The Favourites of Dave Seminara
Dave Seminara is an American travel writer based in Florida. He is a former diplomat and author of four books. The latest published on June 1st, 2021 titled Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed and the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth. It’s a fascinating book that takes the reader inside the subculture of country collecting, trips to danger zones, almost impossible places to reach, and shares the story of a young con man who became a problem for some of the world’s most travelled people. You can visit his website at DaveSeminara.com for more information.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
The United States of America
This is the most difficult question I’ve ever been asked, and we’re just getting started here! Since you insist, I’m starting with an obvious, if unfashionable, choice. It sounds strange to call this country underrated, but in a way, it is. The geographic diversity of my country is astonishing! We have 423 national parks, plus a host of fascinating places that are absolutely unique, like Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, New York, Chicago, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, New Orleans, St. Augustine, I could go on and on.
I’ve been to 48 states and lived in nine of them but still haven’t seen it all. There are roughly 50 million immigrants from around the world living in the U.S., so in our larger cities, you can enjoy every type of international cuisine imaginable. I live in beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida, and in the last week, I ate out on three consecutive nights at very authentic Croatian, Mexican and Turkish restaurants. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do that.
This is a sentimental choice. I was in my country’s diplomatic corps from 2002-7, and I spent two of those years living and working at the American embassy in Skopje. I used that time to explore every nook and cranny of this fascinating crossroads country and made incredible friends. When you make a friend in Macedonia, you’ve made a friend for life. I highly recommend Ohrid, a seriously underrated lakeside city with a great climate in summer and a host of ancient churches and monasteries.
If you read my collection of travel stories, Breakfast with Polygamists: Dispatches from the Margins of the Americas, you’ll discover some uniquely American places I bet you’ve never heard of before.
I have about a dozen countries I’d like to fit into this spot, but I’m going with Colombia because it surpassed my expectations in every way. It’s a beautiful country with incredible biodiversity, that’s impossibly lush and green. Colombia is a paradise for birders. The people are very friendly, it’s affordable, and the national cuisine is simple and excellent. My favourite places are charming small towns like Villa de Leyva and Jardin, not the big cities like Bogota and Medellin, where most tourists spend their time.
Switzerland, Georgia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Malta, Uzbekistan and Norway.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
I created a diplomatic incident with Malta
When I was thirteen years old, I was given the task of representing Malta at a Model U.N. exercise held at my school in Buffalo, New York. We were supposed to dress up in native costume, but it was 1986, well before the internet was invented, and I had no idea how people in Malta dressed. It appeared to be close enough to Libya, so I decided to have some fun and dress up like Colonel Gaddafi in an Arab headdress with dark sunglasses.
The local newspaper took a photo of me, somehow it was noticed by the Maltese embassy, and, a few months later, my school received a scathing letter from the office of the Prime Minister of Malta! The personal secretary of the Prime Minister challenged me to correct the false impression I gave Americans of his country. But I was a 13-year-old boy in Buffalo, how was I supposed to do that?
Relations between the U.S. and Malta weren’t good at that time and Mario Cacciotolo, the author of the letter, hinted that I might be part of some anti-Maltese conspiracy. Twenty-five years later, I finally had a chance to correct the wrong impression I created about Malta, recommending the place in the travel section of The New York Times. I visited the country on a cruise and tried to find Mario to apologize in person. Believe it or not, we became pretty good friends. This story is told in my first travel collection, Bed, Breakfast & Drunken Threats: Dispatches from the Margins of Europe.
Bed, Breakfast & Drunken Threats in Georgia
Here’s a story that inspired the title of my first book. I visited Kazbegi, then a forlorn mountain outpost in the Caucasus mountains, in 2000. I planned to stay at a Soviet-era hotel called the Hotel Kazbegi. But when I arrived, I learned that it had closed down, so I had to ask around to find someone’s home to stay in.
A guy named Georgi said I could stay in his house and eat with his family for $5 per night, cash upfront. All this was communicated with sign language, as we shared no common tongue. He took my $5 and dropped me off at his home, where I was greeted by his lovely wife. Hours later, Georgi returned, pissed drunk. My $5 went straight to the neighbourhood liquor kiosk. Georgi acted like he didn’t remember me, he was shouting and threatening me as though he wanted to fight.
It wasn’t clear to me if I was sitting too close to his wife on the couch when he returned or what was happening. I wanted to escape, but it was pouring rain outside, and there was nowhere else to go. The next bus didn’t leave the village until the following day. I had to be patient, but eventually, Georgi passed out, and I was able to enjoy the rest of my stay.
Did you know that our abbot is also named Federer?
I took the footsteps of Roger Federer pilgrimage in 2019 and wrote a book about it. I wanted to start the pilgrimage at Einsiedeln Abbey, Switzerland’s most famous pilgrimage site, for 1,000 years. I didn’t think there was any connection to Roger; I just wanted to start my pilgrimage in an auspicious, holy place. When I was told that their abbot was also named Federer, and he baptized Roger’s children, I knew it was fate for me to be there. I got to meet Father Federer, and we bonded over the fact that neither of us like Novak Djokovic.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Deported from Argentina
A few years ago, I took a bus with my wife and two children from Valparaiso, Chile bound for Mendoza, Argentina. We spent hours on the bus zig-zagging our way up into the high Andes to one of the world’s highest border crossings, only to find out that we couldn’t get into Argentina, as we needed to have arranged our Argentina visas in advance.
The worst part was they wouldn’t let us leave; they insisted on officially deporting us from the country, which took 5-6 hours. During that time, I had to explain to my wife why I had relied on information from an outdated guidebook. The border guards treated us like dogs. Our bus departed Valparaiso at 8 a.m. It was midnight by the time we got back to Valparaiso after being deported.
Our hotel reservations were in Mendoza and nearly every hotel in Valparaiso was sold out, as it was a holiday weekend. Our taxi driver drove us around for two hours before we found a hotel with availability. But we had to buy all three of their rooms—each one had just one single bed. The boys had to share one. And they were completely out of towels, so there was no possibility to shower. Soon after our deportation, Argentina dropped the visa requirement for Americans.
Detained for four days in China’s Xinjiang Province
Twenty years ago, I arrived in Urumqi airport, in China’s far west, with what I thought was a valid visa that I had obtained a few months before in the U.S.A. The visa wasn’t expired, but I hadn’t noticed that it had an “enter before” date on it that passed three days prior to my arrival.
It was the start of a long weekend. My passport was confiscated, and I had to stay for 4 days at the Urumqi Airport Hotel until a government office opened up where I could pay a fine and get a new Chinese visa. The only good news was that my stay was free because it was determined that my airline, Xinjiang Airways, was at fault for letting me on the flight, and so they had to pay.
Ollantaytambo is not the place to get sick
My son, James, who was seven at the time, got very sick in a small, remote town of Ollantaytambo, Peru, which has an elevation of almost 10,000 feet. He was so weak and couldn’t keep any food down. We had a young Peruvian nurse come to the hotel. She wanted to put a huge needle in his little arm with who knows what medicine inside it. We rejected her advice, and thank God he got better, but it was a very scary night.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Visit islands that have no airports
I find that, in general, islands you have to take a boat to are more interesting and authentic places to visit. This is particularly true in a country like Greece, where Ryanair and EasyJet can dump thousands of party people onto a small island like the way a fighter jet drops bombs from the sky.
Don’t show your hand in negotiations
It doesn’t matter if you are negotiating for a handicraft, a work of art, a hotel room or a taxi ride, my golden rule is to always let them get the ball rolling with an opening gambit. If you throw out the first price, it might be too high. Also, take your time and try to relish the negotiation process. We tend to be in a hurry when we travel, but most of the time, you’ll do better if you take your time and pretend like you’re disinterested.
If you fire prices back and forth with them in a rapid-fire succession, you’ll appear too eager, and they’ll sense that you really want what they have. At the same time, be very respectful and don’t diminish what they’re offering. You want them to like you, not think you’re a cheapskate scumbag taking food off their table. Flatter them but also leave them with the impression that you have other options.
Don’t go back to your favourite places
Whenever I return to places I loved on a first visit, especially if it’s many years later, I’m always disappointed. Everything changes. Prices always go up. The pretty girl you met there is now a haggard old lady with missing teeth and bad breath. If you insist on returning to a place you fell in love with, better go soon before the place is ruined.
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
A couple of years ago, I got a Father’s Day treat that I’ll never forget: a stay at 11 Cadogan Gardens in London’s Chelsea neighbourhood. This charming, small hotel feels like a ritzy little club with its myriad of fireplaces and lovely oil paintings of long-dead aristocrats. The rooms are incredibly luxurious and full of great touches, like antiques and old books. I felt like I could have bumped into Prince Charles at any moment staying at this wonderful place.
Do you have any favourite cities?
Basel, Sydney, Chicago, London, Rome, Istanbul, Tbilisi, Prague, Thessaloniki, Buffalo, New Orleans, Guadalajara, Bukhara, Bishkek, Beirut, Amsterdam and Vancouver.
What are some of the worst places you’ve stayed?
Pretty much every single place I stayed on a very tight budget overland trip from Cairo to Shanghai in 2000. I once stayed in Odessa, Ukraine, where I had to tiptoe around this incredibly fierce dog on a chain to get in and out of the apartment. You had to plan these trips very strategically because if you took a path within his arc of freedom, he would disembowel you and still have room in his stomach for lunch.
If you can only choose one:
Favourite airline: None. They all stink.
Favourite airport: Redmond, Oregon, only because you can get through security and to your gate in 90 seconds.
Favourite city: Rome
Favourite hotel: 11 Cadogan Gardens, see above
Favourite island: Gili (Air), Indonesia
Favourite people: Liechtensteiners, because most of them have either been Olympians or played in some sport for the national team.
Favourite small town: Gangi, Sicily, where my father’s father was born
Favourite restaurant: Any authentic, all-you-can-eat Korean B.B.Q. with no time limit
Favourite travel book: Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux
Favourite travel movie: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Favourite travel website: MTP.travel