Brent's Five Favorite Travel Destinations!
Last week, Michael shared his five favorite nomad experiences — and also his single worst one. Here are mine!
In our nearly-three decades together, Michael and I have traveled to almost fifty countries. Since we became nomads four years ago, we’ve lived for at least a month in twelve.
Michael already gave his list of his favorite we-lived-there destinations. Without further ado, here are mine:
(5) Matera, Italy
Most Americans have a very clear picture of Italy in their heads, because the country has been featured in so many different movies — mostly romcoms, which are determined to present Italy as the most charming, most romantic place on Earth.
But here’s the truth about Italy. The buildings are really old, which means they’re creaky and drafty. And you always think, Am I going to get lead poisoning from all this chipped paint? Also, the Italian government is corrupt, and the bureaucracy is maddening. Oh, and outside of the tourist areas, Italy can be quite dirty, with trash seemingly only picked up biannually.
And none of that matters, because Italy really might be the most charming, most romantic place on Earth.
First, there’s the fabulous history, and the fact that Italy completely transformed Western Civilization twice: first, during the Roman Empire, and then again during the Renaissance.
Then there’s that stunning natural beauty, especially along the coastlines.
But the real key to Italy’s charm and romance? Its people. Italians love to cook, and they’re obviously really good at it. But they also love to talk, and they’re really good at that too.
Michael and I have traveled all over Italy — from Rome, to Florence, to Tuscany, to Venice, to Naples, to Sicily, and even to the under-rated Pisa. But the longest we’ve lived anywhere was in the small southern inland city of Matera, which isn’t on anyone’s bucket list.
Which is part of the reason why Matera is so fantastic. There are almost no tourists! It’s also home to “the Sassi,” which is simultaneously the vast ruins of two ancient cities that run together, and also home to a few hardy families that have always refused to leave. Half stone buildings, half underground caves, humans have lived here since 8000 BC, making it probably the oldest continuously occupied place on Earth.
It’s over ten square kilometers, and absolutely fascinating. I could have explored it forever.
But even with all this ruin-y goodness, the real reason I loved Matera was all the incredible people I met while living there — a mix of local Italians, wandering Europeans, and visiting nomads.
Michael and I are committed to traveling the world for the foreseeable future. But when and if we ever do settle down and/or retire, it will most likely be in Italy.
(4) Hoi An, Vietnam
As we’ve traveled, Michael and I have discovered that most places are nothing like what we expect — and these subverted expectations are huge part of why we find travel so fascinating.
But sometimes places are exactly what like you imagine, in the best possible way.
Italy has been like that for me. And Vietnam was too.
For three months, Michael and lived just outside of Hoi An, near Da Nang, in a lovely apartment at the edge of a vast expanse of rice fields.
And it looked exactly as Vietnam should look, bucolic and beautiful. Water buffalo milled nearby, and farmers dutifully tended their crops. The men and women working in the fields all wore Vietnam's distinctive conical straw hats.
Rice is grown in soupy fields, which are separated by irrigation ditches and wide concrete barriers. In Hoi An, the whole city uses those barriers as bike and scooter paths.
God, I loved riding through those fields on my bike. Because we lived there so long, I got to watch one entire crop of rice grow, from planting to harvest — a process that seemed ancient and beautiful, even if it also looked like backbreaking work, especially under the harsh southeast Asian sun.
The Vietnamese wear those conical hats for a reason! They also wear long pants and long sleeves, which was a little harder for me to understand, though I assume those farmers know what they’re doing.
But none of this is to say that Vietnam didn’t delightfully subvert my expectations too. Hoi An includes a wonderful Old Town, with cobblestone streets that meander through rows of stately old buildings housing shops, restaurants, and beer gardens. The restaurants usually extend up onto the second-floor balconies, which is where most diners sit so the outside breezes can cool the heat from the kitchens below.
Michael and I and our friends ate so many great meals in these restaurants, often starting with Hoi An's famous white rose dumplings, which are spoonfuls of meat or shrimp wrapped in rice paper and then steamed, making each one look like a little white rose.
For a main course, we might then choose some of the city’s equally famous cau lau noodles, which are supposedly made from the ash of one particular tree and water from one particular well.
Old Town Hoi An was nice during the day, but it was absolutely spectacular at night. Ropes of lanterns hang between the buildings, and hundreds of glowing water lanterns are set adrift in the inlet, which is also plied by gondolas and passenger boats decorated with more lanterns and colorful Christmas lights.
I started this article mentioning the idea that a lot of our ideas about the romance of travel come from movies.
But you know what? Actual travel is way more romantic than any movie.
(3) Cruise Ship Living
Okay, this one might technically be cheating — is Cruise Ship Living a “travel destination”? But Michael chose America’s National Parks, so I’m choosing this.
Pre-Covid, Michael and I used to spend about two months each year living on cruise ships — in part, to cross oceans without the big carbon footprint of a plane ride.
Yes, there are ethical considerations when it comes to cruising. The workers of color from poor countries get paid much less than the mostly white officers. And this cheap labor is a kind of economic exploitation, the result of centuries of colonialism and the usual unfair distribution of resources.
But at this point, I’ve had off-the-record and what-seem-like-frank conversations with literally dozens of cruise ship workers, and I’m now convinced that most of these folks desperately want these jobs — and even, er, like them. I’ve been told over and over again, that these jobs, while very difficult, are making their lives, and the lives of their families back home, dramatically better. This is also literally the only way a lot of these people could ever have seen the entire world.
I think some of criticism of cruising is fair (though much has changed in recent years). But I think people who say, “I would never participate in such exploitation!” need to keep in mind that all modern life involves this “exploitation,” at least if you eat fruits and vegetables, use electronics, or wear clothes you didn't make yourself.
And when cruising, at least you can see the faces of these people, see they are real people, and can also leave big tips.
A lot of our nomad friends look down their noses at cruise ships for other reasons too. They say this kind of travel is too “easy.” And that you can’t see anything interesting while on a cruise, because any place where cruise ships make land is ruined by overtourism — by definition.
They're right that cruise ship living is easy.
On the other hand, why should travel always be hard? It’s nice to live in a little luxury for a while. The cabins have twice-daily housekeeping (which I always feel really guilty about, but not so guilty that I’ve ever requested they stop).
And the ships always include lots of great amenities, like a state-of-the-art gym, and different spas and pools, and first-run movies in a theater, and seriously decent live entertainment.
Then there's the food: twenty-four-hour room service, and all-you-can-eat buffets all day long. Every night, there's a four or five-course dinner in the dining room, on a table with a white tablecloth. The food is rarely truly outstanding, but it's usually pretty good.
And, frankly, it’s awesome to unpack once and still see dozens of different destinations.
As for those destinations, well, sure, cruise ships need a certain amount of infrastructure. The crowds do suck. But is Rome still worth seeing? Or Athens? What about the Turkish ruins of Ephesus, which are absolutely stunning — but probably not worth a dedicated trip?
When it comes to long-term cruise ship living, I think two paths diverge in the wood.
On one path, it's possible to indulge in almost every way possible. You can stuff your face with fried chicken, steak, burgers and fries, fish-and-chips, ice cream, and three kinds of cake.
And then you can go have lunch.
I’m not judging, because most of the people on cruise ships are on vacation or retired. The whole point is to relax and indulge.
Okay, maybe I’m judging a little.
The point is, you can eat a lot on a cruise ship. And you can also sit around and do absolutely nothing, which is probably a good thing for most overworked Americans.
But there's also another path. If you’re not looking to relax and indulge, you can also choose to lead a surprisingly balanced life. Maybe even Your Best Life.
For me, that means working out regularly in a great gym. Having an egg-white omelet and fresh fruit for breakfast, a big salad for lunch, and some surprisingly delicious vegetarian and seafood options for dinner. And being so focused that I get lots of writing work during the day, and so active that I get lots of sleep at night.
On a cruise ship, this kind of life is definitely The Path Less Traveled. But after over-indulging for the first week or so, that’s usually the path Michael and I take.
As an added bonus, because we’re too cheap to pay for the insanely expensive internet packages, cruise ship living forces us into a month-long “media detox,” which always feels so wonderful and liberating that when I get off the ship, I vow to stay off social media forever (but then I never follow through).
Cruise ship living may not be for everyone. But a couple of times a year, I guess it’s for me, because I always end up loving it.
FYI, Michael and I have had our best experiences on Holland America and Norwegian.
(2) Mexico City, Mexico
Michael included Mexico City on the list of his favorite nomad destinations — and I agree with everything he said.
This city absolutely blew my mind.
Our apartment was in Roma Norte, just west of the city's historical center. It turned out to be the most charming neighborhood Michael and I have ever lived in: an eclectic collection of funky new buildings and stately older ones, some in serious disrepair.
I remember the first time I heard the term "elegant decay," often used to describe New Orleans. I thought, Oh, please! That's just a pretty way of saying a place is a dump.
But it's not! There is a real beauty when a city carries on despite the weight of time and the gentle pull of entropy.
All the windows in the crumbling brick wall facing our apartment had stone window boxes. Some of the residents still tended them, planting flowers that bloomed even in February. Others had surrendered them to their housecats, giving them a place from which to observe the passing world. And some residents had left their window-boxes entirely alone, to be reclaimed by weeds and wildflowers. From one, an entire tree grew, rising twenty feet up the side of the building.
Like Michael, I loved how pedestrian-friendly our neighborhood was, with an endless number of grand plazas and urban parks, some almost as lush as tropical jungles.
Mexico City also includes a virtually infinite number of fascinating attractions.
I especially liked Xochimilco, which is a vast maze of ancient canals and artificial islands — all that remains of the massive lake upon which the original Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was built. Now the canals are crammed with brightly painted party boats serviced by other smaller boats that are basically floating bars, gift shops, and restaurants. For a small fee, a floating mariachi band will pull alongside you and put on a performance. The experience is kitschy and crazy, but I absolutely loved it, in part because it caters almost entirely to Mexicans, not foreign tourists.
Also worth seeing are the ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, a vast complex spread out over twenty square kilometers on the outskirts of Mexico City. The Aztecs once lived here, but they didn’t build this city’s incredible pyramids.
So who did?
No one knows! Teotihuacan’s construction began back in the first century, but when the Aztecs arrived in the thirteenth century, the city had been abandoned for centuries.
Oh, sure, some archeologists say poor land use practices and a changing climate led to famine, which caused this ancient civilization to fall and the survivors to scatter. But I have my money on alien invaders.
(Also, you must absolutely not miss La Gruta, this fabulous restaurant deep inside a cave near the entrance to Teotihuacan.)
And finally, on the topic of Mexico City, there is the incredible food. The city brims with hipster bistros, classic diners, trendy restaurants, and, of course, its deservedly famous street food.
American “Mexican” food is very different from actual Mexican cuisine, and I could probably wax poetic forever on the real stuff. Suffice to say that the not-so-simple taco is far from this country’s only claim to fame, but if it was, it would still be pretty damn impressive.
But since we’re on the subject of Mexico, here’s where I’ll disagree with Michael slightly: I actually ended up liking Puerto Vallarta, where we waited out Covid. Sure, it’s a tourist town. But the locals are somehow still very friendly, and even here, the food is surprisingly good.
And Puerto Vallarta is home to the Boca de Tomatlán Trail, a meandering trail that starts about fifteen kilometers south of town and leads to a series of isolated beaches. It’s one of the most scenic hikes I’ve ever taken.
(1) Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia
People often ask how we choose our destinations. The answer is sometimes, We read about it, and it sounded interesting.
But the far more common answer is word-of-mouth from our friends. Or, even better, a friend will say, “Why don’t we all meet up in this city I've been meaning to go to?”
Michael and I ended up in Tbilisi, which is in the most eastern part of Eastern Europe, because friends had been recommending it for a while and because we planned to meet up with two other good friends.
And we had an absolute ball!
I loved Georgian food, in part because I hadn't ever tasted anything exactly like it — a combination of roasted meats, stewed and marinated vegetables, rich nutty sauces, and, oh God, those delicious khinkali dumplings.
In fact, the tastes and flavors of the first few meals we had were so interesting and complicated that I thought the local chefs were trying to impress us with flashy deconstructions and pretentious pan-Middle Eastern innovations.
"Why don't we try traditional Georgian cuisine some night?" I said at one such meal.
"This is traditional Georgian cuisine," my dining companion said, instantly blowing my mind.
As for the khinkali dumplings, they're made from a thick white dough, and then boiled, which cooks the herbed meat, cheese, or vegetables inside, and also creates a luscious, piping hot broth which is supposed to be sucked out before consuming the rest of the dumpling. Because of this tasty, sealed-in broth, these dumplings don't even need a dipping sauce.
Georgia also bakes the best bread I had ever tasted — at least until we took a road-trip to neighboring Armenia a couple of weeks later. Thick and chewy, with a tang of salt, crusty yet somehow also very light: I honestly never knew something as simple as bread could taste so good.
Tbilisi is another ancient city, founded in 455 AD. It was once a stop on the Silk Road and has long been the crossroads to many different civilizations.
Georgia was under Soviet occupation from 1922 until 1991, and you can see that influence everywhere, from the grand Russian parks to the towering art deco statues, including Kartlis Deda, or Mother Georgia, who looks down on the city from high atop Sololaki Hill. At one point, we rode the gondola up to the sprawling park of gardens and ancient ruins against which she is perched, but even though we were directly underneath her steel dress, we didn't dare look up it, because she absolutely looks like she would cut a bitch.
We also made more local friends in Tbilisi than anywhere since Italy.
But the primary reason I loved this city so much?
Michael and I visited Tbilisi at the end of our second year as nomads. Michael had long been all-in on this new lifestyle of ours, but I still had some doubts. When we arrived in the city, I was thinking, How long do I want us to keep doing this nomading thing?
After three months of exploring this fabulous city with Michael and friends old and new — and eating all that wonderful food! — the whole question seemed utterly ridiculous.
How long do I want to keep doing this nomading thing?
Ever since Tbilisi, the answer has been: As long as these legs of mine will carry me.
And my LEAST Favorite destination is…
…Koh Lanta, Thailand.
This is an island on the west coast of Thailand, not far from Phuket. The beaches were beautiful, and the prices insanely low, but the island is absolutely jammed with tourists.
Oh, and you know those pictures you see of people living in bungalows on a Thai beach? The thing you can’t see are all the mosquitos.
Speaking of mosquitos, I got dengue fever on Koh Lanta, and it made me the sickest I’ve ever been in my life — hopefully, the sickest I’ll ever be.
But if I didn’t like Koh Lanta, why in the world did Michael and I stay there for three whole months?
Because once again, we’d rendezvoused with old friends — and we kept making new friends the longer we stayed.
And since the food is excellent everywhere in Thailand, we were able to enjoy countless meals together on those lovely beaches, and we ended up having a mostly great time.
Which just goes to show that no place on Earth is too bad when you’re sharing it with people you love.
Check out Michael's list here.
P.S. If you’ve enjoyed reading about our travels, we would truly appreciate it if you helped spread the word. Feel free to forward this column to a friend you think might be interested.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. Visit us at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com, or on Instagram or Twitter.
Thank you for including cruising on your list. I am sometimes reluctant to mention our cruises because of all the negative feedback we get, but cruises have taken us to places we might have been hesitant to travel on our own, and have provided cultural enrichment well beyond our expectations. Plus, a few weeks with a good gym doesn’t hurt!
Thanks for sharing! I love Italy, probably my favorite country. Hoi An was beautiful, just like you described it. I would love to explore Mexico City further than my brief stays but I agree about the food and the complexity of flavors. I have never done long-term cruising but I like using transatlantic cruises to get to Europe. For me the days at sea are beautiful and an airplane is just so crowded, with no room, and uncomfortable for hours on end. I haven't been to your other two places but they were nice to read about. Cheers to the nomad lifestyle!