In spite of the crowds and inclement weather — and the increased risk that my arrangements might get mixed up — I love traveling during the holidays. It seems like the whole world is on the move.
It's about family, right? Or maybe it's a special group of friends that share an adventure each year. I still remember climbing into the car and singing "over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go."
But for those of us in the travel business, we cannot help but notice many instances of hospitality along the way. Often it is moments when strangers come together that the gift of hospitality shines through.
Actually, in my faith tradition, we call it the "sacrament of hospitality." It's not hard to recognize. Think about it when you're on your next journey. When you say "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired" or "I'm out of gas."
It's great to gather around the table with loved ones. But so often, we depend on the kindness of strangers to help us on our way. The word "hospitality" covers a broad range of job titles. It could be the front desk clerk, the barista, the flight attendant or bus driver.
Traveling in Iceland, we stopped at a hot spring right on the edge of a lake. It was cold outside and most of the lake was frozen, except right around the hot spring. The structure is built around three bubbling mud pots at the water's edge. The thermal energy heats the "Laugarvatn Fontana" geothermal baths. The owner, "Siggi" Hilmarsson, is a native of the area and watches over the pools and the sauna. But he also uses the geothermal energy to bake bread in the ground. He buries the loaves in a Dutch oven and lets them bake for 24 hours. Then he slices a slab of butter made of milk from cows that graze on the hillside in back of the hot springs. The finishing touch is a slice of lake trout. These three ingredients are offered up to visitors after a healthy soak in the hot spring. Siggi calls it "super-local organic" fare. I call it a heaping portion of Icelandic hospitality.
Alaskan lodge owners Carl and Kirsten Dixon operate two luxury lodges: Tutka Bay Lodge across from Homer and Winterlake Lodge at milepost 131 on the Iditarod Trail. I visited in January, when the temperature never got above 15 degrees. We were talking in the kitchen, where Kirsten was cooking something delicious. Winterlake is known for its wild setting, Kirsten's great cooking and the opportunity for some great adventures in the wild. "In the end, we're innkeepers," Kirsten said. "We see people come through in many different ways: on bike, on foot, on skis or with a dog team," she said. I had come along with a film crew by ski plane from Anchorage. But while we were there, snowmachiners came whizzing through and stopped in the front yard to repair a broken strut.
It's not hard to see how hospitality can extend from helping a hungry traveler to saving a stranger's life. Instead of "I'm hungry," the plea might easily be "I'm afraid" or "I'm hurt."
I think that's why some folks are afraid to travel, while others relish the opportunity. There are so many ways that a trip can go wrong just driving from Anchorage to Eagle River. What about when people don't speak your language—or look at you with suspicion in a foreign country?
My first trip on an Airbus A380 super-jumbo plane was between Dubai and Kuala Lumpur on Emirates. The Dubai airport is nothing if not a cultural melting pot. There are prayer rooms and public showers next to restaurants and souvenir shops. I made it a point to stay close to the gate because, honestly, I didn't want to get lost among the three terminals spread out over thousands of acres.
When I finally sat down in row 78, the captain spoke on the intercom: "We have 16 flight attendants on board. Between them, they speak 19 languages. So we look forward to greeting you in your language as we make our way to Kuala Lumpur," he said.
The cabin crew was kind and efficient, and they all spoke English. None of them could help me with the in-flight internet. But they were very hospitable, which is a neat trick when there are more than 400 people on board. And traveling from one strange land to another, just a smile and a kind word in my native language was important.
On arrival in Kuala Lumpur, I managed to get to the Grand Hyatt, although neither the cab driver nor I really knew how it happened. Traffic was tough and the construction was worse. The hotel is set on the top 27 floors of a skyscraper next to the convention center. Everyone at the front desk spoke English and they were very kind. But when I got to my room, I found a birthday cake.
Yes, it was my birthday — I had told them my date of birth when I signed up for the Hyatt loyalty plan. Regardless, it made my day. For me, this was "peak hospitality."
So, enjoy your family get-together. Set the table. Light the candles. But be mindful of the angels you meet along the way. You'll find them at the airport, the restaurant or maybe at the hot spring. It's a delightfully human thing to do to be kind to fellow travelers. Heaven knows it's good practice for when we go back to work on Monday.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.