Expect the Unexpected: Why the Joy of Travel is in its Surprises

Expect the Unexpected: Why the Joy of Travel is in its Surprises

Whether you’re a creature of habit or the kind to buy a one-way ticket to Guatemala on a whim, the travel memories that stick – good and bad – often involve those things we just can’t plan for, says Julie Alpine, in the first instalment of a regular new column.

This article is part of a regular monthly column from
SUITCASE’s Julie Alpine celebrating the joy of travel.

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,

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.

Writer Julie Alpine setting off on a road trip across Lebanon

The writer heading off-road in Lebanon, seeking

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

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

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
, 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.

Writer Julie Alpine looking out over Jordan
The infamous pink walled stay in Damascus

Julie Alpine in Jordan, left, and the infamous pink Damascus

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.”

Visiting Palmyra, Syria

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

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.

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