You're a bestselling author, but how did you get started in travel writing?
My first travel assignment in 1985 - I was so excited. I started writing about European destinations before I branched out and went global, but I have to stress it was for extremely little pay, as it is now. I think it's almost impossible to be a travel writer, but I just so enjoyed it that I just wanted to make it happen. Decades later, somehow it all worked out and it's all been an incredible education. I'm a research fanatic – I research too much, but all of that over diligence paid off when I did a book of this nature because my knowledge of the world was pretty good, at least as a foundation to go ahead and get started.
How important is to have that knowledge of a country or city, before you travel there?
Mostly, I don't have the time to do the research I would like – you get on a plane without a clue, you get there and hope and it always works out. People are either that way by nature or like me, they prefer to have some sense of the background – but it can be a great experience either way.
1,000 Places To See Before You Die has been a long project. What has inspired you along the way?
My father is German and his character is very prevalent in me – his attitude is that you commit to something and you finish it well, but at the nut of it all is the fact that you're doing something you love and you stay with it. Also, because of the way the book is, I approached each place as its own project so as soon as I got tired with Thailand, I would go on to Botswana etc, so every time I went back to it, it was fresh again.
You must have some favourite destinations amongst those mentioned in the book?
My list of favourite places is 1,000 places long, but my mother was born in southern Italy, so I went back there to discover my roots for a few weeks and ended up staying for five years – for my gap year! I just love Italy – it's Trafalgar's no.1 destination too. It's great for families and those travelling alone, it has more UNESCO heritage sites than any other place in the world, the food, the fashion design, the architecture and the people are great – particularly if you engage them on a one to one. And it's only a small country. The coastline and the museums are out of this world – you could go back a million times. Aside from there being the emotional and sentimental value, I don't think there's anywhere like it.
Where would you most like to visit before you die?
I've been to about 80% of the places in the book, but if there was one place I had to go to immediately, my first answer is always Mongolia. It's almost not of this earth. It's very exotic and every July they have these incredible games that go back to the time of Genghis Khan. I think the entire experience would be very other-worldly. I've wanted to go there since I was 12.
If you could recommend one destination to travel to in 2012, where would it be?
It would have to be Burma. There's been an unofficial boycott with the way the world has protested against their human rights situation, but things have changed hugely as they're having a reelection and the military have finally loosened their grip. It's a country that has been isolated to Western tourism and now it's opening up, I think it's the time to go as the people are really courting tourism and opening their doors for the first time ever. Things there are going to change hugely – it's going to be like Thailand was 30/40 years ago. It's a safe, Buddhist country and we need to see it before the change happens.
There's always a big divide between what you think you need and what you bring so this is a case of do as I say and not as I do! So stick with one colour family, so that everything matches, you only need to pack two pairs of shoes (unless you're having dinner with the Queen). There's nothing that you can't pick up along the way, so just think practically. I bring lots of zip-lock bags, moisturiser, but most it's most important to be comfortable and practical. Think of Winston Churchill's famous quote - supposedly, he said we should lay out everything on the bed then count your money and your clothes and pack half the clothes and twice the money.
2012 is a big year for London. How will the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee affect the world's perception of the city?
I think William and Kate's presence has had a huge impact here but for America, it has given a fresh perception of England – we love that Kate wears her mother's clothes! She's so seemingly sincere. Then we also love all the traditional, quintessentially British things that are even more prominent because of the Jubilee and we've always had a respected interest of the Queen and the monarchy. The country really is at the forefront with the whole word watching and the impact the games will have on the outside perception will be huge. I also think that although London already wears many hats, it's also now an Olympic city so visitors will be that much more encouraged to come here as it's got more to offer than just the changing of the guards and the crown jewels.