milford sound man standing new zealand

Return to the places that tug at your heart. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

Why Travel Writers Yearn to Revisit These 3 Exceptional Spots (Hint: It’s Always About the Locals)

There are places we travel to that tug hard on our hearts — the rare gems that give us an inexplicable sense of home, even in a new-to-us destination. Once such a place is found, there’s always an ache — a pull — to return.

And although spur-of-the-moment travel took a back seat during much of 2020, the global pandemic didn’t stop the innate urge to explore anew, and visit again. With that in mind, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler tapped three writers to share a place they fell in love with and yearn to return to when the time is right.

Their choices are disparate, but there’s a surprisingly common thread:

Falling hard for a place is sparked as much by connecting with its people as it is the destination itself.

Indeed, after so many months spent social distancing, it may be inevitable that the thing we’d find most poignant about a place isn’t actually the place. It’s the humanity.

We breathe a little easier knowing that when we’re ready to return, the people will still be there.

Below, these three writers tell us about their travel loves.

Diving Deeper into Portugal with Terry Ward

coastal town in the algarve portugal
Let Portugal reveal itself in layers. (Photo: Getty Images)

Like many people right now, I’m missing the warm souls of the world as much as I’m missing its pretty places. So when I think about the spots I long to get back to when we can travel safely, my heart goes to those places that have drawn me so warmly in the past with the welcoming arms of their people as much as any postcard-worthy landscape.

At the top of that list is Portugal, a country that seems to peel back a new layer with each visit — and I’ve always loved places that reveal themselves like onions rather than bananas.

My last visit was a scuba diving trip with Portugal Dive. The owner, Arlindo Serrao, said he wanted me to experience the culture of his country as much as its underwater highlights.

I spent my days finning through schools of silvery fish offshore of towns lined with the golden beaches Portugal is so famous for, like Peniche and Sesimbra. I found myself entranced by an octopus in a rock garden and later ogling triggerfish in sun-dappled caverns.

I’d ticked off many of Portugal’s touristic must-sees on earlier trips — including the famous fado bars of Lisbon’s Bairro Alto and the Douro Valley near Porto. And my deeper dives this time took place around any communal table with locals I could find.

After one morning diving at Fonte da Telha, near Lisbon, we cruised close to the coast where people scour the crumbling cliffs for fossils and hoped to spot blue sharks from the boat. Back on land, we shed our wetsuits and sat down for a late lunch at Cabana Beach Bar — shrimp and fish in a savory broth the color of the setting sun.

I couldn’t understand most of what was being said around the table, and it didn’t matter. The feeling of the shared experience and comforting food translated more than words.

When the owner came around to offer some persimmon grappa he’d made from the last autumn’s harvest and everyone lifted their glasses with a resounding chorus of, “Saúde,” the cheers to health with new friends felt like something I wanted to raise up to the whole world.

Freelance travel writer Terry Ward lives in Tampa, Florida, and is currently scheming how to get back to Portugal for some post-pandemic revenge travel.

A Return to Ritual in Thailand with Norbert Figueroa

lanterns in night sky in thailand
See the glow in Thailand. (Photo: Getty Images)

When I first flew to Thailand in 2009, my heart gave itself to the nation’s incomparable tropical beauty, its people’s charm and its lively culture. I couldn’t understand why, but there was something special in how I felt as I experienced everything from its vivacious markets to its most solemn religious sights.

I was 26; it was my first solo backpacking trip, and while everything was foreign to me, there was an unusual “at-home” feeling that I would come to learn isn’t easily found everywhere.

From Bangkok’s chaotic streets and the crystal-clear beaches in the south to the temples in Chiang Mai and the tribal villages in the mountains, I traveled across Thailand, getting a taste of what makes the country so unique, enchanting and diverse.

This led to a fascination that prompted me to visit the country yearly and eventually settle there for nine months, in the northern city of Chiang Mai. I grew intimate with the country and its people.

We prayed and lit rice-paper lanterns as a traditional Yee Peng offering, threw water at each other to ring in the new year during Songkran, and together witnessed countless monk processions and collections of alms at the crack of dawn — the monks’ orange robes becoming a bright, captivating sight as the sun rose to shine on them.

Thailand may have all the qualities to captivate you, but its people and their smiles are what tie your heart to it. It’s been over four years since I last visited the land of smiles. December of 2020 was supposed to be the moment I’d put an end to that long absence, but unfortunately, due to the current travel restrictions worldwide, my reunion with Thailand will have to wait a bit longer.

I can’t wait to go back to dip my toes in its warm tropical waters, smell the mix of spices in the air from the nearby street food carts, and taste a savory chicken pad thai with a sweet roti as dessert — my favorite street food combo. But beyond that, I want to go deeper into the Thailand not many get to see.

We often think traveling means going to a new place every year, but Thailand has taught me that travel can also be a deepening, learning and maturing experience that grows the more you immerse yourself in a place.

Norbert Figueroa is a digital nomad architect traveling around the world since 2011, with the goal to visit all 195 U.N.-recognized countries. He documents his travel experiences on

Finding the Shine in New Zealand with Heather Greenwood Davis

hot springs in new zealand
Pay a visit to the Rotorua geysers. (Photo: Getty Images)

As a global travel writer, I try not to retrace my steps. Yet long before the end of my third visit to New Zealand in November 2019, I began plotting a return. The landscapes are as intoxicating as you’ve been told — from the neighborhoods of Christchurch to the geysers in Rotorua to the vineyards of Marlborough and beyond.

But that mix of rolling hills, mountains that stretch from sky to shore and waves that rise up along winding roadsides are only a backdrop. It’s the people who call to me most.

Strangers here don’t remain so for long. Conversations with shopkeepers go far beyond their wares; artists happily explain their inspirations; casual passersby ask how you’re enjoying the country and wait to hear your answers. Mention interest in visiting any of the more than 600 islands that make up the nation, and locals will be quick to name a cousin or friend in the area who can help when you get there.

Your enjoyment of the country matters to them. They want you to love it as they do. And you will.

In recent years the country’s shine has been hard to miss. That the country has suffered from and moved through national tragedy, admirably navigated the coronavirus and championed human rights — is the envy of the world.

The tourist offerings are equally inspiring: wild dolphin swims, hobbit house wanderings, beach picnics and Maori cultural experiences. Still, you could skip all of that and instead engage with the locals over lunch one day and you’d have a trip to remember.

I have no doubt that I’ll return to New Zealand. The pandemic has only increased my value of human connection, and when this is over, I’ll find my way back to one of the places I felt it most.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a contributing writer for National Geographic. She is currently grounded at her home in Toronto.