Moving Is Living: A Life Spent Avidly Traveling
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave
Uncannily, I met a real-life Up in the Air “George Clooney” doppelganger — a tall handsome guy who takes to the high seas more than 100 days a year and travels another 200 days a year. His rough-hewn name, Ralph Grizzle, which makes you think of a Wild West bounty hunter or a big brown grizzly bear, hardly befits this refined and cosmopolitan traveler. Grizzle has been living out his fantasy of constant travel, floating along on cruise ships for the better part of 20 years. He’s happiest on the world’s waterways, staying aboard ships and keeping his life in total motion. His motto might as well be what Clooney said in Up in the Air, “Make no mistake, moving is living.”
In the much awarded film, Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a character who’s happier staying at generic hotels and flying on planes about 300 plus days a year rather than being at home. Bingham prefers the easy noncommittal acquaintances he encounters on the road to his own family or real friends. The film took the premise that Bingham’s life was empty, that having no ties or home base was a surefire formula for losing one’s soul. Meeting Ralph Grizzle made me question the film’s grim prognosis.
For years I have been fascinated by people who live alternative lifestyles in pursuit of their pleasure and freedom. At one point in my dating life, virtually every post-college guy I met expressed the identical goal of retiring at 40 and spending the rest of his life sailing around the world. Well, Grizzle is doing just that, but for a career. He is a man who turned his peripatetic urge into a lifestyle.
I first met Grizzle when I was traveling in Spain for business and it was just when the film had come out. I was instantly struck at the similarities between the fictional Clooney character and real life “Avid Cruiser” (a name that Grizzle adopted for himself and his seafaring business). Though Grizzle doesn’t go for records like Brigham’s obsession to achieve 10 million frequent flyer miles, he does accumulate a lot of air mileage flying to embarkation sites of his cruises, giving him elite status with many airlines. His gold and platinum cards represent memberships in a very exclusive club and are the icons that identify him as a traveler, not a tourist. Like Bingham, he prides himself in not needing to be tied to a community, house or family, which the rest of the world sees as the pivotal focus of their life. Both men like the freedom to indulge in a little no-ties female companionship on the road, should the right opportunity present itself.
But what motivates a person to spend his life sailing the world? Over dry Sherry and an array of Spanish tapas, Grizzle started from the beginning reminiscing on how he fell upon this unique life’s path, “One of my favorite writers when I was twenty-something was W. Somerset Maugham,” he said. “In 1909, Maugham wrote a short story called, A Traveller in Romance. There is a line in the book that got to me: ‘And I have the sunset, and the Tuscan wine, and the white teeth of the women in Rome. I am a traveller in Romance.’
“I read the entire collection of books by Maugham,” he went on. “It was The Moon and Sixpence, a fictionalized story of the post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin that set me off on a series of adventures. In 1891 Gauguin sailed to the tropics to escape European civilization — in other words, everything that is artificial and conventional. I guess I originally went out in search of something real, something that could only expose itself to the traveler.”
So, with these romantic notions, off he went at age 20 leaving a small town in North Carolina, actually pedaling away on a bicycle. He cycled to California and decided to keep going. “Eventually, with bike then backpack, I traveled all around the world,” he said. “At some point in my mid-twenties, I began to ask myself how I could sustain this thing I loved doing and decided I’d become a travel writer.”
That “eureka” moment set him off to seek an education, then lucky job hires followed bringing him plum years as a pampered international travel writer, which eventually led to his full time life at sea. At 27 he returned to Asheville, took the required undergraduate classes, concentrating on photography and creative writing. Two years later, he transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism. When he graduated, he saw a posting for a job from the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) looking for someone who loved to travel, had some travel experience and a degree in journalism. He was off and running.
For the next five years the ASTA magazine sent him globe-trotting. Unlike during his backpacking first world tour, now he was traveling first class, upgraded on nearly every international flight, staying in the swankiest of places. “I remember having an entire suite at the Four Seasons in Maui. I went river cruising on the Nile, stayed at fine hotels in Cairo, consumed champagne in the shadows of the pyramids. I was hosted almost everywhere. With a government tourism official at my elbow, we often bypassed the long immigration lines.”
The job entailed covering ASTA’s world congresses. The thousands of attendees were the most influential travel sellers in the world and Grizzle became the front man, the guy who would write about them and garner interest in their destination. He met keynote speakers, who were often celebrities or presidents, among them the then President George Bush Sr., Omar Shariff, Walter Cronkite and Charles Kuralt (about whom he later wrote a book, Remembering Charles Kuralt).
By the early 90’s recession swept over the airline industry greatly impacting luxury travel, yet one sector remained healthy, cruise ships. His editors immediately shifted their focus to cruising. Grizzle wrote cover stories on cruise ships, attended conferences and cruised on those luxury ships.
The first cruise was on the now-defunct Royal Viking Line, which offered him a two-week cruise sailing from Monte Carlo to Nice. At the time Royal Viking was considered the Rolls Royce of the cruise industry and attracted the likes of William Webster, former head of the CIA, an heiress to the Campbell Soup company in Australia and the world’s rich and famous. He was hooked.
So for the next 20 years Grizzle basically lived on cruise ships, off and on, and through a failed marriage. Like a movie or theatre critic he’s invited aboard to take the full cruise, experience it and do his critique. He’ll write about it, make videos of the ship, and basically live the cruise life while comparing and contrasting every top cruise line, scrutinizing their latest offerings.
Soon he started his own publication called Cruise Week, which had its finger on the pulse of the cruise industry. It became the most read cruise publication worldwide. He and his business partner were quoted in the New York Times and USA Today. The Wall Street Journal picked up a chart he’d published exposing the cruise lines’ mishandling of port charges. He contributed for a dozen years to Hemispheres, United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, and won an award for an article about innovations on the top decks of cruise ships.
From there he was full speed ahead, launching a succession of cruise publications — some of which he’d customized for travel agents to send to their clients. Porthole Cruise Magazine took him on as an editor and finally he launch his own publication, The Avid Cruiser, which ran for three years in print, then went completely digital and web-based.
In the Avid Cruiser he both covers cruising and also does travel videos on any place that cruise ships (or river vessels) touch. His yearly cruise schedule is meticulously planned with 80 percent of the year in Europe, a month in Miami and Caribbean cruises and the rest, cruises in Alaska, Mexican Riviera, the Saint Lawrence Seaway, South America, Hawaii, and the Far East.
It was quite a resumé and Grizzle admitted that he and his persona, the Avid Cruiser, have really become one. Remarkably the romance and pleasure of travel is still fresh to him. “There is a definite mystery about a solo traveler to which people seem to be totally drawn,” he said. “I never seem to tire of arriving anonymously at a new port and having that mystique of being a stranger in town.”
This life works for him because it is both pleasure and career combined. He’s managed to make the cruise ships his home and office, as well as his community, and only comes into port for brief periods to visit his kids. To be accurate, Grizzles life is not completely without ties like that of Clooney’s Bingham. Before he went into cruising full throttle there was a period when he got married and lived in Asheville, and had two children. The marriage didn’t work out. After divorcing, he bought a house but later sold it. He now lives out of his suitcase, frequently at Hilton hotels, even on the frequent trips home to spend time with his children. His kids travel with him during school breaks, and they’ve been fortunate to visit Europe several times.
I was curious as to whether he found satisfaction in this life of constant movement or if like Bingham, was somewhat of a lost-soul escapist. Grizzle took a beat and poured himself another glass of Sherry. “I sometimes question myself whether it is selfish and narcissistic to pursue one’s fantasy. But then I reason: Is following my urge to travel any more selfish than most people following their urge to stay at home, making family and community the center of their universe? Am I happier because of peripatetic lifestyle?
“Yesterday, I walked about four miles along the coast of Sweden. I followed a forest path on a snow-covered trail. The sky was brilliant blue, and the sun glimmered off the strait that separates Sweden from Denmark. In that strait, cruise ships pass in big numbers during the season. They take people to the fairytale capitals of the Baltic and beyond. I am proud to be a part of that industry, to be an avid cruiser as well as an avid traveler. Assessing my life on that walk, I verbalized the way I felt aloud as I looked out on the sea: “I could not imagine being happier.”