Why Travel Stirs Ken Burns' Heart

Famous for his documentaries, Ken Burns talks about his new themed tours and the places which even his cameras just cannot quite capture

Famous for his documentaries "The Civil War," "Mark Twain" and "Baseball," among others, filmmaker Ken Burns has a new film ready to roll out in 2014: "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." Featuring Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti and Edward Herrmann lending their voices for Eleanor, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively, the documentary will air on PBS. Based out of Walpole, N.H., the 60-year-old filmmaker has also partnered with Tauck Tours—a guided travel company—to produce film-inspired travel experiences.

"We've been designing tours for Tauck that have to do with our documentaries about Chicago, jazz and New York City," says Burns. "It has been a great deal of fun. I'm for anything that encourages people to travel. People have been scared by a media culture that paints the rest of the world as alien and threatening. You live longer if you travel. It's healthy if you travel."

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns

Q. What is your favorite destination?

A. Yosemite National Park. The first time I went was in 2003. I had one of those revelatory experiences shooting there. The views and hiking past Vernal and Nevada Falls to spend the night in the shadow of the Half Dome was amazing. It really was one of those transformative things. The national parks are such wonderful places to visit. You feel your insignificance when you're in the presence of these extraordinary geologic formations. In so doing, it makes you feel bigger. It's a funny paradox. The fact that you submit to something so much bigger than yourself—you actually grow. It's an amazing thing that many of our national parks can make us feel.

Q. How do the national parks compare to what you had envisioned them to be from pictures?

A. We all come with an idea of a postcard version of the Grand Canyon, but it's even grander than that image. It's always better than it's advertised. It's the grandest canyon on earth. The pictures can't do them justice.

Q. Not even your pictures?

A. (Laughs) I try, but no, even my pictures and films can't compare to the real thing.

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

A. My dad took me to Shenandoah National Park in 1959. It was a difficult time for our family. My father was distracted by my mother's cancer, which would take her life. This was our first and last road trip together in many ways. I can remember all the songs he sang, all the conversations we had. We took impossibly long half-mile hikes for my little 6-year-old legs. I can still remember what his hand felt like.

Q. What's the most important thing you've learned from your travels?

A. I would only echo Mark Twain. I'll paraphrase—travel is the enemy of prejudice. The more you travel, the more you learn about this world and how you're both similar and unique to other people. You become a better American after traveling.

Q. What is your favorite hotel?

A. The Four Seasons in D.C. I've had the opportunity to stay there for work. They've been very generous to PBS and I've been able to stay there at a reduced rate.

Q. Where is the most romantic vacation spot?

A. There's just one choice and it's Paris. I know of no more romantic place on earth than Paris.

Q. Where have you enjoyed the best meal of your life?

A. I have had my best two meals in Amalfi, along the Amalfi Coast, just south of Naples in Italy. The first time I ate there, Gore Vidal took me there when we were doing a film about Thomas Jefferson. He lived in the hills overlooking Positano. I was able to find it again and re-create the meal. If I had a moment, I'd drop everything and go back there. Also, I'm part owner of a little restaurant called L.A. Burdick in this little town of Walpole, N.H., and we have a (Scottish poet) Robert Burns night every January 25. I ate the best haggis I've ever had there.

Q. What are your five favorite cities?

A. That's a tough list and I've got more than five. You have to put an asterisk on my list and say there's 25 other places vying for entry! But I'd say New York, Paris, San Francisco, New Orleans and Sydney. Wait. I'm a huge Red Sox fan, so also Boston. I'm a huge European cities fan, so I need to add Florence, Rome, London and Edinburgh.

Q. For people who're wary of leaving the United States, what's your advice?

A. Travel within the U.S., then! A lot of people don't travel within their own country and there is so much to see. They don't expect great cities and museums and national parks.

Shenandoah National Park

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. I always bring The New York Times and read it from cover to cover. That makes me feel connected to the world. Then I turn the paper over and try to work on the crossword puzzle in ink. It's my comfort. The thing I do for myself. I'm pretty good at the crossword puzzles and some people have said I should join competitions. But that would ruin it for me.

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

A. I can't really think of a place I was miserable. I'm not a guy who likes to go to a resort and sit at the pool or beach and do nothing. Yet last February, my wife conned me into going to Puerto Rico during our little girls' vacation and I thought I'd abandon them and go to Old San Juan. I didn't leave the lounge chair by the pool. What I thought was going to be a boring thing turned out to be great R-and-R in such a beautiful place.