Travel Stories

An Interview with Tom Barber

An Interview with Tom Barber

As the co-founder of Original Travel back in 2003, Tom Barber is something of an expert when it comes to travel. Here he talks family holidays, flight-free trips and his favourite foodie haunts.

 

Family in Mexico

 

What do you consider yourself an expert in?

I’m pretty well travelled, but I’m not nearly as much of a destination expert as the dedicated specialists in each of our regional teams. I guess my expertise is in a type of travel: family travel. With four children, the oldest two of whom are now teenagers, I have a pretty good understanding of what and where works for families with children of all ages. My children aren’t backwards in coming forwards so I get plenty of feedback, and that’s helped Original Travel refine our family trips over the years. Over the last few years it’s been very flattering to be recognised by Conde Nast Traveler (the US edition, hence the missing ‘l’) as one of a handful of the world’s Top Travel Specialists for family travel.

 

So where works best for families?

The best trips we’ve had – always planned with the children’s ages and interests in mind – have been an epic adventure around South Africa from Cape Town to the Winelands and ending with a riding safari in the Waterberg; cultural (but fun!) city breaks in Rome and Paris; snorkelling and more in Oman; surfing stays in Portugal and messing about in boats in Corfu. In the next couple of years we’re planning to take them to Costa Rica, California and Canada, and when they’re all teens we’ll head to Japan and India for sure. I fervently believe that travel broadens a child’s mind every bit as much as academic learning.

 

What’s your favourite hotel in the whole world?

Soneva Fushi in the Maldives pretty much single-handedly invented two of the classic hotel concepts – barefoot luxury and ecotourism. I’ve been lucky enough to visit as a couple, and then again with children in tow, and it works equally well in either scenario because it has real soul, a fabulous natural setting, activities galore, charming staff and wonderful food. Ask the kids where they’d like to go next time, and they will say, in unison, and without hesitation ‘Soneva Fushi’!

 

What travel trends do you see on the horizon?

Aside from a much more considered approach to how we travel, there are a couple more trends we’re seeing. There’s a move to cherish the old ways of doing things and to learn skills that feel like they’re fast disappearing. We call this Reconnect Travel, and we can arrange things like living with gauchos in the Argentinian pampas or walking old pilgrimage routes in Norway or Japan. Then there’s a related but distinct desire to get away from the constant noise of modern existence to places that are truly silent. We’ve created a portfolio of Pin Drop Travel locations where you can enjoy the sound of silence in places such as the remote NamibRand desert in Namibia.

 

If you could have one meal at one restaurant/streetfood stall?

Far too many to choose from, so I’ll go with a recent blow out at El Camino in Palma, Mallorca. Run by Eddie Hart (one of the brothers behind the insanely successful Barrafina tapas bar in London) El Camino is a winner on every level – super slick décor, excellent atmosphere and sensational food. The menu is mainly the tapas/pintxos staples (padron peppers, tortilla, jamon, Basque-style cod etc), but the sheer quality of every element – produce, preparation, presentation – is spectacular.

 

What’s your happy place?

Cycling the tree-lined trail along the perfectly preserved medieval walls of Lucca in Tuscany with my children and my parents, who live nearby. Halfway around we stopped for a delicious gelato overlooking the tightly packed terracotta roofs of the city below, counting the many tall medieval towers, one of which – Torre Guinigi – has several holm oak trees growing out of the roof. We finished the circuit with a well-earned lunch at a tucked-away gem of a restaurant called Trattoria da Guilio, where the children gorged themselves on delicious tortelli al ragu. It’s a perfect 3G (three generational) travel experience.

 

Name a favourite shop/stall you discovered on your travels and what did you buy there?

I nominate an entire city that’s ideal for honing your haggling skills, and that’s Khiva in Uzbekistan. The high-speed train now connects Khiva with Bukhara and takes a couple of hours rather than a seven-hour drive, so this tiny walled city (similar to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan) might soon be overwhelmed with tourists. Uzbekistan is primarily known for astonishing architecture and a fascinating history, but in Khiva (and Bukhara) there are stalls galore for buying excellent handicrafts  from genuine crafts-people. Browse intricate Koran stands forged from single pieces of wood, and stock up on huge sheepskin chugmira hats and, of course, suzanis and other intricate textiles.

 

Your favourite holiday activity?

Diving over a pristine reef teeming with fish. My passion for diving is one of the reasons we launched Original Diving, our specialist dive holiday division. The PADI Bubblemaker course for ten-year-olds and older means that I can now dive with my elder children, which is a really wonderful bonding experience. Aside from diving, mushing your own team of huskies through snowclad forests in Lapland is right up there, ideally with a Northern Lights sighting thrown in for good measure.

 

What’s the first item you pack when going away?

My Bedouin keffiyeh headdress, which I haggled hard for in Jordan and use as headgear, scarf, face protection, pillow, sarong and even once or twice as a towel.

 

Favourite places you’d like to namecheck?

I’m a sucker for Sri Lanka and while it’s becoming busier, the east and north are opening up so there’s always somewhere new to explore. It’s just a magical country. My wife and I absolutely loved our pre-covid Corsica trip without the children. It’s a remarkably beautiful island with beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Seychelles thanks to similar granite boulders and clear waters, and a stunning, wild and mountainous interior ideal for long range yomps. The blend of Italian and French cultures is pretty perfect too. Finally, I loved our trip to Israel a couple of years ago. We only scratched the surface by visiting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but they are both mind-blowing and dovetail beautifully. I’d always recommend that you also spent time in the West Bank to get a sense of perspective, too. We work with superb guides in both Israel and Palestine who provide much-needed and studiously objective context.