Just the tonic: David Whitley

If vintage gin, fine art and palaces don't do it for you — so what? It's your holiday, so feel free to hop on that Segway, play mini-golf or sink a few neon cocktails.

By David Whitley
Published 24 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:45 BST
David Whitley
David Whitley.

The barman slides the glass in my direction. "You've probably been drinking the cheap stuff," he says excitedly. "This is on another level altogether."

I take a sip, and involuntarily adopt the insta-grimace that convulses across my face every time I taste gin and tonic. I look at the barman, whose shoulders slump in disappointment. He's just got the wrong guy. He may adore gin, but I've always found it revolting, and it's quite clear that this is never going to change.

There are some things you grow to like as you get older. In my 20s, I was converted to red wine, mushrooms and Fleetwood Mac, for example. But there comes a time in life where you have to accept certain things are just not for you. Even if avocados, olives and Prince albums were all I had to eat/listen to for the rest of my days, I'd never veer from a position of unmitigated disgust. Having tried repeatedly to enjoy them, and failed each time, there comes a point where open-minded willingness to experiment just becomes abject stupidity. It's like repeatedly hammering nails through your foot in the hope that, next time, it won't hurt.

Unfortunately, giving up on something feels like it runs against the 'try anything once' mentality I convince myself I have, despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary. But the key to that is trying things once. Is there really any shame in contentedly slamming the door on something tried multiple times without success?

This applies to travel too. There comes a point when you've got to just admit to yourself that you simply don't enjoy certain things — and that doing them repeatedly because you feel you ought to is futile.

Travel is full of 'ought tos'. You ought to try the local speciality, get up for the sunrise, hang out in the 150-year-old cafe with outrageously overpriced drinks, climb hundreds of steps to the top of the cathedral tower, and see the state rooms of the palace.

Often those ought tos are very enjoyable, and they're forcefully suggested for a very good reason. But sometimes, it's far better to rely on previous experience and just accept that it's not for you. Local specialities, sunrises, old cafes, cathedral towers and palaces can frequently be disappointing — but for me, they're good often enough to make them usually worth a punt. I can see why others might decide not to, though.

Art museums, however, leave me so consistently non-plussed that I'd be deliriously happy if I never set foot inside one again. Like the gin, it's not like I've only been to the rubbish ones. I've seen Picasso's Guernica, Michelangelo's David, seemingly a billion Titians and more than enough van Goghs. But even with humanity's greatest artistic achievements, I struggle to get beyond a reaction of: 'Fair play. That's good.' And with wall after wall of mediocre stuff as padding, my eyes glaze over in boredom. Another seven largely brown paintings of the Virgin Mary? How exhilarating.

I know this is probably unacceptable, and far more damning of me than the museums, but I've not yet found a way to avoid this reaction. It's not even as if I'm a complete philistine who doesn't enjoy art at all — I find street art fascinating, and love public art installations. It just bores me rigid in a museum context.

So every time I force myself to go around one, I end up thinking that I'd much sooner be playing mini golf, or looking at monkeys in a zoo, or going on a boat somewhere. None of these alternatives will be more enlightening or give me
a better sense of place. But they'll sure as hell be more enjoyable.

Going on holiday shouldn't have to be some sort of superiority contest. It's your spare time — you should be able to do what you like with it. And if you get more enjoyment out of Segway tours than niche historical museums, then I'll think less of you, but that's not really the point.

Adopting this attitude, and simply not caring what scorn comes your way, brings a tremendous sense of liberation. And next time a barman suggests a superb gin, I'll shamelessly order the neon, toxic-looking cocktail with Midori and Malibu instead.

Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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