Americans have always been more individualistic; the country is so vast and our two oceans so much fiercer than the tame and craven Mediterranean that a sporty attitude is needed to enjoy the leisure hours. Hunting, fishing, shooting, being charged by moose, thrown by horses, startled by alligators, and bored senseless in desert diners while ogling waitresses are real men's pastimes.
In the States, millionaires had huge lodges on Northern lakes with Indian names, cottages the size of hotels in Newport, and Italianate curiosities in Palm Beach. In the Hamptons, houses were built to fully tempt hurricanes and beach erosion, and then farther inland for watching over potato fields and snuggling up by the fire in Ralph Lauren sweaters, escaping the world by reading that week's cache of magazines. The Hamptons were the refuge from the grind and the glare, until fame and fortune became so generalizedthat the developers had to build more houses to accommodate the exponential rise in the need for privacy.
The south of France is now one big traffic jam from June to September, worse even than Route 27 on eastern Long Island; the coast of Spain is overrun with tour groups and ugly high-rises; the eastern coast of Italy has long been known as the "Teuton grill." People have been escaping inland for the past 30 years. Thus Provence has filled up with Brits and the Dutch, despite the occasional mysterious murder of tourists. We can spend a month in a rented mas in France or a casa colonica in Tuscany, peasant houses upgraded with swimming pools and "American" kitchens, or, better still, in a frescoed palazzo that comes with the arthritic family retainers to cook the pasta and make sure we don't run off with the curtains. New Yorkers are discovering the upper Hudson Valley and the Catskills; Californians have decided that the Mid-century-Modern desert bungalows of Palm Springs are more edgy and appealing than Malibu and its sandy skies. We need to be elsewhere, we need beauty, we need soft breezes and foreign cultures and the sensation of touching something authentic. Holidays have gone beyond the offering of the epidermis to Phoebus and are now divided between two distinct poles: adventure on the one hand, because we are still seeking a form of Holy Grail, and the facsimile of a real life on the other.
Those people who throw a lapdog, five cell phones, and some cashmere into an Hermès bag and jump onto a Gulfstream or a Falcon to go where they either know the king or own 10,000 acres, have new destinations. There's Punta del Este in Uruguay, a place so perversely far and remote that only the elite can even consider getting there. Of course many of them are already used to hunting boar in Argentina and hanging off cliffs in Patagonia, so Uruguay is merely a fly-over, the billionaire version of Ohio. Costa Careyes in Mexico, where Jimmy Goldsmith decreed a germ-free demesne, is more interesting, and harder to get to, than Acapulco. Kenya, but not just any Kenya: Hippo Point, a private wildlife sanctuary, has theoretically benign hippos lumbering from one lake to another at sunset. Spain is enjoying a renaissance: perceived as kinder than France, more butch than Italy, and with more garlic than both, it is once again a place people want to be. Ibiza, for years ignored as a mass destination, is now the most exclusive spot in Europe. A dazzling Italian woman's 6,000-square-foot house and rambling guest studios can be rented there for $35,000 a week, privacy and good taste guaranteed.
New places are discovered as the old ones are deluged, first with pleasure-seekers and then with developers making sure that more people will have access to those diminishing pleasures. We move from Capri to the Cinque Terre in northern Italy, from Sicily to Pantelleria, where the sand is black and there's really nothing to do, from the Turkish coast to the coast of Dalmatia, from Bangkok to Vietnam, no longer a war zone, now a pretty place to visit. Bhutan, not India; more exclusive. Cathar country, because of the legends. The exotic beauty spots of the Far East now have Aman-this and Aman-that hotels to soothe the traveler. The Caribbean rises and falls with the ruthless tide of fashion: St. Bart's is fashionable on alternate weeks and during months ending in Y, H, and L; the K Club on Barbuda always offers privacy; and Mustique, once musty with the sixties aura of Princess Margaret and the Rolling Stones, is again fragrant because those names now have the magic of late Mid-century Modern.
I myself was very partial to Iceland when I lived only three hours away by plane. Despite the bad food (only the carpaccio of whale at Primavera, the best restaurant in Reykjavík, is worth the trip), the hideous architecture, and the forward natives, this roiling volcanic land is as odd and barren as the moon.
Unlike my more carefree friends, I have never been very good at holiday moments. As a teenager in St. Moritz at Christmastime I'd watch the scintillating furry crowd of extremely important millionaires and women with pasts gossiping in five languages (English, French, Italian, German, Greek) and shrink my focus to the silver bowl of nuts in front of me. I took notes.
Writers like to live in places that other people go to on holiday; the dawdling pace of strangers is the right background for concentration. George Sand traveled; she dragged her lover Alfred de Musset to Venice, and Chopin to Majorca, unfortunately in the winter, so that they froze and quarreled and got little work done. Marguerite Duras, once she could afford it, lived in Trouville. Nabokov lived in the Montreux Palace, a lakeside hotel in Switzerland, from which I once stole a coat hanger so as to have a Nabokov souvenir. Gore Vidal was for years in Ravello, Italy, a place principally known for its views and fine selection of thick china plates. Irwin Shaw lived in Klosters so that he could ski all day, and Henry James, Edith Wharton, and James Baldwin all felt better working in Paris. The dislocation of not being at home, the half-travel experience of dealing with the dry cleaner in a foreign language, somehow frees the imagination and loosens the syntax.
My six years as a salaried person with responsibilities made me aware that holidays are necessary: it was my first experience of actually being tired. The German streak in me, however, impelled me to restore the human machinery in spas rather than indulge in exotic pleasures. I was haggard on a plane to the Antilles, fleeing February Paris for a week on Anguilla, when I ran into Benno Graziani, one of the pillars of the European jet set. "I'm joining Gianni on his yacht, we're sailing the Caribbean for a week—why don't you come with us?" he asked. Gianni was Gianni Agnelli, and I could already imagine the yacht: its mahogany decks, its impeccable stewards, the grand old man lying on cushions in faded cotton, asking for gossip. I could see myself trying to be witty and chic and attractive at the same time. This would not be a holiday.
"Oh, no," I said, "I really need to be alone."
JOAN JULIET BUCK, a critic, novelist, and former editor-in-chief of French Vogue, lives in New Mexico.