In a lot of ways, we aspire to be a bit more like Maya Poulton. A self-proclaimed lifelong nomad, Maya has not only lived in seven countries, she also has truly built a life around travel. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, and London (where she's now based) to name a few, is an expert at turning business travel into leisure, and knows some of the best hotel bars where locals hang out, from Stockholm to Istanbul.
Over the years, Maya has been gathering so much travel intel first-hand, it makes perfect sense she's been busy hacking her way through better hotel travel. The result? Safara Travel – a private travel membership reinventing how people book travel online. Members earn free stays when they book any of Safara's 6000 hand-picked hotels and skip out on hidden commissions. Remember the last time you tacked on two extra days to that business trip and lingered on to explore for yourself – what if you could parlay those towards your next leisure hotel stay, and have it work for you after a handful of smartly planned trips?
So let her introduce you to the concept of "bleisure", and her belief that a hotel is first and foremost at the center of a community. Maya breaks down for us what travel is all about, and why you haven't lived until you've traveled solo at least once.
YOU HAVE LIVED IN SEVEN COUNTRIES. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE?
I like to think of my life so far as a series of happy accidents. I didn't plan to live in so many places, but when given the opportunity to move for the best school, a big love, or a new industry, I never shied away. There is something intoxicating about pulling up roots and starting anew elsewhere. I may always have that instinct, I'm not sure. I wouldn't say I have a favorite, but I am glad of the order in which it has all happened, so far. Shanghai at 21 was a blast – by 24 I already wanted something more "normal", and falling in love and moving to Hong Kong was perfect timing. New York City was for school – and a new-found independence – but then I didn't leave for 7.5 years, as I found a career there that I loved. If you've survived (and thrived – it feels like that's the only way to stay!) in New York in your 20's, then you know there's no better place to learn fast and hard. However, I wanted more balance in my life after I turned 30, and London has a lot of the great qualities of New York, but is definitely more chill. As a bonus, it's so close to so many other places that it's easier to travel more frequently, which makes life spicy and keeps the "itchy feet" at bay.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ALONG THE WAY WHEN IT COMES TO TRAVELING SMARTLY?
1. Don't over-plan. 2. Don't over-pack.
I'm terrible at the latter. Extra stuff won't make you happier, and it will only bog you down and stress you out as you navigate your journey. Plus, a huge part of the fun for me while traveling is shopping – from fashion to accessories, to beauty and home goods – I've been known to bring back crazy things, which I never regret ferrying home. I'm looking at a rug I brought home from Istanbul, a vintage globe from Venice, California, and a massive vase from Marrakech right now – all of which came back in my carry-on.
As for the former, if traveling alone for fun in a resort destination like Bali or Thailand, experiment with booking just your first night ahead of your trip (if it's not high season). You'll often find an amazing boutique hotel that's not even online, and this gives you the flexibility to change your schedule should you fall in love with a place.
ANY TIPS FOR THOSE WHO WOULD LIKE TO TRAVEL MORE OFTEN FOR LEISURE, BUT HAVE LITTLE TIME TO GET AWAY?
Yes! Consider "bleisure" (business x leisure!). Most of us have to travel for work at some point, and the norm is to just shoot back home straight after, and have zero time to explore. At a young age, I started tacking a night or two to my business trips. I realized that if my company was paying for the flights, why not use the same airfare budget for a longer stay "on them"? If there was a small difference in the flight prices, I would just ask my boss if I could pay for it myself so it was fair, and they always said yes. As I started doing this more and more, I gained confidence and started extending these trips to up to a week extra and even going to other nearby cities. It was always amazing, and affordable in practice. I would have not yet had the privilege of seeing Rajasthan (after a business trip to Mumbai) or going out in East Berlin (after a boring confidence in the city) had I not leveraged trips I had to take for work.
WHAT ABOUT FOR THOSE WHO WOULD LIKE TO DESIGN THEIR WORK LIFE AROUND A LOT OF TRAVEL?
It feels easier than ever to do these days, because of the cost of travel going down, the ability to freelance, and the technological tools at our disposal. At Safara, we have built a remote team. I work with people in a minimum of three countries every day. I'd also suggest looking into freelancing. Before founding Safara, I traveled for almost three years while consulting for clients. It is one of the reasons Safara was born – I couldn't believe I wasn't being rewarded for all my work hotel costs! Even if the clients want you to ideally be in their city, as a non full-time employee they will always be more flexible about where you are. So you can absolutely be working from that pool in Miami during that winter storm season in NYC! Finally, I used to airbnb out my apartment in New York. I would just wait for a seven-day minimum booking, confirm it, then book my flights and go!
FAVORITE SUNNY LOCATION TO ESCAPE TO?
I’ve fallen in love with Ibiza, which I never, ever thought I would say. I had always expected it to be a place for "super clubs" and the annoying partyers who love them. But it's so much more than that. Up north, it's very calm and naturally beautiful – you can find private beaches, chill local places to eat amazing food, some beautiful vintage shops, and of course fun bars and places to dance. It's a short flight from London, so I'm going a second time this summer to decompress and get some sun.
ON WHY YOU'VE BUILT YOUR BUSINESS AROUND "HOTEL LIFE"?
I’ve always thought of hotels as experiences in themselves – sometimes you travel to a special hotel (Il Pelicano in Italy, or any Alia hotel in Bali) and it's really the "destination" in and of itself, as you spend so much time in the hotel in a more remote place. Alternatively, the nuances of city hotels often make a business trip so much more fun. The HOBO in Stockholm and the Upper House in Hong Kong are two such examples. My litmus test for those is "do locals actually hang out there?". And in both cases, they definitely do! I'm also a fan of properties that really emphasize their neighborhoods and history. Most recently, the Six Senses Duxton in Singapore did that for me. Upon check-in, you get a free traditional Chinese Medicine consultation (the hotel is in a historic old factory in Chinatown, and surrounded by great foot massage and acupuncture places, too!). Whether traveling or staying local, hotels have provided engaging places for me to work and socialize – I frequent them in London, as well as when abroad.
YOUR ALL-TIME FAVORITE 5 HOTELS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD - AND WHY?
The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai (the old wing): In terms of service, artwork, restaurants, pools, and sheer luxury. I've never experienced anything like it.
The Upper House, Hong Kong: This hotel, designed by the amazing Andre Fu, is rumored to have spent $20M+ on designing each of their rooms, and you can feel it. It's sleek, minimal, high tech, a local favorite for cocktails, and you can do yoga classes in-room overlooking the Hong Kong harbor.
The Bowery Hotel, NYC: Honestly, I have not yet been able to afford staying there yet. But when I lived in New York, I haunted their library bar and no-fuss Italian restaurant, Gemma, every week.
Maderas Village, Nicaragua: This property which I traveled to twice was a game changer for me. It was so basic and cheap (I paid around $30 a night to stay in an entry room), but it really helped me heal after a break-up, and I met some lifetime friends there too. It has a real community vibe. Sadly they are closed for now due to political unrest, but I trust they will be back. And the guys behind it are building something in Lisbon, Portugal.
Soho House, Istanbul: This hotel is in the only ex-(US) embassy building ever to be lost during a hand of poker! We went a couple of summers ago. It was just incredible – from the walkable proximity to cool markets and attractions, to the modernity of the actual rooms.
A FEW OF YOUR FAVORITE TRAVEL INSIDERS TO FOLLOW ONLINE AND OFF?
I'm biased, but some of my friends' accounts are incredible. They are all professional writers or photographers, and have freelanced for companies like Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Condé Nast Traveler. What they share is their own points of view, and stay true to themselves when it comes to their content. I admire a "personal brand" and consistency on Instagram! @christinalperez, @louisaws, @tedgushue
LASTLY, YOUR THOUGHTS ON SOLO TRAVEL...
It's a must. If you haven't traveled alone before, I just don't think you have been intimate enough with yourself. Everyone should try it! It's the best way to get to know yourself better out of your daily routine, and you will always be more open (than if you were with someone) to meeting new people, being curious and inspired, and expanding your horizons – mentally, and of course physically – and isn't that exactly what travel is all about?
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity*