and eat all of that.
Sanjay Gupta: Koh Samui, Thailand
Where the medical correspondent, 51, was forced to reflect on the fragility of life
One of my happiest moments of travel is also the most gut-wrenching. In December 1998, my wife and I went to Koh Samui, a little island off the eastern coast of Thailand. We stayed in a place on the beach called the Smile House, which was around $20 a night back then. It was such an indelible experience, but not just because of the banana pancakes we ate for breakfast. To get to Koh Samui, you either take an evening flight or an all-day, 12-hour bus ride followed by a two-hour ferry. We waited in line at the airport but couldn’t get a ticket, so we ended up on the bus. It happened to be my wife’s birthday and I kept thinking, Boy, I really blew this one. The air-conditioning on the bus was so freezing cold that our arms and legs cramped up. We practically couldn’t move. When we arrived in Surat Thani, the mainland city, to take the ferry, it was nighttime, and the horizon was lit up with sirens and rescue lights. We didn’t know at first what had happened, but it turned out that the plane we had wanted to take had crashed. It was terrible. Over 100 people had died. It was one of those moments when we didn’t know what to say to each other. Nothing makes you feel more alive than having been shot at and missed, and that’s how we felt. As you get older, you appreciate how fragile our existence is. You can spend all day kicking yourself for something — like not getting those plane tickets — but fate can flip on a dime. I’m not generally like this, but I do think certain things happen for a reason. That day, if I had gotten what I wanted — or what I thought I wanted — we wouldn’t have survived. Instead, it was this unforgettable moment that’s stayed with me all these years: eating those pancakes, looking out to sea, thinking how lucky we are, how lucky we are.
On my to-go list: Las Catalinas, in Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica, is a new non-resort beach town designed using principles of new urbanism to create community and immersion in nature. It’s car-free and walkable, with plazas and hiking trails, all to make you feel like you’re part of a community even if you’re just visiting.
Joan Lunden: Morocco
Where the former Good Morning America host, 71, discovered a new way to think about aging
In 2019, I was in the Sahara Desert with my younger daughters. We took a camel ride early one morning from our tent camp out to a dune to watch the sunrise over the Sahara. We were up there by ourselves, being one with the world and with nature. When we came back down, we got into a vehicle and they took us through these little Moroccan towns with the most colorful marketplaces. Some sheepherders invited us into their tent to see how they live. We crawled inside and there was this old woman, seemingly the matriarch, who had us sit on the dirt floor. They were nomads. They told us they have no clocks or calendars. Just the moon and the stars. And when the seasons change, they take down their tent and begin to walk again. I looked at the woman. Her face was so weathered by the wind and sun, and I couldn’t tell her age. So I asked, “How old are you?” She said, “I don’t know.” She said, “We’re born out here in the desert, and nobody keeps track of anything like that. I have no idea how old I am.” I think that was the most fascinating thing I’d ever heard. I got back into the car and thought, Wow, we are so married to our age in the Western world. We have our birthday parties and birthday cards and funny jokes as you start to get older, but it didn’t work like that there.
When the day came for this woman to pack up the tent and put her things on the donkey and walk another 75 miles, she would never say, “Gee, am I too old for this?” That’s a pretty powerful and inspiring message to take home with your daughters.
On my to-go list: We spend our summers in Maine, but I’ve never been to Acadia National Park, which has some of the highest mountains on the Atlantic Coast. Everybody says it’s one of the most incredible places to go in America.
Alan Cumming: Chaah, Malaysia
Where the actor, 56, uncovered an uncomfortable family truth
The account of my maternal granddad’s death never made sense to me. I knew he died in Malaysia. After World War II, Britain sent career soldiers like him to guard the rubber plantations from insurgent communists. The story was that Thomas Darling, a decorated veteran, had died at age 35 while cleaning his gun. But when I made a trip to Malaysia in 2010 as part of a television program that traces famous people’s ancestries, I learned the horrible truth: It appears my granddad died playing Russian roulette. In the town of Chaah I met soldiers who had served with my grandfather. They told me how charismatic he was, then took me to the café where he’d been drinking the day he died. Every emotion went through me as I stood in the spot where Tommy Darling essentially killed himself. Is there madness in me? Is this why I’m reckless? And how moving it was that there, on the other side of the world, those men pushed to name a little street after my granddad — Darling Walk — and a park, too. Later I took my mom, my husband, and my brother and his wife to see Granddad’s grave, which is in Singapore, and then to Chaah. It’s strange — you grow up thinking of your history in a certain way, and then in a flash everything can flip upside down. But I guess that as an adult, it comes with the territory.
On my to-go list: I really want to do the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok. I love being in places where you have culture shock. It’s so rare now that so much of travel is homogenized.
Michael Lopez-Alegria: Ibiza, Spain
Where the astronaut, 63, was exposed as a child to the complicated ways of adult behavior
My father had a friend in Ibiza, and we stayed at a hotel called El Corsario, which means “the pirate ship.” I remember the beautiful beaches and the heat, but more than anything, I remember the excitement. You know those moments as a kid when you get to glimpse into the way adults really are? I got that there. A friend of my father’s went out with us one night and ended up getting in a bar fight. Somebody hit him with a bottle, and my mother and I saw him stumbling out with this giant welt on his forehead. We figured my father was inside lying on the floor, but when we went in, we saw him chatting peacefully with the guy who’d hit his friend with the bottle. I don’t know what wisdom, good or bad, was buried in that moment, but I’ll say this: I’ve never been in a fistfight, probably because I think it looked a lot better being the peacemaker than the one getting hit with the bottle.
On my to-go list: I’ve been to other parts of the Caribbean, but I haven’t been to the Bahamas. From space, the water around those islands is the most precious color you can possibly imagine. I know it’s a common destination, but I’d love to swim in those gleaming-bright blues.
Rick Steves: Tuscany, Italy
Where the 66-year-old travel guru experienced a time-bending euphoria on a visit to a family farm
I’ll never forget the man of the house at a farm in Tuscany where they’ve been making wine under one family name for more than 150 years. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Italy, partly because of the warmth and charm of the people. The moment you arrive, this gentleman is holding the bottle in a way that shows off his name. You see the pride in his face, and, as family members gather — young and old and older — you feel the generations of love, of experimentation, and the love of life itself. You see the little kids looking up at their parents. You see Grandma and Grandpa looking back, misty with emotion. They may not be hardy enough to work the farm anymore, but this is their farm and this is their life’s work. Then they pour that wine into a big, beautiful glass and I get to drink that. Me! From another hemisphere! That’s the gift of travel. I get to be there and celebrate that time-bending experience: one family’s heritage being enjoyed, consumed, shared. It’s truly a communion.
On my to-go list: I’ve spent 100 days a year in Europe every year since high school, but I’ve never really explored the South Pacific. I’d love to go to Tahiti, Fiji or Bora Bora.
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Penn Jillette: Newfoundland, Canada
Where the illusionist, 66, discovered his inner outdoorsman
Before COVID, we all went to Newfoundland in Canada. Oddly, my wife and I both have ancestors from there, a connection we didn’t make until we were married. Not that I feel like a Newfoundlander. I’m the least outdoorsy person you’ll ever meet, but it’s never too late to shake things up and get out of your comfort zone. To be with my kids on a frozen rock, with puffins and whales around — it’s a very majestic way to spend some time.There’s not a lot to do there, but people make stuff happen. You can go to shows in people’s homes. People do a Sunday afternoon concert in their living room, and you can just go there and they’ll make a pot of coffee. There’s about 20 people, and they sit around singing folk songs that go from shipping songs to Bob Dylan. It’s kind of goofy but, honestly, I wish we did more goofy things like that in America. Sitting around, singing these songs together, you connect with people in a different way. You make friends you didn’t have before you started singing. You feel a little more alive. You return home a better person. I can’t wait to get back there.
On my to-go list: In my ripe old age I’m learning Spanish, which is like pushing a dachshund up a hill. It’s hard. But it curtails the loss of mental swiftness. I’d love to go to Valencia to meet my magician friend who’s been teaching me on Zoom.
George Takei: Edinburgh, Scotland
Where the actor-activist, 84, became a convert to all things Scots
Thirty years ago I was invited to do a play at the legendary Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. The play was wonderful, but the city itself was the real draw, because you can explore it on foot and I’m a runner. Few cities are as spectacular for jogging as Edinburgh. Every morning we went out for a run. To the south of the city, there’s a hill called Arthur’s Seat, which is said to relate to the legend of King Arthur. You can run up it and have a great view of all of Edinburgh, including Holyrood Palace. It offers the finest views of that medieval town, with its cobblestone streets, and I’ve since returned many times with my husband, Brad — who I met through jogging — so we can run there together. Or walk, now that we’re a little older.
On my to-go list: We didn’t leave Los Angeles during COVID. But we have a wonderful cabin up in the White Mountains of Arizona, in the heart of a magnificent ponderosa pine forest. After nearly two years away, I couldn’t wait to get back there.
Shari Belafonte: Gullfoss, Iceland
Where the actress, 67, found an unlikely paradise tracing her father's steps
My best friend, Ellen, and I have gone all over the world — Italy, South Africa, Belize — but the best was Iceland. My dad [Harry Belafonte] had gone there on a UNICEF mission, but all I knew was that Iceland is green and Greenland has ice. We wanted to get off the beaten path, which isn’t hard to do there. Drive out of Reykjavik and it’s all waterfalls and Viking ruins and tiny fishing villages. We were there in the dead of summer, which gives you endless time to explore because it never gets dark. The hotels have blackout shades, but who needs sleep when there’s so many wonders to see? Ellen and I ran around 24/7 looking at bubbling volcanic holes, thermal springs (though watch out for the flies) and these gorgeous Icelandic horses with long manes. It was so much more amazing than I expected.
On my to-go list: Hiking in New Zealand. It’s a dream of mine, but the flight is a real schlep. I’m sure my husband won’t want to go. Hey, Ellen—want to go to New Zealand?
Cheryl Strayed: Visby, Sweden
Where the best-selling author of Wild, 53, found magic and serendipity in a Szechuan restaurant
In the summer of 2017, my family and I ended up in Visby, on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s not where you’d expect to find the best Szechuan Chinese food on earth, but that’s exactly what happened. And at a place called Surfers, no less. It’s one of those restaurants where you order 10 dishes to split among four people. Everything the waiter told us was good we ordered, and then gobbled up every bit of it. A variety of meats and tofu and vegetables. Part of it was the food. It really was delicious. But there’s also an intangible magic of finding a place like that. There’s this sense of, Wow, how did we get here?
On my to-go list: One of the most painful cancellations of 2020–2021 was our trip to Wales, a weeklong hike on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I promise you, we will get there!