Think Agatha Christie, and you’re bound to think of genteel mysteries set in quant English villages, but in many of her books, her heroes and heroines travelled the world, paying tribute to the glamorous, golden age of travel. Miss Marple may have been content in the countryside, only travelling to Barbados once to solve A Caribbean Mystery, but Hercule Poirot enjoyed jet-setting—he boarded the Orient Express, embarked on a luxury cruise on the Nile, and frequently travelled to the Middle East and the Côte d'Azur to solve murders.
In the foreword to Death on the Nile, Christie wrote: “I think, myself, that the book is one of the best of my ‘foreign travel’ ones, and if detective stories are ‘escape literature’ (and why shouldn’t they be!) the reader can escape to sunny skies and blue water as well as to crime in the confines of an armchair.”
Born in Torquay on 15 September 1890, Christie is listed by Guinness World Records as the best-selling fiction writer of all time, with her novels selling more than two billion copies. The International Agatha Christie Festival, held every September in the UK, celebrates the life and legacy of the author in the place of her birth in Devon, on the southwest coast of England. It’s a chance to explore the area’s natural beauty, culture, and literary heritage. This year, the festival is scheduled for 8-17 September.
The beautiful seascapes, rolling farmland, and rugged moorland of Torquay, on the coast of Devon, were fodder for Christie’s imagination and provided the setting for many of her stories. The best way to get a glimpse of the author’s life is to follow the Agatha Christie Mile: Begin at the English Riviera Visitor Information Centre and walk on to Beacon Quay and Beacon Cove, where Christie learnt how to swim; Royal Torbay Yacht Club, where her father was a member; the Imperial Hotel, which featured in Peril at End House, The Body in the Library, and Sleeping Murder; the Agatha Christie Gallery at Torquay Museum, which offers a recreation of Poirot's study and lounge; the Strand, where a young Agatha would have gone shopping with her mum; the Agatha Christie Memorial Bust, installed to mark her birth centenary; and the Princess Gardens, which find mention in The ABC Murders.
Not to be missed is Greenway, the estate Christie purchased in 1938 and where she spent every summer until her death in 1976. The National Trust property, “a white Georgian house of about 1780 or '90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart...the ideal house, a dream house”, was the setting for Five Little Pigs, Dead Man’s Folly, and Ordeal by Innocence.
Christie loved Torquay, known as the English Riviera, but was also an avid traveller. “Your travel life has the essence of a dream. It is something outside the normal, yet you are in it,” she wrote. In 1922, she set off on a 10-month tour, exploring South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada. Her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan led her to the Middle East and north Africa, the setting for several of her mysteries including They Came to Baghdad and Appointment with Death.
Christie’s first visit to Egypt was when she was 17, after her mother was advised to spend winter in warmer climes for her health. She later described those three months in Egypt as a “dream of delight.” She went on to base her first novel, the unpublished Snow Upon the Desert, on her experiences in Cairo, and wrote about this experience in the semi-autobiographical Unfinished Portrait. However, her most famous work set in Egypt was written after a 1933 trip on board a Nile cruise ship (SS Sudan), which took her to the temples of Luxor and Aswan and the cataracts of the Nile. She wrote a play called Moon on the Nile, but set it aside in favour of the 1937 novel Death on the Nile. The voyage down the Egyptian river on board a glamorous cruise ship passing through spectacular scenery continues to be an enduring Christie favourite.
Another enduring favourite, and perhaps her most famous book, is Murder on the Orient Express. Christie first travelled on the Orient Express in 1928, her first solo trip abroad. She reportedly worked on the book while on a dig with Mallowan in Arpachiyah, Iraq. Inspired by the Lindbergh case and a 1929 incident when the Orient Express was trapped in a blizzard in Çerkezköy, Turkey, and marooned for six days, the novel has Poirot solving the grisly stabbing of an American tycoon traveling on the snowed-in train. Christie was herself stuck on the train once. “My darling, what a journey!” she wrote in a letter to Mallowan. “Started out from Istanbul in a violent thunder storm. We went very slowly during the night and about 3 a.m. stopped altogether.”
The Orient Express was the ultimate symbol of the golden age of travel and was synonymous with luxury. It travelled through mountain ranges and gorgeous landscapes, from Paris to Istanbul. The original train stopped plying in 1977, but you can still get a sense of the opulence with a truncated trip on the Belmond Venice Simplon Orient Express, with its plush cabins and meticulously restored 1920s dining cars.
In 1922, Christie did a 10-month round-the-world trip with her husband as part of a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exhibition. She travelled through Africa, Australasia, and North America, and to commemorate the centenary of the tour, luxury travel agency Black Tomato has launched a tour that allows you to walk in in her footsteps. The itinerary isn’t for the faint-hearted or the time-strapped—it takes 40 days, but each leg can also be booked separately. All trips begin with two nights at London’s Brown’s Hotel, which Christie visited regularly and is said to have inspired her 1965 work At Bertram’s Hotel.
The tour—planned after studying her letters and archives—begins in South Africa where you can learn to surf and explore vineyards. It moves on to Australia and New Zealand, exploring the Blue Mountains, visiting the cities she loved, and walking through the wilderness she enjoyed. The last leg of the adventure takes you to North America, and involves surfing in Hawaii, exploring lakes, mountains and hot springs in British Columbia and Alberta, and seeing Niagara Falls.
Christie later wrote about this trip: “Ever since that I have felt the same about travel. You step from one life into another. You are yourself, but a different self. The new self is untrammeled by all the hundreds of spiders’ webs and filaments.”
Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.