This article is part of a regular monthly column from SUITCASE's Julie Alpine celebrating the joy of travel.
If you spotted an unmarked button on the wall of your hotel room, would you press it? A recent trip to Greece got me thinking about the art of the unexpected in travel. In my Athens boutique bolthole, the manager, Konstantinos, explained - though no mention is usually made of it during check in - that the small, anonymous brass lion head on the wall was a device with which to delight guests. When pressed, it would trigger a surprise appearance (maximum one per stay) from a member of the room service team, bearing, "a bouquet of flowers... or maybe a bottle of champagne... condoms... a magician…" Setting aside the fact that one either needs condoms to hand or doesn't - this not being something best left to fate - I asked him how many guests pressed the button: "100 per cent", he replied, confidently.
In a crowded, dog-eat-dog industry, brands are working hard on ways to stand out, adding value with immersive experiences that will prove unforgettable and thus win them repeat bookings. This can work beautifully - the opportunity to hand-paint your own vase in a small, friendly workshop at Holland's world-renowned Delft Blue Factory; a nonna-taught masterclass in hand-rolling pasta in Puglia; a bespoke best-places-to-go-dancing itinerary from a well-connected concierge - but it can also backfire. When journalist Duncan Hadden (not his real name) booked into a five-star hotel in Berlin for a celebratory weekend, he was initially charmed when staff left a bookmark on his bedside table featuring the cover of a magazine he'd recently written for. Less so when, in preparing a birthday dessert for him, they'd taken a picture of him off his Facebook page and printed it onto a cake topper. "It wouldn't have been so bad, but they'd gone back a whole three years to choose one," he says.
The writer heading off-road in Lebanon, seeking surprises.
But, nice as having someone arrive at your door to pull a rabbit from a hat might be, unexpected joys are all around, from being met at the airport by a friend with a car when you were expecting to have to schlep home by train, to overhearing two strangers striking up a conversation on a night flight, hitting it off, swapping numbers ("If you're in trouble, wherever you are, just give me a call"). Even for those of us who find the thought of a surprise birthday party alarming, there's no denying that having one's breath taken away can elevate a travel experience to new heights.
The natural hot spring inside an old stone outhouse I was given an after-dark tour of by a local on Lesbos one hot August night? In my mind's eye, many years later, it has taken on mythical proportions. The being allowed to stay and explore (read: run around pretending to be in an Indiana Jones film) a totally empty Petra, Jordan's rose rock-hewn former Nabatean capital, after closing hours, when it transpired that one of the guards was a never-met-before cousin of my driver? Epic. Spotting a fox, eyes aglow, run across the road and into the undergrowth last weekend, on an overnight cab drive from Belgrade to Žlijebac, Bosnia? Momentous.
Having one’s breath taken away can elevate a travel experience to new heights
When visiting Tanzania, pre-pandemic, I took literally thousands of photos, but the best memory is one I didn't capture digitally. En route to a dawn hot-air-balloon ride over the Serengeti, our Land Rover powering through a flash thunderstorm, on dirt roads scarred by deep puddles, lightning bolts forking through the still-dark sky, I looked out of the window and caught sight of a full-grown elephant standing by the roadside, perfectly still, silhouetted against the full moon. Clocking its iconic bulk, those Dumbo-like ears, I gasped in astonishment, tears filling my eyes. It was a profound moment, evoking a deeply felt gratitude for travel's power to allow us to see such wonders in their natural habitat.
Tech entrepreneur Jerome Sicard, meanwhile, remembers how a night out on a recent visit to Miami Beach surprised him, surpassing all expectations. "My friend took me to this taco shop, just a food truck, really," he recalls, "and we go through this Portaloo door, then another door, only to find ourselves in this amazing, amazing club." The not-so-secret speakeasy in question, Bodega Taqueria y Tequila, is known for its happy hour and late-night debauchery, red velvet couches and live music, but the shock reveal definitely doesn't hurt, cementing a sense of it being a mystical escape.
Julie Alpine in Jordan, left, and the infamous pink Damascus walls.
Not that all surprises are happy ones. Back in my twenties, on a family smallholding in Syria, I was surprised at how delicious the frothy, still-hot-from-the-udder camel milk I was given tasted (like milkshake!). Later, hanging onto the toilet bowl in a small, pink-tiled bathroom in Damascus, all alone, I was surprised at how sick it had made me, and how much I wanted my mum.
When things go wrong, I find it helps to cling to the words of the late, great Nora Ephron, who famously noted that "everything is copy". Even unpleasant travel experiences, once the memory has stopped smarting, can be something to dine out on.
"Once, when I flew into France, my suitcase went missing," remembers actress and voiceover artist Mhairi Morrison. "When I got it back, a few days later, things had been stolen out of it. While it was obviously good news that a lot of my stuff was still there, it sort of made me annoyed, thinking that the thief thought the rest of my clothes weren't worth stealing - that the thief had judged most of my clothes not stealable."
The writer visiting Syria, where fresh camel milk offered an unexpected surprise.
When travelling, I can't help feeling that the unexpected is to be expected - if you're doing it right. Travelling independently, meeting the people who call a destination home, hearing their stories, making my own - this is why I travel. The more off-grid the path we tread while out of our comfort zone (far from the all-you-can-eat buffets and you'll-only-hear-English-spoken-here enclaves), the more likely we are to experience things we've never experienced before, and be nourished by it. Like, who knew pineapples grew from small, shrub-like bushes, sticking out jauntily at the top like that? On being shown one in Zanzibar, I thought my hosts had simply positioned the fruit there for fun and were pulling my leg - as with the cigarette some wily old joker balanced on the leaf of a tobacco plant when I last visited Lebanon. I'm not even sure how I thought pineapples grew. Before that, I'd only ever seen them in supermarkets or in tins.
That button in Athens? In the end, we didn't push it, decided we'd make our own magic. Perhaps even give Konstantinos a surprise.