by | Jun 7, 2017 | The Writer's Life | 9 comments

by Sonja Stone


Huts over the water
The Four Seasons, Bora Bora

I’ve written before about my favorite vacations—a week at Miraval Resort, a full-service spa tucked in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona. Survival courses conducted by sandal-wearing field guides in the Grand Escalante Staircase. The sun-kissed Mediterranean cruise I took with my mother. These vacations, extraordinary and meaningful, aren’t typical getaways. Not for me, anyway.

I live in the Sonoran Desert, and our summers are brutal. It’s God-awful hot all the time. You wake at four in the morning to go on a run and it’s already ninety degrees. It’s a good time to travel, and for whatever reason, I always seem to head east.

I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Minnesota. I traveled with my boyfriend and his daughter to a family wedding. It was my first time in Minnesota, and the climate surprised me. The air along the Mississippi River, humid and thick with cottonwood dander, reminded me of my college days. Washington College, located in Chestertown, Maryland, is nestled along the Chesapeake Bay, where the air smells briny, fishy, full of life and possibility. 

Over the course of the weekend we hiked several times, through tall fields and hardwood forests, alongside meadows and rivers. The leaves on the maple trees were as big as both my hands. The oaks and aspens felt like old friends. I’d forgotten how green summers can be. Pink peony bushes in full bloom, hostas lining front walks, irises flowering in the local parks.

trees in Minnesota
What’s a vacation without a walk in the woods?
I don’t allow myself a lot of down-time, so a favorite part of vacation is reading something just for fun. A hot, humid summer day begs for a book. This past weekend, I reread THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett. I was so engrossed in the novel that I kept thinking I was in Mississippi, not Minnesota; Jackson, 1962, on a cotton plantation with mossy oak trees and waves of heat shimmering off the fields. Or standing with Minny in the farmhouse kitchen, frying up pork chops in a sizzling cast-iron pan. 

As a writer, the aspect of the craft I most struggle with is description and setting. I’ve always been told I’m good at dialogue, but when it comes to sketching a sense of place, I fall short—horrifically, dreadfully, consistently. I’m like that in real life, too. I rarely notice my surroundings, the vistas, the sweeping views. I notice the minutiae: the crack in the restaurant table that’s caked with grease and dust, the tiny albino spider crawling inside the jagged white crevices that make up Death Valley, the honeybee whose legs are heavy with yellow pollen. I also notice people: body language, posture, nonverbal communication, aberrations. I think this is why I’m so drawn to espionage as a genre. Words laced with supposition and innuendo; truth portrayed as relative rather than absolute; motives determining the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. People interest me.

Ironically, my dream vacation involves no people. I’m picturing a tiny hut with a glass-bottom floor built over a turquoise sea somewhere in the South Pacific. There’s a constant breeze, an endless supply of mangoes, no bugs, and a few quiet guests. 

Manhattan, July 9, 2016
On the other hand, last July I attended ThrillerFest in Manhattan. I thought I would hate New York—the crowds, the noise, the constant stimulation—but I absolutely loved it. Of course, any vacation that involves learning totally turns me on, and ThrillerFest provides amazing classes. I attended lectures by D.P. Lyle, MD, Meg Gardiner, Gayle Lynds, Steve Berry, David Morrell, and Walter Mosley, just to name a few. I’m saddened that I won’t be joining my blog sisters at this year’s ThrillerFest.

Come to think of it, my boyfriend accompanied me on that trip, too. He has an adventurous spirit, which is a lovely contrast to my excessively cautious one. He’s an extrovert, and so strikes up conversations with strangers all the time. I find this taxing, but he’s also really good about not taking it personally when I need to slip away for a few hours to recharge (in this case, with Kathryn Stockett and her imaginary friends). He’s spontaneous, but knows that I’m not, so he thoughtfully schedules our spontaneity. I receive ample warning that in three hours we will be venturing out into the world; I have time to prepare snacks and bottles of water. Last year, he presented me with one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received: a shoe box filled with packets of nuts and jerky, tissues, water bottles, and hand sanitizer. He keeps it in his truck, so if our adventuring takes us too far from home, I always have emergency rations. 

I can honestly say that if I make it to the hut in Bora Bora, I hope he’s by my side. With snacks.

So what do you think—what makes the vacation? The location, the traveling companion? Or are those things irrelevant—is it all about a positive attitude?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Rogue Women Writers

    Sonja, I must say, having met your boyfriend and now hearing your speak of him, that man is a keeper. Definitely a hut in Bora Bora material. We are going to really miss you in NYC this year.

    As to what makes the vacation, I think it definitely makes a difference who your traveling with. But, perhaps more important is keeping yourself open to new experiences. So often I find travelers around me who have a punch list of the things they need to see. Depending on where you are, that could be an exhaustive list of scheduled times and destinations. I find the best experiences often come with the unplanned and impromptu opportunities that present themselves.

    Once, backpacking Europe at age 19, many decades ago, my traveling companion and I were faced with a choice to play it safe or venture off to Feria in Seville with two "boys" we had met over coffee earlier in the evening. Feria is the annual festival held in April, complete with amusement rides, drinking, and private casetas, hosted by families in the town. The casetas are essentially private bar/lounge areas, with open bars, music and dancing. Most people head to the fair grounds after dinner at around 11 pm and stay until dawn. Because the young men who invited us were locals, we were granted access to many of the casetas and treated like visiting royalty. We partied until the just before sunrise, and then our hosts delivered us home safely. Of course, we were young and it could have turned out much differently. Knowing the things I know now, I'd be much more hesitant to take the chance, and I'd be terrified if any of my daughters made the same choice, but having lived to tell about it makes it one of the best memories of that six month trip. The invincibility of youth.

  2. Rogue Women Writers

    I see I am logged in as Rogue Women. Just FYI, this is Chris.

  3. S. Lee Manning

    The best vacations? Hard to say. I loved spending three weeks just in Paris, becoming more fluent in the language and really getting to know the city. Then again, I loved visiting the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland for three days – for the scenery and the experience of being in the Irish countryside. So I guess for me what constitutes the best vacation is when there's new things to learn and experience. I've never been much of a beach person. If you ever want to try out Vermont, let me know.
    I'm so glad I got to meet you and your boyfriend last year at Thriller. Sorry to miss you this year.

  4. Gayle Lynds

    I loved your description about not noticing the regular settings around you, Sonja. I'm the same. It's such work for me to force into my memory the color of walls, whether they're plaster or wall board, the flooring, the height of ceilings. Thank goodness for the cracks, the spiders, the pimples of life! Great post! Thank you! I just shared your post to my Facebook page. 🙂

  5. Karna Bodman

    Fantasizing about Bora Bora? I have done that too ever since I read James Michener's terrific book HAWAII eons ago – which described Bora Bora's gorgeous harbor where adventurers took off across the Pacific. Alas, I never got there – not yet anyway. As for favorite vacation spots, who can't love the Virgin Islands, Italy or France? I especially loved time spent in Normandy, learning history (visiting the famous WWII museum there)and staying in a friend's 200 year old "thatched roof" cabin then exploring the delightful town of Honfleur and its precious art galleries…and driving up to Deauville during the auction of Arabian horses and walking the lovely beaches. As for New York – I'm also so sorry I can't join our Rogue group there this summer — but I hope to be on a panel with them next July at the Grand Hyatt. Can't wait to hear all the details of the terrific Thrillerfest conference though. Now, thanks for this great vacation post! Enjoyed reading about your experiences.

  6. Sonja Stone

    Chris, I was waiting for the "thriller" twist the whole time you were telling the story! 😀 You've gotten so lucky in your travels–like the trip you took with your daughter that you wrote about last year. You're fearless! And I'll miss you guys, too (at ThrillerFest).

  7. Sonja Stone

    S. Lee, I'm terribly envious of your Paris trip–living like a local for three weeks MIGHT just beat Bora Bora!

  8. Sonja Stone

    Thanks for sharing the post, Gayle, and I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one! I don't know what it is about a sweeping view… The walls, the curtains–I don't remember what they look like. But the heavy crystal bowl sitting on the coffee table that can be used as a weapon, that I see.

  9. Sonja Stone

    Karna, you've had the most fascinating adventures! I suspect staying with a local friend provides a far different European experience. As for ThrillerFest, you and I can salute our sisters with a long-distance toast during their panel. 😉