Travel tales: Russel Howcroft rediscovers an icon with fresh eyes

The Aussie marketing guru on backpacking, Barcelona, and why airports are akin to the Star Wars cantina.

By Chris Ashton, August 3 2023
Travel tales: Russel Howcroft rediscovers an icon with fresh eyes

Advertising’s a profession which rarely takes centre stage. However, that changed in 2008 when TV show The Gruen Transfer – a behind the scenes look into the world of advertising – made its ABC debut, making panellist and businessman Russel Howcroft a household name.

Since then, he’s become one of the most recognisable faces in Australian media – a triple threat spanning print, television and radio. He’s also a passionate lifelong traveller, and believes it’s often just the simple things that bring the most joy.

What is it about travel that inspires you?

Learning is always the best bit for me.

What’s quite interesting is when you think about travel though, is that you’re often viewing something you’ve already seen. I guess a banal example is the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

You’ve seen it in films, you’ve seen it in postcards and when you go there, you’re sort of confirming what you’ve already seen… which is nice, but it’s way more fun when you find out stuff, educating yourself and picking up new information. That’s always been of greater interest to me.

The Eiffel Tower is still worth seeing though.. The Peninsula Paris
The Eiffel Tower is still worth seeing though.
The Peninsula Paris

I also love just being at airports like Dubai and seeing all the different flights and airlines. Looking up at the flight board and there’s literally a flight about to take off to Timbuktu. The mass of people going to all corners of the world – it’s like the cantina scene from Star Wars.

What are some of your fondest travel memories?

Like many Australians, I did a backpacking tour of Europe in the 1980s. I say backpacking, but it wasn’t in the usual sense – there was no thumb out looking for a ride. My now wife and I hired a car and drove an enormous amount of kilometres.

I was in Barcelona in 1987 and remember being amazed by Sagrada Familia. I revisited it just last month and to see what is in effect a final product was glorious. It’s the most extraordinary thing; every single detail has been built with impeccable craftsmanship.

Construction of the iconic Sagrada Familia begun in 1882, and is set for completion in 2026.
Construction of the iconic Sagrada Familia begun in 1882, and is set for completion in 2026.

Sometimes the best experiences happen by accident. Do any come to mind?

Driving up the Romantic Road in Germany that same trip and pulling into a town celebrating the 600th birthday of the bridge. My wife finished up sitting on the knee of the town mayor, and I finished up under the bridge with the locals drinking their home brew.

That was just an amazing cultural experience, because we were the only tourists there.

Where have you travelled recently and what surprised you about the trip?

I’ve recently been to the Atlantic coast of France and also down to Spain, and the place that really surprised me most was Majorca. I had never been before and just thought of English tourists eating bad food… and Christopher Skase.

However that is just not the case. Majorca is absolutely stunning. Some of the best scenery I’ve ever experienced, beautiful boating as well, incredible restaurants.

There's more to uncover in Majorca than you realise.
There's more to uncover in Majorca than you realise.

But the thing that totally blew me away was Palma Airport. It is enormous. You think you’re arriving at a Mediterranean island and it would just be like going to Mykonos, but it’s not. It’s literally one of the most thriving and energising airports I’ve ever been to. Like being in Shanghai.

Just googling, and at its height in the summer period it has as many movements as Heathrow.

What are some of the most memorable hotels and restaurants you’ve been to?

The one restaurant is in London: The Wolseley. It’s quite similar to Gimlet in Melbourne. I forgot to book last time I was there and there were unfortunately no tables left; all I could do was have a drink at the bar. But that in itself is just very energising.

Ham Yard Hotel in London is another that’s very hard to beat. One thing that stood out most was just having substantial windows, which is very unusual in a London hotel.

Where’s the one city or country you could never tire of visiting?

I probably should say something interesting, but the United Kingdom is the truthful answer to that. I think London’s the best city in the world.

When the wheels land in Heathrow, I have this overriding sense of freedom, and I think that that’s very much due to how they conduct themselves. You cannot walk past a pub in London without hearing laughter. That’s the joy of the place for me.


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 927

I took my wife on a trip to London, we got in late and I booked an apartment hotel on the other side of the bridge to Big Ben.

In the morning sitting in the dining room I opened the curtain so she could she BIg Ben smack in our faces, it had scaffold all around it and couldn't see a thing.......

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 637

Dude, you are truly the 'Zen God' of scoring brownie points with the wife.  That was clever, and without the high cost of staying at the Ritz.  I opted for a wake-up view of Tower Bridge from the Tower Hotel, St Katharine Dock Marina (E1W 1LD).  

To one and all, can recommend the Churchill War Rooms (SW1 2AQ), but book in advance and allow a morning or afternoon.  Oh, and the prolific use of postcodes to get around London was as important as learning how to use the tube, DLR and overground lines.  

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Aug 2020

Total posts 10

Someone once said to me - "Travel is dancing lessons from God". 

I do it as much as I can (work and play) and I don't think you have to look too hard anywhere to find experiences you'll never forget and some your friends won't believe.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Dec 2017

Total posts 4

Completely endorse the praise for the The Wolesley restaurant in London. Went there first way back in 200? something, not long after it had opened in 2003.  On a mission to have a schnitzel Holstein- veal schnitzel with anchovies and poached egg on top- wonderful and now cooked often at home.

Had the good fortune to revisit in January this year, and it is so good. Great food, service and decor- originally built as a Wolseley car showroom- a wonderful experience and decidedly worth the detour!

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