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Pearls of wisdom and wanderlust from Pico Iyer

Last month the wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent author Pico Iyer published his 11th book, The Man Within My Head, an intriguing hybrid of autobiography and literary criticism that insightfully illuminates the life and work of Graham Greene – and of Pico Iyer. On his book tour, I've had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Pico on stage twice, the first time on Jan. 26 in an event sponsored by Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco and the second in Washington DC on Feb. 10 as part of the National Geographic Traveler Conversations series that I host. Happily, as it turned out, these conversations traveled in quite different directions -- but really, every conversation with Pico is an edifying journey, wherever it goes. Here I want to single out four pearls of wisdom I took away from our San Francisco odyssey.

1. Spring and summer, East and West

I began by asking Pico about the differences between the author of his first book, Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1988, and the man who wrote The Man Within My Head. This prompted him to reflect on how the older you grow, the less you know: "The sentences in my first book are delivered with a really bratty confidence. You know, 'I know everything in the world because I'm 28 years old.' And my new book is haunted by a sense of not knowing a thing, and that being the beauty of life but also the confoundingness of it."

A little later he took these thoughts to new soaring levels:

"Partly I think it's the difference between spring and autumn.... Graham Greene at the very end of his life said that there's wisdom in age and it's all about wishing you weren't so wise. Yet autumn can see spring a lot better than spring can see autumn.

"I've always been fascinated by autumn. It's my favorite season in the country that we both share as our secret home, Japan, because it can take in the whole cycle, because it knows everything is impermanent, and because it knows that the impermanence itself is rather permanent. All the leaves are falling, the cold is approaching, it's getting darker, and the days are shortening, and that is all necessary to get back to spring. Whereas spring has a much more linear sense; it believes everything is moving in a forward direction. When I was a kid, I thought/expected I would know much more at 50 than I do at 20. Now I can see the progress moves cyclically rather than in a linear way, and follows the seasons rather than a manmade assembly line.

Three unexpected treats on Oahu's North Shore

Last October, when my wife and I visited Oahu for a week, we spent the first few days happily exploring the attractions and activities we'd plotted before the trip: the artfully educating exhibits at the Bishop Museum; the snorkeling splendors of Hanauma Bay; the tranquil and transporting Byodo-In Temple; Chef Ed Kenney's acclaimed organic cuisine at Town restaurant; and the then-just-opened Japengo restaurant in the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, which promised – and as it turned out, delivered – a palate-expanding fusion feast (three faves: the Tootsie maki with crab, avocado, shiitake and lobster; the scallop butter yaki; and the coconut crème brulee). I've already written about two other highlights from those first few days: a night of multi-course culinary magic at Alan Wong's restaurant in Honolulu and a visit to life-changing MA'O Organic Farms in Wai'anae.

But a quarter-century of serendipity has taught us that some of the most memorable on-the-road experiences come from listening to residents after you've landed in a place, and on this trip again three of our finest discoveries – all on Oahu's less-visited North Shore – came from locals' impromptu advice. If you're going to Oahu, here are three North Shore sites we'd recommend you add to your own must-do map.

1. Waimea Valley: This 1,875-acre valley preserve on the outskirts of Hale`iwa, near Waimea Bay, doesn't billboard its wonderfulness. In fact, that's one of the many things we loved about it: how humble and low-key it is, despite– or perhaps because of? – its riches.

Waimea Valley comprises one of Oahu's last examples of the traditional land use system called ahupua'a. In this system, the islands were divided into wedge-shaped slices of land, ruled by a local chief and often overseen by a priest, that ran from the mountains to the sea and incorporated all the kinds of topography and resources residents needed to thrive. You can learn much more about the ahupua'a system here.

Four top treats from my 2011 travels

Since I've been a travel writer for three decades, people often ask me if I don't get tired of all the traveling and writing. After all, when you do anything for 30 years, it must get boring, right?

Wrong! I guess that's one of the gifts of this line of work. Every trip, every place, offers something new, even if I've been there a dozen times before. This year I took four big trips -- to British Columbia, London, France, and Oahu -- and each one reaffirmed this truth with multiple unexpected treasures. Here are the top treats from each.

1) OAHU: MA'O Organic Farms

My wife and I didn't know what to expect as we drove on a sunswept October morning to this outpost on the little-visited Leeward Coast of Oahu. When we turned off the Farrington Highway at the Wai'anae exit as instructed, we found ourselves in a nondescript residential area of one-story stucco homes. We wound though the streets deeper and deeper into the interior until we reached the end of the road – and found the smiling face of Kamuela Enos, the Education Resource Specialist at this singular place.

MA'O's mission, Enos told us, is social entrepreneurship through farming, cultivating organic food and young leaders for a sustainable Hawaii. MA'O stands for mala 'ai 'opio, which translates as "the youth food garden." Basically, MA'O takes youngsters from the Wai'anae community – a traditionally neglected settlement of mostly native Hawaiians, beset by severe social, economic and nutritional challenges – and puts them to work on the 16-acre farm, where they learn all the aspects of running a farm, from working the fields to managing the distribution of the produce to maintaining smooth relationships with clients and consumers. MA'O also runs a variety of in-school programs at the Wai'anae intermediate school and high school and at nearby Leeward Community College.

Taste Hawaii: Savoring Alan Wong's fresh farm-to-table feast

On a recent trip to Oahu, my wife and I had the excellent fortune to dine at Alan Wong's eponymous restaurant in Honolulu. Consistently named one of the best restaurants in Hawaii, Alan Wong's has been at the forefront of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement since its founding in 1995. Our farm-to-table, fusion feast featured a number of dishes that embody the chef's culinary quest to showcase Hawaii's fresh food products and its marvelous mélange of culinary cultures. Virtually every dish was a compact lesson in taste, texture, and tradition.

Our favorites included such signature concoctions as the Soup and Sandwich, a stemmed glass filled with chilled vine-ripened Hamakua Springs tomato soup presented with a yin-yang design, crowned with a parmesan cheese crisp and atop it a mini-kalua pig foie gras and mozzarella sandwich; Butter-Poached Kona Lobster, savory chunks of lobster served in a sauce of green onion oil with flavorful morsels of Hamakua Heritage eryngi mushrooms; North Shore Tilipia on a bed of local saimin noodles with Naked Cow Dairy lobster truffle butter nage; Ginger Crusted Onaga with piquant miso sesame vinaigrette, Hamakua mushrooms and sweet corn from Kahuku; Crab "Tofu" Agedashi, consisting of a tofu-like spanner crab mousse with Kona lobster medallions and plump lumps of crab meat, served with kudzu dashi; and a delightful dessert called The Coconut – scrumptious coconut meat-like haupia sorbet served in a chocolate "coconut" shell, surrounded by tropical fruits in a lilikoi sauce. Yum!

Lynn Ferrin, travel writing, and the meaning of life

I recently attended a memorial service for a great friend and a great writer, editor and adventurer who passed away this summer at the age of 73. Her name was Lynn Ferrin, and for 37 years she was an editor at the AAA magazine in northern California; she was the editor in chief for the last seven of those years. For most of these almost four decades the circulation of that magazine was between 2 and 3 million, and by that reckoning Lynn was one of the most influential editors and writers of her lifetime.

The service began with a procession of friends reading excerpts from Lynn's own travel articles, most of those published in the magazine she edited and in the local newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, when I was travel editor and when our friend John Flinn became travel editor after me.

Three of the pieces read were stories that Lynn had written for me, for a quarterly travel magazine that I was privileged to edit for many years called Great Escapes. It was these stories that inspired this essay. All three of these pieces – one about exploring Morocco on an equestrian tour from Meknes to Fes, one about searching for tortoises on a grueling expedition to the rim of Alcedo Volcano on the Galapagos island of Isabela, and one about riding by horseback across the plains of Inner Mongolia – were magnificent; they were not only beautifully evoked descriptions of particular travel experiences, they were also meditations on the meaning of those experiences and by extension, on the larger meaning of life.

Listening to those stories being read, I had two reactions: The first was viscerally recalling the thrill I had felt as an editor upon opening the envelopes Lynn had sent me, holding her meticulously typed and double-spaced manuscripts in my hands, and reading her words for the first time. The frisson of exhilaration coursed through me again, the pure thrill of mentally moving through a piece that transported me first to an entirely foreign place and experience and then back to my own place and experience in the world, and seeing these anew. My second reaction was the thought that both Lynn and I had been the recipients of an extraordinary gift, that as the editor of a quarterly travel magazine in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, I had been able to offer writers an almost unlimited canvas on which to paint their word pictures, and that as a writer for that magazine, Lynn had been able to lovingly paint the pictures she wanted to paint, to shoot for the stars in her writing, to dream big and to have the space to realize that dream.

Starry, starry night: Notes on an edible epiphany in Burgundy

It all began with the carpaccio. I don't hate carpaccio, but when given another choice on a menu – fermented yak tail, say – I'm likely to choose the alternative. So I wasn't really expecting much when the tuxedo'd waiter ceremoniously placed the plate with a generous disc of raw beef, sliced mushrooms and a confetti of foie gras before me.

And then I put a forkful in my mouth. And the world moved.

The combination of textures and tastes was astonishing – smooth and rough, salty and sweet, lean-beefy and fat-foie-grasy and smoky-musky-mushroomy. An edible epiphany.

For a moment I simply savored the symphony in my mouth. Then I said to the Splendid Sixsome, "I love it when a dish teaches me something about food."

And that's how my recent feast at a three-star Michelin restaurant began.

In San Francisco, savoring a slice of heaven on France's Cote d'Azur

September 20, 2011 -- I'm sitting on the sun-washed terrace of La Terrasse restaurant in San Francisco's gorgeous green Presidio. It's a spectacular Indian summer day, with the rays warming my bones and the bay sparkling in the distance under a cerulean sky. All around me, California Mission-style buildings – pale yellow walls, curving arches, terra-cotta roof tiles – shine.

I've been eating escargots and poulet roti avec pommes frites, and sipping a crisp Loire Valley Sancerre, celebrating because in a week I'll be in la belle France, exploring the regions of Burgundy and Champagne. Moments ago I was poring over the itinerary, giddy at the prospect of traveling once again in the country that changed my life decades ago. Suddenly this combination – the frisson of anticipation, the dejeuner francais, and the sun, roof tiles and glinting waters beyond -- concocted a terraced time machine-magic, and I was transported to a sunny scene 18 summers before, and a time-stopping, life-enlarging afternoon at the singular – and to my mind, sacred – restaurant called La Colombe d'Or, in St.-Paul-de-Vence, on France's Cote d'Azur....

I am ensconced under a white parasol at a red bouquet-brightened table, looking out on a somnolent scene of green hills and straw-colored houses with terra-cotta roofs.

I have just finished a plate of green melon and jambon de Parme, and now the waiter has placed before me with a flourish a platter of grilled sea bream, known locally as daurade.

Around me is a symphony of sounds: the clink of silverware on china, the splash of wine into glasses, the mellifluous laughter and multilingual chatter of diners in summery clothes.

The secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative

For years people have been asking me for the secret formula for writing a successful travel story. I did my best to conjure this formula into my book Travel Writing, but as you know, there really isn't any secret formula. Or is there? This year, in preparing for a spate of appearances where I was talking about travel writing – notably TBEX, a talk with Julia Cosgrove of Afar magazine, and a one-day in-the-field writing workshop that was part of the Book Passage travel writing and photography conference -- I realized that I could distill what I've learned in three decades on both sides of the writer-editor relationship into a few pithy points.

So here's my version of the secret formula.

Andrew McCarthy discusses his new role: travel writer

For many people, the name Andrew McCarthy probably conjures images of iconic movies from the 1980s and 1990s, films such as St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, Weekend at Bernie's, and The Joy Luck Club. But these days the actor is playing a new role: travel writer. Since he first wrote a piece on Ireland for National Geographic Traveler in 2006, McCarthy has published some two dozen travel stories in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and Islands. He is now a Contributing Editor for National Geographic Traveler, and last year in the Society of American Travel Writers' annual Lowell Thomas awards competition, he was named Travel Journalist of the Year. McCarthy will be guest of honor at the Book Passage Travel & Food Writers & Photographers Conference next month and has just signed a contract to write his first travel memoir.

I had the pleasure of interviewing McCarthy onstage at the National Geographic Auditorium in May. The evening was full of great anecdotes and insights; here are some that especially struck me.

Travel literature and the importance of scenes:

I asked McCarthy how he made the transition from actor to travel writer, and he said he began reading Paul Theroux and that Theroux's travel books changed his life. (Reading Paul Theroux is, I think, excellent advice for any would-be travel writer.) Theroux and others taught him that in regard to travel literature, "when people do it well, they can really capture the essence of a moment in time, in a place -- in themselves and in the place.

A pilgrim at Stinson Beach

July 20, 11:30 am -- I'm sitting at the southern tip of Stinson Beach, a glorious mile-long stretch of sand that borders the unincorporated, population 650 hamlet of the same name in Marin County, Northern California.

Stinson Beach is a ragged, flip-flops, bikinis, and board shorts kind of town, and whether you're a Bay Area visitor or resident, it's a terrific place to stop. A couple of inviting restaurants face each other across the sole street – famed Highway 1 – that runs through town; both have sun-umbrella'd patios that are intimations of heaven on a balmy, blue-sky day like today. There are arts and crafts galleries, a quintessential little-bit-of-everything market, B&B's, and a beguiling bookstore with a compact, ecumenical and eminently Marin mix of books ranging from Zen treatises and Native American history and culture to mainstream mysteries and fiction, and a proud selection of work by local authors.

I love these riches, but they're not why I come here. Stinson Beach is about an hour's winding drive from my house, so it's not exactly an on-a-whim destination for me; rather it's a touchstone place where I come to gather myself. And today I need gathering.

So here I am, ensconced on a rock beyond an outcrop of massive boulders that separates this thin slice of sand from the main beach, where a couple hundred people are blissfully surfing, strolling and sunbathing.

I've been in this spot for 20 minutes and I haven't seen anyone -- except a teenaged couple who appeared holding hands literally just as I wrote "I haven't seen anyone" and jumped when they saw me and now have abruptly turned back – and I like it that way.

In the 1980s and '90s, when I was the travel editor at the San Francisco newspaper, I used to make a pilgrimage here every spring to write a column. This was the place where I gathered my thoughts, looked back on the triumphs and failures of the year past and ahead to the new year's goals and dreams.

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