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Becoming an Iconic Resort

I was in Iceland on a bright midsummer night, perched on the snowmobile that had conveyed us to the top of a glacier called Snaefellsjökull. I'd refused the large lined overalls that the snowmobile company had tried to push on me, and was now shivering in my Gore-Tex jacket, which was furthermore an evil green. My friend had donned one of the suits; he was a little farther down the slope, lying on his back, arms out in a cross, warmly communing with something private and transcendent. A group of Icelanders who'd come up with us were darting toward the edge of a chasm, happily peeing their names into the snow. One of them caught sight of me and ambled over across the white wasteland. "Halloo," he said. "When we go down again, would you like to have sex with me and my friends?"

The problem with holidays is that you're always meeting strangers whose idea of leisure doesn't quite match your own.

It is awkward. All travel involves the disassembling of permanent, fixed societies into mobile units that are then reassembled into temporary groups that are supposed to have the same affinities. These groups come together according to budget, status, and sin: into "villages" in the Club Med manner, where everyone is assumed to be hungry for lobster buffets, deep suntans, and windsurfing; into the screaming teenage tribes of spring break; into aesthetically devout groups on boats around the Aegean; into bands of music lovers with quaint wardrobes at Salzburg or Bayreuth; into lonely knots of concentrated gamblers at Deauville, Monaco, Biarritz, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas; into carefree packs of distractedly promiscuous fur wearers in Gstaad and St. Moritz; into adulterers in pairs or, why not, trios, at Deauville and on Mauritius; and so on. Wherever you go, the more of you there are, all subtly, annoyingly different, or hideously similar. The writer Michel Houellebecq has made his name on hatred of his fellow man as encountered on package holidays.

Travel began in Europe with the Crusades; the general routine involved getting to Jerusalem and saving it from the infidel while being slaughtered as infidel by people whose notion of God did not match your own. Plunder, now known as shopping, consisted of picking up a few scents of Araby while looking desperately for the Holy Grail. A professional version of the Crusaders, known as missionaries, continued the hopeless task. In the secular world, by the 18th century, the Grand Tour was a way for young men of delicate constitution to catch strange maladies in the Roman miasma while buying marble reproductions of the Temples of the Forum, which now sell for a great deal of money at the best antiques dealers. By the 19th century it was illness that drove people abroad; the British and Russians took their chilblains and rheumatism to the big white hotels of Nice in the winter. Those afflicted with graver conditions of the lungs repaired to the Swiss mountains, where they lay under blankets on sunny balconies and fantasized about women named Clavdia.

Investors soon noticed these undisciplined movements of monied populations and decided to make healthy fortunes out of the whimsical urge to pack huge trunks and tip bellboys in proportion. In the mid 19th century a slippery little rock full of pirates not far from Menton was turned into the Principality of Monaco, home to the Hôtel de Paris and the gilt gambling halls of Monte Carlo. At the same time, a windblown marsh in northern France attracted the attention of the Duc de Morny, who created Deauville, a place for the upper echelons of Parisian society to take mistresses and lose money at the tables. The Royal is still windblown, the Normandy cozily rustic.

The rise of ready-made, if not exactly mass-produced, luxury goods (as opposed to the saddle handcrafted for your horse by an appropriate but anonymous artisan) followed the establishment of places where men went to throw their money away on expensive cheap women. The jewelers followed; today the largest rocks from Harry Winston and Cartier spend most of their time in the best resorts. When chosen, the jewels go from the shop's safe to the owner's safe, and are shown off at the same casinos where models were once paid to wear them. A town is definitely a resort if it has more leather goods and gold chains on display than tomatoes.

Holidays, once the privilege of princes and the ailing upper classes, were suddenly mandated into law for ordinary working people by the French Socialist government of Léon Blum in 1936, and the habit spread to the rest of Europe. The month of August saw the capital cities emptied of their inhabitants and the seashores filled with parents, children, and tin pails. America, never a hotbed of socialism, has consistently failed to keep up with this basic human right; even today you can see people trudging to work on the streets of New York in the middle of August. The seaside glut of humanity propelled the rich onto yachts, so that they could sail serenely and yet pull into port and linger over cocktails at amusing local cafés in countries that were not yet fully socialized. Thus were the Greek islands colonized by people of a seasonal artistic bent, Sardinia by yacht owners who cared more about Pucci bikinis than tomatoes, and North Africa by those who liked palaces and little boys.

Then came the sixties, when the world, as opposed to just jazz musicians and poets, discovered drugs. Suddenly, young men with gaudy Volkswagen buses had an urgent need to be in Kathmandu, young women discovered the lure of the northern portions of the Sahara, and you were no one unless you had henna tattoos on your feet, a coat that reeked of goat, and a bag that stank of camel. The tiny island of Ibiza, the setting of a 1969 film about a drug overdose titled More, became the absolute destination. Ibiza receded a little as newer drugs—the kind that make people dance all night—sent the hordes to Goa, where the sun rises in a more telling fashion than in, say, St.-Tropez.

St.-Tropez of course was the place where Brigitte Bardot was careless about her bikini top, clearing the way for women of all shapes and sizes to lie bare-breasted in the sun, pretending that nipples were merely summer accessories. A fishing village, it was also the choice resort for people who rejected the idea of vast palace-hotels with marble halls and concierges dressed like middling functionaries in a police state. The popularity of St.-Tropez in the fifties and sixties was the beginning of what is called in France La Gauche Caviar, the Champagne Socialists, people of means who decorate their lives with tokens of the struggles of the proletariat.

Then there were the places built by accident, as a result of movies: Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy fishing village until John Huston shot The Night of the Iguana there, which meant hotels had to be built. Bora-Bora was born as a resort when Dino De Laurentiis built one in the seventies to accommodate the cast and crew of a forgotten film named Hurricane. Movies make certain people want to go to certain places—a fact not lost on the city fathers of Cannes or Venice, as both towns decided in the thirties to host film festivals that would prolong the tourist season and keep the hotels filled, Cannes in May before the sea is warm, Venice in September when the dazzled art history teachers have gone back to school.

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