If there are two things that Los Angeles-based Lucy Butler knows about, it's acting and travel. As an actress, her success spans theatre (Chicago's Second City), film (David Lynch's Lost Highway) and television where she has been seen in series ranging from Family Ties to The West Wing. Currently she co-stars in Michael Bay's hit TNT series The Last Ship as Roberta Price, a powerful Southern politician.
For many, success like that would be enough, but not Lucy Butler, whose 30-plus year career as a concierge travel specialist began in 1993 when she formed, Where On Earth, a company that specializes in unique private itineraries across the globe. Her personal area of concentration is Western Europe - specifically Paris, London, Spain, and Italy. http://www.whereonearthtravel.com
After interviewing this sparkling fountain of useful travel tips, I am genuinely inspired to travel the world and the seven seas - Lucy Butler-style. I think you will be too - read on...
Xaque Gruber: How did this career as a concierge travel specialist find you? And what exactly does a concierge travel specialist do?
Lucy Butler: That is such a wonderful question, as the career really did "find me." I was forever giving my unsuspecting friends my "two cents worth" on their travel plans whether they liked it or not. Because my family was in the Peace Corps in the early 60's, I grew up traveling and it became second nature. I cannot stand it when I think people are paying too much money and not getting any "bang for the buck." So many of my clients listen to their friend's bad travel advice, instead of picking a hotel, tour, or activity that is more suitable to their own interests. There is this idea that "one size fits all in travel" which is being increasingly challenged. Some travelers want to sit on a beach, some want to help rehabilitate the loggerhead sea turtle. And how we travel differs widely according to who we are traveling with - girlfriend, lover, mother, young children, or extended family. That is what a concierge travel specialist does - if you have an aunt who is interested in folk dancing or Jewish history, we will find that for you! So no one trip is created alike.
XG: How does being a concierge travel specialist inspire your work as an actress?
LB: Being an actress means immersion into another state of mind, and/or a different cultural and social framework. And certainly travel increases your empathy, awareness, and compassion for other ways of thinking and other lifestyles. Since I did speak a foreign language by the age of six, and since I was living in Asia, I had to learn cultural sensitivity very early on. So the process of "dropping in" to a different mind frame of a character was one I absorbed early in life. I am fascinated and inspired by how different cultures operate. I think also it is the details that create a really good character study or a really good trip. When I plan a trip, I am thinking of the details: how tired will the clients will be, what shoes to wear on the cobblestones, what restaurants best fit their personalities and budget.
XG: Countries like France, Italy, Mexico are all popular places for Americans to visit, but there are many others that are not as much on the radar - but are equally wonderful to visit. What are your Top 3 foreign country travel recommendations that Americans might not immediately consider?
LB: One of the most underrated European gems is Slovenia. Due north of Croatia, and next to Italy and Austria, Slovenia is a combo of Austrian pre-Alpine scenery with the most sophisticated Italian influenced food and wine. Ljublana, (Lewbleeahna) is the charming capital city with cafes centered on a river with terrific restaurants, wine bars, architecture, music, and a castle on top of a hill to complete the fairy tale picture. Lots of opportunities for biking, hiking, and fishing too! The UNESCO World Heritage caves of Skocjan are like something out of Indiana Jones, with one of the world's largest known underground river canyons. I am not a cave aficionado at all, but when I visited the site I was blown away!
You can also boat, kayak, or swim on the picturesque Lake Bled surrounded by mountains and crowned with an island church. Tip: Try the "orange" white wine, a specialty of Slovenia, when I first saw it I was totally freaked out, but it tastes amazing!
Vietnam has something for everyone: gorgeous beaches, healthy cuisine, French influences, ethnic tribes, amazing temples, and incredible Art Deco architecture. The people are so friendly, and the activities are amazing: morning Tai Chi, bespoke clothing made overnight, street food tours, or an excursion into the underground tunnels where the Viet Cong lived during the Vietnam (American) War. The UNESCO World heritage site of Halong Bay is not be missed, with emerald waters and thousands of islands for kayaking or exploration by boat. While you can plan a trip on your own, many companies will organize small group tours centered on biking, walking, cuisine, or history. Tip: I am fascinated by the war in Vietnam, so I was blown away by the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Sri Lanka was off the radar for so many years due to civil strife in the north. It is a magnificent country with Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial influences. There are the highlands where tea is grown, famous mountaintop shrines with daily pilgrimages, animal preserves where you can see leopard and elephants, and cities filled with glorious colonial architecture. Surfers and beach lovers will be very happy. I will be going there in the next couple of months to hike and bike around the island. Best of all, there is a proliferation of excellent hotels right now for every budget. Tip: I will be carrying an extra duffle bag with me to fill up as the shopping is great: gem stones, textiles, antiques, and spices.
XG: What are your Top 3 travel destinations within the United States that many Americans might not immediately consider?
LB: Oh gosh, that is hard, I love so many different areas of the U.S., and I am a native Californian, so The Golden State is dear to me! I will try to very briefly describe several areas that really merit an entire tourist guide.
I started my acting career in Chicago so it has a very special place in my heart. Chicago sometimes gets a bad rap because of the weather, and yes, in December the winds whipping across the lake will send even the most politically-correct running to price fur coats. Take the Chicago architecture river cruise, and then go see the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Barbara Gaines was my Shakespeare director and teacher back in the day, and her determined vision singlehandedly created one of the great Shakespeare theaters in North America. They are so civic-minded, the company is currently performing a 75 minute version of Twelfth Night free in the parks!
In summer take a bike ride along the lakefront, and then you must go to historic Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play and sit in the bleachers. And don't forget Chicago's burgeoning bar scene. If you are there on a Sunday, see an early show of famed improv troupe Second City, and then go to Scofflaw for one of their crafted gin cocktails in the hip Logan Square area. For great dining with a view, go to the Chicago Stock Exchange on LaSalle Street for dinner at the Michelin starred Everest restaurant via private elevator. And don't miss Garrett Popcorn Shops with three stores on Michigan Avenue - there is always a line out front, even in the snow! Tip: The Chicago Off-Loop theater scene is legendary. Try to see a show at the Red Orchid on Wells Street.
Southwestern Utah never ceases to amaze me. I cannot get tired of the incredible views and colors of the famed slot canyons. Last time I went, we had a guide who played the Navajo flute while we stood quietly, alone in the canyon, watching a pair of Great Horned owlets nearby. Now that is a transcendental experience!
In late April one year I drove into Zion Canyon with my parents, as a dusting of snow had blanketed the massive rock formations, once ancient dunes, sculpted by wind. It had an almost otherworldly feel as we drove through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, marked by vertiginous views of the surrounding canyons. Zion rendered me speechless. As the 19th Century landscape painter Thomas Moran said, "...for glory of scenery and stupendous scenic effects [Zion] cannot be surpassed...It is a marvelous piece of Nature's handiwork that is worth going a long distance to see." There are some major adventures to be had in Zion: canyoneering, rock climbing, horseback tours, hiking, and jeep tours to name a few.
I am an archaeology/paleontology geek so the petroglyphs, rock paintings by ancient cultures, fascinate me as well. There are excellent examples in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, along with dinosaur tracks! Tip: Rent a houseboat on Lake Powell, right on the border of Arizona and Utah, a great and relaxing way to see some of the Southwest's best scenery. And of course you can fish, paddle board, and kayak right off of your boat!
When clients tell me they want to go to Italy to experience a different culture, I am often tempted to say, why not go to Texas? It is closer, and so different than California! I am a HUGE Texas fan, and based my character on The Last Ship on a combination of Lone Star State politicians Carly Fiorina and Ann Richards. I lived in Austin for six months, have relatives there, and my sister spent many years in San Antonio where I visited frequently. Someone once told me Austin has the three F's--fun, food, and friendly people. Certainly true!
Since Austin is a university town, there is a certain degree of experimentation unique to that part of the world. "Keep Austin Weird" is not only a slogan, but the name of a Festival and 5K Run with appropriate costumes and activities, part of the zeitgeist that makes the town so entertaining. Add to that a prolific music, food truck, and craft beer culture, and it is a recipe for a great city. On the first Thursday of the month, go to SoCo, south of Congress, where galleries, boutiques, and restaurants stay open late. By all means get a ticket to a University of Texas football game, so you can understand the passion of the "Hook'em horns" mentality. I worked at a restaurant there where the head waitress, Shirley, would execute a full on kick every time the team made a touchdown. No one thought it was odd at all. And even stranger, the big wildlife attraction in town is the flight of the bats from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. (They will return in mid-March 2017, according to the Bat Conservation International.)
If history interests you, Austin has the LBJ Library, and the State History Museum. Summer brings the glories of boating or water skiing on Lake Austin, dining at a lakeside café, and drinking a longneck beer. Tip: There are lots of options for accommodations in Austin-one of the most hip and eccentric is the Hotel St. Cecilia--check out Suite 5.
XG: You are considered an expert in Spain and Italy - how are these locations perfect not just for romance but for family friendly getaways as well?
LB: VILLAS, VILLAS, AND MORE VILLAS! In the U.S. we tend to associate villas with a grand mansion, but it is really more of a house in the country in Spain and Italy. They work so well for kids: you can determine your own hours, feed them at will, and no one is ordering that infamous six dollar Coke. Villas range from simple affairs with one bedroom to palatial extravaganzas with helicopter pads, screening rooms, tennis courts, pools, and wine cellars. Villas offer something for every budget!
And best of all, most offer housekeeping, babysitting, and cooks so you don't need to clean up and take care of the kids constantly. Many villa companies will arrange for classes in the home, so you can take language lessons, learn to make pizza or paella, or even wine tasting and dance the flamenco! Tip: I recommend getting a villa with a pool for the kids and scheduling an outing or tour every other day. That gives the children enough "down time" so they don't stage a revolt when you tell them they are going to see the Vatican or the Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona.
XG: In your film and TV acting career, what have been your top 3 favorite roles - and why?
LB: Roberta Price in The Last Ship. I had the feeling she was the type of woman who could neuter a stallion and then fly to the White House to entertain a foreign dignitary. And I loved what the costumers did with her outfits. I always wore these amazing brooches! And she is so comfortable with herself and being in a man's world. She was described in the show as being "the meanest and the smartest" of the regional leaders. I was very proud of that.
I also loved my role, Candace Dayton, in David Lynch's movie Lost Highway. First of all, David is a dream to work with, loves actors, and trusts them completely. To prepare for that part, I hung out at bars where the Harley crowd rode their motorcycles and studied how the women looked. They never showed in the movie, but I had the most insane nail art. It was such a different role for me, and I enjoyed every minute.
Matinee, a film directed by Joe Dante, was fascinating to prepare for. I played a character named Rhonda who was very much at odds with the early 60's establishment. It was a small part, but so much fun to research--I kind of modeled her after Joan Baez, with long straight hair and a leather tie for my ponytail. I read all of the historical and political articles I could find on the Beat movement during that time period. Plus I worked with such amazing actors: Bob Picardo, David Clennon, John Sayles, Cathy Moriarty, and John Goodman.
The Last Ship is currently airing its third season, Sunday nights at 9:00PM on TNT. To contact Lucy Butler's Where On Earth: http://www.whereonearthtravel.com