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Travel connections

Travel connections

By: Robert St. John - May 13, 2024

  • Robert St. John says he connected with Scotland as much as he has with any place on the planet outside of his beloved Mississippi.

After 62 years, and millions of miles logged, I have learned that travel is about one thing— connection.

I am jet-lagged, tired from lack of sleep and sitting up in bed in a dark room in an airport hotel in New York after a flight cancellation wrecked my homeward-bound itinerary. I’ve been gone eight weeks, and I was hoping to be seated at table 19 in the Midtowner eating a small stack of pancakes with cane syrup, bacon, and spicy hash browns at this moment.

The travel gods had other ideas.

Travel delays offer the best opportunities to practice acceptance, as one is at the total mercy of the airline. Some get mad and scream at the desk staff. But it’s not their fault. I’ve found that accepting the situation and being overly nice to the airline’s desk staff will get you much further with even more benefits. Delta took care of us in all the best ways, considering the situation.

Back to the connection thing. All travel is better when one connects. But foreign travel— to be the most enjoyable and satisfying— demands connection.

One of the key components first-time travelers to Europe overlook is hiring a guide. No matter how much one studies a place before leaving, it won’t scratch the surface of what certified guides know about the area, its museums, galleries, cathedrals, and history.

In Italy, certified guides go through rigorous training. My friend, Marina Mengelberg, studied one full year just to be a certified guide in Florence. When the time came to for her to be certified she sat in front of a seven-person panel, with an audience seated behind them, answering detailed and in-depth questions such as, “In the Uffizi Gallery, on the second floor, third room, second painting on the left, who was that artist’s mother, and where was she born?” The depth of knowledge certified guides can pass along is irreplaceable when touring.

Though all guides aren’t alike. There must be connection. Most of them can spew facts, but if you aren’t being guided by someone with charm, personality, and the ability to connect, then you are basically walking around with someone blandly citing Wikipedia facts from memory. Guides such as Mengelberg are charming, engaging, and have the innate ability to connect with their guests.

The same goes for tour directors and experience designers. Mengelberg introduced me to her friend Jesse Marinus, who helps me book trips outside of the Tuscan region. We have coordinated and collaborated on trips through Rome, Amalfi, Naples, and Sicily in Italy. Madrid, Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, Malaga, Valencia, and Barcelona in Spain. Last year I teamed up with both Mengelberg and Marinus and we hosted a group through their homeland of The Netherlands and Belgium. Yesterday Marinus and I finished co-hosting a 10-day sojourn through England and Scotland.

That is where my latest connection occurred.

I connect with the Florida Panhandle area when I go down there on vacation because I draw on childhood memories and good times when I lived in that area for two short stints. But there are areas and regions overseas that— and sometimes almost instantly— have a deeper connection directly into my soul.

Tuscany was that way for me. I felt instantly “at home” the first time I visited there. I connected. That bond has only grown deeper over the years. I spend around two months a year in Tuscany these days. It’s not home, but it certainly feels like a second home. There are other cities and countries I admire and love, but none in which I have a deep Tuscan connection.

Until Scotland.

I love Scotland.

The first time I set foot in Tuscany I felt as if I had been there before. I have always felt as if Tuscany is very similar to the American South. It is an agrarian society, but instead of cotton and soybeans they are growing grapes and olives. The people are friendly, hospitable, and welcoming. They love and appreciate family and they especially love sharing a meal. I have visited a couple of dozen European countries and probably more than 100 cities over the past 13 years. None had made me feel at home as much as Tuscany.

But I had never been to Scotland.

I had visited London a few times and love that city. This most recent visit to London struck me in a different way. I connected. London has caught a lot of flak over the years as not being a great food city. Actually, England, Scotland, and Ireland have been the butt of many food jokes during my lifetime. All I can say is that 2024 London is an amazing restaurant city. World class. We arrived a few days before my guests and— after almost two months of nothing but Spanish and Italian food— I was ready for some international cuisine. I ate the best Chinese meal I’ve ever eaten. Much better than anything I’ve had in New York or San Francisco (I haven’t visited China yet). We ate at an excellent Japanese restaurant. The Indian food in London is amazing. It’s not just boring pub food anymore.

But what of Scotland? We fell in love with the Scottish people, straightaway. They are extremely hospitable, happy, and welcoming. As I checked the may temperatures back home which were in the high 80s and low 90s, we were experiencing days in the low 60s in the evenings in the low 50s. The landscapes were amazing. The inns and manor houses in which we stayed were charming and the service was all next level. The best of the bunch was certainly The Isle of Eriska Hotel.

The England-Scotland group were all veteran RSJ Yonderlust Tours travelers. For some it was their seventh trip with me. At this point, we are all friends traveling together. I think, to a person, everyone connected with Scotland.

On my trips I try to cover all the bases and check all the boxes. We did the typical things, but we did a lot of unique and unusual things and visited places off the beaten path. No matter where we were, and who we met, all the locals were delightful and warm. I connected with Scotland as much as I have with any place on the planet outside of my beloved Mississippi.

I will have to wait a few hours longer to reach home. But in the meantime, I will reflect on the past two months and the experiences shared with over 126 people who entrusted seven or 10 days of their life with me. I am grateful for each of them, for the people who help me create these experiences, for the people back home holding down the fort, and for connecting with the beauty and charm of Scotland. I will return, hopefully often.



This Week’s Recipe: Lentils


  • 1 pound Lentils
  • 1/2 gallon Chicken stock
  • 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp Fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 cup Carrot, finely diced


Place dry lentils in a mesh strainer. Rinse under cold water for 2 minutes.

In a 3-quart stock pot over very low heat, combine rinsed lentils, stock and salt. Continue cooking over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, but not mushy, about 30-45 minutes. Drain and spread out on a baking pan at room temperature. Discard any excess liquid.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over low heat. Add garlic and carrots and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cooked lentils and stir frequently just until they are hot, about 3-5 minutes. Serve immediately. Finish each portion with extra virgin olive oil as desired.

Yield: 6-8 servings

About the Author(s)
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Robert St. John

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler and world-class eater. He has spent four decades in the restaurant business, thirty-three of those as the owner of the Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella, Ed’s Burger Joint, The Midtowner, and El Rayo Tex-Mex in Hattiesburg, as well as Highball Lanes, The Pearl, The Capri, and Enzo Osteria in the Jackson area. Robert has written eleven books including An Italian Palate, written in Europe while traveling through 72 cities in 17 countries in six months with his wife and two children. Robert has written his syndicated newspaper column for twenty years. Read more about Robert at
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