Howard Blount blogs about his travel experiences on Backroad Planet along with his friend Jerry. Two guys from Central Florida who enjoy adventure and discovery on the backroads. They prefer taking the scenic route, finding out-of-the-way historical sites, and local flavor in hole-in-the wall cafés and guesthouses. Budget travel and economy are definite factors in trip planning, but they are not afraid to splurge occasionally. They also enjoy national and state parks and collecting passport stamps along the way.
Howard spent some time with us answering our questions below.
TA: How many years have you been traveling and what got you hooked?
Howard: I have been traveling internationally since I was a boy. My parents were Christian missionaries to Latin America, and I got my first passport at age eleven. My family lived in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay, and of course we visited many other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Without a doubt, my spirit of wanderlust was birthed in childhood.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
Howard: My primary mode of travel is road trips. I love the freedom of the open road, and while cruising the backroads, I always find scenic views, historical sites, and other roadside discoveries. I also enjoy small-ship river and ocean cruises because they are floating hotels that feed you and deliver you to new and distant locations every day, and you only have to unpack once.
TA: What is the best vacation you've ever taken?
Howard: I am retired from a 35-year career as a public school teacher, so now that I am in my second chapter as a travel writer, I never use the term "vacation." I am free to design my own schedule and travel on a whim. It is difficult to pick a favorite trip from a lifetime of travel because there have been so many wonderful experiences. My favorite recent trip, however, was a 7-day Ring Road drive around Iceland, an island nation where nature is on steroids. We arrived at the end of May, and Iceland's spring snowmelt was in full swing. The waterfalls around every bend were flowing at full tilt, and the Ring Road was basically empty, so we felt like we had the island to ourselves.
TA: What's one place you've always wanted to visit?
Howard: It is a tall order, but as a roadtripper, I would love to drive the Balkan Peninsula, visiting Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia.
TA: What's one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
Howard: I always travel light, and my life is pretty much on my iPhone.
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
Howard: Anyone who has traveled with me has heard me repeat the words, "We're here now." While on the road, you will have days with packed itineraries, and then one more opportunity will present itself. Should we hike to a waterfall? Should we sample a local delicacy? Should we tour a historical site? In such scenarios, the answer should almost always be yes, because you are there at that moment and you may never pass that way again.
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
Howard: Fine dining doesn't impress me much. My tastes gravitate more to diners, pubs, and local joints. While driving Iceland's Ring Road, we learned that gas stations, of all places, serve the best (and most economical) food. Iceland is famous for its gas station hot dogs, and we grew to love their toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and ice cream, as well. Some larger gas stations boast extended menus that include hamburgers and pizza. Perhaps not the healthiest dishes, but all surprisingly cheap and delicious!
TA: What is the most beautiful and affordable city you've ever visited?
Howard: Washington, DC, with its many monuments and outdoor spaces is both beautiful and affordable. You will need to do a bit of online research to find economical airfare and lodging, but once you have those elements of your itinerary down, you will be good to go. Why? Because virtually all of the best attractions are free. The Smithsonian museums alone can keep you busy for days. For first-timers, I recommend a walking tour of the National Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. From there you can detour to the various war memorials, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Also, not-to-be-missed are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. My suggestions for cheap eats are Lincoln's Waffle Shop across from the Ford Theater, the Post Pub, and the historic Ben's Chili Bowl with several locations around town. If you want to spend a little more, have breakfast at Founding Farmers and dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill.
TA: What's one way people can get the most out of their cruise experience?
Howard: The best way to get the most out of a cruise experience is to fully research off-shore options. Time spent on the ship is nice, but depending on the cruise line you choose, the onboard experience will pretty much be determined by what the brand offers. If you cruise with a line that offers included and optional excursions, you will want to read the descriptions thoroughly to best select the tours and activities that suit your interests. You also have the option of planning your own adventures while ships are in port. Either way, advance research and planning is the way to go so you can optimize your cruise experience to the fullest.
TA: Have you ever met someone while traveling who changed your life? Who were they?
Howard: Would an entire nation count? Living as an expat in Paraguay during my teen years definitely changed my life. I fell in love with the Paraguayan people who may not be the wealthiest population in the world, but they definitely practice "mi casa es su casa" and always make you feel special and loved. Perhaps that is why Paraguay repeatedly ranks #1 as the happiest country in the world on the annual Gallup poll. Love can make you happy!
TA: What's something that other tourists do when traveling that drives you crazy and why?
Howard: Trust me, I have seen my share of annoying tourists, which is why I try my best not to be one of them. Probably the most annoying thing for me as a travel writer and photographer is when tourists are inconsiderate of others while taking photos at touristy sites. They either dominate the site by taking multiple photos or different poses, or they won't move away from the frame for photographers who don't want humans in their shots, or they walk right in front of you while you are clearly taking a picture. The best way to minimize these situations is to arrive early or stay late at popular photo locations.
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
Howard: As a backroad rider, I have discovered dozens of underrated destinations across the United States. The state of Kansas is one such destination. When people think of Kansas, they envision wheat fields and cornfields, and endless stretches of prairie grass. Although Kansas does have vast rural regions, it also has some great cities like Wichita and Topeka with museums and botanical gardens and opera and world-class cuisine. But what I love most about Kansas is its storied history with countless key sites connected to Native Americans, pioneers, the Old West, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, John Brown, the modern Civil Rights movement, and so much more. Kansas deserves a place on every roadtripper's bucket list, and those "amber waves of grain," make for lovely photo settings during the golden hour, I might add.