Well, it finally happened. Someone worldly and precise told me he no longer likes the word authentic when applied to destinations (readers of this column will know that it's a personal favorite). Faute de mieux, as the French say, I cling to it still, even if the travel industry has harnessed authenticity as a handy marketing tool for its own manipulated versions of reality. I write this letter on a flight from Thailand to Hong Kong, having spent more than a week exploring the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, relaxing on Bali (and, yes, I did find it soothing and unthreatening), and juggling appointments during a whirlwind visit to Bangkok. Though each of these destinations has its challenges, I was delighted with the excellent hotels I stayed in for being of their place but removed enough to be transition points from my world to the worlds I was dropping in on. The mosquitoes of Siem Reap and Bali do not make distinctions between nature untamed in the jungle and cultivated within resort properties; I was glad for a protective coating of bug repellent—which worries me only slightly less than dengue fever, I admit—when I ventured out in Angkor and Sayan.
Contemplating our annual American issue from halfway around the globe, I feel a special connection to the international visitors portrayed in "American Beauty". Writer Ben Neihart provides a bird's-eye view of some of the nation's most iconic attractions, and points out that what draws tourists to those places is often not what we expect. Our stories also span the reality gap from Jeff Wise's daring encounter with the Salmon River in Idaho to Walter Kirn's freewheeling and free-spending adventure at the clubs, bars, and gaming tables of Las Vegas (what happened there in this case didn't stay there—but real it is). Christopher Petkanas navigates the New Berkshires, where modern cuisine and highly evolved pampering have become as emblematic as Birkenstocks and granola were in the seventies. And Guy Trebay sets sail on the just-launched Queen Mary 2, a dazzling contemporary homage to the great days of crossing the Big Pond from our wilder shores to scale the cultural heights of Europe.
I'm flying home from Hong Kong tomorrow. As with all travel experiences, I learned many things that I value and will hold on to, among them an insight from the Tourism Authority of Thailand about the three essentials for attracting visitors: hardware, software, and "heartware" (the warmth and receptiveness of the people). Our country has many authentic virtues, including these three.