Animal-rescuing adventurer, author, journalist, travel spokesperson, perpetual globetrotter and tweeter-extraordinaire - all monikers assigned to Stef Michaels at one time or another, and all an accurate description of this Los Angeles native and passionate traveller who instinctively understood the huge social potential of microblogging service Twitter from its very early days.
In the world of travel, Twitter has rapidly become an incredible tool for those looking to find and share inspiration, or wanting to connect with other travellers. With almost 1.5 million followers, Stef was recently featured in Vanity Fair magazine as one of 'America's Tweethearts' and has used the social network to develop her own 'AdventureGirl' brand in ways she could never have imagined a few short years ago.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Stefanie about her love of travel, her rise and rise in social media, and her favourite places and most memorable adventures. Here's what she had to say...
Stef, we have to start by talking about Twitter...
GREAT! It's my favourite subject to talk about!
Within 12 months of joining you had over a million followers and it's still growing daily. How did this happen and in what ways has Twitter changed your career?
The environment of Twitter is ever changing. When I first joined it was really for nerds and people into technology. Totally my people! I'm known as a travel personality, but really, I'm a geek. Early on, I found it really easy to put out that I was on Twitter and connect with my community. I also reached out to my travel contacts. I sent an email saying- "Hey, I'm on this great thing called Twitter! Join me!" and within 3 weeks, I had about 175,000 people following.
That's what's so mind blowing about Twitter; it's that awesome and immediate. It's completely re-invented how I do business, and has really launched my career. I've been online since the nascent days of 'web' with one of the first 1500 commercial websites, but it's taken me this long, via Twitter, to have been able to connect globally so easily. Being an early adopter doesn't mean much, unless the rest of the world is adopting as well; I think I was just at the right place, right time, and I thank the founders every morning when I wake up for not only changing my life, but how the world now communicates in real time. They need a Nobel peace prize!
How does your very active digital life enable or detract from your travels?
It enables me in every way possible. In those early days, I was blogging (before it was being called that) and uploading images from location on dial-up. At the time, it was very cutting edge and it allowed me to communicate from various parts of the world visually. Soon, I was able to initiate video. It opened up a whole new world for me.
Now, well, I was just in Rwanda, tweeting in the jungle 10 feet from a gorilla. How's that? I pinch myself every day that technology has given me the ability to share this type of content so easily with people from around the globe, without having to look for a phone line so I can tediously upload something like in those early days!
Do you ever travel without a laptop or phone?
NO WAY! NEVER! I would lose my geek status! I have two laptops (one just for editing) and two phones (one cell, plus my international Blackberry). I'm looking into a cost effective way to carry a satellite phone, since I've found myself in remote areas like the Marquesas Islands, and Papua New Guinea's Sepik area, where there was no service. That will help me with those moments where I freak out because I can't connect right then and there and share what I'm seeing in front of me.
What does the word 'adventure' mean to you?
I've always said this, and it's my mantra: adventure is an expression of one's curiosity. The more curious you are, the more adventure you'll find in life. And that doesn't mean you have to climb Mt. Everest or swim with sharks, you can change your lipstick colour, eat something you've never tried before, or look for adventure outside your own back door by becoming a 'local tourist' in your own community.
Can you remember anything of your early childhood holidays?
I was on a plane at 3 months old. My parents said they knew I'd have a career in something to do with aviation, because I giggled and cooed from take off to landing. They also made travel exciting and fun, and as a kid I'd write poems about it. For school, when everyone was writing about their dog, I was writing about my adventures. I remember my parents and I driving up and down the west coast in first grade, so I could write about the California Missions for a class project. I think it took two weeks or so, but I lapped up every second of that adventure.
Was there any particular trip that triggered your passion for travel?
I always wanted to be somewhere. I would drive my parents nuts about where we'd be going next. I remember watching the news as a kid, and seeing the reporters talking on camera from interesting places around the world and I'd say to my Dad, "where's that?" and he'd get out the globe.
I thought, that's what I'm going to do when I grow up. I was about 7 years old and I remember it being a conscious decision. But rather than a particular trip, it was really telling other people's stories which made me want to travel.
What have been your most memorable experiences? Which places have had the most profound effect on you?
Visiting Papua New Guinea. They say you go to South Africa to see the animals, PNG to see the people. It was unbelievable to meet the Sepik River's tribes, and experience how they live. I'm told there are only a few hundred people who get to experience this area each year. It's a must-see and one of my "I can't wait to go back to" places.
Berlin is another. I remember watching the wall come down as a young girl and it really did make such a huge impact on my wanting to travel.
When I was there on a recent assignment I interviewed Tom Sello, who staged protests which helped bring down the wall. I literally wept with him as he recounted those days in East Berlin. Now, united Berlin is a magical city in so many ways for me, and being there as that journalist I dreamed of becoming as a kid brought me full circle. I'd say it is the MOST profound location for me.
Another would be Iceland. Amazing people, the epicurean food movement coming in from mainland Europe, standing on two continents at the same time - the place where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe meet - hanging with locals in the Blue Lagoon, the land of fire and ice: all simply fascinating.
You live in Los Angeles, which is one of Virgin Atlantic's most popular destinations. How does a native suggest a first-time visitor gets to grips with the place?
Well, first of all, L.A. is HUGE! When many of my friends fly in from overseas and see it from the air, they can't believe how vast it is. So, I always recommend booking a car. Our public transportation is awful, so you'll need one. There are the typical touristy places of course, like Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills. But if you really want to get the local flavour of the city check out West Hollywood, Venice/Marina del Rey, and Los Feliz areas. You're also more likely to see a celeb or two in these spots, if celeb spotting is what you're looking for.
You've said that your ethos is "never say no to an adventure". There must be something that scares you! Is there anything you wouldn't be tempted to try?
No. Nothing really scares me, it's more often just 'challenging'. I'm actually negotiating with my husband for a climb on Everest. He says I have a 'death wish', I say it's a 'living life wish'. It's really the only place he's asked me to reconsider, due to the safety issues on the mountain. He's more the 'what if' part, and I'm the 'why not'. Though I did get him swimming with the sharks who were circling us in Bora Bora, so I think he's learning to embrace the 'why not'. Even so, I may just have to settle on climbing Kilimanjaro first!
And finally, is there anywhere left that you're still desperate to visit?
Yes! Space. I'm simply coming out of my skin to be a part of it. I had one of the thrills of my life going Zero Gravity with Astronaut Buzz Aldrin. He shared his moon landing stories, and I was in heaven. I've always had my eye to the sky, so fingers crossed! I'm actually hoping to be one of the first people on Virgin Galactic. I'm on the waiting list, and just waiting, waiting, waiting... Sir Richard? Are you listening..?
We'll be sure to give him a nudge for you Stef!
If you're feeling flush and want to follow Stef into space, then head over to Virgin Galactic who are now accepting bookings! Those with slightly shallower pockets and less stratospheric ambitions are always welcome at Virgin Atlantic of course, where we'll happily fly you to any of our slightly nearer-to-home destinations.
To keep up to date with Stef's latest adventures, follow her on Twitter.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.