Travel Then and Now: An Interview with Georgia Hesse

BPTFPC_sThe absolutely amazing Book Passage Travel, Food and Photography Conference begins next week, August 11-14,  in Corte Madera.

Writers from around the world will be converging for four days of workshops, panels, consultations, and outstanding presentations. I am thoroughly thrilled to be kicking off the conference with a presentation about The Life of a Travel Writer with one of my mentors from way back:  the Grande Dame of travel writing, Georgia Hesse.

I had lunch with Georgia at San Francisco’s Café de la Presse. We talked about travel, then and now, over a salade frisée, a tarte provençale, and a couple of glasses of vin rouge. This prompted a host of questions from me, which Georgia has politely deigned to answer.

First, a few words about Georgia and her illustrious career:

Georgia I. Hesse claims to have been born on the 28 Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. She was graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and studied political science and white wines as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Strasbourg in France. She is the founding travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner (the original Hearst-owned one, she hastens to say) and then of the joined (on Sundays) Examiner-Chronicle.

Georgia has taught travel writing for the 20 years of the Book Passage conference and has lectured at several writers’ gatherings and at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. For several years she had a weekly travel-music program at the once and much-missed S.F. radio station KABL. Her articles have appeared in 20 magazines and 38 newspapers and she is the author/co-author of 14 books, several of them guides to France and California.

Georgia holds the Ordre National du Mérite from the French government and the Chevalier l’Ordre de la République from Tunisia. She has visited all 50 U.S. states and at most recent tally has crossed the Atlantic 174 times and the Pacific 98 times, by airplane and ship. She believes in Paul Theroux’s dictum, “Every step out the door can be a story. Consider San Francisco’s #30 bus.”

Q. Georgia, you were the Travel Editor for the “San Francisco Examiner” and then the”Examiner-Chronicle” at a time when travel was an elegant enterprise; what was your most extravagant journey?

A. The most extravagant in traditional terms surely was a trip back to the time of Maria Theresa and the Hapsburgs, in the glorious first half of the 19th century when Vienna replaced Paris as the center of the elegant earth. Through a wrinkle in time equivalent to that in the current movie “Midnight in Paris,” I fell into the Vienna of Biedermeier design, of gold leaf, crystal, fine porcelain and pastries…into the very night of the Opera Ball in the Staatsoper. Pomp and circumstance, glitter and dazzle, medals and uniforms, sobbing violins and the corps de ballet of the Vienna State Opera, even a few diamond tiaras.  “Ah,” said an irreverent tenor, “Strauss is so much more delicious than socialism!” It was so transporting that the next year I went back and fell through that wrinkle again.OperaBallGeorgia_s

Q. On the flip side, I loved your story in “I Should Have Stayed Home.” Do you have another standout in that category? Can you tell us about it?

A. A 12-day rattle and roll across the old Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Express was not as dangerous as the North Pole trip but almost as uncomfortable. I had thought the forest of white birches in the David Lean movie of Boris Pasternak ‘s novel “Dr. Zhivago” seemed endless…but in reality that forest goes on for three days. Following Siberia, Finland seemed like “A Thousand and One Nights.” I was fascinated, in an international relations sense, by every day of that trek, but I’m glad I don’t have to make it again.

And then there was the long time when I didn’t know where in the world I was and it turned out to be Guadalcanal. And then… .

Q. What do you like most about travel today?

A. Most places have bathrooms and most of those are clean, unlike a tent of carpets on the Kenya-Tanzania border.

Q. What do you like least?

A. The crowds and lack of civility at airports and aboard aircraft. Add to that the endless fees and unforeseen add-on charges. I used to feel flying as a great escape. Now it’s an exercise in exhaustion, mental as well as physical.

Q. What place is currently at the top of your list of places to visit and why?

A. Libya, crazily enough; because I’ve never tramped through Leptis Magna.

Q. What advice do you have for travel writers new to the business?

A. Learn how to write and then Stop, Look, and Listen to the world as it speaks to you.


Good advice from an expert and much more to come. See you at the conference! Don’t forget, there is a special discount for Left Coast Writers®, so be sure to tell them you’re one of us.

—Linda Watanabe McFerrin, travel writer and author of Dead Love, (Stone Bridge Press, 2010)

Photo courtesy of Georgia Hesse