Since 2006, Auckland-based travel and food writer Brett Atkinson has worked as a freelancer for Lonely Planet. While he's currently focused on exploring New Zealand, here's what he's been missing while our borders are closed, and a few things he's learned while undertaking about 50 guidebook research assignments across 15 countries.
I love them all, big and small, from Asian mega-hubs like Singapore's Changi and Seoul's Incheon, through to tiny airstrips like Atiu in the Cook Islands, or landing amid a curious audience of local lions in Botswana's Okavango Delta. That first skidding touch of a plane's wheels in a new destination always reinforces the promise of, 'Okay, what's next?'
At home, I'm definitely a morning person, and when I'm travelling, breakfast is often my favourite meal. Cities are waking up slowly with a relaxed vibe, and it's a great time to be perched on a tiny plastic stool in Malaysia devouring a bowl of laksa or pairing a brioche with the day's first espresso in a Sicilian cafe.
There's no shortage of great beer in New Zealand, but some of my favourite memories are checking out breweries overseas. Amid Tokyo's tangle of neon and Japanese kanji characters, the hoppy international acronym of I, P and A always signals excellent brewpubs, while Portland's reputation as a crafty Pacific Northwest hotspot is reinforced with more than 70 breweries.
Behind the wheel of a car is often my happy place, and my favourite drives include the coastal forested route of California's Highway 1 through Big Sur or fringing the borders of Iran and Syria amid the expansive landscapes of southeastern Turkey. Tunes from Paul Kelly and Hunters & Collectors always team well with a road trip through the Aussie outback.
Breakfast is just one good reason to get up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The overlapping aromas of coffee, duty-free fragrances and avgas all combine amid the expectation of an early morning redeye flight, while rising pre-dawn is always the best strategy to maximise the enjoyment of sunrises and safaris.
Returning to some destinations multiple times to update Lonely Planet's information means that casual acquaintances from early trips often become good friends and travelling companions a few years later. In the case of a few trusted on the road partners – xin chao to Kien Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam, and merhaba to Sabahattin Alkan in Van, Turkey – F now also stands for Family.
To paraphrase Mark Twain's "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" line, travel guidebook sales were actually very robust leading up to 2020. In the future, there'll definitely be the need for updated travel information, so hopefully, I can get back to hunting out the best experiences various destinations have to offer. Checking in with good friends on Messenger or FaceTime just isn't the same.
As much as I'm a fan of Airbnb and other independent accommodation, sometimes it's great to avoid the occasional hassle of entry codes and key drops, and just rock up to a hotel reception and check in. Especially when breakfast in a mid-range Sri Lankan hotel almost always includes a table-covering array of curries and sambals.
I've caught an armada of ferries to interesting islands, but it's not always been smooth sailing. A creaking wooden ferry travelling from the Sumatran city of Padang to the Mentawai Islands got stranded halfway due to engine trouble, while spring storms prevented me from returning to the Turkish mainland from the island of Gokceada for four days. The first rule of guidebook writing? Always be flexible with your schedule.
Jumping on a motorbike
Hands-down the best way to explore a big Asian city is to jump on the back of a motorbike. Smartphone apps like Grab make it as easy as summoning an Uber in New Zealand. Just remember to keep your knees tucked in tightly during rush hour in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City. One of these days, the helmet the driver offers me may actually fit my big head.
Kiwi on-the-water highlights include drifting along Doubtful Sound in soft Fiordland rain, but I've also been lucky enough to paddle with sea lions in Ecuador, and on the chilly waters of Tutka Bay in Alaska. After capsizing on the Vltava river near the Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, a waterproof barrel containing my money, car keys and passport drifted away from me and was very fortunately retrieved 400m downriver. Lesson learned.
Massive lakes like Lake Van in eastern Turkey can often resemble the ocean, while my favourite reminders of the planet's volcanic energy include Oregon's expansive Crater Lake National Park, and the multi-hued mountain-top waters of Kelimutu on the Indonesian island of Flores.
Also file under E for Early Start. No traveller has ever regretted getting to a market just as it opens. They're often great spots for both breakfast and lunch, with favourites including man'oushe flatbreads in Beirut or grilled Mexican chorizo in Oaxaca. There was even that time I could get a beer for breakfast at the Central Market in Budapest.
Researching a big city like Perth, Prague or Hanoi is usually an opportunity to rent an apartment, using it as a base to explore the destination in depth, and discovering what makes local neighbourhoods like Leederville, Karlin or Long Bien tick. At the very least, the guy at the cafe downstairs usually knows my name a few days in.
Off the beaten track
Exploring up-and-coming areas of a city or emerging regions of a country is the best part of updating a guidebook. New cafes, bars, restaurants and galleries usually lead the charge, while researching areas like Vietnam's far north Ha Giang province and the remote Kelabit Highlands in Borneo are two favourite Lonely Planet memories.
I'm very much the second-best photographer in the house – my wife, Carol, is far more accomplished – but I'm definitely missing taking photos while on assignment. Often, they'll just be to jog my memory or support my notes when I get home, but I'm still proud of a few of them. Especially the ones of the Alaskan bear and the Namibian lion.
Ask the right questions of the right people, and guidebook research can soon assume a life of its own. Query the Uber driver or the chef where they like to eat or ask the guys at the brewery what they like to do at the weekend, and you're soon adding an extra day in a city to hunt down a few new leads. Remember, always be flexible with your schedule.
Occasionally, getting around via a country's rivers is the best way to explore a destination, but issues with water levels sometimes make it tricky. Low water on the Mekong meant a downstream river trip was replaced by a bumpy local bus in Laos, while exploring Borneo's forested hinterland on the Batang Rejang River saw me cooling my heels in the sleepy riverside town of Kapit for a couple of days. At least the guy at the local kopi cafe knew my name.
I'm never happier than when digging into a bowl of Burmese mohinga noodles or a pizza-style lahmacun in Turkey. We get a good range of international flavours in New Zealand now, but dishes always taste better framed by the sights and sounds of Mandalay or Gaziantep. It's always a good idea to join a street food tour when you first arrive in a city to know what to confidently order later in your stay.
Joining other guided tours is also a good idea, especially in a bigger city when tours often feature a specific focus. Recent highlights include a walking tour around Palermo learning about the anti-Mafia initiatives of Sicily's Addiopizzo movement.
Subterranean experiences while researching for Lonely Planet have included the underground city of Derinkuyu in the Turkish region of Cappadocia, exploring the labyrinthine catacombs in Naples, and the spooky "Bone Church" in the Czech town of Kutna Hora.
Getting that little stamp or sticker in your passport is always a big moment before travel. Even if you need to wait for a month for it to come back from a certain Southeast Asian embassy in Canberra.
From lions and elephants in Namibia and Botswana to humpback whales in Niue and Alaska, seeing animals in the wild is always a special experience. Closer to home, the albatrosses, penguins and sea lions of the Otago Peninsula have been a decent proxy for the Galapagos Islands across recent months.
Yes, queuing up with your shoes and belt off is a hassle, but I'll gladly take that once we're able to travel again. Maybe next time I won't leave my laptop at Auckland Airport before flying to San Francisco.
No one's ever going to approach me for SailGP or the America's Cup, but after helping sail a catamaran amid the sheltered waters of Morocco's Western Sahara region, I'm allowed to dream, right?
Across in Australia, the open grasslands of the Taronga Western Plains Zoo can be experienced safari-style, while exploring the excellent San Diego Zoo in California was actually one of my final overseas memories back in February 2020. At least we'll be able to visit the new South East Asia Jungle Track when it opens soon at Auckland Zoo.