Talking travel with PBS travel host Rudy Maxa

I’m here with Rudy Maxa, PBS’s “Savvy Traveler” and host of the awards-winning series Rudy Maxa’s World. His sixth season is currently airing, featuring locales such as Estonia, Argentina, and Thailand (he’s already done a whopping 65 episodes).

He began as an investigative journalist at the Washington Post and then became the “Savvy Traveler” 15 years ago for public radio. He’s now a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and his work has appeared in GQ, Travel & Leisure, LA Times, and Forbes, among other publications. If you’re interested in more of what he has to say, check out his blog.

How did you make the transition from investigative journalism to travel writing? Did you always have the travel bug?

The switch was gradual and unplanned. While a senior writer at Washingtonian, the monthly DC magazine, I was asked to do political commentary twice a week on a new, national public radio show called “Marketplace.” I didn’t want to do political commentary, but the producer of the show persisted. He asked if I had any hobbies, and I said, ‘Well, I travel all the time, and I’m always surprised at how fellow travelers don’t know how to read an airline ticket. Or don’t know their rights when they arrive at a hotel with a reservation to find the hotel if filled.”

So I suggested a segment on consumer travel issues. I asked my friend Peter Greenberg, then writing a column in the LA Times on travel called “The Savvy Traveler” if I could use that name for radio. He kindly consented. Over a couple of years, my Savvy Traveler segment grew in popularity. I began getting writing assignments on travel subjects for national magazines. Then the every-other-week radio commentary turned into a one-hour, weekend show on public radio, “The Savvy Traveler,” that I hosted for four years. Then came the television series that I own as of this season, “Rudy Maxa’s World.”
And, yes, as an Army brat, I moved around the world every year or two as a kid. I always looked for excuses to travel as a college student and, later, during my 22 years as a journalist at The Washington Post and Washingtonian.

How do you pick what to showcase in each episode of Rudy Maxa’s World? Can you give us a preview this new season?

I consider what shows we’ve done on previous seasons, what cities and regions are capturing travelers’ attention, and, well, where I want to go. The 2008 season features 13, 30-minute shows on the following destinations: St. Petersburg (Russia); Estonia; India (Delhi/Agra and Rajasthan shows); Turkey (Istanbul and The Turquoise Coast); Argentina (Buenos Aires and Mendoza); Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto); Thailand (Bangkok, The Golden Triangle, and The Andaman Coast).

You produced a series of podcasts for NG Traveler about the top walks around the world. What are your favorite three and why?

There are so many great cities for walking. We focused on specific neighborhoods or themes, since no one can walk an entire big city in a day. So National Geographic Traveler chose Tribeca in Manhattan, Miami’s Art Deco district, and so on. My favorites would have to be Paris because every block holds tiny surprises; Tokyo because it is so foreign to most Americans; and-this might be surprising-Minneapolis.

In Minneapolis, I walk a very small area, the city’s old mill district, which in the early 1800s provided the bulk of the country’s flour. I didn’t know what a dangerous business turning wheat into flour could be-to this day, the Twin Cities has a large industry in artificial limbs, born from tragic accidents nearly 200 years ago. Many of the mills are still standing, though today they’re luxury condos. I love places with compelling stories, and to my surprise, the mill district of Minneapolis qualified.

What do you do as a NG Traveler contributing editor?

I write articles. I help out on ancillary projects such as the walking tours and a couple of other projects that are in the works. I’ll be a guide on an ’09 around-the-world trip that the Society offers each year.

What are your all-time favorite cities and countries?

Here’s my theory: It’s a place you discover later in life that impresses you the most. My father, an Army colonel, was stationed twice in my life in Germany, and we toured Europe widely. I visited often in college and as a young man. I love Europe, but I didn’t get to Asia until I was 34. And that first night in Hong Kong, I was alone on the Star Ferry looking at a full moon over Victoria Peak on crystal clear night, and I was transfixed. Ever since then, I’ve tried not to miss an opportunity to travel in Asia.

If you really press me, I’d have to choose Thailand as my favorite country, maybe Paris or London or Bangkok as my favorite city. But, then again, there’s Barcelona and Madrid. And Istanbul and Delhi . . .

Come back tomorrow for part 2.