The first time I went to New York back in 2000, I was uncertain that I would enjoy it. It loomed large and vivid in my mind, woven by a hundred films I’d seen in the past. The noise, colour and oversize personality depicted on screen were sure to be a letdown – how could they not be?
Of course, I was wrong. I absolutely loved New York. Still in its pre-9/11 era, the city was vibrant and welcoming. The food, the energy, the delicious September weather was heady and romantic, just like in the films.
Surprisingly, it’s a theme that has endured across most other film locations I’ve visited. Here are some of my favourite.
1. Monuriki Island, Fiji – Cast Away
Two days ago, Peter and I boarded a boat at Malolo Island to spend the morning island hopping. We stopped by several of Fiji’s ‘Mamanuca Islands’, each as predictably gorgeous as the next. An hour in, we sailed to Monuriki, the set of the Tom Hanks Film, Cast Away. We grabbed our snorkel gear and jumped into the clear blue waters. As we approached the shore, the choppy tide got a grip of us and literally swept us ashore: a fitting start to our exploration of this tiny uninhabited island.
As we were the only two people there, Peter made me record a special message for his old colleagues, specifically the appropriately-named Mr Wilson (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand).
We spent an hour on the stunning island and resisted the urge to climb its peak, the same peak that Tom Hanks’s character climbs to attempt his suicide. Apparently, the actor was flown to the top by helicopter. We could understand why: the blazing sun and white sands made physical exertion near impossible. We did the only thing we could do: lazed about for an hour before the boat returned to pick us up.
2. Petra, Jordan – Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
As Peter and I sat by the High Place of Sacrifice, looking over Petra, I turned to him and said: “Imagine if our cities were like this instead of the ugly concrete jungles we’ve created.” In reality, it would of course be completely impractical to build cities like Petra but it’s hard to accept that I’ll likely never again see such a beautiful city.
The mountainous curves of the Siq, the vivid sandstone of The Treasury and the sheer scale of the landscape were utterly breathtaking. That humans carved this city from stone is a testament to the tenacity of our species.
We arrived early in the morning and had large parts of the site entirely to ourselves. At £55 per person, we had balked at the price but at the end of the long day, we realised that it was a small price to pay for one of the most amazing travel experiences we’ve had.
3. Angkor Wat, Cambodia – Tomb Raider
We arrived, as most tourists do, just before dawn to see the sun rise above the iconic outline of Angkor Wat. Luckily, our trip organisers (ABOUTAsia) specialised in getting customers away from the teeming masses. Instead of stationing us at the temple entrance, we were taken to the back where there was a handful of people. We watched dawn break over the temple’s silhouette and spent the morning walking its grounds.
The calm spirituality of the place may be incongruous with the dubious action film starring Angelina Jolie, but the locals told us it was good for their country; that the film – and Jolie’s subsequent adoption of a Cambodian orphan – raised awareness of Cambodia, drawing tourists and boosting the economy. Perhaps making the film wasn’t such a terrible mistake after all…
4. Giza Pyramids, Egypt – The Mummy Returns
The Great Pyramids are always going to be on every ultimate travel list. They are after all an incomprehensible feat of human achievement and one of history’s enduring mysteries. I visited shortly after the protests in Tahrir Square and, despite being warned of multitude dangers, found it to be welcoming and friendly – albeit with a few chancers trying their luck with inexperienced tourists.
Because of the recent unrest, the pyramids and indeed the rest of Egypt were relatively quiet. In fact, at one point, I had the Tomb of Tutankhamun all to myself. Climbing inside the Pyramid of Cheops to the dark, echoing chamber at its core was eerie and otherworldly, but wholly amazing.
5. Sagrada Familia, Spain – Vicky Cristina Barcelona
After writing, languages, travel and tech, there’s not really space for another passion of mine but if there were, it would probably be architecture. If my life had taken a different course, I’d rather like to think that I may have ended up an architect. I have a fascination with interesting buildings from gothic Gaudi to imposing Brutalist structures like Montreal’s Habitat 67 or Tower Hamlets’ very own Balfron Towers.
On several occasions, I’ve stopped by a London building – the Royal Courts of Justice, Zimbabwe House on the Strand – to just stare. With that in mind, Barcelona was just amazing for me. The jewel in its crown, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, was every superlative I can think of. I’ve often thought I was lucky to live in Europe with so many wonderful cities so close by, unconvinced that I would make single trips to its various cities had I been born in the states. That said, Barcelona is one of those cities worth crossing an ocean for – simply stunning.