10 TRAVEL QUESTIONS WITH SAMANTHA BROWN

The incredibly popular TV host of PBS’s Places To Love shares her favorites, and who the friendliest people are

 

 

Texas-born Samantha wanted to be an actor after high school, and went north in pursuit of that dream, a well trekked route from America’s aspirational heartlands to New York. But the dream of treading the boards on Broadway morphed into the reality of mostly treading the floors of restaurants as a waitress for eight years. 

 

Her big break came — and went — in almost the same breath. After being spotted in a TV commercial, a producer recommended her as the host of a Travel Channel show in planning. But she was late for her flight and missed her audition. But the fates smiled on her — and, seriously, if the fates ever found it easy to smile on someone, it has to be the sunny and wide-eyed, full of perpetual curiosity Samantha Brown, right? — and she got a second crack at the audition, nearly missed the plane again, talked her way onto the plane on the tarmac, and aced the audition. That was 1999, and the show, the first of many over a whirlwind 22 year career, was the not entirely memorable Great Vacation Homes.

 

But, you know, from tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow and after a slew of different series and specials, including Girl Meets Hawaii, Great Hotels, Passport to Europe, Passport to Latin America, and Samantha Brown’s Asia, she launched, in 2018, the globetrotting Samantha Brown’s Places to Love, currently in its fifth season, which, perhaps COVID influenced and inhibited, stays at home and crisscrosses the US.

 

Her favorite little known spot in America, since you asked, is Letchworth State Park, in Mt. Morris, NY. “There’s the first of its kind Autism Nature Trail, designed for visitors on the autism spectrum with a range of abilities. It’s a 1/2 mile loop trail with 8 pavilions to help people connect and grow with nature. This is so important because the travel world is rarely designed for people with different abilities, neuro or physical, and that is changing.”  

 

The place that most startled her, she says, is Rio De Janeiro, where she took a “Poverty Tour” — a guided trip through the favelas on the crusty edge of the city. “I wondered, what good are these? Are you just taking advantage of a people, and gawking at a life you’d never live? I personally didn’t feel that way, and I had respect for the effort of people. But I saw poverty that I had never been witness to. But also the beauty and the humanity.”

 

Her hosting style is unpretentious and gloriously infectious, and, like Anthony Bourdain, more interested in the people she meets than the places she visits. You want to travel with her. And, through the magic of TV, you do.

 

 

Samantha meets a wooden man at The Bernheim Forest, with Visual Arts Coordinator Jenny Zeller

 

 

 

Who are the friendliest people you’ve met in your travels and who are the least friendly?

 

Friendliest people, it’s going to be a tie, New Zealanders and Cambodians.

 

Least friendly? Well, I would say it’s different because I’m on camera, and the least friendly, or suspicious of a camera being on them, Germans. You have to do a lot of explaining. If you go to Italy, they see a camera and it’s “Oh, come over here, point it in my direction!” If we go to Germany, it’s “What are you doing?” 

 

 

Who are the wisest people you’ve met?

 

Boy, the wisest. I’m going to give that to an age as opposed to a region or a country. I would say people in their 60s and 70s, and why I say that is because the travel world Is really given over to the young, the people in their 20s, the Instagrammers, and they’re hanging out with people their age, and what gets lost is hanging out with people who are older than you and really mixing with a different age group. People in their late-60s and 70s have so much wisdom to impart, especially now during these times.

 

 

What do you hate about travel?

 

I have a few pet peeves. I hate packing. I have since the beginning, it’s never gotten easier. I hate when a hotel room really isn’t your own room, that even when you put do not disturb, it doesn’t register anything to anyone who just comes into your room. I hate the lack of privacy in your own hotel room.

 

I also absolutely hate the drive from and to airports. I’m usually tired or I’m stressed and it’s not the time to pick a fight with me.

 

 

What’s your favorite country? And which country treats its people the best and the most fairly in your experience?

 

Oh, gosh, favorite is New Zealand. That is where I wanted to move during the pandemic. It’s just a magical place. I absolutely fell in love with it. The people are lovely, relaxed, naturally beautiful. Great food, great beer. They have the Maori, they have this wonderful indigenous culture. 

 

I would say Scandinavia [treats its people best]. I really felt that when I was there, spending a lot of time in Europe. Their whole tax structure, and just their quality of life. You feel like, well, if someone has a quality of life, that’s something the government has put into.

 

I feel it’s a managerial system. If you go to a hotel and the bill person is wonderful, and is emboldened with the power to make your day by management, you feel that. If you go into a place and people are just good and happy, well, then there must be some sort of politicking going on creating that in some way. 

 

 

At the 200 year-old Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky, with Freddie Johnson, a 3rd generation employee

 

 

Where is the most special place you’ve ever been? 

 

I’ve always loved Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the 20 years I’ve been shooting shows, I’ve done five episodes there. I’ve also brought both my mom and my sister on separate trips. What I love is it has this incredible confluence of cultures. You have, of course, the Spanish. You have an incredible Native American indigenous population, and then you have Americans. They all mix. To have that history of the United States is very rare.

 

Then, you have this wonderful art, a beautiful art community. And great food, a little city, wonderful access to nature. It’s really a place to ask questions of your life and wait for an answer.

 

One of the first episodes I ever did was walking the Aspen Tree Trail. It’s maybe a mile outside of downtown Santa Fe and I just walk it and I have big questions in my life. “What am I going to do with my life? Is this going the way I want?” I talk to the trees when I walk. Probably once every six years or so I head up there. I really love that.

 

 

Where have you had the best food? And is there a particular restaurant you love best in the world?

 

Easily Malaysia. I loved Malaysia.

 

There’s an island in Malaysia, Penang. Just street food, just people making one dish, a dish that goes back generations, and you get it.

 

I can tell you [my favorite], it’s not necessarily a restaurant, but a little hotdog stand on Route 1 in Maine, called Flo’s Hot Dogs. She’s no longer with us. Her daughter-in-law now owns it — it’s a tiny little shack Flo opened in 1949 to serve the traveling car salesmen who would pass by. She has a special sauce, a protected sauce. It’s a secret sauce that she puts on steamed hot dogs with mayonnaise and it’s phenomenal. I’ve been eating at Flo’s since I was 11.

 

 

Shucks! Samantha at The Union Oyster House, pretending she’s never seen a big, strong man open an oyster

 

 

What inspires you most when you travel, and do you always learn something?

 

Getting to spend time in people’s everyday lives. A lot of people think what I do is amazing because I get to go to different places, foreign places and exotic places, but it’s almost the place is secondary to the people. What I’ve always loved and become absolutely more of an advocate of is really highlighting people’s efforts because I think it takes a lot of effort to create these experiences that we as travelers just get to show up and have.

 

I like to get to know the people who created these experiences, who created a wonderful restaurant, and really understand the journey for them so that we as travelers understand that effort and just want to support it. And that community that happens between the traveler and the local and how that can feel like we’re more a part of that community.

 

For me, it is about learning something new and really learning about another person. Everywhere I go, I keep an open mind. I feel, especially with our country, people are becoming very wooden-minded, and that’s really a detriment to who we are, and even our own democracy is at risk of not listening, and not opening yourself up to how another person feels and their perspective. Just the listening part has become most challenging. I feel that travel is that antidote, travel is the way forward.

 

 

Where were you most scared? 

 

Belize, In 2005. I was going for a walk. We were staying in downtown Belize and I asked the front desk clerk, “I’m walking to the market. Is it safe for me?” As a woman, I always ask that. She said, “Oh, of course. You’re fine.” Then as I was walking, I just turned down the street and felt immediately that something was wrong, and I thought, “Well you have to go down that street. That’s your only way there and you write the show so you can’t just go back and stay in your hotel.”

 

I continued and then very shortly after that, I was pretty much surrounded by a group of men, and maybe even more unfortunate, it was an English colony prior, so I could understand totally what they were saying, which was very unpleasant. I thought, “Okay, this is bad.” Then they just stopped and went away. It was like dogs at the end of their leash and that was it. They had their strong bark and they were done and then they turned around and nothing happened, but it really shook me to the core.

 

 

At Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms with Founder Michael Blowen

 

I would say the most important lesson I learned from that moment is that I knew before anything happened that something was wrong and I didn’t trust myself. I think we have these hairs at the back of our neck that actually do a very good job in protecting us. I will always listen, much more so than a person telling me at the front desk, or a guidebook. 

 

Now, I’ve been to Honduras and I go on long hikes by myself, which now that I think about that, was probably ridiculous. Stupid of me, but I would be walking on a path and another man would be coming towards me holding a massive machete and he would just be smiling and I could tell right away he was a farmer and you can feel it. You understand when you are in an unsafe place. You feel that energy, so it’s really important to really have an antenna up when you’re in any kind of foreign place, you will feel that change. 

 

 

What’s the best travel book you’ve ever read?

 

There’s a few! I love Seth Kugel. He used to do the Frugal Travel column in The New York Times and he wrote a beautiful book, Rediscovering Travel. It’s a beautiful guide for the globally curious. He’s one of those writers that you read and you’re like, “I wish I could write like that.” 

 

I’ll never forget when I read one of his articles, how whenever he finally gets to a destination that’s he’s researched, planned for, saved for, there’s always that moment you just think, “This is it?” It’s almost a let down. From there your real experience begins, because before it was just this sort of imagining of it. Now it’s reality and there’s a human moment of going, “Oh gosh. Well, I guess now I’ve got to do this.”

 

Of course, once you head out, you feel great, but I love that because at first I always felt that way. I felt like he named something that I was almost ashamed of, being a traveler and having that feeling. You should be happy all the time! You should be so excited! You should be ready. 

 

 

What’s the most overrated place in the world?

 

Wow, oh gosh. Most overrated? I don’t know. I guess, I don’t think I’ve ever left a place going, “Well, that didn’t work.” and if I do have that attitude, I’d feel like maybe I didn’t work hard enough to find what was special, although I feel like I do. 

 

I feel like overrated to me means you’re just spending way too much time doing super touristy stuff and overloading your schedule so you don’t really absorb and have time to actually take things in and be in the moment. To me, maybe it’s more of an approach to travel that I feel is really overrated, as opposed to a certain place. I think maybe every place could be overrated if the approach was not authentic.

 

Even in the most overrated places, if you approach it differently, turning right as opposed to left, then you’ve got a very different experience. If you are in Saint Mark’s Square [in Venice] and it is a mob scene, yes, that’s overrated. Sitting in one of those cafes and paying $10 for a crappy cappuccino and you can’t even use the bathroom, that’s overrated to me. Those restaurants around the piazzas in Italy. But if you go 10 minutes in any direction to where people live, you’re going to find a much more authentic, more laid back experience. 

 

If there was one overrated place, it would be any main piazza of any main city in Italy. I would avoid that. [Laughs] 

 

And I live in New York City, so put me down with Times Square as well! There’s nothing good about Times Square, nothing.