Go Away With … Mariana van Zeller and Michael Voltaggio

Breaking Borders Mariana van Zeller and Michael Voltaggio  artist Banksy on the Israeli West Bank barrier_Courtesy of Travel Channel

Journalist Mariana van Zeller and celebrity chef Michael Voltaggio star in the Travel Channel series, “Breaking Borders.” In each episode, the duo travels to a different country and reports on the differences — and similarities — of various cultures.

Asked what they’ve taken away from their travels, Voltaggio says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Van Zeller adds, “There’s a whole world out there that is very different than where we live. (Travel has given me) perspective and tolerance.” Fans may follow the Los Angeles-based television personalities on Twitter at: Mariana van Zeller and celebrity chef Michael Voltaggio.

Q. What is your favorite vacation destination?
A. Michael: Recently, I went to the Round Hill resort in Jamaica and in four days I swam with dolphins, held a shark, climbed a waterfall, ate sea urchin out of the ocean and consumed my body weight in jerk chicken.

A. Mariana: Portugal. Stunning beaches, beautiful cities and the best food in the world. What’s not to love? Full disclosure – Portugal is my home country, which means I’m not biased at all. I’ve been living in the U.S for nine years now, but just recently became an American citizen. My husband and friends threw me a good ol’ American BBQ with burgers, hot dogs and Budweiser.

Q. To someone who was going to Portugual for the first time, what would you recommend that they do during their visit?
Mariana: Start with 4 days in Lisbon. It’s one of the most underrated and charming cities in Europe. Then head to the Alentejo Coast for what are arguably some of the best beaches in the world. And you can cap it off with a couple of days in the vineyards of Douro, sipping red wine and visiting ancient castles and monasteries.

Q. What untapped destination should people know about?

A. Michael: Cuba. It’s now becoming a little more accessible to the U.S., and we should all be open to improving this relationship and experiencing its beauty and culture.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A. Mariana: Mongolia. I’ve been wanting to go there since I was a kid. And for the past five years or so I’ve had an alert on Google news for anything related to the country. I’m always on the hunt for stories that will get my boss to send me there on assignment. So, if you know of any, please send them my way.

Q. What was the first trip you took as a child?

A. Mariana: My first plane trip was to Madeira, a Portuguese Island on the North Atlantic Ocean. I was seven years old and so excited to finally get up in the air that I couldn’t sleep the whole night before. So before we even took off, I was fast asleep on my mom’s shoulder. I woke up only when we touched down! But I remember deciding right there and then that I wanted to spend my whole life traveling.

A. Michael: I grew up in Maryland and some of my early travels were just heading out to the eastern shore. I remember hanging raw chicken in a basket off the back of a dock and catching fresh blue crabs. Then we just took them inside, steamed them and covered them in old bay. No reservations needed.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go away on a trip?

A. Mariana: Books, articles, documentaries — everything I can get my hands on. I use an app, which saves everything I want into offline mode, since a lot of the reading and viewing is done on planes.

Q. What is your best and/or worst vacation memory?

A. Mariana: When I was 12 years old, I went to France for a long-awaited summer program. A month in an idyllic castle surrounded by sports and fun activities turned out to be a miserable week in a decrepit mansion with a crazy couple who owned and ran the place and often had screaming matches and food fights in front of the kids. (They) literally threw food at each other. It might have been fun if it hadn’t been so terrifying!

Q. Have you traveled to a place that stood out so much that you felt compelled to incorporate it into your work?

A. Michael: Yes. Everywhere I travel I bring back a souvenir that I can apply to my work in the kitchen. A tool, a recipe, a flavor, a combination. … For instance, the use of coconut in Sri Lanka in savory cooking.

Q. What are your five favorite cities?

A. Mariana: Lisbon, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Damascus (before the Syrian war) and Mexico City.

Q. What is your guilty pleasure when you’re on the road?

A. Mariana: Shopping. I’m a shopaholic when I travel. I have a large collection of artifacts from all over the world at my house, some of which I keep in drawers until I find a place to display them.

Q. Where are your favorite weekend getaways?
A. Mariana: Camping along the California coast with my husband and 4-year-old son.

Q. What are your favorite hotels?

A. Mariana: I’ve always had a pet peeve with hotels that sell themselves as, “Your home away from home”. When I’m on holidays, I want different, exotic, new, so the more I get that from a hotel the better. But by far the hotels that have given me the most lasting memories are the ones that come up short in the luxury department. Bucket showers in West Africa, a hammock hung in the middle of the Amazon Jungle or a bedbug infested mattress in the Syrian/Iraqi border. These are hotel experiences you will never forget.

A. Michael: I love hotel rooms so much that recently when I returned from a trip, I went to a mattress store and simply said, “I would like a bed that feels like a hotel bed.” It’s the simple things that make a difference. However, the room service at the NoMad Hotel in New York City is as good as eating in the restaurant, and that’s impressive.

Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your travels?
A. Mariana: I’ve traveled to some of the toughest, poorest and most violent places on Earth, and yet that’s where I’ve met some of the happiest and kindest people I know. This has given me a whole new appreciation as to how privileged we are in our day-to-day lives. So, I try to never complain about the small things. But it has also taught me that challenging situations can often make you stronger, more caring and more altruistic. We all need a bit more of that in our lives.

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?
A. Mariana: Scarves. Lots of them. They have so many uses.  Protection from the sun/cold; head-cover when visiting a mosque; pillowcase in dingy hotels; and of course style. It’s a woman’s Swiss-army knife.

Q. What are your favorite restaurants?
A. Mariana: Ink and Ink Sack. Basically, anything that is cooked or created by my amazing co-host Michael Voltaggio. He’s as talented, hard-working and creative as they come. And Town on Oahu in Hawaii, they’re pioneers in the organic and local scene on the islands. The chefs Dave and Ed are the best.

© 2015 JAE-HA KIM

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