We often think that travel began with low cost airlines or big travel agents. Well I wondered where our ancestors used to spend their holidays. And I discovered that some destinations from today were also very fashionable two centuries ago.
Nile River Cruise
For the first half of the century, Nile cruising was limited to wooden sailing vessels known as Dahabiyyas, which were slow. As the era of archaeological discovery in Egypt began to gather momentum, tourists wanting to follow in the footsteps of the Egyptologists – and the looters – were able to charter local steam-vessels. By the late 1880s, as more and more archaeological finds were being made, Thomas Cook introduced larger, more opulent steam-ships. Described by a journalist as “the most luxurious vessels to sail the Nile since Cleopatra’s barge”, they ploughed the Nile from Cairo all the way to Aswan.
Paris via Brussels and the Rhine
Thomas Cook began operating his European tours in the middle of the century, opening the continent up to a whole new market: the middle classes. His first European tour was a wide circle ending with four days in Paris for the 1855 exhibition. After that, the route was open permanently: starting in Brussels, tourists could cruise down the Rhine from Cologne to Mainz then head to Paris by rail via Frankfurt, the casinos at Baden-Baden, Weisbaden castle and Strasbourg. This tour was consistently one of Cook’s most popular: by the end of the century, thousands of tourists were making the journey each year.
Camping in the Holy Land
The Holy Land, which lacked hotels and infrastructure, was accessible to Thomas Cook by way of a camping tour. Luxury, fully furnished and carpeted tents housed the tourists, who were looked after by a large entourage of servants, guides and porters. The whole operation was transported by a train of 130 pack-horses and mules, and took in sites of biblical and geographical importance including Jerusalem, Jaffa, the Dead Sea, Damascus and Galilee, before continuing on to Constantinople, a journey that cost each tourist nearly￡100 – about £10,000 today.
In 1827 the enterprising hotelier William Forsyth, having just built the luxurious Pavilion Hotel overlooking the Horseshoe Falls, arranged the first of many spectacles at the falls. The condemned schooner Michigan, decorated to look like a pirate ship and filled with “fearsome animals”, was sent to its destruction over the Falls. The stunt, which saw two bears escape the boat and swim to safety and a single goose survive the plunge, was witnessed by nearly 10,000 people. The publicity attracted many British travellers touring the US, and the town grew as daredevils attempted more dramatic stunts.
The French seaside: Nice, Biarritz and Deauville
In 1854 the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, built a palace on the beach at Biarritz. A half-brother of the reigning French monarch Napoleon III, Auguste de Morny, commissioned an architect to create a “kingdom of elegance” near Paris, and Deauville’s first villas and grand seafront hippodrome took shape between 1860 and 1864. At the same time, Nice was ceded back to French sovereignty and began constructing grand hotels and a promenade which would be named Anglaise for the English tourists who thronged there. The British, French and Spanish royal families holidayed regularly in these new resorts, and the British upper- and middle-classes followed them in droves.
Legend has it that boat trips to Scandinavia started in 1870 as a route to collect blue glacial ice for drinks in top London clubs. Whether this is true or not, sightseers were soon chartering cabins on cargo routes to Norway as word of the beauty of the landscape got around. Thomas Cook started a tourist cruise to the fjords in 1875 called The Midnight Sun, which ran weekly out of Hull and proved to be one of their longest-running itineraries.
When the First Opium War ended in 1842, Shanghai became a boomtown. Situated at the mouth of the Yangtze, it was perfectly placed as the gateway for the West, and especially imperial Britain, to enter China. It also became a major destination for more adventurous British tourists. When it opened in 1846, the Astor House was not only Shanghai’s first hotel, but also the first Western hotel on Chinese soil. At the same time, an international settlement was founded when the British and American districts outside the city merged, while the French maintained their own independent concession district.