State Secrets

Bestselling guidebook writer John Vlahides deals out his top California discoveries

May 15, 2006
Outside Magazine
John Vlahides

John Vlahides

For Vlahides, 40, a Golden State specialist who writes for Lonely Planet and Fodor's a typical day at the office involves wheeling down Highway 1 on his motorcycle in search of the coast's hidden inns and restaurants. He's also on KRON 4 in San Francisco once a month for his segment One-Night Stands with John Vlahides, laying out quickie midweek vacations near his home turf in the Bay Area. How did he get that job? And what does he know that we don't? Here, Vlahides tells about his life in the biz—and even gives up a few hard-won travel secrets.

Outside: What's the next big travel trend?
Vlahides: In Northern California, food travel is huge. There's no better way to connect with a culture (and locals) than by hooking up with the foodies and oenophiles. Sonoma County is a great example: You can pull over to a stand on the side of the road and taste goat cheese, then drive a little farther and pick apples off the tree, then go a little farther to a winery.

What is the one piece of gear you won't leave home without?
Hotels have lousy lighting, so I carry a small dimmer switch that screws into a light socket. Everything—and everyone—looks better in low light.

Where's your favorite secret place?
I love Mar Vista Cottages, a small inn on California's North Coast. They deliver fresh-laid eggs from their chickens to your door, and they encourage you to help yourself to the small organic vegetable garden. There are no phones, no TVs, so you just disappear, get off the grid.

Not a secret much longer, is it?
It's hard working for a travel publisher, because anything I write makes a place instantly more popular. Will I be able to get a room at Mar Vista Cottages next time I want to go? Maybe not. Is it my own fault? Probably.

What's the best way to use a guidebook?
A good guidebook will not spoon-feed you everything, so you have to read between the lines. I leave clues in my books for people to find more on their own. Sometimes it's a short mention: "To ditch the crowds, ask a Canyonlands ranger about Dark Canyon Primitive Area." No map or directions, so the people who want to be led around by a collar won't go.

One last piece of advice?
Shop locally. It helps to preserve the color and texture of a culture, which to me as a travel writer seems essential. After all, making those connections with a place is why we travel.

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