Lee Abbamonte: The Ultimate Traveler
by Steffi Porter
Lee Abbamonte is the world’s most traveled person, having visited every country in the United Nations, 312 different destinations, territories and island groups.
Hailing from Trumbull Connecticut, Abbamonte said he was never particularly interested in travel,and never exposed to travel opportunities as a kid. His first experience with international travel was at the age of twenty, when he made the last minute decision to study abroad in London, England.
It was his junior year of college, and made a quick decision to go after a friend of his said he too was going.
“I went to London on a whim,” he said. “I stepped off the plane and saw the classic London cabs, and thought, wow. I was hooked. I went to Paris, saw the Eiffel Tower, people speaking French…It blew my mind.”
All Around the World
Since this first trip in 1998, when he caught the travel bug, Abbamonte has gone everywhere from the typical tourist destinations, to the less commonly visited, like North Korea, which he called “easily the most interesting place I’ve traveled.”
Abbamonte said that visiting the country few tourists get the chance to visit, separated from South Korea by the Demilitarized zone, was like nothing he’d experienced before. This is largely because before going there, you really know nothing about it. There is little electricity, people “walk around like zombies and have to wear pins for their great leader.”
He explained he didn’t have access to a cell phone or the internet the entire time he was there, and that it took a long time to be allowed into the country that just started letting people visit.
“I was in one of the first groups of people to get to go,” he said.
His visit, though, only showed what he said The North Korean government wanted him to see–so they saw no poverty, just Pyongyang and the Mass Games.
The Mass Games, also known as mass gymnastics, are a performance art in North Korea, in which a large number of performers put on a show together, emphasizing the power of the group as opposed to the individual. They flash flags in unison and it’s all very dramatic and of course, patriotic.
This kind of experience, Abbamonte said, is part of the reason he loves to travel. Seeing things for yourself that you had before only read about. Getting the chance to form your own opinions on things you’ve only hear reviews of but never seen for yourself.
An important trait for a traveler to have, he said, is to be “comfortable being uncomfortable.”
You don’t necessarily know much about where you are, and have to get your bearings and figure it out, and the places you stay are not always going to be the kinds of places you are used to.
When traveling internationally, the unknown is everywhere, according to Abbamonte, who said that to him, that makes travel exciting. “You don’t know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, that’s what’s exciting about travel,” he said, explaining that he has stayed in a number of strange places when traveling including, years ago, a church with no roof in Scotland.
It was a church being converted into a hostel, he explained. This one summer, they charged one pound a person to stay there for the night, and since they had no money they decided to stay. Of course, it gets pretty cold at night in Scotland, even during the summer.
As far as cold destinations though, Abbamonte said that he has stayed in an ice hotel, and camped in a tent in Antarctica.
Of course the unknown can make travel more of a challenge, especially when dealing with an unfamiliar language, which is why Abbamonte said that for a first-time American traveler, the ideal destination is England, partly because they speak English but also because the culture is somewhat familiar to most Americans.
“You get a real taste of Europe and its like a beginner trip. It whets your appetite, and it is a totally different culture. But at the same time, you feel comfortable but you’ve seen all the stuff on tv before.”
Travel Q&A With Lee
Q: What is one of the nicest places you have stayed?
A: Bora Bora was pretty luxurious. They have amazing hotels, and the overwater bungalows.
Q: What was one of the most fascinating/off the beaten path type of places you have gone?
A: There is this small island in the Pacific called Pitcairn island, where all the mutineers ended up, made famous by the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. There are only about 50 people who live there. It takes a lot of effort to get there, but going there was fascinating–seeing the culture and history of a place so small.
Q: What is the most recent trip you’ve been on?
A: I just got back, two days ago, from Scotland. I played golf in St. Andrews old course, which is the holy grail of golf in the birthplace of golf.
Q: Can you give an example of a travel experience that did not go according to plan?
A: Last November I flew to Antarctica and I was supposed to be on an expedition to the South Pole. It turned out I was going at the same time as Prince Harry. We all got snowed into the base where we were staying. There was only one plane with a capacity of twelve people. So once the weather was safe enough to fly, they gave Harry and his people the go ahead. So we had to spend an enormous amount of money and time and we were unable to reach the South Pole.
Q: Do you have any tips for people who want to travel internationally?
A: My number one tip is, do your research. Know what you are getting yourself into, but still, don’t plan too much. Know the main things you want to see, but at the same time there are a lot of things that happen when you travel that you can’t read about in a guide book. Maybe you meet people. Maybe you find out about something new. Leave time for the unexpected. And save your money.
Find out more about Lee at his website, LeeAbbamonte.com and follow him on Twitter at @leeabbamonte.
Steffi Porter is a creative writer and journalist who has written for The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Hearst Newspapers and the Houston Chronicle. She is a former writer and editor for her college paper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and a graduate of the Institute for Political Journalism and the Fund for American Studies.