I first met Expedia’s Senior Editor, Matt Villano, more than three years ago when I was living in San Francisco. He recommended meeting for coffee, I, naturally, recommended drinks. So we compromised, and instead, got brunch (mimosas for the win!).
That, however, may have been the last time I saw Matt compromise. His determination to be the best husband, father, traveler, and writer has been inspiring as we’ve become good friends ever since. We share an affinity for whiskey, March Madness, Las Vegas, and the film, Idiocracy (it is the only film on which we agree), among other things.
What first really stood out to me about Matt was when he casually told me that he’s been freelancing since he got out of college. As in, he’s never held an office job. How many people do you know who have worked for themselves their entire life?
While many of our conversations drift toward things like booze and when the Yankees will be a contender again, I recently sat down with Matt to chat a little deeper about writing, travel, family life, and his passion for whales (as in Shamu).
Spencer Spellman (SS): You’ve been writing for quite a while. How did you know you wanted to do this as a career?
Matt Villano (MJV): It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do (next to marine biology). My dad played a huge part in my interest. When I was a little kid, my dad was a freelance magazine editor and he’d edit stuff (the old-fashioned way, by hand) on the floor of our living room. I’d always mess up his piles and play with the typewriter. That piqued my curiosity. Fast forward to when I was in junior high and high school. Dad worked as press secretary for Mario Cuomo, who was governor of New York State at the time. We had reporters calling our house at all hours of the day and night. I would go with my father to work (in the World Trade Center, Tower 2) and do press conferences and media events. That really sealed the deal. The life of a journalist excited me. I loved telling stories. It seemed like a perfect match.
SS: Is there any single person who inspired you to travel like you have?
MJV: John McPhee, I guess, just because my favorite parts of his books always were the parts where he WASN’T talking to (mostly male) humans; they were the parts in which he described a place or a scene. I loved those details, mostly because I found that he always seemed to focus on the stuff nobody else considered. I became enamored with the concepts of expanding my stories to take readers to a faraway place without asking them to get off their couches, of telling stories about the things in these places that nobody else ever would talk about. I’d like to think that’s how I travel today, to seek out different perspectives, not necessarily to write the same story that’s been written 1 million times.
MJV: I’ve always loved ‘em. I grew up on the north shore of Long Island, and back then, there were whales in Long Island Sound that would come real close to our beaches. I remember sitting on the beach as a kid, watching those buggers, marveling at the fact that just out there, beyond the break, were these giant and graceful creatures about which we knew ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. For me, that was reason enough to learn about ‘em. My passion grew from there.
SS: If there is one person, from the past or present, who you would take a trip with and write about, who would it be?
MJV: Without question, my maternal grandfather. He was a very particular man, neurotic to a fault. But he had an insatiable curiosity for things and places and the natural world. The two of us did a number of trips together when he was alive, and I remember marveling at how much time he spent taking in new stuff. One trip in particular, to this alligator sanctuary/refuge in Florida, sticks out in my memory. We must have spent 15 minutes staring at each of about a dozen alligators. The creatures weren’t doing anything special, they were just being alligators (this comprises a lot of just sitting around). But the trip was fascinating. On that trip, Grandpa Ralph really showed me how to slow down. He taught me what it means to be patient while traveling. These are two lessons I carry with me today.
SS: What’s one destination that you’ve visited that you can’t get enough of?
MJV: Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. My wife and I love this spot because of all the things it’s not. It’s not a tropical island. It’s not a major activity center. It’s not a wild and crazy party spot. It’s a sleepy little beachtown that gets walloped by storms every winter and spends most of the rest of the year in various shades of grey and green. We had a stretch where we visited every year (usually around New Year’s). We haven’t been in two years and I miss it every day.
SS: You’re considered an expert on Vegas. What are some tips you would give for a first-timer to Sin City?
MJV: First and foremost, DITCH THE CABS AND WALK. Vegas is actually a phenomenal walking town. If you walk around the city enough, you start to learn shortcuts through the casinos. I pride myself on knowing the fastest way from Point A to Point B from anyplace on the Strip. My other advice is to get out of dodge and explore some of the adventures away from the tourist stuff. Go see the Hoover Dam. Go bike the River Mountains Loop. Go hike Red Rock Canyon. The vast majority of visitors to the area never do this stuff, and each of these activities is better than any Cirque du Soleil show or nightclub (or night with a prostitute).
Matt, hiking Vancouver Island’s North Coast Trail
SS: You call Northern California Wine Country home. What are some of your insider tips and recommendations for Sonoma?
MJV: Go off-season, go mid-week, and go with friends. Also, don’t cram too much into any given day. Sonoma County is full of surprises, and the best way to experience them is to give yourself time between wineries and restaurants to pull off the road and explore.
SS: What are some innovations you’d like to see from the travel industry in the coming years?
MJV: Without question, the biggest innovation I’d like to see is a complete overhaul in the way the airline industry treats family travelers. Right now families are glorified steerage class. There’s no guarantee parents can sit with kids, other passengers hate us, and soon lap children may not even be allowed to fly either. I’m on the board of a new organization, the Family Travel Association, to advocate for more family travel rights. IMHO, there is no greater issue in the world of travel right now. (That said, I think free or built-in fee WiFi also is important.)
SS: What one trip do you want to take your family on more than any other?
MJV: My wife is an archaeologist who specializes in Andean burial rituals, and I’d love to take my kids with us on a research trip to Peru, where the two of us lived while she researched her dissertation back in 2005. The experience wouldn’t be easy; most of her research has occurred up above 9,000 feet, in these tiny towns with very few modern conveniences. Still, I think our (two) girls would love seeing their mom in that environment, and I think the cultural exchange for them would be life-changing.