Globetrotting Travel Channel host dishes on her favorite destinations.
Television personality Samantha Brown racks up some serious frequent flier miles. “I probably have close to a million of them on Delta, and hundreds of thousands of them with United,” she says. It’s part of the benefits of being a host on the Travel Channel network.
Brown is acutely aware that she has what may be the most coveted job on the planet—gallivanting from city to city, reporting on travel destinations around the globe. She used to spend 230 days each year on the road. Now that she has 2-year-old twins, she has cut back somewhat on travel, but she still spends 180 days per year away from the Brooklyn home she shares with husband/manager Kevin O’Leary and their youngsters, Ellis James and Elizabeth Mae.
While on the road, Brown uses Skype and FaceTime to stay in touch with her family. “I can tuck my children into bed from Taiwan, 10,000 miles away. They recognize my face, and we have little conversations,” she says. “It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s better than nothing.”
Unpretentious, likeable and game for virtually any experience, Brown personifies the ideal, fun-loving travel companion. Her adventures span the globe. One week she might be in Ireland harvesting oysters in Galway Bay and step dancing in Ennis; the following week she could be river rafting and rum tasting in Jamaica. She suggests and develops many of the itineraries based on journalistic articles she reads in the New York Times’ travel section, Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines, and Frommer’s travel guides.
“I will go anywhere in the world—to a first-class city or a small town,” says the 45-year-old. She has taped dozens and dozens of episodes for the Travel Channel network that air on series such as Great Hotels, Passport to Europe, Green Getaways, Great Weekends and Samantha Brown’s Asia. Her newest Travel Channel show is called 50/50. She and co-host Chris Grundy will approach random people on the street and offer them a 50-hour getaway, worth up to $50,000. The contestant gets to choose the destination and activities. The only catch is that he or she must leave on the spot. Brown is excited about the groundbreaking show, which does not yet have an air date, because it will (literally) enable her to share her love of adventure with fans.
Brown is always seeking to develop new material. “We’ve done so much—the trick is finding what we haven’t done,” she says. Although she taped a show about South Africa, she notes there is more to the continent than just South Africa. She’d also like to do detailed segments on Australia and the Middle East.
The upbeat traveler strives to shine a positive light on each destination she visits. When asked about her favorite haunts, she replies immediately, “Berlin. I love its roughness, edge, intrigue and energy. Many cities in Europe put you in the past, but Berlin is now.”
In the United States, Brown is enamored with Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I’ve been there eight times. It’s a magical place that’s easy to get to. It’s a vibrant, cultural city with gorgeous, jaw-dropping hikes. It’s an epicenter for the arts and for those who want to enjoy life.”
There are, however, places Brown does not particularly want to return to. One such destination is Belize City. “I had a bad, safety-related experience there a decade ago,” she says. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t go there—travel is very personal and what happened to me could have happened in Brooklyn. But I didn’t feel welcome there; the people kept me at a distance and I couldn’t relax into their everyday life.”
Brown believes assimilating into a culture’s daily routine is key to getting the most out of a destination. Even in the most exotic locations, she prefers to be treated like a native. She particularly adores Bali and Nicaragua, where the locals readily wave and smile at her in cafes and markets.
When she is not taping television shows, Brown maintains an active schedule as a public speaker. She is often asked to discuss how to have more authentic travel experiences. Her advice is simple and genuine. “Create a ritual and become part of the local scene,” she says. “Start your day at a coffee shop with the newspaper, or sit on a park bench and people-watch. Slow down and understand where you are. Americans never want to go down the same road twice. They want to visit different places for lunch and dinner. Take the time to just be in the location.”
Not surprisingly, Brown has a plethora of funny road stories that often involve language miscommunications. “I was at the Great Wall of China with a shooting crew. I was carrying a heavy backpack filled with camera batteries. Tourists were going by me, and I kept accidentally whacking them with my backpack,” she says. “I asked a crew member, ‘How do I say excuse me in Chinese?’ He said, ‘I can tell you, but these tourists won’t understand Chinese because they are Korean! But don’t feel bad—we think you all look alike, too.’”
What She Seeks in Hotels
Brown, who spends a lot of time in hotels, believes that Americans are very lucky. “I think the major brands in America do a really good job. We get free breakfast, free Wi-Fi with plenty of outlets and lots of space. In Europe you often get small rooms with twin beds,” she says.
Brown’s own needs are straightforward when it comes to accommodations. She wants hotels to be clean and centrally located, within walking distance of major attractions. “I don’t care about 800-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and I am willing to sacrifice personality and quirkiness for well-run brands,” she says. “Every two days I am changing hotels. I don’t want to constantly have to learn where the lights are or how to turn on the shower.”
She often stays at Sofitel, Hilton, Omni, Embassy Suites and Aloft properties. One of her favorite boutique hotels in the United States is Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica because it’s like staying in a private beach house. Now that she has children, however, she notes that in-room refrigerators and microwaves have taken on greater importance.
Brown was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Derry, New Hampshire. Her family did not travel much. She recalls that her lone international experience as a teen was a vacation driving across the border to Canada in the family station wagon. She attended Syracuse University, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater, and a week after graduation moved to New York City to pursue her dream of being on stage. Brown spent eight years waiting tables and getting small roles in theatrical productions. Her big break came in 2000, when after a series of auditions, the Travel Channel selected her to be a travel host.
It’s been a whirlwind of activity ever since. In addition to juggling a hectic travel schedule and parenting toddlers, Brown has a branded collection of luggage, travel bags, clothing and accessories that she markets on the Home Shopping Network. When they are not working, she and her husband enjoy hiking in Brooklyn and at their getaway in upstate New York. As the children get older, she envisions cashing in her mounting frequent-flier mileage rewards for family trips.
“Travel will always be part of my life,” she says. “In the future, my kids will be traveling with me, and I’ll be seeing the world through their eyes.”
Samantha on the Go
-Favorite road snack: peanut butter packets
-Recommended walking shoes: driving
loafers or well-padded ballet flats
-Always in her handbag: lip gloss, hand
sanitizer, phone charger, ear plugs