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Been There, Done That...

Our intrepid reporter recounts his best and worst global experiences of 1996


Here's to 1996, the year I was introduced up close to Southeast Asia and the time-share industry (I liked Southeast Asia better), the year I saw what Georgia O'Keeffe saw, and failed to eat where Joe Montana also failed to eat. It was also the year I found a slice of Northern California nirvana in the underappreciated national park that surrounds Lassen Peak.

All told, the journeys that I described in these pages this year touched on four continents. They landed me in 30-some different lodgings, though I looked at probably 100 more, and positioned me amid various extremes. There was the unstinting service, spick-and-span cabins and perpetually open bar of the Song of Flower, a smallish luxury cruise ship that charged about $460 a day to carry and feed me along the coast of Southeast Asia. And there was the eccentricity of La Gaffe, a London inn whose proprietor has filled the walls with framed texts of his own poems on local and universal concerns.

Thus, each day before venturing forth from La Gaffe, a guest like me could sample--in fact, could scarcely avoid--hotelier Bernardo Stella's rhyming observations on rain, birds, forbidden love, the Queen's Silver Jubilee and so on.

Think of me now as your Mr. Stella and this as my rhymeless, unsolicited and occasionally cranky ode to the peaks and valleys of the travel year just past.

FAVORITE U.S. DESTINATION: Drakesbad Guest Ranch, within Lassen Volcanic National Park, about 75 miles southeast of Redding in Northern California. The main lodge, wood-paneled, warmed by a big stone fireplace, ringed by an old-fashioned porch, takes you back 100 years. Deer lounge at dusk in the surrounding meadow. Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) rises above. Uncrowded hiking paths and horse trails lead to the most spectacular geothermal springs this side of Yellowstone. A hundred yards from the lodge, an outdoor pool, fed in part by hot spring water, allows you the luxury of floating under the moon and gazing through rising steam at those deer.

The place does have drawbacks: Drakesbad only opens for the summer months, its 19 rooms sometimes book up far in advance, and the lodgings are plenty rustic (outdoor showers and lighting by kerosene, not electricity, are predominant.) Also the rates ($100 per adult, per day, meals included, riding excluded, and about $60 per kid ages 2 to 11) may give some pause. But in three days there I saw no unhappy couple and no unhappy families. (For more information, call [916] 529-1512, the lodge management company's off-season number, on a Monday, Thursday or Friday.)

A PUBLIC APOLOGY: To the fellow Drakesbad guest who, one night around the Drakesbad campfire, welcomed me to the fold and half-seriously swore me to secrecy about the place. Sorry. You erred. You trusted me.

FAVORITE FOREIGN DESTINATION: A tie, between a British place full of Arab money and an Arab place full of British colonial footprints.

Half of me inclines toward London, not just because of its architectural and historical wealth, and not just because the taxi drivers speak English, really know their way around and drive responsibly (what other city can claim such a combination?), but because visitors and residents alike agree that the city these days resounds with more energy and optimism than has been seen there in three decades. In a week there over the summer, it was a joy to shoulder my way through the crowds on the streets, to negotiate with my wife, Mary Frances, over a restaurant (far more to choose from than the usual pub grub and Indian food), and to slip into Soho for a show or into St. Martin-in-the-Fields church for a concert.

The other half of me (the contrary half) leans toward Africa, specifically Egypt. Cairo is noisy and dusty and poverty-marred and crowded; in fact, it could be a poster city for those traits. But remote areas such as the Sinai can seem as unearthly as the moon. And Egypt's layered landscape and culture make distant history--and the current ideological struggles within the Islamic world--as palpable as your living-room furniture.

BEST ZOOLOGY LESSON: Posted in the Insects and Small Reptiles Display Room at the Penang Butterfly Farm, Penang, Malaysia:

Q: What happens to the human race if all insects decide to be active . . . all at the same time?

A: Three-fourths of all living things in this world are insects. If all of them were to be active at the same time they would create chaos and complete disruption to all human activities!!!

(Michael Crichton, call your agent.)

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