When I decided to reinvent myself as a travel writer, I envisioned exploring the four corners of the earth on complimentary travel, but I was surprised to realize that I could have a successful career as a travel writer while staying right here at home, in my beloved South.
My personal budget for travel is meager, but once I became a travel writer and I started receiving free perks, my budget stretched exponentially, and the benefits continue to surpass my initial expectations.
I started out a few years ago with only a handful of assignments, but once I had a few bylines, I approached my local newspaper about becoming a regular contributor. Three years later, my column, called “90 Minutes from Home,” is a fixture in a local quarterly magazine. Not only do I receive a nice paycheck from the articles, I also meet the movers and shakers of nearby towns, I visit local attractions, and my articles become resources for my friends who are looking for fun day trips.
Usually, I can gather my research for the stories using a few hours of my time and less than a tank of gas, but occasionally I’ve been invited to spend the night and look a little deeper. Just recently, I stayed in an antebellum mansion converted into a luxurious B&B in Columbia, Tennessee. For another story, I slept in a deluxe cabin beside a legendary 90-foot waterfall in Gadsden, Alabama. Both were compliments of the tourism agencies in those towns.
I love being invited on press trips where I can get in my car, drive just a few hours away, and spend a few days discovering all of the extraordinary food, history, and culture of a town, then return home with notebooks full of juicy details and hundreds of photos to download. Those notes and photos generate stories, blog posts, money in my bank account, and even invitations to speak at civic clubs.
In recent months, for example, I experienced a Sabbath meal at the Biblical History Center and toured the magnificent Hills and Dales Estate in LaGrange, Georgia. I strolled through Rowan Oak, the home of author William Faulkner, and ate in three restaurants owned by James Beard-nominated chef, John Currence, in Oxford, Mississippi.
During a visit to Plantation Country in Louisiana, my husband and I were treated to lodging on the stunning properties of Oak Alley, Nottoway, and Houmas House, but also examined Whitney Plantation. In Asheville, North Carolina, I had a ringside seat to watch the culinary staff at Rhubarb, the successful eatery of another James Beard chef, John Fleer, who stopped to chat between dishes. And, I’ve just returned from wandering through Civil War battlefields and tasting my first “slugburger” in Corinth, Mississippi. All of these occasions were hosted free of charge…and extraordinary.
It doesn’t matter how far you go—or how close you are to home—as a travel writer there is always a story you can find. Rattlesnake Saloon is a café and music venue tucked into a cave, less than an hour from my house. It became the subject of one of my first bylines. Another nearby café serves arguably the best hushpuppies in the South, and I was invited into the kitchen to watch their production. My latest article, though, was an interview with James Boyce, the chef and owner of four fine-dining restaurants in Huntsville and Birmingham, Alabama, all within easy drives from home.
Occasionally, I board a plane and expand my perimeter, but it’s never a necessity for a travel writer. There are many more enthusiastic business owners, historical treasures, and exceptional dishes to appreciate in my own backyard.
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