Many Famous Travel Writers Did Not Start Out That Way

Priya Florence Shah
5 min readApr 14, 2022


Some of the most famous travel writers were engaged in other careers and went on to be the foremost chroniclers of the places to which they were posted.

Travel writing has echoed the odysseys of famous travel writers. A travel article written in a pleasing style will attract the reader and arouse his curiosity about the places described in the piece.

Writers still feel it incumbent on them to have some higher purpose to their journeys beyond mere self-indulgence or curiosity.

These days, because of the internet and that associated fiction, that we do not need to be anywhere but at our computers, this phenomenon has practically left our screens.

But we have been left with a recent legacy of great travel writing, balancing on the back of sometimes lackluster other careers.

In the case of Lawrence Durrell, a contemporary diplomat, and thinker, his urge to travel emerged from the nature of his family, who loved to wander, but primarily from his experiences in the diplomatic corps.

He achieved world fame with his tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet (he resided in Alexandria, Egypt, which inspired the setting for the book), and his oeuvre is in fact considerable, including many titles now almost totally forgotten except by collectors and specialists in his work.

Others in the genre of diplomatic travel literature Durrell produced were Sauve Qui Peut and Stiff Upper Lip set in some of the seamier outposts of the world. But travel and examinations of time and place are common threads that run through them all.

Harold Nicolson, author of The War Years, Congress of Vienna, Public Faces, and Some People — among others had a spell in the diplomatic corps, and out of those experiences arose written classics of time and place: Esprit de Corps — Sketches of Diplomatic Life with its perfect depiction of life in Yugoslavia early in the 20th century.

But grave and serious the book certainly was not. Critic John Connell wrote: ‘Uproariously funny & shrewd; it is as if Sir Harold Nicolson had gone into partnership with P. G. Wodehouse’.

These three classics of time and place are tales of diplomatic misadventure by the British Foreign Office, accompanied by memorable and witty drawings by Nicolas Bentley.

They are magnificent introductions to the countries they depict, despite the fictitious character, the deadpan, loopy Antrobus, who populates all the stories.

Durrell’s writings based on his diplomatic corps experiences were by no means his only travel books.

There was also Prospero’s Cell: A Guide To The Landscape and Manner of the Island of Corcyra, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Blue Thirst, Sicilian Carousel, the Greek Islands, and Caesar’s Vast Ghost.

So much was Durrell a traveler that this expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer resisted affiliation with Britain and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan.

He was denied the right to enter or settle in Britain under the new laws and had to apply for a visa for each entry. This travel writer was forced by law, then, to be a permanent itinerant.

Travel books are extremely diverse. Some are barely identifiable as travel writing. Gerald Durrell is thought of as an eccentric naturalist but in fact, his books are engaging books on travel with a special focus on animal life.

The kinds of travel literature, or indeed travel writers, can be broadly categorized. On top of the list are those travel writers who are travelers by occupation and writers by profession. Three such writers are Paul Theroux, William Least Heat-Moon, and Bill Bryson.

It is probably no surprise that writers in this sub-genre are often short-tempered about travel and indeed the act of travel writing. More writers in this category are Jan Morris and Eric Newby.

Once again there is a cross-over because Morris is known as a historian and Newby as a novelist. It seems as soon as you write anything other than travelogues you have lost your purity!

Then there are travel works that are more along the lines of essays, such as V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization, in which a journey becomes the peg on which to hang reflections and considerable philosophizing about nations, people, politics, and culture.

Another such work is Rebecca West’s work on Yugoslavia entitled Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. We have already dealt with the naturalist-as-traveler in Gerald Durrell. There are many more such examples.

What of Sally Carrighar and Ivan T. Sanderson who also write to support their scientific ambitions. Arguably this sub-genre started when Charles Darwin undertook the voyage on HMS Beagle and returned to write his famous account of the journey, which encompassed science, natural history, and travel.

Finally, there are travel writers who reversed into the genre. Here authors who have established their names in other genres travel and try their hand at travel writing. More famous authors than you would think have tried this.

Examples include Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, the essayist, Hillaire Belloc, the novelists Lawrence Durrell, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, John Steinbeck, and Evelyn Waugh.

Some critics and analysts say that fictional travelogues (accounts of journeys that are imaginary and often to imaginary destinations) make up a large proportion of travel literature. I would say that is a long shot.

They argue that no one really knows where the travel accounts of Marco Polo and John Mandeville stopped being fact and became fiction.

More acceptable are instances where fictional works are based on factual journeys — such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast.

It must be said that it takes consummate skill to incorporate an account of a real journey into a fictional story. Conrad managed this superbly.

Finally, there are the entirely imaginary journeys that form part of the literary heritage but which in my view cannot be construed as travel literature of any kind.

Homer’s Odyssey, Danté’s Divine Comedy, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide…. The list goes on and on…..

One common thread does run through all of the travel writing, though. It is the traveler’s — and the reader’s — boundless fascination with what lies over the next horizon, just out of sight and ready to be discovered.

Some of the greatest travel writers had no idea they would be travel writers. They were engaged in other careers and then went on to be the foremost chroniclers of the places to which they were posted.

The two basic objectives of travel writing are to inform readers of facts and create an interest in them by way of impressions.

Photographs are an essential part to create a visual impact of the article. A sophisticated writing style that includes imagery and has narrative dialogues or other fictive technique makes for interesting reading.

As a travel blogger, you should do preliminary research on the place, make actual notes and be perceptive of people, customs and atmosphere along with landmarks and scenery.

If you want to be a travel blogger, start by learning travel writing, and then go on to start your own travel blog website and become a travel influencer.



Priya Florence Shah

✍ Bestselling Author, Award-Winning Publisher & Online Branding Consultant @