How does a resort become as iconic as the unrelentingly fabulous elite who infest it?Joan Juliet Buck decodes what it means to be in the right place at the right time

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.

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.