Friday, September 17, 2010

Michelle Willingham Is Finding Inspriation Off the Beaten Track

Fellow travelers, welcome 2010 RITA finalist Michelle Willingham to the convertible! Over to you, Michelle...

I love traveling to international places, eating wonderful foods, and experiencing new cultures. But I'll admit there's something I hate—planning the trip! I keep hoping that a local travel agency will somehow create an amazing itinerary with fabulous hotels and B&Bs, transportation, and a tour guide who will take me around to all the sights.

What usually happens is I'm handed a catalog of overpriced tours geared toward senior citizens or college students. You spend all your time on a bus with a nametag, and you get approximately 30 minutes at the tour site before you're whisked away to yet another location. And often, you'll stay in a hotel that lost its luster in the 1970's. At least, that was my experience on past bus tours. Maybe they've changed, but from the look of it, they're about the same.

So because of that, and because of my husband's aversion to guided tours, I usually have to book everything on my own. I end up scouring guide books, TripAdvisor, or other websites to determine whether a B&B is really worth it. I print out directions, plan out where we're going, buy tickets for the castles and tours online, and worry myself into a wreck, hoping that I haven't forgotten anything critical.

This past summer, I planned a trip to Ireland, Scotland, and London. One of the things I learned about the UK is that their roads are NOT the same as U.S. highways. A location that's 100 miles away could very easily take four hours to reach. But despite our GPS, which mistakenly believed we were driving through a cow pasture, it was fun to blast U2 on our teeny-tiny rental car's stereo and marvel at the fact that we were in a foreign country. Without kids!

I filled up a notebook with descriptions of the scenery and town names, while my husband valiantly braved the one-lane roads, taking our lives into his hands as he passed the tractors. I spent hours in the museums, photographing what artifacts I could and asking the guides questions about medieval weapons and clothing. At night, we drank Bulmer's and Guinness, ate in the pubs and tried Sticky Toffee Pudding in every town we visited (Dublin had the best).

A few times, we took the "scenic" route, where the streets had no name and the sheep wandered into the road. We stopped in places where there were no phone or power lines, and it was like going back in time.

Those moments made all the hassle worthwhile. When you stand in the ruins of an 8th century monastery and can sense the priests who lived and worked there. When you don't have to be anywhere and can go hiking somewhere unexpected, discovering the ruins of a medieval fortress completely overgrown with grass. For me, it's a way of recharging the creative batteries and getting inspired.

Though it's a pain in the neck, skip the bus tours and try going off on your own. Ask the locals for recommendations on where to eat and where to visit. You just might find yourself in a small part of paradise. Or possibly behind a tractor.

When you've traveled, did you go on a bus trip or on your own? Where did you go, and what was your experience like? Post a comment, and two lucky winners will receive a signed copy of my new release, SURRENDER TO AN IRISH WARRIOR or a free download of the linked novella "Pleasured by the Viking." Both are set in Ireland while my next series, which kicks off with the book CLAIMED BY THE HIGHLAND WARRIOR (available in the spring of 2011) is set in Scotland.

Michelle Willingham is a RITA® Award Finalist and the author of seven historical romances and five novellas from Harlequin. Visit her website to read excerpts of her work or find her on Facebook and Twitter. You can see all the pictures of her trip on Facebook.


Laurie said...

Loved your pictures. So beautiful!
When I was 16th my parents took the family to London, Paris and Amsterdam for their 25th wedding anniversary. They were not adventurous. We relied heavily on gided bus tours. I remember going to Stratford-On -Avon and seeing Anne Hathaway's cottage. We also toured a castle. Amsterdam we took a boat trip through the canals. Paris we walked around a lot.

If my husband and I ever get to travel, (when the boys are done with college) I will remember your advice to go off on our own after researching the internet.

My son wants to go to Italy next April for his honeymoon. I'm going to tell him about Travel Advisor.

Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

Thanks too for the chance to win one of your books!!

krisgils33 said...

I travel alot for work and have been to almost every section of the globe. The place I frequent most is London and some other parts of the UK. I'm not a huge fan of London, but the countryside sure is gorgeous. I've actually driven on the wrong side of the road and it's not too hard, although does require a bit of extra concentration! When traveling through India, I refused to drive and mostly had a driver. That is definitely the way to go in certain countries.

kristan higgins said...

I love traveling, but I haven't gone with a group since college. Not an agenda type person, I guess...Gorgeous pictures, Michelle! And lordy, that Surrender cover...oh, mommy!

Stephenia said...

i love to travel too and planning/anticipating the trip is half the fun for me. I like researching the destination and finding things to do. Anyone looking for an energetic European destination should check our Rick Steves - he does have a travel light policy but the groups are small, you stay in mom/pop places, you get great food and the guides are well versed on the sights you see. You also have time to venture on your own and of course you can arrive/depart a few days early to catch anything else you might have to do in that place. My daughter did London/Paris and had the best time ever. (quilter892ataoldotcom)What a great backdrop in your picture - keep the great irish/scottish romance stories coming!

Cindy Gerard said...

Fun post, Michelle. Makes me want to visit! I've done both the 'plan your own trip' and the guided route. Italy, we did on our own and it was fantastic but exhausting and very pricey. Spain we did on a tour and it was great also. MUCH less expensive and we had a lot of our own time to explore as we wanted to. So - I guess it's just what you're up for for the specific trip.

michellewillingham said...

Laurie--it's the preliminary work that's hard, but I do think we stayed in some really nice B&Bs. My favorite, in Invermoriston near Loch Ness, Scotland, was called The Old Manse. I think it's geared toward honeymooners, and my husband and I had a great time! We did see Amsterdam once and really liked it. :)

Krisgils33--I told my husband I was NOT doing any of the driving. I think it's more of having the steering wheel on the opposite side that messed me up!

Kristan--thanks! It's my favorite cover ever. Love it!

Stephenia--Rick Steves is definitely a good idea, if you're going to some major areas. We might try that if we ever bring our kids.

michellewillingham said...

Good point, Cindy! I think, too, it also makes a difference for your trip's purpose. I knew I needed to spend some quality time in the museums for historical research, and I think certain tours might be more forgiving of that than others. :)

Leanne said...

Michelle, welcome to the convertible! Love your travel tales!:) I enjoy some of the planning, but I also worry that maybe I've not made the right choices until we actually get there!:) Love Rick Steves' books. I also enjoy individual informational tours. Congrats on your release!

Helen Brenna said...

Hi Michelle. Welcome!

Love to travel, but I've never been on a bus trip or with a group. Like the do-it-yourself route. You never know where you may want to turn next!

Very sexy titles and covers!

Kathleen Eagle said...

I love to travel, and I think it's essential for writers to get out there and get to know the world they plunk their characters into. Yes, you're using a historical setting, but present context was built on history. That's why we're still interested!

I've only been to Europe once--the 3 week multi-country guided group tour years ago. It was mainly teachers, set up by a teacher who'd been doing the summer excursion with high school kids for years, so she really knew what she was doing. And it was all women. It was a blast. The best part was that my mother went, too. (I'll have to blog about that part of it sometime.) Anyway, the was beautifully customized and made teacher affordable because our leader had worked with the tour company. It was a great way to do "the grand tour."

Keri Ford said...

*insert envy*

:) would love to see that part of the world. and I would go off in my car so I could quickly leave somewhere that wasn't holding my interest or spend time longer somewhere fascinating.

and yeah, that asking the locals for suggestions is the thing to do. we found a little hole in the wall in Hawaii that had THE BEST waffles that I've ever eaten/seen.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Speaking of getting local recommendations, one of my most successfully plotted trips was based on the suggestions of a famous criminal.

Anybody remember John Ehrlichman? Yep, Nixon's henchman. He moved to New Mexico after he got out of prison and wrote a travel mag article that caught my eye. We'd been planning to go, and the article included a map, sights, restaurants, photos. I figured the guy owed America something, and maybe this was his way to give back. I'm the trip planner in our family, and I used the article. Every restaurant--many of them small local favorites--was a winner. Every route worked beautifully for getting lots of great stuff in every day. The Santa Fe/Taos area became a favorite of ours, and we've been back many times. All thanks to the otherwise misguided John Ehrlichman.

LSUReader said...

Michelle--When you were in Scotland, did you make it to Edinburgh? Hubby and I spent a week there this summer and loved it. Our only regret is that we didn't have more time to venture out to see the rest of Scotland. Next trip! I'm looking forward to your Highland series already.

catslady said...

My husband and I waited 15 years to have kids and we traveled as much as we could. I loved it (and really miss it now). We did a bit of both - some planned tours and then off by ourselves. Seemed to be the best of both worlds. I enjoy hearing about all the interesting facts and history the tours can give you and the highlights but to really know the people, you have to get away from the touristy sites.

I absolutely love your cover for Surrender and Irish Warrior!!!

Barbara E. said...

I've never traveled to a different country, so I haven't experienced either. Okay, I've been to Tijuana, Mexico but that doesn't really count. When I lived in California before moving to Florida, I came to Orlando several times on vacation but my son had arranged everything (lots of trips to amusement parks and The Kennedy Space Center), so I didn't have to do a thing.
My dream trip is to the UK, but I don't think I'd be brave enough to do it on my own, I think I'd need a tour.

chey said...

I went on bus tours in Europe and Ireland. Both were great. I saw way more than I would have on my own and had a great time.

Michele Hauf said...

Welcome, Michelle! I love the covers and love historicals. WEnt to Paris with friends a few years ago, not a group tour thing. That was fun, and we shared an apartment, which really brought expenses down. We wandered the city and learned the Metro fast so that took us everywhere. I think it was much more exciting that way than to follow a group around.

Debra Dixon said...

I like a planned trip but generally not with the bus group!

Adhering to someone else's schedule is never my idea of fun. (g)

Minna said...

The only time I went on a bus trip was when I went for a class trip to Lapland.

JV said...


A friend of mine and I went to Europe twice together, once in 1980 and once in 1983. We planned in advance in terms of what cities we wanted to see, in what order, and how long we'd plan to stay in each one just to be sure we got to cover everything we really wanted to see. We used "Europe on $20 a Day" to influence how long we needed to stay in each place to see all the attractions we wanted to see.

However, in terms of booking hotels in advance, buying tickets for attractions, etc., we didn't do that with the exception of purchasing a Eurrail Pass ahead of time (because it couldn't be bought in Europe) and attempting to get tickets to a major production in Europe that is only performed once every 10 years and was being performed while we were there. (We were not able to get them, though.)

We just took the book "Europe on $20 a day" with us and called hotels he recommended once we got there and arranged visits to attractions then. We had very little trouble getting really good accomodations with only a couple of minor glitches.

Of course, I was 25 then and was willing to stay in a Youth Hostel. Not 100% sure I'd be quite as flexible at this point in my life. It was great fun, though!

JV said...

Also meant to say that your photos are gorgeous!

michellewillingham said...

Leanne--I actually went online today to drool over the Rick Steves tours. Then I thought it might be more fun to do a quasi-college reunion tour with our friends as the "small group." Something to mull over...


Kathleen--oh, that's so nice that your mother got to go, too! And 3 weeks is a nice long time to be able to see everything.

That's really a fascinating story about John Ehrlichman! Glad you had the chance to try it. I traveled to Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Taos when I was in grad school (by myself!) and it was one of the best trips I've ever taken. Just amazing.

Keri--Oooh, Hawaii? I've never been. Hopefully one day!

LSUReader--yes, we flew into Edinburgh and spent one night there (2 full days). Loved the city. It has real character, and ironically, we found the best Italian restaurant EVER, just off the Royal Mile.

michellewillingham said...

Catslady--thanks! I love the cover, too. In some ways, with tours, it would be nice as you say, to do both. Have the history of the guided tour and the time to see everything on your own.

Barbara E.--Mexico counts! I've never been there myself. I hope you do get to go to the UK one day. :)

Chey--I'm glad you had a good experience"!

Michele--I've never tried renting an apartment, but I think if we ever bring the kids, we will. I have been to Paris, and made my husband do all the talking (in French). :)

Debra--I'm with you! I like having my own timeframe.

Minna--hope the bus trip was fun. :)

JV--I did the youth hostel thing when I was in college and swore, never again! Not having hot water for a shower was quite a downer. We were traveling with our choir, and I much prefer B&Bs or hotels. ;) When my husband and I toured Europe in 2000, we did get the Eurail passes and thought they were great. Loved that.

Linda Henderson said...

I haven't went on a vacation in so long I've almost forgot what it's like. A lot of years ago I took a trip with my family to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Disneyland, Royal Gorge Bridge and just about anything in the southwest. It was a great trip and I planned a lot of it. We saved money in advance so we weren't hit with a big expense while traveling. I think I'm due for a vacation.

Kirsten said...

I never travel due to health issues. But I love to "expierence" new places through books or documantaries. Sometimes the descriptions or images are so beautiful and vibrant that it feels as if you here there. I know it's not the same but it can also be very enjoyable. If I could go somewhere it would be Scotland or Ireland. Nature is so magnificant there it must be fantastic to stand in it yourself.

Angi Morgan said...

My son did Europe on a bus tour and was fine. His description: It was kind of old. (no kidding...that's what he said about his ten days)

My youngest daughter went to Greece and Italy on a bus tour...she swears never again for the very reasons you listed.

I would never survive on a guided tour that limited the amount of time at each place. Barely managed it visiting the memorials in DC. But it was fine last year, since it wasn't my first and only visit.