Butterfield & Robinson President Norman Howe will be the first to tell you he came to B&R through unconventional means. In fact, let him tell you himself:
“My relationship with B&R began improbably, as it often does, with the fateful words: ‘You should have lunch with George.’ I was in the process of abandoning a legal career in order to travel the world, and B&R co-founder Sidney Robinson, a senior partner at my law firm (and my erstwhile doubles squash partner), thought that I might benefit from George’s perspective as someone who had personal experience with the decision to flee the law for more hedonistic pursuits. We had lunch, we hit it off, and within a few weeks I was guiding for B&R around the world.”
Since these humble beginnings as a lawyer cum guide, Norm has worked for B&R off and on for more than a decade, meandering through the company’s ranks from itinerant guide to director of expeditions to President.
As the leader of the world’s premier active travel company, he keeps one hand on the pulse of the travel business and one hand firmly on the handlebars of his bike, which he still gets on the road with startling frequency. (Ed. Note: It’s good work if you can find it.)
As a columnist for The Slow Road, Norm draws upon his decades in the travel business, his passion for the open road and the vision he employs as president of the world’s leading active travel company.
Years in Travel Business: 18
Years with B&R: 18 (with a 7-year interregnum to run my own business)
Countries/Regions of Expertise: I’m an old Asia hand, with scattered and somewhat idiosyncratic expertise everywhere else.
Countries visited: 100 plus and counting…
Countries lived in: Canada, Japan, England, France
Trips planned: 100 plus
Trips guided: 25 plus (I’m down to one a year)
Q&A with Norm:
Favourite trip you’ve ever taken? (I know, I know, but try to narrow it down to one!)
Myanmar, hands down. I did the original research for B&R 20 years ago when the military dictatorship temporarily opened the country to travellers for about six months before changing their minds. It’s a country where Buddhism is a living religion, infusing daily life with a joy that defies all logic. Wandering along the dirt roads of Bagan, where thousands of temples and stupas lie abandoned and scattered across the flood plains of the Ayerwaddy river, was one of the great transcendent moments of travel for me personally.
Favourite hotel in the world?
Ellerman House, South Africa. The converted mansion of an Edwardian shipping magnate, this extraordinary property perches precariously to the cliffs of Bantry Bay outside of Cape Town at the edge of the African continent. It’s also where I happened to be staying the day I got engaged to my wife.
Favourite restaurant in the world?
My own kitchen. I’m happy to worship at the feet of the culinary masters, and will travel around the world at the drop of a hat to do so, but I get the most joy out of preparing and making meals for friends and family in my own house.
Favourite bar/wine bar/watering hole in the world?
Le Petit Fer a Cheval. It’s a vibrant hole-in-the-wall bar on the Rue Vieille-du-Temple, one of my favourite streets in Paris, and much of its charm derives from the world-weary professional disdain of the quintessentially French staff.
What’s top destination you haven’t been to, but want to visit?
North Korea. I”ve always had a weakness for the forbidden fruit.
Everyone at B&R has their fair share of wanderlust. When/how did you first get bit with the travel bug?
My father travelled constantly during my childhood, so I was always exposed to tales of travel around the dinner table, but the real romance of the open road was ignited through my passion for reading. The allure of far off places grew in proportion to my imagination, until finally it could be contained no longer, and I embarked on my first solo journey.
What’s your preferred method for immersing yourself in a country or region?
I personally commune with cultures through a shared appreciation for authentically local food and wine. I think you can intellectually understand a culture through reading, the arts, people, etc, but you can only truly experience a culture by immersing yourself in the sensory milieu.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? (And where was it?)
Charlie Trotters, Chicago 2002. I am a deeply (one might say rabidly) committed carnivore, but Charlie Trotter established beyond doubt that you can make culinary magic with vegetables during a 12-course seasonal spring vegetarian tasting menu.
Favourite bottle of wine?
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tache, 1999. I have the good fortune to have friends with deep cellars and generous natures.
You’ve worked closely with George Butterfield for a long time. You must have a favourite George story.
I learned the art of sabering champagne with George back in 1993 in Burgundy, during a particularly raucous guide gathering at the beginning of the Europe season. I had no idea that a sabre had any other purpose than to take the heads off one’s enemies, but I learned that properly deployed, it could cleanly sever the top off a bottle of champagne. Apart from the utilitarian goal of opening the bottle, I love the fact that it has no particular purpose except as an end in itself, a purely exuberant gesture that creates a ritualized sense of occasion and celebration.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen or done while on a trip?
Swimming in the Ganges at sunrise during the morning ablutions on the banks at Varanasi. Between the sheet-wrapped corpses floating by on the one side (the families couldn’t afford the firewood necessary to cremate them on the funeral ghats) and the river porpoises surfacing on the other (who knew anything could live in the Ganges?), I feel lucky to be alive.
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