What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

Unit of One

Summer vacations are a time for escape — for a little R and R. They’re also a time for learning and for generating fresh ideas. What’s the best way to create a summer vacation that’s eye-opening? Here are five veterans of great escapes who know what it takes to make the perfect summer experience.


Gary Loveman

President and chief operating officer
Harrah’s Entertainment Inc.
Las Vegas, Nevada

Summer vacations are a time for escape — for a little R and R. They’re also a time for learning and for generating fresh ideas. What’s the best way to create a summer vacation that’s eye-opening? Here are five veterans of great escapes who know what it takes to make the perfect summer experience.

Early on in this job, I found it hard to take a real vacation. I couldn’t turn off the stimulus that comes with the business. Ostensibly, I was on vacation. But I was constantly reading email, checking voice mail, talking to my secretary, and getting regular FedEx deliveries at our summer home. That style of vacation is a losing proposition. If you’re getting sucked into the daily information glut back at the office, you can’t be a decent participant in a family outing.

But I thought that I could. Then one day, my wife made a shrewd observation. Without seeing me use the computer or the phone, she could tell whether I had been working — simply by interacting with me.

Since then, I’ve drastically cut back on the amount of communication that I have with the office when I’m on vacation. I haven’t gone cold turkey, but I have set some limits. I also make sure that my employees understand that they can reach me, but communication should be kept to an absolute minimum. Most important, before I go on vacation, I ask myself, What does my family need from me on this trip? It may just be hanging around for enough sustained time that a teenager might actually tell you what’s going on in her life.

The reality is that families of people like me make a lot of sacrifices. Selfishly, I’d like to say that vacations are all about me, because I work really hard for them. But vacations are also about the other people in my family.


Gary Loveman joined Harrah’s Entertainment as chief operating officer in 1998 and became president three years later.

Peter Olson

Chairman and CEO
Random House
New York, New York

I’ve found that the best vacations involve being active in the open air and reading only what I want to read, not what I need to read. While some people pack too many shoes, I’m guilty of packing too many books. I feel safer that way. If I don’t have a book for every day that I’m on vacation, I feel anxious — like someone who’s about to run out of the essentials. So about a month before the vacation, I start to put together stacks of books from my favorite genres, including military history, thrillers, and serious fiction. The stacks keep piling up until the day of departure.

My vacation policy? When I’m gone, I’m gone. No email. No phone calls. No work-related updates of any kind. It usually takes three weeks to unwind completely. In the first week, my mind is still at the office. In the second week, I finally start to relax. By the third week, I’m in a different zone. And by the time I return to the office, I usually find myself in a kind of buoyant afterglow. I almost need to go back to work.

When you’re the boss, liberating yourself from your work for a period of time is not just about taking some time off to feel rejuvenated. If you need a vacation, then your employees probably need a vacation from you as well.

Peter Olsen ( became chairman and CEO of Random House in 1998, when the book-publishing giant was acquired by Bertelsmann AG (Fast Company’s parent company). Random House’s U.S. division publishes more than 3,500 new books each year.


Tony Wheeler

Cofounder and author
Lonely Planet Publications
Melbourne, Australia

The best vacations — like the best trips — offer an element of the unexpected. You can’t seek out that which makes a vacation bigger and better. Ultimately, the magic finds you, if you let it.

Some of the best vacations that I’ve ever had were with my kids. As little people with a knack for bringing about the unforeseen, kids can make wonderful travel companions. They open doors for you. When you explore a place, either by yourself or as part of a couple, you’re a tourist, and that’s all you are. But when you travel with kids, you suddenly become a human being. You relate to and interact with local people in an entirely more approachable way.

I also think that a good vacation — like a good guidebook — offers a lot of variety. I like to combine aspects of the weird and the wonderful with the conventional. Maybe that means visiting two places that are extreme opposites: the far-flung little spot that no one has heard about and the popular big-city destination. Or I might stay in a 50-cents-a-night hotel, because that’s the only place in town, and then on my next stop, splurge on $500-a-night hotel.

What wouldn’t I do on a vacation? I couldn’t spend a week sitting on a beach. The world is too big and time is too scarce to spend a whole vacation doing more of the same.

Tony Wheeler launched Lonely Planet 30 years ago with his wife, Maureen. Today, the company has more than 600 guidebooks that cover the globe.


Fran Mainella

National Park Service
Washington, DC

Truly great vacations have a lasting impact. They provide more than just fun, relaxation, and a much-needed escape. Summer vacations, at their best, capture your imagination.

Growing up, I always looked forward to the summertime, when my family would pack up the car and head west to explore the national parks. I’ll never forget the first time that I visited the Grand Canyon. I was in sixth grade. I was amazed and inspired by the breathtaking magnitude of its great structures and the stories behind them. I remember thinking, This will always be here for me.

That experience, and many others like it on those summer trips, introduced me to what has become a lifelong passion for the outdoors. It expanded my sense of possibility. Now I return to some of these vacation spots as the director of the National Park Service. What’s one of the biggest lessons that I learned from my vacations? Don’t underestimate the value of a little summer adventure.

Fran Mainella ( , who has spent more than 35 years in parks-and-recreation management, was appointed by President George W. Bush to lead the National Park Service last year. She is the first woman to hold the position.

Paul Theroux

Novelist and travel writer
Hawaii and Cape Cod, Massachusetts


I’m not your typical vacationer. My life is divided between being in the bosom of my family and being totally alone in a place like western Uganda, on a bus, on a bad road. I travel a lot. But I can’t say that I’ve ever taken a vacation in the classical sense, because I’ve never felt a need to get away from it all. My idea of a vacation isn’t an escape from reality, such as relaxing poolside at a fancy resort hotel, but rather the pursuit of the familiar. It’s about reconnecting.

Summertime means going back to where I came from. As a child, I spent my summers on Cape Cod and now return every year for four months, from June to September. While I’m there, I grow tomatoes, sail, write every day, swim every afternoon, make spaghetti sauce with my tomatoes, cut the grass, and whip the house into shape.

For many people, taking a vacation and traveling are one and the same. But there’s an important distinction between a typical vacation and travel. On a vacation, you only get to see the surfaces, whereas traveling allows you to see beneath the surfaces. Traveling is about self-discovery: It’s personal, literary, and mystical. It’s about the challenge of a self-led adventure in an unfamiliar landscape. It’s sometimes uncomfortable and often upsetting. But it’s worth it. If you make a meal of your adventure, your spirit is revived. You walk away from the experience with an insight into yourself, or into the world. For a couple of weeks of vacation, though, that’s a pretty tall order.

Paul Theroux is currently working on a book about a trip that he took last year from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa. His most recent book is the novel Hotel Honolulu.